books

The Lost City of Z

I first heard about Percy Fawcett back in the late eighties when a friend told me about him. We’d both read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo detailing his trip with James Fenton, and I think that In Trouble Again, in which O’Hanlon heads into Amazonia, had just come out. Indeed extracts may have been published in Granta which I certainly read at the time.

Fawcett, as described to me by my friend, sounded like a remarkable chap, spending years exploring the jungle, coming across all manner of travails, from dangerous beasts both great and small, to wild local Indian tribes and an inhospitable terrain.

I made a mental note to track down the book he’d written, Exploration Fawcett, and a few years later I came across a copy published in the Century Traveller imprint with an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. But the book looked like it may be heavy going, and despite my interest, it was always on my, “I must get around to reading that…” list.

In 2009 I heard about David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, seeing him interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While it’s clear that there has been much literature – indeed an entire industry – about Fawcett over the years, this was perhaps the most mainstream title to date. I picked up a copy.

But I still wanted to read Fawcett’s own book (actually edited by his son Brian) first. So Gann’s title too joined the book pile.

In due course I heard that James Gray was making a film of the book. From time to time you’d hear a little more about it until finally its release was imminent. And so, nearly thirty years after I’d first heard about Fawcett, I read Exploration Fawcett.

It’s a fascinating story detailing briefly Fawcett’s early life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ireland as a British Army officer, before he was chosen to carry out some work for the Royal Geographical Society, delineating the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time there was a “gold rush” in rubber production deep in the forests of the Amazon, and knowing which country you were in was suddenly important.

Fawcett’s book begins with some detailed stories he’d picked up over the years, relating to stories that the first Europeans heard about mystical cities of gold. Although the book then leaves these behind, it’s always clear that they remain in the background of Fawcett’s thoughts, as his ideas about the Amazon’s native tribes change into something less Victorian. They are not necessarily “savages”.

Fawcett went on a number of expeditions over a period of nearly 20 years, funding them in different ways, and Exploration Fawcett has a useful map (curiously, neither Gann’s book, nor the film including any maps, which is a shame because they’re really helpful). It’s clear that this part of the world was a real wild west in those early years of the twentieth century, with all sorts of individuals and groups making a fortune from the “black gold” that was rubber. This was the money that ended up building a remarkable opera house in Manaus, the Brazilian city within the Amazon rainforest. Marble was transported from Italy and the building of it must have been a gargantuan task. In due course, rubber trees were grown in Asia, and the bottom dropped out of the market, meaning an end to the rubber economy deep in the inhospitable Amazon.

It is always remarkable that no matter how deep into the jungle, Fawcett was always running into random Europeans who were trading in rubber or otherwise just existing in this remote part of the world. Eveyln Waugh would pick on precisely this, for his novel A Handful of Dust, his protagonist Tony Last becoming a virtual prisoner of Mr Todd, deep in the jungle, where he’s forced to read Dickens novels out loud!

Waugh aside, Fawcett would have quite an impact on popular culture of the time. He knew Conan Doyle, and claims with some justification that The Lost World was based on some plateaus that Fawcett had himself reported seeing. He also knew H Rider Haggard, author of the Quartermain and She novels.

The outbreak of World War I meant that Fawcett had to return to Britain, and onwards to France where he served with bravery throughout the war. Notably he was there are the Somme where so many lost their lives. Like so many others, the war left him a changed man.

Now money for expeditions was harder to come by, and Fawcett felt almost imprisoned living back in Britain. He would eventually move his family to Jamaica, while he returned to Brazil to raise more funds.

Finally, he raised money in the US from a consortium of newspapers and a Rockefeller, allowing him to return to the jungle for the expedition he really wanted to do – and find the city he had named only “Z”.

David Gann’s book essentially retells the story that Fawcett’s younger son Brian had previously edited together in Exploration Fawcett, but adds lots of colour and context. In particular, Fawcett could be very damning of people he didn’t get on with, and Gann is able to fill out those parts of the story. I’m not even sure that Fawcett mentioned his wife by name in his book, while a particularly despised person is simply called the “botanist.”

There’s also the wider picture of what else was happening at the time. In 1911, the American Hiram Bingham discovered (or at least was shown) Machu Picchu, proving that there were indeed still undiscovered cities in South America. And another American, Alexander Rice, was able to lead enormously well funded expeditions into the Amazon, taking shortwave radios and even a plane with him. While Fawcett might not have approved of those methods, taking vast numbers into the rainforest, sometimes leading to massive losses of life, he was probably a bit jealous too.

“Amateur” explorers like Fawcett were slowly becoming a thing of the past, as professionals with anthropologists and archaeologists becoming more important.

Reading Fawcett’s own account, you couldn’t help thinking of his wife, at home bringing up his children, and not seeing her husband for years at a time. Gann tells us that she did a lot of marketing for him, keeping his fame alive.

Which all brings us to the film of The Lost City of Z.

While Gann’s book is retelling of Fawcett’s life, it also details Gann’s own trip to the Amazon. But the film is very much a period dramatisation of his life, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. We open in Ireland where Fawcett is generally frustrated at life in the army, at a time when “getting on” was still very dependent upon your family. Sienna Miller plays Nina, his wife, with his first child already on the scene.

He wins a position mapping the Bolivian/Brazilian border and brings with him across the Atlantic, a man he has recruited via a newspaper advertisement – Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They travel to South America, and begin their surveying work amidst a beautiful landscape, Colombia doubling as the various Amazonian jungles.

Guided by some jungle finds, and stories he’s told, Fawcett begins to develop his theory of a civilisation that was far more advanced, and much less primitive than was widely thought at the time. His party is always small, and the jungle vicious with men dying along the way.

Writer and director James Foley does not present a glamourous Amazonian adventure – you can feel the sweat, the heat, and and most of all, the insects. There are perils to be had everywhere, although while everyone else was suffering, Fawcett seems to have had a fairly charmed existence, never coming down with anything major.

The film details three of his expeditions, although in reality there were seven. But there is only so much that you can fit into a two hour film. Foley does take liberties with the story, Costin becoming a constant companion when in fact, different people travelled with Fawcett at different times.

For story purposes, it’s perhaps understandable that Raleigh Rimell, best friend of Fawcett’s son Jack, was excluded from the story, but I think it’s an omission too far. Only three of them went on that final expedition, and while the father/son relationship is one of the arcs of the film, it’s over-simplification, and Rimell should have been included.

There’s a great turn by Angus Macfadyen as James Murray – the “botanist.” He almost causes catastrophe when he refuses to do as Fawcett says, and becomes a serious drain on resources.

And the standout sequence, is that in which Fawcett’s party come under fire from the arrows of an Amazonian tribe, with Fawcett refusing to return fire with their guns – instead using an accordion as part of his peace process! This is all as he recorded it in his book.

While overall I thought the film told the story superbly, sometimes it felt to me that for filmic purposes exaggeration had to be made. The relationship of Fawcett with, in particular, his oldest son Jack never quite rang true to me in the film. And while his wife must have been long suffering, their relationship in the film just feels slightly off.

Perhaps the sequences I got on with the least were those back in London, where the members of the Royal Geographic Society were almost caricatures of a certain type of disbelieving Victorian gentleman. While Fawcett wasn’t altogether believed, he was well supported by the RGS over the years, and this was indeed a time of remarkable exploits. All their gruff behaviour just felt over-egged.

I said at the start, that my copy of Exploration Fawcett had an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. While he clearly admires Fawcett greatly, he does admonish him for being a teller of tall tales at times. For example, Fawcett relates killing an anaconda that was 60 feet in length, yet the largest anacondas regularly grow to around 17 feet, with the largest ever seen being 33 feet. That would make Fawcett’s twice as large again!

