General Election outcomes always seem inevitable when viewed in retrospect. They rarely seem so at the time.
Take the June 1987 election. Although Labour’s position had improved considerably from its 1983 “longest suicide note in history” manifesto crisis point, it was clearly still some way from electability by 1987. Neil Kinnock was clearly a better leader than Michael Foot had been but he was never exactly popular and there was still concerns over the party’s positions on taxation and defence. What was more, having survived both the Miner’s Strike and the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher in some ways looked stronger than ever. The economy seemed to be thriving (even though public services were not) and even unemployment having reached the horrendous post-war peak total of 3.6 million was now starting to fall. No surprise then that the Tories won a majority of 102, less than in 1983, but more than in any other Tory election win since 1945 before or since. Only Labour under Attlee and Blair have done better.
This is how the election looks now. As Lord David Young’s campaign diaries remind us, the outcome did not always seem so certain in 1987 itself. At the time, the Tory camp was seriously rattled by Labour’s impressive start to the campaign. Boosted by a famous party political broadcast dubbed ‘Kinnock: The Movie’ by the media and directed by Chariots of Fire’s Hugh Hudson, Labour knocked out the Liberal/SDP Alliance threat posed by ‘the Two Davids’ (Owen and Steel) in one fell swoop. Internally, the Tory campaign occasionally collapsed into panic. On ‘Wobbly Thursday,’ Thatcher (privately suffering from a dental problem on the day), seemed visibly irked during a press conference by questions about opinion polls which seemed to suggest the gap between Labour and the Tories was narrowing and that a Hung Parliament might be on the cards. Behind the scenes, at one point, Norman Tebbit reportedly grabbed David Young by the lapels and shouted, “we’re going to lose this fucking election!”
This didn’t happen, although again in retrospect, it is perhaps unsurprising Margaret Thatcher did not survive to fight her fourth General Election campaign. Although, in fairness, very few political leaders do.
The 1987 election campaign was a long time ago now. Nobody much under forty now remembers it. Nobody now under fifty was old enough to vote in it. Although Thatcher herself died in 2013, it is otherwise the most recent British General Election fought in which most of the key players (campaign manager Young himself, Tebbit, Ken Clarke, Douglas Hurd, Michael Dobbs, Davids Owen and Steel) are still alive as of July 2021.
The book’s blurb is a bit silly (it describes Labour as threatening to return the nation to the three-day-week, a crisis which had previously occurred under an earlier Conservative government). Young has written his memoirs before in 1990’s The Enterprise Years. But these diaries provide plenty of insight into the day-to-day realities of fighting a busy election campaign.
Book review: Inside Thatcher’s Last Election: Diaries of the Campaign That Saved Enterprise, by David Young. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.
Alan Moore is the undisputed bearded Northampton-based God of the British comics realm. Yet he has been notoriously prickly on the subject of adaptations of his own work. He has declined to even watch any of the four major films directly based on his comics and in recent years has in recent years refused any payment. But is he right to do so? Is The Watchmen really in the same League as the Extraordinary Gentlemen? Is the film of V From Vendetta really From Hell? Chris Hallam checks it out…
In 1977, Alan Moore, then a twenty-four-year old employee of the Northampton gas board decided to quit his job and try to pursue a career as a comic writer instead. The timing, to some, might have seemed odd. Moore was not rich and was married with a baby on the way. But for Moore it was a “now or never” moment: “I knew that if I didn’t give up the job” (which he hated) “and make some sort of stab at an artistic career before the baby was born that…I knew I wouldn’t have been up for it once I had those big imploring eyes staring up at me,” he said later. “So, I quit.”
The gamble paid off. First, it was just a few cartoons in heavy metal magazines and the odd Tharg’s Futureshock for the new science fiction comic 2000AD. But then the trickle turned into a flood. Soon came V For Vendetta in Warrior, The Ballad of Halo Jones and then, amongst many other things, Watchmen, perhaps the most acclaimed graphic novel ever made. Alan Moore was perhaps the biggest name in British comics to emerge in the Eighties.
Soon inevitably people began to talk of filming his works and Moore was initially keen enough. A film, Return of the Swamp Thing (1989), based on a DC strip by Moore was filmed. But early plans for a V For Vendetta TV series and a film of Watchmen faltered. The timing was not yet right.
But by the start of the 21st century, following the success of Blade and The X-Men, filmmakers began filming every comic they could get their hands on: Road To Perdition, Ghost World, A History of Violence and TV’s The Walking Dead have all been consequences of this trend.
But the four attempts to film Alan Moore’s works in the first decade of the millennium had somewhat mixed results. And they would not make their creator happy at all.
“The idea that there is something prestigious about having your work made into a film, that is something which infuriates me because it seems to be something that everybody else in the industry absolutely believes.” Alan Moore.
A Ripping Yarn?
The comic: From Hell (1989-1996) produced with illustrator Eddie Campbell.
The film: From Hell (2001) directed by the Hughes Brothers and starring Jonny Depp, Heather Graham, Jason Flemying, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Sir Ian Richardson.
Moore’s take on the notorious Jack the Ripper case is probably one of Moore’s less accessible stories. At one point, for example, it draws a rather strange connection between the 1888 Whitechapel murders and the conception of Adolf Hitler in Austria-Hungary, two events which admittedly must have occurred at about the same time. From Hell thus seemed rather an odd choice for the big screen treatment.
The Hughes’ Brothers broke with the original story early on choosing to make the story a whodunnit (something Moore had gone out of his way to avoid doing) and by viewing it from the perspective of Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp’s performance virtually identical to his turn as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in 1999), rather than from the viewpoint of the Ripper himself, who in the graphic novel is identified early on as Sir William Gull (Ian Holm).
As Moore’s biographer Lance Parkin has written, Moore’s approach to his films was more one of indifference than outright hostility at this stage. He accepted payment for the film and was apparently pleased by the casting of actress Heather Graham as she had had a small part in one of his favourite TV series, Twin Peaks. But having recognized it was not going to be very similar to the original story early on, Moore distanced himself from the film and has never bothered to watch it.
“I’d be quite happy if they made Carry On Ripping. It’s not my book, it’s their film.” Moore’s verdict is correct. From Hell is a silly over the top film full of clichés and bad acting.
A League Of Their Own?
