Book Reviews

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Anthology #3

Fall, by John Preston

This book is subtitled The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, and is described on the front cover, by no less a reviewer as Robert Harris, as “… the best biography yet of the media magnate”: despite not having read any of its predecessors, I am very happy to accept that assessment. It is difficult not to stray into hyperbole when describing this repugnant man, who was a consummate con-artist, notwithstanding his tough & demanding background of poverty in Czechoslovakia, before reinventing himself as many times as was necessary to enable him to achieve almost unimaginable [although perhaps not by current Bezos/Musk standards] wealth & social standing, before it all came crashing down, when the extent of his deception was revealed. The main question, which [spoiler] the book doesn’t conclusively reveal, is whether he took his own life, was murdered, or died as a result of an accident aboard his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine: whose name also has a current resonance, which is touched upon briefly at the end of the book. Perhaps his criminal activity has taught the high-flying financial world a well-deserved lesson, but I am prepared to believe that it didn’t, when the lure of financial gain is too strong to resist. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Penguin Books, [Viking], Random House UK, ISBN 978-0-2413-8868-6.

Capture or Kill, by Tom Marcus

This is the first novel by “Tom Marcus”, a pseudonym “to keep his identity hidden” [at the insistence of MI5] “to ensure he stays safe”, given that “it’s the first true ground-level account [of “the real story of the fight on our streets”] ever to be told”; that might or might not be true: it all sounds a bit ‘boys’ own’ to me, and the writing style used in the first-person narrative is a bit rough around the edges, including some basic spelling mistakes & grammatical errors which the editors should have picked up, but that could be deliberate, to convey that the author “grew up on the streets in the North of England … [and] left the Security Service recently, after a decade on the frontline protecting his country due to being diagnosed with PTSD.” The protagonist, Logan, is personally selected by the DG of MI5 to join an ultra-secret, deniable action agency called Blindeye, to identify and, if necessary [it generally is, apparently] eliminate threats to the safety of this blessed realm. He is weighing up if this should be his future when a tragedy occurs, which decides the question; before long, however, he discovers that all is not what it was supposed to be, so drastic action is called for…. If the covert activities presented here are true, it could be ammunition for both conspiracy theorists & civil rights activists, but ultimately, there is no way for Joe Public to know the truth [and survive]. The way is left open at the end for a sequel, so its appearance can be more or less guaranteed. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Pan Books [Macmillan], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-6359-4.

The Bourne Initiative, by Eric van Lustbader

Aside from the exotic, film-staresque sound of the name of the author, who is continuing the highly successful series originated by the late Robert Ludlum, this is one of the latest novels featuring this by now almost mythic freelance operative, who freed himself of the shackles of his Treadstone background some years before. As usual, he is trying to live a quiet life, whilst being only too aware of diverse threats to his existence, and in this story, he is dragged into a chase to discover the whereabouts of the eponymous Initiative, which turns out to be, ostensibly, a highly dangerous tranche of computer code, created at the behest of his erstwhile, now dead, Russian compatriot, General Boris Karpov. In the course of the narrative, during which, as ever, so it would seem, Bourne doesn’t know whom to trust [but that’s espionage for you, I guess], he is forced to accept at least one potentially life-threatening collaboration. The action is virtually non-stop and, apart from the slightly unrealistic capacity Bourne has for absorbing physical punishment and quickly recovering therefrom, the progress to the dénouement is reasonably plausible, so if you like fast-paced spy thrillers, this is one I can recommend. The paperback I read was published in 2017, by Head of Zeus Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7866-9425-6.

Elsewhere, by Dean Koontz

I don’t remember if I’ve ever read any work by this author before, or whether the subject matter is exemplary of his normal output, but suffice to say that I was easily drawn in by the topic of parallel universes: another branch of the ‘what if’ scenario, although I was occasionally slightly irritated by the apparent stupidity of the protagonists by their actions in stressful situations; that is possibly presumptuous, however, because I’m not an eleven-year old girl, or a somewhat naïve American man who has suffered a trauma in his marriage. Jeffery [aka Jeffy] Coltrane is entrusted with a cardboard box by an eccentric, but presentable vagrant with whom he has struck up a relaxed friendship, and exhorted to not open the box under any circumstances, but to keep it safe. Of course, circumstances dictate that the box is opened, initiating a series of breathtaking & [in the ‘normal’ world] barely believable events. Jeffy’s daughter Amity proves to be mature beyond her years, but not strong enough on her own to defeat the forces of evil with apparent government backing who are seeking to destroy both them and the wonder which has fallen into their hands. This is a real page-turner if you like this sort of fantasy fiction, so it comes highly recommended, even if the dénouement is perhaps just a tad too ‘pat’ for credibility. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020, Thomas & Mercer, Seattle] by HarperCollinsPublishers, London, ISBN 978-0-0082-9127-3.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #1

