Things to do during a Pandemic

I’m pretty much of a stay at home sort of guy normally although I do like to go out now and again. I do love dining out for instance. However, staying  at home day after day may stop the corona virus spreading but it can get a little boring. What can we do to entertain ourselves then?

Well first of all the weather in the UK is pretty nice so why not get the deckchair out and have a read of a good book? The obvious one for me to recommend is of course Floating in Space but I’m trying not to make this post into a plug for my book, although if you fancy getting a copy, click here!

The Murders at White House Farm.

Recently I’ve been reading a great book called The Murders at White House Farm by Carol Ann Lee. The book was made into a TV drama series not long ago which I thought was really interesting and that made me buy the book. In case you’re not familar with the story, back in 1985 Jeremy Bamber called the police to say he had received a telephone call from his father to say that his sister, staying at his father’s White House Farm had gone berserk with a gun. He didn’t call 999 but called his local police station directly. He and the police went to the farm and after waiting for a firearms squad, they broke into the house -locked from the inside- to find Bamber’s mother and father, sister Sheila and her two young sons, all dead from gunshot wounds. Sheila was suffering from schizophenia and the immediate assumption was that she had murdered her family and then turned her father’s rifle on herself.

Some officers weren’t so sure about that scenario and a number of things didn’t add up. For instance a struggle had ensued between the killer and Jeremy Bamber’s father Neville, so how did the 27 year old daughter manage to overcome the bigger and stronger Neville? Sheila shot herself after the murders but there were two shots to her head. How could she then shoot herself a second time? Blood was all over the master bedroom where Neville and his wife June were first shot yet Sheila’s feet were clean and free from bloodstains. Some officers and family members were concerned at Jeremy’s lack of emotion and his plans to sell off and convert into cash his parents’ assets.

Later Julie, Jeremy’s girlfriend came forward to reveal Jeremy had told her of his plans to murder the family. Her story though had a number of flaws; in particular she claimed Jeremy had used Matthew McDonald, a friend, as a hitman for a fee of £2000. McDonald had an alibi for the night and vigorously denied any involvement in the murder.

When the case came to court Bamber was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. This was a fascinating read but I found myself confused about some elements of the case. The author focusses on many aspects in detail but is a little unclear on others. The really strange thing is that Jeremy Bamber was convicted without any forensic evidence showing him to be the murderer. There was no evidence showing him to have been present that night, in fact he was seen leaving for home after working on the farm that day but he supposedly returned on a bicycle to do the murders. Again, there was no proof of that. He was found guilty only by his ex-girlfriend’s testimony which I find a little scary. Maybe he did it, but then again, maybe he didn’t.

TV

Of course, in a situation like the corona virus lockdown the TV comes into its own. We need entertaining but also, we need information. Information about what to do and how to keep ourselves safe during the crisis. The other day we downloaded Rocketman, the film about Elton John for viewing when we get bored with the usual TV output but so far we haven’t got around to watching it. We have watched Flesh and Blood on the ITV hub. In case you didn’t see it, Flesh and Blood “is the modern story of three adult siblings – Helen, Jake and Natalie – who are thrown into disarray when their recently widowed mother Vivien declares she’s in love with a new man,” according to ITV.

“This is no ordinary relationship drama, as someone in the family will be dead by the end of the story – but the question of who dies and who is the killer keeps us guessing right up to the last moment,” the channel added. I found it really good and I look forward to seeing series 2.

Jobs around the House

There’s a joke I’ve seen on facebook a number of times. It’s the one where the guy says ‘If a man says he’ll fix it, no need to remind him about it every 6 months’. Anyway, recently during the lockdown I’ve repaired the garden gate, fixed the leaky gutter and given the lawn it’s first 2020 mowing.

Writing

I read somewhere that during the plague in Elizabethan times, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was closed down just like other places of entertainment. People at the time had no idea how the bubonic plague was transmitted so the authorities of the day banned mass gatherings, just like 2020 in fact. Between 1603 and 1613, the Globe and other London theatres were closed for 78 months according to an article in the Guardian. Plague was an ever present threat for Shakespeare and other actors and performers of the day and in fact, there is some evidence to show that King Lear was written during a plague outbreak in London in 1606. Everywhere was quarantined so Shakespeare clearly thought, might as well get down to it and write something new!

