Books, TV and Films, April 2021

3 April

I avoid opening Amazon’s emails telling me what their omniscient algorithms think I should be buying and I never even look at the latest fiction and non-fiction charts so, other than skimming the Guardian’s Review magazine on Saturdays, I am always rather in the dark about new book releases. Now that bookshops are open again — well, they will be in a few days — it’s an opportunity to start paying more attention to new writing in history, biography and politics. (Though I remain loath to buy books about the contemporary political scene, which almost by definition date very quickly, I will probably make an exception for Peter Oborne’s The Assault on Truth, a favourite topic of mine these days.)

More than ever this last year I have been drawn back to old favourites — books that first made an impression on me years ago, or that have outstanding literary merit, or that are recognised as classics. High up on that list is the three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher. Volume I is called The Prophet Armed and covers the years up to 1921.

Deutscher is widely recognised as one of the outstanding Marxists of the time (he was active from the late-1920s until his death in 1967) — a highly influential activist, historian and journalist. The Prophet Armed is beautifully written. Though its scholarship will now of course be superseded, at the time (it was published in 1954) it made extensive use of previously unavailable material. And, although Deutscher is very much associated with the Trotskyist wing of world communism, his biography is by no means hagiographic, paying due attention to Trotsky’s flaws, mistakes and misjudgements.

Trotsky has always struck me as — even more than Lenin — the towering figure of the Russian Revolution. He was a more charismatic leader than Lenin, a more engaging public speaker, a more gifted writer and to my mind (though this is certainly arguable) a more daring strategist and effective organiser and administrator, certainly in the period from 1917 to 1921. It was Trotsky who was at the centre of events in 1905, as chair of the Petrograd Soviet. It was Trotsky who masterminded the seizure of power in October 1917. And it was Trotsky who created the Red Army from virtually nothing and ‘saved’ the revolution from defeat in the ensuing civil war. 

Much writing about the Russian Revolution itself — perhaps most notably in recent years the work of Robert Service, formerly professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford — comes from historians whose work is influenced by their hostility to communism, perhaps involving the conviction that the later horrors of Stalinism and the broader failings of the Soviet state were/are an intrinsic part of the communist package, or who assume that the revolutionaries were all along motivated largely by cynical, violent and base urges. The sympathetic pen of Deutscher, on the other hand, reminds the reader of what the revolutionaries themselves believed they were fighting for — the introduction of true equality between all peoples and the flourishing of genuine freedom and democracy through the eradication of all forms of exploitation.

All of which gives the closing chapter of Volume I in particular —entitled Defeat in Victory — the air of Greek tragedy: the opponents of imperialist war waging aggressive war against Poland; the emancipators of working people introducing forced militarisation of labour and the widespread use of terror; the proponents of true democracy instituting a one-party state, banning dissent even within the Communist Party itself and crushing rebellion at the previously loyal Kronstadt naval base.

5 April

Not being a telly addict I have missed out on a huge amount of quality television over the years. Take your pick from the last thirty-five years – Our Friends Up North, 24, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad: a mouth-watering smorgasbord of highly acclaimed drama and I haven’t seen any of them.

Part of the problem is that by the time a programme becomes a bleep on my radar, it’s already too late: the series is underway, plots and characters are established, threads are busily interweaving and knotting. Okay, I am exaggerating. DVD box sets have been around for ever (though it’s an expensive mistake if a programme turns out to be a turn-off rather than a turn-on) and cable/satellite TV, catch-up TV and TV on demand mean that, unlike in the old days, I can make the effort if I really want to. Plenty of ‘classics’ repeated from the very beginning. Take The Eagle’s Nest, for example, the first ever episode of The New Avengers from 1976, which I watched (again) recently. Who can resist a Hitler-didn’t-really-die-in Berlin-in-1945 plotline?

To quote The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn, let’s ignore the fact that I arrived at the party late and celebrate the fact that I have turned up at all. I first watched both Friends and The Office about a decade after they initially aired. The ten series of Spooks filled much of the first lockdown, and I have watched all bar the first series of Unforgotten during the current one.

Which brings us to Line of Duty. Mother of God, it’s good. There’s the (admittedly rather daft) ‘Who is H?’ story arc, the Arnott–Fleming partnership (though the serious overuse of ‘mate’ is starting to grate) and then there are the Ted-isms. Now we’re sucking diesel.

Best of all are the set-piece extended grillings in the interview room: the cat and mouse, the shifts in the power balance, the perfectly cued-up evidence, the beautifully timed interjections — all apparently with no pre-interview preparation time from AC–12’s finest. Wonderfully executed dramatic licence. No doubt the reality is far less slick; try listening to any of the US president’s press secretaries (even the articulate ones) after watching a CJ Cregg monologue in The West Wing (again).

12 April

From Line of Duty and Unforgotten back to detective fiction; this time John Rebus rather than another Poirot. I first started collecting Rebus after noticing that they are a charity shop staple. My intention was/is to read them in chronological order. The first Rebus novel (written by Ian Rankin) was Knots and Crosses, published in 1987. I am up to the seventh in the series, 1996’s Let It Bleed.

I have a memory of Rankin saying that it was with this novel — or perhaps it was the next one, Black and Blue, which is considerably longer — that he felt that his writing really improved. There is a definite sense here of the two things for which the Rebus novels are perhaps best known: the city of Edinburgh itself, and the many backstreet dives that Rebus frequents — and loses himself in — both socially and professionally. The title, a reference to a Rolling Stones song (Rebus is a big fan), describes both the malfunctioning heating in Rebus’ flat and a painful gum abscess. It also serves as a metaphor for the corruption among Edinburgh’s elite that Rebus is investigating.

Let It Bleed is certainly an enjoyable read, excellently plotted and structured. One thing that slightly puzzles me about Rankin’s writing is that it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the narrator’s voice, which is infused with humour, irony and sarcasm, from that of Rebus himself. A couple of examples. The DCI has been seriously injured and the station talk is all about who will step into his shoes: “The rumours piled up faster than the collection money”. Then there’s a photo of a kidnapped girl “which somehow the media got their paws on”.

18 April

Don’t be fooled into thinking that McDonald & Dodds, one of ITV’s more recent detective dramas, is set in the city of Bath. The real location is the same alternate universe (© American Sci-Fi) as Midsomer Murders, where the sky is perpetually blue, the rolling countryside is liberally splashed with bright greens and yellows, and life rolls along at a sedate, self-satisfied pace. Swearing, litter and graffiti don’t exist. Even the mass murderers are considerate enough not to upset the idyll with anything as vulgar as a gore-splattered crime scene. The viewer is left wondering whether a body that has been hacked to pieces even bleeds.

The writers have managed to conjure up one more permutation of the ‘mismatched partners’ trope — this time it’s a dull, plodding but really quite sharp old hand (think Inspector Columbo) paired with an ambitious, brash but likeable woman of colour from the Big City. It’s all good cartoonish fun, an enjoyable antidote to the darkness typical of most crime drama. Chief Superintendent Houseman, however, is a caricature too far. Imagine a younger and (much) slimmer version of Chief Superintendent Strange from Inspector Morse. This comment (to DCI McDonald) made me laugh though: “You tick boxes that haven’t been invented yet.”

30 April

The odd thing about reading Leninism Under Lenin by Marcel Liebman (another thinker who, like Isaac Deutscher, was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks but not blind to their mistakes and failings) is that I was less clear in my understanding of how to define Leninism at the end of the book that I was before I began it. That’s not a fault of the book — for a work focusing as much on political theory as on actual historical events it is admirably clear and accessibly written.

I might previously have said that Lenin’s main contribution to the development of Marxism was the idea of a tightly knit group of professional revolutionaries held together by iron discipline. Yet Liebman shows that — both during the long years of Lenin’s exile before 1917 and even more so in the first years after the revolution — Lenin was regularly outvoted and his views opposed or ignored by various factions within the party (and I don’t mean the Mensheviks).

Or I might have said that the idea of the party as the elite vanguard of the working class, its historic role being to develop the revolutionary consciousness of the broad mass of workers who thought only in terms of economic wants, was the essence of Leninism. Yet the revolutions of both 1905 and February 1917 were essentially spontaneous uprisings, the Bolsheviks failing on both occasions to predict, still less to lead and direct, the flow of events — in the Bolsheviks’ own terms, the masses were ahead of the party in their consciousness.

At other times, however, the idea of the party acting in what it claimed was the objective interest of the workers — regardless of what the workers themselves wanted or believed at a particular moment — left the Bolsheviks open to accusations of ‘substitutism’, a charge levelled not least by Trotsky before he joined the party on the eve of the revolution. By 1921 (say) this charge carried real force and brought into question the legitimacy of the entire regime: with the collapse of industry and after years of civil war there hardly was a working class left in Russia and yet the Soviet government justified its single-party rule and its extreme measures in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Books, TV and Films, March 2021

1 March

Having just watched the recent Elisabeth Moss film The Invisible Man, I am reading the original novel, written by HG Wells and published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I have never been scientifically minded but two film adaptations of HG Wells novels — The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) — made a huge impression on me as a child, which perhaps explains why I found remakes of both films (one with Tom Cruise and the other with Guy Pearce) disappointing.

Another childhood memory is a TV series called The Invisible Man, with David McCallum, who was already a hero of mine from his role in Colditz (which I was watching even at the age of about eight). Henry Darrow, perhaps best known for his role as Manolito in The High Chaparral, played a plastic surgeon who created a synthetic skin. At about the same time there was also a series called The Gemini Man, starring Ben Murphy (yet another childhood hero of mine from his role in Alias Smith and Jones), who could control his invisibility with a latest-thing-at-the-time digital watch.

But I always avoided the original Wells novels after my childhood self was intimidated by the very first line of The Time Machine:

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.

The Time Machine, HG Wells

9 March

The opening chapters of The Invisible Man read almost like a piece of comedic writing. Gradually, however, the story moves to a much darker place as more and more of the invisible man is revealed to us. At first Griffin is brusque and bad tempered. Soon he becomes aggressive and violent. Eventually he is revealed as unhinged and completely amoral.

He steals to get much-needed cash. Then he matter-of-factly reveals that he robbed his father, who subsequently killed himself. Finally we learn of Griffin’s deranged vision: to be the autocratic ruler of a new society founded on a reign of terror, with punishments meted out by an unseen hand.

He [the invisible ruler] must take some town … and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways — scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.

The Invisible Man, HG Wells

I have always unthinkingly bracketed Wells as a champion of science, but in passages such as this he is surely exploring the darker places that the misuse of science can take us, thus foreshadowing some of the horrors of the twentieth century.

10 March

Channel 5 made a marvellous job of rebooting All Creatures Great and Small, but their latest attempt to muscle in on the world of Agatha Christie — Agatha and the Midnight Murders — is much less successful. Making Christie herself the focus is Channel 5’s way, so I read, of getting round the problem of having none of the rights to her books. This effort is set during the Second World War. Short of money, Christie is selling off the rights to her final Poirot novel (in which she kills off Poirot) to a private buyer, a superfan who will thereby keep Poirot alive. (I needed that last bit confirmed online because it wasn’t at all obvious from the script.)

It isn’t just Christie who is short of money. The whole production screams ‘low budget’. Much of the action takes place in a single location, the cellar area of a hotel; despite the confined space, the murderer seems to have no trouble bumping off his victims without being seen.

12 March

The Decline of British Power, written by Correlli Barnett, was published in 1972. It was the first of three books he wrote — the others were The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation and The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities 1945–50 — that set out a ‘declinist’ thesis, basically that Britain experienced a catastrophic collapse in its political, economic and military power and standing in the twentieth century.

Though the focus of The Decline of British Power is the period between the world wars, the first part of the book makes clear that, in Barnett’s view, the roots of Britain’s decline stretch back into the nineteenth century. He targets a particular way of thinking, a dominant culture — what at one point he calls ‘romantic liberal idealism’. He is particularly scathing about the triumph of evangelical moralism which he says was responsible for a spiritual revolution that affected and infected the elite public schools in the high Victorian era, the formative years for many of those in positions of power after the First World War.

