David Baddiel: From fantasy to family

The writer and comedian David Baddiel has unearthed a hidden wartime world. He talks to Matthew J Reisz about the importance of (sometimes) being earnest
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The Independent Culture

Much to his German grandmother's distress, David Baddiel never quite became Dr Baddiel. His comedy career took off and took over when he had done only 90 per cent of the research for a PhD on Victorian sexuality. So his life led away from Cambridge and academia to the comedy circuit, where even intellectual people often make a point of pretending to be militantly anti-intellectual.

Now his wonderful third novel, The Secret Purposes (Little, Brown, £16.99), draws on his grandmother's life. It also takes him back into one of the most hyper-intellectual milieux there has ever been. When we meet to discuss the book at his London publishers, I ask Baddiel about this. He is wary of the line of questioning but agrees that "lots of comedians are middle class and desperate to prove that they are working class - and part of that is a disavowal of their academic credentials and intellectualism. There's also a macho thing. Some comedians may not think it's very male to be too articulate or insightful. Others feel that if they were to demonstrate their intelligence on television, say, it might alienate certain sections of the audience because of a British suspicion of being too clever."

Yet Baddiel is keen to stress that good comedy demands great intelligence and always has an underlying serious purpose. He tells me he gets "edgy" when asked if he's "trying to find a more serious voice" in this new novel. He rejects the notion that his television shows with Frank Skinner are "just two laddish blokes talking about football. Although we do do that, a lot of the time we're talking about quite unusual, off-the-wall subjects."

Rather surprisingly, the show also sometimes gives him an opportunity to deal with Jewish identity. "The Jewish voice is dominant in American comedy," he says. "In Britain, Jewish or partly Jewish comedians include Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton and Stephen Fry, but there is no unified Jewish comic voice. "I am one of the very few well-known Jews on TV who talks about being Jewish," he adds.

Baddiel is adamant that his earlier novels, Time for Bed (1996) and particularly Whatever Love Means (1999), are far more than skilful and entertaining pieces of LadLit offering some self-flagellating insights into the male psyche. "The second one is really rather grim and bleak," he affirms, "a serious book with some comic scenes in it. I was interested in whether the emotionally incontinent time after the death of Princess Diana would allow people to do things like have affairs. I wanted to set a very passionate affair against the background of a mad time."

Much of this is true. Whatever Love Means is a bleak book that offers some sharp satire on the "emotional fascism" of Diana's "Death Week". But it is also a book about the adventures of an amoral anti-hero who "lived for new pussy. Now, obviously, if you live for new pussy, at some point you are going to end up upsetting or humiliating - um - old pussy."

Nothing in its knowing tone could possibly prepare readers for the moving sobriety of The Secret Purposes. It begins with Rabbi Isidor Fabian crossing the bridges of Königsberg in 1934 as he contemplates his sins. The scene is a brilliantly realised vignette of the last moments of normality for German Jewry before the rabbi disappears forever, and the action shifts to his struggling refugee son, Isaac, in Cambridge.

The unfolding story is loosely based on the life of Baddiel's grandfather, who told him as a teenager about the two years he had been interned on the Isle of Man. Baddiel was intrigued and then forgot. By the time he wanted to know more, his grandfather had sunk into Alzheimer's. His regret at this missed opportunity was one of the motives that drove him to write the book.

Internment is still a comparatively little explored episode. German nationals resident in Britain were given different categories of security classification. Then, at a time of spy fever in 1940, Churchill decided to "Collar the lot!" and send them to the Isle of Man. Jewish refugees desperate to fight in the British Army were herded with Nazi sympathisers. Yet most of the 30,000 interned Jews did not "organise themselves along military lines" but "academic lines". Left pretty much to their own devices by the guards, they soon formed what he describes as "The University of the Interned Jew". A Viennese-style café society sprang up, with lectures on Byzantine history, biochemistry and Renaissance architecture.

"It is probable," writes one historian, "that the Isle of Man in the summer of 1940 was the greatest Jewish cultural and religious centre in Europe." "Without wanting to blow our Jewish trumpet," Baddiel suggests to me, "that probably means the centre of European intellectual and cultural life." It was there that the Amadeus Quartet was formed. Other inmates included Freud's son Martin, art historian Nikolaus Pevsner, tenor Richard Tauber and the artist Kurt Schwitters. Looking round a camp committee, the chairman feels like he is "addressing a reunion of Nobel prize-winners".

There was a good deal of political debate. Baddiel interviewed former internees and drew on his own "memory of being enamoured with communism" in creating Isaac. But a major source was a box of letters given to him by his mother three years ago. These had been sent four times a week from her father on the Isle of Man to her mother in Cambridge. All had been opened and read by censors. Many were about sausages or requests for more food, but they also gave a real sense of what daily life was like.

The Secret Purposes is also a love story. June Murray, a translator at the Ministry of Information, is horrified by a section in a (genuine) memorandum on anti-German propaganda that reads: "Horror must be used very sparingly and must deal with the treatment of indisputably innocent people. Not with violent political opponents. And not with Jews."

The book portrays the bumbling, snobbish and mildly anti-Semitic British soldiers and officials with amused affection as well as exasperation. However, Baddiel says he does "feel angry about the ministry gagging the information about the Holocaust because that had a direct impact on the fact that Churchill didn't bomb the supply lines to Auschwitz."

June knows from the papers that cross her desk that truly appalling things are happening in Germany and that the British public are not being told, so she sets off to the Isle of Man to gather further evidence from the detainees. It is her search for "more horror" and her developing relationship with Isaac, the efforts of Isaac's wife Lulu to obtain testimonials to secure his release, and the compromises required of both women, that drive forward the action of the book.

The Secret Purposes is deeply imbued with the flavours of the 1940s, but Baddiel is very clear about how it also forms a kind of prequel to his own life. "I belong to a very particular generation," he says, "whose parents or grandparents were Orthodox and whose relatives were killed - and for whom Jewishness, therefore, is a very serious affair. I come from a generation that bears the marks of that seriousness but became quite ironic about being Jewish. Our children don't have that seriousness to be ironic from."

In the novel's final scene, a decrepit Isaac in the year 2000 reflects on the German multinational companies that were complicit with the Holocaust and feels "the nostalgia of anger", an anger that "made his communist blood, which so long ago had stopped simmering, boil".

I ask Baddiel if he too felt any nostalgia for a world so different from today's. "I am attracted by the seriousness of the way people had to be in the 1930s and the 1940s," he replies. "Young intellectuals would define themselves as left-wing or right-wing, because it meant they would have to go off and fight in Spain; it meant something real. The kind of arch irony that cuts through all discourse now is tiring and exhausting, and I wouldn't mind there being more real seriousness in public utterance. If there's a nostalgia, it's for that. And I like Isaac's idealism, even though he loses it. I like his real hope for a better world."

Biography: David Baddiel

David Baddiel was born in 1964 and educated at the Haberdashers' Aske's School in Elstree. He graduated with a double-first in English from King's College, Cambridge, and was vice-president of the Cambridge Footlights. He has toured as a solo stand-up comedian and written and performed in successful television series such as The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Fantasy Football and Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned. "Three Lions", the Euro '96 single he wrote and performed with Frank Skinner and Lightning Seeds, went straight into the charts at No 1. Baddiel has been a judge for the Whitbread, the Guardian First Book, and Booker prizes. His three novels are Time for Bed (1996), Whatever Love Means (1999) and now The Secret Purposes (Little, Brown). He lives in Hampstead, north London, with his partner - comedian Morwenna Banks - and their two-year-old daughter, Dolly.

Matthew J Reisz is editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'