Holiday Book Bag Summer 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Turn by Norman Wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown.

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

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

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

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

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


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

My Holiday Book Bag 2019

I really do love my books. There is nothing nicer, nothing more relaxing than lying on a beach, by the pool or the sea reading something interesting. Not only that, some books just cannot be read in short sessions while you are on a break at work or getting ready to go to sleep. Some books demand attention and deserve a good holiday reading.

All the books below were bought from second hand bookshops and chosen after a good satisfying browse. .

Honourable Men. My Life in the CIA by William Colby

I started my holiday reading this book, in fact I’ve been looking forward to reading it for quite a while since finding it on the shelves of a second hand book shop. The forward to the book was pretty interesting. Colby, the director of the CIA is summoned to Washington to find himself fired as President Ford, seeking to move the CIA on from the revelations of the Nixon/ Watergate era, wanted new management in the agency. Colby then leaps back in time to tell us of his exploits in World War 2 as an agent of the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA in occupied Europe. That chapter seemed to be very much an I did this and then I did that sort of monologue and I have to say I put the book down in favour of other more interesting books.

Looking at the reviews on Goodreads, they were all pretty encouraging so when I have the time I think I’ll have to try and finish the book off. These days I must be rather impatient, sometimes a good book takes time to deliver while others are enjoyable almost from the first page.

Under a Mackerel Sky by Rick Stein

The first thing I must say about this book is that after only the first couple of pages, I knew I liked it, I knew I liked Rick’s writing style and I knew, instinctively that this was going to be a good read.

Rick Stein is famous as a chef and restaurateur and his many TV shows about cookery and in particular, cooking fish have made him very popular indeed. In this book, subtitled a memoir, he talks nostalgically about his early life and links it with food and various dishes from his youth and also with music, talking about various tracks that he loves and which remind him of his early life. It is, well particularly the first half of the book, a free talking adventure down memory lane taking in all sorts of places, moods, food, tastes and music as he does so. He paints a nostalgic and warm picture of rural Cornish life which was pretty privileged; his father was a farm owner and pretty well off although sadly he committed suicide when Rick was only 18. Rick tells us about the suicide in short bursts throughout the book, in fact at first he doesn’t even mention the death was a suicide. I can imagine it was pretty hard to write about and maybe Rick himself found some solace as his spoke about his father. Anyway, I found myself liking Rick very much and left the book thinking that Rick thinks pretty much just as I do which is perhaps one of the reasons I liked the book as much as I did.

The latter third of the book when he talks about his restaurant and TV work is interesting but doesn’t really have the heart and soul in the writing in the way that the first part did. All in all, a lovely read and one I enjoyed very much.

M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker.

I am a big fan of the TV series mash, a very big fan and I didn’t realise until recently that the TV series and the feature film were based on a book. Richard Hooker was a surgeon in a mobile hospital unit in the Korean war and based this book on his own experiences. The book introduces all the familiar characters from the TV show, Hawkeye, Trapper John, Colonel Blake, Radar and many others. Also, many of the scenarios from the TV show had their basis in this book. The thing is, if this was a book written after the TV series and not before, I’d say the writer hadn’t quite caught the spirit of the TV show, which seemed to bring all the familiar elements, war, tragedy and humour, together so expertly.

One element that was much better than the TV show was the end. In the TV show MASH continues to the end of the Korean War and the final two episode finale when the war ends and everyone goes home just didn’t do it for me. In the book, Hawkeye and another character who wasn’t in the TV show, the Duke, finish their tour of duty and are sent home. They have a goodbye party and leave and as they make their way from Korea to the USA they seem to shed their zany personas and become ‘normal’ once again.

The book is good, quite good in fact but the TV series was epic, absolutely outstanding and perhaps this book suffers a little because I caught the TV show first, even though in reality, this book came first. It’s good but it doesn’t come close to the TV show.

The People v OJ Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin

This fascinating book is a detailed look at the 1995 murder trial of former US football player OJ Simpson. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. The pair were murdered outside Nicole’s house in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles and bloody footprints were found leading away from the scene. Simpson’s car had blood traces with matches to both Nicole’s and Goldman’s blood. There wasn’t even a low-speed police pursuit of Simpson that was broadcast live on TV bringing in a reported 95 million viewers.

The defence team managed to divert attention away from all of this evidence by playing into the troubled atmosphere in the area at the time. Motorist Rodney King, a black man had been beaten by a group of white police officers. They were all cleared of wrongdoing by a white jury despite the fact the incident was recorded on video clearly showing the officers beating up King. The defence also made great play about a ‘racist’ cop who was one of the first on the scene and even implied he could have planted damning evidence at Simpson’s home, that of a bloody leather glove that matched one found at the murder scene.

Witnesses gave newspaper and TV interviews and the lawyers themselves gave numerous TV interviews. The trial proceedings were broadcast live making the defense and prosecution teams into instant TV stars. The judge welcomed TV pundit Larry King into the courtroom and held up proceedings while King and the Judge chatted in his private chambers. The media attention led to the jury being sequestered for the length of the trial and not allowed to read newspapers, magazines or watch the TV news about the trial. A number of them were dismissed during the proceedings for various things, only 4 of the original jurors making it to the end. Both sides were involved in the jury selection procedure asking questions ranging from sports to their views on domestic violence, all things that would be incredible in an English courtroom. Incredibly, before the trial had even started the TV news had broadcast a 999 call by Nicole requesting the police because Simpson was beating her up.

The author describes the background to the defence and prosecution teams and how they worked. One interesting thing was their use of outside companies who specialised in jury selection and analyses. The defence team followed the advice of their researchers who advised that middle aged black women tended to favour Simpson. The prosecution had the same advice but prosecutor Marcia Clark felt that that same group, middle aged black women, responded strongly to her and that her depiction of OJ as a wife beater would sway them. That was a big mistake.

This is a deeply fascinating book written by a journalist who covered the trial at the time for the New Yorker magazine.


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

 

10 Books Rejected by Publishers!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been written in Edinburgh cafes while author JK Rowling and her daughter lived on benefits. The book was rejected 12 times and was only published when one publisher’s daughter read the first chapter and then begged her father to produce the book so she could read the rest. The series may now have finished, but the Harry Potter franchise continues. Eight films, one theme park, and countless video games, board games and products later, Harry Potter is one of the highest grossing franchises of all time. Rowling is no longer living on state benefits and is reputedly worth 700 million pounds. I have to admit I have never read the Harry Potter books but I salute an author that has given the gift of reading to a new generation of young readers.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

A number of searches on the internet brought up the magic rejection number of 38 for this novel. Rejected 38 times? Well I also found an interesting post by author Brenda Coulter in which she claimed the novel was never rejected. Margaret Mitchell apparently felt the novel would have little interest outside the South but happened to meet with someone from the MacMillan publishing group who immediately bought the publishing rights, much to the author’s surprise. The writer of the blog post went on to say this about publishing:  It just isn’t true that every talented writer will eventually be published if she works hard enough and waits long enough and believes. Novels don’t get published because their authors have faithfully paid their dues and waited their turn. Publication isn’t a bus that anyone can catch as long as they have the correct fare and show up at the right stop at the scheduled time. A novel is accepted only when some publishing house believes it can make money on the book. Period. So the difference between a published author and an unpublished one does not always boil down to talent and experience. Sometimes the difference is, quite simply, marketability.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

Lolita was rejected 5 times. One publisher wrote that the book was “…overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” I read the book a few years back after reading a blog post about classic books I must read. I felt a little like a sort of voyeur reading the novel which is about one man’s passion, lust even, for a young girl. It was an interesting read and the excellence of the writing seemed to jar a little with the subject matter. ‘A neurotic daydream’ is probably a good description of the book.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

Again, this is not a book I have read but I have seen the film starring Gregory Peck. Moby Dick was initially rejected by publishers Bentley and Son who wrote back to Melville asking: “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?” Melville decided to keep the whale although the young voluptuous maiden idea surely has it merits. .