“Mr. Alan Moore, author and former circus exhibit (as ‘The What-Is-It from Borneo’), is chiefly famed for his chapbooks produced with the younger reader in mind. He astounded the Penny Dreadful world with such noted pamphlets as ‘A Child’s Garden of Venereal Horrors’ (1864), and ‘Cocaine and Rowing: The Sure way to Health’ (1872) before inheriting a Cumbrian jute mill and, in 1904, expiring of Scorn.”Author description of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, 1999-2007).
The film: Directed by Stephen Norrington (2003) this starred Sir Sean Connery, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, Peta Wilson and Stuart Townsend.
In print: Not to be confused with the 1960 classic British movie crime caper starring Jack Hawkins or the early 21st century Royston Vasey-based dark BBC comedy series (both actually just called The League of Gentlemen), this witty Victorian pastiche was reportedly optioned before artist Kevin O’Neill had even finished drawing the first issue. Bringing together the cream of Victorian fiction – Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Allan Quatermain and Jekyll and Hyde amongst others – into a formidable superhero-style team, this should have been perfect for the big screen. In theory…
On screen: A commercial success, LXG (as some promotions referred to it) was an unruly disaster and probably the worst Moore adaptation yet made. Minor changes were made such as the introduction of characters Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray to the line-up (there were also issues affecting the copyright of the Invisible Man’s character: in the end “an” rather than “the” invisible man appeared). But these seemed unimportant next to the fact the film as a whole, was a complete travesty of the original. It was also a notoriously bad shoot with Sir Sean Connery (playing King Solomon’s Mines star Quatermain) falling out with director Stephen “Blade” Norrington. According to some reports, the two men came to blows. Connery, a screen legend then in his seventies, vowed never to be in a film again. He never has. Norrington has never directed any films since either.
Moore’s view: Worse was to come as a lawsuit was brought against the film alleging it had plagiarized another script called Cast Of Characters. Moore, who had never wanted the film anyway was cross questioned for hours based on the suggestion that he had only written the comic as a front to disguise the film’s supposed unoriginality. The case was settled out of court but in the meantime Moore was understandably very annoyed indeed.
Verdict: A film already apparently guilty of the crime of ending Sean Connery’s long film career, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen also turned Alan Moore off film versions of his comics forever. Not that he was ever exactly super keen anyway…
The comic: V For Vendetta (1982-1989), art by David Lloyd (and Tony Weare).
The film: 2006 film directed by James McTeigue, written by the Wachowskis and starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Fry and the late John Hurt amongst others.
A chilling portrait of a futuristic Britain that has succumbed to fascism after a limited nuclear war has destroyed much of the rest of the world, the “hero” (if hero, he be) is V, a mysterious masked Jacobin vigilante prone to speaking in strange verse, nasty practical jokes and setting up impressive and time-consuming domino displays for his own amusement. But who exactly is he? And can he save young Evey Hammond from the dark forces which threaten to engulf her?
One big problem with filming V For Vendetta was the story’s obsession with the concept of November 5th. Virtually everyone outside the UK is unfamiliar with Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot and so a short sequence explaining the idea was added for the benefit of our American cousins. The nuclear war of the original is replaced by a backstory involving a devastating epidemic but generally the film is surprisingly faithful to the original. This is, after all, a film in which the hero is a terrorist who blows up underground trains which was released only a few months after the July 2005 bombings. In short, some bits don’t work that well – V’s strange rhetoric doesn’t always work on screen and the Benny Hill like sequences in the TV show seem a bit odd. Other elements such as Stephen Rea’s performance as an investigating officer and the near perfect recreation of the powerful ‘Valerie’ sequence from the comic, work brilliantly.
Moore’s view: Although artist David Lloyd enthusiastically endorsed the film, Moore disassociated himself entirely even went going so far as getting his own name removed from the credits. He also expressed anger (apparently still without having seen it) that the Wachowskis had used his story to (he argued) satirize Bush era America, rather than maintaining the Thatcher-era anti-fascist perspective of the original.
Verdict: Although not a complete triumph by any means, V For Vendetta was reasonably well received by most audiences and critics. It’s certainly interesting enough that you can’t help wishing Moore would lift-up his own self-imposed mask for a moment and take a sneaky peak at it.
The comic: Moore’s masterpiece completed with artist Dave Gibbons between 1986 and 1987.
The film was directed by Zach Snyder in 2009 starred Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode and Jeffery Dean Morgan.
Summary: A brilliant and complex saga which transformed the world of comics forever, The Watchman incorporates superheroes, pirates, nuclear apocalypse and an all-powerful blue man who likes sitting around in space.
On screen: After a fan-pleasing, superbly made title sequence in which we get to see such sights as Dr. Manhattan meeting President Kennedy (before The Comedian, played by Jeffery Dean Morgan helps assassinate him), this does a largely faithful job of translating Moore’s vision to the big screen. It’s not perfect: Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias is a bit too obviously villainous from the outset and many other scenes seem unnecessarily violent. But some sequences– the creation of Dr. Manhattan, for example – are, like the Valerie sequence in V For Vendetta – transferred perfectly from the comic. Dean Morgan is especially well cast as the ultra-conservative Comedian, a man who despite no obvious super powers, successfully wins the Vietnam War for the US, kills JFK, and prevents the Watergate Scandal from happening. The three-and-a-half-hour DVD extended version even incorporates animated Tales of the Black Freighter sequences into the film, pirate stories which even somewhat overwhelmed the narrative in the original comic.
Some viewers might be left wondering: would deliberately unleashing a sudden massive unexplained explosion really would be the best way to defuse a Cold War superpower stand-off. They might also ask: Did Richard Nixon really look like that? Or if Dr. Manhattan is genuinely quite annoying. But hey! These are mostly failings of the comic, not the film.
Moore’s view: Terry Gilliam had originally planned to direct The Watchmen in the Eighties with Arnold Schwarzenegger tipped to play Dr. Manhattan, Robin Williams, the sinister Rorschach, Jamie Lee Curtis the Silk Specter and Richard Gere, Nite Owl. Gilliam was ultimately unhappy with Sam Hamm’s script which saw Ozymandias travelling back in time to prevent Dr. Manhattan’s creation, thus changing the course of the Cold War and ultimately saving the world. The project fell apart. Twenty years later, it was resurrected, by which time Moore was dead against it.
Verdict: Probably the best film adapted from Moore’s works. A shame he hasn’t seen it really. He’s not alone though: although not an outright flop, The Watchman disappointed at the box office.
