Sunday, 23 June 2013

“Dear Lupin” is the funniest book I’ve read in years – a deeply English comic masterpiece

I know that assuring someone that a books will have them howling with laughter usually guarantees they’ll read the whole thing without cracking a smile. But I feel on safeish ground with Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son, which is up there with those other classics of English comedy writing, The Code of the Woosters, Lucky Jim, Diary of a Nobody, the Enderby novels, Decline and Fall, Frank Johnson’s collected columns, Auberon Waugh’s Private Eye Diaries and Peter Simple’s The Stretchford Chronicles. It really is that good.

Dear Lupin (available here) comprises the letters of racing correspondent, Roger Mortimer, to his spectacularly feckless, gay, rackety son, Charlie, written between 1967 and 1991. Mortimer Senior, a product of Eton and Sandhurst, fought at Dunkirk, spent five years as a German POW, then worked for the Sunday Times for 30 years.  (The nickname “Lupin”, which Roger bestowed on his son, was the name of Mr. Pooter’s feckless, rackety offspring in Diary of a Nobody.) The tone of the earlier letters – when Charlie is constantly going off the rails (drug busts, leaving Eton just before he gets expelled, suddenly chucking up the Coldstream Guards, moving from one spivvy, failed “opportunity” to another with depressing regularity) – mixes simmering exasperation, sarcasm, sensible advice and pessimism. The growing sense of despair at the realisation that the little bastard is never going to sort himself out is palpable. No father of a teenage boy could read them without constantly shuddering. Here’s a taste:
If people can bother to give you a present, the least they can expect is that you rouse yourself from your customary state of squalid inertia and write to say thank-you. It was disgraceful that you were still writing thank-you letters on the last day of the holidays. Surely you can see for yourself that your idleness and refusal to do any little task that is in the slightest degree irksome renders you totally unfit for adult employment? I am very fond of you but you do drive me round the bend.
After that, the attitude to Charlie’s general uselessness becomes more resigned, more accepting, and the letters become – if anything - even funnier. Here are some extracts:
I went up to Doncaster and back on Saturday. I got a nice little seat in the luncheon car at an unoccupied table for two and was just getting my tongue round the Crosse & Blackwell’s tinned asparagus soup when the waiter says, “There’s a young honeymoon couple who don’t want to be separated and your table would do them nicely. Do you mind moving and I can give you a single seat at a table with some very nice people?” Like hell you can, I thought, but shifted with ill grace to leave the table to a very dirty young man with a beard like black cotton wool and a dark lady with the promising beginnings of a heavy cavalry moustache. They may not want to be separated now, I thought, but I bet they soon will be. Off I trudged to the “nice people” who turned out to be Lord Wigg and the lady from the Home Office who fulfils various functions in his life. If they were pleased to have my company, they concealed the fact remarkably well. The situation was not eased when I tried to pour out a glass of Vin du British Railways extrémement ordinaire when the train was doing 100 mph and sloshed it all over the table cloth. I stood the lady a glass of Benedictine that tasted as if it had been drummed up in the gasworks at Staines and this gesture was reciprocated by a lift to the races in the Mayor of Doncaster’s Humber, Lord W. and his bird reclining on the Bedford cord upholstery at the back, I perched sedately in front with a very standoffish uniformed chauffeur. I think the chauffeur thought I was either Lord Wigg’s valet – not a very efficient one judging by Lord W.’s turnout – or a rather elderly and decrepit private detective. However, my morale was slightly restored when a blonde lady with a nose like a chisel introduced herself to me in the Hyperion Bar as Edith Millecrap or some such name and stood me a large Irish whiskey which I naturally accepted. We had a lively conversation in which I was on the defensive at times, as for example when she asked, “What has happened to Renée and those awful twins and did they still live in Penge?” It would be interesting, and doubtless humiliating, too, to discover who she thought I really was.
I think it would be better to have one year of total boredom with a General Election, American Presidential Election, the Election of the Pope, the World Cup, and the Olympic Games. Any spare time on TV to be filled by show-jumping and groups of earnest parents discussing either sex education for children or the problems of bringing up a family of spastics.
The poor little Home Secretary made a pathetic speech; it is hard not to despise him particularly as he is Welsh.
But possibly the most enjoyable parts of the letters are the surrealistic round-ups of personal, local and national news:
I have just been sent a book to review by the author, whom I greatly dislike. Hardly a single name is spelled correctly and the book is wildly inaccurate in every respect. There is an unfortunate reference to Mrs. Cottrill who hopes to be able to sue for libel. In the Sunday Telegraph there was a lot about Mrs Christian Miller of Newtown who at the age of fifty-four has gone round America on a collapsible bicycle. Farmer Luckes has had another stroke. An alternative route for the Highclere bypass has been proposed. If accepted, lorries will pass through our stable. Mr Parkinson is being driven barmy by his mother-in-law who is usually pissed and never stops talking the most fearful balls. A lady in Newbury has strangled her ever-loving husband with a dressing-gown cord. Jeffrey Bernard is in court at Newbury today over a combination of motor accident and unpaid debts. I think his wife has done a pineapple chunk. V. cold here today and thick ice on the water butt.
Quintessential English comic genius.

Dear Lupin was first published in hardback in 2011. A sort of companion volume, Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter by Charlie's younger sister, Louise Mortimer, was published in April of this year (available here) - and I'll be reading that next.

Many thanks to my brother for sending me a copy of Dear Lupin in the first place. Perfect gift.

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