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Elephants walk on tiptoes — but can they dance? This year’s stocking-fillers explore such puzzles

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

It’s almost a shock to admit it, but this year’s gift books aren’t bad at all. It’s even possible that, should you be given one of these for Christmas by the aunt who hates you or the brother who merely despises you, you might actually enjoy it — more than the acrylic scarf or the comedy socks that I always get from my least favourite relatives, anyway.

What with one thing and another, there are roughly four million new books by comedians, all written during lockdown when there was nothing else to do. The best I read was Bob Mortimer’s sweet, elegiac memoir And Away… (Gallery Books, £20), which tells of how an impossibly shy solicitor saw Vic Reeves performing on the tiny stage of a south London pub, was entranced by his comic brilliance and got involved in the show, first as a sidekick and later as a fully fledged partner-in-laffs. Few comedians come over as genuinely nice and decent people, mainly because a lot of them aren’t. Mortimer is an exception.

Jack Whitehall’s How to Survive Family Holidays (Sphere, £18.99) is co-credited to his parents, Hilary and Michael Whitehall, and the three of them have been on what sound like some of the most horrendous and embarrassing holidays known to mankind. It’s quite a cosy book, but you get drawn into its web of drollery more easily and willingly than you might expect. Photos of Michael wearing hideous short shorts in the mid-1980s should by rights be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the fashion equivalent.

Meanwhile, comedians who have already written autobiographies are having to be more inventive. Jack Dee, described as ‘comedy’s little ray of sleet’ on the cover of What Is Your Problem? (Quercus, £20), has set himself up as an agony uncle of, at times, uncompromising rigour. One man wrote to him:

The lady I intend to marry does not get on at all well with my daughter and is always wrongly blaming her and insisting she should either pay her way (she’s 17) by doing housework etc or move out. My loyalties are split, Jack, what should I do?

Jack’s reply is clear:

My advice to you is to learn to question the sanity of anyone who comes into your life and tries to push those who are already there out of it. There are thousands of potential dates out there for you to start again, but you only have one daughter. Ditch this cuckoo and tell her I said so if it helps.

It’s a funny, sometimes bracing book.

The best trivia book of the season comes, as so often, from the QI elves, who have followed last year’s excellent Funny You Should Ask… with the ingeniously titled Funny You Should Ask… Again (Faber, £12.99). This collects many of the queries sent in to the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on Radio 2 and answered each week by consignments of elves. Can elephants sneeze? (Short answer: yes.) Rock paper scissors? (They suggest paper first, then scissors if you win.) Where is last Wednesday? (It’s still there, where you left it. But next Wednesday doesn’t exist yet.) Each query seems to beget at least one other bizarre fact, so on the elephants sneezing page we also learn that elephants always walk on tiptoes, and that they enjoy listening to a rumba but not a tango. Which makes me wonder: do elephants dance? The tiptoes thing suggests a predilection for ballet.

As so often, there are some fine books on language. Arika Okrent’s Highly Irregular (OUP, £14.50) is a highly entertaining trip through the oddities of the English language. Why do tough, through and dough not rhyme? Why is it ‘eleven’ and ‘twelve’ and not ‘oneteen’ and ‘twoteen’? We go ‘slowly’, so why not ‘fastly’? While answering these and countless other questions, she tells the story of the many influences, from invading French armies to the Latinate snobbery of such as John Dryden, that made the language the way it is today: a wonderful mess, full of magnificent and cherishable anomalies.

Or, rather more bizarrely, there’s Chloe O. Davis’s The Queens’ English: The LGBTQIA+ Dictionary of Lingo and Colloquial Phrases (Square Peg, £14.99). Anyone, of whatever sexuality or gender, who likes language will enjoy this book. An Eyeball Queen, for instance, is ‘a gay, bisexual or queer man who enjoys watching other people have sex’. Also known as a ‘watch queen’, a ‘lookie freak’ and a ‘peer queer’. Did you know that a gay priest is called a ‘Flipcollar Fairy’, after the technical term for a priest’s collar? Davis adds: ‘The term “Mary of the Cloth” can also be used.’ I don’t doubt it.

There’s also a wonderful new compilation of the Sunday Times’s long-running feature. A Life in the Day, edited by Richard Woods (Times Books, £12.99), which includes Tom Baker’s entry from September 1978 — or is this our own Jeffrey Bernard?

I woke up again at 6.10 a.m. I got up and began the process of dragging my feet to their final destination at night. I was hit by terrible waves of anxiety. The feeling of loneliness that smacks of self-pity. I drank a glass of water and felt for a toothbrush, wondering where on earth I was. If I’d had a radio I would have put it on, but it’s too early, of course, for Radio 3. The anxiety persisted and I thought: ‘Suicide is the answer.’ I got out of bed and looked at some electrical flex. The ceiling was too low. How could I have hanged myself in a room only 5ft 10in high?

The other 99 pieces aren’t bad either.

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