Reading about Watergate

I remember being in our usual pub quiz a few months back and one of the questions concerned Watergate. We were sitting with some friends, actually some much younger friends and one of them asked me, ‘Watergate? What’s that?’

I have to admit to being surprised as the Watergate scandal is something that every one knows about, don’t they? It’s the scandal that gave the world the ‘gate’ suffix which has been added to every scandal that has happened since. Hence Irangate, Camillagate and so on. What was Watergate about then you might ask? OK, it’s a subject that’s well worth reading about if you like American politics, which I do. I have a number of books about Watergate and President Nixon and I’ll go through them in a moment. Firstly though back to that question, what exactly was Watergate all about?

On June 17th 1972, five burglars were caught in the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington. Some of the five had links to the CIA or the FBI but all of them were linked to an organisation known as CREEP, the Committee to REElect the President. The President was Richard Milhous Nixon who had been defeated by John F Kennedy in 1960 but had made an extraordinary comeback to the political limelight. Just think back now to the presidential elections of recent years. Remember those defeated candidates, Dukakis, Mondale, Dole? Familiar names who had their fifteen minutes of fame and then vanished into the history books. Did any of them ever make a comeback? Well, the only one that I can think of is Richard Nixon.

Defeated in the presidential election of 1960 he then ran for governor of California only to lose that election too. He appeared before the media to concede defeat but in an emotional attack on the assembled press he finally called it a day for his political ambitions. ‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore’ he said angrily. Then he was gone, off to start a new life in a legal practice. Eight years later he would once again be the Republican candidate for the presidency in the turbulent year of 1968 and this time he would win.

Nixon knew about the hard-line politics of the 1960s and 70s. He knew that others used bugging and other illegal means to get political intelligence and he wasn’t above using those tactics himself. During the Vietnam war Government employee Daniel Ellsberg leaked top-secret information that later became known as the Pentagon Papers to the press. Nixon was furious that the FBI and other security services did not seem to be up to the task of stopping those leaks. He created a security intelligence group within the White House to address the problem and they became known as the ‘plumbers’ led by former FBI agent G Gordon Liddy.

After their initial operations to investigate the leaks of secret information, they escalated their activity to include burglary and covert bugging operations. Wiretaps and listening devices were secreted in the Watergate building, presumably to harvest intelligence on the rival Democratic campaign. However, the Plumbers were required to break in again to service existing devices and set up new ones. On the 17th June 1972 they were caught by the Police.

Whether Nixon ordered that actual break in is unclear, but he did block attempts by the FBI to investigate the matter and he also warned the CIA director that a vigorous investigation of the break‐in might ‘blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing, which we think would be very unfortunate—both for C.I.A. and for the country, at this time, and for American foreign policy.’ What, I wonder, was he referring to, what knowledge did Nixon have about the Bay of Pigs that would threaten Richard Helms, the head of the CIA?

John Dean, counsel to the President was concerned about the increasing demands of the Watergate burglars for more and more money. He mentioned to Nixon that these could ultimately cost -and here Dean plucked a figure from thin air- a million dollars. Dean was shocked by the response.

President Nixon: We could get that.

Dean: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: If you—on the money, if you need the money, I mean, you could get the money fairly easily.

President Nixon: What I meant is, you could get a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten.

By this time, news of Watergate and wider implications of misuse of election funds had permeated into the media. The Washington Post had led the way with its reporting by two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They had produced numerous scoops because of information given to them by a high level source in the FBI, a source known only as ‘Deep Throat’ but who was later revealed to have been Mark Felt, a deputy director at the FBI.

In early 1973 the senate began its investigation with televised hearings and one of the first revelations was that Nixon routinely taped conversations in the White House. Archibald Cox who had been appointed Special Prosecutor subpoened the tapes. Nixon refused to hand them over and ordered the Attorney General to fire Cox. He resigned in protest as did the Deputy Attorney General. The Solicitor General was called upon to fire Cox which he did. The incident became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

The revelations on Nixon’s tapes damaged his reputation severely. In an effort to stave off the release of the actual tapes, he first released transcripts. The public reaction, initially favourable, soon faded after people came face to face with the numerous ‘expletive deleted’ comments which were substituted for their President’s foul language. The Providence Journal wrote,  ‘while the transcripts may not have revealed an indictable offense, they showed Nixon contemptuous of the United States, its institutions, and its people.’

Some time later Nixon was forced to release the first batch of tapes. On 27th July 1974 the House Judiciary committee voted to recommend the first article of impeachment against the president. On August 8th, Nixon broadcast his resignation speech. The next day he resigned from office.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote the excellent book All the President’s Men, later made into a major motion picture. It is well worth reading, an excellent book of investigative journalism.

John Dean wrote his version of events in the book Blind Ambition. Dean was given a jail sentence of one to four years for obstruction of justice. He pleaded guilty and after cooperating with prosecutors his sentence was reduced to time served, a mere four months.

 

G. Gordon Liddy was a former FBI agent and the chief operative of the White House ‘Plumbers’ unit. Liddy was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for his involvement in Watergate but this was later reduced by President Carter and Liddy was paroled after four and a half years. Liddy later became a popular radio broadcaster in the USA.

One last book about Nixon himself rather than Watergate.

President Richard Nixon retired in disgrace to his home in San Clemente, California. He never admitted any wrongdoing during his time as President, in fact he stated ‘if the President does it, that means it’s not illegal!’ Nixon in Winter is by Nixon’s research assistant Monica Crowley who worked for the former President until his death in 1994.


Steve Higgins has written a novel ‘Floating in Space’ set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy a copy or for more information.

The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film

It’s always  a bitter-sweet experience when someone decides to make your favourite book into a film. It doesn’t always work out because maybe it was a big, thick, long book and they have cut out your favourite bit, or perhaps the cast wasn’t the one you imagined. It’s usually just the same in reverse. You see a great film and in the credits it says based on the book by so and so, then you rush out and get the book, and it turns out to be a little disappointing. Sometimes it’s even better than the film!
Anyway, here are a few of my film/book experiences.

The Horse Whisperer.
The book.
I picked up this book in a charity sale last year. This is what I said about it in Book Bag 4:

I’m not even sure why I picked up this book; it’s not anything I would normally be interested in. I bought it for a few pence at a church table top sale and I think I bought it one, because I wanted to give something, a few pence to the church fund and two, I faintly remembered the book had been made into a film with Robert Redford, although I had never seen it. The reviews on the back of the book said things like ‘a page turner’ and ‘the hottest book of the year’. Anyway, I bought it ages ago, and on a whim threw it into my book bag. I really hate having a book and not reading it.

From the beginning the book was a page turner giving a hint that something exciting and interesting was coming. I liked the idea of a horse whisperer; someone who could train a horse without hurt or pain, merely by whispering. I envisaged a native American Indian perhaps or some mystic horse guru. The fact is that the story of the horse is nothing but the background to a love story, involving a New York magazine editor and a Montana cowboy. Written in a sort of matter of fact magazine style, it turns out that writer Nicholas Evans is a screen writer and much of the novel reads rather like that, a screenplay, and each character comes with extensive background notes like the writer’s character notes on a screenplay. At the half way point this novel lost steam for me. I read it to the end but the ending was so contrived I was just glad to have finished it. Somewhat disappointing. Wonder what the movie is like?

The film.
The other day I noticed this film was showing on the Sony Movie Channel and set my hard drive up to record it. The result was an OK sort of film although a little on the slow-moving side. I’m tempted to say it was more of a woman’s film but Liz watched it alongside me and she wasn’t impressed either. I felt the casting was not right. Robert Redford just looked too smart and tidy to be a cattle rancher and cowboy. He actually looked as though he came from the Roy Rogers school of cowboying although he also directed the film. If I was casting I would perhaps have gone for someone like Kevin Costner perhaps, and the female lead, played by Kirstin Scott Thomas, needed a stronger, more assertive woman, perhaps a native New Yorker and not an English actress.

The ending was different in the film which was a good thing as the book’s ending was so poor as I mentioned above. Rotten Tomatoes report 74% positive reviews but sadly, I think I was part of the 26% negative ones.

2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film.
I first saw this movie back in 1968, which was quite a fascinating year for me. I wrote about the experience of seeing the film in a earlier post about film music and here is, in part, what I had to say:

I first saw the film 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, until I bought the novel by Arthur C Clarke which explained things in a way the movie did not.

2001 is a particularly visual film. Kubrick cut out a lot of dialogue because he wanted the film to stand as “basically a visual, nonverbal experience” that “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

2001

Picture courtesy Flickr.com

According to Wikipedia, despite the few people in the cinema with me that day in 1968, the movie went on to become the highest grossing North American movie of that year.

2001 set the pace for the sci-fi movie with its depiction of spacecraft drifting slowly and silently through space. The first Star Trek movie was heavily influenced by 2001 which made it look a little dated when the movie Star Wars was released and did the opposite thing, showing spacecraft whooshing across the screen at lightning speeds.

The book.
As I mentioned above, I was rather confused by the film and there were quite a few moments when I was wondering what was actually happening, for instance the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, the moment when the monolith sends its deep space signal and various other things too. I went out and bought the book by Arthur C Clarke and went straight into a wonderfully well written,  plausible space adventure. 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. If you have never seen the film or read the book (shame on you) 2001 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. (In the movie the destination is Jupiter, as director Stanley Kubrick thought that the special effects department would struggle to create Saturn’s rings.)

Anyway, the scientists of the day decide that the monolith is part of some extraterrestrial 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.

Verdict: The book is a wonderful read, one of the classics of science fiction and the movie has deservedly become one of the most influential films of all time.

The Great Gatsby.
The book.
I can’t really remember when I read this book for the first time. It was many years ago and ever since, this short novel has been in my personal all time top 10 reads. The story concerns Jay Gatsby who lost out in the love stakes because he was born on the wrong side of the tracks and not an appropriate suitor for the lovely debutante Daisy. Off he goes to the first world war, comes home to the USA a much more worldly-wise fellow than when he left and one way or another he becomes a millionaire.

Gatsby has a huge mansion in the Long Island suburb of West Egg. Renting a cottage in the grounds is the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick is fascinated by the lavish parties held at the mansion and soon meets Gatsby himself. It turns out that Gatsby’s parties are a device, a lure to attract the beautiful Daisy who Gatsby still loves and hopes will one day come to him like a moth to a flame.

It’s a simple story of love and desire but it becomes something much more in the hands of the author F. Scott Fitzgerald. I often think of it not as a short book, but as a long lyrical poem that has an intrinsic beauty fashioned by the most wonderful turns of phrase. In particular I love the last page and this final paragraph:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . and one fine morning . . So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Film.
I noticed on the Internet that there was a 1949 version with Alan Ladd which I have never seen but the latest film version was released in 2013 and starred Leonardo DiCaprio with Baz Luhrmann as director. That particular film had been lying dormant on my hard drive recorder for quite a while, just waiting for a quiet few hours for me to watch. As I was part way through this post this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to start it up. So, I settled down with a glass of French red and clicked the play button.

The first part of the movie didn’t really do it for me and the depiction of Gatsby’s famous parties seemed more like a music video than anything, especially with the strange substitution of modern techno music for the jazz music of the time.

Later on, the picture comes into its own. Leonardo DiCaprio is good, indeed very good as Gatsby. Overall, tone down the special effects and the music video feel and this could have been an outstanding film adaptation.

The film version I adore though is the one from 1974 starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as the fragile Daisy. I may have written above about Redford being miscast for the Horse Whisperer but he is perfect as Gatsby, so much so that now, whenever I re-read the book I always see Redford’s face in my mind.

The screenplay was by Francis Ford Coppola who directed The Godfather and there are some memorable moments in the film. One of the ones I like particularly is the one where one of Gatsby’s associates is introduced to Nick, thinking him one of Gatsby’s dubious business connections. Redford as Gatsby, firmly but politely indicates a mistake has been made and we get a hint at something questionable behind Gatsby’s facade. Is he a gangster or a bootlegger perhaps? Another is the moment when Gatsby and Nick meet at one of Gatsby’s parties. Nick doesn’t realise he is talking to Gatsby himself when he says he doesn’t even know who is Gatsby is!

Verdict: Brilliant book and a lovely film.

Lost Horizon.
The Book.
I picked up this wonderful gem of a book at charity shop years ago for the bargain price of twenty-five pence and if I could convert the pleasure this book has given me into pounds, shillings, and pence, it would be a figure that far eclipses that initial outlay. James Hilton has become one of my favourite writers and one of my personal writing heroes. (Check out my blog about him here!) This highly original novel reflects the fear and sadness that many must have felt in the days before World War 2. There must have been a feeling then that with new technology, the approaching conflict could be the end of civilisation.

