Christmas Day and Charles Dickens

Happy Christmas and I hope you are having a good one wherever you are. It’s not every year that my scheduled regular post ends up going out on Christmas day so should I make the most of it and deliver a sensational blog post or should I just recognise that today people have other things on their minds than reading a blog post?

Tough call.

Still, when people have finished opening their presents and have had their fill of Christmas dinner, pudding, drinks and nibbles, perhaps there might be a small opening for readers to open up their computers or tablets and have a read of my blog. Let’s give it a shot, anyway.

I caught the end of a documentary on TV the other day about Charles Dickens and how he apparently is the man who invented the modern Christmas just by publishing a short story about Christmas called A Christmas Carol. That sounded pretty interesting to me so as I had missed most of it, I thought I’d do a little internet research.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 and in 1836 he published his first book, The Pickwick Papers. The Pickwick Papers became a publishing phenomenon by introducing serial publication; the book was published in serial form and it kept the readers wanting to find out what would happen next. In the TV show I watched they had someone on from Eastenders who claimed that if Dickens lived today, he would be working in TV, responsible for the cliff hangers that today’s soaps end with.

A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and sold 6000 copies in just six days. It was not initially a great financial success for Dickens as he had decided to publish an edition with colour pictures. No colour printing was possible at the time and so the colour pictures were hand coloured by teams of people, all of which added to the expense of publication.

Dickens_by_Watkins_1858

Dickens himself was very fond of Christmas and the description in the book of the party at Scrooge’s nephew’s house was similar to the celebrations at Dickens’ own home. The piano was played, there was dancing, Christmas trees had become popular and Christmas carols were sung. The phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ became popular because of its use in ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The tradition of having a turkey dinner for Christmas began with Henry VIII but became popular in Victorian times. Prior to that a typical Christmas dinner involved goose. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge buys a huge turkey for Bob Cratchit and his family and again that only increased the popularity of a Christmas turkey.

Another company produced an unauthorised edition of the book and Dickens sued, only for the rogue publisher to declare themselves bankrupt, leaving the author to pay for his costs despite winning his case.

Dickens was in need of money and he began a series of readings of his works which were lucrative and incredibly popular. These readings occupied most of his time in the last ten years of his life. He divorced his wife which was highly unusual for the time. He had met a young actress called Ellen Ternan who was 27 years younger than him and he remained passionate about her for the rest of his life. In 1860 he started a huge bonfire at his house, Gads Hill Place in Kent, in which he burned all his correspondence. Ellen too destroyed all her letters from Dickens so the full details of their relationship has never been known. Were they lovers? Possibly, but we can never know for sure.

On June 8th 1870, Dickens had a stroke after working on his last book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He died the next day without regaining consciousness. Some have speculated that he died at Ellen Ternan’s house, and she had him taken back to Gads Hill to prevent a scandal.

He was laid to rest in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey and A Christmas Carol remains one of his best-known works and the name of his main character, Scrooge has entered into the English language as meaning a miserly person. To this day, the book has never been out of print and a first edition copy would set you back about 10 to 15 thousand pounds.

More film versions have been made of A Christmas Carol than any other of Dicken’s works but the one that is head and shoulders above the others is the Alastair Sim version made in 1951. It just so happens that if you live in the UK you can watch it today at 12:45 on Talking Pictures.

Have a great Christmas.


What to do next: Here are a few options.

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Listen to my podcast Click here.

Buy the book! Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology.

Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.

My Holiday Book Bag 2021

A long time ago I was reading a biography about Richard Burton, in fact it was ‘Rich,’ the biography by Melvyn Bragg. Bragg used Burton’s own diaries in his work and wrote, amongst other things, about Burton’s love of books and when Burton went on holiday he looked forward with delight to the contents of his ‘book bag.’ I know it’s a pretty tenuous link but one thing I have in common with Richard Burton is a love of books and when I go on holiday, one of the delights of lying under a warm sun on my sun bed is a good undisturbed read. I read a lot at home and on my lunch breaks at work but it’s a few minutes here and a few minutes there and whenever I get interrupted it kind of breaks the flow. Some books, as we all know, are just made for a really long, uninterrupted read.

It’s a long time since I’ve been able to produce a Holiday Book Bag post, simply because I haven’t had a holiday which has mostly been the fault of Covid 19 so here are the books I’ve brought on holiday with me to Lanzarote.

Peter Sellers by Alexander Walker

I’ve always been interested in the comedy actor Peter Sellers. It’s probably because of a documentary I saw years ago on BBC’s Arena programme, a film about Sellers which used Sellers’ home movies and what has been good about this particular book is that it has filled in the gaps that were missed in the film.

Sellers was an only child, born into a theatrical family in 1925, he was in fact the second child of Bill and Peg Sellers. Their first child, also called Peter died in infancy and because of that, the family, in particular mother Peg, lavished a great deal of love and affection on Peter. The result was that he was not a nice child, in fact he was spoilt rotten and got his own way in everything and developed many traits he would take into adulthood with him.

Peg, Sellers’ mother, had a stage act in which she used to dress in a white outfit and pose on stage while various slides were projected over her. Father Bill was a musician and Peter claimed that he had taught George Formby to play the ukulele. Sellers was called up in the second world war and Peg used her theatrical contacts to get Sellers into the entertainment unit ENSA. She even travelled about the country to be near him until he was posted overseas. After being demobbed Sellers tried to get work as a comedian and eventually got work on a radio show by impersonating the star of that show, Kenneth Horne over the phone to the producer and saying how good that new comedian Peter Sellers was. Sellers admitted the deception but the radio producer was impressed so Sellers was asked to join the cast of the show.

From there, Sellers met Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine and Harry Secombe and together the group started the Goon Show, the famous hit radio show for which Sellers provided numerous comedy voices.

The next step for Sellers was into films and his big break was getting a part in the film The Ladykillers in 1956. His film hero Alec Guinness was the star. He starred or co-starred in numerous British comedy films before appearing with Sophia Loren in The Millionairess in 1960. The Millionairess made him an international star.

The book tells of his various film roles including his most famous one, that of Inspector Clouseau, a part which he only got after Peter Ustinov turned it down. The author also recounts Peter Sellers’ odd behaviour, his numerous purchases of cars and gadgets, his wives and how his staff had to deal with his various tantrums. His final wife, Lynne Frederick even gets a good review from the author although in other books and documentaries she has not come out looking as good.

Sellers died of a heart attack in 1980, aged only 54.

I do love books about films and film making and this one was an excellent read.

Death of a Glutton by MC Beaton

This is a novel in the Hamish Macbeth series and part of my mission to read all the Macbeth books. The last few have not been great reads. Death of a Prankster wasn’t exactly riveting but this one is much better. It’s not a classic of literature by any means, it’s just a pleasant read. It follows what I have come to think of as the Agatha Christie style of a whodunnit. You know what I mean, a group of suspects gathered together by the detective, in this case Hamish Macbeth and we know one of them is the murderer. This eighth entry in the Macbeth series is about an overweight woman, a part owner in a dating agency who alienates all the potential lovebirds with her constant eating. The co-owner of the agency wants to get rid of her. Is she capable of murder or does Hamish have his eye on someone else?

