You may have found this website because you’re wondering what kind of person would write the humour books The Funny Dictionary and Funny English Errors and Insights. Well, brace yourself. It’s a long story that entails a personal secret…
2002–2009: The Big Heights
I used to be a success. In the mid-noughties, my companies reached quite dizzying heights. One of those companies, a legal research and writing consultancy called Research One, became the State Business of the Year and Australia’s Microbusiness of the Year, after just 3 years in operation (here’s a pic to prove it.)
Much more important to me than success as a business, my company helped to achieve some remarkable legal victories.
In fact, the mid-2000s mark my proudest moment in my life so far. And, as is just my luck, I can’t talk much about. To put it vaguely enough to protect my client’s identity, I worked pro bono (that means for free) on a case that literally meant the difference between life and death. Against the odds and all expectations, my client won! (My client and I were on the good guy’s side, by the way.)
The problem with such a big high is the inevitable deep low that comes next (in my case, in 2009). More on that later…
1997–2001: Gaining My Faculties
Before establishing my companies, I had a fantastic job at the ANU Faculty of Law (and, before that, a second stint in the Commonwealth public service). For around 3 years, I got to do some really cool things, like interviewing famous people, fossicking through archives, and editing an encyclopaedia. The job also gave me my first opportunity to have my scholarly writing published, which includes a celebrated article on humour. Researching that article on humour made me learn about why people laugh, the types of humour, and the benefits of humour.
1991–1996: My First Big Break(down)
Those professional successes came about because of my government-assisted university education. My law degree is best viewed in 2 halves — separated in the middle by my first job in the Commonwealth public service and my first proper nervous breakdown in 1993 (my public service careers and my nervous breakdowns are unrelated, I assure you).
Post-1993, I applied my nervous energy to studying hard, often 18 hours a day. This Olympian focus on my studies took an emotional and physical toll — at age 22 and at 178 cm, I was just 54 kgs by the end of my degree. After a mediocre start, I became the first and only member of my family with a university degree. I graduated with first-class honours in law; and from hundreds of students, I won the prize for Commonwealth Constitutional Law (hey, it was big deal back then!) My sustained study of law over 5 years imbued me with some lasting values and instilled in me a preparedness to question assumed truths.
1985—1990: The Blunder Years
But the influences behind my humour books date further back than my article on humour or my university education. I got into university because I achieved good grades at St Edmund’s College in Canberra, a private all-boys Catholic high school. I was a model straight-A student, snaring the awards most years for English (and, as a good Catholic boy back then, Religious Education). Before you think I’ve come from a privileged background, you should know we had to sell the family home to pay the school fees — in arrears.
Although I recognise the benefits of my high school education, those 6 years at St Edmund’s were the 6 most terrifying years of my life, mitigated only by the friendships I made (and have kept to this day) and by a teacher named Mrs Gallagher.
Every day at school, I felt scared: scared of getting the strap from the Christian Brothers, scared of my sexuality, scared of going to hell, and scared of failing. I developed little rituals to help relieve my fears, like constantly checking power points and muttering prayers to myself again and again (and doing even weirder stuff than that).
The main respite came most days for 50 glorious minutes in the form of English class. I remember distinctly when my English teacher Mrs Gallagher showed me a series of schoolboy howlers. I think they were extracts from Cecil Hunt’s Howlers books, published (poignantly, as you will see) during the Great Depression.
I howled with laughter at the schoolboy’s “howlers”.
Mrs Gallagher made English fun. We learned the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc) through games like mad libs. For those 50 minutes a day, I felt in control. I didn’t need my little obsessive-compulsive rituals as much. I loved Mrs Gallagher for that.
2009 and The Great Depression
You will have worked out my secret by now. I get sad. Like, really sad — for a lot of the time. I also get anxious and I worry about stuff — not normal stuff like work or finances or relationships, but weird stuff, like tiny invisible germs. That’s why I support mental health support services such as Beyond Blue and other causes.
In 2009, things got really bad. So, I wound up my companies while they were still successful and while I could keep up the company’s exacting standards. Afterwards, I combated my depression with some quite grandiose, unrealistic ideas. At one stage, I was even going to stand for Parliament. Just in time, I realised I was unqualified: I might be mentally ill, but I’m not that mentally ill.
Nothing worked to get me out of my funk. So, I retreated to what had worked before. I opened Mrs Gallagher’s book of Howlers. For short moments at least, as I re-read the book, I forgot my troubles for a while. And I thought, why not compile my own book a howlers? Maybe my howlers book would help other people? From the unsolicited letters I have received since, I was right:
My 86 year-old father, who has trouble concentrating on reading the newspaper nowadays, sat and read 81 pages of your book. It was great to see him chuckling away. My 10 year-old and 8 year-old granddaughters read 27 & 9 pages respectively.
We are still trying to come to terms with the rapid onset of Dad's dementia. He came from a scientific background and could hold his own in a conversation on almost any topic. Now he finds it difficult to tell you what he wants for breakfast.
But your book... he didn't want to put it down. Watching him reading and chuckling, you would have thought nothing was amiss and having the grandkids share the moment was priceless.
(You, too, can write to me.)
The Present: The Black Dog and Blooper Snooping
I get joy from blooper books not from maliciousness or from a sense of schadenfreude or from a feeling of superiority. Rather, these books give me joy through empathy with the bloopers’ makers. I don’t laugh at the (mostly) children who make the English language blunders. If anything, I laugh at the vagaries of the English language itself.
I find momentary respite from my depression on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on Instagram. Anything to keep the black dog and his friends at bay.
Comedian, performer, and writer Tim Ferguson understood my motivations when he wrote this testimonial:
In case of the blues, administer this book for an immediate cure. The Funny Dictionary n. hilarity!
The special illustrated version of The Funny Dictionary is due to be published before Christmas 2018 by the National Library of Australia. Subscribe to my website so I can let you know when and how to order a copy.
I would like the book to help you to forget your troubles, even for just a while.