Summer Book Bag 2021

There is nothing nicer than pottering around the garden on a summer’s day, gardening, barbecuing and of course, reading. The pandemic and some sick leave have given me plenty of time to read this summer although most of the books I have bought recently have been not from my usual charity and second hand shops but from the internet.

A Right Royal Bastard

Serves Me Right

Bolt From the Blue (Three volumes of autobiography by Sarah Miles)

A long time ago I picked up A Right Royal Bastard somewhere in a charity shop. I have a feeling it was whilst walking round Skipton a few months ago but anyway, I didn’t know much about Sarah Miles except that she was a film actress and had appeared in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines and also Ryan’s Daughter, that latter film being one of director David Lean’s less appealing films. Apparently, as Sarah reveals in Serves Me Right, Lean was so upset by the bad reviews he didn’t make another film until A Passage to India, many years later.

The first part of Volume I was rather dull I thought, only really becoming interesting when the author leaves home and becomes an actress. It is a very forthright and frank book and Sarah explains how she once lived with a girl who was a prostitute and wanting to know more about sex, hid in the girl’s closet while she serviced a customer. An abortion was another shocking revelation.

In volume II, Serves Me Right, Sarah goes on to talk about her dog Addo, who she was devoted to, so much so that she would not accept film roles abroad as she couldn’t bear to leave him behind. She talks about the swinging 60’s and her film debut as a ‘husky wide eyed nymphet’ in Term of Trial in 1962. She met Laurence Olivier in that film and went on to have a long affair with him.

She owned a house in London and one day an old friend from RADA turned up and quickly moved herself in. The friend, Nona, had mental health issues and paid no rent and caused Sarah a great deal of distress. Eventually she asked Nona to leave but sadly she committed suicide in the house. It wasn’t the only death she would have come into her life. She had a brief liaison with a man called David Whiting. He was a pushy individual who inveigled himself into her life first as a journalist working for Life magazine and then when he was fired as a PR man on a film her husband, screenwriter Robert Bolt was producing. Whiting was later found dead in her hotel room causing a great scandal. After the incident had died down and her infidelity was revealed, she and Bolt parted.

I’ve only just finished Bolt from the Blue, her third volume of memoirs and it was written in the same frank and forthright style as the preceding volumes. An interesting part for me was about Robert Bolt and the great time and effort he put into crafting his plays and screenplays, spending long hours in his office writing. Towards the end of his life he wrote a screenplay for the film Nixon, one that he was really proud of but Oliver Stone decided not to use it and wrote his own. Bolt also wrote a final screenplay for David Lean, Nostromo. The film was ready to shoot when Lean’s illness meant that the project would go unfinished. Alas the rest of this volume was not quite as interesting as the first two and hearing about Sarah’s homes, dogs and the problems of her spoilt and undisciplined son and his drug problem was not my cup of tea.

The last two volumes I ordered from the internet but annoyingly, Bolt from the Blue arrived as a big hardback book when I really wanted the paperback. I don’t know about you but I like my books to be compact and easy to fit into pockets and bags. I really should pay more attention to internet small print.

Death of a Gossip

Death of a Cad

Death of an Outsider (Hamish Macbeth novels by M C Beaton)

I wrote in an earlier post about being a fan of the Hamish Macbeth TV series and finding a copy of one of the books in a charity shop. The book, Death of a Dreamer was enjoyable and quirky and quite different from the TV series. After reading that book, I wanted to read some more and no point in carrying on with the next one I thought, I might as well start from the beginning and read the novels in order. Liz obviously picked up on that and she found the first three novels for me. The first two were compiled together in one volume, Death of a Gossip and Death of a Cad. I was expecting the first one to be something special and looked forward to the introduction of Hamish himself. All the main characters in the series were there, Inspector Blair who looks down on Hamish as a simple village bobby even though he has a knack of solving the local murders and Prunella, daughter of Colonel Harbuton-Smythe, who thinks his daughter is far too good for Hamish even though Hamish clearly likes his daughter. Both the deaths of the gossip and the cad have kept me amused on my garden sun lounger for a while but both were a little contrived. The third instalment in the series though, Death of an Outsider was much better. The characters were better, the plot and the storyline all had me hooked. The setting too was interesting, not the village of Lochdubh that I was beginning to get used to but another village where Hamish was filling in, as their local constable was on holiday. I do love a good murder mystery and already I’m looking forward to number 4 in the series.

