Category Archives: Books

Game of Adaptations…..

I’ve been reading fantasy novels for most of my adult life, though in recent years, my tastes have moved away from fiction towards travel books and historical biographies.  Even so, something will cross my radar now and again – such was the case last December when I was visiting my late father in hospital.  He had been moved to (essentially) a nursing facility in Daventry and as a non-driver, this presented something of a challenge in terms of access.  In the end I figured out a convoluted bus and train route that got me there and back OK, but with a good deal of hanging around.  Specifically, I had to wait around quite a lot at Daventry’s  ‘bus station’ – essentially part of a public car park, divided into bus bays.  When doing my regular visits to Dad, I always ensured that I was well-equipped with distractions – iPod, book, newspaper, water bottle, sandwich etc.

Even so, a local charity had opened up a second-hand bookshop in what looked like a disused office right next to the bus bays, so I wandered in one day, emerging  in time to get my bus with a well-worn US paperback edition of George R R Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’, which I’d picked up for £1.  I’d become aware of ‘Game of Thrones’ thanks to a fairly modest publicity campaign launched by Sky TV to publicise the fact that they were screening HBO’s adaptation of the book; an adaptation whose promo posters featured a photo of a rather grim-looking Sean Bean staring out at us and looking for all the world like Boromir with a serious hangover.

Sean Bean  looking grim as Eddard Stark on the novel’s front cover

Dipping into ‘Game of Thrones’  on the way home, I was immediately hooked and have subsequently acquired a DVD box of the aforementioned (first) HBO series as well as systematically working my way through all of the ‘Westeros’ novels currently available.  So, you might say that I’m a fan, though I am some way from being an uncritical one.  I’ll return to the novels later, but I just wanted to pause long enough to express my admiration for the HBO adaptation, which is beautifully ‘dressed’ and well-acted and a worthy addition to all the other excellent HBO series of the last ten years.  Martin is actually involved in the adaptation of his own novels for TV, but only as part of a team of writers, directors and producers.  Collectively, they have done a great job in bringing Westeros to life .  However, not all such adaptations are handled so deftly…..

Back in 2009 I wrote about how,  among the sober volumes of Nevil Shute and   J B Priestley on my parents’ bookshelves, there was one glaring anomaly; a luridly purple hardback edition of ‘Thuvia, Maid of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I  knew Burroughs’ name from the better-known ‘Tarzan’  books he wrote, but they somehow failed to capture my imagination in the way this one did.   I worked through  ‘Thuvia’ at top speed, then headed off to the local library in search of the remaining volumes in the series.

In 2009, I wrote about the dreadfully lame movie based on Burroughs’ Martian series:  ‘A Princess of Mars’ ( ‘Watching……’Princess of Mars’……..‘ – Dec 2009) Recently, I caught up with the new ‘John Carter’ movie, based on the first novel of the series, but haven’t bothered to blog about it, mainly because I didn’t really know what to say. 

To say that the movie received mixed reviews would be an understatement and whilst I wish I could refute all the negativity………in all conscience, I can’t.  I would have loved it to be a great movie, but sadly it’s just average, rather than really bad.  For me, the main problem with it is that director Andrew Stanton is like the kid who wants to set off all his fireworks at once.  The movie leaps from set piece to set piece without too much regard for pacing, character development or mood.  It’s just one long breathless roller-coaster ride where some aspects of the plot aren’t adequately explained at all, whilst others  are done to death.

Green Martians try to shoot down a Red Martian flyer in Andrew Stanton’s hyperactive ‘John Carter’

Such are the perils of adapting your story from an existing text;  by contrast, George Lucas was able to take his ‘Star Wars’ characters wherever he wanted at whatever pace he chose because the storyline, though a bit derivative and occasionally somewhat cheesy, was essentially his own.  The downside of this of course was that the cheesy element remained right to the very end with the ghastly Ewok ceilidh at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’.  Tom Bombadil would have fitted right in with that.

Talking of which, in recent years, we’ve seen Peter Jackson and his New Zealand-based team of  actors, technicians, writers, designers, modellers, armourers, builders, costumiers etc, etc at WETA  take down the really big beast on the block with his adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Jackson did a pretty good job in re-inventing Middle Earth for new millennium audiences; get rid of Tom Bombadil and some other fringe passages, turn the relationship between Legolas and Gimli into something of a comedy routine and turn down some of the folksiness of the novels, crank up the CGI for the battle scenes….OK,  maybe Sauron and the Nazgul weren’t that scary, but Andy Serkis’  Smeagol/Gollum was inspired and the core cast members were generally first-rate. 

Jackson et al had some trouble with what were generally referred to as the ‘Tolkienistas’  – in summary,  elvish-speaking, self-appointed ‘Defenders of the Faith’ who quibbled with Jackson about plot details and character nuances, locations, elvish script and armour design plus a million other technical details  throughout the lengthy production.  By and large, though, I think most people would say that the action moved briskly along without those big chunks of Tolkienesque exposition to weigh it down and that the attention of the experts (like artist Alan Lee) and the quibbling Tolkienistas ensured accuracy and an attention to detail that surely made the whole trilogy the ‘best-dressed’  series of fantasy movies ever.

The great thing for would-be fantasy directors is, of course, CGI, whether that means stuff that is completely ‘rendered’ on computers, stuff that mixes miniature models and computer-rendered images or men in latex suits covered in lots of sensors, as per Andy Serkis as Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and both the returning Gollum and Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon, Smaug, in the forthcoming ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the first part of Peter Jackson’s take on ‘The Hobbit’.   Predictably, it’s becoming very fashionable to raise one’s eyes to the heavens whenever CGI is mentioned and there is no doubt that if used injudiciously (I’m afraid ‘John Carter’ is guilty of this) it does start to look somewhat fake. 

(Spoiler warning…beyond this, there is some discussion of the storylines of George R R Martin’s  Westeros novels , so if you are currently working your way through them, it might be an idea to stop now unless you want some surprises spoilt for you)

 I’m not sure how much CGI is used in ‘Game of Thrones’ – a minimal amount, I would think – because whilst the action of ‘Game of Thrones’ undoubtedly takes place in an invented location,  much of what passes for everyday life in Westeros has more in common with medieval European culture than anything else.  There are no elves or orcs or suchlike – just men, who – at the top end of the food chain – are kings and lords and knights in armour, complete with their retinues of squires and retainers, their fiefdoms and castles, their serfs tilling the fields and so on.

The main ‘fantasy’  (and CGI) element in  ‘Game of Thrones’  concerns The Wall, a monumental structure built by the men of Westeros from huge blocks of ice at some time in the indeterminate past.  The Wall is built across a neck of land in the far north of Westeros with the express intention of keeping out those living to the north of it in what seems to be a sub-polar wilderness of forest and mountain.  There are men here, too, usually referred to as Wildlings, but there is the hint of something else, supernatural beings of enormous potency known as ‘The Others’ , who seem to be growing in strength as Westeros’ lengthy cycle of seasons turns again towards winter.

