Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Doctorr Hook's part in the greatest spy story ever told

Blurbs on the covers of real-life stories of espionage that invoke the name of John Le Carré too often seem like a devalued currency. They’re like those reviews of new Stones albums that say “their best since ‘Exile On Main Street’. However I can assure you that The Spy and The Traitor, Ben Macintyre’s book about Oleg Gordievsky, fully warrants that kind of billing and that's for two reasons. 

The first is that Gordievsky is, as spies go, noble. He didn’t do it for money. He did it because he believed it would make the world a safer place. The second is that Macintyre is a brilliant storyteller who knows how to leave out the kind of detail that drags on the narrative and understands the importance of key details much as a spy would.

For instance, when Gordievsky was working for HM Government while based in Russia it was agreed that if he wanted to talk to his handlers he would stand outside a certain bakery at a certain time of the week carrying a Safeway bag. That meant staff from the embassy had to check in at this place scores of times, always wearing the same coloured clothes, holding the same carrier bags and having about their person a Kit-Kat and a Mars bar. Just in case. When Gordievsky was transferred to London his handlers kept on checking in at the same place in case the KGB had been watching and would connect the British spies’ non-appearance with Gordievsky’s absence from Moscow. Handling that one agent, whose identity was known only to a handful of officers, involved hundreds of people in years of harmless charades and a small minority in acts of breathtaking courage, particularly when it came to the moment of his "exfiltration".

The team set off from Moscow by car on the pretext of going to see a doctor in Finland. They take with them all the supplies they would need to stage a full picnic, English middle-class style, as well as syringes full of sedatives to quell the nerves of anyone called upon to spend a long time in the car's boot. Unbelievably the team also includes a husband and wife who, partly because they can't find a sitter and partly because her presence would serve to confuse their KGB shadows, take along their baby girl. Furthermore, this being the mid-80s, to pass time on the journey, they take cassettes including Dire Straits' "Brothers In Arms" and the Greatest Hits of Doctor Hook. Macintyre makes almost comic use of this last choice in the narrative. I'm sure if they make this into a movie the director will have a field day.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Now that pop music's turning into history it's time for rock's version of the Sealed Knot

Chris Shaw does a podcast called I Am The Egg Pod in which he asks people to talk about a Beatles or Beatles-related record. I was too late for "A Hard Day's Night" because that had already been picked and so I chose "With The Beatles".

I dipped into some of the earlier interviews, which featured the likes of David Quantick and Samira Ahmed, and was frankly a little intimidated by how much people seemed to know about the records they were talking about. I wouldn't say I know a lot about "With The Beatles". However I do know a lot about how it felt to be thirteen-years-old and to get that record for Christmas in the days following the assassination of John Kennedy.

It's struck me while talking about my book "Nothing Is Real" that the Beatles were freshly placed before the public by the Anthology series in the mid-90s; because this happened to be around the time of Britpop, they seem to have emerged from that process for many people as the Godfathers of Blur. Because we can only appreciate things from the past when they appear to confirm our complacency about the present we find it easy to approve of the older, hairier, bitchier version of The Beatles sitting around at Abbey Road knocking out their white album, and we have difficulty relating to their earlier selves who sang thrilling pop songs for thirteen-year-old girls who screamed every time they shook their heads.

Chris asked me what people thought about the Beatles albums at the time they came out. I couldn't answer this properly because I think he was expecting me to describe the kind of considered responses people had in the early 90s to, say, the new U2 album. Was it a step forward or back? Was it a disappointment? In 1963, when we were in the thick of all the excitement, "With The Beatles" was just the big black thing that came between the small black things that were "She Loves You" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand". It was wonderful if you were one of the lucky ones who had it bought for you for Christmas. If you weren't it probably seemed even more wonderful. At the time I remember we just felt blessed.

