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

This is traditionally the time of year when it’s better to receive than to give,

and this applies to publishers more than anyone else, churning out warehouses

full of supposedly humourous crap, which is purposefully designed to be

bought by punters who won’t read it, as presents for other people who won’t

read it either. But this tide of tosh also subsidises many publishers’ output for

the rest of the year. If you look at it like that, you can almost forgive them,

knowing that each copy of some cynical cut ‘n’ paste telly tie-in dross will

help another, better book live. (And may the God of Comedy please prevent

the men behind The Mighty Boosh from ever, ever being flattered or bribed

into debasing themselves by knocking off something similar.)

Having thus worked myself up into an uncharacteristically generous frame of

mind, I was happy this year to notice that I’ve been sent only two tie-in jobs,

and I’m sure that Al Murray’s "The Pub Landlord’s Book of Common Sense"

(Hodder and Stoughton, £18.99), although over-

produced to the point of unreadability, might bring joy to someone or other

who’s been left unsated by Murray’s stage act, TV appearances and the widely

available DVDs thereof. Doesn’t make me laugh, but there you go.

However, my mood darkened considerably when I opened "Borat: Touristic

Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" (Boxtree, £14.99). Copyrighted

to I’m A Bender Productions and written by Anthony Hines and "Borat

Sagdiyev" (who doesn’t exist), with additional material by Sacha Baron

Cohen, this cobbled together reprise of the Borat Movie, with some extra stuff

about Borat’s homeland (an entirely fictional construct which just happens to

share the same name as a real country populated by real people) is one of the

most unpleasant things I’ve held in my hands for a long time. I admit I found

parts of the Borat Movie genuinely laugh-out-loud funny (although I have no

wish ever to watch it again), because it worked according to the unperceived

but understood laws of satire. Borat the ingenue’s picaresque adventures in the

US highlighted the contradictions and absurdities of that country, but the stuff

in this book about Kazakhstan is not just borderline racist (a long way the

other side of the border, as it happens) but also bullying, smug, nasty, mean

and ugly, as well as pornographic, and even then not in a good way. If we had

time, I suppose we could deconstruct the photograph of Baron Cohen as Borat

being fellated by a young woman who’s meant to be Borat’s sister, just in

order to tease out a few fragile strands of humour, but I can’t honestly be

bothered. For his part, Baron Cohen never gives interviews, presumably

because he’s too busy counting his money, but if he ever did he’d doubtless

excuse this whole woeful product as being blessed and therefore justified by

that raddled old whore "Irony". Which is fine, I suppose, except that particular

get-out clause was becoming stale even before Baron Cohen blacked up as Ali


The one good thing about the Borat book is that it got me grumpy enough to

consider the latest load of grumpy books. This increasingly rickety publishing

bandwagon was launched a few years ago on the back of the success of

"Grumpy Old Men" on the telly. For a while the formula worked, at least in

commercial terms, so it’s inevitable that publishers will carry on milking this

particular cash cow until it’s reduced to bones and dust. This year, therefore,

we have David Quantick’s "Grumpy Old Men: New Year, Same Old Crap"

(Harper Collins, £9.99) and Mitchell Symons’ "Don’t Get Me Started: A Way-

Beyond-Grumpy Rant About Modern Life" (Bantam Press, £9.99), reading

which is a bit like being locked forever in a taxi driven eternally round the

M25 by a psychotic fascist cabbie with Tourette’s AND anger management

issues. Naturally, this Grumpy Ranting shtik has spawned legion sub-genres,

which are basically cheap and repetitive whinges played for comic effect, and

often married to the kind of observational stand-up comedy which was

becoming tired 20 years ago. Thus "Playing it Safe: The Crazy World of

Britain’s Health and Safety Regulations" by Alan Pearce (Friday Books,

£9.99) or Joel Stickley and Luke Wright’s "Who Writes This Crap? All The

Rubbish You Read in a Day - Rewritten" (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99), which

might bring joy into the heart of a loved one this Yuletide morn with their

comforting messages to hate everyone and everything.

