A man of letters…

Dear Lupin… Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

dear lupinMemoirs told in letters are an endangered species these days. Who still writes letters to their nearest and dearest?  We tend to send a quick e-mail instead, and then we tend not to archive them. Our e-mails tend to be less formal and less revealing. There’s something especially poignant and attractive about reading other people’s letters, getting a little glimpse into their lives.

A huge hit of recent times has been Love Nina, by Nina Stibbe (my review here). Nina’s letters, sent home to her sister when she was nannying in London in the 1980s are witty, youthful and full of enthusiasm – it was a great time to be in London in your early twenties. A couple of years before Nina’s epistles came another bestselling volume of letters …

Roger Mortimer, who died in 1991, was a WWII veteran serving in the Coldstream Guards and after that a racing correspondent for the Sunday Times for nearly thirty years. His son, Charlie was born in 1952 and somewhat surprisingly, he had kept all his father’s letters to him over the years. Those published in Dear Lupin cover around twenty-five years, starting in 1967 when Charlie was at Eton.

Before I go further, I should explain that the title of the book Dear Lupin, comes from George and Weedon Grossmith’s comic novel Diary of a Nobody published in 1892. Lupin is the preferred name of the son of Mr Pooter. Pooter, a clerk in the City, is a Captain Mainwaring type, rather self-important and he doesn’t approve of his son’s social life. One day I must read this book – such is Pooter’s literary fame. Mortimer père comes across as having a very dry sense of humour in allying himself with Mr Pooter and his son with Lupin.

The book begins with a foreword by Charlie telling us about his father, then a dramatis personae – for many mentioned in the letters seem to have at least one nickname. This was useful to refer back to on some occasions. The letters follow, most with a comment by Charlie afterwards explaining some of the circumstances therein. Charlie, as becomes clear, is mainly a fan of the telephone. The letters begin in 1967 as Charlie is shortly to leave Eton without any qualifications at all. A few years later in 1970, his plan is to join the army, but not until he’s had a final fling in Greece. Roger writes with a long list of advice:

5. Try not to look like some filthy student who has renouced personal hygiene completely. The unwashed with long hair are looked upon with great hostility in certain European countries and it would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.
6. If you do get into trouble, Interpol will soon find out you have a police record and that could be awkward. …
8. Take a small medicine box and plenty of bromo. You are one of nature’s diarrhoea sufferers.
9. Make sure all your headlights are adapted to the rules of the country you are in. [and so on]

[Charlie comments]
This is a final fling before rather an impetuous decision to join the Coldstream Guards as a squaddie in October. Due to a conviction for possession of marijuana I am not able to join as a potential officer. As the Colonel in Chief remarks to me in an interview, ‘If you were merely an alcoholic we wouldn’t give a damn.’

His spell in the Army doesn’t last long! Soon Charlie is living in Devon and trying out lots of other jobs – paint salesman, farming ‘of sorts’ and being a second-hand car dealer. Roger writes:

Dear Charles,
I suppose that writing a serious letter to you is about as effective as trying to kick a thirty-ton block of concrete in bedroom slippers, but I am a glutton for punishment as far as you are concerned.

Roger really does worry about his aimless and rather feckless son. He is concerned too, that it could all be his fault. Charlie’s mother, Cynthia, nicknamed Nidnod for some reason, is always off hunting and seems to hit the bottle in the evenings a lot – however she is beyond reproach.  Charlie continues to drift along, trying this and that, and Roger keeps him going with generous contributions along with demands to pay the phone bill after the occasions Charlie had stayed with his parents. Roger’s last letter of 1977 is particularly brief …

Dear Little Mr Reliable,
Thanks a million for doing the wood baskets as promised. My word, your employer is going to be a very lucky man!
D

[Charlie] It takes real skill and irony to craft such an effective dressing down in so few words.

To quote more gems from these pages would be to over-egg things. The letters continue into Roger’s retirement and last years, his sense of humour and air of genteel frustration never dimming. Charlie is a commitment-phobe in all senses of the word, gamely going through life from one small crisis to another, being bailed out by his long-suffering Dad who obviously loves him to bits, and Charlie loves him back. Charlie doesn’t really change much over the decades – he’s now in his early 60s, describing himself as a ‘middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired).’

Roger has a unique almost stream of consciousness flow in his letter writing – going from admonishments, to advice, to who has died recently, to his wife’s riding exploits, to gossip about the neighbours, to more advice, to news about the family pets and so on… without stopping to start new paragraphs – just everything butting up to together. This butterfly approach to letter writing, full of these non-sequiturs, could be compared with Charlie’s career!

