Books: Christmas books

Funny books

Poor old Santa. If he stopped to read some of the "funny" books he stuffs into stockings, he would jack in his annual delivery and reverse the reindeer into the North Pole recycling dump. Scraping around the bottom of the sack, he would find the stuff with "Humour" printed on the cover, in defiance of the Trade Descriptions Act.

That kind of dross will not detain us here. What a sneak preview into my own Xmas stocking reveals is a pile of Jokes for Anoraks - that is, humour for fans already on the wavelength of a particular cult. The only way to stamp out the worship of Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers would be a mass suicide of the Goon Show Preservation Society. If, like me, the voices of Eccles, Min and Major Bloodnok still ring in your ears, the selection of old scripts reprinted in The Goons: the story (Virgin, pounds 16.99) remain as insanely brilliant as when first transmitted on steam radio. Also featured in this wide-ranging - or, to be accurate, wide - hardback are reminiscences of how they met; and the original Bluebottle. Some of the yarns are so familiar that fans will be able to join in but what the hell, the page numbers are different. The whole is edited by Norma Farnes, who has been Spike's manager for over three decades.

If there is a Goon family tree, Harry Enfield can claim to be one of its twigs. Harry Enfield and His Humorous Chums (Penguin, pounds 9.99) reveals some of the nuts (yes) and bolts of his inspiration; it also outs the original of Tory Boy. Unlike the oeuvre of Jim Davidson, for example, Wayne and Waynetta Slob, Mr Cholmondley-Warner and Tim Nice But Dim work on the page even if you missed them on the box.

The same may be true of Homer, Maggie and Bart Simpson. Unfortunately The Simpsons (by Matt Groening, HarperCollins, pounds 14.99) cannot be used to test the theory because it confines itself to the highlights of each show, together with a list of references to the echoes of scenes in Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind. Presumably anoraks tick off every episode known to mankind as it eventually appears on BBC1. Still, the book does full justice to the family at Dysfunctional Avenue.

The Essex Files (Fourth Estate, pounds 5.99) is an example of stand-ups who fail to make the transition from stage to page. I'm not saying that this paperback, by Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss of The League of Gentleman, is Jim Davidson-type terrible; but it did not shift my laughometer dial much. Some of the ideas look ingenious - the Wivenhoe Triangle, the Harlow Nightie, the Chingford Faeries - but they are, like the Brentwood bypass in a blizzard, hard going.

Yet that very slim volume is an easy run compared with Philosophy Football: Eleven Great Thinkers Play it Deep (Penguin, pounds 6.99) by Mark Perryman. Knowing nothing about soccer or philosophers, I found this fantasy soccer wheeze to be relentlessly offside (geddit?) and about as pleasurable as being stuck in a saloon bar between Roger Scruton and Jimmy Hill. Yet it shines in comparison with the badly-written cuttings- job entitled Christine Hamilton's Bumper Book of Battleaxes (Robson, pounds 14.95), a dire round-up of women whom, for the most part, you would not care to meet in a dark Ladies: Barbara Cartland, Ann Widdecombe, Fanny Cradock and Teresa Gorman. In the chapter on Shirley Porter, a mere two sentences are devoted to the scandal of council tenants being eased out to pack Westminster with Tory voters. But then the self-justifying chapter devoted to herself and Neil doesn't mention cash in brown envelopes either.

The Hamiltons pop up again, this time as "Top TV Double Act The Sleazies", in The Private Eye Annual (pounds 7.99) edited by Ian Hislop. I was going to say that this is lively, hilarious, cruel, topical and essential reading; but, having once been lunched by the Eye, any praise would look like merely repaying a favour. And one can't be too careful. Ask Neil Hamilton.

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