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.

Book review: To Be A Gay Man

Will Young is a pop star, who first became famous as the victor of the popular ITV talent show, Pop Idol in 2002. Now in his early forties, this short memoir traces the course of his life so far as a gay man.
It is an interesting companion piece to Tom Allen’s 2020 memoir, No Shame as well as to the recent Channel 4 drama, It’s A Sin.
Being born gay is not easy for anyone and despite a relatively supportive and comfortable background, Young has had his struggles growing up in the 1980s and 1990s and again as a famous person in the 21st century where he has occasionally encountered public attacks from the likes of the Daily Mail, DJ Chris Moyles and Jeremy Clarkson amongst others.
But this is a very good book and very readable too. I was slightly less keen on the later stages of the book detailing his mental health struggles of the last decade. I don’t doubt that these were very significant and difficult experiences for hìm at that time. However, in writing about them, he generally adopts a therapy-like way of writing which is less accessible than the rest of the book.
But overall, this is a very compelling and readable portrait of what it means to be a gay man in the Britain of the year late 20th and early 21st century.

Book review: To Be A Gay Man, by Will Young. Published by: Virgin Digital.

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: Delicacy: A memoir about cake and death

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Katy Wix’s book is not actually very funny.

This is not because Katy Wix herself isn’t funny: she definitely is. On TV series like Not Going Out, The Windsors, Ghosts and as a contestant on Taskmaster, she has consistently demonstrated herself to be incredibly talented, likeable (even when playing unlikeable characters (such as the snooty Carole in Miranda or bossy estate agent Carole in Stath Lets Fllats) and amusing. In truth, she is probably one of the finest comedy actresses working in Britain today.

But this memoir – which links a number of key events in Wix’s life to various cakes – is not only not especially funny but is generally not only not very funny but not even for the most part, really aspiring to be so. The book deals with serious issues: Wix’s own struggles with her weight, her deeply unpleasant grandfather, the death of a friend, a serious car accident Wix was involved in and her mother’s struggle with cancer. The book’s cover comes emblazoned with a quote from Simon Amstell (another very talented figure) describing the book as “painful, raw and incredibly funny.” Painfully raw? Yes. But to describe this as “incredibly funny” honestly does Delicacy a disservice. It is possible to make a troubled memoir very funny indeed as demonstrated by Georgia Pritchett’s forthcoming, My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life. But this isn’t that book.

This is not to detract from the honesty of Wix’s writing or to diminish the genuine heartache she has clearly experienced. But if you want a funny book, look elsewhere.

Photo by Idil Sukan

Book review: Delicacy A Memoir About Cake and Death, by Katy Wix. Published by: Headline.

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.

Netflix film review: Moxie

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

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


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


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


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


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

Netflix review: Behind Her Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: 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 Sultan of Swing – The Life of David Butler

Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.

It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.

The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.

Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements\: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.

But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.

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: 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.

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.

TV review: Dead Pixels, Series 1-2

Meet Meg and Nicky. Both are young, in their twenties and are friends. Both were effectively in Lockdown long before it was fashionable.

For Meg and Nicky are gamers, hopelessly addicted to the huge online role-playing computer game, Kingdom Scrolls in Jon Brown’s winning E4 sitcom. Kingdom Scrolls is not actually a real game, but you would be forgiven for thinking it was from watching this. The fantasy world in which Meg and Nicky are drawn into is fully realised on screen in graphic detail. Although we see Meg and Nicky in the real world a lot: almost invariably in their flat or at work, often speaking to each other via portable headsets, we often see them as the fantasy warrior avatars they play as in the game fighting battles, hunting for treasure and generally living their lives vicariously through their characters in the game.

This isn’t the first sitcom to feature gamers as leading characters: remember Spaced, The IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory. But none have portrayed their high-tech fantasy worlds in as much vividly realised, carefully crafted visual detail as Dead Pixels does.

Needless to say, neither Meg (Alexa Davies) or Nicky (Will Merrick) are normal, well-rounded people. They never date, eat out, go to the cinema, go on holiday, read books, go clubbing or do any of the normal things pre-Lockdown twentysomethings did. Instead, they devote every spare minute of their free time to Kingdom Scrolls. They neglect their diet and are uninterested in their work. Meg, in fact, genuinely seems to be very good at her job and keeps getting promoted. This only annoys her as it leaves her with more responsibilities and less time to play Kingdom Scrolls.

