There is a warning printed on the cover of Da Gospel According to Ali G (4th
which reads "Parental Advisory Explicit Content", which I rather hope will set
a trend. Thus the little tiny book The Languid Goat is Always Thin: The
World’s Strangest Proverbs (Prion, £3.99) should have a warning sticker
saying "Choking Hazard! Not Suitable For Under 36 Months". Likewise
Absolutely Fabulous by Jennifer Saunders (Headline, £14.99), a big thick
book of photos of the cast of the TV programme pulling faces for the polaroid,
should have the warning sticker "DANGER! LAZY SMUGNESS HAZARD!
SELF-SATISFIED STARS BECOMING WHAT THEY ONCE SATIRISED!
AVOID!" We could go on forever here. TV Go Home: TV Listings the Way
They Should Be (4th Estate, £9.99), an almost unreadably dense and
foulmouthed parody of The Radio Times, has the same warning on it as on the
dreadful abortion of a book published under the name of Ali G, the Al Jolson
de nos jours. What the sticker on TV Go Home should say, however, is
"WARNING! If you are a parent your 13 year-old son and his mates will find
this book much funnier than you will".
Then there are those books which truly belong in a different medium but
which lazy, evil, greedy publishers continue to inflict on us every year without
respite. Why don’t Only Fools and Horses: The Bible of Peckham Volume 3
(BBC £16.99) or The League of Gentlemen: A Local Book for Local People
(4th Estate, £8.99) have stickers on them saying "WARNING! This is not a
Television. Buy the videos instead"?
And I really feel there should be some kind of warning appended to the
Cassell’s Humorous Quotations (ed. Nigel Rees, £20.00), The Oxford
Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (ed. Ned Sherrin, £18.99), The Penguin
Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations (ed. Fred Metcalf, with an
introduction - big deal! - by the Executive Producer of "The Simpsons",
£16.99), The Penguin Dictionary of Epigrams (ed. Mark Cohen, £12.99) and
The Ruling Asses: A Little Book of Political Stupidity (Prion, edited by
Stephen Robbins, £9.99). Only a reviewer with infinite patience, iron-like will
and an immense private income is actually going to read these rib-tickling
doorstops to compare and contrast the quality of their side-splitting selections
of bon mots, so instead I opened each volume at random and read my family
one of the quotations therein. Not a flicker of a smile from anyone. Stuck to
these books, then, should be "WARNING! Strictly Speech-writing Rotarians
So much for my usual mutter of "Humbug!" at this Christmas’s selection.
However, there’s room for one more warning sticker, which should be
whacked on the front of Frank Skinner’s Frank Skinner (Century, £16.99).
I must admit that when I saw I had to review this book,
there was a little funeral in my heart: I’ve never been much taken
with Skinner’s laddish schtick, and cannot share his twin enthusiasms for
either football or his charmless and unfunny mate David Baddiel (of whom
Victor Lewis-Smith definitively said, "from Baddiel to worsiel"). But this
book is actually very very good. The point about Skinner is that he’s a lot
smarter than he’d like us to realise, and it’s no lie to say that Frank Skinner is
up there with Tristram Shandy as a brilliantly effective book about writing a
book, filled with expertly handled but apparently wild digressions and endless
longueurs about the boons and bugbears of writing a showbiz autobiography
about writing a showbiz biography. Given his 1st class degree in Eng.Lit.
(shhhh) this is almost certainly deliberate. But more than that, the book is also,
in turns, hilariously honest and deeply moving, particularly when he’s writing
about the death of his parents or his personal relationship with God (no,
really). I cried, and I also laughed so much at his description of his first sexual
encounter I fell off my chair, although whether this passage can best be
described as Dostoyevskian or in homage to Henry Miller will be down to
future generations of Eng.Lit. students to decide. So what should the sticker
read? "WARNING! THIS BOOK IS MUCH BETTER THAN YOU HAVE
ANY RIGHT TO EXPECT".
No stickers required for the rest of my selection, because you know just what
you’re getting. Those excellent people at Bloomsbury are continuing their
public spirited publication of the complete oeuvre of the late, great and
hilariously morbid Edward Gorey with The Iron Tonic (Bloomsbury, £5.99).
Equally welcome are Steve Bell’s Unstoppable If... (Methuen, £10.99) and
Nature Notes III (Little, Brown, £15.00), an anthology of his anthropomorphic
Times series by the indisputably groovy Peter Brookes, although I did notice
an increase in the shit and piss quota in these cartoons, which struck me as a
flagrant muscling in on my territory. Also dependably hilarious is The Best of
Matt (Orion £4.99), a selection of Matt Pritchett’s pocket cartoons from the
front page of The Telegraph, and generally the only good thing in that paper.
The same can be said on all counts of The Spectator Cartoon Book 2001
(Profile, £3.99), edited by Michael Heath. Then there are collections from
three truly great cartoonists, Sempe’s The World According to Sempe (The
Harvill Press, £15.00), Ed McLachlan’s eponymous McLachlan (Methuen
£9.99), being the best cartoons from over 40 years by Britain’s very own
Charles Addams, and Gilbert Shelton’s The Complete Fabulous Furry Freak
Brothers: Volume One (Knockabout, £22.99). The amazing thing about
Shelton’s definitive 60s underground comic strip is that you can still turn on,
tune in, drop out and laugh, which is fabulous and furry indeed.
Finally, for my money the best "humorous" book this year. Craig Brown’s The
Marsh Marlowe Letters (Prion Humour Classics, £8.99) was the great
parodist’s first book, written with magnificent venom in a shack in Suffolk in
1983, and satirising the kind of fogeyish establishment collected
correspondence so beloved of good and great old buffers choosing their books
of the year in Sunday newspapers. Supposedly letters exchanged between a
publisher and his old schoolmaster, along the way they not only skewer almost
every public figure (most of them Brown’s personal enemies) from Clive
James and Frederic Raphael upwards, but also just the kind of crap publishers
bemerde you and me with every Yuletide. Read about Harvey Marsh’s
chairmanship of the Funny Books Committee (should the Bible be included?)
and you need read no other "humorous" books this year. For which relief,