Books, TV and Films, October 2020


1 October

The Romantics and Us is the latest TV series from Simon Schama, who is perhaps best known to non-historians for his A History of Britain TV series at the turn of the millennium. Watching this is part of ongoing efforts to broaden my cultural awareness. Art is one of many weak spots.

Schama himself is fascinating. He is a frequent interviewee on news and current affairs programmes like BBC’s Question Time. Unlike Peter Hennessy, who I mentioned last month in the same context, I find him frustrating to listen to in open discussion — the ‘umms’ and ‘errs’ and unpolished sentences matching his sometimes awkward physical jerkiness as he tries to articulate his thoughts. I find him much more watchable when he is working to one of his own scripts. One of his specialisms is art history; he fizzes with enthusiasm and radiates authority (assuming you can fizz and radiate at the same time).

He is also an absolute joy to read. I finally tackled Citizens, his huge and rather unorthodox history of the French Revolution, last year. And I will never forget his essay on the front page of The Guardian after 9/11, powerful and moving. It is included in a book of his collected writings called Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. Odd how memory plays tricks. I was sure it was the front-page lead in the newspaper the very next day, but the book dates it to 14 September.

2 October

Not quite uncharted territory but my latest read sets me on a journey I don’t normally undertake. My destination is the world pre-1600, specifically the Tudor court of Henry VII. Winter King by Thomas Penn comes highly recommended, judging by the cover quotes and the prestigious awards it has garnered.

As a proofreader, my antennae are attuned to these things, I suppose, but I was immediately intrigued by the style rules the book follows. A basic rule followed by most style guides is that jobs and roles are lower case and titles are upper case. I agonise over the distinction sometimes and, judging by proofreaders’ blogs, nothing seems to infuriate people more than seeing their prestigious role in a company rendered in lower case, as if it is an egregious attack on their dignity or a personal slight. Take the time to look when you are reading your ‘quality’ newspaper (maybe not the Telegraph, though) or trawling a respected news website like the BBC’s, and you will indeed see ‘the president’, ‘the prime minister’, ‘the chief executive of …’ and so on.

Anyway, a sentence from Winter King (page 85 of the paperback, opened at random):

The entourage, which included Garter king-at-arms John Writhe and a number of prominent nobles, was headed by Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey.

4 October

I watched both episodes of Honour last night. Terrific, not least Keeley Hawes as DI Caroline Goode. I know Hawes from Ashes to Ashes (for which she drew a lot of unfair criticism initially, the series being compared unfavourably to Life on Mars) and more recently from my Spooks lockdown binge-watch (she appeared in the first couple of series or so).

Honour tackled the subject of so-called honour killing via the real-life case of Banaz Mahmod, a young Iraqi Kurdish woman from London who was murdered on the orders of members of her family because she ended an abusive forced marriage and started a relationship with someone of her own choosing.

The drama has received some criticism because its focus was the police investigation and not the murder victim herself. Be that as it may, I found it compelling, moving and terribly sad, not least the failure of the police to protect Banaz Mahmod on at least four separate occasions before her actual murder occurred.

I found its depiction of the work of the police entirely believable — from the under-resourced computer analyst to the long hours of boring but essential investigative work. There was nothing remotely glamorous about this portrayal, a sense nicely reflected by Keeley Hawes as the down-to-earth and — dare I say — dowdy detective inspector in charge of the case. We are so used to scenes of senior officers using their rank to scold or belittle their junior colleagues — none more so, perhaps, than the curmudgeon-in-chief Inspector Morse — that it was also refreshing to see how well DI Goode worked with, and led, her team, who referred to her affectionately as ‘Smudge’. Off the top of my head, the only other fictional senior police officer I can think of who is unfailingly polite to junior officers is Columbo.

9 October

I recommended the original The Dead Zone film (ie not the later TV series, which I haven’t seen) to a friend and decided to watch it again myself. It’s a film I first watched at the cinema back in 1983. At the time (I was in the sixth form) I was a regular cinemagoer, influenced by a friend who was a huge film buff. It was the time when video shops were beginning to take off, so a huge selection of previously unavailable films was suddenly at my fingertips. My friend was heavily into cult directors like Brian de Palma and Nicholas Roeg. The Dead Zone was, I think, the first mainstream film of David Cronenberg, a cult horror director, who went on to do a remake of The Fly with Jeff Goldblum.

Watching it again, the film perhaps feels a little dated in places, particularly the ‘visions’ sequences. But what is most noticeable is how stripped back the storytelling is. Anyone familiar with the author Stephen King’s writing will know that he likes to take his time. It’s a hefty book and it meanders around (or so I thought when I read it, which was almost certainly only after having seen the film), with a much more prominent role assigned to the charismatic politician, Greg Stillson.

