Finally, tell us about Andy Warhol’s diaries.
Warhol’s diaries came out shortly after he died, and at the time I couldn’t see the point of them at all. They were just a litany of names, all social gossip, very close to being boring. But reading them 20 years on, I find them fascinating. My edition is about 800 pages long. There aren’t many diaries you could read from start to finish, but this one is luminous.
It’s all very surface. But then again he is talking about a very surface society. They give a feel for the freneticism of New York at that time, in the late 1970s to late 1980s. It’s the raunchy pre-AIDS time, New York at its bohemian peak. That they are in the present tense – I think he dictated them at the end of every day – gives a feel of story to them. If you transferred that into autobiography, it would be tedious.
What prevents the diaries from that fate?
A kind of waspish irritation. A capacity for annoyance. Andy Warhol was very upset if he wasn’t invited to something, and starts loathing the person who didn’t invite him.
What do we discover about Andy Warhol through them?
There’s not much about his private life, it’s all about his social life. It’s a public diary, in a way. I don’t enjoy Andy Warhol’s art myself, I think he’s banal. Although I suppose that’s the point. But if I had to choose, I would choose him as a diarist and not an artist. Of course, it was his fame as an artist that got him into these grand houses. There is an odd mix of people in the diaries. Warhol occupied the odd place in society where art and politics met. He would go to parties thrown by Jackie Kennedy for a mix of film stars and politicians. I always find it very interesting when different societies collide.
In Private Eye, you write a long-running diary parody column. Is it an easy form to parody?
Diaries are a particularly easy form to parody. With Alastair Campbell, at least half of his diary can go into a parody without being changed. Which suits both my lazy streak and my eye for accuracy. It’s his power-hungry self-assurance, combined with a manic self-disgust. There’s something very manic about him, and he does every now and then have breakdowns. Thinking you are the voice of common sense whilst being completely mad is always a good combination. A tragic combination, but for the purposes of comedy it works very well.
What do you see as the difference between satire and parody?
To be effective, parody has got to be discreet. It’s a bit like a pickpocket who removes people’s wallets and watches. I think satire is much more overt and tends to have a sense of purpose, whereas parody is more art for art’s sake.
Satire is a mugger, parody is a pickpocket?
I think that’s rather a good definition. Of course, some parodies can be more offensive than others. And it’s not either-or.
Is it important?
No. Satire doesn’t really change anything. In Britain it has changed maybe two things in the last 30 years. One is [British comedian] Harry Enfield, who hastened the end of people like [radio presenter] Dave Lee Travis. The other is [the TV programme] Spitting Image portraying [former Liberal Party leader] David Steel as a tiny figure in [former SDP leader] David Owen’s pocket, which had repercussions for the general public. But that’s not a great hit list. The point is to aim for the joke, and not care if it makes any difference.
When you write your own parodies, how do you get into the mind of your targets?
Through their language. Language is the key. So long as you get the way that they speak, you have caught some part of their personality and can transfer it onto the page. Personal knowledge doesn’t help at all, because you’re dealing with a public image. If you’ve heard that someone is kind to children, or a secret alcoholic, you can’t put that over in a parody. That’s more for a gossip column.