Book review: How To Break Into The White House

As it turns out, the title of this book now seems a little unfortunate.

In fairness, author Ann Bracken had no way of knowing that two weeks before her book was published, an overexcited horde of psyched-up Trump supporters unreconciled to their fallen leader’s defeat in the November 2020 US presidential elections two months’ before would overrun the US Capitol Building, resulting in five deaths.

Let us be clear: there is nothing in this slim volume which even remotely encourages anyone to physically break into any government buildings or indeed anywhere else. To be strictly accurate, it’s not even a guide on how to “break into” the White House by legitimate, democratic means either. It is merely a brief memoir of Ann Bracken’s life so far which includes a chapter on her years working as a secretary in the first Bush White House. Interesting as her life may have been, I can see why she opted for this title as it ‘s a good deal snappier than ‘My Years Working for Bush (no, not him! The okay one) and some Other Stuff’ by Ann Bracken. It’s just unfortunate that given the current climate, even working from Britain, I could not help feeling a little nervous as I typed the book’s name into a search engine.

My search didn’t bring up much anyway. I don’t think she is a well-known figure currently. Perhaps this book will change this? It is a pleasant, readable account of how Indiana-born Ann rose to work as an assistant to Senator Richard Lugar and then for the US’s second most recent one-term Republican, US President George Bush (now usually referred to as George HW Bush or POTUS41 to distinguish him from his less than distinguished son) before settling in the UK.

I should say, I am not on her political wavelength at all. She thinks the first Bush was a more historically important leader than Clinton, thinks the fact that the US has reduced emissions in recent years justifies withdrawing from the Paris environmental agreement and is clearly prepared to gloss over the fact that disgraced former President Trump was not only a horrendous human being but an almost total disaster in office. Her views do not seem generally abhorrent, however, and I will try not to hold them against her as I review her book.

It is readable enough but is short and can easily be finished in an hour or two. There are some anecdotes about her ongoing obsession with the musician Sting and about her friend precipitating a famous public relations disaster during which the Queen’s face was completely concealed behind a microphone during an address from the White House lawn.

There seems to be a self-promotional aspect as there are a surprisingly high number of pictures of Bracken herself in it (around twenty). Some are, as you might expect, old pictures of her meeting luminaries like the late President Bush and his vice president, Dan Quayle, who like Bracken is also Indiana-born. Other pictures seem to have been specially commissioned for the book and are quite glossy. One shows her in a swimsuit, another is labelled “pretending to be a Brit” dressed up like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. The tone is a bit odd.

The comments on the back of the book would sit more appropriately on a CV than on the cover. “I am grateful to have you on our team,” (President Bush), “She brightened up the White House…you have been a real asset” (other Bush people).

As I say, I am not on Ann Bracken’s political wavelength at all. But even were she a former Clinton or Obama staffer, there’s just no real getting away from the fact: this is very thin stuff.

A fine, very slight read. Her name may be ‘Bracken’ but don’t expect this to set the world on fire.

Book review: How To Break Into The White House, by Ann Bracken. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.

Seven Years To Forget

2020 was rubbish, for obvious reasons. But what other years in recent history have also been generally terrible?

1914

For many people, 1914 became enshrined forever as the year the world took a permanent downward turn with the outbreak of the First World War shattering a golden age which would never return, initiating an era of global instability which would persist through a Great Depression, another world war and a new terrifying forty-year nuclear arms race confrontation after that.

Silver linings?: In truth, the world was very far from perfect in 1914 anyway and the outbreak of war undoubtedly accelerated the progress of necessary and welcome social change which would have probably occurred sooner or later anyway. Would this have been any comfort to the average young British Tommy as he stood anxiously, shivering in his trench in 1914, awaiting his turn to climb over the top into No Man’s Land though? Probably not.

