It is a brave comedian who eschews jokes, and fans of Craig Brown, the master parodist of the age, a writer of laugh-aloud inventiveness, are bound to feel a tic of disappointment when he promises to keep his book “on the straight and narrow”. A clash of bicycles between George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell? A lunch à deux between Terence Stamp and Edward Heath? What might Brown in full satirical flight have made of such far-fetched encounters?
The point is, of course, that those encounters – and 99 others, making 101 in all – really took place, more or less as Brown describes them, drawing on biographies and memoirs of the participants. In his own version of Six Degrees of Separation, he starts with Adolf Hitler being nearly knocked down by a motorist called John Scott-Ellis, proceeds to a meeting between Scott-Ellis and Rudyard Kipling and, after many a twist and turn, concludes with the Duchess of Windsor taking tea with… Adolf Hitler.
It is a slightly artificial conceit and, in places, that artificiality hampers the writing: you want to learn more about the dramatis personae, not content yourself with the biographical gobbets which Brown feeds you. But as he sets off on his idiosyncratic journey, leading the reader on a merry jig, while not abjuring his responsibilities as a historian, the sense of fact being stranger than fiction gives the book an irrepressible joie de vivre.
What did Groucho Marx talk about to TS Eliot? Did Barry Humphries really drop his trousers in an effort to shock Lord Snowdon? What did Marilyn Monroe make of Nikita Khrushchev? Who won when Howard Hawks played golf with Howard Hughes? How drunk was Harold Pinter when he fell downstairs after watching a porn movie with Kenneth Tynan and Princess Margaret?
Thick and fast the stories come and, although most of the raw material is already in the public domain, Brown stitches his anecdotes together so skilfully that they seem fresh-minted, a rollicking riff on celebrity and its effect on those unfortunate enough to enjoy it.
Lovers of serendipitous tittle-tattle will be in clover: there is just so much crammed into what could have been a small, gimmicky book. The earliest one-to-one takes place in 1876, when Tolstoy gets off on the wrong foot with Tchaikovsky by opining that Beethoven was untalented; the latest in 2007, when record producer-turned-murderer Phil Spector chats with Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne at the urinals of a Los Angeles courtroom. The reader is made to feel like the most privileged fly on the wall, not wanting to miss a word.