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.

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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.

THATCHER-PARTY

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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Book review: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

 

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“I sometimes feel like my head is a computer with too many windows open,” writes Matt Haig. “Too much clutter on the desktop.”

He is not the only one.

In recent years, the world has become an increasingly anxious and stressful place. And Haig should know: he has suffered from debilitating attacks of depression in the past himself. This book is essentially a follow-up to his bestselling 2015 account of his own experiences, Reasons To Stay Alive. This book is less about Haig himself though. It is more of a self-help book, divided into short, concise chapters. And I’m well aware the phrase “self-help book” is not exactly inspiring. But this isn’t the usual Eat Drink Pray Shoots and Leaves dross. Haig (a talented novelist) can write and knows what he’s talking about.

So what is the problem? Part of it is down to the rapid rise of technology. At one point, Haig lists a selection of technological developments we have become accustomed to just since the start of the 21st century. It’s a surprisingly long list.

Supermarkets radiate harsh electric light. Twitter debates turn everyone into either a friend or foe in an instant. A simple viewing of a news broadcast can be a harrowing experience.

Haig is certainly not anti-technology per se: he is a prolific user of Twitter himself and recognises the importance of the resources of emotional support the internet can provide. But he cautions against overuse of these medium, such as the endless mindless trawling of the internet, so often carried out on our mobile phones. Perhaps you are even doing this now as you read this. If so, cut it out. Or at least, think about how much time you’re doing this.

At one point, Haig summarises a small part of his argument in a poem:

“When anger trawls the internet,

Looking for a hook;

It’s time to disconnect,

And go and read a book.”

Perhaps start with this one. You could do a lot worse.

Notes on a Nervous Planet: How To Survive the 21st Century

Author: Matt Haig

Out: now

Published by: Canongate

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Book review: Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know – Conspiracy Theories That Won’t Go Away

Book review: Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know – Conspiracy Theories That Won’t Go Away.

By David Southwell and Graeme Donald

Published by: Carlton Books

Publication date: 12 July 2018

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Conspiracy theories are odd things.

At one extreme we have the people who believe that the Earth is flat or that the world is ran by a sinister cabal of malevolent lizards. Eccentric? Yes. But in many ways, not much more unlikely than what billions of religious people accept unquestioningly on a daily basis.

Less eccentric perhaps, but certainly ill-informed are those who believe the moon landings were faked.  There were, of course, reported to have been seven manned moon landings. Granted, the moon landings may have been faked once. But why would anyone go to the trouble of faking them seven times?

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It is a sad fact that twenty years after that supposedly great easily accessible resource of information, the internet came into our lives, such easily refutable theories are today, if anything, more prevalent than they were before.

But let us not get carried away. After all, in 1972, if I had alleged the US president and his administration were implementing a full-scale cover-up to suppress legal investigation into illegal break-ins authorised to discredit their political opponents, I could have been accused of peddling baseless conspiracy theories. However, as we now know: the claims would have turned out to be true.

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The Iran-Contra scandal is another example of a real-life conspiracy. We should not let President Trump or anyone else convince us that the existence of a few flat Earthers mean that there are no real conspiracies at all. We should not let any such scepticism divert us from perusing perfectly legitimate lines of enquiry, such as establishing the truth behind Trump’s dubious Russian connections. Conspiracies do happen in real life, after all. Not always, but sometimes.

This book does a good job of summarising the key conspiracy theories. It details their key points while never  (or at least, only occasionally) specifically endorsing them. It would be a good coffee table read which would have benefited from a more detailed list of contents. Admittedly, it’s not a huge book but the conspiracies here are listed under ten general headings and these aren’t much help if you’re generally flicking through. Does the JFK assassination come under Politics, Historical, Tragedies or Murdered Or Missing, for example? Clue: it is not the same category as his brother Bobby’s own assassination. A minor criticism, yes, but one which slightly counts against it.

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There are a good number of conspiracy theories detailed here and as usual, the Kennedy killings stand out amongst the most compelling ones. This is largely because of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder two days after JFK’s assassination in 1963 but also because of Oswald’s Cuban links, the Kennedys’ mafia connections and Bobby and Jack’s anti-CIA stance.

Others seem much less credible. Bearing in mind their personalities, the official verdicts on Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Elvis and Kurt Cobain’s deaths all seen very believable. Yet rumours about their supposed murder or alleged survival continue to persist.

Some issues are more complex. Most of us would reject the most outlandish theories about the September 11th attacks in 2001. But some elements do remain unexplained.

