Book review: Devon and Cornwall’s Oddest Historical Tales

Although it has the light, readable feel of a storybook, this book by John Fisher featuring 22 short stories from the county of Devon, followed by a further 20 stories from neighbouring Cornwall, is nevertheless history pure and simple. Both counties have a fair degree of myths and legend in their storytelling traditions and these tales which occasionally mention mermaids or weather-based folklore occasionally reflect that. Despite that, the stories which included that of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee (otherwise renowned as ‘the man they couldn’t hang.’) the legend of the pirate queen of Penryn, the amazing story of a lion attack on Regency-era Exeter stagecoach, the life of John Opie ‘the Cornish Wonder’ and the bizarre story of Napoleon’s post-Waterloo visit to Torbay, are no less incredible for being true. A light volume, ideal for holiday reading.

Book review: Devon and Cornwall’s Oddest Historical Tales, by John Fisher. Published by: The History Press.

Book review: The Little History of Devon

Beneath its placid, seaside resort, areas of outstanding beauty exterior, the county of Devon has had a livelier history than many.

Don’t believe me? Then pick a century at random. Try, the 16th: The heyday of many Devon-born explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Piracy and smuggling were rife. The county also played major roles in the Wyatt and Prayer Book Rebellions. The 20th? Remember the wartime devastation of the air raids on Plymouth and Exeter? The booming seaside of Regency Exmouth in the early 19th century. The ten sieges of Exeter. Perkin Warbeck’s march on Devon. The critical role played by the county in the Civil War. The trials of the Bideford ‘witches.’ The history of England is fascinating and Devon has certainly played an essential role in making it so.

This new book by Suze Gardner avoids jumping around all over the place as I just did. It tells the story of Devon in 21 easily absorbable little chapters, starting with details on the county’s geology (fun fact: only a small amount of the so-called ‘Jurassic coast’ is actually from the Jurassic era) and stretching right up to the lowdown on the early 21st century sitcom, Jam and Jerusalem.

With so much potential information to impart, there are potential dangers here, of course. Any history risks being overly dense as it seeks to burden the reader with too many facts. At the other extreme, a writer might go too far to avoid doing this and end up producing something so lightweight it ends up not really telling the reader anything substantial at all.

Happily, as in her previous book, The Little Book of Devon, Suze Gardner avoids both of these traps. Whether discussing the Honiton lace trade, sinister occultist, Aleister Crowley or the Battle of Jutland, she achieves the perfect balance between being highly readable and accessible while also remaining substantial and informative. There is also plenty of good history to be learned here generally too, not just about Devon. The next time anyone says to you they want to come to see Devon’s famous ‘Jurassic Park’ or tries to claim crime writer, Jessica Fletcher lived in Greenway, toss over a copy of this book.

I should declare an interest here. I do not know Suze Gardner myself and have not met her. I have, however written the book, Secret Exeter (2018) with Tim Isaac and also wrote A-Z of Exeter: Places – People – History (2019) myself. I regularly write features on local history for the magazines, Exeter Life and Devon Life and write a weekly history column which runs in the Sidmouth Herald, Midweek Herald and Exmouth Journal. I have definitely used Suze Gardner’s works to inform my own writing. I will doubtless do the same again in the future.

I do have one or two minor niggles with the book, however. For one thing, it occasionally, just sounds a bit wrong. Consider this, on James II: “The new king was a Catholic (the last Catholic in England). Worse still, he was intent on making the country Catholic again too.” I don’t think Suze Gardner means this to sound as if it’s bad to be Catholic. But it does rather come out sounding that way. She also doesn’t mention General Buller’s youthful bravery during the Zulu Wars: the heroic side of his reputation rests entirely on this, not on his later, rather more dubious record as a General during the Boer War.

