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In the back flap of Danny Baker's new autobiography, Going to Sea in a Sieve, the simple text beneath Baker's photo says:
Danny Baker is a comedy writer, journalist and radio DJ. He currently presents six shows a week for the BBC and is a regular face on TV. He still lives in south-east London.
Sadly - at time of writing - he's down to one show a week. As I'm sure everyone who's reading this blog knows, Baker was told a week or so ago that his BBC London show was essentially being cancelled at Christmas, and he was not at all happy. His final show was in effect a two hour rant against the managers - weasels - who'd cancelled it. As much as anything, his real beef was that nobody told him to his face, and the BBC London gig was one he loved.
For years we've been told that he wasn't on a full time contract, and was paid relatively little. Indeed during that final show he revealed that Amy Lamé and Baylen Leonard were paid £50 a show each while he took home £300 a show after deductions. That does probably mean that the show wasn't cancelled for monetary savings, but for other less specific reasons.
And of course, the timing was just awful. Baker is one of those due to be inducted into the Radio Academy Hall of Fame on Tuesday this week. As inductees get to give a speech, it's fair to say that Baker will be venting his spleen with some very carefully chosen prose.
I have no idea where he'll end up next, but while Talksport and Radio 2 are both thought to be interested, I can't really see anywhere that could take on that format apart from 6 Music. In an interview with Jonathan Ross on Saturday night it was suggested that he still has a future at the BBC - unlike certain other people. We'll wait and see.
I'm an enormous Danny Baker fan, and I really hope that he pops up somewhere soon. I do, however, realise that I've worked for a station that has somehow managed to dispense of his services on at least two occasions. I should add that I've never actually met the man as I was only at the station for his second second term and subsequent departure, and his show ran pretty much exclusively at weekends. Thus Baker was not to be seen in the building during the week. (Oddly enough, deep within a filing cabinet I was clearing out the other day, I actually found a letter detailing a payoff that had to made to another station to enable Baker to join ours. Remember Baker was very good friends with Chris Evans, then owner of Virgin Radio where I was working, and so it perhaps wasn't a surprise that Evans wanted Baker to join us).
Anyway, back to Baker's book.
Baker has a gift with language. That's not surprising because he started out being a writer, and effectively hasn't stopped since. The earlier sections of his book paint a terrific picture of his part of South London. You're also left in no doubt that he had a wonderful childhood.
The backbone of the book is his family, and in particular his father. A dominant figure not just within his family, but the surrounding area too. A dock worker for many years, and a union activist, he appeared to take no prisoners. But he had a turn of phrase to do so. It's a testament to Baker's memory that he can be captured so clearly, and life in the Baker family so clearly captured.
This book only takes us up to him landing a permanent gig on LWT's South Bank Show - the programme that first brought him to my attention as a young teenager. In that respect, it doesn't really cover Baker's radio career. Yet because he's framed to perhaps most of us through his radio performance, I think it's fair to say that this does count as a "radio book." It frames the radio personality he was later to become. And he does mention a single appearance on LBC, albeit one that would suggest that radio wasn't for him.
When Baker regales us with a story, he manages to convey something of the PG Wodehouse about the way he spins the yarn. Anyone, like me, who's heard Baker on the radio over the years, will instantly recognise the tone of voice in the words he's written. I've not heard the audiobook of this title, but in my minds eye, his voice is unquestionably there with every word on the page.
Beyond his time at school, and the friends that he hung around with, we learn about his years working in record shops in and around the West End, where he was able to rub shoulders with some of the biggest stars of the day. Then we move forward to a brief period writing for a punk fanzine through to landing a dream job working for NME.
Yes - he drops a few names along the way. But he manages to do so with verve and without you hearing a clang. Aside from anything else, there's a purpose to the stories. Something very funny happens, or goes very badly wrong (tape recorders failing to work; falling in love with the pop star rather than making notes of what she's saying).
If, like me, you've listened to long periods of Baker's life over the years, then many of these stories will be familiar. Some certainly aren't, and he only delicately exposes us to his personal life. Towards the end of the book he explains that he thinks that people who "bare their souls" or "reveal any kind of intimate details" want "locking up." In any case, that's not what I want from a Danny Baker book.
