Homage to suburbia – The Diary of a Nobody

HOMAGE TO SUBURBIA

The Diary of a Nobody

George & Weedon Grossmith

In a recent book, Freedoms of Suburbia, former New Society editor Paul Barker notes ruefully

To call anyone or anything ‘suburban’ is to utter a put-down, an anathema, a curse

For many (especially on the left), the word evokes a lazy, unfair cliché of Victorian terraces or Edwardian semis with gravelled-over gardens inhabited by hundreds of thousands of narrow- minded, Conservative-voting, muzak-listening, Stepford Wife-marrying, car-polishing, B&Q-going Pooterish automata – a universe teeming with petty secrets and anxieties concealed behind never-still net curtains.

London’s suburbs took off after the 1860s, when phenomenal economic growth, a proliferating and newly prosperous population and the advent of railways combined to make huge swathes of Middlesex, Essex, Kent, Surrey and Hertfordshire suddenly developable. By the time Diary of a Nobody was first published, as extracts in Punch in 1892, then appearing as a separate book in 1894, London suburbia had a frenetic life of its own, and the suburban ‘type’ was already a stock comic character.

George (1847-1912) Grossmith who wrote the text and his brother Weedon (1853-1919) who contributed the delightful illustrations, being of that class and living in Canonbury, were amply qualified to convey the texture of contemporary lower middle class domesticity. In so doing, they coined a useful new adjective, and left behind them an English comedic classic.

The Diary opens with the arrival of Charles and Carrie Pooter at their newly- built house, “The Laurels”, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway. It is a great moment for them, and Charles decides it merits his commencing a journal. Anticipating scorn, he enquires in a spiky introductory paragraph:

Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting

So he begins to chronicle the tiniest incidents in detail – and they are tiny incidents. Each section starts with a summary of events, for example:

Tradesmen and the scraper still troublesome. Gowing rather tiresome with his complaints of the paint. I make one of the best jokes of my life. Delights of gardening. Mr. Stillbrook, Gowing, Cummings, and I have a little misunderstanding. Sarah makes me look a fool before Cummings

Pooter’s complex personality merits a larger sphere, and he is aware of this. Yet paradoxically he is accepting of his ‘place’, and is supremely at home in the jerry- built convenience of his little man’s empire in London brick. He is pompous, precise, pedantic, proud, self-satisfied, thin-skinned, reserved, conventional, and concerned with appearances.

The Diary is fated to be a record of Pooter’s low-intensity (and usually losing) battle to assert himself against a horde of Holloway headaches – a son more interested in the theatre than in holding down his bank job, careless tradesmen, cheeky delivery boys, forgetful friends, firework-throwing neighbours, indifferent editors, disreputable theatrical types and products – most memorably red paint – that simply won’t do what they are supposed to. He finds almost everything worrying, irritating or socially embarrassing –

I went to town without a pocket-handkerchief. This is the second time I have done this during the last week

I was compelled to face a gang of roughs in a donkey-cart…who followed us for nearly a mile, bellowing, indulging in coarse jokes and laughter, to say nothing of occasionally pelting us with orange-peel

I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card…I find myself suspecting all my friends

I rather disapprove of his wearing a check suit on a Sunday

But with all his pettiness and vanity, Pooter is a kind and honourable Nobody, devoted to his family and fond of any respectable pleasures, like country walks (in Hampstead!), dances, party games or intellectual discussions –

Cummings read a most interesting article on the superiority of the bicycle to the horse

He is loyal to his friends; he works uncomplainingly, saves money and strives in his small way to improve society, whilst simultaneously standing up politely for his rights. The Diary of a Nobody is a perfectly judged and warmly witty portrait of a certain kind of English Everyman at an expansive time.

This first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Winter 2009

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *