Life but Not as We know it

 

lifeThis week the lockdown has eased a little here in the UK. Groups of six can now meet together in public places and soon we will be able to go to the pub once again, as long as we stay outside. No doubt pubs who don’t already have beer gardens or some sort of outside area will be scrambling to get one set up. It will be nice to go down to the pub or restaurant again and take another step towards normality.

Once again I’ve spent a few days at my mother’s house, checking that everything is ok, tidying the garden up and so on. As I am alone here this should be the perfect time to write. After all, what could be better for a writer; quiet, solitude and my trusty laptop? One other thing that is important is a writing routine and a few ideas. Of course, if I was a professional writer, let’s say a newspaper columnist for instance, my editor would surely be on my back asking for my next article.

I can just imagine a scene like something out of All the President’s Men, the 1976 movie about the reporters who broke the Watergate story at the Washington post. There’s a nice scene there that goes like this:

EDITOR: Bernstein! Is that story ready yet?

BERNSTEIN: Yes, I’ve finished it.

EDITOR: Let me have it then.

BERNSTEIN: I will. It just needs polishing.

I tried to find the video of that scene but failed. Here’s the trailer instead:

I do have a few articles or I should say blog post drafts, that need polishing. Fifteen actually. I think of them as my stand bys. Posts I work on when I just haven’t got any idea what to write about. Sometimes I will look at one, get an idea or an angle, a new way of looking at the subject and then I’m off and I actually finish, or get closer to finishing the post. Other times I just end up adding another draft that will probably never get finished.

This week I had a plan. I always seem to wake up at 7:30 no matter what. At home I usually just nod off back to sleep but here at my mother’s house I rarely seem able to do that. So, here’s the plan: wake at 7:30. A quick clean of my teeth and splash a little water on my face. Back to bed. Check my emails and social media. Then back to the bathroom for a shave and a proper wash, downstairs for breakfast and ready to get writing. Great, there is nothing like having a plan, now to put it into action.

Sunday. I wake up and check the time. It’s 8:30. 8:30? Wow, I’ve actually had a good sleep for a change. OK. Clean teeth and back to check out my emails. Now the big mistake there is that recently I’ve subscribed to Medium. It’s a story website and there is always some interesting story I want to read. There are numerous true crime stories that I like. In particular I do like reading about cold cases; old police murder cases that are now being solved by new DNA technology. It must be great for the families and the detectives to see crimes that were thought to be finished and unsolved, now being given a new lease of life by technology.

This week I watched a TV documentary about a famous cold case, the disapearance of Suzy Lamplugh. Suzy was an estate agent who left work to meet someone wanting to look at a property. The only clue was that Suzy had left a note in her diary that she was to meet a ‘Mr Kipper’ on the 28th July, 1986 in Fulham, London. She was due to meet Mr Kipper at a property at Shorrolds Rd at 12:45. She went to meet him and was never seen again. Her car was found half a mile away from the property at Stevenage Road, also in Fulham.

suzylamplugh

Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Witnesses saw Suzy with someone at the Shorrolds Road property; a smartly dressed man with a bottle of wine or champagne with a fancy wrapping. Later another witness saw Suzy in a BMW in Stevenage Road. Nothing was ever found and despite reinvestigation in 1998 and 2000, Suzy was never traced.

In 2000 it was suggested that convicted rapist and murderer John Cannan could have been the culprit. Cannan looks startlingly similar to a photofit picture produced by Police, of the man Suzy met at Shorrolds Road. Cannan denied being the murderer but he was staying in a hostel for released prisoners not far away at the time and others at the hostel said that Cannan used to leave at night through a window. Cannan visited pubs and restaurants in the area and could have seen Suzy there, in fact she had lost her checkbook and a local pub called Suzy to say they had found it the day she disappeared.

It was all rather shocking and the programme left me fairly convinced that Cannan was the villain although the man himself, still serving time on another murder charge, denies everything. Suzy’s parents sadly never lived to see the crime solved but they did establish the Suzy Lamplugh Trust that helps people with their personal safety and also runs the National Stalking Helpline.

Anyway, back to my personal writing plan. After that late start it was nearly 10 so I dragged my lazy behind out of bed and made it down to the kitchen. I hurriedly sorted out some egg and bacon ready to eat during Star Trek, the original series on the Horror channel. Star Trek however wasn’t on. It must have just finished because I realised just then that it’s Spring and we have now moved to BST, British Summer Time and it was actually eleven o’clock, not ten!

Come to think of it, they don’t show Star Trek on a Sunday, it’s just on Monday to Friday so there’s my whole blog post blown out of the water. Anyway using the power vested in me by WordPress what I think we’ll do is just fast forward to Monday at 10. There I was eating pretty much the same breakfast -OK, I’d thrown a sausage in and a few beans but what the heck, variety is the spice of life in these highly irregular Covid 19 times.

Let’s start again. There I was with substantially the same breakfast on Monday ready to eat and watch Star Trek.