Some of the sub-headings do sound a bit Horrible History-esqe too: ‘Awful Antarctic,’ ‘Hooray Henry!’ and ‘Awful Arsenic and Monstrous Manganese’. My worst criticism would be the excessive overuse of exclamation marks throughout the entire book. Often, they just seem inappropriate: “Remarkably, many Saxon government methods are still in use today!” “Often services had to be held outside to accommodate all the worshippers!” and ‘The people of Victorian Exeter had very bad luck with their theatres as three of them burnt down!” None of these sentences needs an exclamation mark, particularly as one of the fires referred to in the last one was actually a terrible tragedy. There are many more examples of this throughout the book.

But I didn’t spot any real factual errors. And ultimately as a concise and highly accessible guide to England’s third largest county, this is basically unmissable.

Book review: The Little History of Devon, by Suze Gardner. Published by: The History Press, 2021

70 years of Dennis the Menace: A timeline

1951: Dennis the Menace first appears in The Beano, drawn by Scots cartoonist, Davey Law. There is no Gnasher yet and Dennis’s distinctive stripy black and red jumper do not appear for some weeks. He is not yet on the cover but has a half-page black and white story inside the comic. The character and strip have a more real-world feel than many Beano strips which makes it instantly popular. Biffo the Bear remains on the cover where he has been since he knocked The Beano’s original cover star, Big Eggo off in 1948. Eggo (an ostrich) had ruled the roost since The Beano started in 1938.

By a staggering coincidence, a new American strip also called Dennis the Menace created by Hank Ketcham appears in US newspapers almost exactly simultaneously. The first Beano featuring Dennis was dated 17th March although in practice wold have been available five days earlier: the exact same day the US Dennis debuted! The American Dennis is blonde, has a dog and a neighbour called Mr Wilson. He too is still going strong. He is usually referred to as just ‘Dennis’ when he appears in the UK while the UK version is called, ‘Dennis and Gnasher’ in the US to avoid confusion. Just to be clear, this feature is only about the British Dennis the Menace, although both are now seventy.

1953: Dennis has now been promoted to a full page colour story on The Beano’s back cover. Dennis’s enemy Walter also makes his first appearance (Dennis’s friends, Curly and Pie-Face have already arrived).

In the same year, Minnie the Minx and Little Plum first appear in The Beano while Beryl the Peril appears in the new title, The Topper. Beryl and Minnie are clearly intended to be female versions of Dennis. Beryl and Dennis are both drawn simultaneously by Davey Law for much of the 1950s. Leo Baxendale, the creator of Minnie and ‘Redskin’ Dennis, Little Plum (amongst many other strips, including The Bash Street Kids) credited Dennis with inspiring him to join The Beano.

1955: The first Dennis the Menace Book or annual appears. Of all The Beano characters, only The Bash Street Kids have been granted the same honout.

1968: Abyssinian Wire-Haired Tripe Hound, Gnasher makes his first appearance as Dennis’s canine companion. The story becomes Dennis the Menace and Gnasher and later just Dennis and Gnasher.

1970: Davey Law retires (he dies in 1971). David Sutherland takes over.

1974: Dennis the Menace replaces Biffo the Bear as The Beano’s cover story. He remains there to this day after nearly 47 years, well over half the duration of The Beano’s 83-year run. Increasingly old-fashioned, Biffo ceases to appear regularly in The Beano at all after 1987.

1976: The Dennis the Menace Fan Club begins.

1977: Gnasher’s Tale, a spin-off story begins.

1979: Dennis’s pet pig, Rasher makes his debut appearance. He appears in his own story from 1984 until 1988 and intermittently afterwards.

1986: In a well-publicised storyline, Gnasher briefly goes missing and (though male) returns with a litter of puppies including Gnipper, a puppy with a single large razor-sharp tooth. Gnasher’s Tale is replaced by a new story, Gnasher and Gnipper.

1996: A Dennis the Menace cartoon appears on TV. Voices include Billy Connolly and Hugh Laurie.

1998: Birth of Dennis the Menace’s sister Bea.

2004: Dennis the Menaces surpasses the record previously set by Lord Snooty to become the longest running Beano character ever. Only Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger come close to rivalling his longevity.