Riders of the Night’s Watch head north of The Wall in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

The Wall is – nominally – guarded by The Night’s Watch.  This is a ragtag band of criminals, unwanted bastards and sundry riff-raff, committed to the defence of The Wall for life,  who are hopelessly unequal to the task that seems to be heading their way.

To the south lies Winterfell, the home of the Starks, who are allied to the King and control ‘the North’ for him.  Things start to fall apart when the King heads north to Winterfell with the express intention of recruiting Lord Eddard Stark – Sean Bean’s character in the HBO series  – as the latest ‘King’s Hand’  or chief counsellor.  King Robert and Eddard are old friends and recognising that his enemies – notably his wife and her relatives; the Lannisters – are intent on deposing him, he turns to one of his few remaining trusted allies.  

The Starks are our way into the world of Westeros – Eddard and his wife Catelyn, their children – Brandon, Robb, Sansa, Arya and little Rickon plus Eddard’s bastard son, Jon Snow.  They seem as solid and immutable as the rocks of their Northern hills and a refreshingly down-to-earth antidote to all the politicking and posturing that goes on further to the south in the capital, King’s Landing.  Yet by half way through the first novel, the family is already starting to fragment – Eddard is accompanying the King south to become his Hand and has taken his two daughters with him.  Brandon has been pushed out of a tower window by Jaime Lannister  – because he witnessed him having sex with his sister, Cersei, who also happens to be Robert’s Queen – and is hovering on the brink of death.  Jon Snow has decided to ‘take the black’ and is travelling north to join the Night’s Watch.   Before the novel ends, Eddard is executed , the Starks are scattered to the winds and the whole kingdom is descending into the chaos of Civil War. 

It gets worse for the Starks, too.  Robb takes over from his father and  becomes ‘King of the North’ but is murdered at a wedding feast.  His mother is also attacked at the same feast and left for dead but somehow survives as a ghastly revenant.  Brandon is crippled but is rescued by some kindred spirits.  Sansa is kidnapped and compelled to assume a new identity, Rickon’s fate is unknown and Arya ends up on another continent with a new identity and some potentially lethal skills.  In the most recent book  ‘A Dance with Dragons’, Eddard’s bastard son, Jon Snow, who has risen to become Commandant of The Night’s Watch, is stabbed by multiple assailants and presumably killed.

Is nothing sacred?

It seems to me, using ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a model, that what Martin has done here in narrative terms  is effectively to assemble his equivalent of Tokien’s ‘Fellowship’, then kill them off  piecemeal before Mordor is ever in sight.  Like George Lucas and his ‘Star Wars’ characters, he is of course entitled to do what he wants, but it is rather disconcerting for the reader to engage with a set of characters only to have most of them killed off in such a way. 

There are two things that make matters worse here; firstly, with the death of Robert Baratheon and the execution of Eddard Stark, Westeros plunges headlong into civil war with about 5 competing ‘Kings’ fighting each other for the right to rule the Seven Kingdoms.  The picture is necessarily confused and readers may struggle to keep up with all the twists and turns.  In addition, the regular demise of major characters means that Martin has to introduce new ones or develop existing ones, with whom we are clearly less familiar.

In this specific regard, Martin is also not helped by his insistence on adhering to an internal structure whereby each chapter is delivered from the specific point of view of one of the characters.  All of which is fine until said characters are killed off or until Martin needs to introduce a major new subplot.  In the latter scenario, we are sometimes asked to absorb major new plot developments as seen through the eyes of a character with whom we are largely unfamiliar.  This sometimes works  OK (Theon Greyjoy & the Iron Islands) but other times works less well (the whole subplot revolving round the court of the Martells in  Dorne.)

Then there is Martin’s wild card;  Daenerys Targaryen, the girl Queen and her three dragons who are now loose and ready to create havoc.  Her subplot concerns her efforts to gather an army on the adjoining continent of Essos and return to Westeros with her reptilian game-changers to reclaim the throne taken from her family by Robert Baratheon.  As things stand , she appears to be stranded in the city of Meereen, learning how to be a Queen.  Her dragons have made her a magnet in terms of men who would seek an alliance with her via marriage or treaty and her story and the destiny of her dragons may well be key in what Martin has said will be the remaining two books in the cycle.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

HBO have now made a second series of ‘Game of Thrones’ and such has been its success that further series seem likely.  What may concern HBO is that the whole Westeros saga grows increasingly fragmented and dark as it progresses.  Parallels with Tolkien’s work are tenuous at best – often, events in Westeros are more reminiscent of The Wars of the Roses as interpreted by Lucrezia Borgia. 

There is no doubting the fertility of George R R Martin’s imagination nor indeed his willingness to confound reader expectations by killing off major characters at regular intervals.  Nonetheless, the fragmentation of the Westerosi  kingdoms into anarchy and mayhem and the emergence of major new characters and  narrative threads have pushed Martin’s ‘point of view’ chapter structure beyond the point where it is useful.  Once the story progressed beyond the first two books, Martin was dealing with a geographically dispersed narrative and levels of detailed plotting that required manuscripts of unwieldy size and length if he was to adhere to this structure.  His decision to split the stories of certain characters into separate books  rendered an already complex storyline even more so.  I can’t help but feel that the overall impact of the novels has been diminished as a consequence.  The next novel in the cycle,  ‘The Winds of Winter’  is allegedly due this year and I will freely admit to a fervent hope that he is going to be able to start pulling the threads of this enormous and complex saga together. 

‘Game of Thrones’ and its sequels undoubtedly represent the most high-profile sequence of interlinked fantasy novels for years – probably Stephen Donaldson’s cycle of Thomas Covenant novels were the last cycle which exhibited such ambition.  However, whereas Donaldson painted himself into corners by virtue of  the complexities of his plot,  Martin’s bête noire seems to be the internal management of his storylines.  Hopefully, it will all work out well for writer and readers alike in the end.

Heading north…..

Off to Scotland until next Tuesday to catch up with some old friends.

Given the gales we are having and reports of driving rain in the Glasgow area, I could probably hang-glide up there as quickly as the plane will get us there.

In anticipation of a soggy weekend, I am taking my copy of Mark Helprin’s  ‘A Soldier of the Great War’, which I’ve been trying to get finished for some time now…it’s a brilliant novel and nearly as good as his ‘magnum opus’ ‘Winter’s Tale’.  Should keep me busy as well as dry…..