I suppose it's inevitable that pop history, like the history of World War II, has to pass from direct experience to the history books and henceforth be experienced in perpetuity via Friday evenings on BBC Four. It already seems that pop music is, if anything, more appreciated in retrospect than it is at the time. Last year my son-in-law went to see the Stone Roses at Wembley Stadium. I was surprised they were playing anywhere that big. But they were. Almost thirty years after they were the hot new thing they appeared to be selling out bigger venues than ever, entertaining people who for one reason or another missed them at the time.

All this music may be appreciated more than it was at the time but it can never be felt in the same way. At the time it all happens it's too fast, too vulgar and too controversial to attract a mass audience. The mass audience comes later when everything's settled down and everything has been safely consigned to history and we can all approve of everything. Maybe that's the future of all pop music. Historical re-enactment. Maybe somebody will take a lead from America's Renaissance Fairs and make a fortune staging their own re-run of the NME Poll-Winners Concert of 1966 or the Glastonbury Festival of 1971, with actors playing the musicians, lots of places to charge your mobile and glamping facilities on site. A rock and roll version of the Sealed Knot. That's the way it all seems to be pointing.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

In praise of George Beardmore

I came to George Beardmore's "Civilians At War" after Kate Atkinson credited it as a source for her own "Transcription". It's one of the best books I've ever read about the experience of World War II.

Beardmore was an unsuccessful novelist living in North London with a young family when the war broke out. His asthma disqualified him from military service and so he did a variety of jobs. He was stationed with a rifle outside the engineering department of Broadcasting House in case somebody tried a coup de'état. Later he worked for the local authority, trying to find billets for nurses around where he lived in Harrow and then working with the teams who were sent in to pick up the pieces after air raids.

While they recovered the bodies, some of whom had to be retrieved from several gardens away from the point of impact, and tried to make safe the buildings, Beardmore dealt with the living. He kept a diary of the time. It's a unique account of the tedium and terror of life on the Home Front.

It's actually at its most terrifying in the days following D-Day when Hitler unleashed his so-called "terror weapons" on London and the South-East. After the war he became quite a successful writer and so he didn't do anything with his diary. In fact it wasn't discovered until more than thirty years later and then published by his daughters in 1984. It's well worth reading if you can find a copy. There's more about him here.

Monday, September 24, 2018

By looking at what happened in the Clinton years "Slow Burn" explains what's happening now

The Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal was just over twenty years ago. Listening to Slow Burn, the podcast devoted to recounting it, I realise how many of the details I either never knew or have since forgotten.

The same could be said of the previous series of Slow Burn, which was about Watergate. What's most striking about the Clinton one, apart from his breathtaking recklessness, is that the Democrats were every bit as quick to close ranks around him as the Republicans are to get behind Trump today.

In both cases there's a lot of moralising in public while the decisions are made purely on the basis of legislative arithmetic. It's not a matter of what's right. It's a matter of what they get away with. It's a salutary illustration of the truth of Lyndon Johnson's dictum that the thing that matters most in politics is the ability to count.

Friday, September 21, 2018

If you're not nervous, you're not trying

Our guests at Word In Your Ear this week, Mark King and Mark Kermode, have the same initials and play the same instrument. You can hear both conversations here.

Kermode was talking about his adventures in a succession of semi-pro bands, which are recorded in his new book "How Does It Feel?". King was talking about his time at the top of the tree with Level 42 in the 1980s.

Both had interesting things to say about nerves and stage fright. Kermode realised after he was on the receiving end of a particularly savage audience reaction when trying to work as an alternative comedian that anything that didn't kill him made him stronger. King realised, when he was about to take part in a star-studded Prince's Trust show in the mid-80s, as he looked around and saw the ashen faces of Elton John and Eric Clapton, that nerves are something that never goes away.

My kids always say "it's all right for you - you've stood up in front of people lots of times". And I have. It doesn't mean I don't get nervous, just like the other three show-offs in the picture above.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Everybody should read Craig Brown's book about Princess Margaret

Ma'am Darling, Craig Brown's book about Princess Margaret, is a simple idea, brilliantly done.

