Holiday Book Bag 2022

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

My Life in France by Julia Child.

Sometimes you pick up a book that is just a joy to read and this was one of those books. Julia Child is a US TV chef, maybe one of the first TV chefs ever, although she is little known in England. The book is a memoir of her life in France, her journey as a Cordon Bleu chef and as a cookery book author, a TV star and as a wife and Francophile.

Her husband Paul works for the US foreign service and is posted to France in the late 1940s. The two have an interesting life in post war Paris enjoying French food and the French way of life. Julia is very interested in food and takes on a course as a Cordon Bleu chef. She is fascinated by the French way of cooking and meets many others who feel the same including two French women who have written a book about French cooking but aimed at the American market. The two Frenchwomen need an American point of view so Julia is engaged to assist but soon becomes the primary force in the emerging book. My Life In France mixes the development of her classic French cookery book with her life, her love of food, her favourite recipes and the whole world of French food. An utterly wonderful book, even if you are not familiar with Julia or the recent TV series or the film starring Meryl Streep.

I was travelling through France when I read this book and I was very tempted to divert course and visit some of the places she mentions.

Verdict: A joyous, wonderful read.

The Essential Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway.

During the lockdown I read a blog that was something along the lines of 100 authors you must read before you die. One of those authors was Ernest Hemingway. Not long afterwards I spotted a compilation of his works in a charity shop and I thought to myself, I’d better pick that up and get cracking on those 100 authors. It had been lying unattended on my book shelf for quite a while so I thought I’d throw it into my book bag for our latest trip to France.

The book consists of one complete novel, Fiesta, parts of some other novels and a collection of short stories. I wasn’t in the least interested in reading parts of a book. If I want to read a book, I’ll read the whole lot, not parts of it so I thought I’d get cracking with Fiesta. Now I know Hemingway has a sort of minimalistic style so I was prepared for that. I just couldn’t understand the point of a lot of what he was talking about. It’s like he was showing us stuff that was hardly relevant, almost like a Quentin Tarantino film. There are pages of dialogue and then some fairly introspective stuff and then we were back to dialogue again. Jake Barnes is in love with Brett who I thought at first was a man but is actually a woman, a lady in fact, an actual lady, Lady Ashley, known as Brett to her friends. Jake and Brett and various others all go off from Paris to Spain to see the bull fighting in Pamplona and Brett turns out to be popular with many of the men. Jake is love with her and Michael wants to marry her but she decides she wants a bull fighter who then falls for her and apparently also wants to marry her.

Sorry Ernest if you are reading this from the spirit world but I got a little bit lost and only continued to the end out of a sort of dedication to not having another novel on my conscience that I couldn’t finish. What can I say? I know it’s a classic but sorry, it wasn’t my cup of tea. I tried some of the other short stories in this collection but again even though they are well written I started wondering things like ‘what’s this about? Why are we talking about this? What was the point of that?

Verdict: Interesting but an ultimately disappointing read.

Trace by Patricia Cornwell.

I picked this up a while ago, started to read it and lost interest, not because of the book itself but because it was in my book bag for taking outside and as the UK weather has been so poor, I haven’t done much outdoor reading this year so far. Anyway, I thought I’d throw it in my holiday book bag and give it a read while I was touring France. I’ve always liked the Kay Scarpetta novels and a few years back I started reading the whole sequence of them starting with Post Mortem, the impressive first entry in the series. I thought the books were great, that they looked at crime in a new and different way, showing how crimes could be solved by forensic detection and it was the reality of the novels, their clear connection to modern detection methods that was at the core of their success. After a while though, I felt the books were straying from reality and getting a little silly, a bit like when Roger Moore took over the mantle of James Bond and the 007 films went a little daft.

Trace is not one of Cornwell’s best books and concerns, to a certain extent, Scarpetta’s niece Lucy who has gone off and become some kind of super secret agent computer geek girl and has somehow made a great deal of money and founded her own super secret spy company. Anyway, in this novel, the death of a young girl who Scarpetta has been consulted about is apparently connected to another case Lucy is also working on. It kept me reading and I liked it but sadly not as much as the earlier more serious and reality based novels.