Instead of the suspicious minds of pre-Victorian statesmen, there was trustfulness; instead of a worldly scepticism, a childlike innocence and optimism. And instead of a toughness, even a ruthlessness, in the pursuit of English [sic] interests, there was a yielding readiness to appease the wrath of other nations … Whereas the pre-Victorian Englishman had been renowned for his quarrelsome temper and his willingness to back his argument with his fists — or his feet — now the modern British, like the elderly, shrank from conflict or unpleasantness of any kind.

The Decline of British Power, Correlli Barnett

His criticisms of a supposed anti-science and anti-technology bias in school curriculums, a major explanation (he says) for Britain’s subsequent chronic economic underperformance, are one reason that Barnett’s books were popular on the Thatcherite right in the ’80s and ’90s. The irony is that Barnett also identified free trade (central to the Thatcherite economic model, of course) as a cause of, rather than a solution for, Britain’s dismal economic record. Barnett was much more of an advocate of an active, interventionist state than the laissez-faire zealots.

The Decline of British Power includes plenty of footnotes. Nevertheless, at the back of the reader’s mind must be the concern that Barnett was presenting a very one-sided argument. The infamous Amritsar massacre of 1919, for example, when General Dyer ordered troops of the British Indian Army to fire into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians, killing at least 379 people and injuring over 1,200 others, is described as being the result of “unfortunate decisions”. That’s one way of phrasing it. The deaths and the calculated humiliation of the local population led to “a spasm of moral indignation and philanthropic emotion in Britain”. To be clear, moral indignation and philanthropic emotion are bad things in Barnett’s worldview. He spits out phrases like “tender-minded”. There is no place for values like compassion or even duty (India, for example, should have been abandoned as a drain on the empire), still less for what we would now call an ethical foreign policy.

His ‘declinist’ thesis is a startling one: Britain achieved global pre-eminence when its strategy was dictated by ruthless self-interest. The reader is thus left with a second problem: was Barnett simply looking back fondly to the world of the eighteenth century or was he seriously advocating a return to such a nakedly amoral grand strategy?

16 March

Yet another new detective drama comes to the screen — Grace, based on novels by Peter James which to be honest I wasn’t aware of. It was a good idea to base this ‘pilot’ episode on the first book, as it nicely interweaves the storyline about a man who suddenly vanishes with a life-changing incident from Detective Superintendent Roy Grace’s own past. As with Unforgotten, I liked the portrayal of easy, informal relationships between the investigating team; the hostile, unsympathetic assistant chief constable, on the other hand, felt like something of a cliché.

20 March

The publication this week of the government’s integrated review of foreign and defence policy brought me back to thinking about the work of Correlli Barnett (see above). With all the caveats about Barnett’s approach to writing history, he nevertheless made a convincing case that Britain was woefully unprepared for the strategic challenges posed by Germany, Japan and Italy that arose in the 1930s.

Governments faced huge financial pressures, even before the Great Depression led to swingeing cuts in public spending; it was convenient economics as well as convenient politics to focus on disarmament and collective security through the League of Nations. Even when a programme of rearmament was belatedly introduced in the mid-1930s, it was not on the scale required. Nor were the opposition parties any more clear-sighted. The Labour Party, in particular, was all over the place in its thinking about defence, uttering pieties about collective security and yet repeatedly refusing to support the increases in defence spending required to make collective security credible.

Fundamental disagreements about foreign and defence policy between the political parties are not common. There is usually a basic consensus about Britain’s strategic requirements. That’s why, for all the political mudslinging, it almost invariably feels like politicians reading from pre-prepared, oft-repeated scripts. Regardless of which party is in government, increases in defence spending routinely attract criticism, especially if any other departmental budget is being reduced; cuts in defence spending or shifts in the balance of spending within the overall defence budget, meanwhile, are always cited as evidence of weakness on defence or of a lack of strategic thinking.

However, just as in the ’30s when there was no consensus about how Britain should defend itself and the ’80s when Labour adopted a policy of supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament, the current debate about the integrated review feels different, perhaps because so much of what is in it — particularly the so-called ‘pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific region — inevitably follows from the historically divisive decision to implement a hard Brexit and turn our focus decisively away from Europe.

21 March

The Sixth Lamentation is a book I picked up from a charity shop. Its title intrigued me, with the promise of some kind of religious, possibly supernatural theme (as in things like ‘The Ninth Gate’). I always enjoy starting a novel with no idea what it is about. Based on the opening twenty pages or so, it seems to be a historical mystery going back to Paris during the Occupation of the Second World War. If so, this is territory that Sebastian Faulks explored more recently with Paris Echo.

28 March

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Get Carter, regularly voted as one of the most important British films of all time (the equally good The Long Good Friday is forty years old). It is gripping viewing not just because it redefined the gangster film genre but also as a piece of social history, capturing a community in the grip of economic and cultural decline.

Much of the action takes place amid Newcastle’s working-class community. The backdrop of dilapidated housing and grim back-street locations, the use of documentary-style footage of the city’s pubs and clubs, and the depictions of brutal violence all combine to give the film a gritty and menacing authenticity. Sometimes it is the incidental details that stick in the mind: when Jack Carter is disturbed from his bed by two thugs and tumbles to the floor, there is a chamber pot next to the shotgun that he is reaching for under the bed.

29 March

It isn’t often that I immediately want to re-read a book I have just finished: The Sixth Lamentation is an exception.

The author, William Brodrick, was a monk who left his order and became a lawyer and then a writer. His background is reflected in the storyline: it is set partly in a priory in the ’90s, where a Nazi war criminal has claimed sanctuary, and is in part also about the ensuing court case. At its heart is a mystery surrounding the betrayal and break-up of an organisation in Occupied France in the Second World War that was smuggling Jewish children to safety.

Part of the reason why I want to re-read The Sixth Lamentation is because it is such a multi-layered novel, with literary allusions and spiritual insights interwoven into an already complex storyline. There is too much going on to sum it up adequately in a few sentences; suffice it to say that the themes of love, duty, sacrifice and forgiveness loom large. The book occasionally threatens to keel over under its own weight — references to Bedivere, one of the Knights of the Round Table, are a bit clunky, for example — but for intellectual daring it brings to mind The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, though the puff-quote on the front of the book says ‘Worthy of le Carré at his best’. Either way, it’s no mean comparison.

It isn’t made clear but the title is a reference to the book of Lamentations in the Bible, which (as best as I can gather) contains five laments for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. It seems reasonable to assume that ‘the sixth lamentation’ is a reference to the Holocaust.

Books, TV and Films, February 2021

1 February

Age of Empire 1875–1914 is the final part of Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy about what he called ‘the long nineteenth century’, beginning with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending with the outbreak of war in 1914. I bought this book at university when it was first published in 1987. It follows the same broad approach of the first two volumes, opening with a general economic survey, thus emphasising the centrality in Marxist thinking of economic developments to any understanding of history, before moving on to the social and political scene, culture and ideas etc.

One change, however, is a chapter specifically focusing on women. I remember Hobsbawm commenting on this in interviews at the time, an admission of sorts that the Marxist left had hitherto failed to give due weight to women’s struggle for equality in its historical and political analyses. This lacuna was one aspect of a more fundamental weakness. By the mid-1980s the traditional class-centric perspective was very much under threat from newer voices on the left who could see how capitalism was evolving — particularly the decline of the heavy industrial sector and the shift towards globalisation — and who were keen to embrace conceptions of identity based not just on the workplace but on gender, race and sexuality etc.

Their intellectual home was a remarkable magazine called Marxism Today which, despite retaining its old tagline ‘the theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist Party’, championed a radical new agenda at odds with the (very) old guard of the CPGB and their house newspaper, the Morning Star. Interviewees included the Labour leader Neil Kinnock and even the brash Tory politician Edwina Currie. Despite his seeming indifference to feminism, Eric Hobsbawn was one of the intellectual heavyweights influencing Marxism Today. Even before the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, he had given a seminal lecture called The Forward March of Labour Halted? which described how the traditional working class was fracturing.

3 February

The 2020 film The Invisible Man is a very up-to-the-minute take on the classic HG Wells story. The plot revolves around the idea often referred to as ‘gaslighting’, everybody’s favourite insult these days, especially when hurled in the direction of politicians. It is used to mean manipulating someone psychologically so that they end up doubting themselves and even, in extreme cases, reality and their own sanity. The film stars Elisabeth Moss, who seems to have achieved A-list celebrity status following her success in The Handmaid’s Tale, though I know her from twenty years ago as Zoe Bartlet, one of the president’s daughters in (probably) my all-time favourite series, The West Wing.

4 February

Speaking of people doubting reality and their own sanity, Marcella is one of the few drama series that I have watched in real time (as opposed to months or years after it was initially shown). Its central conceit — a highly capable police detective with extreme mental health issues — made for a compelling first series, though, inevitably, the follow-up stretched credibility up to and beyond breaking point.

It seems an age since series two was broadcast. Marcella is now in Northern Ireland, having been rescued from the streets by a shadowy police intelligence unit keen to make use of a talented officer officially registered as dead. I binge-watched the eight episodes over four days, enjoying the drama rather than worrying too much about implausible plot developments.

One wonders how the Maguire family, sufficiently sophisticated, ruthless and well connected to become the pre-eminent crime family in an area with a long and tragic history of troubles, manages to implode within a matter of weeks; or, indeed, why they would allow such a suspicious and manipulative character as ‘Keira’ to live in the family home, the nerve centre of operations, when they clearly have no compunction about bumping off anyone who seems to threaten their status.

Fellow ex-Brookside regular Amanda Burton joins Anna Friel in the cast. Amanda was a primetime regular in Silent Witness in the ’90s but I remember her as the middle-class Heather when Brookside first started in the ’80s. Her performance in the final two episodes of Marcella, following a significant plot twist, is the acting highlight of the series.

10 February

The Odessa File (starring a very young-looking Jon Voight) is one of those ‘classics’ — like Ice Station Zebra and The Heroes of Telemark, both of which I watched recently — that pop up fairly regularly on television, usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The film is overlong and underwhelming but it’s the novel that I remember, written by Frederick Forsyth, who made his name with the thriller The Day of the Jackal. I read both books probably as a sixth-former, just becoming aware of page-turning novels as an enjoyable way to learn about historical events. Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins were other writers I read a lot — books like Partisans and The Eagle Has Landed, both set during the Second World War.

12 February

“Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” This description appears on page 1 of Call for the Dead, the first chapter of which is entitled A Brief History of George Smiley. It was John le Carré’s first novel, published in 1961. The announcement of his death seems as good an excuse as any to read more le Carré.

For some reason I was under the impression that Smiley is only a fleeting presence in this first novel; he is, in fact, its central character. Le Carré didn’t start writing full-time until after the huge success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold; in Call for the Dead he is still finding his way and perhaps reveals a little too much. What I liked so much about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People was their depiction of an inscrutable, enigmatic Smiley, at home in the shadowy world of espionage.

13 February

The film Lady Macbeth reminded me of Fanny Lye Deliver’d. Both are good low-budget productions, both are set during key moments in England’s past — the Industrial Revolution and the period of Cromwellian rule respectively — and both explore class and gender relations in times when society was rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal. The main difference is that, in the case of Lady Macbeth, I gradually lost my initial sympathy for the female lead, who is locked (almost literally) in a loveless household with her weak, drink-sodden husband and his dour and domineering father. The clue was in the title, I guess.

14 February

A few years ago the art historian and TV regular Janina Ramirez promoted her BBC Four documentary England’s Reformation: Three Books That Changed a Nation by encouraging her Twitter followers to post pictures of the three books that have most influenced them. I chose The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, the first book I remember being read to my class at school, when I was about eight; the Complete Sherlock Holmes, which got me through a not very enjoyable school exchange visit to France when I was fourteen; and Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock, the first full-length history book I read, when I was a sixth-former.

