Summer Book Bag 2021

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

A Right Royal Bastard

Serves Me Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of a Gossip

Death of a Cad

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

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

Manhunt.

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

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

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

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

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


What to do next: Here are a few options.

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Listen to my podcast Click here.

Buy the book! Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology.

Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.

The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film Pt 3

Papillon by Henri Charrière

Papillon is a book by Frenchman Henri Charrière. It is an autobiographical novel about Charrière’s imprisonment in the French penal colony of French Guiana and covers a period of about fifteen years. The original novel was written on a series of exercise books and is presented in just that way. Charrière describes his experience of imprisonment as a terrible one. He escaped and was recaptured many times and ended up in solitary imprisonment twice. The first time was for two years and he was kept in solitary for 24 hours a day. In his second bout of solitary a new officer takes over the running of the area and prisoners are let out for exercise every day. At one point in his escape Charrière encounters a tribe of Indians and joins them for many months, even marrying one of the Indian girls but despite finding this apparent paradise, he leaves and is imprisoned again. He eventually escapes from Devil’s Island by jumping into the sea aboard a sack filled with coconuts. The book is an incredible read and I found it one I just couldn’t put down. It is filled with action and adventure but also with thoughtful observations about the human condition and there are many moments when simple acts of kindness stand out to the author against a background of cruelty and inhumanity.

The book was an instant hit when it was published in France in 1969 and the author, Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon because of a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, became a French celebrity. He died in 1973 but always maintained the book was true and based on his own recollections despite claims to the contrary. Whatever its origins the book is a true classic adventure story.

The Film

On paper this should have been a brilliant film; Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman star, there was a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr and music by Jerry Goldsmith. The director was Franklin J Shaffner, who I’ve not heard of but there are plenty of big names involved who would normally guarantee a great film. They even had author Henri Charrière who acted as an advisor to the production. Somehow though, they managed to turn out something of a dud. It’s hard to put the finger on what went wrong but reviewer Robert Ebert said the big flaw was that the audience failed to gain interest in the McQueen and Hoffman characters. I think the big problem was that the book was a long book, packed with incident and instead of trying to cram the whole book into a film, perhaps the producers should have concentrated on just a part of it. Steve McQueen was a reasonable actor and he was good in basic action roles but I just don’t think he was good enough to play Papillon. The film skips over many interesting elements of the book and at the end of the film when Charrière is imprisoned on Devil’s Island, McQueen appears to be an old man which wasn’t the case in real life. My advice: Don’t bother with the film, read the book.

The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

I’ve been trying to remember which came first for me, the book or the film. After some reflection, it was probably the film but I read the book soon afterwards. I found a copy in a box of paperbacks someone had given to my Father. The book is a classic escape story from World War II. It’s a great read and the story starts with a usual day in the POW camp which consists of tea making, cooking and cleaning and exercising by walking a circuit around the camp. The author, real life escapee Eric Williams, tells the reader about the everyday problems of living in a hut full of bored officers looking forward to either red cross parcels, letters from home or escaping. The problems of escaping are many. The soil is soft and sandy meaning that a tunnel would be liable to collapse and the soil cleared from underground is different to the grey topsoil making it difficult to hide from the German guards. The main problem is the distance from the huts to the camp perimeter but the author and a friend hit on the idea of taking a vaulting horse and placing it near to the perimeter fence and having a tunnel dug from there with the prisoners exercised by vaulting over the horse and masking the escape operation. The POW camp, Stalag Luft III was also the same camp where the events depicted in The Great Escape took place.

The Film

The film is pretty faithful to the book and stars the usual stalwarts of British films in the 1950’s, actors like Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson. It’s a nicely paced film showing the boredom of camp life and then the idea for the vaulting horse and its preparation and use. Various problems have to be overcome including tunnel cave ins and disposal of the resulting excavated sand but all goes well. The two escapees decide to add another man to their escape team and one night the three emerge from the tunnel into freedom. Of course the escape is not over; two of the men make their way to the Baltic port of Lubeck and manage to escape to neutral Sweden with the help of the Danish resistance by stowing away on a Danish ship. The third escapee also makes his way to freedom separately and all three meet up in neutral Sweden.

On her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

This book as you probably know is one of the James Bond series of books and is one of the last in the series. As usual, the book is well written and James Bond 007 is on the lookout for Ernst Stavro Blofeld whose fiendish plot was thwarted by Bond in the previous book, Thunderball. In this one Bond is close to resigning but after being given some holiday leave from work, meets a young girl, Tracy, who appears to be suicidal. After saving her from one such attempt Bond is introduced to her father Draco, who is head of a Corsican crime syndicate. Draco gives Bond a lead on Blofeld who appears to be trying to establish that he is in fact a baronet. Anyway, without going on and explaining the plot in detail, the book is an excellent read, one of the best in the Bond series.