Verdict. OK but not a great entry into the Scarpetta series.

What Happened by Hillary Clinton.

I picked up this book in a second hand book shop. I’ve always liked Hillary Clinton. She’s not your average First Lady, content to stay in the background and support her husband, the President. Mrs Clinton liked to be part of Bill Clinton’s administration in a way that other first ladies have never been, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong ones.

Her book What Happened? is basically about her failed attempt to become the USA’s very first female president. If she had succeeded, that would have been quite an achievement and for a while it even looked as though it was on the cards. Mrs Clinton mentions many times how she was ahead in the polls and how she beat Trump in their various TV debates so where did her candidacy go wrong?

She had a lot of ideas for the presidency and she reveals many of her plans to engage in the problems facing the USA in this book. Her presidential opponent Donald Trump didn’t seem to have many ideas at all, at least that’s what Hillary seems to think. His campaign was based on attacking and coming up with ideas for building a wall to keep the Mexicans out and of course, wanting to lock Hillary up.

A big problem for Hillary was her emails. She had decided to carry on using her personal email server instead of the government one, something that other government officials have done before, but somehow the press got hold of the story and blew it up out of all proportion. Her emails were leaked to the Wikileaks website and an investigation was made which involved publishing many of her emails, actually 30,000 of them. She mentions that many people seem to think she is hiding something despite her emails being published as well as her tax returns. After many investigations, the Whitewater investigation for instance, she makes the point that everything she has done has been so public, what could she be hiding? Mr Trump of course did not publish his tax returns, or his emails for that matter.

There’s a very hurt tone throughout the book and clearly, she’s not very happy about her defeat, just like any defeated candidate would be. Hillary has had to endure a lot. Mr Obama’s successful quest to become the first black president overshadowed her first try at the presidency and she returned eight years later when it was time for Obama to step down. Her husband is well known for his extra marital affairs but she has stood by him none the less and some of the bad press from those incidents has clung to her like a sort of bad background odour.

The final nail into the coffin of her presidential bid was a last minute announcement by the head of the FBI about the emails and her small points lead dwindled into a loss.

I often wonder why Mrs Clinton seems to be disliked. She is one of those personalities that people either like or hate, there doesn’t seem to be anything inbetween. Over on YouTube when I did a search about her, pretty much everything that came up was negative. There was a former secret service agent talking about an incident in which the former first lady had thrown a vase at the president, well an alleged incident I should say. The thing is, if your husband had been playing away with Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, wouldn’t you be tempted to throw the occasional vase at him? I know I would, had I been in Hillary’s shoes.

Over on Quora, someone had already asked my question, what is Mrs Clinton really like? The first answer I saw was a lady who called up Mrs Clinton’s senatorial office about her brother’s problem, it was to do with money or tax or something I can’t remember. She left a message and the next morning Mrs Clinton, yes Mrs Clinton herself, not an assistant but actually Mrs Clinton herself, called up, took more details and sorted out the problem.

I doubt Hillary Clinton will ever go for another run at the presidency but it’s clear she has made her mark on the American political scene as a woman, a candidate, a senator and a First Lady.

Verdict: Not a great book but an enjoyable read all the same.


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My Holiday Book Bag 2021

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

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

Peter Sellers by Alexander Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of a Glutton by MC Beaton

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

A pleasant holiday read, nothing more.

Bill Clinton: An American Journey by Nigel Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

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

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

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


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Dylan Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As you might have guessed from reading these posts, I really do love my books. One particular book pictured here, about the last days of poet Dylan Thomas is one I’ve had a long time but have not got around to reading until more recently. I do endlessly peruse our local secondhand shops for books but I have a feeling I bought this one from one of two online bookshops, either Abebooks or Awesome books, both of which I use especially when there is a particular book that I am after.

This book is a rather slow one but it details Dylan’s last days and ultimately his death in New York in the USA.

Dylan was a slow worker when it came to writing and there was always something, usually a pub, to draw him away from his work. In his latter days he was concerned that his talent or his inspiration had gone and that all his best work was perhaps behind him. He was short of money as usual and that is what drove him to accept an offer to go to the USA on a poetry tour by Canadian poet John Brinnin. Brinnin was the director of a poetry centre in New York and the trips Dylan undertook there were very lucrative for the always hard up poet. Thomas had a number of wealthy patrons, in fact his famous house in Laugharne was bought by for him by an admirer but money went through Dylan’s hands quickly.