I have been tempted recently to re-read either the Hitler biography — a true classic — or Bullock’s later Parallel Lives, a joint biography of Hitler and Stalin. Both, however, are huge books and I need to read The Third Reich at War, the final part of Richard J Evans’s Nazi Germany trilogy.

20 February

Two more films.

The Rhythm Section starts promisingly. Stephanie is a bright young woman whose life has fallen apart after all her family were killed in a plane crash; we later find out that she should have been on the plane as well and that they were only on that particular flight because of her. An investigative journalist tracks her down to a brothel and reveals that the crash was actually the result of a terrorist bomb. Unfortunately, The Rhythm Section starts to lose its rhythm at this point. Stephanie locates a ruthless and highly secretive ‘off-the-grid’ MI6 agent by typing a postcode into Google Maps. He then trains her to impersonate a dead assassin and soon she is commanding $2 million per hit. Villanelle in Killing Eve does it all with a lot more panache.

I realised after about 20 minutes that I have already seen Child 44, a film about a hunt for a child killer. The selling point (for me) is that it is set in the old Soviet Union, predominantly in 1953 (the year that Stalin died). The film’s hook is that, as the party line was that murder (or indeed any crime) was a capitalist disease and therefore impossible in the socialist paradise, to even conduct a serial-killer investigation was potentially a treasonous act.

It is too simplistic to say that the Stalinist state tried to somehow abolish crime. What was common was criminal behaviour explained away as the result of mental illness or counter-revolutionary activity. Some have also criticised the stodginess of the film and particularly the Russian accents. I found it a convincing depiction of a workers’ anti-paradise in which state power had grown to monstrous proportions, ordinary working people lived lives of fear, often in conditions of abject squalor, and the most active and ruthless criminal of all was the state itself.

26 February

Imagine being a rock music fan just discovering Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. One of the benefits of never having been a telly addict is that I get to pick and choose from an inexhaustible supply of seriously good programmes from years gone by. The police cold-case drama Unforgotten, for example. Based on the lavish praise heaped on it ahead of the new series, I decided to give it a go. And it is terrific. Each episode is about 45 minutes long. I watched almost a complete series in one Friday evening binge.

They’re up to series four. I can access series two and three from ITV Hub but series one is currently only available via Netflix (which I would have to pay for). That seems annoyingly arbitrary. If ITV are promoting past series of a currently running drama via their on-demand platform, it surely makes sense to make the whole thing available.

So, series two it is. Fortunately, there is no story arc overhanging from the first series. I immediately warmed to the two central characters, DCI Stuart and DI Khan. It’s their ordinariness — the lack of glamour, the absence of power politics, their basic decency and humanity. How refreshing to see them working as a team and treating colleagues with respect, rather than endlessly pulling rank, shouting at subordinates and flying off the handle when an investigation doesn’t go exactly to plan or yield instant results.

28 February

The Third Reich at War has reached 1945. It is still impossible to read about the Second World War without feeling sickened by the enormity of what took place, particularly in eastern Europe — the wanton destruction, the sadistic cruelty, the mass slaughter. Much of it (though not all) was carried out in the name of Germany and, as Richard Evans makes clear, perpetrated by regular soldiers as well as by fanatical Nazis, though to nothing like the same extent. And as Evans also points out, it is inconceivable that millions of ordinary Germans back home were unaware of what was happening, at least in broad terms, once the systematic extermination of the Jews was underway.

The savagery began not with the death camps but as soon as the German army invaded Poland in September 1939 — looting, burning and pillaging, large-scale summary executions, mass killings and so on, carried out not just against Jews but against all those the Nazis deemed inferior. And yet Hitler was never more popular in Germany than in 1940. How quickly and easily a civilised nation, drunk on victory and seduced by lies, had succumbed to barbarism.

In 1943, according to Evans, the Luftwaffe general Adolf Galland reported to Hermann Goering (in overall charge of the Luftwaffe) that he had proof from shot-down pilots and plane debris in Aachen that the Americans had managed to develop fighter planes with added-on fuel tanks, increasing their range. This meant that fighters would now be able to escort bomber planes further into Europe, thus increasing the devastation to Germany’s cities. Goering, who had boasted at the start of the war that not a single enemy bomb would fall on Germany, replied: “I herewith give you an official order that they weren’t there!”

On 6 March 2021, footage circulated on Twitter with the caption: ‘Parents encouraging kids to burn masks on Idaho Capitol steps’. This may or may not be an isolated incident, but there is no doubt that we are once again living in the West in an age when cranks, firebrands and demagogues are no longer on the forgotten fringes but part of mainstream political debate. Millions of people are again prepared to follow leaders who have little or no regard for science, objective truth and reasoned argument; who attack the pillars of an open, just and tolerant society such as free and fair elections, an independent judiciary and investigative journalism; and who peddle conspiracy theories and preach bigotry and intolerance.

Books, TV and Films, January 2021

2 January

A fantastic way to kick off the new year — Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of Hilary Mantel’s fictional account of the later life of Thomas Cromwell, the architect of much that went on in the name of Henry VIII in the 1530s. This volume focuses on the events of 1535–6, particularly the fall from favour of Anne Boleyn and Henry’s courtship of Jane Seymour.

Lacking in-depth knowledge of Tudor politics, I found Diarmaid MacCulloch’s acclaimed biography of Cromwell tough going at times. Historical fiction — the well-written variety — can be a friend to the uninitiated, an entrée into worlds only dimly understood. As well as requiring encyclopaedic knowledge and command of the sources, the writing of historical fiction takes a different approach to that of the historian or biographer and requires a different skill set. There is, for example, no room for ‘possibly’, ‘probably’, ‘maybe’, ‘on balance’. It is, in part at least, history of the imagination. And Hilary Mantel is a master of the form. The Mirror and the Light, the third part of the trilogy, awaits.

7 January

And so to Revolution, the 1980s film starring Al Pacino and directed by Hugh Hudson (of Chariots of Fire fame). It was shown on a fairly obscure channel and was not an easy watch. The two things may be linked. There was some narration from the Pacino character but it was still difficult at times to follow the wildly improbable story, which spanned the years of the American War of Independence. The dull sound certainly didn’t help; nor did Pacino’s odd accent and mumbled delivery. I read that there was a director’s cut released in 2009. Surely that can’t be the version I watched.

Yesterday was the day when a Trumpian mob descended on Washington DC’s Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the result of the presidential election. One of the protesters referenced the events of 1776 in an attempt to justify the mob’s actions, as if America’s essence is forever defined by conflict and upheaval. What dangerous nonsense.

For all its faults, Revolution reminds us that war is not noble and cathartic but bloody and savage. It depicts cruelty, inhumanity and stupidity on both sides, with men and women struggling to survive amidst squalor and filth. Yorktown, scene of a pivotal battle in 1781, is shown as little more than a hilltop, defended by a hastily thrown together collection of flimsy barricades.

10 January

BBC Four is repeating The Night Manager, the brilliant adaptation of the novel by John le Carré that was first shown in 2016. It’s their tribute to le Carré, who has of course recently died. I first read a book-club edition of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a sixth-former, recovering from a hernia operation. Leaving aside the likes of Stephen King and James Herbert, it was — along with Animal Farm and 1984 — one of the first ‘serious’ novels that I really enjoyed.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is probably my favourite, but each le Carré book is both a masterclass of intelligent writing and a puzzle to unravel. Yes, there are layers I am not penetrating, references I am not understanding, nuances I am not appreciating. That’s why it’s no hardship to pick any of them off the shelf to re-read. Not to mention the ones that I have still to tackle for the first time.

12 January

Steven Pinker is one of those individuals sometimes described as a ‘public intellectual’. Richard Dawkins is another. In Dawkins’ case it was perhaps in part because at one time his position at Oxford was as professor for the public understanding of science. As for Pinker and people like Michael Sandel (the ‘public philosopher’), it seems to be a term that gets attached to someone who is erudite and highly qualified but also engaging to listen to and able to communicate complex and challenging ideas in an accessible way.

Pinker isn’t always the most fluent of speakers (a few too many ‘aahs’ in conversation and an annoying tendency to read out his PowerPoint slides during presentations) but he writes beautifully. I am currently reading his book about writing, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. It is much more than a dry manual of grammar and punctuation, though Pinker includes plenty of helpful tips, pointers and explanations in the final — and longest — chapter.

A key point he makes is that (in English at least) there is no equivalent of the Highway Code that sets out hard and fast rules on usage. Nor is there an all-knowing, all-powerful “tribunal of lexicographers” (his phrase) issuing decrees from on high. Instead, the prescriptive rules that we follow are tacit conventions, accepted by the overwhelming majority of literate people to ensure clarity and prevent misunderstandings or simply in the interests of elegance and style. And many of the ‘rules’ we follow (such as not starting a sentence with ‘and’ like I just did) are nothing more than the equivalent of old wives’ tales with little or no basis in logic.

I will certainly be closely studying (or should that be ‘studying closely’?) the sections dealing with grammar and syntax. Much of my understanding of language came from learning Latin as a teenager, though with no formal training in grammar itself I am like a musician who plays by ear rather than by reading music. I can usually sense a problem with a piece of writing without necessarily being able to explain in grammatical terms what the problem is.

Pinker also brings his expertise in cognitive science to help the writer understand not just how to write elegantly but also how to maximise the reader’s understanding, and his chapter on ‘the curse of knowledge’ is an eye-opener for anyone writing for a non-specialist audience.

I find writing an arduous process — a struggle even on good days and free from the tyranny of deadlines — so it was reassuring to read Pinker’s description of how he writes:

I rework every sentence a few times before going on to the next, and revise the whole chapter two or three times before I show it to anyone. Then, with feedback in hand, I revise each chapter twice more before circling back and giving the entire book at least two complete passes of polishing. Only then does it go to the copy editor …

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

19 January

Some — though by no means all — of the historian EP Thompson’s thoughts on political theory and left politics might be past their sell-by date, but the writing itself is still fresh. The Poverty of Theory is a collection of four (in)famous long essays. First up is The Peculiarities of the English, written in 1965. How about this for an extended metaphor:

Our authors [Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, whose work he is critiquing] bring to this analysis the zest of explorers. They set out on their circumnavigation by discarding, with derision, the old speculative charts … But our explorers are heroic and missionary. We hold our breath in suspense as the first Marxist landfall is made upon this uncharted Northland. Amidst the tundra and sphagnum moss of English empiricism they are willing to build true conventicles to convert the poor trade unionist aborigines from their corporative myths to the hegemonic light.

EP Thompson, The Peculiarities of the English

23 January

Having really not enjoyed reading Lesley-Ann Jones’ biography of Freddie Mercury recently, I have gone back to a book I cited in my review of it as an example of good writing, Mark Blake’s Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen. Well, I will certainly be revising my wording if the opening chapter is anything to go by.

  • Blake states that Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones introduced the band to the stage at Live Aid at 6.44pm. An on-stage clock visible at the start of Radio Ga Ga (ie the second song) shows the time as 6.44pm. The time usual given for the start of Queen’s performance (eg on disc 2 of the Queen at Montreal dvd) is 6.41pm. It might seem a trivial point except that the writer himself chooses to give a precise time. If doing so, at least get the facts correct.
  • He describes Freddie’s piano as being stage left. It is stage right, using standard stage directions (ie left and right are from the perspective of the performer looking out at the audience).
  • This, on page 4, isn’t even a sentence: “But its promo video, with scenes lifted from the 1920s sci-fi movie Metropolis, which helped to sell the song.”

There’s plenty more, just in the opening chapter.

25 January

The Night Manager was quite superb — high-end production values, sumptuous locations befitting a seriously wealthy arms dealer, great performances from the likes of Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman. And, above all, the plotting. This might not be served up as Cold War fare, but all the familiar Le Carré ingredients are there — bravery, compromise, betrayal, with a tasty side dish of moral ambiguity and general murkiness.

And now another treat — All the President’s Men, the 1976 film of the investigation by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the Watergate break-in, which ultimately led to President Nixon’s resignation. The film doesn’t try to tell the whole story. Anyone hoping for a detailed exposé of the corrupt networks spreading out from the Oval Office should look elsewhere.

