Movie Connections Part 2: Nora Ephron

A while back I wrote a post about my movie connections. Every time I see a great film it registers up there in the old grey matter and at some point I’ll take a closer look at the credits of those films and see if there was a connection. In the case of that particular post the connection was Terence Rattigan. Rattigan was a playwright who wrote many film scripts and adapted many of his own plays for the screen and in the course of my often extensive TV viewing I’ve come across a number of great films all written by him.

In another similar mental exercise, I examined another group of films and the common denominator turned out to be Nora Ephron. Now some of you out there may never have heard of Nora. Who was she anyway? Well Nora was a journalist, a screenwriter and a director. She’s probably most famous for penning the brilliant comedy When Harry met Sally.

Photo by David Shankbone -, courtesy Wikipedia

When Harry met Sally is one of my all time favourite films and one that I wasn’t keen on at first. It didn’t impress me that first time at the cinema, the second time I saw it on TV I thought, hey, this isn’t so bad and I made a particular effort to seek it out a third time. After that third viewing, I loved it so much I bought the DVD version.

I was sad to hear of Nora’s passing in 2012 and made a mental note to find out more about her. Naturally, being me, a lazy semi-retired English blogger and occasional maker of YouTube videos, I never did.

A few weeks ago and eight years after making that mental note I was scanning idly through the TV listings and noticed a documentary film about Nora called Everything is Copy. The writer and director, Jacob Bernstein turned out be Nora’s son so he was clearly qualified to make a documentary about his mother. It wasn’t the greatest documentary film I’ve ever seen but it was certainly interesting. The film told the story of Nora’s life through various interviews. One surprising one was with Carl Bernstein, the famous Washington Post reporter whose articles on Watergate with Bob Woodward revealed the Watergate scandal to the world and eventually forced President Nixon to resign.

Nora was married to Bernstein and after becoming pregnant for a second time with their other son Max, Nora discovered he was having an affair with Margaret Jay, a British journalist and friend. Nora used the experience to write a book called Heartburn which was later made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. I have to say I’ve not seen the film or read the book but once again I’ve made a mental post it note and stuck it firmly up there in my brain for further attention.

After watching the documentary film I felt even more determined to find out more about Nora so I went to abebooks on the internet and after some research ordered a copy of I Remember Nothing, a book by Nora that seemed to be a memoir. The book starts out as a sort of memoir, telling humorous stories about this and that, and her life without really giving much away. Nora wanted to be a journalist and after working for the Kennedy White House for a short while she joined the staff of the magazine Newsweek. In her book she tells the story of how Newsweek did not hire female writers and offered her a job as a mail girl. She doesn’t appear to have been upset by this despite it being blatantly sexist. She just got on with her job, still determined to be a journalist. In her book Nora makes the whole episode sound quite amusing, especially when she later writes a parody column during a newspaper strike and as a result gets invited to write for the New York Post. Over on Wikipedia, there is a slightly different story in which Ephron gets involved with a class action lawsuit filed against Newsweek for sexual discrimination.

I Remember Nothing is an amusing book although it’s a little short on copy for someone for whom everything is copy. I enjoyed it enormously although had I been reading it on holiday, I could have got through it in an afternoon by the pool. Even so, the book has some great stories, in particular I liked the one about when Nora was nearly an heiress and thought she was about to inherit a formidable sum of money. There is another one about Christmas dinner and the one about when a meal was named after her in a posh restaurant. All of the stories are nice blog post sized stories which if I were devious enough, I could easily steal for the days when I have no idea what to write about.

When Nora was married to Bernstein, she put together a screen version of All the President’s Men which was ultimately rejected (William Goldman eventually wrote the script) but her version was seen by someone else who offered her the chance to write the script for a television movie and that was how her screen career started.

Nora wrote the screenplay for When Harry met Sally in 1986 and apparently imagined herself in the role of Sally, and Rob Reiner, who directed the film, as Harry. Nora wrote the screenplay after interviewing Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman and various others about their lives.

There is one scene from When Harry met Sally that has become a classic. It’s the one where Harry and Sally are eating in what looks like a diner or cafe and Sally shows Harry how easy it is to fake an orgasm by demonstrating it there and then in the cafe. According to Wikipedia, the cafe was actually Katz’s Delicatessen at 205 East Houston street in Manhattan. Also, just while I’m in the mood for dishing out useless information, the lady in the film who says to the waiter, ‘I’ll have what she’s having‘ when Meg Ryan, who played Sally, had finishing orgasming was actually director Rob Reiner’s mother and the line was suggested by Billy Crystal who played Harry.

Personally, I’d be hard pushed to tell you my favourite scene in the film although the one where Harry tells his best friend about his divorce is a major contender. Harry says he only knew about the split when the moving men came to his house to shift his wife’s stuff. One of the movers wore a t-shirt with the legend ‘don’t f’**k with Mr Zero’ on his chest and Harry’s friend asks ‘are you saying Mr Zero knew you were getting divorced before you did?’

I thought the pairing of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal was wonderful and I could never understand why the producers of films like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle paired Meg with Tom Hanks. Then again, Nora actually directed both those films so maybe she just preferred Tom Hanks.

Here’s one of the crazy things I love about movie connections. Ages ago, I caught a film on TV about a woman who wrote a cookery blog. Can you imagine that, a film, an actual motion picture about blogging? Who could do that, who could make a picture like that? I missed a few minutes at the beginning of the picture and made a mental note (yes, another one) to make sure to record it next time it was shown. No, I didn’t record it the next showing but to answer my last question, who would make a picture about blogging, the answer was, surprise surprise, Nora Ephron.

In 2009 she released Julie and Julia, a film based on an actual blog by Julie Powell, an American who decides to cook her way through the cookbook of Julia Child, a 1950’s American cook played by Meryl Streep. As Julie blogs about her cooking the film flashes back to the life of Julia. It’s a great film and the only film I can think of which focusses on blogging.

Nora died in 2012 from pneumonia, a complication of the leukaemia she was suffering from. She had not shared her illness with friends or family, thinking it might impede her career. However, in I Remember Nothing, she left a list of things she would miss when she had departed:

They include Spring, a walk in the park, reading in bed, the view out of the window, Paris, butter and taking a bath.

She was 71 years old.


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Actors, Lemons and The Big Sleep

I was going into work the other day and remembered that I had didn’t have anything to read. I do like to have a read on my break so I looked around and picked up The Big Sleep. If you haven’t read the book by Raymond Chandler you must surely have seen the film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I love the opening scene where Bogart meets with General Sternwood and has separate encounters with his two daughters. Sternwood, an old former general lives in a sort of greenhouse where the heat that keeps his tropical plants alive makes Bogart wilt. That was a great opening and sets the scene for the rest of the film.