Faith No Moore
The Watchmen did not mark the end of TV and movie versions of Alan Moore’s comic stories. We haven’t even mentioned Constantine (2005) starring Keanu Reeves and future Oscar winners Rachel Weitz and Tilda Swinton which was based on a character Moore had created for DC. The reasonably well-received film spawned a short-lived TV series starring Matt Ryan and will soon appear in animated TV form. There is talk of rebooting The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and a TV series of The Watchmen is in development.
Perhaps most significantly The Killing Joke, an animated film version of Moore’s celebrated Batman story produced with Brian Boland in 1988 was released in 2016. Reviews were bad.
Whatever, we may think of the movie and TV versions of the works of Alan Moore, however, one thing is clear: forty years after he started to build a career in comics, he is powerless to stop other people making films of his work.
How soon is too soon to write about the history of a particular time and place?
Following on from his earlier three excellent volumes which took us from the start of the 1970s to the dawn of the new millennium, Alwyn Turner’s new book picks up the English story at the time of New Labour’s second massive General Election victory in 2001 before dropping us off again at the time of David Cameron’s surprise narrow win in 2015. The stage is set for the divisive Brexit battles of the last five years and for the divisive leadership of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn after 2015, but the narrative clearly stops before getting to either. Turner’s book is packed full of reminders of this eventful and turbulent period. Who now remembers Pastygate? Cleggmania? Russell Brand’s dialogue with Ed Miliband or Robert Kilroy Silk’s thwarted battle to take over UKIP? Viewed from the perspective of the current Coronavirus pandemic which, writing in July 2021, has thus far totally dominated the third decade of the 21st century, Turner’s social history of this busy and already seemingly historically quite distant fourteen year period already seems very welcome.
It is not all about politics, of course. As before, Turner takes a good look too at changes in society as viewed through the prism of TV, literature and other developments. No doubt he will one day have much to say about the recent Euro 2020 Finals and subsequent race row. Here, for example, we get a thorough comparison between the different styles of comedians, Jimmy Carr and Roy Chubby Brown. Both are edgy and deliberately tackle sensitive subjects for their humour. Carr, is however, middle-class and Cambridge-educated while Brown never conceals his working-class origins. Carr is frequently on TV, while Brown, although popular, is never allowed on. But, as Turner points out, it s not simply a matter of class. Carr is deliberately careful, firstly never to go too far or to appear as if he is endorsing any (or most) of the dark things he talks about. Brown is much less cautious. He frequently pushes his jokes into genuinely uneasy territory and occasionally seems to be making crowd-pleasing anti-immigration points which totally lack any comedic punchline. Whereas Carr clearly has a carefully constructed stage persona, it is unclear where the stage Roy Chubby Brown begins and ends.
Class comes up a fair bit in the book. Turner identifies a definite resurgence in the popularity of posher folk in public life during this period. Some are obvious: TV chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Chris Martin of Coldplay, the rise of Boris Johnson or David Cameron, the first Tory leader to come from a public school background in forty years. Others are less obvious: musician Lily Allen was privately educated as were Gemma Collins and some of her other The Only Way is Essex companions. Even Labour’s Andy Burnham went to Cambridge.
The underrated Russell T. Davies 2003 TV drama, Second Coming in which Christopher Eccleston’s video shop assistant surprisingly claims to be the Son of God and then even more surprisingly actually turns out to genuinely be him. The phone hacking scandal. The London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. The rise and fall of George Galloway. The London riots. The Jimmy Saville affair and other scandals. The TV show, Life on Mars. All these topics are revisited by Turner in intelligent and readable fashion.
Other interesting nuggets of information also come in the footnotes. “By 2009 over 9 per cent of Peterborough had come to the city from overseas.” Alexander Armstrong was the first man to play David Cameron in a TV drama in 2007’s The Trial of Tony Blair (aired during Blair’s final months in office). We also get reminders of some of the better jokes of the period in this manner. Frank Skinner’s “George Osborne has two types of friends: the haves and the have yachts.” Or the late Linda Smith’s take on the 2005 Tory election slogan: “Are you sinking like we’re sinking?”
We are also kept informed of the main biscuit preferences of our political leaders, an issue Gordon Brown, a brilliant man, but always uneasy with popular culture, characteristically messed up answering.
There is less about music, although Turner does at one point suggest that the Spice Girls “might have been the last group that really mattered, that meant something beyond record sales and outside their own constituency.”
Turner does well to retain a position of political neutrality here and is especially good at retracing the early machinations on the Labour Left and the Eurosceptic Right which in seemed irrelevant at the start of this era but which by the end of it came to seem very important indeed. It is, indeed, a very depressing period for anyone on the liberal left. In 2001, the Lib Dems under their dynamic young leader, Charles Kennedy seemed poised to become the nation’s second party. By 2015, Kennedy was dead and the party wasn’t even registering in third place in terms of either seats or share of the vote. In 2001, Tony Blair won a second huge landslide majority, seemed to have the world at his feet and was one of the most highly regarded political leaders of recent times. Furthermore, no one serious in political life was even remotely contemplating withdrawing from the European Union.
What changed? Read this endlessly fascinating book to find out.
Book review: All In It Together, England in the Early 21st Century, by Alwyn Turner. Published by: Profile Books. Available: now.
Geoff Norcott is that rarest of breeds: a popular and funny right-wing comedian.
Whereas, even only a few years ago, most people would have struggled to name even one living British comedian with conservative views (particularly when the list is shortened further to exclude those who are not openly racist), Norcott has risen to fame largely on the basis of his appearances as the ‘token right-winger’ on the BBC’s excellent topic comedy show, The Mash Report. The show was cancelled earlier this year, largely as a result of concerns by nervous BBC execs that, Norcott’s contribution aside, it was too left-wing.
Some would doubtless challenge me for even agreeing to review this book and thus provide the oxygen of publicity to someone who is not only a self-confessed Tory voter and a Brexiteer.
To these people I would point out first that Norcott clearly represents the more acceptable face of the Right. He is clearly not racist at all and in 2019 was appointed as a member of a BBC Diversity Panel with the aim of ensuring the corporation represents a broad cross section of the public’s views. He is also, it must be mentioned, deeply sceptical about the leadership skills of Boris Johnson. This is a definite point in his favour, even if his scepticism was not quite sufficient to prevent him from helping vote Johnson back into power in the December 2019 General Election.
