Book review: Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

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Published by: Macmillan, 2016

Ken Clarke sits today on the backbenches. He is seventy six years old and since the death of Gerald Kaufman last month is the Father of the House, having served as MP for Rushcliffe since entering the House of Commons as one of Edward Heath’s new intake of fresh  young Tories in June 1970. He can look back on almost a half century in parliament, one of only four men alive to have held two of the four great offices of state: he has been Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The other three men are Douglas Hurd, Gordon Brown and John Major.

But unlike the last two, Clarke was never Prime Minister. We all must wonder what might have been, as he surely does.

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However, in many ways it’s hard to see how this could have happened. In other ways, it seems bizarre that it didn’t. Look at a list of recent Conservative leaders.The names that are there (Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard) are almost as surprising as those who are not (Heseltine, Portillo, Clarke himself).

Although he is defensive about it in this readable autobiography, Clarke did not excel as either Secretary of State of Health or Education during the later Thatcher, early Major years. But neither of these were ever strong areas for the 1979-90 Tory government, or indeed any Tory government. Clarke was never truly a Thatcherite. But when Clarke became Home Secretary after the 1992 April election and then Chancellor following Norman Lamont’s unceremonious departure in 1993, speculation mounted that the troubled Prime Minister John Major might have unwittingly appointed his own future successor to the Number Two job as Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson (and indeed Thatcher) had before him.

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Although inclined to gaffes before and since, Ken (previously “Kenneth”) Clarke, known for his Hush Puppies, cigars and occasional pints of lager was a surprisingly competent Chancellor overseeing the UK’s recovery from the early Nineties recession. “Go home,” he once bellowed at an under-prepared Robert Maclennan of the SDP in the Commons, “lie down in a dark room and keep taking the pills.” He was popular, well known and a big hitter. But like another clubbable former Tory Chancellor Reggie Maudling, he never got the top job.

The reason was simple: Europe. Clarke was and is a keen supporter of the EU. With so many of John Major’s problems caused by his signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the increasingly Eurosceptic Tories were never likely to replace Major with him.

In 1997, following the colossal May 1st defeat, Clarke’s path to leadership should have been clear. His main rivals Michaels Portillo and Heseltine were out of the race, Portillo having famously lost his Enfield seat, while Tarzan apparently had heart issues. Clarke was far more popular and well known than his main rival, the thirty six year old, much less experienced former Welsh secretary William Hague. Polls indicated that if party members had had a vote, Clarke would have won easily. But the increasingly eccentric parliamentary party was happy to take the increasingly elderly Lady Thatcher’s advice. “Hague! Have you got that? H-A-G-U-E,” the Baroness spelt out to reporters, having just privately been told of the correct spelling herself.

The result? Another massive defeat in 2001. This time, party members too followed the increasingly frail Thatcher’s endorsement again choosing Iain Duncan Smith over Clarke. It was clearly an absurd decision from the outset. IDS was ditched in favour of an unelected Micheal Howard in 2003. Following the third consecutive Tory General Election defeat in 2005, Clarke, now ageing himself and harmed by his business dealings with Big Tobacco lost his third leadership bid to amongst others, a youthful David Cameron. A rare survivor of the Major era, Clarke served as Justice Secretary under the Coalition. In recent years, he has become increasingly gaffe prone. His wife Gillian died in 2015.

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Although it is unlikely Ken Clarke could have overturned the massive Labour majorities won by Blair in 1997 and 2001, had he become leader instead of the pro-war Duncan Smith, it seems likely a Clarke led Tory Party would have opposed the Iraq War, voted with Labour rebels to prevent UK involvement and forced Blair’s resignation. It was not to be. IDS’s Tories misjudged the situation and slavishly backed the war.

As Clarke himself reflects in this readable but unsurprising autobiography, his long parliamentary career has almost exactly coincided with the period of British membership of what used to be called the Common Market.

Ken Clarke is undoubtedly one of the better more decent breed of Tories, a far better man than the Boris Johnsons, Michael Goves, Stewart Jacksons, Jeremy Hunts and George Osbornes of this world. Politically incorrect though he is, one suspects he is liked far more by many of those outside his own party than he is by many of those within it.

