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.

Reviewing Spielberg

Not so long ago I thought about doing a post about the film director Steven Spielberg. I’d already done a couple of ‘favourite director‘ posts but the thing with Spielberg is that he’s not exactly one of my favourite directors so any post would be not really be complimentary so I didn’t want to get into writing something negative.

Anyway, I just happened to pick up a book about Spielberg in the second hand bookshop so it seems to me I can just combine my criticisms of the book and Spielberg’s works all in one post. I’ll try not to be too negative.

Steven Spielberg the Unauthorised Biography by John Baxter.

Spielberg was born in 1946 and the book glosses over his early life. His parents were divorced when Steven was at school and though staying initially with his mother and sisters he later went to stay in California with his dad. He was making amateur 8mm films as a youngster and according to the book, went on the Universal film studios tour and just stayed on wandering about the studio. At the time one of the only ways to get a job at Universal was through a relative who worked there and the book says that security guards let Spielberg through the gates on subsequent occasions, assuming he was the brother or son of one of the employees.

Spielberg apparently did quite a bit of networking at the studios showing his amateur movies around and after being rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school he managed to get an unpaid job at Universal. Later he took the opportunity to make a short film called Amblin which impressed the studio vice president so much that they offered Spielberg a seven year directing contract.

His first professional job was the shooting of an episode of the US TV show Night Gallery which starred Joan Crawford. It was apparently a difficult job for Steven, dealing with his temperamental star which gave him an aversion to working with so called ‘stars’. Looking through Wikipedia though, the website claims he and Crawford were friends until her death.

The first work of Spielberg’s that I saw was the feature length episode of Columbo ‘Murder by the Book’. At the time Universal was looking for something new to challenge the usual 60 minute episode format and the feature length episodes of their many crime shows seemed to be the answer. Spileberg’s episode is probably one of the very best of the Columbo series.

Spielberg‘s first cinema project was ‘The Sugarland Express’, a movie about a married couple chased by Police as they try to regain custody of their baby. The film received critical success but fared poorly at the box office. Producers however were impressed enough to ask Spielberg to direct the movie version of the book ‘Jaws’ about a man eating shark.

The shoot was a difficult one as the director rejected the idea of shooting in the studio and opted for a location shoot. Steven initially thought of using real sharks and midgets to make the sharks look even bigger but finally had to accept that a mechanical shark had to be made. Difficulties with the shark added delays to the shoot and some parts eventually had to be made in the studio. It was also interesting to read how the script was constantly under review with various writers adding to it and rewriting. Author Peter Benchley had added various subplots to make the book more entertaining and many of these were taken out by Spielberg who concentrated on the fundamentals of the shark chase.

At the time the movie industry was suffering because of competition from TV and Spielberg realised that a film needed to be an event, a major event in order to bring viewers out of their homes and into cinemas. The movie blockbuster was born with Jaws which was a huge hit which made Spielberg’s reputation overnight. I have to say it is probably my favourite of Steven Spielberg’s films. I’ve always enjoyed it and the performances are excellent especially those of Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider.

Spielberg went on to make a series of blockbuster films, all different in subject matter but all designed as major events in the world of cinema. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Indiana Jones films and ET were all highly successful. I can’t say they are on my list of all time great films, ET I thought was uninspired and Close Encounters was a film I couldn’t see the point of, a little like Hitchcock’s Birds. I didn’t get it at all.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great Saturday afternoon film based of course, on the film serials of the 1940’s. My big problem with most of Spielberg’s films is that they always leave me unsatisfied. Saving Private Ryan is another case in point. What was the point of all that invasion stuff with people being blown up on the beach? Empire of the Sun was a slow moving drudge of a film lacking any sort of pace. It was a project Spielberg took over from one of his personal directing heroes David Lean and I sort of get the feeling Steven was trying to make the film as Lean might have done. Sorry but it didn’t work for me.

