Like "modernised" Conservatism, digital cameras and rock music made by people under 50, the Christmas celebrity memoir may be breathing its last.
In 2012, a year that brought us books by such titans as Cheryl Cole, David Walliams and Tulisa Contostavlos, sales were 45% down on their 2008 peak. You might, then, have expected publishers to drop the ghost-writers and stop making huge payments to sportspeople, comedians and Britain's Got Talent judges, and stick with cookbooks. But no: 2013 has brought a mind-boggling crop of memoirs – all of which are being offered to the public as if they represent the acme of Christmas wonderment.
My job is to spend 10 days immersed in the "best of the batch", carefully taking notes, and chewing my knuckles, while an array of famous authors are brutally played off against one another to find a winner. Needless to say, this remains a vital public service, because the celeb book's decline is obviously relative and plenty of people are still buying them. In large quantities, too: at the time of writing, David Jason's My Life had already sold 134,895 copies. A lot of people, then, will be getting it for Christmas.
Read on. This may prove to be useful …
The opening clash is between an iconic cake-maker raised in the upscale environs of Bath Spa, and the distance runner and creator of the enduring(ish) Mobot, who spent a lot of time as a child in the tiny African state of Djibouti.
What is the latter like? You can only wonder. "Life wasn't easy in Djibouti," says Mo, "but it wasn't desperately hard, either." Brings the images flooding into your head, doesn't it? Or what about this: "Everyone rolled up their sleeves and got on with it … we learned that you didn't get anywhere without putting in the work."
Ground down by a life that was not easy but not too hard either and always having to roll their sleeves up, the family eventually left for Europe, leaving behind Mo's twin brother Hassan (from whom his book takes its title, though Mo's bro barely figures in it), a rum turn that is never satisfactorily explained. Anyway, Mo's first glimpse of London is described in truly poetic terms: "The buildings were bigger. The cars were bigger." And after he makes big strides as an athlete, he arrives in the US. "Cars, buildings, food, portions: they were all double the size in America," he observes.
Top guy and all that, and hats off for simply ignoring the "Plastic Brit" rubbish, but compared to the thrill of watching him take those medals, reading his book is like falling asleep in a cold bath.
Mary Berry's has similar moments of complete tedium, but in some ways, Recipe For Life is the story of one woman valiantly putting up with patriarchy and making the most of things via mixing bowls and whisks. Her dad, a one-time mayor of Bath, is male chauvinism incarnate, as proved by his response to her future husband's request that he grant them permission to marry. "She's very difficult," said Pa Berry. "You do realise what you're taking on? And she may never have children." They got hitched, anyway, though even now, it doesn't seem like anyone in her house has read any Germaine Greer. "Cashmere polo necks are one of my wardrobe staples," she says on page 313, "not only because I get so chilly, but because my husband Paul says I've got scraggy around the neck, which is quite right."
Berry's ghostwriter, one Catherine Woods, does a creditable job of evoking the tweedy stoicism of a woman who is undeniably all right. There are also a number of recipes, including one for something called iced lemon flummery, which involves cream caster sugar, milk and more cream, and is surely just the kind of thing we should all be eating these days. This alone is enough to send her flying past Mo Farah.
Winner: Mary Berry
The autobiography of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky is called MyLife, but that's where the similarities between him and David Jason unfortunately end. The latter's 392-page memoir is built on the flimsiest of foundations. Worse, Only Fools And Horses only enters the story three-quarters of the way through, and can't redeem an exhausting book that gets waylaid in the showbiz undergrowth.
"At the age of eight or nine," he says at one point, "I did become the owner of a pair of perfectly fitting wellington boots." Actors, eh? Give them a ghostwriter (Giles Smith, who memorably worked on Keith Richards' Life, is credited in Jason's acknowledgements – business is obviously slow), and they'll not only fixate on surreal minutiae, but also do that thing thesps always do, when they endlessly mention long-forgotten theatre productions. This happens a lot: if you have any appetite for limp anecdotes about plays called things such as Trousers Overboard! at Bromley Rep, you'll love it.
Pre-Del Boy, Jason says he became known for "introducing additional physicality into farces". It got him a long way, but also into the odd scrape. Witness what transpires on page 119, when one Paul Bacon, Jason's co-star in a theatrical production of The Rivals, invited him round for "supper", and then "put his arms around me and started to kiss me". The man who would go on to be the voice of Danger Mouse obviously didn't want any additional physicality introduced into his own farce – though his friendship with Bacon endured, and the would-be seducer eventually went on to play a renowned dog. "He found household-name fame at a remove," Jason reveals, "as the voice of Hector in the hugely popular children's glove-puppet show Hector's House." Woof woof!
