Well in advance of this year’s summer holiday I took an intensive inventory of my books, separated those I had not yet read as well as separating the hardbacks from the softcovers and sorted out my holiday book bag for this summer. I particularly favoured hardbacks because during the year I don’t tend to read those, after all, it’s so much easier to pop a paperback book in your pocket to read at work rather than lug a heavy hardback book about. On reflection that was really rather forward thinking of me. Where the heck I put those books though I do not know, so instead I grabbed a few nearby paperbacks at the last minute and that is what I took to France to read. All were sourced from second hand book shops or charity shops.
What did you take to read on holiday this year?
The Kenneth Williams Diaries edited by Russell Davies.
I’ve always rather liked Kenneth Williams, the slightly over the top star of many a Carry On film as well as numerous radio comedy shows. However, it did feel rather odd reading his private thoughts through his diary. This is not an autobiography where the author tells us the story of his life and keeps things in some sort of order, it’s a diary, a record of the author’s day to day thoughts and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what is happening. In a lot of the diary entries Kenneth refers to people by their initials rather than their name. The habit of using initials can be rather annoying as the editor will mention in one of the many footnotes that SB for instance refers to his friend and fellow performer Stanley Baxter. Later on SB will turn up again and I find myself flipping back through the footnotes because I have forgotton who SB was.
In the diaries, Williams talks about his private life mostly in a sort of code. He does talk about his many trips to Morocco where he went in search of young men, something he was willing to indulge in in the secret world of gay men abroad. A lot of this activity gave him little pleasure and it seems to me he was unhappy with his sexuality and perhaps he envied his friend the playwright Joe Orton, who accepted himself in a way Williams never could.
The diaries are actually pretty famous because they reveal Kenneth Williams as being so very different to the persona he revealed to the world. All of Williams’ moods are revealed in the book, his anger, his sadness and his disapointments as well as his happier times. It’s interesting to read about world events in the entries, for instance the Moon landing in 1969 causes Williams to moan about the TV being all about the moon! I was 13 at the time, very interested in the Apollo programme and couldn’t get enough of moon landing TV.
The three day week is mentioned in 1973 along with various entries about power cuts and industrial action, a time I remember well, sitting in my Mum’s kitchen lit by a candle and my dad trying in vain to read the newspaper.
I did expect to read a lot about Barbara Windsor, his great friend from the Carry On films but there is little about her although actress Maggie Smith is talked about constantly, his admiration for her very evident.
I did wonder whether Kenneth Williams wrote the diaries expecting them to be published when he died but that same issue he dealt with in a 1972 entry where he claims that the writing of a diary is only something to jog the memory. He goes on to say; ‘One puts down what one wants, not what others want. That is what is so delightful about a diary, it is what the self wants to say.’
The strange thing is that the diary reminds me a lot of my diary which I write in these days only infrequently. I started it as something just to get me writing and I still write in it on those occasions when ideas for a story or a blog fail to materialise. A diary can just be a record of your daily life but it also is a confidante, something you can turn to when something has annoyed or upset you or just when your thoughts are so overwhelming you have to get them out onto paper or your computer screen. I ended up feeling an affinity for Williams, a similarity whereas before reading this book I thought we had nothing in common at all.
Kenneth Williams seemed to have many sad moments where he wished he had a confidante, perhaps that is another reason he wrote in his diary. Many entries detail his dissatisfaction with his life and his sadness. ‘What’s the point?’ is how he ends many entries, including his very last one on the 14th April, 1988.
I did not know about Williams’ theatre career, or even that he had one and it was interesting to read about what an actor and performer’s life is like; it seems to be mostly waiting for things to turn up, waiting for one’s agent to ring or for calls from film or TV producers. When the phone does not ring it can be a worrying time, as it seemed to be for Kenneth Williams, thinking about his tax bill or other bills that need paying.
A fascinating read and not quite what I expected.
Blessing in Disguise by Alec Guinness.
This is an autobiography by the actor Alec Guinness, well, I bought it thinking it was that but actually it is a collection of random thoughts and episodes in the actor’s life that don’t always go together. The beginning of the book is about Guinness’ younger days but then he leaps forward through his life describing other times and incidents and it all leaves the reader wondering what happened after that or what did he do before this? It is all very well written but there are endless dull chapters focussing very acutely on some unheard of person in the theatre and then some very few lines about people I actually wanted to hear about. He mentions having dinner with Sophia Loren who then disappears from the page. Richard Burton and other film notables are mentioned all too briefly. Guinness’ wife also makes various oblique entries into the book but who she really is, how Alec met her and how they married is never revealed. Star Wars is mentioned towards the end of the book but if you are interested in any filming anecdotes or behind the scenes stories, well, none are to be found here.
Well written but ultimately disapointing.
Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell.
Port Mortuary features Patricia Cornwell’s forensic heroine Kay Scarpetta who first appeared in the book Postmortem published in 1990. I remember reading a newspaper article about Cornwell and her books in the mid 1990’s, they seemed pretty interesting so I bought the first one, Postmortem and began to read. Kay Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia and uses modern forensic sciences and technologies to solve murders. Working with her is police homicide detective Pete Marino and together they embark on solving a series of murders. The series of books are well written if a little gruesome and are said to have influenced a host of similar books and TV series such as CSI where forensic technolgy and science are used to solve crimes. Scarpetta has an Italian background and in the earlier books cooks a lot of Italian dishes. (There is even a companion cook book; ‘Secrets from Scarpetta’s Kitchen’.)
