I’ve been reviewing the annual seasonal outpouring of "Humour" books in
these pages for 12 years now. Most people in this country get less than that for
murder, so it’s hardly surprising if I should be getting slightly jaundiced and
more than a little tetchy when another boxful of Yuletide funnies arrives,
filled as ever with deeply cynical, humourless cut and paste jobs knocked out
by the work experience boy or girl in a publisher’s art department, under the
beady eye of an accountant with a knout.
That said, I’ve also been waging a weary and hitherto unrewarding
annual campaign against this Yuletide emission of dross, trying through
measured argument to dissuade those nice publishing houses from killing yet
more trees merely further to burden us with books coat-tailing on crap TV
programmes which in any case will never be read. And what do you know? It
finally seems to be working. First off, I’ve received absolutely no books at all
which attempt a cheap transubstantiation by cramming your favourite TV
comedy show between hard or soft covers. In fact the only book which pokes
even the tip of toe into this area is a reissue of Joyce Grenfell’s 1977 "George,
Don’t Do That" (Hodder and Stouton, £12.99), being the late Miss Grenfell’s
collected monologues, many of which were first broadcast on radio. And that
doesn’t really count as these are very funny, and Grenfell was one of the finest
humourous writers and performers of the 20th Century.
More heartening still is a trend towards a greater environmental
awareness among certain publishers, which is the only explanation I could
come up with for receiving several books I rubbished in this column last year.
Perhaps they think I’ll have mellowed over the past twelve months and now
realise that "Chav" (Bantam, £9.99) is, in fact, up there with "A Modest
Proposal" in satirical terms, rather than being a piece of meanspirited,
snobbish crap, like "A-Z of White Trash" (New Holland, £7.99), which may
be new, but still breaks the cardinal rule of satire, which is to mock people
more powerful and richer than you are. Then again, it’s more likely that
Simon Hoggart got it right in his Guardian column a couple of weeks ago
when he observed that publishers bring out this garbage in time for Christmas,
it sells 37 copies, so they let all the unsold copies languish in a warehouse in
Luton for 9 months before bringing it out again in time for next Christmas in
vain hope their luck may have changed. If this is true I think the Pope may be
wrong about limbo.
Still, Hoggart at least has done us a favour with "The Hamster That
Loved Puccini" (Atlantic Books, £9.99), which is another selection of those
appalling round robin letters we all receive from hopelessly unselfconscious
but fatally egotistical acquaintances at this special time of the year, and in
consequence wonderfully, horribly funny. Meanwhile, to return to recycling,
"The Idler Book of Crap Holidays" (Bantam, £9.99) isn’t quite as much
revolting fun as last year’s "Book of Crap Jobs", which I got sent again this
year, along with "Pussy" (Transworld, £9.99), last year’s rather brilliant satire
on lifestyle magazines for felines, which this year’s "Bitch" (same publisher,
same price, same joke, but this time about dogs) doesn’t quite match up to.
Nor is Andy Riley’s "Great Lies to Tell Small Kids" (Hodder and Stoughton,
£7.99) a patch on his sublime "Bunny Suicides". Nor, sadly, does the great
Craig Brown’s "1966 and All That" (Hodder and Stoughton, £10) really work,
but then again Sellar and Yeatman’s "1066 and All That" (Methuen, £9.99)
can neither be bettered nor, I suspect, repeated, even at the hands of a master
of pastiche like Brown. Incidentally, the 75th Anniversary edition of "1066
and All That" is illustrated by Stephen Appleby, for reasons I can’t quite
understand, as his cartoons run along side, rather than replacing, John
Reynolds’ classic illustrations without really adding much, while "Better
Living Through Air Guitar" (Portrait, £12.99) has some wonderful, and
typically Applebevian, weird whimsical drawings, but not enough of them.
With the greatest respect, they should have dumped the writer, George Mole,
and given Appleby his head. All in all you’re better off sticking with the
paperback of Appleby’s 2003 "Jim - The Nine Lives of a Dysfunctional Cat"
If you detect a certain world weariness in my tone, rest assured that
I’m not alone. Joy to the world is clearly not the dominant sentiment among
humour writers this year, but rather a kind of wry yet furious disgust. Nick
Webb’s "The Dictionary of Bullshit" (Robson, £9.99), Steve Lowe & Alan
McArthur’s "Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? The Encyclopaedia of
Modern Life" (Time Warner, £9.99), "Graham Edmonds’ "Bullshit Bingo"
(Southbank, £6.99) and Simon Carr’s "The Gripes of Wrath" (Portrait, £9.99)
all rage against the idiocies of the Modern World and specifically the way it’s
"managed", which in several cases must have made for interesting editorial
meetings among these authors’ various publishers. I highly recommend all
four books, just to get you into the right kind of psychotic rancourous mood
you’ll need to survive until Twelfth Night. "A Shite History of Nearly
Everything" by A. Parody (ho ho) (Michael O’Mara, £9.99) sounds like it
should be equally cloacinally empowering, but isn’t. It’s not even a parody,
but just another sub-Schott bit of band-wagon jumping.