Everybody who ever met Princess Margaret remembered the experience, in the same way they might remember bee stings and other unpleasant experiences. Furthermore they all mentioned it in their memoirs. Therefore you can put together an interesting biography from all these encounters.

For instance?

Cherie Blair, trapped with PM at some do, reaches for Chris Smith, Culture Secretary and first openly gay government minister. "Have you met the Culture Secretary, Ma'am? And this is his partner."

PM: "Partner for what?"

CB: "Sex, I suppose, Ma'am."

You'd be hard-pressed to find a book more choc-ful of awkward silences, deliberate misunderstandings and "get your coat" moments than this one.

I also like the fact that it's a reminder of how there's nobody more star-struck than the stars.

Alan Bennett goes to visit Russell Harty on his death bed. The nurse has to laboriously remove all the tubes and breathing apparatus that are keeping him alive so he can tell his friend something. When she does Russell gathers all his strength and says "Ned Sherrin had lunch with Princess Margaret the other day and she asked about me. Twice."

Monday, July 16, 2018

Honestly, where would I be without Wikipedia?

I can't say I'd taken much notice of Alvin Stardust before yesterday, when I read that his son, the Headmaster of Reigate Grammar School, was the new chair of the Headmasters' Conference. When I did take notice I was glad his Wikipedia page was there to provide the level of detail that even the nosiest newspapers don't get involved in. Here's what I learned and what I already knew.

Real name: Bernard Jewry. Knew that. Born in Muswell Hill. Didn't know that. Mother a theatrical landlady which meant he was on stage as an infant. Didn't know that. First tasted fame in the sixties as pop singer Shane Fenton. Knew that. He took on that name and persona when the original Fenton died. Now I didn't know that. By then he had married Iris Caldwell, the sister of Rory Storm and former girlfriend of both Paul McCartney and George Harrison. I knew about Rory Storm but not the rest. They had a child who they (bizarrely, to my mind) christened Shaun Fenton. He's the guy who's now the senior head master. There is another son who was called Adam Fenton who grew up to produce dance records under the name Adam F. Knew that. In the early seventies Jewry became Alvin Stardust. Obviously knew that. Stardust was the invention of one Peter Shelley. Knew that. Shelley appeared as Stardust promoting his first hit and then handed off the job to Jewry (didn't know that), who became Stardust for the rest of what Wikipedia calls "a chart span lasting twenty-five years". In 1981 he married the actress Liza Goddard (knew) under his original name Bernard Jewry (didn't know). He was married to his third wife when he died in 2014.

There's nothing there that's particularly outlandish, nothing that would excite a headline writer, nothing that would justify me devoting the time to read a book about him, but I found it all fascinating and I was glad Wikipedia was there to provide those facts in its flat, dispassionate style.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

In praise of Schitt's Creek and Daniel Levy's millennial face

I've only just discovered Schitt's Creek, the Canadian comedy devised by Eugene Levy and his son Daniel and I love it.

The Schitts, a super-rich family, lose everything overnight and are forced to take refuge in Schitt's Creek, an unremarkable town in Trump country which they had bought in their previous life for a laugh. They live in the local motel and take whatever work they can find.

Dad sets up his office in a local garage, son David tries to apply his background in high-end fashion to the town's only ladies outlet, the Blouse Barn, daughter Alexis, whose usual boyfriends are Middle Eastern potentates or movie stars, sets her sights on the local vet and Catherine O'Hara as the mother Moira, a superannuated soap star, teeters round the town in vertiginous heels and a series of black and white outfits that must have been modelled on some of the more extreme items from the wardrobe of Diane Keaton.

The most striking characterisation is Daniel Levy's portrayal of David (above) as a sly, sexually flexible young man who has absorbed many of his mother's preposterous airs while also retaining some of his father's enterprising spirit. When the plot presents him with a dilemma, which is just about every week, you see a succession of expressions flit across his face from condescension through suspicion to an amused sense of possibility. I call it Millennial Face.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

What was Gareth Bale thinking of?

