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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Another reason Harry Truman's my favourite President

The day FDR died Harry Truman suddenly had the biggest job in the world thrust upon him – at the very moment when that job was hardest to do.

Hitler was still alive, the war in Europe wasn't over, Stalin was seeing what he could get away with, there were senior people in Washington who thought Germany should be reduced to an agrarian economy, the war in Japan was looking as though it might cost a million American lives and this guy from Missouri who looked like a small-town haberdasher, which is what he had been, was suddenly behind the desk of the man who had been widely regarded, both in the USA and abroad, as the saviour of the world.

Over the next three months he had to make the most momentous decisions any President has ever had to make: to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, to back democratic governments in Europe, to extend the credit needed to rebuild a continent, to walk into a room at Potsdam with Stalin and Churchill, neither of whom knew him from Adam, and tell them how things were going to be.

It's a story I never get tired of reading. This new book has lots of detail I didn't know. When Truman got back to the White House at the end of those three months this is what he did.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Did an LP ever get anybody into bed?

In the 1970s you could ask a girl back to your place "to listen to my albums" without being openly laughed at.

Why was that? Primarily because the only way you were going to hear Neil Young's "Harvest" or Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" at the time they came out was to go to the home of somebody who owned a copy. The experience of listening to records like these simply wasn't available any other way. Saying "I have a record" was a legitimate overture.

As well as the small bump of delight that came from hearing something you hadn't heard before, there was also the fact that certain long playing records imbued their owners with prestige. In the early 70s I was aware there were other males who spent their disposable cash on cars rather than records but reasoned correctly there was no future in a girl who was more impressed by an old MG Midget than the new album by Todd Rundgren.

There was also something intimate about the two of you just listening to a record in your room, a place with no other facilities or distractions. It wasn't like watching a video was to become in the following decade. Responding to a record was something both personal and public. There was nothing to look at apart from each other and the album cover. In this way playing a record to a girl turned into a form of wooing. With a little bit of luck the record – its sound, its appearance, its fresh, unscratched surface, its manifold associations – would melt the space between you and render possible things that without it would have been impossible.

But you could overdo it with the boudoir albums. When I worked in the record shop we would smirk knowingly at the would-be Lotharios who came in to get an import copy of Roy C's album "Sex And Soul". This was a standard Southern Soul album which opened with the line "a man can't go no further than a woman let him" and had a woman on its cover apparently delighted that she has extended just such permission. They were clearly planning to use it to facilitate a seduction.

 I've never been convinced that any albums "worked" just like that. Maybe that was just my failing.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Is this the reason Mum works?

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

Monday, February 26, 2018

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

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

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Peace and Love generation were raised on War and Hate

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

One of the best books I've ever read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The genius of Summer Heights High

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

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

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

Couldn't happen here, of course.