Later on in the series, things get a little weird. Benton Wesley, an FBI profiler is murdered but reappears in a later book alive, having been in a FBI witness protection programme. Scarpetta’s niece becomes a computer expert at the FBI, leaves to start her own internet company, becomes a multi millionaire, buys a helicopter and morphs into a sort of James Bond sci-fi hi-tech lesbian character. That was when I stopped reading the books.
Anyway, fast forward to the present day and I find Port Mortuary at a charity shop and think OK, let’s see whats happening to Scarpetta these days. Sometime after I stopped reading the books, Cornwell decided to write in the third person rather the first and Port Mortuary is the book where she decides to revert back to the first person way of story telling. A lot has changed since I last read the books. Pete Marino no longer works for the police and joins Scarpetta at the National Forensic Academy, an institution founded by her millionaire niece, Lucy. Scarpetta is also a Colonel in some kind of military forensic set up and while she is on duty, Pete and Lucy fly in to tell her about a murder that has occurred that threatens the whole National Forensic Academy. They fly back in Lucy’s helicopter and the narrative goes through all the pre flight checks and helicopter terminology which was interesting but not neccessarily important. Then again, every other page seems to mention technology and brand names like Scarpetta’s iPad and iPhone. It’s almost as if Apple were on a sort of product placement mission.
I clicked onto goodreads to check out what sort of reviews were being left there and many people were saying things like ‘not as good as the older books’ and some complained about all the superfluous detail that wasn’t required. Personally, I like all that extra detail. Maybe Cornwell went a little overboard with her gadgetry and helicopter stuff but isn’t that the mark of a good writer? That little extra descriptive detail that adds to the background and the imagery?
Anyway, the book is a hi-tech murder mystery, well written and enjoyable although I got a little lost with the plot towards the end. Also there were perhaps a little bit too much of Kay Scarpetta’s internal monologues. A great sun lounger read but I still feel the first ten or eleven books in the series are better than the later ones.
(Chaos is the latest book in the series, published in 2016)
A Kentish Lad by Frank Muir.
One thing I really love about second hand books are inscriptions. On my copy of Frank Muir’s book this is written on the title page: ‘To Derek, lots of love, Ruth. Christmas, 1998.’ Who was Derek I wonder, who was Ruth? Why was Derek’s Christmas gift loitering on the shelves of a St Annes charity shop? I’ll never know but to me it makes the book all that more interesting.
A while back I wrote a post about the Essential Englishman which was a few remarks about film actors who have portrayed a certain type of Englishman, debonair, urbane and eloquent and the actors I chose were David Niven, Robert Donat, Rex Harrison and so on. Had I extended my terms of reference to include TV personalities I would have had to have included Frank Muir, the eloquent bow-tied and nattily turned out star of TV shows like Call my Bluff.
This enjoyable and amusing autobiography charts Frank’s days as a schoolboy in Broadstairs in the south of England to his life as a TV executive and TV personality in the 1970s and eighties. It is written in an amusing and self deprecating way, always seeing the funny side of life and a very jolly read it is too. I particularly enjoyed the first part of the book when Muir talked about his war years at the parachute training school at Ringway, now Manchester Airport and then his first forays into the world of show business and his script writing partnership with Denis Norden. A highlight was his first trip to France in the late 1940s revealing a different sort of trip to the one I have currently undertaken in 2018. Later, Muir paints a fascinating portrait of the radio days of the 1950s when the UK was tuned to the radio for their favourite musical and comedy shows.
The book’s latter half is perhaps not quite as enjoyable as the first but on the whole a pleasant, interesting and enjoyable read.
Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson.
Guy Gibson? Sound familiar? Well if you have ever seen the classic movie the Dambusters you will know that Wing Commander Guy Gibson was the leader of the force that attacked the dams of the Third Reich during the Second World War and scored a decisive victory for the Allies, destroying the manufacturing capability of the Ruhr Valley for a considerable time. This book is Gibson’s own account of his time in Bomber Command and his is a fascinating story. To start with he talks about the so called phoney war and how people thought it might be over very quickly and how the RAF was hopelessly unprepared for war. He tells of air raids in 1939 where crews became lost, when crews were told strictly not to drop bombs on civilian homes and so bombs were returned back to base in dangerous conditions, unreleased on enemy targets. As time went on, the crews became more familiar with what they had to do, they got used to navigating and night time flying and Gibson here shows a different world to that portrayed in films like the Dambusters.
The aircrews were all young men who worked hard at what they did and worked hard also at drinking, partying and chasing girls, pretty much like young men today, although for these men, they partied like there was no tomorrow because in some cases, there wasn’t.
In the foreward to the book, Gibson dedicates this volume to all those aircrews lost in action in the various squadrons he was attached to and the list makes grim reading, almost all the names he lists are noted as missing in action, presumed killed. The odd one here and there is noted as POW, prisoner of war.
A fascinating book, written by a brave man telling a story you may have heard before from a completely different angle. A classic book of Second World War literature.
One last book, Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.