Manhunt.

I always find it interesting just how I seem to hook up with a particular book. In this case I had an email from the ITV Hub telling me about a great new series of Manhunt and how I could watch the previous one on the ITV hub.  Now what criteria ITV uses to send me an email like that I don’t know because not only had I never watched Manhunt, I’d never even heard of it. Looking at the ITV website I found that Manhunt was a three part thriller based on the real life case of killer Levi Bellfield. Having nothing more interesting lined up to watch that evening, Liz and I settled down to watch and actually got pretty interested, so much so that I immediately went to Abebooks and ordered a copy of the book that the series had been based on. It had been written, in fact written quite well by former Chief Inspector Colin Sutton who was in charge of the real life investigation of a young French student murdered in Twickenham, London.

Sutton tells the story of how the student living in London was found critically injured on Twickenham Green in 2003. She was taken quickly to hospital but died from her injuries having been hit on the back of the head, possibly with a hammer.

Sutton explains how the Metropolitan Police deal with situations like this and how an ‘on call’ team quickly attend and then hand over to a full murder investigation team led on this occasion by Sutton himself. The first things to do were to secure the crime scene and set up a mobile police station asking for anyone with information to come forward. Various people mentioned a man resembling Maradona, the famous footballer, smoking and standing by the cricket screens. The area was thoroughly searched and the cricket screens fingerprinted. The next step was to check CCTV footage from the area and the cameras soon found the victim alighting from a bus. She had spent the evening at a French bistro with friends and had left to catch her bus home. She had missed her stop and then had to walk across the Green to get home where sadly she was murdered. A small white van was noticed on various CCTV cameras and later when her mobile phone signal was last registered by the river, an underwater search by divers located her house keys and other personal items.

There was no special key to solving this case, no moment like in TV fiction when the detective spots a clue pointing to the killer, just dogged routine footwork and research. Later something approaching that TV moment did occur. At the onsite mobile police station erected on Twickenham Green, an informant had mentioned that her previous partner, Levi Bellfield could be a suspect. He was a violent man, owned a small Ford van and was familiar with the area. The investigation team were about to start on the leads generated by the public when a local PC who had taken the information asked about it. Bellfield looked like a possible murderer straight away and after a surveillance operation the police were to finally arrest him. Keeping him in custody and proving he was a murderer and finding he was linked to other murders and attempted murders was another thing altogether and the author takes us through the investigation step by step.

This was an excellent read and having time off work I was able to lie in the garden, glued to the book until I got to the end.


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My Top Ten Books of All Time Part 2

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

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

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

2001 A Space Odyssey

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

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

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

The History of Mr Polly

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

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

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

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

My well thumbed copy of David Copperfield

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Da Vinci Code

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

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

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

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


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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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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.

 

Writing, Marketing and the Incredible Truth about Google.

Once upon a time when I first started this web page, my whole focus was to promote my book, Floating in Space. Floating is a kitchen sink drama, something on the lines of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, although not quite as good, but set in 1977. Those were the days; no Internet and no mobile phones. There were only a handful of TV channels. Jimmy Carter was the US President, Jim Callaghan was the UK Prime Minister and a pint of bitter was only 25 pence.

 I had taken a number of essays based vaguely on my early life, knitted them together, added something of a storyline and finally, after lots of re-writing and editing, realised a lifetime’s ambition of creating a book and becoming a writer. It’s exciting to produce something, some small piece of work which people actually read, although to be completely honest, pretty much everything I write is for me, for my own personal pleasure and even if nobody ever read anything I wrote, the actual writing itself still gives me a lot of pleasure. Having said that, every time I sell a paperback or a Kindle, every time someone adds a ‘like’ to one of my posts it does make me feel really good.

