Another one for the political junkies, “Alpha Dogs” details the rise and fall of Sawyer-Miller, one of the first political consultancy firms, and a firm that played a major role in bringing down both Marcos and Pinochet. Full of little nuggets of political wisdom, including their polling which told Listerine that as their consumers were the sort of people who obey instructions on products, they could increase their sales of Listerine by 25%, by increasing the cap size by 25%. They also proved, in getting Boston Mayor Kevin White reelected in the 1970s, that voters will vote for a candidate they don’t actually like if they can be convinced that he is a) competant, and b) will use competancy to pursue the interests of people like them.
It also highlighted for me how different Irish politics is from most other western countries, in that whilst politics is dominated by professional politicians everywhere, it is remarkable how in Ireland political issues play such a minor role in elections, something Frank Luntz talked about when he was in Ireland. Irish politicians are far more sophisticated in knowing what makes their constituents tick than any pollster can tell them, yet that knowledge seems to paralyse them into policy inactivity. It isn’t that issues like taxes or spending or immigration don’t exist in Ireland, it’s that an entire political class has managed to pull off the most brilliant political three card trick ever, and convinced voters voting to elect members of a national parliament that those issues have nothing to do with them!
A very entertaining read, and the sort of book that political anoraks will need to read with a pen in one hand for marking passages. Or is that just me?
Given this week’s events, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Felix Klos’s slim “Churchill and Europe” isn’t really that relevant anymore, as Britain’s European Union chapter comes to an ignoble close.
You would be mistaken, because the book is an eye opener into a time when mainstream British politicians, and not just Churchill, publicly advocated European integration as a vital and worthy national interest.
Eurosceptics have always suggested that Churchill’s endorsement of a United States of Europe in Zurich in 1946 was done in the context of Britain and her empire not playing a role. As Klos argues, not only was that not the case, but by 1947 Churchill himself was head of the United Europe Movement, addressing the Royal Albert Hall under the banner “Europe Arise!”
As a pro-European and one who had hoped that the UK would have stayed in the EU, it’s hard not to read this without a heavy heart. But it’s worth reading if only to see the curious British path where the UK lost its self confidence as it took its European journey. Britain could have led Europe after the war, and moulded it in its image. Indeed, as Churchill himself said to his wife Clemmie, if he had been ten years younger he could have been the first President of the United States of Europe. Well worth a read as a sharply focused look at a fascinating topic.
Would-be Irish Senator Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 political thriller “The Fourth Protocol” is curiously topical again. Those people who remember the moderately entertaining movie, starring Michael Caine and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan will remember the main plot, about a KGB plan to detonate a nuclear weapon near a US Airbase in Britain. What they won’t know is that particular storyline was only half the plot, with the other half of the plot being the plan to put a Trotskyite unilateralist into Downing street. See where I’m going here?
The book essentially talks about repeating the story, on a national scale, of how the Labour party in 1981 pledged to elect a moderate leader of the GLC, and then having won the election, deposed him with a hardline leftwinger. His name? Ken Livingstone.
As with every Forsyth book, there’s a lot of good background in it, although Forsyth’s right-wing politics comes out in this book more than most of his previous novels. But it’s a good yarn that keep you going to the end. Well worth a read.
Robert Ryan’s “The Dead Can Wait” is the second of (so far) three novels about Sherlock Holmes’s friend Dr. John Watson in his later years, serving with British forces during the First World War. Watson is asked by a well-known and senior figure in the British government to investigate the mysterious deaths of a number of British soldiers at a top secret establishment testing a new weapon which may change the direction of the war. Assisted by an Irish secret service operative and a former nurse from the front, Watson reveals that maybe he had paid more attention around Holmes than he’d first suspected.
When I read the book, my first question was when are they going to turn it into a TV series, as it has all the prerequisites. Ryan has captured the character of Watson well, making sure to portray the cautious, empathic and decent Watson of the original novels and the Jeremy Brett series rather than the Watson as buffoon which has become the de facto portrayal up until the 1980s. Mrs Gregson, the nurse turned mechanic turned suffragette is a wonderful foil to the older Watson’s old-school values. The two work together not dissimilar to a WWI version of The Avengers, yet another reason to make a TV show.
Ryan plays tricks with his readers with his writing style to throw a few red herrings about the place, but to his credit they’re honest twists that work by letting the reader make assumptions rather than by deliberating withholding information. It’s an enjoyable story that moves along at a solid pace.
If you’re a Sherlockian, I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And no, I’m not going to answer the obvious question. Read the book! Me, I’ll be reading the other two.
Four years ago today I published, as an eBook on Amazon, my first novel “The Ministry of Love”. Writing it taught me a huge amount, from the huge effort of writing a novel to the nightmare of typos and proofreading (A dragon finally slayed by the professional services of the excellent Elina Talvitie.) My apologies, by the way, to those who were subjected to the early editions before the fastidious Finn was deployed.