He had travelled there before and on his penultimate visit had become romantically involved with a lady called Liz Reitel who worked for Brinnin at the poetry centre. When Dylan arrived for his last visit Reital was shocked to see the poet looking poorly and ‘not his usual robust self’. Dylan was in an odd mood and related a strange story of an encounter on the aircraft with a priest. Over the next few days his mood alternated between being tired and poorly and getting drunk with some moments of normality. I get the impression from the book that Dylan liked attention, he liked admirers and although he was in the middle of an affair with Liz Reitel, he was not averse to enjoying the attention he received from other women.

At the poetry centre, preparations were under way for a recital of the newly finished Under Milk Wood for which Dylan had produced some new edits and updates. Towards the end of the book Liz mentions that she was disappointed that these revisions were not included in the published versions of the play despite the fact that she personally typed them up and passed them on to Dylan’s publishers.

The recital went well and was in fact tape recorded by someone at the time with Dylan taking the part of the narrator.

The book goes on to detail Dylan’s various moods and the symptoms of whatever was ailing him.

Liz called a doctor when Dylan became unwell again and the doctor gave Dylan an injection of morphine sulphate which may or may not have helped him.

After a night of drinking at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, Dylan returned to the Chelsea hotel claiming famously that he had downed ‘eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!’

Dylan’s breathing became difficult later in the evening and an ambulance was summoned. Thomas slipped into a coma from which he never awoke and later died on the 9th of November, 1953. He was only 53 years old and died with assets of only £100.

I was always under the impression that Dylan had drunk himself to death but that may not be the case. The autopsy did not find any evidence of liver cirrhosis and his death may have been due to pneumonia and bronchitis as well as the injections he had received from the doctor. It was later thought that the morphine may have inhibited Dylan’s breathing rather than easing his pain.

This was a good read although the author’s style was not completely to my liking. One interesting thing about it was that in my copy, it was a second hand book remember, there was an inscription on the first page. The book was clearly a gift. Did the owner pass away? Did his family send for the house clearance man and clear away his belongings? Who was Kate, the lady who signed the book in 1992?

Who was the person she loved and thought the world of?

In a way it is almost like Under Milk Wood itself, where the dead come alive again at night as time passes . .


This post was compiled from my previous posts about Dylan Thomas


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4 Book Series

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

The Chronicles of Narnia.

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

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

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

The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hamish Macbeth series by MC Beaton

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

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

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

The Kay Scarpetta Series by Patricia Cornwell

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

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

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


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My Top Ten Books of All Time Part 2

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

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

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

2001 A Space Odyssey

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

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

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

The History of Mr Polly

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

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

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

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

My well thumbed copy of David Copperfield

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Da Vinci Code

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

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

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

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


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Book Bag Edition 12 2020

I would normally have called this my Holiday Book bag but despite being away from work for many weeks, it has hardly been a holiday. Still, I’ve managed to spend some time in the sun reading and here are the books from my book bag. As usual, me being a confirmed tightwad, they were all sourced from charity shops and second hand book stores.

The Murder of Rudolf Hess by W. Hugh Thomas

I really do love a good modern mystery. The JFK assassination, Watergate, the disappearance of the Romanov royal family and the many mysteries of World War Two. Chief among that latter subject was the mystery of Rudolf Hess.

Hess was once the Deputy Führer, number 2 to Adolf Hitler. He joined the Nazi party in 1920 and henceforth he was always at Hitler’s side. He was with Hitler at the failed beer hall putch of 1923 when Hitler attempted to seize power. The attempt failed and Hitler was imprisoned at Landsberg prison. There Hitler dictated his memoirs and political ideals to Hess which became ‘Mein Kampf’, -My Struggle- which later became the bible of the Nazi party.