Dolphin Junction, by Mick Herron

It’s always a pleasure to find a book by this author, and this is a collection of his short stories, one of which features some of his Slow Horses characters; there are also two featuring his private investigators Zoë Boehm and her hapless, erstwhile husband, Joe Silvermann. Herron seems to have the knack of being able, cosynchronously, to write both contemporaneously and classically; although maybe by that I mean that his writing is cogent, a quality not always found in current fiction; and he is very clever in how he sets the reader up for a conclusion, only to often turn these assumptions on their head. There are eleven stories in this collection, and they are all of the right length, so each new one is anticipated with pleasure. This hardback was published in 2021 by John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-5293-7126-0; there is also a paperback, ISBN 978-1-5293-7127-7.

Our Man in New York, by Henry Hemming

This non-fiction book deserves to be read very widely: I say this as the author of a non-fiction biography, but the remit of this biography is arguably much wider than was mine, so I have every sympathy for this author with regard to the research he must have had to undertake. He is the grandson of a very good friend of the subject, William [Bill] Stephenson, but that notwithstanding, his documentary & anecdotal sources in his family were more limited than he would have liked; nevertheless, he has produced what I consider to be a very well-researched & important record of the British government’s efforts to influence American opinion enough, in 1940, when Britain was on its knees against the merciless onslaught of Hitler’s Germany, to persuade President Roosevelt to bring America into the war on the side of the Allies. Whether Stephenson’s background as a Canadian made a significant difference to his attitude & effect in this campaign is debatable, but suffice to say that, by the time Japan attacked America in December 1941, American opinion had revolved enough to make the country’s contribution a foregone conclusion. A must-read! The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2019] by Quercus editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7874-7484-0.

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles, by Alexander McCall Smith

I have already alluded to this series; the 44 Scotland Street stories, set in Edinburgh; in a review of another series, the Inspector Varg novels, by this author [no diaeresis over the first A of his name here, as I expected], and I was curious to read how different, or otherwise, this might be from the aforesaid Malmö-set Varg stories. This is trumpeted as “now the world’s longest-running serial novel”, and it is with no little regret that I have to say that this reads like it; that said, it is very pleasant reading, which does have some measure of closure for a couple of the characters, but otherwise, it is a gentle meander through the lives of the characters during a short length of time in “Auld Reekie”. One thing I did find slightly irritating is that, for all the writing is cogent, there is an ever-so-slightly supercilious air about the latin quotations which are used without translation: some I knew, and some I wasn’t 100% sure of. Nevertheless, as said, this is very pleasant, undemanding reading, so I will be very happy to find another instalment in the series, whenever it is in the timescale. The hardback I read was published in 2019 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-8469-7483-0.

Admissions, by Henry Marsh

This name might not mean a thing to many people, but is you are a supporter of assisted dying, as I am, you might have seen his name as one of the high-profile supporters. He was a neurosurgeon [aka brain surgeon] before he retired, although he had not completely retired when he wrote this book; he was only working part-time though, and he also did stints in Ukraine [before the most recent Russian invasion] and Nepal, working with erstwhile colleagues. These foreign sojourns were partly altruistic, but it is fairly apparent from his personal musings that he has something of a restless nature; he has also seen, in his working career, which has encompassed many aspects of the medical profession, the despair which can overtake human beings who are suffering terminal illnesses, and the anguish which this can cause their loved ones, so this explains why he supports the concept of assisted dying. This has been decriminalised in many countries, and other countries are engaged in rational discussion about its advantages, but Britain doggedly refuses to countenance this humanitarian change, despite many well-informed & high-profile supporters: I can only hope that this resistance is dropped in the not-too-distant future. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-0387-4.

Book Review

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The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont

This author is American, and is a newcomer to speculation about the Agatha Christie ‘disappearance’ mythology: it “began in 2015 when she first learned about the famous author’s eleven-day disappearance. Christie’s refusal to ever speak about this episode particularly intrigued Nina, who loves the fact that someone who unravelled mysteries for a living managed to keep her own intact. The Christie Affair is her fourth novel.” I’m not sure if saying Christie “unravelled mysteries” is entirely accurate, because since she created them in the first place, and required them to be plausible, they wouldn’t have required unravelling by her, would they? That could safely be left to her readers. It’s possible that the author didn’t write her own bio, of course. This story is loosely based upon the facts as we know them, according to Christie’s Wikipedia page; some names have been changed, for obvious reasons; but this narrative falls into the ‘what if’ category, rather than a parallel universe scenario: the author describes it as “an imaginative history of sorts”.

