Book review: The Real Hergé: The inspiration behind Tintin

There has probably never been as successful European cartoonist as the Belgian, Georges Remi, aka Hergé (1907-1983). The man behind the twenty-four hugely popular Tintin adventures is justly celebrated as a formidable creative talent. Yet the real Hergé was a more complex and often much less lovable character than his most famous creation. Prone to overwork and occasionally extramarital affairs, Hergé’s life and career have been clouded in controversy with the cartoonist accused of racial stereotyping and of collaborating with the occupying Nazi regime in Belgium during the Second World War.

The truth, as detailed in Sian Lye’s well-researched and very readable book is fascinating.

Book review: The Real Hergé: The inspiration behind Tintin, by Sian Lye. Published by Pen & Sword, White Owl

Book review: The Magic of Terry Pratchett

A former local journalist who later moved into public relations, Terry Pratchett grew from being a cult comic fantasy author in the 1980s to becoming the bestselling author in the UK of all in the 1990s. Biographer Marc Burrows does an excellent job detailing the prolific Discworld and Good Omens author’s busy life and extensive back catalogue – no mean feat as the Discworld series alone comprises 41 novels – successfully emulating Pratchett’s own literary style as he does so, with numerous witty footnotes throughout. Burrows also details the progress of the Alzheimer’s disease which sadly blighted Pratchett’s final years leading to his death in 2015, aged 66.

I spotted only one mistake: Pratchett never reported on the assassination of Egyptian President Nasser as this event never happened. Perhaps the author meant Sadat? At any rate, this should not detract from Burrows’ achievement. Apparently, Pratchett’s official biography has not been written yet. Whoever writes it will have their work cut out surpassing this.

Book review: The Magic of Terry Pratchett, by Marc Burrows. Published by Pen and Sword. White Owl (2020)

Book review: The Sultan of Swing – The Life of David Butler

Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.

It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.

The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.

Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements\: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.

But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.

Book review: The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore

England. The county of Essex. The 1640s. And as the war between King and Parliament rages around them, the women of Manningtree are confronted by a new threat in the form of the charismatic young witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins. This new novel from A.K. Blakemore based on the notorious real-life set of incidents does an expert job of recreating the atmosphere of fear, superstition, envy, religious zealotry and extreme misogyny which precipitated this chilling chain of events.

The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore. Published by: Granta.

Book review: This Land, by Owen Jones

Five and a half years ago, Jeremy Corbyn achieved the seemingly impossible. An amiable left-wing backbencher of some thirty years standing, his victory in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband was one of the most astounding political occurrences of the past fifty years. Yet four years later, his leadership ended in bitter defeat.

This insider’s account from the talented left-wing writer Owen Jones, one of the first people to champion Corbyn’s campaign in 2015, tells the story of this failure We will all have our own views of Jeremy Corbyn. However, this is a review of Owen Jones’ book not of Corbyn himself. And Jones is frank about Corbyn’s failings. He could be stubborn and badly organised. He totally mishandled the Brexit issue and the antisemitism row, two issues which totally derailed his leadership.

On the other hand, Jones does not mince words on how Corbyn was betrayed by those within his own party and how less surprisingly he was brutally misrepresented and maligned by Britain’s conservative media. Owen Jones’ book is a thoughtful, well-written, balanced, intelligent and accessible account of a revolution which failed.

This Land: The Story of a Movement, by Owen Jones. Published by Allen Lane (2020)

Book review: The Elder Sons of George III

George III was the longest reigning king in British history. Given this fact and that he and his wife Charlotte produced no less than fifteen children, it’s difficult to see how he could have done more to ensure the survival of the monarchy and the House of Hanover. Despite this, the final years of his sixty year reign which ended with his death in 1820 were clouded not just by his own insanity but by a succession crisis.

Some of it was bad luck. Some of his children and grandchildren died before reaching adulthood. But his remaining offspring, prone to adulterous liaisons, overeating and drinking, fighting duals and other bad habits, were also genuinely terrible at the primary Royal function: producing heirs and spares themselves.

