There can be few challenges more daunting for the assiduous reviewer than a pile of Christmas ‘gift’ books sitting on his desk exuding yuletide jollity. But this year’s aren’t bad at all. Some are serious works of quasi-academic research, others are tooth-pullingly funny and one or two are utterly bizarre.
For sheer magnificent pointlessness, you should look no further than Great British Pub Dogs by Abbie Lucas and Paul Fleckney (Robinson, £12.99). Lucas (a photographer) and Fleckney (a journalist) have, for no doubt pressing reasons of their own, roamed the nation to identify the ‘wonderful variety’ of Britain’s pub-
dwelling dogs. Oh, and one pig, Frances Bacon. One pub had three Jack Russells, another had four red setters, and a third had a bulldog that spun like a ballerina. Sadly, one or two of the dogs photographed have since died, and several pubs have closed, so this is, in its strange way, a moment captured in time. It certainly has an elegiac quality that may not have been entirely intentional.
Alexei Sayle once starred in a radio sitcom I wrote, and needless to say I was too shy to go up and engage him in conversation in the pub afterwards, where he sat looking every bit as scary as his stage persona. Chucked off the telly in the 1990s, he wrote two excellent books of short stories and three novels, but none of them sold that well — an appalling injustice. So he’s back on the stand-up, and Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar (Bloomsbury, £9.99) is essentially a version of his recent Radio 4 show. It’s only 80 pages long, but it’s wonderful stuff: discursive, daft, alternately angry and almost preter-naturally calm, this is comic riffing of the highest quality. I suspect he may be a better writer than performer, but if you want someone to tell him that to his face, I’m not your man.
Michael Heath’s The Battle for Britain (Wilkinson, £23.50) is a collection of his Spectator strips and, rather bizarrely, has been published in Australia, although copies are available via the good souls of Amazon. Many of the strips are doctored versions of 1930s and 1940s drawings and, as ever, reflect Heath’s obsessions with tattoos, silly facial hair, baseball caps worn backwards and idiots walking into lamp posts while staring at mobile phones. As these are my own obsessions too, I found it almost indecently funny. ‘But mother, I don’t want to grow a beard!’ says a young boy, carrying a mobile phone. ‘But all the other boys have them, you little creep!’ says his furious mama.
There are, for some reason, many millions of puzzle and quiz books published this year, maybe because these things are cyclical and it’s the turn of puzzle and quiz books. The best puzzle book is Alex Bellos’s Puzzle Ninja (Guardian/Faber, £14.99), which is both a fascinating overview of the Japanese puzzle scene and a collection of 100 glorious puzzles of the Sudoku-Kakoru-Futoshiki variety. Sudoku, it turns out, isn’t Japanese at all but nicked from an American puzzle magazine in the 1980s, where it was called ‘Number Place’. Would we all have gone mad for it if it was still called Number Place? Having spent four days on a single Slitherback puzzle, I’m not sure I care any more.
The best book about quizzes is Mark Mason’s startlingly good Question Time (Weidenfeld, £12.99), but as the idiot has mentioned me by name several times, I can say so only in passing. Not far behind, though, is The Cryptic Pub Quiz, written and illustrated by Frank Paul (Duckworth Overlook, £16.99), a collection of mainly brutal questions from the quiz at the Mill in Cambridge that all sensible quizmasters will steal from without attribution over the next couple of years. Geoff or Damien is to the highest degree as which former archbishop is to a lesser result? Desmond Tutu, of course. (Rhyming slang. Geoff or Damien = Hurst, or first-class degree. Desmond = 2:2). Ingenious, no? And by far the most recondite quiz book is Nemo’s Almanac: A Quiz for Book Lovers (Profile, £9.99), a compilation of the extraordinarily tricky literary quizzes produced annually for the frighteningly well read. I recognised one quotation immediately (from a book I had read the previous week) and thought myself very clever. Several hours then passed before I knew another one.
W.P. Sheridan’s Streakers of Distinction (Bluebell Publishing, £9.99) is a splendid idea, excellently done and beautifully packaged in an elegant little hardback. Sheridan has interviewed a dozen people who streaked through or across sporting events: some did it for bets, some for a dare, some because it seemed like a good idea at the time. It usually was. There are many wonderful photographs, mainly of buttocks, and the whole project is infused with an extraordinary joy. This one is also available through Amazon.
My favourite book of this and possibly any other Christmas is Mark Forsyth’s A Short History of Drunkenness (Viking, £12.99), which I have reviewed elsewhere, but which deserves to be an enormous hit, so I’m mentioning it again. Here’s the Greek playwright Euboulos, telling us how much wine he likes to give his guests at a good knees-up. A krater is a large ornamental bucket of wine:
For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health, which they drink first, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home.
The fourth krater is not mine any more — it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.