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum.

It’s hard to say how many times this book was rejected but the author did keep a journal he called ‘a record of failure’ detailing all his rejections. The book was first published in 1900 and by 1938 had sold over a million copies. The book was illustrated by W W Denslow and both he and Baum claimed credit for the book’s success. The publisher only agreed to publish the book when the manager of the Chicago Grand Opera House, Fred R Hamlin, committed to making The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a musical stage play to publicize the novel. The book was famously made into a film in 1939 starring Judy Garland.

Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

The novel was turned down by the first four publishers the author approached. Eventually Harold Harris of Hutchinson decided to take a chance on a modest print run of 8,000 copies. The Jackal became a sensation and only two years later Fred Zinneman was directing the movie version. Forsyth was a journalist in Paris in his mid-twenties and was aware of the controversy over the granting of independence to Algeria. He had befriended some of President De Gaulle’s bodyguards and had even reported from the scene of a real life failed assassination attempt, in fact an account of this real incident opens the novel. What would happen, thought Forsyth, if the terrorist group the OAS decided to employ a hitman to murder the President? The resulting novel has a gritty documentary style of realism that would influence a new wave of thriller writers.

Carrie by Stephen King.

Stephen King apparently received 30 rejections for his book before dejectedly tossing it into the trash. His wife Tabitha fished it out and urged him to try again. The book was published and became a classic of the horror genre. At the time back in 1973, King and his wife were living in a trailer, he taught English at a private school and his wife worked in ‘Dunkin Donuts’ as well as them both moonlighting in various part time jobs. Sales of the book were boosted by the film version and the paperback sold over a million copies in its first year.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This book was rejected by 25 agents but was finally published in 2003 after the author sent the manuscript to a small San Francisco based publisher where the work found its way into the hands of a sympathetic editor. I have to say that this was an odd novel and took me quite a while to get into the book and understand the fractured timeline of the time traveller. However, it was an interesting and enjoyable read although a somewhat quirky addition to the sci-fi genre. Having said that, some reviewers regard the book as more of a romance than a work of sci-fi.

Roots by Alex Haley.

Alex Haley spent eight years writing the book and received 200 consecutive rejections or at least that is what some internet sites say. Others say Haley may have had 200 rejections but that includes his other work as well. His novel Roots finally became a publishing sensation, selling 1.5 million copies in its first seven months of release and going on to sell 8 million. Such was the success of the book that The Pulitzer Prize awarded the novel a Special Citation in 1977. Again, this is another book I have yet to read but I do remember the TV series from 1977.

Floating in Space by Steve Higgins. I sent my book off to 3 traditional publishers who all declined to publish it. To be fair, my manuscript was not in great shape but I have beavered away and every now and then updated the book so now I like to think the manuscript is pretty reasonable. After those three knockbacks, paltry compared to some of the rejections mentioned above, I chose to self-publish at Amazon. Should I perhaps have tried harder, spent more time on my covering letter, sent out the manuscript to more publishers? Still, just like Brenda Coulter says: Publication isn’t a bus that anyone can catch as long as they have the correct fare and show up at the right stop at the scheduled time. It’s about marketability!

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

Dear Diary

Reading a published diary is not like reading a normal book, A diary isn’t an autobiography, it’s something slightly different, the thoughts of the writer at the time and not his or her later retrospective thoughts.

I am a diarist, though very much an irregular one. Many of my diaries have gaping pages of emptiness in them and catch up pages where I quickly skim through things that have happened to me. Other pages are just lists of my shift times and I have to say there is not much of any great literary value in any of my diaries, although they are interesting to look back on, well at least to me. My oldest diary dates back to 1971 and a great deal of it concerns the television programmes I had watched. No wonder my old Dad used to call me ‘square eyes’!

Just taking in a random page from 1971 I see the Belgian Grand Prix was cancelled that year. I think there were safety concerns regarding the very fast Spa Fancorchamps circuit. I was a big fan of the Saint with Roger Moore and Strange Report was a TV show from the time with Anthony Quayle. I see that the Le Mans 24 hour race that year was won by Helmet Marko who these days is one of the big bosses at the Red Bull formula one team.

Exciting stuff from 1971!

I recently read the diary of Kenneth Williams which was interesting but in some ways difficult to keep track of. I did think at the time it was the only diary I have read but now I think of it I have also read Albert Speer’s Spandau: The Secret Diaries, a series of thoughts and essays he had smuggled out of Spandau prison where he served his 20 year sentence. Also, in a Southport charity shop, always a great place for second-hand books, I picked up Monty Python member Michael Palin’s diaries. Anyway, firstly I’ll start with Kenneth Williams’ diary. I reviewed the book for this year’s Holiday Book bag post and it went something like this:

The Kenneth Williams Diaries edited by Russell Davies.

I’ve always rather liked Kenneth Williams, the slightly over the top star of many a Carry On film as well as many radio comedy shows. However, it did feel rather odd reading his private thoughts through his diary. This is not an autobiography where the author tells us the story of his life and keeps things in some sort of order, it’s a diary, a record of the author’s day to day thoughts and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what is happening. In a lot of the diary entries Kenneth refers to people by their initials rather than their name. The habit of using initials can be rather annoying as the editor will mention in one of the many footnotes that SB for instance refers to his friend and fellow performer Stanley Baxter. Later on SB will turn up again and I find myself flipping back through the footnotes because I have forgotten who SB was.

In the diaries, Williams talks about his private life mostly in a sort of code. He does talk about his many trips to Morocco where he went in search of young men, something he was willing to indulge in the secret world of gay men abroad.  A lot of this activity gave him little pleasure and it seems to me he was unhappy with his sexuality and perhaps he envied his friend the playwright Joe Orton, who accepted himself in a way Williams never could.

The diaries are actually pretty famous because they reveal Kenneth Williams as being so very different to the persona he revealed to the world. All of Williams’ moods are revealed in the book, his anger, his sadness and his disappointments as well as his happier times. It’s interesting to read about world events in the entries, for instance the Moon landing in 1969 causes Williams to moan about the TV being all about the moon! I was 13 at the time, very interested in the Apollo programme and couldn’t get enough of moon landing TV.

The three-day week is mentioned in 1973 along with various entries about power cuts and industrial action, a time I remember well, sitting in my Mum’s kitchen lit by a candle and my dad trying in vain to read the newspaper.

I did expect to read a lot about Barbara Windsor, his great friend from the Carry On films but there is little about her although actress Maggie Smith is talked about constantly, his admiration for her very evident.