A pleasant holiday read, nothing more.

Bill Clinton: An American Journey by Nigel Hamilton

I’m a great fan of biographies and I picked this book up ages ago in one of those remainder book shops. I keep starting it and then moving on to something else so I grabbed it for this holiday book bag, determined to finish it. Bill Clinton was born Bill Blythe and took the name Clinton when his mother married Roger Clinton. It wasn’t a good choice on his mother’s part as Roger was an alcoholic and Bill had to cope with the consequences of Roger’s drinking for many years. Bill was a bright youngster. He did very well at school, he seemed to remember everything he had read, he was very intelligent and a born networker. Perhaps as a consequence of his home life he was good at sorting out feuds and disputes and when he grew tall and strong, he was able to intervene in the often violent disputes between his mother Virginia and Roger.

Bill won a scholarship to Oxford in the UK where he widened his circle of friends. Back in Arkansas he had worked on Senator Fulbright’s election team and also discovered women. Like JFK his hero, Clinton had numerous liaisons which didn’t stop when he met Hilary Rodham. She was nothing like the usual girl he became involved with. She wasn’t good looking, wore huge goggle like spectacles, had greasy hair and apparently wasn’t keen on too much deodorant. After university she went on to be part of the Senate’s Watergate Investigation staff but later joined Bill in Arkansas where he decided to run for Attorney General and later, for the Governorship. The two married and formed a wonderful political partnership that would ultimately take them to the White House.

In his election campaign President Bush thought Clinton would be easy to defeat and began to focus on the third-party candidacy of millionaire Ross Perot. Perot withdrew from the race, and then re-entered. A key moment was in the last of the debates when Bush was unable to properly answer a question from a member of the public about the personal effects of the recession. Bush was confused but Clinton answered the woman directly and had seen many issues in his home state of Arkansas concerning loss of jobs, loss of homes by people unable to pay mortgages and so on.

Another moment was when on live TV the Clintons were asked about Gennifer Flowers. Hilary jumped to her husband’s defence and asked for privacy and then told the viewers that if they didn’t like Clinton then they shouldn’t vote for him. The public did vote for Clinton and in large numbers.

Author Nigel Hamilton has produced an interesting book that is conveniently put together in bite sized and subtitled short sections. I’m not sure whether he really gets close to who Bill Clinton really is but all the information is there to make your own deductions. One of the interviewees for the book comes right out and calls Clinton an inveterate liar. He lies about many things but particularly about his personal life, his many affairs while governor and in particular his twelve year relationship with Gennifer Flowers. There are many comparisons with Clinton’s hero JFK, partly because Hamilton wrote a book about him too. I remember reading that he declined to add a second volume because he didn’t like what he had learned about Kennedy in his research. This book, subtitled An American Journey is only volume one although nowhere on the book does it state that.

The book comes to an abrupt end when Clinton wins the election. There is no description of Clinton’s joy or reaction to his victory. I suppose I’ll have to buy volume II to read about that.

An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

A while ago I was thinking that it’s about time I read something from one of the best selling authors of all time. Searching through the internet I came across Agatha Christie’s autobiography so I thought that might be a good starting point. A lot of the media stuff I do for Floating in Space portrays it as a lost world, the world of 1977 when the book is set. Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and her book truly is a portrait of a lost world. She claims she didn’t come from a rich family yet her mother and father lived in a large house. They had cooks, nannies, nurses and other servants. Her father, who she says was a very agreeable man, had a private income. His father had made investments that paid him handsomely so he was never obliged to work. He left every day for his club, returned home for lunch and then returned to his club to play whist. During the season he spent his time at the cricket club where he was president. Agatha tells various stories of her childhood in Torquay. They are all well observed tales of life in a Victorian house. Later her father dies and the family is struggling for money so they rent out the house and decamp to various places in France, including Paris. Agatha’s lifelong love of travel must stem from these early visits to the continent.

Later she leaves home and marries an airman from the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and tells of her voluntary work as a nurse in WWI. For a while she works in a pharmacy and after being introduced to various poisons gets the idea of writing a murder story. She does so and takes it to various publishers. None seem very enthusiastic about it but eventually she gets to have the work published. She is quite pleased with herself although she only makes a little money. Her first book featured Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective. She chose a Belgian as there were then many Belgian refugees in England as Belgium had been invaded by the Germans. Later she writes more books and is buoyed when a newspaper asks to serialise one of them. She realises then how poor her publishing contract is and engages a literary agent who stays with her for many years.

To conclude then, this is a very enjoyable well observed book and has made me want to add some Agatha Christie novels to my reading list.


What to do next: Here are a few options.

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Listen to my podcast Click here.

Buy the book! Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology.

Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.

Dylan Thomas

The 27th of October was the birthday of one of my favourite writers. I love lots of writers but probably my all-time favourite is Dylan Thomas. I love the outstanding power of his writing, his incredible imagery, and the wonderful pictures he creates with his words.

Dylan also is the sort of writer I’ve always wanted to be: A bohemian, pub crawling, boozing writer who fought with himself as he laboured to paint his word pictures. Whether that was really the case I don’t know but Dylan did like his pubs and he did enjoy a drink.

The fact of the matter is that I’m nothing like Dylan, except we both share a love of words, particularly the sound of words, which is the key to the richness of Dylan’s work, especially his poetry. If you think about it, there must be a connection between the sound of a word and its meaning, a deep organic connection. After all, how did words begin? Imagine some ancient caveman, just wanting to get some concept over to his mate. What are the deepest and strongest feelings for a human being? Well, for a caveman food must be one, and love too. Surely love was present in those primordial days when every caveman went out on Saturday with his club looking for his mate. There must have been a moment when ancient man strived to say something to his mate, tried to express his feeling and a sound that was the precursor to the word love slipped uneasily from his lips.

If you have read any of Dylan’s poems and are yet to understand his magic, let me give you a tiny bit of advice: Listen to Dylan’s voice. Yes, Dylan, like many poets wrote for his own voice and if you click on to any Dylan Thomas page or search anywhere on the internet you are bound to come across some old recording of his voice. Don’t make do with lesser voices, even when we are talking about great actors like Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins. Search out Dylan himself and you will be won over, like me, by the power of his voice.

It’s not just his poems that are rich with the power of words. Dylan wrote and performed a good many radio plays and broadcasts and my very favourite is ‘Return Journey.’ It’s about Dylan himself returning to Swansea in search of his former self ‘Young Thomas’. He visits young Thomas’ old haunts and meets with people who knew him fleetingly; the barmaid who used to serve him, journalists who worked with him and even the park keeper where Dylan and his young friends would play in the park. It’s a lovely piece where fantasy merges with reality and we slip in and out of the two as the story progresses.

Many years ago I visited Dylan Thomas’ house in Wales. The house is in the village of Laugharne and is not far from one of his famous watering holes, the Brown’s Hotel which I’m pretty sure was bought by one of the comedians from TV’s Men Behaving Badly.

The boathouse was bought by a trust some years ago which saved the property from collapsing into the sea. It’s a lovely place and on the day I visited, we had to leave early although I can’t remember why. I came back the next day and the staff remembered I had left early previously and let me in for free. I wandered about Dylan’s old house and sucked in the atmosphere before buying various books and pamphlets about Dylan and his works.

