Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It, By Howard Jacobson

Collector's item full of comic gems

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The Independent Culture

Morris dancing, for one. Despite the title (a quotation from Marx – Chico Marx Brother) there are some things Howard Jacobson really likes. That vast mechanical elephant that lumbered through London a few years ago, for another. The thin marsupial-like girl who cuts his hair in Melbourne, for yet another: "She is wearing jodhpurs but takes up so little room inside them there is space for the horse."

Jacobson's day job is, of course, as a Man Booker-prize-winning novelist and, like his novels (The Finkler Question as opposed to Who's Sorry Now?) some of the pieces in Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It are better than others. As it happens, the least successful pieces are the most serious. If you picked up a copy of The Independent – this book is a selection of his sparkling columns – in search of an analysis of Palestinian suicide bombers, you would turn to Robert Fisk on an adjoining page, not Jacobson's rant about a remark of Cherie Blair.

Yet when he applies his wit and rich, creative firepower, the most serious subjects can take off into the most successful flights of fancy. Deaths feature a fair amount and he turns them into the most heartfelt yet funny of obituaries. In one of his many zingers of first sentences, he begins his farewell to a late, great, grumpy playwright: "I have just come across a story in the papers describing my rift with Harold Pinter and its subsequent repair."

The rift had been caused by Pinter taking exception to a quiet joke in an early novel about a couple of dissatisfied theatre-goers who always walk out at the interval – or, in the case of a Pinter play, at the first pause. When the two writers subsequently met, Jacobson feared Pinter was "calculating how many blows it would take to floor me. One is the answer."

These gems are both laugh-out-loud and read-out-loud. Jacobson's father, when moving into a new house, always knocked a serving-hatch through to the dining-room, however many times his mother pointed out, "Max, we don't have a dining-room."

As the dustjacket photograph shows, he possesses the kind of appearance that rings alarm bells in airports. He recalls one grilling from a security man who turned out to be an aspiring novelist: "Where do you get the words from? Don't you worry that you might one day use them up?" No fear of that.