I did wonder whether Kenneth Williams wrote the diaries expecting them to be published when he died but that same issue he dealt with in a 1972 entry where he claims that the writing of a diary is only something to jog the memory. He goes on to say; ‘One puts down what one wants, not what others want. That is what is so delightful about a diary, it is what the self wants to say.’

The strange thing is that the diary reminds me a lot of my diary which I write in these days only infrequently. I started it as something just to get me writing and I still write in it on those occasions when ideas for a story or a blog fail to materialise. A diary can just be a record of your daily life but it also is a confidante, something you can turn to when something has annoyed or upset you or just when your thoughts are so overwhelming you have to get them out onto paper or your computer screen. I ended up feeling an affinity for Williams, a similarity whereas before reading this book I thought we had nothing in common at all.

Kenneth Williams seemed to have many sad moments where he wished he had a confidante, perhaps that is another reason he wrote in his diary. Many entries detail his dissatisfaction with his life and his sadness. ‘What’s the point?’ is how he ends many entries, including his very last one on the 14th April, 1988.

I did not know about Williams’ theatre career, or even that he had one and it was interesting to read about what an actor and performer’s life is like; it seems to be mostly waiting for things to turn up, waiting for one’s agent to ring or for calls from film or TV producers. When the phone does not ring it can be a worrying time, as it seemed to be for Kenneth Williams, thinking about his tax bill or other bills that need paying.

A fascinating read and not quite what I expected.

Spandau: The Secret Diaries by Albert Speer.

Albert Speer was Hitler’s armaments minister and favoured architect and this book is made up of diary entries he had secretly smuggled out of Spandau prison where he was incarcerated for 20 years after the Second World War. Speer admits he was one of those people seduced by the power of Hitler’s personality. Looking back at Hitler today in grainy old black and white films it is hard to understand how this strange and dour man who ranted and raved while speech making could seduce anyone. However, many have testified to the startling power of his personality. I remember watching that interesting BBC documentary ‘The Nazis: A warning from History’. In one segment various people were interviewed who declared their youthful love for Hitler; a young girl who looked into his eyes and saw goodness. An old man who testified he had once seen the great side of Hitler. Sadly Hitler let them down and many more like them. Speer maintained that he knew nothing of concentration camps and the final solution but author Gitta Sereny claimed in her book Speer: His battle with Truth that Speer knew more than he let on.

Getting back to the Secret Diaries. Speer talks about his imprisonment, his relationships with his fellow prisoners and his walks. Speer paced round and round the prison garden and as he counted down the miles he walked, he traced his steps across other parts of the world and imagined walking from Berlin and on to Heidelberg and from there on to Siberia. It is quite a few years since I read this book but the time is right for a re-read I think.

Michael Palin: Diaries 1969-1979 The Python Years.

I get the idea from some of Michael Palin’s comments in the book that he plans to publish more of his diaries. I’ve not finished it yet but so far its been pretty interesting, especially being a fan of the TV show Monty Python. Anyway, Palin started his diaries soon after packing in smoking. Perhaps it was a way of helping get over his tobacco addiction, perhaps not. The diaries also begin just as Monty Python, the comedy TV show was starting and Palin mentions this in his introduction, his aim not to record the start of the ground breaking comedy but more to record things about his new family, his wife having recently given birth to their first child.

A number of similarities between myself and Palin struck me early on, firstly, he gives us a quote from one of his schoolboy diaries which is amazingly similar to the one from my 1971 diary shown above. Another was his interest in the moon landings of 1969. Kenneth Williams may have been annoyed about the continued TV coverage of Apollo 11 but Palin and myself were more than happy to see it all.  Palin stayed up till 5am to watch the TV pictures from the Sea of Tranquility and I remember vividly being got up for school by my mother and being both amazed and excited about the TV broadcast presented to me while I ate my cornflakes. School mornings were never the same again.

My Diaries.

My diaries are definitely not for publishing. Looking back at them I notice that whenever something interesting has happened to me I have never written about it at the time, it has always been some time later when I have set down my feelings about the incident, whatever it may have been.The diary may be a confessional for some people but for me, I started writing a diary as a way of making myself write when I couldn’t think of anything else to write about. In the early 2000’s I started writing a diary on my laptop only to lose all my recollections from 2005 to 2006 when the file somehow became corrupted and refused to open. I was quite excited when the latest version of Microsoft Word came out because it gives you the option to repair a damaged file. Alas, that option would not work on my diary file. Then of course there are my big boxes of pre-2000 diaries. What shall I do with this lot I wonder? Will they add something to social history or grace the rubbish tip when I’m gone?

The latter, probably. . .


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

Bright Lights, A Princess and Murder

I’ve been interested in the JFK assassination since I was a schoolboy and one of my earliest memories dates back to 1968 when JFK’s brother Bobby was shot at the Ambassador hotel after winning the California presidential primary. I was 12 years old at the time and I remember being so very shocked by his murder. The shooting of RFK and the circumstances surrounding his murder are probably even more questionable than the murder of JFK in Dallas but the mainstream media seem to look down on anyone who questions the accepted theories in both cases and the phrase they have coined for those of us who dismiss the tired old mainstream ‘lone nut’ ideas, is ‘conspiracy theorist’, and it really does annoy me.

It’s one of those phrases that pour scorn and ridicule without proper debate or discussion but having said that, there are some people who call out conspiracy without even thinking. I mean, seriously, can anyone actually doubt that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969? Was it all a hoax just to win the space race?

And as for 9/11, can people really think that the CIA and George Bush actually engineered the Twin Towers attack in New York just for an excuse to begin the second gulf war? Surely not!

That of course brings me in a roundabout way to Princess Diana. She was killed in a Paris car crash in 1997. She was estranged from her former husband and father of her two sons Prince Charles and was involved at the time with Dodi al Fayed, son of Mohammed al Fayed, the owner of Harrods. The crash was an accident wasn’t it? So why talk about conspiracy? What conspiracy?

Many years ago I remember seeing a BBC documentary about the accident and it raised more questions than answers and so one day, in my favourite new Blackpool secondhand bookshop what did I spy but a book about Diana’s death. The Murder of Princess Diana  by Noel Botham.

In the book the author alleges that Diana’s death was not an accident but was engineered by the British secret service. What happened then on the night of August 30th and the early morning of the 31st, 1997?

Diana was in Paris with her boyfriend Dodi al Fayed. The two of them were spending time together but had been hunted down mercilessly by the paparazzi, desperate for pictures of the couple. Diana felt that she was under constant surveillance and in fact British security services did monitor the phone calls of the Royals for supposedly ‘security’ purposes. Some years earlier, mobile phone recordings of Diana and one of her lovers had been revealed to the public in the so-called ‘Squidgy’ tapes. Ken Wharfe, Diana’s former bodyguard told a UK inquest in 2008 that the tapes had been recorded by GCHQ, the UK government’s secret listening station and deliberately leaked. They were apparently broadcast on a loop until an amateur radio ham picked up the messages and passed them to the media.

The princess’s friends suspected the “Squidgy” tapes were leaked to smear her at a time when her failing relationship with the Prince of Wales was at its most acrimonious. From then on, the Princess was very concerned with eavesdropping and hired private security consultants to sweep her apartments for bugs and listening devices.

