Lloyd Evans

Innocent mischief

He’s been taking aim for two decades. Now Craig Brown presents his greatest hits.

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The Lost Diaries

edited by Craig Brown

Fourth Estate, pp. 404, £

He’s been taking aim for two decades. Now Craig Brown presents his greatest hits.

He’s been taking aim for two decades. Now Craig Brown presents his greatest hits. The best of his fortnightly spoofs in Private Eye, supplemented by new entries from historical characters, have been loosely sorted into an imaginary calendar.

Everyone has their favourite Brown character. Mine is Heather Mills McCartney, whose self-righteous truculence he captures perfectly, while encouraging her to indulge her gift for fantasy. She reacts to a documentary about Florence Nightingale and blames the press for peddling lies:

They try and make out she’s only in it for the publicity. I was a nurse in the Crimea and believe me it’s no easy job walking around with your lamp, tending to all those brave soldiers with blood spurting out of them, hearing their last words, wrapping them up in bandages and that.

Softer targets like Katie Price and Madonna are attacked sparingly. Brown seems to prefer his own caste — literary types, royal courtiers and over-educated toffs. Gyles Brandreth ticks all three boxes. He conducts the Queen on a tour of the Obesity Unit at a local hospital. ‘Good morning Ma’am,’ he says, pronouncing Ma’am to rhyme with Clapham, ‘as is correct.’

‘It’s nice and warm in here,’ she observes. I lead the laughter. ‘Boom, boom!’ I say. Within minutes, there are tears literally rolling down my cheeks.

Beneath the comedy lies a gruesome reality. Senior royals exist in a bubble of nervous embarrassment and misplaced awe, and wherever they go they trigger ecstasies of competitive grovelling. Brown is less successful at capturing the Queen’s private diaries. The joke is that she’s a passionless robot, bereft of original thought, trapped by etiquette and unable to recognise even her own children. She takes Prince Edward for a local councillor at a garden party. ‘Have you come far?’ It’s interesting that this rings false. Too little is known about the Queen’s inner life for satirists to ‘get’ her accurately and Brown’s inability to reproduce her voice vindicates her refusal to open herself up to the press.

Deadlier by far are the mock journals of George V in which he discusses food, foreign affairs and postage stamps interchangeably. On 28 June 1914 he’s summoned from his collection by developments overseas:

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife have been assassinated. No further interruptions till tea time. My new stamps from our dominion in New Zealand look splendid on the page. Bed at 10.45.

Left-wing royalty elicits Brown’s most spirited attacks. Lady Antonia Fraser can barely contain her delight when Harold treats Lord and Lady Longford to ‘a truly splendid reading’ of his anti-Bush poem, ‘Up Your Fucking Arse’. ‘Mummy and Daddy both have their eyes closed in immense concentration. Awfully touching.’ Alone with Harold in a swanky restaurant her ladyship orders a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem, ‘on behalf of the sugar plantation workers of East Timor’. Back at Campden Hill Square, with the Kinnocks expected for dinner, Lady Antonia swaps her normal silks for a pair of overalls ‘to set them at their ease’. As the Kinnocks finish the washing-up she wonders how much to tip them. ‘What a sweet team they are. Harold and I simply can’t wait for them to be the next little couple in Number Ten.’

It’s the ‘little’ that does it. The great and good regard themselves as the moral stewards of civilisation, and this immense responsibility raises them above such administrative fripperies as leading the executive. Even prime ministers are ‘little’.

Despite his lethal aim, Brown has no real malice. Sir Roy Strong would have to be immensely thin-skinned to take exception to a spoof diary where he records his attendance at a dinner for film stars and politicians hosted by the Queen Mother. He held them all, he says, ‘utterly spellbound’ with news from the V&A, where the Keeper of Ceramics had fallen out with the Under-Keeper of Miniatures after overhearing the Director of Engravings gossiping with one of the Secretaries of Stuffed Animals. The Queen Mother chips in. ‘Apparently they all absolutely loathe the new Director. They say he’s a self-serving, publicity-mad, social-climbing ponce.’ Sir Roy corrects her serenely: ‘You must be thinking of someone else. You see, I am the new Director.’

Brown is a cordial enemy of academia and understands the petty and obsessive machinations of dons at war. Isaiah Berlin writes to A. L. Rowse lobbying for a place beside Princess Margaret at a college dinner while hinting that his enemy John Sparrow, whose gastric trouble he slyly alludes to, should be shoved down the far end near the kitchens. After the dinner he writes to Sparrow lamenting the wretchedness of his position, ‘next to that draughty doorway’. Then he twists the knife: ‘Sybil Colefax had no hesitation in expressing her horror when I told her…’, which casually informs Sparrow that his humiliation is being broadcast to those whose esteem he craves. That these devious manoeuvrings are expressed in elegant language and presented as gentlemanly courtesies add enormously to their bite. Brown in a gown would have been a formidable opponent at high table.

The greater the subject’s self-regard the deadlier the Brown effect. He works like a demolition expert, using the structure’s mass to bring it crashing down. Terence Conran admires simplicity in the kitchen: ‘Ever since as a young man I became the first Englishman to visit Europe, I have pursued a love affair with the boiled egg.’

The historic material is equally acute. D. H. Lawrence urges Lady Ottoline Morrell to enliven country picnics with orgiastic love-making. Virginia Woolf challenges Hemingway to a wrestling match after they fall out over the relative eminence of the colon and the semi-colon. And Brown’s personal favourites are as dependable as ever. No satirist has captured Mohammad Al-Fayed’s mangled lexical splendour as perfectly as this. The retired shopkeeper explains the origins of the Henley Regatta:

Name after multi-murdering English King Henley VIII. That no way to treat wives, rest your head here my dear, whoops my axe it slip, what shame, you lost your head in bucket, weep weep, now I marry my girlfriend, OK?