They are endlessly scornful about the activities of their friend, Alison (Charlotte Ritchie). Although only slightly older than Meg and Nicky. she is a non-gamer who lives something close to what most of us would consider to be a normal life. She is baffled and slightly troubled by Meg and Nicky’s obsession and does what she can to gently draw them out of it. She achieves little success in this, however. Meg and Nicky continue to treat such developments as the release of a new expansion pack or the casting of the long-awaited Kingdom Scrolls film as if they are matters of life and death. We soon learn Alison is not above making bad life decisions herself too.

Incidentally, there is a neat twist revealed quite late in the very first episode. I have avoided mentioning it here.

There are other characters too. Usman (Sargon Yelda) is a slightly older US airline pilot whose obsession with Kingdom Scrolls clearly comes at the expense of family life. He never meets any of the other characters in person during the programme although he speaks to them often.

Russell (David Mumeni) is a Kingdom Scrolls newbie, who Meg as met at work. Russell is embarrassingly unworldly in both the game and real-life and is still amused by such japes as sheathing and unsheathing his character’s sword repeatedly to make it look as if his avatar is masturbating. The other more seasoned gamers have long since ceased to be amused by such antics. There is an ongoing story about Meg fancying Russell at first, finding him very physically attractive despite disliking his personality. Nothing is really made of this after the first series, however. Other supporting characters also crop up in the second series played by Al Roberts (Stath Lets Flats) and New Zealand comic and actress, Rose Matafeo (Taskmaster, Baby Done).

The first series of Dead Pixels was released in 2019 and the newly released second series which is now showing is just as good as the first. Genuinely funny, very watchable and boosted by impressive visuals and strong comic performances from Davies, Mellor and Ritchie especially, Dead Pixels is guaranteed to keep you glued to the screen.

Series 2 of Dead Pixels is currently being screened on Tuesdays at 10pm on E4. Both series are available to watch in full on All4.

TV review: A Teacher

He was a boy. She was a girl. Can I make it any more obvious?

Well, in fact, the answer to this question would have to be “yes,” as this is emphatically not a simple story of ordinary teenage romance. For while Eric Walker (played by Nick Robinson) is definitely a boy, a 17-year-old attending high school in Texas, the girl in question is not actually a girl at all but a grown woman. She is Claire Wilson (Kate Mara). She is married, around thirty years old and she is Eric’s new English school teacher.

And if you don’t want to know any more about this ten episode series, I would suggest you stop reading now.

Eric sees to be a fairly typical high school ‘senior.’ He is attractive, sporty and popular. Although he struggles a little academically, he is not stupid and has ambitions to be a doctor. At home, his mother is a single parent who while never neglectful has her hands full bringing up both Eric and his two younger brothers. Eric has a few friends at school, none of whom are terribly interesting.

Claire Wilson, meanwhile, is an unusually attractive young woman, something Eric and his other male classmates quickly note, although possibly using slightly different language to express it. Claire’s motivations remain a source of interest throughout. We realise she is very attracted to Eric early on but simple lust does not really explain her reasons for embarking on an affair with him, as indeed (belated spoiler alert) is what eventually happens. Such a course of action risks her job, her marriage, her reputation and even criminal prosecution. Such things do happen in real life, of course, but why on Earth does she do it?

Right from the outset, we get a few indications that there is something rotten in the state of Claire. Early on, she steals some lipstick from a shop. It is a minor misdemeanour and she boasts to her disapproving husband about it later. But there is no suggestion she needed to do it. Had she been caught, she would probably have been prosecuted. It was a reckless and unnecessary act. We later learn her early life was blighted by her father’s alcoholism. An amateur psychiatrist might speculate that her emotional development was frozen at that point. Or at the very least, that she might feel like she wants to enjoy a teenage experience which she feels she missed out on the first time round.