Where things are hollow; a sort of David Bowie review

Here’s my (sort of) David Bowie story – and bear with me because it has a long preamble..  Back in the mid-1980’s I was friendly with a strange character – let’s call him Rick (with a capital ‘P’) – who was a photographer, a hustler and a tattoo fan in just about equal measure.  He got me to write a few commentaries to accompany his photos in amateur tattooing mags, but then announced one day that he’d cut a deal with a Viennese publisher to produce a book with a German/English text about tattooed women – and he wanted a much longer piece of writing from me for this new book.  There was even some money involved, so I agreed to his proposition – and all this despite the fact that my body was (and remains) a tattoo-free zone

At the time (1984), I was working away in Scandinavia a lot and thus it was, one Saturday afternoon , I sequestered myself in the conference room of a hotel in Voss in Western Norway.   I had an IBM golfball typewriter,  a sheaf of paper and a thick batch of notes from various learned anthropological tomes that dealt with tribes from the Marquesas Islands, Borneo and other obscure parts of the world where tattooing was big news.  Rick had been bending my ear for several weeks about the text and had pursued me by fax and phone all over Norway stressing that he needed everything, like, yesterday.

In the end, I simply bashed out about 8,000 words of text and bundled it into an envelope, addressed to him in London.  After that, I went back to work and forgot about the whole thing.  Fast forward to the December of that year and I was back in Newcastle when the postman arrived at my Fenham flat with a heavy box.  This turned out to be 25 copies of the ‘Tattooed Women’ book (“Tattoo Art – Tätowierte Frauen – Skin Fantasies on Tattooed Women“). 

I won’t say that I had forgotten about the (possible) book, but I had been back in the UK for 6 weeks and had had no contact with Rick, so the arrival of this book with my name emblazoned across the cover came as a huge surprise.  Seemingly, he had received a similar package, because he was suddenly on the phone about three times a day, ranting on about how we had to have a launch party and how he was going to organise it.
About a month later, I travelled down to London for the launch.  At the time, Rick was living in a squat in Brixton with his Japanese girlfriend.  The houses along this road had apparently been occupied at some point by ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R.D.Laing and were known locally as ‘Screamer’s Row’ because of the rather vocal nature of some of Laing’s therapies.  Rick’s place was in the basement of one of these houses and the whole flat was lined with some heavy grey felt-type material, giving it a creepily womb-like feel.  Having been up in Newcastle for 4 years and having not visited London for a while, I was already feeling somewhat dislocated, so the squat just made it worse.
The next night we all descended on ‘The Fridge’, a Brixton nightclub/music venue that had originally been The Palladium Picture House when it opened back in 1913.  Rick had been busy, hiring a heavily-tattooed rockabilly band to play and organising a buffet.  There was a bar,of course and a stall selling copies of the book.  I got introduced to about a zillion people, most of whom I promptly forgot, but there were a few who stood out.  These included a film crew from RAI (Italian state broadcaster) who wandered about filming everything and also interviewing me at some length about the ‘sociology’ of tattooing in the modern West.  This was quite difficult for me as I was a long way from being a proselytiser of tattoos and had essentially just been a ‘hired pen’ on this project.  Anyway, I did my best to sound suitably learned, though I can’t imagine how much (if any) of the footage they shot got used.
Also present were a bunch of heavily tattooed exhibitionists with pretty much full ‘body suits’ of tattoos, who, having gathered a small audience, would then disrobe in a slow and formal manner to gradually reveal the illustrations with which their bodies were covered.  It was like a kind of striptease, but without the customary heterosexual tensions.
We also had some minor celebs; these included punk singer turned trans-sexual Jayne (nee Wayne) County, in the company of several other trannies and Angela Bowie, who attended in the company of her then-current boyfriend, a sort of ageing rockabilly cat who apparently was the manager of some band or other.  She was garrulous in a typically American way but also very effusive about how much she liked the book – and it was obvious from some of the questions  she asked me that she had actually read my text.  Before she left she invited Rick and I to a housewarming at her new house in Battersea the following evening.
I would like to tell you that I spent the intervening 24 hours mulling over the transitory nature of fame, (‘Puts you there where things are hollow’) but in truth I had a whopping hangover and spent much of the next day in bed, fed on numerous bowls of green tea and miso soup by Rick’s girlfriend.  As it was, we duly rolled up the following evening at a pleasant semi in Battersea for the housewarming.  It was an unremarkable event, really, though a couple of members of The Damned showed up, but even they were terribly well-mannered.  What I do recall was that the  staircase in the house came down into the living room and at one point I noticed a few people staring at a figure that had appeared at the top of the stairs before making his way slowly down and into the throng.    White shirt, buttoned to the throat, black trousers with a knife-edge crease and a floppy brown/blonde fringe hanging over one eye.  This was Zowie Bowie, son of David and Angie, who at this point would have been about 14.  To say that he was the spitting image of his Dad would not do justice to the occasion.  To be frank, I got goosebumps just watching him come down the stairs.  He never spoke a word to anyone and just headed off in search of his Mum.  These days, he goes by the name of Duncan Jones and is the director of the critically acclaimed 2009 movie ‘Moon’.  Angie Bowie, meanwhile is apparently living in a 1-bedroomed flat in Tucson, Arizona.  Hmmm… 
As for Rick and I, we were on a roll and set to do another book for Virgin’s new book division, but they got cold feet at quite an advanced stage.  At least, that’s what Rick told me and I believed him.  Unfortunately, he forgot to remove my name from the list of people who were due to receive ‘review copies’ and I got  quite a shock when Virgin’s ‘aborted’ book landed on my doormat one morning.  An even greater shock was in store as I realised that he had used all my original 10,000 word text but had taken the credit for it himself.  I wasn’t even mentioned in the acknowledgements.  Hmm….

The unclear nuclear Bowie clan in Amsterdam, 1974

Anyway, I started out this piece to write an ‘appreciation’ of my favourite David Bowie album, ‘Station to Station’ from 1976, which is about to be re-released in several expanded forms.  There’s a 3-cd set and a 5 cd/dvd  version (at a ludicrous cost) for completists.  The 3-cd version is perhaps enough for most fans.  It features a re-mastered version of the original album, which may float the boat of audiophile geeks, but is of debatable consequence to mere mortals.  More significantly, there is a two-cd set of one of the most celebrated Bowie gigs of this era, the 23rd March 1976 show at the Nassau Coliseum, an ice-hockey rink out on Long Island.  Part of this show has long been circulating as one of the best David Bowie bootlegs, ‘The Thin White Duke’, but this new release seems to feature the entire show, though mercifully, the tedious drum solo that dominated ‘Panic in Detroit’ has been cut short.  (Note for masochists: the full 13-minute long ‘Panic in Detroit’ with complete & dreadful drum solo is available as a ‘bonus track’  in the digital download version of this set.  Some ‘bonus’!) 