This isn’t a great book and concentrates mostly on Steven Spielberg’s professional rather than personal life and doesn’t really offer too many insights into Spielberg himself although interestingly it says that Steven dismisses the auteur school of directing and thinks of a film as a collaborative effort. I remember once watching an interview with David Lean in which he said that a director’s job was to ‘tickle the talents’ of his crew and cast and get the best possible effort from each person to show in the finished film. After reading this book I’d guess that is something Spielberg would go along with.

The early part of the book I found particularly interesting especially when it explains how Spielberg put his movie projects together, often filming one while beginning preliminary work on another. The author also links Spielberg to the other directors of ‘New Hollywood’, people like Coppola, Lucas, and Scorsese who were great fans of classic Hollywood and built new films and productions while recognising the contributions of classic directors like Hitchcock and John Ford who had gone before.

This is not a great book and certainly not one that really gets to the core of its subject but still a good read all the same.


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.

The Best Book about Hollywood, Ever

Is ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ the best book ever written about Hollywood? I really think it is.

It’s a book written from first-hand experience for starters. The author, British born movie actor David Niven arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930’s. He had decided to try his luck in the movie business and he had come to the right place because Hollywood, California was the centre of the film making universe.

Some years previously it had been a rural backwater of lemon and orange groves but the silent film pioneers had found it had the perfect climate for film making. Back then in the silent days films were made in the open air shot on sets with no ceilings to let in the abundant California light.

By the 1930’s, sound had well and truly arrived and the big studios all had their coterie of stars and David Niven has a pocketful of stories, anecdotes and sketches about them and the other bit players, extras, directors and writers who inhabited Hollywood between the years 1935 to 1960.

Working as a boat hand to make some extra cash, Niven came on board a small vessel one morning. His job was to mop the boat down, get the fishing rods and bait ready and make sure some coffee and breakfast was on the go. The charter that day was for a man known as the King of Hollywood, none other than Clark Gable. Gable turned out to be a friendly customer who enjoyed his fishing. Some years later when Niven had made his first forays into acting and had a seat at a table at the Oscar ceremony, he was understandably very happy indeed to find Gable greeting him enthusiastically, his stock at that particular table rising dramatically after Gable came over to talk about fishing.

Niven goes on to paint an affectionate portrait of Gable alongside some other essays on various stars of the time. My favourite must be the short chapter on Errol Flynn. Flynn and Niven shared a house at one time and Niven comments that Flynn was completely trustworthy in a way, because whatever happened, he would always let you down!

During the making of ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade‘ which Warner brothers decided to set in India rather than the Crimea, Flynn, the new star started to get a little big headed. One big brute of an extra decided to waggle a lance under the behind of Flynn’s horse to teach Flynn a lesson.  The horse consequently threw Flynn off. He got up, dusted himself down and proceeded to teach the big guy a lesson of his own by beating him into a pulp!

Flynn had a yacht named the Zaca and weekends on the boat included sailing trips full of wine, women and song. Many young girls appeared on the boat, none of whom produced any ID which was unfortunate for Flynn as he was later charged with statutory rape. The accusing girls appeared in the courtroom wearing school uniforms and in pigtails but happily for Flynn the court saw through that and he was acquitted, although the image that the press painted of him was one that he was happy with.

In later life Flynn was bankrupt and became a floating shadow of his former self, sailing the seas in the Zaca. Later he made a great Hollywood comeback playing his great friend John Barrymore in ‘Too much Too Soon.’ He died in 1950 aged only 50 and in a poignant moment, Niven living then in the south of France, takes a walk along the French coast only to find the dis-masted remains of the Zaca lurking quietly in a boat yard.