Secondly, I would argue strongly that we shut out voices such as Norcott’s at our peril. Nobody’s life is perfectly typical of anything, but Norcott seems to be a textbook example of the sort of voter Labour could once, perhaps complacently rely on to support them as recently as the 1990s and 2000s but who they have since lost with fatal consequences. With much of Norcott’s assessment of Labour taking the form of critical advice rather than flagrant attacks, he is certainly worth listening to.
By coincidence, me and Geoff Norcott are almost exactly the same age. He was born six days earlier than me in December 1976. Like me, his first ever experience of voting in a General Election as a twenty-year-old was for New Labour in May 1997. He describes his feeling on leaving the voting booth:
“It was probably the first and last time I ever felt total conviction about the party I voted for,” I feel the same. It was a combination of the perhaps misplaced certainties of youth. But it was also, I think, something about the political mood of 1997.
Like me, he returned, perhaps slightly less enthusiastically to voting Labour in 2001. Thereafter, our paths diverge. I came very close to voting Lib Dem in 2005, largely because of my opposition to the war in Iraq (I eventually held my nose and voted for my local Labour candidate who was anti-war, but lost her seat anyway). Norcott doesn’t mention his views on the war, but did vote Lib Dem, partly because like me, he admired their then leader, the late Charles Kennedy, but also as part of a slow journey he was undergoing towards the Tories. In the last four General Elections held since 2010, he voted Conservative. He also voted Leave in 2016.
In truth, Geoff Norcott, although from a traditionally Labour family had been showing conservative instincts from a young age. He had an entirely different upbringing to me. Mine was comfortable and middle-class, his was marred by both poverty and parental divorce. He is sceptical about the welfare system based on his own family experiences and is less enthusiastic than most people are these days about the NHS. He felt endlessly patronised while at Goldsmith College, London in the mid-1990s and has come away with a lifelong scepticism about left-wing middle-class liberals, many of whom frequently serve as targets for his humour today, (for example, on the marches for a second ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit: “The idea that loads of liberals having a day out in London with chopped kale power salads and terrible chants in some way spoke for the country was laughable”). He has had some tough battles on Twitter. Critics of his appearances on Question Time have variously attacked him for either being rich and self-interested or too common to be on TV. He now seems to be convinced Twitter is a hotbed of left-wing sentiment. I’m not sure it is.
The book takes us through his difficult early years, a brief stint in media sales, his work as a teacher, his time entertaining the troops overseas, a series of personal tragedies a few years ago through to his final success as a successful and reasonably well-known comedian and now author, settled with his family in Cambridgeshire.
Needless to say, I don’t agree with him on many things. He believes the Blair and Brown governments spent too much: I don’t think they did particularly, and even if they did, this certainly does not explain why the credit crunch happened. His main criticism of people like the Milibands and Keir Starmer seems to be largely based on the fact that they are middle-class and cannot claim any link to working-class people. In my view, this is true but is surely dwarfed by the facts that the their opponents men such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson were born into lives of such immense privilege to the extent that these leaders have no knowledge or interest in reducing poverty at all. I suspect, at root, like many right-wing people, Norcott thinks there is something hypocritical about anyone with money having a social conscience about anything, while his tolerance for rich leaders who openly don’t give a toss about society is much greater. This has never been my view. My horror at the Tory record on homelessness, unemployment and underfunding of the health service has always been sufficient to drive me away me from ever voting for them, particularly when combined with the frequent right-wing tendency (not shared by Norcott himself) to either be racist or to blame many of the weakest and poorest in the world for many of society’s ills.
Geoff Norcott is, of course, now successful enough to be considered middle-class himself and undoubtedly has many left-wing comics amongst his friendship circle. None of which should detract from this sometimes funny, enjoyable and often useful book which is packed with useful phrases such as ,”when you demonise a voter, you lose them forever” which many of us would do well to remember.
Book review: Where Did I Go Right?: How The Left Lost Me, by Geoff Norcott. Published by: Octopus. Available: now.
His 2015 book, Reasons To Stay Alive was a starkly honest and highly readable memoir about the most traumatic experience of Haig’s life: namely the devastating attack of chronic depression which engulfed him when he was 24 in 1999 and his long battle to recover from it. His 2018 book, Notes on a Nervous Planet was a more general guide to fending off the demons of depression and anxiety in the age of Twitter and Trump.
It should be mentioned that in addition to his non-fiction output, Haig is a successful novelist too. Although superficially fantastical, The Midnight Library (2020) explored serious issues as its troubled heroine quite literally attempted to live her best possible life. It was one of the best received new British novels of last year. Other books by Haig include The Humans (2013), which is centred on an extra-terrestrial taking brief possession of an English University lecturer and How To Stop Time (2017), in which a man manages to live for several hundred years from the Tudor era to the 21st century. Mental health issues come up in these books too. Haig has also written for children, notably a trilogy of festive books which began with A Boy Called Christmas (2016).
The Comfort Book is not a book with a linear narrative as such but a collection of short chapters of varying length. These can be read in any order, individually or in any manner the reader chooses. The aim is, as the name of the book suggests, to provide hope or comfort to the reader, particularly if they are currently suffering with any mental anguish themselves. And let’s face it: in 2021, many of us are.
Some chapters are so short that they can be quoted here in full. The chapter entitled, ‘To be is to let go’ simply reads: “Self-forgiveness makes the world better. You don’t become a good person by believing you are a bad one.” The chapter, ‘Pasta’ meanwhile simply states: “No physical appearance is worth not eating pasta for.”
An unkind reviewer might suggest the net effect of this is similar to reading a huge collection of fortune cookies at once or to listening to a greatly extended version of Baz Luhrmann’s 1999 release, ‘Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen.” But this would be unfair. I’ve no doubt Matt Haig’s book will prove very helpful to many people. Most of the chapters are far longer than the ones I’ve quoted and Haig draws heavily from his own experiences and from the experiences of others. We learn from Heraclitus, Charles Dickens, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joy Harjo, Bruce Lee, Helen Keller, Marcus Aurelius and plane crash survivor, Juliane Koepcke amongst many others, in addition to Haig himself.
The Comfort Book does not take long to read from cover to cover. However, I have little doubt many people will find themselves returning to it again and again.
Book review: The Comfort Book, by Matt Haig. Published by: Canongate, July 6th 2021.
