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2021. Books of My Year.

6 Jan

I still don’t read enough non fiction but I have had a lot of fun weaving my way in an out of an eclectic bunch of wordsmiths these last twelve months. I read early morning and late at night. These times allow me some fun and stimulation before I turn on the news in the morning and a calming narrative space after I have ingested the late evening bulletins, most of which are stranger than fiction.


The year starts with much of the UK in the highest alert tiers for Covid. An eleventh hour deal was done with the EU and so we merely have chaos as opposed to catastrophe. Christmas and New Year were zoom events with virtual cuddling of loved ones. And 2020 was a great year for reading. What else was there to do to avoid Covid?

My reading year starts with two books which are close to my heart. The first was written by a much admired teacher of mine from Kingston Grammar School, the second by an old school friend – his first novel.

  1. Starkeye and Co. 2011. Berwick Coates. The life of a grammar school in the 1940s. It could be any school but it is my alma mater, Kingston Grammar. This is a gently humorous account of those difficult years for education. BC arrived as a single-parented, poor scholarship lad at this quirky but unexceptional school. The backdrop of the war years and the privations which followed allow for the historian to weave context into the life of a small lad trying to become a man.  Several teachers in the sepia staff photograph taught me some twenty years later. It was a school for lifers and Coates found many of them exceptional. This is a story for all readers not just alumni. It is infused with anecdote and detail, schoolboy pranks and matters of huge importance. I liked Berwick’s conclusion which chimed with my own experience. Speaking about illustrious alumni he says, ‘We’re a mite short on celebrities but….it’s the sort of school you’re pleased you went to.’ 3
  2. Rhesus Positive. 2020. Gavin Featherstone. My old friend’s first novel. I helped the edit of it and became wrapped up in this ‘memoir’ novel of two brothers who fall out early in life as the bombs of the Luftwaffe rained down on Blighty. Gavin plots the very differing paths that the brothers take in life: one emigrates to Australia, the other ends up with a darker and more ruthless life, working undercover for special forces. The historical context is very well-researched; the feeling of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and so on being evoked in careful and convincing fashion. We follow the boys and their characterful parents as the boys grown to men and their paths diverge further. Their boyhood enmity is maintained; revenge for childhood grievance lingers, even as the decades pass. The plot is compelling, the narrative is a little uneven and some characterisations can be unconvincing; the overall effect is of a very readable ‘history’, made worthy by its authenticity. 3+
  3. Logging Off. 2020. Nick Spalding. Nick writes comic novels which take a (mostly) 21st century problem and turns it into a series of farcical sketches. Here we follow Andy Burrows, a graphic designer addicted to the digital world. He can’t eat, sleep or poo without an iphone in his hand or an Instagram image in his head. When his doctor tells him to digitally detox his journey back to the real world is filled with bizarre encounters and ridiculous mishaps. Pretty juvenile but less bizarre than Tom Sharpe (and not as good) but, as a zeitgeisty chuckle it is worth a look. 2+/3.
  4. The Catch. 2020. T.M.Logan. Ryan is Abby’s knight in shining armour and when he proposes she can only see a lifetime of bliss ahead. Ed catches a look in Ryan’s eye and has serious misgivings about his daughter’s choice. Ryan is hiding something and Ed is determined to find out what. His daughter is too precious. He has already lost a son in a tragic accident and is damned if his daughter is going to be lost to him too. Trouble is, no one believes him and both his marriage to Claire and his relationship with his daughter are under serious threat. His surveillance mania loses him his job and plenty of money as he pursues the truth about Ryan. One of Richard and Judy’s favourite authors, TML weaves a suspenseful thriller out of an improbable set of circumstances. The longer it goes on, the darker it gets. The power of love, intuition and evil combine to make a readable, if forgettable tale. Enjoyable though. 3
  5. Postcards from a Stranger. 2018. Imogen Clark. Cara is a thirty-something caring for her Dad as Alzheimer’s will shortly end his life. She has always thought that her mother died young but the discovery of postcards in the attic takes her on a journey which will involve the pain of revisiting a very disturbing family past and the possibility of making things worse rather than better. It’s a rather clunky fictionalising of Who Do You Think You Are with a bit of love interest thrown in. Quite well-plotted but I had lost sympathy for Cara half way through. 2+
  6. Mercy. 2018. Martin Godleman. Martin is a friend and having scanned a couple of his fanzine books on West Ham, I decided to tackle some real fiction. Martin was an outstanding English teacher and it was no surprise that his career experiences probably fed into this noir tale of a schoolboy whose disturbing memories of growing up and schooldays resurface when he nears retirement. Then the demons of his past won’t quieten unless he does something about them. He relives teenage trauma and visits those who damaged him. It’s a tale very well told and fertile territory for the knowledgeable Godleman. If you like revenge fiction and a curiously unlikeable but compelling central character, I recommend. 3
  7. Heavy Water. 1998. Martin Amis. I have dipped into this short story collection before but I thought that I would take the whole lot in one go this time. Amis has collected a number of his sharp tales published in the New Yorker or Granta or the like and sewn together a wild and weird patchwork of satire from his omniscient and savage pen. He revels in exposing the grubby secrets of ordinary folk – from the frantic wanking of Vernon in Let Me Count the Times to the futuristic dystopian 2050 vision of The Janitor of Mars. Amis loves the amoral underworld of geezers who speak in cockney slang and are remorseless in their savage hedonism. He lampoons the pretentiousness of the art world and the vacuousness of those who pontificate. He can pan back and give us an unsettling world view. Nihilistic maybe but clever, scintillating prose and unsettling. 4/5
  8. Comparing Natural Immunity with Vaccination. 2009. Trevor Gunn. A small book read as part of my beginning to look at alternative views to accepted theory. My friend Charles, an osteopath, has bombarded me with his thoughts on Covid (and our failed strategies to cope), the misconceptions of mainstream medicine in general and healthy lifestyles. He sent me this little tome and it makes for interesting reading. Gunn questions both the epidemiology and efficacy of vaccination. He, persuasively, shows that almost all vaccines have been introduced when the incidence of a particular disease was waning anyway, due to improved diet and health of succeeding generations. The vaccination model follows the basic philosophy of Louis Pasteur, whereas the ‘alternatives’ in bio science take Dechamps as their guru. Worth a squint. 3
  9. The Gates of Athens. 2020. Conn Iggulden. I have read little of this celebrated historical novelist but my friend Geoff leant me this and so I dipped in. It’s a great saga of ancient Greece, and the struggles with the Imperial ambitions of King Darius of Persia. The defining battles of Marathon and Thermopylae take centre stage in an exciting and bloody  romp which, of course, makes the reader reflect on political tensions today. The Greek struggle, in the early days of democracy, is cleverly described and the tale, told largely through the eyes of Xanthippus, shows how factionalism infects any system. The ambitions of the Persian empire were rampant and Xerxes, son of Darius, exacts revenge for the carnage of Marathon. Iggulden’s skill is his imaginative filling of the gaps where we are deficient of facts. His speculations include collapsing timelines and second-guessing enmities and motives. The evacuation of Athens, to avoid huge slaughter of innocents, ends this part of the saga. More to come. 4
  10. He Said, She Said. 2017. Erin Kelly. The well known journalist who also ‘novelised’ Broadchurch has written an eerily convincing psychological thriller here. Kit and Laura are a young couple whose hobby is travelling the world to see solar eclipses. In 2000, at the Lizard, Cornwall, Laura witnesses Beth’s rape. The subsequent trial of Jamie Balcombe hinges on Laura’s evidence. Can she be sure of what was seen and said? The fallout from this trauma forms the story of the book. The young couple’s lives run on different rails thereafter and both the accused and the accuser manage to dog their every attempt to put the past behind them. The pursuit of the eclipse thrill remains Kit’s main hobby but are the young couple being followed and watched every step of the way? It becomes clear, early on that violence is never far from their door. A good read. 3++
  11. Hamnet. 2020. Maggie O’Farrell. Costa winner. Hilary Mantellish re-imagining the life of Shakespeare’s son. The star of the book is clearly Ann Hathaway (Agnes), cast as a free spirit of the forest who tolerates her husband’s need to get away from the stifling clutches of Stratford and his bankrupt, corrupt father – a dubious glover. Told in bursts of present tense, the story has a vibrant life and, indeed brings to life the story England’s celebrated family through the lens of tragedy as the young twin brother to Judith succumbs to bubonic plague. Excellent. 4
  12. The Biology of Belief. 2015. Bruce Lipton. Thanks for posting it to me Charlie Tisdall! Part of a series of reads to inform myself of the ‘alternative’ biomedical world view. Darwin v Lamarck; religion v science; nature v nurture; genetic determinism v environmental development; antibiotics v essential bacteria…and so on. The tendency of Bruce H. Lipton PhD to hyperbole or citing non-mainstream references to further his arguments, doesn’t always diminish the plausibility of what he says. We know that our GPs are being dissuaded from prescribing antibiotic at the drop of a hat, for example; many bacteria are essential for health. Picking my way through this, I found it readable and I am the better informed, if not totally convinced. 3
  13. A Single Thread. 2019. Tracy Chevalier. A strangely captivating tale of Violet Speedwell, a 38 year old spinster trying to find some purpose in life after the deaths of her brother, George and fiancé Laurence in the First World War. It is now early 1930s and Hitler’s star is in the grisly ascendant. Violet ‘escapes’ the clutches of her widowed mother in Southampton and moves the few miles to Winchester, a typing job and space to breathe. She joins the broderers, a committed group of women who fashion and sew cushions and kneelers for the Cathedral. A world all its own with hierarchy and gossip and judgement. It’s a well-researched small-life drama with contemporary scandals (lesbianism, unmarried mothers and the place of women) to make the humdrum tense, the social dynamic compelling. And Violet is a woman alone with choked desires and society’s disapproval close at hand. And the lustful eyes of a local farmer on her. And the loving attentions of the gentle, married bellringer, Arthur, to feed her dreams. The detail of embroidery and the company of committed women is convincingly and cleverly evoked – so that this ageing male reader with no interest in needles and thread found something to latch on to. There is fact amongst the fiction here and TC is a careful and consummate storyteller with such a sympathy for the period. Excellent. 4+
  14. The Kingdom. Jo Nesbo. Carl and Roy are brothers in their mid thirties with the blood of their father’s beloved dog DOG, on their hands from a teenage shooting accident, twenty years earlier. When Carl returns to the remote village of their upbringing, with a new wife and a plan to build a luxury hotel, the fragile equilibrium of rural relationships seem set to be shattered by the ghosts of the past. This is a grisly Scandi-noir tale of murder, incest and small town jealousies. Nesbo has a Stephen King weirdness but is a master-plotter. The book is a fast read ..but it’s pretty unpleasant. 3
  15. One Summer, America 1927. 2013. Bill Bryson. A wonderful snapshot (albeit 600+ pages) of that year seen through the lens of the big headlines in the US. Bryson however manages much more of a global picture of that summer than his title suggests. Social and political upheaval (prohibition, skyscrapers, immigration ..) blended with Lindbergh and Babe Ruth hysteria and the advent of ‘Talkies’. There were ‘celebrated’ executions by a famous executioner named Elliott and the ‘big four’ bankers of the world met and made the Wall Street crash an inevitability. Al Capone and Al Jolson were riding high as America became the industrial powerhouse of the world. Brilliantly researched, Bryson manages to be historian, raconteur, enthusiast and boyish throughout. An achievement. 4+
  16. Belle du Seigneur (Her Lover). 2005 edition. Albert Cohen. I was encouraged to tackle this huge book by my old friend Fran, who sold it as the equal of Middlemarch. Well, it’s longer, at a thousand pages and it is certainly a tour de force of a novel. Set in Geneva in the 1930s inter war years we find beautiful Adrienne married to a dull bureaucrat (at the League of Nations) Deume. He is a lazy and insufferable sycophant. She is ripe for the mighty Solal, the wandering Jew from Corfu, – and Deume’s boss at the LON – to enslave. Their affair becomes the scandal of the moment. Each page seems to be an examination of the sad motivations of one character or another, narrated at length with a precise and knowing glee. Human nature at whatever strata of this society is examined forensically. There is comedy and tragedy on each page as we laugh and grimace at the sad motivations of  mortals. The message seems to be that death is a blessed relief from the pretensions and corruptions of life. The Valiant, a strange group of Solal’s relatives and compatriots from Corfu, enter the action from time to time as comic relief, somehow to bring commonsense to the bizarreness of what others may call normal life. As each character is assassinated over and over again, I did wonder whether Cohen could have halved the word count. But I found myself returning to it after, say, a cheap kindle read, refreshed and ready to soak up the extraordinary examination of life. It’s Victorian in feel (and length) and yet has the stream of consciousness of a Woolf or Joyce. The satire is as savage as could be. The narcissism of us all is exposed. It’s brilliant (and an extraordinary translation) but set aside some time. 4+
  17. Shuggie Bain. 2020. Douglas Stuart. The grim but uplifting story of Shuggie, a poor gay boy whose upbringing in a 1980s, pit-closing suburb of Glasgow is little short of nightmarish. His absentee father, Shug, an ex-miner, promiscuous taxi driver leaves the dysfunctional family in the appalling care of his wrecked wife, alcoholic Agnes. Catherine, the sane elder daughter, scarpers to South Africa with her sane mining husband Donald.  That leaves Leek (Alexander) a late teenage talented artist who has no money for art school and lazes, aggressively along on a dead-end YTS scheme. And Shuggie a little articulate pansy of a boy who cares for his drink sodden mother before and after each brutal, abusive day at primary school. Somehow, through powerful prose and the spirit of a young boy, there is optimism. 4+
  18. The Assault on Truth. 2021. Peter Oborne. An eviscerating analysis of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump as leaders who have taken the UK and USA into a new world of ‘moral barbarism’. It is a step by step account of, principally, Johnson’s systematic lying throughout his political life and how his behaviour has changed the political landscape and affected us all. Oborne, perhaps unusually for  centre- right journalist, exhaustively cites authoritative sources and ‘factchecks’ everything he says. Despite repetitions and a certain delight in telling the tale, it is a sobering and sad take down, not just of Johnson but of our modern political life. Worrying for us all. 4
  19. A Little History of Poetry. 2020. John Carey. My great buddy Roger sent me this and it’s such a readable time-line story of the evolution of poetry. Anyone who has ever felt that the world of poetry has been closed to them ( and those who know a bit anyway) should enjoy this engaging history. If a readable and humorous technical book is wanted, look no further than The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. As for John Carey’s book, Sebastian Faulks called it ‘fizzing and exhilarating’. Nuff said. 4
  20. Double Blind. 2021. Edward St. Aubyn. Although panned by critics, this tale is full of St. Aubyn’s wit and cleverness. Thirty-something univ mates Lucy (in high finance) and Olivia (an academic biologist heavily into genes, possibly because her parents are eminent psychiatrists who adopted her as a ‘project’) reunite in London with the weight of Lucy’s cancer diagnosis, new job and new relationships for both, hovering in predatory fashion over their lives. Olivia has hitched up with a wilding environmentalist, Lucy head-hunted by a coke-snorting billionaire entrepreneur wanting to leave a Bill Gatesian legacy to science. The interweaving of 21st century obsessions: mental health (psychiatry), neuroscience, genomery, heredity, quackery, drug abuse, untold wealth, self-serving  philanthropy…and more – is grist to St Aubyn’s mill and he gets enthused by his clever research and clever language. Viewing humans as pulsing neuro-machines  is a contemporary variation on McEwan (A.I.) and more recently Ishiguro. It works for me though. The stories of people at crossroads, which are the heart of the book, are not lost in the author’s orgasmic prose; rather, their tragedies are normalised. A weird effect. 4+
  21. Klara and the Sun. 2021. Kasuo Ishiguro. A polluted and dystopian future America is the setting for Klara’s story. She is an AF (artificial friend) android chosen by Chrissie a single mum to Josie, a sickly young girl/woman whose elder sister died young. We view human interaction through the clever but naive eyes of Klara. Her clearsightedness lets the reader make what he will of the various relationships and situations which Josie’s life presents. Klara is often left in the corner of a room, ignored but observing all. What does she make of human emotion? Is she capable of learning empathy? Could she become a clone for Josie if the girl dies? The gentle narrative lets the reader collaborate with the writer. We are part of the story. It’s an odd feeling – and oddly compelling. Rick, Josie’s boyfriend, has not had the advantage of genetic modification which would ensure a college place but his intelligence and ability (he makes drones) and understanding of others gives him a moral strength. The story is both uncomfortable and uplifting. Our fragile world and we fragile beings are thrown into a fragile perspective. 4++
  22. The Secret of Cold Hill. 2029. Peter James. A rather silly departure from the Roy Grace ‘Dead’ series. Young couple move on to a new estate controversially built on the site of the old manor in a rural village. The ghosts from past tragedy have not been laid to rest. Things go bump in the night. Silly and unsatisfying, albeit some neo-gothic, macabre tension. 1++
  23. The Third Twin. 1996.  Ken Follett. Ken can be relied upon for detailed research (he has an army of helpers) and fast-paced story-telling. Jeannie is a rather off-beat genetic researcher investigating the nature/nurture differences in identical twins who grow up apart. Her clever and aggressive research is set to expose her boss, Berry, for immoral genetic engineering some twenty years previously – a fraud that, if discovered might scupper a multi-million merger deal and, indeed, stall the political ambitions of his partners. With money and the White House at stake, Jeannie is in serious danger. Her friend Lisa has been raped by a clone (one of eight!) and Jeannie has fallen for another. Love, chaos and danger…and one or two ridiculous stretches of imagination for the reader. Rape, fraud, university politics, due process of law and genetic engineering are but a few of the concerns of this old fashioned romp of a tale. KF is rather a retro read these days. The men and women of his novels seem stereotypically stuck in a 1970s bubble. Nevertheless I am always impressed with his detailed research and, despite the Geoffrey Archer-ish nature of the tale, I learn stuff. 3++
  24. Just Like You. 2020. Nick Hornby. Lucy and Joseph come from different worlds – he a black 22year old part-time butcher serving the moneyed middle classes of London, she one of his customers, a Head of English at a local comprehensive and a separated mother of two. Neither is looking for a relationship. What starts as a babysitting gig for Joseph turns into something else and two worlds collide. The complex navigation of their partnership, amid dinner party Brexit chatter, social and cultural clashes and two families looking at eachother with WTF scepticism, is cleverly handled with Hornby’s light comic touch. While the premise of the story may be a stretch, NH takes a number of today’s taboos and treats them with care, good sense and wry humour. 4+
