This is traditionally the time of year when it's better to receive than to give, and this applies to publishers more than anyone else, as they churn out warehouses full of supposedly humorous crap which is designed to be bought as presents for people who won't read it. But this tide of tosh also subsidises many publishers' output for the rest of the year. If you look at it like that, you can almost forgive them, knowing that each copy of some cynical cut '*' paste telly tie-in will help another, better book live.
Having thus worked myself up into an uncharacteristically generous frame of mind, I was happy this year to notice that I've been sent only two tie-in jobs, and I'm sure that Al Murray's The Pub Landlord's Book of British Common Sense (Hodder and Stoughton 18.99), although over-produced to the point of unreadability, might bring joy to someone or other who's been left unsated by Murray's stage act, TV appearances and the widely available DVDs thereof. It doesn't make me laugh, but there you go.
However, my mood darkened considerably when I opened Borat: Touristic guidings to glorious nation of Kazakhstan (Boxtree 14.99). This cobbled together reprise of the Borat movie is one of the most unpleasant things I've held in my hands for a long time. I admit I found parts of the film genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, because it worked according to the unperceived but understood laws of satire. But the stuff in this book about Kazakhstan is not just racist but also bullying, smug, nasty, mean and ugly, as well as pornographic, and even then not in a good way. If we had time, I suppose we could deconstruct the photograph of Sacha Baron Cohen being fellated by a young woman who's meant to be Borat's sister, just in order to tease out a few fragile strands of humour, but I can't honestly be bothered.
The one good thing about the Borat book is that it got me grumpy enough to consider the latest load of "Grumpy" books. This increasingly rickety publishing bandwagon was launched a few years ago on the back of the success of Grumpy Old Men on the telly. For a while the formula worked, at least in commercial terms, so it's inevitable that publishers will carry on milking this particular cash cow until it's reduced to bones and dust. This year, therefore, we have David Quantick's Grumpy Old Men: New year, same old crap (Harper Collins 9.99) and Mitchell Symons's Don't Get Me Started: A way-beyond-grumpy rant about modern life (Bantam Press 9.99), reading which is a bit like being locked in a taxi driven endlessly round the M25 by a psychotic fascist cabbie with Tourette's and anger management issues. Naturally, this grumpy shtick has spawned legion sub-genres, which are basically cheap, repetitive whinges played for comic effect, and often married to the kind of observational stand-up comedy which was becoming tired 20 years ago. Thus Playing it Safe: The crazy world of Britain's health and safety regulations by Alan Pearce (Friday Books 9.99) or Joel Stickley and Luke Wright's Who Writes This Crap? All the Rubbish You Read in a Day Rewritten (Hamish Hamilton 12.99), with their comforting Yuletide messages to hate everyone and everything.
Not that these books don't have their moments of inspiration. It's just that all this moaning is getting a bit dull. But among all the "joke" books about irritating emails or post-it notes or crap towns or everyday life, you occasionally find some proper, serious and seriously funny stuff, produced by grown-ups for a reason. Crap Cycle Lanes: 50 worst cycle lanes in Britain (Eye-Books, 4.99), for example, is an anthology of photographs of frankly preposterous examples of traffic planning, with cycle lanes that are five feet long, filled with bollards, hurtling towards the fast lane of trunk roads, and so on. Compact enough to fit into any cyclist's lycra stocking, it made me laugh out loud, and I can't even ride a bike. There's also Charlie Brooker's Dawn of the Dumb (Faber, 9.99), the latest collection of his writings on TV and other things for The Guardian. What makes Brooker's rants and diatribes stand out from the rest of this reactionary oeuvre is that his outrage is real and invariably justified, because unlike the Borat book or all the other bugbear-listing books, Brooker actually has a heart. It just happens to be constantly breaking with fury.
Last year I prophesied that sooner or later there'd be a backlash against all this grumpy stuff, and sure enough here it comes with Steve Stack's It Is Just You, Everything's Not Shit: A guide to all things nice (Friday Books 9.99), a response to Lowe and McArthur's bestseller Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit? About time too, if you ask me, although it's a shame that the book is far too long and not particularly funny.
It will, however, probably make you feel warmer and fluffier than Boris Johnson's The Perils of the Pushy Parents (Harper Press 10.00), an extended, sub-Bellocian exercise in rhyming couplets exuding a weird kind of bouncy fogeyism, both written and illustrated by the Member for Henley-on-Thames and putative Mayor of London. Citizens of both places should read this bizarre doggerel and think carefully about everything its existence implies before they next have an opportunity to vote for Bozza. I'm aware that this advice might earn him more sales than he deserves, but the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
We're beginning to get a bit bi-polar here, because Boris's book is bound to sour your mood once more, just in time to enjoy Andy Riley's The Bumper Book of Bunny Suicides (Hodder 9.99), collecting together and adding to his previous collections of highly inventive and very funny rabbit despair. It should cheer you up no end. Also worth a look is The Wicked Teenager (John Murray 9.99), the latest anthology of "Social Stereotypes" from the Telegraph Magazine by Victoria Mather, illustrated by Sue Macartney-Snape who can encapsulate an entire social milieu in a drooping eyelid or a flared nostril.
Sticking with cartoons, sort of, is Psycho-Geography (Bloomsbury 17.99), an anthology of Will Self's column for The Independent, illustrated by the great Ralph Steadman. This, like Brooker's, is a serious, grown-up book which is also very funny, and it deserves more space and praise than I can give it here, beyond urging you simply to buy it and find out for yourself. All that need be said, sticking with my theme, is that Self had the sense and grace to jump ship from the Grumpy Old Men TV show several years ago, in order more fully to embrace the unsullied joys of the weird and wonderful. So I'll finish up with two examples of both.
The first is Charlotte Gray's The Visitors (Dewi Lewis Publishing 14.99), an incredibly odd and rather unsettling collection of sepia photographic portraits of Victorians and Edwardians, each of which has had the head of a different animal replace that of the original sitter. It sounds dumb and cheap, I know, but it works. It's also funnier than Max Ernst's efforts in the same kind of photomontage, and that's saying something. But the book I'd recommend most highly is A Pig With Six Legs and Other Clouds from the Cloud Appreciation Society, edited by Gavin Pretor-Pinney (Sceptre 10), which is exactly what it says it is. It made me smile, it made me laugh and it made me feel happy. Indeed, if anyone still feels grumpy after thumbing through this little gem of meteorological objets trouvs, quite frankly they deserve the Borat book and a miserable life of eternal grumpiness.Reuse content