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Otherwise: do Freemasons run the world? Well, they may be involved in some localised corruption but, basically no, they do not. Do extra-terrestrials exist? Probably, somewhere, but not here. Was M15 spying on Harold Wilson? Some in M15 definitely were, but even so, the former Labour Prime Minister was undeniably overly paranoid about it.

Hardest to credit, are the enduring rumours about Princess Diana’s demise in 1997. As the famous Mitchell and Webb sketch highlighted, a car accident is surely one of the least assured ways of efficiently assassinating anyone even ignoring the fact that it’s hardly credible the Duke of Edinburgh had either the power or the motivation to arrange it anyway.

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This is nevertheless a compelling compendium of contemporary conspiracies incorporating everything from the most credible to the completely crazy.

CHRIS HALLAM

Book reviews: Matt Haig

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Matt Haig is fast becoming one of the hottest British authors around.

Last year’s *How To Stop Time* – the captivating story of a man who ages at an incredibly slow rate, living from Tudor times into the 21st century – was one of the bestsellers of last year. It is set to become a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch. https://bit.ly/2twITK8

Haig has also received acclaim for his non-fiction work, *Reasons to stay Alive* which detailed his own personal battle with severe anxiety and depression as well as for his earlier novels, *The Radleys* and *The Humans*. He writes equally well for both adults and children. His next book, *Notes On A Nervous Planet* is out from Canongate shortly. It’s one of the grownup ones.

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Anyway, in the light of Haig’s recent success, Canongate have decided to re-publish three of his earlier perhaps less read novels written during the 2000s.

*The Last Family in England* (2004) is Haig’s first ever book for adults. The name is actually something of an oddity, ignoring the story’s chief selling point: that it is set in the world of dogs. Operating within their own complex network of rules and organisations, unbeknown to their human “masters”, the canines battle to keep the fragmenting strands of human society together. It’s an amusing but also a powerful read.

As then title perhaps suggests *The Dead Father’s Club* (2006) is an altogether darker affair with a plot focusing on a boy who suspects his uncle of having murdered his father (who has died recently in a car crash) so as to marry the boy’s newly widowed mother. And he has his reasons: his dead father’s ghost has come back and told him so. Indeed, it also tells him a few other things. But can it be trusted? If this sounds like an updated version of *Hamlet*, well, in a way, it is. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Finally, *The Possession of Mr Cave* (2008) is even bleaker still, a harrowing story set against a backdrop of murder and suicide.

But don’t be put off. These books are all worth your time. And Matt Haig is certainly a writer to watch in the future.

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Book review: The Coen Brothers by Ian Nathan

Published by: Aurum Press

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There are certain questions every Coen Brothers’ fan should know the answer to.

Such as:

Why is The Big Lebowski set during the 1991 Gulf War?

Why is Fargo called Fargo, when it is actually set in nearby Brainerd?

Where does the name O Brother Where Art Thou? come from?

Which non-Coen Brothers’ film starring Diane Keaton helped them get over a particularly nasty bout of writers’ block?

Which is their only remake? (Yes, there is only one!)

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And so on…

Happily, all these questions and more are answered in Ian Nathan’s comprehensive and beautifully illustrated coffee table book which gives an invaluable insight into all of the nearly twenty films they have directed since 1984’s Blood Simple (not to mention, the many others such as Bad Santa and Bridge of Spies which they had a hand in).

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Essential for Coen Brothers’ fanatics everywhere and strongly recommended for everyone else.

Book review: The Year of the Geek by James Clarke

The Year of the Geek: 365 Adventures From The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Universe, by James Clarke. Published by: Aurum Press.

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When did it become fashionable to become a geek? Geekiness is, after all, surely after all, by definition a shameful, untrendy preoccupation. Does this mean that anyone who claims to aspire to be a geek is necessarily a pretender to the nerd throne?

Well, no. Some people blame this trend on things like US sitcom Big Bang Theory and the excellent but now defunct British near equivalent The IT Crowd. But, in truth, this tendency which has resulted in websites like Den of Geek and books like this, has always been there. After all, you can’t get Spider-man without meeting Peter Parker first.

This book takes a chronological approach with a different geek anniversary highlighted for every day of the year. This, it must be said, is potentially of some use to someone who writes professionally on geek issues like me.

May 25, for example, is the anniversary of Star Wars’ US release in 1977. Lord of the Rings’ author JRR Tolkien was born on January 3rd while even the fictional birthday of Harry Potter (July 31st 1990) is noted.

