16th December 1994 at 00:00
Seasonable fare is on offer in The Christmas Reader (Penguin Pounds 9. 99). Although it bears the credit "Compiled and introduced by Geoffrey Smith", its contents were actually selected by the readers of his Sunday Times column.

Consequently many of the old Christmas warhorses are trundled out again: Dylan Thomas on Christmas in Wales; Laurie Lee on Christmas in the Cotswolds; Mole, Rat and the carol singers in the Wild Wood . . . It does, however, contain some novelties but inevitably ends up with Christmas at the Cratchits. (Dickens's complete Christmas stories have just been reprinted as Penguin Classics. The Christmas Books Volume One (Pounds 4.50) contains A Christmas Carol; Volume Two (Pounds 4.99) includes the originally far more popular Cricket on the Hearth. )

Much more idiosyncratic Christmas reading is available in John Julius Norwich's Christmas Crackers and More Christmas Crackers (Penguin Pounds 10 each). For the past 20 years he has produced privately a small anthology to send to his friends as an extravagant alternative to a Christmas card. Each of these is a compendium of ten of those annual selections.

Obviously his friends enjoy a certain amount of preciosity and the best bits are not particularly seasonal. I particularly like the last words of General Sedgwick, killed in battle in 1864 ("Why, they couldn't hit an elephant at this dist...") and Thomas Beecham after conducting for the ballet Swan Lake somewhat presto: "That made the buggers hop."

As a genuine stocking-filler, you could try A Vague History of the Kings and Queens of England by Kevin Hassall (Janus Publishing Pounds 6.95). It treads exactly the same path as 1066 and All That but contains some new jokes. The Great Fire of London (1666) was God's judgement on the Permissive Sixties, Henry V had a French kiss from Catherine and Elizabeth I died, we are told, "literally hairless". Mr Hassall, we are also told, taught history for 20 years in Brent.

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