Most of us probably feel we have some knowledge of Henry VIII. He is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most famous and notorious rulers; a fat, greedy tyrant who divorced two of his six wives and beheaded two more. The second Tudor King was a man so stubborn that he broke with Rome rather than agree to remain married to his first spouse and who killed anyone (for example, Thomas More or Thomas Cromwell) who seriously got in this way.
For once, this crude caricature actually turns out to be true. But how did he get that way? What forces conspired to create such a monstrous and yet fascinating figure?
In truth, Henry’s personality was forged in the 1490s and 1500s, growing up during the reign of his father, Henry VII. Having won power largely as a result of his victory over Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the first Tudor King’s hold on power often seemed very precarious indeed as his reign came under constant threat from a series of challenges and rebellions from those who like the Pretenders to the Throne, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck sought to usurp him. Henry VII ruled at the end of a century which had already seen four kings (Richard II, Henry VI, Edward V and Richard III) meet violent ends. In the circumstances, Henry VII did very well to make it to die of natural causes in his fifties, just as Henry VIII would.
Initially in the even more precarious position of being the brother to the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII outshone his older sibling Prince Arthur even in childhood, quickly becoming supremely accomplished as both a sportsman (his obesity came later) and a scholar. Like many royals he was starved of natural affection, however, and became arrogant, stubborn and greedy. Losing his mother, Elizabeth of York, at a time when he had barely got to really know her, he soon elevated her to such a lofty standard of perfection in his own mind, that none of his own six subsequent wives would ever really be able to live up to her.
First published in 1977, Marie Louise Bruce’s well-written and thorough history about the boy who would be King ends where most books about Henry VIII begin: with the 17 year old Henry’s accession to the throne and prompt marriage to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. It is as impressive and well-rounded a portrait as one of the great paintings by the legendary Tudor artist, Hans Holbein the Younger himself.
Book review: The Making of Henry VIII, by Marie Louise Bruce. Published by: Sapere Books.
Over seventy years after the death of George Orwell, Richard Bradford’s new biography, convincingly argues the case for the continued importance of the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in the 21st century.
In addition to the biographical details of Orwell’s eventful life – his unhappy schooldays, his years in the Burmese police force, his genuine heroism fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War- the book connects Orwell’s writing to the present by linking it to recent trends such as the endless distortions of the truth by the now disgraced former US President Donald Trump and by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The book also discusses the bitter antisemitism row which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s spell as leader of the Labour Party in an intelligent book which demonstrates how Orwell today remains as relevant as ever.
Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford. Published by: Bloomsbury Caravel, May 13th 2021.
Sixty years on, Theodore H. White’s ground-breaking account of the 1960 US presidential elections is still regarded as a landmark in political reporting. White’s first book and to a lesser extent, his three subsequent volumes on the 1964, 1968 and 1972 contests have provided a template for all such works produced since, for example, the late Richard Cramner’s massive account of the 1988 Bush Vs Dukakis contest, What It Takes or Mark Halperin and John Heilemann books on the 2008 and 2012 elections won by Barack Obama.
White died in 1986, but his writing still provides a unique and fascinating insight into these four contests whose outcomes would prove to have dramatic consequences for both America and the world.
The 1960 elections had everything. Two youthful strong rival candidates both destined in their time to become important and controversial leaders, a fiercely fought primary campaign, a charismatic outsider battling against religious bigotry, an ‘October surprise’ (the upset caused by the TV debates) and a nail-biting photo finish.
White admittedly had a lot to work with but his spell-binding and thorough account is at least as fascinating in discussing the ‘nearly men’ such as Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller as it is about the eventual final nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
After a 2020 election which ended with only the second Roman Catholic being elected to the White House without the subject ever really being raised, its easy to forget how serious an electoral obstacle Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered in 1960 when he ultimately became the first.
The personality of Richard Nixon inevitably looms large throughout these four volumes. He was the Republican nominee in three of these four elections (1960, 1968 and 1972), the winner of two (1968 and 1972) and played a smaller role in the 1964 campaign. He comes across badly in this first volume. Initially, the clear favourite, he squanders his advantage, proving a difficult and awkward candidate losing the support of the popular incumbent President Eisenhower and lumbering his campaign with a foolhardy commitment to visit all fifty American states. He was lucky not to lose by more and luckier still to get a chance to stage a comeback.
Did White know about Kennedy’s relentless womanising? We do not know. He was certainly not alone in not reporting them if he did know, however, as non-reporting of candidates’ private lives was certainly the convention at the time. Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were to be less fortunate in this regard. Nothing is also said about Mayor Daley’s electoral chicanery in Chicago. Kennedy would have won comfortably in the electoral college without Chicago anyway. Although it is discussed, less is made of the TV debates’ impact by White than has been made since. This is nevertheless a masterful account and the best of the four books in the series.
Foregone conclusions rarely make for exciting elections and White is unfortunate that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was never really in doubt. White delivers an excellent account of the aftermath of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, however, and reminds us just how brilliant a candidate and a president LBJ was in his first year in office, regardless of what happened later. He also reminds us just how terrible a choice Republicans made when they opted for Barry Goldwater (“extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”) over the far more palatable and moderate, Nelson Rockefeller, who would become Gerald Ford’s vice president, a decade later.
“In your heart, you know he’s right,” Goldwater fans insisted. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!” critics countered. In the end, Goldwater allowed himself to be painted into a corner and portrayed (White argues unfairly) as a potential welfare abolitionist and nuclear hawk. He lost to LBJ by a record margin. Again, less is made of things which have come to be seen as important since. Little is made of the landmark ‘Daisy’ Johnson TV campaign broadcast (in which a little girl picking daisies in a field is unexpectedly nuked. It was later parodied on The Simpsons) and ex-actor Ronald Reagan’s career-defining speech in favour of Goldwater is not mentioned at all.
1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since. The previous election in 1964 already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme side-lined forever by the escalating war. Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.
White explores all of the candidates. The short campaign of Bobby Kennedy which would ultimately be a cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Eugene McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.
But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. This isn’t discussed here (White would not have known about these behind the scenes shenanigans) though at times White does show a great deal of warmth towards Nixon here, something he would probably come to regret later.
