Musings: Roy Lewis
From time to time I like to buy, and then give away, copies of a few particular books1 that I feel deserve a wider airing. Over the last 40 years it's mostly been the various books of 'Kai Lung' stories by Ernest Bramah, but also the Hitch-hiker's guide to the Galaxy stuff by Douglas Adams, and (reminded by my delivery yesterday of Terry Pratchett's non-fiction stuff, which I thoroughly enjoyed) the truly (truly!) wonderful book by Roy Lewis that was first published in 1960 under the title "What we did to Father" but which Brian Aldiss re-titled "The Evolution Man" as soon as he picked it for his Penguin SF list in the 1960s. This was the guise in which I first encountered it when I borrowed a copy from the library in Harpenden.
Be warned: it can make you cry with laughter.
My only remaining copy currently — and I won't easily be parted from it — was re-issued in 1979 as "Once upon an Ice Age". The cover illustration by Hewison rather neatly gives the game away. 'Father' (aka Edward) is depicted in the middle of doing his Prometheus act to get one over on his elder (and fiercely conservative) brother Vanya, who abhors progress in any shape or form. Vanya regards this "private volcano" as perverse and unnatural; he also has an endearing tendency to proclaim "Back to the trees!"
The tale is unreliably narrated by an ape-man called Ernest; one of Edward's sons. Having discovered fire, Edward is determined to lead his offspring along the tortuous path to civilisation: his race must be the first to become homo sapiens. It's an uphill struggle...
In April 1988...
... Pratchett wrote the introduction to a Corgi edition that appeared in 1989. It begins "You hold in your hands one of the funniest books of the last 500,000 years".
The famous French biochemist Jacques Monod subsequently wrote to point out one or two technical errors, but added that they didn't matter a damn because reading the book made him laugh so much he fell off a camel in the middle
of the Sahara.
So sit on something solid.
I gave my copy of that particular edition to my cartoonist friend Shary Flenniken over the pond in Seattle. I hope she enjoyed it.