Mocking Kiwis with a mix of love and loathing
Where public acts of foolishness go, the satirist follows. My "secret diary" series resumes next Saturday, and I'll once again be on the lookout for whoever is pretty much asking to be lampooned and mocked without pity or reservation.
It's nothing personal. I'm just following tradition. As a piece of topical writing, a satirical diary is the sum of its literary influences; I draw on great models from the past, and one from the present, whenever I approach some poor wretch with parody's tray of scalpels.
The master of the contemporary satirical diary is Craig Brown. He writes a fortnightly diary in Private Eye. Funny, pitiless and inventive, it's a work of something close to genius.
In the introduction to the best anthology of his humorous writing, This is Craig Brown, he writes: "I used to be keen on conjuring." He pulls the same magic trick over and over with his diaries - he really does make you believe that they might have been written by his victims. You know the whole time that it's a send-up, a wheeze, a divine comedy. And yet the diaries are fantastically lifelike, and forever teeter on the edge of reality.
From his diary of the Queen: "At lunchtime, I open a new daycare centre. They kindly present me with a 'pizza'. I thank them, and assure them that I will wear it when I get home."
From his diary of novelist Martin Amis: "As the most celebrated writer in Britain, I cannot walk through my own home without someone recognising me."
Brown's most obvious talent is his mimicry. His diaries are a kind of ventriloquism. The technique is dazzling, but I'm wary of some of his attitudes. He can be merely cynical - or, worse, conservative.
The paradox of satire is that it is narrow-minded. It assumes that it represents common sense. It scoffs at modern art, rolls its eyes at green politics - it's intolerant of anything radical or challenging. It plays to the crowd.
I hate that sort of thing, but it can be difficult to avoid. I sincerely and almost unreservedly admire Julian Assange; when I wrote his diary, though, I cast him as a mad rooter and a public nuisance.
Poor show. Such are the pitfalls of topical satire - you can betray your values in search of a cheap laugh.
Neither of the two greatest satirical diaries ever published were handicapped by topicality. Neither were concerned with public figures. Instead, both satirised ordinary people going about their humdrum and sometimes hopeless business - and both were 19th-century masterpieces.
Diary of a Madman, a short story written by Nikolai Gogol in 1835, remains a wild and spectacular work of complete genius.
His subject is a lowly clerk who loses his mind. He's convinced he's the true heir to the Spanish throne. He hears dogs talking to each other, and stumbles across their correspondence. He has sudden revelations: "China is Spain!" Two of his entries are dated April 43rd, 2000, and the 86th of Martober.
It's - you don't say - a black comedy. It's also tragic and sad, as Gogol propels the clerk further and further into lunacy. The story is the model I use most of the time I write a diary about John Key.
A lowly clerk is also the hero of that timeless classic, The Diary of a Nobody, published in 1892. It was written with great sympathy and gentle humour by George Grossmith, and beautifully illustrated by his brother, Weedon Grossmith, and has never gone out of print. Together, they created one of the great characters of any age - Charles Pooter.
Pompous, dreary Pooter, uptight and suburban, blundering here and there, fond of puns, class- conscious, churchgoing, a dithering ninny and a hapless jackass - but you're on his side even as you're laughing at him. It's such an unusual and fetching book. It's satire as a form of affection.
How can affection possibly play any part in writing about the parade of Kiwi grotesques who pass through the "secret diary"? Sometimes it's just not possible. Mark Hotchin, Hekia Parata, golf caddy Steve Williams, moony cad Ken Ring - I was only able to write about them with loathing.
The lesson from the Grossmiths' charming book is its attention to the stuff of daily life. The diary of Pooter is all about furnishings, meals, shopkeepers, gossip, misunderstandings, prices, the office. As I await the victims of 2013, I'm keeping in mind the importance of being earnest about their domestic situation. I might write about them at home a lot more. I'll set a table to set a scene. Have them drop plates, burn the toast, lose the remote. Mockery, as everyone knows, begins at home.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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