Old lions and young dudes: David Baddiel on sexual politics, comic art and the road from gigs to print

David Baddiel's new novel sets the monster ego of the Great Writer against the flaky identity of the New Man.
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The Independent Culture

Forgive me for striking up on a parochial note. Although we never quite coincided, David Baddiel and his interviewer went to the same school (Haberdashers' Aske's in Hertfordshire). So, of course, I want to know if we shared any of the same teachers. We did. One of them – let's call him Mr F – was not one of charismatic stars of the English department (we had a few) but a long-serving stalwart, less flashy but solid and decent to a fault. One day he spotted the future comedian, television host and writer taking a prohibited short cut from the coach park where school buses stopped to the main teaching blocks. "Mr F caught me, and he told me off. And I must have said something, I can't remember what it was - something slightly smarmy and cheeky back. And he started doing a whole long speech, about, 'You think you're so clever, don't you, Baddiel? Your clever remarks fool the poor teacher.' I can still remember that speech, and feeling terrible and shrivelling inside."

Plus ça change... In his work on screen, on stage and (more recently) on the page, the critical case against David Baddiel has not really shifted an inch from that teacherly tirade: "You think you're so clever, don't you, Baddiel?" Sometimes I think that I can detect the driven, anxious, suburban-intellectual style of that school from a mile away (Simon Schama, another old boy, models it well). It bred high flyers from modest backgrounds who maybe never ceased to fear a fall.

Baddiel himself was brought up in Dollis Hill, just next door to the pariah-status Neasden that Private Eye's patrician sneerers love to mock, and went to a nearby Jewish primary school. His mother had, as an infant, fled Nazi Germany with her parents; his father, a research chemist, sold toys in a market after Unilever made him redundant. Shake up intellectual ambition and a degree of social unease, and you have the recipe for a comic cocktail that you might call "Hubris? Meet Nemesis".

And Baddiel is happy with his fate. "I am at heart a comic writer and performer," he says. "I've never agreed with the prevailing notion that you leave comedy behind as an artist – the Woody Allen trajectory. I agree with Martin Amis that great writing is in the comic, primarily."

Somewhat against expectations, his fourth novel sticks to those guns. When, last year, I first gathered that Baddiel had set his sights on Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and and Philip Roth in a fictional tribute to that generation of American literary titans (and monsters), I did fear the old hubris-and-nemesis trap. After two edgy, dark comedy-romances, Time for Bed and Whatever Love Means, he had quietened down, gone serious and, in The Secret Purposes, drawn on his grandfather's own history to dramatise the internment of Jewish refugees on the Isle of Man. Moving and measured, that achievement needed no "not-bad-for-a-comic" provisos. Still, the proud shades of those Stateside grandees would surely chew him up and spit him out.

The Death of Eli Gold (Fourth Estate, £18.99) finds its own, Baddiel-eque route into the idea of literary "greatness" and the psychic wreckage that it so often leaves in its wake. August and idolised, novelist Eli Gold is, aged 87, dying at Mount Sinai hospital on Fifth Avenue. Around his deathbed manoeuvre his fifth wife Freda, eight-year-old daughter Colette and – after a flight from England - 44-year-old Harvey: a neurotic ghost-writer for celebs, and the son of Eli's wartime marriage as a GI in London to the long-abandoned Violet.

This is an English as much as an American tale, a comedy as much as an elegy, and one in which the comatose Eli acts as the absent, silent centre. Instead of his voice, we hear questing Colette, fretful Harvey and – most touchingly – forgotten Vi in her London old people's home. Meanwhile, Eli's multi-dimensional matrimonial past has led a sinister avenger to this, his final doorstep. So, amid the bookish hommage and family psychodrama, a scary maniac out of Cormac McCarthy draws near... "I want to see big story mechanisms," admits an author who reveres John Updike but has no wish to mimic his filgree plotnessness, as we talk in a Covent Garden hotel café. "If I'm going to be dealing with these subjects, I want the reader to be engaged, involved and to feel that they want to get to the end. I have no problems with page-turning being part and parcel of a complicated novel."

"I do like those novelists, especially Updike, and I'm interested in them," Gold's creator says. "At the same time, the book is a satire about them and the veneration in which they're held." Baddiel's attention rests instead on the troubled human satellites around this burnt-out sun. And he shuns all trace of pastiche: we never quite read any of Solomon's Testament, Gold's earth-shaking masterpiece - a dead ringer for Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.

Eli's slipping away from life comes to stand for "the passing of this time of baroque greatness" - marked on one side by promiscuous and egocentric alpha-male display and, on the other, by the confusion of women who veer between collusion and resistance. "If you really ask me to boil down what the novel is about," says Baddiel, "it's about the ways the two genders have damaged each other."

It begins with a quotation from David Foster Wallace, for Baddiel "the only cast-iron literary genius" of recent years, a fierce debunker of the misogynist maestro – and also, in 2008, a suicide. As he scolds Updike for the delusion that fresh female flesh will give an answer to "ontological despair", Foster Wallace – for Baddiel – "is saying to these guys that their time is over. And it's over partly because their attitude to women isn't right and never has been. Ten years later, he kills himself. So the question is asked: what cure for ontological despair did David Foster Wallace find?" Baddiel eschews any grand designs on us but does hint that women might lead the way out of this MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) clash of gender myths. "I want to suggest that the future might be about smaller, more individual moments," he says: "human relations happening on a less grotesque scale."

