Holiday Book Bag Summer 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Turn by Norman Wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown.

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

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

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

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

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


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

My Holiday Book Bag 2019

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

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

Honourable Men. My Life in the CIA by William Colby

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

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

Under a Mackerel Sky by Rick Stein

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

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

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

M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker.

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

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

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

The People v OJ Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Dealing with that Bad Review

Getting a bad review is not nice. That’s the basic fact of the issue. Nobody likes a bad review. The flip side, the good review is just great. You feel good, your writing, your work is vindicated but the bad review, well that gets you right there, right in the solar plexus and depending how thick skinned you are, well, even then it still hurts.

I have a number of reviews of Floating in Space on my Amazon page and they are all pretty complimentary.

The first one was written some years back by my friend Andy. We used to work together until I changed shifts. I thought I was going to progress from deputy manager to full-time manager but it didn’t work out but well, that’s another story.

I enjoyed working with Andy because he and I were just sympatico. We like a lot of the same things such as music, films, and books. We have the same sense of humour, have similar viewpoints on life and just, well, generally get on well.

I remember once on a dull night shift I decided to compile a list of my top 20 favourite singles but it expanded and expanded until it became my top 100. I showed it to Andy and he began compiling his own version. We compared notes and found that there was so much music that we both liked that our compilations overlapped in so many area. There were, of course, some areas of music that Andy liked which didn’t appeal to me but there was much more that we had in common. Andy though had quite a few artists and songs on his list that I had never heard of and as we talked and pulled out more and more tracks from our memory banks, I became desperate for something that I liked but would be new to him and so I started racking my brains for something he would never have heard of.

After a few moments I remembered an artist so obscure that Andy would never have heard of in a month of Sundays.’ Andy,’ I told him. ‘I’ve got one record that I really don’t think you’ll know. It’s by a Japanese percussionist.’

Andy thought for a moment and said ‘you don’t mean Stomu Yamashta!

He and I both roared with laughter. It’s not totally inconceivable that two middle-aged men with similar likes should both have bought albums by the same obscure artist decades ago but it seemed so funny to us that we both howled with laughter. I remember one of our team mates coming over and asking what the joke was. When we had recovered sufficiently to tell her, she looked back at us blankly and went back to her desk. Clearly she thought we were both bonkers.

I’m not sure Andy was too keen on looking at my book with a view to reviewing it. He’d looked at my blog posts and he wasn’t a particular fan. Anyway, eventually he succumbed to my constant mithering and one day decided to take my review copy home.

He came back to work saying he had really liked the book and even went so far as to buy his own paperback version. That was another satisfied reader and a great feeling for me to have a friend like my work. Andy, as I said earlier, wrote me a pretty good review.

Another short but good review came from my old friend Brian. Brian actually features in Floating in Space, thinly disguised as a character called Billy Mallet. Billy, and Brian, were both great jokers and were always quick with a funny response for any given situation. I remember once going into a pub with Brian where he was due to have a game of pool with someone and it was something of a grudge match if you know what I mean.

Anyway, we walked into this pub. The atmosphere was not good and someone shouted out to him. I don’t actually remember what the remark was, it certainly wasn’t of a complimentary nature but Brian, without missing a beat called to the guy and said ‘hey, fancy going around with a face like that and no dog licence!’ which brought the house down and cleared the atmosphere. Brian and his mate had the pool match, Brian won, money was exchanged and we left in search of more congenial surroundings.

Brian’s review was short and sweet but positive.

Another review came from one of my WordPress fellow bloggers who decided to see what all the fuss was about on my web page, which as you may know is full of posts, pages and videos praising this relatively unknown literary masterpiece. That review was very, very kind indeed and compared FIS to similar works like the Reggie Perrin books and writers such as Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe and Bill Naughton.

So now it’s about time we came to the bad review. It wasn’t a nasty review, it wasn’t one of those internet things where someone just starts having a go at you. Come to think of it, not long ago on YouTube, someone commented on one of my promo videos that Floating was ‘a rip off and a sad copy of Life on Mars!’

Life on Mars if you remember, was a TV show in which the main character wakes up in 1970’s Manchester where he is a police detective. Well, I don’t know where that guy was going with that one because FIS is nothing like Life on Mars although it is of course set in Manchester in 1977. I pointed that out to my random YouTube commenter but he never replied and after about a month I deleted his comment as it annoyed me every time I happened to see it.

OK but what about the bad review on Amazon? I know, well here it is:

I got this for my oh (other half?) to read as he was at uni in the 70s. But he wasn’t interested, so I read it myself. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I found it boring, lacking in real story and about free sex and booze.

Free sex and booze! I don’t remember writing anything about free sex but then again, then was some sex. It’s a book about young men and young men like young women and, at least back in the seventies, young men and women liked having a drink and a dance and they enjoyed the subtle and no so subtle arts of the ‘chat up’!

I like to think that FIS observes young men up close in pubs and clubs and I wrote, quite accurately I thought, about beer and cigarettes, about banter and chat up lines, pints of lager and Bacardi and cokes and the smoky background of 1970’s jukebox music.

The reviewer mentions university so perhaps life was different for students in the 70’s. Perhaps for them it was all red wine and progressive rock, cannabis and sex. (But not free sex, clearly.)

Still, there are a number of things to remember about reviews, especially bad reviews.

Firstly: Even the very best of the bestest authors get them because not everybody will like your book.

Secondly: It’s not a personal affront; the reviewer just didn’t like my book. When it comes down to it, I don’t care for every book I read, do I?