When I sat down on my break and flipped open the book, a small cutting fell out. It was a newspaper cutting dated November 14th 1995 from the Daily Express. An Actor Bombs went the headline and went on to tell the story of an actor:

An out of work actor was amazed when his agent rang and offered a part in a Shakespearean play. All he had to say was ‘My Lord, I hear a cannon.’

For weeks the actor rehearsed his line, giving it a variety of interpretations. Walking down the street (My Lord, I hear a cannon.) In the bath (My Lord, I HEAR a cannon.) In the shaving mirror (My LOOOORD, I hear a cannon)

The day came and the actor strode on to the stage and turned to the audience

The cannon went off with a terrifying bang and he shouted ‘What the *** was that?’

That newspaper clip really made me laugh and sometimes we all need a good giggle. That’s one of the things I love about second hand books; who put the clipping in the book? Did they find it as amusing as I did? I hope so.

Anyway getting back to The Big Sleep. The book was written by Raymond Chandler and he had this really fabulous talkative way of writing. You can almost imagine hearing Humphrey Bogart’s voice as you read the book. Here’s a quote from the text, an example of Chandler’s descriptive style:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stocking. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony or sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong looking. Her head was against an ivory satin cushion. Her hair was black and wiry and parted in the middle and she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall. She had a good mouth and a good chin. There was a sulky droop to her lips and the lower lip was full.

Not bad eh? Dilys Powell called his wrting ‘a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry’ and it’s easy to see why. Mrs Regan was played by Lauren Bacall in the film and up till now I had always thought this was the film where they had met. Wrong! A quick check on Wikipedia and I see the couple met on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944. Bacall was 19 and Bogart was 45 and married to his third wife Mayo Methot at the the time. Sparks apparently flew between the couple and Bogart divorced Mayo and married Bacall the next year, 1945. Despite the great on screen chemistry together the couple only made four films together.

The film version of The Big Sleep was a brilliant adaptation of the book and some of the differences are interesting. For instance, early in the book detective Philip Marlowe played by Bogart meets General Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. She looks at Marlowe and remarks how tall he is. In the film, Bogart of course wasn’t that tall so the dialogue is reversed ‘You’re not very tall are you?’ comments Carmen.

Carmen was played in the film by Martha Vickers and Chandler felt that she seemed to overshadow the performance of female lead Lauren Bacall. For that reason many of Vickers’ scenes were cut. Release of the film was delayed by Warner Brothers and in fact another of Bacall’s films shot after The Big Sleep, Confidential Agent, was released first. Reaction to Confidential Agent was so good Jack Warner, the studio head, decided to beef up Bacall’s part in The Big Sleep so new scenes were shot and added to the film including a new ending.

The plot of the book and film are pretty complicated, although having just read the book I think that the book is easier to follow. During the filming the director and his stars wondered who killed the character of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood’s chauffeur? They sent a cable to Raymond Chandler asking him. Chandler told a friend later ‘Dammit, I don’t know either!’

One strange element in the film, certainly for me, is a scene where Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is watching blackmailer Geiger. Geiger has a shop that sells rare books in Hollywood and Marlowe asks for information in another bookshop opposite. There he chats to a bookseller played by Dorothy Malone who, if you are old enough, will remember her from the Peyton Place TV series. Malone and Bogart seem to hit it off well in the film but he never returns to the bookshop and Dorothy is never seen again in the film.

Every time I watch the film I always expect Malone to reappear but that’s one of the many dead ends the film leads us down. I think it was Hitchcock who said that every scene in a film should lead the audience somewhere and Quentin Tarantino of course said the reverse. Perhaps director Howard Hawks favoured the Tarantino’s view. Over on YouTube I found a clip from that scene. It was titled, The Big Sleep, best scene ever. I wouldn’t go that far myself but see what you think.

As I write this I have spent the day at my Mother’s house in Manchester. She is suffering from dementia and is being looked after nearby but sadly, because of Covid 19, I am unable to visit. Lately, everytime I have visited her house with intentions to sort out the garden it has done nothing but rain. Today dawned nice and sunny, at least it was when I awoke at the ridiculous time of 6:30 am. After looking through my e-mails and planning my daily social media broadside into Twitter cyberspace I arose, had a wash, made a quick breakfast and got cracking. I mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges and cleared the sharp and unruly brambles that have appeared at the end of the garden. I strimmed the path and finally, everything seems to look neat and tidy.

The apple tree in the corner, a birthday present from me to my dad who died 20 years ago this year is looking well but unlike last year I couldn’t see any apples. My mum used to make apple pies from the apples from this tree but after my dad died I came home to visit one day and was shocked to see the council had chopped down the tree. I was absolutely fuming and while I silently planned what I would do to the nameless official who had perpetrated this tragedy, my mum mentioned casually that it was she who arranged to have the tree chopped down. What on earth for I asked? She had been worried that the tree, which grew at an odd angle might trip her up.

Today the tree has  grown again, this time straight up and I can look forward to one day making apple pies again.

While I am on the subject of trees I might as well mention my lemon trees. I do love taking a stone or a pip from a fruit and growing something. I’ve grown quite a few lemon trees and I have two now, both grown from pips and both growing strong. They look good, I keep them well watered and fed but, no lemons. Liz bought me another lemon tree a while back. It was small but it came with about three small lemons. After a short while each of those lemons dropped off but no more have grown. It seems as though when it comes to lemons, I’ve got the kiss of death but if I could just grow a lemon, just one, it would really make my day.

My brother is planning to join me later. I’ve got a couple of lagers in the fridge and a chilli on the go in the slow cooker (gardening, blog writing and cooking: it’s been a busy day!) Tuesday, not much on TV tonight. Think I might just dig out my DVD of The Big Sleep!


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Book Bag Edition 12 2020

I would normally have called this my Holiday Book bag but despite being away from work for many weeks, it has hardly been a holiday. Still, I’ve managed to spend some time in the sun reading and here are the books from my book bag. As usual, me being a confirmed tightwad, they were all sourced from charity shops and second hand book stores.

The Murder of Rudolf Hess by W. Hugh Thomas

I really do love a good modern mystery. The JFK assassination, Watergate, the disappearance of the Romanov royal family and the many mysteries of World War Two. Chief among that latter subject was the mystery of Rudolf Hess.

Hess was once the Deputy Führer, number 2 to Adolf Hitler. He joined the Nazi party in 1920 and henceforth he was always at Hitler’s side. He was with Hitler at the failed beer hall putch of 1923 when Hitler attempted to seize power. The attempt failed and Hitler was imprisoned at Landsberg prison. There Hitler dictated his memoirs and political ideals to Hess which became ‘Mein Kampf’, -My Struggle- which later became the bible of the Nazi party.

So what was the big mystery then? Well in 1941 when the UK and Nazi Germany were at war Rudolf Hess decided to fly directly to the UK on what seemed like a mad mission to secure a peace with Britain. Hess knew that peace was not an option for Churchill who had recognised that Hitler was an evil tyrant and wanted to smash his regime. Hess apparently thought that there was a faction within Britain that could both arrange peace terms and remove Churchill.