Fawcett also regularly regaled readers with tales he’d heard told by others, when in truth he couldn’t really verify them.

And Fawcett had some serious fantasies about Atlantis, as well as spiritualism, the latter indeed being popular at the time. No less a figure as Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a believer.

Gann’s book never addresses the idea that Fawcett may have exaggerated a little, and neither then, does Gray’s film. That shouldn’t undermine what Fawcett clearly did do, but sometimes the stories do need tempering.

The Lost City of Z was shot on film, and you can tell. The colour pallette of this film is not overly saturated, and while the Amazon is green, it doesn’t glow orange or “pop” in the way so many would grade their image to look. It’s a more washed out tone, that’s in keeping with the grime and dirt of an expedition.

It’s an absolutely fascinating tale, of someone I think relatively few really know about. There’s a through-line from Fawcett’s life, to the adventure novels of Conan Doyle and Haggard, which in turn lead to action heroes like Indiana Jones. We’re more familiar with Scott, Stanley, Livingstone and Shackleton. It’s definitely time for Fawcett’s moment in the spotlight. This is a film that’s really well worth seeing.

March Books

Oh dear. I’m really slacking now. Just three books this month which is very poor.

In my defence Amazon went and released series 2 of the very fine, but not enormously talked about, Bosch. And Netflix went and released a new series of House of Cards, before which I had to watch last season’s. Then there was the arrival of a new season of Daredevil. OK I’ve only watched a couple of episodes of that so far.

And lest anyone think I just watch shows on the streaming services, the finest dramas are probably to be found on the BBC right now. Happy Valley and The Night Manager have now concluded, and Line of Duty is getting fully into the flow in its third series!

But what about books?

The Shepherd’s Life is James Rebanks book on life as a shepherd in the Lake District, and it seems to have been a bit of a hit. You’ll find stacks of copies in your local bookshop, and it’s heavily discounted on Amazon.

Rebanks is a very entertaining writer, telling the tale, season by season, of what it’s like to work on a sheep farm in a valley on the edge of the lakes. Interspersed between those stories, is his life story – and those of so many of those around him. Early on you read of what it was like at school, where none of the kids who were children of farmers really wanted to be there. The idea that they might “better” themselves and get out of farming was an anathema, and anyone who suggested as much was treated with disdain.

In case you didn’t really think it, the life of a shepherd is a tough one, and you need a family to help get the work done. Reading the book I’m still not sure how farmers like Rebanks make ends meet. When you read that some farmers don’t even bother selling the wool from their sheep preferring to burn it, so low are the prices, that you wonder what kind of person is willing to forgo so much to continue a life that his forefathers led.

The book is also a bit of a meditation on the ways different people see the Lake District. As a child, Rebanks didn’t really understand the pull of Wainwright or Wordsworth. That was a different world to his – gathering sheep in from the high fells and tending to lambing sheep in the snow. But even spending a little time in the city reveals perhaps city dwellers’ needs for places like the lakes. Perhaps that’s why Countryfile or Springwatch do so well on TV?

As a companion piece to this book, you could do worse than watch the documentary Addicted to Sheep. It was recently shown on BBC4 but has now slipped out of the iPlayer catch-up window. But the film is still being screened in its full-length version at screenings around the country, notably in some rural locations. But it’s also available from the makers on DVD, and I’d imagine it’s possible that it’ll turn up on a download or streaming service at some point.

The documentary tells of the life of a pair of tenant farmers in the Pennines, detailing a very similar life looking after their flock. Even though I saw the shortened version of the film, the pace was lovely, and if you’d be very much mistaken if you think life is dull! The book and the film have very definite parallels. Well worth seeking out.

A Siege of Bitterns is the first in a new series of crime books featuring the Canadian Inspector Domenic Jejeune. Written by Steve Burrows, this series of novels seems to have so far only been published in Canada, despite being set in Britain.

Jejeune finds himself in a different rural location – the North Norfolk coast, an area well known to me! And this is crime novel set in the world of birds, birders and birdwatching. A TV scientist and environmentalist has been found dead near his home in the fictional Saltmarsh (Wells Next the Sea perhaps?) with Jejeune and his team having to find the murderer in this high profile case.

Things move along quickly enough and for anyone familiar with that part of the world, real places like Cley and Stiffkey also feature. While there are a couple of scenes that don’t hold-up to being authentic, it’s a fun romp, and I’ll be looking out for the next books in the series. Because we’re a little behind the Canadian publication, we seem to get three books from him this year, with A Pitying of Doves next up.

East Anglia also features a little in Rain, a short book about four walks taken by Melissa Harrison. She begins in Wicken Fen, somewhere I do know a little, in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, not far from the Norfolk border. It’s an area where the low-lying land has not been completely tamed, and where reeds allow a range of wildlife to prosper in a habitat that has largely disappeared.

She continues with walks in Shropshire, the Darwent Valley in Kent, and on Dartmoor, each time, as the title implies, in the wet. That’s important because so many of us (non-sheep farming urbanites anyway) only really get into the countryside when we know it’s going to be dry, and it’s a different place in the rain. The importance of it is reiterated throughout this slim volume, with too much or too little having long-lasting and (as we know) devastating effects.

February Books

My reading volume dropped a little in February, as will be noted below.

The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle is a lovely tale about a con-man and his latest – perhaps final – mark. The book alternates perspectives, but mostly this is about Roy – who when we meet him is on a date with Betty. We quickly realise that he is not a nice character. He seems scheming and we’re not sure what his goal is. Betty on the other hand seems very sensible – yet somehow she is nonetheless drawn to Roy.

Quickly we’re told that not all is as it seems. Betty is being helped by some friends, while with Roy, we get flashbacks further and further into his past. He’s clearly a chancer, and indeed a conman. Where is it all going to end?

The Good Liar is a fun page-turner always trying to twist and turn. I’d basically worked out where it was going before it got there, but it was a good read nonetheless.

The Night Manager by John Le Carré was a book I of course wanted to read ahead of the current BBC/AMC adaptation. I have read some, but by no means all of Le Carré’s work, and I remember my father getting this book as a gift one birthday or Christmas sometime after it came out. It tells the story of Jonathan Pine, the night manager of a Swiss hotel. When arms dealer Richard Roper arrives at his hotel, he recalls a time previously in Egypt where the same man had caused the death of Sophie, a woman he’d fallen in love with. Then he’d tried to report the arms deal to the British authorities, but this had led to the woman’s death. Now “The Worst Man in the World” was back in his life. What follows is an exemplary thriller as Pine is recruited by Leonard Burr, and an operation is launched against Roper – living a lavish lifestyle on a private island with his private yacht.

It’s interesting to see what has been maintained from book to screen, and what has been changed, updated (the novel was published in 1993) or expunged. Because even six hours of drama struggles with nearly 500 pages of story.

I loved the book, and need to catch up with Le Carré even though I fear he’s no longer writing novels. (He did publish a long piece about the transition of this book and his other work from page to screen.)

Wildwood by Roger Deakin is a book I’d long known about but never read. I actually came to it via an evening listening to extracts of radio and music at an In the Dark event with Ian Chambers. One of the excerpts was from The House, a Radio 4 documentary on his home, Walnut Tree Farm, in Suffolk. In an email conversation with Chambers afterwards, I ended up picking up this book to read, and it’s wonderful.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (to give it its full title) is an exploration of trees and woods. There are reminscinces from Deakin’s childhood where he’d taken an especially keen interest in the wildlife surrounding his school with some superb teachers. He talks about trees, woods, forests, those who work in them, and those who work with the wood itself. The first part of the book sees him travelling around the UK visiting various woods and forests – often sleeping out in them. The later part tells of his travels to sometimes quite remote parts of the world, for example exploring wild apple and walnut trees in Kazakhstan and Kurdistan.

