Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Alan Coren 2

I was lost in France when Alan Coren's death was made public. Nige said it all, of course, but I feel a need to be involved. Here, thanks to a pointer from Frank Wilson, is one of his great late columns. This is a prodigious piece of writing - note, for example, his games with prepositions - that seems utterly effortless. Having read it, you feel you could do it, but you can't. It reminds me of one of his Punch columns about getting up in the middle of the night with a hangover. His description of the head-splitting effect of the fridge light consoles me still. Through such effects, Coren redeemed our ordinary sufferings. He made little things so funny that they seemed to glow with greatness. For me, thanks to Coren, fridge lights have become aspects of a fabulous,though absurd, adventure. He glamorised our incompetence. In the face of this ridiculous world, Coren tells us, just getting by is heroic. Nige says Coren was the funniest man in Britain after the death of Peter Cook. I'd also put Auberon Waugh up there. In fact, Waugh was a greater prose writer but, perhaps, not quite so comically inventive. V.S.Naipaul once told me, that, after considerable thought, he had decided Bron was a better writer than his father, Evelyn. He may well be right. Either way, both Coren and Waugh were funnier than, say, James Thurber and, as writers, they were way ahead of almost all of our currently feted 'literary' authors. But, unlike Thurber and those authors, neither seems destined to enjoy post-mortem literary acceptance. This is absurd. The British tend to over-rate everything about themselves - from football teams to the NHS - but they massively under-rate their comic writers. They just end up being consigned to the least funny shelves in Waterstone's - those labelled 'Humour'. Collected Waughs and Corens in distinguished 'literary' jackets should now be flying off the shelves. Blue plaques should track their lives and academics should write learned texts on their techniques. It's not going to happen. Those of us who know will just have to remain quietly grateful to have been alive when Coren and Waugh were making life seem lighter, better, funnier and so much more bearable.


  1. ...and academics should write learned texts on their techniques. It's not going to happen.

    thank god for small mercies.

    do you think he was a writer's writer? I was wondering that before I read the link.

  2. Quietly grateful is indeed what we shall have to be, Bryan. People like Alan are disappearing at an alarming rate, and it is frightful to think of the world without them. There are few enough people with charisma and intelligence anymore, let alone such an extraordinary wit and gift with words. (I’d like to add Clive James to your list, by the way.) The British are becoming increasingly bland of personality, yet steely of soul. So yes, grateful we should be for those like Alan Coren, who was, categorically, neither.
    J Cheever Loophole

  3. Well said Cheever. And, to pick up the more general point, it is extraordinary how we undervalue comic writing and writers - look at the scandalous way Wodehouse was treated by the literary-political establishment (Duff Cooper et al). We seem to over-value all the things we're not very good at - e.g. poetry, classical music, the literary novel - and undervalue the things we do best, one of which is most definitely comic writing. But then you do need a sense of humour to appreciate it - and that, in a genuine, developed form, also seems to be something that is becoming rarer.

  4. Exactly, Big Nige. Brits are too busy taking themselves superseriously (without just cause) to have a sense of humour. Perhaps evolution will gradually dispense with it entirely.

  5. So well said and now one of my favourite pieces on your blog, Bryan. Comedy is seriously misunderstood by establishments, perhaps because it doesn't sit comfortably within establishments. Nige has beaten me to invoking the name of Wodehouse, who remains the model for good comedic writing. Many of his fans still make a living within academia, but there does seem to be a line they fear to cross should they want to write about him. Which is actually a good thing. Academia destroys poetry and would do the same to comedy, which bears many of its characteristics. Comic techniques are linked, I think, with the ear, which is why so many of our great poets are also great comic writers: Pope, Dryden, Chaucer, Byron, and even Beckett and Joyce in their way.

    It makes it frustrating to see the Booker go to yet another mournful little Irish tale. Making people cry is easy. Comedy takes effort. In the end, those that master it, men like Alan Coren, have that ability to make it look effortless. Yet that's the problem with comedy: it has to look effortless in order to work. But because it does look effortless – you're so right, afterwards you do think anybody could do it – it is dismissed as being trivial, throwaway, easy.

    There are few of the elder statesmen of good comic writers left but one of the best remaining, though younger, is Craig Brown, although the overall quality of Private Eye's humour has declined and their covers are as funny as Uganda. Jeremy Clarkson's popularity distracts from the quality of some of his writing, and there's still Clive James, who, to me, remains a living deity.

    You're also spot on about the humour section in bookshops. I have to avoid it for health reasons. I'm allergic to anything crass, like those Christmas novelty books: '101 Uses For Your Middle Finger', 'The Dead Sparrow Handbook'. As for popular comedians writing novels: I could write half a million words on that without once using the word 'funny'.

    Sorry about the length of the reply. I find it hard to be brief given it's rare to find an intelligent discussions about comedy.

