Book review: 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die

Book review: 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich.

Published by Workman.

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1,000 books to read before you die is actually a surprisingly tall order, when you think about it. Personally, I feel like I read quite a lot, but tend to average only about fifty books a year. Some of these are long: War and Peace, A Suitable Boy, Stephen King’s The Stand. Some are short: Goodbye Mr Chips, Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Catcher in the Rye. But always roundabout thirty to seventy books a year.
I am writing in October 2018. That means if I want to read 1,000 books, I won’t be finished until about 2038. I’ve actually read well over 100 of the titles included on this list already (151 to be exact), but even if I miss them out, I’ll still be nearly sixty by the time I’m done.
Perhaps I should up my game. This book itself apparently took only six years to write. And it’s a good book which has interesting stuff to say about every title featured. The books are listed alphabetically by author, unlike the similarly titled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die which lists each book chronologically and is, it should be emphasised, completely different. Neither that or this are actually listed as a book you must read here although both are good and will take you a while to read on their own.
This is an excellent volume and a very thorough piece of work. I would personally question the absence of anything by Sue Townsend, Ian McEwan or Iain Banks, but hey, it is American.
But still: check it out. And even if this is the only book you read between now and 2038, you could do a lot worse.

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Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

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But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

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Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

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Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

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Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

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Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media.
His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman.
Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith or Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life.

corbHe, by and large, comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a backbencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated.
There is nothing to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, when serving as a backbencher. He is certainly not pro-terrorism, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future.
Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not.
The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings, in my view. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgewood-Benn (p71 and p308).
By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly at the fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable and that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than the likes of John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – all from comparatively humble backgrounds – were unlikely converts to the Right.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, Rosa Prince is a Telegraph writer. We should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge.
These blind spots (admittedly common to many Tory supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson

Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson. Published by: Carlton Books.

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A century ago, the guns fell silent after four years of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. It is a conflict often described as futile with countless lives lost in skirmishes over very trivial areas of land, it is worth remembering that this was a war won as a result of military strategy as well as a war of attrition.

In fact, as late as 1918, after the humiliating capitulation of Bolshevik Russia at Brest-Litovsk, the war still looked like it could go pretty much either way.

Major General Julian Thompson’s book is produced in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum and is packed with detailed maps and relevant illustrations. It is a thorough and comprehensive account of the final year of the First World War.

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Book review: Selling The Movie: The Art of the Film Poster

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Book review: Selling The Movie: The Art of the Film Poster by Ian Haydn Smith. Published by: White Lion. Out: now.

Perhaps surprisingly in the era of 3D, Blu-ray and leaked online trailers, the role of the movie poster is still vital to any film’s marketing. This large, attractive coffee table read, tells the story of cinema, not just through reproductions of the posters themselves but through a compelling narrative history of the medium.

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To be honest, I’m not sure the cover image for this book (reproduced above the West Side Story image above) really does the best job of “selling” its excellent contents, so please find below some excellent examples of posters from cinema’s past and present to whet your appetite.

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Book review: Fighters and Quitters by Theo Barclay

Book review: Fighters and Quitters: Great Political Resignations, by Theo Barclay. Published by: Biteback. Out now.

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All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell is often quoted as saying. Not all end in dramatic frontbench resignations, however. Except for those included in this thorough and entertaining collection by barrister Theo Barclay. Fighters and Quitters fills in the blanks on some of the great ministerial resignations of the last century. In most cases, transcripts of the resignation letters (and their replies) are included in full: a nice touch.

The selection process to decide which resignations should be focused on in the book does seem to have been a bit odd though. First up is the Duchess of Atholl, who resigned over Munich: an interesting case, which I knew little about. The Duchess should not be confused with another famous Atholl who resigned too late for this book: notably the total Atholl who resigned as Foreign Secretary last month (JOKE).

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We then jump to 1963 and John Profumo: undoubtedly a massive resignation and the biggest sex scandal of the 20th century, skipping over Hugh Dalton’s “Budget leaks”, Nye Bevan’s “false teeth and spectacles” and Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives” in 1962, in the process (the Long Knives admittedly were more blatant sackings than resignations admittedly). Callaghan’s 1967 resignation over devaluation, George Brown’s 1968 departure as Foreign Secretary (after numerous empty threats to quit) and Reginald Maudling’s exit over the Poulson affair are all missed out.

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John Stonehouse and Jeremy Thorpe are covered. Both remain remarkable stories, but neither were particularly characterised by the resignations of the key participants.

The three big ministerial resignations of the Thatcher era (aside from the Iron Lady herself) do feature here: Heseltine, Lawson and Howe, the last two sharing a chapter. Other potentially interesting cases up to the present: Lord Carrington, John “here today, gone tomorrow” Nott, Cecil Parkinson, Jeffery Archer, David Mellor, Norman Lamont and David Blunkett are missing too. Probably I am asking far too much to expect all of these to be included. Nevertheless, the selection process does seem inconsistent.