Although this wonderful book is now nearly ten years’ old – it was published posthumously in 2007, Deakin having died in 2006 – it still seems very popular. Indeed there does seem to be a renaissance in nature and wildlife writing right now. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising when a fellow-commuter and I both found ourselves, one morning sitting facing one another and reading the same book!

Holloway by Dan Richards, Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Stanley Donwood is really paean to Roger Deakin. Some years earlier, Macfarlane had visited the south-west to find an ancient holloway – an enclosed usually wooded path, where years of use have carved out the ground – following in the footsteps of the protagonist in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. Although that book was fiction, the hidden holloway described was seemingly true, and is not marked on maps.

Following Deakins’ death, Mcafarlane and friends take another trip to the same area, and this very brief booklet is the outcome. It’s a lovely book to read following on from Wildwood.

InDesign Type by Nigel French is obviously a bit of a specialist title. Basically I needed something to help me with typography as I tried to lay out a photobook in InDesign – a program I’m not especially familiar with. While I wouldn’t pretend that this title is the best introduction ever to InDesign, it is fantastic at explaining the nuances of typography, fonts and text layout. On a handful of occasions now I’ve lain out type for photobooks, and it has always been that aspect of them that has disappointed me.

January Books

Every year in January, I note something in this blog about including more books, and then I don’t really write about them. Well I’m making the same promise again, but more broadly I want to round up what I’ve been reading at the end of each month. We’ll see how I get on. Links to all the books at the bottom.

I should admit that the list is perhaps a little longer than usual this month because I’ve chucked in a couple of books read over Christmas, and I’ve picked up a couple that I’d not finished from last year. Oh, and I’ve mentioned a couple already, but I’ll mention them again for completeness here.

438 Days by Jonathan Franklin is the story of Salvador Alvarenga, an El Salvadorean fisherman who managed to survive for over a year, adrift at sea in a tiny fishing boat. I remember vaguely reading the story when it was published around the world when he’d been found, and filed it away as a little unlikely. Then I read a long extract in The Guardian last autumn and was given the book at Christmas. It’s an astonishing story, and undoubtedly true. Franklin does a wonderful job of telling that story.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, is a slight book, but a powerful one. It tells the story of Andreas, a simple man born in the Austrian mountains for whom life really happens around him. It’s set during the 20th century and encompasses World War II and later the growing tourism boom in the Alps. It’s a small delight.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, was something that I of course read because of the BBC adaptation. I read it just ahead of the TV version, and actually the adaptation is very close. Of course the book itself has been altered since its original publication to remove racial epithets, but the story remains the incredible story. And if for some reason you don’t know who did it, then it’s worth reading.

Cyclogeography by Jon Day, I have already written about. But it’s a fine meditation what it is to be a cycle courier, and where cycling fits into our world.

What Goes Around by Emily Chappell, is the more rounded book on being a cycle courier. She explains in more depth what the world of courier is like, and just how tough it is. About now is when many of us aren’t on our bikes so much, yet the courier is still out there delivering. It’s also more of a memoir, and details Chappell’s life and relationships.

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers, is another golden age crime novel. I caught some repeats of the Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter TV version recently, and thought that it’d be interesting to pick up a copy of the novel since I’ve never read Sayers. It’s smarter and sharper than I’d realised and I think she’s probably a better writer than Christie. I’ll read some.

Slade House by David Mitchell, was something I originally picked up towards the end of last year. Mitchell largely writes chunky volumes, but this is a ghost story of sorts and is meant to be read at a perhaps quicker pace. Slade House has a mystery, and every few years strange things happen. A well-told tale.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot came to my attention via a review by Will Self in The Guardian, and I wasn’t sure if I was interested in reading a book about additction. Liptrot had left her home in the Orkney Islands to live in London, but there she developed alcoholism and her life began to fall apart. She managed to climb out of her downward spiral, returning to the Orkneys and eventually an especially remote island. This is her memoir on that addiction and her life afterwards. It’s very well told, and I was glad that listening to Liptrot on The Guardian’s book podcast won me around to reading it.

What Goes Around and Cyclogeography

Cycle Revolutions - Design Museum-37

I’ve spent the better part of my working life in the West End of London. That means lots of tourists, black cabs (you can’t really identify an Uber), buses and a general melange of people going about their very different businesses.

As a cyclist, you can’t help also noting the cycle couriers. When I was based in Golden Square, if you didn’t spot them whizzing around Soho, you’d see them gathered together by the pump in Broadwick Street – the same pump that John Snow identified as being the cause of a cholera epidemic in 1854.

While I loved the idea of cycle couriers – on their bikes all day every day – I never quite thought of it as a glamorous profession. They certainly seemed to keep themselves to themselves, and they largely rode quite cool bikes, at least until recently when I’ve seen more functional machines with large boxes attached, or long cargo bikes. But the muck and the grime of London’s streets never made me want to drop it all and be one of them.

Yet others do seem to find some kind of glamour in what cycle couriers do. They seem to feature in newspaper and magazine articles far more than other relatively mundane jobs. We’ve seen fictional depictions on screen such as Michael Smiley’s “Tyres” in the amazing sitcom Spaced, or more recently Jospeh Gordon-Levitt’s faintly ludicrous messenger in the film Premium Rush.

And then there are the fakengers – cyclists who dress up to look a lot like cycle couriers, riding the same sort of single speed bikes, dressing the same way, and having a courier’s bag slung over their shoulder even though for the commute, a rucksack might make more sense.

And all of sudden (well over a few months really), there’s suddenly been a glut of books on cycle couriers.

I learnt about Cyclegeography courtesy of The Guardian’s end of year Reader Recommendations.

A slight digression. I absolutely love The Guardian’s Review supplement on Saturday. It’s essentially the most serious supplement published by any of our broadsheet newspapers, primarily printing a substantial number of book reviews, but also with essays about other elements of the arts. It’s unmissable and gets put aside immediately I pick up the Saturday paper – saving the best until last. There are two terrific features that they publish annually that are far more interesting than the usual ” what famous people are getting and giving these books for Christmas.” These recommendations are mercilessly mocked in Private Eye’s “Log-rolling” column where we learn about how the lists are actually chums recommending theirother chums’ books.

The two far better “Best ofs…” are:

Publishers’ Winners and Losers – in particular those books identified by their publishers that deserved to do better, since they are often books that are really good but somehow slipped through the net, not gaining reviews or traction amongst buyers. There are always a few gems in there.

and;

Readers’ Books of the Year – Now in some sense, this shouldn’t work. I’ve no idea why I should trust the judgement of a random member of the public. But because they can only say a few words about the book, I can often be sold in the few lines they have available. The list can be more diverse than the usual suspects you see elsewhere.

So when I saw two people recommend Cyclogeography, I knew I had to give it a go. It’s a very slim volume by Jon Day, a former cycle courier and now writer and academic. This is very much a meditation on cycle couriers and cycling in general.

It’s less about the nitty gritty of what’s involved, as to what cycling means to Day and what it has meant to others. He goes off on long digressions, examining cycling as a way of exploring our landscape, and even as an artform.

We also get sections on road racing and other cycling endeavours. He goes out and talks to writers like Iain Sinclair, and tries to place cycling in that world.

It’s a fine book, although in truth, “essay” is probably a better description and well worth a read.

From there I went to What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story by Emily Chappell. Chappell has been a courier for more than five years off and on – in an industry where the people come and go quite quickly, that places her as a long standing member of the courier community – although there are figures who’ve done the job for ten, twenty or even thirty years, that she mentions.

