the guardian Fri 22 May 2009
When I was really quite young, my parents thought it would be a good idea, for some reason, to pop a paperback of Alan Coren's The Sanity Inspector in my Christmas stocking. Not the first thing you'd think of giving a 13-year-old, perhaps; but it turned out to be an inspired choice, and by New Year's day I thought that Coren was the funniest writer on earth. This was before I read Thurber or Wodehouse or any of the other stylists from whom Coren had obviously learned a thing or two. So I was a little wary when this book turned up; would he still be as funny as I found him all those years ago?
I am pleased to report that, despite an introduction by the Coren children so toe-curling that you will have to see a chiropodist after reading it (Victoria's contributions are OK, but Giles's ...), his writing holds up very well.
On the whole. It's interesting to chart his development: the Corenesque note is present early, but only makes fitful appearances; it was in the 1970s that he settled into the mode which made his name. (Although, strictly speaking, it was his bestselling spoof diaries of Idi Amin that made his name; a few of those entries are reprinted here, for the historical record. They are unreadable now. Pass them by.) The early pieces here, perhaps over-represented when you consider how he developed, can look like throat-clearing before the main act; and there was something about the 70s that really suited Coren. He was a connoisseur of naffness, and its various manifestations gave his imagination wings. In a letter from a paying guest at a hotel for phobics (apparently there really was one; in, unimprovably, Skegness) his correspondent mentions, in passing, "a former postmaster who sings 'Nola' whenever there's oxtail soup". It would take a long time, and more space than I have at my disposal, to say why that is quite so funny, but you have to salute the man who thought it up.
If there are those who believe that Punch, where most of his stuff appeared, and for which he worked and edited for decades, was itself somewhat suburban in its outlook, they might be right; but what's so bad about that? Middle England needs someone to speak for it, too, and Coren was your man. I will probably never have a lawn, but I can still relish his observation that there are two varieties of lawn sprinkler: "The one that fails to spin round, and the one that fails to sweep from left to right and back again."
Not that he couldn't poke fun at the magazine himself. Asked if the Milne household was not one of laughter and gaiety, an ageing, decrepit Winne-the-Pooh says that AA Milne "was an assistant editor of Punch. He used to come home like Bela Lugosi. I tell you, if we wanted a laugh, we used to take a stroll round Hampstead cemetery".
It was interesting to learn that Coren was actually on the brink of an academic career before he decided to become (his term) a hack. There is a comically strained relation to literature in some of his pieces; as in his various Hemingway parodies ("Pooh did not go up to the Front that winter"; put me off Hemingway for years), his impressive reworking of "The Ancient Mariner", or in his vision of Milton and Pope bickering during a meeting of the Poetry Society ("Mr Pope said my God was he really going to go on like that for twelve bleeding books at public expense?"). Learning lightly worn, then tossed aside.
Not all of the pieces work, but as there are 85 of them this doesn't really matter. It is sad to think that, out of nearly half a century of output, this is all posterity will have of him. But should you need some cheering up, or wish to remind yourself that there was a time when you could make jokes about Wincarnis, that Cricklewood inspired TS Eliot to write "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock", or that Britons have been trying to fiddle their taxes since Roman times, then you could do worse than pick this up.