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: Do You Dream of Terra-Two?

Could you ever imagine going into space?

Could you then imagine spending twenty-three years there, beginning your journey just as you are about to leave your teens, only to end it just after the point you’ve entered middle age?

And could you do all this knowing even then that you won’t be returning to Earth? That instead of being reunited with your surviving loved ones, you will be charged with a new mission: setting up a colony on a new planet, a planet identical to our own discovered in space but as yet uninhabited? Namely, Terra-Two?

This is the fate the group of teenagers in Temi Oh’s first-class debut novel have keenly volunteered for, having being whittled down to a select few who will join a number of older, more experienced crew for an epic journey on the Damocles to the new world. The name of the ship is only one of a number of indicators which – rightly or wrongly – suggest the crew are in for a difficult journey. They are a mixed bunch of characters and despite vigorous psychiatric screening during their years of training, it soon becomes clear they are as prone to human flaws as anyone else.

The mission begins in 2012, suggesting the ship will reach its destination in the mid-2030s. But despite references to the London Olympics, the 2008 financial crash and Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box-sets, this is not quite the year 2012 as we may remember it. Clearly, the course of human history has diverged from own own at various points. Space technology has clearly advanced way beyond anything achieved in the first fifth of the 21st century while Britain is for once at the forefront of the global space programme.

Despite a surprisingly high number of errors in the Amazon Kindle version of the book, his is a thoroughly enjoyable and gripping debut novel from British author Temi-Oh full of believable and relatable characters.

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: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman. Published by: Atlantic Books.

As British voters prepare to go to the polls for the fourth time this decade, it is well worth bearing in mind: the way we select our politicians is awful.

You don’t actually have to be rich to become an MP, but as Isabel Hardman’s book highlights, the process of standing for parliament is so expensive, time consuming and arduous, it’s a wonder anyone ever does it in the first place. Most candidates in the current general election campaign will never become MPs. And even if they do, the labyrinthine world of Westminster offers so little support to new members, that many of them will find themselves falling victim to alcoholism or marital breakdown. Of course, many also often find themselves subject to personal abuse, on Twitter, on nastier versions of blogs like this or in what is sometimes referred to as “the real world”.

Hardman (the Deputy Editor of The Spectator) admits to some well-intentioned sleight of hand here. Despite the book’s title, she is not actually attacking politicians as a class. She does not pander to the popular stereotype that all or even most MPs are lazy, out of touch or corrupt. Although she does not shy away from recounting examples of abuse, she reminds us that the vast majority of MPs are hardworking, dedicated people. Attending regular surgeries and hearing constituents’ problems arguably puts them more in touch with ordinary people’s problems than the average person.

Hardman’s argument is that the current system is deeply flawed, often resulting in unsatisfactory laws.

It is an excellent book and a difficult argument to refute.

Book review: Where Power Stops, by David Runciman

Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.

The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.

Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.

Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.

The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.

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: Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, by Lucy Worsley

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Book review: Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, by Lucy Worsley.

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton

There is now no one on Earth who was alive at the same time as Queen Victoria. Her long life began nearly two centuries ago in 1819 when Napoleon was still alive. By the time of her death in 1901, her funeral procession was able to be filmed, bringing it to a wider audience than all previous royal funerals combined. Her reign, now the second longest in British history now was hugely important, marking the peak of British imperial power and the industrial revolution and the literary careers of Charles Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

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Victoria’s reign has been very well documented, however, so it is refreshing that Lucy Worsley has managed to find a fresh perspective on it through choosing to focus on 24 key days in her long life. Through this, we are able to gain a new insight into Victoria as a person, as well as a ruler, empress and symbol of an age.

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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: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

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But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

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Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

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Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

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Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

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Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media.
His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman.
Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does the real Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith and Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems, but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life so far.

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By and large, he comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a back bencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders, particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated.
There is nothing at all to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, mainly in the 1980s, He is certainly not pro-terrorist, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future.
Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not.
The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime, notably under John Smith (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (p71 and p308).
By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly over the not unusual fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable but that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or that they were an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again in the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than those from relatively humble backgrounds such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – who became figures on the Right, were “unlikely conservatives”.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” (she isn’t) while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, we should remember: Rosa Prince writes for the Telegraph. Perhaps we should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge?
These blind spots (admittedly common to many Conservative Party supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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Book review: Selling The Movie: The Art of the Film Poster

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Book review: Selling The Movie: The Art of the Film Poster by Ian Haydn Smith. Published by: White Lion. Out: now.

Perhaps surprisingly in the era of 3D, Blu-ray and leaked online trailers, the role of the movie poster is still vital to any film’s marketing. This large, attractive coffee table read, tells the story of cinema, not just through reproductions of the posters themselves but through a compelling narrative history of the medium.

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To be honest, I’m not sure the cover image for this book (reproduced above the West Side Story image above) really does the best job of “selling” its excellent contents, so please find below some excellent examples of posters from cinema’s past and present to whet your appetite.

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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 means 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: Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch

Chris Hallam's World View

Closet Michael Bloch

As of May 2015, there are more openly gay members of parliament than there have ever been before. But how many are still “in the closet”? And what about those who kept their sexuality under wraps in the past, perhaps before the homosexual act itself was legalised in 1967?

Michael Bloch’s book is extremely gossipy but also highly informative revealing that far more of the British politicians who shaped the last century were gay than was commonly thought. In some cases, it was just a phase: Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland’s very intense early relationship fizzled out into mere friendship by the time both had began their careers as Labour politicians. They later became fierce rivals. The still homosexual Crosland was bitterly disappointed when the now keenly heterosexual Jenkins was appointed Chancellor in 1967. Jenkins felt the same when Crosland became Foreign Secretary seven years later. Jenkins left the Callaghan…

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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 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: 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 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 autobiography than Jason’s 2013 book, My Life, this should be enjoyed by all Jason fans featuring countless anecdotes about his 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: 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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