In 1969 John Gross wrote a justly praised book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. The phrase seemed slightly archaic then, and is more so now. I was going to suggest that Gross is the last Man of Letters, but I find that Stephen Bayley describes me as that in the current issue of GQ magazine — and I’m that bit younger than Gross.
As editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Gross took the brave decision to end back-biting anonymity and give his reviewers by-lines: that was revolutionary, not old-fashioned. If you said he was the best-read man in Britain, I doubt there would be many challengers. Eddie Mirzoeff, who produced the television classic Metro-land with John Betjeman, later made another film with the laureate. The camera whizzed over Britain in a helicopter, and Betjeman approved verse by different poets to accompany each vista. Before the film was screened, Mirzoeff took it along to Gross at the TLS and played it to him. ‘John was able to identify almost all the poets’, he recalls.
I’ve had a similar experience of Gross’s omniscience. For an essay I was writing, I needed examples of the ‘disputed succession’ in literature. I thought of Hamlet and Little Lord Fauntleroy. A learned don, whom I quizzed, could only add King Lear. Then I put Gross to the test. On the telephone, without recourse to any reference book, he came up with Wilkie Collins’s The Dead Secret (1861); Ibsen’s play The Pretenders (1864); and Trollope’s Is He Popenjoy? (1878). Beat that!
So you can be sure that if you ask Gross to marshal an anthology, he will know the field and garner the best. He has already edited several anthologies for the Oxford University Press; and this collection of parodies does not disappoint. I wondered: has he got G. K. Chesterton’s parody of Swinburne? Yes. Swinburne’s parody of himself? Natch. Henry Reed’s T. S. Eliot? You bet. It’s a deliciously funny book.
Just in case you don’t know Swin- burne’s hara-kiri, it is entitled ‘Nephel- idia’ (a Greek or quasi-Greek word meaning ‘mistiness’) and begins:
From the depth of the dreamy decline of the
dawn through a notable nimbus of
Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower
that flickers with fear of the flies as they
float . . .
And Reed’s Eliot (‘Chard Whitlow’) starts:
As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should care (to speak for
To see my time over again — if you can call
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded
Tube . . .
But here I have to do what reviewers of anthologies invariably do — show off that I know examples at least as good as those offered. (‘Parodies Lost’, you might say, in this case.) My all-time favourite take-off of Eliot was written by Miles Burrows in the Oxford University magazine Isis in December 1961, in homage to Max Beerbohm’s marvellous parody-collection of 1912, A Christmas Garland. Burrows became a scholar of Wadham College in 1956, so overlapped with Melvyn Bragg and Alan Coren there. His Eliot — ‘The Christmas Party’, mocking ‘The Cocktail Party’ — begins:
The Christmas dinner is nearly over
The crackers are pulled, the
Answered, as far as we know how to answer.
The presents are opened, the hopeful grand-
Conceal with laughter graceful disappoint-
Politely dissemble their dissatisfactions.
The adults, content, yet discontended,
Fed to satiety, in humorous headgear
Conducive to jollity, drop cigarette ash
Into the bowl of Christmas roses.
Another Christmas, not very different
From last year’s Christmas: and it is likely
That Christmas next year will differ from this
In details so small as to be imperceptible . . .
What mystifies me, when I laugh at Reed’s and Burrows’s send-ups of Eliot — each barely distinguishable from the real thing — is how anyone can continue to take seriously that pretentious, posturing, plagiaristic poetaster. I admit Eliot was a fine critic; he just sadly mistook his vocation when he laid his dead hand on English verse a century ago. Hannah Arendt wrote of ‘the banality of evil’; Eliot is the evil of banality. I know this is heresy now; but I believe that one day Eliot will be consigned to the basement of culture, along with Picasso.
As well as Reed’s Eliot, Gross includes Wendy Cope’s brilliant transmutation of The Waste Land into limericks. It was said of the Millennium Dome that the only time it became interesting was in the failed heist of the De Beers ‘Millennium Diamond’ (‘I’m only here for De Beers’, as an inspired headline put it,) and that John Major only became interesting when his affair with Edwina Currie was exposed. Similarly, Wendy Cope has achieved something I had thought impossible: to make The Waste Land enjoyable. A sample:
In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stone, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me —
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.
In his introduction, Gross rightly points out that parody is a most effective form of criticism. I am glad that he slaps down the idea that a good parodist has to feel affection for his victim. The exploding of that constantly repeated notion struck me with the delighted shock I had when encountering, in a ‘how to write novels’ book by Stephen King, his scorn for the old bromide that prose should be spare and shorn of adjectives. Splash adjectives about as uninhibitedly as you like was King’s advice; vocabulary is there to be used, unrestricted by some monkish vow of abstinence. It is perfectly clear from Beerbohm’s caricatures of Kipling that he loathed him; but that does not sabotage his merciless spoof of him in A Christmas Garland. (It’s included by Gross).