So what was the big mystery then? Well in 1941 when the UK and Nazi Germany were at war Rudolf Hess decided to fly directly to the UK on what seemed like a mad mission to secure a peace with Britain. Hess knew that peace was not an option for Churchill who had recognised that Hitler was an evil tyrant and wanted to smash his regime. Hess apparently thought that there was a faction within Britain that could both arrange peace terms and remove Churchill.

Hess had already sent letters through an intermediary to the Duke of Hamilton in the belief that he was communicating with the leader of an anti-war party. The King, so Hess seemed to think, was opposed to Churchill and would remove him from office if given the chance.

Despite not receiving a reply from Hamilton, Hess decided to fly direct to Scotland to begin talks with Hamilton. He baled out from his Messerschmitt over Scotland and landed safely by parachute and demanded to see Hamilton. When he eventually did get to see Hamilton, his ideas for ending the conflict seemed rather woolly and disjointed. Hess was imprisoned for the rest of the war and then in 1945 sent to Nuremburg for the war crimes trials of the captured Nazi leaders. They all presumably thought Hess to be the real Hess although Göring taunted him asking him to reveal his ‘secret’.

Göring was sentenced to death at Nuremburg and Hess to life imprisonment.

So still wondering what was the great mystery? Why did Hess fly to Scotland? Who was the man who claimed to be Hess? Was it the real Hess or as some have claimed, a substitute, a fake?

The author of this book was once a medical officer in Spandau, the Berlin prison where Hess and others served their sentences. He had examined Hess as part of his routine duties and found that he had no wounds in the chest area despite records detailing chest wounds sustained in the 1914-18 conflict. The entire premise of the book is based on this one meeting between author and prisoner. It all sounds good and the author has done extensive research not only on Hess’ medical records but also on Hess’ flight from Germany. The thing is, if the real Hess started off in Germany and a fake Hess landed in the UK, who made the substitution? Britain or Germany? Why?

The book was an interesting read but I’m not sure if I’m completely convinced. Hess committed suicide in 1987, although some have claimed that British secret agents murdered him. Interestingly when the allied leaders met in the past to discuss Hess, the Soviet Union always vetoed Hess’ release. When Gorbachev took over as leader of the USSR he agreed to release Hess. That was when the UK decided to use their veto and so Hess lingered on in Spandau until his eventual death.

As Spandau prison had then become empty, its prisoners either dead or released, the allies destroyed the building. Over on Google I found an article in the New Scientist which claimed DNA evidence proved Hess was really Hess after all so that’s another conspiracy theory out of the window. Click here to read moreI

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown.

Dan Brown is a major best selling author and if you haven’t heard of this book you must have read, or seen the film, or at least heard of the Da Vinci Code, Dan’s most famous work. The Da Vinci Code was a cracking read and one I really just couldn’t put down. The flip side of the book’s success is that in one of the local charity shops in St Annes there is a whole shelf full of copies of this book in the window and a notice saying’ We’ve got enough Da Vinci Codes. We don’t want any more!’

The Lost Symbol continues the adventures of Dan’s character Robert Langdon this time in the US capital Washington. You wouldn’t think there were any ancient mysteries in a modern state like the USA would you? Think again as Langdon uncovers a trail of secret codes, secret societies and a mysterious pyramid all a stone’s throw from the White House.

The secrets of the ancient Masons, well some of them anyway are deciphered by symbologist Robert Langdon in a race to find the secrets of a pyramid hidden by the fathers of the American nation. Apart from a crazy guy intent on murder it’s all pretty interesting and the story is told from various angles so just as we encounter something incredible, Dan Brown sweeps the rug from under our feet and returns to another angle.

Fairly well written but not quite with the intensity of the Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown steers us through various puzzles and secrets to a somewhat understated finale. The last part of the book is sort of preachy where Dan seems to be telling us the Masons’, or perhaps his, understanding of God; God as the human mind. Interesting stuff . . .

Here’s an interview with Dan I found on YouTube talking about this very book . .

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

This is a book about the American Indian and is very much in the style of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It’s a story about the Parker family and about the Commanche tribe. As the new white settlers advanced westwards they encountered the Commanche tribe. They were Plains Indians who were horsemen, in fact the book mentions that many viewed them as the greatest horsemen ever seen in the Americas. They hunted buffalo and used its meat in their cooking and its hides they tanned and preserved for clothing and for warmth.