As the narrative progressed, I was wondering why so much space was being given over to the backstory of the narrator, Nan O’Dea, who is this story’s substitute for Archie Christie’s real mistress, Nancy Neele, but the reason for that eventually became clear, and that is the subtext of this narrative: forced adoption of babies by the Catholic church in Ireland. I can’t reveal the reason for that, because the plot revolves around it, but it is a major element of this story. In fact, very little more of the plot can be revealed, but the major aspects of it conform to the real story, whereby Agatha Christie left her home in Sunningdale after a disagreement with her husband, in early December 1926, and after eleven days she was located at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate; although a different name for the hotel is used in the story. The period atmosphere is quite nicely realised so, apart from a few unfortunate Americanisms, which is understandable, given the author’s nationality, the story is a pleasant, undemanding read, even is some of the events do seem a touch implausible: given that this is fiction, I suppose that is forgivable.

It is difficult to speculate as to this book’s target readership, but Christie connoisseurs might enjoy it; as a thriller, it is very lightweight; it probably falls more comfortably into the romantic fiction category; but as stated above, it is undemanding, so it should be possible for different categories of reader to enjoy it. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Pan Books [Mantle], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-5419-4.

A Blue Plaque for Agnes Dawson

Photo courtesy of Hilda Kean

Wilfred Risdon was passionate about animal welfare, and Hilda Kean is another campaigner on the same subject, as well as women’s rights, and the rights of working people, both now and in a historical context, in her capacity as an academic. She blogs on, and her latest post deals with her interest in four women teachers she has been researching:

Decades ago I had researched and had published a book I called Deeds not Words. The Lives of Suffragette Teachers, arising from my earlier PhD on history and education. Then I was a school teacher at Quintin Kynaston, a progressive London school, and active in the local Westminster NUT. To be honest I had never been that interested in the suffrage movement, apart from Sylvia Pankhurst, but suddenly came across the way many women teachers activists organised in the NUT to try and get the union’s support for the vote.

Please visit her blog, and leave a comment if you find her work interesting: she will be very glad to hear from you—she was very helpful to me with research material for my biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black shirt and Smoking Beagles.

Book Review

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The War of the Poor, by Éric Vuillard

This is a very short book; only 66 pages; and set in a large font [not specified, but probably at least 12pt] with wide line spacing; so it should possibly more accurately be described as a booklet or a tract; but no matter: the subject matter is important. It is essentially true, albeit with a certain amount of permissible embroidery, given its historical setting, for the sake of continuity & completeness; it was translated from the original French, La guerre des pauvres, first published in 2019, by an award-winning author in his own right, Mark Polizzotti. I have a few observations about the significance of the text, including a personal connection but, at the risk of appearing to opt for a lazy response, given the fact that this is a non-fiction narrative, there is no plot, as such, to spoil, so I hope my readers will forgive me for quoting in large part from the synopsis at the front of the book, on the inside front cover.

This story concerns a subject which is very important to me, and it is the story of a man whose “terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived — a moment when Europe was in flux and history was being written.” So far, so hyperbolic: here I could observe that Europe is again in flux [so what have we learned in between?], but surely, the writing of history is inevitable with the passage of time, so that statement is superfluous? “The history of inequality is a long and terrible one, and it’s not over yet [sadly, true]. The War of the Poor tells the story of a brutal episode from history, not as well known as tales of other popular uprisings, but one that deserves to be told [definitely]. Sixteenth century Europe: the Protestant Reformation takes on the powerful and the privileged. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer: a complex and controversial figure, who sided with neither Martin Luther, nor the Roman Catholic Church. Müntzer encouraged the poor to question why a god who apparently loved them seemed to be on the side of the rich.”

All well & good, and some of my observations could be seen as prejudice, for which I apologise, but they spring from my agnosticism, so I consider The Church, of any flavour, and religion in general, to be fair game. First & foremost, I was somewhat surprised, but also agreeably gratified, to read of a personal connection with the beginning of Müntzer’s ‘career’ in 1520 when, after emerging as a child from the trauma of his father’s execution, and reading The Bible which was produced with the new-fangled process called printing, “he enrolled as a student in Leipzig, then became a priest in Halberstadt  and Brunswick [Braunschweig], then a provost here and there, then, after considerable tribulations among the Lutherite plebeians, he emerged from his hole in 1520, when he was named a preacher in Zwickau.” The beginning of the next chapter nails it for me: “Outside the borders of Saxony [Sachsen], hardly anyone knows Zwickau. It’s just another backwater.” For non-German speakers, there’s an added complication: it’s difficult to pronounce—the combination of the ts consonants, followed by the v pronunciation of the German w is admittedly not easy, but not impossible, with practice. I was there for 6 months at the beginning of 1993; so, only two-and-a-bit years after one of the most momentous events of modern times, whose repercussions were to affect the whole of the soon to be reunited Germany for years to come, and the whole European continent, albeit somewhat less so, and to varying degrees in the different constituent countries. At the end of the GDR, Zwickau was where ‘Trabis’ were built, then VW took the plant over.

