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.
Occasionally, I get the disloyal suspicion that there is something rather self-indulgent, a trifle embarrassing, possibly even juvenile rather than Juvenal, about either pushing, or mainlining, 52 shots of undiluted humour a year. Almost nobody can resist dipping into a open box of chocolates, if it is left hanging about within hand’s reach: but that is rather different from bringing yourself to place an order for a bumper box every week with the groceries. In a world that is falling apart, a lot of people tend increasingly to feel, laughter ought to be a by-product, like coke, best garnered en route to some more serious end.
Yet, is not a sense of humour – the one characteristic I have never heard any one admitting to lack – still the essential ingredient that hallmarks the civilised human being? I am not entirely convinced. In its classic form, humour aspires (as what doesn’t?) to fulfil Coleridge’s definition of Imagination: ‘the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference; of the general with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement ... ’
Humour today obstinately inclines towards conservatism. Whatever is new almost always appears eccentric, obscure, improbable and ludicrous – whether it is Newton’s gravity, Einstein’s relativity, Marx’s dialectic, Freud’s unconscious, Picasso’s fauvism. It is simpler to mock the harbingers of the future, Women’s Liberation or the Ecology Party, than the monuments of the past, the House of Lords or the Monarchy. Even when ‘old and familiar objects’ are pilloried, they are presented as harmless, endearing relics, to be preserved in the aspic of nostalgia just because they are so laughable – the viewpoint of Wodehouse, Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Peter Simple. The term ‘novelty’, which now gets translated as ‘trendy’ or ‘fashionable’, becomes a dirty word. ‘Feeling profound or vehement’ is reserved for those who wish to change society – for Tony Benn, the ‘Race Relations Industry’, the sexologist, the prison reformer, the militant trade-unionist. Whatever is, is right, unless it’s Left.
Humour also is often wary, and frequently contemptuous, of all tender emotions. The quickest way into ‘Pseud’s Corner’ in Private Eye is to display in print any personal concern or care for others which might be thought ‘wet’ by the standards of public-school sixth-formers. I have been there myself for confessing that a front-page picture in the Daily Mirror brought tears to my eyes. It was only a brilliantly dramatic photograph of four dead bodies on the campus of Kent State University. Callousness is almost the badge of the humourist, and cruelty alone, if exhibited with sufficient hyperbole and grotesque fantasy, is enough to trigger laughter, as in the writings of Auberon Waugh.
Under the guise of satire, humour scourges rich and poor, weak and powerful, white and black, reactionary and progressive, young and aged alike, with an even-handed injustice. It is immaterial that some are armoured and others defenceless. The joke is all, the sicker the better. And the fulcrum of the balance is a middle-class, middlebrow conventionality which empties its load upon anyone or anything which is exposed as an extreme to either side. The golden mean is more mean than golden and supports a status quo which curiously often coincides with the status quid. The humourist has no politics, though everyone knows which party is non-political. In the end, the lash falls on the stranger, the outsider, the experimenter, the rebel or the eccentric who doesn’t do it our way. Instead of the Jew, it is now the Arab; instead of the prole, it is now the immigrant.
Humour too often functions by defusing anger, ridiculing protest, discouraging argument, suggesting that every kind of action is only an absurd pretension. Far from being the growl of the underdog, it can easily be mistaken for the purr of the pet pussy-cat. The jester is hired by the ruler, not by the ruled.
The theoretical case against humour is strong, yet finally I find I cannot sustain it in practice. And one of the main reasons it disintegrates as I write is the continuing, unflagging persistence of Alan Coren, and the magazine he has largely transformed. He is the nearest we are likely to come in my lifetime to the Coleridgean humourist, the general with the concrete, the image with more ideas than a daily edition of Punch could accommodate.
Perhaps only those who work with him can believe that he is as funny on his feet as he is at his desk. His mind seems to operate at a subliminal speed that borders on the occult, seizing upon any piece of gossip, snippet of news, report of a film or book, the latest theory on anything, that you bring him, ripping it open and dragging out of its entrails a dozen comic possibilities like a conjuror’s flags of all nations, before you have finished your first sentence. There simply isn’t time for him to have heard what you said, let alone digested its meaning. And to make the performance more sickening, he can back up the potted scenarios and condensed playlets with an instant-retrieval system which provides him immediately with all the historical parallels, literary references, political jargon, advertising slogans, medical details, psychiatric explanations, fashion notes and apt quotations he needs to buttress them. Having talked away the material for half a dozen pieces, he will sit down and, with the rarest of pauses for research, rattle off another one even better.