So we don't get it. We just get a great series of stories, and have a rollicking good time along the way. If you're a bit a fan like me, then you've probably already bought this book. The good news is, it's well worth reading.
Perhaps it's a little unfair to compare Going to Sea in a Sieve with another book entirely, John Myers' "Team, It's Only Radio."
Actually it's very unfair. But both books feature radio personalities to one extent or another, and it so happens that I've just read the pair in close proximity to one another.
Baker, of course, has been a writer for many years, and his turn of phrase on the radio has a literary quality. On the other hand, I've never actually heard Myers on the radio - in one of his several guises. But I suspect that I'd be listening to something of a different kind of show.
I should also mention that I've never worked for or with John Myers, and indeed until relatively recently, had only really come across him in the excellent BBC documentary from 1999 - Trouble at the Top: Degsy Rides Again. The programme seems to be in available in a few parts on YouTube, and if you've never seen it, I'd thoroughly recommend it.
Myers takes us through his career from breaking into radio at BBC Cumbria, through his various gigs at a variety of stations in the North West and North East until he ended up forming the radio group that was to become GMG Radio (itself currently being sold to Global Radio).
There are some entertaining and interesting stories to be told. It's perhaps a little unfortunate that in Jeremy Vine's introduction at the beginning, he rather steals the thunder from several of them. If you're not overly familiar with some of his past stunts, I'd suggest leaving the introduction until the end.
I'll certainly not compound the issue by repeating them here. But some of them are genuinely quite funny, and you can believe that the imagination and enthusiasm with which they were carried out left rivals a little unhappy.
The book is indubitably a "radio book" because really we learn very little of Myers' character beyond what he does in his radio existance. There's a certain amount of moving around the north of England has he climbs the ladder between jobs, and yet of his personal circumstances we get little. He gathers a wife along the way, and has some kids. But mostly this book is dealing with the business of radio, first as on-air talent, and then later the management of radio, and the building of a radio group.
It does seem that Myers has never met a radio colleague that he doesn't like. Maybe a few presenters get short shrift, and I was always told that if you have nothing nice to say about someone, then don't say anything at all. Perhaps he's being polite here. But there were a few too many times when he disagreed with someone professionally, only to later relate how they've remained good friends to this day.
On the other hand, from the little I know Myers, he does seem very personable, and seems like someone who while disagreeing with you at a professional level, may not hold a grudge against you at a personal level. In other words, this is entirely possible.
At one point Myers talks about "logo lolly." In retrospect, this makes sense now, but I'd not come across the phrase previously. "Logo lolly" was (is?) a cash bonus paid to reporters who were able to get their stations' logos on camera - especially on the local news. Myers' book talks about offering £25 each time a logo was screened. Indeed, having talked to colleagues subsequently, I understand that this developed into a sliding scale, with bonuses increasing as if your logo made local, national or even international coverage.
I must admit that I've often thought that the shameless plugging of radio stations through garish microphone "muffs" can be somewhat tasteless. While I think it's perfectly acceptable in entertainment or sports coverage (e.g. the red carpet at a film premiere), when you see the vivid primary colours at a news conference being held at a police station where sombre news about a missing child or similar is being shared, I find it frankly distasteful.
And the nonsense with microphones can get worse and worse. In some countries large attachments are placed onto the microphones to mean viewers can't fail to see the stations' logos when the microphone is thrust inches from the speaker's mouth.
But for the ultimate in ludicrousness, check out this US local news TV segment from this week's election coverage. Ignore the fact that the reporter got the identity of will.i.am wrong a couple of times, but look instead at his LCD-festooned microphone. Shameless.
Anyway, I'm drifting off topic. Returning to the book, I must admit that I do have a few reservations about it. There's no easy way to say this, but it's pretty poorly written. This is no ghost-written tome, and although an editor is credited, I think it probably needed someone with some more literary skills to go through the book and tidy it up. It's certainly Myers' voice that drives through the whole time, but in places the book feels a bit mangled and randomly sorted. I just think a helping hand could have structured it a bit better in places, tidied up a few overused idioms and generally made it read better.