Back in the old days like 1977, when everything was, you know, black and white and digital publishing was unheard of, an author would have to submit his manuscript to a publisher and nine times out of ten would be flatly rejected. Publishers are experts on literature, or so I suppose but even the best of them have rejected books like the Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, or the Harry Potter books for instance. Maybe they are not such geniuses as we thought.

Either way, even Frederick Forsyth would be taken aback a little I think, if he had to write a weekly blog, plan posts for Facebook and Twitter and make short videos for his YouTube page. Things just aren’t what they used to be!

Not long ago I picked up an e-mail from the people at Google and they offered me a substantial amount of credit to start using Google ads again. I have to admit, I’d not advertised on Google for a long time but creating an ad these days isn’t as easy as it sounds. One of the important aspects is to know your audience. Your audience? Well, I’m not sure I do know my audience. I’m guessing, and this is purely guesswork, that people like me would like the things I write so I suppose we’re looking at middle aged book readers, interested in a humorous take on life, which is what Floating really is.

For the past three years I have concentrated my social media promotions on Twitter. OK, I have a Facebook writer page and a Pinterest account and a Google+ account but it’s Twitter where I have really pushed myself. So much so that I am the proud possessor of over 6,000 followers. Sounds good doesn’t it? If every one of those 6,000 people were fans of my blog and each and every one bought a copy of Floating in Space I’d be quids in. The fact is, out of those 6,000, I’d say only a handful are genuine fans. The rest want to be friends with me for one reason -because I have 6,000 followers and every time someone Tweets one of my Tweets I am honour bound by the unwritten Twitter users code to Tweet them back, Tweet them to my 6,000+ followers.

Anyway, the reason I mention Twitter is that over on the Twitter analytics tab there are some really interesting tools that tell you all sorts of statistical stuff about your Twitter account but one tool in particular will give you the lowdown on your audience, your Twitter audience that is. So, a quick click over to Twitter and I see something like this;

That’s my audience sorted so back to Google Ads to see if I can add those details provided by Twitter and you get these drop down boxes that seem to go on forever in the search to identify your audience: What is their location? Are they parents, homeowners, car owners and so on and so on? Even on the parenting box you can choose one or two or more children.

Then you look at language spoken, income bracket and a multitude of other choices with which you can target your potential customer. Then you are looking at what sort of results are you after? Sales leads, purchases, web site clicks, video clicks, post likes?

This might be the point at which you, the reader, might be thinking that me, the author, is going to answer those questions. You might be thinking this is one of those how to do it posts with step by step instructions to get more book purchases and more readers. Now, or pretty soon, you might think, Steve is going to reveal all, some trick to Google Ads. You might even be thinking ‘wow, Steve is really clued in to all this technical marketing stuff!’

No, not gonna happen, it’s more the other way around: I’m sitting here waiting for someone to tell me what to do!

Just while I’m on the subject of Google it is pretty amazing how much Google is involved in your life, or can be, if you let it. If you search for something on the Internet, you probably use Google. If you upload videos to YouTube, that is part of Google.

A while ago I upgraded from my old banger mobile phone to a top notch internet savvy smartphone. I added Google onto my phone, logged in and found that straight away, Google was saving all my contacts on to my Google profile. Helpful, in fact very helpful because when I changed phones I no longer had to save my contacts to my SIM card. I could just log in to Google again on my new phone and there they were, all my contacts just waiting.

Here’s another thing, your Google timeline. I don’t know if you ever look at it or even know what it is but when you get a chance, check it out because what you will find is this, all your movements in great detail.

On the day I left for my holidays in France for instance, we left home at 8:57am, drove 307 miles in 5 hours and 21 mins. Travelled on Eurotunnel then drove 2 hours and 31 minutes through France to our hotel which was 4 minutes and 150 yards away from a restaurant on the Rue du Mont Perreux. And there was me, annoyed at myself for not jotting the car mileage down before we left home.