  25. Nemesis.  2002. Jo Nesbo. Another dip into the murky life of Inspector Harry Hole as he ploughs his Norwegian furrow in the murk of Oslo’s criminal fraternity. Still reeling from the unsolved death of his police partner…….Harry has taken to drink, again. While Rackel (his new love) is fighting for custody of her son, Oleg in Russia, Harry investigates the near unsolvable bank heist and murder by a robber who leaves no clues whatsoever, save for the assumption, by Harry’s bi-polar video genius Beate, that the murderer knew the cashier whom he shot point blank, without needing to. The heist leads Harry down exciting rabbit warrens which often involve his own past history. Anna, an old flame, is shot on the night that Harry visits her. Harry’s drunkenness ensures that he has no memory of the evening. Meanwhile emails from the elusive robber/murderer press Harry’s neurotic buttons. Given that Harry and his immediate boss hate each other and that Harry’s drinking should have seen him dismissed a while ago, there are tensions at work beneath the brittle surface of camaraderie. All in all, another pacy and compelling psycho-crime-scandi-noir drama which I much enjoyed. 3++
  26. Three Hours. 2020. Rosamund Lupton. A well-told tense thriller about a school under siege by deranged gunmen. The dramatic unity of time, place and action is well handled as the reader is moved around the school’s hiding places as students and teachers huddle in undiscovered corners…until they are discovered. Surreally, the youngsters watch on iphones and ipads as TV coverage relays the siege to the watching world. A psychopathic white supremacist  ex student and his radicalised sidekick terrorize the school. Lupton switches the focus of action neatly: parents gathering at a local gym desperate for information; Rose and her police colleagues trying to psychoanalyse the killers’ next moves; Hannah the schoolgirl tending to Matthew, her headteacher who is the first to be shot; Rafi the Syrian refugee (and Hannah’s boyfriend) trying to find his young brother on the campus and reliving the trauma of the brutality of his homeland; the drama group bizarrely rehearsing Macbeth in the theatre, a supposedly safe haven. Meanwhile the killers stalk the campus and the police and anti-terror squads ponder their next moves. A columbine-influenced thriller which has the tone of a teen novel. 3
  27. The Beauty of Broken Things. 2020. Victoria Connelly. A sentimental and mawkish, sub Mills and Boon tripe of a tale. Helen and Orla are keen photographers who strike up a close friendship online. Helen dies in a train crash; Orla has acid thrown over her by a jealous work colleague. Luke, Helen’s devastated husband goes in search of Orla who has become a recluse (there’s a stalker involved too) in a mediaeval castle. The idea is that they help eachother back to sanity after tragedy. Dreadful 1-
  28. Agent Running in the Field. 2020. John Le Carre. Le Carre’s last completed hurrah and another slick and beautifully narrated spy thriller. Nat and his long-suffering lawyer wife Prue, have done their time in Europe’s spy-spots (including Moscow) while Nat ‘handles’ his agents and counter agents. Now as he contemplates being put out to pasture and playing more badminton, he is called to run the Haven – a rather shabby house of low grade spy-liaison in north London. It put me in mind of Mick Herron’s Slough House. The crisp eloquence of MI5/6 coded conversation and gesture interpretation is as delicious as ever. Nat regular young badminton partner, the morally high-minded, Europhile Trump-hating,  Ed Shannon turns out to have sold himself to the Russians (thinking they were Germans). The value of spy secrets seems negligible but the enormous subterfuge of surveillance and coded conversations seems to keep an army of spooks well-paid while they chase eachother for small advantage. Le Carre describes the lives and loves of compromised people, beautifully. 4+
  29. Death on a Cruise. 2021. Chris Grayling. Neil MacKenzie (aka Slick), the sleuth from Tunbridge Wells is back with his partners Gere and Rocky. This time they’re on a cruise as security consultants. This fourth in the series from my mate CG, is another Chandleresque romp for the UK market. It’s easy reading and, at times, laugh out loud stuff as the sometime-hapless private investigators stumble into problems – the problems being murder, romance and international fraud. Exotic locations and the fine fare of the captain’s table contrast nicely with the schoolboy humour of the sleuthing trio. A fast read on your sun lounger. 3+
  30. Long Road to Mercy. 2018. David Baldacci. The first in the Atlee Pine series. Our eponymous FBI heroine, sorry hero, is on the search for a man who has mysteriously disappeared from a remote part of the Arizona national park. Pine, a female Jack Reacher, is – de rigeur – damaged by the abduction and murder of her twin sister in childhood. This, of course gives her the edge in most things combative but a vulnerability in romance. Baldacci, like Lee Child, knows how to spin a yarn. And this yarn involves the FBI’s hierarchy keeping secrets from the underestimated Agent Pine. Despite the formula, B’s characters are well-defined and the narrative races. 3++
  31. Guernica.2014. Dave Boling. Wanting to know more about the Spanish Civil War and the Basque country, I revisited this moving tale of love and loss. Set between 1933 and 1940 we trace the fortunes of two families brought together by love and marriage in Guernica. Picasso’s startling image of the destruction of this small town was part of Boling’s inspiration for the tragedies which unfold – and the human spirit of resistance and resurgence which characterize the resilient group of Basques who survive the awful devastation to their families. If readers are looking for an informative historical document, this is not for you. If you want a compelling story in similar spirit and readability to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, go for it. 3++
  32. Sword of Honour. 1965. Evelyn Waugh. I had always wanted to read Waugh’s trilogy which he intended to be published as one long novel, partly autobiographical, about the Second World War. Men at Arms was published in 1952 with
  33. Officers and Gentlemen and
  34. Unconditional Surrender coming later. I read them in the 900 page combined version (Penguin 2011 edition)prefaced by Waugh and published first in 1965. The three volumes combine to make a delicious and savage satire on both the 2nd World War and the decaying upper class society of the late 1930s. Guy Crouchback is the moral core of the novel and we follow his brave exploits serving his country as a devout Catholic should against the satanic forces of Nazism. No one really matches up to Guy’s integrity and decency and generosity; not his officer friends, his slutty wife (whom he marries twice), nor any members of his club, parliament or friendship circle. His father may have been an exception. We are with him all the way: in the confessional, in Crete and Italy and Yugoslavia. We follow him with admiration and sadness. This is a must-read novel. 4++
  35. Suburbia. 2019. David Randall. My old primary school chum and eminent writer, raconteur and  journalist for, amongst others, the Guardian and Independent, died all too soon in July of this year. I bought his witty and charming evocation of growing up in Worcester Park (as I did) in the 1950s and 1960s. As with so many nostalgic memoirs, it drips with a particular resonance for those who were there at the time. Dave infuses the autobiographical detail with literary, political , social and cultural reference which would inform and entertain anyone. Green Shield Stamps and Bob-a-Jobbing are mixed with shell-shocked teachers and the mundane calm of suburban life. It’s funny and thoughtful and wise. 4++
  36. The Old Wives Tale. Arnold Bennett. Persuaded by my old mate Fran to revisit Arnold Bennett’s near-forgotten tale of sisters Constance and Sophia, middle class girls of the Potteries in Victorian England. I read this for A Level and could only remember not getting further than page 36, so dreadfully bored was I by the tedious tale of the shopkeeping classes. I missed the gentle, satirical humour which played in an Austenesque way although the intrigue of the two girls lay not so much in who they would marry but how they would navigate their lives having made their choices of husbands. We get a gently humorous look at the life of a middle class draper’s store which Sam Povey, with his new wife Constance Baines, takes over from her parents. Sophia, ever the more adventurous sister has eloped to Paris with Gerald Scales, a commercial traveller who has inherited money. The first half of the novel takes us through the undramatic provincial life of Constance and Samuel as they worthily plug away at affluent respectability in the main draper’s shop of Bursley. Along comes son Cyril and their steady life is complete until the drama of a local murder livens the narrative. Then we switch to Sophia’s life in Paris at the time of the siege of 1870. A Tale of Two Cities indeed and Sophia’s story captivates as tales of personal growth, when well told, can. Witty and moving. 4.
  37. Sleeping in the Ground. 2017. Peter Robinson. I felt the need of an Alan Banks Yorkshire police caper and this was a speed read. The mass shooting at a wedding seems an open and shut case when a retired dentist blows his own head off with the sniper rifle used for the killings by his side. But things don’t quite add up and cold cases seem to bring fresh questions. As usual Banks’s own past and love life smoulder around the central fir of crime detection. Much in the mould of the best Brit-Cop traditions of  Morse, Dalgleish, Grace, Rebus and others, this was classically unputdownable. 3++
  38. Where or When. 1993. Anita Shreve. It’s a typically thoughtful/poignant fateful love story. Charles and Sian meet when they are 14 at camp and circumstances contrive a reunion a lifetime later. It’s a sad car crash of a tale (think the Alan Alda This Time Next Year film, with serious tears). AS manages these sob-tales well. Another engrossing, if maudlin read. 3
  39. Contacts. 2020. Mark Watson. The comedian/writer’s best novel yet by all accounts. James Chiltern sets off on the London – Edinburgh train having let his phone contacts know that he is en-route to commit suicide. It’s a good-ish schtick to set the tale off. In the telling there are many sub plots and laughs as well as poignant stuff. It’s a well-writen and engaging observational novel. 3
  40. Billionaire. 1983. Peter James. I was intrigued by how PJ started his writing career – now he churns out the DCI Roy Grace Brighton-based ‘Dead’ crime thriller series. The central character of this first novel is Alex Rocq, child of Thatcher, amoral stockbroker. He is a smug risk taker who gets in over his head with the big players of world arms deals. It’s a Nick Leeson meets Saddam Hussein type of thriller. Fun. Does this sort of thing still go on? Rather average. He’s done much better since. 2
  41. Dead at First Sight. 2019. Peter James. I decided to follow up Billionaire with PJ’s latest and it is a much more satisfying read. I have got to know Roy Grace and his new wife Cleo over the years. The weaving of domestic details into the Dead stories is a well-rehearsed and successful tactic. Each novel brings a catch-up with Roy’s real life behind his work. Here we have a dating app scam. Dozens of mature women and men are being ripped off by a clever identity fraudster. Roy has to liaise with mates in Germany and the USA to track down the criminals. As ever this series is to be read in a few sittings. At 522 pages, PJ’s editors might have used the blue pencil more aggressively. 3