Thirdly: Look at the review objectively. Are they any comments I can use to improve my next project?

Fourthly: Pick yourself up and carry on. OK, give yourself time to perhaps eat chocolate, drink beer or even have a moan to friends but then pick yourself up and move on!

Here are a couple of posts on the subject of bad reviews that helped me.

Click here for one and here for the other.


Floating in Space is set in Manchester 1977. It’s about beer and cigarettes, banter and chat up lines, pints of lager and Bacardi and cokes and the smoky background of 1970’s jukebox music. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Bright Lights, A Princess and Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Assassination of Princess Diana by Noel Botham.

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


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

 

Holiday Book Bag Summer 2018

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

What did you take to read on holiday this year?

The Kenneth Williams Diaries edited by Russell Davies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fascinating read and not quite what I expected.

Blessing in Disguise by Alec Guinness.

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

Well written but ultimately disapointing.

Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Kentish Lad by Frank Muir.

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

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

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

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

Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson.

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

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

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

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


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

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

It’s always  a bitter-sweet experience when someone decides to make your favourite book into a film. It doesn’t always work out because maybe it was a big, thick, long book and they have cut out your favourite bit, or perhaps the cast wasn’t the one you imagined. It’s usually just the same in reverse. You see a great film and in the credits it says based on the book by so and so, then you rush out and get the book and it turns out to be a little disappointing. Sometimes it’s even better than the film!
You can read the Film of the Book part 1 by clicking here. Meanwhile, here are a few more of my film/book experiences.

Rebecca (the film)

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca (the book) by Daphne Du Maurier

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

Serpico (the film)

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

Serpico (the book) by Peter Maas

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

Serpico (the DVD)

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

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

The Big Sleep (the book) by Raymond Chandler 

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

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

The Big Sleep (the film)

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

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

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

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

The Silence of the Lambs (the Film)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

The Rise and Fall of the Kennedys

The Last brotherThe Last Brother by Joe McGinniss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealey Plaza

Dallas 1963

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!

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.

 

Tasting the Tapas in Lanzarote

snaplanzaThis is week five for Liz and I staying here near the Marina Rubicon in Lanzarote. We’re here for six weeks in total, a nice break away from the snow and ice of the UK. The temperature here is in the early seventies and this last week it’s been a bit cool and cloudy which, I have to say, has played havoc with my swimming and sunbathing routine.

We’re away  from the centre of Playa Blanca by the Marina which is good because like a lot of Spanish resorts, the centre of Playa Blanca is a full of ‘British’ pubs and bars and restaurants offering British beer and meals like chips, egg and beans and so on as their staple fare. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against chips, egg and beans, as a matter of fact it is one of my favourite meals but I can make it myself back at home or go to any pub or café to get it. When I travel hundreds of miles I want something different, not something I can have any day of the week back home. It’s the same with beer. Why would I want a pint of British beer or lager when I can have something different? Of course, all the major brands of beer can now be found all over the world. My local pub has San Miguel on draft! The fact is that the whole world is getting smaller and more international by the day. Not so long ago my cousin was in New York tweeting he was at a bar drinking a pint of Boddingtons, the definitive Manchester ale!

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Tasty nibbles at Café Berrugo

I do like my food and dining out can be such a wonderful experience. All you need is a great location, great staff and of course, great food. As we’re here in the canary islands it seems fair to step away from UK pub food for a while and experience proper Spanish tapas. Tapas as you may know is Spanish for small plates. Small plates of food that is, so not long after arriving Liz and I went to our ‘local’ café, a place called Café Berrugo. Now at first I wasn’t sure if this place was a real authentic Canarian eating house. Why not? Well, with items like chips, egg and sausage and hot dog and chips on the menu that was something of a giveaway but actually when we come here of an evening, most of the clientele are local Lanzarote people and if you look closely at the menu there is a nice tapas section which a lot of the Brits seem to ignore. Anyway, we knew that tapas is small dishes so we ordered this lot: Garlic mushrooms, Canarian potatoes with mojo sauce, garlic prawns, Canarian boar with peppers and onions and a portion of, well I am a Brit after all, a portion of chips. (That’s fries if you are reading this in the US.)

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Garlic mushrooms and bread.

Now the thing is, at this cheap and cheerful café the portions are pretty big so we ended up fairly stuffed after that veritable feast but we managed to scoff it all and wash it down with a nice bottle of Spanish red and the excellent staff offered us a nice free liquor to finish off.

Another night we decided to go up market to the Blue Note bar and restaurant and once again we went for the tapas. I only ordered five as part of the five for twelve euros deal and decided to have two as starters and three as a main meal. Now the thing was that here at the posh end of the marina, tapas clearly does mean small plates, or perhaps tiny plates would have been a better description. The chorizo sausages were nice but as there were only three small sausages I didn’t quite get to gauge the flavour. Same with the meatballs, there were only three of them. Anyway, it was all very lovely with nice staff and a picturesque setting by the marina with a small jazz trio playing away. I recommend it highly, unless you happen to be really hungry!

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Canarian potatoes with mojo sauce and a plate of serrano ham.

So after that little bit of research it seems that tapas do not come in a standard size. If you ever visit Lanzarote and happen to be staying near the Marina Rubicon at Playa Blanca remember this; if you’re not too hungry then have your tapas in the posh restaurants by the marina but if you are feeling even a little ravenous, go down to Café Berrugo!

 

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