This is a film about investigative journalism in its prime, about how good reporters go about their work even in the most intimidating and claustrophobic of circumstances. The film adopts a realist approach in depicting the hurly-burly of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation at the Post’s massive open-plan office — cross-talking and interrupted dialogue, incidental and inconsequential detail, lots of background noise. It’s like a fly-on-the-wall documentary years before the genre really took off.

The film is also wonderfully atmospheric — the shadowy parking lot where Woodward meets Deep Throat, the flag on the balcony they use to secretly communicate, the shuffling and mumbling of countless nervous interviewees, terrified of being seen speaking to journalists.

With press freedom under threat as never before, All the President’s Men is a must-watch.

28 January

The Mark Blake Queen biography continues to underwhelm — from ‘well written’ to ‘decently written’ to ‘decently written, at least in part’. Shoddy proofing and the occasional egregious cliché apart, the main problem is that, like the Lesley-Ann Jones book, it loses its shape once the narrative reaches the point at which Queen had reached ‘rock star’ level — 1977, say.

Take this paragraph, typical of the second half of the book:

Taylor and Mercury would see out the summer of 1979 enjoying all the perks of moneyed rock stardom. They were among the spectators watching Bjorn Borg win the men’s singles final at Wimbledon … Later, Taylor and Dominique Beyrand holidayed in the South of France. On the drive down to St Tropez, the engine on Taylor’s new Ferrari blew up, rendering the car a wreck (a similar fate would befall his Aston Martin). In September, Mercury celebrated his thirty-third birthday with another lavish soiree and began plotting his next career move.

Mark Blake, Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen

It reads like a chronicle, detailing one fact or event after another. A generous reader might argue that the opening sentence frames the paragraph — Roger and Freddie enjoying the good life. But what about Brian and John? Where are they? Were they not “enjoying the perks of moneyed rock stardom”? That opening sentence is more like a convenient hook on which to hang some random facts. And what’s this nonsense about a “next career move”? Freddie was preparing for a one-time performance with the Royal Ballet Company. He performed two songs. That’s it.

I read the final 100 pages of the book in under three hours. There was little or nothing to hold the reader’s attention, just a collection of details, many of which — far from being ‘untold’ — are readily accessible for even the most casual of fans from other sources.

29 January

As a devotee of the original Conan Doyle books, I am usually reluctant to engage with the seemingly endless new interpretations of the Sherlock Holmes stories and characters. The first series of Sherlock, set in the modern day, was fabulous — wonderfully creative and full of fun — but later episodes became increasingly ridiculous. Robert Downey Jr’s swashbuckling Holmes was enjoyable, though equally ridiculous. I always steer well clear of spoofs.

It was a delight, then, to watch a very different iteration of the great detective in the film Mr Holmes. Ian McKellen stars as the detective in extreme old age, having retired almost 30 years earlier to keep bees in Sussex.

This is a gentle and wistful Holmes, who has lost almost everything of importance to him. His few significant others are dead — Watson (referred to throughout as ‘John’) and Mrs Hudson. Now his memory, too, is fading fast. He is aware that his final case must have ended in failure — hence the decision to retire — but can no longer remember the details except for the knowledge that the version penned by Watson is false. Two backstories are woven into the storyline, as the eminent logician and scientist is brought face to face with the one great chink in his armour — his lack of humanity.

McKellen is excellent as both the dashing sixty-something detective and the fragile nonagenarian. Children in leading roles are often a weak link but Milo Parker is terrific as the housekeeper’s young son, Roger, whose intellect and curiosity help to reignite Holmes’ own. I love Laura Linney but she is a rather curious choice for the part of the widowed housekeeper — “of no fixed accent,” to quote the film critic Mark Kermode. That made me chuckle.

Books, TV and Films, December 2020

1 December

Straight in at Number One on my reading list goes A Promised Land, the first volume of Barack Obama’s memoirs. Just a quick word on the cover price — a wallet-busting £35 (selling at half price in Asda). It’s said that the Obamas negotiated a book deal in the tens of millions of dollars. Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, was a worldwide bestseller. I am sure that the publishers are expecting something similar from A Promised Land, but, even for a volume running to 700-plus pages, the cover price is seriously off the charts.

3 December

The Homesman is a remarkable film. Set in the 1850s, it shows the harsh, bleak reality of the American West and the meaning of rugged individualism. I suppose it might be called ‘revisionist’. It is certainly nothing like the sanitised westerns on which my generation grew up.

At the centre is a compelling character called Mary Bea Cuddy, played beautifully by Hilary Swank. An intelligent, hard-working, pious and fiercely independent woman, she volunteers to undertake a long and dangerous journey to transport three mentally ill women to a place of refuge. She longs to find a man to marry, only to be rebuffed as plain and bossy when she raises it with a potential (though, frankly, unsuitable) candidate. To hear her repeat almost the exact-same proposal to a second, equally unsuitable, individual later in the film is heartbreaking.

8 December

I picked up the Obama book not knowing quite what to expect. I was aware that he has published other books, and so I was unsure how much of a ‘Life’ A Promised Land would be. The answer is: not much. There are details about his childhood and early adulthood, including Harvard Law School, and his time as a state senator in Illinois and then a US senator, but it is all somewhat sketchy. By page 80 he is running for the presidency.

The themes are there almost from the off — change, hope, unity across the divides, building a grassroots campaign. For those of us on the moderate progressive wing of politics, Obama is surely the most inspiring leader of the last generation. At a moment when the nightmare of Trump’s presidency finally appears to be all but over, reading Obama’s beautifully written account of his rise to power is to be filled again with a rush of optimism and hope for the coming decade.

At the same time the book leaves a lingering sense of uneasiness. Democracy in the USA has — barely — survived the stress test of the 2020 election. Probably. Possibly. It is worth remembering that one of the candidates went to court to try and nullify the legitimately cast votes of millions of US citizens, a tactic that was supported and applauded by millions of other American citizens. As parts one and two of the Obama book remind us, the USA is in almost permanent election mode, lawyers are as indispensable as campaign volunteers and any serious candidate needs to raise millions of dollars just to get a seat at the table. Politicians are in effect beholden to vested interests, wheeler-dealers and power-brokers. It is a strange notion of what democracy means.

17 December

It looks like volume one of Obama’s memoirs is going to close with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, a few months after the disastrous (from the Democrats’ perspective) midterm elections. Obama is as eloquent on the page as he is in front of a microphone — I have no trouble believing that these 700 pages are entirely his own work — but what really sets these memoirs apart for me is their frankness.

Obama is open about the strains that his chosen career placed on his marriage and unforgiving in his assessments — of himself, his colleagues, his opponents and others whose paths he crossed on the domestic and world stage. As well as the fine words and the high-flying rhetoric, there is also Obama the everyman. The pages are peppered with profanities, and it is clear that his younger days revolved around playing and watching sports, drinking beer and attempts to “get laid” — his phrase.

It’s easy to see why his original plan for a one-volume, 500-page effort was quickly revised. Every issue — from healthcare to Middle Eastern politics — begins with a page or two of background before we learn in detail about what was discussed, who said what and who did (or didn’t do) what. We get pen portraits of prominent people he meets. Some of his assessments — for example of President Sarkozy of France — are less than flattering. These sketches generally follow a template, even down to commenting on hairstyles. Take this example, about Benjamin Netanyahu:

Built like a linebacker, with a square jaw, broad features, and a gray comb-over…

A Promised Land, Barack Obama, p630

For British readers there are some inevitable Americanisms to navigate — ‘gotten’, ‘swiftboated’, ‘the Queen of England’ — as well as Obama’s annoying habit of referring to people as ‘folks’. Occasionally, too, he lapses into campaign-speech mode — money, for example, is usually rendered as ‘tax dollars’ and at one point he even questions how willing Europe’s wealthier nations would be to see their tax dollars redistributed to people in other countries. Oops.

On the whole, however, he is an eloquent champion of progressive politics, the merits of gradualism and rational over irrational thought. Though he is usually content to explain away the many attacks he faced as the rough and tumble of politics, his anger and outrage at unacceptable behaviour sometimes announce themselves — for example in his description of a hurriedly arranged meeting with the CEOs of leading banks and financial institutions, who were happily pocketing massive bonuses in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, despite the government having committed eye-watering sums of money to prop up the financial system.

19 December

A short piece in yesterday’s Guardian on comfort reads at Christmas suggested Hercule Poirot’s Christmas — exactly the book I had opened earlier that morning, though more for something light after my last two heavyweight reads. It’s my third Poirot and the first not to feature Captain Hastings as narrator. Instead, Agatha Christie conjures up the most hilariously unlikely dialogue between loved ones as a way of conveying scene-setting information:

Why my brother George ever married a girl twenty years younger than himself I can’t think! George was always a fool!

Alfred Lee to his wife, Lydia

20 December

From comfort reads to comfort viewing. This morning I watched the first episode of the reboot of All Creatures Great and Small. The original TV series with Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy and Peter Davison was a staple of the eighties, of course. I wasn’t an avid watcher but the characters, the scenery and the music are unforgettable. I also have copies of the first four Herriot books in two omnibuses, All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful.

I must admit that I hesitated before recording this new iteration. The six episodes have been sitting in the My Recordings folder since they were first broadcast. I am not a fan of Channel 5, though I read that they are now investing heavily in more serious programming. Anyway, if the first episode is typical, I am glad I did. It’s beautifully done, doesn’t cut any obvious corners and, of course, the scenery is breathtaking.

22 December

Another short read — the story of the making of The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The book is written by Guardian journalist John Harris. I picked up the book itself a few years ago when HMV shops weren’t an endangered species on the high street, an impulse buy from a selection on display beside the sales aisle — a temptation I normally try to resist. Having just bought some decent, middle-of-the-range headphones, I have been listening to a lot of Pink Floyd, a band who specialised in audio experimentation and sound-effects wizardry.

23 December

Based on a friend’s recommendation I took the plunge and made a start on watching The Fall a few days ago. It’s not quite a commitment on the scale of Spooks — three series, five or six 60-minute episodes per series. I have just finished series two (the final — and very much climactic —episode was actually 90 minutes: it’s intriguing where series three will go now).

Gillian Anderson, as the senior investigating officer DCS Stella Gibson, is outstanding as always, and the whole drama itself is excellently written. Two things stand out for me. The first is that the focus is as much on the killer as it is on Gibson and the police effort; the killer’s identity is revealed to the viewer from the beginning. This is very much not a whodunnit. Secondly, the drama doesn’t always go in the direction one might expect. Characters come and go; potential sub-plot developments, such as the shooting of DS Olson and his links to organised crime, or fallout from Gibson’s unorthodox sexual liaisons, are hinted at before melting away. Some might see it as flawed writing; I find its refusal to slavishly follow obvious narrative lines refreshing.

25 December

My intention is to use the last week of the year to work my way through a backlog of Guardian ‘long reads’, political articles, book reviews and the like that are increasingly cluttering up my coffee table. But I couldn’t resist making a start on Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.

30 December

Two enjoyable films to finish off the year. The first was Lynn + Lucy, a story of a lifelong friendship that turns tragically bad. The eponymous women, both with young families, live in an undisclosed location that might be one of the new towns that orbit London. Though a very convincing depiction of working-class life, its themes and concerns cut across class boundaries, not least the toxic effects of rumour and gossip on friendships and communities.

The second was The Death of Stalin. I am not generally a fan of satirical films but the historical setting was irresistibly intriguing. The film is well worth watching for the way it lampoons the communist leaders of the day (Michael Palin as Molotov and Jeffery Tambor as Malenkov, in particular, were laugh-out-loud funny) and more generally in this populist age as a commentary on dictatorship and unfettered political power. Apparently the film is or at least was banned in Russia, an act of censorship by Putin’s regime that speaks volumes.

Books About Freddie Mercury and Queen


Reviewing a biography of Queen by Laura Jackson on Amazon back in 2002, I bemoaned “the frustrations of the literate Queen fan”. It was a (very) clumsy — not to mention pompous — way of saying that here was yet another 300 or so pages of drivel in the ‘popular’ biography genre (ie books about celebrities written for the mass market).

“What is so desperately needed [I went on to say] is a Johnny Rogan of the Queen world to give us a sympathetic yet objective account; yes, to unearth the obscure but also to offer us much more. Someone to detail the downs as comprehensively as the ups, the mistakes as well as the triumphs. Someone to probe, to question, to challenge.” I have never been a big reader of books about music (precisely because of the non-existent quality threshold), but Johnny Rogan’s biography of the Smiths, The Severed Alliance, was at that moment in time by far the best I had come across, combining thorough research with great writing.

Things have moved on in the last couple of decades, though I still generally steer clear of music-related books. There is decent and often good writing to be found in music magazines, not to mention several websites catering for obsessives interested in arcana, minutiae and all things encyclopaedic. My go-to website is queenlive.ca

There are also some good Queen books out there now as well. The first to appear was As It Began in 1992, written by Jim Jenkins and Jacky Gunn. An important caveat is that the authors are both lifelong fans (Jacky is a longtime runner of the fan club) and neither of them is (to my knowledge) a writer. Nevertheless, As It Began plugged a big knowledge gap.

Another notable book, by Peter Freestone, came out in 1998. ‘Phoebe’ was Freddie’s personal assistant for the last twelve or so years of the singer’s life. Although the publisher’s blurb did not augur well — “the most intimate account of Mercury’s life ever written … Now [Freestone] tells all” — it was actually a very enlightening and enjoyable insight into Freddie’s life, a book for genuine fans who wanted to know more about their hero but not in an obsessive or prurient way. I wrote at the time: “For anyone curious to know about Freddie’s lifestyle, this book surpasses anything else I’ve seen.”

There are two very good ‘coffee table’ books, both now much cheaper than when first published (and perhaps available under different titles). One is the official 40 Years of Queen (2011). The other is Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Crown Kings of Rock by Phil Sutcliffe. Both books are sumptuously presented, full of great photos and packed with memorabilia (the official book, literally so). I should also mention Brian May’s Queen in 3–D which is a must-have for a Queen fan, one that literally presents Queen in a new way. Meanwhile, the nearest thing to a Johnny Rogan-type book is Mark Blake’s detailed and, for the most part, decently written Is This the Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen?

And so we come to Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones, a book I resisted buying when it was released and only picked up from a charity shop a few weeks ago. Originally published in 2011, it was reissued in 2018 with a new title, no doubt to cash in on the release of the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic. I am not aware of an official tie-in but snippets of the film script mirror the book’s contents (most obviously Freddie’s ‘coming out’ conversation with his girlfriend Mary Austin — though I strongly suspect the supposed dialogue between Freddie and Mary was already in the public domain when this book was published).

It is not uncommon for books (and films) to begin with a scene-setting introduction, usually a pivotal moment in the story arc — something to whet the appetite, to build towards. Mark Blake chose Live Aid for his Queen biography (as, of course, the Bohemian Rhapsody film did too); he later chose Live 8 for his excellent Pink Floyd biography, the performance at Hyde Park when those best of enemies, Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters, put aside decades of ill-will for twenty minutes to help out starving people.  

Lesley-Ann Jones has not one but two such chapters: an introduction entitled Montreux and Live Aid as chapter one. It is chapter two — Zanzibar — that whisks us back to Freddie’s childhood. The introduction is written in the first person. Fair enough for an introductory chapter, perhaps, but this Jones-centred perspective foreshadows one of the most irritating features of the book: the author’s frankly intrusive presence. Jones evidently wants the reader to be aware of two things: (i) that she has done plenty of background research (ii) that she had some privileged access to the band back in the day. The inclusion of photos of the author with some of her interviewees handily reinforces these twin messages.

The very first sentence of the introduction is: “We didn’t write it at the time.” Her point is that music journalists (of whom she is one) did not take notes or use tape recordings in many of their interviews; instead, they relied on memory, frantically scribbling things down at the first available opportunity. In chapter one our location is a quiet bar in Montreux in the early hours of a spring day in 1986, just before Queen embarked on their biggest ever European tour. She and a fellow hack had found themselves in conversation with Freddie who — for whatever reason — was opening up to them. On page 5 there is a paragraph — in quotation marks — of more than 100 words. There are several such paragraphs — Freddie’s words, seemingly verbatim. Quite a feat: either Jones has a prodigious memory or quotes such as these are not quite what they seem. Or perhaps it comes with the territory: the pages of Obama’s memoirs, just published, for example, are peppered with snatches of conversation.

The list of interviewees is long and includes several people who played a notable part in Freddie’s life — Peter Freestone, Jim Hutton and so on. There’s also Spike Edney to talk about the final two tours. On the other hand, it is hard to see what unique insights session musician James Nisbet, who never to my knowledge worked with Queen, brings to the table. As far as I can tell, Jones has not interviewed any of the surviving members of the band for the book; nor does she appear to have had special access to either Mary Austin or Jim Beach, Queen’s longtime manager and one of the executors of Freddie’s will.

Many of the quotes the author uses seem to be recycled from previous research that she has done or taken from other publications and programmes. Much of the Live Aid chapter, for example, is built around previously available material. With quotes featuring so prominently throughout the book, the lack of quality control is a weakness. In offering us his thoughts on Freddie’s lyrics, Frank Allen, bassist with the Searchers, refers to two songs that Freddie didn’t even write.

Lexico defines ‘definitive’ as “the most authoritative of its kind” and ‘authoritative’ as “considered to be the best of its kind and unlikely to be improved upon”. Despite the recommendation of Sir Tim Rice in one of the puff-quotes, Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury is neither definitive nor authoritative. To be fair to Jones, it is not riddled with the sort of factual howlers common to other books about Queen. But even if we interpret ‘definitive’ in a looser sense to mean ‘covering all relevant areas in appropriate depth’, it is not that either.

In an attempt to appear definitive the writer offers a mass of redundant detail. There is a paragraph about the history of the unrest in Tanzania and Zanzibar in 1963–4 that led the Bulsara family to relocate to London. We learn about Zoroastrian rituals, even though Freddie never seems to have adhered to them. These parts of the book feel like quick cut-and-paste jobs from Wikipedia. Other research lowlights include reproduction of a band press release about the Magic Tour (x miles of cable etc); a paragraph of completely irrelevant detail about Elton John’s marriage, and the name and date of birth of his son; even a couple of paragraphs on the semiotics of clothing in gay nightclub culture.

This is a shame because at times Jones puts her journalistic skills to good use, uncovering some minor but nevertheless intriguing facts about Freddie’s early life. Tracking down Freddie’s first ‘girlfriend’ gives us a fresh perspective on his teenage years, and the best nugget of all is that, if Jones is correct, Freddie lied about his O-level results. [I now realise that Mark Blake’s book, published a year earlier, makes the same claim.]

The book as a whole is unbalanced and suffers from some glaring omissions. Much of its first half might be described as ‘emergence of a rock star’, but there is little of value here for the reader interested in the music itself. Take, for example, two significant early Freddie songs from Queen II. The lyrics of The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke are based on a detailed and intricate painting by troubled nineteenth-century artist Richard Dadd. They are obviously the result of painstaking research, certainly not something one would associate with later-era Freddie. The March of the Black Queen, meanwhile, over-reaches and almost keels over under the weight of its grandiosity; yet it is utterly audacious and quite magnificent. It is impossible to listen to Bohemian Rhapsody and not hear echoes of Black Queen.

From Jones there is not a word about either song. The narrative focus at this point is on describing Queen’s commercial breakthrough. And then — once we reach 1975–6 and the extraordinary success of Bohemian Rhapsody — it shifts largely to price-of-fame stuff, specifically its destructive effects. This is, of course, a biography of Freddie Mercury and not a book about Queen and their music, but Jones’ approach means that interesting and relevant questions about Freddie go all but unexplored:

  • What kinds of songs did Freddie write and what were the main themes in his lyrics?
  • How and why did his songs change over the years?
  • What was the nature of his creative input into the band in later years?
  • How did his friendship with each member of the band evolve over time?

A more imaginative approach to structure might have involved organising the book into different parts or themes. Separate sections dealing (a) with Freddie’s personal life and (b) with Queen and their music would have ensured that the one wasn’t completely elbowed out by the other. It would also have helped keep details of Freddie’s personal life within reasonable limits and helped the writer to focus more on how it developed over the years.

Alas, details about Freddie’s relationships move to centre stage, increasingly consisting of interview quotes reproduced at length. By the time the narrative reaches the 1980s, discussion of Queen’s music is relegated to a handful of anodyne sentences indistinguishable from the content of the fan club magazines of the time — except for the occasional somewhat bizarre throwaway, such as Roger’s second solo album being “widely ridiculed”. References to the rest of the band’s personal lives, on the other hand, are typical of tabloid newspaper fare:

Brian had already managed to fall in love with a girl called Peaches down in New Orleans. John, generally mindful of his domestic commitments, had taken up with the bottle. Roger was always the life and soul of anyone’s party, rarely knowingly alone between midnight and breakfast.

Bohemian Rhapsody, page 182

This is not the only weakness of the writing. Any biography is prone to succumbing to a form of teleology — the sense that the subject’s rise was somehow inevitable, events all part of a long-term plan mapped out at the very beginning. Most people who reach the top are clearly driven; it is one of the reasons why they get there. Equally, however, we all have grandiose aspirations and ambitions in our youth. It is an easy mistake to make to confuse the one with the other.

An example of this comes in chapter one when Jones asserts that Live Aid was Queen’s “ultimate moment, towards which they had been building their entire career”. This ridiculous assertion might usefully be described as ‘hindsightery’ — explaining the motivations behind decisions in terms of what later transpired.

Brian and Roger were in a group called Smile; Freddie, though already a friend, was in various bands of his own, one of which was called Wreckage. In chapter six we are told: “He soon quit the band [Wreckage], resolved to wait for Brian’s and Roger’s pennies to drop, and auditioned for a band called Sour Milk Sea.” It surely isn’t just the writing that is dodgy in that sentence. What actual evidence does Jones have that Freddie was patiently waiting for Smile to implode so that he could step in?

Some of the writing just reads like Sunday-supplement copy. Smile were on the bill for an event at the Royal Albert Hall, as were the band Free: “… little could Brian and Roger have known that, thirty-five years later, they would be collaborating with Free’s lead singer Paul Rodgers.” No, I don’t imagine they could have known. Or this: “Freddie was not yet ready for anything like marriage. Little did his family know at that stage that he never would be.”

There’s more. A poorly edited version of Liar from the first album was released in North America by their record company (ie without the band’s input): “It had now dawned on the band that, only by retaining close to complete control over their work could they relax enough to take risks with their creativity. This was to set the template for Queen’s entire career.”

Equally dubious is the practice of describing how the writer imagines someone would feel. Take this, about Freddie’s birth: “When the news reached her husband at work, Bomi rejoiced. The family name would continue.” Regarding the decision to send Freddie thousands of kilometres away to boarding school in India: “Jer and Bomi must have felt that they were doing the right thing at the time.”

There is an awful lot of speculation and guesswork masquerading as psychology — attempts to ‘uncover the real X’, another celebrity biography trope. Jones uses several epigraphs (quotes at the beginning of each chapter) from a “consultant psychiatrist”. Most of the time, though, it’s amateur-hour stuff: “Perhaps what he felt in his heart was …”. Friends and colleagues offer their wisdom too. Here’s Jim Hutton: “All the petting and stroking which he lavished on the cats, for example: it was what he wanted for himself.”

Worst of all is the chapter on Mary Austin, complete with comments from “music publisher Bernard Doherty”. The depths are properly plumbed when he witters on about the “Mother Mary” lyric in Let It Be by the Beatles — “coincidentally”, we are told, released in 1970, the year that Freddie met Mary. “Mary was the Mary in that song. She was pure.” To his comment that by the end they weren’t having sex, Jones asks rhetorically: “Because by this time Freddie had chosen to be gay, rendering Mary a born-again virgin?” Then there is an attempt to describe Mary’s feelings for Freddie as “Mother Love”, ending with: “No surprise that this would eventually become the title of a plaintive track sung by Freddie and Brian …”. Yuk.

The attempts to interpret Freddie’s lyrics are awful — it is a subject that Freddie himself hated discussing. A page of utter tosh about the lyrics of Seven Seas of Rhye ends with: “We can’t know”. Tim Rice’s musings on the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody are quoted at length, and space is even found (again) for the views of the Searchers bassist.

Expect plenty of ridiculous tabloid-esque hyperbole. Roger is described as “almost too beautiful”, as if he were some Greek god. Smile’s music is described thus: “… dramatic drums, insistent guitars, strong lead vocals and intelligent harmonies … The overall effect was multi-layered, embellished and breathtaking.”

A much-overused word in music journalism is ‘legendary’. Jones doesn’t disappoint. The Queen logo designed by Freddie is “now legendary”. DJ Alan Freeman’s ‘not ‘arf’ catchprase is similarly “legendary”. Rockfield Studios, where Bohemian Rhapsody was part-recorded, has “legendary status”: indeed it is legendary because Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded there.

To conclude, then, this isn’t the worst book of its type — it is well researched and the author has uncovered some interesting nuggets — but the reader should nevertheless be prepared for the sensationalism and hyperbole typical of the tabloid journalist rather than the objective, dispassionate approach of the serious writer.

Let’s finish with three examples of pure-grade drivel. After stating that Brian and Roger soon came round to the name ‘Queen’, Jones says this: “The point being that no male could be more macho, more straight nor more besotted by women than these two.” As for Queen’s response to the arrival of punk: “There was only one thing for it,” says Jones — the “only one thing” she refers to was not to adapt to the changing mood but to tour North America supported by Thin Lizzy. And finally, an extremely tenuous connection between Queen and David Essex, involving Mel Bush — he managed Essex at the time of his Gonna Make You a Star hit and then promoted a breakthrough Queen tour in 1974 — is described by Jones as a “bizarre twist of fate”. Bizarre, indeed.


More about Queen

185–161

Queen songs ranked — plus an explanation of the rationale and ground rules I adopted

Live Killers

Reflections on Queen’s first live album, forty-ish years after its release

Queen Memories

Growing up as a Queen fan: teenage tales told through 10 Queen-related objects

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 I 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

Books, TV and Films, September 2020

2 September

I re-watched The Ninth Gate, having referred to it in my recent Dennis Wheatley blog. Considering that it is directed by Roman Polanski — highly renowned, if controversial for non-film reasons; my favourite film of his is The Pianist — it plods quite a bit and the special effects aren’t up to much (the mysterious guardian angel’s ‘flying’ sequences are woefully bad). In a sentence, I much prefer the individual ingredients — antiquarian books, mysterious codes for summoning the devil etc — to the finished meal.

I have also watched Joker. I am not into the Marvel/DC stuff at all and haven’t seen any of the many ‘modern’ Batman films except the very first one with Michael Keaton (in which Jack Nicholson played the Joker). Does Joker even count as a ‘Batman’ film? I saw it as a searing indictment of the way American society deals with mental illness and its poor and downtrodden more generally.

4 September

A book that has been on my must-read list for quite some time is Love, Paul Gambaccini, the DJ’s account of his year under arrest as part of Operation Yewtree, the police’s investigation into allegations of sexual conduct among ‘celebrities’ and other assorted VIPs in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile revelations.

It is basically Gambaccini’s edited diaries for the year. As he himself says, if the police are going to arrest a journalist, they shouldn’t be surprised if the journalist keeps a journal. What happened to Gambaccini is shocking, and the book is a very uncomfortable read. You could put it down after a hundred pages without missing a great deal because Gambaccini’s life was basically put on hold for a year, despite the fact that he was never charged.

After his arrest it was like he was caught in a temporal loop. D-Day was roughly two months or so down the line, the date on which the police would inform him whether or not he would actually be charged. In those two months, as well as constant speculation on snippets of information gleaned from the police and other sources, there is much support from family and friends, many outbursts of anger, much cold shouldering and lots of eating out. Behind it all is a general build-up of tension as D-Day approaches. Then: complete anti-climax, as he is blithely informed that he is being rebailed for another few weeks. And so the cycle repeats. This nightmare went on for a year.

Gambaccini worries on 8 August: “What if the book I am writing is also met with a national yawn?” If so, that would be a shame because this is an important book, one that needs to be widely read. Sadly, I fear the worst; it doesn’t appear to have even made it to paperback.

The book is, as you would expect, full of rage. In subsequent media interviews (he went on to campaign for a change in the law on bail) he is careful to frame the debate in terms of two equal victims — the person assaulted and the person falsely accused. Apart from the outrageous way that Gambaccini and others were treated, one of the troubling things for me, as a long-time Guardian reader, is that Gambaccini — himself a lifelong Labour supporter and active fundraiser — is clear that his most vocal support came from the right-wing commentariat, the likes of Richard Littlejohn. From The Guardian, nothing. It has a different agenda.

And of course the book throws a spotlight on the shocking state of our justice system, which faces death by a thousand cuts. This case seriously stretched someone like Gambaccini, a relatively wealthy individual with access to extremely rich friends. The awful reality is that ‘justice’ in such cases is the preserve of the rich and almost certainly out of the reach of people of ordinary means.

Gambaccini himself — the ‘professor of pop’ — is a thoroughly likeable chap, which we knew anyway, I suppose. There is more than a little humour mixed in with the rage, and he can be forgiven the odd wince-inducing remark. Top of the latter list: “As a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran turned franchise icon might say, make it so.” It’s a reference to Patrick Stewart, if you aren’t a Star Trek fan.

5 September

Freddie Mercury’s birthday. Yesterday I asked some friends how old they thought he would be if he were still alive. Nobody went above 70. He would actually be 74 today. Although Queen’s first album only came out in 1973, they are of a similar age to others who broke through in the sixties. Jimmy Page and Roger Daltrey, for example, are both 76.

7 September

Time for some serious film watching ahead of the new football season. One that has been waiting in the My Recordings folder for far too long is The Post. Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep; why on earth did I not watch this the day it was first shown?

Written around the publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers in the early seventies (which basically showed that the US government had been lying about the war in Vietnam for a very long time), it is a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men, the story of the Watergate exposé starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

This time around there is no Woodward and Bernstein. The star of the show is the Washington Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks. The film has an unashamedly liberal agenda and, though set fifty years ago, its central message — the freedom of the press is a sine qua non of a liberal and democratic society, holding those in power to account — resonates in the Trump world of ‘fake news’ and naked attacks on the media.

I wrote the following about Darkest Hour, the 2017 film about Winston Churchill in 1940:

Films about personalities and events from the past nevertheless reflect the mood, norms and expectations of the times in which they were made. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges for director and scriptwriter.

Diogenes, Darkest Hour film review

I doubt there are many settings more “dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men” than the upper echelons of the Washington Post in the seventies. Thus, running in parallel with the journalistic scoop story, the script follows the tribulations of the paper’s owner Katharine Graham, who is played by Streep.

I don’t know anything about what really went on behind the scenes at the Post. Graham is portrayed in the film as a woman at first seemingly out of her depth, having been placed in the hot seat by the death of her husband. The decision to publish the secret documents could bankrupt the paper. Should she authorise publication or not? Eventually standing up to the (all male) board — with the great Bradley Whitford playing a deliciously sinister role, his naked chauvinism visible for all to see by the film’s end — she backs her editor.

12 September

Well, I have finally broken my unwritten rule of alternating between fact and fiction this year. A number of books have been shouting at me to be re-read, I think because I noticed that the Labour politician Lord Adonis has written a biography of Ernie Bevin. I am very tempted to re-read the third volume of Alan Bullock’s biography, but it’s about 900 pages (and the text is unusually small) so I will wait until I am a bit less busy.

The Adonis book reminded me of the biography of Aneurin Bevan I read a year or so ago by Nick Thomas-Symonds, who is currently the shadow home secretary. He might be a former Oxford academic and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, but it was a really disappointing book. I am not a huge fan of ‘serving’ politicians writing books about their heroes. Having said that, I do want to re-read Michael Foot’s Bevan biography, if only to enjoy it as a literary treat (and, yes, I know, I didn’t enjoy Foot’s biography of HG Wells).

In the end I decided to re-read Age of Capital, the second volume of Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the ‘long’ nineteenth century. I re-read Age of Revolution last year, and I plan to get round to Age of Empire again at some point to complete the trilogy.

14 September

I watched the fourth and final episode of Lethal White, the latest TV outing for Strike, the London private detective created by Robert Galbraith, better known as JK Rowling. I have never actually checked but I assume that the pseudonym is at least in part linked to JK Galbraith, the famous liberal economist. Strike is something of a rarity for me: a drama that I found at the very beginning (I actually went back and watched The Cuckoo’s Calling on iPlayer last week), and I am so glad I did.

The plot of Lethal White is ridiculously convoluted and hard to follow (made even worse because I watched the episodes more or less as broadcast, with a week’s gap in between, and I have a memory like a sieve; normally I record them and watch the whole thing in my own time), but it didn’t really matter because much of the drama actually revolves around the relationship between Strike and his assistant Robin. Two convincingly drawn characters, a great ongoing will-they-won’t-they thing, and brilliant performances from Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger (who reminds me a bit of Jodie Comer, also sensational as Villanelle in Killing Eve).

15 September

After a run of first-class films I have hit a brick wall of sorts with Ad Astra. It’s one of those films which I think we are meant to regard as deep and meaningful, but it didn’t do a huge amount for me; maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. I have never been a huge fan of first-person voiceovers: is it me or do they always sound phlegmatic and, dare I say it, bored?

I assume the echoes of Apocalypse Now, itself based on the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, are deliberate: a journey into the unknown; delusions of grandeur; the questioning of old certainties.

In its visuals I suppose it will be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were indeed some impressive scenes (none more so than the opening sequence where he plunges to earth from an impossibly tall structure that reaches into space). The extra-vehicular goings-on in Neptune’s orbit were stunning but completely ridiculous. The buggy chase across the Moon actually reminded me of Diamonds Are Forever as much as anything, and the Mars interiors looked like something from a Gerry Anderson set.

16 September

I am always amazed — perhaps ‘incredulous’ is the word — when some cultural or intellectual figure of note, quizzed on what they are currently reading, promptly reels off four or five titles. It is rare that I even have two books on the go at the same time. My brain just can’t handle it, and I also have a vague sense that it is disrespectful to the author. I have made an exception at the moment, if only because the second one isn’t actually a standard book as such. As well as Hobsbawm I am reading Countdown Cath.

The ‘Cath’ of the title is Cathy Hytner, best known as one of the original Countdown presenting team back in the early eighties. As I say, it is very different from the books I normally read. For starters, it is extremely slight — 80 pages, about 10 of which are of photographs. Nor is it a product of the ‘official’ book world. Rather, it is a more or less DIY effort, published with the help of a friend, I think. Don’t pick it up expecting a polished publication.

Covering the period from her childhood in the fifties to leaving Countdown in the late-eighties, this collection of memories was written in self-isolation during the lockdown of March onwards. In an afterword, Cathy describes the writing experience as “cathartic”. For the reader, meanwhile, the very first paragraph of a blurb on the opening page — “unwanted fourth daughter”, “neglected childhood years”, “hidden cost” — prepares us for what is to come.

It is an unvarnished and at times sad and deeply moving tale. Its mini-chapters (sometimes less than a page in length) — and particularly the repeated use of titles beginning with the words ‘Picture This’ — add to the sense that Cathy is candidly showing us snapshots from the life of a working-class girl from Manchester. It isn’t all grim up north. There is laughter mixed in with the tears and glamour as well as gloom. But, at a time when one side in the culture war rages that demands for equality are a sign that the world has gone mad, Cathy’s stories from the modelling and TV worlds of the seventies and eighties are a timely reminder of the abysmal way in which we are capable of treating each other — and, indeed, routinely did not all that long ago. A quick glance at Gyles Brandreth’s published diaries, Something Sensational to Read in the Train, confirms that producer John Meade was indeed a complete shit.

