Book review: The Comfort Book, by Matt Haig

Matt Haig is truly a writer for our times.

His 2015 book, Reasons To Stay Alive was a starkly honest and highly readable memoir about the most traumatic experience of Haig’s life: namely the devastating attack of chronic depression which engulfed him when he was 24 in 1999 and his long battle to recover from it. His 2018 book, Notes on a Nervous Planet was a more general guide to fending off the demons of depression and anxiety in the age of Twitter and Trump.

It should be mentioned that in addition to his non-fiction output, Haig s a successful novelist too. Although superficially fantastical, The Midnight Library (2020) explored serious issues as its troubled heroine quite literally attempted to live her best possible life. It was one of the best received new British novels of last year. Other books by Haig include The Humans (2013), which is centred on an extra-terrestrial taking brief possession of an English University lecturer and How To Stop Time (2017), in which a man manages to live for several hundred years from the Tudor era to the 21st century. Mental health issues come up in these books too. Haig has also written for children too, notably a trilogy of festive books which began with A Boy Called Christmas (2016).

The Comfort Book is not a book with a linear narrative as such but a collection of short chapters of varying length. These can be read in any order, individually or in any manner the reader chooses. The aim is, as the name of the book suggests, to provide hope or comfort to the reader, particularly if they are currently suffering with any mental anguish themselves. And let’s face it: in 2021, many of us are.

Some chapters are so short that they can be quoted here in full. The chapter entitled, ‘To be is o let go’ simply reads: “Self-forgiveness makes the world better. You don’t become a good person by believing you are a bad one.” The chapter, ‘Pasta’ meanwhile simply states: “No physical appearance is worth not eating pasta for.”

An unkind reviewer might suggest the net effect of this is similar to reading a huge collection of fortune cookies at once or to listening to a greatly extended version of Baz Luhrmann’s 1999 release, ‘Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunshine.” But this would be unfair. I’ve no doubt Matt Haig’s book will prove very helpful to many people. Most of the chapters are far longer than the ones I’ve quoted and Haig draws heavily from his own experiences and from the experiences of others. We learn from Heraclitus, Charles Dickens, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joy Harjo, Bruce Lee, Helen Keller, Marcus Aurelius and plane crash survivor, Juliane Koepcke amongst many others.

The Comfort Book does not take long to read from cover to cover. However, I have little doubt many people will find themselves returning to it again and again.

Book review: The Comfort Book, by Matt Haig. Published by: Canongate, July 6th 2021.

Book review: The Making of Henry VIII

Most of us probably feel we have some knowledge of Henry VIII. He is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most famous and notorious rulers; a fat, greedy tyrant who divorced two of his six wives and beheaded two more. The second Tudor King was a man so stubborn that he broke with Rome rather than agree to remain married to his first spouse and who killed anyone (for example, Thomas Moore or Cromwell) who seriously got in this way.

For once, this crude caricature actually turns out to be true. But how did he get that way? What forces conspired to create such a monstrous and yet fascinating figure?

In truth, Henry’s personality was forged in the 1490s and 1500s, growing up during the reign of his father, Henry VII. Having won power largely as a result of his victory over Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the first Tudor King’s hold on power often seemed very precarious indeed as his reign came under constant threat from a series of challenges and rebellions from those who like the Pretenders to the Throne, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck sought to usurp him. Henry VII ruled at the end of a century which had already seen four kings (Richard II, Henry VI, Edward V and Richard III) meet violent ends. In the circumstances, Henry VII did very well to make it to die of natural causes in his fifties, just as Henry VIII would.

Initially in the even more precarious position of being the brother to the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII outshone his older brother, Prince Arthur even in childhood, quickly becoming supremely accomplished as both a sportsman (his obesity came later) and a scholar. Like many royals he was starved of natural affection, however, and became arrogant, stubborn and greedy. Losing his mother, Elizabeth of York, at a time when he barely got to really know her, he soon elevated her to such a lofty standard of perfection in his own mind, that none of his own six subsequent wives would ever really be able to live up to her.

First published in 1977, Marie Louise Bruce’s well-written and thorough history about the boy who would be King ends where most books about Henry VIII begin: with the 17 year old Henry’s accession to the throne and prompt marriage to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. It is as impressive and well-rounded a portrait as one of the great paintings by the legendary Tudor artist, Hans Holbein the Younger himself.

Book review: The Making of Henry VIII, by Marie Louise Bruce. Published by: Sapere Books.

Book review: JFK: Volume 1: 1917-1956

As the American electorate prepare to decide the fate of their 45th president, here is an excellent opportunity to take a look at the life of the 35th holder of that office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This book from acclaimed US historian, Fredrik Logevall, in fact, concentrates solely on the first forty years of Kennedy’s life, ending with his bid for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination. The fact that this bid failed was perhaps no bad thing as the main candidate, Adlai Stevenson was destined to go down to a second heavy defeat to the popular Republican President Eisenhower, a development which might have harmed JFK had he been Stephenson’s official designated running mate. Kennedy’s bid, in fact, left him very well placed to run for the presidency himself in 1960. It also represented a show of independence from the influence of his all-powerful father, the ageing former Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who had privately disagreed with his son’s attempt to become Stevenson’s Number Two.

Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, his eventful presidency and his assassination will all be dealt with in a future second volume.

The story of the young JFK is to some extent, the story of the Kennedy family itself and it is always a fascinating one, told brilliantly here with plenty of fresh new insights even if you think you’ve heard it all before. The ruthlessly ambitious but flawed father. The loving if occasionally mis-guided mother. The favourite son: Jack’s older brother Joe, who Jack was already starting to outshine even before his tragic wartime death. The tragic fates of his sisters Rosie and ‘Kick’. Bobby’s brilliant and youthful political strategising.

But Jack’s tale alone it itself a fascinating one. His easy elegance and charm. His endless battles with serious illness. His epic wartime heroism.

Some reviewers have seen similarities between Kennedy and the current president, Donald Trump and it’s true, there is some common ground. Both were born to racially prejudiced millionaire fathers of immigrant stock: Joseph Kennedy was the grandson of 19th century Irish immigrants, Donald Trump’s father Fred had German parents. Both JFK and Trump also shared an unfortunate penchant for womanising. In Trump’s case, this has resulted in a number of sexual assault accusations, a charge never levelled at JFK.

And there the similarities end. In his demagoguery and total disregard for the truth, Trump, in fact far more closely resembles the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy who oversaw the witch-hunts of the early 1950s, than he does Kennedy. The Kennedys’ unfortunate closeness to McCarthy is in fact, a significant point against them. Incidentally, there is a lesson here: McCarthy’s reign of terror ultimately came to an end largely due to his foolhardy decision to target the US Army in his self-serving campaigns. Trump’s own obvious contempt for the armed forces reflected in his odious comments undermining the heroism of the late Senator John McCain and about those killed in the world wars, have seriously undermined his re-election campaign.

Kennedy, in contrast, was a genuine hero of the Second World War. He maintained a cool head during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It is terrifying to imagine how someone of Trump’s volatile temperament would have fared under similar circumstances.

Finally, Kennedy frequently demonstrated a level of wit, intelligence and sophistication almost without parallel in any US president. Trump, in contrast, seems never to have uttered an eloquent sentence in his life. His most memorable slogan has not been “Ask not what your country can do for you” but his reality TV catchphrase, “You’re fired.” The “make America great again” mantra, popularised by the current president in fact long predates Trump. He is narcissistic and appears to have no real sense of humour at all. His idea of wit is to be insulting: crudely mocking a disabled man or suggesting a female interviewer’s perfectly intelligent and level-headed but challenging line of questioning must be the attributable to the fluctuations of her menstrual cycle.

In short, JFK was an infinitely better leader than Trump could ever have been. And, ultimately, a much better person. As the late Lloyd Bentsen once almost said of George HW Bush’s politically maladroit running mate, Dan Quayle in 1988: he’s no Jack Kennedy. No one is.

Book review: Beyond The Red Wall

Once upon a time, seemingly about in about 1935, but actually only about nine months ago, there was a General Election. It seemed very important at the time, but most of us have now probably forgotten all about it.

The Conservatives, under their new leader, Boris Johnson did surprisingly well in the snap 12 December election. Having never once managed to win a substantial majority in any of the seven previous General Elections held during the previous thirty years, they won a majority of eighty, easily enough to keep them in office until 2024. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, in contrast, did very badly.

A notable feature of the results was that the Tories made substantial inroads into the so-called impenetrable ”Red Wall’ of sixty or so traditionally Labour old coal, steel and manufacturing seats stretching from the Midlands, across to the north of England and up into Wales.

In this book, pollster Deborah Mattinson interviews a range of people from within previous ‘Red Wall’ constituencies which succumbed to the Tories in December 2019. The book should make for fairly depressing reading for any Labour supporter, with many of the voters interviewed, feeling no connection at all to the party which is supposed to represent them. Predictably, the intense unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn was a major factor as was disenchantment over the party’s Brexit stance. The Tory slogan, “Get Brexit done” seems to have resonated strongly with many voters.

Some voters conclusions seems bizarre. One, depressingly seems to think the NHS was created by the Tories. In reality, of course, it was Labour’s crowning achievement. Others speak favourably of Trump or suggest Tim ‘Wetherspoon’s (the controversial businessman, Tim Martin) would make an ideal Prime Minister.

However, let us remember: no cowards should flinch from this book and no traitors should sneer at the views expressed within (apart from the one about Tim Martin). Labour has a historic mission to save the nation from the dishonesty and chicanery of the Tories. In 2019, despite a dismal Tory record in government over the past decade and a weak, lazy and all too vulnerable Tory leader in Boris Johnson, Labour completely failed to unseat them.

Only by gaining an understanding of why the election went the way it did, through reading books like this, can we hope to understand and thus begin the process of preventing this from ever happening again.

Book review: Beyond The Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How The Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next, by Deborah Mattinson. Published by: Biteback. September 15 2020.