Which isn’t to say that the ubiquitous Schott hasn’t led by example up
some rewarding byways. Adam Jacot de Boinod’s "The Meaning of Tingo"
(Penguin, £10) is a collection/dictionary/glossary (that it’s indefinable is one
of its many strengths) of words from around the world which have bizarrely
exact meanings. To quote one would mean having to quote them all, so you’ll
just have to believe me that this is a magnificently Reithian read, both
educational and entertaining, and very funny as well, even though I couldn’t
find what "Jacot de Boinod" actually means.
"The Meaning of Tingo" has an encomium on the jacket ("Jacot"?)
from Stephen Fry, which leads us neatly to "Tish & Pish: How to be of a
speakingness like Stephen Fry" (Summersdale, £7.99) by Stewart Ferris,
which has a small print get out clause on the back cover saying the book has
nothing to do with Fry, hasn’t been endorsed by him, and it should not be
construed that any of the phrases included therein have ever been used by him.
In the extraordinary unliklihood that a single copy of this weirdly pointless
book ever sells, I can foresee a juicy little "Passing Off" action coming to a
High Court near you. Still, just about, in the realm of linguistics, there’s
Stephen Caires’ "The Joys of Engrish" (Penguin, £10), a collection of
photographs of Japanese and Chinese slogans, logos, shop-names and so on
rendered in English presumably to give them some exotic allure out East. You
shouldn’t really laugh at this kind of thing: it’s patronising, culturally
imperialist and probably racist; unfortunately it’s also very funny.
I’m usually immune to, as well as being almost completely ignorant of
all forms of sport, so I was tempted to pass by "Summoned by Balls" (John
Murray, £9.99) by Christopher Matthew, as it’s about golf. To be more
precise, I’ve long held fast to the principle that if you can make foxhunting
illegal, then why not golf too? However, Matthew has proved time and again
what an old pro he is at the almost lost art of writing humourous verse (last
year he did it again with "Now We Are Sixty) that it would be churlish not to
recommend this book if golf floats your boat. By the same token, normally I’d
abjure "Why Did Arsene Wenger Cross the Road?" (Bantam, £9.99), as it’s a
football joke book, and if we’re going to ban golf, then why not football?
However, the jokes are so good that even if you hate football (like me) you
should be able to adapt something like the following to suit any circumstance:
Why does it take two Everton fans to eat a hedgehog? One to do the eating,
the other to watch out for traffic.
However, if you want to avoid gloom, doom or sport and feel more
traditionally festive, then Brendan Powell Smith’s "The Brick Testament: The
Story of Christmas" (Quirk, £8.99) should do the trick, combining the two
defining components of Christmas: Scripture and Lego. His rendering of the
Slaughter of the Innocents puts the Chapman Brothers to shame. Still with
visual humour, Chris Riddell’s "The Da Vinci Cod" (Walkerbooks, £5.99) is a
delightful little book of excruciatingly bad literary puns, drawn with Riddell’s
familiar flair for beautifully wrought detail, and no home should really be
without the great Ronald Searle’s "Searle’s Cats" in a new and revised edition
(Souvenir Press, £9.99). And that leads us effortlessly onto my top
recommendation, which is Sam Leith’s "Dead Pets"(Canongate, £9.99) which,
apart from being very funny, is also terribly moving in its exploration of our
relationships with companion animals and how we cope when our dumb
chums move onto the Happier Hunting Ground. It’s also (as a nice change)
very well written - see if you notice the repeated allusions to Kurt Vonnegut’s
"Slaughterhouse 5" - and, particular usefully at this time of the year, has a
lengthy section on stuffing. A word of warning, though: don’t sneak this out
of your loved one’s stocking on Christmas Eve while you contemplate the
gory and hollow interior of your turkey. It’s not that kind of stuffing.