For a while, particularly during the civil war, they were successful not only in halting the westward advance of the settlers but in fact pushed the settlers back more than two hundred miles. They were great fighters with the gun and with the bow but it was the new repeating rifle that finally beat them.

The Commanche fought other Indian tribes too and in defeat, they murdered and raped, they scalped their victims but the young children that were left they took with them and were assimilated into the tribe. One young woman captive was Cynthia Ann Parker. She was absorbed into the  tribe and even bore children to a Commanche warrior. During a raid by the US Cavalry she was freed and taken back home but by then she was a Commanche and wanted only to go back to her people. She left behind a son, Quannah Parker who grew up to be a chief of the tribe. Not only that but in later years he tried to accept life on the reservation and even charged the cattle men to run their herds through his land. His story is quite an incredible one and the author recreates the frontier life of Indian villages, buffalo hunters and war dances with great style. This book was nominated for the Pulitzer prize for non fiction and it is not hard to see why.

As usual there is a video version of this post however, for reasons I won’t go into here (although the phrase complete cock up does come to mind) a slightly different selection of books is used.


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A Bit of a Blog or a Blog of Bits . .

This week I’ve been focussed on other things rather than blogging so I decided to take a few half finished posts and stitch them into one. Maybe it’s worked, maybe not. Here we go . . .

All of Me an autobiography by Barbara Windsor

Barbara is probably best known as the blonde from the Carry On films. It’s a niche that’s she stuck in despite her appearances in later years in the TV soap Eastenders. Maybe she likes that, maybe not but either way, she’s rather good at what she does. In this book, she tells her life story and it’s very frank and pretty entertaining.

‘Bar’ as her friends call her, doesn’t hold back and basically tells it like it is. She talks about her climb to fame and the husbands she has had along the way. First was Ronnie Knight, an East End gangster and friend of the Kray twins. Ronnie and Bar seemed pretty good together for a while but neither of them were interested in each other’s careers. Barbara would be off filming and Ronnie it seemed wasn’t bothered at all about that. He would be off to sort his nightclub out and Bar would be happy at home having to get up early for a film or rehearsing for one of her many stage roles. On one occasion in the early morning, the police burst in and carted Ronnie off to the nick for armed robbery. Barbara stuck by her man then but soon after, she’d had enough.

After Ronnie got the push, he was ‘aving it off’ with a blonde down at his club; Bar moved on to a younger guy and when that didn’t work out she moved onto an even younger guy. That younger guy, Scott, is still with her today and was in the news recently as Barbara has sadly been stricken with dementia and may have to go into residential care.

One surprising aspect of the book is that although like fellow Carry On star Kenneth Williams, I’d always thought of Barbara as a film and TV star, in fact a great deal of her career involved the stage and she appeared in many stage productions including her own one woman show.

This book, written in 2000 is a great little read and well worth picking up if you see it in the book shop. It’s written in a friendly talkative chit chat style, almost as if Bar has dictated it to someone and that’s something I particularly like about the book. The last quarter of the book though feels a little as if it has been tagged onto the end of another book. It mainly concerns her relationship with final husband Scott and is perhaps a little gushing and overly romantic and Woman’s Weekly style but I reckon Bar deserved a little romance in the twilight of her days. Nice read and a book well worth picking up.

Chaplin directed by Richard Attenborough

Searching through my old VHS videos the other day, I came across Chaplin, a film about the great silent comedian, directed by Richard Attenborough. I can’t say I’m a great fan of Attenborough as a director and this film showing us the life and times of Charlie Chaplin is lacking in many ways, but having said that it’s a pretty good film in many other ways.

I’ve often thought that if I could go back in time to any era, I’d go back to Hollywood in the 1920’s, the time of silent films. Someone, and I forget who it was, discovered that Hollywood had the perfect climate for making movies. Great weather, plenty of sun, all the requisites for making silent movies. Films back then were shot either outdoors or with basic sets without a roof, all lit by the relentless Californian sun. You didn’t need a degree to be a director in those days, just confidence and the ability to put a film together, not only in your head but to transfer it to film.

I don’t think Charlie Chaplin was really that funny, certainly not as funny as Laurel and Hardy for instance but he was the first film comedian to do more than link a series of funny images or sketches together. He added a little pathos, made the viewer feel for the character, care about the character as well as laugh at him.

Chaplin is loosely based on Charlie’s own autobiography, with a fictional editor played by Anthony Hopkins trying to add in all the bits that Chaplin didn’t want to write about, his various young wives for instance. Robert Downey Junior plays Chaplin and Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie’s real ife daughter, plays Chaplin’s mother who sadly descended into madness. Chaplin brought her to America and looked after her although he visited her infrequently.

The great loves of his life were his mother, his brother Sydney and his great friend Douglas Fairbanks. Sadly, Chaplin emerges  from his autobiography and from this film as essentially a sad fellow, someone in a way unfulfilled, although his films indeed changed the course of cinema history. In his time he was probably the most famous person in the world, his silent films were unrestricted by the restraints of language and his fame covered the entire globe, anywhere in fact that had a projector and a screen.

There are some great performances in this film, Kevin Kline is good as Douglas Fairbanks as is Dan Ackroyd playing the part of producer Mack Sennet. Robert Downey isn’t so bad either in the title role. I read somewhere that the film was a disaster at the box office. Pity. Personally I really enjoyed it.

Annoying Things Part 17

I was saving this for an ongoing blog post about annoying elements of the 21st Century which I update every now and then but instead here it is now. Having been cooped up at home for over 12 weeks I called into work ready to get back to my desk but apparently the Human Resources Department (years ago we used to call them ‘personnel’) decided I couldnt go back until August 1st. As a lot of the lockdown has eased we decided to have a trip out in the motorhome.

We found a nice spot to stop and set up our little camp, part of which involved a ground sheet. Now a ground sheet is something used by campers to lay down on the ground. It came in a smart plastic case and we unfolded it, spread it out and spent a considerable amount of time in the sun on it, lying around, reading, sunbathing and so on.

Later on when we packed up, I folded the ground sheet up but somehow it must have grown or stretched because no matter how I folded it, and I did do it according the still visible folds on the sheet itself, no way would it ever go back in that case. A similar thing happened the other week when I bought a hair cutting kit. It came in a box, the electric hair cutters, various length combs, a plug and so on. After I had performed my post lockdown personal haircut would that lot fit back in the box? Of course not! I’m sure one of the main design factors in these items is to make the box so small that the items will only ever fit in once and even then only in a certain way.

Of course I could put the hair cutters in the plastic bag from the groundsheet and then just tie up the ground sheet with an old belt. Result!


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My Lockdown Book Bag 2020

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

A Right Royal Bastard by Sarah Miles.

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Turing: The Enigma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khrushchev Remembers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Michael Palin, Monty Python and a Good Lockdown Read

This week has been rather nice weather wise, apart from the last few days. On a normal week Liz and I would perhaps have started up the motorhome and driven off somewhere. Scotland perhaps or maybe even Wales. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Wales. A long, long time ago, my Grandfather and Grandmother moved to Prestatyn and lived there for quite a while. I’m not sure if my Grandfather had retired but whatever the reason, they moved to a large semi-detached house a few doors away from my Mother’s Auntie May, my Grandmother’s sister, who once upon a time ran a chip shop in the area. It might have been nice to have had a run up there to try and find their old house.

Of course, as we are currently still in ‘lockdown’ due to the Corona Virus Pandemic, that hasn’t been possible but happily due to the nice weather, we’ve been able to drag ourselves into the garden and the fresh air.

Most of the time when I’ve not been writing I’ve been watching TV or reading. In recent years I have developed some very bad reading habits. I tend to start two or three books at a time and then to concentrate on the more interesting one, and so the other ones, the slightly less interesting ones, tend to fall by the wayside.

On one of my past book posts I talked about diaries, and one diary I was reading then was the diary of Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. His diaries span a decade from 1969 to 1979 and start just as filming for the classic TV comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus was beginning. I’m sorry to say that I picked up something much more interesting and left the Palin diaries abandoned somewhere. Looking around for something to read recently I retrieved the book and finished it off.