In this wonderful book, a group of Lamas in a monastery, hidden from the world by a chance of geographical fate, decide to look ahead and make sure that the riches of the world, not gold or silver, but literature, art and music, should be preserved should a holocaust engulf the world. To ensure that their creed of respect and compassion endures they kidnap a British diplomat, Robert Conway, to carry on their work and set about bringing him to Shangri-La. Shangri La is a small community in Tibet insulated from the world by mountains on all sides and the people here enjoy unheard of longevity.

Despite his capture Conway is taken into the confidence of the High Lama and given his task of continuing the community and its traditions, but his fellow captives have differing ideas, especially Mallinson, his young vice-consul who is desperate to escape.
The story is told in an interesting way, one that enhances the mystery by a chance meeting between civil servants, one of whom is anxious to talk about Conway and his mysterious disappearance. The story is told about how Conway is found in Tibet with a loss of memory and how his memory suddenly returns and Conway tells of his abduction and escape from Shangri-la. I have to admit that this novel is one of my top ten books of all time, and one I return to time after time.

The Film.
Directed by Frank Capra and starring Ronald Colman, Lost Horizon was shot in 1936 and went seriously over budget. Issues that contributed were scenes shot in a cold storage area, used to replicate the cold of Tibet. The cold affected the film equipment and caused delays. There was also a great deal of location shooting and scenes where Capra used multiple cameras shooting lots of film. Wikipedia reports that the first cut of the film ran for six hours! Studio Boss Harry Cohn was apparently unhappy with the film and edited it himself, producing a version that ran for 132 minutes. Further cuts were made and as a result, Capra filed suit against Columbia pictures. The issue was later resolved in Capra’s favour. The film did not turn a profit until it was re-released in 1942. A frame by frame digital restoration of the film was made in 2013 and various missing elements of the film were returned, including an alternative ending. Sadly, some of the visual elements were so poor that they have been substituted with stills as only the soundtrack was useable.

Ronald Colman is superb as the hero of the film, the slightly world-weary diplomat and politician who finally comes to believe in the ideas of Father Perrault, the High Lama, who wants to keep safe the treasures of the world until the famine of war has passed by.
This movie adaptation is nothing short of wonderful, in fact it is one of my favourite films of all time.  If you see this movie on DVD make sure you take it home and settle down for a wonderful film experience.


A book written by the author which sadly has yet to be made into a film is Floating in Space, set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

Holiday Book Bag 2018

There’s nothing I love more than a good book and as usual, here’s a quick round-up of the books I’ve taken on holiday to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. As I’m flying I’ve not brought any hardbacks, just four paperbacks. All my books are usually sourced from the Internet or second-hand book shops but the ones below, with one exception, were gifts.


Lennon, the Definitive  Biography by Ray Coleman.

This is a book first published in 1984 that has been revised and updated. It’s been subtitled the ‘definitive biography’ although that’s not a phrase I’d use to describe it. It’s a decent enough book don’t get me wrong but as for ‘definitive’, that’s another matter. The writer has known Lennon as a journalist since the heady days of the early sixties when the Beatles had their big breakthrough in the pop charts so has had the opportunity to talk with Lennon first hand regarding many events in his life.

The first part of the book appears to be the new revised section and details what has happened to Lennon’s work and image in the years since the book first appeared although really, this section would be better placed at the end of the book.

The writer has no time for music journalists who waxed less than lyrical about later Beatles’ records released in the last thirty odd years, things like The Beatles at the BBC released in 1994 or the Beatles Anthology. Reviewers who gave those records a poor reception get short shift indeed and the reader is quickly reminded of their chart topping sales. In their defence though pop music journalists tend to look forward to new music, not back to the old. More scorn is saved for Albert Goldman who wrote the book The Lives of John Lennon. Personally I thought that was rather a good book; it’s certainly more compelling than this one although it tends to focus on Lennon in a negative way whereas this book is very generous towards Lennon. It’s the book of a Lennon fan and focuses on the events in Lennon’s life in a very positive way.

Another annoying aspect of the book is that when Lennon and the Beatles achieve fame, the book drifts off into a lot of general observations about Lennon’s life and music and the narrative tends to lose the thread of his life story. A similar thing happens when discussing John’s son Julian when the narrative jumps forward to discuss things that have not yet happened in the story’s timeline. Sorry but I like my biographies to stick to a certain amount of chronological sequence.

Both John and Yoko emerge from this book as whiter than white although the truth of John Lennon is, I suspect, somewhere between Albert Goldman’s critical book and this work of praise.

After writing this review, here in Lanzarote, we went for a meal at the Casa Carlos restaurant. As I scanned through the menu I could hear something familiar playing in the background. I couldn’t recognise what it was at first. It was an instrumental version of something, then I realised what it was: Love me Do. I’m sure the sharp-tongued John Lennon would have some choice words for the restaurateur after hearing an easy listening version of his work as background music.

Being Elvis by Ray Connelly

Subtitled A Lonely Life, this is a biography of Elvis Presley by another music journalist, Ray Coleman. Elvis became the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll who inspired Lennon, McCartney and a whole host of others to become musicians and pop stars. I’ve read quite a few biographies of Elvis, all much thicker than this one but this is a great holiday read being both interesting and informative. The foreword to the book was particularly insightful regarding the impact Elvis had on other musicians. The author recounts two phone calls, one to Bob Dylan and one to John Lennon where he happened to mention that he had been to Elvis’ 1968 comeback concert. Both those highly regarded stars bombarded Coleman with a series of questions about Elvis showing that despite their own success and achievements, they were still at heart Elvis fans.

The book goes on to recount Elvis’ beginnings as a poor white boy in segregated Mississippi who became an incredible phenomenon; revolutionising pop music, earning hundreds of millions of dollars and yet at the end of his life was dependent on loans from his bank to keep going as he had made few investments with his money.

Time and time again, Elvis was disappointed at the poor standard of the songs that he was presented with, especially in his films, however the book reveals that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted music in which the writers were willing to use Elvis’ own music publishing company and who were willing to give up a percentage of their royalties for Elvis and the Colonel. Elvis just appears to have put up with this intrusion into his artistic life as he didn’t like confrontations with his manager. The result was that he went from the cutting edge of pop music to somewhere at the back. It was only after his comeback concert in 1968 that he decided ‘enough is enough’ and decided to sing whatever took his fancy, no matter who wrote or published it.