She tells a very personal story of her life as a courier. The majority of couriers are male, and they can be an insular lot. Chappell at first mistakes that for them shutting her out – perhaps because many prospective couriers quit fairly early on when they discover what’s entailed and the lack of glamour. But in reality it seems that it’s something of a loner’s occupation – if you’re busy, you’re on your own, with most of your daily interactions being over the radio with your control, and a variety of receptionists and security guards as you go about collecting and dropping off packages.

The industry is ever-changing, and it always seems to have been “better” in years gone by. Certainly with more documentation sent online, there would seem to be less need for physical items to be rush delivered around the city. Yet some legal documents have to be paper, and it can still be quicker sending a hard drive with terabytes of data, rather than trying to send it directly, even with highspeed dedicated lines.

Chappell’s books is subtitled A London Cycle Courier’s Story because it is. She talks a lot about her personal life and her relationships. There is some crossover between them when a girlfriend becomes a courier herself.

But there is also the sexism, the camaraderie, the danger, the poor pay, the culture and the people. It’s a fascinating world, and I enjoyed this book immensely.

My experience of riding my bike in London is largely based on me flying around on my Brompton, using it as part of my commute for the last five years or so, interspersed with some less speedy Boris-bike rides. But then I’ve ridden bikes my whole life. Because I was based in Golden Square for so much of that time, and I didn’t solely spend just going from A to B, I too have learnt some of the vagaries of Soho’s one-way system. So it’s entertaining to read Chappell’s routes around the area: Wardour; Broadwick; Lexington; Beak; Upper James; Brewer; and Wardour again.

Throughout the book street names and flung around and I know many of the streets. It’s nice to recognise them, or think about dropping into that nice sounding Indian restaurant on Warren Street. But I’ve never been to Fullcity Cyles where couriers tended to hang out, although I did go to The Foundry once or twice when it was open, unaware that it was then a couriers’ haunt.

Do I recall seeing Chappell riding around town? Yes – I think I do. As I say, female couriers are a rare enough breed that you would notice. On the other hand, I didn’t spend much of my time lusting after their often deliberately beaten up looking single speeds. Towards the end of the book Chappell notes that if you’re actively looking for someone in the centre of town, then actually they’re hard to miss. She relates a couple of stories of incidents with other drivers who she never really expected to see again, yet she bumped into again within hours or a day or two.

This is a really well written book, and a fascinating read. I came away knowing a great deal more about couriers lives and experiences. But I didn’t feel that I missed a calling being a courier. Loving to ride my bike is something different though! Thoroughly recommended.

(Incidentally, I see from Robert Penn’s review of this book that there’s a third book on being a courier out now – Messengers by Julian Sayarer. I must admit, tempted though I am, I need to read something a bit different before I return to couriers right now.)

Addendum: The Guardian has featured Emily Chappell in their Books Podcast this week, so that’s worth a listen. But can we please have a moratorium on using Queen’s Bicycle Race in all audio and video productions to do with cycling please? It’s the equivalent of using Abba’s Money Money Money for any financial feature. You just don’t do it because it’s so hackneyed.

Bookazines

Boris Johnson - Cripes!

I’m slightly obsessed by bookazines.

But first, let me apologise for using that word (also known, equally unattractively, as magbooks). It’s clearly made up by the publishing industry, and so perhaps I need to explain it first. It’s obviously a contraction of two words.

Books need no real explanation. They get published; they sit on bookshelves and hopefully sell; sometimes they’re available permanently; other times they eventually get returned (“sale or return”) to the publisher and are pulped.

Then there magazines. These also need no explanation. They come out perhaps weekly or monthly. They have a literal shelf life at a newsagent. And unsold copies get returned to the publisher (and pulped) when the new issue comes out to replace it on the shelf.

Bookazines somehow sit between these two things, and if you’ve been to the unholy mess that is W H Smith recently, you’ll know what I mean. They occupy shelving in roughly the same place as magazines, but their editorial’s lifespan is less “freshly squeezed” and more “made from concentrate.”

Titles often cover technical subjects such as issues around computing or perhaps using your new camera. A company called Imagine Publishing seems to specialise in these a great deal, with several feet of shelf-space occupied by their output.

Then there are rushed out jobs, when, for example, there’s a royal baby!

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Note three bookazines rushed to print with essentially the same photo taken when Kate came out of the hospital. The presses were probably rolling a few hours later.

For some publishers it’s a handy way to “re-purpose content” and essentially republish features that have appeared in old magazines, bundling them up into something “new.” Cycling magazines seem to do this – perhaps gathering together routes from a couple of year’s worth of magazines and publishing them in a single handy package.

And then there are the packages that come with DVDs – usually obtained at low or no-cost (in the case of out of copyright material). So lots of WWII, Ancient Rome, Laurel and Hardy, Volcanoes. You name it.

The extended half-life of the average bookazine means that the shelves can be a bit stale. While many of them should clearly be printed on slightly better paper and reissued as actual, well, books, someone has worked out that people perhaps are more likely to see them in an ever-changing magazine environment rather than the more static non-fiction shelves of the book section.

This also papers over some of the cracks in the magazine publishing business, which in some sectors is in real decline as readers move to online sources and away from the printed page. These titles fill some of those gaps on the magazine shelves left from titles that have closed.

My real obsession has been ignited recently by a couple of titles that are getting a bit of promotion in W H Smiths – I assume because the publisher has paid for shelf hangers (or whatever the correct terminology in this sector is).

The election over, and Labour is busy picking a new leader, but somebody somewhere has decided that this should be Boris Johnson’s moment in the sun as he took his place in Parliament as an MP (while also being Mayor of London, something he said he wouldn’t do). And they published “Boris Johnson: Cripes!”

As you can see from the picture at the top it is somehow a “Special Edition.” Of what, isn’t clear, although that may well be a sobriquet that W H Smiths has given it. But it has been placed squarely among the political and current affairs magazines. Indeed it’s foremost of them all.

You do get the feeling that these titles are aimed at, well, a Daily Mail audience. Slightly right leaning, who do their shopping in Smiths, and don’t mind spending a few quid on an otherwise unheard of “magazine.”

But who else would fit the bill? Who else has been in the news a little and would make a good subject?

Jeremy Clarkson - Driven

Jeremy Clarkson: Driven! “A controversial life in the fast lane,” says the sign.

It’s obvious now isn’t it? And there it is, sitting proudly ahead of the other car magazines in my local Smiths. Kicked off Top Gear; friend of the Camerons and the Chipping Norton Set! He’s ripe for the bookazine treatment. Except whisper it, but this magazine is copyrighted 2014 suggesting his recent Top Gear “fracas” hasn’t made it in (I didn’t either purchase or read through to check).

Both the Boris and Jezza titles come from an imprint called Endeavour Press, who seem to specialise in ebook publishing, and they’re both written by a chap called Nigel Cawthorne. I’m not familiar with the man, so I did a little searching to see what I could find out. I was mostly interested to see if he’d been turning out any more of these. But I found something even better!

Simply put, this man is a pure writing machine.

Based on ebooks available in the Kindle store on Amazon, he’s already had the following titles published in 2015 to date:

Blond Ambition: The Rise and Rise of Boris Johnson
David Cameron: A Class Act
Jack the Ripper’s Secret Confession: The Hidden Testimony of Britain’s First Serial Killer (he’s a co-writer on this one)
Alexander the Great
Roger Courtney: By Strength and Guile – The Story Of The Founder Of The SBS
Julius Caesar
Alan Johnson: Left Standing
Jeremy Clarkson: Motormouth (Updated To Include His Sacking By The BBC)
Prince Philip: I Know I am Rude, But I Like It: The Royals and the Rest of Us as Seen By Prince Philip

(And those three political biographies are also available in an omnibus!)