In another old TV documentary I tend to watch now and again, the presenter, a poet himself, thought he could imagine the conversations of Dylan and his wife, the chit chatting, the arguing and the making up later, or so he supposed.

I took a primitive digital camera with me and took a few shots of the house and Dylan’s famous writing shed. I read somewhere recently that the shed has now been removed and taken to a museum with a duplicate shed now occupying the site.

I enjoyed my visit and Dylan’s own poem always makes me think of it:

In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks
And palavers of birds . . .

As you might have guessed from reading these posts, I really do love my books. One particular book pictured here, about the last days of poet Dylan Thomas is one I’ve had a long time but have not got around to reading until more 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 a way it is almost like Under Milk Wood itself, where the dead come alive again at night as time passes . .


This post was compiled from my previous posts about Dylan Thomas


What to do next: Here are a few options.

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Listen to my podcast Click here.

Buy the book! Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology.

Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.


 

4 Book Series

This week I’d like to take a look at four popular book series. Many authors create a particular character or set of characters and write about their different adventures in a new edition. Sherlock Holmes is one example. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the first Holmes book A Study in Scarlet in 1887 and various books and short stories followed detailing the various adventures and investigations Holmes was engaged upon. Here are four more.

The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Chronicles consist of seven novels published in the 1950’s. They were written by author CS Lewis. The first in the series, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is set during the second world war and was inspired by a group of children who were evacuated to Lewis’ home just outside of Oxford. Lewis was also inspired by a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. The image stayed in Lewis’ head from when he was aged 16 to when he was in his 40’s and he felt it was time to write a story about the picture.

I must have been at junior school when I first encountered the original book in the series. In my first year at junior school our teacher, Miss Ollier, would read us pages from the book as we all sat around her towards the end of our school day. I remember being completely mesmerised by the story especially the moment when one of the children goes through the wardrobe and pushes past the coats hanging there to finally stumble out into the cold of Narnia.

In the book, a group of children are evacuated from London in World War II to a country house. During a game of hide and seek, one of the children, Lucy, hides in a wardrobe. The wardrobe seems to be never ending and as the child pushes towards the back of the wardrobe, she ends up in the magical world of Narnia. Later, the other children follow and they all meet Mr Tumnus the faun, the White Queen and Aslan the lion amongst others. They help Aslan overthrow the Witch and release Narnia from the perpetual winter which the White Witch has imposed on the kingdom. Six more books followed finishing with The Last Battle published in 1956.

The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming.

I started reading the Bond books when I was a schoolboy and unfortunately the very first one I read was the only one they had in our local library: ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’, one of writer Ian Fleming’s worst Bond books. Fleming used to write his initial drafts of the novels and then write a second one, adding in all the details which make the Bond books so interesting. Details of Bond’s clothes, his food, his cars, his cigarettes (the special handmade ones with the triple gold band) and all that sort of stuff. ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ was published after Fleming had died and sadly he had not revised his original draft. I persevered though, did some research, found the proper order of the books and began to read ‘Casino Royale’, the first in the series. I have loved the books and the films ever since.

Casino Royale is quite an original story. It concerns a man known as Le Chiffre who is a kind of paymaster for Soviet agents in Europe. He however has been a very bad fellow indeed, he has been using some of the funds for his own personal pleasure and decides to recoup the funds by gambling at the Casino at Royale Les Eaux. The secret service however think it might be a good idea to have their best card player beat him at cards and so sentence him to death at the hands of his very own paymasters, the Russians.

Fleming drew heavily on his military background where he was a personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the head of Naval Intelligence in World War II. Godfrey served as a model for M, the head of the secret service in the Bond books. Many people have claimed to be the model for Bond himself and although Fleming admitted the character was based on various agents he knew during the war, the character of Bond is really an alter ego of Fleming himself.

Fleming was a Commander in Naval Intelligence during the war, just like 007, and it was Fleming who drank the vodka martinis that James Bond liked so much. It was Fleming who wore the Sea Island cotton shirts that appear in the novels and it was Fleming who favoured scrambled eggs for breakfast, just like his creation, James Bond.

When Fleming was trying to think of a name for his new character he came across a book called ‘Birds Of The West Indies’ by ornithologist James Bond. In 1964 Fleming gave Bond a first edition copy of ‘You Only Live Twice’ inscribed by Fleming ‘to the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.’ When the book was auctioned in 2008 it fetched £56,000.

There are fourteen books in the 007 series although the last one, Octopussy and the Living Daylights was a collection of short stories. Goldfinger was one of my favourites which I picked up and read again not long ago. Now I’m probably going to have to start at Casino Royale and read them all again.

The Hamish Macbeth series by MC Beaton

I seem to have written about Hamish Macbeth quite a few times recently but here we go again. I have always been a fan of the TV series but recently picked up one of MC Beaton’s books so I thought I’d give them a try. The TV series is slightly different to the books although the style is fundamentally the same. Hamish is the village bobby in the Highland village of Lochdubh. Macbeth is a laid-back relaxed character. He is not averse to poaching the odd salmon and he likes to apply the rule of law in his own way. He avoids promotion as all he wants is to remain in his beloved village. Most of the characters in the series are the invention of the TV writers and not M.C. Beaton who wrote the books. I’m not sure how happy I would be if someone made a TV show out my book and then proceeded to change all the characters, still I did enjoy Hamish Macbeth as a TV show. It was an oddball quirky little drama which ran for only three seasons.

In the books Hamish is pretty much the same character as he appears on TV. He is happy living in the village but is anxious not to do too well as he wants to avoid promotion and live happily in Lochdubh. Despite solving many a murder, he therefore contrives to let Inspector Blair take the credit so he can be left in peace. His love interest in many of the books is Priscilla, daughter of Colonel Harbuton-Smythe who has dismissed Hamish as a lazy malingerer, unworthy of his daughter and the on/off relationship continues throughout the books.

My current read is Death of a Perfect Wife. As usual it’s another murder mystery. It’s not a classic of literature but it’s a hugely pleasant and entertaining book, perfect for a quiet summer afternoon read in the garden. There are 36 books in the series. I’m currently on number 4.

The Kay Scarpetta Series by Patricia Cornwell

This is another crime series but not nearly so light hearted as the one above. Kay Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia in the USA. Author Patricia Cornwell first introduced Scarpetta in the book Postmortem originally published in 1990. The character is an American of Italian descent. She is a perfectionist and workaholic and lives in a custom built home where she cooks many Italian meals while she ponders her cases. She also, and perhaps this is me looking at the character from a UK perspective, seems to be overly obsessed with guns although on one occasion, having a gun under her pillow in the bedroom saves her life. In the first book Scarpetta has to deal with a series of murders and works with Benton Wesley from the FBI to create a profile of the murderer. The book also introduces DNA testing as a new technique and later Scarpetta hatches a plot to flush out the murderer. The murderer however, targets Scarpetta herself but is shot dead by policeman Pete Marino.