What always made ‘The Thin White Duke’ such a special album was not just its illicit provenance, but principally the fact that it caught Bowie and his band on top form.  That recording was probably lifted from an FM radio broadcast, but this ‘official’ version is taken directly from the master tapes and is quite splendid.  When I checked, the 3-cd version seemed to be available on advance order from the usual internet traders for as little as £11.99, which to my mind is twelve quid well-spent by anyone’s reckoning. 

Despite all this fervent praise, I have to say that I am mystified as to why it has taken Bowie nearly 35 years to sanction the release of this stuff.   Of course, there’s pension funds to be thought of and all that, but back in the day, this one would have been the hottest of hot potatoes and would have sold by the skipload.  Bowie could have taken the wind out of the bootleggers’ sails (and sales) if he’d wanted to, but elected not to.  Perhaps it was because we’d had the insipid ‘David Live’ just a year or so previously and would then have to wait until 1978 for the equally anodyne ‘Stage’. Talk about missing the boat.  At least this finally demonstrates officially what a great band this was and how Bowie was at his peak in this era. 

“It’s too late to be grateful…..”

Reading ‘Fatal Revenant’ by Stephen Donaldson

Way back in the mists of pre-history (well, 1980, anyway) before Corruption had poisoned the Land and long before I lived here, I interviewed Stephen Donaldson in an overcrowded office at the back of the Birmingham City Centre branch of W.H.Smith.  I was a bit starstruck really, which was weird as I was forever rubbing shoulders with scruffy rock’n’rollers up in Manchester, but Mr Donaldson was something else altogether.  He sat behind someone else’s desk and managed to make it seem like his own.  He was the very essence of a young, clean-living American collegiate professor, gesticulating and emphasising his ‘mots justes’ with regular jabs and waves of a pipe which seemed like a prop rather than something he actually smoked.

Stephen Donaldson in the 1980’s

This was really the high-water mark for Donaldson’s career, though I guess none of us knew that at the time. His first three books; collectively ‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’, had broken through the stockade that separated the geeks and weirdos of Science Fiction and Fantasy from the general fiction market.  There was even talk of a movie. 

These 3 bulky volumes  borrowed  a little from Tolkien, but then doesn’t every fantasy writer?  Personally, I’d say that Donaldson is just as influenced by writers like William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad.  Also, unlike Tolkien’s heroes, Thomas Covenant is a thoroughly modern man – a desperately conflicted character, dogged by self-doubt and moral ambiguity.  He refuses to even believe in the ‘reality’ of the ‘parallel world’ into which he is suddenly propelled even when his senses are telling him that he’s 100% not in Kansas anymore.  All in all, he’s a pretty difficult character to like….

Donaldson had managed to fuse the fol-de-rol of traditional fantasy writing with more modern concerns and somehow made it work.  The Covenant books had crossed over to the mainstream and Donaldson was in town to promote the publication of the first trilogy in hardback and also the paperback launch of the first book in a second trilogy.  This was called ‘The Wounded Land’  and as it worked out,  the Second Trilogy was a bridge too far where casual crossover readers were concerned and catered much more for Donaldson’s geeky core audience.  It was also rather hard to ‘warm to’ if the truth be known.  As is often the way with long-running science fiction or fantasy sagas, the complexities tend to build and build until the author  has to come up with a plot of such fiendish ingenuity that it acknowledges all previous plot twists and manages to encompass them in a storyline so labyrinthine that you need to lie down and rest after reading each chapter.  Alternatively the author has to break free of  the past and despatch his hero to pastures new until he figures out what he can do to resolve the granny-knots he has written into the plot.

This was the route that Donaldson took with his second Covenant trilogy.  The second and much of the third book take place away from the ‘Land’ of the first Trilogy and whilst some of the writing has an air of  ‘making-it-up-as-he-goes-along’ there are some passages that work equally as well as anything in the first Trilogy.  Without wishing to give the game away, Donaldson resolved the second Trilogy fairly handsomely, though without leaving too much scope for any further sequels.  I think he’d pretty much had enough of Covenant by the end of the sixth novel, ‘White Gold Wielder’  (Just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?)

After that, Donaldson gave Covenant and The Land an extremely wide berth, though I think we all knew he would get back there in the end.  In 2004, he began a new Quartet called ‘The Final Chronicles’  of which I have just finished the second part,  ‘Fatal Revenant’.  As the name might suggest, when you’re a fantasy writer, you can pretty much make it up to suit yourself as long as you can drum up a plausible enough reason for bringing back characters that were supposedly dead. 

The main difference with the Final Chronicles (if such they are) is that the central character is Dr Linden Avery, who is both Covenant’s constant companion and his lover in Trilogy # 2.  In her own way, her initial vulnerability to events in the Land is slowly and inexorably eroded into the same kind of cynical detachment that characterises Covenant himself.  The scope of the first two books  is considerable as Donaldson propels his characters backwards and forwards through time and space in search of a resolution to the ills that afflict The Land.  I was actually considerably surprised by my reaction to these new books, having ‘moved on’ a bit from this kind of writing since 1980.  These days, I tend to read a lot of  non-fiction – mainly travel books and biographies.  Though Donaldson’s plotlines are frequently enigmatic and deliberately obscure in their intentions, I overcame  any initial irritation I might have been feeling and have enjoyed being back in the familiar surroundings of Revelstone and Andelain.  ‘Fatal Revenant’ ended – of course – on a suitably dramatic note and it’s now thumb-twiddling time until Part Three emerges in about 6 months time.

Hellfire’, as Covenant might have said….

Reading Gitta Sereny…………

Gitta Sereny is an Austrian-born writer who is now in her late 80’s.  She has written a number of high-profile biographies of some of the most morally compromised personalities of our times and specialises in books on Nazi Germany and abused children.  All of this merely reflects her own personal history; as a teenager travelling to boarding school in the UK from Austria, her train was delayed in Nuremburg and she ended up attending one of Hitler’s Nazi rallies there.  After spending most of World War 2 in the USA, she returned to Europe after the war,  working for the United Nations in Germany on a programme designed to reunite children (some of whom had been kidnapped by the Nazis as potential ‘Aryan’  breeding stock) with their biological families, even though many of the children could not recall their original families.  Sereny attended the Nuremburg War Trials as a journalist where she first encountered the Nazi armaments minister, Albert Speer, who would form the subject of one of her later books.

Gitta Sereny

Sereny’s notoriety in the UK stems from the two books she has published about Mary Bell, the Tyneside girl who was responsible for the murder of two young boys in the Scotswood area of Newcastle in 1968.  Like the late Myra Hindley,  Bell has usually been demonised by the British tabloid press as a figure of pure evil.  Sereny’s attempts to understand Mary Bell’s behaviour in the context of her own traumatic childhood have not always played well with the British media who at the time of Bell’s trial had her pigeonholed as a manipulative figure of ‘pure evil’, as though this was some naturally occurring phenomenon rather than the product of Bell’s own experiences with her psychotic mother.

