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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Is this the reason Mum works?

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

Monday, February 26, 2018

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

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

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Peace and Love generation were raised on War and Hate

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

One of the best books I've ever read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The genius of Summer Heights High

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

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

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

Couldn't happen here, of course.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In praise of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Thank God for Lillian Boxfish

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

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

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

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

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

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