January 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

BletchleyTHE BLETCHLEY GIRLS: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss by Tessa Dunlop (Hodder & Stoughton, 342pp; £20)

Bletchley Park has become mythologised in the history of the wartime home front as virtually a sacred grove, with its genius, Alan Turing, as the high priest of the Enigma Machine and its cause (breaking enemy codes) served by dedicated handmaidens. From 1941, of the 8,000 employed at Bletchley, 75% were women. Fifteen of these civilian personnel at Bletchley, now in their nineties, have been interviewed by Tessa Dunlop who covers a broad range of activity from Oxbridge graduates who crunched numbers to ATS girls who cooked and cleaned. For all the nostalgic perception that life at Bletchley was much like a gritty spy novel by John Le Carré rewritten as a giddy romance by Nancy Mitford, elite veterans such as Lady Jean, Pam, Rozanne, Muriel, Doris, Georgette, Joanna, Kathleen, Charlotte and Ann are candid about the hardships and heartaches of their secret wartime work and its knock-on effects in their peacetime lives.


PryorBECOMING RICHARD PRYOR by Scott Saul (Harper, 592pp; £18.99)

To become the kingpin black box office Hollywood star who was paid $4m in 1983 to play a comic role in Superman III, Richard Pryor first had to work his way from a bruising upbringing in his grandmother’s Peoria, Illinois brothel and childhood abuse by his father, through a stretch in the army, apprentice stand-up days in the underground culture of Greenwich Village, the inspiration he took from the black freedom movement, and at last to high-ranking status in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s where the comic genius of the persona known as Richard Pryor was sanitised and  packaged for the world. Scott Saul concentrates on Pryor’s early years, the edgy ‘becoming’ stages of his life before the legend was set in polished stone. Saul’s excitement about the creative development of Pryor’s career in step with the critical American social issues of his lifetime fuel-injects this hot-rod biography.


Rabbit HoleREACHING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: Extraordinary Journeys into the Human Brain by Allan Roper and B. D. Burrell (Atlantic, 264pp; £17.99)

Dr. Roper is looking at a young woman in a hospital bed hugging a large pink teddy bear. He doesn’t think “cute, an Instagram moment”; his snap diagnosis is “conversion disorder, pain, dysfunctional family situation, possible childhood sexual abuse.” Pink Teddy is the red alert, an instinctive trigger in the mind of neurologist Allan Roper. His notes of encounters over the years with colleagues and patients at Brigham Hospital in Boston have been sparked into lively life by writer Brian Burrell as stories through which we can listen to the brain itself. There’s an element of playfulness in the short bite case studies of madness interpreted not only through hard medical knowledge but through soft intuitive reasoning. Memorably, one sure way to test for hysterical blindness is to wave a hundred dollar bill in front of the patient’s eyes. They will flicker. It gets the attention that a dollar bill doesn’t.


January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Atwood WritersON WRITERS AND WRITING by Margaret Atwood (Virago, 198pp; £9.99)

Margaret Atwood’s familiar dry, bemused, laconic tone pervades this extended version of the Empson Lectures she gave at Cambridge University for the year 2000. First published in 2002 as ‘Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing’, this paperback edition is less a handbook about how to write than a guide to what a writer of fiction and poetry may be or become. For starters, she could be a teenage girl in 1950s Canada “without a soul in sight who shared my view of what I should, could or ought to be doing.” How Margaret Atwood got from then to now, is her subject. A writer is a role-player, both to her readers and herself, she says; a duplicitous doppelganger, a self-dedicated priestess of the imagination, a literary go-between, a collector of stories from the underworld. In this book that asks more questions than answers them, she wears the literary motley like a seasoned trouper.


AlcatrazINSIDE ALCATRAZ: My Time on the Rock by Jim Quillen (Century, 376pp; £12.99)

In 1942, on the run from San Quentin where he’d been banged up for armed robbery, twenty-two year old Jim Quillen was picked up and sent to Alcatraz, the iconic prison in San Francisco Bay where he served ten years. He was there in early May 1946 during the bloody two-day stand-off between inmates and guards known as ‘The Battle of Alcatraz’, a riot sparked by an attempted breakout, fuelled by anger and frustration at harsh conditions and unforgiving treatment. His rugged story tells of hard times in a penitentiary system officially designed to keep society safe from criminals, but in practice a tool to “degrade, deprive, humiliate and break inmates: spiritually, mentally and physically.” In Alcatraz, Quillan “learned that law and authority do not always work hand in hand with righteous justice.” This memoir was published in 1991, seven years before he died in 1998, a free and fully rehabilitated citizen.