In 2014 there were:

A Bit of Stephen Fry
The Magical Mythtery Tour
The Alien Who Thought He Was Elvis
Ian Fleming: Licence to Kill
Alan Turing: The Enigma Man
Harry: A Prince Among Men
Bodies in the Back Garden – True Stories of Brutal Murders Close to Home
Tesla: The Life and Times of an Electric Messiah
A Brief Guide To Agatha Christie
Flight MH370 – The Mystery
The King Of The Crime Writers: The Biography of John Creasey
The Empress of South America
The Sex Lives of Hollywood idols
The Sex Lives of Famous Gays
The Sex Lives of Famous Lesbians
The Sex Lives of US Presidents
The Sex Lives of Popes
Che Guevara: The Last Conquistador

I didn’t look any further back.

Honestly, he puts Ed Reardon to shame with his sheer volume. And what a range of interests – particularly sex lives!

I would suggest that the two bookazines I’ve spotted published by him are “repurposed” versions of his biographies of Johnson and Clarkson, pacakged together with agency photos. He’s obviously recently updated his Clarkson book online, but as I say, it’s not clear that this is the version you can find in Smiths.

Now I have to confess that I’ve not bought or read either of these titles, or any of Cawthorne’s book, so they may be masterpieces. Or they may not be.

The quickie unauthorised biography has been around for years, with some publishers making a living rushing titles to bookshelves when someone either dies unusually young (e.g. Michael Jackson) or does something extraordinary in the public’s eye. To a large extent that business has moved online, where anyone can get an Amazon listing for their ebook in no time at all. I’m sure up and down the country, a few “biographers” are updating their old Chris Evans biographies with a few new chapters to ride the wave of Top Gear news.

Part of me wants to applaud the entrepreneurial spirit of the individual who came up with this idea and has implemented their plan so successfully. Another part of me wonders who on earth is buying and reading them?

What I Watched, Listened To and Read Over Christmas

You may or may not have enjoyed my Radio Times suggestions. I didn’t always follow them myself. But in the spirit of honesty, this is what I did watch over Christmas:

The final two episodes of Cabin Pressure were recorded back in February, but only reached the airwaves over Christmas with the story being essentially wrapped up. You did know that Benedict Cumberbatch was in a Radio 4 sitcom didn’t you?

Top Gear’s Christmas special is always a guilty pleasure. Despite now seeing the artifice of it, with the by-the-numbers nature of things, it still manages to entertain.

Better though was James May’s Toy Stories with Action Man. This time around it was a little more forced because as May rightly said at the start of the programme, there was very little that Action Man really did. He was most fun for me as a child, when paired with his armoured car (a much treasured present). This could spin him around at quite a speed. I once went to a toyshop in Barnet to get “Action Man’s” autograph…

It is with heavy heart that I have to admit the the first of the Miranda two-parter was quite the worst episode I’ve seen in this series. It improved in the second part on New Year’s Day, although it was a close run thing whether I’d even bother watching, so cringe-worthy was the first part. Wrap-up episodes are always dangerous, particularly when the series has been pretty free-wheeling up until then.

Another sitcom that did the same trick a little better was Not Going Out. I don’t know if another series has been commissioned, but they’ve certainly gone as far as they can with the story so far. This got a super-sized single episode rather than a two-parter. But it was also a bit baggy and could have been chopped down. Like Miranda, there were flashbacks, and a few guests reappeared – not least Tim Vine, who left a couple of series ago. My Sky+ also recorded at outtakes special which had the most awkward pieces to camera you can imagine linking bloopers. Save this for a DVD extra.

Charlie Brooker had two excellent programmes over the festive period. Black Mirror was actually a bit before Christmas, but I’ll mention it because it was a very joined up piece of work linking a portmanteau of stories together. And 2014 Wipe was a funny, scathing and smart as you’d want. With the seeming cancellation of 10 O’Clock Live, we don’t get as much Brooker as we used to. But there are more Wipes on the way.

Sky One brought us the first in what they undoubtedly hope will be an ongoing series based on the novels of M C Beaton (aka Marion Chesney) – Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death. This prolific writer (and she really is prolific) also brought us Hamish Macbeth, the TV adaptation of which I loved. Incidentally, did you know that Hamish Macbeth novels are still being published? Anyway, I was aware of the book series despite not having read any of them, so I gave this a go. I would characterise it as a more light-hearted Midsomer Murders. That’s not a series I’ve had any great truck with, and sadly I’m not sure I’ll be watching any more of these. I’m also not quite sure that this is right for Sky One. It’d sit perfectly on ITV, but it feels wrong up alongside endless Simpsons repeats and American imports. I still feel that Sky needs to work harder to define its channels better.

BBC Four seems to have created a new format with Al Murray’s Great British… Spy Movies. Previously we had War Films, and like that, this was filmed in some lovely London cinema with Matthew Sweet drowning in an armchair, and a couple of other guests. It’s simple, and they show lots of clips – the obvious ones, and the much less obvious ones. In any case, I could watch clips of Monica Vitti in Modesty Blaise as much as you like.

Seemingly one of Waterstones’ bestsellers over Christmas was Mystery in White by a certain J Jefferson Farjeon. I suspect that like many Waterstones customers, I picked this up because of the cover. It shows a train stuck in a snow drift, with the passengers heading away for Christmas. The book is part of selection of old British crime novels published by the British Library. These aren’t the classics that you already know about, and that are still in print, but less well-known titles that were big in their day. In this instance, our plucky characters set out away from the train to a country house they find in the blizzard. It’s totally deserted, yet the fire has been made and the kettle is on… All good fun, and not quite what you’re expecting.

Each year The Guardian’s superb Review section gives publishers a chance to highlight their favourite titles – those they brought out, and those that others had. These tend to be more obvious fare. But the most revealing question they’re asked is about books they believe deserved to have done better. These are often titles that they loved, but maybe didn’t even get any broadsheet reviews. I always make a note of some of these. Andrew Franklin of Profile Books highlighted Andrew Martin’s Belles and Whistles: Five Journeys Through Time On Britain’s Trains. But I’d already added that to my Christmas list! Although it concentrates on five specific lines/routes, it’s also a potted history of British railways. Martin is always good value, as readers of his Jim Stringer books will know. His is a personal view, and makes clear his view on lots of rail-related things.

Off the back of Martin’s book, I bought the DVD of The Flying Scotsman, a very early British talkie from 1930 (as opposed to the Graham Obree story with Jonny Lee Miller). Indeed, it’s so early that the first half of the film is actually silent with the usual intertitles. It seems that the recording kit must have only arrived deep into production. Now I wouldn’t say that this is a great unknown British film, but it’s fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, much of it was filmed on my local railway line, the “Hertford loop”, where the borrowed the real train and shot the film on Sundays. Secondly, it stars a very young Ray Milland before he headed off to America. And third, the stuntwork is amazing. Basically Pauline Johnson really is climbing along the outside of a train in unbelievably inappropriate footwear. Unlike so many other productions, it’s really obvious that they filmed most of it in real trains rather than in the studio, and for that reason alone it’s breathtaking.

Just before Christmas I listened to the always excellent Bike Show podcast, featuring an end of year round-up of cycling books published this year. I’d read a couple of them, and a couple more were immediately added to my very long “must-read” list. But over Christmas, I read Ned Boulting’s entertaining 101 Damnations: Dispatches from the 101st Tour de France. Basically it’s the other bits of the Tour you didn’t already see on the very extensive TV coverage, alongside little bits of history that you may or may not know.

The Doctor Who Christmas special was very clever, and I enjoyed it a lot. That said, I think Steven Moffat has just about mined all our childhood fears completely at this stage, and we need to look elsewhere. Still – spoiler alert – we get more Clara which is a good thing.