I loved being in Roger’s company hearing about his unique-sounding family. The good thing is that Charlie’s two sisters, one older, one younger have also kept their letters and two more volumes of epistles from the Mortimer family are now available to read – Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter  and Dearest Jane: My Father’s Life & Letters – I shall be reading them both. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):
Dear Lupin…: Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger & Charlie Mortimer. Constable, 2011, paperback 208 pages.
Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter by Roger & Louise Mortimer. Constable, 2013, paperback 208 pages.
Dearest Jane…: My Father’s Life and Letters by Roger & Jane Mortimer. Constable, 2014, hardback, 432 pages. (pbk in May 2015)

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Life with the Hawkings

Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking

Travelling to InfinityI already posted about the wonderful film The Theory of Everything about the life of Stephen and Jane Hawking here. At that time I wasn’t far into the book, Jane Hawking’s memoir, which the film was based upon. It took me some time to finish the book, read between other fiction novels over a fortnight or so, for it is a bit of a chunkster at 490 densely packed pages.

Jane Hawking first published her memoir in 1999 and the story ended in 1990 after the separation between her and Stephen was made official – this happened after the ending of the film which (started and) finished with Stephen being made a Companion of Honour by the Queen in 1989. In this new abridged version, a postscript brings us up to date.

It takes a special kind of strong woman to fall in love with a man who has been given just two years to live, but that’s what happened to Jane Hawking. Stephen was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease before they married – there is no cure, but amazingly Stephen is still living over fifty years later – a medical phenomenon, even amongst those who contract the rarer, more creeping form of the disease. They didn’t know that would happen then though, and were determined to live life to the full.

Jane looks after Stephen through thick and thin, through the vagaries of university life going from one post to another, relocations around Cambridge, and always the gradual decline of Stephen’s mobility. A fiercely proud man, he totally relied on Jane, and to a lesser extent his research students, to help him get about between home and college. At first Jane was managing to keep her own studies in medieval languages up alongside, but once they had a baby it started to get really difficult. Stephen was very reluctant to start using a wheelchair – but the day came, as did two more children. Stephen’s condition goes up and down – he is prone to frequent choking fits. Gradually the decline results in him needing a tracheostomy to breathe and not choke and in time Stephen meets the computer generated voice that has spoken for him ever since.

Jane has had many battles throughout, and proved to be a tough cookie. She was never really accepted by Stephen’s own family though. Atheists through and through, they could never understand her own needs as a practising Christian. This competition between God and science is one theme that runs through her memoir.

During the middle decades of their marriage, with Stephen on the conference circuit earning his keep at the college, and the demands of motherhood and running the household, it’s not wonder that she was exhausted. Her sense of frustration comes off the page, yet she never says she regrets putting her own life on the back-burner for Stephen. This middle part of the book is undeniably less exciting than the beginning or the end, and the endless detail over every conference and each little obstacle for Jane and Stephen does wear a little thin here.

Relief comes in Jane meeting Jonathan – the local choirmaster who begins to give their son Robert piano lessons, and soon becomes indispensable. Jonathan will eventually become Jane’s second husband, but there is much heartache to come before their developing relationship can be acknowledged. Indeed by the time it was obvious that Stephen now needed wrap-round nursing care, Jonathan had had to go.

It was the arrival of the nursing team that opened the rift between Jane and Stephen. Freed from looking after him round the clock, Jane is momentarily at a loss – and eventually one nurse in particular, Elaine, will edge her out of their marriage for good. It is enough to say that Stephen’s short marriage to his nurse didn’t work out either, there is a sense of schadenfreude about that, but due to having three children together, the Hawkings became friends again.

This is primarily a memoir about a remarkable family and Jane doesn’t let the fact that Stephen is arguably the greatest living scientist get in the way of that. He does come across as pig-headed and proud sometimes – but he is also a loving husband and father, one with his head often in the clouds thinking though. I got a distinct sense that he has used his disability to his advantage – freeing his mind to think.

The fullness of this memoir is, in its way, commendable – it really brings home to us how difficult life was living with someone disabled in this way through decades which weren’t sensitive to such needs. Whether such quantity was needed, I’m not so sure, but Jane Hawking has written a fascinating memoir, and shows us how much she cares for her former husband on (nearly) every page. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.

 

 

A brief blog post about time

Just a quick blog post today to say that yesterday I went to see the film The Theory of Everything – the story of Jane and Stephen Hawking.

IT WAS BLOODY BRILLIANT!