In his later years Elvis was fat, bloated and addicted to amphetamines, sleeping tablets and diet pills. He worried how his fans would react to a tell-all book written by former members of his entourage. A final confrontation appeared with Tom Parker. Elvis threatened to sack him but Parker demanded back payments of 2 million dollars. Free of Parker, Presley could have got himself a new manager who perhaps could have sorted out his personal issues and engaged a new record producer, more in tune with the times. Sadly, he decided to stay with the ‘Colonel’.

Elvis died in 1977 of a heart attack. At the autopsy some months later 14 different drugs were found in his body, some in toxic quantities. It seems clear that drug abuse was a significant factor in his death.

A pocket-sized introduction to Elvis but nevertheless, an interesting and fascinating read.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

This is the only novel I’ve brought with me on this holiday. I particularly chose it because I’ve read two of Elloy’s non fiction books on previous book bags and I wanted to read some of his fiction. This is a detective story set in 1940s Los Angeles and is a fast-moving story of cops and murderers and how to get on in the LAPD of the time. It’s written in the first person and is laced with LA jive talk and slang that really evokes the time and place. A good read but a little gruesome for me and I didn’t like the ending when you think the case is solved and then something else happens, and after that, something else.

A Daughter’s Tale by Mary Soames.

This is a memoir by Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary. I had it down on my reading list as I supposed it was a biography of her father, however, it’s not a biography at all but a personal memoir of her life as Churchill’s daughter. It starts off with her early years living with her family in Winston’s famous house Chartwell. It’s a record of life in a different time and the writer talks about her retinue of animals, her nanny, the servants and all the things you might imagine surround her in an upper class home in the 1930’s. One interesting observation is that in 1935, Churchill, strapped for cash after the Wall Street collapse of 1929, considers selling Chartwell and his daughter quotes a letter he has written to an estate agent saying that his family has mostly flown the nest and that his life is probably in ‘it’s closing decade’. How wrong he was! The portrait the author gives us is an oblique one, Churchill seen from a different angle.

The early part of the book is not so interesting and the author constantly quotes from school girl diaries giving us a sort of Enid Blyton world of lunch and dinner menus, dog walks and pony rides and debutantes balls and a time when ‘coming out’ meant something far removed from what it does today.

The later part when Hitler plunges the world into war was when the book finally began to interest me. On the back cover the Sunday Express is quoted saying the book is a ‘delightful memoir’. I don’t think I can sum the book up any better.

As usual, here’s the video version below. I shot a couple of versions, one was too dark and another had problems with wind noise. I should have gone for take 3 really but the lure of the swimming pool was too much . .


One final book, Floating in Space set in Manchester, 1977. You can buy the book by clicking the icon below to go straight to Amazon!

Floating in Space

3 Books you should read about the JFK Assassination

54 years ago today, JFK assassinated . .

Letters from an unknown author!

quotescover-JPG-43The 22nd November is the anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy; one of the most shocking events of the twentieth century. It’s something I’ve been interested in ever since I was a boy and I’ve collected many books about the subject.

I’m still fascinated by the mystery: Did Lee Oswald shoot the President? Did he act alone? Why did Jack Ruby shoot Oswald? Was the CIA involved? Very few of those questions will ever be answered but it’s clear that the findings of the Warren Commission, the investigative body set up by President Lyndon Johnson are not definitive. Indeed the senate investigation in the 1970’s concluded that the President was assassinated ‘probably’ by a conspiracy. Even so, no attempts to investigate further or take action have been made. If you want to find out more, what should you read? Well, there are numerous books on the subject you…

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Charlie Chaplin: Autobiography versus Biography

Earlier this year again, Liz and I packed up the motor and headed off to France. One of the first things I did in preparation was to sort out my holiday book bag. I usually have a stack of unread books to take along but I always like to take along a banker, yes that’s a book I can bank on, rely on to be a good read, usually one I have read before.

I was sorely tempted to bring my favourite read of all time along, Dickens’ David Copperfield or another favourite holiday read ‘A year in Provence‘, that much maligned gentle read about an Englishman living in France, however, one book I chose was so interesting I re-read a great deal of it at home before I left so I didn’t bother to bring it. The book in question was My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin, Charlie, to you and me.

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 while 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, it 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.

Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd.

Peter wrote an excellent book about one of my writing heroes, Charles Dickens and I felt that this book was going to be in the same sort of mould. Long, intense and full of detail. Actually it’s a pretty slim volume and not the intense scrutiny of Chaplin that I was expecting. However, on the credit side, it’s a thoughtful and detailed look at Chaplin, his movies and his personal life and a cracking read it is too.

One hundred years ago Chaplin was the most famous man in the world. I’m not sure who would qualify for that title today as despite global communications and the Internet age, the world is separated by many different languages and cultures. A hundred years ago there was no language barrier for Chaplin, and his silent films with their universal language of comedy, went all the way round the globe and he was as famous in countries such as Russia or Africa as he was in Europe or the USA.

Hollywood in the early part of the twentieth century must have been a fascinating place and this book is a great starting point to find out about Chaplin and his work and the beginning of the film industry. Definitely a book well worth reading.


Floating in Space can be ordered from amazon as a Kindle download or as a traditional paperback by clicking here. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

Holiday Book Bag (4)

As you will probably have gathered if you have read more than a few of my posts, I really do love books. There is nothing better than curling up with a good book anywhere, on a bus or train, in a chair, on a sun lounger, anywhere in fact. Books are a tonic for the brain. An education and a cerebral treat, both at the same time. Books enable the reader to travel not only geographically but in time too. Take one of my interests for instance. Classic cinema. Books like David Niven’s Bring on the Empty Horses has taken me on a journey to Hollywood and back to the golden years of classic cinema, the 1930s and 40s. Niven has told me about the Brown Derby, Romanov’s, Schwab’s drug store and Summit drive and a hundred other places I have never visited. But lets not stop there, let’s go even further. Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations was written by a great emperor of Rome who died in the year 180AD, so his book is at least 1837 years old. Just imagine, the thoughts of a man who lived nearly 2000 years ago, travelling intact to me, the reader, in the year 2017.

Such is the power of books.

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans.

I’m not even sure why I picked this book; it’s not anything I would normally be interested in. I bought it for a few pence at a church table top sale and I think I bought it one, because I wanted to give something, a few pence to the church fund and two, I faintly remembered the book had been made into a film with Robert Redford, although I have never seen it. The reviews on the back of the book said things like ‘a page turner’ and ‘the hottest book of the year’. Anyway, I bought it, ages ago, and on a whim threw it into my book bag. I really hate having a book and not reading it.

