A Review of “Whatever it is I don’t like it” by Howard Jacobson.

This book is comprised of selected newspaper columns written by Howard Jacobson over the last ten or so years in the The Independent newspaper. I gave up buying newspapers a good while ago, so it’s good to have his columns collected here in book form.

Some readers will recognise the title as a quotation from the song sung by Grouch Marx in Horse Feathers. Others may miss the reference and reasonably infer that this book is the collected grumblings of a grumpy old man. Either that or the latest collection of rants from Tory misfit Jeremy Clarkson. 

Not so. Although Jacobson is frequently angry and indignant in these selected newspaper pieces, and though he is now a gent of a certain vintage, this book as a whole covers a far wider emotional and intellectual range. Nor does he write about cars much. And it turns out he actually likes quite a lot, too.

Chief among his loves has got to be the english language and the good old fashioned essay. How many times have you read a column in a newspaper and thought “what a load of…” or “how much was this hack paid to dash this off?”. You could never level these charges at Jacobson, since at his best he shapes and hones the language of his journalism as much as he does in his novels. As for the structure of his columns, they aren’t rambling or inconsequential in the way of many another columnist I could mention (try some of Jacobson’s lesser Independent colleagues for a start). In fact, you could give any one of these pieces to an A Level student as an object lesson in how to set out one’s stall, elegantly develop a line of argument and come to a pithy conclusion. I think Jacobson would quite like that, since the state of education in modern day Britain is something he returns to more than once.

The best thing I can say about these pieces is that, just like his novels, they will make you laugh but they will also make you think. You may agree with him at times, just as you will disagree with him at others. But Jacobson never ever gives less than his best and never wastes his readers’ time. Just as well, then, that his best newspaper pieces have been collected here, since they probably will be still read when The Independent and all the other print newspapers have gone the way of the dodo.

So rather than lump this book in with the ramblings of all the other grumpy old men, keep it instead with your collection of columns by writers like Kurt Vonnegut (“A Man Without a Country”) and Primo Levi (“Other People’s Trades”): good men and first-rate writers with something original to say, and a precise, elegant style in which to say it.

My only bone of contention is that at one point Jacobson expresses a liking for Michael Gove. In the light of this pip-squeak’s record so far as Education Minister, I don’t like that opinion, so I hope that, like Groucho,  Jacobson has others.

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