Many radio programmes end up with year-end “best of” episodes that sometimes feel a bit lazy. More interestingly, Steve Hewlett’s Media Show tends to take a subject and have a round table discussion, with a little sprinkling of stardust. This time around, it was about chat shows, with Graham Norton among the guests. It’s a very good format, and it’s shame that they only think it’s something to wheel out at Christmas. I’d say doing four or five a year might refresh things a little.

I’ve never truly been able to understand Pier Paolo Passolini. He made some interesting films, but I’ve never been really taken with them. The stylising just never works for me, with seeming amateurs gurning at the camera. And I think it might have been his version of The Decameron that has always made me dismiss it. So Terry Jones’ Radio 3 versions – Decameron Nights: Ten Italian Delicacies Remixed from Boccacchio – was a breath of fresh air. Bawdy? Yes. Raunch? Certainly. Funny? Definitely. Some of these tales are familiar, others less so. And somehow they work so much better on the radio than on television.

Having re-watched both Interstellar and 2001 A Space Odyssey on the big screen before Christmas, I have just caught up with the excellent Second Run DVD of Ikarie XB-1, the 1963 Czech science fiction film. Set on a spaceship heading to Alpah Centauri, the film addresses issues related to time-dilation (as Interstellar did), as well as how a crew might cope over that period of time. It seems clear that Stanley Kubrick must have seen this film because elements are definitely borrowed by him. Certainly the effects aren’t great, but the ideas are fascinating. And the score by Zdeněk Liška is wonderful, and sadly unavailable. There’s a lovely scene where we get an imagined future disco, in which the dancing is more regency than anything. Truly worth seeking out. (As an aside, listening to Graham Norton on Radio 2, I learn that the Queen song 39, also addresses this idea).

Despite finding the woman fascinating, I couldn’t stick with Darcey Bussell’s Looking for Audrey Hepburn. I like Bussell, and I love her subject, but I’m a little fed up of presenters getting fancy cars to drive around Rome in (which we know are surrounded by crew SUVs). I’m not sure what that adds to things. And while Hepburn’s upbringing in Holland during the war was appalling, she wasn’t alone in that country suffering like that. In the end, she probably had it better than many others. That said, I will be happily going along to see the photo exhibition that the National Portrait Gallery is going to be holding later this year. Even today, the announcement of that allowed newspapers the opportunity to print her picture on the front page.

New Year is something I largely opt out. But I do enjoy two stalwarts. One is the obvious New Year’s Day Concert shown on BBC Two (and BBC Four) and also broadcast on Radio 3. The Blue Danube and Radetzky March are always highlights. The other is Le Grand Cabaret Du Monde with Patrick Sebastien from France 2, shown in the UK on TV5. I can’t remember quite how I stumbled across this show, but the 2015 broadcast marks its 31st year. Sebastien seems to be a French, well, I’d say think a younger Bruce Forsyth, but that wouldn’t be quite right. He opens the show surrounded by topless go-go dancers, which apparently is fine at 9pm in France. But the rest of the show is a cavalcade of magic, acrobatics, dance troupes and so on. It is truly international, and for the most part the performances are without dialogue, so don’t worry if your French isn’t up to much. In between acts it’s a bit of a chat show with a stream of French stars plugging their latest wares. And occasionally there will be repeats of performances from previous years (these are seamlessly added by virtue of the set remaining constant over the years). At midnight Sebastien leads the acts and the audience in a big song using the music of the Can-Can. Everyone in the studio kisses one another in that French way, and we then get a load more acts. Incidentally, the programme’s big spectacle might be New Year’s Eve, but it’s a Saturday night staple in France throughout the year. An entertaining alternative to the Hootenannay with the bonus that they celebrate New Year at 11pm.

One thing sadly missing was the programme last year called Moments in Time. The BBC for a number of years produced this news review programme that looked back on the year via some iconic photo journalism – not something you usually get a great deal of on television. We’d get the stories behind the stories and it was a wonderful programme. Then it disappeared until last year it reappeared as mentioned, using the fact that many of these images are now captured by non-professionals who just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Sadly, this year’s schedules reveal no 2014 edition. A pity.

Things still awaiting me on my Sky+: Professor Branestawm, the original Wallanders, and Mapp and Lucia. And I do want to hear all ten hours of Radio 4’s War and Peace. Just probably not in a single day.

Douglas Adams

12 May 2001 was a big day for me. It was the FA Cup Final, with Arsenal playing Liverpool in Cardiff. And it was also a good friend’s wedding in London. The match didn’t go so well for an Arsenal fan like me (forced to sneak off during the reception to watch the match on a 3″ Casio TV), but the wedding was excellent, and celebrating it ran long into the night.

Sometime around 5.00am, with plans to head home, and possibly having imbibed a little, I found myself in the lobby of the Charlotte Street Hotel (this was a very nice wedding), where they had complimentary copies of the Sunday Times. I picked one up and was completely knocked off my feet to read on their front page that Douglas Adams had died.

This was a massive body blow to me. I couldn’t stop thinking it about it all the way home, and for many days afterwards. When someone notable or famous that I’ve admired usually dies, I tend to feel glad that we have their work to look back at. Perhaps I’ll read a book, or watch a film of theirs. (It is true that I was similarly knocked for six by Iain Banks’ death too).

I loved Douglas Adams’ books, his writing in general, his computer games – I had Starship Titanic, even if I never finished it, and just the man in general. He seemed like someone to aspire to be, even if it felt like a long time between his books. He loved technology (Why can’t I find Adams’ interview on The Kit anywhere online?)

At an event earlier this week in Foyles, discussing Adams and his life, the panel asked the room how they first came across The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like many in the room, I can’t quite remember. I may have caught an episode or two on the radio, but those would have been repeats and on the radio in the kitchen that was solidly tuned to Radio 4. It’s also possible that I’d read the first book. Anything that suggested Science Fiction in a bookshop or library tended to get my vote, and I’d read it.

But I know for certain that I watched the 1981 TV series. What I remember, now I think about it, was that in 1981 I was in my final year of primary school, and one of the end of year traditions was that there was a fancy dress parade.

Age 11, I went as Arthur Dent. For one thing, it was easy – I already owned the pyjamas and a dressing gown which formed the major part of my outfit. The more complicated bit was making a copy of “The Book”.

I’d been given a Texas Instruments calculator by my uncle at Christmas. It was one of those models that had a red LED display. I’d taken it apart on several occasions to see how it worked.

As a result, it no longer worked.

But with use of a tissue box, paint, and the remnants of a non-working calculator, I now had an excellent “book” to go with my costume. I forget whether I took a towel.

What I do know is that few, if any, of my classmates or teachers knew who Arthur Dent was, and someone who’s mum had obviously worked very hard, won the prize for going as Bertie Bassett, of Liquorice Allsort fame. I felt robbed as I’d “made” my own costume and not relied on my mum.

On Tuesday’s panel were Jem Roberts who has a new authorised biography of Adams out, The Frood, and author Marie Philips who has recently had the very excellent The Table of Less Valued Knights published – a somewhat different take on Camelot – and has a blog about Adams on the Foyles website.

There was also a chap from Foyles, who’s name I missed [Update – thanks Marie] Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles, chairing the event. Given his viciously hard Hitchhiker’s themed quiz – the lack of a follow-up email suggests that I got fewer marks than the guys in the front row wearing “Don’t Panic” T-shirts – and his line of questioning, he is clearly an Adam’s aficionado.