I had the same thought and maybe by the end of this outbreak I might even have completed something new. Well, one or two pages anyway.


Holiday Book bag (Video Version)

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

Takes 1 and 2

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

Takes 3 and 4

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

Take 5 and 6

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

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

Holiday Book Bag 10 Winter 2020

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

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

McCartney: A biography by Philip Norman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene.

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

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

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

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

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

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dylan Thomas and the Joy of a Second Hand book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

10 Reasons to Read Books!

Every blog post on this site will end with a familiar call to buy my book, Floating in Space. Floating, in case you are a first time visitor to this site, is a short novel about the life of a young working class lad in urban Manchester in 1977. A number of reviewers have heaped praise on the book, others did not find it so praiseworthy. Why should you then consider it as an addition to your library? Why should you read it? Why should you even read books in the first place? Let me give you a few reasons . . .

Knowledge

One of the biggest reasons why we read books is to increase our knowledge. Books are a rich source of information. Reading books on varied subjects imparts information and increases your range and depth of knowledge. Whenever you read a book, you learn new information that otherwise you would not have known.

Improving your brain.

Studies have shown that reading has strong positive effects on the brain. By staying mentally stimulated, you can prevent Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Keeping your brain active is important because the brain is a muscle and like other muscles in the body, exercise keeps it strong and healthy. Similar to solving puzzles, reading books is a great way to exercise your brain and keep it healthy.

Stress Reduction.

Reading a book can relieve stress better than taking a walk or listening to music. According to studies, people who read more tend to have lower stress levels.

Building vocabulary

Reading improves your vocabulary and command of the language. As you read, you come across new words, new phrases and writing styles. A bigger and better vocabulary helps in conversation, with job interviews and in your own writing.

Improves writing skills

Reading a well-written book helps you to become a better writer. Many successful authors gained their expertise by reading the works of others. A great book will inspire you and urge you to write as good if not better than works you have read. If you want to become a better writer, start by learning from previous masters.

Improves communication skills

Improving your vocabulary and writing skills  go hand in hand with developing your communication skills. The more you read and write, the better you communicate. Increasing your ability to communicate, improves your relationships and even makes you better at your job or at your studies.

Portable entertainment

Books are portable and light in weight. They are not like bulky computers and games that take too much space. With a book, you can pack it in your handbag or pocket and easily carry it anywhere. You can read in a plane as you travel, in your bed before you sleep, or even relaxing on the beach during your holiday.

Helps you sleep better

Poor sleep leads to low productivity. This is why so many experts recommend that you establish regular de-stressing routine before you sleep to help calm your mind and therefore sleep better. Reading a book is one of the best ways to calm yourself before you go to bed. Instead of watching television or spending too much time on your smart phone, take some time to read. The bright lights from the electronic devices will only affect your sleep. On the other hand, a book will help you sleep better.

No side effects of the digital world

Spending too much time watching television or playing video games can affect your eye health in the long run. On the other hand, books are safe and easy. No one has ever gone blind from reading too many books. There are no known side effects or dangers of reading great books. There are only benefits.

Enjoyment.

There is much to enjoy in this world: Nature, the joys of swimming in the sea or relaxing on a beautiful beach. Listening to music or visiting the cinema can both be magical experiences but finding a really wonderful book and taking in the thoughts and ideas of another person, sometimes even the thoughts of someone who has passed away years earlier is for me a truly wonderful feeling. I think the first time I read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens was when I realised how wonderful a book could be. Floating in Space can hardly compare to a towering work like that but, well I kind of like it!


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.

Reviewing Spielberg

Not so long ago I thought about doing a post about the film director Steven Spielberg. I’d already done a couple of ‘favourite director‘ posts but the thing with Spielberg is that he’s not exactly one of my favourite directors so any post would be not really be complimentary so I didn’t want to get into writing something negative.

Anyway, I just happened to pick up a book about Spielberg in the second hand bookshop so it seems to me I can just combine my criticisms of the book and Spielberg’s works all in one post. I’ll try not to be too negative.

Steven Spielberg the Unauthorised Biography by John Baxter.

Spielberg was born in 1946 and the book glosses over his early life. His parents were divorced when Steven was at school and though staying initially with his mother and sisters he later went to stay in California with his dad. He was making amateur 8mm films as a youngster and according to the book, went on the Universal film studios tour and just stayed on wandering about the studio. At the time one of the only ways to get a job at Universal was through a relative who worked there and the book says that security guards let Spielberg through the gates on subsequent occasions, assuming he was the brother or son of one of the employees.

