Finding salvation through publication

Everyone has a book in them but almost always it's a book of interest only to its author
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE WAS something unbearably poignant about the news that the comedian Rod Hull had taken to writing novels in his later years. Within days of the zany, madcap emu-toter falling off a roof to his death, his widow had announced to the press that the most fitting memorial the world could offer her former husband was to make his fiction available in bookshops.

So, even in death, Rod was in touch with the zeitgeist. Years ago, he enacted a national fantasy by wrestling Michael Parkinson to the floor in front of the camera, scuffing his suit and ruffling his normally immaculate hair while the great Yorkshireman, clearly infuriated, had to pretend to be amused at his own humiliation. Now Rod Hull, with the help of his widow, has expressed the dream of the moment: salvation through publication.

Harmless enough, you might think. In this last Easter week of the second millennium, there's a powerful yearning for a faith that will give deeper meaning, a spiritual dimension, to our humdrum, everyday lives. The more lame-brained turn to the National Lottery or to one of the gambling and share-dealing opportunities provided by the Internet. Others find solace in one or several of the endless New Age idiocies being peddled in astrology columns, on the heal-your-life shelves of bookshops or on Russell Grant's dial-a-psychic phone-in on Talk Radio. An enviable few are able to cling to the original Easter message, bravely choosing to ignore the fact that on Sunday they could find themselves sharing a pew with Glenn Hoddle, Sir Cliff Richard, Rowan Atkinson and Ann Widdecombe.

But none of these versions of paradise can quite compete with salvation through publication. It provides the distant possibility of a jackpot of royalties, a ticket in the great celebrity raffle. It allows you to discover and exhibit the deeper, nobler, more sensitive aspects of your character without paying a therapist. In the case of Rod Hull it could even provide a sort of afterlife, in the local WH Smith.

For some reason, this spiritual course particularly appeals to comedians, who long to reveal in fiction all the conflicts, confusions and heartaches they are obliged to conceal from their public. Ernie Wise's best (and only) joke tapped into the showbiz fantasy of a comic whose real and undiscovered talent lay in the serious plays that he wrote. The genius Les Dawson would regularly pester the publishers of his comedy books to consider his more important work as a novelist. Since then, a tradition of fiction-struck comic actors has become well-established, with Hugh Laurie, Michael Palin, Adrian Edmundson, Richard E Grant, Arabella Weir and Robert Newman all trying their hand. Some of them (Ardal O'Hanlon, David Baddiel, Nigel Planer) are good writers, but few tend to persevere beyond that one harsh experience of the novelist's life.

The problem occurs when this desire to resolve inner unhappiness and domestic mess infects people who do not have an acting career to which they can return. At literary festivals, would-be writers in search of tips now outnumber mere readers of books. Anyone who teaches a creative writing course quickly discovers that what most people want to express in print is not a story, nor an interpretation of the world in which they find themselves, but a thrilling, egocentric and, above all, therapeutic expatiation of that universal theme of the moment - me, me, me.

Yet, in spite of the success of the many exhibitionistic memoirs in which childhood, marriage or general unhappiness provides succulent titbits for a prurient readership, raw therapy in book form, particularly in fiction, is rarely worth reading; the very attitude that is useful in life - the desire to be loved - is disastrous when it comes to fiction, as the work of most actors and politicians invariably proves.

Real novelists quarry their lives all right, but they are not interested in neat psychological resolutions and, if they are any good, they present themselves in a way which, in a world run by spin doctors, can be discomfiting. The very columnists and critics who express moral outrage at the views of, to take recent examples, Philip Roth, VS Naipaul, John Updike, Jeanette Winterson or Martin Amis, are merely confirming that their fiction is doing its job.

Of course, everyone has a book in them - not two, just one - but, almost always it's a book of interest only to its author. There may even be a case for using lottery money to produce a vast library of memoirs and therapy-fiction (print run: five copies), which will cure people of the need to write - as well as providing historians with an archive of national frustration and dissatisfaction.

It could be called the Rod Hull Collection.