Obviously top athletes have bodies that don't work the way ours do. But what interests me is how their brains must be wired differently too. The Gareth Bale goal against Liverpool on Saturday has had me puzzling ever since. He'd just come on the pitch and as far as I could see had only touched the ball once, to ship it from the middle out to the left, before jogging to the edge of the box, more in hope than expectation. When Marcelo's ball came in it looked as though the deflection it had taken off the defender's boot meant  it was going to land too far behind him for him to be able to do anything with it. So, a microsecond after it had begun spinning, he launched himself in the air with his back to goal thinking....what?

I know exactly how I can connect with this and put it in the top corner?

I may as well do something?

It's worth a go?

Nothing at all. He was just doing what his body told him to.

We've no way of knowing. The only thing we do know is that, unlike the rest of us, he couldn't have been thinking of the consequences of what would have happened if it had turned out the way most bicycle kicks turn out – with the ball in row Z and Ronaldo looking at him with disgust as they all trooped back to the halfway line.

It's here for those who have been living in a cave.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth's invaluable advice to writers

I like the story about the young novelist, still waiting tables, who approached Philip Roth, proffering a copy of his newly-published first book.

It was called "Balls". Roth admired the title. Said he couldn't believe he hadn't used it himself. Then he advised his fan to "quit while you're ahead". He explained that writing was torture, that you had to throw most of it away because it wasn't any good and the young man really should stop now before he did lasting damage to himself.

When this story made the rounds some said that a successful old man like Roth had no right to be putting off anyone young and up and coming.

I don't agree. Roth said what he thought. That most novelists, like most musicians, are never going to achieve anything like the acclaim they feel they're entitled to and they really might be better off doing something they can succeed in.

And the more important point is that if the fire to write novels really burns inside you, rather than just the desire to become a successful novelist, then nothing Philip Roth says is going to make any difference.

As Laurence Olivier used to say, if you want to be an actor, you are an actor. If you're not an actor you didn't want it badly enough.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

It must have been a posh girl who drew Van Morrison to Cyprus Avenue.

Last night I was in Belfast talking about Uncommon People in a pub called The Dark Horse at the Cathedral Quarter Festival.

After we'd finished local music boffin Stuart Baile took me on a quick tour of Van Morrison's Belfast. We went past the modest terraced house on Hyndford Street where he grew up, through the Hollow, the small park round the back of the house named in "Brown Eyed Girl", and up to Cyprus Avenue (above), a broad thoroughfare with beautiful old stone houses either side.

Cyprus Avenue is clearly a cut above. There's probably a Cyprus Avenue near where you live, the faintest dropping of the name of which would send clear messages to the people you grew up with.

Stuart and I were picturing Morrison as a young teenager taking the long way back from school to have an excuse to dawdle down Cyprus Avenue. Maybe it was in the hope of seeing some posh girl living in one of the grand houses.

Always seems to me one of the most powerful things that drove people to want to be rock stars: the desire to impress posh girls.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

The Wanstead Tap is almost enough to tempt me to move East

I had fun last night talking about "Uncommon People" at the Wanstead Tap. In fact it was the world premiere of my magic lantern show, which I was pleased about.

The Wanstead Tap, I discovered, is not in Wanstead but in Forest Gate. It's not a pub so much as a beer shop/performance space/cafe/bar.

It was started three years ago by local TV producer Dan Clapton when he took over a building in a railway arch at the bottom of a cul-de-sac, equipped it as a bar and started putting on spoken word events. Its full story is here.

They only open three evenings a week, usually when they have entertainment. Turns coming up after me include Viv Albertine and Michael Rosen. They do a lot with the local book shop so authors can sign and sell.