Book review: More Than Likely: A memoir

TV comedy writers vary in their habits. Some work best writing in groups (as with many US shows, ensembles like The Fast Show and Monty Python). Others seem to work best alone (the late John ‘Only Fools…’ Sullivan, Simon ‘Men Behaving Badly’ Nye, Roy ‘Summer Wine’ Clarke). Others work best in twos, bouncing ideas off each other and finding comfort in their shared humour.

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are definitely in this final category and since the mid-1960s have achieved a record of success which has established them as legends in their field.

In the 1960s, they achieved their first major sitcom triumph with The Likely Lads. In addition to the writing itself, they also deserve unexpected credit for selecting James Bolam and Rodney Bewes for the key roles, Dick poring through Spotlight and eliminating anyone who looked like they could only be “serious, romantic or menacing” and being attracted by the fact both had been in films (Bewers had been Billy Liar, Bolam was in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). Controversy has long reigned in comedy circles over the Rodney Bewes and James Bolam’s real-life relationship with recent revelations suggesting the late Bewes may have been very difficult to work with. But they were undoubtedly the perfect choice for the time.

In the 1970s, Clement and La Frenais struck gold again, producing a full-colour follow-up, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? With the writing now focusing on how the two previously fairly interchangeable young friends were. by their thirties. gradually drifting apart – Bewes’ Bob marrying the woman Clive James described as “the dreaded Thelma” (the excellent Brigit Forsyth) and growing into a potential Thatcherite of the future while Bolam’s Terry remained much the same, even still living with his elderly mum, Clement and La Frenais produced a sequel which, for once, surpassed the original.

The hits kept on coming. The prison-based black comedy Porridge starring Ronnie Barker may actually be their greatest work of all while in the 1980s they scored major hits with Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Lovejoy. The last of these isn’t mentioned much at all here surprisingly, although its star, Ian McShane, who they also worked with on the 1971 crime thriller, Villain, is mentioned quite a bit.

In the meantime, of course, they’ve had their fair share of failures, unrealised projects, creative successes which received insufficient attention (their excellent 1998 rock reunion comedy film, Still Crazy and the mostly unseen Beatles-music inspired film musical, Across The Universe spring to mind) and disasters.

They have written more than you think.

They’ve also travelled around the world a lot and met many interesting and often famous people. Which is what this book is mainly about. It is not a straight cradle to grave biography, so much as a selection of anecdotes about the many famous people they’ve met on their travels e.g. Tracey Ullman, Marlon Brando, Anne Bancroft and George Best. If that isn’t your sort of book, then I’d probably give this a miss. But they have met lots of genuinely interesting characters over the years and they are good anecdotes. Clement and La Frenais are clearly good natured coves and are very rarely spiteful about anyone. They even seem to have found the famously volatile Peter Sellers okay to work with although Michael Winner does come across as having been a bit of a knobhead.

Each chapter is written either by Dick or Ian, with the other man occasionally inserting his own thoughts at the end. It’s a format which works well. Surprisingly, bearing in mind their long successful history together the very occasional chapters which they both collaborated on here actually work less well. This includes a slightly tedious opening chapter in which they construct self-indulgent fictional scenarios about how they first met, before revealing the commonplace but perfectly agreeable real one (they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend in a pub in Notting Hill).

Now both well into their eighties, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais often sound as if they consider themselves at the mid-point of their careers and are fully expecting to be writing together for decades to come. It is a good attitude from two inspiring likely lads who have done much to enrich our lives during the last fifty-five years.

More Than Likely: A Memoir. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Published by: W&N. Paperback published: September 15th 2020.

Audiobook review: Ramble Book: Musings on Childhood, Friendship, Family and 80s Pop Culture

Do you know Adam Buxton? If you don’t, you should.

Long time ‘Buckles’ fans such as myself will have first encountered him on the hugely inventive late night 1990s Channel 4 programme, The Adam and Joe Show, which he hosted with his old schoolfriend, the equally hilarious Joe Cornish, now a film director. In the 2000s, the duo retained their cult status with an excellent radio show on what was then BBC 6 Music while Adam made occasional appearances in films like Stardust and Hot Fuzz. In the second of these, he plays an amateurish West Country reporter who suffers a comically horrific Omen-style death outside a cathedral. In recent years, he has become known for his celebrated podcasts which he records, often in the company of his dog, Rosie, from his home in Norfolk. He has also done many more things in the first fifty years of his life, than my brief summary here suggests. Many of these are mentioned this book.

Due to the current global state of unpleasantness, the release of the actual book has been delayed until September. This is no great tragedy for anyone with the inclination and capacity to listen to this audio version of his autobiography, however, as it’s available now. The book reads very much like an extended version of one of Buxton’s podcasts and which, like that, is nicely broken up by amusing ingenious musical jingles and occasional comments on the text from the reader (who is, of course, Buxton himself).

