Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Alan Coren |
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Alan Coren

Aided by her brother Giles, Victoria Coren was editing Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks: the Essential Alan Coren, a selection of her late father’s writings, and she asked me to be one of the panel who would introduce the various sections. They were a distinguished bunch — Melvyn Bragg, Victoria Wood, A. A. Gill and Stephen Fry — so I was honoured to be asked to join them. I got the plum job of introducing a sheaf of Coren’s pieces written in the 1980s, which the editors themselves regarded as his golden age. The essay appears here as it did in the book, with no additions, although I could easily have doubled its length. The book was published in October 2008, to deserved acclaim.

Writers of humour often have a bag of tricks, and one day the tricks become recognizable. Eventually even S. J. Perelman could be caught in the act of copying ideas that he had been the first to have. But Alan Coren was so inventive that the new ideas — not just the dazzle on the surface, but the structures underneath — kept on coming, with the seeming ease which invites belittlement from the less blessed. The great Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser’s achievements were often taken for granted by the local press, on the grounds that she was ‘a natural athlete’. In the same way, Coren was naturally funny. Nevertheless even he had his peak period for minting new coin. He was never better than in the 1980s, when the first flush of youth had been tempered by wisdom and learning.

The learning showed up brilliantly in a piece like ‘£10.66 And All That’, which can be taken as the pioneering instance in any medium of a modern humorist exploiting the probability that the yeomen of olde Englande, while they waded through the mud, exhibited all the whining venality and warped entrepreneurial ambition that we so admire today. As we join the action, the estate agency William & Bastards is about to be ‘dragged into the 11th Century’. While we read of how the agency strives to flog a ‘property with relatively scum-free well’, we can see how Coren was unmatched at the conceit of showing up the delusional sales vocabulary of Now by exporting it to the inappropriate context of Then. Almost every humorist has tried it but Coren could actually do it, at a level of ventriloquism which had been equalled, before him, only by Beachcomber.

Like Michael Frayn in his Guardian ‘Miscellany’ column at the turn of the 60s, Coren always knew that the only way to keep up with Beachcomber’s ghost was to cock an ear to the new yet instantly tarnished linguistic counterfeit of the present. This is the secret of Coren’s extraordinary feat of mimicry in ‘One is One and All Alone’, the story of what happened when our current Queen accidentally found herself at a loose end for a whole day. She kept a diary, in which we find that she played I-Spy with Fusebox Pursuivant. (‘One won’.) At the end of the day (the kind of dud phrase that Coren always hijacked at the very moment of its ponderously sprightly arrival into the language) Her Majesty is in prison, and obviously grateful for the change of scene.

Nowadays, Google makes it easier to write a catalogue piece that sounds as if it has been researched in a library, but the list of phobias in ‘No Bloody Fear’ sounds like the inside job of someone who had done a lot of delving in his own head. With Coren it’s always important to realise that his vast range of particular knowledge almost certainly included a deep insight into himself. He just never let on. Of all the great British comic writers — among whose number, we must surely see now, he stands high — he is the one whose flights of fancy tell you least about the agonies within. Probably, rather than being defensive, he was just too fascinated with the limitless extravagance of the follies in the outside world: to take them personally would have seemed, to him, disproportionate.

His consolation for a world whose cruelties mocked his mockery — Coren’s Idi Amin was a talking doll that spoke from the puppeteer’s sense of pity, not from his frivolity — was that the universal madness would always be there, if only because it had been there throughout history. Hence the enchanted insanity of ‘Tax Britannica’, my personal candidate for the title of Coren Piece for the Time Capsule. The scene, once again, is ancient Britain, but this time very ancient. The Romans are here. A sniffling tax collector called Glutinus Sinus? Of course. But when I learned that the tax-collector’s assistant was called Miscellaneous Onus, I was helpless with admiration as well as laughter, because the name is so exact. Miscellaneous onus equals various jobs, get it? Or, as the skiving Briton in the piece would say, ‘Narmean?’ Coren was first with that too: transcribing the tormented demotic with phonetic exactitude. Novelists got famous for doing the same. Coren just did it, from week to week, working so far within his abilities that he was the walking, laughing and dancing (he was a wickedly good Lindy Hop dancer) exemplar of a principle: the secret of success in the popular arts is to have power in reserve.

The worst a critic could say of him was that he didn’t seem to be trying. There were critics who said the same of Gene Kelly. But although Coren never had to practise a knee-slide that would finish exactly on the mark that the cameraman’s assistant had put down on the studio floor, he still had to do an awful lot of technical calculation in his head before he got his effects. He did it so quickly that he could go on a radio programme like News Quiz and unreel impromptu lines which were so neatly compressed they sounded as if they had been written. They had been: written instantly, a nanosecond before he said them. Somebody with that kind of gift is always going to be underrated. Coren didn’t care. He preferred to make the English language the hero. So generous a writer forms a conspiracy with the reader, as they both revel in the splendour of the tongue they speak. For as long as the spell lasts — and Coren could make it last for a thousand words at a time — the reader can almost persuade himself that he, too, knows how it’s done. But it’s a secret. Writers who convince you that you share their sense of humour are pulling a fast one. They are celestial con-men. Alan Coren was one of them, and one of the best.