Andrew Martin: The comical crusader against cliché

Our writer on the wit and wisdom of Robert Robinson
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On Thursday, I was fretting in traffic, late for the station and enraging the taxi driver on my bumper, when the voice of Robert Robinson came over the radio. He was talking about pigeons, or rather, about a television programme he'd seen on pigeons. "I don't think the programme was directed by a pigeon,' he said. "I don't see pigeons as TV directors. A pigeon is more... a nightwatchman." I won't attempt to paraphrase, but he went into a skit about pigeons-as-nightwatchmen, and it made me laugh, even with Travis Bickle behind me.

The clip was part of a series of tributes to Robinson whose death was announced last weekend. It was from Stop The Week, the early Saturday evening programme he hosted between 1974 and 1992. It was just a talking shop with him and his mates. It was absolutely standard Radio 4 fare, but with this difference: it was funny. And it was funny because of Robinson, who always arranged to have the first word, the last word, and most of the words in the middle.

The joke ran: "Did you know that Magnus Magnusson is Icelandic for Robert Robinson?" But he was like no other broadcaster. You weren't meant to think he was your pal. He was bald with a comb-over. (His barber said: "I have created a monster.") But then again, it was Robinson who broadcast the fact). At the end of the genteel quiz shows he presented, he said: "I bid you goodbye" instead of simply "Goodbye". ("Goodbye is too short," he explained, and so it is). He was too clever by half. But when most people in the media were too stupid by half, this seemed to me a necessary corrective.

For a long time, I used to test new acquaintances by asking: "What do you think of Robert Robinson?", and eyeing them very carefully. If they expressed a negative view, I dismissed them. I remember the exhilaration I felt on learning that Victor Lewis-Smith, whom I considered very nearly Robinson's equal as humorist, not only liked Robinson, but was a friend of his. That proved I was on the right track. I read Robinson's wonderful collections of journalism (and will somebody please reprint The Dog Chairman?), imbibing some of his astringency. I once quoted what he wrote about Volvos to my history teacher, who drove a Volvo: "And, as you know, every Volvo driver takes a great oath, sworn before the notary public, never to turn his sidelights off – they are to be kept meaninglessly, mindlessly on at all times, in order to induce fury in other road-users." He failed to laugh.

When John Lennon died, I tried out Robinson's opinion – that Lennon had pursued world peace "as a sort of hobby" – on some Beatle-loving friends. They didn't take kindly, but then they weren't as clever as Robinson. Very few people were back then, and even fewer are now. Or if they are, you wouldn't know it, because we live in an age when language is used to disguise intelligence rather than the opposite. You mustn't be elitist, so we all play this exhausting game of double bluff.

His natural heir is Martin Amis, another cussed man who (as was said of Robinson) "measures words by the ounce and not the pound". Amis published a collection called The War Against Cliché. It is a war – and Robinson was a hero it.