Monday, January 2, 2012

Craig Brown's unlikely pairings: a future classic?

One on OneOne on One by Craig Brown

Craig Brown's insight as a humorist is that Marcel Proust lived in the same world as Simon Dee, that Churchill and Janis Joplin would have walked the same streets, might have known the same songs, or could have compared views on restaurants.

Such clashes - of our expectations more than anything else - have proved fertile ground for Brown's Private Eye diaries, his column in the Daily Mail and numerous other works.

But in One on One, he sets out to prove some of the links between unlikely pairs in a self-disciplined, almost scientific way. As he commented himself, he wanted to write a book that "played to my weaknesses".

The result is a chain of 101 meetings between famous individuals, each described in exactly 1001 words (he claims: he anyone counted?) So, starting and ending with Adolf Hitler, the book traces a circle which includes the relatively modern (Michael Jackson, Madonna, Michael Barrymore), the grand (Tsar Nicholas II, the Queen Mother), the venerable (Leo Tolstoy, Sigmund Freud), the glamorous (Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin) and the cool (Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol).

Each described meeting is researched from sources listed at the back, so one doesn't need to worry that he's fooling us with imagined encounters. Indeed, after a while, I found myself trying to spot a weak link between strong lines of meetings - but I couldn't find one.

Each 1001 words is a little gem in itself, with Brown skilfully giving us just enough background to fill in the context, but satisfying our gossipy interest with the tiniest details of the particular occasion he picks.

It's a strange format for a book, and at first I wondered whether it was going to prove better as individual bites than as a whole meal. Did its self-imposed structure deny it any other kind of coherence as a book? But after a while, I began to detect a subtle flow in the chapters, as they ran from Tsarist Russia to Hollywood, and thence to sixties Britain, each with its own set of characters and social mores. It is in fact, a wonderful education in politics, literature and history, where one's accidental familiarity with one subject quickly gives way to ignorance about an equally well-known character.

Above all, it is funny, sometimes in the kind of details that dignified celebrities want forgotten, but also in less obvious ways: would we ever otherwise have heard how H.G.Wells spent three hours sucking up to Stalin, concluding: "I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest"?

One on One could become a classic: a 1066 and All That which somehow finds its way into the national consciousness as its reputation spreads. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying it, and its rigid organisation gives it a uniqueness that might just be a passport to immortality.

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