It's fully seated, everyone can see and hear and it's got A/V facilities. All the locals I talked to said the same thing. They're very lucky to have this nearby.

They are.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Going back to my old school after fifty years

I left school after my A-levels in the summer of 1968. I hadn't been back since. When, in recent years, I'd been up in Yorkshire visiting family I'd driven past the place and toyed with the idea of just asking if I could have a look around. I never got round to it.

Then somebody from the school got in touch with me after I'd appeared on a recent BBC show about Whistle Test. I told her I was visiting the area on book promotion duty and I would like to drop in. She arranged it all. It was a fascinating experience.

When I went there it was a classic northern grammar school of a certain vintage. The stern central building was designed to look older than it was. They began adding modern buildings in the 50s and 60s. The boys who showed me round assumed that the one that housed the school hall had been there for ever. Actually, the foundation stone was lain in 1958. I know because I was present, in short trousers, at the ceremony.

Lots of it had changed, obviously. What used to be the library was now a reception area. The headmaster's office was in the room where I did English. The rooms that used to accommodate an entire class were now used for small tutorial groups.

People asked me if it seemed smaller than I remembered it. No, it didn't. Did it smell the same? No, it didn't.

The boys in the music room were learning to play "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses. I can only hope they are as rigorous in punctuating that correctly as we were encouraged to be by Mrs Ellis back in 1962.

I told the headmaster that the thing I most often thanked my education for was what Mrs Ellis used to call "clause analysis". This involved taking apart sentences and identifying the different parts of speech. The headmaster, who is of course way younger than me, told me this was coming back into fashion after thirty years in the cold. "There's nothing new in education."

Every now and then on my tour I turned a corner and found myself whisked backwards. Different things triggered it. The corner of the playground where I once put my hand in my pocket and discovered half a crown I didn't know I had. The feeling of an 19th century bannister worn smooth by the hands of decades of boys. A leaded window though which you could look out at the same sky. The steps up to the Lecture Hall where I first recited Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting", a poem I still know by heart. The parquet floor of the school hall (above) where I played Troilus in "Troilus And Cressida".

I'm glad I did it.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Instead of writing a song about being on the road here's a blog

Perugia's an ancient hilltop city in Umbria. Every year it's taken over by the International Journalism Festival. Hundreds of young hot shots descend on this place from all over the world and deliver presentations on what to do about Fake News or How To Interview a Really Dangerous Person or How To Get Round Censorship When Running A Website In The Middle East. The sessions take place all over this most picturesque of towns and in the evenings the restaurants are full of people listening to the sound of their own voices as they slip smoothly from their own tongue to English to Italian and back.

What I was doing here you may well wonder. I was invited by the organisers, presumably to provide some light relief and because my 1971 book has been published in Italy by Big Sur. I was interviewed by Luca Valtorta from La Repubblica in the splendour of the Teatro della Sapienza, which dates back to 1362. I was worried there would be just a few people scattered across the stalls but it was full. This is probably thanks in no small part that entrance to the festival is free and therefore the student population of Perugia tends to show up. You can watch the session here.

I've been to well-organised festivals before but this was on another level. There were two interpreters stationed in a booth backstage at my event and people could listen on headphones if they had difficulty with the languages. All the sessions from all thirteen venues were streamed live throughout the day and archived the minute they were over. Then the organisers gave you a ticket which bought you dinner plus wine at one of a number of partner restaurants throughout the town. Everything worked as it's supposed to.

As a bit of gentle run-up to this appearance at the festival my Italian publishers organised a whistlestop tour of Milan, Turin and Rome, which took in five live radio interviews, as many interviews with journalists, two appearances at bookshops and an hour's chat to a bunch of students at Scuola Holden, which is a storytelling academy in Turin. To get to all these appointments took long train trips, colourful journeys in the back of city cabs, often going the wrong way up one-way streets, and a two-hour coach ride in the Italian equivalent of a Greyhound, sitting behind a man who made no less than twenty-one separate phone calls in its course.

