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.

Holiday Book Bag 10 Winter 2020

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

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

McCartney: A biography by Philip Norman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene.

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

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

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

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

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

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dylan Thomas and the Joy of a Second Hand book

As you might have guessed from reading these posts, I really do love my books. This particular book, about the last days of poet Dylan Thomas is one I’ve had a long time but have not got around to reading until 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 way it is almost like Under Milk Wood itself, where the dead come alive again at night as time passes . .

 


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

Holiday Book Bag Summer 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Turn by Norman Wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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 not 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.