MetallicaINTO THE BLACK: The Inside Story of Metallica 1991-2014 by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood (Faber, 290pp; £16.99)

The noise that Metallica made may never die, but the old rockers themselves – James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo – are fading away. That’s the impression given in this second volume of Metallica biography by Brannigan and Winwood who perceive the San Francisco metal band, if only on the evidence of their fans’ nostalgia, as melted down now into a brand. From the innovative ‘Black’ album in 1991 through the revivalist ‘Load/Reload’ albums and finishing with the controversial ‘St. Anger’ and the Lulu’ set with Lou Reed, they seem to think that their, and the band’s, work is done. If so, this authentic narrative of late Metallica will survive as markedly as their music, because few testimonies to the psychopathy of rock bands have been as witty, literate and loving as this. Read it and roll to the toll of the bell that rings for one of the greatest, heaviest rock bands.


January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

Mak AmericaIN AMERICA: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak (Harvill Secker, 550pp; £25)

With Charley his poodle, in Rocinante his pick-up truck, John Steinbeck set forth in 1960 to look for the soul of post-war America in smallvilles and cities from New York to New Orleans. Fifty years later, Dutch writer Geert Mak, with his wife and a sat-nav called Sandy, took a trip in a Liberty jeep to look for the shade of Steinbeck in the state of modern America. Mak is not the first writer to dog the tracks of ‘Travels with Charley’, and Steinbeck was not the first to inspect the heartlands; but in this smart, deep-rooted state of the nation report from Main Street, USA, Steinbeck’s patriotic pessimism about the optimistic, affluent nation of the ‘60s is conjoined with Mak’s cautionary view of America as the characters in Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’: everything is changing except the players who carry on as if they and the world will stay the same forever.



Orwell SeeingSEEING THINGS AS THEY ARE: Selected Journalism and Other Writings by George Orwell (Harvill Secker, 486pp; £25)

Peter Davison, a distinguished editor and bibliographer of Orwell’s work, responsible for vols. 10-20 of ‘The Complete Works of George Orwell’ published in 1998, here selects and annotates a cross-section of Orwell’s non-fiction. Unless a cache of unknown Orwelliana is found under a cairn in Jura, say, the canon is pretty much complete, so that Orwell’s reputation and vision are now set in a moral and intellectual aspic. Davison’s introduction dwells upon Orwell’s desperate fear of wasted time and examines his meagre earnings – as Orwell did himself (“tobacco or books?”) – from constant, ill-paid day to day journalism and broadcasting to support the famous novels. In this collection, Davison points to the relevance of perceptive, even prophetic, essays in the 1940s on Anti-Semitism, the Colour Bar, Polish immigration, Scottish Nationalism, and even Scottish football, all presenting Orwell as a man for our own times as much as for his own.


Cope ArchersLIFE, LOVE AND THE ARCHERS: Recollections, Reviews and Other Prose by Wendy Cope (Two Roads, 306pp; £16.99)

Wendy Cope says she wrote 30,000 words of memoir, but gave it up. This autobiographical anthology is perhaps her substitute: it opens with a collection of unpublished personal essays written for her own amusement, and closes with a selection of newspaper journalism and occasional magazine columns for the entertainment of others. For all their warmth and humour, they don’t amount to much. The meat in the sandwich is her short, moving account of learning to be herself during a long Freudian analysis after periods of “fairly severe chronic depression” and her insightful reviews of serious poets and their work; in particular, her fond farewell to Gavin Ewart in 1996. Like Cope, he was damned by the faint enthusiasm of the literati for “an art so free of seriousness.” In the end, as she says ruefully, “What will survive of us will be quoted out of context.” But at least Wendy Cope will be quoted with delight.


December 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

paradiseGATECRASHING PARADISE: Misadventures in the Maldives by Tom Chesshyre (Notable Books, 276pp; £10.99)

Our man in the Maldives, without even a rough guide to the farthest-flung atolls, relishes their unexplored delights and indigenous difficulties. Considering an invasion by counter-cultural hippies no longer likely, official travel bans have been lifted. Instead of being confined to de luxe resorts on the ‘tourist islands’, visitors can now be let loose on the rest They will need to be fairly intrepid: it took Chesshyre two days on a small cargo ship, happily kipping down on the deck with his head on a pile of onions, to get from Male to Addu Atoll where he was excited to discover the remnants of a British air base. But is this paradise of remote islands, already at risk from rising sea levels and beset by political, religious and social pressures, now about to be oppressed by the global tourist culture? As the first Maldivian DIY traveller’s tale, Chesshyre’s cheerful book will motivate many freewheeling followers.