Penn Street, Scotswood in 1957, the year Mary Bell was born.  Photo by the late, great Jimmy Forsyth

Sereny’s initial book about the trial and its aftermath was published as ‘The Case of Mary Bell’ in 1972.  When I lived in Newcastle in the 1980’s the city was still scarred by the case and Bell’s name would be mentioned in hushed tones.  My girlfriend of the time tried to borrow a copy of Sereny’s book from the local Public Library and was virtually compelled to sign over her soul before a copy was released to her – apparently dozens of copies of the book had been issued and had promptly been stolen from libraries across Tyneside in the years since its publication.  Civic shame or grim prurience?

Whatever the case, my first encounter with Gitta Sereny came in the late 1970’s when I read ‘Into that darkness’, her biography of Franz Stangl, the Austrian who had risen through the Nazi ranks to become the Commandant of the Death Camp at Treblinka in Poland, before escaping at the war’s end and ultimately starting a new life in Brazil, where (a shade ironically) he worked for Volkswagen.  Having been tracked down by Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Stangl was arrested and extradited to West Germany in the late 1960’s.  He was tried as being responsible for the death of 900,000 people and whilst admitting his guilt, maintained that he had just been following orders.  ‘Into that darkness’ is one of the more extraordinary books that I’ve read in my life.  Sereny was able to gain unique access to Stangl in prison and slowly built a relationship of trust with him.  She took the view that he knew that he was guilty and really just wanted to confess.  Over a lengthy period, Sereny managed to unearth Stangl’s life story and revealed him to be just a cog in the Nazi machine.  He was a deeply ordinary man and the most shocking thing about the evil he personified was in fact what Hannah Arendt has termed its very banality.   Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Stangl’s relationship with Sereny is that he died of a heart attack in his prison cell some 19 hours after completing his final interview with her.

 Stangl, to the left, at Treblinka.

So, for Sereny, the evil deeds committed by Mary Bell or Franz Stangl are issues of nurture rather than nature.  Stangl’s rise through the ranks of the Nazi hierarchy was connected to his ability to detach himself from the terrible deeds for which he was responsible.  According to Sereny,  Mary Bell was corrupted by her mother who tried on several occasions to kill her and inflicted horrendous sexual abuse on her from the age of 4.  Her book about Albert Speer(‘Albert Speer : His Battle with Truth ‘-1995) is most notable for the fact that Sereny apparently persuades Speer to finally admit that he knew about Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’.

Currently, I’ve just started reading Sereny’s second book about Mary Bell, ‘Cries Unheard’, published in 1998, by which time Bell, living in anonymity and trying to stay a step ahead of the tabloid hacks who wanted to expose her, had herself become a mother and a woman on the threshold of middle age.  This book drew a lot of adverse publicity, mainly because Gitta Sereny revealed that she would be sharing her ‘fee’ with Mary Bell, outraging those who feel that Bell should not be allowed to ‘profit’  from her crimes in this way.  Unlike ‘loveable’ Ronnie Biggs of Great Train Robbery fame who exploited his notoriety via numerous books and records over the years……

Still, let’s not expect consistency from the tabloids….

‘Cries Unheard’ seeks to generate discussion aimed at reform of the legal system as it applies to young children in this country.  By the time it was published, Mary Bell’s crimes had been mirrored by the two Liverpudlian boys responsible for the murder of James Bulger.  Interesting that their case is known by the name of its victim rather than its perpetrator(s)…

‘Cries Unheard’ is nowadays viewed as a standard text for social workers, child welfare staff and anyone dealing with children and the Law.

One can only speculate on the motivation of Sereny, who has spent her life,  in the words of one observer, ‘staring into the abyss.’  She is seemingly a remarkable woman and clearly a gifted author who has broadened our understanding of what evil is and how it manifests itself.

Post-script:  Gitta Sereny died on 14/6/12. 

Vaya con dios……

From ‘The Guardian’ website, a good piece by Giles Fraser…

and ‘The Guardian’s’ obituary of an extraordinary human being….

The enduring impact of T.E.Lawrence…..

The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia’ (presented by Rory Stewart in 2 parts, BBC 2010)

With Lawrence in Arabia’ by Lowell Thomas (1924)

The BBC have just broadcast a two-part documentary film hosted by Rory Stewart, a highly intelligent 35-year old ex Etonian already co-opted by the Tories to stand for a safe Lakeland/Borders constituency in the forthcoming election.  Stewart is certainly a colourful character; his USP appears to be to trek on foot (perhaps he ‘yomps’?)around his potential constituency, much of which is wild moorland.  This will no doubt play well among the isolated rural communities still recovering from the winter floods.

 Prior to circumnavigating the Lake District, Stewart was based in Kabul.  Known locally as Lawrence of Belgravia, his role in Kabul was to try to preserve what is left of the city’s old buildings for posterity.  Heaven knows what the Afghans made of this tousle-haired boy-man with his cut glass accent and rumpled suits – frequently abandoned in favour of native garb.  Before taking on this role in Kabul, Stewart had already walked across Afghanistan in the footsteps of Babur, one of the Mogul emperors, so trekking round Cumbria clearly didn’t present too many problems.

Rory Stewart – ‘Lawrence of Belgravia’? 

And there’s more on his overcrowded CV – until 2004, Stewart worked for the Foreign Office and was acting Governor of an Iraqi province in the wake of the invasion.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of his heroes is T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who pretty much wrote the book (literally & figuratively) on Brits going native in the Middle East.  The fact that it is Stewart rather than some dull but worthy Oxford don who has been selected to present this show is not without significance.  As the picture above suggests, Stewart, too, is not blind to the potential propaganda gains of ‘going native’ and he  has no doubt acquired a whiff of glamour by association as we are invited to see him as a 21st century reincarnation of Lawrence.  A surefire vote-winner up in the Borders, no doubt.

Given his involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stewart’s  fascination for Lawrence is hardly to be wondered at.  Many Englishmen over the years have bought into the whole Lawrence saga and Stewart will not be the last to do so.

However, his particular interest in Lawrence arises out of yet another Allied invasion of the Middle East which, like the one in which Lawrence was embroiled, has brought highly dubious results to the area in political terms.  Hardly surprising therefore that those compelled to spend time out in the Gulf are studying Lawrence’s writings as never before – indeed, as Stewart himself points out, these days, US soldiers are fully expected to read some, if not all, of Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ (or perhaps the abridged version: ‘Revolt in the Desert’) .

Myself, I am currently reading Lowell Thomas’ ‘With Lawrence in Arabia’, published in 1924 as a companion piece to his narrated ‘son et lumiére’ piece, ‘With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia’ with which Thomas toured the world and which featured incense burners and exotic dancers cavorting before murals of the Pyramids as well as filmed footage shot in Arabia and Syria by Thomas and his cameraman, Harry Chase. 

