This deliciously clever and amusing book is an extended riff on that old chestnut of cocktail-party conversation, “Small world, isn’t it?” or, of slightly more recent vintage, “Six degrees of separation,” or from no less than Shakespeare, “Strange bedfellows.” This last, it turns out, is also the name of a parlor game, as we learn from one of the many strange encounters (all of them true) that Craig Brown has assembled here:
“[Alexander] Woollcott is delighted at his bringing together George Bernard Shaw and Harpo Marx. ‘He loved playing the game of Strange Bedfellows,’ recalls Harpo. ‘Harpo Marx and Bernard Shaw,’ he used to say, with that smirking chuckle of his. ‘Corned beef and roses!’ ”
There are ample servings of both in “Hello Goodbye Hello,” one of those occasional books that leave the reader wondering why someone didn’t think of this ages ago. It is, as its subtitle says, a “circle” in which one unlikely encounter leads to another until, at the end, it comes full circle.
Thus we begin with an accidental meeting in Munich in 1931 between Adolf Hitler and a young Englishman named John Scott-Ellis, move briskly along to one between Scott-Ellis and Rudyard Kipling, then to one between Kipling and Mark Twain, and so on and so on until, some 300 pages later, T.S. Eliot meets Queen Elizabeth the queen mother, then Queen Elizabeth the queen mother meets the Duchess of Windsor, and then, at last, the Duchess of Windsor meets — tada! — Adolf Hitler. In between there are 95 other improbable encounters, many of them exceedingly funny, a few of them surprisingly revealing and a few rather sad, and all of them connected by the daisy chain to end all daisy chains.
Brown was unknown to me until this book arrived on my desk, as no doubt he is to most other Americans, but across the Atlantic he is quite the item; he is, according to Stephen Fry, “the wittiest writer in Britain today,” a compliment to be savored inasmuch as it comes from the man who played Jeeves to such devastatingly funny effect on the ITV Network’s stupendous series “Jeeves and Wooster.” Brown, according to his American publisher, “writes the Private Eye celebrity diary as well as a twice-weekly column for the Daily Mail (London) and reviews books for Mail on Sunday. He was the host of ‘This Is Craig Brown’ on BBC Radio 4.” In other words, he’s one of those hopelessly over-accomplished Brits who roll off the Eton assembly line with infuriating (and jealous-making) digital-clockwork regularity.
How and why it occurred to Brown to assemble a perfect circle of strange bedfellows is never explained. Indeed nothing really is explained; Brown just tosses in a brief note to the reader — “Everything in this book is documented. Nothing is invented. When accounts of the same meeting differ, as they almost always do, I have sided with the most likely” — and then hops right into his 101 stories, each of which, he says, is “exactly 1001 words.” Well, be that as it may (I didn’t bother to count), it’s the meat of the tales that matters, not their length, and most of them are wonderful.