After just four days of this kind of schedule I felt as spaced out as most musicians feel after four weeks on the road. I see what they mean. Either you're trying to wake yourself up because you have a performance to do or you're trying to calm yourself down because you know you need to sleep. You're either starving hungry or you never wish to see an item of food ever again. Either you want to jabber excitedly or you want to check out of the conversation completely. There's no inbetween. Luckily I shall not be writing a song about it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Another reason Harry Truman's my favourite President

The day FDR died Harry Truman suddenly had the biggest job in the world thrust upon him – at the very moment when that job was hardest to do.

Hitler was still alive, the war in Europe wasn't over, Stalin was seeing what he could get away with, there were senior people in Washington who thought Germany should be reduced to an agrarian economy, the war in Japan was looking as though it might cost a million American lives and this guy from Missouri who looked like a small-town haberdasher, which is what he had been, was suddenly behind the desk of the man who had been widely regarded, both in the USA and abroad, as the saviour of the world.

Over the next three months he had to make the most momentous decisions any President has ever had to make: to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, to back democratic governments in Europe, to extend the credit needed to rebuild a continent, to walk into a room at Potsdam with Stalin and Churchill, neither of whom knew him from Adam, and tell them how things were going to be.

It's a story I never get tired of reading. This new book has lots of detail I didn't know. When Truman got back to the White House at the end of those three months this is what he did.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Did an LP ever get anybody into bed?

In the 1970s you could ask a girl back to your place "to listen to my albums" without being openly laughed at.

Why was that? Primarily because the only way you were going to hear Neil Young's "Harvest" or Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" at the time they came out was to go to the home of somebody who owned a copy. The experience of listening to records like these simply wasn't available any other way. Saying "I have a record" was a legitimate overture.

As well as the small bump of delight that came from hearing something you hadn't heard before, there was also the fact that certain long playing records imbued their owners with prestige. In the early 70s I was aware there were other males who spent their disposable cash on cars rather than records but reasoned correctly there was no future in a girl who was more impressed by an old MG Midget than the new album by Todd Rundgren.

There was also something intimate about the two of you just listening to a record in your room, a place with no other facilities or distractions. It wasn't like watching a video was to become in the following decade. Responding to a record was something both personal and public. There was nothing to look at apart from each other and the album cover. In this way playing a record to a girl turned into a form of wooing. With a little bit of luck the record – its sound, its appearance, its fresh, unscratched surface, its manifold associations – would melt the space between you and render possible things that without it would have been impossible.

But you could overdo it with the boudoir albums. When I worked in the record shop we would smirk knowingly at the would-be Lotharios who came in to get an import copy of Roy C's album "Sex And Soul". This was a standard Southern Soul album which opened with the line "a man can't go no further than a woman let him" and had a woman on its cover apparently delighted that she has extended just such permission. They were clearly planning to use it to facilitate a seduction.

 I've never been convinced that any albums "worked" just like that. Maybe that was just my failing.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Is this the reason Mum works?

I can't think of another sitcom where the lead has no funny lines. The way we look at her younger family through Lesley Manville's eyes and find them hopelessly weird is exactly the way the young heroes and heroines of her youth looked at the adults in their lives in films like "The Graduate" and "Billy Liar". Maybe that's what makes it work. It's a twist on the traditional teenage misfit movie where she doesn't get to leave. Instead she stays at home where everybody depends on her while fooling themselves they can get by without her.

