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.
Pluck out just about any set of links in the chain, and you’ll be delighted. Here’s one of my favorites: Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and H.G. Wells, H.G. Wells and Joseph Stalin, Joseph Stalin and Maxim Gorky, Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Harpo Marx, Harpo Marx and George Bernard Shaw, George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell, Bertrand Russell and Sarah Miles. The last of these produces an inspired footnote:
“As a child, Bertrand Russell met Gladstone, so Sarah Miles, born in 1941, is just one meeting away from Gladstone, born in 1809. Gladstone himself used to breakfast with the elderly William Wordsworth, who was born in 1770. On the BBC programme ‘Face to Face’ on March 4th 1959, Bertrand Russell reads out an obituary of himself that he wrote in 1937. It begins: ‘By the death of the 3rd Earl Russell, or Bertrand Russell, as he preferred to call himself, at the age of ninety, a link with the very distant past has been severed. His grandfather, Lord John Russell, the Victorian Prime Minister, visited Napoleon on Elba. His maternal grandmother was a friend of the Young Pretender’s widow. . . .’ ”
That is small world on a grand scale — by “grand” I mean the luscious Miles as well as the immortal Tchaikovsky — but Brown also gives it to us on a silly scale, as in: Princess Margaret and Kenneth Tynan, Kenneth Tynan and Truman Capote, Truman Capote and Peggy Lee, Peggy Lee and Richard Nixon, and (of course!) Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. This last is just about the only one of the 101 that failed to surprise me, but Brown tells this much-told tale so winningly that it seems new. For one thing, he pops a real surprise — Elvis is met in Los Angeles “by his new driver, an Englishman called Gerald Peters,” who, a footnote informs us, “was once chauffeur to Winston Churchill” — and for another he gives us an exchange that I do not recall from previous accounts. When Nixon, desperate for something to talk about, says, “You dress kind of strange, don’t you?” Elvis replies, “You have your show and I have mine.”
There’s a touching entry about Helen Keller, but even here Brown’s impish side reveals itself, again in a footnote: “She is, in a way, the Nelson Mandela of her age: however great you are, you can’t feel really good about yourself until you have shaken hands with Helen Keller. Albert Einstein declares himself ‘a great admirer’; Alexander Graham Bell feels that ‘in this child I have seen more of the Divine than has been manifest in anyone I ever met before’; Winston Churchill calls her ‘the greatest woman of our age’; and to H.G. Wells she is ‘the most wonderful being in America.’ ”
Indeed, sly asides seem to be a Brown specialty. When Jacqueline Kennedy “confides to Gore Vidal,” Brown inserts the proper aside (“Always an unwise move”); Tynan’s parties “are formed from a combustible mix of pornography, snobbery and revolution”; and: “Authors with money crave esteem. Authors with esteem crave money. Authors with neither crave both. Authors with both crave immortality. For these reasons, meetings between authors can be edgy.”
That last comment is to be found at the beginning of an encounter between Kingsley Amis and Roald Dahl in which Dahl, “the most successful children’s author in Britain,” attempts to persuade Amis to write a book for children because “that’s where the money is today, believe me.” When Amis protests that “I’ve got no feeling for that kind of thing,” Dahl replies: “Never mind. The little bastards’d swallow it.” So much for the readers of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” et al.
As much of the above indicates, there is a decidedly British bias to “Hello Goodbye Hello,” but that is excusable and understandable, and in any case Brown provides a “Note to the U.S. Edition” that explains the likes of Tom Driberg, Simon Dee and Michael Ramsey. It is a pleasure to make the acquaintance of each, though for entirely different reasons. All in all, “Hello Goodbye Hello” is splendid company, not to mention perfect for the beach, the lake or the pool.
HELLO GOODBYE HELLO
A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings
By Craig Brown
Simon & Schuster. 356 pp. $26.95