Book review: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Perhaps no British sitcom is more fondly remembered than Barbara (and Jim). The comedy series which enjoyed a popular four series run in the mid-1960s made a star of lead actress Sophie Straw and changed British TV forever.

Except of course, it didn’t, for convincing as this enjoyable novel by Nick Hornby is, neither Sophie Straw and Barbara (and Jim) ever existed. In fact, we first meet the fictional Sophie when she is still going under her real name Barbara Parker, poised to win and ultimately reject the title Miss Blackpool 1964. For while she is pretty, Barbara is also determined to be known for being funny like her heroine, US TV star Lucille Ball. Setting her sights on London, Barbara (now known as Sophie) dazzles a crew of jaded writers as she auditions for a hackneyed TV pilot going under the dubious title Wedded Bliss? Recognising they have discovered a major talent, the sitcom is transformed, Sophie is coincidentally given her own real name back for the main character and the show becomes a monster hit, acclaimed for its edgy depiction of modern family life. But before long, inevitably, the show loses momentum. With the lead couple saddled with a baby (a disaster as far as many sitcom writers are concerned) the series is ultimately squeezed out by an edgy newcomer To Death Us Do Part: a comedy which could hardly be more dated today.

Writing about a fictional comedy star and sitcom isn’t easy. Hornby avoids mentioning real life female comedy actresses of the period such as Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques or Joyce Grenfell and the Carry On films are never mentioned. Yet the creation of Barbara (and Jim) is utterly convincing even if a later story-line in the novel about the Funny Girl being reunited with her estranged mother adds nothing to the book.

Hornby also manages to dodge the usual “fictional comedies are never funny” issue. We hear surprisingly little of the dialogue from the sitcom yet the interaction between Sophie and the show’s three male creators off screen really sparkles with energy and wit. Hornby has written several well received screenplays now, notably An Education based on Lynne Barber’s memoir. Hornby’s own “education” is starting to yield real results.

A fine funny book and a return to form for Nick Hornby, the novelist.

Book review: A Year in 120 Recipes by Jack Monroe

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You probably know Jack Monroe. She is a single mum whose blog hit the big time. Rather than waffling on about old long dead politicians as some people choose to do on their blogs, she decided to put recipes on hers and it soon became a smash hit. This led to a book A Girl Called Jack
https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/a-girl-called-jack-book-review/ released earlier this year described as “the best cookery book of all” by my wife. If this seems sexist, in my defence a) I am a rubbish cook and my wife genuinely does all the cooking and b) I do most of the cleaning around the house and all the washing up. Quite badly.

Jack Monroe photographed for Observer Food Monthly

This is the follow-up book to A Girl Called Jack. It is actually a slightly plusher and better presented book than the first (though is also more expensive). Like the first, however, it does contain many easily affordable recipes which are not only nice to eat but can be made easily using any odds and ends which you might realistically have lying around in your kitchen. And Billy Bragg is in here too: she is a bit political.
Recipes include Babab Gosht, Burned Brown Sugar Meringues, Lazarus Pesto and a Peanut Butter Bread.
I may reserve judgement until we have sampled the results. But early evidence suggests the old Jack magic has struck again.

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A Year in 120 Recipes
Jack Monroe
Published by Penguin Hardback, £18.99

A Girl Called Jack book review

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A Girl Called Jack

100 Delicious Budget Recopies

By Jack Monroe

Penguin/Michael Joseph Paperback

£12.99

Let’s face it: Jack Monroe isn’t the first and won’t be the last. Numerous cookbook authors have stressed their low budget credentials before and will do so again. While aspirational cookery has always remained popular even during the darkest days of the recent recession, it would be a foolish foodie indeed who entirely ignored entirely the constraints forced upon many ordinary people by the turmoil resulting from the jiggery pokery of our once esteemed global banking industry, plus the subsequent devastating economic slump.

The difference is that, without wishing to get all Karl Marx-y about it, author Jack Monroe has solid recent and raw experience of life on what used to be called “the breadline”.  She was and is a single mother from Southend and spent a full year on the dole as recently as 2011. Her words thus carry somewhat more credibility on this score than the Nigellas and Jamies of this world, well-meaning though they me be.

Not that this would matter a hell of a lot if Jack Monroe’s recipes which include Chocolate Tea Bread, Jam Thumbprint  Cookies and Pasta alla Genovese were not a) genuinely makeable with cheap and readily available ingredients. But thankfully they are (the Pasta alla Genovese is especially scrumptious).

Furthermore, as a lesbian and a onetime benefit claimant, Jack Monroe has at least two attributes which make her a Public Enemy in the eyes of the Daily Mail.

What more prompting do you need? Go out and buy this excellent and endlessly resourceful book. The accompanying TV series is surely only a matter of time.

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