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Uncommon People" is coming out in paperback and I'm Very Nearly On Tour

The paperback of “Uncommon People” comes out at the beginning of April. In the upcoming weeks I’m out and about talking about this book, the earlier “Never A Dull Moment” and whatever else comes up all over the country and overseas. Please come along if I’m in the area.
March 6th, London. Talking about podcasting at an event organised by the @BSME. This is probably just for magazine people but in any case details are at
March 7th, Ipswich. Talking to the Suffolk Book League.
April 4th, Stoke Newington. Talking at Soundstage. Details at
April 9th, Islington. At Word In Your Ear with Mark Ellen and a very special guest. Details soon. Join the mailing list at to be sure you don't miss out.
April 14th. Speaking at @journalismfest in Perugia, Italy.
April 17th, 18th, 19th, Yorkshire. Speaking at events in God's Own Country. Details soon.
May 1st, Islington. At Word In Your Ear with Mark Ellen and another amazing guest.
May 2nd, London. Doing whatever's required – telling stories, collecting glasses, selling copies of the War Cry – at The Wanstead Tap.
May 5th, Belfast. Speaking at The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
May 12-13th. Guernsey. Speaking at Guernsey Literary Festival.
May 20th. Bath. Speaking at Bath Festivals.
There's also a series of Johnnie Walker's Long Players going out at the moment on Monday nights at ten on BBC Radio 2.
Any queries about appearances, publicity opportunities, vacant soap boxes to Sally Wray at Transworld Book-Publishers.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Peace and Love generation were raised on War and Hate

I just saw a presentation from VSC, the people who regulate and rate the video games industry. This gave us a glimpse of the kind of things that will get you an 18 rating. It was quite brief but the thought did cross my mind that somebody in the room might faint. If you're not used to seeing digital heads being cut off it can come as a shock. I'm certainly not used to it. I've never gone in for video games myself and the kids were never big on them so it's a world I know very little about.

It caused me to reflect upon the fact that my generation of baby boomers grew up with unfettered access to every possible variety of war toy: tin guns, rubber knives, home-made bows and arrows and even catapults given as birthday gifts by indulgent uncles. We read War Picture Library comics in which beefy sergeants with enormous fists would take out whole platoons of stormtroopers with just one swipe of their mighty arms. All the films we watched were war films. We couldn't have been exposed to more violence.

And yet we were the generation who grew up to lace daisies in each other's hair and embrace, on the surface at least, the hippie ethos. The Peace and Love generation were raised on War and Hate.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

One of the best books I've ever read

I've been reading The Warmth Of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

It's the story of the Great Migration of black Americans from the South to the North and West told through the lives of three people.

There's Ida Mae Gladney, the wife of a sharecropper who leaves Mississippi in the 1930s after a family member is almost beaten to death by a white man over the disappearance of a turkey, and begins a new life in Chicago.

There's George Swanson Starling who gets out of Florida one step ahead of a lynch mob, moves to New York and then spends his life working the trains that conveyed millions of people between the New world and the Old.

Finally there's Robert Pershing Foster, a doctor who marries into the coloured aristocracy of Georgia but has to head out to the West Coast to escape the shadow of his father in law.

It's not a standard account of a journey from darkness to light. In fact the journey was from a life that was unbearable but simple to a life that was tolerable but increasingly difficult to negotiate.

If, like me, you've grown up absorbing ideas about the Great Migration through references to it in music, reading this opens up a whole world you never guessed at.

Every night when I put it down I said to myself "this is one of the best books I've ever read".

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The genius of Summer Heights High

I was introduced to "Summer Heights High" a few years ago. We were marooned by storms in an old farmhouse in Brittany. A friend had all the episodes on his laptop. I loved it. So much, in fact, that I've watched it at least half a dozen times since. Now it's on the BBC iPlayer, so I've been watching it again.

It's the work of Chris Lilley, a sort of Australian Steve Coogan. At Summer Heights School he plays three characters: break-dancing bully Jonah Takalua, 16-year-old vamp Ja'mie King, who's arrived there on an exchange programme with a local private school, and Greg Gregson, the drama teacher who convinces himself the kids adore him and know him affectionately as Mr G.

"Summer Heights High" was first broadcast in 2007. Lilley's done variations on this format since but nothing is quite as perfect as the original. What I love about it, apart from the richness and cleverness of the characterisation, is that it depicts perfectly the way that a school becomes a substitute for a real world and also takes such pleasure in describing what monsters both children and teachers can be.

