I’m re-reading George Grossmith’s The Diary Of A Nobody: it’s one of those books that you keep on the bookshelf in the bedroom, because you know it won’t be long before you take it down again.
I first came across the Diary when I decided to read the Observer’s 100 Greatest Novels list. This was before I had a baby, so that project’s on hold at the moment, but it introduced me to some of the writers I now most admire (and a few I now know are Not For Me, but let’s be positive here).
The comic diary of Mr Pooter, City clerk and suburban everyman, was serialised in Punch magazine, 1888-89. The book version, re-ordered and supplemented with new material, was published in 1892. Nothing very much happens: some egg and cress is sown, dominoes played, and items are painted with enamel paint. It’s this that makes it so wonderful. The Diary is a little snapshot of ordinary middle-class Victorian life, and it is startlingly familiar. Take, for example, the pony-trap which the Pooter’s son Lupin acquires when he gets a job as a stockbroker. Lupin, in his flashy new ‘box-coat’, takes his parents for a drive:
‘His conduct was shocking. When we passed Highgate Archway, he tried to pass everything and everybody. He shouted to respectable people who were walking in the road to get out of the way; he flicked at the horse of an old man who was riding, causing it to rear, and, as I had to ride backwards, I was compelled to face a gang of roughs in a donkey-cart, whom Lupin had chaffed, and who turned and followed us for nearly a mile, bellowing, indulging in coarse jokes and laughter, to say nothing of occasionally pelting us with orange peel.’
This is instantly recognisable. Substitute the pony-trap for a BMW convertible and we’re in the 21st century. Then there’s family friend Mrs James, who doesn’t believe in disciplining her son Percy:
‘Two or three times he came up to me and deliberately kicked my shins. I gently remonstrated with him, and Mrs James said: ‘Please don’t scold him; I do not believe in being too severe with young children. You spoil their character.”
We’ve all met a Mrs James. There’s something startling, and a little disconcerting, about realising that a spoof written 125 years ago could just as well apply today. Part of the reason it is so recognisable is that the world of the 1890s was a world on the edge of modernity: the patterns of peoples’ lives and thoughts was not all that different to those of the 21st century. Their motivations and their preoccupations are very like ours. By contrast, the thoughts and lives of people living in thirteenth century London would be positively alien: not just because of the differences in physical culture and beliefs, but because very fundamental concepts, such as what makes one thing recognisably similar to another, were understood differently in the Middle Ages than they are now.
The language of the Diary, too, is accessible, needing only a few footnotes to be completely comprehensible. We just need to know that ‘B. and S.’ is brandy and soda, and we’re away.
The format of the book is also one that’s still very popular today. From Adrian Mole to Bridget Jones, we know how to read a comic diary; and arguably, the reason that these books exist is because the Diary inspired them. I read Adrian Mole first as a teenager (worryingly, I found him entirely sympathetic) and all of Sue Townsend’s wonderful books later in life, and when I read the Diary of a Nobody I suddenly understood where they had come from.
Finally, it’s the warmth of the book that will keep me re-reading it. Mr Pooter is a little ridiculous, a little pompous – but only in the same way that most of us are, at times, a little ridiculous and pompous. He’s not a character who’s invented to be pilloried, but a real person: basically good, occasionally misguided, dealt his share of triumph and humiliation. Reading the Diary makes me realise that sometimes I should take myself a bit less seriously, because most of the things I fret about are universal. We all want to to be popular with a certain crowd, or worry we’ve made fools of ourselves, or get annoyed at our friends. The Diary, much like A Far Cry From Kensington, or Cold Comfort Farm, is one of those books I turn to for personal solace, because I like what it tells me about how to live. And on top of that, like the other two titles, it’s wonderfully funny.