Book review: How To Stop Time, by Matt Haig

Published by: Canongate, July 6th 2017

Tom Hazard has a condition.

For although he looks and sounds like any other forty-one year old man, he is older than he seems. Much older. For while most men of forty-one spent their childhoods rising BMXs and playing Spectrum computer games, Tom was born in the later stages of the Tudor era. In short, he is well over four hundred years old already and can expect to live into the 23rd century.

Anageria is the name given to Tom’s condition in Matt Haig’s excellent novel. He is not immortal and indeed does still age but just as dogs and cats are thought to live for seven years to every human’s one, Tom lives one year for every other humans’ fifteen. In short, he has only aged ten years since the age of Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln. He would only age five or six years in the entire period most of us spend on the Earth.

Like the hero of The Time Traveler’s Wife (who constantly finds himself jumping from random year to random year in the life of his partner), Benjamin Button (who is born as an old man and then ages backwards), Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (who like Tom, doesn’t age much from Tudor times onward but also changes sex) and the main character in the recent film The Age of Adaline (who remains in her late twenties for sixty years and ends up with an old lady as a daughter), Tom ultimately finds his long life less a blessing and a curse, particularly as he struggles to form relationships with any normal person (or “Mayfly”).

It’s a superb premise and a compelling read. Hazard undergoes all manner of human experiences ranging from the grim brutality of the 17th century witch-hunts to the joys of the Jazz Age. Like many characters in these situations, he has an uncanny Flashman-like ability to bump into famous people along the way, an encounter with author F. Scott Fitzgerald, recalling a similar encounter in Woody Allen’s time travelling film Midnight In Paris.

Matt Haig is one of Britain’s finest novelists and while this may slightly lack the emotional punch of some of his other novels (such as The Humans), there is still a simple joy in witnessing Tom’s experiences throughout the centuries as he struggles to find reasons to stay alive.

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Book Review: Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook by Clive James

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Once upon time, conversations about TV used to be like this:

“Did you see Neighbours yesterday?”

“Yes, I saw most of it. Bouncer had a dream…” And so on.

A few years later, it would often be more like.

“Did you see Sex and the City last night?”

“Don’t tell me about it. I’ve taped it.”

Now, it’s more like:

“I watched Santa Clarita Diet yesterday.”

“Cool. I’ve not seen that. Or heard of it actually. Get back to me in 2020.”

For we live in the age of bingewatching. All of our viewing is laid out before us. In the 1970s, this would have meant whole series of The Onedin Line, Upstairs Downstairs and er, Poldark would have been presented to us in one go. Today, it means I’m bang up to date with some things (13 Reasons Why, Crazy Ex Girfriend, Transparent) and miles behind on others. I’m only on about 2013 in the story of The Good Wife. A shame as Mr. James unleashes a supermassive epic spoiler about this series early on! Be warned.

But otherwise, Clive James, once a famous TV critic before his own TV career is the perfect man to write this book. He has always been a superb writer and has taken the opportunity created by his recent illness to bingewatch a plenty with his family and as usual elevates this material far above the level an unknown scribe like myself has ever managed while writing for the likes of magazines like Geeky Monkey, Bingebox and DVD Monthly.

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As usual, with such things, it’s more fun if you’ve seen the show he’s discussing for yourself. He tackles the major shows of our time: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The West Wing, Homeland, The Good Wife and Game of Thrones amongst others. Most controversially, he thinks Breaking Bad is very overrated. He thinks Steve Buscemi isn’t quite tough enough for Boardwalk Empire (which should be renamed Boredwalk Empire in my view. Only Buscemi’s presence and Michael Shannon’s hypnotic voice kept me watching as long as I did). He is probably right to claim House of Cards goes off a lot once Frank Underwood becomes president (er, spoiler alert! Although surely everyone knows that?). He is also probably right about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s follow up to The West Wing. It probably suffered from trying to apply the same level of seriousness to a TV comedy show as Sorkin did to life in the White House. It also probably didn’t help that none of the comics on the show within a show (Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg aside) were actually very funny.