I do love Star Trek, in particular the first episodes starring William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk. Forget Captain pointy head Picard, Kirk is a proper captain and by 10:30 he will usually have blasted a number of aliens with his phaser (a sort of ray gun) and done some pretty serious kissing of any beautiful girl, alien or otherwise, within a 100 yard area. In the episode I watched, Kirk decided that the only way to get free from a planet where androids had imprisoned him was to show the androids that there was more to life than working in an underground prison. He gave the tonsils of one android lady a good work out and lo and behold, that sent her into some serious confusion. She then encountered another android who clearly was in need of some snogging software as he wasn’t so keen on kissing, so she gave him a quick blast of her ray gun, enabling Kirk to once again take control and show everyone involved that messing with James T Kirk is not a good idea.

It just so happens that William Shatner has reached the venerable age of 90 this week so it was good to read in the media that he is still going strong. Wonder if there is any chance of him playing Kirk again just one last time?

Anyway, back to the plan. You know, the one I was talking about earlier, the writing plan, up early have breakfast and then write stuff. Well after Star Trek I thought I might just check to see if any more emails had landed on my virtual doorstep. One was a newsletter from the Guardian newspaper. I’ve signed up for a few newsletters from the Guardian; one for films and another about books. I get one every week and there are a whole list of bookish articles about various book related topics. Usually I have a quick scan and if there is nothing of any interest I just hit the delete button. This week there was a post about a lady called Vivian Gornick. I’ve never heard of the lady but apparently she is a journalist and memoirist and in the book section the Guardian hit her with their regular bunch of questions so I thought I’d just see if I could answer those questions myself.

What book am I currently reading?

Well just lately I’m really fascinated by the silent film era as you can see from my Book Bag post a few weeks back. I’m reading Charlie Chaplin and His Times by Kenneth S Lynn. It’s a really interesting read about Chaplin and the author, who happens to be a really great researcher, checks out all the various stories in Chaplin’s autobiography and compares them to actual records. All fascinating stuff about the early days of film making.

What book changed your life?

Not sure about that one. Did any book change my life? Well I’ll have to say David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. That changed my life in that it opened up my mind to how an author could take his reader on such an incredible journey and manage a story in such a way that the reader could experience it and feel almost as if he was living the narrative with the writer. You’ve guessed by now I just love that book.

What book do I think is most overrated?

That’s another tough question and I’d have to answer Wuthering Heights. I read something ages ago about 100 books I should read before I die so I picked a copy up in my local charity shop, back in the days when we could go into shops, and read it. I should say tried to read because I just thought it was a little dull. Sorry, I know it’s a classic but it just didn’t do it for me.

The last book that made me laugh.

I think it would have to be The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. You might have seen the TV series with Leonard Rossiter playing the part of Reggie Perrin. I’m not sure which came first, the book or the TV show but it’s a really funny book.

The book I couldn’t finish.

This has to be Catch 22 the novel by Joseph Heller. One of my friends gave it me and said it was brilliant and I had to read it. I tried but I just couldn’t get into it.

I guess this must have taken me into lunchtime. I was feeling a little hungry round about then. I suppose that when you start working like a real writer with a writing plan you must need a little sustenance to keep you going. What I needed was a corned beef sandwich and a large cup of tea with maybe a chocolate biscuit on the side. I made my way into the kitchen to sort out that little feast but just then the phone rang and I’m guessing the call was from an alternate universe because it was my editor yelling down the phone:

EDITOR: Where the heck is that blog post you promised me?

ME: That blog post? Oh yes, I finished it.

EDITOR: Where the hell is it then?

ME: It’s just . . . er . . . I’m just . . polishing it!


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Book Bag: The Early Days of Cinema

My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin.

Charlie was born in 1889 in Walworth, London and spent his early life in the London suburb of Kennington. His parents were both music hall performers but separated when Charlie was about two years old. His mother was poor and the small family, Charlie, his mother and older brother Sydney, were admitted to the workhouse on two separate occasions.

In 1903, Charlie’s mother was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum and Charlie lived on the streets alone until his brother Sydney, who had joined the navy, returned from sea.

With his father’s connections Charlie secured a place in a clog dancing troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads and so began his career as a performer. After appearing in some minor roles in the theatre he developed a comic routine and, with help from Sydney, was signed by Fred Karno, the famous music hall impresario, for his comedy company in 1908.

Chaplin became one of Fred Karno’s top comedians and Karno sent him with a troupe of other comedians on a tour of vaudeville theatres in the USA. One of the others was Stan Laurel, later to find fame with the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

By far the most interesting part of Charlie’s autobiography is where he talks about the beginning of his movie career. On a second tour of America in 1913, Chaplin was asked to join the Mack Sennett studios as a performer in silent films for the fee of $150 per week. He wasn’t initially keen but liked the idea of starting something new.

His first film for Sennett was called Making a Living, released in 1914. Chaplin himself wasn’t so keen on the film and for his second appearance selected a new costume. After searching through the costume department Chaplin chose a bowler hat, a jacket that was too small, baggy trousers, shoes that were too large and a cane. It almost seems as though the clothes made him become the character of the tramp which was to make him famous. The film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament although another tramp film made afterwards, Kid Auto races at Venice, was released to the public first.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essaney because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

Chaplin seems strangely perturbed by his fame and fortune. He writes about an incident between contracts where he takes the train to meet his brother in, I think, New York but word has got out to the public he is travelling and everywhere the train stops, masses of people were waiting. Eventually it dawns on him that it is he they were waiting for. Many times the narrative describes meals and walks taken alone giving the impression of a solitary, lonely man.