This is the story of his four oldest sons, all born in the 1760s and thus all in their fifties by the closing years of their father’s long reign. The first, George, was a fat waste of space who became Prince Regent and then George IV between 1820 and 1830. His own daughter, Princess Charlotte died in 1817. Then came Frederick, the Grand Old Duke of York of nursery rhyme fame. He predeceased his older brother after a long military career blighted by scandal. ‘Old melon head’ William, Duke of Clarence was next. Never expected to be king, he was put into the navy as a child but became King William IV between 1830 and 1837. His head was indeed an odd shape. A hostile bystander once threw a rock at it but he was protected by some padding he’d added to make his hat fit on his oddly shaped cranium. Finally, Edward, also something of a disappointment. He died in 1820, shortly before his father. Yet it was he who in his final year would become father to the baby girl who would famously rule the empire for the last sixty years of the century and whose great-great-granddaughter sits on the throne today.

These are just the highlights. Catherine Curzon tells the story so much better in this thorough and very readable volume. Book review: The Elder Sons of George III: Kings, Princes, and a Grand Old Duke, by Catherine Curzon. Published by: Pen & Sword (2020)

Book review: The Elder Sons of George III

George III was the longest reigning king in British history. Given this fact and that he and his wife Charlotte produced no less than fifteen children, it’s difficult to see how he could have done more to ensure the survival of the monarchy and the House of Hanover. Despite this, the final years of his sixty year reign which ended with his death in 1820 were clouded not just by his own insanity but by a succession crisis. Some of it was bad luck. Some of his children and grandchildren died before reaching adulthood. But his remaining offspring, prone to adulterous liaisons, overeating and drinking, fighting duals and other bad habits, were also genuinely terrible at the primary Royal function: producing heirs and spares themselves. This is the story of his four oldest sons, all born in the 1760s and thus all in their fifties by the closing years of their father’s long reign.

The first, George, was a fat waste of space who became Prince Regent and then George IV between 1820 and 1830. His own daughter, Princess Charlotte died in 1817. Then came Frederick, the Grand Old Duke of York of nursery rhyme fame. He predeceased his older brother after a long military career blighted by scandal. ‘Old melon head’ William, Duke of Clarence was next. Never expected to be king, he was put into the navy as a child but became King William IV between 1830 and 1837. His head was indeed an odd shape. A hostile bystander once threw a rock at it but he was protected by some padding he’d added to make his hat fit on his oddly shaped cranium. Finally, Edward, also something of a disappointment. He died in 1820, shortly before his father. Yet it was he who in his final year would become father to the baby girl who would famously rule the empire for the last sixty years of the century and whose great-great-granddaughter sits on the throne today. These are just the highlights. Catherine Curzon tells the story so much better in this thorough and very readable volume.

Book review: The Elder Sons of George III: Kings, Princes, and a Grand Old Duke, by Catherine Curzon. Published by: Pen & Sword (2020)

Book review: Afterland, by Lauren Beukes

It’s the early 2020s and the world has been gripped by a global pandemic. Sound familiar? But without wishing to in any way trivialise the very serious ongoing Coronavirus outbreak, the fictional virus Lauren Beukes has envisaged in her new novel (which was, of course, written before the recent crisis), is in many even ways worse, killing almost the entire male population of the world as an initial dose of flu turns into prostate cancer for virtually all male recipients.

Teenaged Miles and his mother Cole are away from their native South Africa visiting family in the US when the new plague hits. Miles turns out to be immune. His father is less lucky. And unfortunately, Cole’s morally flexible sister Billie is keen to take financial advantage of the new possibilities created by her nephew now being one of the last fertile male humans left on Earth. Beukes’ novel is a compelling and gripping thriller given added resonance by the current global outbreak.

Published by: Penguin UK, Michael Joseph (2020)

Book review: The Ministry for the Future

The shape of things to come according to top US science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson and the forecast is grim. Following a catastrophic 2020s Indian heatwave which kills more people in a few days than the First World War did in four years, Irish politician Mary Murphy and an obscure UN department known as the Ministry for the Future are determined to save the planet. But does the planet really want to be saved?

