Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford





Over seventy years after the death of George Orwell, Richard Bradford’s new biography, convincingly argues the case for the continued importance of the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in the 21st century.

In addition to the biographical details of Orwell’s eventful life – his unhappy schooldays, his years in the Burmese police force, his genuine heroism fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War- the book connects Orwell’s writing to the present by linking it to recent trends such as the endless distortions of the truth by the now disgraced former US President Donald Trump and by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The book also discusses the bitter antisemitism row which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s spell as leader of the Labour Party in an intelligent book which demonstrates how Orwell today remains as relevant as ever.

Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford. Published by: Bloomsbury Caravel, May 13th 2021.

Book review: The Making of the President, 1960-72, by Theodore H. White

Sixty years on, Theodore H. White’s ground-breaking account of the 1960 US presidential elections is still regarded as a landmark in political reporting. White’s first book and to a lesser extent, his three subsequent volumes on the 1964, 1968 and 1972 contests have provided a template for all such works produced since, for example, the late Richard Cramner’s massive account of the 1988 Bush Vs Dukakis contest, What It Takes or Mark Halperin and John Heilemann books on the 2008 and 2012 elections won by Barack Obama.

White died in 1986, but his writing still provides a unique and fascinating insight into these four contests whose outcomes would prove to have dramatic consequences for both America and the world.

1960

The 1960 elections had everything. Two youthful strong rival candidates both destined in their time to become important and controversial leaders, a fiercely fought primary campaign, a charismatic outsider battling against religious bigotry, an ‘October surprise’ (the upset caused by the TV debates) and a nail-biting photo finish.

White admittedly had a lot to work with but his spell-binding and thorough account is at least as fascinating in discussing the ‘nearly men’ such as Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller as it is about the eventual final nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

After a 2020 election which ended with only the second Roman Catholic being elected to the White House without the subject ever really being raised, its easy to forget how serious an electoral obstacle Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered in 1960 when he ultimately became the first.

The personality of Richard Nixon inevitably looms large throughout these four volumes. He was the Republican nominee in three of these four elections (1960, 1968 and 1972), the winner of two (1968 and 1972) and played a smaller role in the 1964 campaign. He comes across badly in this first volume. Initially, the clear favourite, he squanders his advantage, proving a difficult and awkward candidate losing the support of the popular incumbent President Eisenhower and lumbering his campaign with a foolhardy commitment to visit all fifty American states. He was lucky not to lose by more and luckier still to get a chance to stage a comeback.

Did White know about Kennedy’s relentless womanising? We do not know. He was certainly not alone in not reporting them if he did know, however, as non-reporting of candidates’ private lives was certainly the convention at the time. Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were to be less fortunate in this regard. Nothing is also said about Mayor Daley’s electoral chicanery in Chicago. Kennedy would have won comfortably in the electoral college without Chicago anyway. Although it is discussed, less is made of the TV debates’ impact by White than has been made since. This is nevertheless a masterful account and the best of the four books in the series.

1964

Foregone conclusions rarely make for exciting elections and White is unfortunate that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was never really in doubt. White delivers an excellent account of the aftermath of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, however, and reminds us just how brilliant a candidate and a president LBJ was in his first year in office, regardless of what happened later. He also reminds us just how terrible a choice Republicans made when they opted for Barry Goldwater (“extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”) over the far more palatable and moderate, Nelson Rockefeller, who would become Gerald Ford’s vice president, a decade later.

“In your heart, you know he’s right,” Goldwater fans insisted. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!” critics countered. In the end, Goldwater allowed himself to be painted into a corner and portrayed (White argues unfairly) as a potential welfare abolitionist and nuclear hawk. He lost to LBJ by a record margin. Again, less is made of things which have come to be seen as important since. Little is made of the landmark ‘Daisy’ Johnson TV campaign broadcast (in which a little girl picking daisies in a field is unexpectedly nuked. It was later parodied on The Simpsons) and ex-actor Ronald Reagan’s career-defining speech in favour of Goldwater is not mentioned at all.

1968

1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme side-lined forever by the escalating war. Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.


But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.


At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.

White explores all of the candidates. The short campaign of Bobby Kennedy which would ultimately be a cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Eugene McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.

But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”


There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. This isn’t discussed here (White would not have known about these behind the scenes shenanigans) though at times White does show a great deal of warmth towards Nixon here, something he would probably come to regret later.