  42. Home Stretch. 2020. Graham Norton. The chat show host tells a good tale. Here he deals with young gay men growing up in rural Ireland – a first for GN and one is tempted to assume that the story is semi-autobiographical. A tragic car crash sets the drama of the story. The trick of a life-changing event to trigger the next 300 pages seems ever more common. Here teenagers die and the blame falls on the innocent Connor who exiles himself (to America) for the coming decades. A village community can’t cope with blame. Meanwhile his parents grieve for their live son, while others grieve for their dead. Connor is able to lead a gay life in New York while the village picks up the pieces. His sister marries the owner of the death-car, Martin – a union which seems sterile despite the production of two children. Norton explores long-held stigmas, the rumour-mill of small communities and the nature of love in this impressive story which has the usual beguiling atmosphere of rural Ireland set in the modern framework of 21st century social mores and the bustle of New York. 4
  43. Life’s Little Ironies. 1894. Thomas Hardy. I turned to this after GN as it has a similar sense of place and the sometime claustrophobia of rural communities. It’s a wonderful series of short stories, each of which have a twist of sorts. Most of the tales are of love and disappointment or fulfilment. The message, as so often with TH, is not to expect too much, don’t overegg your ambition; a good man or woman is better in the long run than someone who can beguile with a smile. There is humour and tragedy in equal measure and each tale is a delicious whole. Lovely. 4
  44. The Modigliani Scandal. 1981 . Ken Follett. KF had his early efforts reprinted. He might not have bothered with this one. It’s an art forgery caper with a bit of sex and Tuscany thrown in. Fluent but forgettable. 1
  45. Islands of Mercy. 2020. Rose Tremain. A different kettle of fish altogether.Rose Tremain puts character and setting together so convincingly and sensitively that any reader would be drawn in. She writes about love and the limits society places on the ambitions and behaviours of us all. Victorian England. Jane Adeane is the striking 6ft. 2in daughter of an eminent Bath doctor, a widow. He falls for Mrs Morrissey, the intriguing Irish owner of a plush tea shop but she has a complicated back story from which she has run away. Jane, meanwhile, rejects the proposal of her father’s practice partner Valentine Ross and ‘finds’ herself in the Bohemian world of her aunt who lives in London. Finding herself means experiencing sex and love with Julietta, a bi-sexual socialite. Valentine’s anger at rejection and his self-banishment to Borneo to trace his lost brother, Edmund, takes the novel across continents and cultures. The action bounces round. London, Dublin, rural Ireland, Paris, Borneo, Bath. Some characters loom larger than others and their stories seem both to complement and jar. But his narrative is always compelling and the odd, angular Jane Adeane remains at the heart of it. Rose Tremain seems to handle a range of character and theme with such skill. Here we have Darwinism, sexuality, jealousy, medicine and its alternatives, varieties of love, power and wealth struggles and roads built to nowhere. Highly recommended. 4
  46. The Last Letter From Your Lover. 2008. Jo Jo Moyes. A friend recommended this and, as I hadn’t ventured into the world of the prolific journalist Jo Jo Moyes, I took the plunge. She is a romantic fiction writer (recently famous for the Me Before You series) and her style is cinematic. You can see a screenplay lurking behind the narrative. Jennifer Stirling’s unhappy 1960s marriage and the loss of the love of her life, Anthony O’Hare, is described in correspondence discovered by Ellie Haworth. Her own modern day love struggle is (rather weakly) set against the anguish of missed opportunity of the older couple. It’s a good story and I might read more of Jo Jo. 3++
  47. Knife. Jo Nesbo. I had read two thirds of this before I realised that I had read it before! Another in the Harry Hole series. This time the convoluted scandi-noir detective tale has an extra edge. Hole is on the trail of the murderer of his estranged wife Rakel, brutally killed, along with others, in a series of perverted knifings. The plot twists and turns and gets confusing but still holds the attention. It’s dark and weird and clever. 3+
  48. The Man Between. 2019. Charles Cumming. A brilliant spy novel which stands up to comparison with both Le Carre and Mick Herron; different from both but out of a similar stable. David ‘Kit’ Carradine is a spy novel author who gets drawn into helping Lisa Bartok, an ex member of a political terrorist group called Resurrection, escape Morrocco. Kit is beguiled by the life of secret agents and gets drawn in over his head. Cumming writes easily and persuasively – and weaves in the current social and political agendas of the western world skilfully. Almost unputdownable. A great read. 4++
  49. The Order of Time. 2018. Carlo Rovelli. Aware of my lack of non fiction reading (again), I plumped for this engaging book on time. Rovelli, an Italian physicist, cleverly explains – rather describes – how time has been seen and analysed through time – and how the literary world has almost as much sense to make of this elusive concept as the world of science. Time is linear, not cyclical; time moves as different speeds depending on whether you are on top of a mountain or underground; time changes memory, perspective, history. I understood most of it. 3++
  50. Snow Country. 2021. The latest from Sebastian Faulks. It’s a follow up to the excellent Human Traces. We follow the stories of Anton Heideck, Austrian journalist in love with the curious Delphine, French,  at the outbreak of WW1. Lena, the village girl with a drunken mother, is spirited away to Vienna by Rudolf a young lawyer. The war takes its toll on all of them and their stories crystallize in the  sanatorium Schloss Seeblick in the 1930s. . Anton has been commissioned to write a magazine piece, Lena is working there and the ghost of Delphine returns. It’s a tale of considerable scope and really compelling. The historical setting of the inter war years with the scars of what has gone before and what is to come, is the catalyst for another of Faulks’ great human dramas. I loved it. 4++
  51. Beautiful world,  Where are You? 2021. Sally Rooney. Her latest rather introspective saga. This time we have 30 somethings, Eileen (a Dublin based impoverished copywriter and her best mate Alice, a Rooney-lookalike successful young novelist. They have a long-winded and implausible email ‘conversation’ where they examine eachother’s navels for long periods: life, love, religion, politics, death. Felix and Simon are their men but the girls are so psychologically messed up, for no apparent reason, that they can’t quite see that just getting on with life is the best option. Despite thinking the whole things was too much of a Rooney indulgence, I enjoyed the read but felt sorry for the male protagonists. Plus ca change. 3
  52. The Thursday Murder Club. 2020. Richard Osman. Well I had to give this a go. Most people seem to know what it’s about –a group of amateur sleuths from an old people’s village gang together to solve a couple of murders. It’s fun, smart and witty and the characters well-drawn. There is a fair pace to it, enhanced by the pleasingly short chapters. Why it outsold everything in 2020 and is now topping the paperback charts is a mystery. Engaging but not life-changing. 3.
  53. Head of State. 2014. Andrew Marr. A blackly comic satire on the Brexit referendum, written 2 years before it happened. The Prime Minister dies on the eve of the big vote and his aides cover up his death – and Rory Bremner mimics him in radio interviews and phone calls. From the bizarre to the ridiculous to the chillingly prophetic, this is both a political and a grisly thriller of cover up, lies and greed. Pretty much what we expect of our senior politicians and their mates. Marr’s insider knowledge gives some authenticity but the whole thing is grotesquely far-fetched, if entertaining. 3
  54. How the Dead Speak. 2019. Val Mcdermid. Her latest in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. Now Tony is in prison he has to manage his psychological criminal profiling from a distance. Human remains are discovered in the grounds of an old convent, once a ‘refuge’ for abandoned girls. The grisly discovery of 40+ bodies gets the duo (and others whom we have come to know in the series) searching for clues from the past. It’s a thriller about power and control – as true of the search for the evils of the past to the brutal life which Tony experiences behind bars. Compelling stuff, with each chapter prefaced by a quote from a crime text which Tony is writing during her majesty’s pleasure. 4
  55. The Searcher. 2020. Tana French. This is a rural thriller which won awards in New York, apparently. Cal is a burnt-out, divorced and retired Chicago cop who has emigrated to Ireland just south of the border with Ulster. The rural idyll he craves is thwarted by the suspicions of locals and the disappearance of Brendan, a young man caught up in drug dealing. His feral sister Trey seeks Cal’s help in finding him and then things get dangerous. Tensions rise in the local village, the local pub and his friend Mart may not be what he seems. It’s a thoughtful and suspenseful story which succeeds pretty well in evoking the essence of a remote community while we watch the characters grow and come to terms with the cards that life has dealt them. Just a little slow at times… 3
  56. Silverview. 2021. John Le Carre. His last novel, published posthumously after his son had, as he said, ‘touched it up’. . A birthday pressie from my old friend Stuart. And what a little gem. Julian Lawndsley, tiring of London’s rat race, opens up a small bookshop in a sleepy East Anglian seaside town. He is rather ripe for recruiting for low-level spy-courier work as h is a man of principle. Enter Edward Avon, homburg-wearing grey Polish spook-retiree who visits the shop and announces that he was a schoolfriend of Julian’s father. Further he suggests that Julian develops a section for classic literature. Julian doesn’t know what to make of this curious throwback of a man but we, the reader, soon learn that Edward and his wife were something quite big in the Spooks’ world of the post Cold War years of Bosnia and the Balkan mess of the late 20th century. A spook from head office, Proctor, is tasked with identifying a mole in the murky and confused world of MI6. Edward makes Julian a delivery boy, an exercise which excites the bookseller but complicates matters. Private morality versus public duty, and a grip of the geopolitical state of things are Le Carre’s stock in trade. His last novel perhaps gives us more of a sense of the blind leading the blind in the British spy world. It’s a grand finale. 4+