Fans of The Adam and Joe Show will remember the BaaadDad sequences in which Adam’s father, would make a guest appearance to provide a unique upper middle-class seventy-something’s perspective on the popular music of the day. Typically expressing presumably perfectly genuine outrage at the likes of Firestarter by The Prodigy or Born Slippy by Underworld, these reviews were one of the most popular bits of the show.

In reality, Nigel Buxton, who died in 2015, aged 91, though certainly not an out and out ‘bad dad’ himself, nevertheless seems to have often been a difficult person. His presence looms large in the book. Despite the moderate degree of celebrity he achieved through his son’s show late in life, Buxton the Elder, a onetime writer for the Telegraph seems to have regarded Adam’s obsession with popular culture and pursuit of a comedy career with a degree of disdain, often bordering on contempt. A particular peculiarity of the older Buxton’s personality was his absolute obsession with keeping Adam in private education, very nearly bankrupting himself in the process. At one point, he was reduced to asking for a substantial loan from his friend, John Le Carré to pay for it (the famous author was not forthcoming). Adam – who initially suffered terrible homesickness after being sent away from home to boarding school at the age of nine – had no idea about the financial crisis his father had needlessly created for himself, until many years later.

If Nigel Buxton’s aim was to instil in his son the same sometimes dubious values which he possessed himself, he failed. Adam Buxton is never less than respectful to the memory of his father, throughout this memoir. But his obsession with the trivia and minutiae of popular culture, liberal outlook and a sense of humour, have ensured that he is about as different a man from his father as it’s possible to be.

A sad development since the book was completed has been the death of Adam’s mother which he has spoken movingly about on his podcast.

Perhaps we should be grateful to Adam’s father for his public school obsession. For it was at school that Adam formed his career-defining friendship with Joe Cornish (as well as Louis Theroux).

This is ultimately an often very funny and enjoyable account of Buxton’s formative years with particular focus on the 1980s: the decade which saw him move from childhood to adulthood.

Anyone who remembers the 1970s and 1980s will find much of resonance here: Adam’s discovery of Kraftwerk through surreptitious late night listening to Radio Caroline while at school, details of an explosive adolescent erotic dream about the actress June Whitfield, happy experiences seeing Ghostbusters and less happy experiences watching David Lynch’s Dune.

There are also occasional light hearted interruptions with details of a log of recent arguments Adam has had with his wife, anecdotes about socially awkward experiences Adam has experienced on trains and perhaps a little too much about his obsession with David Bowie.

As the title suggests, Buxton is inclined to ramble here, just as he does during his ‘Ramble Chats,’ when he interviews people on his podcast. But this is an enjoyable read. Adam Buxton is a thoroughly charming man and is always a delight to listen to.

Ramble Book: Musings on Childhood, Friendship, Family and 80s Pop Culture, by Adam Buxton. Audiobook available now. Hardback/Kindle version available: 3rd September 2020. Published by: Mudlark.

Book review: The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig. Published by Canongate on 13 August 2020.

“Oh, it is real, Nora Seed. But it is not quite reality as you understand it. For want of a better word, it is in-between. It is not life. It is not death. It is not the real world in a conventional sense. But nor is it a dream. It isn’t one thing or another. It is, in short, the Midnight Library.”

Nora Seed has hit rock bottom. With her career and personal life in tatters and her cat dead, she sees little point in a carrying on with a life which seems to her to be now irreversibly set on the worse possible course. In recent years, it has become commonplace for people to say they are living “their best possible life.” Nora, it is clear, is not living hers.

Then, miraculously, Nora is presented with what seems like an incredible opportunity. Arriving at the mystical Midnight Library, she is given the chance to experience or at least sample some of the possible alternative lives she could have led, had she made different decisions along life’s journey. Could she have made it as a rock star had she kept it up? Could she have achieved Olympic success had things turned out differently? Could the cat have been saved? Nora is about to find out.

A fantasy which is nevertheless grounded in cold reality, Matt Haig has created an enchanting ultimately uplifting book, which will resonate with many readers while nevertheless remaining magical. As with his earlier novels, The Radleys (about a very unusual 21st century family), The Last Family in England (the secret life of dogs), The Humans (a Cambridge University professor is taken over by an alien) and How To Stop Time (a man lives for several hundred years), Matt Haig continues to establish himself as one of Britain’s finest novelists. Though it does not shy away from the mental health issues Haig confronted in his acclaimed non-fiction book, Notes On A Nervous Planet, The Mídnight Library is in some ways as life-affirming as the film, Groundhog Day. It is definitely worth reading.

Book review: The Human Factor

Thirty years ago, the Cold War came to a peaceful end. Germany was reunified. A wave of mostly peaceful uprisings occurred across the so-called Eastern Bloc in 1989 before finally in 1991, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated completely.

Such developments would have seemed unthinkable only a few years earlier. Russian communism had dominated Eastern Europe since 1917 with the intense rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States threatening to destroy humanity following the superpower arms build-up which escalated soon after the end of the Second World War.

As Archie Brown demonstrates in this book the fact that this amazing development was able to occur at all owes itself almost entirely to ‘the human factor,’ namely the unique personalities of three world leaders during the second half of the 1980s. The personality of one of these leaders in fact, was especially critical.