The results can be sampled in these two books – one a fat volume anthologising a choice bouquet from his previous half a dozen collections, and the other the latest in the series – which show it is possible to possess an amazing facility without ever being facile. That is not say that, rereading these pieces without the usual week’s pause between each one, I do not spot some of the mannerisms and methods I instanced earlier as among the failings of the professional humourist.
He, too, can fall into the tough-guy stance, which suggests that other people’s miseries are funny if they are sufficiently far from your own comfortable experiences, as in his mockery of a sign in Leicester Square announcing TEMPORARY REFUSE RECEPTION CENTRE. There are also times when he retreats to the props of an earlier Punch, with its stereotype of beleagured suburban man struggling hard to think up a few really worrisome domestic disasters: ‘With the gas boiler on the blink and the lawn full of moss and a phone-bill just in that makes the National Debt look like Bob Cratchit’s take-home pay after stoppages ... ’
Occasionally a vein of callousness comes jetting through the surface, as in a marvellously inventive diary of a British Christmas in 1989 under Iranian rule. I tried hard to resent jokes about race, physical disability, laboratory experiments on animals, trade unions and other saloon-bar targets, but Coren so brilliantly sustained the logic of his theme while creating an almost believable narrator that I eventually forgave him on the grounds of excessive talent. Typical entries ran:
Punch not what it was: this week’s issue devoted entirely to extolling the fig. Next week, have to put together Special Number commemorating discovery of camel.
Take daughter to Selfridge’s to see Ayatollah Holly. Daughter now seventeen. Membership of Iranian Economic Community requires five hundred virgins weekly, or else the Oily Pound further devalued.
Could now lose dog-cart licence on totting-up procedure – already got two endorsements, one for not facing Mecca while driving down Maida Vale at sunset, one for colliding with milk-float due to facing Mecca while driving down Maida Vale at sunset.
Decorate tree: silver crescent, chocolate Ayatollahs, and a hair of the Prophet (simulated) on top.
Bought son a child bride, small Kurd with a wall-eye, but comes with a nice dowry: two sacks of King Edwards and Des O’Connor LP. Bought daughter a veil.
Casualty department full of pickpockets with septic stumps. Finally get to see NUPE consultant janitor, a nice man who does not beat me. His English is understandably poor, but adequate to explain that he is fairly new to the job given him by High Court following Race Relations Board injunction.
Interesting snippet in Sun Fancy That column noticed on bus home: according to their man in South-East Asia. William Rees-Mogg, the last Vietnamese has just shot the last Cambodian, and died of starvation.
Sometimes he appears to take off into the higher nonsense, in acrobatic flights which rival Monty Python, where the aim is not so much the recognition of real-life in disguise as an infectious hysteria. But even in the way-out ‘It’s a long way to Cannelloni’ (from The Best of Alan Coren), he never quite lets go, as Perelman used to, of an umbilical cord anchoring him to the earth. Here the donnée is a press-cutting claiming ‘the British soldier is becoming a gourmet,’ and his careful, precise parody of Journey’s End, fought by opposing armies of chefs, begins half-way through to explode into surrealism.
The young lieutenant wiped his gravied hands on his apron. He looked hard into Stanhope’s addled grey eyes.
‘It’s sheer bloody hell out there, sir!’ he cried. ‘The Turks have broken through our fish pie and it’s only a matter of minutes before they begin mopping up.’
‘God, they’re filthy eaters,’ muttered Stanhope.
‘Give ’em a taste of cold veal!’ cried Sergeant Trotter.
There is no genre of humour in Punch that its editor cannot tackle – from the traditional hangover horror story to the sit-com clowning of the male persecuted by wife and children and tradesmen, from a philosophic thesis on the semantic problems involved in trying to have a conversation with God to the splendid miseries of modern travel. But mainly his subjects are as bizarre and individual as his style, which crackles with epigrams and is always alive with vivid imagery. In essence, he is a parodist whose ear and eye can suck in an author, boil him down to his basics, then recreate him afresh trapped in a new and painful dilemma. He never reproduces his subjects without transforming them, and makes few concessions to himself or his audience – spreading before them, for instance, a six-page pastiche of Chaucer.
Few other humourists have such mastery of the demotic (compare Bernard Levin’s dated slang for the man in the street with Coren’s flowing popular speech). I regret, even while I guffaw, his tendency to cast the worker as a half-educated, dogmatic pedlar of garbled opinions, as in his re-enacting of Dunkirk with the troops insisting on tea breaks, squabbling over demarcation lines and negotiating for overtime. But then I cannot have enough of his Jewish businessmen.
For those who have not read Alan Coren, the very titles on the contents page signal the variety of hard centres his goodies contain: ‘Let us now phone famous men’, ‘A Small Thing but Minoan’, ‘This Don for Hire’, ‘An Open Letter to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’.