20 FEBRUARY 1993, Page 36

The games people still play

Andro Linklater

LIFE AND HOW TO SURVIVE IT by Robin Skynner and John Cleese Methuen, £16.99, pp. 413 John. The first thing to say about this book is that it's unreadable. Completely, terminally unreadable. I defy anyone to get through so much as a single chapter at one go without clutching at their hair and groaning. You could feed it to a bookworm with galloping dysentery and I promise you the creature would have died from acute literary constipation by page ten.

Robin. That's a very interesting reaction, John, but aren't you overlooking the useful advice and information it contains? Indeed, the opening pages on warmth and friend- liness as symptoms of mental health might almost have been written with you in mind. You could start with a look at the page where Robin Skynner says 'You'd like to know how to become more healthy!' and John Cleese so encouragingly replies, 'Spot on squire. Can't wait', and go on from there.

John. Hang on a moment, this is the Cleese who has been in therapy for years, right?

Robin. The self same, and a genius of comedy I think we'd both agree.

John. And his therapist all this time has been Robin Skynner, right?

Robin. Genius could not have had a wiser counsellor. In fact he and Skynner collaborated on the best-selling Families `God, but you look lovely in this light.' and How to Survive Them ten years ago.

John. Then why the hell does he still need to know how to become healthy? Couldn't Skynner have given him at least a hint about it by now? And why does he have to be so bloody patronising with his fakey-matey, spot-on-squiriness?

Robin. You'll find the answer, I suggest, in another interesting section, when they move on from healthy individuals to healthy societies. What they both agree is that the best way to convey useful social values is not by instruction, but through stories and myths. 'That's what they're doing here, creating a mythical conversa- tion on which we can eavesdrop — like the Camillagate tapes — and inadvertently pick up really valuable ideas about life.

John. But it's an idiotic structure, as incoherent as it is tedious, you only have to look at the Camillagate transcript to realise that. It's hard enough wading through an 800-word review which has been construct- ed on the lines of a conversation, but imag- ine the excruciating boredom of reading 413 pages of indifferently disguised exhor- tation to clean living presented in the same way.

Robin. The blurb doesn't agree with you there, John. It calls the style 'simple, lively and entertaining', and to go back to your earlier point, it was obviously to avoid incoherence that Cleese occasionally pre- tended to know rather less than he actually did, thus enabling Skynner to fill in the gaps with suitable explanation.

John. Was that honest?

Robin. If only you had persevered with the book, John, you would have got to the section on Honesty where Skynner says that people like Cleese and him will 'prob- ably be pretty straight with people we trust — subject to our basic, mid-range, egotis- tical, manipulative dealings with the world'.

John. That's rather good, I like that. Is there anything more in that vein?

Robin. Oh heaps, John. They talk about Sex, Business, Life, Death, Politics, Gener- al Schwarzkopf and the Need to Improve the Behaviour of Harrovians.

John. Good heavens! Did you read all that?

Robin. Well, yes and no — it does have a rather good index.

John. That's certainly to its credit. And one can only applaud any effort to improve the moral health of Harrow. Ford Open Prison must boast more of its alumni in the cheque-kiting section than those of any other public school. I'm beginning to revise my opinion of this book. If it can reform Harrow, it can reform anything.

Robin. That's the very point it makes. If it can only get its precepts accepted by the public schools, the media and government, it can transform our unhealthy, secretive, hierarchical society from top to bottom.

John. And what will Messrs Skynner and Cleese put in its place?

Robin. A society of decent, middle-of- the-road values. Where friendliness and openness are practised in all walks of life. Where Honesty-is-the-best-policy business- es sell to rational, Clapham-omnibus-type consumers, and Paddy Ashdown is the beau ideal of political behaviour.

John. There's a rallying cry to rouse the masses! 'Grey Flannel for Ever'.

Robin. It's much more fun than that! John. Oh?

Robin. Let me quote Skynner on the last page. 'I think life needs to be taken like this', he sums up, 'as a game which should be engaged with playfully, and which cer- tainly ought to be enjoyed to the full'. John. You mean like a 'breathless hush in the Close tonight' game? Like a 'the Gatling's jammed and the colonel's dead' game? You mean to tell me that the essence of their message is 'Play up! play up! and play the game!'?

Robin. Why don't you read it for yourself and find out? It might do you some good.

John. Not me, squire, not while I've got someone else to do it for me. My mental health isn't robust enough to stand the bathos.