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

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"

(Bloomsbury, £5.99).

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.