By 1972, White’s books were having a political impact in themselves. At one point, we are told the Democratic nominee George McGovern first decided to run for the highest office after being inspired by White’s first Making of the President book back in 1962. The liberal McGovern would go onto be buried in a forty-nine state Nixon landslide. Today, in 2021, both Nixon and McGovern are long gone (McGovern died in 2012, aged 90) but for the first time in these volumes, a clear link can be forged to the present. A number of people mentioned (Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Donald Rumsfeld, even William Calley of My Lai) are still alive, while we know, though it isn’t mentioned here, that the young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham first met on the McGovern campaign. Also:
“And J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware of whom it was said had shaken half the right hands in his thirty years in public office, being defeated for the Senate by a young man, Joseph Biden Jr., who would reach the Constitutional Senatorial age of thirty, only a few weeks before he was due to take office.”
No other president in US history was making an impact in public life almost a full half century before they were in the White House. Reagan, after all, was not yet even an actor, 48 years before he became president. Trump, at that stage, was still a spoilt millionaire’s son. Perhaps nothing ever really changed.
Anyway, the shadow of Watergate looms large over the book. The initial summer 1972 break-in seems to have had no real impact on the November election. By the time, White finished the book, it was clearly becoming a major scandal although it was not yet at all obvious that it would ultimately bring down Nixon himself.
This election also spawned Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, from Hunter S. Thompson, a writer far more anti-Nixon and pro-McGovern than White was and indeed, rather fonder of including illustrations in his books.
In truth, you would have to be very, very, very interested in the machinations of the 1970s US Democratic Party indeed to find every page of either this or Thompson’s book wholly riveting. Despite this, it is still tempting to wonder how White might have covered the Ford-Carter contest of 1976 or perhaps Ronald Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 campaigns. As it is, we should be grateful enough for these four volumes which already tell us so much about a nation which had transformed beyond all recognition in the comparatively short period between 1960 and 1972.
Book review: Four volumes: The Making of the President, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972, by Theodore H. White. Published by: Harper Collins.
Will Young is a pop star, who first became famous as the victor of the popular ITV talent show, Pop Idol in 2002. Now in his early forties, this short memoir traces the course of his life so far as a gay man. It is an interesting companion piece to Tom Allen’s 2020 memoir, No Shame as well as to the recent Channel 4 drama, It’s A Sin. Being born gay is not easy for anyone and despite a relatively supportive and comfortable background, Young has had his struggles growing up in the 1980s and 1990s and again as a famous person in the 21st century where he has occasionally encountered public attacks from the likes of the Daily Mail, DJ Chris Moyles and Jeremy Clarkson amongst others. But this is a very good book and very readable too. I was slightly less keen on the later stages of the book detailing his mental health struggles of the last decade. I don’t doubt that these were very significant and difficult experiences for hìm at that time. However, in writing about them, he generally adopts a therapy-like way of writing which is less accessible than the rest of the book. But overall, this is a very compelling and readable portrait of what it means to be a gay man in the Britain of the year late 20th and early 21st century.
Book review: To Be A Gay Man, by Will Young. Published by: Virgin Digital.
Meet Jane, a young teacher living in Boyne City, Michigan at the start of the 21st century. In addition to a consistently embarrassing mother, Jane has an on‐off relationship with Duncan, an older man who not only seems surprisingly close to his ex-wife, Aggie, but who seems to know every woman in town. Then there’s Jimmy, Duncan’s nice but childlike co-worker. Spanning a period of nearly twenty years, which naturally sees many changes for both Jane and those around her, Katherine Heiny’s novel is a hugely addictive visit to a charming and enjoyable small-town world.
Book review: Early Morning Riser, by Katherine Heiny. Published by: Fourth Estate.
As far as the world of comics goes, Stan Lee was probably the most important person to have ever lived. Born to a Romanian-Jewish family in New York in 1922, young Stanley Lieber became involved in the world of comics early. An office boy in the 1930s, by the end of a frustrating 1950s, Lee came close to quitting the world of comics forever until his Newcastle-born British wife suggested he create a new crop of comic superheroes to challenge the near monopoly then enjoyed by Superman and Batman creators, D.C. In a remarkably short space of time, Lee created Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The X-Men and The Avengers essentially establishing Marvel as the incredibly profitable global media powerhouse that it remains to this day. Happy ever after? Well, no. Partly because, as Adrian Mackinder explains, the extent to which Lee can really claim complete credit for creating all these amazing characters remains hotly disputed. This is not a hagiography and while Lee was careful to cultivate a loveable avuncular image amongst Marvel’s armies of ‘True Believers,’ Mackinder, though clearly a big fan himself, does not shy away from exploring the less desirable elements of Lee’s character.
In short, Mackinder not only does a commendable job of detailing the highs, lows, creative explosions, fallings out and film cameos which made up Lee’s almost 96 years on Earth but also does a commendable job of explaining the cultural context in which they occurred. In addition to Lee’s life, we also learn a lot not only about the history of Marvel comics, but also get much on how vaudeville declined in the teeth of competition from radio and cinema in the 1920s and 1930s and much of interest about ALL comic adaptations on TV and film over the decades, not just the Marvel ones. It is easy to forget, despite the renaissance in comic book based films in the 21st century,, just how many flops there also were (Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider, to name but a few). I must admit: I have sometimes written about the history of comics myself. But ultimately, I must put aside any feelings of professional jealousy and concede: Adrian Mackinder really has done an exceptional job here. Nuff said.
Book review: Stan Lee – How Marvel Changed The World, by Adrian Mackinder. Published by: Pen & Sword, White Owl.
Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Katy Wix’s book is not actually very funny.
This is not because Katy Wix herself isn’t funny: she definitely is. On TV series like Not Going Out, The Windsors, Ghosts and as a contestant on Taskmaster, she has consistently demonstrated herself to be incredibly talented, likeable (even when playing unlikeable characters (such as the snooty Carole in Miranda or bossy estate agent Carole in Stath Lets Fllats) and amusing. In truth, she is probably one of the finest comedy actresses working in Britain today.
But this memoir – which links a number of key events in Wix’s life to various cakes – is not only not especially funny but is generally not only not very funny but not even for the most part, really aspiring to be so. The book deals with serious issues: Wix’s own struggles with her weight, her deeply unpleasant grandfather, the death of a friend, a serious car accident Wix was involved in and her mother’s struggle with cancer. The book’s cover comes emblazoned with a quote from Simon Amstell (another very talented figure) describing the book as “painful, raw and incredibly funny.” Painfully raw? Yes. But to describe this as “incredibly funny” honestly does Delicacy a disservice. It is possible to make a troubled memoir very funny indeed as demonstrated by Georgia Pritchett’s forthcoming, My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life. But this isn’t that book.