When, on Saul Bellow's death in 2005, he read accounts of the young family's vigil with the old sage, Baddiel did wonder: "What must that be like for his daughter?" So, along with Harvey and Vi, little Colette becomes one of the novel's key witnesses: a young mind striving to make sense amid the whirlpool of rival passions and memories that surround the expiring idol, Daddy. Baddiel connects her plight to the young observer of adults' sexual entanglements in What Maisie Knew by Henry James - a favourite author. "What struck me," he says, "is the jeopardy in which a little girl is placed by virtue of having to grow up too quickly or be faced with information that normally only adults have to deal with: sex, death."

Baddiel thinks that "Children - and this is my sense of my own children – will never admit to bewilderment." (He lives with the actor and writer Morwenna Banks: their daughter Dolly was born in 2001, and son Ezra in 2004.) Just now, "My son, who's six, has suddenly started saying 'I don't want anything babyish', and won't watch things on TV he feels are too young for him... There's a kind of fury when the scales fall from their eyes and they think 'I see – I'm thought of as this innocent sweet thing'." Yet, in the age of online exposure to adult passions, "One thing you get very worried about as a parent now is that they are just going to find out about adult stuff far too quickly. Colette is probably a projection of that anxiety."

Older, if not much wiser, Harvey the well-meaning schlemiel from Kent stumbles through the book trailing his own very English sexual baggage. He dearly loves his wife and his vulnerable son with Asperger's – and cultivates his online porn habit. In New York, he slips gleefully back into the sulphurous but entertaining company of the larger-than-life lawyer Bunce, a prosecutor of paedophiles. Bunce delights to live "close to the bone, the bad bone of what it is to be a man". He drags his uptight Brit pal through the strip joints of Manhattan.

Through Harvey, Baddiel traces the New Man-New Lad wobbles and wavers that mark the voyage into a sort of adulthood of a large cohort of UK males. For all his backsliding, Harvey "really, really wants to do the right thing by women. I met a lot of people like this at university" (Baddiel studied English, and gained a double first, at King's College, Cambridge). "I don't know if I myself ever quite bought into it – although I was completely aware of its cosh." He remembers some student friends who "got into quite weird hot water" with their self-flagellating anti-sexism. "They tended to find themselves with very complicated and difficult women, almost as if they felt they needed to be punished for their own desire."

Baddiel's own early fame as a stand-up led the laddish backlash against exactly that paralysing conscientiousness. "When I first started doing comedy, and was part of that reaction to political correctness, I think I was quite keen on breaking apart what I felt was a stultifying linguistic monitoring of what you could and couldn't say about sex and women," he recalls. Surely the pendulum swung too far, too fast? "Absolutely, within about five years, by 1997 – I was looking at magazines and thinking, 'No: this isn't at all what I meant'. It has just become a kind of stupid, nod-and-a-wink celebration of old-style sexism."

Baddiel does not denounce or renounce his younger, stadium-filling self: the rock-star shows with Rob Newman, the TV cycles of Fantasy Football, the crowd-tickling partnership with his close friend (still) Frank Skinner. "For myself, I'm very pleased that I had those experiences. They were absolutely brilliant at the time. They're not something which, at the age of 46, I particularly want to do now... Comedy is a bit more of a young man's game now. When I was growing up, Eric Morecambe was in his golden years. That's what I thought a comedian was: a 54-year-old bald bloke who was absolutely hilarious. Now I think of a comedian as a 28-year-old bloke in a T-shirt."

He returned to stand-up for four shows late last year. "It went well. I enjoyed it. But what I found was that it was all completely story-telling based. I didn't want to write observational gobbets any more... I guess as I've got older, the pull of narrative has got stronger for me. So that's why I want to do novels and films." Last year he wrote The Infidel, with Omid Djalili as a Muslim cabbie flabbergasted by the discovery of his Jewish origins. Now, again in tandem with producer Arvind David, he has scripted, and plans to direct, Romeo and Britney – in which a teenage girl who craves to play Juliet time-slips into the world of the play. It's "a sort of cross between Clueless and Shakespeare in Love".

If that sounds almost like a trademark Baddiel project, then another might disconcert the pigeonholers. He is writing the introduction to a Virago Press edition of The Sleeping Beauty (1953) by Elizabeth Taylor – the postwar novelist of delicately-drawn middle-class mores whose work he loves, who underlies the heartbreaking voice of Vi in The Death of Eli Gold, and whom Baddiel dubs "the missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike".

That's not, perhaps, quite what Fantasy Football nostalgics might expect of him. But then "a lot of people find it difficult to reconcile me being the bloke who bellowed out 'Three Lions', badly, but managed to make a hit of it, with the writer of this book. But I like complexity... People are complex, and the truth is complex. I hope to have projected that a bit myself."