Spielberg apparently did quite a bit of networking at the studios showing his amateur movies around and after being rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school he managed to get an unpaid job at Universal. Later he took the opportunity to make a short film called Amblin which impressed the studio vice president so much that they offered Spielberg a seven year directing contract.

His first professional job was the shooting of an episode of the US TV show Night Gallery which starred Joan Crawford. It was apparently a difficult job for Steven, dealing with his temperamental star which gave him an aversion to working with so called ‘stars’. Looking through Wikipedia though, the website claims he and Crawford were friends until her death.

The first work of Spielberg’s that I saw was the feature length episode of Columbo ‘Murder by the Book’. At the time Universal was looking for something new to challenge the usual 60 minute episode format and the feature length episodes of their many crime shows seemed to be the answer. Spileberg’s episode is probably one of the very best of the Columbo series.

Spielberg‘s first cinema project was ‘The Sugarland Express’, a movie about a married couple chased by Police as they try to regain custody of their baby. The film received critical success but fared poorly at the box office. Producers however were impressed enough to ask Spielberg to direct the movie version of the book ‘Jaws’ about a man eating shark.

The shoot was a difficult one as the director rejected the idea of shooting in the studio and opted for a location shoot. Steven initially thought of using real sharks and midgets to make the sharks look even bigger but finally had to accept that a mechanical shark had to be made. Difficulties with the shark added delays to the shoot and some parts eventually had to be made in the studio. It was also interesting to read how the script was constantly under review with various writers adding to it and rewriting. Author Peter Benchley had added various subplots to make the book more entertaining and many of these were taken out by Spielberg who concentrated on the fundamentals of the shark chase.

At the time the movie industry was suffering because of competition from TV and Spielberg realised that a film needed to be an event, a major event in order to bring viewers out of their homes and into cinemas. The movie blockbuster was born with Jaws which was a huge hit which made Spielberg’s reputation overnight. I have to say it is probably my favourite of Steven Spielberg’s films. I’ve always enjoyed it and the performances are excellent especially those of Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider.

Spielberg went on to make a series of blockbuster films, all different in subject matter but all designed as major events in the world of cinema. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Indiana Jones films and ET were all highly successful. I can’t say they are on my list of all time great films, ET I thought was uninspired and Close Encounters was a film I couldn’t see the point of, a little like Hitchcock’s Birds. I didn’t get it at all.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great Saturday afternoon film based of course, on the film serials of the 1940’s. My big problem with most of Spielberg’s films is that they always leave me unsatisfied. Saving Private Ryan is another case in point. What was the point of all that invasion stuff with people being blown up on the beach? Empire of the Sun was a slow moving drudge of a film lacking any sort of pace. It was a project Spielberg took over from one of his personal directing heroes David Lean and I sort of get the feeling Steven was trying to make the film as Lean might have done. Sorry but it didn’t work for me.

This isn’t a great book and concentrates mostly on Steven Spielberg’s professional rather than personal life and doesn’t really offer too many insights into Spielberg himself although interestingly it says that Steven dismisses the auteur school of directing and thinks of a film as a collaborative effort. I remember once watching an interview with David Lean in which he said that a director’s job was to ‘tickle the talents’ of his crew and cast and get the best possible effort from each person to show in the finished film. After reading this book I’d guess that is something Spielberg would go along with.

The early part of the book I found particularly interesting especially when it explains how Spielberg put his movie projects together, often filming one while beginning preliminary work on another. The author also links Spielberg to the other directors of ‘New Hollywood’, people like Coppola, Lucas, and Scorsese who were great fans of classic Hollywood and built new films and productions while recognising the contributions of classic directors like Hitchcock and John Ford who had gone before.

This is not a great book and certainly not one that really gets to the core of its subject but still a good read all the same.


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.

The Best Book about Hollywood, Ever

Is ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ the best book ever written about Hollywood? I really think it is.

It’s a book written from first-hand experience for starters. The author, British born movie actor David Niven arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930’s. He had decided to try his luck in the movie business and he had come to the right place because Hollywood, California was the centre of the film making universe.

Some years previously it had been a rural backwater of lemon and orange groves but the silent film pioneers had found it had the perfect climate for film making. Back then in the silent days films were made in the open air shot on sets with no ceilings to let in the abundant California light.

