Why having a bath is more dangerous than bumping into a shark

Why having a bath is more dangerous than bumping into a shark – and why you should hope for Diddly Squat in your stocking!

  • Mark Mason rounded up a selection of the best books to use as stocking fillers 
  • Among top picks is Rutherford & Fry’s Complete Guide To Absolutely Everything
  • Reveals more people die by drowning in the bath than killed by sharks each year 


Christmas is a time of miracles, and the greatest this year has been Jeremy Clarkson’s reinvention as a farmer.

People who hated him on Top Gear fell for him on the TV series about his Oxfordshire farm. Now they can enjoy it all again in Diddly Squat: A Year On The Farm (Michael Joseph, £16.99, 224 pp).

The author buys a Lamborghini tractor and 68 sheep at auction: ‘I’ve no idea what I paid. I couldn’t understand a word anyone said.’

UK-based literary critic Mark Mason has rounded up a selection of the best books to fill stockings this Christmas (file image)

The sheep keep escaping (they’re better at vertical take-off than a Harrier Jump Jet), while Clarkson is unable to drive his tractor at the same speed as the combine harvester, so the grain keeps missing his trailer.

But gradually he learns, both about the mechanics of farming and the absurd regulations that make it a nightmare.

The food standards people decree that honey has to have a ‘best before’ date, even though the stuff never goes off. ‘My Ukrainian friend Victor is getting some labels printed that say “best before the end of days”.’

For more traditional writing about the countryside, try John Lewis-Stempel’s The Soaring Life Of The Lark (Doubleday £9.99, 112 pp). Among the things we learn about the bird is that its collective noun is an ‘exaltation’. Or, if you prefer, a ‘bevy’.

Jeremy Clarkson’s (pictured) reinvention as a farmer is shared in Diddly Squat: A Year On The Farm (Michael Joseph, £16.99, 224 pp)

Should your grey cells need a workout, The Astronomy Puzzle Book (Hodder £14.99, 272 pp), by the Royal Observatory Greenwich and Dr Gareth Moore, contains word and number conundrums themed on the final frontier. As well as the puzzles there are interesting snippets from space history, such as 17th-century astronomers making the crosshairs on their telescope lenses out of spider’s silk.

The Astronomy Puzzle Book (Hodder £14.99, 272 pp) 

More cleverness abounds in Rutherford & Fry’s Complete Guide To Absolutely Everything (Abridged) (Bantam Press £16.99, 304 pp).

Radio 4 duo (Adam and Hannah respectively) reveal that more people die by drowning in the bath each year than are killed by terrorists and sharks combined; that the satellite Gravity Probe B contained four ping-pong-sized balls that deviated from perfect spheres by a maximum of 40 atoms — less than the depth of the ink on this page; and that giraffes have lung-sacs all the way down their necks, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get enough air to their actual lungs.

For sheer breadth of trivia, the prize goes to An Answer For Everything: 200 Infographics To Explain The World (Bloomsbury £16.99, 320 pp). Some of the stats are as memorable as they’re surprising — for instance, only 12 per cent of the world’s population live in the southern hemisphere.

But, as so often, the best facts stick in the mind because they’re delightfully stupid. Average deaths per year in each of the major soap operas? EastEnders and Coronation Street are closer than you’d think (3.76 versus 3.34), but they’re both put to shame by Hollyoaks, which bumps off 7.04 annually. One character’s cause of death was ‘poisoning a mince pie to kill one’s son then accidentally eating the mince pie’. And an estimated 201 tonnes of gold have been inserted into people’s teeth worldwide in the past decade, it reveals.

Perfect Pitch: 100 Pieces Of Classical Music (Short Books £9.99, 208 pp)

Are you into classical music but want to learn more about it? Tim Bouverie has written Perfect Pitch: 100 Pieces Of Classical Music (Short Books £9.99, 208 pp). As well as recommendations for further listening, you’ll get the stories behind the tunes, such as Haydn betting someone that the audience would start talking before the end of his String Quartet No. 30 in E flat, then deliberately giving it a series of false endings to ensure he’d win the wager.

There’s also Mozart stopping off at Linz in 1783, and the local count requesting a concert. ‘As I did not bring one single simphonie with me,’ Ludwig explained in a letter to his father, ‘I will have to write one.’ And he did. Symphony No. 36 in C Major. Took him five days.

The Illustrated Etymologicon (Icon £20 , 320 pp) is a souped-up version, ten years after the original, of Mark Forsyth’s glorious journey through the English language and its intriguing nuggets.

‘Companion’ derives from panis, the Latin for bread — it’s someone with whom you eat it.

‘Pool’, as in a pot of money when gambling, comes not (as you’d expect) from the watery meaning of the same word, but from poule, the French for chicken. There was an old game in which the first person to hit the bird by throwing a stone at it won all the cash.

We’re always hearing about the words invented by Shakespeare, but Forsyth gives credit to John Milton for his impressive list of coinages, including ‘beleaguered’, ‘cooking’, ‘stunning’ and ‘damp’.

Great British Street Names (Quadrille £12.99, 224 pp)

Meanwhile ‘punch’ comes from panch, the Hindi word for five, because that’s how many ingredients the drink should have (spirits, water, lemon juice, sugar and spice). The same word explains the area of India which has five rivers: the Punjab.

Christopher Winn’s Great British Street Names (Quadrille £12.99, 224 pp) celebrates the country’s 800,000 thoroughfares, from Aachen Way in Halifax to Zurich Gardens in Stockport. St Mary Axe in London’s Square Mile takes its name from a church which owned one of the three axes used by Attila the Hun to behead St Ursula (and her 11,000 handmaidens) after she refused to marry him.

Norwich’s Geoffrey Road commemorates Mr Colman, as in the mustard, who would drive round the city in a carriage drawn by goats. And in Sheffield a stretch of road whose only building is a police station was christened Letsby Avenue.

This Book Is Literally Just Pictures Of Snoozy Animals That Will Make You Sleep Better (Smith Street Books £9.99, 96 pp) proves that the old thing about yawning being contagious remains true even when it’s a picture of a cheetah.

Magnum Dogs (Thames & Hudson £16.99, 208 pp) is a collection of canine snaps from the archives of the legendary photographic agency, so has loftier aims than simply making you go ‘aaaah’.

Private Eye Annual 2021 (Private Eye Productions £9.99, 96 pp)

The book does occasionally achieve that trick only great photos can pull off, namely making you see the world in a slightly different way. James Dean, for instance — the shot of him in spectacles, flat cap and overalls with his collie in a field, is as unlike Rebel Without A Cause as you could imagine.

Another curious thing about a photograph is that it can be more aesthetically pleasing than the thing it’s a photograph of.

Finally, the Private Eye Annual 2021 (Private Eye Productions £9.99, 96 pp) reminds us that the most talented comedy writers can try as hard as they like to make funny stuff up, but the stupidity of the great British public will beat them every time.

Dumb Britain, the magazine’s collection of incorrect answers from TV quiz shows, this year includes: ‘In the 2nd century BC, troops from which city state destroyed Carthage?’

Contestant: ‘Dunstable.’

To buy any book reviewed here, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937

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