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Book review: <i>A Bit On The Side</i> by Alan Coren

If this was a member of the pre-war idle rich, it would be Bertie Wooster.


An excerpt (rather poorly chosen, actually) from a column, using the old ‘ripped-from-the-paper’ effect and including a small photo of the author.

The plot

Columns from the ex-editor of Punch (long-lived, now defunct UK humour magazine, if you’re unfamiliar). He now writes two columns for The Times, including this one (the title of this book is a reference to its placement on the newspaper’s page).

The good

Mellow, learned, twinkly and unmistakably British, Coren’s columns strike a balance somewhere between Fry’s mad old academic character Trefusis and the column, also by Fry, called “My Stapler & I” which mocked a certain kind of yawningly self-indulgent writing, passing under the guise of comedy, which appeared far too often in Punch during their 1980s slump, and can still be seen in local rags to this day. (Punch lifted their game impressively as the calendar flipped into the nineties but by then it was too late for the mag. If you find old copies lying around they’re well worth a try, though, and the annual hardcover “best of” collections are a second-hand bookshop gold strike.)

Coren covers topics too diverse and digressive to provide as examples, but, as the modern-day American master Dave Barry noted, if your columns make people laugh, then you’re a humour writer, and by this Spartan standard I would definitely call Coren a humorist.

He uses all the tools at his disposal – classical education, literary talent, slapstick, Englishness, age, cheekiness, sarcasm, irony, surprising analogies of subject, and social and/or political commentary in any combination he thinks will be amusing. He’s regularly successful, and never less than pleasant to digest. As I often say, it takes skill to write smartly lightly, more so if you have a message, and Coren, though patently and old hand in the field, still has the knack of taking the reader on a little journey every page and frequently manages to surprise with a deft piece of juxtaposition or an inversion of the common wisdom. Not bad for someone pushing seventy.

The bad

It’s VERY British, not to mention irredeemably and unashamedly bourgeois and boomer-era. Coren’s grammar school education is evident on every page, often in joyful flits of wordplay but almost as often in show-offy latin tags, mangled quotations and references which are no more enlightening than Tarantino’s, for all their supposed urbanity.

Like Punch, about half the material involves current events of one kind or another, scaled from the global to the end of the garden, so the fact that it’s now a good decade old might disengage the casual reader, or at least tempt them to start page-skipping.

Coren writes two weekly columns, and I reckon the publishers could have used more of them to fatten this up a bit. It’s as thin as Dave Barry’s thin books and thems are THIN, yo. I don’t have much else to say about this – I gave it six out of ten due to it’s ephemerality more than its quality – I certainly wouldn’t buy it, but from your Auntie’s bookshelf it’s perfect for a soggy day indoors with a cup of tea.

What I learnt

That “vivus” is Latin for “alive” (I think).

In short

Title: A Bit On The Side
Author: Alan Coren
Publisher: Robson Books Ltd
ISBN: 1861051271
Year published: 1998
Pages: 158
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Humour

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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