Hess had already sent letters through an intermediary to the Duke of Hamilton in the belief that he was communicating with the leader of an anti-war party. The King, so Hess seemed to think, was opposed to Churchill and would remove him from office if given the chance.

Despite not receiving a reply from Hamilton, Hess decided to fly direct to Scotland to begin talks with Hamilton. He baled out from his Messerschmitt over Scotland and landed safely by parachute and demanded to see Hamilton. When he eventually did get to see Hamilton, his ideas for ending the conflict seemed rather woolly and disjointed. Hess was imprisoned for the rest of the war and then in 1945 sent to Nuremburg for the war crimes trials of the captured Nazi leaders. They all presumably thought Hess to be the real Hess although Göring taunted him asking him to reveal his ‘secret’.

Göring was sentenced to death at Nuremburg and Hess to life imprisonment.

So still wondering what was the great mystery? Why did Hess fly to Scotland? Who was the man who claimed to be Hess? Was it the real Hess or as some have claimed, a substitute, a fake?

The author of this book was once a medical officer in Spandau, the Berlin prison where Hess and others served their sentences. He had examined Hess as part of his routine duties and found that he had no wounds in the chest area despite records detailing chest wounds sustained in the 1914-18 conflict. The entire premise of the book is based on this one meeting between author and prisoner. It all sounds good and the author has done extensive research not only on Hess’ medical records but also on Hess’ flight from Germany. The thing is, if the real Hess started off in Germany and a fake Hess landed in the UK, who made the substitution? Britain or Germany? Why?

The book was an interesting read but I’m not sure if I’m completely convinced. Hess committed suicide in 1987, although some have claimed that British secret agents murdered him. Interestingly when the allied leaders met in the past to discuss Hess, the Soviet Union always vetoed Hess’ release. When Gorbachev took over as leader of the USSR he agreed to release Hess. That was when the UK decided to use their veto and so Hess lingered on in Spandau until his eventual death.

As Spandau prison had then become empty, its prisoners either dead or released, the allies destroyed the building. Over on Google I found an article in the New Scientist which claimed DNA evidence proved Hess was really Hess after all so that’s another conspiracy theory out of the window. Click here to read moreI

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown.

Dan Brown is a major best selling author and if you haven’t heard of this book you must have read, or seen the film, or at least heard of the Da Vinci Code, Dan’s most famous work. The Da Vinci Code was a cracking read and one I really just couldn’t put down. The flip side of the book’s success is that in one of the local charity shops in St Annes there is a whole shelf full of copies of this book in the window and a notice saying’ We’ve got enough Da Vinci Codes. We don’t want any more!’

The Lost Symbol continues the adventures of Dan’s character Robert Langdon this time in the US capital Washington. You wouldn’t think there were any ancient mysteries in a modern state like the USA would you? Think again as Langdon uncovers a trail of secret codes, secret societies and a mysterious pyramid all a stone’s throw from the White House.

The secrets of the ancient Masons, well some of them anyway are deciphered by symbologist Robert Langdon in a race to find the secrets of a pyramid hidden by the fathers of the American nation. Apart from a crazy guy intent on murder it’s all pretty interesting and the story is told from various angles so just as we encounter something incredible, Dan Brown sweeps the rug from under our feet and returns to another angle.

Fairly well written but not quite with the intensity of the Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown steers us through various puzzles and secrets to a somewhat understated finale. The last part of the book is sort of preachy where Dan seems to be telling us the Masons’, or perhaps his, understanding of God; God as the human mind. Interesting stuff . . .

Here’s an interview with Dan I found on YouTube talking about this very book . .

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

This is a book about the American Indian and is very much in the style of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It’s a story about the Parker family and about the Commanche tribe. As the new white settlers advanced westwards they encountered the Commanche tribe. They were Plains Indians who were horsemen, in fact the book mentions that many viewed them as the greatest horsemen ever seen in the Americas. They hunted buffalo and used its meat in their cooking and its hides they tanned and preserved for clothing and for warmth.

For a while, particularly during the civil war, they were successful not only in halting the westward advance of the settlers but in fact pushed the settlers back more than two hundred miles. They were great fighters with the gun and with the bow but it was the new repeating rifle that finally beat them.

The Commanche fought other Indian tribes too and in defeat, they murdered and raped, they scalped their victims but the young children that were left they took with them and were assimilated into the tribe. One young woman captive was Cynthia Ann Parker. She was absorbed into the  tribe and even bore children to a Commanche warrior. During a raid by the US Cavalry she was freed and taken back home but by then she was a Commanche and wanted only to go back to her people. She left behind a son, Quannah Parker who grew up to be a chief of the tribe. Not only that but in later years he tried to accept life on the reservation and even charged the cattle men to run their herds through his land. His story is quite an incredible one and the author recreates the frontier life of Indian villages, buffalo hunters and war dances with great style. This book was nominated for the Pulitzer prize for non fiction and it is not hard to see why.

As usual there is a video version of this post however, for reasons I won’t go into here (although the phrase complete cock up does come to mind) a slightly different selection of books is used.


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My Lockdown Book Bag 2020

Things don’t always go as planned, especially when an unexpected pandemic hits the country so instead of presenting what might have been another holiday book bag, here’s the pandemic version instead:  A review of the books I’ve been reading lately, all sourced as usual from second hand book shops or the internet.

A Right Royal Bastard by Sarah Miles.

Sarah Miles is a famous actress from the 60s and 70s. She appeared in films like Ryan’s Daughter and The Servant. A Right Royal Bastard is the first volume in her autobiography and is mostly about her childhood. I suppose normally you might expect a film star to devote a chapter or two to his or her childhood but here Sarah gives us pretty much a complete volume devoted to hers.

After the opening chapter I expected the book to move on but no, Sarah Miles tells us everything she can think of about her childhood and her schooling as well as her background and her family. I have to say I was getting a little bored but after a few chapters the book finally began to get interesting.

It’s a very frank book indeed and I wonder if it was a confessional experience for the author. Sarah tells us about her first period and then later about her first sexual experience. The story about when she was almost raped was shocking but then she proceeds to tell us about the time she shared a flat with a prostitute. One memory from that time was when she agreed to hide in a wardrobe during one her flatmate’s encounters with a male client. Sarah and that particular lady later have a bath together and Sarah soon begins to suspect that perhaps someone has got the hots for her.

Later she falls in love with James Fox. He is in the army at the time and when he goes off to join his regiment Sarah finds she is pregnant and suffers a dreadful back street abortion.

Sarah emerges from these pages as utterly different from what I had imagined, she always looks so prim and proper in her films. The book finishes with her first big part in a film and I have to say, I did find myself wishing I had the second volume. I’ll have to look out for it.

Alan Turing: The Enigma.