Claire and her husband Matt (Ashley Zukerman) are trying for a baby and their love life has become strained by the need to have sex at specified times to maximise Claire’s chances of conception. Intercourse has become more of a chore than a joy. Matt also shows signs of being preoccupied with forming a rock band with his friends, a perhaps slightly adolescent interest at a time when he should be focused on starting his and Claire’s new family. Neither of these issues seem insurmountable, however. Matt seems like a perfectly nice guy throughout. He doesn’t deserve what ends up happening to him.

Viewers are free to judge for themselves at what exactly what point Claire and Eric’s relationship crosses the line into ‘inappropriate’ territory. Is it when, having crossed each other’s paths several times, Claire offers to help Eric with his SATs revision out of school hours? This doesn’t seem inappropriate in itself, but Claire’s motives already seem suspect. Perhaps it is when Claire tells Eric there is no need to call her ‘Miss Wilson’ when they are not in school: he can call her ‘Claire?’ Maybe it’s when Claire accepts a Facebook friend request from Eric (the story is set in 2014). Or it could be when Claire takes Eric on an impromptu day trip to visit the college Eric is hoping to attend. When they run into some of Eric’s friends neither question their assumption that Claire is just a girl Eric is seeing. All these initial moves by Claire make an affair more likely. When Eric kisses Claire unexpectedly after class, she makes a show of being scandalised and disapproving. But before long, their affair begins in earnest.

For a while, the two co-exist in their fantasy world together. But soon, inevitably things fall apart as news of their dangerous liaison gets out. We are spared the full scandal which sees Claire losing her job, marriage and going to prison. The series picks up events afterwards.

The series deals nicely with the aftermath. Eric initially seems to have got off fairly light escaping to college and even gaining some superficial kudos from his friends who react in a predictable, “Woah dude, Miss Wilson? Awesome dude. She’s totally hot” type fashion. But he hasn’t got off lightly at all. He is tortured by residual confused feelings for her and a sense of unwarranted guilt over her fate. He dislikes the notoriety the aftermath of the scandal gives him and soon embarks on a self-destructive course of drinking and reckless behaviour. His career plans are derailed in the process and he still seems a mess emotionally years later.

Post-prison, Claire struggles too. She has a ‘scarlet woman’ reputation, cannot get a job and her marriage is over. She remains even at this stage a fundamentally unsympathetic character, however. Although ultimately the architect of not only her own misfortune but the downfall of several other people too, she remains in denial about her responsibility for what has happened. She has abused her power, thrown away her marriage with no regard for her husband’s feelings and emotionally traumatised a minor placed in her care. In the final scene, set ten years on (although don’t expect any ‘President Harris to attend King Charles’s coronation’ style headlines in the background), Eric and Claire meet again. Eric himself now effectively fills the role of teaching, teaching the older woman exactly what she has done wrong.

Adapted by Hannah Fidell from her little seen 2013 film of the same name, A Teacher is available on FX, Hulu and the BBC iPlayer.

Netflix TV review: The Queen’s Gambit

Beth Harmon loves chess.

She loves it from first sight, loving everything about it even before she knows what it is. Barely has she persuaded Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the surly caretaker to teach her how to play it, than she is visualising alternative game scenarios on the ceiling of the bedroom at night. She doesn’t so much take to chess like a duck to water as like a fish to water. She is soon living and breathing chess. It has become part of her DNA and she lives for the opportunity to sneak down to the cellar for an illicit chess game with Mr. Shaibel, who effectively becomes her mentor. Soon Mr. Shaibel is actively teaching her basic chess openings such as the Queen’s Gambit and the Sicilian Defence: basically the techniques which mark professional chess players out from the multitude who never really think beyond their next move.

This is good news for Beth, as life isn’t going so well for her otherwise. The story begins in Kentucky in the 1950s and nine-year-old Beth (who is played as a young child by Isla Johnston) has been placed in an orphanage following the death of her mother in a car accident. The orphanage is not an overtly cruel environment but life there does seem very boring and all the children are starved of love and affection. Beth’s only real friend is Jolene (Moses Ingram) a free-spirited older girl.