In the end an autobiography is often not a great deal more than a series of anecdotes used to illustrate a life. Yet, there needs to be structure, and those anecdotes have to be placed in context, and this is where the book lets the reader down a little. While it's fair to say that nobody from outside the radio industry is likely to read this book, there is a certain amount of assumed knowledge required of the reader to truly appreciate what was happening in UK radio. And time scales aren't clearly conveyed as we jump forward years at a time with little said about the intervening period.
I think Myers would probably admit that he presents a pretty positive side to things that have happened during his career. He's not afraid to big himself up. Towards the end of the book he does admit that not everything went right and he made mistakes along the way, but you don't get too many of those mistakes highlighted for readers. We can fairly track exactly how much he was paid at each point too. When a big payday comes along, he's not shy to tell us how fortunate he was. To be fair, Baker also has a passage detailing his views on money, and actually italisises the word millions so you're clear how much he's spent over time.
It must be said that when regional FM licences were being awarded in the late nineties and early noughties, Myers had a pretty exceptional track record for winning them. So it really was surprising to hear some of the vitriol he gives the regulators at various points when he doesn't win one. In particular, the section dealing with the award to Kerrang! of the West Midlands licence seems a bit unfair. Myers had failed to win it with an application that would have enabled him to tie a number of his services up into a neat package. Yet here was an award that was doing something different. Yes, it'd have been great for the Guardian to get another licence to add to its set, cut down on some costs and build a business. But nobody has a pre-ordained right to spectrum, and that's something a lot of groups broadcasting on analogue radio today should remember. It's a scarce resource, and there are others who'd love to get on the radio too. A new entrant was allowed into the marketplace in this particular instance, and that's as it should be.
But I suppose that what really strikes me from reading this book, about an industry that I thought I knew fairly well, is how rampantly sexist radio was in the past. (Others may argue that it still is, and until we even up the numbers of male to female voices a bit more, they probably have a point).
A few stories are told with a bit of a nudge and wink, followed by some contrition from the perspective of documenting them in 2012. But then we'll get a qualifying phrase like, "Remember, this was 1994..."
Honestly, 1994 was pretty recent!
And it certainly wasn't like 1974 in terms of what kind of sexism was somehow deemed acceptable in society. I think it just goes to show that in parts of the radio industry, it took them an awful long time to grow up.
My first start in radio was just two years later, and I can assure you that the largely female department I worked in, under a female senior executive would not have found some of the tales told here appropriate in a business at that time.
Overall "Team, It's Only Radio" is a fun read, and certainly presents a picture of a medium that perhaps isn't always as good as is cracked up. But I can't wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone aside from the most diehard of radio enthusiast.
Two very different books then.
Here's a vaguely accurate summary of the books I've read this month. An attempt, to some extent, to get me to read more. I can't tell you how many books I have "backed up"...
A Card From Angela Carter is an unusual thing. For starters, it's due to be Radio 4's Book of the Week next week, and because this is a slim volume, I'd anticipate that the book will need barely any abridgement to be read in its entirety across five fifteen minute episodes.
This book began life as a Radio 3 essay, and is based around a series of postcards that Angela Carter sent her friend Susannah Clapp. Clapp has used these brief cards as a jumping off point for a more detailed remembrance of Carter and the different facets of her life and her character.
I've always found that admired Angela Carter from afar. Perhaps I wasn't sure that a man was allowed to read books published by Virago, the publisher created for literature written solely by women? Nonetheless, it was A Company of Wolves that introduced her to me. And of course I came from the film - still one of my favourites.
To be honest, I've still not read much of her work, although that means I've got it to look forward to. But this is lovely primer on a fascinating woman.
You can also read a fairly chunky extract of the book at The Observer.
Empire State, on the other hand, is something very different. Essentially a steampunk novel, but with a wonderful noir feel, it's set in two parallel versions of New York. One is an adjunct of sorts to the "real" New York.
But this is a world in which superheroes also exist.
Debut novelist Adam Christopher has a lot to juggle in this book, and to start with, it the reader a while to become comfortable. But they're interesting characters, and as is the way with these things, nobody is necessarily who you think they are.
Before I Go To Sleep is the book you're going to see most people reading on the tube over the coming months. Well I say that, but with the growth in Kindles, you won't necessarily notice that they're reading it.