The thing to remember about reading this book is that Chaplin tells the reader only what he wants them to know, nothing more. His various marriages are only skimmed over although when he is making the Kid, probably his most important picture, he explains how he thought the negative may have be taken by lawyers acting for his estranged wife so he takes the film and edits it whilst almost ‘on the run’ in various hideaways and hotel rooms.

Chaplin was known for being attracted to young girls and one of his conquests, a girl called Joan Barry, was arrested twice for her obsessive behaviour after he ended their relationship. She became pregnant and claimed he was the father and began a paternity suit against him. J Edgar Hoover who believed Chaplin to be a communist, engineered negative publicity against him and public opinion began to turn against Charlie. He was ordered to pay child support to Barry’s baby despite blood test evidence which showed he could not be the father. The blood test evidence was ruled inadmissible.

The earlier part of the book is by far the most interesting but the later part, where Chaplin is famous the world over, becomes an excuse for name dropping, despite there being a clear absence of any notable anecdotes involving the famous names. Even his best friend Douglas Fairbanks makes few appearances within the pages.

A fascinating read none the less.

Stan, The Life of Stan Laurel by Fred Lawrence Guiles.

I have a lot of time for Fred Laurence Guiles. He wrote one of the definitive biographies of Marilyn Monroe, the one Norman Mailer used as the basis for his classic book about the star.

Stan was born in Ulverston in Cumbria, as a matter of fact, I once visited his old home in the town. It was a small house as I remember and a little bit tatty. I remember being rather disappointed to view this old house with photocopied pictures of Stan on the walls. Either way it was still fascinating to think that Stan, one half of that great duo, Laurel and Hardy, had started life here as Arthur Jefferson. Guiles follows Stan -as he began to call himself- from northern music halls to being part of Fred Karno’s comedy circus and to the USA and Hollywood. Fred Karno was the great music hall impresario of the time and he sent teams of entertainers all over, even to the USA. In his early days touring the USA for Karno, Stan shared rooms with Chaplin although not once is Stan mentioned in Chaplin’s autobiography. Chaplin just seemed to ignore or black out anyone from his memory he either didn’t like or thought was a threat.

Stan Laurel appeared in a number of silent comedy films. He eventually signed with producer Hal Roach but decided he was going to move into scriptwriting rather than performing. One day Oliver Hardy was too ill to perform so Stan stepped in and played his part. Later the two appeared together in various films and director Leo McCarey noticed the positive reaction from the public. Together with McCarey the two worked at their comedy and after McCarey suggested they both wear bowler hats, their partnership took off and their Laurel and Hardy series began in 1927. In 1929 they moved from silent pictures to sound with Unaccustomed As We Are. Unlike many other stars of the period, the two made a seamless transition into talking pictures and are today recognised as giants of comedy.

In 1933 director Frank Capra made the first of what was an entirely different kind of comedy film and, according to author Guiles, this actually spelt the beginning of the end for the slapstick comedy type of film humour that Laurel and Hardy, and others such as Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, were so good at. It Happened One Night starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and after a slow start, the film became an enormous hit, winning eleven Academy Awards. Some writers thought that film comedy had finally ‘grown up’ and sadly, just over 10 years later Laurel and Hardy would be making their final Hollywood film.

After Hardy died in 1957, Stan declined to work without his comedy partner and he retired to a modest flat in Santa Monica, California. He was listed in the telephone directory and was happy to answer calls from his fans. He spent his retirement answering his fan mail and meeting with other comedians who revered him; people like Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers and Dick Van Dyke. He died in 1965 aged 74.

Hollywood.

I think I wrote about the 1920’s in a previous post saying that if I could go back to any time and place I’d go back to Hollywood in the 1920’s. You didn’t need a degree in filmmaking to be a director then as the whole industry was new. Hollywood was just a mass of orange groves when someone decided that with its wonderful climate, Hollywood would be the perfect place to make films. In 1910 DW Griffiths came to Hollywood to film In Old California and other film makers followed him as not only was there perfect weather and excellent light but it was a great place to avoid Thomas Edison who owned patents on the movie making process and wanted paying. In the 1980’s there was a wonderful TV  documentary series called simply Hollywood and this is the book that was published alongside the series. The TV version was narrated by James Mason and was filled with interviews with former writers, directors and stars of that bygone age. It’s a pity it hasn’t made its way onto DVD but apparently because of all the stars involved, all of whom will have passed away by now, getting the releases signed for DVD has been problematic. It just so happens that I have the first episode on VHS video and of course, the book that accompanied the series.

The book I have is subtitled ‘The Pioneers’ and concentrates on the first great Hollywood stars both in front of and behind the camera, people like director DW Griffiths and actors like Valentino, Chaplin, and Garbo who became the first ‘movie stars’. Then there were others like John Gilbert and Buster Keaton who did not make the transition to sound successfully and Laurel and Hardy, who did.