My overall concern with the story is that, although Müntzer was fighting for the rights of the common man, he was doing so within the confines of Christianity, and expecting his followers to be willing adherents also; it is reasonable to argue that those were the times in which they lived, when morality & religious observance were seen as inseparable, but he did set himself up as a fundamentalist demagogue: “He cited Luke: ‘Bring hither mine enemies, and slay them before me.’ He cited the psalms: ‘The Lord will smash down the old pots of clay with his rod of iron.’ … But … Müntzer introduced another populace, more invasive and tumultuous, a real populace, the poor laity and the peasants. This was a far cry from the catechistic generality of kindly Christian folk; now it was about ordinary people.” It all ended badly, of course: after several armed confrontations, and even a few victories, Müntzer was captured and beheaded, leaving history to be written by the victors. “These scurrilous legends come along to bow the heads of renegades only after they have been denied the right to speak. Their sole purpose is to make the tormenting voice sound within us, the voice of order, to which we are ultimately so attached that we surrender to its mysteries and hand it our lives.” Apparently, “Nietzsche took inspiration from him, from the Müntzerese gush and extravagance. But Müntzer is a man of action … He quotes Daniel: ‘Power will be given to the people.’ We’re a long way from Nietzsche.”

We’re also a long way from “Power [being] given to the people”, but at least the power of religion is being cumulatively reduced, although we still have some way to go. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-3855-2.

Website Update

With reference to my previous post, as a result of, sadly, inevitable postage price increases, and very probably an indirect result of Britain’s recently leaving the EU, it has become necessary to update the Wilfred Books website to reflect this, because the postal charges included for despatch of the print version of Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles have been insufficient, for all areas of the world, for some time now. I should also point out that the book’s retail purchase price has NOT increased, neither are there any plans for this to happen. To achieve this update, certain sections of the site have been ‘refactored’, as it’s called, but it has not been a simple matter of just editing a few items of text; the reason for this is that a new price group, specifically for delivery to the EU zone, needed to be introduced: previously, the first non-UK price group included Europe, but this is no longer the case. More details can be found on the website’s about page, where there is a link to the book’s own page, and there is also a purchase link there.

Another complication is that there is now a veritable plethora of possible screen sizes for all of the devices which people can now use to access websites, compared to when the book was first published, in 2013; and, indeed, there are now even narrower screens than the first smartphones had [which I find slightly incredible, but I’m old-fashioned, and prefer a laptop for accessing websites]; so, each possible screen size had to be checked, to make sure that the new layout of the page a buyer is taken to when purchasing a print version of the book, looks acceptable with the new EU postal delivery price group included, so although this was relatively straightforward, as mentioned above, it was not a quick undertaking!

I hope the page looks acceptable across all devices, but I must stress that I am not a professional website developer; although I was confident that I could produce a functional & attractive site to make my book available direct, with no middle-man in the process, other than PayPal, which processes the purchase securely. So, if I have missed a new device size, or slipped up when formatting the page for an existing device, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments.

Finally, dare I remind readers that a present-buying opportunity [in addition to normal impulse-buying] is rapidly approaching, so if you know of someone [or yourself!] who would enjoy reading a comprehensively-researched examination of the febrile inter-war period of the 1920s & -30s in Britain, please ensure that a purchase can be delivered in good time! The book focuses specifically on what made an ardent socialist like Wilfred Risdon from Bath, who saw action as a medical orderly in the first world war, and worked in the Tredegar coal mines alongside Aneurin Bevan [who, as we know, went on to a sparkling political career], drastically change his political allegiance to support Oswald Mosley who, although he started out also as a socialist with the best of intentions, fairly soon swung to the opposite side of the political spectrum before the second world war. During the war, after a short period of internment in Brixton Prison under the notorious Emergency Regulation 18B, Wilfred sensibly decided to leave politics behind as far as possible, and concentrate on his passion for animal welfare, advancing to the position of Secretary of the prestigious National Anti-Vivisection Society, before his death in 1967; before that, he engineered the bold [and confrontational!] move of the Society’s London headquarters to Harley Street, the heart of the British medical profession, that still [and continues to, sadly] relied upon animal testing, which involved [Wilfred would argue, unnecessary] hideous & painful procedures. Given the state of the world in general, and British politics in particular now, a knowledge of how we arrived at this point can be very illuminating, so I can heartily recommend Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles: but, then again, why wouldn’t I?

