Christmas books: Humour - You won't believe this...

Steer clear of the spin-offs, says Martin Rowson. Stick to the cartoons

For several years now I have been waging a lonely war against the cynicism of publishers who annually let loose upon the world a veritable flood of crap books, all in the name of "Humour" and "Christmas". My little campaign appears to be paying off. This Christmas, it seems, we are going to be allowed to buy (some) real books. By which I mean books that have not been tossed out by PRs and accountants convinced of the bankability of the latest TV comedian prepared to attach his or her moniker to a book about Snot.

Take this year's offerings from TV comedians, and you'll see what I mean. I've only been sent two obvious TV comedian spin-off books, Lily Savage's A Sort of A-Z Thing (Headline pounds 9.99) and Blackadder: The Whole Damn Dynasty by Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, Rowan Atkinson and John Lloyd (Michael Joseph pounds 15.99). The Lily Savage is actually quite good, containing the usual cocktail of filth and swearing, such as the memorable line comparing someone's appearance to "ten pounds of shite in a three-pound bag". Blackadder on the other hand, is a Book With No Reason At All To Exist. Blackadder has been available on video for years, if you're interested, and as the scripts printed herein are not in Braille, this book is clearly not intended for the blind. It must exist, therefore, because the four authors are giving all their royalties to Comic Relief. O Charidee, what comic crimes have been committed in thy name!

Otherwise, TV's funnymen (excuse me) are in reflective mood this year. Bob Monkhouse's readable Over The Limit: My Secret Diaries 1993-8 (Century pounds 16.99) and Barry Cryer's equally readable You Won't Believe This But ... An Autobiography of Sorts (Virgin pounds 12.99) share not only an endearing kind of faux self- effacement but also some good jokes and anecdotes. Then again, one would expect nothing less of two such game old troupers. At the other extreme, I partly hoped Jeremy Beadle's well named autobiography Watch Out! (Century pounds 15.99) would have invited ordinary members of the public to send in their own autobiographies, which he would then present under his own name. There are, however, no surprises at all, and we are rewarded with the self-justifying, self-pitying, name-dropping whinge you'd expect from someone once voted "Most Hated Man in Britain".

Barry Took's Round The Horne: The Complete and Utter History (Boxtree pounds 14.99) is interesting as a half-memoir of Took's time as scriptwriter with Marty Feldman on the 1960s radio show of the title. The scripts, however, suffer from the same problem as the Blackadder book: if you have no knowledge of this programme, they will mean nothing to you, while if you're among the cognoscenti, trying to do a Kenneth Williams voice in your head is, again, no match for the original broadcasts. One for the archivists, I think, for whom humour is a Serious Business.

That trusty old saw is proved beyond doubt by Morecambe & Wise by Graham McCann (Fourth Estate pounds 16.99) and Reeves and Mortimer by Bruce Dessau (Orion pounds 16.99). These thoroughly researched, meticulously indexed, footnoted and cross-referenced, elegantly and fluently written, almost scholarly, books have only one flaw: there is only one joke between them - and that is quoted from a Glaswegian heckler at a Mike and Bernie Winters show - and no startling revelations at all. These joyless celebrations of four of Britain's funniest comedians left me distinctly depressed.

Just as depressing in its way is the offering from the winner of this year's Niche Broadcast Journalist Who's Sold Their Soul to Become a National Oaf Award. You've guessed it, it's Jeremy Clarkson with Planet Dagenham: Drivestyles of the Rich and Famous (Chameleon pounds 16.99, sick bag not included).

Away from the magic rectangle, we have a couple of otherwise respectable journalists slumming it for Christmas. Buster's Diaries (Little, Brown pounds 9.99) by Roy Hattersley purports to be his dog's diaries. Confronted with this book, I feel a bit like Andre Breton must have done when he first met Trotsky and the founder of the Red Army spent the entire meeting cooing over a couple of Pomeranians. Not sinking nearly so far in his debasement (because he didn't have so far to go) is that old saucepot Matthew Parris with The Great Unfrocked: Two Thousand Years of Church Scandal (Robson Books pounds 17.95), which is the kind of vaguely naughty, "Whoops, Vicar!" prurience you'd expect from a writer who always reminds me of a junior curate telling risque jokes to the Mother's Union.

All in all it's probably a safer bet to stick to cartoon books this year. Be sure, however, to avoid the mawkish sub-Glenn Baxterish Little Book of Fred by Rupert Fawcett (Headline pounds 4.99), whose eponymous hero's feeble- minded adventures are already enormously popular and therefore need no encomium from me. Considerably less cutesy, and much funnier, are The New Yorker Book of All New Cat Cartoons, The New Yorker Book of Dog Cartoons (Random House, both pounds 6.99) and The New Yorker Book of Business Cartoons (Bloomberg Press pounds 14.95). As long as we're spared The New Yorker Book of New Yorker Journalism all will be well, and we can safely enjoy gags like Mankoff's cartoon of a businessman consulting his Filofax while saying down the phone "No, Thursday's out. How about never - is never good for you?" Still with American cartoonists, Bloomsbury has reissued Edward Gorey's hilariously morbid ABC of infanticide, The Gashlycrumb Tinies (pounds 5.99), a perfect stocking present for any age, depending on what message you're trying to send.

With cruelty to children in mind, I strongly recommend Steven Appleby's Alien Invasion! The Complete Guide to Having Children (Bloomsbury pounds 12.99), although Appleby is more concerned by the cruelty meted out by children to adults. I particularly enjoyed the snot colour chart and the diagnostic reference chart of poo, not least because my two-year-old son once shat an "F" in his potty. There are also anthologies this year from the great Ray Lowry with Ink (The Do Not Press pounds 9) for the old punk rocker in your life, and Peattie and Taylor's The Full Alex: Collected Strips 1987-1998 (Headline pounds 9.99), the perfect present for the commodity broker you love.

Finally, this year's best two cartoon books are not, as you'd expect, really cartoon books at all. Graham Rawle's Diary of an Amateur Photographer (Picador pounds 14.99) is a beautifully produced mystery story, visually and narratively both ingenious and deeply weird. It's best described as a kind of multi-media amalgamation of early Peter Blake, late Michael Powell (in his Peeping Tom period) and the People's Friend. At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of exacting production values, is David Shrigley's Why We Got The Sack From The Museum (Redstone Press pounds 9.95). At first glance, this book - Shrigley's first - appears to be a collection of rather crude drawings limned in felt-tip, with lots of random, misspelt notes written all over the place, and one immediately suspects not so much a book as some kind of bloody Goldsmiths' "installation". But look deeper and what you'll find is not only seductively bizarre, in the great tradition of B Kliban and John Glashan, but also, like them, very, very funny. Buy this book and make this man a star.

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