Dowling Tim

Tim Dowling: Suspicious Packages and Extendable Arms

Tim Dowling’s novel The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club reminded me earlier this year how much I enjoy his journalism in The Guardian, so when I saw this collection-of-pieces-in-time-for-Christmas on Amazon, I didn’t hold back. After all, it exactly fills a gap in the basket of reading matter on top of our cistern, and a whole bookful of Dowling is guaranteed to be less repetitive than Charlie Brooker, less annoying than John O’Farrell, and less smug than Craig Brown. So much was I convinced that this was the ideal early present for myself that, when it took seven weeks after placing the order to arrive, I realised they had published it specially for me.

Dowling is at his best – ie funniest – when exhibiting self-deprecation bordering on loathing, as in the excellent introduction, where he tells us what he was doing on September 11, 2001; or in this piece on life coaching:

If I complete the course, I will receive a short sentence that gives my reason for being on earth, something like “I show the way” or “I explore in wonder.” My current one, “Pay off the mortgage and die”, is not even listed, so I’m hopeful. After a day or so my first exercise arrives. I am to compile a list of my positive qualities, headed “My Qualities”. This vaguely reminds me of the sort of primary school assignment that would have caused me to burst into tears. The answers must subscribe to the format “I am [quality]”, which I find very constraining. I can’t put “I am play the guitar a bit.” I ignore the exercise for a week.

Typically this is combined with a Giles Wareing-esque pathetic willingness to undergo self-abasement in the name of a decent comic vignette for the newspaper, such as tasting dog food to see if it really is fit for human consumption, ‘traducing’ David Blaine’s London stunt by spending 24 hours in a perspex box (“I am woken two or three times by sharp pains, which I think might be pressure sores, but it turns out I am sleeping on my keys”), or indulging in parent-and-child yoga sessions:

Yoga, in my limited understanding of the discipline, seems destined to fix things that kids, by and large, don’t have wrong with them. … My children rarely complain about how stiff they are or how much stress they’re under, and if they did I’d say: “Trust me. It gets much worse.”

At the risk of overstating the importance of what is, after all, just jokes, there’s an almost literary self-reflexive quality in the alternative home life of ‘Tim Dowling’ that he has created in his work here. (Part of me, of course, hopes it’s not created and is pure fly-on-the-wall.) He also has a seemingly effortless facility for list-gags which would fall flat under a lesser comic talent, where he can adapt the voices of media and consumer society, such as proposed new healthy-eating brands for children:

Poker Chips: A great-tasting, extra-salty way for kids to learn the maths behind Britain’s fastest-growing indoor sport. Each 500g bag contains an assortment of £1-, £2-, £5-, £10- and £20-denomination oven chips, plus a free deck of cards, strategy leaflet and helpline number (calls cost 50p a minute, so make sure your parents don’t find out).

Or in his ‘vision’ for British Responsibilities to balance the Human Rights Act, one of the sections where the content veers nicely toward the political:

  • The Responsibility to Remain Silent: This would mainly apply to young people, especially the ones hanging around outside shops, but also to cinema-goers, rail passengers, library-users and anyone who hinders the fight against terrorism by going on and on about how much it hurts to be accidentally shot by the police
  • The Responsibility to Shoot Intruders: “Intruders” in this case means anyone who is in your house and should not be there (or, if you are the police, anyone who is in a house). Obviously it doesn’t apply to the babysitter’s boyfriend, for example. Although one less babysitter’s boyfriend in the world isn’t going to cause too much hand-wringing, and in the end it’s your word against hers. Just use your common sense.
  • The Responsibility to Look Innocent: It used to be held that if you had nothing to hide, you had nothing to fear, but in these challenging times unfounded suspicions are sometimes all the police have to go on.
  • The Responsibility to Leave the Country When It Becomes Apparent that You Are No Longer Wanted: When a cricketer is dismissed he does not sit sullenly in a detention centre awaiting a verdict from some court in Strasbourg. He takes his bat and he walks. This is the British way, although it doesn’t apply to British people because they don’t have anywhere else to go.

Of course in any collection like this there will be misses contaminating the hits, and Dowling has a weakness for his regular PermaChat and PermaBlog columns, where the joke is repeatedly that chatrooms and blogs are full of useless jabber (ahum). He or his editors have included too many of these which he must turn out in his sleep, as well as a couple of longer, mostly straight pieces about penguins and donkey sanctuaries where, much to my disgust, Dowling appears almost entirely without misanthropy. Boring!