Another great portrait is the one that Niven gives us about Prince Romanoff, known as Mike to his friends who ran the famous Romanoff’s restaurant on North Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills. He was also a former conman once known as Harry F Gerguson. Harry or Mike possessed an immaculate old Etonian accent and assumed the identity of the late Romanoff prince. His restaurant became a popular venue and by the end of the Second World War was a well-established Hollywood eating house. Niven tried to haggle with Mike many times and break down his stories of mingling with royalty, of Eton and Harrow and military academies like Sandhurst but to no avail. If he was a con man he was in the top echelon of his profession.

I’ve always loved George Sanders with his easy smooth talking suave style. Niven recounts various stories about him including some about his relationship with Zsa Zsa Gabor. During the break up of their marriage they stayed fairly friendly. However, George was well aware of the California divorce laws and decided that it was important to have evidence of Zsa Zsa’s relationship with her new lover. His plan was to break into his house –that Zsa Zsa had contrived to still live in- and photograph her in the arms of her new man. In case entry to the house proved difficult he took along his lawyer, a photographer and a brick with which to break in. Conscious of looking suspicious carrying the brick he gift wrapped it. On arrival at the lover’s nest the bedroom door was conveniently unlocked. They entered, took the appropriate evidentiary picture and then when tempers had cooled they all trooped down to the lounge. It was Christmas time and Zsa Zsa mentioned that George’s present was under the tree. Sanders passed her the brick, still gift wrapped and said ‘and here is yours!’

Many famous places appear in Niven’s book; the Brown Derby restaurant, Chasen’s and many other bars and restaurants frequented by long gone stars; Ava Gardner, Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Orsen Welles and many more. Niven also recounts a visit to some distant drinking den frequented by Robert Newton who appeared with Niven in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. Niven and Newton imbibed a generous amount of alcohol but when Newton began to disclaim various Shakespearean passages to the locals Niven realised it was time to leave. The pair had arrived straight from the studio and David had no money with him so it was with some surprise that he heard Newton hiss that he had none either. “We have a tricky situation here” observed Newton rolling his eyes.

Happily the two made a quick exit in Newton’s Chauffeur driven ancient Rolls.

The book tells of the big studios like Warner Brothers and MGM and their great back lots.  There was little location filming in those bygone days and on the back lots could be found entire New York streets, French and Spanish villages, frontier towns, Indian camps, medieval castles, a railroad station complete with rolling stock, lakes with wave making machines and a Mississippi steamboat.

Small wonder then says Niven that ‘Gone with the Wind’ was filmed in Culver City, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, just off Catalina Island, and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in the San Fernando Valley.

I actually own two copies of this wonderful book. One is a smart hardback copy for my bookshelf. The other is the copy photographed for this post, a well-thumbed tatty copy that I pick up and take to the garden now and again or to the dentist or whenever I have a spare moment to spend in Hollywood’s golden years.


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

 

Holiday Book Bag Summer 2019

To me, one of the great things about a summer holiday are the books I take in my book bag. The chance to relax and read something in a good lengthy book reading session. These are the books I took away to read this summer.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe by J. Randy Taraborelli.

I’ve always found Marilyn Monroe to be just about the most fascinating of all the great Hollywood movie stars, not only her life and career but also her strange and mysterious death. This book written in 2008 is interesting in that it focuses on her early life as well as her movie career, but also looks closely at her private life and her issues with her own mental health which give us a clue to understanding her unhealthy obsession with drugs and medication. Clearly, as the author shows, it was more than the usual Hollywood addiction to uppers and downers, essential perhaps back then to deal with late night publicity and early film calls but actually for Marilyn a way to deal with the mental anguish that plagued her and her mother for most of their lives.

Marilyn was terrified of ending up like her mother in a mental institution and when in the early 1960’s she was voluntarily admitted to a mental hospital, supposedly for a rest cure, she was terrified to find she had been locked into what she described as a madhouse. Former husband Joe DiMaggio came to her rescue but the experience must have reminded her of her own mother who herself was desperate to escape the institutions she was kept in.

A lot of elements of her early life I wasn’t really aware of until reading this book and also the author makes a good point in showing that Marilyn herself wasn’t always honest about what she told the press and others about herself.