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Star Wars book reviews: 2017

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Let’s face it: here is something about Star Wars. Nothing compares to it. It is simultaneously one of the biggest films of all time and a cult favourite. These reviews cover just a small sample of the huge range of Star Wars books released (mostly) in the past year. 2017 is, of course, the 40th anniversary of the original film’s release. The strange thing is none  of these books are even being released because of that. There are always just lots of Star Wars books being released anyway and these are some of them.

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Art of Colouring: Rogue One A Star Wars Story and Star Wars Rogue One Profiles And Pictures have both been released by Egmont to capitalise on the success of the recent mildly enjoyable Rogue One film. The colouring book has its weaknesses -why would any one want too colour in storm troopers who are black and white anyway? – but both are otherwise competent enough. Make Your Own U-Wing (also Egmont) similarly does exactly what it says on the tin.

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A more philosophical supposedly grown-up approach to the franchise is taken by former Obama Administration official Cass R. Sunstein in The World According To Star Wars (pub: William Morrow) which is good but mostly silly.

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Much the best book on the history of the franchise is Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered The Universe (Head Zeus, 2015). Utterly absorbing and totally comprehensive.

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Finally, before her untimely death last year, Carrie Fisher’s memoir The Princess Diarist (Bantam Press, 2016) generated a disturbance in the Force by revealing the then teenage actress’s on set affair with Han Solo actor Harrison Ford, then in his thirties and nearing the end of his first marriage.

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“I love you!””I know!” is the couple’s famous exchange in the film. And we should know  too. The affair is already referred to in Chris Taylor’s book mentioned above.

Fisher’s final book is not really a fitting tribute to her formidable talent. The diary extracts written by her younger self are not really fit for publication. The rest is lightweight fare from a great writer on lazy form.

Ultimately, though no books have been released entitled How Smokey and the Bandit (which was released at about the same time as Star Wars) Conquered The Universe. Why? Because Star Wars is utterly unique. Truly, a Force unto itself.

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Blu-ray review: GIRLS: The Complete Fifth Season

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Girls is back! And with rumours abounding that this will be the the final season of Lena Dunham’s award-winning comedy drama, it remains to be seen whether it’ll be a case of “happy ever after” for anyone involved. I’m guessing not. But let’s begin at the start of the season.
First up is Hannah (Dunham herself) who despite embracing the life of a teacher with, if anything, rather too much enthusiasm is already tiring of her long suffering but admittedly far from perfect, somewhat pompous boyfriend Fran (Jake Lacy). Only concerns about the dating habits of her newly “out” father distract her. That and fears about her ex Adam (Driver, now in Star Wars).
Meanwhile, though traditionally probably the bitchiest main character English Jessa (Jemima Kirke) genuinely seems to be achieving herb goal of being a nice person as the season starts. That’s if she can keep her hands off her best friend’s ex.
Meanwhile, in what seems like a remarkably poor life choice even by her standards, Marnie (Allison Williams) is set to marry her emotional car crash of a music partner as the season dawns. Of the four girls, only Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) seems to be doing well, having found a new life in Japan.
Sharp, surprising and funny as ever, Girls maintains its status as one of the great HBO shows of the decade.
Let’s hope this isn’t really the end…

Why 2016 was a great year after all

150806212843-07-fox-debate-trump-0806-super-169Don’t believe me? Then, consider the following…

  1. Much attention has been focused on the large number of celebrities who died in 2016. But what about the much larger number of celebrities who DIDN’T DIE during the year? These include former US president Jimmy Carter, actor Tom Baker, Bjorn Borg, puppeteer Bob Carolgees, Arthur Scargill, Deliverance star Ned Beatty, Olivia de Havilland, Roger Moore, Brigitte Bardot, Ross Perot, Frank Oz and Hugo Chavez. Chavez, admittedly, was already dead at the start of the year. This still counts.
  2. Sadiq Khan was elected mayor of London. His opponent Zac Goldsmith’s campaign floundered, proving decisively that racist and dishonest tactics will never succeed in a western political campaign. Ahem…
  3. For the first time in over two centuries of history a woman was nominated as the presidential candidate for a major US political party. Hurrah! Admittedly, she lost to a man accused of sexual offences who has condoned violence against women. And the fact that she was a woman was undoubtedly a decisive factor in her defeat. Still, it’s a start…I think?
  4. Jeremy Corbyn survived as Labour leader ensuring Labour will be unencumbered by the burdens of power and actually having  to work to improve people’s lives for the foreseeable future.
  5. The Brexit result was a triumph over the privileged elite by anarchist non-elitist working class salt of the Earth outsiders like Boris Johnson, former stockbroker Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch. Working class people willingly rebelled against Westminster by giving lots of extra power to Westminster. Children everywhere learnt important lessons about democracy: a) lying does seem to work b) you don’t actually have to believe in whatever your campaigning for yourself to win c) grossly misrepresenting your opponents can work. Cameron never actually came close to saying Brexit would lead to World War III d) Most importantly, don’t listen to experts! Got that kids? Economists, teachers, doctors: ignore anyone who, by definition, knows anything about them. Instead, put your trust in astrology, the Tory press and Michael Gove.
  6. Boris Johnson didn’t become Prime Minister. Actually, that was a good thing…london-mayor-boris-johnson-holds-brick-he-speaks-conservative-party-conference-birmingham

Book review: Viz Annual 2017 The Bookie’s Pencil

Viz has been available nationwide for well over thirty years now, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’ve never heard of it, as surprisingly, many people haven’t. The first thing to emphasise is that this is anthology based on an adult comic and so not suitable for children. Or, for that matter, prudish or sensitive adults.

Once upon a time, Viz annuals were called things like “The Big Pink Stiff One”. This one is called “The Bookie’s Pencil,” a euphemism which I’ve never heard anyone use. Can we conclude from this that Viz has grown more subtle over the years?

No, it hasn’t.

The formula has remained largely unchanged. Comic regulars include:

Roger Mellie: The Man on the Telly:  A TV presenter who is notoriously foul mouthed when off air (and sometimes when on).

Spawny Get: A character whose luck varies dramatically from frame to frame, usually ending with him implausibly having sex with a large number of attractive women.

The Fat Slags: Two promiscuous overweight Geordie girls.

Spoilt Bastard: Almost self explanatory. A git who bullies his pathetic elderly mother into getting whatever he wants. This is generally one of the cleaner stories as is Mrs Brady, Old Lady, a geriatric who complains that no one will give up their seat for her on the bus and thus stands throughout even though the bus is virtually empty.

Often it is the newspaper, Top Tips and Letterbocks pages which provide the highlights.

In short, enter if you dare. A lack of squeamishness and an understanding of the traditions  of British comics and north-eastern regional dialects will all prove an advantage.

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Book review: The Long And Winding Road by Alan Johnson

alan-johnson-book-jacket-the-long-and-winding-roadImagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…

Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.

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Book review: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

The opening to Ian McEwan’s latest novella may go down as the best first line of 2016. Intriguingly, the author claims he thought up the line first and thought up the ensuing story afterwards. The story may essentially be summarised as a murder mystery told from the perspective of an unborn infant nestling within its mother womb. The mystery – without wishing to give too much away – has a strong Shakespearian element.

The fetus is a very clever fetus, having picked up more in the womb than many people pick up in their entire lives. The book is clever too, very clever. Not too clever either, although as it’s more of an experiment in narrative than a full blown novel is unlikely to gain the following that McEwan’s other books such as Atonement and Saturday have. But the experiment is undoubtedly a success.

Womb Raider? Inside Out? A Fetal Inversion? Inside Out? A Womb Of One’s Own? McEwan went for Nutshell as a title.

He’s probably right.

Book review: Tim Burton The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work by Ian Nathan

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This is a story about a little boy called Tim.

He was born nearly sixty years ago in California. He grew up, a bit nervous and a bit strange, and looked a little like his own later creation Edward Scissorhands except without the scissory hands. And perhaps not quite as pale.  He basically looked the same for his entire life and later had long relationships with Helena Bonham Carter, the English star of A Room With A View and Fight Club amongst other people. But this book’s not really about that sort of thing. It is about his films.