A while ago I was in Manchester with my brother and Google showed all our movements, what pubs we were in, how far we had walked to each pub, and how much time we had spent in each establishment. The only thing it didn’t record was what we drank, but now I think about it, in Wetherspoons I used the Wetherspoon app to order drinks so those details will be there, recorded for posterity in my phone memory somewhere.

Last weekend Liz and I went into Lytham for the Christmas lights switch on and when I looked, Google had once again faithfully recorded our movements. There were the times we had walked to the bus stop; the time and distance we had travelled on the bus (16 mins and 4.2 miles.) However, there was one missing element. After watching the festivities in Lytham we went to the Red Fort restaurant and now I think of it, I was unable to ‘check in’ there because I had no signal.

When I checked Google later it asked me if the Ego restaurant, one of my many regular watering holes and a mere stone’s throw from the Red Fort, was a ‘missing place’ Sorry Google, this time we fancied a curry at the Red Fort.

One more thing about Google. The whole genre of detective fiction will have to be changed. I watching a murder documentary the other day on TV and the killer’s movements were traced meticulously by Police investigators. A lot of their work involved tracking down CCTV cameras, trawling through recorded footage and establishing the timeline of the suspect. Then there was more legwork, interviewing people and taking witness statements. Such a pity the murderer didn’t have Google on his phone as his movements would have been there, minute by minute.

Good thing they didn’t have the Internet in Columbo’s day. Google would have ruined many an episode!


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 Video Version

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

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

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

Writing and the Big 300!

It’s not always so easy to come up with a new blog post week after week. It’s even harder to find something extra special for my 300th post. Three hundred posts! I suppose to those of you who have been writing for years, 300 may not be such a big milestone but for an amateur writer like me, it’s pretty special. The crazy thing is this, a few weeks ago I was commenting on one of those online forums, praising WordPress and blogging and someone commented that if I hadn’t been blogging I might have finished my second book! Looking back I now wonder whether that guy was actually right. 300 blog posts, times my average word count per post: That comes to about 20,000 words. Yes, perhaps I could have written my next book. Then again, it’s not just the words, its the idea behind the words, the creative thrust of a book that’s important. Get that and the book should just follow. Still, that fellow had a point. Should I give up my blog posts in favour of my book? Well, if that would guarantee me producing a book then yes, great! The thing is, it’s not a lack of words that have kept my book in a constant state of unfinishedness (is that a word? If Norman Mailer can invent words then so can I.) It’s really my own laziness.

Laziness, fear of the blank page, procrastination, they are all enemies of the writer. The only way to overcome them is just to keep on writing. If you are writing a blog post and it wont come, switch to something else; that other post you had on the back burner or that  script you had started a few years back. A great deal of my work is done like that, in small bursts of activity. A while back I had an idea for a film screenplay and worked away creating the first quarter of the work. Later I decided to turn it into a book and as I worked with the text, adding in all sorts of detail that wasn’t in the original script, the story came alive to me in a different way and I started to bring something new to the book version. Don’t hold your breath though, its still far from completion.

On a number of occasions I get an idea for a scene, a single scene for a screenplay or even a book. Just a scene, not a book or screenplay idea, just an idea for a short scene. Occasionally I’ll write something and see an opening for that scene, a little space that the scene will fit in and perhaps take one of the characters from A to C when before there was a yawning chasm at B!

The other day my brother and I were talking about war pictures and I said that war films don’t really do it for me but then, my brother reeled off a number of war films that I love. World War 2 Films like The Wooden Horse, First of the Few, The Cruel Sea, The Great Escape, and The Dambusters. Then there are modern classics like Platoon and Born on the Fouth of July from director Oliver Stone. Platoon is a particular favourite of mine; it was written and directed by Stone and based on his personal experiences in Vietnam, which made it all the more relevant and emotional.

