1966 And All That, by Craig Brown (review)


Craig Brown      1966 And All That       Hodder    £10

It’s seventy-five years since Sellar and Yeatman’s classic 1066 And All That, which is a satire, not on history, but on the most nicely absurd misunderstandings of it by school-children, and also on the barmy phrasing of examination questions. Politicians – and Prince Charles - are always whingeing about how history is now taught and learned. 1066 And All That, apart from being very funny, and therefore A Good Thing, was also laughing at the idiocies of how it was taught and learned in the 1920s.

Craig Brown, who is an exceptional mimic – I’ve never been keen on Wallace Arnold, but Brown’s celebrity diaries in Private Eye are unbeatable – has now had a shot at paying homage to the original in 1966 And All That. This takes us on a pleasantly daft tour from 1918 (where S. and Y. suspended history) to the present day. Wisely, Brown doesn’t go for a fully-blown pastiche; instead, he catches the flavour of the original, and proceeds to enjoy himself. With ninety instead of nine hundred years to deal with, he has a harder job.

There is a good, knowing gag about Idi Amin which nails his problem. “General Idi Amin began life as a joke in Punch magazine, but, like so many jokes, it got out of control.” You sense that Brown knows all too well that some of his own jokes get out of control, too. Sellar and Yeatman loved puns and malapropisms – the Black Whole of Calcutta, Samuel Pepys and his Dairy, The Venomous Bead, the Pheasants’ Revolt, the Bloody Asides, and so on. But Brown is positively addicted to puns, and completely unable to resist a spoonerism (Trains Bust, Bonnie Riggs, Sitford Misters). The punning gets so out of control at times (‘the end of an error’, John Yogi Bear, the Serviette Union, Sewers Crisis, Pansy Divisions, Amelia Earwig, Lord Wreath, Jane Fondle, Traces Semen, The Stolen Bones) that it threatens to overwhelm some particularly brilliant invention. There are a couple of slips, too – as when the Rolling Stones appear elsewhere as themselves. The gag about George V having a son called Lloyd is weakened by another gag about the P.M. being called Boy George, and playing the Dame Rudolf Hess/ Myra Hess joke both ways is a nuisance.

But for every excess, there are three treats. Some of the mix-ups Brown stages are inspired. The Harrow Marchers come in the wake of Generals on Strike; there’s a bombardment of London with Teach Yourself German pamphlets (the Berlitz); Albert Square replaces Albert Speer; Gandhi gives us the pacifistfight. There are also very funny Paxman-style interviews with Churchill and Martin Luther King. And the GCSE question papers are different from, but just as agreeably crackpot as Sellar and Yeatman’s parodies (“Imagine you are Adolf Hitler. It is the morning of 30 April 1945. (a) How are you feeling?”) I also particularly liked the re-writing of Harold Macmillan (“You’ve never had it – so long” and “The wind of change is blowing from the incontinent.”)

Some of the jokes are obvious (D.H.Lawrence of Arabia); some of them are very long in the tooth (Look Back In Ongar); some of them are a little too puerile (‘Waterbottle’ for ‘Watergate’). Some of the lists needed trimming – they look like New Statesman competition entries in which both the winners and losers have somehow been let through (here I have to declare a sort of interest). But the whole enterprise is fizzy with the complete, utter and howling absurdity of the way our culture is obsessed with facts, and 1966 And All That has the same glee as its forebear with how Anglocentric our idea of history is. Prince Charles will think this book is howlingly funny. Unfortunately, he won’t be getting the full-in-the-face barrage of jokes in quite the same way as the rest of us.

Seventeen years ago, E.O. Parrott rounded up several literary competitors, and produced The Dogsbody Papers (Viking). It was subtitled 1066 And All This. As one of its contributors, I hold my hands up. This is far, far more successful. Relentlessly piling farrago on farrago, squeezing every historical pimple, mixing it up like a reckless cocktail mixer, Craig Brown is the business.

From The Independent