Its two young stars – Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were exceptionally good.

Theory-of-Everything_612x381Redmayne’s transformation as Hawking’s disease took hold was masterly, but Jones’ steely determination to make the best of their lives together, then later frustrations shone out of the screen too. Both have been nominated for Oscars – my fingers are crossed.

The film was well structured and beautifully shot with a great supporting cast including David Thewlis and Emily Watson amongst a group of other younger actors I am less familiar with.

I took my 14yr old daughter and she was transfixed throughout the whole film too. My eyes did brim with tears at several moments, but did manage to hold them in.

GO AND SEE IT IF YOU CAN!

Travelling to InfinityIt so happens, and not coincidentally, that I’m about quarter of the way through reading the new edition of Jane Hawking’s book Travelling to Infinity, which the film is based on.

Jane’s book is quite a chunkster at just under 500 pages, and carries on beyond the film, which stops in 1987 when Stephen was made a Companion of Honour. Originally published in 2007, this new edition published to tie in with the film has been abridged and added to.

I’m enjoying it so far, and can recognise many of the stories within from the film, which although having to compress things seems true to Jane’s life story. I hope the book continues to hold up.

Have you read the book or seen the film?

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.

Reviving his thirst for reading…

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy-millerWhat do you do when you seriously lose your reading mojo? I tend to retreat into trashy fiction, but I have always managed to recover it after a short hiatus. This wasn’t the case for Andy Miller. He has a great job in publishing, a happy marriage and a young son, but wasn’t getting anything from reading any more.

His solution – to embark upon a grand plan – to read all those books (mostly but not exclusively classics) that he had lied about reading before. He had this epiphany when he picked up Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a book he’d never been able to get into before. (It took me three goes, so I know how he felt on that one.)

Miller draws up The List of Betterment, 50 titles from Middlemarch to War and Peace with some surprises in between; the aim is to read them in a single year.

The road to reading betterment is not without its blocks and detours. A couple of books on the list continued to defeat him (e.g. Of Human Bondage), others are a revelation. The chapter wherein he compares Moby Dick and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is hysterically funny, and truly insightful (I can say that having read both!):

Moby Dick is a long, gruelling, convoluted graft. And yet,, as soon as I completed it, once I could hold it at arm’s length and admire its intricacy and design, I knew Moby Dick was obviously, uncannily, a masterwork. It wormed into my subconscious; I dreamed about it for nights afterwards.

I can honestly say that I had exactly the same experience with Moby Dick (see here.)

Rather than formally critique these books, for the most part Miller’s book is a memoir of the reading experience – how he related to these books and they to him and his life. If you pick it up expecting a serious look at the canon from someone who knows about these books but had not previously read them, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it’s primarily a story about how to make reading fun, and through it, get more out of life.

I must admit to having bonded a bit with the author (as he portrays himself in this book). The Moby Dick chapter was great, but what sealed it for me was that he grew up in Croydon – my own neck of the woods.

How I loved the municipal libraries of South Croydon. They were not child-friendly places; in fact, they were not friendly at all to anyone… The larger building in the town had its own children’s library, accessible at one end of the hall via an imposing door, but what lay behind that door was not a children’s library as we might understand it today, full of scatter cushions and toys and strategies of appeasement; it revealed simply a smaller, replica wood-panelled room full of books. … The balance of power lay with the books, not the public. This would never be permitted today.

I convinced myself that he was talking about Coulsdon Library there – which is where I went as a kid every Saturday morning in the second half of the 1960s. Then we moved to Purley (closer to central Croydon), and Purley library was where I went every day during the months before finishing university and starting my first job. I also had a Saturday job at Norbury library through the sixth form – so I know Croydon and its libraries rather well.

In a footnote, he also praises the branch of WH Smiths in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon where he would go to spend prized book tokens – his birthday present of choice. (This is one point where I have to disagree – Websters, the indie book shop further up was far better than Smiths – it is now Waterstones!). I don’t mind footnotes at all, and Miller’s ones frequently contain funny asides – if you’re a footnote-o-phobe, you’ll miss some good little bits.

Miller is not afraid to court controversy in this book. This is where I unbonded with him for a bit. In the chapter on Books 41 and 42, he talks about blogging. He tried blogging about his project himself – but failed. He said he wasn’t reading the books for the sake of reading them, he was reading them for the sake of thinking of something to write about them on the blog. Fair enough, but he goes on to say how “The internet is the greatest library in the universe; unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.” after having made some very disapproving generic comments about bloggers. Guaranteed to piss people off, that!

