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27 July 2022

Ian Hislop’s Diary: The talented Mr Pooter, Spike Milligan’s chaos, and heaven vs Lewisham

I considered starting this diary: “Very hot. Today was a day of annoyance. Boris Johnson has not left No 10 yet.” But I thought better of it.

By Ian Hislop

I have spent the week rereading The Diary of a Nobody, which is probably not a very good idea when writing a diary for the New Statesman. The fictional diary of Charles Pooter is a masterpiece of boring, pompous and mundane entries. It is very difficult not to feel a bit Pooterish when contemplating one’s own week. Pooter writes: “Mustard and cress not come up yet. Today was a day of annoyance. I missed the quarter to nine bus into the city.”

I was thinking of writing: “Very hot. Today was a day of annoyance. Boris Johnson has not left No 10 yet.” But I thought better of it.

An author’s self-own

Pooter, however, has no self-awareness at all, and says: “Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of – and I fail to see because I do not happen to be a Somebody why my diary should not be interesting.” Pooter does have a point and the writer, George Grossmith, is actually making a joke at his own expense.

George (and his illustrator brother Weedon) created The Diary of a Nobody as a column in Punch magazine. George was not only a comic writer but a very famous actor and singer who was the star of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operettas. He was very much a Somebody and he wrote a book about his life called A Society Clown: Reminiscences in 1888, the year he started writing Pooter. These reminiscences were not very successful. This was a good joke, but then of course the joke got much better as the years passed and the life of his deliberately dull comic creation proved much more interesting than his own glamorous theatrical career. Posterity now remembers Grossmith almost entirely because of The Diary of a Nobody.

The comedy of the suburbs

Grossmith’s novel features heavily in a series I have been making about art made in the suburbs for BBC Radio 4 to be broadcast in August. From Charles Pooter’s home at The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, to Harry Potter’s home at 4 Privet Drive there is a wealth of suburban literature, much of it comic, that emerges from these archetypal suburban homes. And you can trace the influence of Charles Pooter’s diary right through the next century to Adrian Mole’s Secret Diary and, of course, to the knock-off parody diaries that appear in Private Eye, such as that of John Major. The idea of that diary was that Major was dull and Pooterish – which in retrospect seem very attractive traits for a Conservative leader.

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[See also: Thatchermania won’t save the Conservative Party]

Spiked champagne

On the hottest day of the year I was busy doing media interviews trying to persuade people to go inside to go to the theatre. The play I am trumpeting is about another great comic writer and performer, Spike Milligan, and I co-wrote it with Private Eye cartoonist Nick Newman. It is called, with great originality, Spike, and starts a nationwide tour in September.

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The great thing about doing interviews on Milligan is that they can’t go worse than the interview I once did with him on the Radio 4 programme Midweek. I was in my twenties and was allowed to do the odd birthday interview, which meant that I interviewed the guests live. In those olden days the BBC offered a bottle of champagne to the birthday guest. So there I was, interviewing one of my heroes, and I was so nervous I opened the champagne and it went all over my notes. These were in green felt pen and they dissolved so that there was only a green soup floating on my notebook and I was lost for words. Spike, who had seemed quite grumpy up to this point, was absolutely delighted and thought that this was hugely funny. He then started interviewing himself, which was much better than me doing it. I realise now that what he loved was the chaos, the chance to improvise and be spontaneous. At the time I was just incredibly grateful that he had rescued me.

[See also: Latin and Greek are not just for the elite]

A run-in with Archer

I also interviewed Jeffrey Archer for Midweek and had a furious row with him when I questioned his commitment to public service and suggested he was motivated by a desire to be centre-stage. This caused a lot of trouble at the time, and Archer was outraged by my perceived insolence. I was delighted then to discover this week a new Spike joke that I had not heard before. Everyone knows that Milligan’s tombstone reads: “I told you I was ill” – though it is written in Gaelic as the church did not think it was appropriate. But he had another joke about death, recorded by a resident in a local paper. It goes as follows: “I would like to go to heaven, but if Jeffrey Archer is there, I want to go to Lewisham.”

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special