One particularly interesting thing about the TV series and the book is that many of the veterans of silent pictures were telling their stories for the first time. Kevin Brownlow who wrote the book and directed parts of the TV series says that some of the interviewees were very old but even so, they were very lively and interesting in their old age with many stories to tell about filming, editing and the beginnings of Hollywood. Back then Hollywood shunned those who worked in films. They called them ‘movies’ and many hotels and boarding houses had signs up saying ‘no movies’.

Sadly many silent films have not survived to the present day because the nitrate film of those days was highly volatile. Many of the films that have survived are made from poor quality ‘dupes’ or copies so it is not easy to appreciate how good those films originally were. This book though with its superb quality production stills does go some way to invoking the sense of what those films were like. I live in hope that one day this wonderful series will find its way into digital media.

After writing this I wondered what were the chances of an episode or two finding its way to YouTube? A quick check and I was happy to find the entire series there. That’s me sorted for the next few days then . .


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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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My Top 10 Books of All Time

The other day I was looking through one of those writer’s pages I subscribe to. One particular page is for writers to talk about stuff, you know, publishing, agents, even actual writing but writers being a self-indulgent selfish lot, they usually just post links to their new books. Being similarly selfish I tend to add links to my new blog posts but on this occasion, I noticed something different, someone had asked a question. What are your 5 favourite books of all time?

Straight away I jotted down four, I struggled for a fifth and then remembered I had already started a post about my top 100 books of all time. It was waiting there quietly in my drafts folder and I’m sorry to say I was well short of a 100. I had got as far as 21 books and so for the purposes of this blog post, I’ve whittled it down to 10. I’ll give you five this week and five the next so here we go, in no particular order . .

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

What can I say about this modern classic that hasn’t be said before? I’ve tried reading other books by Fitzgerald, but they haven’t really hooked me. This one though is nothing short of wonderful. It’s a sad haunting book and the text is so lovely, so lyrical it could almost be a poem, especially the very last page.

Gatsby is an enigma. A millionaire rumoured to have made his money during prohibition who holds lavish parties in the New York neighbourhood of West Egg. The bright and beautiful of New York are drawn to these parties like moths to a flame and one day, or so Gatsby hopes, Daisy, his lost love, will come too.

Things don’t work out as Gatsby has planned because Daisy has a husband and children. A hot summer in New York adds to the tension and Fitzgerald presents the jazz age to the reader with warmth and nostalgia. Read this book and revel in the author’s lyrical elegance.

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse

I’ve always loved this book. It’s a very northern book, written by Keith Waterhouse and it’s about a young lad who fantasises a lot. So much so that he has a whole fantasy world up there in his head. It’s called Ambrosia. In Ambrosia the army traditionally salute with the left hand, a tribute to survivors of the revolution who all lost their right arms in battle. Billy fantasises about writing a great novel, the one like mine that he is always going to start tomorrow. He has two girlfriends on the go, both of whom he has proposed to and has given them both the same ring. He wants to be a TV scriptwriter and has gone as far as sending his scripts to a TV comedian. He dreams of going to London to work. The book was a successful film and someone once told me they saw the stage version which used a revolving stage for Billy to enter into Ambrosia.

Lost Horizon

James Hilton is one of my personal writing heroes and yet his name may be unfamiliar to many of you reading this blog. He was a journalist and an author and made the trip from his home in Leigh, Lancashire, (now Greater Manchester) in the UK to the Hollywood Hills in the United States to become a screen writer. He is probably more well known for his book ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ which was made into a film with Robert Donat (actually another northerner from Didsbury in Manchester) but my favourite of his books and quite possibly my all-time favourite book is ‘Lost Horizon’.

Lost Horizon is a book I found in a second-hand shop many years ago. A battered 1940s paperback, I paid twenty-five pence for and yet that small investment has paid me back many times over for sheer reading pleasure as Lost Horizon is a book I re read every year or so and I often pull it down from my bookshelf when a current read fails to entertain me.

Lost Horizon is a completely original idea and is about British consul Robert Conway in the dark days before World War II. Conway is helping his fellow British citizens escape from civil war in China and he and his small party escape in the last plane, only to be kidnapped and taken to a distant Tibetan monastery. Conway meets the High Lama and after a time it is revealed that the Tibetans want to preserve the best of world culture and art and make it safe from the coming war.

Hilton is one of those few people who have invented a word or coined a phrase that has become part of the English language. In this case it was the name of the Tibetan monastery, Shangri-la which has since become a byword for a peaceful paradise, a distant haven. Camp David, the US President’s retreat was originally called Shangri-la until renamed by Eisenhower for his son, David.

Lost Horizon was made into a movie by Hollywood director Frank Capra and starred Ronald Colman as the urbane British diplomat of the novel. It’s a movie that was restored some time ago and is a great DVD if you happen to see it.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

You might possibly be wondering about this book and how it got into my top ten. OK, it isn’t one of the classics and it isn’t exactly by a world-renowned author but what the heck, I’ve always liked it and it’s one of my favourite books. Books come in all shapes and sizes and while some books focus on strong and emotive subjects like love, life, tragedy and the universe, some books lift you up in other ways. I’ve always had a dream of living in France in a big old country house and in this book the author and his wife move to a village in Provence. In a quietly amusing way the author documents his new life which involves things like dining out, sorting out a new boiler and engaging French workmen to remodel his house. They once made it into a rather badly received TV series but the book is a gentle, relaxing summer read.