The above section aside, I found this book very enjoyable and always entertaining – even the chapter written as a love letter to Michel Houellebecq’s novel Atomised, (a book I have tried, but disliked so much I did not finish it). I counted up how many titles I’d read on The List of Betterment. 18 + The Da Vinci Code – I was impressed with myself – being a scientist, not an English grad. I have added to my own wishlist – notably Bukowski, and I want to re-read Anna Karenina, preferably in Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation for the OUP. I’ve also made mental notes to dispose of my copies of Of Human Bondage and Dice Man – I’ll never read them now.

Fans of books about books of the personal reading journey type, rather than serious lit-crit will find Miller’s memoir great fun; easy reading in good company. (8/10)

For a pair of other contrasting views on this book – see Susan’s review here and Victoria’s one here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller. Pub 4th Estate, May 2014. Hardback, 336 pages.

Hitch’s last essays …

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-MortalityI’m a long-term fan of Vanity Fair magazine for it’s in depth articles, photo portfolios and reportage, (OK, I don’t read the bits about obscure US politicians). One of the highlights most months though was to read the latest essay by British writer Christopher Hitchens.

A sublime essayist and journalist, a forthright and vocal atheist always happy to debate on difficult subjects – his pieces were always worth reading, whether you agreed with him or not.  I say were – because he died in 2011 from oesophageal cancer, more than likely brought on by his heavy drinking and smoking.  He collapsed in 2010 on the book tour to publicise his memoir Hitch 22, and was found to have cancer which had metastised, spread and thus was terminal. As he said: ‘…the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.’

His last book, published posthumously, Mortality, is a collection of the essays he wrote during that last year for Vanity Fair around the subject of his cancer and dying. It is prefaced by his friend and editor of VF Graydon Carter with an afterword by his widow Carol Blue. I remember devouring them each month, and it is entirely fitting that they be collected into this short book.

Of course, memoirs about dying and cancer have been done before. Notably, I still can’t forget John Diamond’s page-long columns in the back of the Saturday Times magazine in which he wrote of his life once diagnosed with throat cancer. These columns became the basis of his memoir C: Because cowards get cancer too. He died in 2001: Diamond’s wife was Nigella Lawson, and I really felt for her, having already lost her mother and one sister to cancer. In fact, in Hitch’s unfinished notes in the final chapter he mentions Diamond:

Like many other readers, I used to quietly urge him on from week to week. But after a year and more … well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, miracle cure!  Hey I was just having you on! No, neither of those could work as endings. Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this? A stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end…

But back to Hitch himself. Having the benefit of being able to write full essays for VF, he is able to expound at length, essentially taking a different related topic each time as well as updating us on the progress of his illness and treatment.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay is the second in which he deals with religion, and how he had both people praying for him and condemning him to hell!  For an atheist polemicist, he has many friends among the world’s many religions, and is more likeable than Dawkins for it. However, some would still hope to persuade him to have a deathbed conversion …

I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.

A different secular problem also occurs to me: What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.

In another chapter, he writes about his voice – his vocal cords going decidedly croaky – and as a man who earns his living by voice as well as pen, he hated the idea of having to communicate by writing, even if his writing is his voice on paper.  He thanks (also now the late) Simon Hoggart who …

…about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write ‘more like the way you talk.’ At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.

Another interesting essay is based upon Nietzsche’s pronouncement: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich starker – Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Hitchens discusses why it doesn’t really work, although you may think it does until you get terminal and he illustrates the essay with quotations from Kingsley Amis, Betjeman and Bob Dylan.

These essays and additional material were a joy to revisit. Well-argued, supported by apposite quotes, each encapsulates its subject brilliantly. His interest in  the human condition too shines through the writing – it always has done. You could argue that this is not his best work, but perhaps it is is his most meaningful. Hitchens for all his bravado comes across as so full of life, even as the end approached and he shows great courage. His voice – spoken and on the page is a great loss, but luckily, he wrote lots of books, including his memoir Hitch 22, his anti-theist treatise God is not great: how religion poisons everything, and a great collection of other essays from 2011, Arguably. Now I don’t have him to read in VF any more, I shall start on these. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2012 paperback 128 pages.
Hitch 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2010 paperback 448 pages.

 

Anderson & Zweig; Thorn and Morrissey

I know – it’s too long since you had a proper book post – they will come soon, promise. Life is so busy at the moment, and for the next couple of weeks it’ll be the same – as I have the Abingdon Science Festival to go to/help at, several trips to the Oxford Literary Festival planned (Natalie Haynes, Celia Rees and friends talking about women in history in YA novels, and Ian McEwan. I plan to write about them all in due course. Plus there is that big project I mentioned before that I can’t tell you about quite yet (what a tease!)

