Neil Humphreys recalls a recent heartwarming experience at a Punggol Waterway eatery, as he was buying a treat for his 10-year-old daughter Abbie Rose. The shop manager, who had been persuading him to buy the eatery’s famous cheese toast, peered at him and said, “I know you, don’t I?”
After the popular humour author introduced himself and they shook hands, the manager said, “I love your books. You get Singapore, you just get Singapore.”
It is a compliment the Briton has received many times since he arrived as a “sweaty, pasty-faced 21-year-old kid” on holiday in 1996. And this December, as he releases his 20th book in the 20-odd years of living away from his home country, he reflects on why Singaporeans continue to accept an ang moh (caucasian) who once mistook a void-deck funeral wake for a coffeeshop.
“If I was just writing jokes in my books, I don’t think they would have resonated with Singaporeans as much,” said Humphreys, who turned 44 on Wednesday (5 December). “But I was influenced by books, TV dramas and movies that combine humour with poignancy, and talk about important social issues.
“So I try to do the same with my books, to make some social commentary about life in Singapore. And it is always nice to hear these compliments from the heartlanders in Singapore. They seem to know that my empathy is not fake, that I’m not out to ‘score points’ with them.
“I love this Oscar Wilde quote, ‘If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.’ Humour is always an entry point for my books, and I’ll never lose that empathy, that compulsion to write about the less well-off, the underprivileged or the lonely people.”
Funny yet poignant style
That empathy has been evident since his first book in 2001, Notes from an Even Smaller Island, in which he detailed his experiences in Singapore in a funny yet poignant way. Eccentric aunties, overworked students and materialistic businessmen – all these characters pop up regularly in his best-selling works, garnering him a dedicated fan base in his adopted home.
Yet Humphreys has constantly challenged this fan base – and himself as a writer – by changing genres throughout his 20 books. From observant travelogues to gritty detective tales to eco-conscious children’s fiction, he is now focusing on a pre-teen novel series called Princess Incognito with his latest release, A Royal Pain in the Class.
Like his previous works, this tale of a young princess going undercover in a small town delves into weighty issues such as bullying, poverty and loneliness – issues which he himself confronted being raised in a London council estate. Yet, it is written in the first-person perspective of the princess, with plenty of gentle humour from her struggles to adapt to her new working-class surroundings.
“The book’s heavily influenced by Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker trilogy and Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾, both of which I read in my own pre-teen period,” Humphreys said. “They dealt with really dark, council-estate issues like divorcing parents and alcoholism, but made them funny, poignant and relatable.
“And Adrian Mole was written from the boy’s perspective by a middle-aged woman, which totally blew my mind. So I’ve always wanted to do that kind of book, to create a different voice other than mine, but with an independent and feisty girl character.”
Getting the next generation to read more
No doubt, Abbie Rose is also a major influence, as Humphreys wants to write books to follow his daughter through her formative years, especially at her current age when children do most of their reading after acquiring enough vocabulary.
“I’m at the pre-Harry Potter age now, I’ll probably follow her through to her Twilight phase. I’ll probably stop when she starts on 50 Shades of Grey,” he said with a laugh. “People tend to be sniffy about children’s books, but they are more important now than ever, because children don’t read as much. It’s the iPhone generation, and it’s already a challenge to get Abbie to put her mobile phone down and pick up a book. I’m doing everything I can to ensure the next generation still believes in reading.”
And while he hopes that Singapore readers will look past his “ang moh funnyman” tag and also appreciate the socially-conscious undertones in his books, he is nonetheless deeply thankful for their long-time support, just like the shop manager at Punggol Waterway.
He enthused, “When I started 20 years ago, I hoped Singaporeans would give me a chance. And they did, and I’ll always be profoundly grateful for that. And here we are, 20 years and 20 books later, and I’m writing books for my original readers’ children and grandchildren.”
Comfortable with calling S’pore home
And just as the readers have accepted him with open arms, Humphreys has also finally become comfortable with calling Singapore his home.
He recalled, “In my first 10 years here, I never bothered about signing up with the latest credit card or phone deals, because I was always thinking about leaving. I just wouldn’t accept that Singapore was my spiritual place, and eventually my wife and I convinced ourselves to relocate to Melbourne for five years.
“But now we’re back, and there is no doubt. If I land in Heathrow Airport in London, it’s nice because I’ll get to see my family. If I land in Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport, it’s nice because I’ll get to see my friends and do some sightseeing. But only when I land in Changi Airport do I get the feeling that I’m back home.”
A Royal Pain In The Class is out in major bookstores. There will be a book launch at the Kinokuniya Singapore Main Store at Takashimya Shopping Centre on 8 December at 2pm where Humphreys will be participating in question-and-answer and reading sessions.
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