December 9th, 2017

Autobiographies, Annuals and Panic Buying

Many of us will give and receive books this Christmas. If, like me, you struggle with present selecting, a book can be a safe bet. You can say “This is meant to be really good. I think you’ll like it” when all you know about the book is that the main character makes clocks in Revolution era Paris and that it won an award. And apparently it’s dark but not too dark.

Giving a novel as a present is, in the act itself, a sign of respect for the recipient. It’s the same as saying “I think you are capable of sitting down for a long time without a screen, just reading stuff without pictures”. It’s a compliment.

But before you get to that point, you actually have to choose and buy. Despite this being the age of online shopping and home delivery, every Christmas I somehow end up at the last minute, scrabbling around real shops and department stores.

In those late desperate hours, anything that gets you closer to the finish line is to be grabbed hungrily. Being on Oxford Street at this point is like running around the deck of a sinking ship, frantically looking for something that will float. The bookshop is like a beacon. A beacon that draws you nearer home – or nearer the pub, depending on your frame of mind. This is because it’s an easy option that can take out a good part of your list in a matter of minutes.

Here’s how it usually goes:

The amount of choice almost scuppers you. There’s a display of something sport-related. On the cover, an ex England manager, smiling. He’s happy now – it’s all water under the bridge. You pick one up and consider. You move on. How about the comedy section? But suddenly, in this moment, you hate all comedians and their terrible books. For god’s sake, you tell yourself, beggars can’t be choosers! You pull yourself together and hurriedly scan the top 10. A weathered man laughing in a Summer garden. In France probably. It’s a thick book. It’s that TV gardener -the one all old ladies like. For your mum? Oh god how low have we stooped! But at this stage, you know even the most tenuous connection will lead to a purchase. When you emerge onto the cold dark street ten minutes later, you are clutching a plastic bag which contains three titles. They will be received in polite bewilderment.

So much for adulthood. As a child, the book you expected to get at least one of every Christmas was the annual. Practically every popular kids’ and family tv show generated one. Christmas wouldn’t have been the same without them.

The most enjoyable of these books were the comic based annuals. The Dandy and The Beano were the rulers of this genre. The Dandy Book always had Korky the Cat doing something clever with a pudding or a balloon on the cover. The Beano would have Desperate Dan eating a pie whilst demonstrating his strength.

In the case of football annuals, most of the featured players had moved on to new clubs in the interim between the book being compiled and the start of the current season. There would be a little introduction written (supposedly) by the star whose annual this was, complete with their signature underneath.

Drama serial based annuals must have been a great source of work for illustrators. I don’t know if it was a rights issue but a Doctor Who book (for example) would be heavy on artwork and light on stills and photographs.

Did these artists have agents? Did the phone ring in June with somebody saying “Brian, I’ve got you Dukes of Hazzard, The Great Egg Race and We Are The Champions. Same money as last year – ok my love?”

Some of this art was really great but as a kid I didn’t wonder about who the people producing it. Who were they? Did they do other kinds of jobs? Why were they only allowed to use one colour?

We’ll never know. Ever. (Actually, I could probably find out).

The true survivors of Christmas publishing are the ‘stocking fillers’. It seems there’ll always be a place by the Yule log for jokey novelty books about 80s hairstyles and coffee. A Hundred Ways To Dress Your Dog. The History Of Underpants etc etc These books invariably end up next to the CDs in the charity shop, their former appeal now a distant memory.

Personally, the only kind of book I’m ever interested in at Christmas is a book of ghost stories. Christmas without ghosts is like Christmas without, well, books.

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by Ged Adamson


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