magna cartaMAGNA CARTA: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter by Dan Jones (Head of Zeus, 192pp; £14.99)

The Great Charter is “a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant king”, says medieval historian Jones. It was created not only as a reaction to King John’s tyrannous abuses, but further back still to the bad behaviour of his father (Henry II) and brother (Richard ‘the Lionheart’). Though it expresses more petty demands than high ideals, yet it has mutated into “a historical palimpsest onto which almost any dream can be written.” How did that happen? Jones deftly condenses a wealth of historical detail into the story of how it came to be signed on 15 June 1215, and became hallowed as a founding document of the Western traditions of liberty, democracy and the rule of law. Magna Carta has nothing to do with modern democracy, says Jones, but he proclaims it as a testament to the struggle of the men who made it in their own interests.


brief stopA BRIEF STOP:  On the Road from Auschwitz by Göran Rosenberg (Granta, 332pp; £16.99)

First you come from the Lodz ghetto, then you come from Auschwitz, then the road takes you to the Place by the Bridge where you get off the train on August 2, 1947, still a young man, and there it is: a small town that is not home but where you make a family and the rest of your life. In this memoir, author and journalist Göran Rosenberg walks with his father David through the darkness and light of their lives in post-war Sweden. “Every road from Auschwitz is an individual miracle unto itself”, he writes, a journey from the collective hell that was Auschwitz. The quiet, reflective, elegiac quality of Rosenberg’s retrieval of memory, of the meaning of what it is to be a survivor, of his father’s last days when the shadows of the past catch up with him and kill him, gives grace to the pained, weary traveller on his long journey.


December 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

O'NeillEUGENE O’NEILL: A Life in Four Acts by Robert M. Dowling (Yale, 570pp; £20)

“There’s a Lot to Be Said for Being Dead” was the inscription specified by Nobel laureate and four-times Pulitzer Prize-winning American dramatist Eugene O’Neill for his tombstone. The grave, which he reached untimely in 1953, aged 65, would certainly be quieter than his galvanic life. The form of Professor Dowling’s exuberant biography is in four acts, O’Neill’s preferred structure in plays such as ‘Anna Christie’ and ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’. It follows classic dramatic structure, from O’Neill’s childhood touring America with his theatrical parents, early years as “The Irish Luck Kid” no-hoper and tyro writer in Greenwich Village and Provincetown, success as a revolutionary theatrical giant, and the last years shadowed by scandalous divorce, the failure in 1933 of the “God play” ‘Days Without End’, the death of his sons and the neurological illness that forced him to quit writing. Dowling’s coda tells how the timely posthumous publication of ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ restored O’Neill’s reputation. As an introduction to the interlocked life and work of O’Neill, this is dramatically accomplished.


wonder womanTHE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN by Jill Lepore (Scribe, 414pp; £20)

“Suffering Suffragist, Robin, it’s that hot badass Amazonian princess! It’s Wonder Woman!” “Don’t be a dick, Batman. Wonder Woman is a righteous icon of feminist freedom and a powerful embodiment of the woman’s rights movement!” Kitted out in red boots and bustier, star-spangled blue shorts and a golden tiara, twirling a lie-detecting lasso, the pin-up heroine, says Jill Lepore, was “a little slinky; she was very kinky.” As a superhero, Wonder Woman was begotten in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, an American journalist, psychologist, polymath and sexual nonconformist. Profoundly influenced by the political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, his progressive British wife Sadie Holloway and his mistress Olive Byrne, niece of the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, he believed that women should rule the world. The secret identity and ironic origin of Wonder Woman, gleefully revealed here, lies less in comic book fantasy than in the racy life of her creator and the history of women’s liberation.


biog dict lit failureTHE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF LITERARY FAILURE edited by C. D. Rose (Melville House, 176pp; £12.99)

Keep a journal, it might help, is the common advice to those in mental and physical distress. For years, Ellery Fortescue persevered with this writing therapy, listing all her symptoms in notebooks. Finally, discerning that her graphomania was itself a symptom rather than a cure, she shredded her notes and immediately felt better. As C. D. Rose points out, if the death of the author marks the birth of literature, does the death of literature – its loss, or failure – mark the rebirth of the author? In one sad case, both author and literature were lost: having conceived a thousand page plan for a novel and condensed it mentally into a story, Felix Dodge was struck by a fatal aneurysm at the very moment he sat at his Remington Streamliner to write it. These and many other hapless losses to literature are happily redeemed by this cautionary compendium of unlikely authors and improbable compositions.