 Lawrence with Lowell Thomas

In 1914, as war engulfed Western Europe, Thomas was a reporter based in Chicago.  He was deputed by President Woodrow Wilson as one of a number of journalists whose official task was to ‘compile a history of the conflict’, but whose real mission was to find stories in the European theatre of war that would whip up enthusiasm for the War in the USA.  Thomas’ plan was to use the exciting new medium of film to record the story of the War.  However, the US Government balked at his budget and he instead recruited the financial support of a consortium of Chicago businessmen (they owed him a favour or two, but that’s another story) to finance his trip – it is to them that ‘With Lawrence in Arabia’ is dedicated.

 Thomas found little in Flanders to thrill his American readers & viewers, so he travelled on into Italy, where he first heard about Lawrence and his exploits in the desert from an Australian naval officer.  Thomas swiftly gained accreditation as a war journalist and travelled to Jerusalem where he first met up with Lawrence.

 In a series of skilful newsreels and written pieces, Thomas set about creating the romantic image of the white-robed adventurer who was leading the wild Bedouin tribesmen of the trackless wastes of Arabia in an extraordinary revolt against the moribund Turkish Empire.  American (and British) audiences bought into this amazing saga with huge gusto, propelling their country towards war.

 ‘The uncrowned King of Arabia’

Of course, it wasn’t quite that straightforward.  In reality, Lawrence was having to pay out huge quantities of gold to the tribesmen in order to dissuade them from returning home to their desert camps.  Their view of the conflict was purely tribal; only Lawrence and the Royal Family represented by Emir Faisal appeared to have a real belief in an independent Arabia governed by Faisal and his descendents.

 Elsewhere, the French and the British were already quietly planning to carve up the post-war  Middle East along colonial lines with the French assuming control of Northern Iraq and what we now refer to as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, whilst the British would take control of Arabia, Palestine and Mesopotamia as well as retaining their foothold in Egypt.

 Those principally responsible for this were a French bureaucrat called Picot and a minor Tory MP and Yorkshire baronet, Sir Mark Sykes.  Sykes was (somewhat laughably) considered to be an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and, as Rory Stewart points out, had published several books on the Middle East, including one where it’s possible to find the following index entry; ‘Arab, character of – see Treachery’

 Lawrence was well aware of these clandestine moves and was clearly enough of a romantic to have a greater loyalty to Feisal than to the British authorities.  He felt that if he could get the ‘Arab Army’, as it was now called, into Damascus before the Allies got there, then Faisal could claim the symbolic secular capital of the Arab world for the Arabs and the Allies would have to respect that claim.

 He succeeded as well, though in the end it was a futile gesture.  Allenby just waited for the putative ‘Arab Government’ of Damascus to fragment into a series of tribal squabbles before graciously accepting Faisal’s desperate plea to assume control of the city.  Lawrence left Damascus for the UK the following day and never returned to the desert.

 However triumphant his successes against the Turks, Lawrence was to find that his next opponents – his own government and associated allies like the French – were to be far more obdurate.  Lawrence attended the Versailles Peace Conference as a special envoy to Emir Faisal who was there to press his claims for an independent Arab state even though he was worldly enough to understand that the British and French were unlikely to co-operate. 


 Emir Faisal (front centre) at the Versailles Conference with his staff.  Lawrence is to his immediate right.

Has there ever been a Peace Conference more guaranteed to set down markers for multiple future conflicts? Versailles must surely stand as a watchword for the kind of bumbling incompetence and vainglorious, short-sighted bureaucratic stupidity which has subsequently fuelled the comic creations of everyone from the Goons to Monty Python, except there was little humour for those who struggled to cope with the complete lack of understanding displayed by Sykes, Picot and their cohorts.

 The maps of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn to suit the imperial pretensions of the victorious powers without any regard to the feelings of the vanquished or, apparently, some of the Allies.  After all, the Bedouin had fought at Allenby’s side to free themselves of one imperial infestation, only to immediately be saddled with another.  Lawrence had promised all who fought alongside him an Arabia for the Arabs, but thanks to the bureaucrats, the maps of the Middle East were redrawn by men who had no conception of the tribal boundaries or loyalties that Lawrence had wrestled with as he pushed the Arab Revolt northwards.  Lawrence & Faisal struggled in vain to overcome the tides of red ink that were carving the Middle East into parcels for either the French or the British to administer as they saw fit.

 In the end, Faisal the pragmatist took the Mesopotamian olive branch the British offered him, becoming King of Iraq in 1921.  Lawrence the dreamer, the idealist, the romantic – he attempted to retreat from public life altogether, trying to lose  himself in academia or in the anonymity of services life just as Lowell Thomas was turning him into one of the 20th Century’s first media-constructed celebrities.  However, unlike Valentino, Chaplin and Lillian Gish, Lawrence was by no means always  a willing accomplice to his own public persona. 


 Lawrence initially retreated into the academic world in order to write ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, but then enlisted in the fledgling RAF in 1922 under an assumed name.  His cover was soon blown and he then enlisted in the Tank Corps where he spent 2 unhappy years before returning to the RAF in 1925.  The publication of ‘Revolt in the Desert’ in 1926 brought a further surge in public interest and Lawrence was posted to a series of obscure RAF bases in modern-day Pakistan….and so the unhappy tale continues until Lawrence finally left active service in early 1935.   

 After the War came the peace, but not for Lawrence.  Like many before and since he found that war had defined his life whether he wanted it to or not. He died in a motorcycle crash near his Dorset home just a few weeks after becoming a civilian for good.  He was 46 years old.

 Amongst the many papers Lawrence left behind was a map now housed in London’s Imperial War Museum showing his vision for a post-war Middle East.  Significantly, the colonial influence of all the Great Powers – especially the French- is diminished.  Lawrence had also envisaged a separate homeland for the Armenians and British influence extending along the Tigris/Euphrates valleys.  It’s tempting to suggest that Lawrence’s vision for the post-war Middle East would have proven less of a disaster than the Sykes/Picot version, but of course, second-guessing history can be a dangerous game.

 Lawrence’s map of the Middle East as he hoped it might be after the War

My fascination with Lawrence is in itself, of course, a media-fuelled vision.  The main impact was created by David Lean’s magnificent ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) where Peter O’Toole’s tormented adventurer storms unforgettably across the screen , re-igniting the whole Lawrence saga for another generation. Even Lowell Thomas gets in on the act as ‘Jackson Bentley’ in the film, played to good effect by Arthur Kennedy.  Had it not been for this film, Lawrence might just have been seen as another British eccentric like Sir Richard Burton. 

 What might Burton’s reputation be today if Lean had made a film of his extraordinary life?  One of the first ‘infidels’ to visit Mecca, discovering Lake Tanganyika and one of the sources of the Nile…it’s every bit as compelling as Lawrence’s exploits…..