August 30th around 4:30 p.m.: Diana and Dodi Fayed arrive at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, owned by Dodi’s father, Egyptian businessman Mohamed al Fayed. They enter through the back door and are shown to the Imperial Suite.

5:40  to 6:30 p.m.: Reportedly, Fayed ventures to Repossi jewellers and two rings are later delivered to the Imperial Suite. Perhaps they are gifts, perhaps Dodi is considering marriage.

Around 7 p.m.: Diana and al Fayed exit the Ritz through the rear entrance and are driven to his residence, near the Arc de Triomphe.

9:50 p.m.:  The couple return to the hotel and head for its L’Espadon restaurant, after forgoing reservations at Benoît Paris because of continued paparazzi attention. Diana reportedly orders Dover sole, vegetable tempura and a mushroom and asparagus omelette. Dodi began to feel suspicious that photographers might be posing as restaurant patrons and requested their food be delivered to their room.

August 31st 12:20 a.m.: With bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, al Fayed and Diana reportedly attempt to evade photographers by leaving the hotel through its rear entrance to return to his apartment. They enter the backseat of a black Mercedes S280 to be driven by Ritz security employee Henri Paul.

12:23 a.m.: The Mercedes, in an attempt to outrun photographers, collides with a concrete pillar in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. Bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones was the only passenger in the Mercedes to be wearing a seatbelt. He was also the only one to survive the crash.

Fayed and Paul died at the scene. Following the accident, Dr. Frédéric Maillez who happened to be driving by, stopped and tended to Diana before the arrival of the emergency services.

In Noel Botham’s book, he notes that the paparazzi carried on photographing the scene while the doctor worked to save Diana; some even poked their lenses inside the smashed car. Finally help arrived and Diana was taken away in an ambulance.

Approximately 2:00 a.m.: Diana arrives at Pitié-Salpétrière Hospital, undergoing surgery minutes later.

4:00 a.m.: The princess, who celebrated her 36th birthday the previous month, is pronounced dead.

That then, was the timeline of events. It looked like a simple car crash especially when Police revealed that Henri Paul, the Ritz security man and Dodi’s driver that night was revealed to have had a blood alcohol level that was more than 3 times the legal limit. However, despite that he appears relaxed and normal on the Ritz CCTV images. Not only that, no one appeared to notice Henri as having been drunk or intoxicated. In the book, the author reveals that Henri’s autopsy indicated that he had a high reading for carbon monoxide in his blood which would have been totally incompatible with someone driving a car. According to tests carried out by two French medical experts hours after the Paris crash, the levels of carbon monoxide in Mr Paul’s blood ranged between 12 and 21 per cent. That compares to a normal reading of around two to four percent.

With that carbon monoxide level, Henri Paul would have been unconscious and totally unable to drive a car. There was however another death that night, a man who was depressed and took his own life by inhaling his car’s exhaust fumes. Could the blood sample have come from this unknown male the author asks?

Another factor was a Fiat Uno which was ahead of Diana’s Mercedes which according to the Police was untraceable. In fact the car was traced to a journalist with connections to the security services. The Fiat Uno blocked the Mercedes in the Alma Tunnel and Henri Paul swerved to the left to avoid it although his front wing clipped the Fiat.

Ahead of the Mercedes was a scooter with a pillion passenger and some reports claim that an incredibly bright light was flashed by the pillion passenger back towards the Mercedes which would have blinded the occupants and forced the driver to crash. This same scenario was featured in an MI6 file according to former agent Richard Tomlinson. Tomlinson had seen an MI6 secret plan to assassinate Slobodan Milosevic which used the exact scenario of the crash that led to Diana’s death. When Tomlinson tried to give this information to the magistrate in charge of the French inquiry into the incident, he was arrested at gun point by the DST, the French secret service, beaten up and interrogated for eighteen hours.

Police said they were unable to trace the Fiat Uno but Mohamed al Fayed claimed the owner was a journalist, James Andanson, with connections to the various security services. He had boasted to friends about inside knowledge of Diana’s death but he was found dead in 2000. He had driven to a remote spot and set himself and his car on fire, a gruesome way to commit suicide but that was the official verdict. A few weeks after his death an armed raid was carried out on the agency for which Andanson had worked. The only material and records removed were Andanson’s.

Ultimately, if we believe that Diana was deliberately murdered then we have to ask the question why? Who would want to murder Diana? What would be the point? To enable Charles to marry Camilla? In present day UK do the marriages of the Royals have any relevance anymore? After all, this is the 21st century and the days of royal murders and plots to change the succession are all part of history, ancient history.

Author Noel Botham claims that a certain element of the British secret service was used by a sinister hard core of palace watchdogs under oath to defend the royal family against scandals, whether that is the case I do not know but the author clearly believes that. Mohamed al Fayed has gone further, naming the Duke of Edinburgh as the author of the plot to kill Diana. Is al Fayed a grieving father making wild accusations or do his claims have some substance?

I have to say this book was an interesting read, not just the conjecture about assassinations but also the background to Charles and Diana and Camilla. The incredible love story, the blossoming of the princess, the failure of the Royal marriage, Diana’s efforts to outdo the Royals in revenge for Charles’ betrayal of her with Camilla. All in all, a fascinating read.


The Assassination of Princess Diana by Noel Botham.

Click here for a fascinating pdf file on the results of Operation Paget, the Metropolitan Police Investigation into the various conspiracy claims in 2004.


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

 

Holiday Book Bag Video Version

Eagle-eyed readers will have surely spotted the lack of the usual video version to my summer book bag 2018. Alas, I filmed three versions, all of which suffered from hesitation, repetition and deviation, so much so that not only would I not have lasted long on the radio show ‘Just a Minute’ but any addition to YouTube would be sorely lacking, particularly in the area of presentation.

However, due to the miracle of technology, particularly in the field of editing, a fairly reasonable video version has been made available for my long-suffering YouTube audience and I feel it only fair that they should not suffer alone and that my WordPress followers should also be invited to watch.

If any viewer is unduly affected by this video, a free counselling service is available. Please contact your local healthcare provider immediately should any adverse symptoms occur.

Holiday Book Bag Summer 2018

Well in advance of this year’s summer holiday I took an intensive inventory of my books, separated those I had not yet read as well as separating the hardbacks from the softcovers and sorted out my holiday book bag for this summer. I particularly favoured hardbacks because during the year I don’t tend to read those, after all, it’s so much easier to pop a paperback book in your pocket to read at work rather than lug a heavy hardback book about. On reflection that was really rather forward thinking of me. Where the heck I put those books though I do not know, so instead I grabbed a few nearby paperbacks at the last minute and that is what I took to France to read. All were sourced from second hand book shops or charity shops.

What did you take to read on holiday this year?

The Kenneth Williams Diaries edited by Russell Davies.

I’ve always rather liked Kenneth Williams, the slightly over the top star of many a Carry On film as well as numerous radio comedy shows. However, it did feel rather odd reading his private thoughts through his diary. This is not an autobiography where the author tells us the story of his life and keeps things in some sort of order, it’s a diary, a record of the author’s day to day thoughts and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what is happening. In a lot of the diary entries Kenneth refers to people by their initials rather than their name. The habit of using initials can be rather annoying as the editor will mention in one of the many footnotes that SB for instance refers to his friend and fellow performer Stanley Baxter. Later on SB will turn up again and I find myself flipping back through the footnotes because I have forgotton who SB was.