Likely to be dismissed as ‘alarmist’ or ‘preachy’ by the dwindling minority who are still in denial about these increasingly urgent issues, Robinson skilfully informs this work of science fiction with healthy doses of science fact to create a very readable and terrifyingly plausible portrait of a mid-21st century world in crisis. Read it and then do something about it. Book review: The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Published by: Little, Brown Book Group UK, Orbit (2020)

Book review: When America Stopped Being Great, by Nick Bryant

What just happened?

This is essentially the gist of the question answered in this excellent book by experienced BBC journalist and author, Nick Bryant.

For in 2016, billionaire reality TV star, Donald Trump was elected US president having promised to “make America great again.” It was not an original slogan, but it clearly resonated with the US electorate. We now know, of course, that the outcome was the exact opposite of what Trump promised. His presidency was an unmitigated disaster for both the US and the world. Compared to where it stood in the middle of the last decade, America’s standing both at home and abroad has been dramatically diminished.

Trump never said, of course, when exactly in history he considered the US to have been great in the first place.

As the starting point of his narrative, Bryant takes us back to 1984, the time of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Ronald Reagan’s re-election and his own first youthful trip to the USA, “the summertime of American resurgence.” Bryant doesn’t gloss over Reagan’s weaknesses at all. He was essentially a film star in the White House just as Trump was a TV star and let his Hollywood-inspired concerns about ‘little green men’ and belief in astrology influence the content of potentially vital US-Soviet summits.

But 1984 was certainly a period when the USA seemed to stand tall. Bryant’s book is essentially the story of how conditions gradually shifted over the next 32 years resulting in the disaster of Trumpism, the unhappy period which dominates the last third of the book.

Reagan was partly to blame. Bryant argues “Reagan created a flawed blueprint, and showed that a president could achieve historical greatness without even mastering some of the basics of the job.” The Clintons were not blameless either. Bill’s behaviour set a new lower standard for the basic minimum morality requirement expected of a chief executive. Hilary didn’t help either by seeming almost insulted at the idea of having to assert her leadership credentials before such an unworthy foe in 2016. Her arrogant dismissal of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” also did her immeasurable damage. George W. Bush was also at fault, setting a new low for the standard of presidential crisis response after Hurricane Katrina after 2006 which foreshadowed Trump’s own woeful response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Bush’s absurdly premature “mission accomplished” celebration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in  May 2003 also set a new standard for ‘fake news’. The war in Iraq still had a very long way to run.

Even Obama is partly to blame. In retrospect, his public goading of Trump at various Washington Correspondents’ Dinners, though often very funny, may have unwittingly provoked him into running. Obama, Bryant argues, also too often backed away from confronting genuine foreign policy challenges in Libya and Syria. Obama was genuinely an economically successful president, but the fact is many American voters didn’t feel the effects. The US was in many ways much poorer in 2017 than it had been twenty-five years earlier. Many Americans polled in 2016, incorrectly believed that they were still in recession.

Now they really are. None of this is to excuse Trump himself of ultimate responsibility for the disaster of his presidency. All the chief executives named, after all, had redeeming features. Trump has none. This book merely explains how these and other factors such as a growing sense of partisan division, the rise of Twitter, the deeply flawed electoral college system and a complacent media keen to flatter Trump by endlessly suggesting he run for president and which infected by “good story bias” garnished Trump with an endless supply of free publicity enabling him to win and make the resulting nightmare possible.

Book review: Reunited nation?

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The last two weeks have been a blissful period for America-watchers throughout the world. The new US President, Joe Biden has – believe it or not – spent the past fortnight busily getting on with things, tackling unglamorous but important issues like combatting the spread of COVID-19. Just like real grown-up politicians are supposed to do. There have been no absurdly narcissistic self-aggrandising public statements, no ludicrous proposals, no bullying of the reporters or anyone else. When tweets have been sent out they have been of an official nature and presumably not actually written by the president himself, rather than spewed out by an overtired and inarticulate chief executive as he sits in front of Fox News. This is very welcome. It is easy to forget this is how things are supposed to be.