The film, by contrast, is very sharply focused: the accident, the visions, the rise of Stillson. Only the suicide of the homicidal police officer feels somewhat out of place, as if Cronenberg is clinging to his horror roots. The bathroom scene in which Officer Dodd opens his mouth wide before impaling himself on the open scissors — bringing to mind countless sci-fi and horror films in which an alien in human form finally reveals its true non-human appearance — is not quickly forgotten.

I found all the characters (and the actors’ performances) convincing — particularly Johnny’s long-suffering parents and the sympathetic doctor played by Herbert Lom. Christopher Walken is outstanding as the awkward misfit, his body slowly weakening as his visions become ever stronger. Martin Sheen has specialised over the years in playing charismatic politicians, of course, though a political figure less like President Josiah Bartlet (of The West Wing) than the malevolent Greg Stillson is hard to imagine. With his finger literally on the nuclear button, Stillson’s unhinged ravings in the film’s closing sequence make for uncomfortable viewing in the age of Trump.

10 October

I get frustrated at the build-up of unwatched films and other programmes in the ‘My Recordings’ folder of my TV box, and then I add to the problem by not only recording new things but also revisiting stuff I have already seen. Yesterday, The Dead Zone; today, Maigret Has a Plan, the pilot for the short-lived series of ITV Maigret dramas starring Rowan Atkinson.

I thoroughly enjoyed it first time round and was surprised to read some less than flattering reviews. The Guardian‘s TV critic called it “leaden”; I wrote back then that it was “dark and broody”. Far from regarding it as slow and ponderous, ‘giving itself time to breathe’ is precisely what I most enjoyed about it. Wasn’t this exactly what critics were applauding when Inspector Morse reinvented TV drama with its single-episode, two-hour dramas back in the eighties?

13 October

I finished Winter King earlier today. It is a terrific book, one that has definitely fired up my curiosity for reading more pre-1500 history, about which I know so little. Considering that he reigned for 24 years, Henry VII is almost the ignored Tudor. Time and again, the focus of books, documentaries and films seems to be Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, with Mary I close behind (and Edward VI the forgotten rather than the ignored Tudor). Thomas Penn shows us what a fascinating and controversial reign it was.

Two things resonated powerfully as I read the book. The first were the steps taken blatantly to rewrite history at the start of the new king’s reign in a bid to strengthen his extremely weak claim to the throne (he was the grandson of the Welshman Owen Tudor who had married Henry V’s widow). The aphorism ‘History is written by the victors’ is heard so often that it probably counts as a cliché, but the thing about clichés is that they usually contain at least a kernel of truth. Terms like ‘spin’ and ‘fake news’ are part of modern-day political vocabulary, but are they anything other than just new ways of describing patterns of behaviour that have always existed in the world of power politics?

The second was how the Crown rode roughshod over any notion of justice, fairness and the rule of law in its insatiable appetite for wealth. Of course, England was far from being a modern constitutional monarchy in the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, proponents of English exceptionalism love rolling out a narrative that explains how our fundamental rights and liberties as ‘free-born Englishmen’, first set down in Magna Carta and enshrined in common law, have been passed down to us through the centuries.

It is as much myth as reality, of course. Magna Carta says nothing about fundamental liberties, let alone parliaments, human rights and democracy; it was a document drawn up by the barons in their tussle with the king of the day. Meanwhile, Penn shows how, during the reign of Henry VII nearly 300 years later, the king and his chosen advisers made a mockery of any sense of fairness, employing an army of spies and informers as they targeted well-to-do individuals, threw them in jail and plundered their wealth with impunity. In order to help secure an orderly transition of power after the king’s death in 1509, one of his son’s first acts was to issue a general pardon making clear that in future justice would be “freely, righteously and indifferently applied”. Needless to say, it wasn’t.

Having being shocked and dismayed by Love, Paul Gambaccini, Winter King reinforced anxieties about present-day ‘rule of law’ issues, not least the principle of an impartial justice system. Rights we think of as fundamental suddenly no longer seem sacrosanct but rather up for debate. The government, to take just one example, has indicated that it intends to look at the role of the Supreme Court, with a view to clipping its wings.

Recent events in the USA, meanwhile — and the possibility that the Supreme Court may (again) play a decisive role in deciding who the next president will be — are deeply disturbing, especially when the choosing of the most recently appointed Supreme Court justice was such a nakedly political act (Trump himself openly declaring that he wanted his appointee Amy Coney Barrett on the bench before the presidential election on 3 November). The more I read of the political system in the USA, the more it seems an appalling advert for a written constitution, as much a corruption of ‘democracy’ as the Soviet Union and its satellites were a corruption of ‘Marxism’.

[Added: 28 October] This sense of angst was deepened after I watched a brilliant film documentary on the Sky Arts channel called White Riot, about the rise of Rock Against Racism in the years after 1976. The context was appalling levels of racism in the UK and the growing popularity of the National Front. The levels of everyday racism — and the behaviour of elements within the police force — were dreadful. Another reminder for people over, say, the age of 50 that the sixties and seventies were not the good old days.

