My Lockdown Book Bag 2020

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

A Right Royal Bastard by Sarah Miles.

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Turing: The Enigma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khrushchev Remembers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What to do next:

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Buy the book! Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle

Holiday Book Bag 10 Winter 2020

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

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

McCartney: A biography by Philip Norman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene.

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

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

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

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

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

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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 Ellroy’s non fiction books on previous book bags and I wanted to read some of his fiction. This is a detective story set in 1940’s 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

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.

My Holiday Book bag (3)

obook bagI’m just not into busy, rushed holidays. I prefer the quiet, relaxing type; the ones that involve sunny days, swimming pools and plenty of leisure time to read books. I read at home too but that is a different sort of reading; a few minutes here, a few minutes there. I’ll read on my lunch break at work in between eating my sandwiches and drinking tea but the best way to read, the way to really get into a book is a long uninterrupted read while you lie on your sun lounger with the pool handy nearby for when it gets a little too hot. A quick dip then you are back to the thoughts of your chosen author.

Here’s my holiday book bag for this year. Paperbacks are usually my preferred choice for holidays but as we’re travelling to France by car, there’s a little extra room for a few hardbacks.

In God’s Name by David Yallop.

DSCF1024I bought this book originally on the 3rd March, 1987.  I know that for a fact because back then I used to write the date on all my book and record purchases. I have read it a number of times and it is a fascinating read. It ticks all my personal boxes of history and modern mysteries. Why, you might ask would anyone want to murder the Pope? Good question and the answer, according to the author is the Vatican Bank. The Vatican, thanks to Mussolini, is a separate independent state and so the Vatican bank, registered in the Vatican state is not answerable to the banking laws and inspectors of Italy. This idea appealed to various unscrupulous individuals, notably Licio Gelli – the head of an illegal and secret masonic organisation known as P2, Roberto Calvi – a banker with ties to P2 and the Mafia, and Michele Sindona, another criminal. Together they engineered the movement of various shares and monies, using the Vatican bank. A man called Albino Luciano, the bishop of Venice, became aware gradually of various wrongdoings in the bank and was particularly dismayed by the action, or inaction of Bishop Paul Marchinkus, the head of the Vatican Bank. In 1978, after the death of Pope Paul VI, Luciano was elected Pope. He was a man dedicated to the ideas of Jesus, a simple carpenter from Nazareth and he wanted the church to follow his example. He did not want a church that had a multi million dollar profit in stocks and shares, he wanted a poor church, a church that properly reflected the feelings of its founder. When he was elected the new Pope, Luciano’s ideas and those of the aforementioned individuals were on a collision course. David Yallop’s investigation is intensive and revealing and I came away from the book feeling an intense sadness that a good and decent man, a man who would have been a great Pope and spiritual leader had been stolen from us by the greed of a few men.

Alfie by Bill Naughton.

I do like to buy books with a film tie in cover. I have all the Bond books, some in paperback, some in hardback and I am always on the look out for the film cover versions. This book has the movie cover that links not to the classic Michael Caine version, but the poor, the very, very poor, Jude Law version. I suppose in some ways you can sympathise with the movie moguls. Alfie was a great hit in the 60’s. Hey, they must have thought, we can transfer the location from Swinging 60’s London to cosmopolitan New York in the 21st century, the result will be dynamite! Wrong! The result was dreadful. Anyway, the novel is brilliant. Written in the first person the writer, just like Alfie in the movie, talks directly to you, the reader and tells you about his life, in his own words, his own accent, and with his own logic. Just about the best free thinking, verbatim (so it seems) book I have ever read. The great thing is when the dialogue tells you one thing, and his inner voice tells you another! Brilliant.

a-year-in-provence_28624048773_oA Year in Provence by Peter Mayle.

They made this book into a TV series years ago. It starred the late John Thaw and the reviewers panned it mercilessly. TV seems to do working class pretty well, what with its soaps and dramas and made for TV films but middle class, that is for some reason a different story. Middle class is a big no no for TV. Strange but true. The producers might have been better making a movie out of this book. I can see a movie version in the tradition of say, Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill looking good. Anyway, enough about the TV version because the book itself is just a minor classic. I’ve read it before and it is just a joy to read. No deaths or murders or violence. No bad language just a middle class couple who decide to pack everything in and go and live in Provence, that lovely department in the South of France. It’s about wine and food. About gardens and kitchen refurbs. Truffle hunting and vine planting. Swimming pools and life in the country; the French country. If you see a copy in your local book shop, snap it up! It’s well worth a read: A gentle, relaxing, summer read.