Anyway, I’m talking about war films for a reason, which is this. My scene, the one that I’m waiting for a story to fit it into, is from a war film. It goes like this:

EXTERIOR. WORLD WAR 2 BATTLEFIELD. SHELLS ARE BURSTING ALL AROUND. MACHINE GUN FIRE RAKES THE AREA AND A WOUNDED SOLIDER STUMBLES INTO A FOX HOLE. SOLDIERS RUN TO HIS AID. THEY TURN HIM OVER AND LIFT HIS HEAD UP.

THE SOLDIER COUGHS AND TRIES TO SPEAK.

SOLDIER 1: Take it easy son. Don’t try to talk.

SOLDIER 2: HE LIGHTS A CIGARETTE AND SLIPS IT INTO THE WOUNDED SOILDIER’S MOUTH.

THE WOUNDED SOLDIER COUGHS AND CHOKES.

SOLDIER 1: What did I tell you kid? Don’t try and talk. The medic’s on the way over. Save your strength.

THE WOUNDED SOLDIER COUGHS EVEN MORE.

SOLDIIER 2: Sarge, I think he’s trying to tell us something.

SOLDIER SPITS OUT THE CIGARETTE.

CLOSE UP:

(By the way, I did mention it was a comedy scene , didn’t I?)

WOUNDED SOLDIER: I don’t . .smoke..

Oh well. Here’s another script story. Ages ago when I first met Liz and we began socialising in St Annes, we started frequenting Wetherspoons there. It’s a pretty friendly pub and we made friends with quite a few people. There was Big Steve who I wrote about in another post but we also met two guys, Craig and Danny (as usual, names have been changed to protect the innocent!) They were brothers in law who were married to twin sisters and they both owned and ran small hotels in St Annes. The hotels were on the same street opposite each other and the  sisters were identical twins so their whole scenario seemed to scream ‘sitcom’ to me.

I used to ask them what funny things had happened to them in their work as hoteliers and being married to identical women. ‘Loads of things’ they would always say but I could never get any details. Anyway, when I had a quiet moment I started off a pilot sit com script using their situation, rival hoteliers married to identical sisters. It’s nothing brilliant but mildly amusing and it sat in my documents folder for a long time. Every now and again when I slipped into that blank page syndrome, I’d pull out the script and add a few more pages.

Not long ago I noticed on one of my occasional visits to the BBC Writersroom page that a window of opportunity was coming up for a sitcom script. The BBC, rather than accepting ‘spec’ scripts all year round open a small ‘window’ of a few weeks where you can submit your work in certain areas, sometimes a film script or a play, sometimes drama, other times situation comedy. I went back to my sitcom script,  pulled it quickly into some sort of shape, added an ending and bunged it off to the BBC. Now I sit glued to my inbox with bated breath, awaiting the BBC email that may or may not even arrive.

Of course, I do wonder what might happen if the BBC actually decided that my sitcom script is worth making into a pilot? That would be fun having my work made into a TV show. Imagine if it was succesful! Imagine if the BBC said we’re going to make a twelve episode series! Imagine me trying to write twelve episodes when it took me months to write one 25 minute episode! Even the great Spike MIlligan had a nervous breakdown writing the numerous scripts of the radio show ‘The Goon Show’. Of course, someone at the BBC could be reading this very post. Did I say something about 12 episodes? Would I be able to write 12 episodes?

Of course! What’s 12 episodes to a top writer like me? I might even start episode 2 straight away. Well, straight away after a cup of tea. And maybe a sandwich. Better make it first thing tomorrow. Well, tomorrow afternoon might be better . .


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

The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film

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!
Anyway, here are a few of my film/book experiences.

The Horse Whisperer.
The book.
I picked up this book in a charity sale last year. This is what I said about it in Book Bag 4:

I’m not even sure why I picked up 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 had 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 that 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 was just glad to have finished it. Somewhat disappointing. Wonder what the movie is like?

The film.
The other day I noticed this film was showing on the Sony Movie Channel and set my hard drive up to record it. The result was an OK sort of film although a little on the slow-moving side. I’m tempted to say it was more of a woman’s film but Liz watched it alongside me and she wasn’t impressed either. I felt the casting was not right. Robert Redford just looked too smart and tidy to be a cattle rancher and cowboy. He actually looked as though he came from the Roy Rogers school of cowboying although he also directed the film. If I was casting I would perhaps have gone for someone like Kevin Costner perhaps, and the female lead, played by Kirstin Scott Thomas, needed a stronger, more assertive woman, perhaps a native New Yorker and not an English actress.