By the 1930’s, sound had well and truly arrived and the big studios all had their coterie of stars and David Niven has a pocketful of stories, anecdotes and sketches about them and the other bit players, extras, directors and writers who inhabited Hollywood between the years 1935 to 1960.

Working as a boat hand to make some extra cash, Niven came on board a small vessel one morning. His job was to mop the boat down, get the fishing rods and bait ready and make sure some coffee and breakfast was on the go. The charter that day was for a man known as the King of Hollywood, none other than Clark Gable. Gable turned out to be a friendly customer who enjoyed his fishing. Some years later when Niven had made his first forays into acting and had a seat at a table at the Oscar ceremony, he was understandably very happy indeed to find Gable greeting him enthusiastically, his stock at that particular table rising dramatically after Gable came over to talk about fishing.

Niven goes on to paint an affectionate portrait of Gable alongside some other essays on various stars of the time. My favourite must be the short chapter on Errol Flynn. Flynn and Niven shared a house at one time and Niven comments that Flynn was completely trustworthy in a way, because whatever happened, he would always let you down!

During the making of ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade‘ which Warner brothers decided to set in India rather than the Crimea, Flynn, the new star started to get a little big headed. One big brute of an extra decided to waggle a lance under the behind of Flynn’s horse to teach Flynn a lesson.  The horse consequently threw Flynn off. He got up, dusted himself down and proceeded to teach the big guy a lesson of his own by beating him into a pulp!

Flynn had a yacht named the Zaca and weekends on the boat included sailing trips full of wine, women and song. Many young girls appeared on the boat, none of whom produced any ID which was unfortunate for Flynn as he was later charged with statutory rape. The accusing girls appeared in the courtroom wearing school uniforms and in pigtails but happily for Flynn the court saw through that and he was acquitted, although the image that the press painted of him was one that he was happy with.

In later life Flynn was bankrupt and became a floating shadow of his former self, sailing the seas in the Zaca. Later he made a great Hollywood comeback playing his great friend John Barrymore in ‘Too much Too Soon.’ He died in 1950 aged only 50 and in a poignant moment, Niven living then in the south of France, takes a walk along the French coast only to find the dis-masted remains of the Zaca lurking quietly in a boat yard.

Another great portrait is the one that Niven gives us about Prince Romanoff, known as Mike to his friends who ran the famous Romanoff’s restaurant on North Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills. He was also a former conman once known as Harry F Gerguson. Harry or Mike possessed an immaculate old Etonian accent and assumed the identity of the late Romanoff prince. His restaurant became a popular venue and by the end of the Second World War was a well-established Hollywood eating house. Niven tried to haggle with Mike many times and break down his stories of mingling with royalty, of Eton and Harrow and military academies like Sandhurst but to no avail. If he was a con man he was in the top echelon of his profession.

I’ve always loved George Sanders with his easy smooth talking suave style. Niven recounts various stories about him including some about his relationship with Zsa Zsa Gabor. During the break up of their marriage they stayed fairly friendly. However, George was well aware of the California divorce laws and decided that it was important to have evidence of Zsa Zsa’s relationship with her new lover. His plan was to break into his house –that Zsa Zsa had contrived to still live in- and photograph her in the arms of her new man. In case entry to the house proved difficult he took along his lawyer, a photographer and a brick with which to break in. Conscious of looking suspicious carrying the brick he gift wrapped it. On arrival at the lover’s nest the bedroom door was conveniently unlocked. They entered, took the appropriate evidentiary picture and then when tempers had cooled they all trooped down to the lounge. It was Christmas time and Zsa Zsa mentioned that George’s present was under the tree. Sanders passed her the brick, still gift wrapped and said ‘and here is yours!’

Many famous places appear in Niven’s book; the Brown Derby restaurant, Chasen’s and many other bars and restaurants frequented by long gone stars; Ava Gardner, Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Orsen Welles and many more. Niven also recounts a visit to some distant drinking den frequented by Robert Newton who appeared with Niven in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. Niven and Newton imbibed a generous amount of alcohol but when Newton began to disclaim various Shakespearean passages to the locals Niven realised it was time to leave. The pair had arrived straight from the studio and David had no money with him so it was with some surprise that he heard Newton hiss that he had none either. “We have a tricky situation here” observed Newton rolling his eyes.