A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow

Whenever I plug my own short novel, Floating in Space, I usually try to link it to classic kitchen sink novels of the past like this one. The sixties were a great time for working class novels and many of them were made into films.

The story is a very simple one; Vic Brown is a draughtsman in a Yorkshire factory and he gets involved with a secretary called Ingrid. When Vic learns Ingrid is pregnant, he does the ‘proper’ thing for the 1960’s and offers to marry her. Sounds simple but this is a complex and fascinating book and looks at the subtleties of relationships and how the characters make their way through a series of difficult choices. For a northerner like me, it’s also nice to read about things and places I can directly relate to. The first part of the book where Vic, who narrates the book, talks about a family wedding brings back so many memories of similar weddings when I was a child. Barstow was a Yorkshire writer and A Kind of Loving was the first part of a trilogy. My well thumbed copy has all three parts in one volume.


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Movie Connections Part 2: Nora Ephron

A while back I wrote a post about my movie connections. Every time I see a great film it registers up there in the old grey matter and at some point I’ll take a closer look at the credits of those films and see if there was a connection. In the case of that particular post the connection was Terence Rattigan. Rattigan was a playwright who wrote many film scripts and adapted many of his own plays for the screen and in the course of my often extensive TV viewing I’ve come across a number of great films all written by him.

In another similar mental exercise, I examined another group of films and the common denominator turned out to be Nora Ephron. Now some of you out there may never have heard of Nora. Who was she anyway? Well Nora was a journalist, a screenwriter and a director. She’s probably most famous for penning the brilliant comedy When Harry met Sally.

Photo by David Shankbone -, courtesy Wikipedia

When Harry met Sally is one of my all time favourite films and one that I wasn’t keen on at first. It didn’t impress me that first time at the cinema, the second time I saw it on TV I thought, hey, this isn’t so bad and I made a particular effort to seek it out a third time. After that third viewing, I loved it so much I bought the DVD version.

I was sad to hear of Nora’s passing in 2012 and made a mental note to find out more about her. Naturally, being me, a lazy semi-retired English blogger and occasional maker of YouTube videos, I never did.

A few weeks ago and eight years after making that mental note I was scanning idly through the TV listings and noticed a documentary film about Nora called Everything is Copy. The writer and director, Jacob Bernstein turned out be Nora’s son so he was clearly qualified to make a documentary about his mother. It wasn’t the greatest documentary film I’ve ever seen but it was certainly interesting. The film told the story of Nora’s life through various interviews. One surprising one was with Carl Bernstein, the famous Washington Post reporter whose articles on Watergate with Bob Woodward revealed the Watergate scandal to the world and eventually forced President Nixon to resign.

Nora was married to Bernstein and after becoming pregnant for a second time with their other son Max, Nora discovered he was having an affair with Margaret Jay, a British journalist and friend. Nora used the experience to write a book called Heartburn which was later made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. I have to say I’ve not seen the film or read the book but once again I’ve made a mental post it note and stuck it firmly up there in my brain for further attention.

After watching the documentary film I felt even more determined to find out more about Nora so I went to abebooks on the internet and after some research ordered a copy of I Remember Nothing, a book by Nora that seemed to be a memoir. The book starts out as a sort of memoir, telling humorous stories about this and that, and her life without really giving much away. Nora wanted to be a journalist and after working for the Kennedy White House for a short while she joined the staff of the magazine Newsweek. In her book she tells the story of how Newsweek did not hire female writers and offered her a job as a mail girl. She doesn’t appear to have been upset by this despite it being blatantly sexist. She just got on with her job, still determined to be a journalist. In her book Nora makes the whole episode sound quite amusing, especially when she later writes a parody column during a newspaper strike and as a result gets invited to write for the New York Post. Over on Wikipedia, there is a slightly different story in which Ephron gets involved with a class action lawsuit filed against Newsweek for sexual discrimination.

I Remember Nothing is an amusing book although it’s a little short on copy for someone for whom everything is copy. I enjoyed it enormously although had I been reading it on holiday, I could have got through it in an afternoon by the pool. Even so, the book has some great stories, in particular I liked the one about when Nora was nearly an heiress and thought she was about to inherit a formidable sum of money. There is another one about Christmas dinner and the one about when a meal was named after her in a posh restaurant. All of the stories are nice blog post sized stories which if I were devious enough, I could easily steal for the days when I have no idea what to write about.

When Nora was married to Bernstein, she put together a screen version of All the President’s Men which was ultimately rejected (William Goldman eventually wrote the script) but her version was seen by someone else who offered her the chance to write the script for a television movie and that was how her screen career started.

Nora wrote the screenplay for When Harry met Sally in 1986 and apparently imagined herself in the role of Sally, and Rob Reiner, who directed the film, as Harry. Nora wrote the screenplay after interviewing Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman and various others about their lives.

