DJ Taylor: In so many words

Reviewers call on fictional characters for inspiration while some variety acts go on for ever – and just about anything makes an American audience laugh

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Connoisseurs of the political diary will have had a field day monitoring the reception of Chris Mullin's A View from the Foothills. By and large the Sunderland South MP's chronicle of his time as a junior minister in the Blair government has been respectfully received, and the lightness of authorial touch thought to compensate for some decidedly glamour-free material. Instead of dramatic revelations from the cabinet table we get John Prescott's quest for a pair of matching shoes, and the comment from one of The Daily Telegraph bloggers – "an amusing portrait of tedium and widespread ineptitude" seemed just about right. As a keen student of the way in which words change their meanings over time, I was yet more interested to find that one of the adjectives applied to these jottings from the ministerial blotter was "Pooterish".

A century and a bit on from the debut of Charles Pooter, put-upon hero of the Grossmith brothers' comic novel The Diary of a Nobody (1892), The modern definition of "Pooterish" lies somewhere in the region of "detached self-importance". The original Mr Pooter was certainly self-important, but what really distinguishes him is his sense of dignity and the consciousness of his social position – this in an age when to count as middle class really meant something, and to be a senior clerk with a silk hat and £200 a year was to have arrived. Somehow this seems a long way from Mr Mullin's discreet surveillance of the Prescott shoe trauma.

Curiously, many of the other words brought to the language by characters in late-Victorian or early 20th-century fiction turn out to have gone the same way. "Svengali", the immensely sinister hypnotic manipulator of George du Maurier's Trilby (1894) now means nothing more than "impresario" (as in "pop Svengali Simon Cowell"). At Oxford, a quarter of a century back, I used to get tired of seeing reasonably attractive girls described as "the Zuleika Dobsons of their year". The original Zuleika, heroine of Max Beerbohm's 1911 novel, is a woman of such paralysing beauty that all but one of her admirers commit suicide for love of her.

Given the way in which fiction itself is subject to 180-degree reinterpretative turns, this kind of repositioning shouldn't, perhaps, surprise us. When The Diary of a Nobody was first translated into Russian, Mr Pooter, with his bright idea of painting the bath scarlet and his anguish over his son Lupin's unsuitable fiancée, was widely supposed to be a tragic figure, and the book itself thought to derive from Chekhov. Perhaps the reviewers are wrong about Mr Mullin, and he is really Raskolnikov in disguise.



***



To read the obituaries of Ali Bongo, the celebrated magician who died this week at the age of 79, was to be instantly transported back to the world of 1960s and 1970s televised light entertainment in which he made his mark – that sprawling and somewhat parched landscape populated by The Good Old Days, and down at bedrock level, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. Two points seemed to stand out from the rapt accounts of Bongo's career. The first is that popular entertainers never really disappear, once the summit of their achievement has been reached – they just come to rest on a subsidiary crag. And so Bongo (real name, inevitably, William Oliver Wallace), not seen on television for two decades and more, turned out to have enjoyed a prolonged Indian summer as president of the Magic Circle and adviser to Jonathan Creek.

Further evidence of the showbiz survival was provided by an ad in last weekend's papers for this summer's Best of British Variety Tour, end-of-pier entertainment at Great Yarmouth and other seaside resorts where such luminaries of the form as Cannon and Ball, Tom O'Connor and Roger de Courcey and his innuendo-peddling sidekick Nookie Bear are all going strong. The second is the continuing influence of the old-style variety-hall tradition on popular culture. Even now, 50 years after the last hall closed its doors, one can think of dozens of entertainers who would fit happily on to a Hackney Empire bill from 1940 alongside, say, Max Miller and Flanagan and Allen.

Egghead ex-undergrads they may have been, but Monty Python owed a fair amount to the Crazy Gang. Madness always proclaimed that they took their dance routines from Tommy Trinder. Meanwhile, the ancient denizens of the 1970s talent shows continue to prowl the forest floor. In the light of Ali Bongo's CV, it wouldn't in the least surprise me to find the Dooleys limbering up for a summer season in Blackpool, the Barron Knights poised to reform and the Nolan Sisters synchro-dancing into the studio to record a new album.



***



No news bulletin these days seems complete without its recession survey. Last week's highlights included the revelation that donations to charity by direct debit have begun to fall, and an inquiry by Which? magazine into the nation's dietary habits. The Which? investigation insisted that 24 per cent of us now believe that healthier eating is less important, while 56 per cent of think that price takes precedence in food selection. Obscurely, a further 76 per cent of respondents thought that the Government should be making it easier for us to choose healthier options. (By doing what? Stamping fresh vegetables with the words, "Eat this – it's good for you"?)

One of the first explorations of what might be called the psychology of consumption turns up in George Orwell's inquiry into social conditions in the Depression-hit industrial north, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). At the time, one or two newspapers were conducting a rather ghoulish survey of the absolute minimum sum required to live on, at one point put at three shillings elevenpence halfpennny (20p). The problem about the highly nutritious and largely fat-free diet that this realised, Orwell noted, was the difficulty of getting anyone to eat it. "The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and carrots," he suggested. "And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food." All of which seems to apply just as much to the age of Gordon Brown as that of Stanley Baldwin.



***



Another victim of the economic downturn, alas, is Eddie Doyle, the Boston barman known to be the inspiration for the US television sitcom Cheers. Mr Doyle, a fixture behind the counter of the Bull & Finch since 1974, was estimated to have served as many as 5,000 customers a day at the height of the show's mid-Eighties popularity.

The curious thing about Cheers, like Friends after it, was not so much its success as its stark encapsulation of the difference between American and British – I was going to say TV humour, but in fact the principle extends to books as well. Whereas British sitcoms traditionally rely on the development of character, their US equivalents get by on the wisecrack – a kind of endless check and counter-check, like mastodons (to borrow P G Wodehouse's description of Bertie Wooster's aunts) calling to each other across a primeval swamp. I once watched an opening scene from Cheers in which the fat man walked into a bar, quaffed the foaming tankard that lay before him, and remarked "Boy meets beer. Boy drinks beer. Boy has another beer", amid gales of sycophantic laughter.

All this stirred a suspicion that American TV audiences are a bit too easily amused. Or maybe some other emotion had been kicked into existence. Back in the 1960s, Lenny Bruce once began a high-octane harangue in which as many as six individual jokes were twisted into a single remorseless punchline. When the audience finally laughed, it was plausibly suggested that they did so out of simple relief.



***



The most amusing aspect of l'affaire Julie Myerson was the sheer inaccuracy of much of the reporting. Minette Marrin, for example, spent the whole of her Sunday Times column labouring under the misapprehension that Myerson had written a novel about her son's drug use, whereas The Lost Child is in fact a work of non-fiction. The online Guardian peddled the same line while noting that the sub-title is "A true story".

At least those involved had the excuse that they hadn't yet read the book. I was even more startled once, to discover an Amazon review of Amanda Foreman's study of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which seemed not to have noticed that the item under discussion was a biography.

No doubt this inability to separate out the contending forms which literature takes has a whole lot further to go, but I was irresistibly reminded of the old New Statesman competition for clueless critiques of great works of literature, in which Finnegans Wake was marked down as an exceptionally badly plotted detective novel and The Waste Land treated as a below-par gardening manual.

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