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1966 and All That, By Craig Brown
End of history, or end of an error?
Friday 30 September 2005
Craig Brown, who is an exceptional mimic (his celebrity diaries inPrivate Eye are unbeatable), has now had a shot at paying homage to the original.1966 And All That takes us on a pleasantly daft tour from 1918 (where S & Y suspended history) to the present. Wisely, Brown doesn't go in for a fully-blown pastiche; instead, he catches the flavour of the original, and proceeds to enjoy himself. With 90 instead of 900 years to deal with, he has a harder job.
There is a good, knowing gag about Idi Amin which nails his problem. "General Idi Amin began life as a joke inPunch magazine, but, like so many jokes, it got out of control." You sense that Brown knows all too well that some of his own jokes get out of control. Sellar and Yeatman loved puns and malapropisms - the Black Whole of Calcutta, Samuel Pepys and his Dairy, The Venomous Bead, the Pheasants' Revolt and so on. But Brown is positivelyaddicted to puns, and unable to resist a Spoonerism (Trains Bust, Bonnie Riggs, the Sitford Misters).
The punning gets so out of control at times (with the Serviette Union, the Sewers Crisis, the Nazis' Pansy Divisions, Amelia Earwig, Lord Wreath, Jane Fondle, Traces Semen and The Stolen Bones) that it threatens to overwhelm some brilliant invention. There are a couple of slips, too - as when The Rolling Stones appear elsewhere as themselves. The gag about George V having a son called Lloyd is weakened by a gag about the PM being called Boy George; and playing the Dame Rudolf Hess/Myra Hess joke both ways is a nuisance.
But for every excess, there are three treats. Some of the mix-ups Brown stages are inspired. The Harrow Marchers come in the wake of Generals on Strike; there's a bombardment of London with Teach Yourself German pamphlets (the Berlitz); Albert Square replaces Albert Speer; Gandhi gives us the pacifistfight. There are very funny Paxman-style interviews with Churchill and Martin Luther King.
And the GCSE question papers are different from, but just as agreeably crackpot as, S & Y's parodies: "Imagine you are Adolf Hitler. It is the morning of 30 April 1945. (a) How are you feeling?" I particularly liked the rewriting of Harold Macmillan: "You've never had it - so long", and "The wind of change is blowing from the incontinent."
Some jokes are obvious (DH Lawrence of Arabia); some long in the tooth (Look Back In Ongar); some a little too puerile (the Waterbottle affair). Some of the lists needed trimming: they look likeNew Statesman competition entries in which both winners and losers have somehow been let through (here I have to declare a sort of interest).
But the whole enterprise is fizzy with the utter absurdity of the way our culture is obsessed with facts, and1966 and All That has the same glee as its forebear with how Anglocentric our idea of history is. Prince Charles will think this book is howlingly funny. Unfortunately, he won't be getting the full-in-the-face barrage of jokes in quite the same way as the rest of us.
Seventeen years ago, E O Parrott rounded up several literary competitors and producedThe Dogsbody Papers (Viking). It was subtitled "1066 and All This". As a contributor, I hold my hands up: this is far, far more successful. Relentlessly piling farrago on farrago, squeezing every historical pimple, mixing it up like a reckless cocktail shaker, Craig Brown is the business.
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