Many in the west were alarmed when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in November 1980. A onetime Hollywood actor who had been a liberal Democrat until his early fifties, Reagan had strong enough conservative credentials by 1980, that he was able to preside over a thaw in East-West relations without stoking fears that he might be appeasing the Soviets. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meanwhile was not as slavish in her support for Reagan and the US as is sometimes made out. She and Reagan were friends and shared the same ideological free market perspective, but there were occasional fallings out. Crucially, on the major issue of East-West relations, however, she and the 40th US president always stood shoulder to shoulder.

However, it was the third actor, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who was utterly indispensable to the whole process. Make no mistake: without Mikhail Gorbachev there would have been no end to the Cold War. The Berlin Wall would not have fallen. The USSR would not have collapsed. Remarkable leaders though they in many ways were, the same cannot be said of Reagan or the so-called ‘Iron Lady.’

Gorbachev’s attitude and politics were utterly unique within Soviet politics at the time. Nor is it true that he (or anyone) was browbeaten into submission by the United States’ continued hard line. There is no evidence to support this whatsoever.

As the only one of these three figures still alive in May 2020, the world really owes the elderly Mr. Gorbachev a huge debt of thanks. As Archie Brown notes, it was he who made all the difference.

Gorbachev, not Reagan and certainly not Thatcher, ended the Cold War.

The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher and the End of the Cold War, by Archie Brown. Out Now. Published by Oxford University.

Book review: The Art of Comic Book Drawing

“Look! Up there in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it plane? No, it’s…er…well, I’m not sure who it is actually. Do you know?”

It’s true: you won’t see any superheroes you recognise in this illustrated guide to drawing comics. Though undeniably superhero-orientated – the guide begins by encouraging the reader to draw basic cartoon images before instilling in them the techniques necessary to draw and create images in the familiar superhero comic style – the book does not feature any established characters from either the Marvel or DC universes.

Your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman is thus not here: he has presumably moved to another neighbourhood. The X-Men have gone ex-directory. Instead, we get a bunch of superheroes who are in no need for secret identities. They are already completely unknown.

But this is not to disparage this book. For one thing, the artwork throughout is consistently excellent. The book’s creators have conjured up a plethora of characters who not only look good but bear no real resemblance to any existing characters. There are no Incredible Bulks or Superbmen to be found here.

More importantly, the book does what it’s supposed to do, guiding the reader step by step through the stages necessary to achieve the level of comic book artist excellence.

Perhaps you won’t get all the way there? Well, never mind. It’s good fun and as much of the world continues to endure an enforced period of social distancing until the COVID-19 outbreak is over, there are certainly worse things you could be doing that this.

Besides: if you really do want to draw Doctor Strange, Thor, Wonder Woman, Black Widow or Batman, nobody’s stopping you getting some practice in by attempting to recreate their adventures by sketching some images inspired by one of their comics.

But if you want to do it well, you’ll probably want to look at this book first.

The Art of Comic Book Drawing. Published by: Quarto. Maury Aaseng, Bob Berry, Jim Campbell, Dana Muise, Joe Oesterle. Out: now.

Book review: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982, by Dominic Sandbrook

Published by: Allen Lane, Penguin. Out now.

I am writing this in a time of acute political crisis. It is easy to lose all sense of perspective when assessing a situation while it’s still happening. Even so, the year 2019 is unlikely to be viewed as a happy one for nation when we remember it in forty years time.

Despite this, the fifth volume in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain since Suez, reminds us, the period, 1979-82 was very eventful indeed.

To briefly recap:

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister in British history.

By 1980, she was already hugely unpopular as unemployment and inflation rocketed. There would probably have been a recession around this time anyway, but Thatcher’s dogged commitment to monetarism made things worse. Not for the last time, Labour blow the opportunity to replace the Tories in power by electing the decent but unelectable Michael Foot as leader.

1981: The SDP breakaway from Labour and are soon way ahead of both the Tories (blamed for unemployment, rioting and recession) and Labour (harmed by Foot’s unpopularity and the antics of Tony Benn).

1982: The Falklands War transforms the political landslide. Thatcher becomes hugely popular again. There were signs of a Tory recovery before the Argentine invasion and it is doubtful ,Labour would ever have won the 1983 election anyway. But the Falklands Factor removed all doubt.

Sandbrook’s brilliant at these sort of books giving both a thorough insight into the politics of the period but almost all aspects of British life.

There are plenty of useful nuggets of info here. The book opens with an account of the live broadcast of the SAS break-up of the April 1980 Iranian embassy siege. The Alan Ahlberg book Peepo! is discussed as is Raymond Briggs’ incredibly harrowing graphic novel, When The Wind Blows. The rise of Ian Botham and Steve Davis are examined as is the fall of Joy Division and the rise of the New Romantics.