It’s funny what makes you write a book. For me it started as a joke about the government finding love for people (the main plot of the novel) but also diverted into the reality that loneliness is a genuine affliction for many. I remember sitting in a restaurant with two beautiful women, one my girlfriend at the time, and as we had a very entertaining lunch I spotted a diminutive man, with a bad comb over and a moustache, dining alone. Occasionally he looked over at us, not in anger at our laughter, or jealousy at me. In his eyes I could see that he desperately wanted just a fraction of what I had. It was simple suffocating loneliness. It’s a theme that I think is even more relevant today.
I’m one of those people who takes ages to finish a book because I’m reading a couple at a time, but I finished a few I enjoyed (and show my rather eclectic tastes).
Pat Leahy’s “Showtime”,about FF from the mid 1990s to the Cowen administration is a great read. I’d never read it before, and reading now, in the current context with the benefit of hindsight, it’s a shocking indictment of the short term amateurism of the 97-2007 FF/PD government. It’s a pacey read, and Leahy has that great ability to dig out those gems of personal elements (and laugh out loud moments) that pepper Irish politics. The detail would make one think that many a university will make a grab for “The Leahy Papers” when the time comes! Well worth a read.
Graham McCann’s “Bounder”,a biography of Terry-Thomas, on the other hand, is very much for the committed fan. Few people under 40 know who Terry-Thomas even was, but from a period starting in the 1950s right up to afternoon repeats of his movies in the 1980s, Terry-Thomas’ performance as an upper class cad and scoundrel was hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Basil Brush and Dick Dastardly (of Wacky Races fame, or as we know it, Catch The Pigeon) were based on him.
The book is a detailed record of his career as one of Britain’s first TV stars and through movies like “Those magnificent men in their flying machines”. Then there’s a sad and depressing fall into poverty caused by Parkinson’s Disease, eventually being rescued through trojan fundraising efforts by his cousin, fellow comedian Richard Briers. As I said, a good read but one for the fans.
I’ve recently started enjoying the “Bryant and May” series of books by Christopher Fowler, about two octogenarian detectives in the British Home Office’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.
The books involve the two men and their colleagues investigating odd happenings around London, allowing Fowler to weave in many of the often surreal aspects of the city’s history. For example, “Bryant and May off the rails” has them investigating a mystery on the Undergound, and allows for fascinating reveals about the subway system and its history, whereas “The Victoria Vanishes” centres on a mystery involving London pubs.
The books are very character driven, involving not just the two leads but the other oddball and plain worn out members of the PCU and their exasperated boss.
I’ve enjoyed them as audiobooks, where Tim Goodman not only narrates them but effectively performs them. They’re great fun, and well worth a go.
Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is one of those books that I had never heard of when I first saw it on Audible, and after I read it could not understand why, because it’s great.
It’s a techno rather than sci-fi thriller about an astronaut who gets trapped on the Mars surface. I don’t want to tell anything else, because I’ll just give plot away, but the concept of the novel is so simple and yet genuinely inspiring.
Weir puts across the simple idea that out there in space left, right, Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist, gay, straight, nothing matters. You’re just a human in a spacesuit and nature is trying to kill you 24/7.
There’s already talk of a movie of this. I seriously hope they make it, because it would be a wonderful tale of humanity at its very best.
Repost: Ever since I was in my early teens, I wanted to be a published author. In fairness to myself, I had no illusions about being the next Hemingway or the next Fitzgerald, that was not the goal. I was reading Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum and later John Grisham and these were what I wanted to do. In short, I wanted to see people reading my books in airports, and made into TV mini-series starring that gruff one from Simon and Simon and one of the lesser girls from Baywatch.
So, I went and did what you are supposed to do. I wrote a 65,000 word novel, The Unisio Agenda, which was pretty awful (a suspended animation Hitler was just one of the minor features in the plot), and sent the first chapter to a load of literary agents, having researched and discovered that these were the fabled gatekeepers to the great publishing houses, or at least had coffee and a bun with them occasionally.
In the following weeks, self-addressed envelopes would make my heart thump just slightly faster as they lay on my hallway floor before telling me very politely that “this was not for us, but best of luck elsewhere”. One or two even gave a little advice on the novel. Not one, to their credit, sent me the fabled “Do humanity a favour and take a hammer to your PC” remarks.
I set that novel to one side, and started on my second, The Ministry of Love. This novel was the result of a running joke with a friend of mine about the government deciding to intervene in people’s love lives for the better, and the more the joke ran, the more I felt there was material for a story. It took me a couple of years to pull it together, but I finished it, and sent it out to the agents, feeling more hopeful that I was now a better writer and perhaps my subject was a bit more commercial. That and the fact that it featured a serial killer butchering celebrities in various creative ways, which I felt was very much in line with the zeitgeist of the time.
Again, the rejection slips came back.
At this stage, the aspiring writer can do one of three things. The first is rail against the conspiracy in the publishing industry to keep his/her unique voice out. The second is to keep trying, normally by writing another novel, and the third is to just accept that it is not to be, and give up.