Most of us are very happy to forget about the last four years for a few days but in fairness, there are lessons to be learnt from the recent US presidential election and here ‘international businessman’ (millionaire tax exile), Lord Ashcroft uses polling evidence to see what they might be. Lord Ashcroft has been a major Tory donor and a leading figure in the Conservative Party and his prejudices do occasionally show through in this short book. He makes much of the fact that the high turnout in the November 2020 election ensured that even though he came a clear second, Donald Trump scored more votes than every other candidate except Biden in US history. He makes less of how generally unpopular Trump was throughout his entire presidency. He was never a popular leader at an one single point. He also performed poorly whenever he was presented with any even half-way decent alternative. Even the much maligned Hillary Clinton led him throughout the 2016 contest even besting him by three million votes in the final popular vote, while Joe Biden, perhaps not always the most inspiring candidate in the world, beat him hands down in 2020.

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It is also difficult to square Ashcroft’s assertion that Trump’s “positive view of American life and opportunities” was a key aspect of his appeal when Trump was so relentlessly negative about so many pillars of US society (the media, the military, the electoral system) himself. It’s also difficult not to believe many Trump supporters were not fundamentally deluded as evidenced by the fact so many, for example, seem to believe Europe is predominantly under socialist governments or the fact that so many of them seem to have been unable to accept Trump’s defeat after what should have been a fairly straightforward and uncontroversial result.

Ultimately, however, there is much of interest to be found in Lord Ashcroft’s poll findings. Whether it was his intention or not, they may prove helpful towards helping nothing like the Trump presidency ever happens again.

TV review: It’s A Sin

It’s 1981 and a group of young people are on their way to embark upon a new life in London in Russell T. Davies’ new five-episode Channel 4 drama.

Escaping a fairly loveless home environment on the Isle of Wight, Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) is soon having the time of his life in the capital. Good-looking and confident, he is free to enjoy the delights of the capital’s thriving gay scene at night while pursuing bit parts as an actor in the likes of Doctor Who during the day. He soon befriends Jill (Lydia West, who appeared in Davies’ previous drama, Years and Years), who is also hoping to tread the boards. Colin (Callum Scott Howells), meanwhile, is gay too, like Ritchie, but a tamer character who has moved from Wales to work at a tailor’s. He is soon being forced to politely resist unwanted sexual overtures from his married male boss. Finally, Roscoe (Omari Douglas), another live wire, has been forced to flee his family home after his family threaten to send him to Nigeria because of his homosexuality.

All of these characters and a number of others soon converge and become friends in London. As the series moves through the next decade, all also see their lives seriously impacted by the spread of AIDS.

This is clearly very serious subject matter indeed and it would be wrong to pretend that watching It’s A Sin isn’t a powerful, hard-hitting, harrowing and overall, very moving experience. At the same time, Davies doesn’t forget to show that at least initially life for these twentysomethings as they go out, get jobs, make friends, live together, go clubbing, get drunk, go on the pull and generally experience adult life for the first time is lots of fun. This is something many of us will be able to relate to regardless of whether we are young or old, gay or straight or can remember the 1980s ourselves or not. The soundtrack is also amazing. Putting 1980s songs in a TV drama is hardly an amazingly original idea but songs such as Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, Freedom by Wham!, REM’s Everybody Hurts and yes! It’s A Sin by the Pet Shop Boys (many although not all of them performed by artists who whether we knew it or not at the time were gay themselves) are deployed very effectively.

It’s easy to forget how far social attitudes have progressed in the thirty or forty years since the show’s 1980s setting. None of the main characters feel able to tell their families they are gay with the end result that when many of them do contract AIDS their families discover that their children are both homosexual and potentially mortally ill almost simultaneously. Initially, there is a terrifying mystery about the disease. One fairly minor character goes to his grave early on, apparently at a complete loss as to why he and his partner seem to have both contracted cancer at the same time. Another is so ashamed by his condition that he won’t tell anyone he has it. Following his death, his family not only cover-up the cause of his demise but attempt to destroy any evidence that he ever existed. Even as liberal and well-intentioned character as Jill is sufficiently worried about her AIDS-infected friend drinking out of one of her mugs that she destroys it afterwards. The information simply wasn’t available then.

