The Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde said we can be in the gutter but look to the stars. The Melbourne-based writer and humorist Robert Skinner agrees on the location but what he sees is the gutter. “Say what you want about rock bottom,” he writes in his whimsical, insouciant memoir I’d Rather Not, “but at least it’s sturdy.”
Skinner’s grin-and-bear-it attitude runs through this book, which is his first. Yet I suspect he, too, is looking heavenwards, even if in secret. He writes about his time editing The Canary Press, “Australia’s greatest (and possibly only) short story magazine”, between 2013 and 2016.
He published Australian writers including Maxine Beneba Clarke and A. S. Patrić, who went on to win the Miles Franklin, and international authors such as Dave Eggers. Yet the magazine made no money “in the beginning, middle or end”. “I … wrote resignation letters, but I never knew who to send them to. I sent one to my mum, who said she liked the characters but didn’t understand the ending.”
That gently funny line is characteristic of Skinner’s self-deprecating humour. The book opens with the author, at 28, deciding that when it comes to work, he’d rather not. This is easier said than done, as he learns from the Centrelink “dole officer”. “People, I’ve found, want you to be busy. Genghis Khan could move into your street and people would say, ‘Well, at least he’s working.’ ”
What follows are jobs and regular escapes from them. In one of the best chapters, the author is on a camel trek with his parents and the ungulates are unco-operative. “I walked over to the holding pen to see if maybe I had a magic touch with camels. This is the persistent dream of dilettantes: that we will, at some point, uncover a superpower that will make sense of lives filled with false starts, failures and endless dabblings.”
Skinner’s stories have been published in The Monthly and his work has been included in The Best Australian Essays and Best Australian Comedy Writing. Being a writer in Australia is hard work. Being a comic writer is even harder. That our only award for humour writing, the biennial Russell Prize, was established only eight years ago is an unfunny truth.
One of the challenges is that not all funny bones are the same. Mine was lightly tickled by this slender book that could be a stand-up routine in a pub. Others may shake, rattle and roll.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "I’d Rather Not".
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