2009: Another new TV series, Dennis and Gnasher begins. It continues until 2013.

2021: Dennis the Menace celebrates its 70th birthday.

Audiobook review: Sláine: The Horned God

Pat Mills' Sláine, the 'Celtic Conan' has been wowing readers of UK sci-fi comic, 2000AD since 1983. The saga was never more vividly realised than when in the late 80s and early 90s when Mills and young artist, Simon Bisley produced the masterful epic, Sláine: The Horned God.
Sadly, as this is an audiobook, inevitably, Bisley's wonderful visuals - the gore of the battles, the beauty of the land of Tir Nan Nog, Sláine's ageing sidekick Ukko and the sight of Sláine going into warp spasm (don't ask) are lost.
This is nevertheless an excellent adaptation which does full justice to the classic comic story.

Audiobook review: The Ballad of Halo Jones Complete Edition

Few stories from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 2000AD, are remembered with such affection as Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s mid-80s classic, The Ballad of Halo Jones.

This new audiobook does an excellent job of retelling the adventures of Halo, an ordinary 50th century girl who escapes the restrictions of a depressing teenage existence in vast urban settlement, The Hoop to find work on a space cruiser, the Clara Pandy. As in the original classic comic story, she ultimately becomes embroiled in the affairs of the sinister General Luiz Cannibal and the horrors of the Tarantula Nebula War.

As with the first of the three books adapted here is less accessible than the others, largely because of the futuristic slang spoken by Halo and the other Hoop dwellers is slightly off-putting. There is also a bizarre error here in which one character, Lux Roth Chop, who is clearly supposed to be a child in the story is voiced by a grownup actor.

But, generally this is a first-class production which generally follows the original version very closely. Sheila Atim, in particular, does an excellent job of voicing Halo herself as she grows from being a naive teen into a cynical thirtysomething.

As with Halo herself, this is just out.

Audiobook review: Judge Dredd: America

For well over forty years now, 2000AD comic’s futuristic law enforcer, Judge Joe Dredd has fought a never-ending battle to impose a semblance and order onto the chaotic 22nd century American metropolis of Mega City One.
Yet there has always been a dark undercurrent to the story. The Judges – effectively futuristic policeman who also have the power to determine an arrestee’s guilt and to impose instant sentencing – clearly rule over what is effectively an undemocratic police state with an iron fist.


Rarely was this more obvious than in John Wagner and Colin MacNeil’s beautiful and heart-rending story, America, which first appeared in 2000AD spin-off, Judge Dredd The Megazine, in 1990. Judge Dredd takes only a villainous supporting role in the tale of the tragic life a young woman, America Jara, told from the point of view of her best friend Benny, who clearly loves her. America devotes her life to fighting a hopeless struggle for the values once embodied by her first name. Sadly, we soon learn that in Mega City One, these noble principles no longer apply, the American Dream is already dead.


This is a first-class audiobook dramatization of the comic story with high production values. Shakespeare in Love star, Joseph Fiennes is not an obvious choice for voicing Dredd but Paterson Joseph proves a strong narrator.
Where I do have strong reservations, however, is in the inclusion of several other democracy-related Dredd stories without any explanation or context. Although they are all good stories and are also adapted well here too, they are clearly not directly part of the America story and it was a mistake to lump them all in together here without any introduction or even any chapter headings.


This failing aside, this is a winning audio version of a classic Dredd tale, which has been given added poignancy by subsequent political events in the years since the stories included were first produced.

Netflix film review: Moxie

Moxie is the story of how a group of teenaged girls band together to defeat the sexism endemic in their high school.

The sexism is everywhere. The school American football team are treated as all-conquering heroes, even as they slap girl’s behinds in public and send out lists of which of the female students has the “best rack” or is “most bangable.” One suspects both this behaviour and the language used – though undeniably unacceptable – is actually fairly mild compared to what actually goes on in many schools in both the US and UK.