Nixon In Winter by Monica Crowley.

Richard Nixon is not perhaps the most enigmatic of presidents but he and his presidency are very, very interesting. He could have very easily become president in 1960 but he was narrowly beaten by John F Kennedy. I can’t think of anyone else, beaten in an election who managed to come back again as his party’s presidential candidate. Probably the closest is Hilary Clinton, beaten by Obama in the Democratic primarys eight years ago and has now risen again to finally become the new 2016 Democratic candidate. Nixon won the election in 1968 with a promise to end the Vietnam war with honour and to bring people together. He did just that, he ended the war and brought people together, all though not in the way he wanted. He brought them together in a determination to remove him from office and as the Watergate scandal escalated, he finally resigned. Strange how Nixon is suddenly much in the forefront of popular media. Oliver Stone made a film about him – Nixon, starring Anthony Hopkins. There was a recent film about the Nixon/Frost interviews starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, which was a fabulous movie and I hear there is a new film being released this year about the meeting between Nixon and Elvis, when Elvis, a collector of law enforcement badges, wanted to be sworn in as a Bureau of Narcotics agent. This book is written by Monica Crowley who became his research assistant in his later years and is based on her daily diary of conversations with the former president. Nixon died in 1994.

James ElroyMy Dark Places by James Elroy.

This was my first read on this holiday and I wondered at the time if any of my other books could live up to this one. Elroy as you may know is a writer of crime novels. If you haven’t read his books you may have seen the movie adaptations like LA Confidential. Elroy is a modern crime noir writer, following in the footsteps of Chandler and Dashiel Hammet. This book is a diversion for him. Part autobiography, part investigation into his mother’s murder in 1958. In the book Elroy bares his soul to the reader and explores all his inner most feelings; his early life, his thoughts; in effect, all his dark places. An incredible read. A fast moving, inward looking memoir and a man looking for answers to his life. I’ve already been searching abebooks for copies of his other works.

Present Indicative by Noel Coward.

Recently I picked up a few of Coward’s plays in paperback form and was totally taken aback by the witty repartee, the humour and the freshness of Coward’s work. You might think as a devotee of ‘Kitchen Sink Drama’ Coward’s work might be anathema to  me. Nothing could be further from the truth. In art as in literature, there is room for all genres and all tastes. On my last holiday in Lanzarote I read The Life of Noel Coward by his partner, Cole Lesley and it just made me want to read more of Coward’s own work. I look forward to reading about Noel’s early life in his own words.

The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe by Donald Wolfe.

I’ve been reading this book for the last few days and like the really good read that it is, the author has sucked me in to Los Angeles and its environs in the post war years and those people who made a beeline for Hollywood, thinking that they could be discovered and take a short cut to fame and fortune. Norma Jeane Mortensen was a dreamer, a girl who dreamed of being a star and for her it came true when she became Marilyn Monroe. From a factory girl to model, and model to movie stardom and then to an untimely end. This is her story. I’ve read one of Wolfe’s other books on Marilyn, The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe, and so far this is just as good if not better. Monroe, Hollywood, the Kennedys and murder is a very heady mix indeed. If you want a very brief rundown of Marilyn’s last hours, take a look at this post from last year.

The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert Heinlein.

When I was younger I used to read a lot of sci-fi although these days I prefer the genre in TV or movie format. Heinlein is a classic writer and I picked up this volume in a second-hand book shop. I made a pretty late snap decision to throw this into my book bag and I’m not sure how things will turn out, if I’ll enjoy it or not. But, if the book is not my cup of tea I’ve always got the pool open nearby ready for some serious swimming.

Floating In Space by Steve Higgins.

Of course, this is my very own book: A kitchen sink drama set in the late seventies. My top proofreader Liz Morrison scanned through this a while ago and pointed out numerous grammar issues. On this holiday I’m hoping to rectify them. Also, I’ve never been really satisfied with the cover. I always envisaged a young man seen from behind, floating before the earth and I did my best with the createspace templates that were at hand. When I finally sort out those grammatical errors I’ve got a new cover in mind. In the meantime if you fancy reading Floating In Space, click here for my Amazon page or click the links at the top of this page for more information.