Cross a Frank Skinner-style tour diary, a Paxmanesque dissertation on the state of the English as a people and the annual output of the Bureau Of National Statistics, and you’ll end up with something like Dara O Brian’s entertaining first tome.
Even after seven years of living in London, understanding the English psyche has largely eluded the affable Irishman. The clichéd image would probably involve village cricket, warm beer in welcoming inns, socially crippling politeness, dry ironic humour and pottering in the garden; but how much of this would, say, a squaddie from inner-city Newcastle, recognise as a national trait? Did this idyllic sceptred isle ever really exist, except in the sentimental minds of reactionary Daily Mail columnists?
A comedian might not be the obvious first choice to answer such a question, but O Briain is clearly interested in what makes people tick, and in a tour of maybe two or three months he sees more of the country than most of us ever will. Even if mostly it involves rocking up at a deserted town centre a couple of hours before the gig, and heading home immediately afterwards.
O Brian’s brisk and witty account puts us under no illusions as to what it’s like to tour. Earlier accounts have played up the romantic loneliness of the artist after the adulation returning, unloved, to a soulless hotel room with only the minibar and a pay-to-view movie for company. O Brian seems to have a bit more fun than this, while accepting that much of life on the road can be mundane.
It’s the people he meets, usually from the stage, that make the job so enjoyable. Each gig is introduced with a dramatis personae of the people he spoke to, the jobs they did, and the gist of the ensuing conversation – banter which often found its way into O Briain’s permanent set, and revealing what a random section of English people are really like away from any stereotype.
Interweaved with this is information about the places he’s visited, drawn either from the headlines or the quirkier sections of the guidebooks. At times it’s like Wikipedia with all the dull bits taken out – with a guarantee that your town, or at least one nearby, will be included.
Sometimes circumstances prompt O Brian to delve deeper into Englishness, as observed through the eyes of an inquisitive outsider. What place does alcohol, the NHS, cooking and immigration really have in the nation? Measured consideration, drawing on historical background, produces fascinating conclusions that the archetypal angry caller to a late-night Five Live phone-in would never consider amid his knee-jerk reactions to whatever perceived threat to the ‘national identity’ was on the tabloid agenda that day.
His insightful section on why England will never have a St George’s Day celebration to rival St Patrick’s Day – and probably wouldn’t really want one – is especially convincing, and should be seen as the last word on the subject so beloved by those seeking a patriotic bandwagon on which to pounce.
This could be weighty stuff, but O Briain imparts the information and commentary with an instinctively humorous tome, just as you’d expect from a QI regular. The density of gags, facts and opinion – combined with his light, conversational writing style – keeps you turning the pages.
His conclusions won’t redefine Englishness, but they will make you think twice next time a familiar opinion is lazily trotted out. And, he’ll make you laugh – and not always with the important stuff. The funniest part of the book is a verbatim translation of part of the set he committed to DVD, which turns out to be a jumble of half-finished sentences of illiterate jibberish, however hilarious it might have seemed in the heat of the night. Thankfully, his writing style is a lot more elegantly straightforward than that.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett