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, 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, May 2020


Wednesday 6 May

I finished two things today: Homeland on Channel 4 and the Rudolf Hess biography, Hess: The Führer’s Disciple.

I stayed up late to watch the final episodes of the final series of Homeland. Eight series in total — and what fantastic television it has been. It began way back in 2011, ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks with an ‘is he/isn’t he a terrorist’ plotline featuring Damian Lewis. Like all long-running dramas, it has suffered from a bit of a credibility problem as time passes and yet another apocalyptic crisis confronts the central characters. But it is well worth suspending disbelief and letting yourself be swept along.

As well as offering gripping drama and jaw-dropping twists and turns, Homeland has had a brilliant writing team with an uncanny ability to deliver a succession of stories foreshadowing the next ‘big thing’ in global politics — not just foreign and domestic terrorism, but also Russian interference, governmental overreach and abuse of power, and (in series eight) a fatally flawed US president.

Peter’s Padfield’s Hess biography, meanwhile, is easily the least enjoyable book I have read for some time, though it did improve as it went along. I wrote last month that it was a bad biography badly written. I was perhaps being a little unkind about the writing — but not about the biography itself. This is a bad book.

It doesn’t help that the biographical subject, Rudolf Hess, completely lacked personality and profile. That was his nature: Hitler’s yes-man, always in the shadows and utterly obedient. The first third of the book, covering the years to 1941, is frankly a waste of time. Hess was theoretically the Deputy Führer but either there is nothing to write about (which clearly isn’t the case for someone in such a prominent role) or Padfield has been unwilling to do the necessary spadework.

There are just two chapters covering the years 1933 to 1939. The first, called The Night of the Long Knives, barely mentions Hess at all. The second, The Deputy, is just 14 pages, much of which is actually about antisemitism.

It would surely have been better to have marketed the book around what it is actually about — Hess’s flight to England. On this, however, it is full of speculation, guesswork and conjecture. Padfield, presumably writing in 1990–91, frequently refers to government files closed until 2017 to excuse the lack of definitive answers to key questions about Hess’s actions. My edition includes a 30-page Afterword relating to these files (which he informs us were all opened — unexpectedly, one assumes — in 1991 and 1992). It opens with the words: “The expectations raised by this torrent of releases were … not met: there were no revelations …”. Ah, shame.

10 May

Time for something a little less intense: another Poirot, Peril at End House. I wrote about the very first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, last year. End House is the fifth in the series, published in 1932, 12 years after Styles.

One of the points I made about the Styles book is that Poirot didn’t yet strike me as the fully drawn character we know from TV and film. End House offers us a more recognisable Poirot, not least his enormous self-regard. I also commented on Agatha Christie’s use of language and the underlying attitudes and beliefs it reveals, particularly regarding race and class. In End House, a wealthy friend is described by the character Nick as follows: “He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.” Consider, too, this from Poirot himself on a suspect: the reaction of Ellen [a housekeeper] “might be due to natural pleasurable excitement of her class over deaths.”

I did smile at this comment from Poirot: “When you have eliminated other possibilities, you turn to the one that is left and say — since the other is not — this must be so …”. Now why does that sound familiar?

12 May

The central claim of the Padfield book is that Hitler knew in advance about (and therefore approved of) Hess’s flight to Britain in 1941, a highly controversial claim. The first thing I do when reading dodgy claims is to see what acknowledged experts have to say. Step forward Richard J Evans, professor of modern history at Oxford. The Third Reich at War states unequivocally that Hitler knew nothing of the flight in advance. Now who to believe?

Evans has published a trilogy on the Third Reich, about 2000 pages in total. It will be quite an undertaking but this seems like a good moment to tackle the complete trilogy, so I have started the first book, The Coming of the Third Reich, the one that I read when it came out in 2003.

16 May

Not sure why but I got the urge to watch Salem’s Lot, borrowed from a friend (it’s perhaps because I was reminiscing not too long ago about horror books from childhood days). I read a number of the early Stephen King books as a teenager — The Dead Zone, Carrie, The Shining. Salem’s Lot was one of them too, but it’s the TV dramatisation that really left a lasting impression.

I originally watched it when it was shown on the BBC, presumably sometime around 1980, soon after it was made. It stars David Soul, who was a huge name at the time as one half of Starsky and Hutch. This is the full three-hour version (in two parts). I later saw that an abridged film-length version had been released on video. Utter vandalism! Avoid!

Watching it now, the special effects, fashions and so on obviously date it, but it’s a classic of its type and includes some really memorable moments: Danny Gluck scratching at the window; the first appearance of ‘Mr Barlow’ in the family kitchen. It is directed by Tobe Hooper, a Spielberg of the horror world who made his name with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

What’s striking is that so many of the actors are familiar, even if you can’t necessarily name them. Apart from Soul, there’s Bonnie Bedelia (Mrs McClane in the first two Die Hard films), Elisha Cook, yet again playing an unhinged-looking outsider and people like Geoffrey Lewis and George Dzunzda, who have been in just about everything. Just google the names.

Best of all is a memorable performance from James Mason as the vampire’s henchman: “You’ll enjoy Mr Barlow and he’ll enjoy you.” Great stuff.

Back, holy man! Back, shaman! Back, priest!

22 May

I’m making good progress with The Coming of the Third Reich. It’s a pleasure to read a historian like Richard Evans after the Padfield ‘biography’. To be clear, I have no problem with revisionist writers like Padfield, provided that what they write is well argued and supported by evidence. Evans was an expert witness in the famous Lipstadt trial of David Irving (the DD Guttenplan book The Holocaust on Trial is excellent, as is the recent film Denial with Timothy Spall as Irving).

Evans is opinionated, frank (read his obituary of Norman Stone) but also authoritative. Unlike with Padfield, the reader feels in safe hands, confident that the text distils knowledge and understanding built up over a lifetime of study — even if paragraph one of chapter one does state that fifty years elapsed between the creation of the German Empire in 1871 and Hitler’s accession to power in the early 1930s. Yikes!

Evans also writes exceptionally well, notwithstanding the occasional questionable phrase such as “rebarbatively abstruse” (I can’t actually remember who or what he said that about). More puzzling to someone who has read a considerable amount about the Nazis is his decision to render German titles into English: Hitler is referred to as ‘the Leader’ not ‘the Führer’; his book is ‘My Struggle’ not ‘Mein Kampf’ and newspapers have names like ‘The Stormer’ (instead of ‘Der Stürmer’) and the ‘Racial Observer’ (‘Völkischer Beobachter’). Odd.

27 May

Before writing about two horror films I wanted to re-read the original novels, both by Dennis Wheatley. I am in the middle of To the Devil a Daughter (hyphen sometimes included and sometimes not), having read The Devil Rides Out a few months ago. More to follow on the books and films, then. Here I will comment briefly on the writing.

To the Devil a Daughter was written in 1953, much later than The Devil Rides Out (which was published in the mid-30s). Wheatley seems to have toned down the ridiculous overuse of capital letters (though ‘Top Secret’ made me laugh), but that apart nothing much has changed across the decades. As with Agatha Christie, Wheatley’s general vocabulary and choice of idioms — “mumsie”, “no better than he should be”, “in the family way” — speaks volumes about his attitudes and assumptions: his worldview is privileged, hierarchical, male-dominated, white, Christian and at the reactionary end of the conservative spectrum.

Wheatley is clearly no fan of the postwar social-democratic settlement, seeing it as a naked attack on his world of privilege and entitlement. Rationing, for example, represents the overweening power of the state. Consider, too, this observation about taxation. They are voiced by a ‘baddie’, but there is every reason to suppose that the author is in sympathy with the line of argument:

Since … the Government has become only another name for the People, it really amounts to the idle and stupid stealing from those who work hard and show initiative.

He is vehemently anticommunist, of course: the Soviet Union (and communism in general) is the devil’s handiwork, a means by which Satan visits chaos and misrule on the world.

Books, TV and Films, April 2020

6 April

John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and Its faith is proving an absolute treat. My interest in religion and belief systems has developed over the last decade or so, triggered — does this count as irony? — by reading Richard Dawkins. Anyway, last year I read the huge but hugely enjoyable A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Professor Barton is another distinguished Oxford academic.

First of all, it was a pleasure to read — not just well written but also accessible. The contrast with the Michael Foot biography of HG Wells is telling. The Foot book required a great deal of background knowledge to make sense of it; Barton, on the other hand, goes out of his way to make his text accessible to the general reader.

Apart from its readability, this book is exactly what I look for when reading about something I don’t really know much about. Key words and concepts are clearly explained, even basics such as the meaning of ‘testament’, as in Old Testament. Important facts, ideas and arguments are covered succinctly, and revisited and reinforced.

Controversies and areas of disagreement (of which there are many) are set out before the reader. Barton does not shy away from telling us what he thinks, which I like. I turn the page confident that his conclusions and judgements are judiciously reached, and that I am being led along a tricky and complicated path by an expert guide.

9 April

Having planned in December to write something about the general election and the future of the Labour Party, I find that I have now written two blogposts about politics and still not really addressed what Labour ought to do next. Having read Mark Bevir’s book in January on the early years of British socialism and the ideas that were influential at the time when the Labour Party was founded, I have decided to re-read The Labour Party’s Political Thought: A History by Geoffrey Foote.

I bought the book at university, probably in 1986. I remember laughing about the front cover, which features photos of three men — Ernie Bevin, Tom Mann and Neil Kinnock. The photo of Kinnock, who was a new-ish Labour leader when the book was published, is twice the size of the other two, even though Kinnock only features in the final few pages.

I suppose there is an argument that it emphasises the connection between history and politics, but I can’t help thinking that’s it’s really a sales ploy by publishers to give history books an of-the-moment appeal.

13 April

It’s the Easter bank holiday weekend. Having just read John Barton’s history of the Bible, I am certainly noticing the many media references to biblical events, chiefly (of course) the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It’s striking how often these events are written about as if they were established historical facts.

In the absence of live sport on TV, I am working through a backlog of unwatched films and dramas. I have just re-watched Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett as the eponymous queen, Dickie Attenborough as a well-intentioned but deeply conservative William Cecil, Christopher Eccleston stuck on fast-forward as a sinister Duke of Norfolk and a brilliant Geoffrey Rush as Francis Walsingham. I have just started watching Mary Queen of Scots, which stars the wonderful Saiarse Ronan (definitely had to look up that spelling) and I have the Elizabeth follow-up, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, still to come.

I mentioned Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite (which I have also just watched) in a blogpost called Fake History and Film. It is quite astonishing the liberties taken with the historical record in all of these films. Elizabeth, in particular, seems to have cut up a chronology of historical events into individual pieces and randomly reassembled them — either that or just made things up (assuming that she wasn’t really in a long-term sexual relationship with Dudley). Quite astonishing.

A leading article in today’s Guardian talks of revisiting ideas from Labour’s past, mentioning ethical socialism, William Morris and RH Tawney. Just what I have been doing!

18 April

Just finished the Foote book on the Labour Party’s political thought. Two immediate thoughts.

Books on politics age very quickly. That’s why I don’t often buy them. This is mainly a history of political ideas, but the concluding chapter (written in 1985) deals with then-current political thinking. It has not aged well. Events and developments are all viewed through a Marxist lens, and so his critical analysis just seems woefully out of date from the perspective of 2020.

Like many on the hard left, the author can’t quite bring himself to believe that the majority of the British people don’t subscribe to his idea of socialism: “[o]nly by risking a short-term unpopularity through industrial action could the long-term reward of electoral office be obtained,” he writes, in the context of union militancy at around the time of the miners’ strike of 1984. Yuk.

The second thing to note — something that would have completely passed me by until a few years ago — is the poor quality of the proofreading and copy-editing. To be fair, it’s presumably a fact of life for many small, cash-strapped publishers. There are a number of noticeable typsetting errors. More annoyingly, there seems to be absolutely no consistency with regard to capital letters. Style guides vary, but at least be consistent!

Sentences like this one are not uncommon:

The Social Contract … was finally destroyed by the discontent of the union rank and file in the winter of discontent in 1978-9.

Out-and-out spelling mistakes — as opposed to typographical errors — are (as far as I am aware) relatively unusual in books. They get the benefit of the doubt with ‘legitimatist’ — it should probably be ‘legitimist’ — but I was astonished to see Bevan’s famous quote about Gaitskell written as “a dessicated [sic] calculating machine”.

22 April

I finished binge-watching War of the Worlds last night — the 2020 Anglo-French production shown on the Fox cable channel: eight episodes (each of about 45 minutes’ duration) over three days. Set in the present, it’s nothing like the book, I don’t think, except for the basic fact that it’s about an alien invasion. It was bleak and properly dystopian. I was enjoying the slow unfurling of the story and the time taken on character development until I realised by about episode 6 that it wasn’t unfurling anything like quickly enough to reach a conclusion. Sure enough, the final episode sets us up for a second series. How disappointing.

Time for another Sebastian Faulks novel — The Girl at the Lion d’Or. It was published in 1989, so is very early (his first, possibly). I read it ages ago but, to be honest, I can remember hardly anything about it. The character names vaguely ring a bell, as do some seemingly incidental details. I note that a reviewer quoted on the back cover recommends it to fans of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, another novel that I read a very long time ago (possibly in the mid-’80s) and can remember very little about.

27 April

I finished The Girl at the Lion d’Or yesterday. It’s only 250 pages and didn’t take long; I had no trouble reading more than my 10% minimum daily target.

It’s the first of three Faulks novels set in France in the first half of the twentieth century — this one takes place in the ’30s, the final decade of the Third Republic. Just like On Green Dolphin Street, which I read last month, the novel is beautifully crafted: it’s a love story, but so much more as well. Every character, every event (however seemingly incidental), every exchange, every detail helps paint a picture of France in the years leading up to its collapse and national humiliation in May and June 1940.

The terrible impact of the 1914-18 war, particularly the psychological scarring left on the wartime generation, looms large. People are politically rudderless, losing faith in democracy and receptive to extremist solutions; the Jews are convenient scapegoats for the nation’s ills. Hartmann’s old family home is perhaps a metaphor for the Third Republic itself, the cracks in its structure gradually growing larger and its foundations undermined by the troubled builders’ shoddy workmanship.

Wonderful. Alas, my current read, a biography of the Nazi Rudolf Hess — Hess: The Fuhrer’s Disciple by Peter Padfield — most certainly is not. I don’t like giving up on books unless they are impenetrable or really, really boring. This is just a bad biography badly written, so I will plough on, especially as there is much I don’t know about Hess after his flight (as in ‘plane journey’, not ‘escape’) to Britain in 1941.

Books, TV and Films, January 2020

1 January 2020

New year — new decade — new resolution … a reading log or diary. Let’s see how this goes. Also thinking of setting myself a target of a book every ten days, equating to 36 books over the year. That means reading 10% of each book every day — a tall order for anything over about 300 pages. Seriously toying with the idea of cancelling my Guardian subscription (it takes me about two hours to read it).

I am starting the new year with a new read (or rather, re-read): Citizens to Lords by Ellen Meiskins Wood.

I finished my Christmas treat — The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse — a few days ago and ended the year with a few Sherlock Holmes short stories (inspired by a comment during the election campaign by John Crace in The Guardian).

I now have only the very final Holmes short story to go — The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. I read almost the complete set of Conan Doyle Holmes books last year, most of them before watching the relevant ‘Jeremy Brett’ dramatisation. I may go back and re-read the short stories again this year — easy to dip into for half an hour or so. There are 56 of them.

The first episode of the latest Dracula dramatisation is on BBC1 tonight; it involves Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, so should be excellent. That’s reminded me: I must get round to reading Frankenstein this year.

2 January 2020

Last night, I read the very final Holmes short story, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman — so a milestone of sorts. I don’t know whether I have a memory of the TV adaptation or whether it’s a growing familiarity with Conan Doyle’s style, but I guessed the significance of a few of the plot ingredients like the newly painted house and the telegram from the vicarage. Having said that, I was convinced that the mysterious spectator outside the house was Holmes in disguise.

Definitely up to Conan Doyle’s usual standard, and so much more enjoyable as a read than the first Poirot novel, which I read last year. Kate Mosse was singing Agathe Christie’s praises on Twitter; she’s just re-read the Miss Marple books over Christmas. I must read more Poirot to see if the quality improves.

5 January 2020

Enjoying Citizens to Lords, a history of political thought in ancient and medieval times. Putting the political angle aside for a moment, it’s always enjoyable to read a Marxist writer who writes fluently and intelligibly. That’s one of the reasons why I always enjoy reading Ralph Miliband and Eric Hobsbawm. I first read it about four years ago, but I am finding it much easier to grasp this time around, having in the meantime read some reader-friendly introductions to the history of philosophy, particularly the brilliant The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb.

Richard Dawkins (a fan of audio books, which have never appealed to me) tweeted the other day about listening to Paperweight by Stephen Fry. He sang the praises of a Holmes short story that Stephen wrote. I must read that; his novels Making History and The Stars’ Tennis Balls are right up there for me.

10 January 2020

I finished Citizens to Lords yesterday, having managed to keep to my 10%-a-day target. So much packed into its 236 pages. Yes, it’s written from a Marxist perspective but it’s very readable, accessible (as long as you have a working knowledge of political theory and Ancient Greek philosophical ideas), erudite and compelling, with something illuminating on every page. Looking forward to reading the companion volume, Liberty and Property, at some point in the coming weeks and months.

Listening to a couple of James Bond dramas on BBC Sounds — what a discovery … the dramas, not the app! — has led me back to A Colder War by Charles Cumming. It’s the second of his Thomas Kell trilogy; I really enjoyed the first one, A Foreign Country, last year.

15 January 2020

The morning after the night before. I stayed up late to finish A Colder War. A gripping read; thoroughly enjoyable. It got to about 10pm and decision time: stay up and read a bit more, stay up until I finish it, or leave it until tomorrow. It was a no-brainer in the end. Fiction can get you like that: I felt exactly the same way reading Stephen King’s 11.22.63 a few years ago. I am determined to read more page-turning fiction this year.

I discovered Charles Cumming through The Trinity Six, a novel about a supposed sixth member of the Cambridge spy ring. A Colder War is set in the same fictional landscape as his earlier A Foreign Country and features an out-in-the-cold SIS spy called Thomas Kell.

It’s not as well written as le Carré — what is? — and I felt myself giving him the benefit of the doubt after reading things like “Giles, a man so boring that he was dubbed ‘The Coma’ in the corridors of Vauxhall Cross”. But the writing is generally much better than that, and the structuring, plotting and sense of place are all excellent. Plus, there’s tons of spycraft to enjoy. The extended description of a surveillance operation through London is brilliantly told.

20 January 2020

Thoroughly enjoying Dominion, Volume V of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England series, this one covering the period from 1815 to 1900. I actually read two thirds of it when I first bought it but then put it to one side, probably to read something ‘essential’ that was newly published. Can’t remember what.

I originally bought Volume I — Foundations — from a shop specialising in remaindered books. I wanted something accessible, as my knowledge of early history is woeful. This is broad-brush history, written by someone with highly developed literary sensibilities: line one of page one refers to Vanity Fair and there are also references to Byron, Southey, Dickens and Wilde within the first few pages.

There are no footnotes or end-notes and the historian in me squirms somewhat when encountering sweeping generalisations like: “They [the English people] differed from their predecessors and their successors with their implicit faith in the human will.” But it is wonderfully written and a joy to read.

25 January 2020

I finished Dominion today. Ackroyd is simply remarkable: his output is prodigious and ranges widely across disciplines, though London is never very far away from his thoughts.

He writes wonderful prose — the pen-portraits, in particular, are often engagingly drawn with an eye for amusing, often absurd, detail. Sometimes, however, his style simply doesn’t suit a work of serious history: “[Disraeli] could have flattered his way out of a condemned cell and stolen the axe.” Ugh.

On the other hand, there are echoes of the great AJP Taylor in sentences like: “The conflict did not assist or make any military reputations, and the war itself had emanated from the fear of an attack which was never contemplated and a threat which barely existed.” Therein, I suppose, lies the problem: it’s a wonderful read but is it good history — reasoned, balanced, nuanced?

One wonders, too, whether age is finally catching up with him. His daily routine apparently involves — certainly until recently; he may have finally slowed down — working on three projects at the same time, twelve-hour working days ending with copious amounts of alcohol, seven-day working weeks.

Something surely has to give. This is an annoyingly London-centric history, presumably reworking previously researched material and quoting, sometimes at considerable length, from primary sources. In a book of this size, every word counts: key people, events and developments merit no more than a chapter, maybe a page, perhaps only a paragraph or two. And yet Ackroyd devotes two full pages quoting at length from an 1894 book about the Golden Jubilee of 1887 — its focus, no surprise, the people of South London.

Anyway, I await the final volume with interest. Meanwhile, time for the third in the Thomas Kell spy trilogy by Charles Cumming.

30 January 2020

One month in and my new year reading resolution is going well. I am managing to keep to my 10%-a-day target … exceeding it, in fact. That’s partly because I chose medium-sized books this month rather than doorstoppers. It has also helped that my two fiction choices this month — both by Charles Cumming — have been page-turners.

A Divided Spy is the last of the Thomas Kell trilogy by Charles Cumming. I read about 100 pages a couple of days ago. It was about 8pm and the thought did cross my mind: 150 pages or so to go … do I pull an all-nighter? A daft idea, but a sign of a thoroughly enjoyable book.