I was born in 1976 and so for the first time, like Sandbrook himself (who is about two years older than me) find myself encountering things here which I just about remember. I enjoyed the references to Peepo! (a book my baby brother liked) and was particularly interested in the portrait of my home town of Peterborough. I would dispute the claim made by an employee of the bishop of the time (and apparently endorsed by Sandbrook) that “Race relations are not a problem in Peterborough.” There were no riots in Peterborough as there were in Brixton in 1981 and although I went to school with a large number of children of Pakistani, Indian and Italian, I am white myself and cannot speak for them. But I know this for a fact: there were definitely racial tensions. There still are.

Reading the book, I was surprised to learn just how racist many people were back then. The extent of racism in the police force seems to have been appalling.

Sandbrook has started writing for the Daily Mail in recent years and though he strives for balance, his conservative tendencies occasionally show. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, then an early SDP champion, is at one point described as a “future saint.” Who regards her as a saint, you might ask? No one in the real world, that’s who. Certainly not Guardian readers. The term is only ever used in reference to Toynbee sarcastically by envious columnists on the Right. I was also surprised to see Sandbrook resurrecting the discredited claim that Michael Foot was in the pay of the KGB. Foot retained strong pro-democratic tendencies throughout his life and won a libel case against the Murdoch press when tbey made the same claim. Were he not dead, I’m sure Foot would be suing again. And I’m sure he would win.

So Thatcher generally comes out of this well, Sandbrook agreeing with Charles Moore, in the face of virtually all evidence that the Iron Lady had a sense of humour. Little credence is given to the notion that anyone might have found the somewhat jingoistic aftermath of the Falklands conflict distasteful. Tony Benn comes out of this badly. After an effective chapter about the fear of nuclear war experienced by many at this time, Sandbrook then seems to go out of his way to argue unconvincingly that nobody was ever seriously worried about it after all.

But ultimately, this is another literally superb addition to Sandbrook’s account of Britain since 1956. What next? Greed is Good? No Turning Back? Nice Little Earner? I eagerly await Sandbrook’s next volume.

As a chronicler of post-war Britain, Sandbrook is only seriously rivalled by David Kynaston and Alwyn W. Turner.

Book review: The Friends of Harry Perkins, by Chris Mullin

“Who is Harry Perkins?” you might ask.

The answer lies within Chris Mullin’s excellent 1982 novel, A Very British Coup. Written in the dark days of early Thatcherism, Mullin envisaged a future (the late 1980s), in which Perkins, a working-class hero and onetime Sheffield steelworker leads the Labour Party to an unexpected General Election victory on a manifesto not dissimilar to the one Labour lost on in 1983. Perkins’ Labour Party is thoroughly socialist and the new government quickly embarks on fulfilling the radical agenda it has been elected on: dismantling Britain’s nuclear deterrent and leaving NATO, breaking up the newspaper monopolies, redistributing wealth and more.

Needless to say, the establishment: the civil service, the media and the security services are horrified. They immediately begin conspiring with the US (who, viewing things through a Cold War prism, see Britain as having “gone over to the other side”) in a bid to thwart the programme of the democratically elected government. It is a great read.

Mullin was writing at a very volatile political time. In 1980, the new Thatcher government was already proving to be such a complete disaster that it seemed hopelessly doomed. For much of 1981, the SDP, not Labour, seemed set to replace them. By the post-Falklands summer of 1982, the resurgent Tories again seemed unbeatable, as indeed, proved the case, the Iron Lady having staged her own very British coup in the South Atlantic. We are in very volatile times again now. The future in the Brexit era is also very hard to foresee.

In this long-awaited sequel, Chris Mullin (now a former Labour MP himself) creates a convincing near future which cleverly not only seems sadly only too plausible but which also makes sense in the context of what has happened in the earlier book.

It is the 2020s. With Brexit having proven a miserable failure, serious consideration is being given to a humiliated Britain going crawling cap in hand and applying to rejoin the EU. Trump has left office, but has left the international situation thoroughly de-stablised. Today’s leaders have left the political stage. A King is on the throne, as he was in the earlier novel. Labour seemingly locked in perpetual opposition under an ineffectual woman leader seems poised for a takeover by the former aide of the recently deceased former Prime Minister, Harry Perkins, Fred Thompson (Mullin isn’t much of a one for glamorous character names). As so often happens, Perkins, the scourge of the status quo in life is now hailed by left and right alike as a great leader of the past, now he is safely dead. Thompson, who was played by Keith Allen in the acclaimed 1980s TV version of the book, is still middle-aged (Mullin admits to some authorial sleight of hand here: only ten years have passed since the events of the first book, not thirty or forty).

But can Fred Thompson succeed in leading Labour back to power and restoring Britain to it’s former glory? Will his family difficulties or a rising tide of violence threatening to engulf British politics get in the way?

The Daily Telegraph describes this book “preposterous.” Presumably, they mean “preposterous” in the sense that it doesn’t mindlessly back Brexit or shamelessly back Boris Johnson’s leadership bid as that newspaper did.

This is perhaps – like Thompson himself – not quite the equal of its illustrious predecessor. But it is a fine sequel and an excellent, short-ish read.

