BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS

HUMOUR
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The Independent Culture
Following the tragic events of 31 August this year, it might have been hoped that, as a nation, we would never laugh again. Given the New National Mood (in with New Earnestness, out with nasty old Tory Irony), would it have been too much to ask the publishers of the annual outpouring of Christmas crap humour books to give us a break this year, to allow us all to grieve in peace (and also in public)? Of course it would. So unless the Government appoints a New Seriousness Czar, in the mould of Savonarola, to build bonfires of Humour Books outside every Waterstone's in the land, we must take comfort where we can.

For instance, only two truly bloody awful cynical TV rip-off crap books have plopped onto my desk this season. Mrs Merton's World of Television (Hodder pounds 9.99) is a slithering offshoot of the eponymous "ironic" celebrity telly chat show, and humourlessly true to its origins. Austin Powers: How To Be an International Man of Mystery (Bantam pounds 6.99) is slightly different, being a cynical unreadable film rip-off crap book, based on a Mike (Wayne's World) Myers vehicle released several months ago and now completely forgotten by everyone.

Harry Enfield and His Humorous Chums (Penguin pounds 9.99) is obviously another cynical TV rip-off book but a very odd one. For a start, Enfield has obviously written it himself, instead of the usual coven of art directors, PR people, picture researchers and accountants who toss together the standard brackish stew of dizzying montages and "joke" documents. It's also odd in that it consists of several self-deprecating, thoughtful essays about how Enfield started in comedy and who he bases his characters on, with many generous asides about his co-writers and fellow actors. Interspersed are scripts from his TV shows which, it must be said, don't read nearly as well as Enfield, Kathy Burke and Paul Whitehouse act them. Even so, although this isn't necessarily a very good book, Harry Enfield should be awarded top marks for making an effort.

On the subject of Enfields, young Harry provides a very funny introduction for his dad Edward's The World According to Enfield Senior (Oldie Publications pounds 5.99), his collected Oldie columns, and the kind of engaging English whimsy which typified Punch in the late '50s and inspired Richard Ingrams to found Private Eye in reaction. Richard Ingrams is now editor of The Oldie. Another of his contributors is Jennifer Paterson, one half of TV's "Two Fat Ladies", whose recipes for The Oldie are collected in Jennifer's Diary By One Fat Lady (Oldie Publications pounds 5.99), which has been passed to me presumably because Jennifer Paterson is now a telly star, and therefore can no longer be taken seriously as a cook. Poor woman. Last out of the Ingrams stable, by association at least, is The Private Eye Annual 1997 (Private Eye pounds 7.99). All the usual stuff, plus selections from the notorious post-Diana issue which was arbitrarily suppressed by newsagents and store managers throughout the realm as a mark of respect.

Which takes us to Who in Hell: A Religiously Researched A-Z of Villains and Sinners by Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers (Robson pounds 9.99). It's a shame Kelly and Rogers have guaranteed themselves a place in The Pit for committing the sin of Bearing False Witness. I've no idea who the blameless Sir Jeffrey Dashwood is, but he shouldn't be suffering the eternal torment reserved for Sir Francis Dashwood just because of sloppy subbing. Pedantry aside (which is, of course, an attribute of the angels), Kelly and Rogers have done an admirable job populating Hell with everyone from Bosie to the Duke of Windsor, taking in Walt Disney, Southey and Errol Flynn along the way. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Henry Kissinger and Pol Pot, whose sins, the editors maintain, are so heinous that their souls reside in Hell although their bodies (occupied by demons) continue to live on Earth. Kissinger, apparently, was whisked to everlasting damnation on 16 October 1973, at the very moment he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kelly and Rogers also provide a useful list of demonic and devilish denizens of Hell, any of which one might wish to invoke to deal with the publishers and editors of The Scoundrel's Dictionary: A Copious and Complete Compendium of 18th Century Slang (Past Times pounds 4.99) and Once a Week is Ample: Or, The Moderately Sensual Victorian's Guide to Restraint of The Passions (HarperCollins pounds 6.99), this year's offering from the Heritage Crap Bargain Bin, where they still seem to think the past is hilariously funny (the past, presumably, being the only other country where you're still allowed to laugh at the natives).

To stay with Infernal matters, well worth a look are Work Is Hell (Warner pounds 5.99) and The Huge Book of Hell (Penguin pounds 7.99), both by Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. This is a collection of his mordant, cynical and, I'm glad to say, frequently outraged newspaper strip, "Life is Hell", and is everything Simpsons fans, suffering withdrawal from their dysfunctional heroes, could wish for.

99 More Useless Japanese Inventions by Kenji Kawakami (Harper Collins pounds 7.99), is an exploration of the Japanese Art of Chindogo (literally, "unusual tool"). Apart from the wonderful absurdity of the gadgets themselves (all shown in photographs), this book is also a very welcome eye-opener on Japanese satire.

Humour, after all, is an international language. It brings people together. In our New, Caring, Giving Britain, no one should be denied the bounteous gift of laughter, even the hopelessly unfunny. A forced guffaw, then, for Absolutely Typical Too (Random House pounds 9.99), a further anthology of "Social Stereotypes" by Victoria Mather and Sue Macartney-Snape selected from the Telegraph, which, for my tastes, is too obvious, too kind and too strewn with gushing encomia from Max Hastings, Auberon Waugh, Ned Sherrin and Richard Ingrams. No social stereotype summing up the likes of them, I notice.

Finally, we turn to the old pros, with cartoon anthologies from three of Britain's best cartoonists. Peter Brookes' Nature Notes (Little, Brown pounds 10), collected from his series in the Times, is a zoomorphic joy. Michael Heath's Nineties (Hodder pounds 6.99) brings together this one-man sweatshop's contributions to the Independent, the Sunday Times, Private Eye, the Spectator and the Mail on Sunday, magnificently combining the political principles of Peregrine Worsthorne with the stylistic ethos of Francis Bacon. Steve Bell's The If...Files (Methuen pounds 9.99) is a collection of his "If..." strips interspersed with his best political cartoons, and essential reading to remind us all why we voted the Tories out, while at the same time begging the unsettling question of why in God's name we voted New Labour in. It's worth it for the cover alone.

The main influence on Steve Bell's style (apart from the Beano) is the legendary American underground comic artist Robert Crumb, whose career can be relished in the privacy of your own home with The R Crumb Coffee Table Art Book (Bloomsbury pounds 25). Enjoying it in the privacy of your own home is probably a good idea, as Crumb's acid-inspired depictions of his sexual fantasies have frequently involved his books being seized by British Customs. Described by Robert Hughes as "the Hieronymous Bosch of American Art", Crumb might be hard to place in the New, Caring, Emoting-in-the- Streets Britain. But remember: this is also now the Giving Society, so why not strike a blow for grumpy old freedom and Give some Offence this Christmas? Give! Give!!

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