Review: Chocolate and Cuckoo clocks: The Essential Alan Coren

Having the last laughs with the Corens


By Alan Coren (eds: Giles Coren and Victoria Coren)
Canongate, £20

The late Alan Coren and I used to live either side of Hampstead Cemetery. It was a favourite walk for both of us. Alan lived on the uber-expensive Hocroft Estate, where houses sell for uber-millions, and called it Cricklewood. I live in West Hampstead and call it East Kilburn. We both earned our daily bread writing humorously for various mediums.

There. the similarities end. For Alan Coren was consistently funny in a gloriously urbane way, a kind of pre-fried Stephen Fry, both as a writer and as a panellist on Call My Bluff and Radio 4's News Quiz. He is the only humorist I ever aspired to be. Now he's dead perhaps I might be... with his children's kind permission.

Ah, his children, Victoria and Giles, bright humorists themselves. Their Foreword alone is worth the price of the book.

G: "Well, if we were going to treat him as a serious writer, we'd start with the Saul Bellow stuff. The lower-middle-class home in Southgate. Osidge Primary. East Barnet Grammar. Then he went off to Oxford. And there was that first morning when he came downstairs in his digs and the landlady had cooked bacon and eggs..."

V: "He always called it egg and bacon..."

G: "... she says with talmudic precision, of the kind which crumbled in 1957 when he took the first forkful. And that was the beginning of the end, really, for all things Jewish."

V: "He was always sentimental about Jews though."

G: "He was always sentimental about everything..."

Such contributions, along with those from Clive James, Stephen Fry and others, are but a sideshow to the main feature: the collected writings of Alan Coren, son of Victoria and Giles's Grandpa Sam whose occupation was something of a mystery to the Corens, but was assumed to have been a plumber on the grounds that he owned a spanner. Coren had as great a genius for titles as for the rhythmically playful prose that followed. In Go Easy, Mr Beethoven, That Was Your Fifth, he responds to a doctor who penned an article on the bicentennial of Beethoven. Coren writes: "One flaw, however, mars the sunny scholarship of your piece: not content to commemorate the bicentenary merely by your thrilling evocation of distorted bowel and giblet and leaving it at that, you insist, I'm afraid, on going on to moralise. And it's none of your business, Doc. Having broken the unethical news that Ludwig's organs got this way through a daily consumption of booze that could have floated a Steinway down Kaiserstrasse, you then wind up the scoop with the homiletic clincher...."

I'll leave that story there. I love anyone who uses the word "homiletic". It's so random, so poised, so Alan Coren.

As I said, Alan Coren and I used to stroll through Hampstead Cemetery and swap the occasional quip.

Now he's in there, permanently, where, according to Victoria, the funeral cantor "sang a mournful Hebrew song, and then came out to Sandi Toksvig". Coren is in the ground, his book is in the bookshop. I urge you to visit both.



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