I’ve been reading this book for a long time and the lockdown was the perfect opportunity to finish it off and finally put it aside. This book is well researched which must have been difficult as Turing was not well known or even famous during his lifetime and his greatest achievements were made in the greatest of secrecy during wartime. The first part of the book I found slow but tedious and it finally livened up when Alan Turing joins the staff at Bletchley Park and sets about decoding the secret messages from Nazi Germany; then it gets interesting.

Turing joined the Government Code and Cypher School in 1938 which was the UK’s code breaking organisation. In 1939 the British cypher experts were given details of code breaking by their Polish colleagues including details of the Nazi Enigma code machine and their methods of decoding the Enigma messages.

Turing recognised the importance of a machine the Poles used to help break the codes and he designed and made his own improved version known as the Bombe. In 1941 Turing and his colleagues appealed directly to Winston Churchill for more resources to help their work and Churchill, recognising the importance of what they were doing responded immediately. As a result, more than 200 bombe machines were in operation by the end of the war.

German naval Enigma messages were even more difficult to break and Turing worked hard on these codes, finally breaking them with a statistical technique that was later known as sequential analysis. It was later estimated that the work at Bletchley Park shortened the war by 2 years and saved countless lives.

Turing worked at Manchester university after the war. In 1952 he became involved with a young unemployed man named Arnold Murray who was later involved in a robbery at Turing’s home in Wilmslow. During the inquiries Turing acknowledged a homosexual relationship with Murray and was prosecuted, homosexuality being illegal at the time. He was found dead two years later in 1954 and it is thought he took his own life using cyanide although it may have been that his death was accidental.

Apart from the wartime work decoding Enigma messages I actually found this book rather heavy going. Towards the end when Alan is working in Manchester I found myself skipping through long passages about mathematical theory but I was glad to have finally reached the end. One interesting thing was that Alan lived in Wilmslow during this latter part of his life. I once lived in Wilmslow too and travelled into Manchester every day on the bus, a journey of about an hour. Alan did the same journey by bicycle so he must have been pretty fit.

Over on Goodreads readers seemed to be all in favour of the book but sadly it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Khrushchev Remembers.

This book has a remarkable history. Khrushchev was ousted from the Soviet leadership in 1964 in favour of Brezhnev and he was retired to a small dacha with a pension. There Khrushchev fell into a deep depression but his son suggested he record his memoirs on audio tape which he did. The KGB kept an eye on Khrushchev and demanded he turn the tapes over to them which he also did. His son however had copies secretly smuggled into the west and they were published in the form of this book. My copy is quite an old one and has a commentary by Edward Crankshaw putting Khrushchev’s memories into perspective.

The book is a fascinating read and the author takes us through his early life and we see him move ever closer to the centre of power which in Khrushchev’s early years meant closer to Stalin. Khrushchev in some ways thinks of Stalin as a good comrade and communist but in others as what he really was, a ruthless dictator. Khrushchev survives the years of Stalin’s purges when many disappeared after a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Khrushchev defends the Nazi-Soviet pact saying the Soviets knew it would never last but that it gave them time to build up defences against Hitler. Hitler finally attacked Russia with Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and for a time Stalin disappeared from view. He was finally urged into action by his generals and I have read elsewhere that when they first approached him he asked ‘have you come to arrest me?’

It would have probably been better for the Soviets if they had but they rallied around their leader and went on to defeat Hitler, and Stalin consolidated even more power. Stalin died in 1953 and he was left lying on the floor for a day as his staff were too scared to approach him. Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police initially grabbed power but Khrushchev was able to overcome him and have him arrested by the military.

In 1964 it was time for Brezhnev to snatch power himself. Khrushchev did not resist. His contribution he said, was the smooth change of power without murders or arrests.

‘Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.’

Brezhnev reversed many of Khrushchev’s reforms and the world and the Soviets had to wait for Gorbachev for more enlightened leadership. To sum up, this was a great read and very interesting but one in which I was glad of the commentary to put the author’s views in perspective.

That was my lockdown book bag. What books do you have in yours?


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TV, Books and the Lockdown Blues

You might think that the lockdown is heaven sent for a writer. Stay at home and write stuff, perfect! After a few weeks though I have found not only have I not written much at all. Actually, I’ve been feeling a little bit bored, just like a great deal of the population I suppose.

Television

One thing I have done is watch a great deal of TV although a lot of it has been disappointing. Back in the late 1960s one of my favourite TV shows was The Time Tunnel. It was an American sci-fi show produced by Irwin Allen who made The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure among other things and a few weeks back I was delighted to find that it was being re-shown on the Horror channel.

In The Time Tunnel two American scientists are ‘lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America’s greatest and most secret project, the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time’ as the opening blurb used to go.

The Time Tunnel starts off with a Congressman coming to investigate the growing budget of the Time Tunnel Complex and threatens to close things down unless he sees results. Scientist Tony Newman decides he must therefore travel back in time to prove that the tunnel really works and save the project. Tony ends up on the ill-fated liner Titanic. His colleague Doug follows him back to 1912 and the control room struggle to shift the two in time before the ship sinks.

One episode that I particularly remember was when the pair land in Pearl Harbour, just before the Japanese attack in 1941. Tony meets himself as a young boy and finally solves the mystery of the disappearance of his father in the attack. That was one of the better ones.

Unable to return the duo to the present, the technicians back at Time Tunnel HQ struggle every week to shift the duo to somewhere new just in the nick of time. They never seem to manage to get the pair home as there is never enough power for this process despite a huge powerhouse courtesy of the special effects department which we see a glimpse of almost every week. The other thing is that if they did get back home, there’d be no show next week.

I did love this show as a 12 year old sci-fi fan but here in 2020 I seemed to be fast forwarding through all the boring bits, of which there were plenty. Some things don’t seem to stand the test of time and the big problem with the Time Tunnel is that the stories mostly weren’t good enough and many episodes seem to revolve around what appears to be stock footage that was filmed for some other project. I’m really cheesed off that I missed the Pearl Harbour episode though.

Coronation Street, like all the TV soaps is suffering because the lockdown has prevented further filming of the series. Instead of going out six times per week, we are now only getting three episodes to satisfy us and even those are looking like they are missing something. It looks to me like the current main storyline involving controlling husband Geoff and wife Yasmin has been the focus of the last filming sessions while some other content involving the minor storylines is missing. Last Wednesday’s episode seemed to have a slightly odd narrative flow, returning to the same scene when perhaps we should have cut to something else, the cafe or the Rover’s Return pub. Still, the editors can only work with the footage they have and sooner or later there will be nothing and our favourite soaps will be on hold until staff can return safely to work. I noticed also that TV quizzes like Tipping Point and Countdown are now just re runs of older episodes.

