Book review: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

 

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

He is not the only one.

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

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

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

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

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

“When anger trawls the internet,

Looking for a hook;

It’s time to disconnect,

And go and read a book.”

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

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

Author: Matt Haig

Out: now

Published by: Canongate

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

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

By David Southwell and Graeme Donald

Published by: Carlton Books

Publication date: 12 July 2018

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Conspiracy theories are odd things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHRIS HALLAM

Book reviews: Matt Haig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book review: The Year of the Geek by James Clarke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book review: Viz: The Jester’s Shoes

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

Where would the world be without Viz?

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

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

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

So what’s happening in this one?

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

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

 

Book review: Only Fools and Stories by David Jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: Father Christmas and Me by Matt Haig

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Book review: Father Christmas and Me, by Matt Haig. Published by: Canongate.

Matt Haig is undeniably one of the finest British authors working today.

His 2004 novel The Last Family in England presented an intriguing new insight into a family’s dysfunction, viewed through the eyes of their pet dog. 2013’s The Humans, meanwhile, arguably his best novel to date, saw an extra-terrestrial experiencing Earth for the first time by taking the form of a Cambridge University professor. This year’s How To Stop Time http://bit.ly/2twITK8 focuses on a man who is afflicted with a condition which leads him to age fifteen times slower than everyone else. Thus, despite being born in the age of Elizabeth I and real-life witch hunts, he still appears to be only about forty in the age of Netflix, Brexit and Twitter.

How To Stop Time has been optioned as a potential film starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Haig’s 2015 book A Boy Called Christmas also currently seems likely to be filmed. It is a charming seasonal tale for children, followed up by The Girl Who Saved Christmas and now Father Christmas and Me, beautifully illustrated by Chris Mould.

Haig is skilled at writing for children as he is adept at producing literature for adults. I heartily recommend all of his books.

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Book review: Movie Geek by Simon Brew

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Book review: Movie Geek: The Den of Geek Guide to the Movieverse by Simon Brew, Ryan Lambie and Louise Mellor. Published by Cassell, a division of Octopus Publishing.

This may come as something of a shock to my most regular readers but there are other websites out there. You don’t have to read this one. There’s apparently one called Amazon which is pretty popular and another called YouTube. There’s also one called Den of Geek.

Den of Geek have been a valuable dispensary of geek info for well over a decade now, long predating the likes of the excellent Nerd Like You site or my former employers, the sadly now defunct Geeky Monkey magazine. If you want clues about the latest series of The Walking Dead or a review of the latest Game of Thrones episode, the website is the place for you.

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This movie-themed volume is the site’s first soiree into the world of books (big papery versions of websites: ask your mum) but I doubt it will be its last. Film-related articles featured include How The 1990s Changed Blockbuster Cinema, The Movie Sequels You Might Not Know Existed, Films You Might Not Know Were Based On A Comic Book and A Few Remarkable Things About Some Remarkably Bad Movies.

Do these topics float your boat? I’ll confess they do mine. But then, I am a geek. What do you expect?

But I would recommend this, genuinely. It’s a great coffee table read. Buy it. And perhaps Den of Geek, will one day be as popular as the website you’re reading now.

Which, in truth, even I’ve forgotten the name of.

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Book review: How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb (Published by: Canongate)

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It’s probably more than a decade now since most of us became familiar with the comedy actor Robert Webb.

As Jez, the more laid-back but less responsible half of the flat-share arrangement in Channel 4’s longest running sitcom Peep Show between 2003 until 2015, he was the perfect foil to David Mitchell’s more intelligent but thoroughly anal Mark Corrigan. Although brilliant, Peep Show was never a ratings success. It did, however, lead directly to the sketch show The Mitchell and Webb Look which, though patchy as many such shows are, pushed the duo into the mainstream.

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Webb’s career is obviously linked to Mitchell’s: the two met at Cambridge in the Nineties and are currently appearing together again in Simon Blackwell’s aptly named comedy, Back. A straight comparison of the two men’s careers has led many to assume Webb is the lesser talent of the two. Mitchell has been a prolific columnist and clearly has a massive aptitude for comedy panel shows. Aside from his spectacular victory in the 2009 Let’s Dance for Comic Relief and his early performance in the TV series The Smoking Room, most of Webb’s biggest successes have been with Mitchell.

But any lingering doubts anyone might have about Webb’s talent should be vanquished by a reading of this genuinely funny and touching memoir. The title might seem to count against it: the “how to” prefix has been overused in comedy books in recent years (How Not To Grow Up by Richard Herring, How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Grown-Up by Daisy Buchanan, How To Be A Bawse by Lily Singh and the forthcoming How To Be Champion by Sarah Milican) but in fairness to Webb, the title is pretty essential to the book’s structure. The seemingly well-worn “having an imaginary conversation with one’s younger self” device, previously deployed by Miranda Hart, amongst others, is also used well here.

The book is boosted by Webb’s vivid recollections of his painful teenage years, doubtless helped by his enjoyably pretentious diaries (“Is there any romance greater than the one a teenage boy has with his own loneliness?”) which he bravely reproduces fragments from here. He is also refreshingly open about his drinking problems and his early experiments with homosexuality.

But as with Hugh Laurie who, likewise, has always been in danger of being overshadowed by his brilliant co-star, this book serves as a valuable reminder that Robert Webb is a major talent in his own right.

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