All of these are taking up too much of my time, (but in a good way!).

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-PosterMeanwhile, I’ve given myself the night off from reading and am going to see The Grand Budapest Hotel at the movies this evening.

There is a bookish link, as director Wes Anderson has based the film on stories by Stefan Zweig, and Pushkin Press has brought out a book of selected writings, introduced by Anderson … The Society of the Crossed Keys (affiliate link) to link with the film.

I’ve never read Zweig, but have ordered the book above so I can get started after seeing the film tonight, and I may well put down my thoughts about the film tomorrow.

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bedsit disco queenI’ve read a lot of good books lately, but the one I’ve been enjoying the most over the past couple of weeks is Tracey Thorn’s volume of memoir Bedsit Disco Queen. Forget the purple prose and bitter rants of Morrissey, reviewed here, Tracey’s book is just brilliant all the way through.

She tells her story from her punky schooldays, through forming The Marine Girls, then English at Hull university and meeting Ben Watt, through all the ups and downs of Everything But the Girl, eventual big stardom thanks to that remix of Missing into semi-retirement and motherhood.

That she’s managed it all and stayed totally sane, never becoming a diva – remaining the extrovert introvert she is – and obviously a nice person, made this the best memoir about pop music that I’ve ever read.  One bit that really tickled me though was in a chapter called ‘The Boy with the Thorn in his Side‘ where she talks about Morrissey and the Smiths – here’s a taster …

I loved Morrissey with a devotion which outweighed anything I’d felt for a rock singer before, and which I now blush to recall. It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with him (well, no, I did actually, but that seemed unlikely to happen, what with one thing and another). It was more that I wanted to BE him. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this, though I suspect most of the others who felt this way were probably boys. For an androgynous girl like me, Morrissey was an intoxicating new kind of role model – camp in many ways, but also surprisingly butch. He reminded me more of a male version of the female singers I liked – Patti Smith or Siouxsie  – than any previous male rock star. His onstage performance style inspired mine for a good couple of years – a Melody Maker review from 1985 reads: ‘Tonight Tracey might have played it like the girl with Morrissey at her side’, while this one is from Sounds: ‘Thorn continues to stifle her desire to impersonate Morrissey, arms threatening to lose control of themselves.’

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Harry choosing

 

And finally, the winner of the Giveaway of a copy of Mark Miodownik’s new book (reviewed here, as picked by Harry is …

K E V I N

I’ll be emailing you for your address very soon.  Well done, and thanks to all who entered.

Nannying in the 1980s

Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

love nina nina stibbeThis volume of memoirs in the form of letters was the perfect reading for me in the past couple of weeks, when life has been so hectic. I’ve just finished a couple of weeks of full-time cover teaching, and then with all the usual Christmas events from bazaars to carol services to help at, editing the school magazine etc. etc. etc. I’ve fallen asleep within minutes of going to bed – waking in the early hours with the light on – still sitting propped up with my thumb jammed in the book! Not a good posture for dozing, but now term has ended and I can relax. This book of short sections was just the thing to ensure I managed to get some reading done. Let me tell you about it…

In the early 1980s, aged twenty, Nina Stibbe left Leicestershire for London to become a nanny. It still being the days when not everyone had a phone, she wrote home regularly to her sister Victoria telling her all about her successes and non-successes at nannying and the amazing family she worked for. Luckily for us, Vic kept the letters.

Nina worked for Mary-Kay Wilmers, who was then deputy editor of the London Review of Books, and she looked after her two sons, Will and Sam (whose father is Stephen Frears). They lived in North London near Regents Park Zoo; Alan Bennett (AB) was a neighbour – always popping in for tea, and Jonathan Miller lived up the road.

When he (AB) comes over for supper he does this tiny short doorbell ring, hardly a ring at all, he just touches the bell and it makes just the beginning of a ring. That’s him. Minimum fuss.

It seems to have been a very haphazard, but lovely household. Neither MK nor Nina really cooked much but everyone seems to have thrived. MK seems to have been quite liberal, and her sons (aged 9 and 10 at the start) are able to get away with quite adult language and they’re all naturally witty in a dead-pan way.  They are all completely loveable, with Sam and Will forming a comedy double act with their amazing conversations.

