BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / Humour & Cartoons: Variations on a flat and floppy TV set

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The Independent Culture
CHRISTMAS is coming, so it must be crap-bog-book time again. That is, the grim season when publishers conspire to make us give our loved ones books to leave, unread, by the side of the lavatory. Thus the great gift of laughter.

The primary way in which crap bog books aren't books is when they are merely accessories to their authors' TV careers. Paul Merton's History of the Twentieth Century (Boxtree pounds 6.99) is a collection of rather feeble joke captions to old photos. The only words you're meant to read are 'Paul Merton', while you smile at a cheeky gibe recalled from Have I Got News For You.

Trying harder to produce an actual book are Punt and Dennis from The Mary Whitehouse Experience with their Instant Library (4th Estate pounds 7.99). This is the old gag of cramming parody precis of a dozen different book genres into one volume. Alas, the sections are far too long to be read with ease at one sitting. In Sean's Book (Pavillion pounds 8.99), Sean Hughes, according to Vogue, tells 'the best one-liners since Samuel Beckett'. Now I challenge you to think of a single one-liner from Auld Sam's opus. Even so, this warning doesn't prepare you for Sean's gloomy adolescent poems and if, as a chapter heading suggests, 'Comedy is the New Rock and Roll', then clearly Hughes is comedy's wimpier version of Morrissey.

Far less of a book altogether is Spitting Image's Thatcha] The Real Maggie Memoirs (Mandarin pounds 4.99) which, apart from flogging a dead horse (or possibly milch cow), demonstrates, with a blitzkrieg of cheap jokes, the authors' failure to understand that a book is not, in fact, a flat, floppy kind of television set.

The next category performs a service otherwise accomplished by the thrifty reader with scissors, glue and a scrapbook. Given that fans of Steve Bell's 'If . . .' strip in the Guardian and Peattie and Taylor in the Telegraph will have already forked out almost 300 quid a year to follow the strips on a daily basis, coughing up another pounds 5.99 a throw for If . . . Bottoms Out (Mandarin) and Alex Calls the Shots (Headline) is a bit steep unless you have severe short-term memory problem. Viz's The Porky Chopper (John Brown pounds 6.99) is available for Viz fans whose back copies are now soiled beyond legibility, while The Viz Bumper Book of Shite (John Brown pounds 5.99) consists of new material which is totally indistinguishable from the old stuff, but will surely be highly prized by tweedy bibliophiles specialising in the purple helmet and plop-plops end of the antiquarian book market. Likewise, Happiness Is . . . (Bloomsbury pounds 4.99), all your favourite Hamlet cigar adverts (but not the funny ones that used to be on the telly), will prove invaluable to future historians of a long-suppressed trade in death and exploitation. Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation (Methuen pounds 7.99) is the book version of his latest radio series, and useful for deaf readers.

Now for two books cobbled together from greetings cards. The Smashing World of Purple Ronnie (Static pounds 5.99) welcomes you to the world of Purple Ronnie, a character already featured in a best-selling series of greetings cards, on mugs, T-shirts, diaries and calendars. Here's a sample of Purple Ronnie's best-selling poetry: 'I've got you something wonderful / That can't be smashed or broken / I hope you use it lots / Cos it's my special cuddle token.' (Now use your Purple Ronnie sick bag.) Rupert Fawcett's The Continued Adventures of Fred (Static pounds 5.99) also features the cuddle motif in a twee variant of a style honed by Gary Larson and Glen Baxter, but which seems to have left out the jokes. (So, in fact, does Glen Baxter these days, The Collected Blurtings of Baxter (Little, Brown pounds 5.99) being his zillionth toddle down that well-trodden path typified by a picture of a mountie holding an alpenhorn captioned 'With Growing Horror Glen Surmised That He Was Becoming Repetitive'.)

We now get on to sex, that standard of the crap bog book, and Peter Van Straaten's Have You Got It In Yet? (4th Estate pounds 4.99). This comes with an encomium from Fiona Pitt-Kethley and, like her, these realistic line drawings of coitus with vaguely apposite captions wouldn't have looked out of place in Forum around 1972. More fun is Stephen Appleby's Normal Sex (Bloomsbury pounds 5.99) a whimsical examination of such knotty peccadilloes as public topiary and Courtship and Ritual on other planets.

Two which almost succeed in being real books are PS My Bush Pig's Name is Boris (Corgi pounds 6.99), in which James C Wade III carries the hoary old spoof- letter formula into a wonderfully funny synthesis of Henry Root and Myles Na Gopaleen, and Graham Rawle's Wonder Book of Fun (Gollancz pounds ll. 99). Rawle is best known for his marvellous 'Lost Consonants' photo-montage puns (available in postcard form as Lost Consonants III, 4th Estate pounds 6.99), and here he has produced a post-modernist version of the old Victorian picture puzzle book: a pleasure to behold, intriguing and very funny.

All these books came with press releases proclaiming them to be 'perfect stocking fillers', which I suppose they are if you haven't got a leg. One isn't, in fact, a book at all: Teach Your Cat to Read (Windrush pounds 9.99) is a cardboard box which folds out into a lectern and contains a feeding bowl and two picture books. My son and I road-tested this, along with Leigh W Rutledge's A Little Cat's Instruction Book (Thorson pounds 3.99) on our own cat. She completely ignored the reading book and presumably failed to learn to read. So I then had to read her some passages from the Rutledge tome. 'Cuddle someone you love on snowy afternoons,' I urged. 'Inspire whimsy in everyone you meet.' She licked herself thoroughly all over, then strolled over to my typewriter and typed 'feed me then piss off' before wandering into the garden to roll about in filth.