The books are fascinating reads and have been said to have influenced TV shows like CSI and other shows that use modern scientific techniques of detection and forensics. The first few editions are excellent reads but the later ones tend to stray into a bit of a fantasy area. Scarpetta has an affair with Benton Wesley who is murdered. In a later book he reappears, it seems he was not killed after all but was placed in a witness protection scheme for some reason. That seemed to me to be a little out of the ordinary but later things get really odd. Scarpetta’s niece Lucy appears in the first book as a ten year old but in later editions when she grows up she becomes a computer wizard, and then joins the FBI where she has difficulties because she is gay. Later she develops an internet search engine and becomes a millionaire and creates her own super secret investigation company called the Last Precinct. It’s all a little bit fantastic.

The first books were written in the first person then the later ones shift to the third person and then beginning with Port Mortuary, the last Scarpetta book that I have read, they shift back to the first person. For years I’ve heard in the media about the books being made into films but for whatever reason, that has not yet happened. I reviewed Port Mortuary a few years back and apart from being a little complicated, it was a pretty good read.


What to do next: Here are a few options.

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Listen to my podcast Click here.

Buy the book! Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology.

Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.

Summer Book Bag 2021

There is nothing nicer than pottering around the garden on a summer’s day, gardening, barbecuing and of course, reading. The pandemic and some sick leave have given me plenty of time to read this summer although most of the books I have bought recently have been not from my usual charity and second hand shops but from the internet.

A Right Royal Bastard

Serves Me Right

Bolt From the Blue (Three volumes of autobiography by Sarah Miles)

A long time ago I picked up A Right Royal Bastard somewhere in a charity shop. I have a feeling it was whilst walking round Skipton a few months ago but anyway, I didn’t know much about Sarah Miles except that she was a film actress and had appeared in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines and also Ryan’s Daughter, that latter film being one of director David Lean’s less appealing films. Apparently, as Sarah reveals in Serves Me Right, Lean was so upset by the bad reviews he didn’t make another film until A Passage to India, many years later.

The first part of Volume I was rather dull I thought, only really becoming interesting when the author leaves home and becomes an actress. It is a very forthright and frank book and Sarah explains how she once lived with a girl who was a prostitute and wanting to know more about sex, hid in the girl’s closet while she serviced a customer. An abortion was another shocking revelation.

In volume II, Serves Me Right, Sarah goes on to talk about her dog Addo, who she was devoted to, so much so that she would not accept film roles abroad as she couldn’t bear to leave him behind. She talks about the swinging 60’s and her film debut as a ‘husky wide eyed nymphet’ in Term of Trial in 1962. She met Laurence Olivier in that film and went on to have a long affair with him.

She owned a house in London and one day an old friend from RADA turned up and quickly moved herself in. The friend, Nona, had mental health issues and paid no rent and caused Sarah a great deal of distress. Eventually she asked Nona to leave but sadly she committed suicide in the house. It wasn’t the only death she would have come into her life. She had a brief liaison with a man called David Whiting. He was a pushy individual who inveigled himself into her life first as a journalist working for Life magazine and then when he was fired as a PR man on a film her husband, screenwriter Robert Bolt was producing. Whiting was later found dead in her hotel room causing a great scandal. After the incident had died down and her infidelity was revealed, she and Bolt parted.

I’ve only just finished Bolt from the Blue, her third volume of memoirs and it was written in the same frank and forthright style as the preceding volumes. An interesting part for me was about Robert Bolt and the great time and effort he put into crafting his plays and screenplays, spending long hours in his office writing. Towards the end of his life he wrote a screenplay for the film Nixon, one that he was really proud of but Oliver Stone decided not to use it and wrote his own. Bolt also wrote a final screenplay for David Lean, Nostromo. The film was ready to shoot when Lean’s illness meant that the project would go unfinished. Alas the rest of this volume was not quite as interesting as the first two and hearing about Sarah’s homes, dogs and the problems of her spoilt and undisciplined son and his drug problem was not my cup of tea.

The last two volumes I ordered from the internet but annoyingly, Bolt from the Blue arrived as a big hardback book when I really wanted the paperback. I don’t know about you but I like my books to be compact and easy to fit into pockets and bags. I really should pay more attention to internet small print.

Death of a Gossip

Death of a Cad

Death of an Outsider (Hamish Macbeth novels by M C Beaton)

I wrote in an earlier post about being a fan of the Hamish Macbeth TV series and finding a copy of one of the books in a charity shop. The book, Death of a Dreamer was enjoyable and quirky and quite different from the TV series. After reading that book, I wanted to read some more and no point in carrying on with the next one I thought, I might as well start from the beginning and read the novels in order. Liz obviously picked up on that and she found the first three novels for me. The first two were compiled together in one volume, Death of a Gossip and Death of a Cad. I was expecting the first one to be something special and looked forward to the introduction of Hamish himself. All the main characters in the series were there, Inspector Blair who looks down on Hamish as a simple village bobby even though he has a knack of solving the local murders and Prunella, daughter of Colonel Harbuton-Smythe, who thinks his daughter is far too good for Hamish even though Hamish clearly likes his daughter. Both the deaths of the gossip and the cad have kept me amused on my garden sun lounger for a while but both were a little contrived. The third instalment in the series though, Death of an Outsider was much better. The characters were better, the plot and the storyline all had me hooked. The setting too was interesting, not the village of Lochdubh that I was beginning to get used to but another village where Hamish was filling in, as their local constable was on holiday. I do love a good murder mystery and already I’m looking forward to number 4 in the series.

Manhunt.

I always find it interesting just how I seem to hook up with a particular book. In this case I had an email from the ITV Hub telling me about a great new series of Manhunt and how I could watch the previous one on the ITV hub.  Now what criteria ITV uses to send me an email like that I don’t know because not only had I never watched Manhunt, I’d never even heard of it. Looking at the ITV website I found that Manhunt was a three part thriller based on the real life case of killer Levi Bellfield. Having nothing more interesting lined up to watch that evening, Liz and I settled down to watch and actually got pretty interested, so much so that I immediately went to Abebooks and ordered a copy of the book that the series had been based on. It had been written, in fact written quite well by former Chief Inspector Colin Sutton who was in charge of the real life investigation of a young French student murdered in Twickenham, London.

Sutton tells the story of how the student living in London was found critically injured on Twickenham Green in 2003. She was taken quickly to hospital but died from her injuries having been hit on the back of the head, possibly with a hammer.

Sutton explains how the Metropolitan Police deal with situations like this and how an ‘on call’ team quickly attend and then hand over to a full murder investigation team led on this occasion by Sutton himself. The first things to do were to secure the crime scene and set up a mobile police station asking for anyone with information to come forward. Various people mentioned a man resembling Maradona, the famous footballer, smoking and standing by the cricket screens. The area was thoroughly searched and the cricket screens fingerprinted. The next step was to check CCTV footage from the area and the cameras soon found the victim alighting from a bus. She had spent the evening at a French bistro with friends and had left to catch her bus home. She had missed her stop and then had to walk across the Green to get home where sadly she was murdered. A small white van was noticed on various CCTV cameras and later when her mobile phone signal was last registered by the river, an underwater search by divers located her house keys and other personal items.