  6. Comedy seems to resist interpretation, commentary. i can and have written volubly on Sophocles, on Conrad, Milton, Dostoevsky, but would be at a loss to write a decent essay on Wodehouse; or if i did, it would kind of skirt around or wholly omit the comedy and just be about his vision of Englishness (which would rather miss the point).

    For many academics, what cannot be written about (in an academic form) is of no value. But for me the almost atomistic quality of comedy - that it resist dissection - is something to do with its power.

    It's notable that many tyrannies and states have co-opted tragedies but never (to my knowledge) comedies. There would always be that suspicion that the comic novel, held up as an example of New Labour's 'values', would go on doing its own thing, whatever that was, the soldier on parade sticking his tongue out at the camera.

    i can imagine a Stalin-like order where comedians rather than thinkers are singled out for execution, precisely because comedy does not conform. A joke you can explain is no joke at all. For states & tyrannies, anything that is just itself is abhorrent.

  7. I think that Wodehouse could be intelligently analysed in the same way as we go about understanding poetry. There’s nothing inherent in 'funny' material that academia couldn't comment upon. My problem is that, as with poetry, it then becomes something less than an involuntary response to the material. With comedy, we are always passing judgement on it when we laugh or don't laugh. The same should be true of poetry.

    I fell in love with poetry because it always had a physical effect on me. I fell out of love with poetry, at least for a time, once other forces began to get in the way of that immediate response. There was a disjunction between the body and the brain as I fretted over what was acceptable in the canon, contemporary viewpoints, influence of teachers. I still do. I fear giving an immediate response to so much contemporary poetry which my body tells is rubbish, but my brain warns me to take care, don't make a fool of myself, don't shout out that the Emperor is naked.

    At some point, the brain has come to matter more than the body and I'd fear the same would happen with comedy. To a degree, it's happened already with Chaplin and Keaton. Overly intelligent people will criticise the latter because (they say) he lacks the grace or social awareness of Chaplin. They forget what's funny, in favour of something they think is more impressive.

    I agree with your point about politics and tyranny, Elberry, and there's a telling anecdote Alastair Campbell's diaries. I've even tracked it down, it's so good: 'I called TB and he said he was writing an article in response to a cartoon in the Guardian. I said you’re doing what? Have you gone mad? He said that a lot of the critiques against us started in this way and we had to challenge them. Tony, I said, please don't write an article in response to a cartoon. People will think you are bonkers.' (p. 131)

    When the time comes, I just hope I'll have achieved something deemed worthy enough to make me one of the first to be locked up.

  8. Robert McCrum wrote a biography of P.G. Wodehouse, and Eileen Jones doesn't like it:

    ". . . one type of human loathesomeness that Wodehouse himself did his best to mock out of existence: the insufferable literary git."

    "And now one of their real-life counterparts has got P.G. Wodehouse in his clutches."

    O "Woe Is Wodehouse And His Biography".

  9. Hey, David, love your site: i'm sure they're getting your bright orange Camp X-Ray jumpsuit ready even as i write. Remember, Camp X-Ray detainees do not have internet privileges, you'll have to run the prison magazine using pencil and paper, i fear.

    i've written some good essays on poetry which don't (i feel) fall short of the original. They're not the same as the poetry; they rather run parallel to it. i'd usually say an essay was good if it could cogently analyse how the poem worked without losing the fire i felt in my reading.

    One can write about comedy as about poetry - but i don't think it's possible to explain why a funny book is funny, any more than going on about meter explains why "she sang beyond the genius of the sea" seems to embed itself in the psyche.

    i feel any writing about comedy would have to be about matters peripheral - the effect (making you smile or laugh) is i feel beyond analysis. Dunderheads may go on about 'oh if we stimulate this part of the brain our subjects laugh' but what the f*ck do they know, i'll take scientists out back and go to work on them with a length of lead pipe, they have no respect, no sensitivity, to hell with them.

  10. Elberry, I've never tried to analyse why I find things funny, but I think I have a slight handle on what I do when I try to be funny. I think it's about giving the brain a succession of little shocks that bounce it out of its normal patterns and routines. Linguistically, it's the thing that Coren was so good at; grammatical turns of nuance, oddness in the shape of a sentence. Wodehouse was the master of that, taking a clichéd phrase and giving it a twist of lemon, so to speak. That's where I think comedy and poetry find a common ground. It's about stating things that have been previously been said but in a wholly unique or surprising way.

    To make the sort of generalisation which will no doubt come back to haunt me: I think the difficulty with so much modern art (poetry included) is that its creators are trying to say something daringly unique, when that was never what the great artists tried to achieve. Modern artists attempt to reach beyond the set of known knowledge for unknown knowledge, and usually come back with an old Asda shopping trolley and the wheel off a Ford Anglia.