1929

With America booming its merry way through the Jazz Age and even the defeated Germany finally developing into a relatively prosperous and politically moderate democracy off the back of American loans, people at last seemed to have put the horrors of the Great War behind them. Then boom: the collapse of the US stock market in October 1929, threw everything into chaos again. While the US eventually found a saviour in the form of Franklin D. Roosevelt elected in 1932, the resulting Great Depression pushed Britain and France into turmoil while Germany lurched towards Hitler and imperial Japan and Mussolini’s Italy soon became increasingly aggressive on the international stage. With the impotent League of Nations powerless to stop things. within a few years the armies of the world were soon beating the drums of war once again.

Silver linings?: From a left-wing perspective, it might seem encouraging that the Depression did push American voters away from mediocre pro-laissez faire Republican isolationist presidents into the inspiring, highly interventionist New Deal which arguably pushed the US closer to socialism than ever before and led to five consecutive Democratic presidential victories in a row. But it did lead to the rise of Hitler. Even Oswald Mosely and his Blackshirts started marching around the UK. So, generally, it wasn’t worth it.

1940

Eighty years on, talk of the ‘darkest hour,’ Vera Lynn, the Battle of Britain and the plucky, cheerful defiance of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ have conspired to give 1940 a somewhat romantic air. The reality was surely deeply traumatic with the forces of the Third Reich overrunning western Europe,  the devastating defeat at Dunkirk and the nightly terror experienced by large swathes of the population as they suffered sustained aerial bombardment as well as prolonged separation from loved ones with men fighting overseas and countless children evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside.

Silver linings?: It’s probably true that the sense of national unity and purpose forged in the heat of war had a lasting positive effect on the post-war national political landscape. Despite this, it is only really the fact that against all odds, Hitler didn’t actually invade that redeems 1940 (as well as the arguably more horrific years of 1944 and 1945) at all. Were we looking back to 1940 from the perspective of a world after a Nazi victory, 1940 would undoubtedly now be seen as the most catastrophic year in human history.

1973

The heady highs of the 1960s had well and truly worn off by 1973.  In the US, the agonies of Watergate and the aftermath of Vietnam diminished the American image forever while in Britain, the confrontation between the Heath Government and the unions brought Britain to a shuddering strike-bound halt by the end of the year as the nation adopted the Three Day Week. Worse still, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East not only brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but the dramatic increase in global oil prices which resulted effectively ensured the western world would spend the rest of the 1970s and much of the 1980s in the throes of economic recession.

2001

As the 21st century dawned, the world could celebrate not just a new millennium but a state of relative peace in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement and a decade of international relations free of the East-West rivalry of the Cold War. Not everything was perfect in the world: it never is all of these summaries have necessarily been very selective. But even this couldn’t last as the terror attacks of Tuesday September 11th 2001 unleashed a new age of insecurity in western affairs which persists to this day.

2016

People die every day and celebrities are, of course, no different. But there was something was new about the numbers and calibre of the famous people dying, often prematurely, in 2016. David Bowie. Victoria Wood. Alan Rickman. Terry Wogan. Caroline Aherne. George Michael. Prince. Carrie Fisher. So many of these names struck a nerve (often occurring before what seemed to be their time) that it was hard for anyone not to be moved.

And then there was the Brexit vote. And Donald Trump’s victory. As a bad news year, 2016 was pretty relentless. Whatever your politics, both these elections seemed to trigger a new age of ugliness and intolerance to debate which has poisoned political discourse ever since. Unbelievable as it would have seemed at the time, the David Cameron years of austerity and coalition now seem like a bygone era of simplicity and innocence in comparison.

Silver linings?: From a conservative viewpoint, I suppose, 2016 could be seen as a year of triumph with the petty complacency of the ‘left-wing elites’ confounded by the triumph of down-to-earth working class hero types like millionaire’s son Donald Trump, ex-public schoolboy and former city stockbroker, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. From the perspective of January 2021, this interpretation is starting to look like something of a stretch.

Also rans:

1919: Another global pandemic and a botched peace settlement at Versailles which made another war inevitable within twenty years.