1972

By 1972, White’s books were having a political impact in themselves. At one point, we are told the Democratic nominee George McGovern first decided to run for the highest office after being inspired by White’s first Making of the President book back in 1962. The liberal McGovern would go onto be buried in a forty-nine state Nixon landslide. Today, in 2021, both Nixon and McGovern are long gone (McGovern died in 2012, aged 90) but for the first time in these volumes, a clear link can be forged to the present. A number of people mentioned (Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Donald Rumsfeld, even William Calley of My Lai) are still alive, while we know, though it isn’t mentioned here, that the young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham first met on the McGovern campaign. Also:

“And J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware of whom it was said had shaken half the right hands in his thirty years in public office, being defeated for the Senate by a young man, Joseph Biden Jr., who would reach the Constitutional Senatorial age of thirty, only a few weeks before he was due to take office.”

No other president in US history was making an impact in public life almost a full half century before they were in the White House. Reagan, after all, was not yet even an actor, 48 years before he became president. Trump, at that stage, was still a spoilt millionaire’s son. Perhaps nothing ever really changed.

Anyway, the shadow of Watergate looms large over the book. The initial summer 1972 break-in seems to have had no real impact on the November election. By the time, White finished the book, it was clearly becoming a major scandal although it was not yet at all obvious that it would ultimately bring down Nixon himself.

This election also spawned Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, from Hunter S. Thompson, a writer far more anti-Nixon and pro-McGovern than White was and indeed, rather fonder of including illustrations in his books.

In truth, you would have to be very, very, very interested in the machinations of the 1970s US Democratic Party indeed to find every page of either this or Thompson’s book wholly riveting. Despite this, it is still tempting to wonder how White might have covered the Ford-Carter contest of 1976 or perhaps Ronald Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 campaigns. As it is, we should be grateful enough for these four volumes which already tell us so much about a nation which had transformed beyond all recognition in the comparatively short period between 1960 and 1972.

Book review: Four volumes: The Making of the President, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972, by Theodore H. White. Published by: Harper Collins.

DVD review: Unforgotten – Series 4

DCI Cassie Stewart and DI Sunny Khan (Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar) are back, doing what they do best: investigating unresolved murder cases from the past. Last time, it was the discovery of the remains of a teenage girl on a building site just off the M1 which brought a group of middle-aged onetime Millennium partygoers under suspicion. This time it’s the discovery of the headless corpse of a Millwall fan in a freezer which threatens to provide an unwelcome trip down memory lane for a new bunch of suspects. But who are they? All have secrets in their past and now appear to have moved on. An old Marathon bar wrapper (from just before the unpopular decision was made to rename the brand ‘Snickers’) is just one of a number of clues suggesting the crime was committed back in 1990. But who is ultimately responsible for the death?

Could it be the slightly chippy Ram Sidhu (Phaldut Sharma) currently preoccupied with his wife’s pregnancy:? Or Liz Baildon (Susan Lynch) who seems to have the elderly mother from hell (Sheila Hancock?) Or doting dad and family man, Dean Barton (Andy Nyman) committed to charity work but who seems to be involved in some dodgy business dealings on the side? Or seemingly settled Peak District dwelling family therapist, Fiona Grayson (Liz White, somehow perfect in the role despite technically being about ten years’ too young for it?)

As usual, the joy of Unforgotten stems from seeing these often seemingly perfect modern lives becoming steadily uprooted as more and more mysteries about past events and the characters involved are slowly revealed. There is also, as before, the wonderful central relationship between Walker and Bhaskar’s characters. With Sunny now relatively settled as he moves in with his girlfriend, it is Cassie, who this time, finds herself under strain on all sides from both a dad with dementia (Peter Egan) and a boyfriend (Alastair Mackenzie) potentially on the move. Keen to retire after the traumatic climax to the previous case, Cassie is forced to work on this one final stressful case in order to qualify for her full police pension.

As perfectly realised ad beautifully acted as before, Chris Lang’s Unforgotten remains the finest British crime drama on TV today.

Book review: Stan Lee – How Marvel Changed The World

As far as the world of comics goes, Stan Lee was probably the most important person to have ever lived. Born to a Romanian-Jewish family in New York in 1922, young Stanley Lieber became involved in the world of comics early. An office boy in the 1930s, by the end of a frustrating 1950s, Lee came close to quitting the world of comics forever until his Newcastle-born British wife suggested he create a new crop of comic superheroes to challenge the near monopoly then enjoyed by Superman and Batman creators, D.C. In a remarkably short space of time, Lee created Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The X-Men and The Avengers essentially establishing Marvel as the incredibly profitable global media powerhouse that it remains to this day. Happy ever after?
Well, no. Partly because, as Adrian Mackinder explains, the extent to which Lee can really claim complete credit for creating all these amazing characters remains hotly disputed. This is not a hagiography and while Lee was careful to cultivate a loveable avuncular image amongst Marvel’s armies of ‘True Believers,’ Mackinder, though clearly a big fan himself, does not shy away from exploring the less desirable elements of Lee’s character.