S & W had a row yesterday afternoon. To annoy Will, Sam said he might switch to Manchester United. Will called Sam something mysterious in German, which he claimed to be extremely offensive, but turned out to be mother-in-law (according to AB).

At supper:
Will: (to Sam) By the way, it was ‘swiegermutter’.
Sam: What was?
Will: What I called you – it’s German for ‘motherfucker’.
AB: ‘Swiegermutter’? Actually, I think that’s German for ‘mother-in-law’.
Will: Oh. What’s the German for ‘motherfucker’, then?
MK: Probably ‘motherfucker’.
AB: (pondering) It might be ‘mutterficken’? Or perhaps ‘arschficken’, ‘arshlock’? But please can’t we discuss nicer things?

Eventually Nina, egged on by boyfriend Nunney, who is a helper at the Tomalins – another literary family nearby, decides to apply to do an English degree, having enjoyed doing A-level English. She is offered a place at Thames Poly, and at first moves out so a new nanny can move in. However, it’s not long before they have a jiggle round and she moves back in with her adopted family.

It’s really nice to hear about Nina’s discoveries of the literary canon as she progresses in her degree, but her college friends are less interesting than the Wilmers. Given that Nina is a mature student, they seem immature in comparison to her. I was longing for more Sam and Will, and AB during these sections. Bennett constantly surprised me actually – this passage when their washing machine malfunctioned really tickled me…

Once neither of us nudged it and it went for hours and everything came out all matted. AB suggested it was something to do with the water not heating up to the target temperature and therefore not moving n to the next part of the cycle. It’s amazing how much AB knows about appliances (when you consider he’s a writer and pretty much just writes all day.)

Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I’m particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.

Anyway, it’s fixed now, a bloke came round and it was what AB said (temperature thing).

Although this book is completely one-sided – Nina seems not to have kept Vic’s replies, she does acknowledge her sister’s life events in her letters. Vic is always sending her recipes to try and cuttings so we get a slight sense of her sister. Nina, like her charges is witty; she’s also opinionated, but self-deprecating too. We’re about the same age, and I can tell you the early 1980s was a great time to be in your twenties in London. The book comes to an end after six years of letters when Nina graduates. The Wilmers were definitely brave to let Nina publish her diaries – but they needn’t have worried, for they are lovely, and so is Nina. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe, pub Viking, Nov 2013, Hardback 336 pages.

‘November spawned a monster’?

Autobiography by Morrissey

autobiographymorrissey_lrgSorry – couldn’t resist the title of this post.  I wrote about my initial reaction to the opening pages of Moz’s memoir here.  There, I questioned whether I could stand to read a whole 457 pages of his purple prose.

Well, reader – I finished it. Contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed a good amount of it too, but, if ever there was a book to which the term ‘curate’s egg’ could apply – this is it! Famously unedited, it is at least one hundred pages too long.  This is primarily because, (as I at once surmised), he uses double the amount of words that he needs to.

I suspect that, as his sense of humour is entirely on a different plane to that of the general public,  he didn’t set out to make anyone laugh – but laugh I did in quite a few places. Let me share some of those with you before getting serious:

Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, …  (p5)

England calls with an offer of a role on Eastenders, as the son (so far unmentioned) of the character Dot Cotton. I would arrive unexpectedly in Albert Square and cause births, deaths and factory fires every time I opened my mouth – numb to shame throughout. (p353)

The cast (of Friends) is friendly, and I am immediately taken aside by the scriptwriters and asked if I’d jump in on a newly jumbled plot-line where I appear with the character Phoebe in the Central Perk diner, where I am requested to sing in ‘a really depressing voice.’ Within seconds of the proposal, I wind down the fire-escape like a serpent, and it’s goodbye to Hollywood yet again. (p368)

A Manc-accented Nick Cotton in Eastenders – I don’t think so.  At least he has the sense to recognise that he probably can’t act, but it would have been wonderful to see him send himself up in Friends, but ever Narcissus, he can’t.

Morrissey is famous for being vegetarian; later walking out of many restaurant meetings when someone at his table orders meat.  This was even so in his childhood, and his description of school dinners could turn you off most food for life.

Putrid smells reduce me to a pitiful pile, and none are more vomitarian than school dinners. All foods of miasmic fragrance disturb me, and the mere hint of garlic induces the shakes, as fish cooked or uncooked causes gut-wrenching panic. This boy of 1971 has an abnormally limited palate – a working-class host of relentless toast, and the inability to expand beyond the spartan.

What was nice was that although he hated school, outside, he developed a love for poetry, starting off with the wit of Hillaire Belloc, and Wilde, then Dorothy Parker before moving on to Stevie Smith, WH Auden, Herrick and Housman.