There was no special key to solving this case, no moment like in TV fiction when the detective spots a clue pointing to the killer, just dogged routine footwork and research. Later something approaching that TV moment did occur. At the onsite mobile police station erected on Twickenham Green, an informant had mentioned that her previous partner, Levi Bellfield could be a suspect. He was a violent man, owned a small Ford van and was familiar with the area. The investigation team were about to start on the leads generated by the public when a local PC who had taken the information asked about it. Bellfield looked like a possible murderer straight away and after a surveillance operation the police were to finally arrest him. Keeping him in custody and proving he was a murderer and finding he was linked to other murders and attempted murders was another thing altogether and the author takes us through the investigation step by step.

This was an excellent read and having time off work I was able to lie in the garden, glued to the book until I got to the end.


What to do next: Here are a few options.

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Listen to my podcast Click here.

Buy the book! Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology.

Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.

The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film Pt 3

Papillon by Henri Charrière

Papillon is a book by Frenchman Henri Charrière. It is an autobiographical novel about Charrière’s imprisonment in the French penal colony of French Guiana and covers a period of about fifteen years. The original novel was written on a series of exercise books and is presented in just that way. Charrière describes his experience of imprisonment as a terrible one. He escaped and was recaptured many times and ended up in solitary imprisonment twice. The first time was for two years and he was kept in solitary for 24 hours a day. In his second bout of solitary a new officer takes over the running of the area and prisoners are let out for exercise every day. At one point in his escape Charrière encounters a tribe of Indians and joins them for many months, even marrying one of the Indian girls but despite finding this apparent paradise, he leaves and is imprisoned again. He eventually escapes from Devil’s Island by jumping into the sea aboard a sack filled with coconuts. The book is an incredible read and I found it one I just couldn’t put down. It is filled with action and adventure but also with thoughtful observations about the human condition and there are many moments when simple acts of kindness stand out to the author against a background of cruelty and inhumanity.

The book was an instant hit when it was published in France in 1969 and the author, Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon because of a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, became a French celebrity. He died in 1973 but always maintained the book was true and based on his own recollections despite claims to the contrary. Whatever its origins the book is a true classic adventure story.

The Film

On paper this should have been a brilliant film; Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman star, there was a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr and music by Jerry Goldsmith. The director was Franklin J Shaffner, who I’ve not heard of but there are plenty of big names involved who would normally guarantee a great film. They even had author Henri Charrière who acted as an advisor to the production. Somehow though, they managed to turn out something of a dud. It’s hard to put the finger on what went wrong but reviewer Robert Ebert said the big flaw was that the audience failed to gain interest in the McQueen and Hoffman characters. I think the big problem was that the book was a long book, packed with incident and instead of trying to cram the whole book into a film, perhaps the producers should have concentrated on just a part of it. Steve McQueen was a reasonable actor and he was good in basic action roles but I just don’t think he was good enough to play Papillon. The film skips over many interesting elements of the book and at the end of the film when Charrière is imprisoned on Devil’s Island, McQueen appears to be an old man which wasn’t the case in real life. My advice: Don’t bother with the film, read the book.

The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

I’ve been trying to remember which came first for me, the book or the film. After some reflection, it was probably the film but I read the book soon afterwards. I found a copy in a box of paperbacks someone had given to my Father. The book is a classic escape story from World War II. It’s a great read and the story starts with a usual day in the POW camp which consists of tea making, cooking and cleaning and exercising by walking a circuit around the camp. The author, real life escapee Eric Williams, tells the reader about the everyday problems of living in a hut full of bored officers looking forward to either red cross parcels, letters from home or escaping. The problems of escaping are many. The soil is soft and sandy meaning that a tunnel would be liable to collapse and the soil cleared from underground is different to the grey topsoil making it difficult to hide from the German guards. The main problem is the distance from the huts to the camp perimeter but the author and a friend hit on the idea of taking a vaulting horse and placing it near to the perimeter fence and having a tunnel dug from there with the prisoners exercised by vaulting over the horse and masking the escape operation. The POW camp, Stalag Luft III was also the same camp where the events depicted in The Great Escape took place.

The Film

The film is pretty faithful to the book and stars the usual stalwarts of British films in the 1950’s, actors like Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson. It’s a nicely paced film showing the boredom of camp life and then the idea for the vaulting horse and its preparation and use. Various problems have to be overcome including tunnel cave ins and disposal of the resulting excavated sand but all goes well. The two escapees decide to add another man to their escape team and one night the three emerge from the tunnel into freedom. Of course the escape is not over; two of the men make their way to the Baltic port of Lubeck and manage to escape to neutral Sweden with the help of the Danish resistance by stowing away on a Danish ship. The third escapee also makes his way to freedom separately and all three meet up in neutral Sweden.

On her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

This book as you probably know is one of the James Bond series of books and is one of the last in the series. As usual, the book is well written and James Bond 007 is on the lookout for Ernst Stavro Blofeld whose fiendish plot was thwarted by Bond in the previous book, Thunderball. In this one Bond is close to resigning but after being given some holiday leave from work, meets a young girl, Tracy, who appears to be suicidal. After saving her from one such attempt Bond is introduced to her father Draco, who is head of a Corsican crime syndicate. Draco gives Bond a lead on Blofeld who appears to be trying to establish that he is in fact a baronet. Anyway, without going on and explaining the plot in detail, the book is an excellent read, one of the best in the Bond series.

The Film

The film was notable for being the first in the film franchise without Sean Connery as James Bond. Connery was tired of playing the part and so a search for a new Bond had begun. The new actor chosen was George Lazenby whose only claim to fame at the time was appearing in a TV advertisement for a Big Fry chocolate bar. For me, Lazenby was the perfect Bond. He looked the part, in fact I’ve always thought that he fitted Ian Fleming’s description perfectly. The film is a fast paced thriller and is one of the more serious of the Bond films. Diana Rigg plays Contessa Tracy Di Vincezo who Bond saves from a suicide attempt, just as he does in the book. Tracy’s father Marc Ange Draco who happens to be an underworld boss, gives Bond a tip as to Blofeld’s whereabouts. Bond, masquerading as Sir Hilary Bray, a representative of the College of Arms meets Blofeld in Switzerland on the pretext of confirming Blofeld as a baronet. Bond arrives at the ski resort of Piz Gloria and finds Blofeld is engaged on a new plot against the UK. The film throws in some great fight scenes, car chases and also an exciting ski chase sequence. It was directed by Peter Hunt and is still a favourite today amongst Bond fans. Sadly Lazenby decided not to play Bond again and Sean Connery returned for another outing as 007 in Diamonds are Forever.

Hamish Macbeth

This last entry is a little of a cheat really as the Hamish Macbeth series of books were made into a TV series rather than a film but here we go anyway.

Robert Carlyle played the eponymous TV police officer in the BBC series which first aired in 1995. The series is about a local Bobby based in the village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands. Macbeth applies the rule of law in his own way and dispenses his own brand of laid back justice. Although successful at solving numerous crimes Macbeth avoids promotion in order to stay in the village.

Three series of Hamish Macbeth were produced with six episodes each. Although the series was based on the books by MC Beaton, the TV series differs greatly from the books, with new characters devised by the TV producers and various other aspects changed. I enjoyed the series enormously and even once visited Plockton, the Highland village that doubles for Lochdubh on television. MC Beaton, whose real name is Marion Chesney, apparently hated the TV production which I can understand as they changed her work considerably, adding and changing characters. I have to say though, I’ve always liked it.

