Review of "Humour Books", Independent on Sunday, published / by Rich Hobbs

For the last eleven or so years the books editors of this newspaper have ruined

my Christmas by giving me the crap job of reviewing the annual outpouring of

"Humour" books. And I have complained over and over again about the

defining assumptions that render so many "Humour" books not only not funny

but also deeply depressing crap. Just to remind you, these are: an unyielding

belief in the redemptive powers of association with TV; a cynical idleness that

assumes that anything tossed off by a cabal of art directors and accountants,

and thereafter usually associated with TV, will do; an unspoken knowledge

that none of these books will ever be read, but just sit by the bog for a month

or so before ending up at Oxfam; a transgressive urge to transcribe the

products of one medium (TV) into another (books) in the erroneous belief that

this will work; and a fundamentalist reverence for comedy and comedians, as

if they were not only the New Rock ‘n’ Roll but also the New Religion.

Last year we had a collective autobiography by Monty Python (...full of grace,

blessed art thou amongst 35 year old telly programmes...) which was more

like the Book of Kells than anything else. This year, in William (no relation)

Cook’s Goodbye Again: The Definitive Peter Cook and Dudley Moore

(Century £17.99), we have yet another book of reheated scripts, the better to

maintain our faith in the divine power and significance of a man who was

pretty funny for a while, but not much else. But if you think I’m being

appallingly po-faced here, reflect not only on what Pete himself might have

thought of all this, but also that next year you’ll be able to buy tiny scraps of

Cook’s calcified liver in keyrings, as relics to help cure the overwhelming

feelings of sadness and futility when confronted by books like this. And if that

doesn’t save your soul, try The Compulsive Spike Milligan (4th Estate £18.99),

edited by Norma Farnes, another cut and paste job about a dead comic genius

who becomes less and less funny the longer they’re dead.

Of the five tests outlined above, three are in evidence in Stephen Fry’s

Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music (Boxtree £16.99), "inspired",

apparently, by an award-winning Classic FM series, and boasting on the cover

as being "as told to Tim Lihoreau". Does this mean that Lihoreau wrote it?

Or is Fry’s amanuensis? Anyway, although it may have won awards on the

wireless, I found Fry’s transcribed vocal gurnings made the whole thing pretty

much unreadable, which is a shame as Fry, we’re told, is so fantastically

clever (he’s regularly described as having "a brain the size of Kent") he seems

to have found his natural home as a quiz show host. Similarly Making Divorce

Work (4th

Estate £10.99) by the very funny Rob Brydon’s alter ego Keith

Barret started out as a stand-up routine, but doesn’t work as a book, while

Rory Bremner, John Bird and John Fortune’s You Are Here: A Dossier (Orion

£16.99) is such a devastatingly brilliant attack on Blair’s record in government

that its occasional, apparently obligatory dips into flip "comedy" jar horribly,

so it doesn’t really work as humour.

None of these, however, plumb the depths of true, unadulterated awfulness

like Avid Merrion’s Book’Selecta (Transworld £14.99), which is little more

than a scrapbook which should never have been published of a TV programme

which should have been cancelled several series ago. Just as bad is Richard

Porter’s Crap Cars (BBC Books £9.99), another cynical and pointless telly

spin-off, this time from Top Gear, along with two meaningless sledgehammer

parodies, The Sellamillion by A.R.R.R.Roberts (Orion £6.99), which is little

more than an extended one word joke which first appeared in Private Eye 35

years ago, and Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore’s Star Bores (HarperCollins


Which is not to say that parodies, or books sneering at artifacts from the past,

or even books designed purely to sit by the bog need be this bad. Rohan

Candappa’s The Curious Incident of the WMD in Iraq (Profile £5.99) is not

only a great concept but also brilliantly executed, with his autistic Tony Blair

coming across as chillingly believable far too frequently for comfort. As are

the excellent Craig Brown’s parody diaries for Private Eye, now collected in

Imaginary Friends (Private Eye £9.99). There’s also a very nice parody of

glossy lifestyle magazines with PUSSY: For Cats Who Should Know Better

(Transworld £9.99), which manages to skewer all those mawkish "Cat

Humour" books (life’s too short to list them here) as well as making me laugh

out loud. The Very Best of the Innovations Catalogue (Bloomsbury £7.99),

The Bumper Book of Unuseless Japanese Inventions (HarperCollins £9.99)

and Nick DiFonzo’s The Worst Album Covers in the World... Ever!

(NewHolland £7.99) would also grace any toilet library and bring much

pleasure and laughter in those otherwise empty hours, as would Reach For

The Stars, a compendium of flyers by second and third-league light

entertainers by James Innes-Smith, except that Bloomsbury have withdrawn it

because some of the (real) acts featured didn’t think they were as funny or

ludicrous or sneerworthy as they clearly are. You can probably get hold of this

book if you try hard enough, and it’s worth it.

Sneering, after all, is the solid rock on which much humour is based, although

I didn’t take to Mia Wallace and Clint Spanner’s CHAV! A user’s Guide to

Britain’s New Ruling Class (Transworld £9.99). This extended SloaneRanger

Handbook-style sneer at the be-burberried denizens of the underclass breaks

one of my golden rules for Satire, which is that on the whole it’s better to take

the piss out of people more powerful than you, because otherwise, like this

book, you get dangerously close in spirit to those leaden 19th

Century Punch cartoons which poked fun at servants and foreigners while ignoring more

deserving targets. That can’t be said of this year’s dependably dependable

collections from our top cartoonists, with Steve Bell’s chimp-o-morphic take

on George Bush in Apes of Wrath (Methuen £12.99), that King of Cartoon

Cool Peter Brookes’ collected little zoomorphic masterpieces in Nature Notes

IV: The Natural Selection (LittleBrown £15.00 - and note the innate class of

that extra penny) and the further venal adventures of Charles Peattie and

Russell Taylor’s Alex (Masterley £9.99).

I was previously unfamiliar with Modern Toss, a comic by Jon Link and Mick

Bunnage, and now collected as a book by PanMacmillan (£9.99). Badly

drawn, utterly foul-mouthed, mean-spirited and misanthropic,

it’s also very very funny in ways that equally foul-mouthed rubbish like the dire

Book’Selecta could never be. Why this should be so is a mystery,

or requires far greater exegesis than I have room for here.

And that, dear reader, is just another aspect of the crappiness of this crap job

reviewing all these crap books for you every year. No better book to finish

with, then, than The Idler Book of Crap Jobs (edited by Dan Kieran,

Transworld £9.99), a run-down of the 100 worst jobs imaginable, from Ham

Factory Worker, through Journalist (ha!) to North Sea Ferry Cabin Cleaner,

with tales of humiliation, tedium, futility and, most of all, disgust and horror at

the vileness of other people. At Christmas you’d need a heart of stone not to

laugh very loudly indeed.