Spotify

One other thing has made my life slightly more interesting during these slightly surreal times and that is Spotify. You might not have even heard of it but it’s a music app I’ve downloaded to my iPad. I thought originally that it was a way of downloading music. I’m not a great downloader but the previous place where I used to download music was the HMV digital site, 7Digital. It had, I first thought, gone to the heavenly resting place of defunct web sites but when I finally got connected once again after many years I found it not very interesting and so in my search for internet music I came across Spotify. Now with Spotify, you cannot actually download music, well actually you probably can if you pay for Spotify premium but as the cheapskate that you know I am, I’m happy just to listen to music. On Spotify you can set up favourites and playlists and here’s the really extraordinary thing, after a few days use Spotify starts to suggest things you might like, new music that is similar to music you have already played. Now, after only using it for a couple of weeks, I have built up some pretty substantial music playlists.

Books

After finishing my last book, Michael Palin’s diaries, I looked around for something new to read and picked up three books. Bruce Forsyth’s autobiography, Khrushchev’s memoirs and a book of three Noel Coward plays. I’ve read the Noel Coward book before but the writer’s wit and humour never cease to amuse me. Blythe Spirit is one of Coward’s best known plays and was also made into an excellent film starring Rex Harrison. Having read that book before I tend to just flip through it and re read some of the best bits although in the end, I went through the entire book.

When Khrushchev’s memoirs become a little too serious and I fancy a change, something a little bit lighter, I turn to either Noel Coward or Bruce Forsyth. I picked up Bruce’s book at a church sale and although I didn’t expect much, it has been pretty interesting. Bruce was probably one of the last old time entertainers. He talks about the days of variety in the 1950’s and 60’s and about being in various shows and playing in theatres like the London Palladium and how he managed to break in to TV with Sunday Night at the Palladium which he compered for many years.

At one time he was travelling the country living in a caravan and performing in numerous shows. The latter part of the book is just an excuse to mention all his show biz chums and drop a lot of names but all in all, it was a good read. Bruce doesn’t tell us much about himself though, except in a chapter about his relationship with the UK press, where he proceeds to give the press a good telling off. Still, Bruce was a proper celebrity unlike some celebs these days who seem to make a career from being on TV reality shows.

The Khrushchev book is interesting but suffers like many books written in a foreign language by not reading quite as well as it should when translated into English. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was another foreign language book I read a while ago but that was a new translation and actually read pretty well.

One brilliant foreign language book that comes to mind is Papillon by Henri Charrière. This, unlike the two books mentioned above is an amazing read, an absolutely wonderful book and one of my all time favourites. It was made into a film with Steve McQueen which comes out pretty poor when compared to the book. Still, the book is a pretty thick volume and there is probably enough material in there for a TV series, never mind a film.

One part of the book which is pretty relevant to the lockdown is when Papillon is sent to solitary confinement. In case you don’t know anything about Papillon at all, he was a Frenchman convicted of murder and sent to a penal colony in French Guiana and after numerous escape attempts and many adventures, he finds freedom in Venezuela.

When Charrière is sent to solitary confinement he wonders how he will fill a chapter about a time when nothing at all happens to him, locked away for 24 hours a day with a rule of silence. Every day he is made to stick his head out of a small door in his cell so the warders can check to see if he is still alive. If he is, he is given food which has little nutrient. Luckily, Papillon’s friends have bribed the warders to give him some extra food including some fruit, or I think it might have been a coconut, which helped to sustain him. After many months someone new takes over the solitary block and he lets the prisoners out every day to socialise. This easing of the strict regime helps Papillon and his fellow inmates no end. I can imagine feeling similar when the lockdown is eased.

Blogs

Just looking back at some of my old blogs for inspiration, I came across The Big 300, my 300th blog post and was surprised to find that this very post you are currently reading is my big 405! Still, I did start blogging way back in 2016 just as a way of promoting Floating in Space, my novel set in Manchester, 1977. You might possibly be thinking that this has been an excellent time to pen a sequel. If so, how wrong you are!


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Michael Palin, Monty Python and a Good Lockdown Read

This week has been rather nice weather wise, apart from the last few days. On a normal week Liz and I would perhaps have started up the motorhome and driven off somewhere. Scotland perhaps or maybe even Wales. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Wales. A long, long time ago, my Grandfather and Grandmother moved to Prestatyn and lived there for quite a while. I’m not sure if my Grandfather had retired but whatever the reason, they moved to a large semi-detached house a few doors away from my Mother’s Auntie May, my Grandmother’s sister, who once upon a time ran a chip shop in the area. It might have been nice to have had a run up there to try and find their old house.

Of course, as we are currently still in ‘lockdown’ due to the Corona Virus Pandemic, that hasn’t been possible but happily due to the nice weather, we’ve been able to drag ourselves into the garden and the fresh air.

Most of the time when I’ve not been writing I’ve been watching TV or reading. In recent years I have developed some very bad reading habits. I tend to start two or three books at a time and then to concentrate on the more interesting one, and so the other ones, the slightly less interesting ones, tend to fall by the wayside.

On one of my past book posts I talked about diaries, and one diary I was reading then was the diary of Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. His diaries span a decade from 1969 to 1979 and start just as filming for the classic TV comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus was beginning. I’m sorry to say that I picked up something much more interesting and left the Palin diaries abandoned somewhere. Looking around for something to read recently I retrieved the book and finished it off.

The diaries begin just as Palin had given up smoking and just as the recordings of the first Monty Python TV series took place. I’m not sure how Python came together but in the introduction Palin explains how he had just finished a series called The Complete And Utter History of Everything which didn’t do very well. Palin recalls a telephone call from John Cleese commenting that as it was unlikely that any more of that series would be made, what shall we do next? Next was Monty Python. Palin never really explains the writing process for Monty Python but it appears there were three separate writing groups: Michael Palin usually wrote with Terry Jones, Cleese wrote with Graham Chapman and Eric Idle usually wrote alone. Terry Gilliam made the (apparently) funny animations for the show. The show was broadcast late on a Tuesday night which was disappointing for the Python team. They wanted it to be shown earlier for more exposure while the BBC thought it was a little risqué for earlier viewing.

I was a schoolboy in 1969 and I well remember the ritual of mithering my mother to stay up and watch it. I usually got my way as my mother soon got fed up of my moaning. One day I forgot about Monty Python completely and when I arrived at school someone came over to me, raised their hands and exclaimed ‘Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition!’ What are you on about? I thought. ‘Didn’t you see Monty Python last night?’ said my friend and with a look of disgust went over to someone else.

‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’ he said again and a group of my schoolmates collapsed into helpless laughter. Later we went on to the school assembly and I remember feeling like the odd one out, all because I hadn’t seen Monty Python.

After assembly we went into our first class, English or whatever it was. There, one of my friends approached me and asked had I seen Monty Python last night?

I thought for a moment and then said ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ The two of us rolled over in laughter and thankfully I was no longer the odd one out. Believe it or not it was years before I got to see the Spanish Inquisition sketch.

It’s hard to find a clip of the Spanish Inquisition these days because it was used to end or change the pace of a number of other sketches. Anyway, here’s one of Cleese and Palin talking about it.