Book Review

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The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore

If I’d had to guess, I would have said that this author would be British, with a name like his, however he was in fact born in Chicago, USA, but I’ll forgive him for that. The book’s name, which I actually think is quite clever, refers to the transition period of the 1880s in America, primarily in the metropolitan north east, but then gradually spreading out to encompass the whole country, when electric lighting began to take over from the previous standard of gas; although this wasn’t ubiquitous: oil/kerosene lamps were also cosynchronously very common. There have, in fact, been a few books on this subject, plus a 2017 film, The Current War, which seems to have had a somewhat underwhelming reception, disappointingly [for me, anyway, given the subject matter; although it was caught up in the repercussions of the Weinstein scandal, which delayed its release, facilitating, presumably fortuitously, a ‘director’s cut’ final edit]; the screenplay of which was written by Michael Mitnick, according to the Wikipedia entry for the film, but no mention is made of, or reference to other sources for the story; although, to be fair, it can almost be considered as folk history in America; especially, given Thomas Edison’s persistent reputation.

As with other fictional narratives based closely on readily available historical fact [An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, is another example], authors have to be careful not to deviate too far from established truths, unless they are prepared to categorise their output as an ‘alternative’ history; confining themselves to embellishing known facts with scenarios which are appropriate to their narratives is quite common. This is what Moore has done here, as he freely admits, in his Note from the Author, at the end of the book: “This is a Gordian knot of verifiable truth, educated supposition, dramatic rendering, and total guesswork.” Overall, I would say he has done very well, despite the timeline having been significantly tinkered with to make his narrative plausible. It is essentially the story of the struggle for dominance in the electrical supply market, between Edison & DC [direct current] on one side, and George Westinghouse & AC [alternating current] on the other; into this conflict is also thrown the saturnine character of Nikola Tesla, who has latterly become something of a folk hero globally, but in the USA specifically, notwithstanding what I rather feel is the traducing of his name by a current [no pun intended] billionaire, with his upmarket and very expensive [and therefore not affordable by the masses] products, and the irony of this compared to Tesla’s sad demise.

The story actually begins with litigation between the two main characters, with Edison as the antagonist, suing the protagonist, Westinghouse, for infringement of his patents for the electric light bulb, claiming [speciously, but that is the core of the suit] that he had ‘invented’ it. The latter takes the ostensibly risky step of engaging a relative newcomer to the legal field, Paul Cravath, who knows that this is something of a poisoned chalice, but he nevertheless relishes the challenge as an opportunity to make a name for himself: but only if he wins, of course. Along the way, he meets a seemingly unattainable woman, Agnes Huntington, to whom he is inexorably drawn, when she also engages him to fight a suit for her; at first, he makes a conscious decision not to let himself become dependent upon her, but as the narrative develops, despite evidently being somewhat submissive to her domineering mother, it becomes apparent that there is more to her than meets the eye. When the truth is revealed, it seems inevitable that they will become romantically attached, until Tesla inadvertently causes a schism.

The story is nicely paced, and the characters, although admittedly somewhat enhanced, are plausible, so I found this a very enjoyable read, which retained my attention throughout, and the conclusion was reasonably satisfying. The paperback version I read was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., in 2017, ISBN 978-1-4711-5668-7.

Book Review

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Crossing the Line, by John Sutherland

This book was first published in 2020, but an updated version, with an epilogue written in December of that year, was published in 2021 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-1237-1. The epilogue included the author’s response to the pandemic, to the time of writing of course, but also events which had happened between finishing the first publication in 2020 and the end of that year and were relevant to the theme of this book. The title, in conjunction with the cover image of the blue & white striped tape used by police to close off crime scenes, might lead one to suppose that this is an account of instances of when police officers have ‘crossed the line’, or transgressed against their calling, but in fact, the subtitle immediately removes any doubt: Lessons from a Life on Duty. John Sutherland was a Metropolitan Police officer until his retirement after twenty-five years of service, and he is very well aware of the low regard with which officers of all ranks are nowadays regarded, from across the whole spectrum of British society [meaning England & Wales; Scotland & Northern Ireland having their own police services].