Worse still, a serious complaint of harassment made by new girl, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) against bullying sports star, Mitchell (who, in an interesting piece of casting is played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) is not taken seriously at all by the school’s head, Principal Shelley (Marcia Gay Harden). Another girl is angry over being unfairly penalised for wearing a tank-top, others are irritated by the lack of support given to girls’ sports by the school. A trans student is also annoyed to be excluded from the school production of Little Shop of Horrors. Long-suffering liberal teacher, Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz) amusingly ties himself in knots by trying to retain a neutral stance amidst the rising tide of rebellion.


One student, Vivian (Hadley Robinson) has had enough. Inspired both by the defiant attitude of her new friend, Lucy and by tales of the 1990s riot grrrl activism of her mother (Parks and Recreation star, Amy Poehler, who also directs this), Vivian single-handedly conceives, devises, writes, produces and distributes MOXIE! an underground magazine designed to tackle directly the plague of male chauvinism which infects the school. She manages to keep her own role in producing the new journal entirely secret from friends and family, an element of the story, I personally didn’t find entirely convincing. At times, Vivian exhibits signs of the intolerance which occasionally emerges in such movements. She also comes close to alienating her best and oldest friend, Claudia (Lauren Tsai).


Based on Jennifer Mathieu’s novel, I did not find every aspect of the film entirely convincing. The name Moxie or MOXIE! really works as a film title.


But as a well-acted and potentially inspiring call to arms against the evils of everyday sexism, Moxie is definitely worth watching.
Moxie is available to watch on Netflix now.

Netflix review: Behind Her Eyes

Louise Barnsley (Simona Brown) leads an ordinary enough life. She is divorced and lives with her young son, Adam (Tyler Howitt) in London. She enjoys her job working at a psychiatrist’s office. She gets on well with her main colleague Sue (Georgie Glen) and has another good friend outside work, Sophie (Nichola Burley).

She does, however, suffer from night terrors and is haunted by dreams in which she wonders down creepy Clive Barker-esque corridors and which see her son see endangered in various ways. These nightmares often cause Louise to sleepwalk: potentially a serious problem as she lives in a high-rise flat with a balcony.

One day, she literally bumps into Adele (Eve Hewson, the daughter of U2 musician, Bono) who she recognises as the wife of her new boss, Dr. David Ferguson (Tom Bateman). This is awkward as Louise and David have already kissed on a night out, shortly before David started the job. At that point, Louise had had no idea either that David was already married or that he was about to become her new employer. The kiss would doubtless never have happened if she had. Things get more awkward still when Adele who is very beautiful but clearly very lonely starts pushing hard to befriend Louise. Louise is initially wary: Adele does not, of course, know about the kiss and Adele doesn’t want David – who seems to be very controlling and possessive – to know about her friendship with Louise. Without really meaning to, Louise has thus got into a position where she is deceiving both sides of the Ferguson marriage at the same time. On the plus side, Adele does seem to have a possible intriguing solution to Louise’s night terrors.

On top of all this, the Ferguson marriage seems to be a loveless nightmare. David is clearly miserable, drinks heavily and seems to be attempting to control Adele through a regimen of prescription pills. He clearly expects her to stay at home all day in their large but sterile home while he goes to work. A series of flashbacks to the late 2000s, meanwhile, reveal a younger happier Adele befriending a young Scots drug addict, Rob (Robert Aramayo) while both are apparently staying at a rural psychiatric institution.

What is the truth behind Adele’s troubled past? Who exactly was Rob and what happened to him? What does the well, which keeps appearing in the flashback sequences, have to do with anything? Why are David and Adele so unhappy together? Is David manipulating Adele? Is Adele manipulating him? Are they both manipulating Louise and if so, why? What exactly happened to Adele’s family? Is there something suspicious about Louise’s friend, Sophie? Why are there pigeons everywhere? Can Louise disentangle herself from this mess?

This compelling new six-part Netflix thriller from Steve Lightfoot and based on Sarah Pinborough’s 2017 novel raises many such questions and will keep you guessing right until the very final scenes.

