Magazine article The Spectator

Perfectly Inconsequential

Magazine article The Spectator

Perfectly Inconsequential

Article excerpt

The simple pleasures this Christmas will often be the most bizarre, according to Marcus Berkmann

At this stressful time of year, it is important to note the distinction between Christmas 'funny' books and Christmas 'quirky' books.

Funnies we know only too well, mainly from the sinking feeling most of us experience when unwrapping one on Christmas morning. Quirkies are a more recent development, trading less on jokes and merriment than on oddness, silly facts, curious stories and generalised eccentricity. 'That's not writing, that's typing, ' said Truman Capote of Jack Kerouac. Many of these books are just downloading. But a few are worth your while.

The latest from the all-conquering QI franchise is The Second Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson (Faber, £12.99). The first one, published in 2006, was translated into 26 languages and sold 1.2 million copies, figures to make other authors of Christmas books weep into their tea and contemplate a swift end. This follow-up uses the same basic approach: apparently sensible questions are asked (What colour are oranges?

How far are you from a rat? ) only for the widely known 'right' answer to be cut down with a scythe and traduced as bilge and poppycock. Oranges aren't orange, they are green (except when they aren't of course).

The notion that 'you are never more than six feet from a rat' is swiftly dispatched: a city dweller is more likely to be about 70 feet away.

There's a smugness about all this that can set the teeth on edge, and several of these exploding 'facts' rely on pernicketiness almost beyond the powers of human perception. For instance, what is the second highest peak in the world? K2, maybe?

Sorry, that's only the second highest mountain in the world. The second highest peak is the south peak of Everest. If someone asked this in a pub quiz, people would be waiting outside afterwards with knives. And yet the sheer range and depth of QI's research consistently turns up marvellous nuggets of information. Lloyd and Mitchinson's book is infuriating but brilliant. I wonder which of those two words they will use for the paperback.

Simple Pleasures: Little Things That Make Life Worthwhile (National Trust, £7.99) is a more calming alternative. Editor Ivo Dawnay (a name so quintessentially National Trust you suspect it is made up) has asked writers and a few celebrities to supply brief essays (probably for free) on simple things they really like. So we have Ann Widdecombe admiring her roaring log fire, Valerie Grove picking up litter, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne preferring conversation to discussion, Mary Killen cleaning her cottage and Alain de Botton taking his enormous dome of a head around a zoo, and frightening some of the more nervous inmates there. …

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