If you’re short on ideas for minor Christmas presents, then you can’t do better for expert guidance than read Marcus Berkmann’s choice of stocking fillers from last week’s issue of the Spectator magazine.
There can be few phrases in the language more debased than ‘Christmas gift book’. (Well, ‘friendly fire’, maybe, or ‘light entertainment’.) Needless to say, every writer worth his overdraft wants to do one, having already spent in his head all the lovely money he is going to earn from it. But you are essentially writing something for people to buy for other people who would rather have been given something else. Having produced one or two of the things myself, I suspect that most Christmas books aren’t even opened, let alone read. And possibly for good reason, because the majority of them are crushingly mediocre. Here, though, are a few that are really rather good.
Big beast among the cartoon books this year is Mrs Weber’s Omnibus (Jonathan Cape, £20), the collected Guardian strips of Posy Simmonds. It’s beautiful and it replaces several battered large-format paperbacks I now realise I lost years ago. But it’s about time publishers treated our best cartoonists with the respect they deserve. These are the cartoons with which Simmonds made her name, starting in 1977 (when she was a complete unknown) and tiptoeing gently through the 1980s, satirising the north London soft-left middle classes as they struggled to adapt to changing times.
George Weber was that now-vanished creature, a liberal studies lecturer at a polytechnic, fluent in structuralist babble and sporting a moustache so droopy it was already out of fashion when he grew it. His wife Wendy was the earth mother, forever cooking quiches for street parties and worrying about her six children, which dates it just a little. But while what George would call the cultural signifiers have changed utterly, social comedy this well-observed never fades. The book encompasses half a dozen of Simmonds’ previous collections and adds a couple of short series that previously didn’t make it into book form.
Too many Christmas books merely duplicate other people’s ideas and do them less well. After the huge sales enjoyed by Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon, there are suddenly rather a lot of neatly packaged little books full of obscure and forgotten words, including another by Forsyth himself, The Horologicon (Icon Books, £12.99).
But by some distance the best is Philip Howard’s Lost Words (Robson Press, £14.99). The one-time literary editor of the Times has been collecting these words for so long that he was probably alive when most of them were in general use. This slender volume is a sort of greatest hits album, full of words he not only loves but feels should be brought back to life, not least because there are no other words doing the same job. Accismus: an insincere and/or feigned refusal of something that is earnestly desired. (‘No, no, I insist you have the last éclair.’) Acnestis: the part of the back between the shoulder blade and the bum that an animal cannot reach in order to scratch. Agerasia: the quality of not growing old, of being ‘young at heart’. As Howard puts it,
‘there are many words in English that have a similar meaning to agerasia, but this is the only one that I can find that does not carry pejorative implications and connotations of immaturity and childishness.’
The thing is, you know he has looked. These are the first three words in the book; the quality never lets up.
Mitchell Symons is the doyen of trivialists, who has been truffling out absurd facts ever since he wrote all the questions in Trivial Pursuit that weren’t wrong. He has a terrifying number of books out this Christmas, but the outstanding title is Desert Island Discs: Flotsam and Jetsam (Bantam Press, £14.99), subtitled ‘Fascinating facts, figures and miscellany from one of BBC Radio 4’s best-loved programmes’. This book is exhaustive and slightly mad, and my life was appreciably poorer before I owned it. I now know that Sir John Harvey-Jones was the only castaway ever to choose a song by the Alan Parsons Project. That no one chose the Bee Gees until Lord Prescott opted for ‘Stayin’ Alive’ this February. And the only person who picked eight records that no one else had ever picked, in 70 years of the show? The Revd Ian Paisley. Who else could it be?
Finally, a simple idea, brilliantly done. Ruth Binney’s Wise Words & Country House Ways (David & Charles, £9.99) is aimed directly at the Downton Abbey audience, even to the extent of having a foreword by Julian Fellowes. It is a guide to what it was really like to live in a country house, whether you were a lord, lady, maid or cook. It has the rules of etiquette, the servants’ daily routines, the housekeeping maxims, the texture of people’s lives. How much to tip a footman? I had always wondered. Put it this way: my ten-year-old daughter wants this for Christmas, and so does my mother. This is a sentence no book reviewer ever wishes to write, but the way things are going, I may actually be compelled to go out and buy one. A copy of the book, that is, not a country house.