The Film

The film was notable for being the first in the film franchise without Sean Connery as James Bond. Connery was tired of playing the part and so a search for a new Bond had begun. The new actor chosen was George Lazenby whose only claim to fame at the time was appearing in a TV advertisement for a Big Fry chocolate bar. For me, Lazenby was the perfect Bond. He looked the part, in fact I’ve always thought that he fitted Ian Fleming’s description perfectly. The film is a fast paced thriller and is one of the more serious of the Bond films. Diana Rigg plays Contessa Tracy Di Vincezo who Bond saves from a suicide attempt, just as he does in the book. Tracy’s father Marc Ange Draco who happens to be an underworld boss, gives Bond a tip as to Blofeld’s whereabouts. Bond, masquerading as Sir Hilary Bray, a representative of the College of Arms meets Blofeld in Switzerland on the pretext of confirming Blofeld as a baronet. Bond arrives at the ski resort of Piz Gloria and finds Blofeld is engaged on a new plot against the UK. The film throws in some great fight scenes, car chases and also an exciting ski chase sequence. It was directed by Peter Hunt and is still a favourite today amongst Bond fans. Sadly Lazenby decided not to play Bond again and Sean Connery returned for another outing as 007 in Diamonds are Forever.

Hamish Macbeth

This last entry is a little of a cheat really as the Hamish Macbeth series of books were made into a TV series rather than a film but here we go anyway.

Robert Carlyle played the eponymous TV police officer in the BBC series which first aired in 1995. The series is about a local Bobby based in the village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands. Macbeth applies the rule of law in his own way and dispenses his own brand of laid back justice. Although successful at solving numerous crimes Macbeth avoids promotion in order to stay in the village.

Three series of Hamish Macbeth were produced with six episodes each. Although the series was based on the books by MC Beaton, the TV series differs greatly from the books, with new characters devised by the TV producers and various other aspects changed. I enjoyed the series enormously and even once visited Plockton, the Highland village that doubles for Lochdubh on television. MC Beaton, whose real name is Marion Chesney, apparently hated the TV production which I can understand as they changed her work considerably, adding and changing characters. I have to say though, I’ve always liked it.

Death of A Dreamer by MC Beaton

I picked up this copy of one of MC Beaton’s books in a second hand bookshop in Skipton. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a book for me but I soon settled into the story and it bumbles along nicely with a few twists and turns on the way. A lady artist, Effie Gerrard, arrives in the village and develops an obsession with another artist named Jock. Later Effie is found dead. Was it a suicide or was it murder? The police decide it was suicide but Hamish is not so sure and he decides to make further investigations.

In the books Hamish has a dog and a wild cat as pets unlike the TV show where his only pet is ‘Wee Jock’, a highland Westie dog. The book is heavy on dialogue and light on descriptive passages but it was an easy and enjoyable read and I liked it immensely. The only annoying thing was that after finishing the book, the first chapter of the next book had been added to tempt the reader I suppose into buying that one. I read that and found myself wanting the next book in the series so it might be time to begin scouring the bookshops of St Annes for more books in the series.


What to do next: Here are a few options.

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Listen to my podcast Click here.

Buy the book! Click here to purchase my new poetry anthology.

Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.

Birthdays, Highlands and Hamish Macbeth

Last week was my birthday week and Liz suggested a trip up to the Scottish Highlands. The Scottish Highlands I thought, is it hot there? Can you sunbathe and swim in the sea? Well, you can although I wouldn’t advise it in October. The thing is with the current lockdowns in place all over the country and indeed the world, jetting off to somewhere warm isn’t much of an option. Anyway, our much under used motorhome was sitting on the drive just waiting for an opportunity for a run out so off we went.

Traffic was quiet on the M6 north so we made good time, arriving at our designated stopping place in the early evening. Park4Night is a great app to use for motorhomers telling us about handy stopping places nearby. We stopped in Lanark for the night just by the Loch and used a local chip shop to get our tea. Fish, chips and mushy peas seemed to take a hell of a long time and a great deal of commotion seemed to be aroused in the back office of the chip ship. However, finally our food arrived and we nipped off smartly back to our stopping place by the loch. Communicating in a Lanark chippy wasn’t easy, especially for the Italian guy who took my order. He had to go from Scottish/English to Mancunian/English which must be hard for any foreigner, especially so for an Italian living in Scotland. That is probably why I ended up with baked beans with my chips instead of peas. Beans with fish and chips is an insult to any northerners palate so the beans were stowed away for breakfast. The fish and chips were good though.