In the diaries, Williams talks about his private life mostly in a sort of code. He does talk about his many trips to Morocco where he went in search of young men, something he was willing to indulge in in the secret world of gay men abroad.  A lot of this activity gave him little pleasure and it seems to me he was unhappy with his sexuality and perhaps he envied his friend the playwright Joe Orton, who accepted himself in a way Williams never could.

The diaries are actually pretty famous because they reveal Kenneth Williams as being so very different to the persona he revealed to the world. All of Williams’ moods are revealed in the book, his anger, his sadness and his disapointments as well as his happier times. It’s interesting to read about world events in the entries, for instance the Moon landing in 1969 causes Williams to moan about the TV being all about the moon! I was 13 at the time, very interested in the Apollo programme and couldn’t get enough of moon landing TV.

The three day week is mentioned in 1973 along with various entries about power cuts and industrial action, a time I remember well, sitting in my Mum’s kitchen lit by a candle and my dad trying in vain to read the newspaper.

I did expect to read a lot about Barbara Windsor, his great friend from the Carry On films but there is little about her although actress Maggie Smith is talked about constantly, his admiration for her very evident.

I did wonder whether Kenneth Williams wrote the diaries expecting them to be published when he died but that same issue he dealt with in a 1972 entry where he claims that the writing of a diary is only something to jog the memory. He goes on to say; ‘One puts down what one wants, not what others want. That is what is so delightful about a diary, it is what the self wants to say.’

The strange thing is that the diary reminds me a lot of my diary which I write in these days only infrequently. I started it as something just to get me writing and I still write in it on those occasions when ideas for a story or a blog fail to materialise. A diary can just be a record of your daily life but it also is a confidante, something you can turn to when something has annoyed or upset you or just when your thoughts are so overwhelming you have to get them out onto paper or your computer screen. I ended up feeling an affinity for Williams, a similarity whereas before reading this book I thought we had nothing in common at all.

Kenneth Williams seemed to have many sad moments where he wished he had a confidante, perhaps that is another reason he wrote in his diary. Many entries detail his dissatisfaction with his life and his sadness. ‘What’s the point?’ is how he ends many entries, including his very last one on the 14th April, 1988.

I did not know about Williams’ theatre career, or even that he had one and it was interesting to read about what an actor and performer’s life is like; it seems to be mostly waiting for things to turn up, waiting for one’s agent to ring or for calls from film or TV producers. When the phone does not ring it can be a worrying time, as it seemed to be for Kenneth Williams, thinking about his tax bill or other bills that need paying.

A fascinating read and not quite what I expected.

Blessing in Disguise by Alec Guinness.

This is an autobiography by the actor Alec Guinness, well, I bought it thinking it was that but actually it is a collection of random thoughts and episodes in the actor’s life that don’t always go together. The beginning of the book is about Guinness’ younger days but then he leaps forward through his life describing other times and incidents and it all leaves the reader wondering what happened after that or what did he do before this? It is all very well written but there are endless dull chapters focussing very acutely on some unheard of person in the theatre and then some very few lines about people I actually wanted to hear about. He mentions having dinner with Sophia Loren who then disappears from the page. Richard Burton and other film notables are mentioned all too briefly. Guinness’ wife also makes various oblique entries into the book but who she really is, how Alec met her and how they married is never revealed. Star Wars is mentioned towards the end of the book but if you are interested in any filming anecdotes or behind the scenes stories, well, none are to be found here.

Well written but ultimately disapointing.

Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell.

Port Mortuary features Patricia Cornwell’s forensic heroine Kay Scarpetta who first appeared in the book Postmortem published in 1990. I remember reading a newspaper article about Cornwell and her books in the mid 1990’s, they seemed pretty interesting so I bought the first one, Postmortem and began to read. Kay Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia and uses modern forensic sciences and technologies to solve murders. Working with her is police homicide detective Pete Marino and together they embark on solving a series of murders. The series of books are well written if a little gruesome and are said to have influenced a host of similar books and TV series such as CSI where forensic technolgy and science are used to solve crimes. Scarpetta has an Italian background and in the earlier books cooks a lot of Italian dishes. (There is even a companion cook book; ‘Secrets from Scarpetta’s Kitchen’.)

Later on in the series, things get a little weird. Benton Wesley, an FBI profiler is murdered but reappears in a later book alive, having been in a FBI witness protection programme. Scarpetta’s niece becomes a computer expert at the FBI, leaves to start her own internet company, becomes a multi millionaire, buys a helicopter and morphs into a sort of James Bond sci-fi hi-tech lesbian character. That was when I stopped reading the books.

Anyway, fast forward to the present day and I find Port Mortuary at a charity shop and think OK, let’s see whats happening to Scarpetta these days. Sometime after I stopped reading the books, Cornwell decided to write in the third person rather the first and Port Mortuary is the book where she decides to revert back to the first person way of story telling. A lot has changed since I last read the books. Pete Marino no longer works for the police and joins Scarpetta at the National Forensic Academy, an institution founded by her millionaire niece, Lucy. Scarpetta is also a Colonel in some kind of military forensic set up and while she is on duty, Pete and Lucy fly in to tell her about a murder that has occurred that threatens the whole National Forensic Academy. They fly back in Lucy’s helicopter and the narrative goes through all the pre flight checks and helicopter terminology which was interesting but not neccessarily important. Then again, every other page seems to mention technology and brand names like Scarpetta’s iPad and iPhone. It’s almost as if Apple were on a sort of product placement mission.

I clicked onto goodreads to check out what sort of reviews were being left there and many people were saying things like ‘not as good as the older books’ and some complained about all the superfluous detail that wasn’t required. Personally, I like all that extra detail. Maybe Cornwell went a little overboard with her gadgetry and helicopter stuff but isn’t that the mark of a good writer? That little extra descriptive detail that adds to the background and the imagery?

Anyway, the book is a hi-tech murder mystery, well written and enjoyable although I got a little lost with the plot towards the end. Also there were perhaps a little bit too much of Kay Scarpetta’s internal monologues. A great sun lounger read but I still feel the first ten or eleven books in the series are better than the later ones.

(Chaos is the latest book in the series, published in 2016)

A Kentish Lad by Frank Muir.

One thing I really love about second hand books are inscriptions. On my copy of Frank Muir’s book this is written on the title page: ‘To Derek, lots of love, Ruth. Christmas, 1998.’  Who was Derek I wonder, who was Ruth? Why was Derek’s Christmas gift loitering on the shelves of a St Annes charity shop? I’ll never know but to me it makes the book all that more interesting.

A while back I wrote a post about the Essential Englishman which was a few remarks about film actors who have portrayed a certain type of Englishman, debonair, urbane and eloquent and the actors I chose were David Niven, Robert Donat, Rex Harrison and so on. Had I extended my terms of reference to include TV personalities I would have had to have included Frank Muir, the eloquent bow-tied and nattily turned out star of TV shows like Call my Bluff.