It isn’t until well into the book that the author reveals that he suffered a nervous breakdown in 2013, although he was able to return to work after a period of recovery, but that revelation does give some perspective to his observations, because as well as being obviously articulate, he makes it clear that he is not an officious disciplinarian, seeing no need to question the status quo. He is obviously distressed about societal disintegration which he sees as the catalyst for the majority of crime, but he also analyses why this should be, and how it can be rectified. He is unequivocal that the majority of police officers are conscientious, joining the service from a genuine desire to help people, and he separates the areas of crime affecting British society today into ten different ‘challenges’, as he refers to them (although there is inevitably some overlap), and the subject areas are clarified in my brackets:

        I: Drunk and Incapable; [alcohol]

      II: Possession with Intent; [‘drugs’]

     III: Just a Domestic; [domestic violence]

     IV: On a knife Edge; [knife crime]

      V: Places of Safety; [mental health]

    VI: Learning to Listen; [community relations]

  VII: Keeping the Peace; [public disorder]

VIII: The Rise of Extremism; [extremism]

   IX: A Question of Belief; [sexual offences]

     X: On the Register. [child abuse]

Item VII is an area where opinions are generally distinctly polarised: the right to freedom of expression; in this case, the right of the British National Party to operate a bookshop. Although Sutherland, who was still in his probation and hadn’t completed his riot training, missed the violence by the time he arrived on the scene of an earlier riot in October 1993, he takes what he considers to be an impartial view: “Though I may despise the BNP and all they stand for, I am still bound by duty and law to protect what’s theirs.” This has a bearing on the research I did for my biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and the right to express contentious views is just as controversial now as it was in the 1930s.

I can’t share his implicit support for the “respectable folk from rural communities” who participated in “a large demonstration [arranged by the Countryside Alliance] to protest against government proposals to ban fox hunting”, which descended into a standoff between officers & demonstrators near Parliament Square. He says that “At the time, I didn’t hold any particularly strong personal views about fox hunting, but I was very clear what I thought about people trying to break into Parliament.” In my view, “respectable folk from rural communities” can become violent very quickly when their ‘right’ to slaughter innocent non-food animals is called into question. After the incident, “The then Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, admitted that the disorder had taken the Met by surprise. He also confirmed that the force would identify lessons to be learned from the events of the day and that they would examine the actions of individual officers to see whether any had overreacted in their treatment of protestors. And that is exactly as it should be, because the police don’t always get it right. On occasions, whether individually or collectively, they get it terribly wrong. The death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests of 2009 represents a particularly grim reminder of just how badly things can end.”

So, a commendably even-handed exposition, and he can now comment as an ex-police officer: “I will defend with my last breath your right to protest: about human rights, about foreign wars, about basic poverty, about government policy, about state visits by the leaders of totalitarian regimes, about austerity, about any of the myriad things that matter to you. Now that I am retired, I might even line up alongside you. And I will defend your right to challenge the police to be better at what they do, to act with restraint and to say sorry when they get things wrong. Indeed, I will join you in making that challenge. But I will never defend violence or criminality of any kind. Those are the things that render a just cause lifeless.” Room for subjective judgements there, of course. He does try to end on a positive note, but unfortunately, it only serves to signal that there is plenty of room for improvement: “… hope is not a passive thing: it demands action. We know what needs to be done; we just have to get on and do it. We need to understand that, while the cause could not be more urgent, nothing of lasting worth is going to be accomplished overnight…it is going to take time to mend all that has been broken. It might actually take our lifetimes. In the meantime, we need to recognise just how much it is costing to get things wrong and to start spending our money in a completely different way: independent of political agendas, guaranteed for the long-term and focused relentlessly on the first things that must always come first.”

Whatever your place in British society, this is a book worth reading, to go beyond the stereotype presented by the media and those with axes to grind; police officers are human beings too, and improvements to the system under which they work might have been made, but in June 2021, there are obviously still problems with the Metropolitan Police, perceived or otherwise: Guardian article from the 24th of June here. The Daniel Morgan inquiry, recently concluded, has also not helped inspire public confidence: article from The Canary here.

Book Review

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Bittersweet, The Clifford T. Ward Story, by Dave Cartwright

Initially I thought that, necessarily (for reasons, I hope, that should be self-evident) this review will be much shorter than my customary fiction reviews, but in fact, that’s not the case; nevertheless, I hope it will give you sufficient reason for seeking the book out, if for no other reason than to sustain interest in this enigmatic figure in late twentieth century music, and the music itself, of course. Music is one subject of interest, very precious & valuable to me, on which I try to avoid being prescriptive or judgmental, because it is very much a subjective choice, and therefore personal & unique to the individual. This book, like many such biographies, I think I am right in saying, is effectively a labour of love by the writer, who is a musician, rather than a biographer, but in addition to having known the subject himself, even if only tangentially, he has obviously spent a lot of time, to his credit, interviewing the family and friends of the subject, some of them mutual, and using documentary sources, some of which were provided by the subject himself.

