Still funny after all these years

The Diary of a Nobody
by George and Weedon Grossmith

I first heard of this book a few years back when the BBC dramatised it as a mini-series. The way it was scripted was essentially reading the whole book aloud, so you might say I had read the book before, but it was still funny second time around.

The book was originally a series in Punch magazine, complete with comic illustrations. It is what it says on the tin: the diary of a middle class man living in a London suburb, which he hopes, after his death, will provide some small comfort to his wife and son and perhaps even be published. Even after more than 100 years it remains fresh and funny and accessible.

I have no idea if this was the first comic “diary” to be published but I can certainly see its influence on, for example, Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. The everyday life of Charles Pooter is pretty mundane and he is not even the most likeable character, but his observations and preoccupations are funny and cleverly observed. Pooter is a city clerk and a complete snob, though he has no aspiration to be fashionable or even original. Aside from a few minor bumps on the way he takes the sensible, non-adventurous route and frets that his grown son Lupin is more daring.

A lot of the comedy comes from the writers cleverly using Pooter’s own po-faced words to poke fun at him. He is a largely old-fashioned man, fretting over colourful language in the presence of ladies when clearly he is the only one offended on most occasions. He has a fondness for writing letters of complaint, whether to the laundry or a friend, and this has a tendency to go wrong for him.

Unlike Adrian Mole, though Pooter’s antics occasionally land him in hot water, for the most part he gets by very well. He has a loving wife, forgiving friends and an appreciative boss. In return Pooter speaks highly of all those people, particularly his wife Carrie. He does, however, jump to pre-emptively judge anyone else he meets and is often obliged to change his mind.

This was a book club read and it went down well. It was interesting that all us Brits felt a certain affection for Pooter while the non-Brit in the group didn’t (though she did enjoy the book). Apparently we have a national fondness for the underdog. What we did all agree was that Pooter seems to attract people who take advantage of him, and while he may be a bit of a fool, the rest of the characters are little better.

First published in Punch in 1888–1889. First published in book form in 1892.