Books, TV and Films, April 2022

4 April

When plans for the film Ammonite, about the nineteenth-century English fossil collector and palaeontologist Mary Anning, were announced, I assumed – wrongly, as it turns out – that it would concentrate on her struggles to be recognised for her expertise and pioneering work. In fact, other than brief scenes in the British Museum that top and tail the film – a new exhibit that makes no mention of Mary’s role in finding and identifying it – the emphasis is very much on her life in Lyme Regis and a love affair with Charlotte Murchison who, though wealthy and privileged, is trapped in a stifling, loveless marriage.

It’s hard to go wrong with a cast that includes Kate Winslett, the ever-wonderful Saoirse Ronan and Fiona Shaw. Perhaps there could have been more of a focus on Anning’s palaeontological work. On the other hand, Ammonite convincingly depicts the squalid living conditions endured by the vast majority of people in the nineteenth century and their desperate lives of struggle, toil and heartbreak, with many (women especially) starved of emotional and intellectual as well as physical nourishment. Mary’s mother – with whom she lives – is obsessed with cleaning eight animal figurines: we learn that they represent her dead children.

I dug a bit deeper into Mary’s life story after watching the film. It seems that – unlike the portrayal of her in Ammonite – it is not certain that she was a lesbian. I have written here some thoughts about ‘fake’ history and film.

Ammonite was one of two films about pioneering nineteenth-century women that I watched this month – the other being Miss Marx. The eponymous Miss Marx is Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and herself a revolutionary socialist. Much of the film is set in the drawing rooms of relatively wealthy socialist campaigners and left-wing intellectuals; their middle-class comforts and bohemian lifestyles are a world apart from the lives led by the likes of Mary Anning. Miss Marx is the story of Eleanor continuing the work of her father, in particular by active involvement in workers’ struggles and in promoting women’s rights. Her commitment to her father’s ideas is shown via (short) straight-to-camera political monologues – not the only strikingly unusual directorial touch.

The film delivers two emotional punches. The first – more of a relentless pummelling of the ribs than an upper cut to the chin – is Eleanor’s long-term relationship with fellow socialist Edward Aveling, who is both hopelessly profligate with money, wasting the legacy left to her by family friend Friedrich Engels, and emotionally and sexually unfaithful to Eleanor (to the extent that he secretly married another woman using a pen name). The second is the discovery – shown here as a death-bed admission by Engels – that her father was the unacknowledged father of Freddy, the child of the Marx family’s long-time housekeeper Helene.

It’s all very mainstream and conventional. But, of course, Eleanor Marx was not at all mainstream and conventional by the standards of the time, and so director Susanna Nicchiarelli makes a valiant attempt to capture and convey Eleanor’s free spirit. The opening credits are the first clue – all flashing images and raucous music, not perhaps the first things we associate with Eleanor Marx. It is the final moments of the film, though, that offer up a real taste of Eleanor’s bohemian sensibilities: a drugged-up freak-out – or is it a meltdown? – to the accompaniment (again) of a punk rock soundtrack.

12 April

I have been slowly working my way through Simon Heffer’s Simply English: An A to Z of Avoidable Errors. As I wrote in the introduction to my free-to-download style guide, there is no one definitive set of rules governing the use of English. There are, of course, many ‘rules’ that are more or less universally accepted. But there is also a large and expanding grey area about which there is much less agreement.

Hence the large number of style guides and books – and websites these days – about the use of English. Each reflects the approach to writing English and even something of the personality of the particular writer or organisation. I enjoyed Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and, even more so, Gyles Brandreth’s Have You Eaten Grandma – the latter probably the best book for anyone who wants a funny and accessible introduction to writing well, or at least accurately.

I really shouldn’t like Simon Heffer – but I do. He is a historian and a political commentator, very much on the right politically. Something of a big beast in the Tory world, he has had long spells at the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. His books include a very good (but inordinately long and detailed) biography of Enoch Powell. Much the same could be said about his book High Minds, which I read recently. His first book on grammar and the use of English – called Strictly English – came about after emails sent by Heffer to colleagues at the Telegraph pointing out errors in their writing appeared on the internet. Yes, you get the picture.

There is actually much to admire in Heffer’s advice. He has no time for writing that he considers overinflated, pretentious or affected, and he emphasises the importance of writing clearly and plainly. He hates clichés, the use of which displays “a paucity of original thought”. On the other hand, it’s not hard to guess what his view is of what he calls ‘political correctness’ and I quickly lost track of the number of times he uses words like ‘ignorant’ or ‘barbaric’ in his A–Z. Language does evolve; that’s a simple fact. And so it was interesting to note the (many) examples of things Heffer says are just plain wrong that are nevertheless listed in Lexico, Oxford’s online dictionary, as legitimate (or at least widely accepted) uses of English.

This is typical of Heffer’s approach – part of the entry for Clergy, writing to or addressing:

The Reverend John Smith or the Reverend Mary Smith is correct. The Reverend Smith is not. His or her Christian name [Christian name, note, not forename, given name or first name], or rank, is required …The Reverend Smith is the product of that most God-fearing of countries, America, but is an abomination here.

from Simply English: An A to Z of Avoidable Error by Simon Heffer

I looked up ‘abomination’ to check the literal meaning: it is ‘a thing that causes disgust or loathing’. Again, you get the picture.

19 April

I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Old Henry – a tough and gritty western. Like The Homesmanwhich I discussed here – and a 2017 film starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike called Hostiles, it offers what we might call a ‘revisionist’ or ‘realist’ representation of the American West. Old Henry depicts a bleak, unforgiving and frequently unpleasant world. This is the reality of rugged individualism. The West is a violent place, with the law often far away. Guns are a part of everyday life but – and this is what I particularly like about these revisionist films – most of the people who fire them aren’t good shots. They’re not marksmen. Most of their bullets miss their target. When they do hit someone, it hurts and causes a bloody mess. As I said about The Homesman, these films aren’t like the sanitised westerns on which my generation grew up.

Contrast that with 2 Guns. Any film described as ‘buddy cop action comedy’ should carry a health warning: ‘Do yourself a favour and watch Lethal Weapon instead’. Predictable, stale, unoriginal: the only thing bigger than the body count was the cliché count. Even Denzil Washington couldn’t make it enjoyable to watch.

The bad guys are bad. The good guys are stand-up comedians. And everybody is a tough guy. There are firefights aplenty, naturally. And, of course, the bad guys never hit their target and the good guys never miss theirs. In fact, bullets don’t really hurt – the good guys even shoot themselves for laughs and presumably because bad-guy bullets bounce off them.

It’s possible that there is a slow-motion shot of a good guy walking nonchalantly away from an exploding building. It’s also possible that I fell asleep and dreamt that particular scene.

23 April

Going back a couple of years or so, I really enjoyed the 2017 film The Man with the Iron Heart, about the assassination of the fanatical and ruthless Nazi Reinhard Heydrich during the Second World War. He was killed in Prague in 1942 when he was governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. In retaliation, the Germans razed the village of Lidice. Operation Daybreak is an earlier film of the same events – it was made in 1975 – and features a very young-looking Martin Shaw as one of the assassins (though he was actually 30 at the time). Anton Diffring plays Heydrich: as a blond-haired, blue-eyed actor, Diffring was a staple of Second World War films of the 60s and 70s – The Colditz Story and Where Eagles Dare, to name but two.

Once again – see my comments on Ammonite above – there is a question mark with Operation Daybreak concerning its historical accuracy: for example, the film gives the clear impression that this was a British-planned operation whereas in fact the British Special Operations Executive played more of a supportive role. I keep asking myself: does it matter and does it make the film any less good?

28 April

‘Magisterial’. A seriously overused word, a favourite of non-fiction book reviewers and frequently used in puff-quotes that publishers splash across book covers to entice the reader. And here it is again, used to describe On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present by Alan Ryan. ‘Magisterial’ comes from the Latin ‘magister’, meaning teacher or schoolmaster, and means ‘having or showing great authority’. It’s right up there with ‘authoritative’ and ‘definitive’ in my if-I-ever-see-this-word-again-it-will-be-too-soon list.

That’s not to say that On Politics isn’t written with great authority. Alan Ryan is a Fellow of the British Academy who has spent a lifetime working at the world’s top universities. Still, even a thousand-page book can only scratch the surface of such a vast topic as the history of political thought so, other than ‘we can trust Ryan’s analysis and judgements because he knows what he’s talking about’, I’m not really sure what ‘magisterial’ really means here.

In recommending the OUP ‘A very short introduction to…’ book series, Ryan describes the chapters of his own book as ‘very very short introductions’. Other than the final hundred or so pages, On Politics is made up of chapters that focus on the big hitters who have contributed to the development of political thought in the West – from the ancient world to the end of the nineteenth century. The final few chapters, by contrast, are thematic, focusing on topics such as imperialism and nationalism, socialism and democracy.

Most chapters are arranged in the same way – usually starting with a ‘life and times’ section, for example. In a book of this length it’s no real surprise that sentences like this crop up now and again: “…a string of articles in the 1930s criticised Dewey from the standpoint of a more Augustinian standpoint.” There are also phrases and even more or less whole sentences that turn up more than once within a few pages of each other.

More disconcerting – especially for a book with the word ‘magisterial’ on its cover – are the factual howlers, which are particularly noticeable in the sections relating to Russian history. There is a reference to the end of serfdom in 1862, for example; it was 1861. Ryan also writes about a Russian translation of Das Kapital in 1867 and the despotic near-theocracy over which Alexander III then ruled: Das Kapital was published in 1867 but the first Russian edition only appeared in 1872 and Alexander III didn’t become tsar until 1881. Later there is a comment that Lenin was wounded by a would-be assassin in 1922, two years before his death. In fact, the assassination attempt, by Fanny Kaplan, was in 1918; it was a stroke that severely debilitated Lenin in 1922.

It’s easy to pick holes. Everyone makes mistakes. In the grand scheme of things these are minor errors. It’s a massive book and mistakes are bound to slip through. All true. It’s just that I always find myself thinking: if these are errors that I have spotted because I know a bit about the topic, what errors are there in the sections I am not familiar with?

Anyway, putting these minor mistakes to one side, On Politics is a book I enjoyed reading from cover to cover – I spent most of the month on it – and one that I have no doubt I will be dipping into regularly in future. I found the chapters relating to the Middle Ages particularly illuminating.

30 April

Just time to read In Between the Sheets, a (short) collection of short stories by Ian McEwan. I love The Cement Garden, his first novel, published at roughly the same time. McEwan’s early stuff reminds me of the David Lynch film Blue Velvet, the opening shot of which establishes an everyday scene in smalltown America before zooming in on a bloody, rotting amputated ear lying in the grass. McEwan seems to focus in on the out-of-place, the bizarre, the outlandish, the extraordinary amidst the ordinary – people, scenes and situations that once upon a time might have been described as ‘freakish’.

Two Fragments, for example, is set in a post-apocalyptic London. In the first ‘fragment’ a father and his young daughter watch as a girl stabs herself through the stomach with a sword, her father passing round a collecting tin to the watching crowd, claiming that she will perform the feat without drawing blood. In Dead as They Come, a man falls in love with a mannequin, buys it from the shop and takes it home to live with it. Oddly enough, their relationship doesn’t last.

As I say, this is early McEwan – and he certainly seems to be experimenting with form. As a dabbler in fiction reading, I found some of them more accessible than others (which is another way of saying that I probably missed a great deal). To and Fro, to use another example, seems to be about a man lying in bed in the middle of the night, thinking about (a) where he is at that moment, his lover beside him, and then (b) an earlier office scene. The paragraphs alternate – to and fro – between the two situations.

Books, TV and Films, March 2022

9 March

I first became aware of Gyles Brandreth via his appearances on Channel 4’s Countdown in the early-ish eighties. Muddled memory confession time: I always thought of him as the second occupant of Dictionary Corner, following a lengthy Kenneth Williams residency, until I was reminded – I think after reading Richard Whiteley’s autobiography, Himoff! – of Ted Moult, who did a week or so at the very beginning.

I was in the sixth form at the time and Gyles was as passionate about words as my brilliant and somewhat eccentric Latin teacher, Eddie Scholes. They were both besotted with dictionaries (Countdown used the Concise Oxford, the one we had at home) and particularly the etymology of words.

Words. If there is one word that comes close to encapsulating or at least connecting the vast range of Gyles’ passions and pursuits, that’s perhaps the one. Words on the page. Words spoken. Wordplay. The after-dinner circuit. The Oxford Union. Awards ceremonies. Dictionaries. Novels. Diaries. Plays. The theatre. Radio. Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde. Jane Austen. Quotations. Anecdotes. Scrabble. Winnie the Pooh. Grammar, punctuation and the use of English…

…Writing a musical. Setting up the National Scrabble Championships. Writing a biography of Frank Richards (Billy Bunter’s creator). Pitching to revive Billy Bunter on TV. A one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe. A teddy bear museum…

The only word Gyles doesn’t seem to know is ‘stop’.

His recently published memoir, Odd Boy Out, was high up on the must-read list. I had thoroughly enjoyed both sets of Gyles’ published diaries. Something Sensational to Read in the Train runs from 1959, when he was at prep school, to the turn of the millennium. Breaking the Code, meanwhile, covers his years as an MP, including a period in the whips’ office, and is an excellent insider’s perspective on the 1992–97 Major government.

“Do forgive the occasional aside. I’ll try not to overdo it…” Yeah, right. Gyles is a wonderful raconteur and storyteller. He both speaks and writes beautifully – and he makes it all seem so effortless. And what’s more, none of it feels contrived. You can hear his voice on every page and believe that all these things really did happen to him, more or less as described. Odd Boy Out is often laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully — shockingly — indiscreet.

In the prologue he unleashes a first-rate anecdote about the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and male strippers from the time he sat with them (TRHs – not the strippers) in the Royal Box at the Royal Variety Performance. Yes, really. On to some family history in chapter two (never my favourite bits of biographies and memoirs; I am hopeless with family trees) and suddenly the reader is knee-deep in a tale about Donald Sinden. And it doesn’t let up.

We are, he says, moulded by our parents. Are we surprised that Gyles loves anecdotes when his father “measured out his life” in anecdotes? Is it any wonder that he knew large chunks of Milton at the age of six when his father performed dramatic dialogues at his bedside while his mother read him nursery rhymes? Where Stuart Hall recoiled from the circumstances of his upbringing [see my review of Hall’s memoir, Familiar Stranger], Gyles embraced it all.

I always used to think of Gyles as quintessentially, comfortably, smugly middle class. It’s how he himself, in Odd Boy Out, characterises his upbringing. But it came at a cost — literally. There was never enough money. To quote Gyles, money worries wore his father down and then wore him away. Perhaps if the children hadn’t all gone off to boarding school (three to Cheltenham Ladies College and one to Bedales) or if the family hadn’t spent so much time in Harrods, things might have been different.

Gyles is a show-off, a showman and a shameless namedropper – the latter a reminder that he really has met just about everybody (there’s a nice recurring ‘I shook the hand that shook the hand…’ line). Although he doesn’t appear ever to have struggled to get mainstream media work – and is currently a regular on programmes like ITV’s This Morning and the BBC’s The One Show – I have no doubt that plenty of people dislike him intensely. The Times referred to him as “the Marmite of light entertainment”.

He can certainly do silly – he is something of an expert at standing on his head, a skill which he has demonstrated in some rather unlikely places. He’s a bit too full-on at times. And then there are the jumpers. It’s also a fairly safe bet that adjectives like smarmy, superior and too-clever-by-half have attached themselves to his name on a not infrequent basis over the years.

In Gyles’ defence it is something that he readily acknowledges. This is how Part 2 begins:

I realise now that I must have been a ghastly child. I was insufferable: precocious, pretentious, conceited, egotistical.

from Odd Boy Out by Gyles Brandreth

But one of the many joys of Odd Boy Out is that, as we turn the pages, we get to know the other Gyles, the one that doesn’t make an idiot of himself by wearing a silly jumper and standing on his head. So there is plenty of sadness, regret, guilt and self-criticism in these pages alongside the laughs, jokes and tall tales. And he’s the one tapping the keys on the final chapter, which takes the form of a letter to his late father and which movingly brings together the different strands of the story he has delighted us with over the preceding 400 pages.

Except, that’s not quite all. There’s a short epilogue, beginning with his wife Michèle knocking on the study door. How odd, because the prologue begins with his wife popping her head around the study door: “She never knocks. She likes to keep me on my toes.” Perhaps we can’t quite believe it all.

17 March

I was surprised by the number of swear words in Odd Boy Out, though any profanity is (almost?) invariably uttered by someone other than Gyles, usually as added spice in the many tasty anecdotes he serves up. Even the C-word makes an appearance or two – not something I imagine is heard very often on the This Morning sofa. It seems to be the insult of choice for the luvvie-darling set. Perhaps Shakespeare is at the root of this. See, for example, Act 3 Scene 2 of Hamlet in which the prince of Denmark, subjecting Ophelia to a fair amount of sexual innuendo, refers to “country matters”.

Why mention Hamlet? Because – after Odd Boy Out – where else but Shakespeare? If Gyles Brandreth can recite some of the great soliloquies à la Laurence Olivier before the age of ten, I can surely cope with a bit of Shakespeare.

I haven’t read much – Twelfth Night at school and Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth more recently. The obvious stumbling-blocks are the archaic language and the many references to customs and contextual events that the modern reader is unlikely to be familiar with. My expert guide through Hamlet was the excellent Cambridge School Shakespeare series.

Its layout is reassuringly user-friendly. The text of the play is set out on the right-hand page of each double-page spread, and the notes appear on the facing page. Sandwiched between a short summary of the action and a glossary of tricky words and phrases is the editors’ input – a mix of explanation, thoughtful commentary and ideas for students (and actors) to help them further explore the various characters, issues and themes.

There are familiar phrases on virtually every page, of course – only some of which I was aware of as being Shakespearean in origin. Take “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!”, from Act 1 Scene 4. It’s a ‘Bones’ line in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, by far the best of the original Star Trek films.

28 March

I think it was Alastair Campbell who said that when a new volume of his diaries came out the first thing that everyone did was turn to the index to read what he had written about them. Something similar probably happened after word spread about In the Thick of It, the diaries of ex-Conservative MP and government minister Sir Alan Duncan, published last year.

Duncan is brutal at times. To give just a flavour, Fiona Hill (adviser to the PM) is “mental”, Emily Thornberry is “a graceless frump” and Priti Patel is “a nothing person”. It is curiously reassuring that Duncan’s opinion of the talents of Patel and fellow Conservative Gavin Williamson is as low as mine. And it is safe to say that Tobias Ellwood (at the time a ministerial colleague of Duncan) will not have found these diaries a comfortable read.

The cut and thrust of politics, perhaps, though I was troubled by the number of times Duncan makes reference to someone’s physical appearance when insulting them. An irksome local party member is described as “the most ugly nasty shit in the Association”, and he calls the prominent Tory Eric Pickles a “fat lump”.

Such unpleasantness aside, the diaries are a great read, helped by the fact that Duncan can write a decent phrase – “a barrage of Farage”, “a relentless wankfest”. His is a semi-insider’s perspective on a key moment in modern British history. The diaries cover the period from the start of 2016 (the Brexit referendum was in June of that year) to the end of 2019, when the Conservatives led by Boris Johnson won the general election. Duncan was a self-styled “lifelong Eurosceptic” who plumped for Remain and then watched helplessly (despite – indeed, because of – his position as a Foreign Office minister) as the government made a total shambles of the Brexit process.

Diaries usually reveal much about the diarist. Duncan clearly has a high regard for himself, often despairing of those around him – see the Ellwood references – and there is an unspoken assumption that he himself could and would have done things better.

In his introduction Duncan makes the usual points about the value of diaries:

Journalism is often called the first draft of history, but a diary is a primary source. Whereas our newspapers express the nation’s prejudices, a diary can provide an unfiltered account of events. Assuming it is written up at the time, unvarnished and in the moment, it can capture the hardest thing for any historian to reconstruct – the feeling of the time, with all its uncertainties and lack of hindsight.

from In the Thick of It by Sir Alan Duncan

Absolutely, though of course the editing process – the deliberate choices over what to include and what to exclude from the published version – is itself a form of filtering, meaning that even ‘unvarnished’ diaries give us a partial and sometimes misleading representation of events.

Here’s an example relating to Boris Johnson, about whom Sir Alan has much to say. When Duncan was appointed to the Foreign Office by Theresa May in July 2016, Johnson was the foreign secretary, and therefore Duncan’s boss, until he (Johnson) resigned almost exactly two years later. Although the two men got on reasonably well during their time together, Duncan had little regard for Johnson’s abilities as a serious politician. He says this of Johnson – and plenty more besides – in his entry of 24 September 2017:

I have lost any respect for him. He is a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgement. He is an international stain on our reputation. He is a lonely, selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot.

from In the Thick of It by Sir Alan Duncan

Following Johnson’s resignation in 2018, Duncan sees him as “a much reduced figure”, with little support in the parliamentary party. On Saturday 8 September Duncan tweeted that “this is the political end” for Johnson. Thereafter there are few mentions of him, other than for what Duncan calls his wrecking tactics, until we are well into 2019. Theresa May stepped down as prime minister in June and Johnson comfortably won the subsequent leadership election.

My point is not that Duncan was wrong in his 2018 judgement about Johnson’s future prospects but that – presumably as a result of the editing process – the diaries do not accurately reflect how support for Johnson subsequently grew to such an extent that, on 8 April, Duncan was warning his preferred candidate, Jeremy Hunt, “that if he doesn’t rev up his leadership efforts now he’ll never catch up.”

Books, TV and Films, February 2022

7 February

I have always been an occasional reader of historical fiction, though it hasn’t been a conscious choice until quite recently. I just seemed to naturally gravitate towards books that were set in the past. Does Sebastian Faulks write historical fiction? I don’t really think of him that way, and yet novels like Birdsong and Human Traces are wonderful examples of the genre.

Reading Hilary Mantel and then Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (I think in that order) was a revelation: fiction as an introduction to historical periods and events about which I knew little or nothing. In this case, medieval France. Mosse made it all wonderfully accessible. I remember being barely twenty pages in when a voice shouted at me from off the page: This is fantastic. Why have you never taken an interest before, you idiot?

I have written more about historical fiction in my review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. And here’s my review of The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor.

I read The Burning Chambers, the first in a new multi-book epic tale by Mosse, in 2019. The City of Tears is the follow-up. The city in question is Amsterdam, home to refugees from far and wide, though much of the story actually hinges on events in Paris in August 1572 — the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The climax of the novel takes place on an island reliquary (a building that houses holy relics). Though complex religious and political divisions play a central role in proceedings, Mosse guides us expertly through them and at no point does the reader feel overwhelmed by complicated or unnecessary detail.

Mosse is also concerned with how we remember the past — not least the gaps and absences in the historical record. She is the founder director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the founder of the Woman in History campaign, so it is no surprise that the novel features a cast of strong female characters, none more so than Minou who, in addition to being wife and mother and châtelaine of the castle of Puivert, is also a chronicler:

Now writing was as necessary to her as breathing. A necessity, a responsibility. Her journals were no longer a history of her own hopes and fears, but rather the story of what it meant to be a refugee, a person displaced, a witness to the death of an old world and the birth of a new. Minou knew that it was only ever the lives of the kings and generals and popes which were recorded. Their prejudices, actions and ambitions were taken to be the only truth of history.

from Kate Mosse, The City of Tears

15 February

I like the first of the two Tom Cruise Jack Reacher films (the second not quite so much). However, fans of the books and — more importantly perhaps — Lee Child, who writes them, don’t. The actual Reacher character is (so people say — I don’t know) both a man-mountain and gruffly monosyllabic. Tom Cruise is neither. Child said that there’s wouldn’t be any more Cruise films and instead he has backed an Amazon reboot. It’s called Reacher, is made up of eight 50-ish-minute episodes and is based on the first novel (yes!), originally published in 1997. And it’s great. There are apparently some tweaks to bring it more up to date, but it certainly ticks the required man-mountain, gruffness and monosyllabism boxes.