Death of A Dreamer by MC Beaton

I picked up this copy of one of MC Beaton’s books in a second hand bookshop in Skipton. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a book for me but I soon settled into the story and it bumbles along nicely with a few twists and turns on the way. A lady artist, Effie Gerrard, arrives in the village and develops an obsession with another artist named Jock. Later Effie is found dead. Was it a suicide or was it murder? The police decide it was suicide but Hamish is not so sure and he decides to make further investigations.

In the books Hamish has a dog and a wild cat as pets unlike the TV show where his only pet is ‘Wee Jock’, a highland Westie dog. The book is heavy on dialogue and light on descriptive passages but it was an easy and enjoyable read and I liked it immensely. The only annoying thing was that after finishing the book, the first chapter of the next book had been added to tempt the reader I suppose into buying that one. I read that and found myself wanting the next book in the series so it might be time to begin scouring the bookshops of St Annes for more books in the series.


What to do next: Here are a few options.

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Listen to my podcast Click here.

Buy the book! Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology.

Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.

Book Bag: The Early Days of Cinema

My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin.

Charlie was born in 1889 in Walworth, London and spent his early life in the London suburb of Kennington. His parents were both music hall performers but separated when Charlie was about two years old. His mother was poor and the small family, Charlie, his mother and older brother Sydney, were admitted to the workhouse on two separate occasions.

In 1903, Charlie’s mother was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum and Charlie lived on the streets alone until his brother Sydney, who had joined the navy, returned from sea.

With his father’s connections Charlie secured a place in a clog dancing troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads and so began his career as a performer. After appearing in some minor roles in the theatre he developed a comic routine and, with help from Sydney, was signed by Fred Karno, the famous music hall impresario, for his comedy company in 1908.

Chaplin became one of Fred Karno’s top comedians and Karno sent him with a troupe of other comedians on a tour of vaudeville theatres in the USA. One of the others was Stan Laurel, later to find fame with the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

By far the most interesting part of Charlie’s autobiography is where he talks about the beginning of his movie career. On a second tour of America in 1913, Chaplin was asked to join the Mack Sennett studios as a performer in silent films for the fee of $150 per week. He wasn’t initially keen but liked the idea of starting something new.

His first film for Sennett was called Making a Living, released in 1914. Chaplin himself wasn’t so keen on the film and for his second appearance selected a new costume. After searching through the costume department Chaplin chose a bowler hat, a jacket that was too small, baggy trousers, shoes that were too large and a cane. It almost seems as though the clothes made him become the character of the tramp which was to make him famous. The film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament although another tramp film made afterwards, Kid Auto races at Venice, was released to the public first.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essaney because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

Chaplin seems strangely perturbed by his fame and fortune. He writes about an incident between contracts where he takes the train to meet his brother in, I think, New York but word has got out to the public he is travelling and everywhere the train stops, masses of people were waiting. Eventually it dawns on him that it is he they were waiting for. Many times the narrative describes meals and walks taken alone giving the impression of a solitary, lonely man.

The thing to remember about reading this book is that Chaplin tells the reader only what he wants them to know, nothing more. His various marriages are only skimmed over although when he is making the Kid, probably his most important picture, he explains how he thought the negative may have be taken by lawyers acting for his estranged wife so he takes the film and edits it whilst almost ‘on the run’ in various hideaways and hotel rooms.

Chaplin was known for being attracted to young girls and one of his conquests, a girl called Joan Barry, was arrested twice for her obsessive behaviour after he ended their relationship. She became pregnant and claimed he was the father and began a paternity suit against him. J Edgar Hoover who believed Chaplin to be a communist, engineered negative publicity against him and public opinion began to turn against Charlie. He was ordered to pay child support to Barry’s baby despite blood test evidence which showed he could not be the father. The blood test evidence was ruled inadmissible.

The earlier part of the book is by far the most interesting but the later part, where Chaplin is famous the world over, becomes an excuse for name dropping, despite there being a clear absence of any notable anecdotes involving the famous names. Even his best friend Douglas Fairbanks makes few appearances within the pages.

A fascinating read none the less.

Stan, The Life of Stan Laurel by Fred Lawrence Guiles.

I have a lot of time for Fred Laurence Guiles. He wrote one of the definitive biographies of Marilyn Monroe, the one Norman Mailer used as the basis for his classic book about the star.

Stan was born in Ulverston in Cumbria, as a matter of fact, I once visited his old home in the town. It was a small house as I remember and a little bit tatty. I remember being rather disappointed to view this old house with photocopied pictures of Stan on the walls. Either way it was still fascinating to think that Stan, one half of that great duo, Laurel and Hardy, had started life here as Arthur Jefferson. Guiles follows Stan -as he began to call himself- from northern music halls to being part of Fred Karno’s comedy circus and to the USA and Hollywood. Fred Karno was the great music hall impresario of the time and he sent teams of entertainers all over, even to the USA. In his early days touring the USA for Karno, Stan shared rooms with Chaplin although not once is Stan mentioned in Chaplin’s autobiography. Chaplin just seemed to ignore or black out anyone from his memory he either didn’t like or thought was a threat.

Stan Laurel appeared in a number of silent comedy films. He eventually signed with producer Hal Roach but decided he was going to move into scriptwriting rather than performing. One day Oliver Hardy was too ill to perform so Stan stepped in and played his part. Later the two appeared together in various films and director Leo McCarey noticed the positive reaction from the public. Together with McCarey the two worked at their comedy and after McCarey suggested they both wear bowler hats, their partnership took off and their Laurel and Hardy series began in 1927. In 1929 they moved from silent pictures to sound with Unaccustomed As We Are. Unlike many other stars of the period, the two made a seamless transition into talking pictures and are today recognised as giants of comedy.

In 1933 director Frank Capra made the first of what was an entirely different kind of comedy film and, according to author Guiles, this actually spelt the beginning of the end for the slapstick comedy type of film humour that Laurel and Hardy, and others such as Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, were so good at. It Happened One Night starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and after a slow start, the film became an enormous hit, winning eleven Academy Awards. Some writers thought that film comedy had finally ‘grown up’ and sadly, just over 10 years later Laurel and Hardy would be making their final Hollywood film.

After Hardy died in 1957, Stan declined to work without his comedy partner and he retired to a modest flat in Santa Monica, California. He was listed in the telephone directory and was happy to answer calls from his fans. He spent his retirement answering his fan mail and meeting with other comedians who revered him; people like Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers and Dick Van Dyke. He died in 1965 aged 74.

Hollywood.

I think I wrote about the 1920’s in a previous post saying that if I could go back to any time and place I’d go back to Hollywood in the 1920’s. You didn’t need a degree in filmmaking to be a director then as the whole industry was new. Hollywood was just a mass of orange groves when someone decided that with its wonderful climate, Hollywood would be the perfect place to make films. In 1910 DW Griffiths came to Hollywood to film In Old California and other film makers followed him as not only was there perfect weather and excellent light but it was a great place to avoid Thomas Edison who owned patents on the movie making process and wanted paying. In the 1980’s there was a wonderful TV  documentary series called simply Hollywood and this is the book that was published alongside the series. The TV version was narrated by James Mason and was filled with interviews with former writers, directors and stars of that bygone age. It’s a pity it hasn’t made its way onto DVD but apparently because of all the stars involved, all of whom will have passed away by now, getting the releases signed for DVD has been problematic. It just so happens that I have the first episode on VHS video and of course, the book that accompanied the series.

