The Big Bang: Christmas Crackers 2000-2009 John Julius Norwich

The Dovecote Press, pp.365, 20

As befits a magazine with an erudite and international readership, I shall begin this review with a short salutation in the Western Greenland Eskimo language: ‘Ata, sûlorsimavutit!’

The phrase, as some of you — although I fear reprehensibly few — will know means: ‘Well, now you have again relieved yourself in your trousers.’ One can, I think, deduce two things from this.

As befits a magazine with an erudite and international readership, I shall begin this review with a short salutation in the Western Greenland Eskimo language: ‘Ata, sûlorsimavutit!’

The phrase, as some of you — although I fear reprehensibly few — will know means: ‘Well, now you have again relieved yourself in your trousers.’ One can, I think, deduce two things from this. The first is that Western Greenlanders must pee in their trousers an awful lot if they need so few words to describe it, and the second is that anyone who chooses to include a snippet like this in an anthology plainly possesses a collector’s eye for absurdity.

For the last 40 years, John Julius Norwich has been sending out an annual Christmas Cracker — a collection of choice bits and pieces — to his friends instead of a Christmas card. Then, every ten years, he publishes a compilation of the decade’s Crackers. This is the fourth compilation and it’s just as full of unpredictable pleasures as its predecessors. It’s also not the sort of book that should be read on public transport by anyone fearful of making an exhibition of themselves.

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Here, by way of a palate sharpener, is an extract from an interview with Madonna conducted by the Hungarian magazine, Blikk. The questions were asked in Hungarian and then translated into English. Madonna’s replies were then translated into Hungarian. The interview was published in Hungarian and then translated back into English. Along the way something has plainly been lost, but rather more, I think, has been gained:

Blikk: Madonna, let’s cut toward the hunt. Are you a bold hussy-woman that feasts on men who are tops?

Madonna: Yes, yes, this is certainly something that brings to the surface my longings. In America it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discotheque setting with hardy cocktails present. And there is a more normal attitude toward leather play-toys that also makes my day.

One of the things that makes Norwich such a terrific anthologist is the openness of his gaze. He is equally delighted by a list of the flavoured condoms to be found in the vending machine at Grantham Station — including ‘Humpy Birthday’ and ‘Kangaroo’ — as he is by A.C. Benson’s description of going to visit Swinburne and finding him drying his socks: ‘Swinburne sat down, concealing his feet behind a chair, and proceeded with strange motions to put the socks on out of sight.’

Although Norwich does not appear to be much of a sports fan, he does include Zambian tennis champion, Lighton Ndefwayl’s ungracious account of the defeat he suffered at the hands of his compatriot, Musumba Bwayla:

Musumba Bwayla is a stupid man and a hopeless player … He beat me because my jockstrap was too tight and because when he serves he farts, and that made me lose my concentration, for which I am famous throughout Zambia.

I suppose it’s the fate of books like this to end up in the lavatory. In the case of The Big Bang, this seems both unfair and unwise, ensuring that people spend far longer in there than they would otherwise do. Indeed, some readers with delicate constitutions might never emerge at all. How- ever regrettable, this would at least be a more enjoyable end than the one suffered by a mugger called Robert Clear in Edinburgh in 1978, as recorded by the Edinburgh Evening News:

While they were waiting at a bus stop in Clermiston, Mr and Mrs Daniel Thirsty were threatened by Mr Robert Clear. ‘He demanded that I give him my wife’s purse,’ said Mr Thirsty. ‘Telling him that the purse was in her basket, I bent down, put my hands up her skirt, detached her artificial leg and hit him over the head with it. It was not my intention to do anything more than frighten him off, but unhappily for us all, he died.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Facts, Non-fiction