From the beginning the book was a page turner giving a hint that something exciting and interesting was coming. I liked the idea of a horse whisperer, someone who could train a horse without hurt or pain, merely by whispering. I envisaged a native American Indian perhaps or some mystic horse guru. The fact is the story of the horse is nothing but the background to a love story, involving a New York magazine editor and a Montana cowboy. Written in a sort of matter of fact magazine style, it turns out that writer Nicholas Evans is a screen writer and much of the novel reads rather like that, a screenplay and each character comes with extensive background notes like the writer’s character notes on a screenplay. At the half way point this novel lost steam for me. I read it to the end but the ending was so contrived I just was glad to have finished it. Somewhat disappointing. Wonder what the movie is like?

More or Less by Kenneth More.

I do love a good autobiography, especially one from a cinema background. Kenneth More was a big movie star on the British screen in the post war years, particularly the 1950’s. He came from a privileged background but his father, who came into a lot of money, squandered two successive inheritances and the book only really gets going, for me at any rate, when a young Kenneth More wanders the streets of London with no money, no job and no prospects and sees that an old friend of his late father runs the Windmill theatre in London. The Windmill, as you may know, was a theatre that specialised in a review composed of naked ladies. There was a catch however, the ladies were obliged to stand completely still to comply with the law of the land at the time and any movement would infringe the theatre’s licence. More started as a stage hand rising to stage manager and learning all about the theatre business from the ground up. He also began helping the comedians who came on stage in between the naked women and found himself doing walk on parts and acting as a straight man to feed gags to the comics. When he started the job the manager told him not to get the acting bug and try to become an actor but as we all know, that is exactly what Kenneth More did. Not the most brilliant movie book I have ever read but it gives a good idea of life in the theatre in the 1950s but the author tells us little about film-making or cinema. It’s a very self focussed book, and More tells an interesting story.

Lion by Seroo Brierley

I read this book sometime after seeing the movie and surprisingly, the movie was much better. The movie is an exceptional piece of film-making while the book is good, in fact incredible even, given what the author’s story is, but it is surprisingly unemotional, especially when the strength of the film is its intense emotion. In case you don’t know, Seru is a small Indian boy, aged about five who travels with his brother to a local railway station in India. While the brother is away working, the young boy waiting on a platform gets bored, strays onto a waiting train, falls asleep and ends up in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata. Lost and lonely, the boy ends up in a home for lost and orphaned children, is adopted by an Australian couple and begins a new life in Hobart. Later, using his childhood memories and google earth, he tracks down his long-lost home and family.

Well worth a read but if you see the movie on DVD, make sure you get a copy!

The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy.

I ordered this book after reading My Dark Places by the same author and enjoying it so much. My Dark Places is about the murder of Ellroy’s mother when he was only ten years old. He works with a private detective to try to solve the murder and along the way examines himself and gives us some flashes of his personal life too. The Hilliker Curse goes a step further, it’s an autobiography but not like anything you will have read before. The author explores deep inside himself and tells us about his mother (her maiden name was Hilliker) and his love of women. In fact it’s more about the women in his life than his life. It’s written in a fast-moving LA jive speak that is difficult to get the hang of but gets easier as you read on. Ellroy could easily have turned out to be a petty criminal of some sort except for his love of words and his desire to write. The book left me gasping for more and sorry that I didn’t bring The Black Dahlia, which I ordered at the same time, on holiday with me.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne.

As I am on holiday in France it seems only fitting I should take a French book with me, and a classic at that. This is apparently a ‘new’ translation by William Butcher and my first impression is that it doesn’t read like a nineteenth century book at all; it has a very modern feel to the language, but whether that is due to the translator rather than the author, I cannot say. The author does dwell a little too much on the statistics of the incredible submarine the Nautilus and its measurements, its displacements, atmospheric pressure and other technical bits and pieces. However, it is still a wonderful classic adventure story.

The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius by Mark Forstater.

Here’s the problem with ordering second-hand books online. My first attempt at buying the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius resulted in the Chinese version. Helpful if you are learning Chinese perhaps but not so good for me. I returned the book and ordered this one. Not as it turned out, Marcus’ original Meditations but a new interpretation by Mark Forstater. Actually, not a bad book. The author introduces Marcus and his background then goes on to introduce the Greek philosophers and some Zen Buddhist ones. Actually a great introduction to Marcus Aurelius’ actual ideas. It is still hard to get over, the thoughts of a man who died in the year 180AD, coming to me in 2017 and not only that but having a true relevance to me, a British guy living nearly 2000 years after Marcus wrote these ideas down. Wonderful.

Ulysses by James Joyce.

Now, I have always wanted to read this book. Every list of classic books or ‘read before you die’ lists has this book on its listings. So, I ordered it online and added it to my book bag. Let me introduce the book by telling you a story. Bear with me, please.

Many years ago at my comprehensive school, English was my top subject. Yes, in English, I was the man. One year, I think it was second or third form, we had a new English teacher, a lady and for the life of me I cannot remember her name. I do so wish I could. We had her as our teacher for one term and then she left. Maybe she was a student teacher, I don’t know, I can’t remember. Anyway, this one time we had read The Pearl by John Steinbeck and had to review it and I was feeling very giddy and flippant for some reason and, disappointed with the book, I wrote a review subtitled ‘How to Commit Suicide by Boredom.’ Feeling very pleased with myself I submitted my review.

Next English lesson I happened to be the book monitor and it was my job to hand out our exercise books. I handed them out but soon realised my book was missing. ‘Please Miss,’ I said. ‘My book isn’t here.’ ‘Sit Down’ said the teacher. ‘But Miss,’ I beseeched her, ‘My book isn’t here.’ Just then I looked down and saw she had my book in her hands. ‘Sit down Stephen’ she said firmly. Then she changed her mind. ‘No’ she said, ‘Stay here. Just stay there, where you are.’

I was stood at the head of the class, just by the teacher’s desk. Then she opened my book and began to read out my review to the whole class. She admonished everyone to keep quiet, then began.

‘How to commit suicide by reading,’ she said. The class howled with laughter and I stood just by her, red with embarrassment. When she had finished she laid into me with a vengeance. Then, just prior to releasing me from total humiliation, she said this. ‘What is so sad Stephen, is that you have so much talent. If you wanted to, you could be a really great writer. Now take your book and sit down.’

The room went quiet and I was devastated. yes, I had just suffered the slagging off of a lifetime but then, just when I was really finished, just at the apogee of my torment she had given me the most wonderful compliment. I had talent, she had said. That was my lowest moment in that English class, and yet, at the same time, my best. The class was stunned into silence as I walked the walk of shame back to my desk.