Sir Richard Burton 

And then of course, there’s Indiana Jones; surely Steven Spielberg’s hybrid blend of Humphrey Bogart and T.E. Lawrence…..

 Meanwhile, Rory Stewart wanders the desert pensively or discusses Allied policy with Iraqi shopkeepers whilst reflecting on how right Lawrence was to try to prevent xenophobic pen-pushers like Sykes getting their hands on the keys to the map room. 

 Too late, Rory; that die was cast before you and I were even born…..

Reading Arthur Ransome….

We are lucky enough to have an Oxfam shop on the High Street that is given over almost entirely to books, with a few cd’s and vinyl records thrown in for good measure.  Fairly recently I spotted that they had a display case with 6 hardback Arthur Ransome novels  – specifically those that feature the ‘Swallows and Amazons’.  These were  pretty much in mint condition and,  as they retail at about £16 a throw, I was extremely happy to pick up the case of all 6 books for £30.

Re-reading Arthur Ransome for the first time since I was 10 or 11 years old is proving to be a tremendously nostalgic experience.  The books were already 30 years old when I first read them, but there is definitely something timeless about them, even though there are also some serious anachronisms as well.  Ransome’s books introduced me to worlds I didn’t know (the English Lakes, the Norfolk Broads) and to outdoor activities like sailing and camping with which I was equally unfamiliar.

For anyone who doesn’t know, most of Ransome’s books feature the adventures of small groups of fictional upper-middle class children during their school holidays, generally in the Lakes or the Broads between the wars.  Most prominent are the four Walkers who sail in the dinghy ‘Swallow’ and the two Blackett sisters who profess to be pirates and sail in their own dinghy, the ‘Amazon’.  The adults (or ‘natives’ as they are known) with whom these children interact are almost entirely benevolent, being either relatives who are happy to let the kids have as much freedom as possible or local farmers (or other honest proletarian types) whose function is to keep the kids supplied with necessities like milk and eggs and offer a little earthy wisdom from time to time.

Ransome’s own distinctive illustrations were a feature of most of his books….

The Walkers/Swallows are in themselves almost like a model nuclear family with the elder two, John & Susan, taking on the mother/father roles whilst the younger kids – Titty and Roger – provide healthy doses of imagination and a slightly reckless streak respectively.  Susan is forever worrying about getting a camp set up or a meal cooked or ensuring that the younger Swallows get to bed at a decent time – this maternal, homebuilding streak is presented almost as something innate rather than due to any social conditioning.  Her brother John, meanwhile, captain of the Swallow,  is usually involved in more stereotypically male activity; building a dam, varnishing a mast and so on.  Their own Mother is based at a local farm with the youngest Walker child and a maid, whilst the father , a Royal Naval Commander remains an absent Jovian presence whose word is law within the family.

Some of Ransome’s dialogue is  a little dated and of the ‘I say, old chap’ variety, but mostly it’s OK.   For the most part, the books are taken up with the adventures of these groups of kids and are spiced with much detail about the ‘outdoor life’, much attention to conducting themselves responsibly so as not to let down their parents and the odd dose of mild excitement connected with their latest adventure.  Clearly, it is important to them to show their elders that they are capable of camping out and fending for themselves without fouling things up – and, by & large, they do just that.

The boat Amazon

The  real ‘Amazon’  (formerly the ‘Mavis’)  is temporarily on display at Coniston’s Ruskin Museum

When I was first reading Ransome’s books, I was dimly aware that he had spent some time in Russia and had produced a book of Russian Folk Tales.  What has since emerged is that not only was Ransome a radical journalist who wrote for the ‘Manchester Guardian’, but that he was also an MI6 agent who reported back to the British Government on the Bolshevik Revolution and its prime movers & shakers.  He was on friendly terms with both Lenin and Trotsky, and was also romantically embroiled with Evgenia Shvelpina, who was Trotsky’s secretary.  Ransome was even entrusted to carry messages between the Estonian Foreign Minister and the Bolsheviks proposing a secret peace accord.  For this mission, Ransome both entered and exited Russia clandestinely and when he came back to Estonia,  he brought Evgenia with him.  The couple settled in Estonia until such time as Ransome was able to divorce  his first wife, Constance Walker.

Arthur Ransome: Arthur Ransome dismounting a train in Soviet Russia

Ransome dismounting from a train in Soviet Russia; his own life was even more suspenseful than his books…

I have to say that I find it quite extraordinary that Ransome’s own ‘adventures’ turned out to be even more exciting and dramatic than those experienced by the cast of  characters populating these wonderful books.  Normally, one would expect an author like Ransome to fill the pages of his books with ‘tall tales’ that he could never achieve in real life.  However, in Ransome’s case, it seems like he had already done so!

Watching….’Born of Hope’

I first encountered ‘fan fiction’ in the wake of the release of Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie trilogy.  The Princess had her epiphany with Tolkien whilst we were on holiday in Crete shortly before the movies started to emerge; it must have seemed  like the standard ‘Harry Potter’  book to movie progression for her.  How could I tell her that I had been waiting all my life – and especially after Ralph Bakshi’s catastrophic farrago of a movie in the ’70’s – for someone to turn in a decent version of Tolkien’s masterpiece?

Anyway, the Princess dutifully consumed the movies as they appeared and combed the net for other stuff.  It was through her that I began to hear about ‘fan fiction’; essentially fiction written by fans (no kidding!) that enhances or develops a particular plot or subplot whilst operating within the ‘universe’ created by the original author.   Of course, the internet offers the perfect noticeboard for anything of this nature and there were/are whole websites devoted to it.  I read some of this stuff and – to be candid – 90% of it was poorly written and the other 10% was what I can only describe as Fantasy Porn….”In the dappled forest sunlight, Legolas looked like a young faun as he wiped the beads of  perspiration from his tautly-muscled midriff…..”   Frankly, Orlando Bloom has got a lot to answer for….

Whilst I am sure that someone somewhere is producing good quality fan fiction (Do tell, if you know), I’m afraid that I absolutely failed to encounter any on my travels through various Lord of the Rings sites.  It was with some surprise, therefore that I found that fan fiction had gone beyond the written word to video and film – particularly with the Star Wars franchise, but now also with ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Getting on for a year ago, a friend gave me a DVD simply labelled ‘The Hunt for Gollum’ which turned out to be a lovingly-made 40-minute long ‘fan film’ that develops a subplot within the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie trilogy in which Gandalf the Wizard sends Aragorn off in search of Gollum.  What is notable about the film are its high production values; this is not some piece of am-dram nonsense knocked out by GCSE Media students on a dull afternoon. The principal actors (Patrick O’Connor and Adrian Webster) are selected for their resemblance to Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen repectively and the music and font for the title sequences are all slavishly in the style of Peter Jackson’s trilogy.  Gollum hardly appears in the film really – most of the time Aragorn has him captive, he is trapped in a sack and for the rest, he appears only in long -shot or silhouette.  It’s an impressively realised project and has been a huge success, thanks to free distribution via the internet.