In short, Mackinder not only does a commendable job of detailing the highs, lows, creative explosions, fallings out and film cameos which made up Lee’s almost 96 years on Earth but also does a commendable job of explaining the cultural context in which they occurred. In addition to Lee’s life, we also learn a lot not only about the history of Marvel comics, but also get much on how vaudeville declined in the teeth of competition from radio and cinema in the 1920s and 1930s and much of interest about ALL comic adaptations on TV and film over the decades, not just the Marvel ones. It is easy to forget, despite the renaissance in comic book based films in the 21st century,, just how many flops there also were (Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider, to name but a few).
I must admit: I have sometimes written about the history of comics myself. But ultimately, I must put aside any feelings of professional jealousy and concede: Adrian Mackinder really has done an exceptional job here.
Nuff said.

Book review: Stan Lee – How Marvel Changed The World, by Adrian Mackinder. Published by: Pen & Sword, White Owl.

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.

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.

Book review: The Real Hergé: The inspiration behind Tintin

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

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

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

Book review: The Magic of Terry Pratchett

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: This Land, by Owen Jones

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

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

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

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

Book review: The Elder Sons of George III

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

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

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

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

Book review: The Elder Sons of George III

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

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

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

Book review: The Ministry for the Future

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

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

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

What just happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: Reunited nation?

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

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

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

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

TV review: It’s A Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: How To Break Into The White House

As it turns out, the title of this book now seems a little unfortunate.

In fairness, author Ann Bracken had no way of knowing that two weeks before her book was published, an overexcited horde of psyched-up Trump supporters unreconciled to their fallen leader’s defeat in the November 2020 US presidential elections two months’ before would overrun the US Capitol Building, resulting in five deaths.

Let us be clear: there is nothing in this slim volume which even remotely encourages anyone to physically break into any government buildings or indeed anywhere else. To be strictly accurate, it’s not even a guide on how to “break into” the White House by legitimate, democratic means either. It is merely a brief memoir of Ann Bracken’s life so far which includes a chapter on her years working as a secretary in the first Bush White House. Interesting as her life may have been, I can see why she opted for this title as it ‘s a good deal snappier than ‘My Years Working for Bush (no, not him! The okay one) and some Other Stuff’ by Ann Bracken. It’s just unfortunate that given the current climate, even working from Britain, I could not help feeling a little nervous as I typed the book’s name into a search engine.

My search didn’t bring up much anyway. I don’t think she is a well-known figure currently. Perhaps this book will change this? It is a pleasant, readable account of how Indiana-born Ann rose to work as an assistant to Senator Richard Lugar and then for the US’s second most recent one-term Republican, US President George Bush (now usually referred to as George HW Bush or POTUS41 to distinguish him from his less than distinguished son) before settling in the UK.

I should say, I am not on her political wavelength at all. She thinks the first Bush was a more historically important leader than Clinton, thinks the fact that the US has reduced emissions in recent years justifies withdrawing from the Paris environmental agreement and is clearly prepared to gloss over the fact that disgraced former President Trump was not only a horrendous human being but an almost total disaster in office. Her views do not seem generally abhorrent, however, and I will try not to hold them against her as I review her book.

It is readable enough but is short and can easily be finished in an hour or two. There are some anecdotes about her ongoing obsession with the musician Sting and about her friend precipitating a famous public relations disaster during which the Queen’s face was completely concealed behind a microphone during an address from the White House lawn.

There seems to be a self-promotional aspect as there are a surprisingly high number of pictures of Bracken herself in it (around twenty). Some are, as you might expect, old pictures of her meeting luminaries like the late President Bush and his vice president, Dan Quayle, who like Bracken is also Indiana-born. Other pictures seem to have been specially commissioned for the book and are quite glossy. One shows her in a swimsuit, another is labelled “pretending to be a Brit” dressed up like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. The tone is a bit odd.

The comments on the back of the book would sit more appropriately on a CV than on the cover. “I am grateful to have you on our team,” (President Bush), “She brightened up the White House…you have been a real asset” (other Bush people).

As I say, I am not on Ann Bracken’s political wavelength at all. But even were she a former Clinton or Obama staffer, there’s just no real getting away from the fact: this is very thin stuff.

A fine, very slight read. Her name may be ‘Bracken’ but don’t expect this to set the world on fire.

Book review: How To Break Into The White House, by Ann Bracken. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.