The book I have is subtitled ‘The Pioneers’ and concentrates on the first great Hollywood stars both in front of and behind the camera, people like director DW Griffiths and actors like Valentino, Chaplin, and Garbo who became the first ‘movie stars’. Then there were others like John Gilbert and Buster Keaton who did not make the transition to sound successfully and Laurel and Hardy, who did.

One particularly interesting thing about the TV series and the book is that many of the veterans of silent pictures were telling their stories for the first time. Kevin Brownlow who wrote the book and directed parts of the TV series says that some of the interviewees were very old but even so, they were very lively and interesting in their old age with many stories to tell about filming, editing and the beginnings of Hollywood. Back then Hollywood shunned those who worked in films. They called them ‘movies’ and many hotels and boarding houses had signs up saying ‘no movies’.

Sadly many silent films have not survived to the present day because the nitrate film of those days was highly volatile. Many of the films that have survived are made from poor quality ‘dupes’ or copies so it is not easy to appreciate how good those films originally were. This book though with its superb quality production stills does go some way to invoking the sense of what those films were like. I live in hope that one day this wonderful series will find its way into digital media.

After writing this I wondered what were the chances of an episode or two finding its way to YouTube? A quick check and I was happy to find the entire series there. That’s me sorted for the next few days then . .


What to do next:

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Buy the book! Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.  Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology showcased below.

My Top Ten Books of All Time Part 2

I do love books and like everyone I have my favourites. Last week I wrote about reading a blog post asking the reader for their top 5 books of all time. I decided to go one better and work out my top ten. I gave you the first five of my top ten books of all time and this week it’s time for the other five, all in no particular order.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

This book is a cold war thriller from the famous spy writer John Le Carré. Leamas runs the Berlin station and his opposite number over in East Germany is bearing down hard on his agents. Back in London Control, the head of the Secret Service has an idea to deal with this man. Leamas becomes a little fed up with himself. He gets a new job in a library, he drinks too much. He gets involved with a young librarian who turns out to be a communist party member. He assaults a small shop owner and ends up in prison. When he emerges, he is approached by various persons all wanting background information for a foreign news service. Leamas becomes a defector and only then do we realise what his mission is all about. Le Carré isn’t actually one of my favourite writers but in this book his slow burning style is perfect as the plot evolves slowly and methodically. A great read.

2001 A Space Odyssey

I first saw the film version of 2001 in the summer of 1968. I was only 11 at the time and I remember my Mum being surprised I had spent hours at the cinema on a lovely hot day. I watched the film in the huge movie theatre in Northenden, now a Jehovah’s Witness assembly hall. There were only a few people in the picture house that day and it was wonderful having this huge place almost to myself and seeing this incredible film in 70mm on the big screen. I recall being somewhat confused by it all, especially the jump from Neanderthal times to the future. I was so confused that I had to buy the novel by Arthur C Clarke which explained things in a way the movie did not.

The book is a wonderfully well written, plausible space adventure. It is about a mysterious monolith which appears on earth in Neolithic times and helps the ape men of the day to develop. Later, in the future, the mysterious monolith is found buried on the moon and when it is exposed to sunlight for the first time, it blasts off a signal to Saturn. Anyway, the scientists of the day decide that the monolith is part of some extra-terrestrial intelligence and set up a manned space mission to investigate. As the mission progresses, the onboard computer, HAL, decides to have something of a nervous breakdown which creates an unexpected hazard for the crew. All the technology that Clarke wrote about had its origins in science fact, both the space missions and the computer technology which make up the main parts of the story.

Verdict: The book is a wonderful read, one of the classics of science fiction.

The History of Mr Polly

This is not a science fiction story despite being penned by H G Wells. Our hero, Mr Polly finds himself in a very dull job with a very dull wife and resolves to commit suicide. Anyway, events unfold and instead of committing suicide, Polly accidentally starts a fire which threatens the whole street and he then mounts a brave rescue of an old lady. Instead of dying, Mr Polly becomes a hero and when the insurance money comes in, he leaves his wife, nicely settled with the insurance money, takes a little for himself and departs for pastures new. He sends some money to a post office in another village and gradually meanders in that direction, sleeping in fields and hedges, getting himself a tan. He works occasionally when he wants and sleeps when the mood takes him at other times.

He comes across the Potwell Inn and asks for work and right away finds himself at home. He potters about happily at the Potwell Inn, cleaning, serving and doing various odd jobs. One day the landlady’s nephew appears. He is a violent bully having been in and out of prison for years. He doesn’t like Mr Polly getting in the way so he decides to scare him off. What should Polly do, stay and help or just leave?

I first read this book many years ago and I’ve always liked its simple philosophy. If you don’t like your situation, change it says the author.

The History of Mr Polly is a lovely gentle read by a classic author.

My well thumbed copy of David Copperfield

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

I couldn’t tell you what my number one favourite book of all time is, but a strong contender must be ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens.

It’s a book written by a wonderful wordsmith and is rich in powerful and subtle images.

A lot of Dickens’ characters display their personal characters and traits through their names. Uriah Heep and Mr Murdstone for instance. Even when we are yet to be introduced to these fictional people we can understand a lot about them from the sound of their names. This is how Dickens works, giving us numerous hints and pointers to who these people are and what they are like.

James Steerforth though is something of an exception. He is my favourite character from within Dickens’ pages and he is neither a Heep nor a Murdstone; neither a Pickwick nor a Bumble. Apart from David Copperfield himself, he is the most human of Dickens’ creations. He is kind but can be unpleasant, caring and yet selfish, thoughtful but also unfeeling. In short, as Mr Micawber might say, he is full of human contradictions.

The best part in the book probably, for me at any rate, is the storm when David returns to Yarmouth. Dickens builds the storm slowly and each word and phrase adds a new layer to the sense of danger and foreboding and when Copperfield is finally reunited with his old friend Steerforth at the height of the storm’s ferocity, death comes between them and Steerforth is sadly drowned. Dickens reveals this in a unique way for he does not tell the reader Steerforth is dead. He leaves the reader to realise this themselves and in the process, makes the reader almost at one with the narrative.

Throughout the book, Dickens mentions in passing Steerforth’s habit of sleeping with his head on his arm. It’s referred to many times in the narrative almost as matter of non-interest. Something unimportant that the reader doesn’t really need to know, but when David Copperfield spies someone aboard a stricken ship trapped in the fierce storm who evokes some faint remembrance for him, a tiny warning bell is set off.

Finally, when the body of a drowned man is brought ashore and lies mutely on the sand, his head upon his arm, we know just from that simple bit of information, without the author telling us anything more, that Steerforth is dead. The prompts and clues that Dickens has hinted at have paid off for the reader in the most satisfying of ways.