The event started promptly at 6.42pm, and the talk was of Adams as a writer, his influences, his lackadaisical attitude to work, his failure to write female characters (“Write a character, then make them a woman,” said Marie), his agnosticism, his love of technology, and whether he’d have been good on Twitter. On the latter, the feeling of the panel was “probably”, but there was also a fear that we’d have never had another work from him again. Sadly, we’ll never know.

The panel got a little sidetracked on the film version, and all the things that were wrong with. Marie especially hated it. I’ve just re-read my “review” from 2005, and see that I was relatively kind, if not exactly bowled over. I think the fact that they gave me a towel at the screening I attended may have swayed my opinion. I still have the towel. That said, I’ve only ever seen the film that one time. I’ve never felt the need to revisit it when it’s on TV. But I think I’ve taken a more benevolent view of remakes as I’ve got older, if only because the well of original thought seems to keep drying up, and more and more classics are being remade. So yes, it may be true that someone discovers, or is put off from discovering, a fantastic book from a poor film version, but then the first version of Hamlet you see might be poor. Should that detract from Shakespeare’s play? And I can just avoid something if I like. I know that there is a monstrous Nic Cage version of The Wicker Man in existence. But I’ve never seen it, and my memories are not spoiled by that knowledge. I just have to be a little careful flicking around late night TV when looking for something to watch. See also The Ladykillers (love the Coens, but sorry), Edge of Darkness, State of Play, etc.

The new Foyles is rather magnificent incidentally. They’ve moved into premises vacated by Central St Martins when they moved out to their new King’s Cross home. Although I do somehow miss having to go to three tills to make a book purchase. I remember first going to their Charing Cross Road bookshop with a friend and his mother. I’d chosen a book, and the process was then:

– Queue at a teller who would take the book from you and hand you a chit with the price on it.
– Queue at a cashier and pay the value of the chit and get your receipt.
– Queue back at the first teller with your validated receipt and collect your book.

Also, fiction titles were organised by publisher rather than just author, and we all know who publishes what title don’t we? On the other hand, you could find some seriously obscure books and books that wouldn’t be available anywhere else in a pre-internet age.

Once Charing Cross Road was the home of bookshops in London. Sadly the way things are going, Foyles is going to be just about the only bookshop left on the street.

But back to Tuesday night.

It’s traditional at these things that afterwards the writers on stage will sign copies of their books. I already had a copy of Marie’s latest book which I’d read and brought along, but I picked up a copy of Jem’s book and went over to the table to get them signed.

Now here’s the thing, I can never think of anything particularly sensible to say to an author in that situation. Call it social ineptness. I want to make some kind of small-talk. It always feels like everyone else at these events is already a best buddy: Friends coming along because the author is in town; bookshop staff keeping their author happy topping up the wine and rushing to get fresh nibbles. But as I wait in the queue thinking of something sage and witty to say, it can get a little garbled in my head. A few instances:

– Years ago at a signing with John Simpson, I’d just got a job in the marketing department of a small local newspaper. When I said I told him I was interested in journalism and this was the new job I had, he looked at me with a little pity as if to say, “Then why are you working in marketing?”

– At an Iain Banks signing, I was so in awe of the man, it was just, “Make it out to Adam – the usual spelling.” Fortunately Margaret Atwood hadn’t yet published “MaddAddam” – the only way I can think you could misspell my name.

– At a Neil Gaiman signing, the queue was so long behind me that I was scared to engage in any kind of conversation in case he was still signing in the venue post-midnight.

– At a Dave Gorman book-signing, I didn’t mention that we had a mutual friend, and had met in the pub at least twice. That made it all the more awkward the next time we met in the pub with our mutual friend, when he remembered me being (silent) at his last book signing. I picked up Dave’s new book on the way out of Foyles incidentally.

– At a recent very popular signing by Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch, she first of all asked, “Would you like a date?” Huh? Ah. She actually had a plate of dates. I politely declined. Then I explained that my father was a massive fan (he is) and that’s why I wanted one book made out to him. It still made me sound like I was just a bit “meh” over her books though. I’m not.

Anyway, this is all by way of a bit of an apology to Marie, of who’s new book I said I’d “quite liked” – which sounds simply awful. Actually, I greatly enjoyed it, and laughed out loud. To compund things, I then brusquely told her that she had to “Listen to the CDs,” having told us earlier that her experience of Hitchhiker’s had mostly been the books (and the film). Sorry about that. The CDs (or downloads) are worth getting though!

Branson: Behind the Mask

Tom Bower is that rare thing – a writer who takes no prisoners. He goes where others fear to tread – or at least UK libel laws force others to fear to tread. His previous subjects have included Robert Maxwell, Bernie Ecclestone, Mohammed Al-Fayed and a previous book on Richard Branson.

I’ve not read the first Branson book, but following a piece by Roy Greenslade at Media Guardian, I decided that I did want to read this follow up.

Bower’s books have a breezy manner and he dives straight into his subject. This isn’t a biography so much as a detailed look at businesses that Branson has been involved in over the last ten years or so. It’s safe to say that he’s not especially impressed with Branson’s credentials.

The over-arching story throughout the book is that of Virgin Galactic – one of several efforts to send privately funded vehicles into space. The books begins with an accident that took place in the Mojave desert in 2007 that killed three people and injured another three. Bower takes apart some of the publicity and public pronouncements that have been repeatedly made about the project.

This is not a comfortable read if you’re a fan of Richard Branson, and the same themes appear over and over in every business he takes an interest in – he’s the underdog fighting for consumers, but in fact he’s no better than anyone else. His fights change to fit his own needs. Is he taking a green approach to his businesses? Or is he opening new air-routes that compete with more environmentally friendly train travel?

Part of his failings seem to be naivety, and lack of attention to detail particularly in technical areas that he doesn’t properly understand. That becomes a liability when it comes to building spacecraft or putting together an F1 team.

Overall, Bower paints a picture of a man who’s not worth as much as is often portrayed. His businesses are largely not owned to any extent by him any longer – Virgin perhaps collecting a small licencing fee.

I don’t always buy everything that Bower says though. He doesn’t have much belief in the idea of peak oil for example – the point at which oil production will decline. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on this either, and I know that there are a lot of factors in play including technological developments and accurate reporting of what resources remain. But what is clear is that fossil fuels extracted from the earth will run out. And in any case, the impact is already being felt. That’s not to say that Branson hasn’t been foolish in some of the things that he’s said about renewable energy and the pointless “tests” involving different kinds of fuel that he regularly brags about.

And Bower isn’t afraid to point out when Branson has had genuine successes – although he often puts then down to luck rather than any business nous.

Nonetheless, some of what Bower says about Branson is very familiar. A couple of stories from my time at Virgin Radio illustrate this.

When I joined in late 1996, we had a staff meeting a few weeks later in early December, and Richard Branson showed up. In case I was under the apprehension that he popped in all the time, it was pointed out to me that this was a fairly rare occurrence (he would only ever show up in Golden Square one further time while I was there, when he was being accompanied by a feature writer from an American magazine who was doing a big piece).

Staff meetings in those days had a bit in them called “Dumb, Dirty and Dangerous.” The idea was that staff members could anonymously ask the executive team questions which would be answered in front of all staff. “Dumb” questions were things to which you probably should know the answer but were too scared to ask someone. “Dirty” questions seemed to be quite bitchy questions along the lines of, “What does the XXX department actually do?” And “Dangerous”? Well that could be anything at all.

Anyway, somebody asked the question, “Will there be a Christmas bonus this year?” Our Finance Director stepped forward and said, no, there wouldn’t be one. I think he gave some reasons why. And that was that.

All the time, Richard Branson was watching proceedings. We went through other elements of the staff meeting until finally at the end, Branson stepped forward to say a few words in a slight mumbled, wearing a trademark jumper. However, he ended by saying that in fact, yes, we would all be getting a Christmas bonus!