And that brings my 2021 reading year to an end. My mate Simon has leant me Pete Paphides’ much heralded memoir Broken Greek and this will vie with Mick Herron’s Slough House for my attentions during the current cold snap.  

Binaryism will be our undoing..

20 Nov

Journos and media people love the word ‘binary’. It simplifies question and argument, interviews and analysis and is so sexy for those sage pieces to camera with which political editors love sign off. La Kuessnberg on brekki TV this morning: ‘Where will the nation’s trust lie: Johnson’s Brexit pledge or Corbyn’s saving of the NHS?

Already we are sleepwalking into an election where the binary choice appears to be Tory v Labour, the ‘least worst’ scenario. Some papers this morning lament that we, the people accept the unacceptable. In this case the lying, privileged deceitful misogynist (etc,etc) Boris the Spider versus the , supposedly, unintellectual, terrorist-supporting, anti-Semitic, fiscally irresponsible and fence-sitting Corbynmeister. The judges couldn’t help out by allowing the debate to move from binary to group and so the also-rans (Sturgeon, Swinson, Farridge (heaven help us) and Sian Berry) had to make their pitches to a slumbering nation after 10pm.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown opines: I wonder what it will take to de-hypnotise servile citizens and awaken a greater sense of injustice among us all? She has it wrong methinks. The proletariat are in a cleft stick with a first-past-the-post voting system that isn’t fit for our modern Britain. Our political leaders are chosen by a tiny (relatively) group of card-carrying devotees to their cause. Result? Good people get sidelined by loud and unscrupulous voices. Let’s face it, in the binary world of politics you simply have to trust Corbyn more than Johnson – and I say this as a man who wouldn’t vote for either. At least the Corbynmeister has principles even if some of his allegiances are dodgy nd his Brexit stance was a soggy bottom.

The honourable leave the stage when parties pull to the extremes and allow the centre to atrophy. Ken Clarke is at the end of a long line of sane and clever politicians who, being fed up with it all, have left the stage to the ambitious, wild and disreputable pack of wolves ready to feast on the entrails of our democracy.Things fall apart and all that. Gone are many of those with integrity in conduct and service to the nation  in their hearts.

Johnson and Corbyn have gathered around them a bunch of Machiavells and dullards – a toxic combination. It is a mistake to think that the electorate don’t see this but we’re stuck aren’t we? The choice appears binary …but it isn’t. Why not vote with our consciences, with both our heads and hearts. Ask ourselves serious questions about the quality of our leaders and what they represent. Check the facts, preferably not those supplied by Conservative Central Office. James Cleverly, what a misnomer! I digress..

What do I believe in? I have had much cause to step away from my political sleepwalking through the first half of my life. I see the footballs of the Police, Education and the NHS being kicked around for political gain. Long term planning withers on the vine of short-term electioneering soudbite. I observe 4 and 5 bedroomed houses feathering the nests of developers while young adults dream of affordable housing. I would be pleased to pay more tax but I am aware that high earners pay a good whack too. I welcome controlled immigration; we are enhanced by the skills and multicultures which inform our islands. I am very much a Remainer but not, at root, for political or economic gain. For unity, for neighbourliness, for living together on the same small planet. For peace.

None of these things are binary. They are difficult and complicated.

Another Jaunt to Jersey..(1)

17 Jun

The mountain has to go to Mohammed. My son and his wife live in the Crown Dependency of Jersey. The pilgrimage is easy. It’s a 40minute flip across the water from Gatwick and the frantic hubbub of  Greater London is replaced by the calm civility of island life.

I hope Jamie doesn’t close his Italian kitchen in the North Terminal. The breakfast croissants are top of my list after the post-security reassembling of body and baggage. We sneaked a small table after a predatory hover-wait for a couple of flight attendants to drain their cappuccinos. The ham and cheese is my standard order, my lovely partner characteristically going for the vegan hummus wrap. As I tucked in my attention was grabbed by a kerfuffle at the table adjacent.

A well-spoken chap was complaining that the couple seated should get a shift on to allow him to settle in and scoff his breakfast. The young American couple would not be moved. They told him, politely, that they hadn’t finished their coffee. The pompous English git huffed and puffed and stormed off. I smiled apologetically at the young Yanks. Have a nice day, I said. They appreciated my support for what it was worth. I turned to my lovely partner, to engage her in a meaningful deconstruction of the squabble I have just witnessed. I had thoughts on how we have become hair-triggered, intolerant of others, too quick to judgement, to dismiss, to feel aggrieved, to feel entitled to feel riled. Naturally Brexit would have been a stop on my conversational journey.

She was dancing. Yes, literally. Earphones in, she was rehearsing a tap-dance routine for her debut performance as part of a Silver Swans group who have turned to ballet and tap for fun and fitness and to keep the Zimmer away for a decade or two. She was concentrating hard and jigging away, oblivious to all but her teacher on YouTube firing instructions to her inner ear.

Had our Easyjet flight not been delayed, her impromptu rehearsal would have been postponed. Without explanation we boarded the Airbus and settled in. I noticed that low-cost airlines don’t miss a trick to make a little extra. The seats have adverts on the cheap antimacassars. JD Sports, Fever Tree (since when was a small bottle of fizzy water worth £2.50?) and 3 Mobile were in your face. As is often the case, I couldn’t understand any of the announcements and I had to focus on something to distract me from the possibility of imminent disaster. Nervous flyer you see.

I count slowly after lift off and, usually, the seat belt sign is switched off before I reach 200. I reckon that if the captain feels relaxed enough, then I should too. On this occasion, not only had the captain not welcomed us aboard, he was clearly troubled by something. My palms became sweaty. Not unusual. 296..297..298..300. What on earth was going on? The cabin crew seemed to have received a signal that it was OK to serve drinks. At 363 the captain finally seemed satisfied that we were safe. I was able to wipe my hands, open my book and read.