But the book has already been number one for four weeks, and it's included in just about all the popular book clubs currently running - Richard & Judy's, the TV Book Club and so on. [An aside: publishers, please ensure that those book club stickers can be peeled off easily. The TV Book Club sticker required nail varnish remover to properly remove on my copy.]
I suppose what this reminds me in part of is Room, but also the film Memento.
The premise is simple: Christine, the novel's narrator, has a rare form of amnesia which means that every morning when she wakes up, she can remember nothing from the last twenty or so years. Memories stay with her throughout the day, but once she enters a deep sleep, she forgets it all and she's back to where she started the previous morning.
That presents some challenges for a novel to say the least. But Christine, who has to be told daily by husband who she actually is, is also keeping a journal. Using this, she's able to begin to put some of her life back together.
And this is a thriller, so perhaps not everything is what it seems...
I read this cracking book over a couple of days, and enjoyed it tremendously. In some respects, S J Taylor faced an impossible job writing himself out of the difficulty he'd placed his characters. And yet he manages it very neatly.
I went along to Foyles for the UK launch of The Boy In The Suitcase a couple of weeks ago, and this is another example of Scandinavian crime fiction. In this case we're in Denmark, home of The Killing and Borgen of course.
Nina is a nurse with the Red Cross, and when an old colleague of hers gives her a key and asks her to collect something from a locker at the station, she finds a small child - still alive. At this point, the sensible thing might have been to immediately phone the police. But Nina's knowledge of what life is like for orphan immigrant children, and perhaps a lack of sense, mean that this is not what she does.
And so begins a tale of abducted children and murder, with links to a former Soviet state.
This book, as good crime fiction is able to do, shines a torch on our attitudes that are sometimes at odds with themselves. In particular there's a general lack of care for immigrants that's highlighted.
The Boy In The Suitcase is co-written by two Danish authors who've published quite successfully separately - Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis. But this is the first time they've turned their hand to crime (although there've since been two further books which we can look forward to in due course). Interestingly, and unusually, Kaaberbøl translated the English language version herself! Even though the Scandinavian authors I've come across through the Nordic Noir Book Club all speak English remarkably well, this is the first time I've heard of anyone taking on translation duties themselves.
The Woman in Black is one of those books that has been around so long now, it's firmly on the syllabus for GCSEs (I had to do Chaucer and Shakespeare as my set texts). And for nearly as long, it's been a fixture in the West End. Now it is to be a film, so with a newspaper offer promoting the title, I thought that I should finally get around to it.
I've not read an enormous amount of Hill's work, which varies between crime and ghost stories. But I did read The Man in the Picture a few years ago which I enjoyed.
This is as classic a ghost story as is possible to be. And really I wouldn't want to spoil it too much by revealing much about the plot. Except to say that it's set in a remote village and even more remote house somewhere on the coast, and involves a young lawyer who has to deal with the estate of recently deceased women who lives in that house.
How scary or horrific you find the tale depends on how much you invest in it. To an extent, I find ghost stories harder to convey in novel form. Perhaps they really need to be read out loud? How good the film will turn out to be, we'll just have to wait and see. But a very fine ghost story.
West End Front is absolutely fantastic!
Matthew Sweet, regular presenter on Radio 3's Nightwaves amongst his many other duties, has done an incredible job in collating these memories and stories of some of London's "Grand" hotels.
The book examines what it was like in those hotels as war in Europe broke out. They became a curious bubbling cauldron of soldiers, spies, prostitutes, con-men, royalty and politicians. That's probably a recipe for some fantastic stories, and so it is that Sweet gives us them.
These hotels were there own ecosystems and during the war, various people just moved into them. Even rationing didn't mean that guests had to wont for much. The Savoy had its own farm!
But there were strikes, plots, illegal abortions and internments.
Sometimes the stories are amusing. Other times they're utterly harrowing.
Sweet has gone around over a number of years collecting these stories from those still alive who can relate their first-hand memories, and this book is to be cherished for that reason alone.
Somehow today's hotels seem terribly dull in comparison. I can't recommend this book enough!
We've had a lot of Sherlock Holmes recently, and to an extent, An Uncertain Place is some more. It's the latest in Fred Vargas Commissaire Adamsberg series, who is certainly a detective who takes at least some inspiration from the great detective.
