The Gentleman’s Bedside Companion is subtitled A Compendium of Manly Information for the Last Fifteen Minutes of the Day. Despite the self-conscious irony in the wording, this book does exactly what it promises: it presents short, easily digestible nuggets of “gee whiz” information and anecdote designed to give the drowsy, none-too-attentive and presumably male reader something to do before drifting off to sleep. The presentation is lively, utilizing a copious selection of lists, illustrations and graphs, and is leavened with considerable doses of British wit.
But is it worth reading? Well, that will depends on your interest in such topics as “The Story of Heroin”, “The Incredible Kingdom of Redondo”, and “Twenty-Five Rules for Improving Your English”. This last is an ironic list which includes such sage advice as “Avoid clichés like the plague” and “Never generalize about anything.” Such jokey entries are mixed in with more serious material, like “Great Bits from the Bible”, which gives an overview of such Old Testament topics as foreskins, testicles, coitus interruptus, cannibalism and whores. (I told you this was for the boys.)
These topics are loosely grouped together under headings such as “Science”, “Arts and Letters”, “The Media”, “Foreign Affairs” and so on. No effort is made to create any sort of linear path from one topic to the next ,even within the various chapters. In fact, this is rather beside the point. As author Tom Cutler warns in his introduction, “Whatever you do, do not try reading the whole thing from start to finish.” He suggests that the reader “sample a zesty morsel here and another there, and then pay a visit to Snoresville”, which might indeed be a fruitful way to approach the material.
Cutler’s humor is sardonic throughout, achieving that faintly superior tone of mockery that most Brits seem to perfect sometime before their second birthday. “Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler were both amateur painters,” we are told in the section on “How to Draw a Cat”. “If one had declared art-war on the other it would have ended, probably, with Churchill winning by a nose.” In the section “Brushes with Death: Famous Paionters and What They Died Of,” Cutler describes Mark Rothko’s death this way: “One day he’d had enough of everything and slit his wrists at the kitchen sink. Sad really.”
Elsewhere, Cutler doesn’t have to work at being funny, because the material does the job for him. A section on “Funny Real Newspaper Headlines” includes such howlers as “Police Hold Man Over Prostitutes” and the World War II-vintage: “French Push Bottles Up German Rear”.
At times, though, the humor comes off as coarse and unkind, especially in regards to women. At one point, he describes “How to Dissolve Your Wife” by explaining the process that serial killer John George Haigh used to dispose of the people he had murdered: by dissolving his victims in vats of concentrated sulphuric acid. Nothing about that is particularly funny, nor is Cutler when he goes on to say, “If you’re fed up with your wife you might decide that this is a good way to dispose of her. But there’s an even better way…” which turns out to be an industrial compound used to dissolve large animal carcasses, compised of sodium hydroxide.
This is all pretty grisly, and not even remotely entertaining. The serial-killer subject matter might fit with the layout of the book, but to affect a tone of lighthearted wife-bashing is a severe error in judgment.
The same unfortunate tendency is also present in the list of “new man behaviors,” which are actually just typically boorish behaviors dressed up in modern garb. Is it meant to be a sly wink acknowledging how men are reluctant to change? Sure, maybe. Is it funny? You decide. Men are instructed to compliment their wife’s appearance, because “there’s no reason she can’t go shopping, do the housework, and cook your dinner without taking a moment to look attractive for you when you get home.”
More sinisterly, men are instructed to “Put your foot down—with a firm hand.” Does anybody actually read that and think it’s funny? Admittedly, these flashes of meanness are not in keeping with the tone elsewhere in the book, but that just makes them all the more jarring to encounter.
Overall, the “compendium” succeeds at what it sets out to do, which is present a wide array of trivia and half-forgotten information to people who might have an interest in it. The passage on “Operation Mincemeat” is fascinating, and the list of guitar greats is, naturally, both illuminating and infuriating. I’m not convinced that it needs to be read at night; another approach would be to enjoys its bits and pieces elsewhere in the house. Indeed, naming this volume The Gentleman’s Toilet Companion would have made perfect sense. (Not sure about the marketing campaign, though.)
It’s hard to imagine a serious reader scooping this volume up in a bookshop, but it is perhaps a useful gift for someone—probably male—who has wide-ranging but not terribly deep interests.