The Susan Effect by Peter Hoeg. He of Miss Smillia’s Feeling for Snow. This new one is a political Scandi-noir thriller set, mostly, in Copenhagen. The translation from the Danish by Martin Aitken is brilliant. I say this having a little knowledge of the Danish language. Translations can read awkwardly and feel more detached from character and action than the writer intended. Aitken manages to create an authentic intimacy with deft and clever interpretation of small details. The chilling detached atmosphere is, by contrast, superbly realized. I’m at the bit where a monk has been beaten up, his bones crushed and he is being fed into a washing machine when the captain finally breaks his silence. We are 10 minutes from landing.

This is more like it. The man sounds like John Mills or David Niven. Calm, authoritative, all RP accent and pipe and slippers. Quite a contrast from the gruesome tale which had beguiled me for much of the trip (after the first 363 seconds). I now imagine the captain as a serial killer. Easily done.

Grandparents’ Day. 2.

13 May

I mopped up the coke somewhat self-consciously, having alerted my co-benchers to my spillage with my favourite expletive, ‘Bollocks’. I thought I had muttered this under my breath but the smirking, if sympathetic, smile on my neighbour’s face suggested otherwise. I settled back to watch the world go by amid the peaceful hum of the Embankment Garden’s lunchtime throng and the soporific warmth of the May sunshine.

My reverie was interrupted savagely. A dishevelled, back-packed grubby man was shouting something as he walked along. Shouting at everybody and nobody. He was 50 yards off coming from the Temple area towards Charing Cross. As he neared my bench vision and sound became clearer. A white, mid-twenties or so, shabby and aggressive looking chap in combat fatigues and reversed baseball cap. Glasses. Long matted hair.

He was shouting ‘…Fucking Brexit. You’ve all fucked it up. Farage wouldn’t have fucked it up. Fucking vote for the Brexit Party. Get the fucking scum out of Parliament. Fucking democracy…’ and so on, a continuing stream delivered with venom and eyes flashing, looking for reaction. Naturally the multicultural masses enjoying their picnics in the sun turned their cheeks. Being ignored was not on his agenda. ‘No one fucking cares in this country. Look at you lot. Farage’ll sort you out. Wankers.’ He was just a few yards away. I concentrated heavily on my coke can. Amazing what can grab my attention when I need to get really focused. Those around me seemed equally expert, looking down, up or burying heads in books and papers. I looked up when the loudmouth had passed; he was alternating his shouts with mutters I couldn’t catch. One man, hefty and sweatily suited was emerging from Gordon’s Wine Bar patio. Whether he had heard the kerfuffle I doubt but he was approaching and looked directly at shouty man, who repeated ‘Fucking Brexit.’ Hefty man stopped. ‘I agree with you mate,’ he said, ‘But you’re frightening the children.’ That was all. Hefty man moved on leaving shouty man looking somewhat lost. He looked around then quietly took the path to Gordon’s Wine Bar and we heard no more.

I too looked around. I could see no children. An image of Alf Garnett came to mind. He was the loudmouth bigot of Till Death Us Do Part, the 60s comedy hit crafted by Johnny Speight. If you don’t know it go to YouTube. You won’t believe what was allowed on our screens then.

Time was moving on and Grandparents’ tea was now my priority. Tube, tube and bus took me to the slick streets of Notting Hill. I fantasized about bumping into Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts and scanned the faces in Portobello road for any signs of celebrity but no joy. A friend of mine knows Ed Sheeran’s fiancée from university days and I know they live somewhere close by. Mind you given all the shapes, sizes and colours of the crowded streets it would be easy to miss a short ginger guy. I padded on for my granddad duty.

As I neared the school, a large and imposing Victorian town house, I clocked the queue of pensioners lined up on the steps. I couldn’t be in that club surely? As my lovely partner once said to me, look in the mirror darling. And so I joined the happy group. What a mixture of colour and creed and accent. And then we were in, ushered by an unctuous headmaster and a delightful form mistress with an Irish lilt. And there was little Seb. The Armageddon of the morning’s meltdown was replaced by his pride in grabbing my hand to show me around. I sat on a little chair to scrutinize his various books. My God the poor teachers have to work overtime to ensure that evidence of meaningful work is plentiful. The digital age has made education expand to screw the poor sods who deliver it. No mangy recycled textbooks, no copying from a creaking blackboard, no abacuses, no times tables. The Maths book was full of things I didn’t understand. Hey ho. He is happy and that happiness reverberated around the cramped little classroom. Grannies and Granddads suspended all chatter of ...well in my day we did it like this.. and concentrated solely on praising the little ones. I did catch a glimpse of a lady with a strident voice cornering the head. A Russian accent? Or is that my prejudice coming through?

As for Seb and me, we headed off after tea and scones, for the most important part of the day. A full games lesson in the back garden. With kit. Depending on which sport Seb was David de Gea, Harry Kane, Joe Root, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell. After two hours the call came for supper. I sighed with relief. My daughter handed me something chilled and alcoholic.

Grandparents’ Day…or what I did on the way. 1.

11 May

My little and lovely grandson Seb had invited me to his school, yesterday, for a special Grandparents’ Day. Despite the obvious and sugary PR intention of the exercise, I was all too eager to attend! The prospect of inspecting the work of a darling 5 year old, putative Einstein was delicious, as was the promise of tea with scones and jam.

Before embarking on the somewhat complicated route of car, train, tube, tube, bus, walk, a call came in from my daughter. I braced myself for cancellation but worse news was in store. She revealed that games afternoon had been cancelled to fit the old gits tea party into the schedule. Seb was distraught that his games kit had to stay in the wardrobe so Granddad could come and sip tea and scrutinize his scribblings. Meltdown.

With a slightly heavy heart I boarded the 11.50 from Staplehurst to Charing Cross. Only 4 coaches and rather packed with the grey-hair and blue-rinse brigade on the senior railcard jaunt to Fortnum’s. The tables in my carriage were taken and foiled packages were opened. Half-eaten sandwiches and, indeed, a couple of thermoses caught my eye as I made my way to a vacant two-seater. I settled in. I was looking forward to the last few chapters of A Station on the Path to Somewhere by Ben Wood, a startling account of a dark journey taken by a 12 year old boy, Daniel. In adulthood he attends a therapy group. The avuncular therapist advised the group to …stop viewing the present as a continuation of our past and see it instead as the beginning of our future. As I was mulling on the importance of this soundbite – slogan or profound? relevance to bloody Brexit, Manchester United, me?…a ringtone shattered the silence. Don’t Stop Me Now. Freddie Mercury boomed down the arthritic aisles as we chugged into Paddock Wood station. A woman under 60 behind me, fumbled in her bag. It took her until I’m having such a good time, I’m having a ball before she found the thing. Then Yeah I can talk, I’m on the train. As usual we then had the benefit of a loud and self-important conversation about delivery schedules and office gossip. I sighed audibly. This was a time for my 65p i newspaper, not a weighty novel.

As the linguistic space around me continued to be dominated by the thick-skinned Yak behind, I skimmed the rag. Breakthrough in treatment of heart attack victims; Danny Baker; Farage; the queue of chancers lining up for Mother Theresa’s job when she finally falls on her sword; University funding set to slide after Brexit; Beckham banned from driving for using his phone while driving his Bentley. And so on. Only the heart story raised my spirits.

Already regretting that I hadn’t turned to the back page first, I turned over to page 19. David Schneider’s article: How to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic. Schneider is an actor and comedian. He explains himself clearly and has the advantage of being Jewish which enables an authentic perspective in these tricky days of finger pointing in and at the Labour Party. Schneider basically says be careful and clear about what you say and mean when you talk about stuff. Example: Avoid saying Zionist or Zionism when discussing contemporary Israel/Palestine. The terms are too loaded and broad in their application, often used by anti-Semites to mean simply Jews. Benjamin Netanyahu is a Zionist but so are Israeli lawyers and peace activists fighting to achieve justice for Palestinians.

And so he went on in a clear and measured way. I felt better-informed. I don’t know enough about the middle east and I would be very wary of offering opinions without getting a better grasp of identities, what has gone on and what is going on.

In part what drew me to the piece was my recent readings from Seven Pillars of Wisdom. What an amazing grasp of tribe and culture and identity T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) developed in the time of the Arab revolt during the First World War. Are our politicians and their advisors at all equipped to make life and death decisions for those whose lives and culture they can hardly fathom?

The walking sticks were on the move. Charing Cross. I stuffed my paper into my backpack and head, with the creaking army, for the toilets. Such a joy that they are free, so no fumblings for change required. The many urinals were in heavy demand and there, in the middle of the throng was a spikey-haired woman, mopping the floor. She stepped aside as I shimmied to my bowl. I wondered, idly, if there was a man in the ladies doing the same thing. Doubtful. Looking around I saw no one batting an eyelid. Modern times.