Michael Palin seems to have had his fair share of lunches and cocktail parties according to his diaries but he also talks about his house and his family and his writing with Terry Jones. The Pythons have lots of meetings, especially when they decide to make the Python films. John Cleese dropped out of the final Python TV series and he and the others all started their own projects. Cleese made Fawlty Towers, Eric did the Rutles, a spoof on the Beatles and Michael Palin did Ripping Yarns for the BBC which although Palin was happy with it I personally remember it as being a little slow.

The first Monty Python movie was just a film version of their best sketches but later they made Monty Python and the Holy Grail and then the Life of Brian, a spoof on the life of Christ which didn’t go down well with various religious groups. All the Pythons contributed to the writing of the films, each of them bringing in their various sketches and ideas and if the other group members approved, the ideas were incorporated into the final screenplay. Who was in charge of that it’s hard to say as it’s not really clear from the diaries. Michael Palin took over various projects including the first Python record album. Everyone else was too busy although on the eve of its release Eric Idle decided to do some work on it which Michael wasn’t too happy about. Various disputes were recorded in the diaries but the Pythons all managed to get over any disagreements.

As well as records there were also various Monty Python books and in fact, I remember buying one. It was the ‘Monty Python Bok’ I’m not sure why it was a bok rather than a book but it was very funny. The dustcover was white and when I went to buy a copy the top one had dirty fingerprints on. So did the next one and the next. Just then the shop assistant came over and explained the fingerprints were printed on, it was part of the joke!

In one diary entry Palin mentions an irate female book shop owner who complained about the fake fingerprints. Try as he may Michael could not arrange fingerprint free dustcovers for the shop owner. Well then said the woman, I will sell them without the dustcover. The thing was, under the dustcover the ‘bok’ had a fake soft porn cover. I think it was called ‘Tits N Bums’!

By the time of The Life of Brian the Pythons were trying to attract interest in the lucrative American market and Michael had various meetings and TV appearances on US TV, on one occasion travelling on Concorde to appear on the TV show Saturday Night Live with regulars John Belushi and Bill Murray. Former Beatle George Harrison came on board as a producer with his company Handmade Films and after EMI decided not to finance the film it was Harrison’s company that saved the production.

I have to say that personally, I was never a great fan of the Python films, I much preferred the quick and rapid-fire style of the TV show and its sketch format but also I felt that the films looked too real. The production values were just too good and I felt the stories were much more suited to the second-rate sets and backgrounds of, for instance, the Carry On films. Interestingly, Palin himself comments in one of his entries after seeing an historical film which looked visually outstanding that ‘this is the way we’re going to make a Python film!’

Another interesting aspect about the diaries was hearing about some things I had forgotten about like the three-day week, the Oil Crisis and the IRA bombing campaign in London. The three-day week meant power cuts on many weekdays and I remember sitting in my mum’s kitchen in candle light while my dad desperately tried to read the Manchester Evening News. Palin talks about the oil crisis and even petrol rationing in 1973 which I don’t really remember although in 1973 I was 16 and had just left school and had been released into the world clutching my four O’ levels. Palin and his friends were all from the university set of the late sixties and his university background is evident in his diaries.

Reading a diary isn’t like reading an autobiography and sometimes various things don’t quite make sense although I found Palin’s diaries much easier to read than Kenneth Williams’ diaries which I read some time ago.

The diaries are a fascinating read if you are a fan of Monty Python and even if you aren’t it is still interesting to see what a life your average TV comedy writer and performer leads. I particularly liked the making of Ripping Yarns which was a solo project for Palin (although Terry Jones contributed to the scripts) and clearly he was interested in all its aspects from the writing to the casting and the actual production. Later when discussing a new series of the show, the BBC told him they didn’t have the resources to make one. Interestingly, I watched something about the Goodies not long ago. They were waiting to make a new series and the BBC told them the exact same thing. The Goodies moved over to ITV!

One final personal memory about Monty Python. Years ago I used to work in the GM Buses control room. I was in the enquiry office taking calls from the public and we had the far corner of the control room to ourselves. Opposite me was Jed, a guy who hated the job and sat scowling at his desk waiting for his next call. Two young girls sat in the corner chatting and across from me was Mr Nasty, so called because of the various arguments he used to get into with the public. A young lad called Andy sat in the other corner.

Jed took a call quickly and efficiently, giving out bus times to the customer then quickly finishing the call. Next was Mr Nasty but a dispute started and I remember Nasty asking ‘you want a bus to the Stakehill Industrial Park in Rochdale but you don’t know where the Industrial Park is?’ ‘Why don’t I know where it is?’

This was my first week in the job and I remember wondering whether or not I had made a good move. The argument opposite me began to escalate and just then my phone rang. I picked it up and said ‘Hello, GM Buses’. A voice then asked me ‘Is this the right room for an argument?’

What? I looked around and my eye caught Andy quietly giggling to himself. I answered ‘I’ve told you once!’ just like John Cleese in the original Monty Python sketch.

I had found another Python fan.


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Holiday Book bag (Video Version)

Any regular readers might have noticed that on my last Book Bag post the usual video was missing. I do tend to try and add a video version to each Book Bag review but this year’s video sessions have been something of a trial.

Takes 1 and 2

I’m not sure what happened here but these two takes were where I lost the plot and started mumbling about that largely unheard of Beatles band member George McCartney. Another issue arose because I hadn’t brought my mini tripod, but instead I had my easy to transport plastic camera holder which seemed to absorb every ambient sound through the plastic table outside and every touch of the table was transformed into a mighty scrape or roar on the soundtrack. Also brought to my attention was my huge reliance on the use of the word ‘fabulous’ which I hadn’t noticed at the time.

Takes 3 and 4

It does get windy in Lanzarote at this time of year and once, a few years back when we visited the island it was very windy and gusty. Lately I’ve not really noticed any major windiness (hope that’s a proper word) but anyway, when I relocated the camera to a different table in a secluded corner of the patio, the resultant soundtrack seemed to imply that a hurricane was in progress.

Take 5 and 6

Take 5 started off OK then I realised the previous day I had passed my Paul McCartney book to another English holiday maker who was also a Beatles fan. This revelation seemed to hit me during the recording as something of a surprise and it took me a while to stop laughing. I eventually did and so managed to bumble along through take 6. The result was not totally professional and I seriously doubt it will be snapped up for BBC prime time but what the heck, 6 takes is enough when the sun is shining and the swimming pool beckons . .

Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Holiday Book Bag 10 Winter 2020

As you may know I’m a second hand book enthusiast and when we jet away to places like Lanzarote, I always have a stack of books to read, usually sourced from local second hand book shops or the Internet on sites like Abebooks.com or Awesomebooks.com

These are the books I have taken away to read and to review during my winter break in Lanzarote.