The ending was different in the film which was a good thing as the book’s ending was so poor as I mentioned above. Rotten Tomatoes report 74% positive reviews but sadly, I think I was part of the 26% negative ones.

2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film.
I first saw this movie back in 1968, which was quite a fascinating year for me. I wrote about the experience of seeing the film in a earlier post about film music and here is, in part, what I had to say:

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

2001 is a particularly visual film. Kubrick cut out a lot of dialogue because he wanted the film to stand as “basically a visual, nonverbal experience” that “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

2001

Picture courtesy Flickr.com

According to Wikipedia, despite the few people in the cinema with me that day in 1968, the movie went on to become the highest grossing North American movie of that year.

2001 set the pace for the sci-fi movie with its depiction of spacecraft drifting slowly and silently through space. The first Star Trek movie was heavily influenced by 2001 which made it look a little dated when the movie Star Wars was released and did the opposite thing, showing spacecraft whooshing across the screen at lightning speeds.

The book.
As I mentioned above, I was rather confused by the film and there were quite a few moments when I was wondering what was actually happening, for instance the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, the moment when the monolith sends its deep space signal and various other things too. I went out and bought the book by Arthur C Clarke and went straight into a wonderfully well written, plausible space adventure. All the technology that Clarke wrote about had its origins in science fact, both the space missions and the computer technology which make up the main parts of the story. If you have never seen the film or read the book (shame on you) 2001 is about a mysterious monolith which appears on earth in neolithic times and helps the ape men of the day to develop. Later, in the future, the mysterious monolith is found buried on the moon and when it is exposed to sunlight for the first time, it blasts off a signal to Saturn. (In the movie the destination is Jupiter, as director Stanley Kubrick thought that the special effects department would struggle to create Saturn’s rings.)

Anyway, the scientists of the day decide that the monolith is part of some extraterrestrial intelligence and set up a manned space mission to investigate. As the mission progresses, the onboard computer, HAL, decides to have something of a nervous breakdown which creates an unexpected hazard for the crew.

Verdict: The book is a wonderful read, one of the classics of science fiction and the movie has deservedly become one of the most influential films of all time.

The Great Gatsby.
The book.
I can’t really remember when I read this book for the first time. It was many years ago and ever since, this short novel has been in my personal all time top 10 reads. The story concerns Jay Gatsby who lost out in the love stakes because he was born on the wrong side of the tracks and not an appropriate suitor for the lovely debutante Daisy. Off he goes to the first World War, comes home to the USA a much more worldly-wise fellow than when he left and one way or another he becomes a millionaire.

Gatsby has a huge mansion in the Long Island suburb of West Egg. Renting a cottage in the grounds is the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick is fascinated by the lavish parties held at the mansion and soon meets Gatsby himself. It turns out that Gatsby’s parties are a device, a lure to attract the beautiful Daisy who Gatsby still loves and hopes will one day come to him like a moth to a flame.

It’s a simple story of love and desire but it becomes something much more in the hands of the author F. Scott Fitzgerald. I often think of it not as a short book, but as a long lyrical poem that has an intrinsic beauty fashioned by the most wonderful turns of phrase. In particular I love the last page and this final paragraph:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . and one fine morning . . So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Film.
I noticed on the Internet that there was a 1949 version with Alan Ladd which I have never seen but the latest film version was released in 2013 and starred Leonardo DiCaprio with Baz Luhrmann as director. That particular film had been lying dormant on my hard drive recorder for quite a while, just waiting for a quiet few hours for me to watch. As I was part way through this post this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to start it up. So, I settled down with a glass of French red and clicked the play button.

The first part of the movie didn’t really do it for me and the depiction of Gatsby’s famous parties seemed more like a music video than anything, especially with the strange substitution of modern techno music for the jazz music of the time.