1945: Victory. But also a terrible escalation in violence as the war neared its end and the launch of the atomic age.

1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis brings humanity closer to destruction than ever before. Had things turned out differently, this would easily be the worst year on this list. Although I wouldn’t have written it in the first place as I would never have been born as the human race would have died out in the same month the first James Bond film was released.

2008: Another global crash.

TV review: A Teacher

He was a boy. She was a girl. Can I make it any more obvious?

Well, in fact, the answer to this question would have to be “yes,” as this is emphatically not a simple story of ordinary teenage romance. For while Eric Walker (played by Nick Robinson) is definitely a boy, a 17-year-old attending high school in Texas, the girl in question is not actually a girl at all but a grown woman. She is Claire Wilson (Kate Mara). She is married, around thirty years old and she is Eric’s new English school teacher.

And if you don’t want to know any more about this ten episode series, I would suggest you stop reading now.

Eric sees to be a fairly typical high school ‘senior.’ He is attractive, sporty and popular. Although he struggles a little academically, he is not stupid and has ambitions to be a doctor. At home, his mother is a single parent who while never neglectful has her hands full bringing up both Eric and his two younger brothers. Eric has a few friends at school, none of whom are terribly interesting.

Claire Wilson, meanwhile, is an unusually attractive young woman, something Eric and his other male classmates quickly note, although possibly using slightly different language to express it. Claire’s motivations remain a source of interest throughout. We realise she is very attracted to Eric early on but simple lust does not really explain her reasons for embarking on an affair with him, as indeed (belated spoiler alert) is what eventually happens. Such a course of action risks her job, her marriage, her reputation and even criminal prosecution. Such things do happen in real life, of course, but why on Earth does she do it?

Right from the outset, we get a few indications that there is something rotten in the state of Claire. Early on, she steals some lipstick from a shop. It is a minor misdemeanour and she boasts to her disapproving husband about it later. But there is no suggestion she needed to do it. Had she been caught, she would probably have been prosecuted. It was a reckless and unnecessary act. We later learn her early life was blighted by her father’s alcoholism. An amateur psychiatrist might speculate that her emotional development was frozen at that point. Or at the very least, that she might feel like she wants to enjoy a teenage experience which she feels she missed out on the first time round.

Claire and her husband Matt (Ashley Zukerman) are trying for a baby and their love life has become strained by the need to have sex at specified times to maximise Claire’s chances of conception. Intercourse has become more of a chore than a joy. Matt also shows signs of being preoccupied with forming a rock band with his friends, a perhaps slightly adolescent interest at a time when he should be focused on starting his and Claire’s new family. Neither of these issues seem insurmountable, however. Matt seems like a perfectly nice guy throughout. He doesn’t deserve what ends up happening to him.

Viewers are free to judge for themselves at what exactly what point Claire and Eric’s relationship crosses the line into ‘inappropriate’ territory. Is it when, having crossed each other’s paths several times, Claire offers to help Eric with his SATs revision out of school hours? This doesn’t seem inappropriate in itself, but Claire’s motives already seem suspect. Perhaps it is when Claire tells Eric there is no need to call her ‘Miss Wilson’ when they are not in school: he can call her ‘Claire?’ Maybe it’s when Claire accepts a Facebook friend request from Eric (the story is set in 2014). Or it could be when Claire takes Eric on an impromptu day trip to visit the college Eric is hoping to attend. When they run into some of Eric’s friends neither question their assumption that Claire is just a girl Eric is seeing. All these initial moves by Claire make an affair more likely. When Eric kisses Claire unexpectedly after class, she makes a show of being scandalised and disapproving. But before long, their affair begins in earnest.

For a while, the two co-exist in their fantasy world together. But soon, inevitably things fall apart as news of their dangerous liaison gets out. We are spared the full scandal which sees Claire losing her job, marriage and going to prison. The series picks up events afterwards.