Happily the two made a quick exit in Newton’s Chauffeur driven ancient Rolls.

The book tells of the big studios like Warner Brothers and MGM and their great back lots.  There was little location filming in those bygone days and on the back lots could be found entire New York streets, French and Spanish villages, frontier towns, Indian camps, medieval castles, a railroad station complete with rolling stock, lakes with wave making machines and a Mississippi steamboat.

Small wonder then says Niven that ‘Gone with the Wind’ was filmed in Culver City, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, just off Catalina Island, and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in the San Fernando Valley.

I actually own two copies of this wonderful book. One is a smart hardback copy for my bookshelf. The other is the copy photographed for this post, a well-thumbed tatty copy that I pick up and take to the garden now and again or to the dentist or whenever I have a spare moment to spend in Hollywood’s golden years.


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 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.

4 Simple Secrets of Self Publishing

One of the bylines I use on Twitter is ‘hear it straight from a self-published author’ so I thought it might be an idea to write a post about just that, about being a self-published author.

1. The first thing to remember in the world of self-publishing is that it’s just you, no one else, just you.

You are the writer, the editor and the proofreader all rolled into one and there is only you to tell you that that bit is good and that other bit is not so good and that the book is too long or too short, or anything else for that matter. Sometimes you might find you need a little help, particularly in the area of proofreading. After I wrote my book and then rewrote it a few times I personally began to develop a sort of word blindness and I tended to see only the words I thought I had written and not the ones I actually had written. Spelling and grammar checkers will pick up things like repeated words, bad spelling and so on but a really good idea is to get someone to proofread your work. How many mistakes Liz has spotted in my work I shudder to think!

2. Once you have clicked the button at Amazon to publish then another thought may begin to enter your head: Who is going to buy your epic work? How will they even know about it?

The answer is marketing, and who will be marketing your book? Well, for a self published author, it’s going to be you! Yes, that’s your cue to start Facebooking, Tweeting and Blogging so you can get your message out to all those eagerly waiting readers; a new book is available, come and get it.

A thousand websites are out there that will tell you about the intricacies of marketing and blogging. Some will drop a tiny sliver of free info onto your doorstep, others want you to sign up for their webinars and their courses all guaranteed to sell your book, at a price of course.

For me there are a few select websites that I follow and I do follow their advice particularly when I decide to shell out some money and actually advertise. Apart from advertising, I publicise Floating in Space in all the usual places I have mentioned plus I have a raft of videos to bombard the public with, some short and snappy and others that go into more detail. Then of course, there is this humble blog, going out once a week in the hope that these short missives about life, the universe, books and classic films will hopefully entice a few people to buy my book and bring me in a few sales. Will you be a best seller and make lots of money? Some writers do of course but when £5 a month drops into my bank account, sometimes more, sometimes less, I count myself very happy indeed.

Got yourself an author blog? No? Get yourself one ASAP. An author blog is a way of communicating straight to the book buying public. WordPress is a great way to start, fairly easy and free. The only thing I pay for at WordPress is my website address, http://www.stevehigginslive.com

3. Have you self-published at amazon?

Well if you have, having your author page at amazon is very important too. Get yourself a good bio sorted and some juicy stuff about your book. Another place that’s important is Goodreads. Take some time to set up your author page there too and try to interact with readers and other authors. Take a look at my Goodreads page here.

4. One last thought.

Ok, you’ve gone down the self-publishing route but that doesn’t mean you have to stay self-published. Keep on researching publishers and keep on sending off your manuscripts!

Oh and one other thing, just because you have found these four ‘secrets’ published on the Internet, that doesn’t mean that they are right, or good or even worthwhile listening to. I am just like a thousand other writers knocking out works like this that float off into the internet. I have no editor to tell me my post wasn’t helpful or interesting or generally up to much. I just have me and some grammatical support from my lovely proofreader who labours away correcting my tenses and spelling and other errors for no monetary gain at all, although I do take her out for a meal now and again.

So if you fancy becoming a self published author and blogger, join the club. Floating in Space is currently rated by Amazon as the 520,413th most popular book on their site. Almost a year ago it had hit the dizzy heights of 4,536th most popular so that is quite a fall, maybe it’s time to consult my head of marketing (me) and maybe sort out a new video from my personal video producer (me) for a new ad campaign!


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.