Young, gifted and worrying about the footie
Helen Stevenson reads a boys' own tale of frogs in the tandoori and toe nails in the tea; Time for Bed by David Baddiel, Little,Brown, pounds 14.99
Saturday 19 October 1996
One of the conceits of the new bloke persona of which David Baddiel, among others, has become the spokesman, is a deep rooted insecurity about the world, women, and his team's chances of league success, all wrapped up in the ironic bashfulness of the man who is just lucid enough to recognise that what he's really worried about is whether he's any good in bed. Here's the straight answer: any man who talks about himself this much can't be.
Gabriel is Jewish, insomniac, anxious to be seen to be educated in spite of himself, nervous, sentimental, in love with his half-brother's sister Alice, who is black. He doesn't have a job at the start of the novel, and makes the occasional trip to the job centre to sign on, until he gets his arm twisted to write a trendy sports column for a glossy magazine. He may be capable of deep felt emotions towards women, which are meant to make us feel he is as enlightened, somewhere in his heart, as he is priapic in his trousers, but his compassion and sensitivity do not impede on his conception of the world outside his own. An employee in the job centre is ridiculed for his ordinary sadness and hopelessness; the only real reference in the novel to a member of the labouring classes reads as follows: "I'm not sure it's possible for the labouring classes to consume any other beverage (than tea), just as it seems to be part of the social contract they have struck with us bourgeois that, as they mend things in our houses, we must make them endless cups of the stuff." I read this sentence several times, I read it ironically, and straight, I read it post-ironically and I read it critically, and I still could not think how it had crept into a novel by one of Britain's major comedians. I could phrase that indirect question differently, of course.
I don't ask that men grow up to be serious. It's just a bit dull if the jokes remain the same 15 years on. For a woman, the football has to be good and the jokes have to be funny. It's quality that counts, not just how long you bang on about it. At times there was even a distinctly sub- Wodehousian tone, circumlocution being the last refuge of the man who isn't sure he's made a joke: "Had Dr Johnson been there at that point he would have noted my expression, got out his quill, opened his enormous compendium and completely rewritten his definition of the word 'blankly'."
A good read? Maybe. I wasn't bored, but I wasn't moved either, except occasionally to a slight smile. There are some good jokes, a lot of bad ones, a sort of plot, an extended description of anal sex, a flatmate relationship gone wrong, frogs in the tandoori and toe nails in the tea, the occasional striking apercu, a Jewish funeral and a lot of presuppositions about the kind of things graduates think are funny.
The problem is that in this kind of genre humour, there is no room for eccentricity, only for types. Humour does depend on types, to a certain extent. But surely in a novel they need to be flexed and modulated to create character, otherwise you end up boring your reader. David Baddiel must know this already. Contrasting two female characters, one of whom corresponds to his platonic ideal of womanhood (ie she knows everything about football) and the other who doesn't (ie she knows nothing about football) he eventually allows the latter to emerge as the more interesting and subtle character.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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