Couldn't happen here, of course.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In praise of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

I like The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, the Amazon series which stars Rachel Brosnahan as the young wife and mother who scandalises her impeccably bourgeois Jewish family by making a name for herself as a comic in late 1950s Greenwich Village.

A lot of its exuberance comes from its use of popular tunes from the era in which it's set.  These might be Broadway musical hits like "I Enjoy Being A Girl" from "The Flower Drum Song" and Anthony Newley's "It Isn't Enough" from "The Roar Of The Greasepaint - The Smell Of The Crowd", curiosities like "Vyoch Tyoch Tyoch" from the Barry Sisters,  who were a kind of yiddish Andrews Sisters, scene-setters like Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From The Apple" and pop hits Mrs Maisel can twist to apply to her personal circumstances, songs like Blossom Dearie's "The Gentleman Is A Dope" or Peggy Lee's "Pass Me By".

All these contribute to its infectious sense of optimism. What makes it even more interesting is that at the end of most episodes the music breaks character, comes out of the fifties and universalises its point by using songs like Dave Edmunds' "Girls Talk", David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" and, most effectively, "Dear Madam Barnum" by XTC.

I loved it. But then, as my daughters frequently remind me, I am a bit of a girl.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Thank God for Lillian Boxfish

The last new novel I tried to read was Lincoln In The Bardo, the Booker Prize winner. They say it's a masterpiece. I couldn't tell you. I didn't get past page fifty. And I speak as someone who's interested in Lincoln and rarely gives up on books. God knows what everybody else made of it. Since then I've just been reading non-fiction.

I picked up Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney from the table near the door at Daunts in Marleybone High Street. It was the week before Christmas and I was looking for stocking-fillers for my wife. I read the blurb and thought it was worth a go.

My wife loved it. I loved it too. Lillian Boxfish is a woman in her eighties who refuses to leave New York. During the Jazz Age she became the highest-paid woman in advertising for composing the clever light verse on the newspaper and magazine advertisements for Macy's.

Even in her eighties she believes in walking everywhere. Solvitur Ambulando is one of her mottoes. "It is solved by walking." Which explains why on New Year's Eve 1984 she walks all the way from her place in Murray Hill to Delmonico's down in the Financial District and then on to a young people's party in the yet to be gentrified Meat Packing District.

On the way she encounters New Yorkers who all enquire what an old lady is doing out on the streets alone at night. In her mind she recapitulates her life and career. And that really is the sum total of what the book's about. Lillian Boxfish believes it's her duty to be bright and entertaining without taking up too much of people's time. The book's the same.

It doesn't play brain-scrambling games with the structure of The Novel so it's never going to win the Booker Prize. It is however readable. I got up early this morning to finish it. If being readable sounds like damning with faint praise I don't mean it to.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

There's only one thing you can ask of a ref and it's not being right

I'm not in favour of the video assistant referee (VAR) system being tested in British football at the moment. What drives me crazy about the arguments about football and technology are the football pundits (who are all in favour because they like the idea of anything that turns it into more of a TV show and less of a sport) saying something along the lines "they've used it in rugby and it works fine".

This fails to take into account the facts that:
1) rugby only consults the video replay on the many occasions when there's a break in the action;
2) an awful lot of time the evidence of the replay is inconclusive;
3) the coaches are up in the stands, not bellowing in the ear of the touchline official.

I can't believe those pundits who argue "if it can help us get a few more right decisions we should do it". This is a particularly daft argument for them to promote. If there's nothing to argue about there's even less reason for them to be handsomely rewarded for their services.

And what has being "right" got to do with sport? There's only one thing you can ask of referees and that's that they be fair. The more that you open up the process of decision-making to discussion the more you hasten the day – and I am confident this day will arrive –  that Jose Mourinho will have a QC on the Manchester United bench.