Well written, very interesting and apart from the last chapter on the Kennedys which I think has been dealt with better in some more recent books, a great addition to any Monroe book collection.

My Turn by Norman Wisdom.

I have to say that until reading this book I had no interest whatsoever in Norman Wisdom. I used to see his films regularly on television as a child but I have to say, I have never found him funny and his slapstick gormless antics have always left me unmoved.

Liz picked this book up for me at a church charity sale and I had a quick look at it one day relaxing in the garden. It sounded pretty interesting and I do love showbiz life stories so I popped it into my holiday book bag and finished it off on holiday.

Norman tells us the story of his early life in which his parents were clearly not happy together. His father was violent and eventually his mother left and divorced her husband. This being the 1930s when divorce was not so prevalent as in the present day she was unable to take her children with her and they were sadly neglected by their father.

He left them alone for long periods and their education and welfare suffered. At one point Norman remembered going to school in bare feet, something not so uncommon he says at the time. His father put Norman and his brother in various foster homes and at one point they even found themselves living on the streets. Norman himself was saved by the army. He joined as a child as a band boy and credits the army and the army way of life as the making of him. After leaving the army he found his father had remarried and went to see him hoping to be taken in. He knocked on the door and a lady answered. Norman told her who he was and she asked him to wait.

Later his father returned and without a thought for his son and his situation, threw him out. He is never mentioned again. It’s amazing that someone who has suffered so much in this way should go on to a career of making people laugh. I did wonder whether Norman, living in a lovely home in the Isle of Man, surrounded by a collection of exclusive motor cars, ever once thought about his father, who incidentally was a chauffeur.

Later he was reunited with his mother and brother and was supported by his mum and her new husband as he made his way into the world of comedy.

The first part of the book is truly sad and at the same time refreshing to see how Norman copes with all this and yet still goes on to fame and fortune. The latter part of the book is not so interesting; more of a list of his numerous successes but one anecdote was rather funny.

Norman was invited to Spain for a film festival where apparently his films were very popular, his visual style of comedy transcending the language barriers. At the festival he is the star attraction and due to go on last but Hollywood star James Mason thinks he should go on last as he is the bigger star. Norman agrees and goes on before Mason. He then wows his audience with a short speech in Spanish, leaves to a standing ovation and poor James Mason walks on to only a trickle of applause!

Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown.

This is another book I picked up at a charity book shop. Derren Brown is an enigmatic TV fella whose shows are a sort of combination of magic, psychology, hypnotism and some just general weird spooky stuff. I’m not sure what I was expecting from his book. I suppose I guessed it was a sort of autobiography of sorts but in fact it’s really about the things that interest the author, pretty much in the realms of magic, psychology and hypnotism and have contributed towards his performances both on the stage and on TV.

He starts off with a little background to magic and how it works, things like sleight of hand and then how the magician uses various techniques to divert attention away from something that he doesn’t want you to see to something he wants you to see.

Another interesting technique, vital to a magician is memory. Imagine a magician, or anyone for that matter being able to memorise an entire shuffled deck of cards. Sounds impossible doesn’t it but no, it can be done by using various methods which the author describes which are also pretty good for remembering anything like passwords, telephone numbers or shopping lists for instance. The way to do it is by linking something –whatever it is you are trying to remember- to something you can remember like a really striking image. So when trying to remember the name of a new acquaintance called Mike for instance, we should create an image of someone with a really big nose, shaped like a mic –a microphone.

There are more highly interesting sections on hypnotism, and body language and then the author moves on to discrediting things like mediums who try to contact the spirit world. Everything they do he claims can be done by ‘cold reading’, a way of interpreting not only body language but verbal language tricks too.

Overall a fascinating book but one theme that Derren plays too much with is how he has rejected Christianity because science cannot prove that Jesus was who he says he is, the son of God and has been resurrected. Surely Derren especially should realise that everything is not as it seems.


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