The next day, despite the rain, we made our way steadily to Loch Lomond where we stopped for the night. The Balloch House inn apparently welcomes motor home stop overs as long as they use the pub so we booked in for our evening meal. My meal, actually my birthday meal was nice but Liz’s wasn’t so good. New social distancing rules meant we could only stay for 90 mins in the Balloch House but round the corner we found a nice socially distanced pub serving some great beers.

Mallaig

Day 3 found us arriving at Mallaig, the quiet fishing village where we could board the small ferry to the Isle of Skye. Skye was a spectacular place, starkly beautiful and it reminded me so much of Lanzarote with deep valleys and great hills and mountains reaching into the sky. We found an excellent parking spot, again recommended by Park4Night which was conveniently just across from a fantastic chip shop. Fish, chips and peas was our evening meal again, although this particular chip shop served haddock rather than cod. The food was excellent and though it was a little pricey, the portions were huge. The view from the car park across the bay at Broadford was one we could only really appreciate the next morning.

The view across the bay.

The rain finally eased off the next day and we explored Skye bathed in warm autumn sunshine. We made a quick stop to pick up some Isle of Skye black pudding and after some more exploring we left the island over the bridge to the mainland and went in search of Plockton.

The splendour of Skye

Plockton is a small highland village where the TV series Hamish Macbeth was filmed. Macbeth is played by Robert Carlyle and he is the village bobby in the small fictional village of Lochdubh. Macbeth is a laid-back relaxed character. He is not averse to poaching the odd salmon and he likes to apply the rule of law in his own way. He avoids promotion as all he wants is to remain in his beloved village. The TV series is actually completely different to the books on which the series was based which was a little of a surprise to me and most of the characters in the series are the invention of the TV writers and not M.C. Beaton who wrote the books. I’m not sure how happy I would be if someone made a TV show out my book and then proceeded to change all the characters, still I did enjoy Hamish Macbeth as a TV show. It was an oddball quirky little drama which ran for only three seasons. I’m sure I once picked up a copy of one of the Hamish Macbeth books. Pity I can’t remember what I did with it otherwise I’d add a review.

I’m always surprised when I come across a location that I have seen before on TV because film seems to make things look bigger. Plockton was small and narrow in real life although on television it looks considerably more spacious. Years ago I visited Portmerion, the Welsh location for the TV show The Prisoner. The Prisoner was a hit TV show in the late sixties starring Patrick McGoohan as number 6, a former spy who resigns and who is whisked to a secret village where number 2 constantly asks the question ‘why did you resign?’.

It was a great series featuring elements of sci-fi and espionage and although outwardly a thriller there is much more to The Prisoner, and its counterculture and fantasy themes gave it a cult following which has continued to the present day. All the exteriors were shot in Portmerion and when I visited in 1986 or 87, number 6’s cottage was used as a shop by the Prisoner Appreciation Society. Like Plockton everything seemed smaller but I did recognise a lot of places used in the TV show.

Hamish Macbeth is completely different. I love the oddball characters like TV John, so named as he was the first in the village to get a TV set. The other villagers who meet regularly in the village pub are just as oddball as John but Hamish himself, torn between two women, Isobel the local journalist and Alexandra the author, is probably my favourite. He expertly solves various minor crimes and issues in the village, making sure visiting officers get all the credit so he can escape promotion and remain quietly in the village he so loves.

Plockton itself is a tiny village with a small harbour. We parked up at the car park while I went for a wander about. I found the row of cottages where Isobel, the town reporter lived but the village pub, a white building in the TV show eluded my searches. There was a pub, a grey building with an outside seating area looking over the bay, but it wasn’t the one I knew from the television. As we drove off, we passed another couple of pubs, neither of which was the TV village pub but I could imagine having a pleasant evening in Plockton with a nice pub crawl thrown in too.

Travelling south on the A82 (I think) we came across a monument to the commandos of World War 2. The commandos trained in the Scottish Highlands and the memorial is not far from Achnacary Castle where the commandos were based. The memorial is a sculpture by Scott Sutherland and as usual in these sort of places, I was humbled by the courage of these courageous men who fought and died to preserve freedom. In comparison, I’ve been rather lucky. I’ve not been called to fight in any wars, I’ve not suffered prejudice or been sent to a prison camp, in fact I’ve enjoyed a pretty easy life really. It’s not been that exciting and a lottery win would have been very welcome but at least I’ve been safe.

Coming further south towards Loch Lomond once again we found another lovely stopping place. A few other people stopped also for a photo opportunity at the Loch Tulla viewpoint. We took photos as well but we were lucky enough to be able to put the kettle on and have a steaming hot cup of tea and a corned beef sandwich.

Ah, the joys of having a motor home.


What to do next:

Share this post on your favourite social media!

Hit the Subscribe button. Never miss another post!

Buy the book! Click here to visit Amazon and download Floating in Space to your Kindle or order the paperback version.