The series deals nicely with the aftermath. Eric initially seems to have got off fairly light escaping to college and even gaining some superficial kudos from his friends who react in a predictable, “Woah dude, Miss Wilson? Awesome dude. She’s totally hot” type fashion. But he hasn’t got off lightly at all. He is tortured by residual confused feelings for her and a sense of unwarranted guilt over her fate. He dislikes the notoriety the aftermath of the scandal gives him and soon embarks on a self-destructive course of drinking and reckless behaviour. His career plans are derailed in the process and he still seems a mess emotionally years later.

Post-prison, Claire struggles too. She has a ‘scarlet woman’ reputation, cannot get a job and her marriage is over. She remains even at this stage a fundamentally unsympathetic character, however. Although ultimately the architect of not only her own misfortune but the downfall of several other people too, she remains in denial about her responsibility for what has happened. She has abused her power, thrown away her marriage with no regard for her husband’s feelings and emotionally traumatised a minor placed in her care. In the final scene, set ten years on (although don’t expect any ‘President Harris to attend King Charles’s coronation’ style headlines in the background), Eric and Claire meet again. Eric himself now effectively fills the role of teaching, teaching the older woman exactly what she has done wrong.

Adapted by Hannah Fidell from her little seen 2013 film of the same name, A Teacher is available on FX, Hulu and the BBC iPlayer.

Netflix TV review: The Queen’s Gambit

Beth Harmon loves chess.

She loves it from first sight, loving everything about it even before she knows what it is. Barely has she persuaded Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the surly caretaker to teach her how to play it, than she is visualising alternative game scenarios on the ceiling of the bedroom at night. She doesn’t so much take to chess like a duck to water as like a fish to water. She is soon living and breathing chess. It has become part of her DNA and she lives for the opportunity to sneak down to the cellar for an illicit chess game with Mr. Shaibel, who effectively becomes her mentor. Soon Mr. Shaibel is actively teaching her basic chess openings such as the Queen’s Gambit and the Sicilian Defence: basically the techniques which mark professional chess players out from the multitude who never really think beyond their next move.

This is good news for Beth, as life isn’t going so well for her otherwise. The story begins in Kentucky in the 1950s and nine-year-old Beth (who is played as a young child by Isla Johnston) has been placed in an orphanage following the death of her mother in a car accident. The orphanage is not an overtly cruel environment but life there does seem very boring and all the children are starved of love and affection. Beth’s only real friend is Jolene (Moses Ingram) a free-spirited older girl.

Alarmingly, all the girls in the orphanage are routinely issued with tranquilisers, as was apparently standard practice at the time. These enhance Beth’s ability to visualise chess scenarios when she is not actually playing chess. On the downside, she soon becomes hopelessly addicted to the pills. As she grows into an adult (played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy), we see her develop further addiction problems, notably to alcohol. Her adult sexual appetites do not seem unusual, however, and her personality as an adult does not stray too far from the conventional norms either, aside from her all-consuming obsession with chess.

In time, Beth is able to escape the orphanage, being adopted by the Wheatleys, a middle-aged and middle-class, mid-20th century, middle-American suburban couple. Although ostensibly a more stable environment, it soon emerges the Wheatleys’ marriage is in its death throes. Alma Wheatley (another excellent performance from Marjelle Heller) seems fragile, overeducated and frustrated. Her husband, Alston (Patrick Kennedy) is a selfish, unlikeable character who always acts as if he’s being distracted from something more important.

Happily, Beth’s burgeoning chess career ultimately provides an escape for both her and for her adopted mother. The stage is set for us to witness the birth of Beth Harmon’s career as a 1960s female chess legend.

Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote the books which became the films, The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell To Earth), this is an endlessly watchable and compelling story of a fictional chess superstar, boosted enormously by a career-defining performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. Fidelity to the source material is not essential to a adaptation’s success. However, anyone turning to the original book after watching the series, will find the show follows the novel very closely with the exception of one major development early in the book, which was cut out of the series.

Following its October 2020 release, The Queen’s Gambit quickly became Netflix’s most watched scripted series to date. It is easy to see why.