Published by: Scribner UK. 192 pages

Book review: Napoleon. His Life, His Battles, His Empire

Napoleon. His Life, His Battles, His Empire. By David Chanteranne and Emmanuelle Papot. Published by: Carlton Books, March 7th 2019

I know almost nothing about Napoleon Bonaparte.

I studied International History up to postgraduate level. Despite this, I don’t remember being taught anything about him during my entire twenty years in education.

I know roughly what he looked like, that he was born in Corsica and that he married Josephine. I know he rose very fast through the ranks after reviving France’s fortunes following the bloody chaos of the French Revolution. He became very powerful and very important, very quickly but, like Hitler later, came badly unstuck trying to invade Russia. He died in exile, at a relatively young age (51).

I don’t get the impression he was anything like as bad as Hitler, Stalin or Mao in the 20th century. He didn’t unleash genocide and probably did some good along the way, reforming France’s legal system and the like. His wars nevertheless wrecked and destroyed thousands of lives. On balance, I suspect, he was more of a “baddy” than a “goody.”

What else? I know,  “My, my. At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender” because Abba told me so. But are 1970s pop lyrics really a reliable source of historical information? There is plenty of doubt, after all, that Rasputin was in fact, as Boney M argued, “lover of the Russian Queen.” As to whether he was really “Russia’s greatest love machine?”: well, it’s now almost impossible to verify.

This book was thus very helpful to me in filling in the considerable gaps in my knowledge of one of history’s key figures. With 180 illustrations, it would probably appeal to children, but I doubt I’m the only adult who found it useful.

After all, as a wise person once pointed out: “the history book on the shelf. It’s always repeating itself.”

Book review: The Cold War by Norman Friedman

The Cold War: From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism. Published by: Carlton Books.

Nothing about the Cold War is simple. When, for example, did it start? Most people would say after the Second World War but a case could be made for saying it started as soon as Russia turned towards Bolshevism (that is, Communism) in 1917. Certainly the West was hostile to the new state from the outset, numerous powers attempting to crush it with a series of military interventions during the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War. But as the USSR was on the Allied side during the war with Hitler, most people view the Cold War as starting in the late 1940s, particularly after the USSR obtained nuclear weapons in 1949. This book does the same.

When did it end then? With the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? (it was in fact demolished later). With the collapse of the USSR in 1991? Were there, in fact, two Cold Wars, the first ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the second starting with the sharp decline in East-West relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979?

Indeed, with China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos still Communist, could a case even be made for saying the Cold War is still on? Certainly, plenty of spying and intrigue still goes on and the world is hardly free of international tension particularly since the succession of President Trump in 2017. US defence spending is now far higher than it ever was during the official Cold War. This is essentially madness.

This thorough nicely illustrated and accessible account wisely restricts itself the key period, however, chronicling events from the botched aftermath of the Second World War, through to the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, Korean War, nuclear confrontation, the space race, Detente and ultimately a largely peaceful resolution, mostly attributable to Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It is well worth reading.

Book review: Roger’s Profanisaurus: War and Piss/Viz The Pieman’s Wig 2019

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Viz Presents: Roger’s Profanisaurus: War and Piss. Published by Dennis.

Roger Mellie, the Man on the Telly is to adult comic Viz what Dennis the Menace is to The Beano, what Judge Dredd is to 2000AD or what Dan Dare was to The Eagle. He has been in every issue of Viz since Chris Donald first started selling copies of his home-produced comic nearly forty years ago.

The premise is simple: Roger is a TV presenter wholly unsuited to TV, largely because he has a tendency to swear virtually every other sentence. Typical episodes see him being barred from hosting Blue Peter after drawing attention to the size of a puppy’s penis and attempts to pitch TV shows entitled, The Bollock Naked Chef, Celebrity Bumhole and Call My Muff.

Roger’s Profanisaurus is an ever-expanding dictionary of swearwords. This latest edition contains 20,000 rude words, phrases and explanations. It is now longer than all three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy combined. Really.

Typically politically incorrect examples include:

golden deceiver n. A blonde piece who looks gorgeous from behind, but is actually a right dog from the front. A backstabber, a back beauty.

bloatee n. The type of carefully toped beard favoured by the chubbier male, in the vain hope that it will demarcate his chin from his neck and thus indicate where his face stops. As sported by hopelessly optimistic pie shifters such as Chris Moyles, Johnny Vegas, Ric Waller, Lisa Riley etc.

You’ll feel dirty after reading it.

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Viz: The Pieman’s Wig 2019. Published by Dennis.

Roger, of course, features alongside the other regular favourites in this year’s Viz annual.

Other highlights include: Tiny Cox: The Pocket Particle Physicist: a one-off in which the celebrated TV scientist is shrunk to miniature proportions and fun with the usual favourites, Mrs Brady: Old Lady, Major Misunderstanding, Biffa Bacon, Sid the Sexist, Farmer Palmer and Buster Gonad and his Unfeasibly Large Testicles.

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

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

Published by Workman.