OK, bear with me. We are getting to Ulysses, I assure you. Later, I wrote another review of The Pearl. A much more studied and thoughtful review. This time the theme was however wonderful a classic book might be, or supposed to be, there will always be some who just couldn’t get it. That my friends is Ulysses for me. I know it is brilliant. I know it is one of the most influential novels ever, but I just couldn’t get going with it. Maybe it just isn’t a poolside read.

I think I’ll put it down for another day.

As usual, you can watch the video version of this blog below:


One final book to mention, Floating in Space is available from amazon. Click the links at the top of the page for more information or watch the video below.

World War II Mysteries: Himmler and Borman

I noticed something on the TV the other day, a preview of a documentary about Dunkirk, the World War 2 escape of the British and Allied forces across the channel back to the UK. It boasted about newly released files from the time and it made me think, just how much do we know about this conflict that ended in 1945 and how much is still secret?

Two fascinating books illustrate the point.

The Unlikely Death of Heinrich Himmler by Hugh Thomas

Anyone who is interested in history and the events of the second world war will know that Himmler committed suicide after falling into British hands. Himmler, in case you didn’t know was one of Hitler’s leading Nazis and the ruthless head of the German secret police, the Gestapo. You may even have seen the pictures of Himmler’s corpse or even the Pathe newsreel.

The dead man looks like Himmler, as much as any corpse resembles the living person it once was but are the officials telling us all they really know about the event?

To start off with the pictures, the information released by the army said they were snapped moments after the suicide. Not true. Himmler was naked apart from a pair of British issue army socks when he died. He had been separated from his German uniform in case of hidden suicide pills or weapons but he had refused to dress in a British army uniform.

When army staff suspected he had something in his mouth he clamped his teeth down on a cyanide tablet and died while desperate medical staff tried to save him. After his death he was dressed in an army shirt for the cameras and a pair of pince-nez were also clipped to his nose, so the dead body was not photographed straight away as was claimed.

Himmler had been stopped by suspicious soldiers trying to cross a bridge with a crowd of former slave labourers. The man claimed his name was Hinziger. When the soldiers questioned the man’s papers, he and two companions tried to bluster their way out. The soldiers, members of the Black Watch, became suspicious and took the men prisoner.

Was the man really Himmler?

Himmler had been discharged from his duties by Admiral Karl Doenitz who had taken over leadership of the dying Reich after the suicide of Hitler. Hitler himself had learned of Himmler’s betrayal in his last hours for Himmler had been secretly negotiating surrender terms with the allies. Himmler thought perhaps he would have a place in post war Germany or that like others, he could do a deal with the allies in return for secrets or money. Doenitz and Goring both had similar ideas however Goring was sentenced to death at Nuremberg and Doenitz to twenty years imprisonment.

Now neither side had any need of Himmler, a mass murderer, responsible for the concentration camps and the final solution, the mass murder of Jews and others decreed undesirable by the Third Reich.

When Himmler was arrested by the British at Bremervoerde on May 22, 1945, he had disguised himself by shaving off his moustache and had donned an eye patch over his left eye. He was carrying false identity papers.

Himmler succumbed to a cyanide pill on May 23, 1945 and sometime later four British soldiers took his body from a safe house in Luneburg, bundled it into an Army truck and secretly buried it in an unmarked grave on windswept Luneburg Heath. It has never been found.

The author, Hugh Thomas, tells us the story of Himmler’s life and his rise to power and puts forward a compelling case to prove that the supposed corpse of Himmler was not Himmler at all. Prior to the end of the war Himmler, whose power as head of the SS was second only to that of Hitler, transferred huge amounts of loot to foreign bank accounts and fake businesses in order to fund Nazi war criminals in South America and elsewhere. He even contends that Germany’s postwar economic ‘miracle’ was funded by SS loot.

Files on the death of Himmler have been sealed until 2045. Why? Is it because the man who died at Luneburg was an imposter, killed by the British to disguise the fact Himmler was in their hands?

All in all, a fascinating read.

Operation James Bond by Christopher Creighton.

Now with a title like that, you might automatically think this book is a work of fiction, or at least something actually about James Bond or his creator, author Ian Fleming. Well, you’d be wrong. Fleming is involved as it happens, because in WW2 Commander Ian Fleming of the Royal Navy was assigned to Naval Intelligence and Fleming came up with an ingenious plan to spirit Martin Bormann out of Berlin and into allied hands.

According to the book, the operation was given the go ahead by none other than Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the book sports a letter from Churchill to the author giving him the go-ahead to publish his story after Churchill himself was no longer alive.

‘When I die’ wrote Churchill ‘then, if your conscience so allows, tell your story for you have given and suffered much for England. Do not seek to protect me for I am content to be judged by History.’

The author, with Ian Fleming and a small commando raiding party, entered Berlin in its death throes via the rivers Spree and Havel, spirited Bormann away in a small fleet of canoes and arrived on the West Bank of the Elbe to the safety of Allied forces there on May 11th 1945. Bormann had, according to the book, agreed to free up all the Nazi funds hidden in Swiss bank accounts in exchange for his freedom and refuge in England.

Again, according to the author, 95 percent of Nazi funds were recovered and restored to their rightful owners.

Some of the book borders on the fantastic. For instance Creighton maintains that Bormann visited the war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg and heard himself sentenced to death. Major Desmond Morton, the head of the secret M section of Naval Intelligence had escorted Bormann there, suitably disguised, to perhaps see for himself what the alternative was to assisting the allies. Aided by minor plastic surgery Bormann lived on until his late 50s when his health failed and he died aged 59. By then Bormann had been exiled to Paraguay. The secret service then arranged for his body to be interred in Berlin where it was found during excavations in 1972 so preserving the myth that he had died in Berlin.

A thoroughly imaginative and exciting story but whether it is true, remains to be seen.


