Did you have a Punning Dad when you were a kid? I did. Still do, as a matter of fact. No pun is too poor, no wordplay too weak, no flippancy too feeble; if there’s a double meaning to be found, my dad will dig it out.
Of course, when you’re little, you don’t mind. In fact, it’s rather nice to know you can rely on your father to say something silly several times a day. Small children relish it, and it gets you extra points with your friends - especially the friends with Serious Dads.
But when you get older... well, it’s just embarrassing, isn’t it? You don’t know why; it just is. Even when nobody else is around. And, of course, you don’t realise that every other boy your age is now embarrassed by his dad. All you know is that your dad keeps making jokes that were funny when you were four but aren’t funny now. So it was with me; and so my dad spent the best part of a decade suffering enormous amounts of teenage eye-rolling and dramatic sighing as an accompaniment to every pun. But did it stop him? Did it heck.
And to be fair, even now that I’m forty-five (can I really be forty-five? Twenty-seven seems like only a few minutes ago!) a lot of my dad’s puns meet with a vestigial eye-roll and a bit of a groan. But today - for reasons that will become clear - seems like an appropriate day to reappraise the role of a Punning Dad in the life of a developing writer; or, at least, in the life of this developing writer.
You see, without my Punning Dad I wouldn’t have become a writer of comic fiction for children. In fact, I wouldn’t have become a writer at all.
What you don’t appreciate, when you’re growing up with a Punning Dad, is that knowing almost anything you say might be punned upon gives you an awareness of language that other kids don’t have. You become alert to the meanings of words, and to their possible reinterpretation; you become conscious that what you mean to say might not be what is heard by the hearer or read by the reader. You develop a growing understanding of the subtleties of language; of its shades and tones and twists and tricks. You grow to recognise its strengths and limitations, and to love it for what it can do. And all this happens without anyone sitting you down in a classroom, or writing on a blackboard, or reading from a textbook. All this happens because you have a dad who loves language, and who passes on that love to you, with love, in a way that a four-year-old can understand - by being silly and making you laugh.
My dad taught me to love language in many other ways, too; but it’s the punning that sticks in my head. And now he’s a Punning Grandad (or, since he lives in France, a Punning Pépé); and I in my turn have become a Punning Dad; and my children - still a few years away, I hope, from the eye-rolling and sighing and “Daaa-ad!”s - are learning in their turn to play with this marvellous toy, the English language, and to love its shades and tones and twists and tricks.
So: happy 80th birthday, Dad, with all my love. Thanks for all the puns - even the really bad ones - and thanks for the much greater gift they held, wrapped up in secret inside them.
John’s website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom (Young Corgi 2009; ISBN 978-0552558051).