Now for another Sam Bourne. This time, The Chosen One.

15 October

Blimey. This paragraph in The Chosen One made me laugh out loud. It was written in 2010, long before Trump came along to debase the office of American president. Sam Bourne is the nom de plume of Jonathan Freedland, a Guardian columnist who writes knowledgeably on, among many other things, American politics:

Americans could tolerate all manner of weaknesses in each other — especially if they were accompanied by contrition and redemption — but not in a president. They needed their president to be above all that, to be stronger than they were. Few men ever met that impossible standard. But a nation that looked to its leader to be a kind of tribal father never stopped expecting.

from The Chosen One, Sam Bourne (2010)

21 October

I finished the Sam Bourne book with the usual double helping. Brilliant, as ever. His publishers use the tagline ‘Suspense with substance’. Like a Robert Harris novel, you know that with Sam Bourne you are going to get not just all the elements of a pageturner but also cleverly constructed plots, well-researched detail and credible characters.

I dipped my toe into the murky waters of writing about politics with two blogs earlier this year, focusing particularly on what I described as ‘failures of leadership’. As Boris Johnson continues to demonstrate that he is not up to the job of being prime minister in a crisis, it is time to read the views of someone who really knows what they are talking about — the political commentator Steve Richards and his book The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson.

23 October

A rare visit to a bookshop today, my first since July. So many interesting new titles (this autumn was apparently a bumper time for new books, many of them delayed because of the pandemic); lots to look forward to when they eventually appear in paperback. I spent some time browsing in the history section; again, lots to choose from, especially with Winter King whetting my appetite for pre-1600 history. I bought another Thomas Penn book, this one called The Brothers York. Fifteenth-century England is not something a know a great deal about. There was another book that I will probably pick up on my next visit — The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones, which, as a more general history of the Wars of the Roses, might have been a better place to start. I found his The Plantagenets very accessible a couple of years ago.

A book I have been intending to read for some time is the biography of Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCulloch. It has received sensational reviews, and will doubtless be an interesting companion piece to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, which has of course been similarly lauded. Two masterly writers of history; two contrasting approaches. I thoroughly enjoyed MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity and his book about the Reformation is practically shouting at me as well.

Much of the history I read is produced by left-leaning or avowedly left-wing writers, but I would like to think that I am open-minded enough to enjoy writers who look at history from a different vantage point. These are the things that matter: the thoroughness of the research, the writer’s judgements and the quality of the writing. Simon Heffer is very much a creature of the right, a long-time columnist for the Daily Mail. That said, I enjoyed his biography of Enoch Powell, and so the third book I picked up from the shop was his The Age of Decadence, a history of Britain between 1880 and 1914.

28 October

Steve Richards’s book on prime ministers since Harold Wilson is every bit as good as I thought it would be. He is someone whose political analysis I always listen to.

Although the book is set out with separate chapters on each prime minister bookended by an introduction and conclusion, one of its real strengths is that Richards is throughout comparing and contrasting them — what was similar and different in terms of their qualities, their approach, the events that confronted them and so on. It is an excellent and stimulating work of analysis and ensures that he does not get bogged down in unnecessary narrative.

As the subtitle says, his theme is leadership, and he continually returns to his ‘lessons of leadership’ — where it was demonstrated, where it was lacking, leadership traits that tended to produce good outcomes, and traits that contributed to bad outcomes. You probably won’t agree with every judgement he makes but, having been a watcher of politics for decades, he is a compelling and authoritative voice.

One criticism I would make of the book is that the writing lacks a bit of polish. It is the first Steve Richards book that I have read, but I am assuming it is connected with how the book came together. Most of the chapters are based on a series of unscripted straight-to-camera broadcasts (à la AJP Taylor) that he did on the Parliament Channel. As I say, he is constantly comparing and contrasting prime ministers, so there is inevitably some repetition. But it is noticeable how often particular words are repeated, sometimes within the same paragraph.

At one point, for example, I think I counted three uses of the word ‘fleetingly’ on the same page. The word ‘slaughtered’ (not my favourite word anyway) crops up more often than in a Stephen King novel — as in, ‘The Conservatives were slaughtered at the 1997 election’. Other errors (I think) include David Cameron’s ‘hug a husky’ policy (wasn’t it ‘hug a hoodie’?) and (regarding Gordon Brown) ‘the means justified the ends’. Like Richard Evans’s The Rise of the Nazis, there is also a howler in paragraph one of page one: “Boris Johnson, who entered Number Ten following the seismic general election in 2019.” It is curious that such errors were not corrected for the paperback edition.


More Books, TV & Film Chat


July

Philomena; On Chesil Beach (the film); Richard J Evans; The Second Sleep; Marxism

August

On Chesil Beach (the book); Peter Hennessy; vampire films; Ben Elton; Ice Station Zebra

September

Paul Gambaccini and Yewtree; The Post, Strike and Ad Astra; Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo