Only after a tree is felled can one measure and count its rings, assess the full nature of its life. So it is with Alan Coren, whose untimely passing last week, at 69, went largely unnoticed in this country. But the spontaneous outpouring of grief from the top to bottom of British society, the justified comparisons to S. J. Perlman and P. G. Wodehouse, even Mark Twain, made complete sense to anyone fortunate enough to know his humorous essays, his London Times columns, (especially those on the North London Suburb of Cricklewood — essays that make Garrison Keilor seem like a clumsy political myopic) or hear him on the BBC 4 News quiz show. Google his name and marvel at the breadth of mourning throughout Britain for this magnificent humorist and brilliant social critic.
Then ask, how could such a talent go virtually unnoticed in America? Where were his Vanity Fair pieces, his occasional clever note for Tthe New York Times Magazine or scathing insight for its Book Review? I offer one possibility, based on the Alan Coren I knew — who certainly deserved all the praise his passing provoked, and more, yet was virtually unknown in this country.
Our close friendship was long before his greater fame. “Swinging London” of the late 60s and early 70s was an extraordinary place to celebrate one’s twenties. We met Alan and Ann Coren when I was freshly done with Oxford and safely ensconced in a superb job at Columbia Pictures in London; Gloria was at RADA, and to make it truly perfect, there was the birth of our first child.
Alan and Ann were at an almost identical place in their lives. Ann had launched her career as an anesthesiologist and Alan occupied a senior position at Punch, the great British humor institution. Their eldest son had also just been born.
It was a moment to aspire, and London was the perfect venue. It was as if the war was finally over; the scaffolding that had veiled almost all the buildings while the accumulated soot and grime of the 40s and 50s was scraped away were now coming down. British popular culture dominated the world in music, fashion, film and theater. Finally, after more than two decades since the defeat of Germany, the British could again celebrate their uniqueness. For the elites (and despite his relatively humble birth as a carpenter’s son, Alan’s achievements had vouchsafed his place within the elite) and especially the Laborite elites, it was once again safe to make America the focus of derision and even contempt. There was that mess in Vietnam (“Look how well we handled Burma! Will they never learn?”), that awkward, paranoid president (“So inept! Next to Nixon, Wilson and Castle are Disraelis!”), and so on and so on.
Since Gloria and I were at that time officially Canadian, too many of our Liberal elite English friends had no embarrassment in sharing with us a paternal derision for all that was American. In that time of much less mobility, only some had been to America (New York, very few Los Angeles) but most knew the U.S. only from films like Bob and Carol, Ted and Alice and Easy Rider. It quite annoyed us; like most Canadians of our generation, we admired and enjoyed the Americans who were our half-brothers and half-sisters. No surprise, then, that we felt trepidation when our cousins, medical colleagues of Ann Coren, invited us to a dinner party to meet Alan and Ann; we expected an evening of America-bashing.
I was no sooner through the door of the Swiss Cottage home that bespoke ambition, success, and upward mobility than I was overwhelmed by a need for a cigarette. But I was without matches. Though cousins John and Deb never touched tobacco, Alan was a truly committed smoker. He tossed me a lighter, saying, “That’s a genuine American Icon. A Zippo acquired with S&H Green Stamps.” It was astounding; in that one throwaway he showed more knowledge of America and Americans than all the prattlers we heard from on a daily basis.
It turned out Alan had lived in America and understood this country in a truly profound way, and with a deep affection. At my cousin’s request I had brought a Simon and Garfunkel album which was something still unknown to the English. Alan did five to ten extraordinary minutes on how in America, delicatessen owners often became folksingers. It was done with such warmth and affection, such an intimate knowledge of how Americans yearned to keep moving ahead, how one generation surpasses another, and why it never would have occurred to Garfunkel to change his name in modern America. When he recalled, quite spontaneously, that Julius Garfinkle had become John Garfield, he simply embraced that as further evidence of his argument, proving John Garfield was really an Englishman by enacting whole scenes from movies like “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with a Cockney edge.
Like all of Alan’s humor, it was done with love and affection and genuine amusement. His insights rarely needed hard edges. And then, as magically has he had begun, he fell silent. He seemed to have no need to dominate the entire evening, leaving room for others to try their hand. Though no one could ever be as funny as Alan, no one, not even Robin Williams at his most manic.
During the next four years we became fast friends; time with Alan could often be spectacular theater of the absurd. We went one night to White City when the dogs were racing. Suddenly Alan shed his North London persona and for that evening became a broad, pukka, cockney, screaming at the dogs to “Get yer bloody finger out,” arguing with the bookmakers and generally reinventing that entire world to suit his mood of the moment. He made the mundane unforgettable.
In a time when people were pressing moral boundaries Alan Coren had a firm compass. As we approached our thirties, and realized certain doors had truly closed, he and I spent several Saturday afternoons with our children wondering about life and monogamy.
He was quite clear that his commitment was for life, as indeed was mine. I always understood that, but somehow conversation with Alan provided great clarity.So: why was this giant of modern British letters virtually unknown in this country? The only possible explanation is that because he understood America and Americans and had deep affection for what we are, and had faith in our promise, the American bien-savants had no interest in him. It seems our Liberal media elites prefer English accents that betray a slight amusement for us and are more comfortable with Brits who see us with a touch of jaundice.
When one thinks of the U.K. ex-pats whom they presented and helped win America’s heart – from Tina Brown and Christopher Hitchens, to Simon Cowell and Vanessa Redgrave – they all carry a certain haughtiness. If a Brit is not looking down on us, it seems that he or she has no magic. Alan Coren loved this country and everything about it. He never assumed he was cleverer than us or better, and I am persuaded that is why the cognoscenti and literati who issue intellectual elite visas never stamped Alan’s passport.
It is a dreadful loss, believe me. But his writing lives on. Seek it out.
– Lionel Chetwynd is a Canadian-American screenwriter, motion picture, and television film director and producer.