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After an unhappy spell at Disney working on boring films like The Fox and the Hound, Tim Burton made the first film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). The star, Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) a children’s entertainer of the time, later got in trouble when he got caught publicly “misbehaving”  in an adult cinema. But the mass debate over this came later. Tim’s career had been launched.

Since then, he has made nearly twenty films. Most have contained a fantasy element. Some were animated (such as The Corpse Bride). Some were blockbusters (Batman, Batman Returns). Some were black and white (Ed Wood). Eight have Johnny Depp in. All but one have music provided by Danny Elfman who did The Simpsons theme. Some were magical (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice), some  divided opinion (Mars Attacks!) Very few were actually awful (Planet of the Apes).

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All have been interesting in some way as this attractively illustrated coffee table book reminds us. Burton’s career proves that it is possible to be both offbeat, unconventional and interesting and still be commercially successful. And live happily ever after.

Tim Burton: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work. Unofficial and Unauthorised by Ian Nathan. Published: Aurum Press, 2016

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Book Review: Gilliamesque by Terry Gilliam

For more on Terry Gilliam, see my feature The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam in issue 14 of Geeky Monkey magazine.

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Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir by Terry Gilliam, published by Canongate, 2016

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Terry Gilliam has always stood out from the crowd.

Even when in Monty Python, he stood out somewhat as the one American. Slightly odd looking, he mostly remained off screen at first, producing instead the celebrated animated sequences (for example, during the series’ opening titles sequences) for which he became famous. Nearly fifty years on, this book, his memoir is illustrated throughout in a similarly unique style.

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Like many people called Terry (Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, fellow Python Terry Jones, er, Terry Scott?). Gilliam found himself drawn to the fantasy genre. His directing career began awkwardly with co-directing Python ventures with Jones. Although mostly good films in the end, they were tough shoots with Jones and Gilliam gently wrestling for overall control and the likes of Cleese and Palin losing patience with the American who they felt treated them like they were bits of animated card.

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Gilliam really came into his own in the first half of the Eighties with brilliantly imaginative fantasies like Time Bandits and Brazil. He’s had many fine moments since – notably The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys  and has undeniably developed a unique visual style. Despite this, he has never developed a reputation for being a safe pair of hands, largely due to high profile flops like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Adventures of Don Quixote which never even completed filming.

Though he sometimes adopts an overly defensive tone when discussing his own films, Gilliam makes for an engaging likeable narrator on his own life. The world of cinema would certainly have been poorer without him.

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Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

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Blackadder was not the sort of programme to rely on catchphrases. Most that were deployed such as “You have a woman’s hand, m’lord,” or the lecherous “woof woof! were used by one-off or very occasional visitors to the saga such as Captain Rum (Tom Baker) or Lord Flashheart (the late Rik Mayall).

A notable exception was “I have a cunning plan…” words which Blackaddder’s sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) would use to signal a usually absurd scheme to get the duo out of trouble. These included a plan to rewrite Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary in one night after Baldrick had accidentally burnt it (Baldrick’s helpful definition for the letter C (sea) being “big blue wobbly thing where mermaids live”). Another ruse involved an attempt to save Charles I (Stephen Fry) from execution by disguising a pumpkin as the King’s head.

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This is not the life of Baldrick, however, but the life of Tony Robinson. Although ultimately a tale of success (he is now a knight of the realm), it is an eventful, entertaining life although, as he freely admits, full of mistakes and less governed by any overall “cunning plan” than many.

Starting out as a child actor, appearing as one of Fagin’s gang in the original stage version of Oliver! Robinson was initially just keen to have fun and get out of school. After a long career including run ins with John Wayne and Liza Minnelli along the way, landing the role of Baldrick in 1983 didn’t seem like any sort of big deal. Indeed, as the first series was neither very  good or successful, initially it wasn’t.

But soon it had made his name and he was appearing in other Eighties comedy like Who Dares Wins and The Young Ones before writing his own Blackadder-influenced kids’ show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. The long years hosting Time Team were still to come. And, yes, hosting The Worst Jobs In History really was his own worst ever job.

It’s not all laughs: he writes movingly about his parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s (one after the other). But this is a hugely entertaining and unpretentious read. Here’s to you, Mr Robinson…

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