There is one scene from When Harry met Sally that has become a classic. It’s the one where Harry and Sally are eating in what looks like a diner or cafe and Sally shows Harry how easy it is to fake an orgasm by demonstrating it there and then in the cafe. According to Wikipedia, the cafe was actually Katz’s Delicatessen at 205 East Houston street in Manhattan. Also, just while I’m in the mood for dishing out useless information, the lady in the film who says to the waiter, ‘I’ll have what she’s having‘ when Meg Ryan, who played Sally, had finishing orgasming was actually director Rob Reiner’s mother and the line was suggested by Billy Crystal who played Harry.

Personally, I’d be hard pushed to tell you my favourite scene in the film although the one where Harry tells his best friend about his divorce is a major contender. Harry says he only knew about the split when the moving men came to his house to shift his wife’s stuff. One of the movers wore a t-shirt with the legend ‘don’t f’**k with Mr Zero’ on his chest and Harry’s friend asks ‘are you saying Mr Zero knew you were getting divorced before you did?’

I thought the pairing of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal was wonderful and I could never understand why the producers of films like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle paired Meg with Tom Hanks. Then again, Nora actually directed both those films so maybe she just preferred Tom Hanks.

Here’s one of the crazy things I love about movie connections. Ages ago, I caught a film on TV about a woman who wrote a cookery blog. Can you imagine that, a film, an actual motion picture about blogging? Who could do that, who could make a picture like that? I missed a few minutes at the beginning of the picture and made a mental note (yes, another one) to make sure to record it next time it was shown. No, I didn’t record it the next showing but to answer my last question, who would make a picture about blogging, the answer was, surprise surprise, Nora Ephron.

In 2009 she released Julie and Julia, a film based on an actual blog by Julie Powell, an American who decides to cook her way through the cookbook of Julia Child, a 1950’s American cook played by Meryl Streep. As Julie blogs about her cooking the film flashes back to the life of Julia. It’s a great film and the only film I can think of which focusses on blogging.

Nora died in 2012 from pneumonia, a complication of the leukaemia she was suffering from. She had not shared her illness with friends or family, thinking it might impede her career. However, in I Remember Nothing, she left a list of things she would miss when she had departed:

They include Spring, a walk in the park, reading in bed, the view out of the window, Paris, butter and taking a bath.

She was 71 years old.


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Actors, Lemons and The Big Sleep

I was going into work the other day and remembered that I didn’t have anything to read. I do like to have a read on my break so I looked around and picked up The Big Sleep. If you haven’t read the book by Raymond Chandler you must surely have seen the film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I love the opening scene where Bogart meets with General Sternwood and has separate encounters with his two daughters. Sternwood, an old former general lives in a sort of greenhouse where the heat that keeps his tropical plants alive makes Bogart wilt. That was a great opening and sets the scene for the rest of the film.

When I sat down on my break and flipped open the book, a small cutting fell out. It was a newspaper cutting dated November 14th 1995 from the Daily Express. An Actor Bombs went the headline and went on to tell the story of an actor:

An out of work actor was amazed when his agent rang and offered a part in a Shakespearean play. All he had to say was ‘My Lord, I hear a cannon.’

For weeks the actor rehearsed his line, giving it a variety of interpretations. Walking down the street (My Lord, I hear a cannon.) In the bath (My Lord, I HEAR a cannon.) In the shaving mirror (My LOOOORD, I hear a cannon)

The day came and the actor strode on to the stage and turned to the audience

The cannon went off with a terrifying bang and he shouted ‘What the *** was that?’

That newspaper clip really made me laugh and sometimes we all need a good giggle. That’s one of the things I love about second hand books; who put the clipping in the book? Did they find it as amusing as I did? I hope so.

Anyway getting back to The Big Sleep. The book was written by Raymond Chandler and he had this really fabulous talkative way of writing. You can almost imagine hearing Humphrey Bogart’s voice as you read the book. Here’s a quote from the text, an example of Chandler’s descriptive style:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stocking. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony or sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong looking. Her head was against an ivory satin cushion. Her hair was black and wiry and parted in the middle and she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall. She had a good mouth and a good chin. There was a sulky droop to her lips and the lower lip was full.

Not bad eh? Dilys Powell called his writing ‘a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry’ and it’s easy to see why. Mrs Regan was played by Lauren Bacall in the film and up till now I had always thought this was the film where they had met. Wrong! A quick check on Wikipedia and I see the couple met on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944. Bacall was 19 and Bogart was 45 and married to his third wife Mayo Methot at the the time. Sparks apparently flew between the couple and Bogart divorced Mayo and married Bacall the next year, 1945. Despite the great on screen chemistry together the couple only made four films together.

The film version of The Big Sleep was a brilliant adaptation of the book and some of the differences are interesting. For instance, early in the book detective Philip Marlowe played by Bogart meets General Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. She looks at Marlowe and remarks how tall he is. In the film, Bogart of course wasn’t that tall so the dialogue is reversed ‘You’re not very tall are you?’ comments Carmen.

Carmen was played in the film by Martha Vickers and Chandler felt that she seemed to overshadow the performance of female lead Lauren Bacall. For that reason many of Vickers’ scenes were cut. Release of the film was delayed by Warner Brothers and in fact another of Bacall’s films shot after The Big Sleep, Confidential Agent, was released first. Reaction to Confidential Agent was so good Jack Warner, the studio head, decided to beef up Bacall’s part in The Big Sleep so new scenes were shot and added to the film including a new ending.