Alarmingly, all the girls in the orphanage are routinely issued with tranquilisers, as was apparently standard practice at the time. These enhance Beth’s ability to visualise chess scenarios when she is not actually playing chess. On the downside, she soon becomes hopelessly addicted to the pills. As she grows into an adult (played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy), we see her develop further addiction problems, notably to alcohol. Her adult sexual appetites do not seem unusual, however, and her personality as an adult does not stray too far from the conventional norms either, aside from her all-consuming obsession with chess.

In time, Beth is able to escape the orphanage, being adopted by the Wheatleys, a middle-aged and middle-class, mid-20th century, middle-American suburban couple. Although ostensibly a more stable environment, it soon emerges the Wheatleys’ marriage is in its death throes. Alma Wheatley (another excellent performance from Marjelle Heller) seems fragile, overeducated and frustrated. Her husband, Alston (Patrick Kennedy) is a selfish, unlikeable character who always acts as if he’s being distracted from something more important.

Happily, Beth’s burgeoning chess career ultimately provides an escape for both her and for her adopted mother. The stage is set for us to witness the birth of Beth Harmon’s career as a 1960s female chess legend.

Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote the books which became the films, The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell To Earth), this is an endlessly watchable and compelling story of a fictional chess superstar, boosted enormously by a career-defining performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. Fidelity to the source material is not essential to a adaptation’s success. However, anyone turning to the original book after watching the series, will find the show follows the novel very closely with the exception of one major development early in the book, which was cut out of the series.

Following its October 2020 release, The Queen’s Gambit quickly became Netflix’s most watched scripted series to date. It is easy to see why.

Book review: James Callaghan – An Underrated Prime Minister?

James Callaghan is a prime minister who tends to be overlooked by history.

The new series of The Crown doesn’t even mention him at all. skipping straight from Jason Watkins’ Harold Wilson straight to Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher. Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, which inspired The Crown made a joke of how easy it was to forget him, featuring a scene in which both Helen Mirren’s elderly Queen and her youngest prime minister, David Cameron both repeatedly missed him out when attempting to remember everyone who had been in Downing Street during her long reign.

Callaghan, an ardent royalist and prime minister for three years between 1976 and 1979, would have been sad to see himself remembered like this. Or rather, not remembered.


It’s not just Peter Morgan though. I myself was born under Callaghan’s premiership but understandably have no memory of it: I was not yet two-and-a-half when he left office. But as a teenager, I’d notice blank looks whenever I brought up Callaghan during political discussions with my school friends. The same people had all heard of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath was still a public figure. But quite a few had never heard of Callaghan at all.

There are quite a few interesting facts about Callaghan. Although not amazingly tall (6ft 1), he was, in fact, the tallest PM we ever had. He was one of only eight British prime ministers not to go to university (a list which includes Disraeli, Lloyd George and Churchill). He was married longer than any other prime minister, his wife Audrey, who he married in 1939, died in March 2005. Callaghan himself, died just 11 days later, one day before his 93rd birthday. He was also the longest-lived prime minister ever, surpassing Harold Macmillan’s record, by just 39 days.

‘Sunny Jim’ was also the only person to have held all of the great offices of state. He was Chancellor (1964-67), Home Secretary (1967-70), Foreign Secretary (1974-76) and Prime Minister (1976-79). Some people hold just one of these positions (e.g. Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – all just PM), some two (Eden – Foreign Sec and PM, Brown – Chancellor and PM, Jack Straw – Foreign Sec and Home Sec, May – Home Sec and PM, Johnson – Foreign Sec and PM) and others three (Churchill – all except Foreign Sec, Rab Butler – all except PM, Macmillan – all except Home Sec, Major – all except Home Sec). But only Callaghan has held all four.


This book of essays is about Callaghan’s record as Prime Minister. Generally, his tenure tends not to be remembered fondly, largely because it ended badly. In late 1978, with Labour ahead in the polls, he held back from calling a General Election. His caution was actually quite understandable in the circumstances, but his decision was to prove disastrous. The next few months would witness a total breakdown in relations between the unions and the government culminating in the catastrophic ‘Winter of Discontent.’ From that point on, a Conservative election win for Margaret Thatcher was inevitable. Callaghan’s image was further harmed by TV images of him appearing complacent and out of touch when interviewed during the strikes after returning with a tan after attending a summit in the Caribbean. The appearance inspired the famous Sun headline, ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ Callaghan never used those exact words but they certainly conveyed the essence of his reaction (he did say, “I don’t accept that there is mounting chaos”). In the end, the government fell as a result of a government defeat in the Commons, not due to an election called at a time of Callaghan’s own choosing. Mrs Thatcher and the Tories won with a majority of more than forty. Memories of the Winter of Discontent would poison Labour’s electoral prospects throughout their eighteen subsequent years in opposition.