With a bit of imagination I can join the dots between the houses, shops and streets of Cathy’s childhood and my early-years visits to my grandmother’s house a decade and a half later. It was a warm, welcoming and loving household; I was lucky. But, even as a young child, I had a sense of the make-do-and-mend reality of Nanna’s day-to-day life. It wasn’t just the television that was in black and white. To slightly misquote Harold Macmillan, most of us have never had it so good. It is all too easy to look back nostalgically on the good old days that, in reality, never actually existed.

17 September

I finished the Hobsbawm book. As usual, he writes in the preface that the book is aimed at the general reader (his own Age of Revolution puts it best: “that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen”). I am intrigued to meet this general reader. As someone who has been reading history for forty years I find Hobsbawm’s histories never less than challenging: wide-ranging, learned and — despite his protestations — requiring more than a passing familiarity with at least the main events of the period. Curiously, my (paperback) edition shows the copyright as 1962, but it was in fact published in 1975.

For all Hobsbawm’s intellectual prowess the book does have serious flaws. The repeated references to Marx date it somewhat (and its unapologetically Marxist perspective paints the world in bleak terms). Despite its global canvas it defaults repeatedly to Europe, principally Britain and France. I will frankly have to re-read the chapter on the arts to get to grips with what Hobsbawm was arguing. More generally, for a lifelong champion of the so-called lower classes, his observations on culture are extraordinarily elitist.

The great Richard J Evans has written a brilliant biography of Hobsbawm, and it is to Evans’s The Pursuit of Power rather than to Hobsbawn that I would now turn if I wanted an overview of the nineteenth century.

22 September

Reading Eric Hobsbawn has led me back to EP Thompson, another great Marxist historian. I am re-reading The Crisis of Theory by Scott Hamilton.

Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963, is hailed as a classic, breaking new ground in terms of its subject matter and its methodological approach. He fell out spectacularly with Perry Anderson and the New Left Review circle of Marxists in the sixties and seventies. While they were under the spell of continental Marxists and a ‘cold’, structuralist approach to thinking about history and society — a sense that we are powerless in the face of ‘objective’ economic laws — Thompson emphasised consciousness and agency. He combined this with a fierce pride in the struggles of ordinary people throughout (British) history.

Some of Thompson’s ideas now seem hopelessly romantic — indeed, towards the end of his life he seems to have become disillusioned not just with Marxism but with the left more generally — but the values that underpin his ‘socialist humanism’ strike me as more relevant than ever.

24 September

After a run of non-fiction reading it was time to pick up a novel again, as per my new year’s resolution. I have read pretty much everything by Sebastian Faulks, including On Green Dolphin Street earlier this year. I count Human Traces as one of my all-time favourite books. For some reason I haven’t yet read his latest — Paris Echo — even though it was published in paperback in 2018. So, here goes …

29 September

Paris Echo has all the familiar Faulks trademarks, not least an incredible sense of place. If I had to sum up in one word what I love about Faulks’s writing, it would probably be ‘interweaving’. It is there in all his books but is absolutely central to this one — the ‘echoes’ of the title. One story weaves in and out of another; characters intermingle, one with another; the past intersects with the present; locations intersect with stories. It is all wonderfully, wonderfully crafted. Overarching it all is a deep love of, and respect for, the past.

We are back in Faulks’ beloved France. The two central characters are Hannah, an American historian researching women’s experiences in Paris during the Occupation, and Tariq, an undocumented Moroccan immigrant, whose family history has been shaped by France’s colonial past. Both arrive in Paris looking for something, though neither is clear quite what that ‘something’ is.

The novel is full of mystery. There is the fragility and contingency of Hannah’s work, as she tries to reconstruct the past. As a historian by training and someone who reads a lot of history, I was struck by the observation that people who live through ‘historic’ events might not experience them as such, especially if their most pressing day-to-day priority is simply survival.

There are many unanswered questions surrounding Tariq, too. What was the traumatic experience in his family’s recent past? What is the nature of his out-of-body ‘autoscopic’ experiences? Is Clemence real or just a drug-induced hallucination? For the reader it is frustrating — but fitting — that Faulks doesn’t give us any easy answers to these and other conundrums.

More Books, TV & Film Chat

June

A classic international relations text; Richard J Evans, In Defence of History; James O’Brien

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

Books, TV and Films, August 2020

1 August

With the football season at an end, there’s time to try out a classic film that I have never actually seen before — Ice Station Zebra — ‘classic’ in the very loose sense of a film with an all-star cast that turns up quite a lot on television. It came out in 1968 and is based on a novel by a famous thriller writer of the day, Alistair MacLean. I have only ever read one of his books, I think (Partisans, a book-club buy from the early-’80s), but I automatically place him in the same bracket as Jack Higgins — exciting, page-turning plots let down by unexciting, predictable and poorly drawn characters — whose books (the most famous is probably The Eagle Has Landed) I am a bit more familiar with.

Ice Station Zebra is set during the Cold War, but it has the feel of many of the Second World War movies that were popular in the sixties — the likes of The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare (which is also by MacLean). Watch any of the above and expect secret orders passed down from on high, plenty of suspense interspersed with bursts of derring-do, clean-cut heroes and dastardly villains, courage and betrayal, few if any women, and lots of cigarette smoking.

Life inside the submarine is suitably claustrophobic and, like Where Eagles Dare, the film features stunning location photography, though the scenes at the Zebra station on the polar ice-cap are poorly realised in comparison. Rock Hudson is the cool-under-pressure captain, Ernest Borgnine struggles to convince with his dodgy Russian backstory and even dodgier accent, and Patrick McGoohan plays a secretive (and, stretching it quite a bit, vicious) spook to type: it could be the exact same agent as the one he portrayed in a Columbo episode a few years later (Identity Crisis, the one in which he kills Leslie Nielsen).

2 August

More television (well, Amazon Prime). This time, Knives Out. I wasn’t too sure what to expect; my guess, based on media advertising, was some kind of ingeniously plotted farce or spoof. Actually, it is more like an homage and didn’t disappoint.

Once I got over Daniel Craig’s southern drawl (at first I thought his voice was badly overdubbed) there was much to enjoy, even if it was a bit silly in places — the suspect who is unable to lie without immediately vomiting, for example. It borrowed ingredients freely (though respectfully) from the Agatha Christie recipe — the labyrinthine house; the sudden and suspicious death of a wealthy patriarch; the family squabbling over the will; the everybody-is-a-suspect-and-has-a-shaky-alibi routine etc.

All very 1930s. In one respect, however, Knives Out seems to be making a very up-to-the-minute political statement. The family members — white, wealthy, privileged — are greedy, duplicitous and self-serving. They each make a show of welcoming the Latina nurse into their family and their home, but it is all pretence (their lies exposed when she unexpectedly receives the bulk of the fortune of the deceased patriarch). It is the nurse who, throughout, is the one genuine, kind and likeable character, determined to do the right thing. It’s hard not to see it as a commentary on the Trump administration and the state of US politics.

6 August

I had to re-read On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, having watched the film a few weeks ago. At just 160 or so pages it’s really a novella. It’s quite extraordinary how McEwan is able to say so much in so few words.

A million years ago, sitting my A-level general studies exam, I answered an essay question that basically asked us to consider whether film adaptations of books can ever do justice to the original text. I was reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes at the time and, if memory serves, based much of my answer around a discussion of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films. I imagine I focused on the difficulty films have in exploring the inner voice (though it’s doubtful I used quite those words).

Films do narrative well. Sometimes — as in the ending of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone — they improve on the original text. But they have a harder task than books at exploring character in a nuanced way. Not the stock ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. That’s all too easy. Nor do I really mean the Bildungsroman-style character arc in which a person undergoes some sort of metamorphosis over the course of the film. I am thinking more about finding a way to portray the jumble of sometimes contradictory feelings, moods, emotions and urges that most of us feel most of the time. How to portray someone like Florence Ponting from On Chesil Beach, for example.

12 August

Being in a ‘horror’ frame of mind after just writing the first part of my blog on Dennis Wheatley, I decided to watch Interview with the Vampire. It came out in 1994, but I have never see it before. I won’t be in a hurry to watch it again any time soon. I know that the Anne Rice novel, which I haven’t read, was hugely popular but I found the film — and the performances of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt — less than enthralling.

Perhaps it was trying too hard to be sophisticated. Much more to my liking was Lust for a Vampire, shown on a cable channel the other day. It’s typical of those classic Hammer productions that don’t take themselves too seriously. Predictable plot. Stage-y sets. Generous helpings of tomato-ketchup blood. Dodgy overdubbing. And happy-go-lucky, nubile serving girls who speak perfect English despite the central European location and who think nothing of going off alone despite a number of unexplained deaths in the local area of other happy-go-lucky, nubile serving girls.

Scars of Dracula (starring a very young Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley), released in 1970, is rather tame, but in a sign of changing times Hammer upped the sex quotient for its Karnstein trilogy: Lust for a Vampire, The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil all feature more than a hint of lesbianism and scenes of not-exactly-central-to-the-plot female (mainly) upper-body nudity.

It’s all harmless stuff — the most explicit thing about them are the original promotional posters — and quite ridiculous that films like these still seem to be rated 18.

13 August

After Robert Harris’s brilliant The Second Sleep, here’s another treat, bought on the day it came out in paperback: Winds of Change, the latest volume in Peter Hennessy’s postwar history of Britain, this time covering the early sixties.

I don’t watch a huge amount of television and I am conscious of having missed out on loads of great programmes over the years. When the lockdown first kicked in, I decided to try out something from BBC iPlayer. As a fan of the spy genre I settled on Spooks. Ten series. Eighty-odd hour-long episodes. Enough to keep anyone busy. I finally finished it this week.

A big surprise — I have only just found this out after looking up Spooks on Wikipedia — is that it was a production-company and not a BBC decision to end the programme. That’s quite refreshing. Even allowing for the fact that I was watching it over a relatively short span of time, it felt by series 10 like enough was enough. Another episode; another day in Spookworld. Another terrorist outrage averted here; another corrupt top-level appointee or politician unmasked there. Another intelligence agency up to no good here (take your pick — the CIA, the FSB, Mossad); another dodgy organisation with global tentacles up to no good there (the slightly preposterously named ‘Yalta’, for example).

It was smart. It was sexy. It was tech-y. It was exciting. Was it also a little too predictable? As soon as it was revealed in series 10 that new spook Erin Watts had a young child, it surely wouldn’t be long before the said child was kidnapped or murdered by bad guys. And indeed it wasn’t.

Somewhat predictable, then … except in one regard: the death rate among lead characters. Everybody was expendable. Nobody, but nobody (except Harry), was exempt, and not just in end-of-series cliffhangers either — from Helen in the second episode of series one to Danny, Zaf, Adam Carter’s wife, Adam Carter himself, and finally (the saddest one of all) Ruth. It’s a long, long list.

20 August

Peter Hennessy’s Winds of Change is excellent. No surprises there. I first discovered Hennessy via a work colleague who had been an undergraduate student of his at Queen Mary’s in London and spoke of him in reverential terms. I read Whitehall, his huge book about the history and inner workings of the civil service. He is a trusty guide and absolutely authoritative. He is a capable broadcaster, too; his is the voice I always listen out for as his media role as both ‘talking head’ and presenter has flourished over the last couple of decades.

In the preface to the first volume of his history of postwar Britain, Never Again, published in 1992 and covering the Attlee government, Hennessy refers to a project spanning the years from 1945 to 2000. Plans obviously changed. There has been at least a decade between each volume. The second, Having It So Good, encompasses the whole of the fifties. This volume covers only the years 1960 to 1964 but much of the media comment surrounding the book’s launch is of it completing a ‘trilogy’.