It is page 141 before he meets Johnny Marr, shortly after discovering he has “a chest voice of light baritone,” and an initial flirtation with performing in public as The Nosebleeds (not a band name of his choosing).  He and Marr hit it off, and the rest, as they say is history.

The years with The Smiths, before it all fell to pieces are fascinating. Like all tyro bands faced with their first record contract, they gaily sign.  They have hit records but never reach the number one spot, something that really irks Morrissey. All the way through his memoir, whether with The Smiths or solo, he is obsessed with chart positions, seeing the inability to get a single to the top spot as a failure of the record company.  It is hard to see how a song called ‘Shoplifters of the world unite‘ could have got the airplay he thinks it deserves.  The albums chart higher though, and live audiences bear out their popularity, but you sense he is really aggrieved at never having had a No 1 single.

On p175, he talks about why he calls himself Morrissey…

My own name has now become synonymous with the word ‘miserable’ in the press, so Johhny putters with ‘misery’ and playfully arrives at misery mozzery, which truncates to Moz, and I am classified ever after. I had originally decided to use only my surname because I couldn’t think of anyone else in the music that had done so – although, or course, many had been known by just one name, but it hadn’t been their surname.  Only classical composers were known by just their surnames, and that suited my mudlark temperament quite nicely.

Comparing himself to a classical composer – he’s having a laugh, isn’t he?

Where I got bogged down with this memoir was the section post-Smiths when Morrissey was sued by the Smiths’ bassist and drummer, whom Morrissey insists had been signed on for 10% (himself and Marr as the songwriters getting 40% each), asking for their full 25% – years after the event. Morrissey is full of vitriol at them, and as it goes on and on for about fifty pages, I got more and more bored.

Things get a little more interesting again when Morrissey moves to LA, meets various celebs and has strange conversations. He also has relationships which are still kept very private. They get boring again when he goes on tour – and we get night after night of a new city and audience sizes.

So – a mixed bag of too much information, too little information. Occasions of too much purple prose – “even though his expressionist jargon often swamped logic in far too much existentialism” – I can’t even begin to assimilate that phrase. I have no idea of the veracity of his writing – Stuart Maconie and Julie Burchill give different accounts of meetings for instance, but it is his own (narcissistic) account. Morrissey shouldn’t have been allowed to become the first living author to be published in Penguin Classics – but it was a great marketing coup.

To sum it up, when talking about family, friends, poetry, The Smiths’ creative peak, Morrissey was happy – and I was happy reading about it too; when whining about record companies, court cases, the NME, never getting to no 1, endless gigs, being a Misery Moz – I thought ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’. (7/10)

So I shall leave you with a promo video for Girlfriend in a Coma, and links to Morrissey’s appearance on Desert Island Discs which was fascinating plus a couple of press reviews of his book – one funny, one more balanced: Craig Brown in the Daily Mail; and Stuart Maconie in the Guardian.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Autobiography by Morrissey, Penguin Classics, October 2013, 457 pages

Nice little surprises

It’s lovely when you get a nice little surprise (or ‘pleasing’ as Lynne at DGR would call them). I’ve had a couple of good bookish ones this morning.

berkoffFirstly, I unpacked my acquisitions from the charity shop yesterday. I know I don’t need books, but my daughter was having her hair cut, and what was I to do? It was too distracting to sit and read in the hairdressers, so I went shopping.

Among the books I bought was this hardback: Steven Berkoff’s autobiography Free Association.

He is one of those fascinating actors equally at home on stage or screens big and small, and he’s one of the very best actors at playing baddies there is.  Although an East-end lad, he comes from Romanian stock, which explains a lot.

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He has been in Bond films, and a Matt Smith episode of Dr Who, but apart from his baddie role, I always primarily associate him with Kafka.  He adapted three of his novels for the stage, and I can vividly remember the 1987 TV film of Metamorphosis which had a young Tim Roth scuttling around the stage.

I will look forward to reading this book, and it was a lovely surprise when I opened the cover this morning to find that my £2.50 had got me a signed copy. OK, so my name’s not John, but Berkoff has touched this particular book, and I like that a lot.

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billy and meMy second nice surprise was that my daughter and I were discussing a book that my niece had recommended on our visit to Croydon earlier this week. Billy and Me is a chicklit romance by debut author Giovanna Fletcher. I said we’d look it up and get a copy if Juliet wanted it. Juliet squinted at the bookcase in front of her and said, ‘You’ve already got a copy!’. ‘Gosh,’ I replied when I realised that I’d received a copy from the publisher (thank you), so my daughter has added it to her pile as it is not really a book for me.