I’ve returned to this wonderful book time and time again, to enjoy that unique almost religious feeling, that communion with the thoughts of a man who died in 1870, over a hundred and forty years ago, yet whose frozen thoughts live on in the pages of his books.

As long as people read books, Charles Dickens and his characters will live on.

The Da Vinci Code

I thought I’d finish with this book, the Da Vinci code as it’s the most recent book in my selection. It was Dan Brown’s second book and it was a publishing sensation. It was the book everyone was reading and the book that you just had to read. It was also involved in some controversy as the writers of a nonfiction book the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, claimed that Brown had pinched their ideas. The dispute ended up in court with Brown winning his case.

The book opens with the murder of a man named Saunière in the Louvre museum in Paris. Robert Langdon is called in to help with a cryptic clue left behind by the deceased. That and other clues lead Langdon on a chase to find the murderer, a monk named Silas. Silas works for someone known only as the Teacher and together they are on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Sir Leigh Teabing explains that the grail is not a cup but a tomb containing the bones of Mary Magdalene.  Later Langdon discovers that Teabing is in fact the Teacher and he wishes to destroy the Catholic church by proving Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

For me this book was just an amazing read and one that I just couldn’t put down. I had also read the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail many years ago and Brown tips a nod to that book in many ways. One was naming his murder victim as Jacques Saunière who was a real individual in the Holy Blood, a man who took over a small church in the French region of Rennes-le-Château and one day became very rich. He had found something hidden in the church, perhaps it was gold, perhaps it was something to do with the mysterious Priory of Sion and their claim that Jesus and Mary produced a child who later became related to the Meringovian Dynasty of France.

Is it all true? I don’t know but Dan Brown has picked up these historical threads and woven it expertly into an unputdownable novel.


What to do next: Here are a few options.

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Listen to my podcast Click here.

Buy the book! Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology.

Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.

 

My Top 10 Books of All Time

The other day I was looking through one of those writer’s pages I subscribe to. One particular page is for writers to talk about stuff, you know, publishing, agents, even actual writing but writers being a self-indulgent selfish lot, they usually just post links to their new books. Being similarly selfish I tend to add links to my new blog posts but on this occasion, I noticed something different, someone had asked a question. What are your 5 favourite books of all time?

Straight away I jotted down four, I struggled for a fifth and then remembered I had already started a post about my top 100 books of all time. It was waiting there quietly in my drafts folder and I’m sorry to say I was well short of a 100. I had got as far as 21 books and so for the purposes of this blog post, I’ve whittled it down to 10. I’ll give you five this week and five the next so here we go, in no particular order . .

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

What can I say about this modern classic that hasn’t be said before? I’ve tried reading other books by Fitzgerald, but they haven’t really hooked me. This one though is nothing short of wonderful. It’s a sad haunting book and the text is so lovely, so lyrical it could almost be a poem, especially the very last page.

Gatsby is an enigma. A millionaire rumoured to have made his money during prohibition who holds lavish parties in the New York neighbourhood of West Egg. The bright and beautiful of New York are drawn to these parties like moths to a flame and one day, or so Gatsby hopes, Daisy, his lost love, will come too.

Things don’t work out as Gatsby has planned because Daisy has a husband and children. A hot summer in New York adds to the tension and Fitzgerald presents the jazz age to the reader with warmth and nostalgia. Read this book and revel in the author’s lyrical elegance.

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse

I’ve always loved this book. It’s a very northern book, written by Keith Waterhouse and it’s about a young lad who fantasises a lot. So much so that he has a whole fantasy world up there in his head. It’s called Ambrosia. In Ambrosia the army traditionally salute with the left hand, a tribute to survivors of the revolution who all lost their right arms in battle. Billy fantasises about writing a great novel, the one like mine that he is always going to start tomorrow. He has two girlfriends on the go, both of whom he has proposed to and has given them both the same ring. He wants to be a TV scriptwriter and has gone as far as sending his scripts to a TV comedian. He dreams of going to London to work. The book was a successful film and someone once told me they saw the stage version which used a revolving stage for Billy to enter into Ambrosia.

Lost Horizon

James Hilton is one of my personal writing heroes and yet his name may be unfamiliar to many of you reading this blog. He was a journalist and an author and made the trip from his home in Leigh, Lancashire, (now Greater Manchester) in the UK to the Hollywood Hills in the United States to become a screen writer. He is probably more well known for his book ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ which was made into a film with Robert Donat (actually another northerner from Didsbury in Manchester) but my favourite of his books and quite possibly my all-time favourite book is ‘Lost Horizon’.

Lost Horizon is a book I found in a second-hand shop many years ago. A battered 1940s paperback, I paid twenty-five pence for and yet that small investment has paid me back many times over for sheer reading pleasure as Lost Horizon is a book I re read every year or so and I often pull it down from my bookshelf when a current read fails to entertain me.

Lost Horizon is a completely original idea and is about British consul Robert Conway in the dark days before World War II. Conway is helping his fellow British citizens escape from civil war in China and he and his small party escape in the last plane, only to be kidnapped and taken to a distant Tibetan monastery. Conway meets the High Lama and after a time it is revealed that the Tibetans want to preserve the best of world culture and art and make it safe from the coming war.

Hilton is one of those few people who have invented a word or coined a phrase that has become part of the English language. In this case it was the name of the Tibetan monastery, Shangri-la which has since become a byword for a peaceful paradise, a distant haven. Camp David, the US President’s retreat was originally called Shangri-la until renamed by Eisenhower for his son, David.

Lost Horizon was made into a movie by Hollywood director Frank Capra and starred Ronald Colman as the urbane British diplomat of the novel. It’s a movie that was restored some time ago and is a great DVD if you happen to see it.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

You might possibly be wondering about this book and how it got into my top ten. OK, it isn’t one of the classics and it isn’t exactly by a world-renowned author but what the heck, I’ve always liked it and it’s one of my favourite books. Books come in all shapes and sizes and while some books focus on strong and emotive subjects like love, life, tragedy and the universe, some books lift you up in other ways. I’ve always had a dream of living in France in a big old country house and in this book the author and his wife move to a village in Provence. In a quietly amusing way the author documents his new life which involves things like dining out, sorting out a new boiler and engaging French workmen to remodel his house. They once made it into a rather badly received TV series but the book is a gentle, relaxing summer read.

A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow

Whenever I plug my own short novel, Floating in Space, I usually try to link it to classic kitchen sink novels of the past like this one. The sixties were a great time for working class novels and many of them were made into films.

The story is a very simple one; Vic Brown is a draughtsman in a Yorkshire factory and he gets involved with a secretary called Ingrid. When Vic learns Ingrid is pregnant, he does the ‘proper’ thing for the 1960’s and offers to marry her. Sounds simple but this is a complex and fascinating book and looks at the subtleties of relationships and how the characters make their way through a series of difficult choices. For a northerner like me, it’s also nice to read about things and places I can directly relate to. The first part of the book where Vic, who narrates the book, talks about a family wedding brings back so many memories of similar weddings when I was a child. Barstow was a Yorkshire writer and A Kind of Loving was the first part of a trilogy. My well thumbed copy has all three parts in one volume.


What to do next:

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Buy the book! Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.

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.


What to do next:

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Buy the book! Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.