The column: Sorry state of affairs

Found guilty of wilful ignorance of dogs and the Scots, a contrite offers unreserved apologies to Scruffy (and Billy Connolly); That he hasn't expelled me from any performances only proves how much Connolly is suppressing

Howard Jacobson
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:30

Public Apology No 3.

Sorry, Scruffy. Remember Scruffy? The dog with the melting chocolate eyes who swam with me on Cable Beach in Broome and restored my faith in animal nature? The dog who was an adventurer in his youth, crossing Sydney, from the far northern suburbs to the south, negotiating the Harbour Bridge at rush hour, without a map or compass to guide him? But who is now reduced to gazing at young lovers frolicking in the surf and then pissing on their clothes? Nice old Scruff?

Well, it has been brought to my attention that when I wrote about him months ago I described him as a mongrel, whereas his true status is Australian terrier-cross. I don't know how it feels to a dog who has breeding to be called a mongrel, but I imagine it must be not unlike the way I felt when an English teacher whom I had long sought to impress with my seriousness called me a comedian.

He never said anything the last time I saw him - Scruffy that is, not my English teacher. He never reproached me. I took the sadness in his eyes to be his way of saying goodbye, for he was off to New South Wales and I to Victoria. Now I realise he was depressed, prey to that enfeebling disillusionment which descends on you like a black cloud when you discover that someone you have trusted with your reputation hasn't, after all, ever taken your full measure. Comedian, eh? That was why I had to pull out all the stops to get a place at Cambridge under F R Leavis, to show my English teacher how wrong he was. But it probably only confirmed him in his prejudice. Downing College, Cambridge? Ha! Just where a comedian would go.

No such offence was ever intended by me, Scruffy. I salute your genetic integrity. And sincerely beg your pardon.

Why, though, did it hurt me so much to be called a comedian? In truth, I secretly wanted to be a comedian. Still do. Other than novelists viewed abstractly and, by preference, long-dead, there are no people I esteem more highly than comedians. Like novelists - or at least like the novelists of more robust times - they are the high priests of our lowly selves. They are to humanity what Scruffy is to doghood. They make a virtue out of our compulsion to piss on someone's else clothes. Which brings me to ...

Public Apology No 4.

Sorry, Billy Connolly.

A strange apology, this one, because I haven't, in fact, wronged Billy Connolly. Nor has he ever publicly challenged me with wronging him or in any other way shown the slightest consciousness of grievance. But I have an intuition for these things and I know he is angry with me on account of a comment I never in truth made. That he hasn't so far expelled me from any of his performances - "You! Jacobson! Out!" - only proves how much he is suppressing.

The person who should actually be doing the apologising is Ian Jack, a senior writer for this very newspaper and editor of Granta. But people who edit Granta don't apologise. It was Jack, anyway, who misreported something I had said - misunderstood something I had said, is a better way of putting it - and, in the process, exposed me to a general misapprehension. The subject, of which I knew next to nothing, was contemporary Scottish fiction, with special reference to James Kelman, of whom I knew a wee bit more, having read a novel he had written. The place was television. Booker time, a decade or so ago. I believe I was chairing the discussion. And, rightly or wrongly, I did not consider it "a good year", as the saying goes, for novels. My prerogative. One of the novels I particularly didn't think it was a good year for was James Kelman's. I was wearied by his swearing, which struck me as mirthless, and unmoved by his deployment of vernacular, which struck me as exhausted. In relation to both of those I was inversely reminded of Billy Connolly, whose deployment of vernacular has always seemed to me immeasurably rich and whose swearing I consider to be sublime. If God swore He would swear like Billy Connolly. I didn't say that on television. What I said instead, though I meant it to amount to the same thing, was that Kelman was like Connolly without the philosophy.


Some time later this made it into an article by Ian Jack as "with". With. You see the difference. According to Ian Jack I had accused Kelman of being a sort of Connolly with seriousness thrown in. Why this misreading, which gives to Kelman and takes from Connolly, should have seemed to Ian Jack such an insult to the former, I don't know. Unless he holds it as a matter of principle that a novelist should never be mentioned in the same breath as a comedian.

Depends on the novelist, Ian. Depends on the comedian.

That Ian Jack missed my joke upset me on my joke's behalf, of course. But it concerned me more that I was left appearing to have made an inane judgement which inter alia demeaned Billy Connolly. For in Jack's version I had implied that Connolly was in want of a seriousness which a novelist might supply, whereas my meaning was precisely the opposite.

My own fault. I shouldn't have allowed one Scotsman automatically to remind me of another. Ethnically insensitive of me. God knows I hate it when people feel they must mention Woody Allen when talking about my work. So "Sorry, Scotland", too. I'm even prepared to say "Sorry, Mr Kelman" on the grounds that I may have been ruder to him than the occasion required.

Which clears the way for an apology from Ian Jack. Not to me. In this, as in everything else, I look for nothing for myself. But "Sorry, Billy" would be a nice gesture

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