The first was not an option, because I just didn’t believe it. I had started to read a lot about the publishing industry and realised that it was not a vendetta against me personally, but an industry in crisis. Being an HR manager in my day job, I knew that rejecting a candidate for a vacancy was not a judgement call on their fitness but a reflection that someone else fitted the profile better.
Of course they could not take risks with unknowns like me. Just look at the piles of books on sale now, and how many have to be fronted by a celebrity who (hopefully, at least to the publisher) brings his or her own market with them. It was just too risky for publishers to take a punt on people like me. The “What about JK Rowling, Dan Brown et al?” argument would be thrown back at me, but they were just flashes in the pan. Traditional publishing, through its own economic necessity, was looking less likely as an option.
The second option was to keep trying. A funny thing about writing is that you’d probably do it anyway, in that the desire to commit a story to page is there no matter what. It’s a question of getting it out of your head; so continuing writing is not a painful option. However, there is also a question of ego, which plays a huge role. You can see yourself being transformed from the romantic notion of The Guy Who Is Writing A Novel to guy in Firefly tee-shirt sitting in back room writing his 15th rejected novel about teenage vampires who are allergic to blood but can travel through time. It’s a thin line, and you’re very conscious of it.
Option three is to just give up, leave your manuscript in a drawer or on your hard drive, and carry on with life. Many do, especially when you realise how long it takes to write a novel, and without the validation of publication, you query as to whether you are wasting your life on this?
I say three options, but there is a fourth. The dreaded “self publishing”. Up until recently, self-publishing triggered certain images. An author announcing a new book. Admiration from friends and family, followed by realisation that author has not being endorsed by professionals putting faith through cash on his skills as a writer, but has paid for book to be published. Slightly grimaced “God bless your diligence” smiles all around. Embarrassed author either lashes out at industry for not recognising him, or feels like a fraud, or a nut. Or both.
Then I read about Amazon’s willingness to let self-published authors sell direct for shared royalties, dangling the keys to the kingdom in front of me. It’s here that you make a decision.
You accept that your book will probably never see the light of day traditionally, so you can either wait for the day the Great Editors In The Sky recognise your genius and come calling, or you can put it out there yourself, and that is the biggest temptation of all.
The opportunity to deliver direct to the marketplace, either as a Print-On-Demand actual book or as an eBook. It’s a brilliant strategy by Amazon, because it triggered the “what if” in every aspiring writer like me to put my book out there just to see what happened. It taps into the brilliant “what’s to lose?” section of the writer’s brain. In fact, it even goes one step further, because the old argument, that traditional publishing houses want nothing to do with self-published authors has been killed stone dead. If anything, self-publishing has become a form of showcase for the publishing houses to see how potential authors perform in the market without investing a cent.
There are costs. I commissioned a professional cover designer, ebook formatter, developmental editor and copy editor, and all that costs money, but I reckoned that as I was competing against professional books, I had no choice. Actually, the copyediting turned out to be a huge challenge, and to this day I am still finding typos despite professional eyes having roamed the manuscript on multiple occasions. Interestingly, I also find typos in professionally published eBooks too, which makes me wonder about the format itself.
After much effort, I launched my novel, The Ministry of Love, and a year and a month later, a radically rewritten version of The Unisio Agenda, The Gemini Agenda (now Hitler free). I hyped it a bit on a politics blog I write, and with my modest following on Twitter and Facebook.
A tiny number of people bought my books. Were the publishing houses right? Quite possibly. But here’s the thing: people are buying my books every month, books that would have sat on a hard drive otherwise. I’ve received reviews and emails from people who have read and enjoyed them, and more to the point, I’ve actually enjoyed the whole process. Will I lose money? Probably. But as a hobby, like photography or cycling it has its financial costs but also its pleasures. There are some, like E L James and Amanda Hocking, who will make fortunes from it. There are others, like JA Konrath who see a new business model and a means of making a decent living.
But for me, it allowed me to not quite live an aspiration but get close to it. Will I write another book? Possibly, although the sheer effort required mixed with the feeling that I am just indulging myself expensively will act as a deterrent. There is also the fear, in the back of every self-published writer’s mind, that his friends and family, behind nodding heads and encouraging smiles are rolling their eyes at his putting out this stuff. But regrets? Not one.
“Dominion” by CJ Sansom is set in a 1952 Britain which, following Lord Halifax’s accession to the premiership in 1940, has become a “finlandised” satellite state of Nazi Germany.
The plot, about resistance agents trying to get an important person out of the country, is particularly engaging on how fascism and anti-Semitism can creep into a society. It’s very easy now, with the benefit of hindsight, to see how the choices made in 1940 were correct, and accuse those who wished to sue for peace as collaborators or fools. Yet at the time, the horrors of the Great War were still fresh in the minds of many, and essentially decent men like Chamberlain desperately wanted to avoid war. Not everybody who opposed war with Germany was a Nazi sympathiser.
The book is a bit overlong and meanders anxiously too much, but really gets going in the final third. Sansom paints what I think is a very accurate picture of what the road not taken could have looked like. He’s no fan on nationalism, and certainly no fan of the SNP judging by this novel!