Howard Jacobson: Thank you, Alan Coren, for making us believe that the world can be a funny place

He escaped the cosy categories. He wasn't camp, he wasn't satirical, he wasn't an old fogey
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The Independent Online

A deeply depressing week for many reasons, most of them too private to be discussed here. But the death of Alan Coren in the prime of his intelligence is a loss we share. I think of Dr Johnson's poem "On the Death of Dr Robert Levet":

"Condemned to hope's delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away."

Alan Coren's death was just such a sudden blast. Not only in the sense that it was unexpected, that he was a young man still as we measure age today, and youthful in his intellectual zest, but one of those abrupt interruptions to our naive hopefulness – the great delusion – after which we step more gingerly. The world is not, after all, a funny place. The greater our debt, then, to someone who seduced us briefly into believing it was.

And so another of our "comforts" drops away. It might seem strange to think of someone who made us laugh as providing comfort. The prevailing wisdom has it that funny men are dangerous. Comedians are meant to make the powerful quake, until, that is, they're invited to take tea at 10 Downing Street. But then Alan Coren wasn't a comedian. He was more of a novelist in the oral tradition – everything he wrote and spoke another chapter in the narrative he'd been spinning for decades.

He risked being called a humourist by virtue of being so well known to us on Radio 4. The success of Radio 4 is also its undoing: it intimises everything (whether there's such a word or not), making drama domestic and comedy cosy. Find yourself in a Radio 4 audience and you think you're on another planet – everybody with soft round autograph-hunters' faces and big radio listeners' ears, laughing incestuously before anything even remotely funny has been said. Alan Coren was perfectly adept at milking this clannishness, but he escaped the cosy categories. He wasn't camp, he wasn't satirical, he wasn't an old fogey, he wasn't a festival-fringe surrealist. The voice was unmistakable – smoky and avuncular – but you never knew what he was going to say. You fell quiet listening to him think.

So not a "comfort" in the Radio 4 easy-listening comic personage sense, but the very opposite – a comfort because he showed us that comedy was continuous with thought: he let us in, on air, to the processes of brainwork, he revealed to us the pleasures of the intellect without ever impolitely burdening us with intellection.

I have no right to claim to feel his death personally because I hardly knew him. I doubt I met him more than half a dozen times. But I always hoped I would get to know him. That was what we talked about when we met – how odd it was that we never met. Once I ran into him in the street and noted how formally he was dressed. He told me had just been to John Diamond's funeral and wondered why I hadn't. I barely knew John Diamond, I told him. (He was another person I'd hoped to make a friend of. Don't leave it – that's the lesson. Gather them up in your arms when the opportunity's there, because you never know which opportunity is your last.)

He was surprised, Alan Coren, when I told him this. He thought I knew everybody. Wasn't I a wildly social animal? No, I said. That was him. He knew everybody. Not me, he said. He never left the house. No, I said, that was me. I never left the house.

We fought over it for a while – there and then, in the street – which of us was more unsociable than the other, who never left the house more often. Anyone passing, observing the arm movements and listening to the laughter would have thought we were exchanging the raciest reminiscences – wine, women and worse. In fact we were competing to see who was the more home-loving and uxorious.

We settled for a draw, but then agreed that if we never left the house to an equal degree, maybe we should, to an equal degree, leave the house to see each other. We didn't exchange addresses or numbers. That would have been a bit too social. We said we'd make contact through each other's agents, publishers, producers, etc.

And that, just the once, was what I did. I got his telephone number and invited him to a party. A launch party for one of my novels, I can't now remember which. I like throwing launch parties. It's my one way of being social.

He said he'd come but didn't make it. I was disappointed. I'd been looking forward to seeing him in my house. Some people like inviting holy men to their homes in the hope the beneficence will rub off. I like inviting intelligently funny men, hoping for something similar.

In the morning I found a message from him on my answer phone. It could have been one of his columns from Cricklewood. He'd actually got dressed to come out but then sprang a leak. He personally hadn't sprung a leak, his house had. And given the time of the evening, he didn't need me to tell him how hard it was to get a plumber. As I recall, there was a stop-cock problem. Either he couldn't find it or he couldn't turn it off when he did find it. Whatever the reasons, he wanted me to know that he'd spent the evening of my party in his attic with his finger in a pipe. He hoped I'd had a better time.

Now, whenever I try to remember that party, the only guest I see is Alan Coren, squeezed into my attic, still wearing his hat, holding back the deluge so that the rest of us could go on enjoying ourselves.

Comedy wasn't optional to him. Of his personal life I'm unable to speak, but professionally he didn't appear to think it was getting time to turn off the stop-cock. Woody Allen doesn't find life funny any more so he no longer chooses to be amusing. Philip Roth ditto. The joke's worn thin, so they make a different sort of art. Their business. But I can't help thinking that it's precisely when life isn't funny any more that we need comedy most.

There's the real challenge to the jester – find the mirth in mortality for us. Hamlet to poor Yorick – "Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come." Go on, Alan, we know you can do it, make us laugh at loss.

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