Poster for ‘The Hunt for Gollum’ – very much in the ‘house’ style

Now, a quite distinct group of fans have produced an even more ambitious addition to the LOTR  canon; ‘Born of Hope’, which is the work of writer/actor/director Kate Madison and a large ensemble cast -as in ‘The Hunt for Gollum’, the film is the work of volunteers and funded by donations from other fans.  ‘Born of Hope’? – not sure of the grammar there; shouldn’t  it be ‘Born in Hope’ ? Anyway, the film tops an hour in length and tells the story of the birth and early life of Aragorn among the Rangers of the North.  Again, production values are high and the film has the look of Jackson’s trilogy about it.  Both ‘Gollum‘ and ‘Born of Hope’ were shot in the UK and both feature a good deal of footage of cast members skulking through woodland.  Both films feature extensive battles with ‘marauding’ orcs (Orcs never go out for a stroll; they always ‘maraud’) .  ‘Born of Hope’ even features a short CGI sequence (think it’s CGI anyway) where Aragorn’s grandfather is attacked and killed by a huge troll that looks like first cousin to the one encountered in Moria by the Fellowship of the Ring.

Aragorn’s Mum & Dad get set for another battle with those pesky orcs in ‘Born of Hope’

Both movies are very faithful to the spirit of Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s movies and both add something to the ongoing narrative being created by the faithful fan base but neither need really be patronised as ‘worthy but amateurish’.  Clearly neither directors Chris Bouchard (THFG) or  Kate Madison (BoH) have Peter Jackson’s budget to play with, something that makes these short companion pieces to the main narrative all the more creditable.

Both directors will no doubt have mixed feelings about Uruguayan novice director Fede Alvarez who posted a $500 home movie called ‘Ataque de Panico’ (Panic Attack) about giant robots trashing Montevideo on YouTube and within days had allegedly secured a Hollywood contract to turn ‘Panic Attack’ into a full-scale movie.  Not sure that things are moving that fast for Bouchard or Madison, but their day may come….

You can watch ‘Ataque de Panico’ here:

Reading…’New York – An Illustrated History’

I’ve always been a great reader, but I don’t read so much as I used to – too many other distractions, I’m afraid.  When I do get hold of a book I like, it still seems to take me an eternity to read it as I tend to read just a few pages before going to sleep.  On holiday, however, with fewer distractions and no computer, I can still plough through several hundred pages  a day with no problem, if afforded the opportunity to do so.  Right now, I am a few pages from the end of this marvellous book, published originally as a ‘companion piece’ to a PBS documentary series (‘New York’) which as I recall was shown over here by Channel 4 some years ago. 

I won’t say that this is the last word on New York because, as the man once said, ‘there are a million stories in The Naked City’ and whilst this book contains many of them, there will always be more to tell.  Having said that, this large-format paperback contains most of the main threads in the city’s history from the moment that Henry Hudson sailed through the Narrows and realised that he had discovered one of the finest natural harbours anywhere.


It’s a source of some regret to me that I was well into my 40’s before I visited New York for the first time and I am long overdue another visit.  By the time I got there, I would have regarded myself as a reasonably seasoned traveller , having travelled widely in Europe, lived in Scandinavia for a while and having also explored the Indian sub-continent and chunks of North Africa.  All of which makes the impact my first trip to New York City had on me even more surprising.   

I can remember waiting to cross the road on Broadway, on my way from the Village up to the Strand bookstore near Union Square and just feeling my whole body almost trembling with excitement at actually being there.  I can also remember standing on Fifth Avenue outside the Plaza Hotel and realising that the guy standing 20 yards away from me waiting for a cab was Tony Bennett (‘Whaddya mean, “Who?” ‘.)  It really did feel like being in a movie….

Anyone familiar with the opening sequence of Woody Allen’s movie ‘Manhattan’ will be able to understand my feelings and  how difficult it is to actually find the words to convey the impact the totality of New York had on me.   Like Allen, I romanticised the city out of all proportion, but then this is nothing new – artists from John Dos Passos and George Gershwin through Mark Helprin and Georgia O’Keeffe to Lou Reed have done just the same, so I figure I’m in good company.

Anyway, I digress….

Credited to documentary-maker Ric Burns (brother of Ken Burns), James Sanders (who also edits) and Lisa Ades,  what this book does is to put flesh on the phantasmagorical bones of the city’s spectacular history, architecture and geography and add the human dimension that you might just miss as a tourist. 

For example, I was just reading a section about Robert Moses, a man whose name,  I suspect,  would be unknown to most first-time overseas visitors to New York.  Moses gets lost among the more colourful names on a roll-call of those indivisbly tied to the city – F.Scott Fitzgerald, Peter Stuyvesant, Fiorella La Guardia, Lou Gehrig, Andy Warhol etc etc – yet no-one has been more influential in (sometimes literally) shaping the city and making it what it is today.  For those still baffled, Moses was the man behind massive numbers of public works projects in the city and held sway over such matters from 1924 to 1968, outlasting a truckload of Governors, Mayors and Presidents.  To him can be attributed projects as diverse as Shea Stadium, the Triborough Bridge and the United Nations complex on the East River. 

However, to him can also be attributed the building of over 250 children’s playgrounds in New York, only one of which was in Harlem, Bed-Sty or any other heavily black area.   Also, he wanted to run a six-lane Expressway through Greenwich Village and was thwarted only by some serious community resistance.   Maybe these are some of the reasons why we don’t hear too much about him.  One of the many things I like about this book is that it acknowledges and reflects these uglier aspects of the city’s history, but doesn’t allow them to hijack the narrative at any point.

Talking of which, any recent history of New York City will need to concern itself with the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Unfortunately for Ric Burns et al, the series was pretty much in the can as a planned 7-part PBS broadcast by the time 9/11 took place.  To their credit, the team re-convened and produced an 8th episode about the World Trade Centre and the attacks, which actually ran to about double the length of the other episodes, if memory serves.  Whilst reviewing the history of the WTC and looking at the events of 9/11, the series producers also did a great job of contextualising the WTC saga within the series as a whole.

Having seen the  series to which this book is a companion and having re-run it on DVD not that long ago, I must say that this book is not only a great accompaniment to an extremely accomplished series, but also adds depth and incorporates extra stuff that maybe didn’t make ‘the final cut’ on screen but is there in the book.  It’s also beautifully illustrated with a wonderful selection of photos.  Oh and it weighs over 5 lbs, so if you’re doing any travelling, might be an idea to select something a bit more portable!

‘New York : An Illustrated History’ (paperback) by Ric Burns ), James Sanders and Lisa Ades

Published by Alfred E. Knopf – currently £21.83 from – and worth every penny!