The book, which is a modest (in terms of presentation), albeit professional product, has actually been published twice: the first time in 1999, when Ward himself was still alive; and the second edition, the one I read, was published in 2003, with the ISBN 1-901447-18-9. It was lent to me by a friend, who is also a singer, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn about the life & career of a singer who was known to me from his best-known output (i.e., the ones which got radio play), but that couldn’t prepare me for what I discovered about this complex, eccentric character who should have been better known, rather than more successful, because like many creatives in his position, success, such as it was, was something he found very difficult to deal with: to the extent of stubbornly and, it would seem, deliberately going out of his way to thwart. This also restricted the extent to which he would be known and his music appreciated, of course. The author, according to his ‘bio’ at the back of the book, has been [sic] a musician and songwriter for over thirty years, so he will be well versed in the gamut of interpersonal relationships in the music business, and the characters who inhabit it; many of whom, both well known and (to me) hitherto unknown, he mentions because of their association with CTW, instead of for reasons of tawdry self-aggrandisement. At the time of writing, Cartwright lived in the city of Worcester, and this is very much a book with the west midlands of England at its heart, and it has been the cradle of creativity for many British musicians of varying levels of influence & appreciation.

Clifford Thomas Ward was born in Stourport-on-Severn, 30 miles south west of Birmingham (“a popular day-trip excursion from the sombre, stiff-lipped canal towns of the Black Country … in the post-war boom of the 1950s”), on the 10th of February, 1944 (apparently simultaneously with the birth of PAYE income tax), the fifth child of Frank & Kathleen Ward. What surprised me most of all in this book, notwithstanding the revelations about Cliff’s complex (and often maddening) personality, from what little I knew from hearing his best known songs played on the radio latterly, courtesy of the now also-departed Terry Wogan, one of CTW’s champions, was that he retained his strong local accent, which he would accentuate, and also lapse into the vernacular dialect, when it suited him; often for comic effect, as he was known to have a sense of humour which encompassed the juvenile; but then again, his formative years were the period of ITMA and The Goons. When he was an adolescent, music was undergoing a seismic development, due in no small part to the influence of American artistes, churlishly oft-lamented by some, but unarguably irrevocably influential, and the teenage Cliff was drawn to music performance, like so many others in that first flush of realisation of independence, after decades of enforced deference to their elders; so he became a singer in several local beat combos, but he never learned to play the piano the traditional way, which caused no end of problems for conventionally-trained (either academically or experientially) musicians.

His career progression from there was difficult, to say the least; he soon realised that he preferred performing solo, predominantly his own songs, and this allowed him the creative freedom he craved. Unfortunately, he was such a perfectionist, but with a capricious streak that caused him to change his mind just when he had thought that a project was finished to an acceptable standard, that he ended up trying the patience of both musicians who worked with him, and management, of whom there were many! Through all this, his rock and possibly only faithful support was his wife, Pat, whom he married at a relatively young age; unfortunately, he chose not to always acknowledge that, but Pat seems to have accepted his philandering (which was almost entirely temperamental, rather than simply opportunist as a concomitant of his musician’s lifestyle) with a high degree of equanimity. His relationship with his four children was also sometimes difficult, and it is somewhat sad, although also indicative, that his response to his later medical condition wasn’t mitigated by his commendably considerate attitude towards his first daughter, Debbie, who was physically disabled at a young age.

Although, it has to be said, his lack of conventional success was due to a significant extent to his contrary nature, leading to all sorts of complications with writing & performing credits and consequent payments under a succession of different management, the direction of his career was inexorably downwards after his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at the age of 40, in 1984. For as long as he could, he refused to accept submission to an illness that would physically (and, to some extent, indirectly, psychologically) disable him, and kill him at the tragically young age of 57. At first, he steadfastly ignored it (while it was actually possible), dismissing it as an ear infection that was affecting his balance & coordination, but before very long, it was impossible to conceal it, notwithstanding the scarcity of his live performances, even quite early in his career; from then on, the progression was irreversible, causing him to become a recluse, despite the efforts of many of his friends & supporters to convince him that acknowledging his condition would be widely accepted, but one (of many) thing he didn’t want was sympathy, because he would have seen that as a sign of weakness on his part.