Obviously that left staff very happy, although my boss pulled me aside later to explain that as I’d only been there a couple of weeks, I’d be getting less. But the whole incident left our Finance Director seething. Not only did he have to find the money from somewhere, but his authority had been completely undercut by Branson. It was the Virgin Radio business – only partly owned by Branson that would have to pay the cash. But staff would thank Branson himself.

During those years at Virgin Radio, we’d get annual Christmas presents from Richard Branson himself. These tended to be related to whichever new business he was getting into. One year, Branson had just published his first book – Losing My Virginity. And every member of staff across all the Virgin businesses was given a hardback copy of it for Christmas. A Private Eye article a few weeks later suggested that the Charing Cross Branch of Books Etc had ended up having many more copies of the book “returned” than they’d sold, with nearby Virgin employees cashing in their books for the retail value of them!

Another year, we were given a Virgin Vie fragrance. And the year that he launched Virgin Mobile, everyone got a free phone with a bit of credit on it. Indeed, I dutifully passed on my phone to my parents who still use that number to this day.

As far as I, and other members of staff were concerned, this was a nice touch from Branson himself, as were his summer parties in his Oxfordshire home where staff members were bussed to a big free funfair in his grounds. Branson stood at the gate and shook hands welcoming everybody as they came in.

Only later did I learn how those “free” gifts were funded. Each year Virgin Group would tell the businesses what the gift that year was, and they would then charge the Virgin business for the “gifts”. In other words, the year that we all got a free mobile phone, the business was being charged £100 or so per member of staff for a phone. And they had no choice. They had to “buy” the “gifts” to give to staff.

In essence, we all thought that these gifts were coming from a benevolent Branson, while in fact, it was the individual businesses that were spending the money, but not getting the recognition from staff members for giving their employees a sometimes quite pricey gift.

These are perhaps both small stories, but they explain how even to staff members, Branson came across as being a better guy than maybe he was.

Anyway, if you want to get a truer picture of the Virgin business, then this book is certainly worth reading.

Blockbusters and Sleepless In Hollywood

If it feels to you, as it does to me, that there are an ever greater number of superhero and other franchise films clogging up cinemas, then you’d be right.

And these two books explain pretty well between them what’s happening in Hollywood and beyond. Indeed, it’s the “beyond” that is really driving this.

Blockbusters actually only starts with Hollywood. It also covers music (with Lady Gaga), football (with Real Madrid), the Met Opera, Major League Baseball, and many others. Anita Elberse is from Harvard Business School, and has obviously spent a certain amount of time around a great deal of entertainment industries examining what’s happening.

In summary, she argues that the “blockbuster” strategy is working for many in these fields. It’s easiest to examine in the film business where once upon a time, a studio would invest in variety of films at different scales. But Elberse argues that because the profits are so huge from the blockbuster sized films, that other parts of the business become almost irrelevant.

She acknowledges, in passing, that she’s not making any kind of qualitative judgement – she’s just giving you the facts. Blockbusters has plenty of charts to make the case strongly.

She also dismantles the “long tail” theory, examining several markets to show that investing big in big artists or movies returns that vast majority of profit.

Her case study is Warner Brothers, who she says first jumped on the blockbuster strategy before any other studio. With massively successful franchises like Harry Potter and the Dark Knight trilogy, they undoubtedly profited enormously.

But if there’s a fundamental flaw with the book, I don’t think that Elberse has properly examined what happens when everyone adopts that same approach. It’s one thing if only Warners are doing it, but it’s another completely if every studio is churning out $200m epics. We already see massive clogging up of screens around popular periods, with one massive film opening the week after another. There is saturation marketing around these massive gambles, and it becomes harder and harder to get cut through.

A few blockbusters – yes. But I’m not sure it scales up. At the moment Disney/Marvel can do no wrong. But that lucky streak is bound to come to an end.

And in some respects, the book is already out of date. Lady Gaga’s album releases are held up as great examples of the blockbuster strategy. Not only are enormously complex marketing plans put into action, but there are elaborate partnerships with other brands and retail outlets to ensure that everyone can buy a copy of her new album.

And yet what happens just before Christmas? Beyoncé – arguably even bigger than Gaga right now – releases her new album with no notice at all. No marketing. No partnerships (well new ones anyway – obviously she does have partnerships with Pepsi et al). Fans create the hype. Result: millions of albums are sold.

While the blockbuster strategy clearly still does have a place in the market, it doesn’t obviously explain how you build big stars. Yes there’s an acknowledgement that a certain proportion of superheroes are relative unknowns because you build them alongside the franchise, keeping costs down at the same time – unless your name is Robert Downey Jnr anyway. But how do you create the next Gaga if it’s all about blockbusters?

Lynda Obst is a Hollywood producer who’s largely worked putting together female focused romcoms. Nope – they’re not my favourite films. But they’ve historically found a niche and done well. In a breathless, gossipy way, she takes us through what she colds the “Old Abnormal” and the “New Abnormal” – the old and new rules that Hollywood plays by. “Abnormal” – because everything in Hollywood is.

She deftly explains the financing of these films, and you begin to learn a lot. Once upon a time, a studio might have put a balance sheet together when funding a film, and reckoned on 50% of revenues coming from DVD. That’s just fallen away enormously. Obst reports someone saying that today they’ve no idea what revenues that will get them. Think about it. You’re planning a big epic that will open in 2016 and be in homes when? Christmas 2016? Will we be buying shiny discs? Renting from iTunes? Expecting it to be in our £5.99 a month Netflix subscriptions? What?

So a massive chunk of revenue has dropped out of the market. But they’re still making $200m bets on superheroes and giant robots. That’s because upwards of 70% of revenues is now international. That is, non-US. And the big markets opening up are in places like China and Russia. They’re getting loads of 3D and IMAX screens, and they want to see big robots battling it out on those screens.

Well they may want to see those films in China and Russia, but I don’t. But I understand from both these books why the studios make them. What’s not clear to me is that why it has to be Hollywood that makes them. Obst says a couple of times that only Hollywood has the skills to do that, but I really don’t buy that. Sure – Hollywood has a head start. And most of the world still equates Hollywood with glamour. But the effects are actually created with standard software. FX houses are based all over the world, and it’s not at all unlikely that big Chinese language action films could be made locally and be far more successful. As Obst does say – China is fickle in how many films it lets enter the country, and what the revenue share is anyway. It’s even hard to choose when your film opens (they made Batman and Spiderman open against one other to both studios’ chagrin).

The book does jump around a bit. She names names, but they mostly lovely people. Well, she’s still working there, currently producing Helix for SyFy. And she paints herself as sometimes a little bit more out of the loop than she can possibly be. So we get lots of interviews-cum-guidance from players in the market, often at named LA restaurants.

And I don’t agree with all the conclusions that Obst makes.

She paints the 2007/8 writers’ strike as a critical time and something that fundamentally changed everything. I’m not sure that’s true. I think things were changing anyway.

And the same films get mentioned again and again as great. But sorry – successful does not equal good. The Hangover – I’m looking at you.

But this book is bang up to date, with only a few of the big 2013 summer failures missing. The importance of television is also covered. Partly one suspects, because Obst’s own career has switched from films to television, but also because that’s where the creativity is today.

And the really scary thing is that TV makes way more money for the studios than films do.

And the most soul-destroying thing she says in the book, aside from the rampant growth of dumb-films made to appeal to an unsophisticated Russian and Chinese audience? The fact that Hollywood considers there to be two age demographics: Under 25s, and 25+! No wonder TV is leaving them behind.

[Update] This piece from Forbes suggests that 27 “blockbusters” will be released in 2015. So a lot of films are going to fail then.