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Despite this, if you do enjoy accounts of ministerial resignations – and let’s face it, who doesn’t? – this a solid, exhaustively researched read in which Barclay subjects the last thirty years to particularly intense scrutiny. He also redresses the balance in many cases.

Twenty years on, Welsh Secretary Ron Davies’ “moment of madness” and certainly his explanation for it seem madder than ever (overwhelmed by tiredness, he went to stretch his legs on Clapham Common in the middle of the night, met a man and agreed to go for a takeaway with him, before being robbed apparently). Edwina Currie, meanwhile “was the victim of a corporatist stitch-up, but it arose out of a crisis created by her own big mouth.” Peter Mandelson, meanwhile, seems genuinely hard done by. The general view that the late Robin Cook’s resignation over Iraq was principled and honourable (he in fact left it far too late to prevent anything) while Clare Short’s was hypocritical and self-serving (she in fact seemed very well-intentioned) is rightly reassessed.

An excellent read.

Edwina Currie launches new British Lion Code of Practice

Book review: Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History

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Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History: The Nation’s Story Told Through 50 Important Documents. Carlton Publishing Group. Out: now. RRP: £20

Like a real life, latter-day Henry and Indiana Jones, father and son writing and broadcasting team, Peter and Dan Snow apply their formidable powers to an analysis of our nation’s history through an examination of fifty key historical documents. This isn’t, of course, very similar to ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ in most respects (most things aren’t). But what this lacks in machine guns, Nazi airships, cameos by Alexei Sayle and the ghosts of medieval crusader knights, this more than makes up for in incisive and intelligent historical insight drawn from the Snow Boys’ seventy or so years of collective writing and journalistic experience.

All the usual suspects are here such as Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Munich Agreement. There are also a few unexpected treats like the Queen’s chilling ‘speech in the event of a nuclear war’ from 1983.

The documents are reproduced nicely, making this an attractive and readable book: a coffee table read for someone with a huge cup of coffee.

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Book review: Punch & Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton

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Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide To Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Published by Biteback.

Iain Duncan Smith was terrible at it. William Hague was brilliant at it but it got him nowhere. Theresa May is not very good at it. Jeremy Corbyn is better although is a dull performer. Harold Wilson drank a bottle of whiskey, sometimes two to prepare for it. Margaret Thatcher had her notes for it, produced in large print. She felt wearing reading glasses would look like a sign of weakness.

It is, in fact, Thatcher who we have in many ways to thank for Prime Minister’s Questions in its current form. Although Prime Ministers have had a designated time slot for answering questions since the early 1960s, it was Thatcher who transformed it into a major event – or rather two events – by choosing to answer every question herself. It was also around this time – although not her doing – that parliamentary proceedings began being broadcast on the radio from 1978 and then TV from 1989. The modern ritual of PMQs would not be the same without this.

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On taking office, Tony Blair reduced the sessions from two to one a week. Some criticised him for this, suggesting it proved his “contempt for parliament” but in fact it seems very sensible. Thatcher reportedly spent eight hours a week just preparing for her two weekly sessions. Something had to give.

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton are behind this well researched and thorough guide and clearly know their stuff. Both have experience as political advisers and spent years briefing Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband behind the scenes for their own sessions with, as they admit, somewhat mixed results.

It is a bizarre ritual, a genuine ordeal for the leaders on both sides and almost useless as a means to both ask and get an answer to a question, involving a lot of improvisation, preparation and second guessing. The sight of 600 paid representatives bawling and groaning at each other in a crowded chamber on a weekly basis also probably puts more people off politics than anything else.

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It does serve a function though and as the book reminds us, has provided scenes of rare humour and drama. William Hague, though a largely unsuccessful Tory leader was a master of this strange art and like the late John Smith could often be very funny.

Even Hague, could come unstuck though, as he did filling in for David Cameron when Harriet Harman stood in for PM, Gordon Brown in 2008.

“You had to explain yesterday that you dress in accordance with wherever you go – you wear a helmet to a building site, you wear Indian clothes to Indian parts of your constituency,” he began, then attempting a joke. “Presumably when you go to a cabinet meeting you dress as a clown.”

Against all expectation, Harriet Harman then wiped the floor with him:

“If am looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last person I would look to for advice is the man in a baseball cap,” she said.

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By common consent, PMQs is currently going through a dull patch. Jeremy Corbyn covered up his initial experience well by using questions from the general public. Today, he is much better and no longer resorts to this clever tactic. But he is not a spontaneous performer even as he consistently outperforms Theresa May.