November 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

bonesA TOUR OF BONES: Facing Fear and Looking for Life by Denise Inge (Bloomsbury, 206pp; £16.99)

Before she developed an inoperable sarcoma, the late wife of the Bishop of Worcester found bones under her floors. As a traveller in deserts and climber of mountains, she was well used to dealing with fear in life; but faced with ancient human skeletons laid out in her own charnel house, she felt the final fear, “quiet as cat’s feet”, “heavy as a tomb”. When she understood her own mortality as a reality, her tour of other ossuaries in Europe took on a more directly personal significance. But “this is not primarily a book about cancer and recovery”, she writes. “Looking the greatest fears full in the face can open up the cupboards of your life and throw the dust out.” Denise Inge’s jewel of a memoir is suffused with an indomitable spirit that pays generous testament to the “beautiful brevity” of living well not in terms of luck or hope, but of having done “some life-bringing thing”, and of death well apprehended.


murderA DIFFERENT CLASS OF MURDER: The Story of Lord Lucan by Laura Thompson (Head of Zeus, 422pp; £20)

‘Murder will out’, no doubt, but in what version? There are several, about what exactly happened on the night of 7 November 1974 when Sandra Rivett, a nanny, was battered to death in a Belgravia townhouse. Her employer, the Countess of Lucan, was also attacked. Shortly afterwards her husband, the 7th Earl of Lucan, disappeared. Since then, despite numerous searches by the media and many alleged sightings, he has never been found. For forty years, the seductive combination of bloody murder, a glamorous but cowardly aristocrat on the run and the alleged connivance of Lucan’s high-end friends in concealing him, has been irresistible to investigators. Laura Thompson delivers the goods: a compelling narrative, hypotheses based on close examination of the evidence, hearsay reports of Lucan’s own testimony to a friend just after the events, and a possible solution. But she goes further, putting the murder in the telling context of British aristocracy and social attitudes towards it


amanda palmerTHE ART OF ASKING: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer (Piatkus, 340pp; £13.99)

If there is a current zeitgeist, Amanda Palmer not only surfs it – literally, being borne aloft by adoring audiences – but she contributes to it generously as a body-liberated rock star, confessional songwriter and social activist, married to writer Neil Gaiman, by understanding that there is no divide and no distance between herself as a performer and her fans. Real stardom may seem glamorous, she realised, but it’s lonely. The gift, she says, must always move. It is this co-dependence that has enabled her career through the crowdfunding concept of ‘Kickstarter’ house parties: “I didn’t want to force people to help me. I wanted to let them.” Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab gets Amanda: hers is “A story about life in one dollar bills, from [living] statue to icon, where media doesn’t matter, crowds do.” She is not a rebel: her book, like her life, is a true tribute to the energising power of art and empathy.



November 24, 2014 § 3 Comments

2014-11-14 17.00.40There was a prankster-ish, Dada-ist character to The Rock Hotel in Gibraltar during the week of the Gibraltar Literary Festival (14-16 November); first of all, whole areas were partitioned off to maze-like effect. Then bits of it were suddenly not there. Visitors to hotels take for granted the permanence of the Reception desk. If it’s fully functioning in the evening, but is literally gone in the morning, it is disturbing. When the front door also suddenly vanishes, there is a growing reluctance to go to bed in one’s room on the 4th floor in case that too ceases to be during the night. But there was reassurance of reality (with an element of virtuality) when, twice, guests were roused by fire alarms early in the morning to evacuate their rooms to flee non-existent fires. To be fair, the hotel was undergoing what an American ambassador famously described to the Queen as “elements of refurbishment”, but Festival guests had already started devising strategies for living in a virtual ‘Twilight Zone’. These days at and on The Rock will turn up in novels for years to come. I’m looking forward to them, because the quality of the literary performers at the second Gib Lit Fest was very high.