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

8 Great Books from my Formula One Collection


Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna is one of the all-time greats of formula one. He is an absolute legend of the sport and I have about 4 or so books about him. The biography by Christopher Hilton, Ayrton Senna, the Hard Edge of Genius, is a pretty good one. A long time ago I ran a shop in Manchester called Armchair Motorsports and although I didn’t make much money, I did do a hell of a lot of talking about F1. I had a number of serious motorsport memorabilia collectors as customers and if they were not on the phone asking me to find a copy of this or that book, they were in the shop gassing about motorsport. One customer wanted a book about Senna and I managed to get him a copy of Hilton’s book. He told me that the most remarkable thing about the book was the list at the back, itemising Ayrton’s race records. The list went like this – 1st, 1st, 1st, DNF, 1st, 1st 1st, DNF. All the way through his career until his formula one days. DNF means did not finish. Senna either won his races or failed to finish which meant either his car failed him, or he crashed. Most of the time he crashed and that gives us an indication of his way of thinking, which must have been win at all costs. It also explains why he was not the most popular of drivers.
I remember visiting Silverstone in the late 1980’s and Senna was profusely booed every time he passed our location. Of course, times change, and now Ayrton is venerated as one of the legends of the sport.
Richard William’s book, The Death of Ayrton Senna, narrates the dreadful events of formula one’s black weekend at Imola, back in 1994. Brazil itself was crushed by Senna’s death and I honestly feel that the reaction of Brazil to the tragedy was even greater than the UK’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana. A fascinating but ultimately sad book.

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Murray Walker
Murray is one of the great characters of F1 racing. Somebody once said of Murray that in his quieter moments ‘he sounds a little like a man with his trousers on fire!’ That certainly sums up his passionate and energetic commentary style. Formula one will never be quite the same without him. Murray has published a number of books about the sport including his autobiography and numerous titles like the one pictured here.

Marlboro Grand Prix Guide 1973
This is one of the oldest books in my F1 collection. In years gone by Marlboro, the cigarette manufacturers, contributed a lot to motor sport. They sponsored many teams and drivers including the McLaren team, and produced many books and annuals like this one. In the 1970’s they sponsored the Prix Rouge et Blanc, a prize given to the driver voted man of the race by attending journalists. Nowadays we are mostly free of the noxious fumes of cigarette smoke but the cigarette companies did make a substantial contribution to sport in days gone by. On the cover of the guide is Clay Reggazoni driving the Marlboro backed BRM and close behind is Emerson Fittipaldi in his black and gold John Player Special aka Lotus 72. Those were the days . .

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Niki Lauda
If someone had said to me at the end of 1973 when Jackie Stewart had just retired that Niki Lauda would be the next great champion of formula one, I would have laughed in his face. In my eyes it was obvious who the next great driver was. It was Ronnie Peterson. Had I tested those theories with a substantial cash wager I would have found myself out of pocket because Lauda won two world championships, retired, then made a comeback and won a third championship. The story of Lauda’s dreadful crash at the Nurburgring has been told many times, it’s even been made into the movie ‘Rush’ directed by Ron Howard. To Hell and Back is Niki’s story in his own words and a great story it is too. On his return to F1 at Monza after his terrible crash, Lauda drove out onto the track and was so scared he began to shake uncontrollably. Nevertheless, he carried on, overcame his fears and became a motorsport legend.

Graham Hill
Another of the legends of formula one, Graham Hill, must be one of the great characters of the sport A double world champion and father of future champion Damon Hill, Hill was killed in a light aircraft crash in 1975. He was the only driver ever to win the triple crown of motorsport –the Le Mans 24 hours, the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. The book below, written in his own tongue in cheek style is a great read. In the days when I ran my motorsport memorabilia shop as mentioned above, I came across a signed copy of Graham’s previous book ‘Life at the Limit.‘ I was sorely tempted to keep it for myself but I thought no, think about the business, be professional. I sold it to a collector for a fair old sum but every time I read something about Graham I think -what a fool, why didn’t I keep that book!

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Gilles Villeneuve
In some ways I’ve never really gone along with the hero worship of Gilles Villeneuve. Then again, some people cannot understand why I think Ronnie Peterson is one of the F1 greats. Each man to his own, I suppose.
Villeneuve was killed in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982. The facts of Villeneuve’s accident are well known -he crashed into a slow moving car- but his death is perhaps only really explained under close analysis. Villeneuve was on a slowing down lap, on his way back to the pits after a handful of fast qualifying laps but still, he kept the hammer down, his right foot pressed down to the floor when there was no real need for absolute speed. So why? Why was he going so fast?
One answer is simply that that was the way he drove; fast. Foot down to the floor. Full stop. Another is that he was still estranged from team mate Didier Pironi, who he thought had unfairly beaten him in the previous Grand Prix at San Marino in Italy. The two had diced together for the length of the race, team leader Villeneuve thought they were putting on a show, Pironi thought they were racing. When Pironi took the chequered flag it was an act of betrayal, or so Villeneuve thought and when they arrived at Zolder for what would be Villeneuve’s last Grand Prix, Villeneuve was still seething. And so perhaps that state of passion was a factor on his last lap.  Author Gerald Donaldson has produced a great motor sporting read and this is a book well worth looking out for.

Nigel Mansell
I’ve got the oldest book in my collection here so I may as well finish with the newest addition. Staying On Track is an autobiography by Nigel Mansell, who along with Prost and Senna was one of the three top drivers of the 1980’s. The Tifosi, the Italian Ferrari fans, named Nigel Il Leone (the Lion) when he signed up for the Scuderia In 1988, the last driver ever to be personally signed by the Commendatore himself, Enzo Ferrari. Nigel’s nickname was well earned. He took no messing from anyone, Ayrton Senna in particular, and once famously went wheel to wheel with Ayrton down the long straight at the Spanish Grand Prix in 1991 and it was Mansell who came out the victor. I bought this book, which I must admit I haven’t yet read, on E-bay. It’s a signed edition and I look forward to reading it.

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Hope you enjoyed this post. If you want to read more why not try my book Floating in Space? It’s not a motor-sporting book but a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

The Rise and Fall of the Kennedys

The Last brotherThe Last Brother by Joe McGinniss

The Last Brother as you can see, is subtitled, the Rise and fall of Teddy Kennedy. In a lot of ways Teddy is only incidental to the story told here because it is really the story of his father, Joe Kennedy, and his rise to success. Joe’s success lay not only in the business of banking but during the prohibition years he made a fortune in bootlegging and naturally rubbed shoulders with a number of gangsters. When he became successful, Joe wanted something more; he wanted political power. It was then that he attached himself to Franklin D Roosevelt. He helped Roosevelt’s campaign in many ways and when Roosevelt became president, he, like all presidents, had to reward those who had helped him. Joe became ambassador to the UK and it was there that his fall from grace began.

The ambassador and his family quickly became celebrities in England. In fact, Teddy Kennedy made his first public appearance as a young boy, the ‘baby’ of the Kennedy family and the son of the Ambassador, when he was invited to open pets’ corner at London Zoo.

