The genius of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts

To rephrase the poem, I like to go gently into the dark day. A radio alarm, tuned into Today, lulls me out of deep sleep and into foggy consciousness. My first hope of the day is for James Naughtie’s melodic Scottish burr, because I know I can count on his civilised and subtle manners. In interviews with politicians, bankers, businessmen, he doesn’t interrupt, irritate or dominate, but courteously allows his guests to prevaricate or shuffle at leisure, and the listener is allowed his own conclusions. My admiration for Mr Naughtie isn’t confined to Today. I like his conversations with writers on Bookclub, and in idle moments, I Google ‘Radio 4 Bookclub’ and listen again. I’ve listened to John Irving on writing A Prayer for Owen Meany three times.

And then there’s Mr Naughtie’s musical knowledge. I love it when he presents the Proms and operas from Covent Garden, and I heard most of The Making of Music, the series he wrote based on his belief that the history of classical music is inextricably linked to the places where it was written. I only remember two random nuggets: one from Nietzsche-‘Without music, life would be a mistake’-and one from Charlie Parker: ‘Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.’

I could go on tossing flowers (his book on the Blair years, The Accidental American, is as good as its title), but a couple of weeks ago, Mr Naughtie said something that astonished me so much that I’ve been rethinking my position as Devoted Fan ever since. In one of the ‘light’ segments, called something like ‘Why is the cartoon strip Peanuts so popular?’, Mr Naughtie said he didn’t like it. In fact, he said he ‘couldn’t stand’ Peanuts. Good grief. He didn’t say he found Peanuts incomprehensible I could have accepted that.

My own husband, in his congenital Englishness, is baffled by the cryptic profundities of Charlie Brown, whose baseball team never wins, as well as the bossy Lucy with her curbside psychiatric clinic, Linus with his security blanket and Shroeder with his toy piano and love of Beethoven. He doesn’t even get Snoopy, the unflappable, philosophical, writer manqué beagle. But Mr Naughtie spent long stretches in America, so I don’t believe he finds the dark wisdom of Peanuts impenetrable.

My shock at Mr Naughtie’s lack of feeling for the world created by Charles Schulz has stayed with me, kept alive by the rumbling debates about fairness triggered by the economic black hole and the spending cuts. If there is one theme that flows through the saga of Charlie Brown-18,250 strips over nearly 50 years and called ‘the longest story ever told by one human being’-it is this: life is many things-funny, beautiful, depressing, poetic, shallow, dramatic, confusing-but it’s not fair. The unfairness begins in childhood, when all the power is in the hands of grown-ups.

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Schulz understood unfairness. In high school, he flunked Latin, English, algebra and physics. His cartoons for his yearbook were rejected. Aged 18, he was drafted into the army. He left for boot camp five days after his mother died of cancer. He served in France and Germany from 1943 to 1945, but, once back home, he stayed put, creating his masterpiece of unfairness. As he admitted, in Peanuts, ‘all the loves are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses’.

Perhaps unfairly, I am now rather suspicious of Mr Naughtie’s matinal brilliance. I cannot imagine a modern intelligence uninfluenced by the profound and durable wisdom of Peanuts. All day long, I can hear Lucy saying: ‘I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.’ Or the philosophical Linus: ‘There is no heavier burden than great potential.’ Even as I write this, Charlie Brown’s words are ringing in my ears: ‘I hate to tell you this, but life is a thousand-word essay.’