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Some of the anniversaries are arguably not very major (the fourth season premiere of Babylon 5 on November 4 1995 is commemorated – as if any of us would forget this date anyway?) Some are arguably not very geeky (the outbreak of the First World War in 1914) but are interesting anyway. There is some discussion incidentally of each anniversary.

What elevates this book above the norm, however, is the innovative use of infographics used to illustrate a rich array of charts which demonstrate everything from the longevity of respective Doctor Who actors to the box office success of the Star Trek films.

An excellent addition to the coffee table of every socially maladjusted maladroit in the land.

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Book review: Viz: The Jester’s Shoes

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Viz: The Jester’s Shoes. Published: Dennis Publishing

Where would the world be without Viz?

Well, in truth, it wouldn’t actually be very different would it? Most people don’t read it after all even in Britain, let alone the world. Most of you probably aren’t even reading this review. I know I’m not.

But, for those of us, who do, it is a joyous time. For a full 29 years after the release of The Big Pink Stiff One (i.e. the first Viz annual anthology), The Jester’s Shoes (no. I don’t get it either) is out. The cover describes it as “a toe-curling stack of the best bits from issues 242-251”. It is also at 200 pages, the biggest ever anthology of the ADULT COMIC yet.

Yes, just to emphasise this is an ADULT COMIC, just in case the phrase “Big Pink Stiff One” didn’t alert you to the fact. Any children thinking of reading this can piss off.

So what’s happening in this one?

Well, to pick at random, Sid the Sexist falls victim to a stage hypnotist, children’s favourite Hector’s House is subverted into Hector’s Whores (“C’mon Kiki the frog, give the cash to Daddy”), Major Misunderstanding takes exception to the phrase “Winter Wonderland,” The Fat Slags star in On The Game of Thrones and Roger Mellie: The Man on the Telly (who has appeared in every issue of Viz to date) offends Ann Widdecombe by making an obscene suggestion while drunk on the live TV Election Night Special.

There’s also the usual newspaper parodies (“Fuck all on Mars” and “Pope’s Hat ‘Fundamentally Flawed’, Say Scientists”) and the usual fun with regulars Mrs Brady Old Lady, The Bacons, The Real Ale Twats and much much more.

 

Book review: Only Fools and Stories by David Jason

Only Fools and Stories: From Del Boy to Granville, Pop Larkin to Frost by David Jason (Published by Century)

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In 1980, as he approached his fortieth birthday, David Jason could look back on an enjoyable comedy and acting career. But he had never hit the big time. And there had been plenty of missed opportunities.

For a few joyful hours in the late Sixties, for example, Jason had been briefly cast as Lance Corporal Jones in a new BBC sitcom about the wartime Home Guard called Dad’s Army. Jason, was only in his twenties then, but already had a good reputation for playing old men. Jason’s euphoria at getting the role was short-lived, however. The casting director’s first choice, middle-aged Clive Dunn got back in touch and indicated that, on second thoughts, he wanted the part which would make him a star, after all. Jason was out.

He could also have very easily been a Python, having co-starred with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones in the 1967-1969 comedy sketch Do Not Adjust Your Set. But for whatever reason, Jason didn’t follow these three into the hugely successful Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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He was, at least, by the end of the Seventies, an experienced and highly recognisable comedy face. He had played the geriatric convict Blanco in the hugely successful prison-based sitcom,  Porridge. Appearing with Ronnie Barker again, Jason had excelled as Granville, the put upon Yorkshire errand boy in Open All Hours. But though now regarded as a classic sitcom (indeed, Jason appears today in its follow-up Still Open All Hours to this day), the Roy Clarke series was very slow to attract a large audience.

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It took Only Fools and Horses to make Jason a star. John Sullivan’s sitcom began in 1981 and like Open All Hours was to be a slow burner, getting what, by 1980s standards were considered low ratings. But the role of wheeler dealing market trader Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (a performance Jason based on a stylishly dressed cockney building contractor he had encountered in the Sixties) was clearly the role he had been born to play. By the end of the decade, the series was one of the most popular in the land.

Although less of a full blown biography than 2013’s book, My Life, this should be enjoyed by all Jason fans featuring countless anecdotes about Jason’s experiences on the show (notably a series of practical jokes carried out with his onscreen brother Nicholas Lyndhurst) as a well as stories about his other later works including A Touch of Frost, The Darling Buds of May and Porterhouse Blue.

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