This enjoyable and amusing autobiography charts Frank’s days as a schoolboy in Broadstairs in the south of England to his life as a TV executive and TV personality in the 1970s and eighties. It is written in an amusing and self deprecating way, always seeing the funny side of life and a very jolly read it is too. I particularly enjoyed the first part of the book when Muir talked about his war years at the parachute training school at Ringway, now Manchester Airport and then his first forays into the world of show business and his script writing partnership with Denis Norden. A highlight was his first trip to France in the late 1940s revealing a different sort of trip to the one I have currently undertaken in 2018. Later, Muir paints a fascinating portrait of the radio days of the 1950s when the UK was tuned to the radio for their favourite musical and comedy shows.

The book’s latter half is perhaps not quite as enjoyable as the first but on the whole a pleasant, interesting and enjoyable read.

Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson.

Guy Gibson? Sound familiar? Well if you have ever seen the classic movie the Dambusters you will know that Wing Commander Guy Gibson was the leader of the force that attacked the dams of the Third Reich during the Second World War and scored a decisive victory for the Allies, destroying the manufacturing capability of the Ruhr Valley for a considerable time. This book is Gibson’s own account of his time in Bomber Command and his is a fascinating story. To start with he talks about the so called phoney war and how people thought it might be over very quickly and how the RAF was hopelessly unprepared for war. He tells of air raids in 1939 where crews became lost, when crews were told strictly not to drop bombs on civilian homes and so bombs were returned back to base in dangerous conditions, unreleased on enemy targets. As time went on, the crews became more familiar with what they had to do, they got used to navigating and night time flying and Gibson here shows a different world to that portrayed in films like the Dambusters.

The aircrews were all young men who worked hard at what they did and worked hard also at drinking, partying and chasing girls, pretty much like young men today, although for these men, they partied like there was no tomorrow because in some cases, there wasn’t.

In the foreward to the book, Gibson dedicates this volume to all those aircrews lost in action in the various squadrons he was attached to and the list makes grim reading, almost all the names he lists are noted as missing in action, presumed killed. The odd one here and there is noted as POW, prisoner of war.

A fascinating book, written by a brave man telling a story you may have heard before from a completely different angle. A classic book of Second World War literature.


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

The Cruel Sea

When I was writing my post ‘The Book of the Film or the Film of the Book’ a while ago, I did consider including ‘The Cruel Sea’ as not only is it one of my favourite films, it is a pretty good book too. I didn’t include it because I couldn’t find my copy of the book, which I hadn’t read for years and also I hadn’t seen the film for years either.

In one of those odd coincidences that always happen when I set my mind on a subject and leave ideas churning over in the upstairs room in my head, I was scouring through a charity shop in St Annes when I came across the DVD of the film. It was one of those free newspaper DVDs that seem to cost anything from a pound upwards at a car boot sale but was happily on sale here for a paltry 30 pence.

After a busy late shift at work I settled down with a glass of red in one hand and a ham sandwich in the other, compulsory on these occasions of course, and began watching.

The film starts off at the beginning of World War 2 when the Jack Hawkins character is at the builder’s yard helping with the fixing up of his new escort ship, Compass Rose. His officers begin to arrive, many of whom are easily recognisable as stalwarts of the 40’s and 50’s British film industry: Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliot, and Stanley Baker and later in the film Virginia McKenna appears as an officer in the WRNS.

The cast and characters are therefore introduced and then the ship goes off for its sea trials and crew training and soon the Compass Rose is escorting its first convoy. Nothing much happens at first as this is the early part of the war but when the Nazis over run France and the ports of northern France come available to the enemy, many U-Boats converge on the convoys and a great deal of merchant ships, along with the supplies so desperately needed by Britain, are lost.

The boredom of those early dull convoys contrasts sharply with the terror and mayhem waged by the U-boats later on. The film reveals the desperate tragedy of abandoning ship in the middle of the Atlantic, the oil and grease, not to mention the cold, are terrible. Many escort vessels could not stop for survivors as they would become easy prey to the unseen U-Boats, though some did, others returning later in the light of day as the attacks usually came at night.

Leave was a great relief for the naval crews. On one trip back to England the film shows the crew at home, some enjoying some home comforts, others struggling with failing marriages, a situation made worse by the war. One crewmate takes his friend the engineer home to meet his sister. On a later voyage the engineer tells his mate how he has fallen for the sister and plans to ask her to marry him. Later, the Compass Rose is sunk by a torpedo and as the survivors struggle to stay alive in the cold Atlantic many succumb to their injuries. As they drift in the oily water the soundtrack replays echos of their recent dialogue, a marriage proposals hangs in the air over the groom who will never wed and a petty argument haunts the body of the unhappily married officer. Happily, some survive till daylight when a destroyer returns to rescue them.

It must have been difficult living during the war, trying to get on with your own personal life when everything was wrapped up in the war effort. Manchester was a target for enemy bombers because of its industrial strength and also because of its airport at Ringway, now Manchester International Airport. My mother used to tell me stories of air raid shelters and late night cocoa when the air raid warnings were on and everyone trooped into the shelter. Everyone except my granddad who always said ‘If I’m going to die, I’ll die in my bed!’ She told and still tells stories of gas masks, bomb craters and how you could tell the differing sounds of German and British aircraft.

I’ve often wondered what happened if your house was bombed? Were you given new housing? What happened to your mortgage? Did you still have to pay it? Imagine being stuck with a 25 year mortgage and a house that was just a pile of rubble.

One other observation about films in the 40’s and 50’s: People seemed to have a different pattern of speech back then, a different and faster rhythm than today with clearer and more precise diction. Is that the case or is that just the way the actors and actresses of the time were taught to speak. Speech today seems slower and less precise and sprinkled with regular use of words like ‘awesome’!

Back to the Cruel Sea and Captain Ericson alias Jack Hawkins is given another ship which he captains until the end of the war. The producer, Sir Michael Balcon said that Hawkins was always the first choice for the Cruel Sea, even going so far as to say that without Hawkins he wouldn’t have made the film. The finished picture was the hit British film of 1953.

Hawkins was the epitome of the trustworthy British authority figure. In his obituary one writer wrote that Hawkins ‘exemplified for many cinemagoers the stiff upper lip tradition prevalent in post war British films. His craggy looks and authoritative bearing were used to good effect whatever branch of the services he represented.’

Hawkins himself was a three pack a day smoker and later became ill with throat cancer. In 1966 his entire larynx was removed however he still appeared in films with his dialogue dubbed by either Charles Gray or Robert Rietti. He died in 1973.

Just as I was writing this post, one thought came back to me about the book of the Cruel Sea. It was written by Nicholas Montsarrat and on the last page, when the war is over, the captain who has always hated his safety vest, hurls it into the sea. The vest sank like a stone!


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

The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film (Part 2)

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!
You can read the Film of the Book part 1 by clicking here. Meanwhile, here are a few more of my film/book experiences.

Rebecca (the film)

Rebecca was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1940. Laurence Olivier plays Max De Winter and Joan Fontaine is particularly good as the shy, unworldly new wife of the rather grand Max De Winter.

Max and his new wife, who is never named in the novel as she is also the narrator, meet in the south of France, marry and return to Max’s grand country house Manderley, in Cornwall. There they settle into country life rather uneasily, as lurking always in the background is the spectre of Max’s late wife Rebecca who died in a boating accident.

