A Week in Books

The star quality of Class A comedy

Comic writers share with their cousins in the stand-up trade a peculiar sort of existential loneliness. I can write an erudite book, an original book, a well-plotted book, an eloquent book; and those virtues will still objectively exist even if the whole world ignores them. If I tell a "joke" or publish "a comic novel", and it fails to raise a laugh, the description has no meaning at all. The quality resides solely in the space between the artist and the audience. Comedy is the ultimate social genre, and so the hardest to judge against fixed criteria. De gustibus... etc. One man's Harry Hill is another man's, well, Benny Hill.

Which I why I would love to be a po-faced fly on the wall when Jo Brand, Craig Brown and Stephen Fry sit down to decide the winner of the new annual prize for comic writing that Everyman's Library has just announced. In deference to its frothy sponsors, the award carries the unwieldy label of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize, making it sound like some firm of crooked lawyers in a farce fronted by W C Fields - who said that analysing humour was like trying to pick eels out of a tub.

Everyman has also just issued the first four titles in its projected 80-volume complete edition of P G Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters, Right Ho, Jeeves, Ukridge and Pigs Have Wings (£9.99 each). The latter timely tale of rural felony (sow-rustling, to be precise) in darkest Shropshire comes especially recommnded for those who only know Jeeves and Wooster, not least for its sublime scenes of aristocratic romance. ("'The moon,' said Lord Emsworth, indicating it. 'Yes,' said Maudie. 'Bright,' said Lord Emsworth, paying it a well-deserved tribute.")

Yet the most purely Wodehousian novel of the past year arrived with no arm-twisting "comic" tag attached. Written in a sly Estuary argot, Boxy an Star - Daren King's love-story of drug-addled underclass teens - is re-published next week by Abacus (£6.99). It stages one dialogue-driven scene of misunderstanding after another with an exquisite sense of timing. King creates fine cameos that Wodehouse himself might envy: Ralph, the slimy executive; Boxy's Dad, the Liberal Adoptive Parent; Prim, the posh old hippie: "So you transport Class A pharmaceuticals for a living. Just in London or up and down the country?" De gustibus... be damned. If the Wodehouse trio overlooks Boxy an Star in favour of a smug star with a TV show, they deserve to be locked up and forcibly read the collected works of Alan Coren.