It was David Cameron who called for “an end to Punch and Judy politics” when he became Tory leader in 2005. He was not the first or last leader to express such sentiments and was not referring to PMQs specifically anyway, a ritual which he generally proved pretty good at.

But a few years later, he admitted the folly of this pledge. For calm down, dear! He was the future once, his Day Mayor and your Night Mayor.

And Punch and Judy politics are here to stay.

That is that. The end.

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Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock

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In 1989, Boris Johnson (then aged 25) reported on Margaret Thatcher’s press conference performance in which she committed to Britain joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism. According to him, the 63 year old Prime Minister was looking: “distinctly sexy, with a flush about her cheeks as though she were up to something naughty.” Alan Clark, Tory MP, diarist and womaniser was another fan. “I never came across any other woman in politics as sexually attractive in terms of eyes, wrist and ankle,” he wrote, rather oddly. Paul Gascoigne, the footballer, also seemed keen, embracing her eagerly on meeting her in 1990.”I was right there and could see that she just loved it,” observes her private secretary, Caroline Slocock observes. “What he thought he was doing, I don’t know.”

Others, such as her longest serving chancellor, Nigel Lawson, were less keen. “I think she could turn it on if she wanted to,” says the father of the TV chef, Nigella Lawson, “but sexiness wasn’t the most obvious thing about her. She was also extremely headmistressy.” For the record, if Microsoft could detect sexism, the last sentence would have a line underneath it now on my computer.

As it is only the word ‘headmistressy’ is underlined because the spelling and grammar check has noticed ‘headmistressy’ is not actually a word. If it was, it would mean, “like a headmistress or someone in charge.”

In other words, Lord Lawson is saying. “She acted like she was in charge. Which she was. She was the Prime Minister. But I didn’t like it because I was a man and wasn’t used to it.”

In 1989, Caroline Slocock became the first female private secretary to any British Prime Minister. She was – and is – a bright spark and a valuable eyewitness to Margaret Thatcher’s final year in office and overthrow. Best of all, unlike Thatcher herself, she was both a socialist and a feminist. That’s right! She’s one of us.

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This is an excellent, highly readable memoir which really does shed new light on the “Iron Lady”. Slocock like many people, was somewhat repelled by Thatcher’s artificial sounding voice, the product of first childhood elocution lessons intended to purge the Grantham out of it and later softened by the tutoring of Saatchi and Saatchi spin doctors.

As Slocock points out though, the political environment in the Commons both then and now, does rather favour male speakers. Were this not the case, would all those years of speech work have been necessary? One suspects not.

As Norman Tebbit puts it: “One of the problems of being a woman in politics is that men can shout, but if a woman increases the volume of her voice, she tends to squawk.”

Slocock actually lets Lawson off the sexism charge (even after some bizarre distasteful comments from him, which suggest she sat on her knickers, rather than her skirt) but it is a fact that while she got on with many men: Dennis, Reagan, Gorbachev, Cecil Parkinson,  she certainly didn’t, others: Lawson, Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe. Her utterly contemptuous treatment of Howe, a decent man who she humiliated through her public bullying and shaming of him, ultimately brought her down. Deservedly so.

Equally unforgivable as Slocock notes, is her near total failure to promote other women. Thus, the big expanse in women MPs didn’t come until the age of Blair. The first woman Foreign Secretary? Under Blair. First woman Home Secretary? Under Blair, again.

I spotted only one mistake that should have been proofed out on p119. “(Chris Smith) was appointed as the first openly gay person in the Cabinet in 1997, nine years after Margaret Thatcher had left power.” Nine years? Really? Not six and a half?

But pedantry aside, this is an excellent read.

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Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock. Published by Biteback. Out: now.

Book review: The World of Sherlock Holmes by Martin Fido

Sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s not real.

He seems so fully realised, with his maddening powers of perception and endearing eccentricities (violin-playing, cocaine: both habits which tend to be rather less endearing in reality), that it is sometimes hard to accept that he isn’t, or at least wasn’t once, a living breathing person.

Is it really possible to deduce as he so often does, from say, a dash of baking powder scattered on the front of your shoes that you went on holiday to Turkey last year, or that you work as a tree surgeon, or that your maternal grandmother’s name was ‘Elsie’ or that you voted for the SDP in the 1983 General Election? Who knows? If so, perhaps the web isn’t the greatest threat to our personal data, after all.

Experienced crime fiction expert Martin Fido here provides a thorough guide to all things Sherlock anyway, which should satisfy all regardless of whether your own Holmes of preference is Benedict, Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, Rathbone or Basil The Great Mouse Detective.

Comprehensive, my dear Watson.

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Book review: The World of Sherlock Holmes: The Facts and Fiction Behind The World’s Greatest Detective, by Martin Fido.

Published by: Carlton Books

Out: now

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