Anyway, consider this ample notice that this is the ideal seasonal gift which might even survive for further thumbing into 2008. You never can be too early for Christmas, can you?

Everything about Christmas seems to be happening earlier this year. My wife’s annual Christmas lecture, in which she posits an alternative holiday season where I don’t ruin everything by being so unpleasant, arrived ten days early. The traditional episode where my debit card is declined at an off-licence by someone wearing a jolly Santa hat happened right at the beginning of the month. On Saturday evening I placed a phone call that, in retrospect, clearly constituted a cry for help. “Thank you,” said the voice at the other end. “Your vote for Andy has been registered.”

And I can’t believe I’ve written almost as many words about this book as I did about Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. I think I’ve found my level.

Tim Dowling: The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club

Tim Dowling is one of the funniest journalists around, with each of his pieces in the Guardian guaranteed to produce at least one belly laugh and further scattered smiles of appreciation.  So much do one male friend and I enjoy his stuff, that our relationship has been reduced more or less to Sending to a Friend his articles as they appear, and subsequent exchanging of our favourite lines: and that’s how we like it.  So when his byline began to appear less and less often over the last year, our thirtysomething male bonding looked to be in jeopardy.  At least now I know what he was doing with his time.

In Dowling’s journalism, there has always been a welcome sublayer of middle-aged male angst, such as here (“I like to think that I have now passed through my midlife crisis and come out the other side (although this is not strictly accurate because I have discovered that there is no other side)”), so it was a relief, to me, to know that the subject of his debut novel The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club is a middle-aged humorous journalist – although this will be enough reason for others to slam the book closed before they’ve even opened it.

But as suburban, middle-class, comic novels go, this is everything we could hope for, a sort of Nigel Williams that doesn’t get boring halfway through.  Giles Wareing is a man who has begun to feel that he’s not really participating in his life.  He writes sycophantic puff-pieces about grotesque celebrities (“his novel covers several other themes, including gangsta rap, the post 9/11 zeitgeist and the redemptive power of fox-hunting”).  He mends household appliances (“The microwave beeped and went dark.  It was as if a little play about a rotating mug had come to the end of Act I”).  He develops gout and is unable to refuse going on talk shows to discuss it (“I had dreaded the notion of becoming Mr Gout, but now that the title had been conferred I felt oddly proud”).  He has erotic dreams about women who call at the door to try to get him to switch electricity suppliers.  He feels detached from his sons, whom he refers to as “the older one” and “the younger one.”  And of course, he worries about getting older:

“I’m forty,” I said quietly. This was not even strictly true; I was still thirty-nine, but with less than a month to go I had made a decision to meet inevitability halfway, to attack forty at a run. It was supposed to help me conquer the fear, but in truth I’d only given the fear a four-week head start. Every time I said, “I’m forty,” it was like pitching a stone into the pit of my soul just to hear the echo; incalculably distressing, but oddly habit-forming.

His main vice is vanity-googling (when he enters the letter G in his search engine box, it springs up all his previous searches: “Giles Wareing +funny,” “Giles Wareing +great,””Giles Wareing +moving,” “Giles Wareing + respected”), which leads him to a dark corner of an internet forum, where he discovers a talk thread calling itself The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club.  Here, various netheads attack Wareing and his work, egging one another on in their mockery of each article of his that appears in print.  Wareing, of course, cannot resist the corrosive effect of reading their splenetic rebuffs, occasionally joining in, and trying to find out who these haters really are…

All of this leads to a well-handled farcical plot involving clandestine dog-walking, murderous painter and decorators, addiction to prescription drugs (“Could it be that I had spent the last few months being insufficiently paranoid?”), stolen mobile phones, and an extreme right-wing pro-motoring lobby (which Dowling has satirised before):

“And now we’ve reached the point where we’re all meant to believe that every other person is homosexual,” said Robin, “when in fact the opposite is true.”

“What do you mean,” I said, “by the opposite?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“That every other person is a homosexual?”

The book also strains toward things more profound, about dislocation and priorities, about kindness and a sense of proportion, and it’s impossible not to wonder whether some of the angst does, for a journalist who has just produced his first novel, have its roots in truth:

I will aim to become a better writer, of longer and more serious things, with the ultimate goal of rendering all criticism of my work, be it Internet-based or otherwise, laughably wide of the mark.

Oh give over, Giles – I mean Tim.  Just keep us smiling and all will be well.