One thing you should know about Giovanna Fletcher though, which I didn’t realise until I read the blurb of this book, is apart from having been in TOWIE, she is married to Tom from McFly – and she is the girl to whom he sang his wedding speech in one of Youtube’s most watched clips. I was sceptical, but had watched it some weeks ago when I saw it mentioned in a magazine and I was nearly in tears by the end. It was so lovely (and of course Harry Judd is in it too) – so I shall encourage you to have an indulgent break to watch it for yourselves…

Have you had any nice little bookish surprises lately? Do share…

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To explore these books further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Free Association: Autobiography by Steven Berkoff, 1997, Faber paperback
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback.

The Women of Madison Avenue

Mad Women by Jane Maas

Mad Men still ranks amongst my favourite TV programmes ever. I love everything about it – the clothes, the campaigns, the decor, the lifestyle, the cast, (especially John Slattery as Roger Sterling).

But how true is the series?

I’ve already read one book by a guy who was there – Jerry Della Femina’s memoir (reviewed here), gave one man’s eye view – but his isn’t the only perspective available to help answer that question…

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Jane Maas was there and saw it all. She was one of the pioneer ‘Mad Women’ of Madison Avenue. She started as a copywriter in 1964 at Ogilvy and Mather after several years working in TV production on Name That Tune, rising through the ranks to be a creative director and president of another New York agency along the way.

In compiling her memoir, she has spoken to many of her colleagues to build up her picture of working for and with the real Mad Men, giving a fascinating portrait of the advertising industry of the 1960s and beyond, and especially what it was like for women, although she didn’t have to start off as a secretary like Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

A petite redhead, Jane was married to architect Michael Maas in the late fifties, had kids and lived in central New York rather than towns outside like many of her colleagues.

She was also one of the first working Moms – ranking her ‘job first, husband second, and children third’ realising that her job and husband might go away, but that ‘the children would hang in’.  Jane was very lucky to have the services of her Mon-Fri live-in help Mabel though, but always felt guilty about not giving her children enough attention.

In chapter two, Jane gets straight to the subject of sex – apparently there was a lot of it about, although O&M was one of the more discrete agencies.  At other agencies, including Young and Rubicam, (the model for Mad Men), it was seemingly everywhere between employees outside the office…

The term ‘sexual harassment’ hadn’t been invented yet, or certainly wasn’t in our vocabularies. Most women then working in advertising were either secretaries or copywriters,  and 99 percent of us had male bosses.  The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your career advancement … your life.  If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more: your self-respect or your career.
A number of people confided recently that women were sometimes the ones doing the seducing. The best way to get promoted from secretary to copywriter was for your boss to make it happen. And the fastest way to make that happen was to make it with your boss.

Mad Men's Peggy OlsenUltimately what I am most fascinated by in Mad Men and books like this are the advertising campaigns themselves. For me, many of the best scenes are the ones where the creative folk are at work, and pitching to clients.

Maas tells us about the good and the bad campaigns, and the good and bad clients.  She tells howit was common for rooms full of men to discuss the ins and outs of feminine hygiene products without asking their women staff of their opinions, except as an afterthought.  She recounts how it was usual for women copywriters to be put on accounts for household products, the men kept all the cars, booze, fags, etc for themselves.

i-love-new-yorkMaas was one of the few that did break through the glass ceiling though.  She was not only one of the first women to wear trousers to work, she went on to be the director of the ad campaign that put New York back on the tourist map, I ♥ New York with its iconic logo designed by Milton Glazer in 1977.

She is also quite clear where she thinks Mad Men (and she is a fan) gets it slightly wrong.  In the hippest times of the 1960s, the agencies were colourful places – not the beige, class and chrome we see on TV.  Most of all though, she stresses that they worked hard, they played hard, and most important of all, they had terrific fun doing this job that they loved so much – Don Draper and his colleagues don’t have enough of the latter.

This book was less rambling and much more entertaining than Della Femina’s, and confirmed most of what I’d always suspected happened in a woman’s lot in those glory days on Madison Avenue.  I’ve always been fascinated by the world of advertising, it’s long been one of my fantasy jobs from way before Mad Men, so I liked it a lot.  If you love the series, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mad Women Bantam paperback, 218 pages.
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line Dispatches from the Advertising War by Jerry Della Femina
Mad Men – Complete Season 1 [DVD]