This is not to detract from the honesty of Wix’s writing or to diminish the genuine heartache she has clearly experienced. But if you want a funny book, look elsewhere.
Book review: Delicacy A Memoir About Cake and Death, by Katy Wix. Published by: Headline.
Although it has the light, readable feel of a storybook, this book by John Fisher featuring 22 short stories from the county of Devon, followed by a further 20 stories from neighbouring Cornwall, is nevertheless history pure and simple. Both counties have a fair degree of myths and legend in their storytelling traditions and these tales which occasionally mention mermaids or weather-based folklore occasionally reflect that. Despite that, the stories which included that of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee (otherwise renowned as ‘the man they couldn’t hang.’) the legend of the pirate queen of Penryn, the amazing story of a lion attack on Regency-era Exeter stagecoach, the life of John Opie ‘the Cornish Wonder’ and the bizarre story of Napoleon’s post-Waterloo visit to Torbay, are no less incredible for being true. A light volume, ideal for holiday reading.
Book review: Devon and Cornwall’s Oddest Historical Tales, by John Fisher. Published by: The History Press.
Beneath its placid, seaside resort, areas of outstanding beauty exterior, the county of Devon has had a livelier history than many.
Don’t believe me? Then pick a century at random. Try, the 16th: The heyday of many Devon-born explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Piracy and smuggling were rife. The county also played major roles in the Wyatt and Prayer Book Rebellions. The 20th? Remember the wartime devastation of the air raids on Plymouth and Exeter? The booming seaside of Regency Exmouth in the early 19th century. The ten sieges of Exeter. Perkin Warbeck’s march on Devon. The critical role played by the county in the Civil War. The trials of the Bideford ‘witches.’ The history of England is fascinating and Devon has certainly played an essential role in making it so.
This new book by Suze Gardner avoids jumping around all over the place as I just did. It tells the story of Devon in 21 easily absorbable little chapters, starting with details on the county’s geology (fun fact: only a small amount of the so-called ‘Jurassic coast’ is actually from the Jurassic era) and stretching right up to the lowdown on the early 21st century sitcom, Jam and Jerusalem.
With so much potential information to impart, there are potential dangers here, of course. Any history risks being overly dense as it seeks to burden the reader with too many facts. At the other extreme, a writer might go too far to avoid doing this and end up producing something so lightweight it ends up not really telling the reader anything substantial at all.
Happily, as in her previous book, The Little Book of Devon, Suze Gardner avoids both of these traps. Whether discussing the Honiton lace trade, sinister occultist, Aleister Crowley or the Battle of Jutland, she achieves the perfect balance between being highly readable and accessible while also remaining substantial and informative. There is also plenty of good history to be learned here generally too, not just about Devon. The next time anyone says to you they want to come to see Devon’s famous ‘Jurassic Park’ or tries to claim crime writer, Jessica Fletcher lived in Greenway, toss over a copy of this book.
I should declare an interest here. I do not know Suze Gardner myself and have not met her. I have, however written the book, Secret Exeter (2018) with Tim Isaac and also wrote A-Z of Exeter: Places – People – History (2019) myself. I regularly write features on local history for the magazines, Exeter Life and Devon Life and write a weekly history column which runs in the Sidmouth Herald, Midweek Herald and Exmouth Journal. I have definitely used Suze Gardner’s works to inform my own writing. I will doubtless do the same again in the future.
I do have one or two minor niggles with the book, however. For one thing, it occasionally, just sounds a bit wrong. Consider this, on James II: “The new king was a Catholic (the last Catholic in England). Worse still, he was intent on making the country Catholic again too.” I don’t think Suze Gardner means this to sound as if it’s bad to be Catholic. But it does rather come out sounding that way. She also doesn’t mention General Buller’s youthful bravery during the Zulu Wars: the heroic side of his reputation rests entirely on this, not on his later, rather more dubious record as a General during the Boer War.
Some of the sub-headings do sound a bit Horrible History-esqe too: ‘Awful Antarctic,’ ‘Hooray Henry!’ and ‘Awful Arsenic and Monstrous Manganese’. My worst criticism would be the excessive overuse of exclamation marks throughout the entire book. Often, they just seem inappropriate: “Remarkably, many Saxon government methods are still in use today!” “Often services had to be held outside to accommodate all the worshippers!” and ‘The people of Victorian Exeter had very bad luck with their theatres as three of them burnt down!” None of these sentences needs an exclamation mark, particularly as one of the fires referred to in the last one was actually a terrible tragedy. There are many more examples of this throughout the book.
But I didn’t spot any real factual errors. And ultimately as a concise and highly accessible guide to England’s third largest county, this is basically unmissable.
Book review: The Little History of Devon, by Suze Gardner. Published by: The History Press, 2021
Pat Mills' Sláine, the 'Celtic Conan' has been wowing readers of UK sci-fi comic, 2000AD since 1983. The saga was never more vividly realised than when in the late 80s and early 90s when Mills and young artist, Simon Bisley produced the masterful epic, Sláine: The Horned God.
Sadly, as this is an audiobook, inevitably, Bisley's wonderful visuals - the gore of the battles, the beauty of the land of Tir Nan Nog, Sláine's ageing sidekick Ukko and the sight of Sláine going into warp spasm (don't ask) are lost.
This is nevertheless an excellent adaptation which does full justice to the classic comic story.
Few stories from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 2000AD, are remembered with such affection as Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s mid-80s classic, The Ballad of Halo Jones.
This new audiobook does an excellent job of retelling the adventures of Halo, an ordinary 50th century girl who escapes the restrictions of a depressing teenage existence in vast urban settlement, The Hoop to find work on a space cruiser, the Clara Pandy. As in the original classic comic story, she ultimately becomes embroiled in the affairs of the sinister General Luiz Cannibal and the horrors of the Tarantula Nebula War.
As with the first of the three books adapted here is less accessible than the others, largely because of the futuristic slang spoken by Halo and the other Hoop dwellers is slightly off-putting. There is also a bizarre error here in which one character, Lux Roth Chop, who is clearly supposed to be a child in the story is voiced by a grownup actor.
But, generally this is a first-class production which generally follows the original version very closely. Sheila Atim, in particular, does an excellent job of voicing Halo herself as she grows from being a naive teen into a cynical thirtysomething.