The plot of the book and film are pretty complicated, although having just read the book I think that the book is easier to follow. During the filming the director and his stars wondered who killed the character of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood’s chauffeur? They sent a cable to Raymond Chandler asking him. Chandler told a friend later ‘Dammit, I don’t know either!’

One strange element in the film, certainly for me, is a scene where Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is watching blackmailer Geiger. Geiger has a shop that sells rare books in Hollywood and Marlowe asks for information in another bookshop opposite. There he chats to a bookseller played by Dorothy Malone who, if you are old enough, will remember her from the Peyton Place TV series. Malone and Bogart seem to hit it off well in the film but he never returns to the bookshop and Dorothy is never seen again in the film.

Every time I watch the film I always expect Malone to reappear but that’s one of the many dead ends the film leads us down. I think it was Hitchcock who said that every scene in a film should lead the audience somewhere and Quentin Tarantino of course said the reverse. Perhaps director Howard Hawks favoured Tarantino’s view. Over on YouTube I found a clip from that scene. It was titled, The Big Sleep, best scene ever. I wouldn’t go that far myself but see what you think.

As I write this I have spent the day at my Mother’s house in Manchester. She is suffering from dementia and is being looked after nearby but sadly, because of Covid 19, I am unable to visit. Lately, every time I have visited her house with intentions to sort out the garden it has done nothing but rain. Today dawned nice and sunny, at least it was when I awoke at the ridiculous time of 6:30 am. After looking through my e-mails and planning my daily social media broadside into Twitter cyberspace I arose, had a wash, made a quick breakfast and got cracking. I mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges and cleared the sharp and unruly brambles that have appeared at the end of the garden. I strimmed the path and finally, everything seems to look neat and tidy.

The apple tree in the corner, a birthday present from me to my dad who died 20 years ago this year is looking well but unlike last year I couldn’t see any apples. My mum used to make apple pies from the apples from this tree but after my dad died I came home to visit one day and was shocked to see the council had chopped down the tree. I was absolutely fuming and while I silently planned what I would do to the nameless official who had perpetrated this tragedy, my mum mentioned casually that it was she who arranged to have the tree chopped down. What on earth for I asked? She had been worried that the tree, which grew at an odd angle might trip her up.

Today the tree has  grown again, this time straight up and I can look forward to one day making apple pies again.

While I am on the subject of trees I might as well mention my lemon trees. I do love taking a stone or a pip from a fruit and growing something. I’ve grown quite a few lemon trees and I have two now, both grown from pips and both growing strong. They look good, I keep them well watered and fed but, no lemons. Liz bought me another lemon tree a while back. It was small but it came with about three small lemons. After a short while each of those lemons dropped off but no more have grown. It seems as though when it comes to lemons, I’ve got the kiss of death but if I could just grow a lemon, just one, it would really make my day.

My brother is planning to join me later. I’ve got a couple of lagers in the fridge and a chilli on the go in the slow cooker (gardening, blog writing and cooking: it’s been a busy day!) Tuesday, not much on TV tonight. Think I might just dig out my DVD of The Big Sleep!


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Writing, Blogging and making those Ch-Ch-Changes

I sometimes wonder why I go to all the effort of banging out a new blog post every weekend. My words like those of many others go forth into the internet and some multiply in terms of ‘likes’ and followers and some fall on stony ground. Still, what do I care? I have enjoyed the process of writing and have done ever since I was a child. I’ll go on banging out blog posts until the day when, well, the day when I don’t want to bang blog posts out anymore, when presumably I will either have found something more enjoyable to do or just shuffled off into the next world.

Of course I do want people to read my work and every time I get a new comment or a new ‘like’ it feels good, in fact it feels very good indeed, even though my blog is probably out there on the lower rung of popular blogs. Some of my WordPress colleagues have huge followings and I have to admit to a feeling of envy when I see their posts with lots of comments and lots of likes.

One of my fellow bloggers has a large following even though he posts things that wouldn’t look out of place on a Facebook status post. Things like My favourite Bowie song is ‘Changes’. Now that particular post, which garnered about 80 likes last time I looked, took very little effort even though there wasn’t a picture of David Bowie or a link to a music video which he could have easily added, like this:

I do spend a lot of time on my posts and my deadline of 10am on a Saturday morning keeps me on my toes. It makes me write when I could very easily be watching TV and sometimes, a lot of the time in fact, I do need a hefty shove to get going. Some of my posts have been written with a sense of urgency on a Thursday afternoon or even Friday night and strangely, those last minute posts always seem to do well. A while ago I published a post about Watergate which I researched very thoroughly, reading various Watergate books and watching a few documentaries on the subject. The resulting post which I personally loved, didn’t get a great reaction from the blog reading public.

On the other hand, 3 Films about Films, which I wrote on a Thursday when I knew I would be busy Friday and Saturday did very well indeed. There was minimal research because I wrote about three films that I loved and have seen many times and apart from checking a few dates and spellings online, I knocked the post out in one fell writing swoop.