Occasionally, James shows his age. He dismisses anything with superheroes and zombies in outright. I, at forty, am only just starting to do this. He also makes it a little too obvious which actresses he does and doesn’t fancy.

But who am I to criticise? Nobody does this sort of thing better than Clive James.

He is the Master.

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Book review: Monty Python’s Hidden Treasures by Adrian Besley

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Published by: Carlton Books
It is a sad fact that the world today can be divided into two groups. Those who, like me, will always be amused by the likes of the Dirty Fork Sketch (punchline: “A good job I didn’t tell them about the dirty knife as well!”), the Upper Class Twit of the Year contest (“Nigel Incubator-Jones. His best friend is a tree. Works as a stockbroker in his spare time”), the quiz show Blackmail, the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Funniest Joke in the World and, of course, the Dead Parrot Sketch.

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Then there are those, perhaps a majority now sadly, for whom the humour of Monty Python’s Flying Circus will always be a mystery. Like The Goon Show which is now largely incomprehensible to anyone born after 1960, MPFC is increasingly dated.
Disparate members of the first group even those like me who were born after the series finished are thus forced to eternally roam the land muttering catchphrases (“nudge nudge, wink wink, likes photography? I bet she does! I bet she does!”) which are totally incomprehensible to the second group and trying to convince them it was funny.
In truth, although patchy as all TV sketch shows are, it really was often very funny. The cause was helped by the films too, particularly the Life of Brian, which have by and large aged better than the series.
This book attempts to bridge the gap still further with (if I may quote from the press release) “22 removable facsimiles of rare memorabilia from their official archives, including hand-scribbled scripts, cue sheets, character lists, posters, and animation artwork”. If the aim is to introduce the uninitiated to the ways of Python, I’m not sure it succeeds. Would anyone who didn’t know the series well buy it anyway? I doubt it.
But for any Python fans out there, this is a lovely book and a beautifully crafted treat for them.
And let’s not forget the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects…oh bugger.

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Book review: Pussy by Harold Jacobson

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Published by Jonathan Cape, 13th April 2017

Few events have provoked a more seismic hostile reaction within the western world than the recent election of Donald Trump. One imagines his presidency will provoke a wealth of satirical novels based around his presidency. Well done then, to Booker Prize winning author Howard Jacobson then, for getting his version in first,  less than a hundred days into his presidency. Unfortunately, as with Trump’s own administration thus far, the book can only be viewed as a failure.

This is the story of Prince Fracassus, heir presumptive to the Duke of Origen, a spoilt, semi-literate, sex-obsessed, boorish,Twitter-obsessed fathead. Sound familiar?

Exactly. Indeed, this is part of the problem. Fracassus is so obviously meant to be Trump (something Chris Riddell’s excellent cartoons throughout confirm) that any satirical impact is largely blunted.

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The “heir presumptive” stuff seems somewhat misplaced too. Trump’s father was a millionaire property owner: Donald’s is not a rags to riches story but (as is often the case) a riches to far more riches story. But his dad was, at least, a self-made man. He was not, unlike Kennedy or Bush, part of a political dynasty. At least, not yet.

Donald J. Trump is probably the worst person to ever occupy the White House. He is an arrogant, bullying, egotistical, racist, misogynistic pig. Even the worst of his predecessors (Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush) had some redeeming features. He appears to have none. He is both a bad example to our children and a compelling argument for not having children.

He thus deserves a book which truly destroys him on the page. This isn’t that book.

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Book review: Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

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Published by: Macmillan, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Star Wars book reviews: 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book review: Viz Annual 2017 The Bookie’s Pencil

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

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

No, it hasn’t.

The formula has remained largely unchanged. Comic regulars include:

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

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

The Fat Slags: Two promiscuous overweight Geordie girls.

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

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

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

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Book review: The Long And Winding Road by Alan Johnson

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

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

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Book review: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

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

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

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

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

He’s probably right.

Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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