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I managed to find enough new books and material for a January issue after all, and those of you who follow Books Monthly on Facebook will already have known there was going to be a January issue, so all's well... The first four books above are all published by my favourite classics publisher, Alma Books (whose Little Women, just finished on BBC1, is the best version available), and you'll find them all on the Adult page...the fifth you can read about below:
My book of the month this month is James Acaster's Classic Scrapes, published back in the summer by Headline. Here's the blurb: 'Laugh-out-loud hilarious' - Chortle... 'I don't think I've ever read a book that has made me cry with laughter as much as this one. It was very difficult reading it in public as I looked like a madman' - Richard Herring... 'James Acaster has a brilliant comic mind, crackling with energy every bit as much as his corduroy slacks' - Milton Jones... James Acaster has been nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award five times and has appeared on prime-time TV shows like MOCK THE WEEK, LIVE AT THE APOLLO and RUSSELL HOWARD'S STAND UP CENTRAL - (and Would I Lie To You). But behind the fame and critical acclaim is a man perpetually getting into trouble. Whether it's disappointing a skydiving instructor mid-flight, hiding from thugs in a bush wearing a bright red dress, or annoying the Kettering Board Games club, a didgeridoo-playing conspiracy theorist and some bemused Christians, James is always finding new ways to embarrass himself. Appearing on Josh Widdicombe's radio show to recount these stories, the feature was christened 'James Acaster's classic scrapes'. Here, in his first book, James recounts these tales (including never-before-heard stories) along with self-penned drawings, in all their glorious stupidity.
I probably would have gone through life not knowing about James Acaster, but a chance viewing of WOULD I LIE TO YOU a few weeks back (I never miss it) had me in tears and stitches as James recounted firstly how he had slept in a bush wearing a red dress when he missed the last train home to Kettering one night; and secondly how a friend's teenaged son had "cabbaged" him in a concentrated campaign involving many, many cabbages. I am on record as saying, many times in the past that the vast majority of modern "comedians" are simply not funny as far as I am concerned. There are a handful that I regularly watch on TV or on DVD, the three most prominent being, Eddie Izzard, David Mitchell and Lee Mack. Well, now you can add James Acaster to my very short list of genuinely hilarious "comedians". I don't think I have ever laughed so much, and I simply had to share this superb, magnificent book with you!
A Happy 1950s Christmas...continued
...in which I ponder on the changing nature of Christmas for parents...
Christmas 1956 - my pillow case was stuffed with books, fruit, toffees, a torch, etc., etc., and it was all fabulous, fabulous, fabulous! During the day we (my sister and I) helped Mum with the preparations for Christmas dinner, and when my help wasn't needed, I would sit down with my new books, and gaze longingly at my transistor radio kit, wondering if it would be OK to ask Dad to put it together on Christmas day, or if it would be better to wait... Dad went off with the uncles to the pub around eleven o'clock. It was traditional. I don't remember the exact opening hours, but it was probably 11-2pm, which was the precise time Mum was aiming to get Christmas dinner ready for. Gran walked round from her house in Boverton Drive (a five minute walk, and Jean and I probably went to fetch her and walk back with her) after the men had gone, and helped in the kitchen. It was turkey, stuffing, sprouts (which I didn't like then but love now), roast potatoes and gravy. For dessert there was a home-made Christmas pudding, complete with silver threepenny bits... The kitchen was about twelve feet long and eight feet wide. There was a table for preparing food on, down the left hand side, and a sink and a draining board the window side. At the end of the kitchen there was a small pantry with a meat safe on a shelf on the outside wall at the back, next to a vent with a metal mesh over it to allow the cold air in. No worktop, no wall cupboards, but there was one of those tall cupboards with a drop-down flap which gave you a tiny bit more work space.
I read my books, played with my torch, listened to the radio. We didn't have a television - we were known as "the only people in Gloucester who didn't have a television". The radio was our only link with the outside world apart from the daily papers, of which my favourites were the Mirror, the Sketch and the Herald. Christmas morning 1956: at 09:10 Jack Train presented Listeners' Requests on the light Programme, followed, at 09:55, as always, by A Story, A Hymn and a Prayer, then it was Silver Chords at 10:00, Smokey Mountain Jamboree at 10:30. Victor Sylvester and his Ballroom Orchestra were on from 11:00 till 11:30; at 13:00 it was Round Britain Family Favourites: "Tunes you have asked us to play including some records chosen by Service men and women overseas", presented by Derek Jones from Bristol, Anthony Raymont from Birmingham, Phillip Dobson from Manchester, Alastair Maclntyre from Glasgow, Morfudd Mason-Lewis from Cardiff, Victor Price from Belfast and Jean Metcalfe from London. And when that had finished, the men should have been back home for Christmas dinner, only they didn't ever get back when they were supposed to, and we had to wait, probably until about 2:30 before they rolled in, slightly the worse for wear. Later in the afternoon, the uncles would go back down to the pub (they were friends with the landlord, of course) but Dad stayed with us and we were at last able to give him and Mum (and Gran) their gifts.
I don't remember what Jean gave them, but I remember distinctly what were my Christmas gifts for mum and Dad; it was a pair of yellow socks for Dad and some California Poppy for Mum. Which brings me to the point of this month's ponder: when did people start treating their parents properly and get them proper Christmas gifts? Socks and a little bottle of scent would be fine as "extras", but as main presents? I know we didn't have a great deal of money in those days, but there were books, records, magazines, for Goodness's sake! My parents were overjoyed with their gifts from me and from Jean, or at least, they appeared to be overjoyed... As far as I can recall, my Dad only ever wore yellow socks, and yet I don't recall him or anyone else in the family buying them except at Christmas. I do remember Mum sitting darning them. If anyone asks me what I would like for Christmas, or for my birthday, I have a long list of films I would like on Blu Ray because on a full HD television, the results from a Blu Ray disk are superlative. I don't want socks, I don't want pants, I don't want slippers, I no longer wear ties... I don't actually want anything for Christmas that I actually need for day to day living - that is insane! Christmas is a time for gifts which you cannot afford to get for yourself. Socks, pants etc., are essentials, they don't count as gifts. So why did we get socks for Dad at Christmas? I think it is a clear indication that more than half a century ago, more than now, Christmas was all about children, parents didn't expect anything, you just got them something so that they had something to unwrap. I don't recall when it was we graduated from socks to something more meaningful, it would probably have been in the 1960s, when the world turned upside-down and teenagers started to think for themselves... but I'm only guessing there.
A good response for the Charles Dickens book competition, but unfortunately 95% of you got the answer wrong. Scrooge encountered four ghosts or spirits - the ghost of Jacob Marley, the ghost of Christmas Past, the ghost of Christmas Present and the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. It wasn't a trick question... First winning entry out of the hat was from John Farrow. The book will be with you, John, early in the new year...
My Commander Story Annual is every bit as good as I remember, and I am working my way slowly through the thrilling stories in between reading and reviewing the books that have gone into this post-Christmas issue of Books Monthly. My favourite story so far is the first one: Muskum Pete: Backwoodsman, a tale of the Old West which is crammed full of Red Indians, kidnappings, danger etc., etc. The book really is as good as I remembered! Now all I need to do is to look out for a decent copy with a dustjacket... (I misread the advert, it said no dustjacket quite clearly)
And finally for this month: A Happy New Year to you all... see you in February!
The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its twentieth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.