Ben Van der Velde is a hard-working stand-up comedian currently flogging his gags across Europe, but is centred mainly in London, where he runs Good Ship Comedy. As if touring and writing his own hilarious material wasn’t enough, he also serves as a Maze Master at the Crystal Maze Experience in London, a job anyone of a certain age would kill for.

I first encountered him thanks to his excellent podcast, Worst Foot Forward, which he co-hosts with friend and actor Barry Brett-McStay. Each week on the podcast, they and a guest from the world of comedy, politics or academia tackle the worst examples of things in history, and in over sixty episodes so far have discussed the worst cocktails, worst board games, worst gadgets, worst haircuts and worst doctors, among many others.

They’ve yet to tackle much in the way of the world’s worst books, but since I try and maintain some degree of positivity when online, I asked Ben to swap out the bad stuff for the good, and quizzed him about some of the books that have shaped him and left a lasting impression.

What are you reading at the moment?

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. [A novel of high adventure … and moral purpose, based on an extraordinary true story of eight years in the Bombay underworld.]

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

Ideally that it’s going to introduce me to a way of seeing the world that I haven’t encountered before, either because of the perspective of the characters or the author.  I don’t mind if it’s a big tome, but it better not be lumpen and self-important.  That prose has to zip along.

What genres do you prefer?

Good fantasy that’s rooted in the mythology of this world.  Anything set in and around New Orleans.  Magic, historical, musical and with a bit of philosophy thrown in for good measure too.

What were your favourite books growing up?

Tutankhamen was a Bit of a Mummies Boy – it was a book of comical school reports of famous historical figures which I constantly read and re-read.  Also Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, George’s Marvellous Medicine and all of Robin Jarvis’ stuff – The Deptford Mice trilogy was amazing.

Have you ever seen a film that was better than the book it was based on?

It’s controversial, but I reckon The Princess Bride trumps the book.  Although it was a book written with the intention of becoming a film.

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?

I think Kurt Vonnegut is probably the wisest author I’ve read.  The opening twenty pages of Breakfast of Champions made me contemplate quite how childish the history of our planet would look to an objective outsider.

Which is your favourite book from the classical canon?

Frankenstein. It’s so concisely and sharply written, comes from completely unexpected angles, and I love that Mary Shelley saw her husband and his mates telling ghost stories and thought, “I’m gonna scare the sweet bejesus out of you lot!”

Can you tell me about a book that made you cry?

Cloud Atlas.  There is a transition from one of the concurrent stories to another where you learn something so breathtakingly tragic about a character in a single line that it left me in speechless pieces for about ten minutes.

If you could spend a day inside a book, which would you choose?

Any book set in Ankh Morpork … or the first half of The Great Gatsby.

Can you tell me some of the books currently on your “to-read” list?

It’s T-minus six weeks till my first child turns up, so I’m trying to cram in as many as I can at the moment. Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, the final book of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy, Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott and, if I can fit it in, Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

It’s a toss-up between Twelve Bar Blues by Patrick Neate and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I’m gonna go with the Gaiman as I can’t think of a book that transports me to another place so vividly. He’s from another world.


Ben can be found all over the Internet and beyond. You can learn more about him on his website or Twitter, or have a listen to his brilliantly funny podcast, Worst Foot Forward. You can also visit his London comedy club, Good Ship Comedy.

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