There are a few significant omissions. Gross has parodies by Jane Austen, but none of her. He might have included something from a book of 2003, Arielle Eckstut’s Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen — for example:
‘Miss Bennet.’ It was the voice of Mrs Hurst. ‘You must chuse, whether to forego forever the affections of our brother, or whether to submit, with what degree of pleasure you may perhaps not now be capable of anticipating, to the investigations of Miss Bingley and myself . . .’
At the risk of being compared to the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who on Desert Island Discs chose eight records of herself singing, I would mention a parody of Austen that I contributed to the TES in December 1967. In Comprehense and Comprehensibility, Elizabeth Bennet is sent to an all-in school:
Mrs Phipps, the headmistress . . . asked Elizabeth whether she would care to see the domestic science block.
‘La! madam, I should like that of all things!’, she replied, though privately she was alarmed as to what the projected spectacle might be . . .
In bare culinary laboratories, young ladies of all social degrees were mashing turnips, rolling pastry, crimping pie-crusts and dropping shelled peas into transparent saucepans, which by the laws of nature, Elizabeth thought, must surely break at the first onset of heat from the stove. Under Miss Cosway’s beneficient regimen, some of these young persons would have been practising the steps of a minuet, while others might be performing on the pianoforte . . . Elizabeth was amazed to observe the daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, clothed inelegantly in a capacious apron and inexpertly tossing a pancake in a frying-pan.
There’s a curious dearth of historians in the book. No Macaulay, no Carlyle — both eminently parodiable. Of 20th-century historians, A. J. P. Taylor and A. L. Rowse — also missing — lent themselves to send-ups. In December 1965 The New Statesman — of which Gross was once literary editor — set a competition to write an extract from Taylor’s never written history of the years 1946-1966. It was won by another Oxford don, Henry Pelling, who waspishly told the magazine he had deliberately included a mistake. His entry began:
In January 1965 Sir Winston Churchill died. He was given a state funeral — a distinction reserved for royalty since the Duke of Wellington. He had saved the country twice — once by vigour in 1940; once by sloth, in 1951-4, when England could have joined the Common Market. It was to no avail. With his death, the last vestige of national greatness disappeared. Prime Ministers still flew to Washington; opposition leaders lectured at Harvard. No one in the White House or the Pentagon took any notice . . .
Pelling added a devilish touch: a spoof of one of Taylor’s provocative footnotes. This one was about the Beatles:
Each got the MBE. It caused a row among other recipients, who had deserved it less. Christine Keeler should have got the same honour in 1963, for earning millions of dollars for the London press agencies. But she went unadorned.
Like Swinburne, however, Taylor was the best parodist of himself. I was in a one-on-one tutorial with him when the telephone rang. It was the Observer, complaining that his review of a book on Lord Rosebery was late. Apologising to me, Taylor — with no notes — reeled off his review, beginning with these words:
Lord Rosebery had one great ambition. He wanted to be offered the premiership of Great Britain, and to refuse it. He almost achieved his ambition…
No parody of John Masefield is included. I understand why. In my 1940s childhood, next to Kipling’s ‘If…’, the two poems one had to know were Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’ and ‘Cargoes’. (In a 1980s television encounter, Barry Humphries, in the guise of the Rabelaisian Australian cultural attaché, Sir Les Patterson, told John Betjeman how much he admired some Laureate poems, especially ‘Quinqueremes of Nivea’.) Today Masefield is virtually a dead letter — though Ian Hislop said some nice things about him in his recent television programme on laureates, The Changing of the Bard. (‘Where other laureates had represented the monarch to the people, Masefield had represented the people to the monarch.’) But Masefield has a significant niche in the history of parodies. Siegfried Sassoon took off Masefield’s poem ‘The Everlasting Mercy’ in ‘The Daffodil Murders’; but in his autobiographical work of 1942, The Weald of Youth, Sassoon described a Damascus Road experience:
After the first 50 lines or so, I dropped the pretence that I was improvising an exuberant skit. While continuing to burlesque Masefield for all I was worth, I was really feeling what I wrote — and doing it not only with abundant delight but a sense of descriptive energy quite unlike anything I had experienced before.
Topping Gross’s bill of parodists are Max Beerbohm with eight entries and our own dear Craig Brown, who also has eight. How right Gross is to rank Brown, among contemporary writers, as primus inter par(odi)es. As Philip Hensher acknowledged, it is an accolade to be done over by him. Brown’s version of Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ is a masterpiece. I specially relish his mockery of Sir Nicholas Serota and his Turner Prize cronies, with their everlasting mantra that because people are talking about the rubbish on view, that must be a good thing for art. (If I murdered my granny, it would get people talking, but it would not necessarily be a good thing.) Brown’s puffed-up Anthony Powell is very funny, too; but just for once I’d put somebody ahead of Brown — Geoffrey Minish, who won a New Statesman competition in April 1966 with a chunk of ersatz Powell that included this gem:
A letter from Mark Fingers was awaiting me when I returned home, informing me of his engagement to Jean Crumpet, with whom, I recalled, I had once been in love.
When trying to remember that, before looking it up, I thought it ended ‘to whom, I recalled, I had once been married’. Marginally funnier?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 22, 2010