I came out into the sun and, with time to kill, went for a stroll on the Victoria Embankment Gardens. The office workers were bathed in sunshine as they ate their tubs of tuna and sweetcorn salad or delved into goody bags for whatever had taken their fancy in EAT or Pret. I noticed that the park benches had been sectioned into three or four, so that you don’t have to sit next to anyone; you can be perfectly isolated with an armrest to left and right. I settled in one such, spurted diet coke over my trousers and watched the world go by.

Oh Danny Boy…

9 May

I suppose everyone has heard. Danny Baker the wit, the wag of Radio 5 Live has been sacked by the BBC for tweeting a picture of the happy royal couple holding hands with a chimpanzee. Well you can imagine the twitterstorm.

What first occurs to me is why on earth Danny Boy should be bothered enough about Meg, Harry and Archie to tweet in the first place. Putting that aside, Dan the man must be twitter-savvy by now, although he is cast in the role of cheeky chappie  so a little bit of inappropriateness seems to be in his DNA. He tweeted his defence.

Sorry my gag pic of the little fella in the posh outfit has whipped some up. Never occurred to me because, well, my mind not diseased.

I go along with this. When I think of chimps, I think tea adverts,  PG Tips and the years of chimp-exploitative adverts which gave us a giggle. I’m guessing there is a society for the prevention of chimpism these days. I can understand the opprobrium shooting across the ‘platforms’.

Mate, I love your show but you just can’t do that.

The BBC does not need racists like you.

You’re a disgrace.

…and so on.

However, I liked Chris Nicholls’s tweet.

If admitting a mistake and apologizing isn’t the sort of thing we should be acknowledging/encouraging, it is clear to see why we’re a society of victims too scared to own up to a mistake.

Danny Boy isn’t really a victim. He’s a silly boy who might have known better. But to lose his job? Like Jonathan Ross, he is a phoenix who will rise from these ashes but the wider issues of freedom and the cult of PC and victimhood are becoming stifling. We can’t say it like we see it for fear of the right-on police.

Jokes will be taken the wrong way on occasion but to elevate mistakes and misjudgements to sacking offences is to go nuclear far too quickly. And the BBC should, as all reasonable parents or aunties, sleep on it.

I move on. Suspension from the workplace had become increasingly common in my career as a teacher. The act of suspension was supposedly ‘without prejudice’. Yeah right. Differentiating between cases will always be tricky. The quick fix? Suspend anyone about whom a complaint has been made. Of course there are always extreme cases of misconduct where action should be swift and the innocent protected. Sometimes the accused are the innocent. A dear friend was once the subject of spiteful and false accusations. It took three years to clear his name. The stress took a terrible toll.

Perspective is a tricky thing and in so many ways we are losing it. My eastern European buddies who did work on my house (please don’t go home – we need you!) are far more clear about the state of the world. They offer opinions about race, colour, creed, national identity, men women, LGBTQ, politics, knife crime, Manchester United, Theresa May and everyone and everything under the sun. When I say, naively, You can’t say that! they will argue that they speak from their experience, not from prejudice. I don’t go all the way with them on that one but their honest chatter over a cup of coffee (only a five minute break as there is work to be done) is refreshing, energizing even. They wouldn’t understand the fuss about Danny Boy. I’m afraid, I do.

ps. Two glory nights in a row. Bring it on in Madrid. Spurs v Liverpool!


Que sera sera…

7 Feb

Doris Day was singing Que Sera Sera in my local on Tuesday night. Well the tape or CD or Spotify selection seemed geared to the older clientele. Whatever will be, will be sang Doris. The future’s not ours to see, she continued, as if she had heard Donald Tusk berating the likes of Boris the Spider for their support of the biggest divorce in our history, without a plan.

The vitriol poured upon Mr Tusk for his ‘special place in Hell’ jibe seemed linked to the recent condemnation of Liam Neeson for telling the truth of his feelings and actions, some 40 years ago, following the rape of a dear friend. Both Donald and Liam knew what they were doing, I suspect – one calling out the conniving idiocy of politicians who should be serving a nation’s interests rather than their own; the other promoting a film, which may not be a context best chosen to expose the raw personal memory of the vicious feelings he harboured a lifetime ago. Whatever the case, the PC police were onto them.

Liam Neeson won the support of those supping beer at the bar. All were white, a combination of Brits and Rumanians; the former supping ale, the latter serving it. John Barnes was mentioned as the black bloke who had got things in proportion. Brexit has gone off the local agenda to be replaced by the more general and chuckleworthy gossip of national interest, along with the vital local issues: traffic, potholes and all the bloody housing which is going up despite virulent and unanimous protesting.

The truth is that money talks. Boris, the aforementioned Spider was born into money, educated with it and throughout his glittering academic career barely rubbed shoulders with the prolerariat. In January he was paid £51,000 for a speech by an Irish company, Pendulum Events, in Dublin. I wonder if he was paid in Euros? Whatever shit he has stirred up, and whatever chaos and economic decline is about to ensue, he is protected by money and the irony that large organisations will pay him handsomely to talk about the chaos that he and the rest have caused.

As for Donald Tusk, I rather like him. He grew up modestly in post war communist Poland and was a student member of Solidarity. He co-founded the Liberal Democratic Congress and became Prime Minister. His politics seem to have shifted to the centre-right but he famously said that ‘It is best to be immune to every kind of orthodoxy, of ideology and, most importantly, nationalism.’ He has admitted that his early life under communism was boring and monotonous with no hope of change. ‘I was a typical young hooligan who would get into fights. We’d roam the streets, you know, cruising for a bruising.’ Shades of Liam Neeson, but not of Boris Johnson.

As Doris’s voice faded, Nantes F.C. cropped up in the conversation. The general consensus was that they have been rather quick off the mark demanding their cash from Cardiff before bodies and wreckage have been recovered. Money dominated the next few minutes. We agreed that money is more important than justice, honesty, integrity, kindness etc Root of all evil and all that. Someone mentioned poor Theresa but he was shouted down. Someone else asked if anyone had seen Kirsty and Phil on Love It or List It. This seemed to be the cue for the smokers to trudge outside with their pints of San Miguel.

I remained with the virtuous and sipped my Harvey’s. Reno, behind the bar, asked what que sera meant.

The Vanarama National League. Blessed relief.

6 Jan

When Sam Purkiss, a distinctly dodgy referee, blew the final whistle at 5.54pm yesterday, Sutton United had edged a gritty Vanarama encounter with Harrogate, 2-1. There was the gruff, happy sarcasm of celebration on the terraces at Gander Green Lane – born of many years of ups and downs. Triumph and disaster are put in their place in lower league soccer. Tomorrow is another day. And so the gritty band of Yorkshire supporters cheered their vanquished team before the long journey back up the A1.

Manchester United’s superstars, Pogba and Sanchez, who have, until recently been warming the team bench at a cost of £650,000 per week, could not have constructed or executed better goals than the three which punctuated the Sutton/Harrogate match. Mind you, punctuation apart, there was very little to raise the pulse during a delightfully dour and rather tetchy encounter. But this is the National league, several flights of fancy below Old Trafford – and so much easier to enjoy.

For a start, admission is £8 to the likes of me – over 60. Secondly, parking is unrestricted along the suburban roads that ribbon out from the ground. West Sutton Station is next door. A supporters dream. If you add the Gander pub at the end of the road and the burgers, hot dogs, chips and coffees on sale at the gate, you have a recipe for simple ecstasy. The sights and sounds and smells of the lower leagues have an authenticity – and a budget price – to trump anything that the big boys can muster in their corporate entertainment world.

The quality of the soccer varies. Conversation on the terraces – yes standing for a game is another retro-joy – is hardly interrupted by stimulating action on the pitch although there are sublime moments which delight all the more as they come as surprises. One such was Jonah Ayunga’s brilliant header in the 19th minute to put the hosts 1-up. Another George Thompson’s stunning left footed equalizer after 60 minutes – a rifled shot from 25yards. Apart from the skill, I enjoyed the normality of a name that I could pronounce.

The game was a niggly affair with a chap called Falkingham from Harrogate being the chippy little sod who seemed keen to be at the centre of most arguments. He was a talented little midget with a number 4 on his back. His number could be seen racing to complain to the rather wet Mr Purkiss at each decision, or as in this ref’s case, non-decision, that occurred. The little runt should have seen yellow early on. Instead, as he had a modicum of talent, he led the Harrogate revival and would have turned the game had Sutton not woken from their lethargy and sent on three smaller, quicker, raiding players to seal the game 8 minutes from time. Harry Beautyman finished a sweeping move to complete his own fine display and send the chocolate and gold fans home with a spring in their steps.