For well over forty years now, 2000AD comic’s futuristic law enforcer, Judge Joe Dredd has fought a never-ending battle to impose a semblance and order onto the chaotic 22nd century American metropolis of Mega City One. Yet there has always been a dark undercurrent to the story. The Judges – effectively futuristic policeman who also have the power to determine an arrestee’s guilt and to impose instant sentencing – clearly rule over what is effectively an undemocratic police state with an iron fist.
Rarely was this more obvious than in John Wagner and Colin MacNeil’s beautiful and heart-rending story, America, which first appeared in 2000AD spin-off, Judge Dredd The Megazine, in 1990. Judge Dredd takes only a villainous supporting role in the tale of the tragic life a young woman, America Jara, told from the point of view of her best friend Benny, who clearly loves her. America devotes her life to fighting a hopeless struggle for the values once embodied by her first name. Sadly, we soon learn that in Mega City One, these noble principles no longer apply, the American Dream is already dead.
This is a first-class audiobook dramatization of the comic story with high production values. Shakespeare in Love star, Joseph Fiennes is not an obvious choice for voicing Dredd but Paterson Joseph proves a strong narrator. Where I do have strong reservations, however, is in the inclusion of several other democracy-related Dredd stories without any explanation or context. Although they are all good stories and are also adapted well here too, they are clearly not directly part of the America story and it was a mistake to lump them all in together here without any introduction or even any chapter headings.
This failing aside, this is a winning audio version of a classic Dredd tale, which has been given added poignancy by subsequent political events in the years since the stories included were first produced.
At the time of writing, Joe Biden is around forty days into his tenure as 46th president of the USA. Anyone who becomes US president is interesting simply on account of the fact that they have managed to achieve that position. Biden is less charismatic than Obama and not as dynamic was Kennedy but is certainly much less stupid than Trump. This quick, readable biography offers the perfect opportunity for curious readers to brush up and gain some basic knowledge of the new guy.
He has been around for a while. He is seventy-eight years old, older than any of predecessors in that office and older today than four of the five living former US presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama and the defeated Trump. It is widely suspected that he only plans to serve one term, leaving Vice President Kamala Harris as the strong favourite to win the Democratic nomination in 2024. If he does manage to serve two terms, Biden will be eighty-seven by the time he leaves office in January 2029.
He is undeniably a member of the political establishment. He was elected as the sixth youngest senator in US history as far back as 1972. He was thus a senator at the time of the Watergate scandal. His first bid for the presidency was launched as long ago as 1987. His rivals for the Democratic nomination then included such long ago vanished political figures as Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart. Biden’s own ambitions were undermined by claims he allegedly plagarised a speech by British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, never a well-known figure in the United States.
The upside of all this is that Biden is very experienced, an attribute his now disgraced immediate predecessor so clearly lacked. Biden has had a long and successful career as senator and two terms as Barack Obama’s Vice President.
Tragedy has been a recurrent feature of his life. His first wife and one-year-old daughter were both killed in a car accident only weeks before he was first sworn in as a senator. His son, Beau, died of cancer in 2015, aged 46. Biden himself was almost felled by aneurysm when he was in his forties.
He is the only the second Roman Catholic to become president and the first former vice president to rise to the top job since George HW Bush in 1989. Even a year ago, Biden’s chances of winning the presidency looked doubtful. However, in November, he won, achieving more votes than any other candidate in US history and crucially comfortably beating Trump in the electoral college.
This is not a hagiography. Biden’s occasional lapses – his gaffes and occasional failure to support progressive causes – are not glossed over. But with American politics potentially entering a more compassionate and progressive phase after the unhappy turmoil of the previous four years, this offers a concise and readable insight into the newest resident at the White House.
Book review: Joe Biden – American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos. Published by Bloomsbury.
A history of Britain in statistics? Boring surely? Well, no actually. Believe it or not, this is actually a very informative and a genuinely very readable and yes, sometimes very funny read, packed full of “did you know?” type facts which you will instantly want to share with anyone nearby, regardless of whether they want to hear them or not.
Providing numerous insights into how our way of life has changed in the last 200 years – what we are called, what jobs we do, how long we live, when and if we marry, how many children we choose to have, what we choose to call them, how likely we are to divorce, when and how we die and what of and so much more.
The book also makes a compelling topical case for the importance of statistical information. During the recent Coronavirus pandemic, the public need for regular up-to-date and accessible data has grown dramatically. How, after all, could we ever defeat the virus without knowing how many people have it, where they live, who its affecting the most, how fast its spreading, how many people are dying from it and how many people have been vaccinated?
Mark Twain is often quoted as referring to “lies, damned lies and statistics.” But this is a nonsense. Assuming the figures are correct and the listener is fully aware of the context, statistics should not be seen as the same thing as lies, damned or otherwise. They are close to being the opposite of lies. This quote is too often used as a lazy rebuke by people who are either too stupid to understand the statistical data they’re being provided with or by people who want to undermine its credibility because too misquote Jack Nicholson’s character in the film, A Few Good Men, “they can’t handle the truth.”
Or as the comedian Stewart Lee quoted a sceptical taxi driver as saying, “you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”
This is an engaging, amusing and well-written book, but it’s interesting for another reason entirely: it’s the story of us.
Book review: The Official History of Britain: Our Story in Numbers as Told by the Office For National Statistics, by Boris Starling and David J. Bradbury. Published by: Harper Collins.
A former local journalist who later moved into public relations, Terry Pratchett grew from being a cult comic fantasy author in the 1980s to becoming the bestselling author in the UK of all in the 1990s. Biographer Marc Burrows does an excellent job detailing the prolific Discworld and Good Omens author’s busy life and extensive back catalogue – no mean feat as the Discworld series alone comprises 41 novels – successfully emulating Pratchett’s own literary style as he does so, with numerous witty footnotes throughout. Burrows also details the progress of the Alzheimer’s disease which sadly blighted Pratchett’s final years leading to his death in 2015, aged 66.
I spotted only one mistake: Pratchett never reported on the assassination of Egyptian President Nasser as this event never happened. Perhaps the author meant Sadat? At any rate, this should not detract from Burrows’ achievement. Apparently, Pratchett’s official biography has not been written yet. Whoever writes it will have their work cut out surpassing this.
Book review: The Magic of Terry Pratchett, by Marc Burrows. Published by Pen and Sword. White Owl (2020)