The diaries begin just as Palin had given up smoking and just as the recordings of the first Monty Python TV series took place. I’m not sure how Python came together but in the introduction Palin explains how he had just finished a series called The Complete And Utter History of Everything which didn’t do very well. Palin recalls a telephone call from John Cleese commenting that as it was unlikely that any more of that series would be made, what shall we do next? Next was Monty Python. Palin never really explains the writing process for Monty Python but it appears there were three separate writing groups: Michael Palin usually wrote with Terry Jones, Cleese wrote with Graham Chapman and Eric Idle usually wrote alone. Terry Gilliam made the (apparently) funny animations for the show. The show was broadcast late on a Tuesday night which was disappointing for the Python team. They wanted it to be shown earlier for more exposure while the BBC thought it was a little risqué for earlier viewing.

I was a schoolboy in 1969 and I well remember the ritual of mithering my mother to stay up and watch it. I usually got my way as my mother soon got fed up of my moaning. One day I forgot about Monty Python completely and when I arrived at school someone came over to me, raised their hands and exclaimed ‘Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition!’ What are you on about? I thought. ‘Didn’t you see Monty Python last night?’ said my friend and with a look of disgust went over to someone else.

‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’ he said again and a group of my schoolmates collapsed into helpless laughter. Later we went on to the school assembly and I remember feeling like the odd one out, all because I hadn’t seen Monty Python.

After assembly we went into our first class, English or whatever it was. There, one of my friends approached me and asked had I seen Monty Python last night?

I thought for a moment and then said ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ The two of us rolled over in laughter and thankfully I was no longer the odd one out. Believe it or not it was years before I got to see the Spanish Inquisition sketch.

It’s hard to find a clip of the Spanish Inquisition these days because it was used to end or change the pace of a number of other sketches. Anyway, here’s one of Cleese and Palin talking about it.

Michael Palin seems to have had his fair share of lunches and cocktail parties according to his diaries but he also talks about his house and his family and his writing with Terry Jones. The Pythons have lots of meetings, especially when they decide to make the Python films. John Cleese dropped out of the final Python TV series and he and the others all started their own projects. Cleese made Fawlty Towers, Eric did the Rutles, a spoof on the Beatles and Michael Palin did Ripping Yarns for the BBC which although Palin was happy with it I personally remember it as being a little slow.

The first Monty Python movie was just a film version of their best sketches but later they made Monty Python and the Holy Grail and then the Life of Brian, a spoof on the life of Christ which didn’t go down well with various religious groups. All the Pythons contributed to the writing of the films, each of them bringing in their various sketches and ideas and if the other group members approved, the ideas were incorporated into the final screenplay. Who was in charge of that it’s hard to say as it’s not really clear from the diaries. Michael Palin took over various projects including the first Python record album. Everyone else was too busy although on the eve of its release Eric Idle decided to do some work on it which Michael wasn’t too happy about. Various disputes were recorded in the diaries but the Pythons all managed to get over any disagreements.

As well as records there were also various Monty Python books and in fact, I remember buying one. It was the ‘Monty Python Bok’ I’m not sure why it was a bok rather than a book but it was very funny. The dustcover was white and when I went to buy a copy the top one had dirty fingerprints on. So did the next one and the next. Just then the shop assistant came over and explained the fingerprints were printed on, it was part of the joke!

In one diary entry Palin mentions an irate female book shop owner who complained about the fake fingerprints. Try as he may Michael could not arrange fingerprint free dustcovers for the shop owner. Well then said the woman, I will sell them without the dustcover. The thing was, under the dustcover the ‘bok’ had a fake soft porn cover. I think it was called ‘Tits N Bums’!

By the time of The Life of Brian the Pythons were trying to attract interest in the lucrative American market and Michael had various meetings and TV appearances on US TV, on one occasion travelling on Concorde to appear on the TV show Saturday Night Live with regulars John Belushi and Bill Murray. Former Beatle George Harrison came on board as a producer with his company Handmade Films and after EMI decided not to finance the film it was Harrison’s company that saved the production.

