Byline: Christopher Matthew
PICKING my way through this year's seasonal crop of humour and giftware, I suspect that an awful lot of it is destined to languish, unread and unloved, on bedside tables in spare rooms alongside similar volumes from previous years. Or, worse, on lavatory shelves.
However, here are some that deserve to be given much more than a brief Christmas Day glance beginning with Can't Be Arsed: 1001 Things Not To Do Before You Die (Portico, o9.95) by Richard Wilson the executive producer of Have I Got News For You, no less.
For those who, like me, can't face going anywhere much or doing anything that requires undue effort, this well-aimed, gloriously scornful blast against must-see destinations and once-in-a-lifetime experiences that turn out to be dangerous, too far away or ruined by gap-year students will be right up their street.
Little escapes Wilson's disdain. The Pyramids 'are right next to the unsightly urban sprawl of Cairo'; the Taj Mahal 'conveniently masks the Yamuna River behind it, into which is dumped 57per cent of New Delhi's waste'; and Tuscany is 'full of Panama-hatted twerps from Hampstead'. Most places, as he rightly says, look better on television.
Among other non-wish list thrills he rubbishes are bungee-jumping (injuries include rope burn, dislocations, eye traumas and uterine prolapse); reading War And Peace ('way, way too long'); and having an affair 'the very definition of the phrase 'more trouble than it's worth'.
Unlike this very funny book.
Wilson would almost certainly have some sharp words to say about Elspeth Thompson's The Wonderful Weekend Book (John Murray, o12.99) dedicated as it is to suggesting ways of making best use of those precious two days, rediscovering the simple pleasures of life and generally recharging the batteries.
Mrs Thompson quotes Albert Schweitzer: 'Do not let Sunday be taken from you. If your soul has no Sunday, it is an orphan.' It's hard to imagine the Nobel Laureate making chutney, collecting pebbles on a beach, hiring a camper van or mixing the perfect Bloody Mary. .
or mixing the perfect Bloody Mary.
But who knows? What better way to contemplate civilisation and ethics than in a long bubble bath, or lighting a wood fire, or flying a kite? Or to hone one's musical skills by learning the ukulele? A NYONE picking up How To Get Things Really Flat: A Man's Guide To Ironing, Dusting And Other Household Arts (Short Books, o12.99) by Andrew Martin could be forgiven for expecting rib-tickling chapters of accidents by a domestic incompetent. Which goes to show you should never judge a book by its jacket.
Self-deprecating it certainly is, and exchanges with his wife and others on such subjects as drying woollens, folding a shirt after ironing and replacing the filters on a vacuum cleaner will get big laughs.
But Martin takes humdrum tasks such as washing-up very seriously indeed. In fact, he positively revels in his skills. 'A man washing up secretly imagines himself to be the head surgeon in an operating theatre.
He is entitled to bark out peremptory orders: "Right! I'm ready for the pudding things now!"' Mark Crick also has words of advice on how to tackle easy household tasks such as putting up a shelf and replacing a light switch but through the mouths of some of the world's greatest writers. In Sartre's Sink (Granta, o10.99) you will find handy tips on hanging wallpaper by Hemingway, on bleeding a radiator by Emily Bronti, on tiling a bathroom by Dostoevsky and, most useful of all, on unblocking a sink by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Complete with enthusiastic but totally unhelpful illustrations.
For light relief after all that housework, dip into the Wrinklies' Joke Book (Prion, o9.99), which is packed with rueful quotations and jokes: 'You know you're getting old when you do the hokey-cokey, put your left hip out and it stays out.' Jane Fearnley- Whittingstall has helpful advice for those wrinklies among us who may also be grandparents.
Following the success of her Good Granny Guide, The Good Granny Companion (Short Books, o12.99) will be a blessing to anyone at the receiving end of the dreaded words, 'Granny, I'm bored.' When my grandmother came to stay for Christmas, she and I would spend hours making paper chains with paste and coloured strips of paper. How many children would settle for that these days? None needs to now.
Granny Jane has brought a bottomless hold-all filled with every distraction a grandchild could wish for.
Simple songs, easy-to-learn poems, favourite stories, paper and pencil games, biscuits and cakes to bake with Granny, outings to enjoy with her, and, yes, paper chains to paste with her. You name it, every granny will now be capable of filling day after day with entertainment.
Without once turning on the telly.
Every Christmas produces a bizarre compendium of odd-but-true facts, and this year historical writer and researcher for BBC2's QI, Justin Pollard, has come up with one of the most bizarre yet.
Charge! (John Murray, o12.99) is a wonderfully entertaining collection of military curiosities and cock-ups, which in their small way add another fresh splash of colour to the rich tapestry of British history.
The strange tale of Lord
Uxbridge's leg; the exploding dogs at the Battle of Kursk; the cabaret show before the Roman army by Totila the Ostrogoth; the flushing toilet that sank a U-boat; the VC hero who never touched a gun; the pigs that terrified Hannibal's elephants; how Daphne du Maurier inadvertently exposed a Nazi spy ring in Egypt these are just a few of my favourites in a long list of delights and surprises.
If this doesn't draw grown-ups away from the TV on Christmas afternoon, nothing will.
EXCEPT, perhaps, an extraordinary little book that will make the perfect Christmas present for the Scrabble nut or crossword freak in your family.
Published by Canongate at o9.99, Eunoia (the word means 'beautiful thinking' and is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels) comprises five stories by the ingenious Christian B*k, each one of which is univocalic ie it uses only one vowel throughout. It's an amazing tour de force. But you'd have to read it to believe it.
On the subject of tours de force, the countless thousands up and down the land who have been unlucky enough in recent years to miss John Mortimer on stage performing Mortimer's Miscellany will now be able to make up for it with his latest book, In Other Words (Viking, o14.99).
Gathered here for the first time are the poems, the memories and the anecdotes that make up one of the best-loved one-man shows on the road. Those who haven't heard them first hand will get a good idea of what they've been missing.
But a stocking wouldn't be a real stocking without a book of cartoons, and no one has a sharper eye for the fusses and foibles of modern life than the Daily Mail's peerless Mac. Remember how only the other day we used to laugh at the follies of celebrity, at the Asbo generation and the antics of our political masters? Relive them in Mac 2008 (Portico, o6.99).
Finally, the best of the best. Alan Coren and Miles Kington, once Punch colleagues, died this year within three months of each other.
Luckily for us their voices live on in two books which will, I have no doubt, be read and re-read for years to come.
During the last months of his life, Miles wrote a series of letters to his agent Jill Coleridge, proposing ever-more unlikely ideas for a book about his cancer. The letters became the book. How Shall I Tell the Dog? (Profile, o9.99) is hilarious and heart-breaking at the same time. A perfect curtain call for a great humorist.
Alan left it to his children, Giles and Victoria, to select his best stuff from nearly half a century at the humorous coal-face.
They have chosen well.
Chocolate And Cuckoo Clocks: The Essential Alan Coren (Canongate, o20) should be on every bedside table. And not just in the spare room, either..…