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, Lord Lawson is saying. She acted like she was in charge. Which she was. She was the Prime Minister. But I didn’t like it because I was a man and wanted to be Prime Minister myself and anyway wasn’t used to having a woman tell me what to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I spotted only one mistake that should have been proofed out on p119:

“(Chris Smith) was appointed as the first openly gay person in the Cabinet in 1997, nine years after Margaret Thatcher had left power.”

Nine years? Really? After November 1990? Not six and a half?

But my own pedantry aside, this is an excellent read.

THATCHER-PARTY

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

Book review: The Coen Brothers by Ian Nathan

Published by: Aurum Press

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

Such as:

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

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

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

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

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

Frances McDormand In 'Fargo'

And so on…

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

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

Book review: Viz: The Jester’s Shoes

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

(Gentle readers, be warned…!)

Where would the world be without Viz?

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

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

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

So what’s happening in this one?

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

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

 

Book review: Citizen Clem – A Biography of Attlee by John Bew


Published by Riverrun

Uncharismatic, underwhelming and a bit posh, Clement Attlee might seem an unlikely hero. But he’s certainly one of my heroes. And he should probably be one of yours too.
He came from a privileged background, the sort of background many on the Right see as inappropriate for someone on the Left. In fact, Attlee’s origins are very typical of many on the Left: Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Hugh Dalton, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell and many others. But Attlee, unlike most right wingers was intelligent enough to recognise the realities of poverty and sought to rectify them, rather than either seeking to blame the poor for their own misfortunes or obsessing about the social background of those attempting to alleviate poverty as the Right tend to do.
Attlee retained a certain conservatism. He never moved against the royal family or the House of Lords. He never attacked public schools either, having enjoyed his own schooldays.

His relationship with Winston Churchill, the other political giant of his era is fascinating. As a young man, Attlee watched the top hatted Home Secretary as he attended the 1911 Sidney Street Siege. He didn’t blame Churchill for the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landings even though he took part in them himself. He served loyally as Churchill’s wartime deputy. He trounced Churchill in the 1945 General Election.
As John Bew’s extremely well researched and thorough Orwell award winning book reminds us, Attlee probably did more than any other 20th century British Prime Minister to transform Britain for the better. This is a great book about a great man.

Book review: Little Me. My Life From A-Z. By Matt Lucas

aBook review: Little Me. My Life From A-Z. By Matt Lucas. Published by Canongate.

“He’s a baby! He’s a baby!” These words were sung by Shooting Stars co-host Bob Mortimer just as an unusual looking man dressed in a full-sized pink romper suit homed into view.

This is probably how most of us got our first glimpse of Matt Lucas, then known as “George Dawes” (as in “What are the scores, George Dawes?”) in the anarchic Nineties quiz show, Shooting Stars. He was not, of course, a baby, but it is surprising to reflect, just how young he was. Having started performing stand-up in his teens, Lucas was already a semi-experienced performer when he first appeared on the show in 1995. He was barely twenty-one. True stardom was to come with Little Britain alongside his comedy partner, David Walliams, some years’ later.

As Lucas admits, he does tend to polarise opinion somewhat. If the sight of his grinning bald face on the front cover already repels you, this book is unlikely to change your mind.

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But Lucas certainly has a story to tell: even before his entry into the comedy world, he had to cope with sudden childhood baldness, parental divorce and family scandal, fluctuating weight and the growing realisation that he was gay. Then, there was the decade-long climb to fame, initially playing the fictional aristocrat Sir Bernard Chumley, his first teenage meeting with Walliams (they bonded by comparing their stock of celebrity impressions), George Dawes, Rock Profiles, Little Britain, Come Fly With Me and ultimately Hollywood.

Fittingly for someone who was recently jumping around in time on Doctor Who, however, Lucas avoids a chronological approach. Each chapter is in alphabetical order by subject, a technique which works very well. The second chapter B, for example, is entitled Baldy! and discusses Lucas’s hair loss while the tenth J, Jewish, discusses his racial and religious heritage. It’s not always as obvious as that however and you’ll have to find our for yourself what the chapters ‘Frankie and Jimmy’ and ‘Accrington Stanley’ are about.

There is also, the tragic end to his relationship with Kevin McGee, his civil partner who committed suicide in 2009, some time after the failure of his relationship with Lucas. Lucas makes no apology for skirting around what clearly remains a very painful subject for him and nor should he have to. When he does occasionally refer to McGee, however, it is always with sensitivity and affection.

Like anyone, Lucas has a love/hate relationship with his own fame. He is perhaps more comfortable in the US where he is better known for his brief appearance in the huge comedy movie hit Bridesmaids opposite Rebel Wilson than for anything else. Indeed, as he himself admits, with the UK version of Little Britain a decade in the past now and the failure of his recent series Pompidou, he is less familiar to younger viewers now than he once was. Indeed, of the two Little Britain stars David Walliams is by far the better known member of the duo now.

Despite this, it is hard to imagine the man who created The Only Gay In The Village or George and Marjorie Dawes, ever disappearing quietly from our screens anytime soon.

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