Books, TV and Films, January 2021

2 January

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

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

7 January

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

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

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

10 January

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

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

12 January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 January

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

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

EP Thompson, The Peculiarities of the English

23 January

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

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

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

25 January

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

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

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

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

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

28 January

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 January

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

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

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

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

Books, TV and Films, December 2020

1 December

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

3 December

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

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

8 December

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

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

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

17 December

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

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

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

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

A Promised Land, Barack Obama, p630

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

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

19 December

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

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

Alfred Lee to his wife, Lydia

20 December

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

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

22 December

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

23 December

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

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

25 December

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

30 December

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

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

An Apostrophes Question

This particular post gets a lot of hits. I originally wrote it to try and answer a very specific query — namely, whether phrases like parents’ evening require an apostrophe. However, my guess is that most visitors to this page arrive here because they have a more general question about the use of apostrophes and googled something like ‘Does x need an apostrophe?’ Perhaps that’s you?

Anyway, I have revamped the page to help people out. It now does indeed go through the basic rules about using apostrophes. I hope it answers your question, if that’s what brought you here.

If you do actually want to read more about phrases like parents’ evening and girls’ school and whether or not they need an apostrophe, I have moved the original post to here. I also highly recommend my style guide, which is free for you to read and/or download from here.


We use apostrophes for two reasons:

  • to indicate possession or belonging
  • to indicate that words have been contracted (shortened)

Apostrophes are NOT needed for simple plurals (more than one of something). You see this mistake time and time again on shop signs and the like. It’s even got a name — the greengrocer’s apostrophe:

a bag of potatoe’s; fish and chip’s; open Monday’s to Saturday’s

Incorrect uses of the apostrophe. They are just simple plurals.

Using an apostrophe to indicate possession or belonging

We use the apostrophe to denote possession:

The musician’s guitar means ‘the guitar of/belonging to the musician’;
The farmer’s tractor means ‘the tractor of/belonging to the farmer’;
The boss’s pay rise means ‘the pay rise of the boss’.

Note that it doesn’t have to be literal possession. It can just mean ‘of’ or ‘of the’.

The patient’s health problems;
The light’s brilliance.

Most nouns in the plural end in ‘s’ or ‘es’. In these cases the apostrophe comes after the ‘s’.

The musicians’ instruments means ‘the instruments of/belonging to the musicians’;
The patients’ health problems means ‘the health problems of the patients’;
The bosses’ pay rise means ‘the pay rise of the bosses’.

Some plural nouns don’t end in ‘s’. In these cases we treat the apostrophe as we would with a singular noun.

The people’s voice means ‘the voice of the people’.

If someone’s name ends in ‘s’, the convention is to treat it like a plural noun and put the apostrophe after the ‘s’ unless you would make an extra ‘ziz’ sound when saying it aloud. To keep things simple I tend to add the extra ‘s’ most of the time.

Jesus’s disciples
Dickens’s characters
Genesis’s albums

Say these aloud and you hear yourself saying ‘ziz’

That’s the basics. Check out page 11 of my free-to-download style guide for slightly trickier examples.

Using a apostrophe to show that words have been contracted (shortened)

We use an apostrophe when we shorten words by missing out certain letters.

It’s is short for ‘It is’
We’re is short for ‘We are’
Don’t is short for ‘Do not’
Can’t is short for ‘Cannot’

This may cause a bit of confusion because sometimes we use words with the same spelling but without an apostrophe. For example, as well as it’s we have its. As well as we’re we have were. As well as you’re we have your. There is also a noun cant, which means ‘hypocritical and sanctimonious talk’ and has nothing to do with can’t.

It all depends on the sense in which you are using the word. If you’re shortening two words into one (like I just did then with you’re to mean ‘you are’), use an apostrophe.

It’s a brilliant book is short for ‘It is a brilliant book’;
I bought this book and was amazed by its brilliance means ‘… amazed by the brilliance of it’.

We’re watching the champions is short for ‘We are watching the champions’;
In the phrase ‘The champions were playing’ the word ‘were’ is just the past tense of ‘are’.

The prime minister can’t seem to avoid sanctimonious claptrap and downright lies;
The prime minster can’t seem to avoid indulging in bluff, bluster and cant.