Robin Ince's Bad Book Club, By Robin Ince
Sunday 18 July 2010
From Ricky Gervais's support act to a darling of the "indie" comedy scene, Robin Ince has become a cult favourite mainly because of his Book Club nights, which saw him introduce an array of cabaret acts amid his readings of books such as the autobiography of Syd Little and The Secrets of Picking Up Sexy Girls.
Ince's act, rather like his career, builds up heads of steam that propel him on erratic journeys, on which he becomes giddy with his own guile and gabble. And so it is with his book, which chronicles the treasures he has uncovered during many forays to the darkest reaches of charity-shop bookshelves. Put simply: he has read this crap so you don't have to, and made something approximating a silk purse out of numerous sows' ears.
Take these examples, which traverse the range of the ridiculous to the unpalatable: the 1970s sitcom misogyny of The Secrets of Picking Up Sexy Girls advises that women in hats are more conceited than ones who go bare-headed; Starlust delves into the sexual fantasies that arise from celebrity worship, including one woman who likes to imagine her pop icons, from Blondie to Boy George, in pain; and Elvis: His Life and Times in Poetry and Lines is another extreme, if not quite so disconcerting, example of fandom. In this work – a whole volume of poetry in praise of the King's godlike qualities – it is dedication, not imagination, that is taken to the brink. It even rivals Danielle Steel's poetry about jam, quoted elsewhere by Ince, for nonsense.
All these are, of course, comedy sitting ducks. Discussing Starlust, Ince derides one fantasist for his aborted sexploit with Sheena Easton, describing it as "a proper British fantasy" where he sees the protagonist as essentially saying "I am awfully sorry but I think that this fantasy has gone quite far enough, young lady."
Some sitting ducks quack more than others, of course. Sharon Stone's coffee-table book on bereavement is so vacuous that it allows for little comedy gold to be mined from it. There's far more return from a hipster's guide to Christianity, for example, and from the autobiography of Don Estelle, best known as Lofty in It Ain't Half Hot Mum.
Estelle, it seems, is more preoccupied with his home improvements than his acting credits and the potential stories therein, and this domestic quality is one that Ince admires. This also explains Ince's attachment to Terry Major-Ball's autobiography, in which the former prime minister's late brother stuns us with the revelation: "I must admit, although it's not politically correct, that I do like bacon and eggs."
Ince is affectionate towards the earthy concerns of Messrs Estelle and Major-Ball and, indeed, he strikes a benevolent tone throughout. He almost manages to hold his tongue through chapters on his known bête noires – "Bad Science" (a chapter heading with the same name as his buddy Ben Goldacre's rationalist tome), "New Age" and "Columnists". He could do with a little more factual analysis in the latter chapter, to help his fish-in-a-barrel shooting of Garry Bushell and Richard Littlejohn – though his description of the US commentator Ann Coulter as "showing off to the right-wing hordes like Eva Braun dancing in crotchless pants in a bunker" is almost enough to make you forgive this.
If it is piquant observations you want in between these homages to the unfashionable, failures and charlatans, then Ince has them. Occasionally, they may be hidden in blather and wrong turnings, such as his protracted musings on Cliff Richard wondering about the ability of monkeys to swim, or on the contents of The Correct Guide to Letter Writing as used in an uneven, and surprisingly short, chapter about self-help manuals. But at other times they are staring you in the face: "Many celebrities," he observes in the chapter on autobiography, "are no more than walking ghosts, pepped up by their vampire-like management until they crumble like chaff and blow under the carpets of the public's memory."
It's a sentence that, in its truth, is beautiful and terrifying at the same time, and one of the nuggets of gold at the end of the rainbow of Ince's odyssey of the odious.
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