Though the title of her own memoir seems celestially crap ("Bonkers" – I mean, really), Jennifer Saunders fares a bit better. Some of the stuff about her and Dawn French does not exactly suggest deep insight ("The crucial element in our double act … has been our friendship"). She also digresses a bit too much. But the chapter about her breast cancer is done with affecting candour, the stuff concerning Ab Fab is borderline unputdownable, and by page 50, I realise I am actually quite enjoying myself.
One big coup de grace arrives on page 143, when she is out with Roseanne Barr in LA, and meets Dolly Parton. "She opened her jacket. And there they were – not just her tits but her glorious tattoos," Saunders recalls. "They were angels and flowers, shaded in pink and blue pastels. I was gobsmacked. Her words, 'This will go no further, right?' were fully adhered to. Until I got back to the hotel. I had to tell someone, so I just about told everyone. I didn't want to wake up the next morning and doubt my own story. I had seen Dolly Parton's tits."
This is actually only a footnote. But in sporting terms, it suggests an inspired goal scored from the halfway line, if not two.
Winner: Jennifer Saunders
By the time I get to these two, one thing has started to bother me. What has happened to the ditzy, rushed, slightly confused authorial voice that usually defines celeb autobiographies? Witness 2011's classic by James Corden, and a choice sentence indeed: "The publisher has just told me that I'm already 5,000 words over the required amount, which I can't quite believe."
Amanda Holden's effort – rubbish title, lousy typeface – superficially suggests that she might be making a last stand for that way of doing it, but no: even she seems to be aware that deconstructing your own book as you write it isn't the greatest of ideas. The chapter about the still-birth of her son is inevitably moving and occasionally all but unbearable. Her memories of glimpsing the heights of showbiz via her first husband, Les Dennis, have a certain something ("During one show, Les farted next to Roy Walker"). But God, when their marriage comes to grief, it all pours forth, to no one's great benefit.
Is there anyone out there who wants to know what it's like arguing all the time with the former host of Family Fortunes and one-time comedy partner of the much-missed Dustin Gee? If so, sneak into WH Smiths and immerse yourself in pages 90-140 (approximately). In 2002, she was filming Cutting It in Manchester; he was back at home in Norfolk. "Our enforced separation wasn't helping Les and I get our marriage back on track," she writes, "and when he was invited to take part in Celebrity Big Brother I have to admit that I didn't discourage him." So, off he went – into that killer series that also starred Goldie and Anne Diamond, and featured Dennis talking to chickens. "I think he originally did it to be funny," says Holden, "but it apparently just came across as mental."
Seeing Alex Ferguson among 2013's celeb biographies is a strange thing. The no-nonsense, anti-showbiz Alex, whose elegantly damning chapter about David Beckham ("I was starting to despair of him … I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents") confirms how much he loathes the modern celeb whirl and its inevitable intersection with his sport.
Most of the time, he wants to be seen as a modern Yoda, some of whose Jedi-esque wisdom is positively gnostic. "The balls are always in the air," he muses. "You have a range of targets and compensate from the list when one gets away." At one point, he claims that "momentum has its own logic". There's more: some people, he says right at the end, are "happy to stay at home or watch the birds and the ducks float by in the park. And some want to go to the moon."
From time to time, he seems to have got there himself, metaphorically speaking, as proved on page 125, where he recalls an altercation with the decidedly non-cosmic Roy Keane.
"You've changed," says Keane.
"Roy," says Ferguson, "I will have changed, because today is not yesterday."
That's right! Change I will have, because yesterday today not is! The force is strong in this one, and he glides through to the semis.
Winner: Alex Ferguson
All political careers end in failure, blah blah. But perhaps not failure as soul-chewingly awful as this. In late 2012, Ann Widdecombe was in panto in High Wycombe alongside Craig Revel Horwood from Strictly (in drag, natch) and a star turn winningly described by her towards the end of her memoir: "Muddles was the ventriloquist Steve Hewlett, whose dummy is Pongo the Skunk. Why they are not on television I don't know." How you get from the front rank of politics to that point is an interesting question.
Ooh, she is awful, and I don't like her. Her story careens from her nomadic childhood – her dad was in the navy – through Birmingham and Oxford Universities (pater paid for the latter), and on to life at the fag-end of 18 years of Tory government, when the woman later cast as "Widdy in Waiting" launched a crusade to take Britain back to 1962, or thereabouts. As with most things, she is quite upfront about this. Not only does she think men are "sharper, wittier and more entertaining" than women, but she says she prefers "what we had fifty years ago". This is because she lives in her own private dystopia, which bears no resemblance to, you know, real life. "Take out a library book," she says at one point, "and you will be given a form asking for your sexual preferences and racial origins." No you won't, you silly old moo.