P1220069The Festival was bookended by my event, one of the first on the Friday morning (coinciding with a presentation on ‘The Secret War: Gibraltar and Spain 1939-1945’ by Peter Martland, Jimmy Burns and David Liebler) and, in the last, by a dramatically and passionately performed event on Sunday afternoon, by Nick Rankin. My own contribution was a talk about ‘Tangier: City of the Dream’, a book first published some twenty years ago but republished in paperback earlier this month by I. B. Tauris in their continuing list of books about North Africa. Nick Rankin’s book, ‘Telegram from Guernica’, was first published in 2003 and paperbacked in a new edition in 2013 by Faber. This tells you two things; first, that good books (ahem!) do survive, and second, that the development of the Gibraltar Literary Festival is less concerned about width than depth. This year, like last, it looked not only towards British writers, but also towards its immediate neighbours: Spain on the one hand and Morocco on the other. It is strong on themes and it is strong on authoritative speakers.

P1220036P1210783None of this is surprising when you know that the Festival was organised by Sally Dunsmore and her team who run the annual Oxford Literary Festival. Drafted in by the Gibraltar Ministry of Tourism and Gibunco Group, a major private enterprise company in Gibraltar and sponsor of the Festival, their expertise had been honed on the first Festival in 2013. Total attendances this year rose substantially from 1999 in 2013 to 3569 this year, an increase of 79%. Online ticket sales also registered an increase from 1034 in 2013, to 1475 in 2014, an increase of 43%. Tickets sold in Gibraltar experienced a 125% increase from 357 in 2013 to 805 in 2014. If confirmed figures and statistics alone testify to success, these will do it. It didn’t hurt, either, that money was thrown at the Festival.

P1210699For a week, from Tuesday 11th to Sunday 16th, the invited writers, their companions, event sponsors and local bigwigs were regaled with banquets in the evening, ferried by cars from hotels to events, provided with alfresco lunches in the gardens of the beautiful Garrison Library which served as the hub of the Festival. There may be no such thing as a free lunch or a lavishly gratis dinner, but the generosity was well spent, largely directed towards creating the future of Gibraltar as an events destination. The Literary Festival is the major jewel in the crown of Gibraltar’s reinvention of itself as a tourist attraction. There are enough – millions – every year of everyday tourists, but the intention is to create prestige events pinned to books, music, jazz, chess, etc., that will raise the reputation of Gibraltar.

P1220053And so it was worthwhile to sprinkle literary stardust over Gibraltar for a week: Joanne Harris and Ben Okri told stories, Mark Lewisohn gave the Beatles extraordinary depth in his talk about their family history, John Julius Norwich talked about his mother and the Mediterranean, Madhur Jaffrey and the Nepalese novelist Prajwal Parajuly complemented each other perfectly (deadpan cool met knockabout humour), chanteuse Patti Boulaye planted herself on the lap of Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Kate Mosse talked taxidermy, Maggie Gee wittily summoned the ghost of Virginia Woolf in a New York library, Erica Wagner told how to judge a Booker Prize, Claudia Roden cooked lunch, and Marillion put words to music. A major joy of the Festival was The Bookshop Band, a trio of young people who write and play songs based on books. They perform in libraries, bookshops, at book launches and are the troubadours of literary festivals. They especially sang Joanne Harris and Ben Okri, interpreting their stories as they spoke them. Anyone who has written a book or a story needs The Bookshop Band to sing it. P1220057

“Gib is all right,” said a writer friend of mine before I flew out for my first visit there. “But it’s changed massively from the late-80s; tarted up a lot since then. The whole coastline has been. It was the Costa del Crime back then and crossing the border from France to Spain was quite scary – Spain was still coming out of the shadow of Franco and poor, with wrecks of cars everywhere and a Wild West feel to it. The Gib border had only recently been reopened. It was a squaddy/smuggler town. When I’m a millionaire I intend to have an apartment in Gib.” Main Street is just a straight line of booze ‘n’ baccy shops, perfume palaces and leather jacket joints, all duty free. But just a little off the main drag, there are little alleys, ramps, old buildings that remind you that this is still a sturdy garrison town, and an echo of pirate town.

P1210798P1210973Gibraltar, as every literary schoolboy knows, is immortalised in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; Molly Bloom’s final soliloquy reminisces about her girlhood in Gibraltar in the 1880s. The climax of the monologue rises in her memories of “the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens… and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls”. The Alameda Gardens are still there, just below the Rock Hotel, for a long time neglected but now being renovated and brought back to their former bloom. If the Alameda Garden and Molly Bloom become symbols of a blossoming of literature and other cultural pursuits in Gibraltar in the coming years, they will do very well. GibLitFest 2014 was in every respect an astonishingly consistent burst of literary energy that now seems established as one of the best go-to festivals in the literary charivari. As they say, you had to be there. Please, may I be there again next year?


[photographs by courtesy of Mark Lewisohn]



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