Wednesday 16 August 2023

Norman Inkpen, 'Shit Jokes' and his autobiography, 'Life is Shit'.

I’ve mentioned the name, Norman Inkpen many times of this site, going back as far as my Gulliver’s Travels review in January of 2013. In fact, reading his book,  Shit Jokes - A Study of Scatological Humour, was one of the things that first turned me on to the eighteenth century. Although the book is a comprehensive look at multiple generations of excremental comedy, it was in those early-modern chapters that he managed to really polish those turds and make the shit shine. Alas, he’s mostly out of print now, and his Rabelaisian opus will never be completed but the Inkpen legacy lives on, in the posthumous publication of his autobiography, Life is Shit

It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and it seems to be the case for Inkpen. Growing up in Sheepy Parva in the 50s, he seemed to live like a cat; romping around the fields and visiting each house to be given fresh apples or even black-market treats. I’m not sure if he ever slept in his own house, or if he even had a certain idea which of the residences he was supposed to belong in. At the age of eight, he showed an affinity for odure when he created a bucket of ‘snowballs’, which he used to menace children from a rival school. 

Leaving school, he followed this interest into a job at the treatment works at Wanlip. He recalls many happy hours sifting through the ‘rag’, the mounds of paper and other solid objects that have been flushed down the toilet, finding money and even jewellery. During the long hours watching the sludge plant whirr the water into a fine chocolate milkshake, Inkpen grew philosophical. He pondered about the inevitability of waste, how it could be seen as a sign of life and a consequence of civilisation. He started to see turds as potent symbols of growth and their management as a true window into a society. He began to dabble in poetry, much of it sewage related.

When he was thirty-five, Inkpen’s mother died. He had been a late baby and his father had died young with lung cancer. As a result, it had just been he and his mother, with him still living in his childhood bedroom. In a desire to escape his grief, searingly described in the autobiography, he sold that house and took a trip of the world. Something of a monomaniac at this point, his journey took in different ways that human waste is managed across the world. The subsequent photos and writeup became his first book, The World in Faeces. While not an initial success, it gained a little notoriety for being in the running for the Diagram prize for odd book titles. 

Caught by the travelling bug, Inkpen went on another round the world trip, this time focussing on plumbing in ancient cities. He describes breaking into Pompeii, spelunking under medieval cities and cleaving through dense jungles to explore the sewage of the Inca. What resulted is Faeces BC, part history, part town planning and part Indiana Jones. At one point, the BBC approached Inkpen about making a series, recreating the travels from his books but he found himself too diffident in-front of the camera during tests and wouldn’t allow his material to be used without him.

At this point, Inkpen was running low on money and had taken to living in a caravan on a small patch of land on the Welsh border. Naturally he had his own system he created to sort his waste, recycle some into water for the garden and burn the rest. That fuel wasn’t exactly extensive and powered a little automata of a lumberjack he had outside the caravan. Penniless and alone, he joined his local library. Having never been interested in general literature, Inkpen found himself coming at what he read in a different manner. Even as the voraciousness of his reading increased, so did his shock and dismay at how little classic literature dealt with the issues that most tugged at his heartstrings. What’s more, he was filled with joy when he found texts that did deal with shit, especially when they dealt with it in it’s full, uncensored, smelly glory. No surprise, he was fond of the early-modern period and less for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The resulting work, Shit Jokes, is a comprehensive look at English shiterature, blending Inkpen’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the brown stuff and how it is managed with a nuanced understanding of multiple genres and contexts. It reaffirms his belief that turds are a sign of life and establishes how they can enliven a text, giving groundedness, representing both disgust and the stuff of life. 

Inkpen’s own life was running out. The book created waves in some academic towers but the royalties weren’t enough to sustain him. Left in his caravan through several winters, he worked on his autobiography. In the end, his self-created sewer didn’t work as he’d intended and he died from E-Coli poisoning. It was five weeks until he was discovered, when a sheep farmer moved his flock into the area. His papers, including the autobiography came close to destruction until a council worker saved them, working through the loose sheets, ordering them like a puzzle into the current autobiographical form. His life is sort of tragic, with very little connection to other people, except through what they’d left behind. He did leave a body of work fascinating in its very quiddity and oddity, and now the story of his life as well.

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