Terence Blacker: Whose idea of a joke involves sneering at dead people?

Once those in a position to reveal the flaws of those in power become establishment insiders, the world is much less problematical for politicians

Related Topics

How strange it is that the years when, allegedly, the British people discovered their caring side have been followed so quickly by a golden age of bullying. At a time when the power divide is at its widest, it is those at the top who are cheerfully taking advantage of their position. What Evelyn Waugh's Gilbert Pinfold described as "the underdog's snarl" is now rarely to be heard. It has been replaced by something altogether nastier: the sneer of the privileged insider.

It is always done, of course, in the name of humour. When a rich and influential presenter of Top Gear mocks impoverished Mexicans, or MPs imitate someone with cerebral palsy, or a stand-up comic extemporises zanily about a Down's syndrome child, the excuse is always the same. It was a joke, for heaven's sake.

Last weekend it occurred to me that the new nastiness has become almost obligatory. To be unkind, preferably towards someone who has no opportunity to answer back, has become a sound career move. A bit of muscle-flexing from a bully in the public eye reminds his audience (this is something of a male thing) that it is getting value for money.

I was reading a restaurant column. It is not something I normally do but the establishment under review had been inspired by (or at least named after) Henry Root, a fictional character created by a late friend of mine of whom I wrote a biography, Willie Donaldson.

The idea of his being associated with a restaurant would have made him shout with laughter: no man has ever been less interested by food. When Tina Brown, then editor of Tatler, took him out to lunch with a view to convincing him that he should become the magazine's restaurant critic, he ordered fish cakes. When the wine waiter appeared, he asked for a glass of milk.

Willie took the job, and hated it, but, by the time he resigned, he had pioneered a style of restaurant reviewing which lives on today. The trick is to write about everything except the food. Following that convention, The Times's Giles Coren must have thought he could pad out his review of the new Henry Root restaurant with some off-the-top-of-his-head guff about Willie.

"Donaldson himself I know little about," he wrote, before expending several eye-wateringly inaccurate paragraphs on that very subject. Donaldson, Coren pronounced confidently, "was not really a writer at all"; his work had failed to outlive his death. In the end he had just been "an independently wealthy whoremonger, alcoholic and crackhead who cobbled together a successful bog book in the late Seventies". His aim had been to buy off creditors, "his life in letters thus coming about every bit as gloriously as Jeffrey Archer's", as Coren put it with customary elegance.

There follows a desperate filler-paragraph about "the sort of man" Donaldson was – "rich, posh, sallow, aloof, hard-living, hard-shagging" – followed by the witty conclusion, "But he is dead. So thank heaven for small mercies."

Too lazy to Google an obituary, Coren has, as it happens, managed to get virtually everything wrong. Willie wrote if anything too much, not too little. His work has survived pretty well: in addition to one of his characters being commemorated by a restaurant three decades on, his novel Is This Allowed? was compared to the work of Nabokov, and his Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics, praised to the skies when it was published, has never been out of print. Far from being a boozer, he was excessively prim about alcohol. He was neither hard-living, nor hard-shagging. Hanging out with the famous would have been his idea of hell. He spent most of his life laughing about them in his writing.

He was admittedly born into wealth but that, as Giles Coren will know better than most, is considerably less of a professional advantage than, say, being the son of a famous writer whose reputation helps jump-start his son's media career.

The sneer of the moment, though, is nothing if not predictable. The tone will be one of utter self-satisfaction. Establishment bovver-boys like Coren or Jeremy Clarkson see it as part of their job to kick sand in the face of those less plumply in the centre of things than they are. Their targets tend to be those without a voice in the media: the powerless, foreigners, the dead. While boasting of their political incorrectness, they are enforcers of the status quo.

Their view of the world is inevitably more circumspect, less interesting, than that of a rackety, dissatisfied outsider like Willie Donaldson. Those who are pleased with who they are, what they have done, where they fit in the world, are never ever funny. They are public versions of the saloon-bar bore, sounding off.

Because they appear on TV themselves, they see nothing odd about fame, and go easy on the well-known – unless, as in the case of Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and Andrew Sachs, the celebrity under attack is too old to matter. It was Willie Donaldson who was first to recognise the peculiarity of 20th-century celebrity, in which ministers, senior policemen, models and newscasters all belonged to the same club and often behaved in similar ways.

Once those in a position to reveal the flaws of those in power become establishment insiders, the world is considerably less problematical for politicians. Rather than hold the influential to account, they prefer to concentrate on the easily bullied.

The reason why the life and writings of someone like Willie Donaldson continue to alarm those like Giles Coren who are doing comparable jobs today – gingering things up with their pen – is that, for all his weaknesses, there was an integrity to him. He was a genuine enragé, not a fake careerist.

It was a strange life that the Henry Root restaurant is unwittingly celebrating, one full of moral confusion, emotional dysfunction, hurt and rage, peculiarities of every imaginable sort. It also produced work which helped to change the way we look at the famous, which is remembered years on, and which has given hundreds of thousands of readers the pleasure of laughter.

In 30 years' time, will there be many sneering media commentators of the early 21st century whose legacy will compete with that?



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas