Book review: The Long And Winding Road by Alan Johnson

alan-johnson-book-jacket-the-long-and-winding-roadImagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…

Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.

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Book review: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

The opening to Ian McEwan’s latest novella may go down as the best first line of 2016. Intriguingly, the author claims he thought up the line first and thought up the ensuing story afterwards. The story may essentially be summarised as a murder mystery told from the perspective of an unborn infant nestling within its mother womb. The mystery – without wishing to give too much away – has a strong Shakespearian element.

The fetus is a very clever fetus, having picked up more in the womb than many people pick up in their entire lives. The book is clever too, very clever. Not too clever either, although as it’s more of an experiment in narrative than a full blown novel is unlikely to gain the following that McEwan’s other books such as Atonement and Saturday have. But the experiment is undoubtedly a success.

Womb Raider? Inside Out? A Fetal Inversion? Inside Out? A Womb Of One’s Own? McEwan went for Nutshell as a title.

He’s probably righ.

Book review: Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore

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In 1978, Alan Moore decided to quit the job at the Nottingham gas board and dedicate himself full time to breaking into the comics industry as a writer. It was a high risk strategy. He was twenty four years old and his young wife was pregnant. But Moore saw it as his last chance to exchange a job he hated for a career he loved.

Success came slowly with occasional one-off stories (Tharg’s Futureshocks) in the new science fiction comic 2000AD. Late came Skizz, D.R. and Quinch and my own personal favourite The Ballad of Halo Jones. More success came through the short lived and inappropriately titled Warrior comic (it was not war-related at all). Moore provided the backbone to the comic between 1982 and 1985, most famously with V For Vendetta, set in a late 1990s futuristic fascist dystopia. He also wrote Marvelman, now known as Miracleman, a promising superhero strip derailed by a legal dispute with Marvel Comics. This proved an forerunner to his greatest success, DC’s The Watchmen.

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Today, Alan Moore is still in Nottingham, in his sixties and one of the most successful comic writers ever albeit one with a bit of reputation for disputes with his employers or prospective filmmakers attempting to adapt his works (Moore has famously never seen any of the four films directly based on his works).

His fascinating story is detailed thoroughly by the always excellent Lance Parkin in this comprehensive biography.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin, published by Aurum Press (2013)

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Book review Revolt On The Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

Chris Hallam's World View

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Revolt On The Right: Explaining Support For The Radical Right In Britain

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

Published by: Routledge

It’s official: the right wing really are revolting.

Once upon a time, it was the Left who were most effective at endlessly shooting themselves in the foot in this way. In 1983, for example, the combined Labour/SDP alliance vote in the General Election was almost 68%. However, as these parties were a) not working together and b) hampered by the first past the post system, the end result was actually the biggest ever post-war win for Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories and a majority of 144.

Little wonder then, that there was plenty of ambitious talk at the time of the Millennium of this being “the progressive century” with Lib Dems and New Labour working together.

How dated such talk looks now! For now, it is the Right who are split. Under…

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Book review: Tim Burton The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work by Ian Nathan

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This is a story about a little boy called Tim.

He was born nearly sixty years ago in California. He grew up, a bit nervous and a bit strange, and looked a little like his own later creation Edward Scissorhands except without the scissory hands. And perhaps not quite as pale.  He basically looked the same for his entire life and later had long relationships with Helena Bonham Carter, the English star of A Room With A View and Fight Club amongst other people. But this book’s not really about that sort of thing. It is about his films.

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After an unhappy spell at Disney working on boring films like The Fox and the Hound, Tim Burton made the first film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). The star, Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) a children’s entertainer of the time, later got in trouble when he got caught publicly “misbehaving”  in an adult cinema. But the mass debate over this came later. Tim’s career had been launched.

Since then, he has made nearly twenty films. Most have contained a fantasy element. Some were animated (such as The Corpse Bride). Some were blockbusters (Batman, Batman Returns). Some were black and white (Ed Wood). Eight have Johnny Depp in. All but one have music provided by Danny Elfman who did The Simpsons theme. Some were magical (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice), some  divided opinion (Mars Attacks!) Very few were actually awful (Planet of the Apes).

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All have been interesting in some way as this attractively illustrated coffee table book reminds us. Burton’s career proves that it is possible to be both offbeat, unconventional and interesting and still be commercially successful. And live happily ever after.

Tim Burton: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work. Unofficial and Unauthorised by Ian Nathan. Published: Aurum Press, 2016

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Book Review: Gilliamesque by Terry Gilliam

For more on Terry Gilliam, see my feature The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam in issue 14 of Geeky Monkey magazine.

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Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir by Terry Gilliam, published by Canongate, 2016

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Terry Gilliam has always stood out from the crowd.

Even when in Monty Python, he stood out somewhat as the one American. Slightly odd looking, he mostly remained off screen at first, producing instead the celebrated animated sequences (for example, during the series’ opening titles sequences) for which he became famous. Nearly fifty years on, this book, his memoir is illustrated throughout in a similarly unique style.

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Like many people called Terry (Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, fellow Python Terry Jones, er, Terry Scott?). Gilliam found himself drawn to the fantasy genre. His directing career began awkwardly with co-directing Python ventures with Jones. Although mostly good films in the end, they were tough shoots with Jones and Gilliam gently wrestling for overall control and the likes of Cleese and Palin losing patience with the American who they felt treated them like they were bits of animated card.

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Gilliam really came into his own in the first half of the Eighties with brilliantly imaginative fantasies like Time Bandits and Brazil. He’s had many fine moments since – notably The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys  and has undeniably developed a unique visual style. Despite this, he has never developed a reputation for being a safe pair of hands, largely due to high profile flops like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Adventures of Don Quixote which never even completed filming.

Though he sometimes adopts an overly defensive tone when discussing his own films, Gilliam makes for an engaging likeable narrator on his own life. The world of cinema would certainly have been poorer without him.

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Blu-ray review: The Walk

Chris Hallam's World View

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Many people have a hobby. Some collect Smurfs. Others do DIY. Others like to record their opinions of recent film releases for public consumption.

But not everyone’s the same. In the 1970s, Frenchman Philippe Petit directed all of his free time towards achieving one single goal: walking by tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

In addition to the obvious perils: the great height, unexpected crosswinds, the possibility that Jeff Bridges might be attempting to climb the towers at the same time to rescue Jessica Lange from King Kong in a poorly realised remake – Petit and his chums also faced the added complication that the WTC was not yet officially open in August 1974. Also, what he was planning to do was technically illegal. He not only had to sneak in but risked serious jail time afterwards.

Just as the real life Petit…

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Blu-ray review: War & Peace

Chris Hallam's World View

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Let me get the painful bit out of the way first: there was a mistake in this year’s acclaimed BBC adaptation of War & Peace. Hopefully, this won’t ruin your enjoyment of the series. “Abandon Moscow?” exclaims a general in the penultimate episode. “Abandon Russia’s sacred capital?” Well, no. For this is supposed to be 1812 (or thereabouts). Moscow had not been Russia’s capital for a century and would not be again for over a century more. So oops.

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But ignore that, for as you’ll know if you were gripped by it throughout the winter months, this is great stuff. Andrew Davies juggles most of the characters deftly throughout these six episodes helped by a superb cast.

James Morton, Lily James & Paul Dano in War And Peace.

American actor Paul Dano excels as Pierre, a bespectacled misfit at the start, prone to getting drunk and embarrassing himself at parties by expressing his enthusiasm for the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, an…

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Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

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Blackadder was not the sort of programme to rely on catchphrases. Most that were deployed such as “You have a woman’s hand, m’lord,” or the lecherous “woof woof! were used by one-off or very occasional visitors to the saga such as Captain Rum (Tom Baker) or Lord Flashheart (the late Rik Mayall).

A notable exception was “I have a cunning plan…” words which Blackaddder’s sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) would use to signal a usually absurd scheme to get the duo out of trouble. These included a plan to rewrite Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary in one night after Baldrick had accidentally burnt it (Baldrick’s helpful definition for the letter C (sea) being “big blue wobbly thing where mermaids live”). Another ruse involved an attempt to save Charles I (Stephen Fry) from execution by disguising a pumpkin as the King’s head.

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This is not the life of Baldrick, however, but the life of Tony Robinson. Although ultimately a tale of success (he is now a knight of the realm), it is an eventful, entertaining life although, as he freely admits, full of mistakes and less governed by any overall “cunning plan” than many.

Starting out as a child actor, appearing as one of Fagin’s gang in the original stage version of Oliver! Robinson was initially just keen to have fun and get out of school. After a long career including run ins with John Wayne and Liza Minnelli along the way, landing the role of Baldrick in 1983 didn’t seem like any sort of big deal. Indeed, as the first series was neither very  good or successful, initially it wasn’t.

But soon it had made his name and he was appearing in other Eighties comedy like Who Dares Wins and The Young Ones before writing his own Blackadder-influenced kids’ show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. The long years hosting Time Team were still to come. And, yes, hosting The Worst Jobs In History really was his own worst ever job.

It’s not all laughs: he writes movingly about his parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s (one after the other). But this is a hugely entertaining and unpretentious read. Here’s to you, Mr Robinson…

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Book review: Hinterland by Chris Mullin

chris-mullin-book-jacket-newAll politicians are supposed to have a hinterland: a realm of interest and experience beyond the Westminster Bubble, which they typically in Britain, inhabit. The late former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, for example, with whom the term is often associated, had a huge range of experience and cultural and classical knowledge outside the political sphere and was much the better and more rounded a figure for it. Margaret Thatcher, in contrast, although in many ways more successful than him politically, had almost  no interests outside politics and thus had a boring and miserable retirement, often spent making a nuisance of herself.

Chris Mullin shouldn’t have this problem. Though his twenty three years as an MP for Sunderland South are now over, he entered parliament late in life (age 39) and as this memoir confirms, he did much before, during and since. He achieved ministerial rank under Blair and has perhaps subtly shifted from a position once regarded derisively as the “loony left” to a not uncritical position of support for Blair. He is rightly a cheerleader for the underrated Blair-Brown Government’s achievements, achievements unsung often by the governments themselves, particularly former members such as Ed Miliband.

“Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang” was The Sun’s unhelpful angle on his campaign to free the Birmingham Six. His three volumes of diaries on his political career make for fascinating  reading as does his novel A Very British Coup, a tale of a Corbyn-esque leader elected to power (it was published in 1982)) who is ultimately destroyed by the conservative political establishment. The book has been dramatised for TV twice, the second time, massively altered as The Secret State.

This is another fine book: a compelling story of a life well led.

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