I have to say that personally, I was never a great fan of the Python films, I much preferred the quick and rapid-fire style of the TV show and its sketch format but also I felt that the films looked too real. The production values were just too good and I felt the stories were much more suited to the second-rate sets and backgrounds of, for instance, the Carry On films. Interestingly, Palin himself comments in one of his entries after seeing an historical film which looked visually outstanding that ‘this is the way we’re going to make a Python film!’

Another interesting aspect about the diaries was hearing about some things I had forgotten about like the three-day week, the Oil Crisis and the IRA bombing campaign in London. The three-day week meant power cuts on many weekdays and I remember sitting in my mum’s kitchen in candle light while my dad desperately tried to read the Manchester Evening News. Palin talks about the oil crisis and even petrol rationing in 1973 which I don’t really remember although in 1973 I was 16 and had just left school and had been released into the world clutching my four O’ levels. Palin and his friends were all from the university set of the late sixties and his university background is evident in his diaries.

Reading a diary isn’t like reading an autobiography and sometimes various things don’t quite make sense although I found Palin’s diaries much easier to read than Kenneth Williams’ diaries which I read some time ago.

The diaries are a fascinating read if you are a fan of Monty Python and even if you aren’t it is still interesting to see what a life your average TV comedy writer and performer leads. I particularly liked the making of Ripping Yarns which was a solo project for Palin (although Terry Jones contributed to the scripts) and clearly he was interested in all its aspects from the writing to the casting and the actual production. Later when discussing a new series of the show, the BBC told him they didn’t have the resources to make one. Interestingly, I watched something about the Goodies not long ago. They were waiting to make a new series and the BBC told them the exact same thing. The Goodies moved over to ITV!

One final personal memory about Monty Python. Years ago I used to work in the GM Buses control room. I was in the enquiry office taking calls from the public and we had the far corner of the control room to ourselves. Opposite me was Jed, a guy who hated the job and sat scowling at his desk waiting for his next call. Two young girls sat in the corner chatting and across from me was Mr Nasty, so called because of the various arguments he used to get into with the public. A young lad called Andy sat in the other corner.

Jed took a call quickly and efficiently, giving out bus times to the customer then quickly finishing the call. Next was Mr Nasty but a dispute started and I remember Nasty asking ‘you want a bus to the Stakehill Industrial Park in Rochdale but you don’t know where the Industrial Park is?’ ‘Why don’t I know where it is?’

This was my first week in the job and I remember wondering whether or not I had made a good move. The argument opposite me began to escalate and just then my phone rang. I picked it up and said ‘Hello, GM Buses’. A voice then asked me ‘Is this the right room for an argument?’

What? I looked around and my eye caught Andy quietly giggling to himself. I answered ‘I’ve told you once!’ just like John Cleese in the original Monty Python sketch.

I had found another Python fan.


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Holiday Book bag (Video Version)

Any regular readers might have noticed that on my last Book Bag post the usual video was missing. I do tend to try and add a video version to each Book Bag review but this year’s video sessions have been something of a trial.

Takes 1 and 2

I’m not sure what happened here but these two takes were where I lost the plot and started mumbling about that largely unheard of Beatles band member George McCartney. Another issue arose because I hadn’t brought my mini tripod, but instead I had my easy to transport plastic camera holder which seemed to absorb every ambient sound through the plastic table outside and every touch of the table was transformed into a mighty scrape or roar on the soundtrack. Also brought to my attention was my huge reliance on the use of the word ‘fabulous’ which I hadn’t noticed at the time.

Takes 3 and 4

It does get windy in Lanzarote at this time of year and once, a few years back when we visited the island it was very windy and gusty. Lately I’ve not really noticed any major windiness (hope that’s a proper word) but anyway, when I relocated the camera to a different table in a secluded corner of the patio, the resultant soundtrack seemed to imply that a hurricane was in progress.

Take 5 and 6

Take 5 started off OK then I realised the previous day I had passed my Paul McCartney book to another English holiday maker who was also a Beatles fan. This revelation seemed to hit me during the recording as something of a surprise and it took me a while to stop laughing. I eventually did and so managed to bumble along through take 6. The result was not totally professional and I seriously doubt it will be snapped up for BBC prime time but what the heck, 6 takes is enough when the sun is shining and the swimming pool beckons . .

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