19 February

Mike Rutherford’s The Living Years is the third (and best) Genesis memoir that I have read, the other two being Phil Collins’ Not Dead Yet and Steve Hackett’s A Genesis in My Bed. There’s also a heavyweight biography of Peter Gabriel that I haven’t got round to yet. Tony Banks has not (to my knowledge) published anything.

As I say, it’s the best of the bunch — certainly in quality terms. Rutherford is ex-public school, of course, so it’s reasonable to expect him to be able to string a few coherent sentences together. They’re all eminently readable and they all have good tales to tell but, compared to Hackett’s book in particular, Rutherford’s writing is much more organised and controlled. Where Steve assails the reader with exclamation marks and ellipses (…), Mike is considerably more reserved and understated, his line in humour deadpan and dry.

This is typical. It’s a description of Island Studios where the band were recording The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

There were two studios: a nice big one upstairs and a cheap, depressing one downstairs with chocolate-brown shagpile on the walls. We weren’t upstairs.

from Mike Rutherford, The Living Years

Ironically, at the foot of the page from which that quote comes (page 148) Mike uses an ellipsis — “but at that point I decided I needed some time out…” — but in this case I would say it’s warranted. It’s a nice way to lead into whatever the some-time-out stuff was.

The book’s title is of course a reference to the Mike + the Mechanics song about the death of a father. It’s a title well chosen. Mike’s at times difficult relationship with his father — a senior naval officer — is a thread that runs through the whole book. Extracts from his father’s unpublished memoirs (he died in 1986 but the memoirs were only discovered after Mike’s mother’s death in 1992 and were much later presented to Mike in bound form by his sons as a Christmas present, presumably the trigger for him to write these memoirs) crop up regularly, often judiciously chosen as counterpoints to Mike’s own career.

I liked the honesty in the book. At times, he can be quite cutting, not least about Genesis members past and present (though it may equally well just be his sense of humour). To take just two of many examples, we learn that Steve didn’t pay Mike and Phil for their contributions to Steve’s first solo album, and that Tony will never have a hit single because he “never did understand how to make words flow”. In fact, there are numerous barbs about Tony, presumably because they have known each other so long. “I think to this day Tony thinks his voice is better than it is” is one. Perhaps they are all in-jokes.

One thing that annoys me about celebrity biographies and memoirs is that the bulk of the material tends to be weighted towards the early years. Once the said performer(s) hit(s) the big time, the detail seems to thin out — as if it’s all in the public domain already or there isn’t really much of interest to tell. In Philip Norman’s Shout! The True Story of the Beatles we are told on page 178 of a 423-page book that Love Me Do (the first single) was released on 4 October 1962. We reach the first Smiths gig on page 149 of Johnny Rogan’s 303-page Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance.

(Note also how stars seem far more willing to write about the early years of grinding poverty — “I’ve paid my dues” — than about the years of fabulous wealth. One minute it’s all battered vans to gigs and poky hotel rooms and the next we’re headlining Knebworth.)

Rutherford’s book is for the most part more balanced than many I have read, though he says surprisingly little about Foxtrot — a big breakthrough album for Genesis — and Wind and Wuthering, which, along with Selling England by the Pound (an album Mike doesn’t hold in as high a regard as I do) is probably my favourite Genesis album.

And then suddenly it all peters out. Thirty pages from the end of the book and we have reached the Invisible Touch album and tour in 1986–87. It’s the band at the peak of their worldwide popularity. It’s also when Mike’s father died, and so it’s the memoir’s natural end-point, given the way that Mike has crafted it. But real life doesn’t follow artificial story arcs.

We get a handful of pages about the 1992 We Can’t Dance period. A whopping two paragraphs about Phil’s decision to leave. Ditto the Calling All Stations period with Ray Winston. Less than a page…really? Talk about damning with faint praise. A little bit (but not much) more than this about the 2007 Turn It On Again reunion tour. And, well, that’s it. A hugely anti-climactic feel at the end (not unlike the Abacab album which finishes with the underwhelming and downbeat Another Record).

27 February

Mention the name AJP Taylor and there’s a good chance that someone will talk about his TV lectures, done to camera in real time and without notes. It’s said that he could time the end of the lecture to the second. They were groundbreaking in their day, though most of his TV work was before I became interested in history. He was ill and frail by the time he came to record his final TV lectures, How Wars End, in 1985, which I watched while at university.

The first intellectual I remember seeing/hearing on TV was, I think, Professor Stuart Hall of the Open University. He was a mesmerising, wonderfully articulate public speaker. I first became aware of Hall via the iconic magazine Marxism Today. He and Eric Hobsbawm were both big-name regular contributors. Hall it is, I think, who coined the term ‘Thatcherism’. He certainly did much to define it.

Stuart Hall never wrote a book alone. Collaboration was for him, it seems, a key part of the creative and intellectual process. And so it is with his posthumously published memoir, Familiar Stranger, written “with Bill Schwarz”. I had assumed that Schwarz merely completed it after Hall’s death but, true to form, it had in fact started life as a dialogue between the two men. Only late in the day, we are told, was it decided to frame the memoir in the first person.

Other than for his interventions in British politics in the Seventies and Eighties, my knowledge of Hall comes from my interest in the formation and early years of the so-called New Left in the late Fifties. Familiar Stranger covers the years up to the early Sixties. It is primarily about the part of Hall’s life with which I am least familiar: his childhood in Jamaica (he was born in 1932) and then his arrival in England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951 and his time at Oxford.

It is a compelling memoir. Despite — indeed because of — his relatively comfortable upbringing, he had a troubled and unhappy childhood. In his words it is a story of disavowal, disaffection and “deep-seated disorientation” as his awareness and understanding of class, racial identity and what he calls slavery’s “afterlives” and the “trauma of the slave past” develop.

Ideas and concepts that I associate with Hall and with cultural studies — the academic discipline he did much to pioneer — underpin the whole book. That, I guess, is the point. Hall was interested in how we relate to and make sense of the world around us. It makes for a stimulating though not always easy read.

Books, TV and Films, January 2022

4 January

Back to the wonderful world of historical fiction to welcome in the new year. I discovered Andrew Taylor last summer. His The Last Protector, set in Restoration England, is from his Marwood and Lovett series (I also now have The Ashes of London, the first of them). Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, still awaits, and her 800-page A Place of Greater Safety, set during the French Revolution, is also on this year’s reading list. The wonderful Kate Mosse also has her latest paperback out later this month, I think, the sequel to The Burning Chambers.

I keep mixing up SJ Parris and CJ Sansom. Similar names, similar covers, similar titles. I have already read Sacrilege by Parris but, as usual, I wanted to start at the beginning. Hence Heresy, the first in the Giordano Bruno series, set in Elizabethan England.

The prologue (the origin story of sorts) is actually set not in England but in Naples at the Monastery of San Domenico Maggiore. We meet Bruno in the privy, caught not quite with his pants down reading a copy of Erasmus’ Commentaries, which was on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. He escapes just ahead of the arrival of the Father Inquisitor, whose verdict would not have been in any doubt. Seven years later, and now in England, Bruno is taken on by Sir Francis Walsingham as one of his vast network of spies working on behalf of the Elizabethan state.

Heresy has everything you would want and expect from great thriller writing: mystery, deceit, treachery — all set against a backdrop of the internecine religious struggles of the time. In short, the twists and turns are suitably tortuous, the pace utterly relentless and the thrills page-turningly thrilling. I read the second half of the book in a single day.

Any body of ideas — whether we’re talking religious beliefs, philosophical outlooks, economic theories or political ideologies, is likely to contain different strands and strains, quirks and nuances, practices and rituals. I was struck by the thought that Parris’ description of a secret mass at the dead of night could just as easily have come from the pages of a Dennis Wheatley black magic novel:

I found myself in a small room crowded with hooded figures who stood expectantly, heads bowed, all facing towards a makeshift altar at one end, where three wax candles burned cleanly in tall wrought silver holders before a dark wooden crucifix bearing a silver figure of Christ crucified.

from Heresy by SJ Parris

6 January

Four Lives was much-watch TV, the ‘based on a true story’ account of the murder of four young men by Stephen Port between June 2014 and September 2015. In each case Port administered fatal doses of the so-called ‘date rape’ drug GHB and dumped his victims’ bodies near his flat in Barking.

This wasn’t sensationalist or prurient TV. The focus was not on the actual murders or even on Port himself, but on the family and friends of each of the victims and the devastating impact the murders had on them. Sheridan Smith was excellent as the mother of the first victim, Anthony Walgate. Stephen Merchant was also terrific as Port. We are used to Merchant using his unusual physique for comic effect. Here he uses it to project utter creepiness. When Port removed his wig, I was immediately reminded of Richard Attenborough as John Christie in 10 Rillington Place.

Sadly, tragedies like this happen all too often. What sets the Port murders apart, however, are the actions and behaviour of the police. The response of the family liaison officer to a mother frustrated by the lack of progress or even of information — along the lines of ‘This is my first case, but I have done the training’ — might initially strike the viewer as bad writing until you realise that the police’s catalogue of cock-ups really is jaw-dropping. An inquest jury found just last month that fundamental failings by the Met “probably” contributed to three of the four deaths.

7 January

So sad to hear of the death of Sidney Poitier. Two of his films had a massive influence on me, growing up. In the Heat of the Night was probably the first film I ever saw that dealt with racism. And To Sir, with Love remains in my top 5 all-time favourites. The theme song (sung by Lulu, of course, who was in the film) is wonderful. A number one in the USA, but only a b-side in this country. Unbelievable!

8 January

On the subject of cock-ups, a book that I am surprised doesn’t get more mentions is The Blunders of Our Governments by the political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, who once upon a time were regulars on late-night by-election specials on TV. Published in 2013, it took a close-up look at some of the governmental howlers of modern times and at the flaws and failings of our political system which allow such gargantuan errors to occur.

I am not sure what I was expecting before I read Why We Get the Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman — a right-wing, populist-flavoured hatchet job on our MPs, perhaps (Hardman writes for the Spectator). I was agreeably surprised, then, that it was clear before I had even finished the preface that Hardman believes that the vast majority of MPs, of all political parties, are not selfish, venal or lazy, and milking the system for their own benefit. Most of them — she and I agree — are there for the right reasons: they work hard and want to improve their constituents’ lives. It is the political system that is flawed. This is a book about structures and culture: it is those that urgently need to be reformed.

The book opens with a couple of chapters on the eye-watering costs — both personal and financial — of even becoming an MP. Who on earth, I ask myself, would want to bother? Most of the book then focuses on what happens within parliament and government. There are just so many things that need to be modernised, that leave the whole process open to ridicule, or that are just plain wrong.

Here are just a few: the fact that an MP following their principles when it entails defying the party whip is potential career suicide; the fact that ministers are reshuffled so often that they have little chance of really getting to grips with the issues before they are moved on (eight housing ministers in nine years is a statistic I have seen more than once); the fact that it’s often the ‘noisy’ ministers — not the talented ones — who get promoted.

Most eye-opening for me was Hardman’s description of the committee stage of a bill. In theory, it is the part of the law-making process where political partisanship takes second place to a disinterested line-by-line consideration of the bill on its merits. In reality, says Hardman, members of the committee are chosen by the whips and it is well known as “an opportunity to write Christmas cards while paying little heed to the arguments being presented”.

The fundamental problem — the key structural issue not just with parliament but with democracy itself — is, as she says, that politicians have to be both “policy fixers and political winners”. Those two aims are often in conflict — as the politics of climate change reveals all too clearly. How likely are politicians to introduce policies that will cause significant upheaval to people’s lives and involve raising taxes when the benefits will only be felt in the medium term — and in fact may only be noticeable by their absence? Put it another way: was the widely predicted meltdown that would result from the millennium bug avoided because of timely pre-emptive action or was the threat it posed massively overhyped?

Hardman is particularly good on the political sleight-of-hand that occurs when politicians claim to be ‘taking the politics out’ of an issue — in reality, avoiding something that will upset a significant tranche of voters and thereby abdicating responsibility, often by passing it to a commission of enquiry of some sort.

She ends with a couple of suggestions for change, the best of which involves a beefed-up role for select committees. Alas, changing a deeply rooted culture is far easier said than done. I remember the talk in the Commons after the death of John Smith in 1994 of how we needed to take the bile and bitterness out of political discourse. It didn’t last. It never does. Just look at the political headlines over the last few weeks. When our current prime minister offered an apology to the House of Commons recently, he couldn’t even do humility for ten minutes before throwing a pathetic slur about the failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile across the despatch box.

11 January

Having discovered Nicola Walker in Spooks and been totally wowed by her in Unforgotten, I made a point of recording Annika, a crime drama shown recently on the cable channel Alibi. She plays a detective inspector, busy negotiating the ups and downs of personal and professional relationships after taking up a new post. Walker is fab, using the excellent breaking-the-fourth-wall script (you can tell it started life on radio) to make the most of her quirky but sharp character. Annika also takes top prize for — especially in these days of endless cutbacks, reorganisations and amalgamations — most unlikely police unit: the Glasgow Marine Homicide Unit.

14 January

I used enforced Covid isolation over the new year to re-watch all the Harry Potter films. I had forgotten how good they are — too long, but good. The (then) child actors were exceptionally well chosen. In the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, they are believable; by the third in the series, now probably mid-teens, they are very good.

28 January

Marc Morris tells us in his book The Anglo-Saxons that the response of King Æthelred to renewed Viking attacks on England in the early eleventh century was to issue an edict requiring all his subjects to participate in a national act of penance, including fasting for three days and processing barefoot to church accompanied by priests carrying holy relics.

To modern ears it doesn’t sound like much of a defence strategy. As hard as I try, I find it difficult to grasp how the world must have appeared to the medieval mind: in thrall to a God who was clearly not just omniscient and omnipotent but also vain and vindictive, uncaring and judgemental.

If the stranglehold of religion on the popular imagination was not quite so total by the mid nineteenth century, it still exerted a powerful grip on some of the finest minds and elite institutions — not least the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where academic advancement was shut off to anyone but card-carrying members of the Church of England. Theological disputes that seem (to me, anyway) obscure and esoteric derailed many a promising career.

At least that’s the impression I get from reading the opening chapters of High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain, Simon Heffer’s account of the social, cultural and intellectual life of Britain between c1840 and c1880. Elsewhere, it’s like listening to an episode of Radio 4’s The Long View, the programme that looks at stories from the past in the light of current events.

He tells the story, for example, of the preparations for the Great Exhibition of 1851, reminding me not so much of the Queen’s upcoming platinum jubilee (details of which have just been announced) as the origins and development of the Millennium Dome project, which I assume will feature prominently in Volume II of the Alastair Campbell Diaries.

The Great Exhibition and the Albert Memorial projects between them take up nearly 100 pages. High Minds is a big, weighty and demanding book, not helped by the fact that Heffer includes far too much extraneous detail, not least about the course of parliamentary debates: back then individual speeches often lasted for hours and debates for days.

The chapter on the ‘heroic mind’, for example, makes interesting points about a Victorian cult of the dead and about architectural tastes, but these struggle to breathe, suffocated by all the detail about the tortuous negotiations concerning the proposed Albert Memorial. Heffer frequently quotes at length, a practice not helped by the fact that the Victorians favoured an exhausting and sometimes baffling let’s-use-fifteen-words-where-five-will-do style in both speech and writing.

A recent letter in the Guardian objected to the use of the soubriquet ‘Member for the Eighteenth Century’ to describe the government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, on the grounds that the eighteenth century was an age of enlightenment, “with a long list of luminaries whose names have become bywords for the possibilities of the thinking and endeavour of which humans are capable”. As Heffer shows, the nineteenth century was similarly full of ‘high minds’.

Equally, however, it was a time of the most appalling snobbery, bigotry and downright cruelty. Take Stafford Northcote, for example, a man whose name is forever associated with groundbreaking and far-sighted reform of the civil service. He said this about the Irish potato famine (the relief efforts for which he was involved in):

…[a] mechanism for reducing surplus population … the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated … The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.

quoted from High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain by Simon Heffer (p472)

And, as with Peter Ackroyd’s description of Winston Churchill, it is impossible to read Heffer’s description of Benjamin Disraeli and not imagine that he had the current prime minister in mind when he wrote it. It is telling that, in his evaluations of the two titans Gladstone and Disraeli, the arch Conservative Heffer is so full of admiration for the former (a liberal) and so scathing about the latter.

Here’s a flavour from page 269:

The two men exemplify the Victorian political mind at its best and worst: Gladstone the man of principle, even if he had to engage in occasional contortions to try to remain principled; and Disraeli the opportunist, craving power for its own sake and not because of any great strategy to transform Britain and … willing to throw away any principle in order to stay in office.

quoted from High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain by Simon Heffer

Books, TV and Films, December 2021

6 December

My Inspector Rebus reading journey has arrived at The Hanging Garden, originally published in 1998 and the final part of a three-book omnibus edition called The Lost Years.

The main plot line concerns an ugly turf war between rival gangsters. Hello again, ‘Big Ger’. One of the great things about following the Rebus trail is the cast of recurring characters. Big Ger is still doing time and his ascendancy is threatened by the not-at-all-pleasant Tommy Telford. Rankin takes us to even uglier places than usual (and not in a sightseeing sense) and the book doesn’t pull its punches in its portrayal of graphic violence, including the torture of Rebus himself. There is also a nice Brian de Palma, Untouchables-esque set piece involving a planned armed raid on a top-secret pharmaceutical factory.

As ever, there are several sub-plots in play — here involving Nazi war crimes in France, the Bosnian and Chechen conflicts (major news stories at the time Rankin was writing) and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Atrocity is the underpinning theme, and Rankin wrestles with questions about how we reconstruct the past and the extent to which time can wash away responsibility for crimes and misdemeanours committed long ago.

Rankin uses Rebus’ strained relationship with his brother (brought together by a hit-and-run involving Rebus’ daughter) not just to add depth to the backstory but also to probe into the relationship between history and memory. Brother Mickey shows Rebus his collection of old postcards and photographs sent to him by Rebus during the latter’s time in the British army — extant documents, ‘proof’, it seems, of a happy and carefree younger life.

And here were these postcards, here was the image of Rebus’s past life that Mickey had lived with these past twenty-odd years.

And it was all a lie.

Or was it? Where did the reality lie, other than in Rebus’s own head? The postcards were fake documents, but they were also the only ones in existence. There was nothing to contradict them, nothing except Rebus’s word. It was the same with the Rat Line, the same with Joseph Lintz’s story.

from Ian Rankin, The Hanging Garden

Click here for my comments on Black & Blue.

Click here for my comments on Let It Bleed.

12 December

Questions of truth and accuracy are also very much at the heart of The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination by Richard J Evans. Regular readers will know how much I admire Evans. Comparing him with the historian Peter Padfield, I have written that 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.”

The book is organised around five topics: the notorious antisemitic publication called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the stab-in-the-back myth after 1918; the Reichstag Fire in 1933; Rudolf Hess’ flight to Britain in 1941; and the fate of Hitler in 1945.

For those with knowledge of the Nazi period, these are all well-known issues and ‘mysteries’ — indeed, the final chapter about what happened to Hitler is so much a staple of modern culture that it is probably familiar even to those with little or no knowledge of German history — and Evans deals with them all in his usual thorough and judicious way.

For me the most interesting parts of the book were the bits in which Evans draws out more general lessons about what he terms ‘the paranoid imagination’ — conspiracy theories and ‘conspiracists’ (ie people who believe in a conspiracy theory or theories and not to be confused with ‘conspirators’, people engaged in a conspiracy).

He talks, for example, of a widespread refusal to recognise reality. This is not as ridiculous as it first sounds, when the very idea of objective facts and empirical verification is under sustained assault: consider the fact that vast numbers of Americans still refuse to accept that Joe Biden won the presidential election in 2020. What matters in the paranoid imagination is not whether the facts themselves are true but the ‘essential truth’ that lies beneath. Again, if that sounds absurd, consider an article written by the Daily Telegraph‘s Camilla Tominey about the BBC in December 2021 in which she introduced an anecdote with the words: “This might not be true but it certainly is believable.”

In the interests of clarity, the quote is from a tweet in reply to Tominey from the BBC’s Nick Robinson, a presenter on the Today programme (and someone, incidentally, with a background in Conservative politics). The Telegraph article itself is behind a paywall and the only such freely visible phrase is “It may be apocryphal but it is a story worth telling anyway.” Either the previously quoted words appear behind the paywall or the sentence itself has been amended. Robinson’s tweet says:

Today we learned that you don’t think facts should get in the way of attacking the BBC. You start by saying so: “This might not be true but it certainly is believable”. You say Today cancelled an interview with John Redwood. Listeners heard him in our most prominent slot at 810 [sic]

A tweet from Today presenter Nick Robinson in reply to Camilla Tominey

These and other lessons that Evans draws — another is how myths become so embedded that they can no longer be discredited by facts and morph into unchallengeable truths — are as pertinent in the modern day as they are to the student of Nazi Germany.

Click here for my comments on Peter Oborne’s book The Assault on Truth.

17 December

And what happens when we have mere scraps of evidence about events in the past, especially when the history in question is particularly contested and entangled with fundamental questions of identity and culture — the foundation of a nation, for example?

Our understanding of the Anglo-Saxons must ultimately rest on the historical sources, but for most of the period these are extremely meagre. For the first two centuries after the end of Roman rule, we have virtually no written records of any kind, and are almost entirely reliant on archaeology. The situation improves as the period progresses … but there are still huge gaps in our knowledge.

from Marc Morris, The Anglo-Saxons

About ten years ago, determined to educate myself about the period of history I then referred to dismissively as the Dark Ages, I came out of Waterstones with a copy of a paperback brick called Anglo-Saxon England by Frank Stenton. I am guessing that it was the only such general history on the shelf because — caveat emptor! — I foolishly bought it based on little more than a glance at the puff-quotes on the cover. Alas, it did not take long to twig that this was not just a rather worthy old book, published in 1943, but the relevant volume in the venerable but decidedly creaky Oxford History of England series. (AJP Taylor’s wonderful but very dated English History 1914–1945 is part of the same series.)

That’s why I love books like The Anglo-Saxons, written by Marc Morris and published just a few months ago. Morris is another of a group of eminently readable historians I wrote about when discussing Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones. The Anglo-Saxons is an excellent introduction to this period of English history and doesn’t require any prior specialist knowledge or skills beyond an ability to keep track of (or, in my case, note down) the neverending list of people whose names begin with ‘Ælf-‘ and ‘Æthel-‘.

Morris provides an excellent insight into how historians work and the judgements they make. Take the chapter about Offa, for example, the eighth-century Mercian king. Within the space of a few pages we read numerous phrases along the lines of: “He claimed … but this may have been just a fiction to boost his credentials”; “Given that … Offa must have been…”; “It looks as if…”; “The outcome of the battle is not recorded, but it was almost certainly a defeat for Offa…”; ‘Other sources suggest that…”

Morris introduces us to the main historical themes and issues relating to the period, where current research is at and how historians’ thinking has evolved. We repeatedly meet statements saying something like ‘Historians generally used to think that … but now…’. For example, he guides us through the question of who was actually responsible for building Offa’s Dyke, the reasons why it was constructed, how it might have been done and how long it would have taken. We learn that an extensive investigation of the earthwork between the 1970s and the early 2000s concluded that Offa’s Dyke was not nearly as long as had always been assumed and that it did not in fact run from sea to sea, as Asser (a ninth-century bishop who wrote a life of King Alfred) had written. Then we learn that this new interpretation “has lately been called into question” and that Bishop Asser may have been right all along.