Arena-filling Merseyside/Cheshire borders comedian John Bishop, by comparison, seems to be a nice enough human being. Three years ago, my annual celeb-books experience was less than enlivened by the beatifically bad memoir written by Michael McIntyre. I try to know as little as I can about modern standup, but it seems to me that Bishop essentially deals in the same kind of low-grade, culture-for-the-cultureless observational comedy, while avoiding MM's crucifying bumptiousness. This is to his eternal credit, but it also means his memoir has almost nothing on which to actually comment.
"For me, a new school was always an opportunity to make friends and have fun," he writes. Really? No! "When I was 10, we left Winsford and moved back to a council estate in Runcorn." Did you? Steady on.
It is nice that he got back with his estranged wife when she saw one of his early gigs and glimpsed the man he had once been (or something). It is creditable that he rode a bike from Australia to Liverpool to raise money for the NSPCC. I don't know: I feel a bit evil taking such a self-evidently nice fella to task, but his book is just too dull. Mind you, this opinion may not be as controversial as I think, as evidenced by an episode replayed on page 300. Towards Christmas, he is idly standing by a display of his own DVDs in HMV, when is compelled to reach for one, and topped by a concerned bystander. "I wouldn't buy that," says the man. "He's shite."
Winner: John Bishop, simply for not being Ann Widdecombe
Mary Berry v Jennifer Saunders
So it is that the draw falls along gender lines. And, come to think of it, class lines, too – because both Berry and Saunders' "mems" (a Saunders term) are smattered with stuff that evokes the pine-scented milieu of the English middle classes. Before anyone starts: yes, I'm middle-class too. But this has to be settled somehow. So it occurs to me that such a nail-biting clash is best decided by establishing who is guilty of the most uber-bourgeois paragraph, a crime punishable with defeat.
Saunders has a stab on p214 of Bonkers when she explains why she, Ade "Viv from the Young Ones" Edmonson and their daughters relocated to the West Country. "We moved there permanently because we felt that the girls – Ella, in particular – needed the freedom that Devon would provide," she says. "She had expressed the desire to run on the moor and ride ponies. We didn't realise quite how keen the others would be. We were anxious, particularly about Beattie, who was very happy in Richmond."
On the "What's the bedroom tax?" scale, this scores a seven. But then Mary Berry steps in. "By this time," runs page 216 of her book, "all of our children had gone away to school. Thomas was a real daredevil, far happier climbing trees than he was sitting in a classroom, so when he was 13, we sent him to Gordonstoun in Scotland … The school, which counts Prince Charles amongst its distinguished alumni has its own fire brigade …"
Snip! That's a 10, and she's OUT.
Winner: Jennifer Saunders
Alex Ferguson v John Bishop
Bishop has essentially scraped through thanks to the luck of the draw, and will inevitably be crushed. There are similar reference points in his and Ferguson's books – Bishop, after all, once played non-league football – but this face-off is a bit like Wilmslow Albion being forced to play Juventus. Ferguson's book is the tale of his climactic run with Manchester United, whereas Bishop's boils down to ramblesome evocation of a mid-life crisis and his successful exit from it. Besides, he also cannot compete with the parts of Ferguson's meisterwerk that suggest a self-help book: as with his sage advice for anyone – me, for example – who sometimes wakes up at 5am and tries hard to get back to sleep. "You've had your sleep. That's why you wake up," says Fergie-Yoda. Brilliant! He wins, easy.
Winner: Alex Ferguson
Jennifer Saunders v Alex Ferguson
What an odd pairing. In fairness, comparing these two is like trying to establish the relative merits of, say, paint and porridge, but it has to be done. Two trips to the cafe and some iced lemon flummery later, and it all becomes clear. Yes, Ferguson's stuff about Beckham, Rooney, Van Nistelrooy et al is insightful and often blunt. It helps that there are walk-on parts for Tony Blair, and even a mention of P Diddy. But nothing really compares to the two soaraway highlights of Bonkers.
They are too lengthy to reproduce here, but Saunders' conversations – particularly via fax – with her Ab Fab co-star Joanna Lumley are a hoot. She knows this, too: "Some of my happiest times have been sitting in the back of a car with Joanna," she says, "having conversations in character that just make us wee." And me, nearly.
In any case, her supremacy is clinched by the tale of her and Ruby Wax being dragged around India by Goldie Hawn circa 1997 as they are pressured to come up with a script for a film Hawn envisages as being about a fiftysomething woman who – and these are Saunders' words, not Hawn's - "goes to India, looks gorgeous and finds herself".
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