Later on, the picture comes into its own. Leonardo DiCaprio is good, indeed very good as Gatsby. Overall, tone down the special effects and the music video feel and this could have been an outstanding film adaptation.

The film version I adore though is the one from 1974 starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as the fragile Daisy. I may have written above about Redford being miscast for the Horse Whisperer but he is perfect as Gatsby, so much so that now, whenever I re-read the book I always see Redford’s face in my mind.

The screenplay was by Francis Ford Coppola who directed The Godfather and there are some memorable moments in the film. One of the ones I like particularly is the one where one of Gatsby’s associates is introduced to Nick, thinking him one of Gatsby’s dubious business connections. Redford as Gatsby, firmly but politely indicates a mistake has been made and we get a hint at something questionable behind Gatsby’s facade. Is he a gangster or a bootlegger perhaps? Another is the moment when Gatsby and Nick meet at one of Gatsby’s parties. Nick doesn’t realise he is talking to Gatsby himself when he says he doesn’t even know who is Gatsby is!

Verdict: Brilliant book and a lovely film.

Lost Horizon.
The Book.
I picked up this wonderful gem of a book at charity shop years ago for the bargain price of twenty-five pence and if I could convert the pleasure this book has given me into pounds, shillings, and pence, it would be a figure that far eclipses that initial outlay. James Hilton has become one of my favourite writers and one of my personal writing heroes. (Check out my blog about him here!) This highly original novel reflects the fear and sadness that many must have felt in the days before World War 2. There must have been a feeling then that with new technology, the approaching conflict could be the end of civilisation.

In this wonderful book, a group of Lamas in a monastery, hidden from the world by a chance of geographical fate, decide to look ahead and make sure that the riches of the world, not gold or silver, but literature, art and music, should be preserved should a holocaust engulf the world. To ensure that their creed of respect and compassion endures they kidnap a British diplomat, Robert Conway, to carry on their work and set about bringing him to Shangri-La. Shangri La is a small community in Tibet insulated from the world by mountains on all sides and the people here enjoy unheard of longevity.

Despite his capture Conway is taken into the confidence of the High Lama and given his task of continuing the community and its traditions, but his fellow captives have differing ideas, especially Mallinson, his young vice-consul who is desperate to escape.
The story is told in an interesting way, one that enhances the mystery by a chance meeting between civil servants, one of whom is anxious to talk about Conway and his mysterious disappearance. The story is told about how Conway is found in Tibet with a loss of memory and how his memory suddenly returns and Conway tells of his abduction and escape from Shangri-la. I have to admit that this novel is one of my top ten books of all time, and one I return to time after time.

The Film.
Directed by Frank Capra and starring Ronald Colman, Lost Horizon was shot in 1936 and went seriously over budget. Issues that contributed were scenes shot in a cold storage area, used to replicate the cold of Tibet. The cold affected the film equipment and caused delays. There was also a great deal of location shooting and scenes where Capra used multiple cameras shooting lots of film. Wikipedia reports that the first cut of the film ran for six hours! Studio Boss Harry Cohn was apparently unhappy with the film and edited it himself, producing a version that ran for 132 minutes. Further cuts were made and as a result, Capra filed suit against Columbia pictures. The issue was later resolved in Capra’s favour. The film did not turn a profit until it was re-released in 1942. A frame by frame digital restoration of the film was made in 2013 and various missing elements of the film were returned, including an alternative ending. Sadly, some of the visual elements were so poor that they have been substituted with stills as only the soundtrack was useable.

Ronald Colman is superb as the hero of the film, the slightly world-weary diplomat and politician who finally comes to believe in the ideas of Father Perrault, the High Lama, who wants to keep safe the treasures of the world until the famine of war has passed by.
This movie adaptation is nothing short of wonderful, in fact it is one of my favourite films of all time.  If you see this movie on DVD make sure you take it home and settle down for a wonderful film experience.


A book written by the author which sadly has yet to be made into a film is Floating in Space, set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.