BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS

COLUMNISTS
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The Independent Culture
How often do you read a sparkling 1000-word article and exclaim to yourself, "Now that should be preserved between hard covers"? Not very often. When you do, the odds are that it will be a column. And when a piece has you wondering why a tall tree fell and a small boy got up early in order to bring this self-indulgent dross to your breakfast table, that will be a column too.

"The British press is now overpopulated with second-rate performers," declares Christopher Silvester in his Penguin Book of Columnists (pounds 25). There are certainly large gangs of the species wittering away about how they coped during the cleaner's week off or copying out a news story and adding the exhortation that This Has Got To Stop.

And there is Julie Burchill. Wisely, Christopher Silvester has not made house room for Stalinist Thatcherites with (grudgingly, I admit it) a nicely turned phrase. Instead, his book aims to give us first-rate performers to fill the current columnar gap. Well, it scores at least three hits: Keith Waterhouse, Keith Waterhouse and Keith Waterhouse. The man whose creative nostalgia makes him possibly the King of the Columnists, is represented here by the Sofa That Terrorised Brighton, the Ideal Homes of Essex and The Three Wise Social Workers. There are a couple of classics of the sickroom by the late Jeffrey Bernard, part of the raw material for the Waterhouse West End show Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

Anyone who published such a collection without including a couple of Michael Frayn gems would have his door kicked in at dawn by a Trades Descriptions hit squad. Silvester has done us proud. For older readers, there is a P-P-Patrick Campbell number based entirely and hilariously on the postmark of "Monmouth, Home of the Mole Wrench", a piece I always thought was written by Paul Jennings, who in fact wrote the one about being locked in a hotel bathroom on page 339.

Damon Runyon, when not writing Guys and Dolls, hammered out a piece about walks with Walter Winchell: not only did the great broadcaster not listen to a word Runyon said, he didn't read the note Runyon passed him either - at least, not the right way up. Then there's Bernard Levin. The two examples here do him full justice: hamfisted, self-satisfied, obvious, pompous, long-winded. One is clearly intended to be satirical and the other isn't. Give me John Junor any day - which Silvester does, showing the Sunday Express monster wasn't as terrible as we thought.

Ambrose Bierce wrote some good things but the extract here isn't one of them. The great J B Morton ("Beachcomber" to you) is remembered for Mr Justice Cocklecarrot and Captain Foulenough. He is not remembered for the rudderless sailing saga that sinks slowly over five pages of the anthology. Worst of all are the oceans of space given to Americans like "Colonel John R Stingo" whose prose simply does not cross the Atlantic (or even, I suspect, the street). A column has to produce some kind of resonance in a reader's brain. Stingo and Co remain silent and incomprehensible in 10pt type. It would have been much better to replace them all with the words used by one honest columnist in 1973: "I have nothing to say today."

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