It is little surprise that Hennessy became a go-to academic for expert, objective analysis. As well as having encyclopaedic knowledge, he is also at ease in front of a microphone. And he writes like he talks, mixing magisterial insights with gossipy asides. “Poor Selwyn!”; “Very Rab.”

It helps that he has interviewed pretty much everybody that matters in British politics over the years. Liberal use of ‘private information’, often in footnotes and end-notes, combined with recently declassified documents and unpublished minutes of key meetings reinforces the sense as you read Hennessy that you are being offered privileged access to little-known, hush-hush stuff.

Hennessy specialises in what he calls the ‘hidden wiring’, the workings of government not ordinarily in the public gaze. This at times leads him to focus on such matters at the expense of other areas of importance and interest. For example, we return repeatedly to official (and top-secret) preparations for government in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. Okay, but this reader at least would have expected in a history of sixties Britain a bit more than we get on social and cultural developments.

Hennessy has a keen sense of the absurd and the quirky; there’s half a page devoted, for example, to Selwyn Lloyd’s dog, Sambo. More often than not, such you-couldn’t-make-it-up stories — as in the extraordinary arrangements for the prime minister to use the AA roadside-phone network to contact the Number 10 switchboard in the event of a nuclear attack taking place when he was away from London — tell us something rather revealing about the state of Britain at that time.

I watched Lady Bird, another hugely enjoyable film starring the excellent Saoirse Ronan. It has a similar coming-of-age, teenage-angst theme as On Chesil Beach, though ultimately it’s less dark. It’s a tale of two strong-willed women — a mother and her daughter — and of things left unsaid.

24 August

I knew that after reading The Second Sleep I had to go back and re-read Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again, another novel that plays around with history. I think I have read everything by Ben Elton, ever since his first novel Stark had me laughing out loud thirty or so years ago. For a long time he specialised in satirising whatever was the latest pop-culture obsession — drugs, talent shows, Big Brother-style fly-on-the-wall TV. Some of his books I enjoyed more than others. I loved Blast from the Past, but Inconceivable was less good. Some of his later efforts have been more historical — The First Casualty (the First World War) and Two Brothers (Nazi Germany).

This time around (no joke intended — the book concerns going back in time) the predictability of the characters in Time and Time Again grated a little. They are all larger than life, versions of Elton himself in a way. Hugh ‘Guts’ Stanton is the biggest, baddest ‘survivalist’ soldier around. Bernadette Burdette is the beautiful, loquacious free spirit he meets on a central European train, her every thought and utterance typical of the 2010s rather than the 1910s. Least believable of all is the foul-mouthed distinguished professor of history at Cambridge University who seems to think like a Sun editorial. Okay as a one-off maybe but then we meet the Lucian Professor of Mathematics, an “appalling media tart” who wears a ‘Science Rocks’ badge and says things like “Why in the blinking blazes was old Isaac getting his knickers in a twist?” Old Isaac being Sir Isaac Newton.

Nevertheless, one thing that Elton does brilliantly is plot. He is astonishingly imaginative, and although the basic set-up here is familiar — travelling back in time to change the past and therefore the future — Elton packs it with plenty of twists and turns. One, in particular, had me gasping (on p441 of the paperback). Nicely done, sir. I also liked the fact that the infamous assassination in Sarajevo happens (or rather, doesn’t happen) halfway through the book, allowing Elton to have plenty of fun with counterfactual histories.

More Books, TV & Film Chat

May

Rudolf Hess; Homeland; Agatha Christie; Salem’s Lot; Richard J Evans; To the Devil a Daughter

June

A classic international relations text; Richard J Evans, In Defence of History; James O’Brien

July

Philomena; On Chesil Beach; Richard J Evans; Robert Harris, The Second Sleep; Marxism

Books, TV and Films, July 2020

1 July

Some thoughts, to begin with, on Philomena and On Chesil Beach, two films I watched last week on the BBC and thoroughly enjoyed.

I was already aware of Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book on which Philomena is based, from his time as a foreign correspondent at the BBC in the ’90s; it’s probably why I also vaguely remember his involvement in a bust-up with the Blair government a few years later. In Philomena the part of Sixsmith is played by Steve Coogan. He (Sixsmith) is not a particularly sympathetic character in my eyes: he is reluctant to take on the investigation at first (having been approached by Philomena Lee’s daughter to write about her mother who, as a young unmarried mother, was forced to give up her son by the Catholic Church in Ireland) and comes across as somewhat self-absorbed. His portrayal in the film carries the same sense of an exaggerated version of reality that is the central conceit of The Trip, the series in which Coogan stars with Rob Brydon.

The character of Philomena, played by Judi Dench, is satisfyingly multilayered. Initial impressions of her as merely eccentric, unworldly and frankly not very bright are quickly dispelled. She is quick to realise — and, despite her faith, to accept — that her son was gay and died of Aids. And despite the despicable way in which she had been (and, in the film version at least, continued to be) treated by the Catholic Church, she also comes across as dignified and remarkably forgiving. Sixsmith, on the other hand, is reduced to outbursts of impotent rage. Forgiveness is a central teaching of Christianity; but how many Christians would be able to find it in their hearts to be as forgiving as Philomena, I wonder.

I watched this just a few weeks after watching Spotlight, also based on a true story, about the work of a special investigations unit attached to the Boston Globe to expose the systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church, over a period of decades, of sexual abuse of children by priests. Both are powerful, disturbing and moving films, laying bare how innocent lives have been blighted by powerful institutional forces. And then I watched On Chesil Beach, which features malign influences of a different kind.

I read Ian McEwan’s novella a couple of years ago. I was particularly keen to watch the film adaptation because (a) McEwan himself wrote the screenplay and (b) it features Saoirse Ronan, a huge talent among the current generation of young actors.

It is set in 1962 but it might just as easily have been 1963, the year that sexual intercourse began, at least for Philip Larkin. Though the title references a place, I see this more as a story about a time — Britain after postwar austerity but before the so-called Swinging Sixties, when supposedly we never had it so good (yes, I am being a little unfair to Harold Macmillan with that misquote) — and about the dominant attitudes and mores of the era, not least with regard to sex.

This tale is a searing indictment of how we thought and behaved and preached and moralised and condemned, not really all that long ago: people’s lives — in this case Florence and Edward, but how many in reality, heterosexual as well as homosexual? — constrained, deformed and ultimately ruined by society’s prudish, repressive and in many cases hypocritical attitudes to sex.

Though much of the background story is told in flashback, the main setting for the film is the honeymoon suite of the couple’s hotel. The sniggering pageboys providing room service convey the immature, schoolboy-ish mentality that the Carry On series later so successfully lampooned. The couple are both virgins but their first night (well, afternoon) together is not a blissful consummation of their love; it is an ordeal to be overcome.

Edward is a fumbling, bumbling wreck, unable even to take off his pants. Florence has been reduced to taking tea with the local vicar and reading cold, mechanical sex manuals (think John Cleese classroom sketch in The Meaning of Life) to try and learn about sexual intercourse. She is clearly traumatised at the prospect of having sex. The film doesn’t make clear exactly why, but McEwan leaves us enough clues to suggest that it is as a result of childhood abuse from her father.

I interpreted the wild and unspoiled terrain of Chesil Beach itself as standing in stark contrast to the way in which the natural instincts of Florence and Edward have been repressed, controlled and restricted.

Great stuff from McEwan, as always. I seem to remember the ending of the book is different. It’s definitely on my shortlist to reread.

10 July

Richard J Evans’ The Third Reich in Power is turning into a mammoth undertaking. It’s a big book anyway (712 pages, not counting the extensive end-notes) and I have a lot of work on at the moment. I was hoping to read 50 pages a day but most days I’m only managing about 40.

I say this often but, in these benighted times when experts are widely distrusted and the meaning of words like ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ are seemingly up for grabs, it needs saying over and over again: what a joy it is to read a book like this, written by an acknowledged expert on the subject. There are the broad judgements he makes, of course: I particularly enjoyed the ‘revolutionary or reactionary’ discussion that ends the book. Sometimes, though, it’s little details and anecdotes. This one, in particular, caught my attention: on the morning after the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been announced the front garden of Nazi Party headquarters was covered in party badges thrown there by disgruntled party members.

One thing about this book that really stands out is the way it is organised. It is divided into seven parts, each with four chapters and each of roughly similar length. This is clearly an artificial contrivance and yet it all fits together so beautifully. At no point does it really feel as if content has been placed in a certain section merely to fit the framework, though inevitably there is a lot of potential overlap between Mobilisation of the Spirit (propaganda, arts and culture) and Converting the Soul (religion, school, universities, the Hitler Youth).

19 July

A huge birthday treat — the latest Robert Harris novel, The Second Sleep, is just out in paperback. I have been waiting for this for ages. I think publication of the paperback edition may have been delayed because of the coronavirus emergency. I really like Harris anyway, but when I first read the synopsis I was genuinely excited because it covered favourite ground — time travel or, to be absolutely precise, playing around with history.

On Twitter someone asked what kind of stuff Harris writes. It took me a while to think of what to reply because, though all his books are rooted in history and/or politics, it ranges from ‘alternate reality’ (Fatherland) to novels that stick fairly close to actual events (An Officer and a Spy; Munich). I eventually answered: ‘Mainly well-plotted thrillers, often tied in with real historical events. Superbly researched.’

24 July

I finished the last 100 pages of The Second Sleep this morning. It certainly lived up to my expectations, ranging across several of my favourite fictional genres — mystery; thriller; history-twister (is that a genre?). It is brilliantly structured and genuinely gripping; we’re talking Robert Harris, after all.

I will need to go back and re-read the final 50 pages or so, I think. There are twists and turns aplenty, as you would expect with any good novel of this type. I was turning the pages so quickly by the end that there is much I doubtless missed. Nothing was quite as it seemed. I also found it to be refreshingly thought-provoking. Others have commented that it is an urgently needed ‘wake-up call’; it’s certainly hard to miss the many references to plastic.

As someone long interested in the science and reason versus faith and religion debate — and associating myself very clearly with one side of the argument — I found that the book added some welcome hues to my monochromatic thinking, illustrating the value and strengths as well as the dangers and weaknesses of both sides.

28 July

I repeatedly find myself drawn back to the world of left-wing politics and political ideas — specifically the heyday of the so-called New Left in the ’60s and ’70s and its precipitous decline in the ’80s. I am re-reading Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left by Paul Blackledge, which I first read three or four years ago probably.

I find this milieu endlessly fascinating. It’s the discussion of ideas that draws me in, encompassing political theory, philosophy, history, sociology and economics. No doubt it’s partly the challenge. Left-wing thinkers, in particular, seem to delight in abstruse theorisation. An appropriate level of abstraction, they might say; gobbledegook, others would doubtless counter. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton excoriates them mercilessly in his brilliant Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Sometimes you really do have to wonder if Scruton has a point:

John Roberts has criticised [them] for what he argues is a systematic confusion in their work between “the end of the avant-garde as the positivisation of the revolutionary transformation in action … and the avant-garde as the continuing labour of negation on the category of art and the representations and institutions of capitalist culture.”

from end-note 73 of Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left

Putting this sort of tripe to one side, I find that, as I widen and deepen my reading, I am understanding more each time, especially as my very sketchy grasp of philosophy improves. Perry Anderson himself is a fascinating figure. Astonishingly well read, he was a leading left intellectual by his mid-20s, taking over the editorship of New Left Review at an extraordinarily young age and using it as a vehicle to introduce new left-wing thinking from continental Europe.

The history of the New Left, especially in the ’60s, is as much about generational divides and personality clashes as it is about theoretical arguments. Two interconnected threads of the story are of particular interest. The first is the debate, with Anderson at its centre, over why Britain never developed an indigenous Marxism, a debate that focused in part on rival interpretations of key moments of British history, especially the English Civil War. The second is the attempt, particularly associated with the historian EP Thompson, with whom Anderson repeatedly clashed, to articulate a socialist humanism in contradistinction to the mechanical, ‘scientific’ Marxism that was in vogue particularly in the ’70s.