The myth that AIDS exclusively affected only the homosexual community persisted for far too long to, hindering progress partly because many authority figures clearly felt many victims to some extent deserved their fate simply because they were that way inclined. In one memorable sequence, talking straight to camera, Ritchie articulates his own reasons for believing the AIDS virus to be a myth dreamed up by a homophobic media. Such conspiracy theories, of course, foreshadow those who persist in claiming in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t exist today. If anything, although we know Ritchie’s argument is no less bogus than they are, Ritchie does present a better argument for his disease not existing than they do.

Ultimately, with an excellent supporting cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Tracy Ann Oberman, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley, It’s A Sin is a worthy companion piece to Russell T. Davies’s earlier series Queer as Folk and Cucumber. January is barely over yet this may well prove to be the best British TV drama of 2021 along with Russell T. Davies’s greatest ever masterpiece.

All episodes of It’s A Sin can be viewed now on All 4. It is also being broadcast n Channel 4 every Friday at 9pm.

TV review: Dead Pixels, Series 1-2

Meet Meg and Nicky. Both are young, in their twenties and are friends. Both were effectively in Lockdown long before it was fashionable.

For Meg and Nicky are gamers, hopelessly addicted to the huge online role-playing computer game, Kingdom Scrolls in Jon Brown’s winning E4 sitcom. Kingdom Scrolls is not actually a real game, but you would be forgiven for thinking it was from watching this. The fantasy world in which Meg and Nicky are drawn into is fully realised on screen in graphic detail. Although we see Meg and Nicky in the real world a lot: almost invariably in their flat or at work, often speaking to each other via portable headsets, we often see them as the fantasy warrior avatars they play as in the game fighting battles, hunting for treasure and generally living their lives vicariously through their characters in the game.

This isn’t the first sitcom to feature gamers as leading characters: remember Spaced, The IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory. But none have portrayed their high-tech fantasy worlds in as much vividly realised, carefully crafted visual detail as Dead Pixels does.

Needless to say, neither Meg (Alexa Davies) or Nicky (Will Merrick) are normal, well-rounded people. They never date, eat out, go to the cinema, go on holiday, read books, go clubbing or do any of the normal things pre-Lockdown twentysomethings did. Instead, they devote every spare minute of their free time to Kingdom Scrolls. They neglect their diet and are uninterested in their work. Meg, in fact, genuinely seems to be very good at her job and keeps getting promoted. This only annoys her as it leaves her with more responsibilities and less time to play Kingdom Scrolls.

They are endlessly scornful about the activities of their friend, Alison (Charlotte Ritchie). Although only slightly older than Meg and Nicky. she is a non-gamer who lives something close to what most of us would consider to be a normal life. She is baffled and slightly troubled by Meg and Nicky’s obsession and does what she can to gently draw them out of it. She achieves little success in this, however. Meg and Nicky continue to treat such developments as the release of a new expansion pack or the casting of the long-awaited Kingdom Scrolls film as if they are matters of life and death. We soon learn Alison is not above making bad life decisions herself too.

Incidentally, there is a neat twist revealed quite late in the very first episode. I have avoided mentioning it here.

There are other characters too. Usman (Sargon Yelda) is a slightly older US airline pilot whose obsession with Kingdom Scrolls clearly comes at the expense of family life. He never meets any of the other characters in person during the programme although he speaks to them often.

Russell (David Mumeni) is a Kingdom Scrolls newbie, who Meg as met at work. Russell is embarrassingly unworldly in both the game and real-life and is still amused by such japes as sheathing and unsheathing his character’s sword repeatedly to make it look as if his avatar is masturbating. The other more seasoned gamers have long since ceased to be amused by such antics. There is an ongoing story about Meg fancying Russell at first, finding him very physically attractive despite disliking his personality. Nothing is really made of this after the first series, however. Other supporting characters also crop up in the second series played by Al Roberts (Stath Lets Flats) and New Zealand comic and actress, Rose Matafeo (Taskmaster, Baby Done).

The first series of Dead Pixels was released in 2019 and the newly released second series which is now showing is just as good as the first. Genuinely funny, very watchable and boosted by impressive visuals and strong comic performances from Davies, Mellor and Ritchie especially, Dead Pixels is guaranteed to keep you glued to the screen.

Series 2 of Dead Pixels is currently being screened on Tuesdays at 10pm on E4. Both series are available to watch in full on All4.