Also lurking in the background is the housekeeper of Manderley, Mrs Danvers. She was devoted to Rebecca and her presence seems to cloak the house in a sinister gloom. George Sanders plays his usual suave smooth talking self; in this film he is the apparent lover to the late Rebecca. A number of incidents occur making the new wife believe her husband resents her and prefers Rebecca. Nothing could be further from the truth as we find out when Rebecca’s body is discovered in the cabin of her sunken boat just off the coast. Max reveals he had an argument with Rebecca, struck her and she fell, hitting her head on some heavy fishing tackle. He carried her dead body to her boat, took to sea and scuttled the small vessel, creating the lie of her death at sea. Now the body has come to light, George Sanders’ character comes forward with a letter from Rebecca, inviting him to visit on the day of her death and with this he decides to blackmail De Winter as this shows she could not have contemplated suicide.

There is a nice twist at the end which I won’t give away but Rebecca is a wonderful film, well worth looking out for on one of the many movie channels available these days.

One disappointing aspect of the film was the rather cheap model of Manderley used at the beginning and end of the film. If I was Hitchcock I would have been tempted to revisit the film in the 1960’s and add some better model effects.

Rebecca (the book) by Daphne Du Maurier

The book is written in the first person by the unnamed new wife of Max De Winter. It’s a very good read indeed and I enjoyed it very much, so much so I had to take it out of my work’s bag (I’d been reading at work during my dinner breaks) and take it into the garden on a lovely sunny day as I was so keen to get to the end. It is very similar to the film although in the book De Winter actually shoots his wife unlike the film where De Winter strikes her and she falls and hits her head. The ending is also rather abrupt but an excellent read, well worth picking up if you see a copy for sale.

Serpico (the film)

Al Pacino stars in the true story of Serpico, a New York City cop who tried to fight the culture of bribery and corruption in the NYPD in the 60’s and early 70’s. This 1973 film is directed by Sidney Lumet and is shot in a gritty natural style. It starts with Serpico being shot in the face and then on his way to hospital it flashes back to tell the story of rookie cop Frank Serpico and his graduation to detective and his refusal to take bribes. It is shot and acted in a very natural documentary style and the film portrays Serpico’s ongoing disappointment with his superiors and those he trusts to look into the situation very well indeed. A brilliant example of 70’s moviemaking at its best.

Serpico (the book) by Peter Maas

It’s a long while since I read the book and despite a lengthy search I couldn’t get my hands on it for a read through for this post. It was a fascinating read as I remember, reading more like a work of fiction than the true story it really was.

Serpico (the DVD)

Since I couldn’t say much about the book I just want to throw in a quick comment about the DVD. One thing I love about DVDs are those special versions with extended features, documentaries and so on. On the DVD of Serpico there is an interview with the producer Dino De Laurentiis where he tries to explain the character of Serpico this way; He and Serpico go to a screening of a film in New York. They are checking out possible directors or something, anyway, the theatre is empty and ignoring the no smoking sign, De Laurentiis decides to light up. ‘Wait a minute’ says Serpico, ‘you can’t smoke in here.’ De Laurentiis replies ‘what does it matter? There is no one here but us.’

Serpico points to the no smoking sign and replies ‘look, you just can’t smoke here’ and makes the producer put out his cigarette. That, says Dino on the DVD, was when he began to understand what Serpico was about. There were no grey areas with him, everything was black and white.

The Big Sleep (the book) by Raymond Chandler 

The Big Sleep, which refers to death in American gangster speak was the first of Raymond Chandler’s novels to feature his famous detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was described by one reviewer as ‘a 20th-century knight who treads the mean streets of Hollywood and Santa Monica, and who also visits the houses of the stinking rich, with their English butlers, corrosive secrets and sinister vices.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself. In the Big Sleep Marlowe is summoned to the house of General Sternwood whose daughter is being blackmailed by a seedy bookseller.

Sternwood, a crippled old man spends his time in a heated conservatory and seems to draw strength from the overwhelming heat. He engages Marlowe who sets off on a trail of blackmail and murder. I have to say the film rather confused me and it was only after reading the novel that I began to understand some of the intricacies of the plot.

The Big Sleep (the film)

Director Howard Hawks was also aware of the complexity of the novel. He once asked Raymond Chandler who had shot the chauffeur. Chandler replied that he had no idea.

The movie version from 1946 stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and I used to think that this was the film where Bogart and Bacall met although in fact it was actually another movie, ‘To Have and Have Not‘, also directed by Howard Hawks. By the time of ‘The Big Sleep’ their romance was in full swing. Later Bogart left his wife Mayo and he and Bacall were free to marry.

The opening of the film where Bogart meets the general is brilliant. The wayward daughter remarks he is not very tall. ‘I try to be’ Bogart replies. Later, the other daughter played by Bacall says she doesn’t like Bogart’s manners. He replies ‘I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.’

My advice, get yourself the DVD, pour yourself a large glass of red, press play and relax and enjoy.

The Silence of the Lambs (the Film)

The film was released in 1991 and it’s one of those films that seemed to naturally self-publicise itself, one of those word of mouth films that everyone at the time was talking about. It’s a gruesome film in parts and not really my usual sort of film but what is appealing is the slow relentless process the FBI makes to track down the killer and the procedures and techniques they use. Jodie Foster plays FBI trainee Clarice Starling. She is sent by the head of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit to interview captured serial killer Hannibal Lector played by Anthony Hopkins, in the hope he might give some clue or insight into helping with the capture of a new serial killer known as Buffalo Bill.

Hopkins gives a chilling portrayal of the psychotic serial killer and Jodie Foster and the other principals were given much acclaim for their performances. The film was only the third to win Oscars in the top 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is perhaps the only horror film ever to win the best picture award.

The Silence of the Lambs (the Book) by Thomas Harris

The book, like the film, focusses on the FBI and their attempts to trace the killer known as Buffalo Bill. Trainee agent Clarice Starling builds up a relationship with imprisoned murderer Doctor Hannibal Lector where Lector dribbles out bits of information in exchange for personal details about Clarice herself. Clarice, the vulnerable young FBI agent is a sort of counterpoint to the evil Murderer Dr Lector.

The book like the film is more of a horror story than a detective novel. I felt drawn to the passages that were chilling and gruesome in a strange way, almost like when a spider appears and I’m compelled to watch it even though I hate spiders. The relationship between Lector and Starling is intriguing and is really more of a focus than the capture of the Buffalo Bill and I did find myself wondering whether Lector might want to murder Clarice or perhaps his interest in her is something different.

I read the follow up book, Hannibal, expecting more of the same but it was even more gruesome and had a strange implausible ending. Since then I’ve steered clear of Mr Harris’ books but Silence is a great read.


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

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee

I can’t really remember when I became interested in Red Indians, or to be more precise, Native American Indians. In a way it was an interest in philosophy and the meaning of life that led me to them. I liked the idea of the Great Spirit and the Mother Earth. Those intrinsic ideas of nature and faith greatly appealed to me and showed me a different Indian to the one I have seen on feature films, here was a thoughtful race, in tune with nature. A speech made in 1854 by Chief Seattle has always moved me and in part says this:

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.

What more eloquent description of the world and man’s place in it could there be?