Although this book is by no means ‘mainstream’, it does seem to be still available, published by Cherry Red Books, and this company has also reissued at least 4 compilations of CTW’s songs, some of which are re-worked demo tracks, but all of which are free of the “constraints … [of the] sheer bloody-mindedness of record companies”. As an independent publisher myself, I would encourage you to support this author, if you have any interest in the life, career and, most importantly, the music of this under-appreciated artiste. There is a biographical monograph in existence, by Mick Armitage; it is a web page on the Sheffield University site:, and there is also a Wikipedia page:

Book Review

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An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

This is a weighty tome, running to 608 pages and, ordinarily, I might be deterred by this, but seeing the name of Robert Harris on the cover was all the incentive I needed to convince me to read it, having read a few of his books before now. Also, I was curious to discover how well he would handle a real historical situation, although he is no stranger to setting fiction in different time periods; this book concerns l’Affaire Dreyfus, or The Dreyfus Case, and I had vague recollections of having to apply myself to it in History lessons at school but hitherto, I wouldn’t have been able to present a cogent synopsis of the events that transpired. Given that these events actually happened, Harris’s freedom to create a fictional narrative was necessarily somewhat constrained, but he tells the story from the point of view of a fellow army officer, Marie-Georges Picquart, previously professor of topography at the École Militaire, now deputy to the head of the Third Department of the War Ministry (Operations & Training), who soon after Dreyfus’s conviction becomes promoted to Head of the Second Department, the Statistical Section, otherwise known as Intelligence; this arrangement had been in operation since Napoleon’s time.

Before his public military degradation (an essential part of his punishment, involving the removal of all his regimental uniform decorations & the ceremonial breaking of his sabre, in front of the first military parade of the Paris garrison) Dreyfus allegedly confessed to the captain guarding him that he did indeed pass documents to the Germans, but Picquart decides this is unreliable, which is helpful for him, as he had just given a verbal report to the Minister of War that Dreyfus continued to protest his innocence at the parade, in contravention of normal custom. Alfred Dreyfus, captain of the 14th Artillery Regiment, certified General Staff Officer & probationer of the army’s General Staff, was found guilty of delivering to a foreign power or to its agents in Paris in 1894 a certain number of secret and confidential documents concerning national defence; he was a Jew from Mulhouse, which was in the disputed Alsace Lorraine territory, now part of Germany, following the humiliating defeat by Germany in the 1870 Franco-German war; he also spoke with a slight, but discernible German accent, which was another thing, in addition to being identifiably Jewish, which counted against him. Unfortunately, at that time, institutional anti-Semitism was casually accepted as an attitude by the majority of the population, including Picquart himself.

In addition to the humiliation of the military degradation, Dreyfus’s penalty also included discharge from the army and deportation to a fortified enclosure for life: this was Devil’s Island, 15km from the coast of the penal colony at Cayenne (French Guiana, on the north east coast of South America); the island was reopened especially for Dreyfus, although there were many who called for the death penalty for what they considered to be a heinous crime, particularly in that time of heightened tension between France & Germany. It was once Picquart became established in his position as head of the Second Department that his suspicion begins to grow that Dreyfus has, indeed, been falsely accused, and that a despicable miscarriage of justice has occurred, especially when he learns that secrets are still being passed to the Germans so, albeit somewhat unwillingly at first, he makes it his mission to discover the truth, even if that means that Dreyfus is innocent; unfortunately, in the course of his investigations, he encounters obfuscation, opposition, and outright hostility from his superiors, but also, which proves to be more dangerous, for his career and even, potentially, his life, from his own close colleagues. He suffers many tribulations, threats, and even murder attempts during the course of the narrative, but he proves to be strong enough to survive them all, and the help he receives from a few valued friends, and later associates, a few of whom are as illustrious as the author Victor Hugo, whose publication J’Accuse eventually proves to be powerfully influential, contributes to his eventual success.

This is not to spoil the plot: the story is known, and can easily be researched, but where Harris succeeds is in weaving a plausible narrative for the character of Picquart. Harris himself says at the beginning of the book:

None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life. Naturally, however, in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatise, and to invent many personal details. In particular, Georges Picquart never wrote a secret account of the Dreyfus affair; nor did he place it in a bank vault in Geneva with instructions that it should remain sealed until a century after his death. But a novelist can imagine otherwise.

Robert Harris

I can highly recommend this book, and I don’t think you need to be an aficionado of history to be able to appreciate it: it’s a thumping good story, including a criminal conspiracy (which never seem to go out of fashion!) and it’s always good to be able to read a story which has any sort of resolution, especially a positive one. The paperback I read was published in 2014 by Arrow Books, London [part of the Penguin Random House Group], ISBN 978-0-09958-088-1.