BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / Columns: Eccentric airborne fantasies to treasure

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The Independent Culture
IN NEWSPAPERS, columns are designed to offer relief to distressed readers - they hold the dull bits apart and provide a refuge from the functional, the earnest and the obligatory. Placed between hard covers they still serve to relieve distress, but in a rather different way: the charm is of undemanding brevity. They are probably only picked up by two sorts of reader: the insomniac, who has to start reading but hopes to be able to stop as soon as possible, or the costive, hunched like Rodin's Thinker.

You get a lot of the latter sort of thing in Second Crop (HF & G Witherby pounds 14.99), a collection of Paul Heiney's Times columns about his organic farm. He even offers a solution to the problem of distended rumens: you administer a cup of cooking oil by mouth and retire to a safe distance. He also offers his own agricultural metaphor for newspaper columns: 'It is here that wild seeds have been sown, eccentric airborne fancies bordering the plain nourishing grass.' This sounds ghastly, I know, but as a whole the book is rather appealing, when it isn't straining for comic effect, and genuinely passionate about organic methods.

If you're thinking of irreversible sterilisation rather than the bucolic life you could find nothing better to steady your resolve than Treasure (Virago pounds 4.99), Gina Davidson's weekly Guardian columns about the battle of nerves between a mother and her detestable daughter. I'm told, by weary- looking colleagues, that this is an uncannily accurate depiction of a teenage girl, but for me the only narrative appeal is the faint hope that the spineless mother will finally silence Treasure's whining with a cleaver and bury her in the garden.

Beryl Bainbridge has also converted filial contempt into columnar material. The title of her collected Evening Standard pieces - Something Happened Yesterday (Duckworth pounds 7.99) - gives you the flavour of the whole: whitter rather than wit - what oft was thought but ne'er so chattily expressed. She writes as if writing to a friend, which should be some sort of recommendation, but in the covers of a book the intimacy evaporates and you're left feeling you're reading letters addressed to someone else.

I spilled some coffee over Alan Coren's Toujours Cricklewood (Robson pounds 12.95). Were I Beryl Bainbridge, this domestic accident would be good for at least 400 words. As it was I just mourned the second-hand value and turned the soggy pages disconsolately. Again the title tells you everything: Coren's die-stamped comic mode is the marriage of fancy foreign vocabulary and bluff, suburban English expression. I should confess that I laughed aloud here and there, but if you're depressed by the type of humorous columnist who uses words like 'anent' or 'folderol' then steer clear.

Matthew Parris, whose political sketches for the Times are collected in Look Behind You (Robson pounds 12.95), also suffers a little from the professional obligation to be funny every day. These pieces, first served hot from the Westminster bakery, are surprisingly edible two or three years on, perhaps because Parris is best on Parliament's most reliable product - humbug. He leans a little heavily on animal metaphors (Nicholas Winterton as the Macclesfield Cuckoo, Gerald Kaufman as an antipodean lizard) but occasionally he strikes home so accurately that you forgive him the ones that don't work. Take this on Kenneth Baker: 'He has a way of pausing during a speech, holding himself still and beaming gently, which suggests that were he a peacock this would be the moment for the tail to quiver.' That's a wonderfully elegant way of calling somebody a smug birdbrain.

Conservative writing seems to have better preservation properties anyway, perhaps because the pieces are pickled by the vinegary assumption that there's nothing new under the sun. Certainly the journalistic offerings in The Spectator Annual (HarperCollins pounds 17.99) stand up very well: an eccentric, human, witty compilation which presents the world as a cabinet of curiosities.

The best of the batch is Patrick Marnham's Crime and the Academie Francaise (Viking pounds 16.99). You shouldn't really be able to mix an English disdain for foreigners and a love of French society, but Marnham manages to whisk both flavours into a vinaigrette - though it may be that the French are this dry and sardonic about themselves and he's just gone native. You get the flavour of his sly asperity from this line about the French design for McDonald's litter bins: 'When they catch fire they reduce themselves to a pile of ash without causing an unacceptable level of cancerous fumes.' This somehow implies volumes about the charming Gallic realism of the French authorities, which accepts that people will set fire to things and there's no point in getting too fussed about it.

The pieces range widely: knowledgeable essays about French history and French artists, rambling excursions around Paris, political commentary and court reports. The French are represented as rapacious, greedy, drunken and violent, and yet the whole thing comes over with the tenderest affection. Don't put this one in the guest room - read it yourself.