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee is a book by Dee Brown published in 1970. It is a sad book telling a sad tale of murder, lies and ethnic cleansing. It tells the story of a proud race of people driven from their homes by invaders from Europe and forced to leave behind their homes, their memories and their traditions. Much of the book is in the actual words of the Indians whose words were taken down in treaty meetings and councils, by government stenographers.

Columbus arrived in the new world in 1492 and he described the natives at ‘tractable and peaceable’ yet in less than a decade Spaniards had looted and burned villages in their search for gold and treasure, kidnapped men, women and children for sale as slaves and destroyed entire tribes. Things were similar on the east coast of the country. Englishmen landed in 1620 and found the natives friendly and even helpful. They would probably have died during their first winter in America had the natives not showed the newcomers where and how to fish and how to cultivate and plant corn. For several years the Indians and the new white settlers lived in peace but then more and more settlers arrived and settlements in the place the newcomers called New England became more crowded.

in 1625 some of the colonists asked the Indians for more land. The Indians who knew that the land came from the Great Spirit and belonged to no one went through a ceremony to give the English more land. It was more to humour these strange men that the Indians did so but it was the first deed of Indian land to English colonists.

When Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoags died in 1662, his people were being pushed back into the wilderness as so many more Englishmen arrived and their settlements became bigger. The New Englanders flattered the new Indian chief Metacom and crowned him ‘King’. Metacom though made new alliances with other Indian tribes and in 1675 began a war to save the tribes from extinction. The firepower of the colonists however overwhelmed the Indians and Metacom was killed and his head publicly displayed at Plymouth for the next twenty years. His wife and son were sold into slavery.

Over the next two hundred years these events were repeated time and time again as the colonists moved ever westwards. In 1829 Andrew Jackson took office as President of the United States.. He suggested setting an ample district of the country, west of the Mississippi, to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes. On May 28th 1830 Jackson’s recommendations became law. Two years later he appointed a Commissioner of Indian Affairs to see this was carried out and then on June 30th 1834 Congress passed An Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse with the Indian Tribes and to Preserve Peace on the Frontiers. All the land west of the Mississippi and not part of Missouri, Louisiana or Arkansas would be Indian country. Also, no white persons would be able to trade in the Indian country without a licence and no white persons would be allowed to settle on Indian lands. However, a new wave of settlers surged west and formed the territories of Wisconsin and Iowa and so the Indian frontier was shifted even further west.

At the beginning of the 1860’s the American Civil War began. Perhaps the Indians hoped the white men would destroy each other but it was not to be. The colonists wanted more and more land and the Indians had to cede more and more to the newcomers until there was nothing left for them to give. One thing they would not give was the Black Hills.

The Black Hills were sacred to the Indians. Paha Sapa was the centre of the world, the place where warriors went to speak with the Great Spirit and await visions and where the spirits of their ancestors dwelt. In 1868 the Great Father, the President, considered the hills worthless and gave them to the Indians forever by treaty. Four years later the cry of ‘gold’ was raised and miners and pan handlers made a bee line for the hills. Many were killed or chased out by the Indians but by 1874 gold crazy prospectors were making such a hue and cry that the army decided to send soldiers to the area for a reconnaissance. A thousand pony soldiers of the 7th cavalry marched into the area  commanded by General George Armstrong Custer. Custer had years before slaughtered Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyennes. Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux was not happy. He made complaints to the Great Father in Washington but their response was to send negotiators to buy the Black Hills. Councils were set up with the chiefs of all the tribes in the area but the word was firm. The Black Hills had an importance to the tribes that went beyond money. They would not sell.

The negotiators packed up and returned to Washington. Their recommendation? That congress ignore the wishes of the Indians, take the land and pay a ‘fair equivalent of the value of the hills.’ to the Indians.

On December 3rd the Commisioner of Indian Affairs ordered all Indians to report to their reservations by January 31st. This was impossible as all the tribes were at their winter lodges and many were searching for game to assist with their meagre rations. A mixed band of Oglala Sioux and Northern Cheyennes were hunting Buffalo in the Powder River area. On March the 17th they were asleep in their lodges when a company commanded by Captain James Egan charged through the sleeping camp. At the same time a second troop of cavalry came in from the left flank while a third swept away the Indians’ pony herd. Many were killed. The Indian Teepees were burned with everything inside and the survivors were left with nothing, no food or weapons and only the clothes they were wearing. Later that night while the soldiers camped, the survivors returned and stole back their horses, then without adequate food or clothing they made their way to the camp of Crazy Horse. The Oglala chief took in the survivors and gave them food and shelter.

As the weather warmed the Sioux and Cheyenne decamped in accordance with their treaty rights as hunters. Several thousand Indians of many tribes came together. After an engagement with the forces of General Crook the chiefs decided to move to the valley of the Greasy Grass, or as the Americans called it, the Little Big Horn.

Some minor battles with other US cavalry groups had occurred before the  Little Big Horn engagement, notably with Major Reno. It seems that when the Indians attacked Custer’s 7th Cavalry, Custer meant to break back south and meet up with major Reno’s forces not knowing that they had already been beaten back by Indian forces. Custer also apparently did not realise the true scale of the Indian forces. Five of the 7th Cavalry’s 12 companies were annihilated and Custer was killed, as were two of his brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law. The total US casualty count included 268 dead and 55 severely wounded (six died later from their wounds).

After the battle the tribes hunted and feasted. Generals Crook and Terry would not attack again until reinforcements arrived. By then, many of the tribes had left for their own reservations and lands and the huge force that had existed before was gone. The Sioux were finally defeated by General Miles in 1877. Threatened with starvation the tribes were forced to finally sell the Black Hills.

One last sad story is one that gave its name to the title of Dee Brown’s book. In December of 1890 a band of Lakota Indians were escorted to the Wounded Knee creek where they camped. The next day Major Whiteside’s regiment was replaced by soldiers of the newly built up regiment once commanded by Custer and now led by Major James Forsyth. Forsyth decided to disarm the Indians and had his troops surround them. He had new Hotchkiss guns set up on a hill to cover the camp.  It is not certain what happened but the next morning one Indian was reluctant to give up his rifle. Soldiers tried to seize the rifle and a shot was heard. Perhaps it was the Indian, Black Coyote, perhaps not. Soldiers then opened fire, shooting indiscriminately. Fighting began but as only a few of the Indians had weapons they were forced to flee. Then the Hotchkiss guns on a hill overlooking the area opened fire, raking the teepees and killing women and children and anyone in their path. 153 were known to be dead but many died later from their wounds.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee tells of the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Arapaho, the Brules, the Cherokees, the Shoshone and hundreds of others, some forgotten and many unremembered. It tells of chiefs like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Standing Bear, Geronimo, Red Cloud, Cochise and many others. All are gone and few remembered but the Native Americans survive to this day. Many have adapted, many have changed. Most live in poverty on reservations described by observers as being like third world nations.

Today, the Sioux still ask for the return of their lands. In a 1980 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court found that “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” It authorized a settlement now worth nearly $200 million, but ruled that it had no power to return the land. The Sioux live in poverty, yet they refused the pay out.

The Hills, the Indians say, are sacred soil, Wamaka Og’naka I’cante, the heart of everything that is, and not for sale.

The fight for the return of their lands goes on.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is still in print 48 years after its publication in 1970

For more information, read this article in the New York Times or this one on the PBSO news Hour page.


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