Book review: Joe Biden – American Dreamer

At the time of writing, Joe Biden is around forty days into his tenure as 46th president of the USA. Anyone who becomes US president is interesting simply on account of the fact that they have managed to achieve that position. Biden is less charismatic than Obama and not as dynamic was Kennedy but is certainly much less stupid than Trump. This quick, readable biography offers the perfect opportunity for curious readers to brush up and gain some basic knowledge of the new guy.

He has been around for a while. He is seventy-eight years old, older than any of predecessors in that office and older today than four of the five living former US presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama and the defeated Trump. It is widely suspected that he only plans to serve one term, leaving Vice President Kamala Harris as the strong favourite to win the Democratic nomination in 2024. If he does manage to serve two terms, Biden will be eighty-seven by the time he leaves office in January 2029.

He is undeniably a member of the political establishment. He was elected as the sixth youngest senator in US history as far back as 1972. He was thus a senator at the time of the Watergate scandal. His first bid for the presidency was launched as long ago as 1987. His rivals for the Democratic nomination then included such long ago vanished political figures as Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart. Biden’s own ambitions were undermined by claims he allegedly plagarised a speech by British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, never a well-known figure in the United States.

The upside of all this is that Biden is very experienced, an attribute his now disgraced immediate predecessor so clearly lacked. Biden has had a long and successful career as senator and two terms as Barack Obama’s Vice President.

Tragedy has been a recurrent feature of his life. His first wife and one-year-old daughter were both killed in a car accident only weeks before he was first sworn in as a senator. His son, Beau, died of cancer in 2015, aged 46. Biden himself was almost felled by aneurysm when he was in his forties.


He is the only the second Roman Catholic to become president and the first former vice president to rise to the top job since George HW Bush in 1989. Even a year ago, Biden’s chances of winning the presidency looked doubtful. However, in November, he won, achieving more votes than any other candidate in US history and crucially comfortably beating Trump in the electoral college.

This is not a hagiography. Biden’s occasional lapses – his gaffes and occasional failure to support progressive causes – are not glossed over. But with American politics potentially entering a more compassionate and progressive phase after the unhappy turmoil of the previous four years, this offers a concise and readable insight into the newest resident at the White House.

Book review: Joe Biden – American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos. Published by Bloomsbury.

Book review: The Official History of Britain

A history of Britain in statistics? Boring surely? Well, no actually. Believe it or not, this is actually a very informative and a genuinely very readable and yes, sometimes very funny read, packed full of “did you know?” type facts which you will instantly want to share with anyone nearby, regardless of whether they want to hear them or not.

Providing numerous insights into how our way of life has changed in the last 200 years – what we are called, what jobs we do, how long we live, when and if we marry, how many children we choose to have, what we choose to call them, how likely we are to divorce, when and how we die and what of and so much more.

The book also makes a compelling topical case for the importance of statistical information. During the recent Coronavirus pandemic, the public need for regular up-to-date and accessible data has grown dramatically. How, after all, could we ever defeat the virus without knowing how many people have it, where they live, who its affecting the most, how fast its spreading, how many people are dying from it and how many people have been vaccinated?

Mark Twain is often quoted as referring to “lies, damned lies and statistics.” But this is a nonsense. Assuming the figures are correct and the listener is fully aware of the context, statistics should not be seen as the same thing as lies, damned or otherwise. They are close to being the opposite of lies. This quote is too often used as a lazy rebuke by people who are either too stupid to understand the statistical data they’re being provided with or by people who want to undermine its credibility because too misquote Jack Nicholson’s character in the film, A Few Good Men, “they can’t handle the truth.”

Or as the comedian Stewart Lee quoted a sceptical taxi driver as saying, “you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”

This is an engaging, amusing and well-written book, but it’s interesting for another reason entirely: it’s the story of us.

Book review: The Official History of Britain: Our Story in Numbers as Told by the Office For National Statistics, by Boris Starling and David J. Bradbury. Published by: Harper Collins.