Alan Brien

Alan Brien is film critic of the Sunday Times. His book about breasts, Domes of Fortune, was published last year.

Everybody, they say, has a book in them, if only the history of their lives up to their graduation from adolescence. I would agree, but with the proviso that these books be openly offered as fiction. When I think what unreliable witnesses my book chums are, especially about each other, I wonder how any trust worthy biographies, let alone autobiographies, ever get to be written. Most of these friends tend to dispute this thesis. But then, they would, wouldn’t they? For if they have not themselves been persuaded against their natural modesty and common sense to write autobiographies, flattered out of their natural caution and canniness to take on huge biographies, they will be reviewing the end-products, or perhaps supplying pre-publication quotes for the ads. At the very least, they are buying, or borrowing, or pretending to have read, the things.

Saint Q

Alan Brien, 12 September 1991

Many is the time I have hauled Quentin Crewe into a restaurant on my back, his wrists crossed under my chin, his voice chattering into one ear or another. As I did so, I often caught a surreal glimpse of myself as some kind of hunter of human game, bearing to the cannibal feast one more main course still alive and thrashing. ‘Q’, I am happy to say, is still alive and stirring things up – not least in this quirky and curious autobiography.’

Diary: Finding Lenin

Alan Brien, 7 August 1986

‘Reads like a novel,’ it says more and more often on the jackets of biographies, memoirs, travellers’ tales, historical studies, collections of essays, volumes of poetry – anything in print, except the novel. And the claim, unlike most of those on blurbs, is frequently true, since non-fiction nowadays contains so much fiction. Examples are everywhere.’


Alan Brien, 5 December 1985

One mid-morning in the mid-Fifties, I came across Ken Tynan on Fleet Street, hurrying towards the Evening Standard offices, then around the corner in Shoe Lane. I tagged along as he explained, between puffs, that there had been an unfortunate misprint in a piece he had written about Orson Welles. Luckily, he had spotted this in the first edition and now was on his way to ensure it was corrected for the rest of the day’s run. While he was inside, I bought the paper and read his article in the pub over the way. I could not see the error that so agitated him. It seemed a brilliant sketch, containing one phrase I particularly admired, envied even. When Ken returned, he stabbed his finger at the page. ‘That’s it! What I wrote was: “Everything that passes through the hands of Mr Welles acquires a touch of poetry.” ’ I could not bring myself to tell him that the compositor’s slip had been, for me, the most penetrating insight in the essay. In the first edition, it had read: ‘Everything that passes through the hands of Mr Welles acquires a touch of perjury.’

The Fame Game

Alan Brien, 6 September 1984

Steven Aronson’s Hype, a guide to the latest techniques of mass manipulation, may have less impact on British readers than it has had on American. The word is a recent coinage, but since the days of Dickens’s American Notes or, even earlier, of Fanny Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, we have been accustomed to associate the practice of hype with what many Brits still call the Yank. For a century, in boys’ comics, thrillers, magazine humour, music-hall sketches and pre-war films, the American was a loud-mouthed, boastful vulgarian who always claimed that whatever he had must be the biggest, the rarest or the most expensive in the world. The Yank was never satisfied with a fair share, we thought, and I well recall hearing Tommy Trinder complaining on stage during the war that there were only three things wrong with the GIs – they were ‘overpaid, over-sexed, and over here’ – and how I cheered along with the rest of the uniformed audience.–

Alan Coren

Alan Brien, 4 December 1980

Alan Coren is the editor of Punch, and also probably the funniest writer of humorous columns now in regular practice – by no means an inevitable, or even usual, combination. Punch seems to me to have one invaluable asset, its name; and one inescapable handicap, its name. The most famous long-running comic weekly in the world, it often sets me wondering whether it might not be easier to buy, or indeed write for, if it were called, say, the Hibbert Journal, or Notes and Queries, or just the Tudor Street Weekly.


Alan Brien, 15 May 1980

It is worthwhile to note, first of all, that this book is American, though you don’t have to read far to discover that. To the British eye, interview questions such as ‘How do you relate to the term “flat-chested”?’ or ‘How have men related to your breasts?’ seem slightly comical, and even unnatural, as normal speech. And you would have to travel far in this country, and be rather unlucky, to come across a woman who dropped into conversation, as one does here, the sentence: ‘I’m still not entirely deculturated in terms of my aesthetic values.’ But then it is also American to have, alongside this half-educated, pseudo-scientific academe-speech – with the two languages often used in alternate sentences by the same speaker – a parallel tradition of tough, direct, demotic bar-talk: ‘All I need is some asshole to make a comment like “Geez, you don’t have any tits at all!” and I promise you, they would carry the bastard off on a stretcher!!’



16 February 1989

R.W. Johnson (LRB, 16 February) tells us that in the volume of essays he is reviewing, ‘Eugen Weber amends Marx to say that when revolution repeats itself, it becomes not tragedy or farce, but tradition.’ This not very striking observation seems to depend on the belief that Marx made that comment about revolution. He did not. What he wrote, in the opening sentence of ‘The 18th Brumaire...
Categorised as a living legend, Kenneth Tynan replied that he felt more like an exploded myth. Reading Karl Miller’s review of The Passion of John Aspinall (LRB, 19 May), I suspect some unborn Oxonian legends are now becoming inflated myths. When Aspinall was up at Jesus College (1948-50), I shared language tutorials with him in the English course. Maybe this is why Anglo-Saxon and Middle English...

‘Lenin: The Novel’

15 October 1987

SIR: A pity you could not have dished out my first novel, a fictional diary of Lenin’s life from adolescence to terminal illness, to someone with just a little more knowledge of the period and the persons described than D.A.N. Jones (LRB, 15 October). I’m afraid I find it hard to take seriously the judgment of a critic who regrets that my ‘enormous, fact-studded’ tome is not...
SIR: Paul Addison asserts (LRB, 24 July) that in the First World War ‘a disproportionate number’ of the three-quarters of a million British servicemen killed were from ‘the upper classes’. He does not say whether he found this statistic in either of the two books he is reviewing or indeed what is the evidence for it. It is an all too familiar assertion and I would like to know...

Powerful People

D.A.N. Jones, 15 October 1987

Chinua Achebe’s masterly novel concerns three powerful Africans. They are drawn on the dust-cover as three green bottles, from the English song: ‘If one green bottle should...

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