Marcus Berkmann

Dying of laughter

Marcus Berkmann on the few genuinely funny books aimed at this year’s Christmas market

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Marcus Berkmann on the few genuinely funny books aimed at this year’s Christmas market

It’s a worrying sign, but I suspect that Christmas may not be as amusing as it used to be. For most of my life, vast numbers of so-called ‘funny’ books have been published at around this time of year, aimed squarely at desperate shoppers lurching drunkenly into bookshops on 24 December, still looking for the perfect present for someone they don’t much like. But this year there aren’t anywhere near as many. Perhaps they stopped selling. Maybe the QI Annual and Schott’s Almanac saw them off. Or maybe it just dawned on everyone at the same time that being given, say, Jeremy Clarkson’s latest collection is an act of such blatant passive-aggression as to make family life almost intolerable for the next 12 months, until you can retaliate with a present that’s even more offensive. ’Tis the season to be jolly, after all.

And yet, a few genuinely funny ‘funny’ books do still creep through, books you will be happy to see on your shelves when all manifestations of Top Gear have long been pulped and forgotten. I cannot resist including The Lost Diaries by Craig Brown (Fourth Estate, £18.99), even though the book has been reviewed here once already. The wondrous Brown finds yet another way of recycling his Private Eye parodies, by slicing them into nutritious bite-sized chunks and spreading them across a calendar year. So on 15 June, we have James Lees-Milne:

To tea with Chairman Mao. Do I detect something Chinese about him? Curiously his wardrobe seems not to run to a shirt and tie. I set him at his ease. ‘My dear — those are workmen’s overalls! But how witty!’

On 9 August, it is our own sainted Charles Moore:

I went toad-hunting this morning. The most obviously useful of all forms of hunting — no one likes a toad — it also has a strange beauty about it. Is there a sound closer to the deep, mystic spirit of the English countryside than the sudden squelch of toad beneath wellington boot?

The Private Eye parodies work so well, are so complete in themselves, that you fear something might be lost by this cut ’n’ paste method, but nothing is. Instead, you dip into this vast comic box of chocolates with ever-increasing admiration, marvelling at both the sustained invention and the savage accuracy of the impersonations. Some parodists can do one or the other; only Brown can do both.

Cartoonists, and fans of cartoons, are unusually well served this year. I shall mention only in passing the two latest volumes of The Complete Peanuts, 1963–64 and 1965–66 (Canongate, £15 each). We’re in the golden age now, before Snoopy’s internal monologue all but took over the strip and the lightness of Schulz’s jokecraft began to fade. For the moment, his quality control is little short of breathtaking. There are another 16 volumes to follow over the next eight years: as good a reason as any, I suppose, to stay alive.

The Guardian’s Steve Bell collects the best of the last of the five years in If… Bursts Out (Cape, £16.99), fuelled as ever by extreme rage and an artistic gift second to none. I’m not sure Gordon Brown quite inspired him to the heights of imaginative ferocity he maintained while Blair was in power, but Cameron seems to have got him going again. I can imagine the steam pouring from his ears as he draws these brutal and often beautiful strips — although there aren’t enough of the big op-ed cartoons here for my liking. Or might that be the next book?

James Taylor’s Careless Talk Costs Lives (Conway Publishing, £9.99) is subtitled ‘Fougasse & the Art of Public Information’ and concentrates on that great cartoonist’s poster and advertising work during the 1930s and 1940s. It’s astonishing how heavy-handed public information posters were during the second world war, until Fougasse (born Cyril Kenneth Bird, and not French at all) intervened with vaguely surreal jokes and his distinctively clean visual style. ‘Surely the whole population knows a Fougasse when they see it,’ said A. P. Herbert, ‘and can tell a Fougasse across three platforms.’ Taylor’s commentary is a little pedestrian, but you would be buying this splendid little book for its illustrations, which are magnificent.

Finally, a curiosity. Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson claim to have found the manuscript of A Dodo at Oxford (Oxgarth Press, £12.99) in a charity shop. Written (they deduce) in 1683, it tells the story of an Oxford student and his pet dodo, possibly the last of its kind, which he keeps in his rooms. In short, this is a donnish jeu d’esprit of the old school, aiming less for the belly laugh than the half-smile and the appreciative raised eyebrow. But it’s charming, and the writers’ meticulous attention to detail makes it a book to be savoured, possibly with a large glass of something just after Christmas, while a ‘funny’ book you didn’t want glows usefully on an open fire.