Book review: Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History

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Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History: The Nation’s Story Told Through 50 Important Documents. Carlton Publishing Group. Out: now. RRP: £20

Like a real life, latter-day Henry and Indiana Jones, father and son writing and broadcasting team, Peter and Dan Snow apply their formidable powers to an analysis of our nation’s history through an examination of fifty key historical documents. This isn’t, of course, very similar to ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ in most respects (most things aren’t). But what this lacks in machine guns, Nazi airships, cameos by Alexei Sayle and the ghosts of medieval crusader knights, this more than makes up for in incisive and intelligent historical insight drawn from the Snow Boys’ seventy or so years of collective writing and journalistic experience.

All the usual suspects are here such as Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Munich Agreement. There are also a few unexpected treats like the Queen’s chilling ‘speech in the event of a nuclear war’ from 1983.

The documents are reproduced nicely, making this an attractive and readable book: a coffee table read for someone with a huge cup of coffee.

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Book review: Punch & Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton

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Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide To Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Published by Biteback.

Iain Duncan Smith was terrible at it. William Hague was brilliant at it but it got him nowhere. Theresa May is not very good at it. Jeremy Corbyn is better although is a dull performer. Harold Wilson drank a bottle of whiskey, sometimes two to prepare for it. Margaret Thatcher had her notes for it, produced in large print. She felt wearing reading glasses would look like a sign of weakness.

It is, in fact, Thatcher who we have in many ways to thank for Prime Minister’s Questions in its current form. Although Prime Ministers have had a designated time slot for answering questions since the early 1960s, it was Thatcher who transformed it into a major event – or rather two events – by choosing to answer every question herself. It was also around this time – although not her doing – that parliamentary proceedings began being broadcast on the radio from 1978 and then TV from 1989. The modern ritual of PMQs would not be the same without this.

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On taking office, Tony Blair reduced the sessions from two to one a week. Some criticised him for this, suggesting it proved his “contempt for parliament” but in fact it seems very sensible. Thatcher reportedly spent eight hours a week just preparing for her two weekly sessions. Something had to give.

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton are behind this well researched and thorough guide and clearly know their stuff. Both have experience as political advisers and spent years briefing Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband behind the scenes for their own sessions with, as they admit, somewhat mixed results.

It is a bizarre ritual, a genuine ordeal for the leaders on both sides and almost useless as a means to both ask and get an answer to a question, involving a lot of improvisation, preparation and second guessing. The sight of 600 paid representatives bawling and groaning at each other in a crowded chamber on a weekly basis also probably puts more people off politics than anything else.

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It does serve a function though and as the book reminds us, has provided scenes of rare humour and drama. William Hague, though a largely unsuccessful Tory leader was a master of this strange art and like the late John Smith could often be very funny.

Even Hague, could come unstuck though, as he did filling in for David Cameron when Harriet Harman stood in for PM, Gordon Brown in 2008.

“You had to explain yesterday that you dress in accordance with wherever you go – you wear a helmet to a building site, you wear Indian clothes to Indian parts of your constituency,” he began, then attempting a joke. “Presumably when you go to a cabinet meeting you dress as a clown.”

Against all expectation, Harriet Harman then wiped the floor with him:

“If am looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last person I would look to for advice is the man in a baseball cap,” she said.

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By common consent, PMQs is currently going through a dull patch. Jeremy Corbyn covered up his initial experience well by using questions from the general public. Today, he is much better and no longer resorts to this clever tactic. But he is not a spontaneous performer even as he consistently outperforms Theresa May.

It was David Cameron who called for “an end to Punch and Judy politics” when he became Tory leader in 2005. He was not the first or last leader to express such sentiments and was not referring to PMQs specifically anyway, a ritual which he generally proved pretty good at.

But a few years later, he admitted the folly of this pledge. For calm down, dear! He was the future once, his Day Mayor and your Night Mayor.

And Punch and Judy politics are here to stay.

That is that. The end.

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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 Margaret Thatcher’s press conference performance in which she committed to Britain joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism. According to him, the 63 year old Prime Minister was looking: “distinctly sexy, with a flush about her cheeks as though she were up to something naughty.” Alan Clark, Tory MP, diarist and 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 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 wasn’t used to it.”

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 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 of first childhood elocution lessons intended to purge the Grantham out of it 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, does rather favour 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: Dennis, Reagan, Gorbachev, Cecil Parkinson,  she certainly didn’t, others: Lawson, 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 her 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? Not six and a half?

But 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 World of Sherlock Holmes by Martin Fido

Sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s not real.

He seems so fully realised, with his maddening powers of perception and endearing eccentricities (violin-playing, cocaine: both habits which tend to be rather less endearing in reality), that it is sometimes hard to accept that he isn’t, or at least wasn’t once, a living breathing person.

Is it really possible to deduce as he so often does, from say, a dash of baking powder scattered on the front of your shoes that you went on holiday to Turkey last year, or that you work as a tree surgeon, or that your maternal grandmother’s name was ‘Elsie’ or that you voted for the SDP in the 1983 General Election? Who knows? If so, perhaps the web isn’t the greatest threat to our personal data, after all.

Experienced crime fiction expert Martin Fido here provides a thorough guide to all things Sherlock anyway, which should satisfy all regardless of whether your own Holmes of preference is Benedict, Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, Rathbone or Basil The Great Mouse Detective.

Comprehensive, my dear Watson.

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Book review: The World of Sherlock Holmes: The Facts and Fiction Behind The World’s Greatest Detective, by Martin Fido.

Published by: Carlton Books

Out: now

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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: 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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