Not that these books don’t have their moments of inspiration. It’s just that all

this moaning’s getting a bit dull. But among all the "joke" books about

irritating emails or post-it notes or crap towns or everyday life, you

occasionally find some proper, serious and seriously funny stuff, produced by

grown-ups for a reason. "Crap Cycle Lanes: 50 worst cycle lanes in Britain"

(Eye-Books, £4.99), for example, is an anthology of photographs of frankly

preposterous examples of traffic planning, with cycle lanes 5 feet long, filled

with bollards, hurtling towards the fast lane of trunk roads and so on. Compact

enough to fit into any cyclist’s lycra stocking, it made me laugh out loud, and

I can’t even ride a bike. There’s also Charlie Brooker’s "Dawn of the Dumb"

(Faber, £9.99), the latest collection of his writings on TV and a lot else for The

Guardian. What makes Brooker’s rants and diatribes stand out from the rest of

this reactionary, misanthropic oeuvre is that his outrage is real and invariably

justified, because unlike the Borat book or all the other books listing bugbears

like bellybutton fluff or how awful Nuneaton is, Brooker actually has a heart.

It just happens to be constantly breaking with fury.

Last year I prophesied that sooner or later there’d be a backlash against all this

grumpy stuff, and sure enough here it comes with Steve Stack’s "It Is Just

You, Everything’s Not Shit: A Guide to All Things Nice" (Friday Books,

£9.99), a response to Lowe and McArthur’s bestseller "Is It Just Me Or Is

Everything Shit?" About time too, if you ask me, although it’s a shame that

the book is far too long and not particularly funny.

It will, however, probably make you feel warmer and fluffier than Boris

Johnson’s "The Perils of the Pushy Parents" (Harper Press, £10.00), an

extended, sub-Bellocian exercise in rhyming couplets exuding a weird kind of

bouncy fogeyism, both written and illustrated by the Member for Henley-on-

Thames and putative Mayor of London. Citizens of both places should read

this bizarre doggerel and think carefully about everything its existence implies

before they next have an opportunity to vote for Bozza, and though I’m aware

that this advice might get him far more sales than he deserves, the price of

freedom is eternal vigilance.

We’re beginning to get a bit bi-polar here, because Boris’s book is bound to

sour your mood once more, just in time to enjoy Andy Riley’s "The Bumper

Book of Bunny Suicides" (Hodder, £9.99), collecting together and adding to

his previous collections of highly inventive and very funny rabbit despair. It

should cheer you up no end. Also worth a look is "The Wicked Teenager"

(John Murray, £9.99), the latest anthology of Social Stereotypes from the

Telegraph Magazine by Victoria Mather, illustrated by Sue Macartney-Snape,

who can encapsulate an entire social milieu in a drooping eyelid or a flared


Sticking with cartoons, sort of, is "Psycho-Geography" (Bloomsbury, £17.99),

an anthology of Will Self’s column for The Independent, illustrated by the

great Ralph Steadman. This, like Brooker’s book, is a serious, grown-up book

which is also very funny, and it deserves more space and praise than I can give

it here, beyond urging you simply to buy it and find out for yourself.

All that need be said, sticking with my theme, is that Self had the sense and

grace to jump ship from The Grumpy Old Men TV show several years ago in

order more fully to embrace the unsullied joys of the weird and wonderful, so

I’ll finish up with two examples of both.

The first is Charlotte Gray’s "The Visitors" (Dewi Lewis Publishing, £14.99),

an incredibly odd and rather unsettling collection of sepia photographic

portraits of Victorians and Edwardians, each of which has had the head of a

different animal replace that of the original sitter. It sounds dumb and cheap, I

know, but it works. It’s also funnier than Max Ernst’s efforts in the same kind

of photomontage, and that’s saying something. But the book I’d recommend

most highly is "A Pig With Six Legs and Other Clouds from the Cloud

Appreciation Society", edited by Gavin Pretor-Pinney (Sceptre, £10), which is

exactly what it says it is. It made me smile, it made me laugh and it made me

feel happy. Indeed, if anyone still feels grumpy after thumbing through this

little gem of meteorological objets trouves, quite frankly they deserve the

Borat book and a miserable life of eternal grumpiness.