A book better presented than compiled, Tim Heald’s The Best After-Dinner Stories is a special edition available through the Folio Society (£19.95). As is often the case with such books, the text is illustrated, in this case by Paul Cox, who does an admirable if somewhat cosy job of work with the material offered.
There’s an underlying tone to the collection and the introductory passages which will undoubtedly appeal to those of a clubbish or socially elevated nature. I found it complacent, self-satisfied and smug and not at all attractive. In fact, I was tempted to stop reading after a short while because of this slightly snobbish and superior tone. I’m glad I didn’t.
In the collection, Tim Heald introduces readers to such luminaries as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Churchill, Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole and Her Majesty the Queen, amongst others. A few less elevated entertainers jostle for space within the pages, including Joyce Grenfell, Eric Idle, Gyles Brandreth, John Mortimer and Joanna Trollope, again, amongst others.
Of course, the very title of the book should have warned me of the probable approach: after dinner stories are, after all, mainly the province of establishment organisations such as Oxbridge, Gentleman’s clubs and various scholarly or exclusive societies. It is telling that the book was published by the Folio Society, a book club specialising in high end quality book production, where all volumes are hardbacks and most editions are presented in slip cases specially designed for the organisation. You’ll find it available on Amazon, but only in the form of the original publication; sometimes offered as ‘new’, when it is clear that it’s a book passed on to the seller by a society member.
Apart from the social snobbishness that drives the text, there’s an intellectual snobbishness that presents certain references, likely to be familiar only to scholars, as if these were common knowledge amongst common readers.
So, why did I continue to read? Well, the simple fact is that some of the stories presented were very amusing. Some. There was a good deal of comedy I could enjoy, though there was as much that left me cold due to its class basis. I skipped large portions, bored by the pretentions of the narrator. But I also learned the true sources for a number of lengthy jokes that have become popular through re-telling and clearly attributed to the wrong creative minds by that reprocessing.
I obtained the book as a returning member of the Folio Society, an organisation that attracts those of us who love real books. It was part of a free introductory package. I’m glad I didn’t pay for it but also glad I stuck it out to the end. Would I recommend it? That depends on the reader, really. The old-fashioned, club members, Oxbridge dons and graduates, and those who consider themselves upper-middle or upper class would undoubtedly enjoy a number of the ‘in’ jokes. For the rest of us less elevated readers, the pleasures are less obvious. If you enjoyed Punch, you’re likely to find something to amuse you here.