3 Films About Films netted about three times my usual readership and the annoying thing is that I don’t know why. It was lovely to have that extra readership and I’m glad readers liked it but I still wonder why my Watergate post didn’t go down so well. Perhaps, unlike me, people aren’t really interested in Watergate. Perhaps I didn’t include the right keywords in the title or use the most appropriate tags or just made some elementary blogging mistake. Those little blogging mysteries do make me wonder.

Every week I seem to pick up the odd new follower here and there and one day, hopefully I may move up into the stratosphere of popular blogs. I do like writing and blogging and that is the reason I keep on going, as well as to publicise my book Floating in Space for which, as usual, you will see a short plug down at the bottom of this post. Floating came from a love of writing too and I enjoyed writing it even if no one ever buys or reads a copy. The fact that people have bought a copy and read it and enjoyed it is a great feeling, even if my plans for using the proceeds to buy a penthouse in Barcelona have been put on hold for now.

This in some ways might be a breakthrough week for me as a writer. I have to stress the phrase might be though. A while back when I hit a bit of a blank wall whilst writing, I decided to look back at some of my older work. A few years ago I wrote a script  which went from psychological drama to murder mystery and while reading it I thought of a great idea for an alternative ending. I re-wrote the ending (added some ch-ch-changes) and thought great but what can I do with the script now?

Well I decided to list the script on Inktip.com a US site that puts together a newsletter that is read by many film industry professionals, at least that’s what they say. It was a mere $40 to list my script on the newsletter and all I had to do was create a logline, a short phrase that encapsulates the whole scenario. OK, that was sorted but then I find that the log line has to link to a script or synopsis and to add that it’s another $60. OK I sorted that but then it turns out your script has to be registered. Registered how? Well you can register a script with the Writer’s Guild of America which ensures no one can steal your ideas. I registered the script and that was another $20. If any film producer decides to option my script I’ll let you know. That could well be a hundred and twenty dollars (£92) well spent, on the other hand . . Well, I might just keep my options open on that Barcelona penthouse, you never know.

Getting back to my blog and Floating in Space, I do wonder about views and likes. Perhaps I need proof that I’m doing things right or that my work is engaging. Over on Twitter I have roughly 6500 followers but most of those are bloggers and authors and amateur video makers just like me and only a small portion of that following has ever bought Floating or even followed me here on WordPress. Sometimes I wonder just what is the point of Twitter? Is it just a collection of thoughts and comments that go off into cyberspace never to be heard of again, unless of course you are someone the world seems to takes notice of. I was thinking perhaps of Donald Trump whose Tweets seem to be reposted and commented on endlessly. Then again, maybe that isn’t really a good example but Trump really seems to have cracked what I might call the Twitter bubble.

I spend a lot of time wondering not only about my posts but also about my book. Who is buying it and why? How can I sell more books? Should I perhaps edit it again or perhaps do more advertising or make more promo videos?

I have to admit to making some elementary mistakes in self publishing. A while back I made a big update to Floating and rather than getting an increased readership, sales dropped back to nothing. After a couple of months I did a check on Amazon and found that due to a slip of the keyboard Floating was retailing for £70.10 rather than £7.10! That mistake was quickly resolved and sales gradually began to move again but I felt like such a fool.

A few weeks ago I had a message from an old schoolfriend saying she had read Floating in Space and how much she had enjoyed it. The lady in question was (all names have been changed to protect the innocent) a girl called Stella Smith. Now Stella and I were in the same class together in Junior school and High school and except for a few chance meetings here and there, I don’t think we have have ever met up since our schooldays.

Stella was a popular girl and it was nice to talk to her again via the internet. When we had finished talking about schooldays and Manchester I asked her how come she had bought Floating? Had she seen one of my Tweets? Caught one of my YouTube videos? Had she seen one of the occasional advertisements I have tried on Google? No. None of these. She had been told about the book by another schoolfriend, a guy called Laurence.

I didn’t know Laurence or at least didn’t remember him but Stella mentioned that he had ‘friended’ her after talking on a Facebook page dedicated to our old school, Sharston High.

I joined the Sharston page and looking through it I found a number of interesting posts relating to old teachers and pupils and so on. After I had posted something myself Laurence commented on it and we got talking. It turned out he was in the year below me which is why I didn’t remember him. He mentioned how much he had enjoyed Floating. How had he heard about it I asked? Facebook? Youtube? No, he had been told about it by his old friend Eddie White.

Eddie wasn’t a former pupil, he was a colleague from my bus driving days. He and I were in the bus driving school together and while we weren’t great mates we were friendly. Eddie was a mate of Brian, another busman who I am still friends with today. Brian had told Eddie about the book, Eddie told Laurence and Laurence had told Stella.

Holy smoke, am I wasting my time with YouTube and Twitter! Perhaps I need to make some marketing ch-ch-changes . . .


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Book Bag Edition 12 2020

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

The Murder of Rudolf Hess by W. Hugh Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown.

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

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

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

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

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

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

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

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

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

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


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A Bit of a Blog or a Blog of Bits . .

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

All of Me an autobiography by Barbara Windsor

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

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

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

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

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

Chaplin directed by Richard Attenborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annoying Things Part 17

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

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

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

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


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My Lockdown Book Bag 2020

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

A Right Royal Bastard by Sarah Miles.

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Turing: The Enigma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khrushchev Remembers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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