McCartney: A biography by Philip Norman.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Beatles, four northern lads who changed the face of popular music in the 1960’s and Paul McCartney was at the very centre of the group started by John Lennon. This book tells us the story of the Beatles through the eyes of McCartney and then on through the Wings years to the present day.

To start with it tells the story of McCartney in deep focus, taking the reader through McCartney’s younger years, his friendship on the school bus with the younger George Harrison and finally meeting the older John Lennon at a village fête in Woolton. Those few years age difference was a big thing to the budding teenage musicians but together they were the nucleus of the Beatles. There were other members, other guitarists and other drummers but when in their late teens they got the chance to play a regular spot in Hamburg, Germany, they needed a drummer and they chose Pete Best, another local lad but a quieter lad who perhaps did not really fit in on a social level with the other three. The Beatles were not well thought of by fellow Liverpool musicians but after long months playing 6 hours a day at a Hamburg night club they gradually became a better and tighter knit musical group.

Later back in Liverpool they met Brian Epstein, a local businessman who became their manager and the rest as they say, was history. Not for Pete Best though, in the unkindest cut of all, he was replaced by Ringo Starr right on the eve of success and Paul had a key part in his removal, even phoning Brian Epstein to ask had the deed been done just as Epstein was giving Best the bad news.

The book then goes on to tell the story of the Beatles and their success in a wider focus and even seems to jump forward a little talking about the Beatles’ recording days and their various albums ending finally with the splitting of the group and the various arguments between the band members. Then the author goes on to talk about Paul McCartney’s ‘Wings’ years and his marriage to Linda. The book finishes with his marriage and subsequent divorce with Heather Mills and ends with his latest marriage to divorcee Nancy Shevell.

A good insight into the Paul McCartney of today comes at the end of the book when the author is invited to meet Paul in person but finds it’s not a personal meeting but one where Paul is meeting a number of people and everyone is kept waiting for the great man and informed not to take personal pictures. Paul apparently strictly controls what images are taken of him.

It’s an interesting read and I am personally always eager to hear how Paul developed his songs and his recordings and I enjoyed reading about the background to his music and his recording sessions as well as the dance music tracks he has created under the name ‘the Fireman’ in his later years. I have to say I don’t think the author really got into the real McCartney although many background details and insights into his personality were revealed. Perhaps one day Paul himself might produce an autobiography revealing what it was really like being inside the tornado that was the Beatles as well as being one of the greatest singer/songwriters of all time. If he does I will look forward to reading that but until then this volume was a good read, but I’ve read better books on the subject.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene.

Not so long ago I read a blog post on the lines of 100 books to read before you die and as now I’m in my sixties I thought I’d better get a move on and read some more. I’m not sure if this book was on the list but I’m sure its author, Graham Greene was. Greene wrote the screenplay for ‘the Third Man’ and later the novel which I’ve always admired so I was very happy indeed to find this book in my Christmas box not so many weeks ago.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, some kind of 1950’s espionage thriller and I suppose it could be considered to be that but actually it’s a very humorous book. Our hero Mr Wormold, I don’t think the book ever mentions his christian name, is a vacuum cleaner salesman living in Havana and bringing up his daughter Milly by himself. His daughter wants her own horse which of course is expensive especially considering food for the animal, stabling, saddles and riding gear and so on. Like many a single parent he wants the best for his daughter but wonders how on earth he can pay for it all. Just then the solution appears. He meets a mysterious man in a bar who recruits him into the secret intelligence service, tasks him to recruit a network of informers and pass the information, in code, back to London.

At first Wormold feels this is impossible but his contact assures him that he will be well paid, as will his informants and receive generous expenses. Wormold then creates a fantasy network of agents, and files various meaningless reports with information gleaned from Cuban press releases and public documents and pockets the resultant cash and expenses that come from London. His fake agents are of course all real people so that they can be checked out by MI5 or MI6 but later one is murdered and then another survives a murder attempt and so Wormold begins to wonder what is happening.

The book is a hugely entertaining story told by an excellent writer. The crazy thing is while I read the book I began to imagine it as an Ealing comedy film starring someone like Alec Guinness only to find that Guinness had actually had played the part on film. I’ve never seen it but what perfect casting!

Our Man in Havana was a short book but an excellent and enjoyable read.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

One of my all time favourite books was Dickens’ David Copperfield but sadly there are only two of Dickens books I have ever been able to get to grips with, one is the aforementioned Copperfield and the other is this one, Great Expectations. It’s a long time since I have read this book so I was very pleased to find it on the bookshelf of our rented villa rubbing shoulders with books by David Baldacci and Sophie Kinsella.

The book is about young Pip, a blacksmith’s apprentice who is advised by a lawyer that he is going to come into ‘great expectations’ and Pip believes his good fortune to be on account of the rich and slightly mad local woman, Miss Haversham. In fact Pip’s fortune is on account of Magwitch, an escaped convict that he helps and brings food and drink to one cold morning.

I do love how Dickens packs so much information into his sentences like this from when young Pip is staying with Uncle Pumblechook and for breakfast he gives Pip such a large quantity of warm water into his breakfast milk that ‘it would have been more candid to have left out the milk altogether.’ There are many others I could quote, full of Dickens’ colourful and descriptive language which delight the reader, sometimes so much so that my own writings seem to pale into insignificance.

The last time I read this book there were two endings as Dickens added a new ending to ensure that the reader was left with the understanding that Pip and Estella stay together. Happily this version has the latter ending and was therefore a much more enjoyable read.

Niv, the authorised biography of David Niven by Graham Lord.

This book has been an absolute delight, in fact the perfect holiday read. The author tells the story of Niven’s life, pretty much as Niven himself set it down in his best selling autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon. However in this version the author tries to fill in the bits Niven left out of his book and correct many inaccuracies. Niven was notorious for embellishing the truth and the character of ‘Nessie’ to whom Niven lost his virginity in his book was, this author claims, pure fiction. Personally, I find that hard to believe even though no corroboration could be found with David’s many friends and those interviewed for this biography. Nessie seemed to be just such a fundamental part of his life I just don’t see how he could have invented her.

In The Moon’s a Balloon Niven paints a disappointing picture of his mean stepfather and his financially stretched mother. Neither according to the author were true. Niven’s stepfather splashed out to help Niven numerous times and his mother, far from being poor was very secure financially. Niven says he never spoke to his stepfather after a disagreement over upkeep of his mother’s grave but in fact corresponded warmly with him and the author even puts forward a case for the stepfather actually being Niven’s actual father though the man he thought of as a father died in the First World War.

Niven went to Sandhurst and was later posted to Malta. Later, he left the army and made his way to Hollywood becoming an extra and later, after obtaining a contract with the legendary Sam Goldwyn, a star. His affair with Merle Oberon, missing from A Moon’s a Balloon, is documented here and the book follows his life as a movie star, the death of his first wife Primmie in a terrible accident only 6 weeks after coming to Hollwood and his unhappy second marraige to the swedish model Hjordis.