And then there is the discussion of Alfred the Great, co-opted in recent years as a figure central to English identity, the hero-king who drove the Vikings into the sea and created the English nation (and burned the cakes). Again, the actual picture is much less clear. The myth of ‘Alfred the Great’ was an invention of the eighteenth century: “attitudes that were deemed praiseworthy and patriotic in the Georgian and Victorian eras were being projected back onto a distant ninth-century king.” The first surviving record of the appellation ‘Great’ is not until the thirteenth century (unlike the mighty Charlemagne who was ‘the Great’ in his own lifetime). He almost certainly didn’t burn any cakes either.

Rather like well-written historical fiction, though for different reasons, books like The Anglo-Saxons are a gateway to more serious study of a historical topic, theme or period. Now I feel ready to tackle Stenton afresh.

Click here for my comments on Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones.

27 December

Mark Blake has written the most accurate and complete full-length book about Queen, and so — with reservations — I picked his new Magnifico! The A to Z of Queen off the Asda shelves just before Christmas.

Inside are 132 headings, packed with overviews, facts and anecdotes. Blake has spent much of his professional life writing about Queen, so the guy knows his stuff. But the stuff in this case generally reflects a book aimed squarely at the Christmas market and not at the hardcore fan. The emphasis is very much on the sensational, the ridiculous and the outré. This is a Queen A–Z viewed through a tabloid prism.

Where, for example, more serious publications might tease the reader with vague allusions to the supposed goings-on at the legendary [sic] New Orleans party to promote the Jazz album, Blake gives it to us straight. The stories of dwarves and cocaine are just the start: “Another unsubstantiated rumour claimed an auditionee [to be an act at the party] offered to decapitate herself with a chainsaw for $100,000 — presumably she would have to have been paid up front.”

There’s good stuff to be found (I didn’t know, for example, that the vocal effect on Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon was created by a microphone fed through headphones wedged inside a tin can), but there is also no shortage of pointless trivia. Do I really need to know what Belouis Some, who opened the bill at Knebworth in 1986 — Did he? I don’t remember that! — is doing now or what his favourite Queen song is? And do we really need three pages on ‘Jesus’ aka William Jellett, apparently a regular gig-goer over the last fifty years.

It’s a filthy habit but I can’t help enjoying finding inaccuracies in ‘encyclopaedic’ books such as this. It’s a fair bet that Magnifico! is not a book Blake has taken years working on, which would explain most of the obvious errors (references to the Wembley shows in June ’86; Christmas Day 1991 being three months after Freddie’s death; Live Aid on 15 July; ‘quality over quantity’ in the Made in Heaven entry, when presumably the author means the opposite). More puzzling is a reference to You’re My Best Friend being the band’s first American top-twenty hit: clearly it wasn’t — Bohemian Rhapsody…doh — a fact confirmed by the author himself three pages later.

I have written in more detail here about books about Queen and Freddie Mercury.

30 December

More next month but I am using enforced Covid isolation over the post-Christmas week to re-watch all the Harry Potter films. I had forgotten how good they are — overly long, but good. Top marks for the casting team: the child actors were exceptionally well chosen when they were a very young age. In the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, they are all convincing, despite presumably doing much of their work to blue screens and the like, and by the second film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, they are very good indeed.

Philadelphia 1983: Genesis Bootlegs

There’s no track on Genesis that I find weak.

It felt at times as though we were stretching the material as far as we could.

Hmmm. Both quotes come from the band’s official Chapter and Verse book. Both are attributed to Tony Banks. Although not directly contradictory, they point to a particular difficulty with appraising the album Genesis, the band’s follow-up to Abacab, released in October 1983. It consists (mainly) of well-crafted, radio-friendly pop-rock songs, but — ironically for an album called ‘Genesis’ by a band called ‘Genesis’ — is it really Genesis? Your answer will probably determine your view on the album and the subsequent Mama tour.

Mike Rutherford, in his 2014 autobiography, says that the original side one (ie the first three tracks, counting Home by the Sea and Second Home by the Sea as one track) is “pretty high on the list of the best things we’ve done”. Elsewhere he has described it as one of his favourite albums.

In my initial draft of this blog I wrote:

I would go along with Mike as far as saying that side one isn’t bad (rather like the Abacab album, in fact) but side two is a serious dip (again, like Abacab) and, overall, Genesis is, in my opinion, the band’s weakest — assuming that our album history begins with Trespass.

Today, well, I’m not so sure…

What is striking is how little coverage there is of the 1983–84 period. It merits maybe a single page in the Chapter and Verse book; the tour doesn’t even come up, if I remember correctly. When the Genesis era is discussed, the focus is usually on the making of the song Mama. My own view of Mama — indeed of the album as a whole — spins around like a weathervane in the wind. I was certainly intrigued by it at the time of its release, wondering whether (ie hoping that) Genesis were veering off in some wacky new direction. Nowadays I tend to dwell more on its structural similarity to In the Air Tonight.

Aah, Phil Collins. Like Chapter and Verse, Phil also gives the album roughly one page in his autobiography — part of a chapter called Hello I Must Be Busy. And therein, I suppose, lies the problem. By 1983 Phil’s solo career was starting to flourish on the back of a successful second album and another smash hit single, an excellent version of the Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love. This was a pop star treadmill that was only getting faster. His outsized personality — perfectly in tune with the brashness of the Eighties — inevitably came to overshadow everything else, especially as Genesis’ music (augmented by Phil’s trademark gated drum sound) headed for ever more commercial waters.

Genesis was the first album written and recorded entirely at The Farm, the band’s new studio in Surrey. Hugh Padgham, he of the gated drum sound, was again the engineer, as well as earning a ‘with Hugh Padgham’ part-production credit. The name — Genesis — was chosen to signify that this was an album developed from start to finish completely together in the studio. Nobody turned up with anything pre-written. Ideas developed organically through playing around, often with new technology such as sampling synths and electronic drums, and everything is credited equally to Banks – Collins – Rutherford. The emphasis was on spontaneity and on quickly capturing an idea. There is more than an hour of officially released home video available for anyone with the patience to sit through it.

Having hated it at first, I have come to appreciate how the cover art for Abacab represents the music within — bold, brash, stark. Alas, the Genesis outer and inner sleeve artwork continues to leave me cold. Okay, the use of basic geometric shapes reflects the simpler, more commercial sound, but the concept’s very blandness (not to mention the dominant vomit-yellow colour) merely brings to mind the ‘pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap’ advertising campaigns favoured by your local Eighties discount store. And the mixture of uninspiring black-and-white photographs and pop art illustrations on the inner sleeve seems ill thought out.

Most of the lyrics have a similarly throwaway quality. Though there is nothing (thankfully) as literally nonsensical as the words of the song Abacab, nor is there anything that comes close to the depth, lyricism, wit or playfulness of the Genesis of old. Vacuous and inane, argues the prosecution. Direct and accessible, the defence counters.

True, Home by the Sea has an agreeably creepy quality and Silver Rainbow just about passes muster as a lyrical nod of sorts to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. But lines like ‘Hold out, just keep on hoping against hope it’s gonna get better’ are just cringeworthy. The worst offender by far is Illegal Alien, a song (and video) whose tale of Mexican wannabe immigrants to the USA piles one unforgivable stereotype on top of another.

Genesis became the band’s biggest commercial success yet — Mike described it as the time being right for the band in the USA. And as the venues grew bigger and the live production expanded (with Tony’s keyboards moving stage centre, directly between the two drum kits), so the band’s sound and particularly Phil’s front-man persona became ever more assertive and direct.

This is the first tour since at least 1973 for which there is, to this writer’s knowledge, no high-quality bootleg of an entire show readily available. However, part of a Philadelphia show in November 1983 and an LA Forum show in January 1984 were subsequently broadcast on the radio, and there are several decent-quality audience recordings. There is also an officially released video — Genesis Live: The Mama Tour — which was recorded at the Birmingham NEC in February 1984 at the very end of the tour. Again, it is incomplete.

The setlist looked something like this:

Dodo/Lurker / Abacab / That’s All / Mama / Old Medley 1 / Illegal Alien / Man on the Corner / Who Dunnit? / Home by the Sea/Second Home by the Sea / Keep It Dark / It’s Gonna Get Better / Follow You Follow Me / Old Medley 2 / Drum Duet / Los Endos / Misunderstanding / Turn It On Again

Dodo/Lurker is a powerful opener — like Deep in the Motherlode, the stirring keyboard riff gives it a suitably epic feel — and is, as on the previous tour, immediately followed by Abacab. Two new songs follow, That’s All — “We’re called Genesis and we’re a country & western group” — and Mama. That’s All leads the way: it was a much bigger hit in the USA than Mama, reaching the Billboard top five. Most of the new album is included in the set, though not Just a Job to Do, the old side two’s best track.

The Mama tour also features not one but three medleys of older songs. The first — played early — appears to have been chopped and changed as the tour progressed. One of the first dates, Rosemont, Illinois, for example, begins with the introduction to Eleventh Earl of Mar, which then segues nicely to Squonk and then to Firth of Fifth. By the time we reach Oklahoma on 19 January 1984 Behind the Lines has replaced Squonk and the usual excerpt from The Musical Box has been added at the end. Other songs used at various stops along the way are Ripples and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

Three things shout out about the Oklahoma medley: (i) the Eleventh Earl of Mar intro sounds as haunting as ever, but the transition from Mar to Behind the Lines is jarringly clunky (ii) even as recent a song as Behind the Lines is now relegated to medley status (iii) Daryl Stuermer’s solo on Firth of Fifth is awful.

A suitably dodgy jacket and a ghettoblaster are Phil’s props to set up Illegal Alien (see the comments above — though, it should be noted, the band were obviously still enamoured enough of the song in 2000 to include the LA Forum recording on Genesis Archive #2: 1976–1992). It is, to these ears, the start of an undoubted mid-set dip: the forgettable Man on the Corner and execrable Who Dunnit? follow — though at some point on the tour they appear to have been dropped. Elsewhere, Keep It Dark and Follow You Follow Me, both less effective on stage than in the studio, remain in the set.

Home by the Sea/Second Home by the Sea is preceded by some new audience interaction schtick from Phil, which also develops as the tour progresses. Initially (in New York in November, for example) it is as basic as getting the crowd to wave their arms and make silly noises to get the lights to descend towards the stage. Soon, however, it has become an attempt to connect with “the other world” — a routine that will remain in the set until 1992.

The second medley is the familiar one, beginning with In the Cage. For this tour the Cage medley has been augmented with a harsh-sounding Eighties reinterpretation of In That Quiet Earth. Oddly, it is placed before rather than after the Slippermen solo, so, unlike on Wind and Wuthering, it doesn’t itself segue into Afterglow.

Dance on a Volcano has danced itself out for the time being, though the drum duet remains, setting up Los Endos to close the show in the time-honoured way. Misunderstanding, a lightweight, medium hit at best, is a puzzling choice for first encore. Turn It On Again follows as a second encore, mutating into yet another medley, this time a selection of classic pop hits of yesteryear, from Everybody Needs Somebody to Love and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction to Twist and Shout and In the Midnight Hour.

This final medley is — like the show as a whole — all very smoothly and professionally done, designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. As documented on the official tour video, the final medley at the Birmingham shows even included snippets of mainstream chart hits of the day, Karma Chameleon by Culture Club and Every Breath You Take by the Police.

And, well, that’s all for the Mama tour. In the UK there were a mere five shows, all in Birmingham, and nothing at all in the rest of Europe, Japan or elsewhere. Someone’s diary was obviously full. As the Mama tour ended, Phil brought out his Against All Odds single — the date obviously determined by the release date of the film from which it came. It became his biggest worldwide hit to date. The phenomenal success of 1985’s No Jacket Required confirmed him as a global pop superstar in his own right, his stature and ubiquity underlined by his appearance in both London and Philadelphia at Live Aid in July 1985. Genesis, meanwhile, were not involved in Live Aid.

What would they have played, one wonders?

More about Genesis

1978

And then there were three … plus two: the first tour without Steve Hackett

1980

Genesis, 1980 — and this time it’s personal. Reflections on the Duke era

1981

Tony, Mike and Phil, plus Hugh Padgham and that drum sound

Books, TV and Films, November 2021

7 November

Steve Hackett played guitar in the ‘classic’ Genesis line-up of the Seventies, of course. These days I count myself as a huge fan of his solo work too. I bought his (excellent) third album, Spectral Mornings, way back when it was first released in 1979, having been enchanted by the song Every Day. But I have only really got to know his solo stuff in the last few years, taking a chance on a 2017 album, The Night Siren, after which I picked up a cheap collection of five of his mid-career releases. His recent output — in terms of both quantity and quality — is phenomenal. In fact, unlike most late-in-their-career artists, he is currently producing the best music of his life.

Hackett has always been adept at channelling the many and varied cultural experiences and insights arising from his worldwide travels into both his music and lyrics, ably assisted by his (now) wife Jo. However, though his albums are always lyrically interesting, he isn’t a natural wordsmith — which is partly what makes A Genesis in My Bed, his 2020 autobiography, an uncomfortable read, for this fan anyway.

And that’s a shame — because he has an interesting story to tell, one that frankly I was not expecting. Periods of drink, drugs, and darkness and depression — who would have thought it of the bloke sitting quietly and undemonstratively stage-right on those early Genesis tours, shielded behind the heavy-rimmed glasses, the thick, black beard and the dark clothes. Steve’s choice of book title — a reference to, well, that would be telling — is in itself revealing.

The writing isn’t dreadful. Here’s his description of the postwar London of his childhood, for example:

Crumbling pillars adorned sad facades, appearing ripe for slum clearance. Together those houses resembled rows of rotting teeth with the odd gaping black hole of a bombsite to completely ruin any semblance of a smile.

from Steve Hackett, A Genesis in My Bed

However, in all likelihood the book is more or less a DIY effort — and it shows. We can forgive the occasional typo, tautology and other minor errors; I have yet to read a book that is completely error-free — and what I write certainly isn’t. It’s other stuff that is infuriating. The book cries out for a professional’s guiding hand. I can’t imagine for a moment that Steve would allow his music to be released without an appropriate level of quality control.

Exclamation marks litter almost every page! Paragraph after paragraph ends with the dreaded three dots, like a bad case of measles…

And then there is the constant metaphor overload. Take this run of sentences, for example:

A whole world of possibilities was revealing itself, starting as a trickle and becoming a flood. Once I’d opened Pandora’s Box there was no stopping me. During the tour, the ideas continued to germinate.

from Steve Hackett, A Genesis in My Bed

A good editor would also have helped organise the material: at one point he briefly covers the A Trick of the Tail period (an important moment, as it was the first album and tour without Peter Gabriel), then moves on to Wind and Wuthering, and then returns to discussing the A Trick of the Tail tour again.

As a Genesis fan, I was certainly interested to read his account of his years in the band, his decision to leave and his ongoing relationship with the remaining band members, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins. He clearly felt extremely close to Peter, the first of the classic line-up to fly the nest. The most barbed comment is aimed in Mike’s direction — he claims that in the 2014 Together and Apart BBC documentary Mike had asked for more focus on his own solo career at the expense of Steve’s — and he also makes clear that, though open to taking part in the 2007 reunion tour, an invite was never on the cards.

Another problem with the book is what is left out, relating to the years 1987 to 2007. We are informed in an afterword — presumably published only in the paperback edition and not in the original hardback — that his career “felt like swimming uphill and it was an emotionally traumatic period for me as well”. Why, then, write an autobiography, one wonders? There was also much, we are told, that he was not allowed to write about for legal reasons…

15 November

A quick burst of film-watching during the football break, featuring two actors whose films I always look out for. The first was Cold Pursuit, which stars Liam Neeson as Nels Coxman. It’s fair to say that Cold Pursuit left me, errm… cold. The father-out-for-revenge plotline obviously brings to mind the excellent Taken, but this time the setting is a ski resort in Colorado and his unusual skillset is the ability to drive a snow plough. If that sounds flippant, it’s in keeping with the film itself, with its Tarantino-esque mix of ultra-violence and cartoon comedy. It also has two seriously underwritten female roles — first, a new-on-the-block police officer and, second, Coxman’s wife. (What was the marvellous Laura Dern thinking when she took the role?!)

The Little Things was much better. There’s Denzil Washington, as watchable as always, and also Rami Malek, suitably enigmatic, like any self-respecting Bond villain should be. The story of a hunt for a serial killer covers not unfamiliar ground — slick, smooth and smart young high-flier meets (metaphorically) battered and bruised old hand with a dark secret to hide. With its shadowy settings and grizzly murders, there a definite noir-ish feel to it all, not least in the pleasingly ambiguous ending.

18 November

Unlike Steve Hackett, Peter Ackroyd certainly is a wordsmith — and as prodigious a writer as Steve is a musician. I have collected Ackroyd’s multi-volume history of England since picking up a copy of the first volume, Foundations, in a remaindered-books shop. In my review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now I credited Ackroyd with helping ignite my interest in the distant past, his felicitous prose “a sure guide through the byways of early England”. The sixth and final volume, Innovation, covers the twentieth century.

It is a tall order for a writer like Ackroyd to tell the story of the twentieth century in 460 pages. He has real literary flair — and not just in the sense that he writes exceptionally well. He is astonishingly well-read and clearly has deep literary and cultural sensibilities. It’s no surprise that the best sections of the book cover social, cultural and artistic themes.

His pen portraits are often a delight, he has an ear attuned for gossip and scandal, and his frequently acute observations come wrapped in nicely judged aperçus. How about this for a summary of suburbia: “This was the English family’s hallowed plot of land, the city dressed up in country clothes.” Or this, on the Church of England: “It is hardly coincidental that the Church’s reputation for gentle compromise arose just as its political influence began to falter.”

I think it is Steven Pinker (yes, him again), in his book A Sense of Style, who recommends that if you must use a cliché, at least do something with it. Give it a twist. Don’t just regurgitate it. Step up, Peter Ackroyd: “If India was the jewel in the diadem of empire, East Africa was the string of pearls binding it.”

This style doesn’t work quite so well when it comes to political history. Ackroyd isn’t a professional historian — he is described on Wikipedia as a biographer, novelist and critic — though much of his work is history-related. There is the odd slip-up (for example, referring to the February and November revolutions in Russia — it’s generally written as either February/October or March/November) and the acknowledgement of research help at the front of the book isn’t a feature of the preceding volumes. There are no footnotes to balance Ackroyd’s tendency to make sweeping generalisations. “The endless slaughter prompted English soldiers to ask why they were fighting” is one such example.

Here’s another:

At long last, the threat of Fascism was widely recognised. “We’ll have to stop him next time,” people commented in pubs across the country.

from Peter Ackroyd, The History of England Volume VI: Innovation

The multiplicity of events and developments, and sheer wealth of information out there, makes for some unusual subject choices. The world war bit of the Second World War whizzes by — barely has Hitler declared war on the USA than we’re celebrating VE Day — and yet he devotes several precious pages to the Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle in the Nineties. And I was astonished that, for someone with such cultural awareness and who has written on gay history, he makes just one (passing) reference to Aids.

More generally, the final third of the book — from, say, the early Seventies — drifts along without any sense of a unifying theme. (I am struggling, by the way, to understand why he has called this sixth volume ‘Innovation’.) The chapters seem suddenly to lose coherence and sense of direction — beyond the obvious chronological one. The text reads increasingly like a running commentary on events, stories that might have been worthy of a banner headline at the time but now seem no more than ephemera. Perhaps his assistants have been overzealous in their researches. Or perhaps, after six volumes, even the workaholic Ackroyd is tired. Who wouldn’t be?

I can’t put the book aside without highlighting this snippet of Ackroyd mischief:

According to the National Review, Churchill’s act of treachery [crossing the floor of the House to join the Liberal Party] was typical of “a soldier of fortune who has never pretended to be animated by any motive beyond a desire for his own advancement”. The accusation of egotism would be repeated throughout Churchill’s career, along with the related charges of political grandstanding and of an addiction to power. Civil servants complained that Churchill was unpunctual, prey to sudden enthusiasms, and enthralled by extravagant ideas and fine phrases. He was a free and fiery spirit who inspired admiration and mistrust in equal measure. Allies hailed him as a genius, while his enemies regarded him as unbalanced and unscrupulous.

from Peter Ackroyd, The History of England Volume VI: Innovation

Yes, you read that right. It says ‘Churchill’, not ‘Boris Johnson’ (who has of course written a biography of Churchill. Click to read the excoriating review by Richard Evans).

20 November

“I’m fighting a powerful impulse to beat the hell out of you.” It is a fairly safe bet that if they ever remake the film Marnie, this particular line of dialogue — said by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) to the eponymous kleptomaniac, Margaret ‘Marnie’ Edgar (Tippi Hedren) — won’t make it into the revised script. It is by no means the only uncomfortable element of Alfred Hitchcock’s mid-Sixties psychological thriller. But times change and films are as valuable and revealing a source of information about the attitudes and manners of the day as, say, a novel.

Watching Marnie we see that the people making the decisions are male, the ones writing those decisions down are female. While wives dutifully look after the home and flaunt their jewellery on social occasions, husbands smoke cigars, drink whisky and talk business. When Marnie’s horse writhes around in pain following an accident and urgently needs to be put down, the manipulative sister-in-law begs to be allowed to ‘get one of the men’ to do it. And when Marnie refuses to have sex with Rutland on their honeymoon (after a marriage that she has been blackmailed into agreeing to), he takes what is ‘rightfully’ his anyway, despite promising that he wouldn’t.

23 November

Secret Army, currently showing on the Drama cable channel, is another TV series I have fond memories of from childhood. First shown in 1977, it tells the story of a resistance movement in German-occupied Belgium during the Second World War. ‘Lifeline’ helps Allied airmen, shot down by the Germans, get back to Britain.

In terms of production and feel, it has much in common with — though I don’t hold it in quite the same esteem as — the legendary series Colditz. Indeed, familiar faces crop up in both — most obviously Bernard Hepton. There is much that I would not have picked up on as a young child — for example, the tension between the Luftwaffe major, Erwin Brandt, and the fanatical Nazi, Gestapo Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kessler, who is despatched to Brussels to bolster efforts to close down the evasion line. “I am not a member of the Gestapo,” protests Major Brandt at one point. It brings to mind series two of Colditz, which introduced Major Mohn as a new second-in-command, a fanatical (though non-SS) former member of Hitler’s personal staff.

I doubtless missed at least some of the bleakness too: Yvette’s refusal to help a Jewish family in the episode Radishes with Butter (because Lifeline was not equipped to run Jews); the probable murder of an on-the-run British airman by Albert (because he might give away the organisation’s secrets if captured) in Sergeant on the Run.

A great series. Only one thing lets it down: its success spawned the truly awful ‘Allo ‘Allo! sitcom.

29 November

And finally this month, more magic from the wonderful Sebastian Faulks. Whenever I am asked about my favourite novel, I say Human Traces. It’s as good an answer as any. In addition to everything else I love about Faulks’ writing, it also has huge intellectual ambition. Human Traces is a big book in every sense, charting the development of psychiatric medicine and psychoanalysis in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. If Ackroyd opened my mind to the distant past (see above), Sebastian Faulks did much the same for my interest in what might (very) loosely be termed science.

Human Traces tells the story of two pioneers in the field of psychiatry, one English and one French, who open a sanatorium — the Schloss Seeblick — in Austria. Snow Country is, in Faulks’ own words, a sequel of sorts. He has been in ‘loose trilogy’ territory before with his ‘French’ novels — Birdsong, The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Charlotte Grey. Snow Country returns us to the Schloss Seeblick, which acts as a focal point, bringing together the novel’s two main protagonists.

Faulks is a master at interweaving epoch-defining events into the lives of individuals. Here the backdrop is both the Great War itself and more specifically the damage it wrought. Though the novel spans 20 years, much of it is set in the Thirties, a time of huge uncertainty across Europe. The economic depression has eroded the hopes and optimism of the later-Twenties. Authoritarianism and fascism are everywhere on the rise; democracy, by contrast, is everywhere in retreat, not least in Austria itself where ‘Red Vienna’ is at loggerheads with the Catholic hinterland. It is in these unpropitious circumstances that Anton and Lena — and others — try to find a sense of meaning in their lives.

Books, TV and Films, October 2021

1 October

From the Queen of Detective Fiction (Agatha Christie, as sort of described by AJP Taylor) to the latest pretender to the crime-writing throne — Richard Osman, sales of whose debut novel, The Thursday Murder Club, have been sensational.

I am not normally a fan of ‘celebrity’ writers — or indeed celebrity anything else. Football managers, for example. There’s more than a whiff of unfairness in the air, a sense that their name brings with it massive advantages not available to ‘ordinary’ folk who may well be toiling in the background unnoticed for years and hoping against hope for a lucky break. However, I was intrigued after reading an interview with Osman in the Guardian to promote his follow-up. And besides, there are some great puff quotes on the cover.

And yes, it is maddeningly good. It’s such a relief to read in the acknowledgements that he found it bloody hard work to write.

First off there’s the setting — Coopers Chase, a luxury retirement village — which allows him to assemble a cast of eclectic and eccentric characters who seem to be having the time of their (long) lives. It’s funny too. So many great lines to enjoy: “I’d welcome a burglar. It would be nice to have a visitor.” At the same time there is plenty of scope for gentle reflections on life’s Big Questions — family, love, loyalty, ageing, death.

What’s not to like about writing like this?

There had been a schism in the Cryptic Crossword Club. Colin Clemence’s weekly solving challenge had been won by Irene Dougherty for the third week running. Frank Carpenter had made an accusation of impropriety and the accusation had gained some momentum. The following day a profane crossword clue had been pinned to Colin Clemence’s door, and the moment he had solved it, all hell had broken loose.

from Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club

The Thursday Murder Club is not a novel about Colin, Irene, Frank and the Cryptic Crossword Club. In fact, they are never mentioned again. But it’s just delightful. One paragraph — 67 words — conveying so much information, and I don’t mean about crosswords.

9 October

And what’s not to like about Steven Pinker, whose new book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters is out now. Well, quite a lot, at least according to a rather unfriendly essay on Pinker in the (left-leaning) Guardian‘s Long Read series recently.

My own view is that the polymathic Pinker is an outstanding thinker — my favourite ‘public intellectual’ (ugh) of recent times, certainly since the deaths of Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hitchens. I first got to know Pinker via The Better Angels of Our Nature, his extraordinary book about the decline of violence. Another powerful book was Enlightenment Now, a passionate defence of enlightenment values in these new dark ages. Read my full-length review here. Now we get this companion piece of sorts, a plea for rational thinking.

I don’t read Steven Pinker for the laughs but this, in chapter one, had me chuckling. Discussing the number of Americans who believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, Pinker mentions psychic healing (55%), ESP (41%), haunted houses (37%) and ghosts (32%) “…which also means,” he writes, “that some people believe in houses haunted by ghosts without believing in ghosts.”

The book begins with some famous illustrations of the common fallacies, cognitive biases and flaws in the way we think. Take the so-called Monty Hall dilemma. Though Pinker doesn’t refer to it, many readers may recognise it from Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. We also get the Linda problem, a probability question in which more people agree with the statement that a woman with a history of climate activism (for example) will become US president in the next decade than that a woman will become US president in the next decade. That, to be clear, is a literal impossibility.

Pinker talks about ‘tools of reasoning’ that help us, among other things, to weigh up risky choices, assess arguments and claims, and unpick problems and apparent paradoxes. He is writing, let us not forget, in 2021, a year when literally millions of people worldwide are refusing — for a whole variety of reasons, most of them comfortably fitting the definition of ‘irrational’ — to have a Covid vaccination. The science is clear, the evidence incontrovertible. And yet sceptics and deniers continue to attract huge numbers of followers.

I have written before about the danger of this new age of rampant deceit, lying, misinformation and disinformation. Social media feeds on our algorithmically determined preferences and prejudices, generating sensationalist soundbites and clickbait headlines, devoid of context or even of meaning. Lies are peddled as fact; ludicrous assertions are left unchallenged, bouncing around the echo chamber. Yet many people increasingly consume their news via social media or other poorly regulated media outlets that show a similar aversion to evidence, fact checking and sound, dispassionate reasoning.

Just as citizens should grasp the basics of history, science, and the written word, they should command the intellectual tools of sound reasoning. These include logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation, the optimal ways to adjust our beliefs and commit to decision with uncertain evidence, and the yardsticks for making rational choices alone and with others.

from Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

As books like Pinker’s Rationality, Daniel Kahneman’s terrific best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow and Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality all show, we don’t magically evolve into rigorous and rational thinkers. Quite the opposite. And why is all this so important? Well, if nothing else, because reality has an annoying habit of punching us and our irrational thoughts squarely on the nose. Hence my favourite line in Pinker’s book: “We discount the future myopically, but it always arrives, minus the large rewards we sacrificed for the quick high.”

Rationality is the type of book that I need to read at least twice — once at regular pace to take in the overall argument and then a second time, this more slowly, carefully and methodically, to grapple with the tough bits (which for me primarily means the sections dealing with maths and formal logic). After all, there is no shortage of fallacies and biases messing up our cognitive hardwiring.

22 October

The famous sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 occurs near the beginning of Powers and Thrones, Dan Jones’ huge and ambitious new history of the Middle Ages; the rather less well-known sack of Rome in 1527 by the marauding troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V occurs near the end. That’s more than a thousand years of history to wade through.

The book isn’t an attempt at a comprehensive survey of the Middle Ages. You won’t find detailed descriptions of the minutiae of ordinary everyday life — how people lived, the clothes they wore and the work they did. Things like that. This is a book about power and the people and institutions who wielded and fought over it. And what was just as important was the perception of power — “ostentation and courtly spectacle”. Religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, features heavily, of course. There are heresies and schisms aplenty, though, oddly, I don’t remember the word ‘Inquisition’ being used once.

Above all perhaps, it is about the spilling of blood. Lots of it. None more so than by the Mongols, responsible for probably millions of deaths as they plundered and massacred their way across Asia from the East.

The Mongols did not hesitate to level entire cities, wipe out whole populations, ruin vast regions and leave once-busy metropolises smouldering and desolate, either to be rebuilt to their own liking or simply wiped from the map.

from Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones

As Jones himself says, history doesn’t have to be made by nice people — and, in fact, very rarely is.

Powers and Thrones is the type of history book I most look forward to reading nowadays. I think of Dan Jones as one of a group of historians — Tom Holland, Ian Mortimer and Tracy Borman are others who immediately spring to mind — who regularly publish hugely enjoyable and well written history books, mixing an engaging and accessible narrative writing style with excellent factual detail and knowledge of current research.

As was the case with Lauren Johnson’s otherwise excellent life of Henry VI, there is sometimes a tendency in these ‘popular’ histories to stray worryingly close to ‘historical fiction’ territory. I really enjoy a book that is set in the past, as long as it is well written and thoroughly researched. Historical fiction complements history writing, but it is a separate craft and the distinction between the two should not be blurred.

This is the opening sentence of Powers and Thrones: “They left the safety of the road and tramped out into the wilderness, lugging the heavy wooden chest between them.” There is a footnote six lines later, but it merely informs us of how much the chest would have weighed. And then a couple of pages later: “They had walked far enough that the nearest town — Scole — was more than two miles away; satisfied that they had found a good spot, they set the box down.”

The chest he describes contained what is now called the Hoxne Hoard, discovered by metal detectorists in 1992 and displayed in the British Museum. The notes refer to a 2010 book on the Hoxne Hoard by Catherine Johns. But how much of this detail does Jones actually have supporting evidence for — how, for example, does he know that they were satisfied they had found a good spot? — and how much of it is just creative scene-setting, the product of the writer’s imagination?

I was also struck for the first hundred pages or so by the extent to which Jones’ language seemed to be influenced by modern-day matters. There are several references to climate change (the Huns are described as ‘climate migrants’) and consider this (from page 94): “The Roman Empire had once been a super-spreader of classical learning across its vast territories.” Then I twigged — doh! — it is all deliberately done! Hence the references to Constantinople being placed in lockdown, John Wycliffe’s religious ideas going viral and the astrolabe as “a finely tuned medieval GPS system [sic]”.

At times Jones’ parallels with the present day are explicitly drawn. For example, the 20-year Albigensian Crusade to crush heretics in France in the thirteenth century is compared to “the futility of [modern-day] wars against abstractions” like the so-called wars on terror and drugs. There is even a discussion of the spiritual debt owed by rap artists to Dante and the terza rima rhyme scheme.

25 October

The government’s recent Covid vaccination TV advert is reminiscent of those Ready Brek ‘central heating for kids’ adverts in the Seventies, except that it is now a protective vaccine shield rather than the warmth of an internal radiator that cocoons us and keeps us safe. Watching Channel 5’s All Creatures Great and Small gives me a similarly warm glow, the second series as enjoyably heart-warming and picture-postcard perfect as the first. Here’s hoping for another Christmas special.

Enjoyably heart-warming are probably not the first words most people would reach for to describe Stephen, the outstanding three-part ITV drama about the Stephen Lawrence case. These are not happy days for the London Metropolitan Police — whether it’s heavy-handed policing tactics, botched investigations or rogue behaviour by serving officers — and Stephen is another hammer-blow to its reputation. The focus is not the actual 1993 murder and the initial botched investigation that failed to secure a single conviction despite five suspects quickly being identified; it is the long fight for justice that followed.

Stephen picks up the story after years of failure — not just of that initial investigation but also of subsequent investigations into corruption, malpractice and incompetence, none of which enabled the Lawrence family to achieve a measure of justice for the death of Stephen.

The suspects — and in fact only the two men who were eventually found guilty of murder in 2012 — hardly feature at all. Cressida Dick, currently the Met commissioner of course, pops up occasionally, seated behind a huge desk, literally and metaphorically distant from Stephen’s family. It is a cold and unsympathetic portrayal of a senior officer far more concerned to protect the Met than to see justice done. DCI Clive Driscoll, who reopened the investigation in 2006, on the other hand, is everything you want a police officer to be: honourable, empathetic and dogged in the pursuit of justice.

The drama is about Driscoll and the progress of his cold case review which went on to secure two convictions. And above all it is about Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence. We follow Neville as he struggles with the question of whether he will ever be able to forgive Stephen’s murderers, as his Christian beliefs suggest he should. Doreen, meanwhile, is the more publicly visible and outspoken, her judgement of the authorities who have let her down so many times utterly withering. If there is anything at all heart-warming about Stephen it is perhaps the bond that Doreen and DCI Driscoll forge during the course of his long investigation.

Poetry is perfect for helping children to appreciate words and language

‘You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose’. So said the American politician Mario Cuomo. It is one of my favourite quotes — and not just about politics. Perhaps it is because I am someone who loves words and language (and politics) and yet has always found poetry a bit of a struggle. Cuomo’s observation reminds me of poetry’s power, magic and beauty. During the 2020 lockdown Gyles Brandreth, who gets several mentions in this blog, tweeted himself reading a poem every morning, most from memory. I didn’t hear them all, but each one I caught was a delight. Which brings us to the fact that today is National Poetry Day in the UK — the perfect day to make the case that every child deserves the chance to regularly hear and recite poetry, to learn about it and to have a go at writing it.

[National Poetry] Day starts conversations, it encourages love of language – and best of all, it’s open to absolutely everyone to join in, quietly or noisily in rewarding and enjoyable ways. As the artform’s most visible moment, it showcases the ways in which poetry adds value to society.

from the official National Poetry Day website

Here’s a great listen — a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Gyles explains the benefits of learning poetry by heart. In 2019 he published an anthology of memorable poems called Dancing by the Light of the Moon, the title a line from his favourite poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he learned by heart as a child. The book’s subtitle is ‘How poetry can transform your memory and change your life’. That’s quite the claim and one surely worth further investigation.

Most of us have probably tried to write a few lines of poetry. Like prayer it seems to be something that people turn to — is it too much to say ‘instinctively’? — when searching for a voice with which to express their innermost feelings. Think of the outpouring of verse that followed the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

I suspect that the entry point for many young people will be song lyrics. That’s how it was with me. My favourite lyricist is Neil Peart, the erudite drummer with the rock band Rush who tragically died of brain cancer in January 2020. His words were always crafted with style, wit and intelligence. This next bit is adapted from my Rush appreciation, which you can read here.

Take the song Closer to the Heart. What better commitment from loving adult to child than “You can be the captain / and I will draw the chart”? Or how about this, from the song Afterimage? What more fitting summation of the devastating impact of unexpected loss than “Suddenly you were gone / from all the lives you left your mark upon”?

My favourite is perhaps Losing It, Peart’s meditation on the effects of ageing on the creative process.

He offers us a dancer:

The dancer slows her frantic pace
In pain and desperation,
Her aching limbs and downcast face
Aglow with perspiration

And then a writer:

Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
With passion and precision,
But now his mind is dark and dulled
By sickness and indecision

Writing poetry is perhaps the most democratic of artforms. Anyone can write a few lines of verse. It can take seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks — however long is entirely up to you. You can write about whatever you like. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper. In fact, you don’t even need those, because poetry has an oral tradition dating back to ancient times. Epic poems like Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid were almost certainly written to be read aloud. And who nowadays hasn’t at some point or other made up a silly limerick on the spur of the moment?

A young student Shakespeare-to-be
Had verse writing down to a T
“I punt on the Cam
I love an iamb
And I like the occasional spondee”

As a wonderful vehicle for creativity and for learning to work with language, poetry is perfect for children — playing about with words and phrases, experimenting with rhymes, learning the basics of rhythm and metre. That’s why it is so important that children have regular opportunities to experience poetry.

Here’s one exciting way — and it is a way that helps children to learn about building relationships and about the importance of community as well as developing their communication skills and love of language. In addition to his many other talents Gyles Brandreth is the founder of Poetry Together, which he describes as his ‘passion project’. Poetry Together encourages schools to link with care homes so that young and old can learn and recite poems together. And it’s all completely free. The website is below.

National Poetry Day Website

Poetry Together Website

Rush: A Fan’s Appreciation

I blog regularly about education, particularly in relation to children aged 5 to 11, at this website about Life-Based Learning

Books, TV and Films, September 2021

3 September

As I become more and more disillusioned with day-to-day politics — whether it is the rigidity and staleness of politicians constantly reciting ‘the party line’ or the rise of political lying as an art form and the failure of both parliament and the media to hold proven liars to account — I find myself drawn back to the more civilised world of political philosophy, political theories and ideologies, and underlying values. I very much regret not working hard enough at a unit of my degree called Modern Ideologies. Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians by Adam Swift is the sort of introductory text I wish had been available back then (I am reading the second edition, published in 2006).

The book itself is split into five parts, each tackling a key idea or line of thought in political philosophy. No surprises that liberty and equality are in there. Democracy was added for the expanded second edition. Community is also there — interesting, as it means such different things to different thinkers. Also interesting is that the book opens with a discussion of social justice — a term that was very much in vogue during the Blair years, inherited from John Smith. (Blair also briefly flirted with the idea of communitarianism, before he became prime minister in 1997, in the search for that holy grail beloved of frontline politicians, a Big Idea.)

I have always assumed that social justice was a convenient way for New Labour to avoid having to use (or reject) the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘equality’, though — as Swift shows us — a conception of social justice as ‘justice as entitlement’ in the manner set out by the philosopher Robert Nozick is very far from what Blair, Smith et al were talking about. As you would expect, Swift is very clear that this book is about ideas and values, not particular policies as such. His references to the cut and thrust of party politics are relatively infrequent. Where it does crop up, he is often critical of politicians, though in an excellent concluding chapter he makes clear that the lot of a political philosopher is very different from that of a politician, and he warns us to guard against lapsing into caricature.

Politicians operate in an environment that imposes constraints far more demanding than those faced by philosophers. The competitive and confrontational nature of electoral politics means that any admission of ignorance, change of mind, or acknowledgement that one’s opponents might have got something right, will be seized on as incompetence, a ‘U-turn’ or evidence of weakness. The need to win votes, and to present one’s party as the representative of the country as a whole, makes it dangerous to concede that one is prepared to make anybody worse off than they might otherwise be. Moreover, politicians are expected to come up with concrete policies, not just abstract ideas. Policies that will work, if they are implemented, and that have the popular appeal to stand a chance of being implemented.

Adam Swift, Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians, page 226

Good points, well made.

10 September

I think I have more biographies of Karl Marx than of any other individual from history or politics. A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx by Sven-Eric Liedman, first published in 2015, brings the total to five. Correction: I have six biographies of Hitler (if you count Ian Kershaw’s two volumes, Hubris and Nemesis, as separate books). As regards Hitler, that will probably be as far as it goes. Kershaw’s Hitler is surely definitive, even though both volumes are now more than 20 years old, so unless a historian I really like chooses to pick up the baton or some extraordinary new evidence about Hitler comes to light (more Hitler diaries?!), I can’t see the point of buying anything else. Much better to spend time re-reading Kershaw or (a book I keep meaning to return to) Alan Bullock’s Parallel Lives — or even, the first major history book I ever read, Bullock’s classic Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.

Minor trivia point about the excellent Denial, the film of the 2000 libel trial involving Deborah Lipstadt, who was sued by the historian David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier. In the scene showing defence team researchers visiting Irving’s home to consult his diaries at some point in the two years before the trial began, both volumes of Kershaw’s Hitler biography are clearly visible. However, the second volume wasn’t published until the year 2000 so would not have been out at the time of their visit.

Anyway, biographies about Marx are different. Marx himself wrote so much and in such depth and there are so many differing interpretations of what he wrote that every well-written biography of him offers something new. Much of the Liedman book focuses on Marx’s ideas and, for the most part, I found his exposition highly illuminating. In particular, he offers the clearest explanation I have yet read of ‘sublation’, a concept that is central to Marx’s thinking.

Liedman himself goes out of his way to justify writing another Marx biography — especially as the English translation appeared just a couple of years after Gareth Stedman Jones’ heavyweight biography. In his preface for the 2018 Verso English translation, Liedman says that Stedman Jones’ book is too narrowly focused and that, in his comprehensive account of Marx’s sources of inspiration, Stedman Jones’ writing is so detailed “that Marx’s own writing is actually overshadowed”.

I am not sure that Liedman always avoids that selfsame trap himself. He is a distinguished academic in the field of the history of ideas and science and, in his attempt to guide us through Marx’s ideas in the context of the nineteenth century, Liedman sometimes takes elaborate detours, particularly into the overgrown maze of GWF Hegel’s philosophy. This — and some of the later discussion of economic theory — is not always easy to grasp, but I guess it comes with the territory.

Of the books with which I am familiar, he has little time for Francis Wheen’s typically irreverent 1999 book — the final three chapters, for example, are entitled The Shaggy Dog, The Rogue Elephant and The Shaven Porcupine — and makes little mention of David McLellan, who I think of as Britain’s foremost writer on Marx but whose standard biography is now nearly fifty years old. On the other hand he has a lot to say about the 2013 book by Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life — most of it not particularly complimentary. I thoroughly enjoyed the Sperber book.

My main takeaway from the Liedman book is that what Marx actually wrote is very different from what became codified after his death as Marxism and even more so from the Marxism-Leninism dictated from Moscow and elsewhere after 1917. He reminds us that many of the terms (and associated ideas) we instinctively think of as central to Marxism — ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘dialectical materialism’, for example — were either used infrequently by Marx or indeed not at all. Towards the end of his life, when a new French workers’ party started to refer to themselves as ‘Marxists’, Marx himself said: “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist.” The reason? He believed that they were downplaying the importance of reformism (the role of parliament and trade unions) in the struggle for change. And for those who think of Marx as a highly dogmatic thinker, his favourite motto (so he told his daughters) was ‘Question everything’.

The writing itself is very readable, though Verso still don’t appear to have increased the copy-editing budget. It is a bit head-spinning at times to read about the nuances in meaning of certain German words when translated into English in a book that was presumably originally written in Swedish. The overall English translation creaks a little in places. I am not sure ‘brilliant’ is the best choice of word in this sentence about the fortunes of the German Social Democratic Party:

In 1890, the party was more organised than any other political party up to that point, and its election results were brilliant.

Sven-Eric Liedman, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx, page 572

A sentence like this, too, seems clumsy:

Even those who lived outside direct Soviet influence were forced to constantly declare whether they accepted or deviated from accepted Marxism.

Sven-Eric Liedman, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx, page 612

22 September

Series eight — and, I think, the last — of the excellent drama prequel Endeavour. We have arrived at 1971, just 16 years before the first appearance of John Thaw in the original Inspector Morse series. The individual plotlines are sometimes a bit too convoluted, perhaps, but the acting has been excellent throughout and the characters well drawn — Detective Inspector Thursday, Joan Thursday and, my, how I have grown to love Chief Superintendent Bright over the years. And it has been fascinating to follow how the series writers have attempt to evolve the characters of Morse and Jim Strange. [Apologies if anyone objects to the use of ‘evolve’ as a transitive verb.]

Morse now lives in his 1987 house and drives a Jaguar, though not yet a red one. He is on good terms with fellow sergeant Strange, who by 1987 is a chief superintendent and, more to the point, Morse’s boss, though Morse clearly does not regard him as his intellectual equal. Strange was using ‘Matey’ from the off, and he is now initiated into the Masons. More of a problem (for the writers) is his weight. Sean Rigby was presumably originally cast in the role back in 2013 partly because of his size. However, between series seven and eight Rigby has shed the pounds and with it the waistline; I guess you can’t write ‘No losing weight’ into a contract.

DS Strange is now courting Joan — term deliberately chosen — to whom Morse once proposed. I have the final episode, Terminus, yet to watch. I fear things will not end well. After all, though he certainly has his moments, Morse is not yet the fully paid-up curmudgeon that Thaw portrayed so magnificently all those years ago.

30 September

I am enjoying The Body in the Library, the second Miss Marple novel, published in 1942. My interest was piqued by the recent news that 12 distinguished female writers, including the wonderful Kate Mosse, are to publish an authorised collection of Marple stories. The Body in the Library is certainly more satisfying than any of the Poirot novels I have so far read (click here for The Mysterious Affair at Styles, here for Peril at End House and here for a couple of lines about Hercule Poirot’s Christmas). Perhaps it is because I come to Miss Marple with more or less a blank slate; more likely it is that Christie was writing better novels by this time (the first Poirot novel had appeared more than 20 years earlier).

I have never watched Miss Marple on film or TV and I have certainly never read any of the books before. It’s Agatha Christie and it’s the 1940s (though you wouldn’t know from the book that there was a war on) so certain things come with the territory — principally the overriding importance of status and class. As usual, there is the familiar backdrop of maids, manservants, cooks, large houses and the rest, and everything plot-related revolves around wills and inheritances.

I have a five-novel Miss Marple omnibus — the individual novels (again, like their Poirot equivalents) seemingly randomly selected. The Body in the Library is not, alas, the very first Marple book (that’s The Murder in the Vicarage), though there was a gap of 12 years between the two and I read on Wikipedia that the earlier iteration of Marple “is a gleeful gossip and not an especially nice woman. The citizens of St Mary Mead like her but are often tired by her nosy nature and how she seems to expect the worst of everyone.”

First impressions. St Mary Mead appears to be a village inhabited largely by spinsters, a suitably old-fashioned word defined by Lexico as ‘an unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage’. The entry goes on that it is now “a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed.”

It is striking how little Miss Marple actually features in the first half of the book. All the detective work is done by, well, detectives. How extraordinary. Marple’s USP appears to be the ability to read character, largely due to an encyclopaedic knowledge of the inhabitants of the village, past and present, which enables her to draw analogies with the behaviour of the various suspects in the case at hand.

When asked about her methods, she herself explains:

The truth is, you see, that most people — and I don’t exclude policemen — are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.

Agatha Christie, The Body in the Library, Chapter XXII
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