Total expenditure with beers and burger came in at under £20. At the top table of soccer we would be over the ton. More to the point, there were many boys and girls (£3 entry) gambolling about in their scarves and bobble hats. The club is a community facility with a 3G pitch. Finances are in the black and both the manager and chairman has ben in place for years. Sutton have had a number of famous FA Cup excursions but their bread and butter is local fun and support. Thy are threatening the promotion places. Elevation to the Football League would change things, perhaps not for the better. The expenditure on ground and facilities could be crippling. What’s wrong with staying in the Vanarama and keeping the burgers affordable?

Over Christmas and New Year I have enjoyed the blessed relief of politicians on holiday, being with those whom I like and love and only watching TV when lethargy overwhelmed me or when Love Actually was on. I have yet to make any New Year resolutions but that is normal for me; I don’t make promises I can’t keep. And so we’re back to bloody politics.

Then comes my fit again…

6. We found the only bar in Edirne!

21 Dec

My friend, Clive, desperate for grey-haired or, in his case, bald, adventure has invited me to join him Istanbul in mid January. This will be the last of my posts relating the story of our autumn jaunt. There will be more to come as we research the route from Istanbul to Edirne in the chill of next month.

Gatwick is flying again and so Christmas can be kick-started, we hope, for the poor blighters affected by Dronegate. Well done to Laurence (MasterChef winner) and Neil (Popmaster champion) for fabulous displays of skill, knowledge and humility in two vital areas of life: food and music. Add the appointment of Ole Gunner and things have been looking up since I started looking away from Parliament.

Back to where I left off – in Edirne in northern Turkey. Our lovely taxi driver dropped us a couple of hundred yards from the majestic Selimiye Mosque. English was spoken by our charming host at the Selimiye Hotel. He had a Celtic look about him, light-skinned and fair-to-ginger hair. I’m not sure what I expected of a Turkish hotelier but he was certainly unlike his more swarthy compatriots wandering around this lovely city.

We wandered to the mosque and the vibrant bazaar in its curtilage. Spices, sweets and clothing and colour. The displays were stunning in their sensual appeal and extraordinary neatness. On we went into the pedestrianized centre. Late afternoon and dusk was imminent. We waited for the call to prayer, expecting the happy throng of Turks to set a course for the mosque. The call came, loud and clear. Not a flicker of response. The cafes and shops remained buzzing as the prayer call echoed from the minarets and the city speakers.

We wandered past an inspiring, exciting fish market in the middle of town. We were searching for a much-needed beer after our border experiences. On and on we trotted. Plenty of coffee and hookahs about…but after twenty minutes hard searching, no beer. We were contemplating the strangeness of a soft drink when a small sign which, unlike most, was immediately recognizable: Bar.

We wandered in to this little gem and, as the only customers were greeted with some adulation. Another swarthy guy and his charming (and less swarthy) daughter smiled uncomprehendingly as we chirruped our one-word question, “Beer?” After a worrying pause I spied a large fridge stuffed with a variety of local and international brands of the amber nectar. A rapid and euphoric pointing at the fridge secured the required response. Big smiles all round and two giant bottles of a lovely chilled brew were on their way. We conducted a brilliant conversation with our hosts during which a good deal was said and almost nothing understood. Laughter abounded and the nibbles plate was regularly replenished, as were the beers. We will return.

That evening in Edirne confirmed that it would be a fine resting place on our pan European journey, whenever that may be. The following morning our trusty taxi man arrived on cue to whisk us back to the border. Clive’s passport was barely scrutinized as we wandered out of Turkey. Mine, however was taken away for further analysis by a young, unshaven chappie, more guerilla than border-force, I thought. He returned and grudgingly gave me back my identity.

We remained unsure as to whether our car would be waiting for us in the lorry bay on the other side. An additional problem was our concern as to how we could cross the central reservation at the border to make our getaway back through Bulgaria. As we walked through immigration we saw a gap in the border fence which would take us towards where we left the car on the other side. We looked around and all seemed well to nip through. As we marched towards freedom a gruff voice shouted. We assumed the translation would have been close to ‘Oi, where the bloody hell do you think you’re going?’

About turn. A beckoning finger from a large, aggressive man. Cars were being routinely stopped and their contents rifled. It was clear that plenty of trafficking or other illegal stuff goes on at this gateway to Europe. When Mr Big opened our holdalls, the look of disappointment, indeed almost disgust, at our boring underwear, shaving gear and smelly socks, was comical. With a dismissive wave of his arm he indicated that he wasn’t paid to bother with this trivia. He and the dogs went off to fry bigger fish.

And so through the fence and, glory be, our car was there. Not only that but a gateway allowed us to traverse the motorway and leave the border without further ado. Joy – and a fast road back to Sofia.

For the thirty six hours we were in we were relaxed tourists. The city has a great deal to offer with wonderful Roman ruins revealed in the city centre merged imaginatively with a new metro system. The market area is typically vibrant and the horse chestnut trees abound. They are a health and safety wonder as most pavements have risen and ripped as the root systems of the great trees wreak havoc. Wonderful.

A Balkan country shaped by Ottoman, Russian, Greek, Slavic and Persian influences is bound to throw up cultural variety, inconsistency and extremes of fortune over the centuries. Lenin’s statue was replaced in 2000 by Sveta Sofia’s enormous monument, in the city centre. The pedestal alone is 48ft tall.

There’s much to see, of course,  for the culture vultures. It’s always intriguing as to how nations report their own history in their national history museums. We went to a charming national art galley, the stunning Nevsky cathedral, the ancient Church of St. George. Gardens abound and the city is green and lovely. A large crowd was gathered in a corner of the central park as we wandered through. What were they gawping at? A game of chess.


5. A Walk on the Wild Side. We’re talking Turkey.

12 Dec

We took route 8 to Khaskovo out of Plovdiv. The road was flat and straight but started to climb as we reached a major fork in the road: left to Burgas and the Black Sea or right to the mountains and the choice of Macedonia or Greece. Route 8 presented the binary choice but we spotted that the E80 took us towards the Turkish border – ie straight on. We hoped that we would find a cosy, quiet border crossing manned by rustic, sleepy border police, who would smile and joke incomprehensibly with us but wave us cheerily across no man’s land.

In the event, after lunching in Svilengrad – again managing to choose a meal and beer via expert charades and friendly guffaws – we headed down a small road which we were certain would take us to the border. The traffic thinned and we passed pile upon pile of butternut squashes and pumpkins, stacked untidily outside forlorn farmhouses. Soon we were lone travellers heading for a sentry box, which we took to be the border.

An unshaven and unsmiling guard stepped out with arm raised. We gabbled our question, ” Can we go across the border here?” Once again our clear English was met with a quizzical gaze. A woman, similarly fatigued, stepped out from what looked to be a garden behind the sentry box. She managed to convey that this was where the road ended. Turn around, please or things could get tricky. Further, she explained that the border with Turkey was being Trumped; a fence of some 30km had nearly been completed. This to contain a surge of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa.The only official crossing point was the Kapikule motorway customs.

We did as we were told. We doubled back, found the road which linked to the motorway and headed past mile after mile of heavy freight traffic queueing to gain entry into Turkey. I should have videoed the tail-backs on both sides of the border to show Brexiteers what a border with a non-EU country looks like.

We parked our car in a coach bay and walked to what looked like a toll booth. The Bulgarian border police clearly weren’t used to ageing Brits strolling past the car queue with holdalls in hands and smiles at the ready. We found a guy in a khaki and green uniform, sporting the sort of captain’s cap that Bing Crosby wore in High Society. He looked at us curiously as we began with a question.

“Can we walk over the border here?” A studied silence, the a slow, deep drawl..


“Can we leave our car over there in the coaching bay?” This was a trickier question, requiring a couple of seconds thought and then a wry smile.

“No…is illegal.”

“We are only going a few miles into Turkey and coming back by tomorrow midday.” We were grasping at straws here.

“Only one day?” he drawled suspiciously. “Well OK, car is OK for one day.”

Progress but we wanted conformation, “So it will be OK to leave the car, it won’t be towed away?”

“I don’t think so. You leave. I check in morning. Is OK.” He seemed satisfied and so were we…just. We picked up our bags and walked into the passport office. They had been alerted, clearly, that two odd pedestrians would need to be processed into Turkey. As we moved across no man’s land and into a similar passport-check-booth on the Turkish side, the scrutiny of our visas was rather more thorough. The Bulgars seemed pleased that we were heading out of their patch but the Turks seemed a little less keen to welcome us.

But enter Turkey we did. As promised a small bunch of taxis waited at the crossing, mostly to ship border workers to and fro. We found a smiling old chappie with whom there was no chance of meaningful communication. We wanted to go to Edirne, a small city just a few miles in from the border. My pronunciation of Edirne (Ay-dear-neigh) didn’t find a flicker of recognition. Enter Google translate. The old taxi-man had done this before. We spoke English into an iPhone, he replied in Turkish. Mr Google then worked his magic.

We were on our way to Edirne and the Selimyie Hotel, just 200metres from the famous mosque of the same name.

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