Against some pretty stiff competition, Callaghan’s election postponement must rank high on any list of the greatest missed political opportunities of all time.

Putting these disasters to one side, however (if that’s possible), Callaghan’s premiership was up until late 1978, pretty successful. He inherited a dire economic situation from Harold Wilson and was thrown into the IMF Crisis of 1976 almost immediately afterwards. But he and his Chancellor, Denis Healey thereafter handled the economy pretty well. The economy was recovering and unemployment was falling when Labour left office.

In an incredibly fractious situation, he also did very well to manage rising tensions within his own party and cabinet. Despite clashes between Right and Left and the sometimes mischievous activities of Tony Benn, there were, almost uniquely, no major cabinet resignations during his premiership.

Finally, Callaghan was consistently popular and always preferred by most to his sometimes shrill younger opponent, Margaret Thatcher. It is little wonder he came so close to re-election in the autumn of 1978.

James Callaghan – An Underrated Prime Minister? Edited by: Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles. Published by: Biteback.

Book review: No Shame, by Tom Allen

Tom Allen is well-established as one of Britain’s best-known comedians. Incredibly camp and always impeccably dressed in a tweed suit, Allen’s quick wit and sharp tongue has made him the ideal choice to front high end reality TV spin-off shows like The Apprentice…You’re Fired! and The Great British Bake Off: Extra Slice. He also presents the popular Like Minded Friends podcast with his friend, comedian, Suzi Ruffell and can often be seen on panel shows like Mock the Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and QI.

As this winning memoir confirms, Allen’s camp TV persona is no act. He was an unusual child and in his own words was “always forty-six years old.” He, in fact, won’t turn forty-six until 2029 (he was born in 1983), but with his unusual, distinctive dress sense, interests and manner made him stand out. Unlike most 1990s teenagers (indeed, unlike most teenagers from any decade), he avoided the traditional adolescent activities preferring to organise dinner parties for middle-aged women while pretending to be a butler.

Even his accent is a mystery. Although not exactly Received Pronunciation, it is definitely plummy. But it seems to have come from nowhere. He apparently sounds nothing like anyone in his family and went to school with fellow comedian Rob Beckett and former EastEnders actor, Charlie Clements, neither of whom sound anything like him either. “If the Daily Mail built a theme park, it would probably look a bit like Bromley,” he says of his birthplace, although as of the current Lockdown, he still lives there with his ageing parents.

(A surprising number of famous people, in fact, come from or have lived in Bromley including H.G. Wells, Enid Blyton, David Bowie, Jack Dee and Pixie Lott. But that’s another story).

“When I was sixteen,” he recalls. “I dressed in Victorian clothing in a bid to distract from the fact that I was gay.” Twenty years on, he recognises this strategy was “flawed” and indeed, had less to do with trying to do with attempting to distract attention away from his (presumably very obvious) homosexuality than it did attempting to escape from the difficult realities of his daily situation altogether.

This is a very funny book, shedding light on what, in reality, clearly must have been a very unhappy period for Allen. For all his occasional on stage bitchiness, he is clearly a very sensitive person as well as a good writer. Though the book takes us up to the present, there is relatively little about his comedy career. The best bits of the book chronicle his awkward teenaged experience in exquisite detail.

By coincidence, Tom Allen’s memoir comes hot on the heels of To Be A Gay Man, by the musician, Will Young, who is around four years older than Allen. As with that volume, Allen’s enjoyable book should provide an invaluable source of inspiration to any young gay readers, hopefully ensuring that feel able to advance to a position where they feel “no shame” themselves.

No Shame, by Tom Allen. Published by Hodder and Stoughton.