Wednesday 10 July 2019

The Diary of a Nobody

I’ve just reread George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody (1888-89). Paul Bailey calls its hero, Charles Pooter, “majestically uninteresting”. The chapters were originally serialised in the humorous magazine Punch.

Pooter is a clerk in a City firm, and when the story starts he has just rented a house in Holloway that backs onto the railway. It’s a “suburban villa with a stucco-column portico, resembling a four-post bedstead,” as their friend Mr Huttle later describes it. Charles and his wife Carrie live there with one servant until they are joined by their son, Lupin.

The big joke is that Pooter thinks that everything happens to him is worth recording. He also considers that he’s doing pretty well, and is a cut above the tradesmen he employs. Punch’s middle-class readers were supposed to find it a perfect scream that a clerk should think himself as good as themselves. There's a solecism on every page.

The Pooters invite friends to “meat tea”, and Carrie frequently cooks party food (jam puffs) herself. Carrie’s clothes are both frumpy and vulgar: a pink Garibaldi jacket and blue-serge skirt, an olive outfit with pink bows, and a sky-blue party frock.

Most of the Pooters' friends are either bounders (Gowing), boring (Cummings) or pretentious (Mrs James) – the only exceptions are the colourless Mr Franching of Peckham, and Pooter’s kindly but old-fashioned employer, Mr Perkupp.

Pooter has some puritanical attitudes – he disapproves of amateur dramatics and spiritualism – but his household seem to drink rather a lot, even swigging champagne out of tumblers. Pooter’s inability to recognise a hangover is a running gag.

Lupin is a trial – he makes a lot of friends at a local theatrical society, and they constantly turn up at the house, take advantage of the older Pooters, and baffle them by spouting meaningless catchphrases. However, the Pooters love a good laugh, and are constantly in stitches over Charles’s puns.

Charles and Carrie do up the house themselves. He attacks everything that doesn’t move with cheap enamel paint. Carrie attaches silk bows to the corners of “our new enlarged and tinted photographs”, and arranges “some fans very prettily on the top and on each side” of a new mirror. She’s catching on to Japonaiserie, a bit late. She decorates her buffet table with “fairy lamps”: small coloured glass nightlight holders.

Pooter admires a friend’s house: “It was full of knick-knacks, and some plates hung up on the wall. There were several little wooden milk-stools with paintings on them; also a white wooden banjo, painted by one of Mr Paul Finsworth’s nieces.” Arts and Crafts style had reached the suburbs.

Mr Perkupp takes Lupin on as a clerk, but the boy drops a brick by recommending a rival firm to a valued client. Mr Perkupp is forced to let Lupin go, but the lad falls on his feet. He seems to have a knack for making money, and gets engaged to an heiress (sister of “Posh’s three-shilling hats”). So what if she bleaches her hair, smokes, is several years older than him, and has an annoying laugh?

Mr Perkupp rewards Pooter with a rise in salary, and after Charles manages to acquire an even wealthier client for the firm, buys the freehold of the Pooters’ house.

“You’re a good man, Mr Perkupp,” stammers Pooter. “No, you’re the good man,” responds Perkupp, and he’s right. Apart from his copper-bottomed dullness, Pooter’s only fault is snobbery. And so we leave them to live happily ever after.

Middlesex by John Betjeman references some of these characters.

1 comment:

  1. Such a funny book - but I've only found it so as I grew older. My father recommended it to me when I was a teenager and I thought it dull and tiresome, but now I love it.