However, In Joe’s eyes the coming war with Nazi Germany spelled the end of all he had worked for. He could not see how the UK could resist the might of the Nazis and was not slow in saying so. Kennedy advised Roosevelt that the British were finished. However, when Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940, Churchill opened up direct communications with Roosevelt himself making Ambassador Kennedy almost superfluous.   Later, the family returned to America with Joe not perhaps in disgrace but acutely out of step, and the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt flourished.

PC 8 The Kennedy Family at Hyannis Port, 1931. L-R: Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy, Jean Kennedy (on lap of) Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (behind) Patricia Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (behind) Rosemary Kennedy. Dog in foreground is "Buddy". Photograph by Richard Sears in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

The Kennedy Family at Hyannis Port, 1931. L-R: Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy, Jean Kennedy (on lap of) Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (behind) Patricia Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (behind) Rosemary Kennedy. Dog in foreground is “Buddy”. Photograph by Richard Sears in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Kennedy left the Roosevelt administration but he wanted political power for himself and made sure he would find it through his financial wealth, and through his sons.

Joe Kennedy junior was the son that Joe meant to make into America’s first catholic president. His brother, John Kennedy, known as Jack by the family, was a poorly lad afflicted by Addisons disease and constant back pain. In World War 2 Jack joined the navy but began an affair with a Dutch journalist, Inga Arvad. Inga was thought to be a Nazi spy so Joe immediately arranged for Jack to be posted well away from Inga to South Carolina. Bored with his desk job in South Carolina, Kennedy volunteered for the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons and later took charge of his own boat, PT 109. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his bravery in rescuing his men when his torpedo boat was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer.

Joe Kennedy Jr was not at all happy when he heard about the award. Competitiveness was drilled into the Kennedy clan from an early age and Joe did not want his younger brother to top him. Perhaps that is why he volunteered for a dangerous mission. The mission involved a radio controlled plane, full of explosives that were to be remotely steered to a target in Germany. Joe’s job was to take the aircraft into the air then bale out when the radio control was activated. Sadly the aircraft’s explosives were detonated prematurely and Joe was killed.

Jack knew then that it was he who would have to fulfil his father’s desire for the presidency.

Joe used his influence, and his money, to get Jack first a seat in congress and then a seat in the senate. In 1960 it was time for him to fulfil his father’s dream and go for the presidency. Lyndon Johnson wanted the democratic ticket that year and he began by attacking the the Kennedy candidacy. He described him as ‘a little scrawny fellow with rickets’ but soon the influence of father Joe came to bear and Johnson ceased his attacks. Johnson knew that that Joe Kennedy would pull out all the stops for his son to win but he hoped that if the vote wasn’t decisive on the first ballot he would have a chance on the second one. As it happened, John F Kennedy won the nomination on the first ballot. According to McGinnis it was Joe who wanted Johnson as JFK’s running mate; perhaps that was payback for Johnson laying off his attacks on Kennedy’s health issues.

The election was close, very close indeed and Joe decided he needed help from a rather unsavoury corner; he turned to his former prohibition gangster contacts, notably Sam Giancana to help him secure victory for his son. That help would come at a price. Giancana wanted back the casinos in Cuba that used to make millions for the mob until Castro overthrew the Batista regime, closed down the casinos and threw the gangsters out of Cuba. Giancana wanted them back.

Kennedy won the election by a narrow margin but things went wrong almost straight away. CIA backed revolutionaries were training in secret Florida locations for an assault on Cuba but the plans were in disarray and the president rejected many of them, When the attack came it was a disaster. Kennedy accused the CIA of trying to force him into a full scale US assault on Cuba and he would have none of it. Giancana would not get his casinos back. Worse, the president had engaged his brother, Robert Kennedy as attorney general and he began an assault on organised crime in the USA. One of the mafia bosses was heard to mutter in Sicilian, “who will get the stone out of my shoe?” It was more of a threat than a question.

Joe Kennedy was struck down by a stroke at the age of 88 and rendered unable to speak. The chief fixer, paymaster and head of the Kennedys was unable to carry on talks with the mafia and the time had come to remove the stone from Giancana’s shoe.

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Dallas 1963

President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963 and his presumed assassin Lee Oswald murdered days later inside the Dallas Police headquarters. At the Kennedy home in Hyannis Port nobody wanted to tell Joe. He must have known something was wrong but he could only point numbly at the TV in his room that remained firmly switched off. Ted Kennedy, who was sent to tell his father the news, struggled to get the words out until his sister Eunice blurted out the truth.

Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968 as he prepared for a late campaign for the Democratic ticket. After winning the California primary he said a few words to his supporters and was shot moments later.

Ted Kennedy now had a surplus of Kennedy advisors and aides, all willing him on to go forward and run for the presidency. He declined even though a ‘draft Ted Kennedy’ movement had started to gain momentum. Instead people looked forward to 1972 when Teddy, the last remaining Kennedy brother would restore the lost kingdom, the lost Kennedy leadership but it was not to be.

In 1969 Kennedy attended a boating regatta at a small island called Chappaquiddick. Numerous parties were planned for the weekend; one was a gathering of the so-called ‘boiler room girls’ – a group of women who had been part of Robert Kennedy’s campaign team in 1968.

Kennedy apparently left the party late in the evening, supposedly to go to the island ferry with one of the girls, Mary Jo Kopechne but instead turned across a small bridge that led to the beach. Kennedy lost control of the car and the vehicle plunged upside down into a small lake. Kennedy somehow escaped leaving Mary to die in the car. Police divers found her body the next day, her head in a small air pocket in the foot well of the upside down car. Kennedy did not report the incident until nine hours later. What happened in those nine hours is open to question but the Police seemed to gloss over the numerous inconsistencies in Kennedy’s story and eventually he received a suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident.

On the cover of the book is a remark from the Daily Mail reviewer that he couldn’t put the book down. I was just the same and was engrossed from beginning to end. The writer seems convinced of his central thesis, that Joe Kennedy’s pact with the mafia was a poisoned chalice that became the downfall of his sons and his family. Maybe that is true, maybe not but McGinniss puts forward an interesting theory and a fabulous read.

Joe Kennedy died in 1969, his dream of securing the presidency for his sons lay in ruins, leaving nothing but heartache and sadness. Fate had delivered many cruel blows to him but lying mute and unable to communicate while his family suffered must have been the worst.

Ted Kennedy continued in the senate until his death in 2009 from brain cancer.