An interesting part of the book detailed how David wrote his own best selling books; The Moon’s a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses, the latter, a book I reviewed a while ago as the best book ever written about Hollywood. Niven struggled like many writers to keep focused on his project but living in the south of France with the Rainiers as close friends and neighbours and many other celebrity friends close by, plus his jet setting life style, writing must have been difficult; much more difficult than for me with, as I write this, only the winter sun and a sun lounger as a distraction.

Niv as his friends called him, comes over as a lovely man and this biography as I said earlier is a perfect holiday read.


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Dylan Thomas and the Joy of a Second Hand book

As you might have guessed from reading these posts, I really do love my books. This particular book, about the last days of poet Dylan Thomas is one I’ve had a long time but have not got around to reading until recently. I do endlessly peruse our local secondhand shops for books but I have a feeling I bought this one from one of two online bookshops, either abebooks or awesome books, both of which I use especially when there is a particular book that I am after.

This book is a rather slow one but it details Dylan’s last days and ultimately his death in New York in the USA.

Dylan was a slow worker when it came to writing and there was always something, usually a pub, to draw him away from his work. In his latter days he was concerned that his talent or his inspiration had gone and that all his best work was perhaps behind him. He was short of money as usual and that is what drove him to accept an offer to go to the USA on a poetry tour by Canadian poet John Brinnin. Brinnin was the director of a poetry centre in New York and the trips Dylan undertook there were very lucrative for the always hard up poet. Thomas had a number of wealthy patrons, in fact his famous house in Laugharne was bought by for him by an admirer but money went through Dylan’s hands quickly.

He had travelled there before and on his penultimate visit had become romantically involved with a lady called Liz Reitel who worked for Brinnin at the poetry centre. When Dylan arrived for his last visit Reital was shocked to see the poet looking poorly and ‘not his usual robust self’. Dylan was in an odd mood and related a strange story of an encounter on the aircraft with a priest. Over the next few days his mood alternated between being tired and poorly and getting drunk with some moments of normality. I get the impression from the book that Dylan liked attention, he liked admirers and although he was in the middle of an affair with Liz Reitel, he was not averse to enjoying the attention he received from other women.

At the poetry centre preparations were under way for a recital of the newly finished Under Milk Wood for which Dylan had produced some new edits and updates. Towards the end of the book Liz mentions that she was disappointed that these revisions were not included in the published versions of the play despite the fact that she personally typed them up and passed them on to Dylan’s publishers.

The recital went well and was in fact tape recorded by someone at the time with Dylan taking the part of the narrator.

The book goes on to detail Dylan’s various moods and the symptoms of whatever was ailing him.

Liz called a doctor when Dylan became unwell again and the doctor gave Dylan an injection of morphine sulphate which may or may not have helped him.

After a night of drinking at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village Dylan returned to the Chelsea hotel claiming famously that he had downed ‘eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!’

Dylan’s breathing became difficult later in the evening and an ambulance was summoned. Thomas slipped into a coma from which he never awoke and later died on the 9th of November, 1953. He was only 53 years old and died with assets of only £100.

I was always under the impression that Dylan had drunk himself to death but that may not be the case. The autopsy did not find any evidence of liver cirrhosis and his death may have been due to pneumonia and bronchitis as well as the injections he had received from the doctor. It was later thought that the morphine may have inhibited Dylan’s breathing rather than easing his pain.

This was a good read although the author’s style was not completely to my liking. One interesting thing about it was that in my copy, it was a second hand book remember, there was an inscription on the first page. The book was clearly a gift. Did the owner pass away? Did his family send for the house clearance man and clear away his belongings? Who was Kate, the lady who signed the book in 1992?

Who was the person she loved and thought the world of?

In way it is almost like Under Milk Wood itself, where the dead come alive again at night as time passes . .

 


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester, 1977. Click here to buy or check out the links at the top of the page for more information.

10 Reasons to Read Books!

Every blog post on this site will end with a familiar call to buy my book, Floating in Space. Floating, in case you are a first time visitor to this site, is a short novel about the life of a young working class lad in urban Manchester in 1977. A number of reviewers have heaped praise on the book, others did not find it so praiseworthy. Why should you then consider it as an addition to your library? Why should you read it? Why should you even read books in the first place? Let me give you a few reasons . . .

Knowledge

One of the biggest reasons why we read books is to increase our knowledge. Books are a rich source of information. Reading books on varied subjects imparts information and increases your range and depth of knowledge. Whenever you read a book, you learn new information that otherwise you would not have known.

Improving your brain.

Studies have shown that reading has strong positive effects on the brain. By staying mentally stimulated, you can prevent Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Keeping your brain active is important because the brain is a muscle and like other muscles in the body, exercise keeps it strong and healthy. Similar to solving puzzles, reading books is a great way to exercise your brain and keep it healthy.

Stress Reduction.

Reading a book can relieve stress better than taking a walk or listening to music. According to studies, people who read more tend to have lower stress levels.

Building vocabulary

Reading improves your vocabulary and command of the language. As you read, you come across new words, new phrases and writing styles. A bigger and better vocabulary helps in conversation, with job interviews and in your own writing.

Improves writing skills

Reading a well-written book helps you to become a better writer. Many successful authors gained their expertise by reading the works of others. A great book will inspire you and urge you to write as good if not better than works you have read. If you want to become a better writer, start by learning from previous masters.

Improves communication skills

Improving your vocabulary and writing skills  go hand in hand with developing your communication skills. The more you read and write, the better you communicate. Increasing your ability to communicate, improves your relationships and even makes you better at your job or at your studies.

Portable entertainment

Books are portable and light in weight. They are not like bulky computers and games that take too much space. With a book, you can pack it in your handbag or pocket and easily carry it anywhere. You can read in a plane as you travel, in your bed before you sleep, or even relaxing on the beach during your holiday.

Helps you sleep better

Poor sleep leads to low productivity. This is why so many experts recommend that you establish regular de-stressing routine before you sleep to help calm your mind and therefore sleep better. Reading a book is one of the best ways to calm yourself before you go to bed. Instead of watching television or spending too much time on your smart phone, take some time to read. The bright lights from the electronic devices will only affect your sleep. On the other hand, a book will help you sleep better.

No side effects of the digital world

Spending too much time watching television or playing video games can affect your eye health in the long run. On the other hand, books are safe and easy. No one has ever gone blind from reading too many books. There are no known side effects or dangers of reading great books. There are only benefits.

Enjoyment.

There is much to enjoy in this world: Nature, the joys of swimming in the sea or relaxing on a beautiful beach. Listening to music or visiting the cinema can both be magical experiences but finding a really wonderful book and taking in the thoughts and ideas of another person, sometimes even the thoughts of someone who has passed away years earlier is for me a truly wonderful feeling. I think the first time I read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens was when I realised how wonderful a book could be. Floating in Space can hardly compare to a towering work like that but, well I kind of like it!


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.