Book Reviews - Review 344
One on One
Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 2011 | Review Added: 03-07-2016
Craig Brown is a humorist, best known for his spoof celebrity monologues in the British satirical magazine Private Eye. Against type, in One on One he adopts a restrained journalistic approach, describing 101 real-life meetings between famous people from the late 19th Century to the early 21st.
Each chapter of One on One has two protagonists, the second of each chapter being the first of the next. The order is not chronological. To give you the idea: "Paul McCartney is Congratulated by Noël Coward" is followed by "Noël Coward is Serenaded by Prince Felix Youssoupoff", which is followed by "Prince Felix Youssoupoff Murders Grigori Rasputin." Such vertiginous jumps across decades and milieux make for a strange, disorienting and fascinating book, juxtaposing the multifarious but circumscribed world of the rich and famous with the frictions, deceptions and affections that characterise all human affairs.
Alec Guinness meets James Dean for dinner and correctly predicts the latter's death within the week; Groucho Marx discusses Shakespeare with T S Eliot; Gustav Mahler has his head sculpted by Auguste Rodin. Brown acknowledges that the sources for each meeting are not always reliable, and often contradictory; where accounts diverge, he maintains that he has "sided with the more likely", although how he judged this is unclear. Few celebrities - few people - tell the whole truth to each other either in private or in public, which leaves the task of disentangling fact from embellishment - or downright fiction - to the reader. Did Roald Dahl patronisingly advise Kingsley Amis to write children's books with the assurance "The little bastards'd swallow it"? In a footnote, Brown hints that Amis might have made the line up, but it seems a plausible enough utterance from the sort of man who arrived at garden parties in a helicopter.
There are tales here aplenty of sycophancy followed by betrayal, petty practical jokes, grotesquely embarrassing dinner parties... and notably few of the formation of lasting bonds. Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly seem to have had a genuine rapport, and Michael Barrymore and Princess Diana a warm if strange epistolary friendship; but it's frictions and rivalries that make for the most intriguing encounters, and these that Brown seeks out.
Sometimes it's unpleasant people who don't descend to hypocrisy who elicit a qualified respect - Evelyn Waugh, who made an art of the poisonously subtle put-down; George Lazenby, whose obnoxious behaviour on the set of his one movie playing James Bond earned him the ostracism of most of the film's crew, and a lesson in humility that he acknowledged later in life after an anticlimactic career.
In some cases, the candour induced by drunkenness or unhappiness, or both, makes one warm to difficult individuals (Raymond Chandler, Michael Barrymore).
There is plenty of humour in Brown's book, but it is wry rather than raucous. For a "novelty" book, it's surprisingly panoramic and informative - Brown being careful to provide sufficient background to each meeting for readers without the erudition - or the age - to be familiar with all the players.
Brown assures the reader that each chapter is exactly 1001 words long, giving the book a total length of 101101 words. The dizzying loops through the decades start and end with Adolf Hitler. As in history itself, there is a strange sense of chance and inevitability being held in fine balance.