The action begins in London at a conference Adamsberg is attending. He gets sidetracked by a curious find outside Highgate cemetary - a collection of feet no less. But the story moves back to France pretty swiftly as a dead man is found in the most grissly of circumstances.
Trying to discover a motive is never straightforward in a Vargas story, where history always plays a key part, and the action doesn't stay in one place for any period of time.
Any novel that starts to examine vampires is going to raise some eyebrows, but as with the previous title dealing with supposed werewolves, things might have a more down to earth answer even if locals of one sort or another believe differently.
Finally, there's the previously reviewed From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg.
In 2012, I'm going to try to write a little more about books. I say this every year, but I am going to try!
First up is John Naughton's From Gutenberg to Zuckerbeg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet. This is a follow-up, of sorts, to A Brief History of the Future, Naughton's 2000 book that examined the internet to date at that point. Since then, much has changed, and Naughton starts from first principles in this book. Indeed, as the title suggests, he actually starts from the introduction of the printed word. He then imagines a time - around 1470 - less than 20 years after the first book had been printed, and points out that we're still at the dawn of a new internet era in 2012 as we try to imagine quite how the internet is changing our world.
I'd probably argue that development is much faster these days than it was in the fifteenth centry. But it's certain that we don't truly understand how much things will change in the future standing at this point in time. Google only launched in 1998, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2005. Can we imagine a world without them in 2012?
This title feels like it's probably going to be a text book on a number of courses. I can imagine a 15 year old reading it, never having known a world without the web. So the history presented is recent. But it also explains to the interested (and especially, the non-technical) reader things that people tend for forget like the web is not the internet, and that many webpages don't actually exist until they're "called". So, for example, estimating how many web-pages there are in existance is a spurious thing to compute. The copious footnotes suggest an academic future for the title.
If anything, there are probably a few too many ideas in this book, and some of them deserve a little more attention and time. For example, the chapter on copyright and "copywrongs" is probably deserving of a book of its own. In particualar, I think Naughton missed addressing the issue of patents with regard to software. Although it might be a little directly off-topic, the issues surrounding patent trolls severly impact on just about anyone attempting to deliver a web-service these days. You only have to look at the arsenals of patents being built up by the big players like Google and Apple to defend themselves against one another, to realise that it's a major concern for anyone attempting to built a business online.
If I had a criticism, it's that Naughton includes slightly too many extensive quotes throughout the book. If, like me, you read Naughton's blog, you'll be familiar with this, many of his entries being formed by little more than brief introductions to a chunky quote, and a link to the full piece. And some authors - particularly Nicholas Carr - probably get a few too many mentions. I prefer original ideas as much as possible, rather than repeating those of others. I suspect that, again, the academic nature of the book lends to the latter approach.
But overall, this is a very worthwhile title.
Yesterday, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending.
In the past, I've read some, but by no means all, Booker Prize winners. And of course I've read a fair number of the nominees. But this year, I made a concerted effort to read every novel on the shortlist. And I finished the last title on Monday evening.
Anyway, here are my thoughts, for better or worse, on the shortlist, in the order that I read them:
I read Snowdrops a while ago on its original publication, and it's a great book set in modern day Moscow written by an author who used to be The Economist's correspondent there. In tone, in greatly reminds me of Andrey Kurkov's novel's in the sense that anything can and will happen. That said, there are no penguins.
Not a novel to make you want to book your next holiday to Moscow, but nonetheless a fascinating portrait of the city.
For whatever reason, I've never entirely got on with Julian Barnes before. Arthur and George remains unfinished (even though it's a subject that fascinates me), and while I did read A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, I could tell you nothing about it now.
I had no such problems with The Sense of an Ending, but then that's hardly surprising given that it's only 160 pages long. Indeed, frankly, it's actually a novella. Other book awards would place it in that category. I've nothing against short-form fiction, and indeed it's much maligned. (As an aside, I've recently been reading some superb short stories by Elmore Leonard - When the Women Come Out to Dance - sadly out of print).
The story is compelling, and the conclusion is moving. I did like it very much. But I'm not sure it's truly the best on this list.
Jamrach's Menagarie is a great tale of a young boy who lives in the East End of a Victorian London, and his early life as first learns to look after animals captured around the world for sale to zoos, and then embarks on a voyage around the world. The bulk of the book is formed by this voyage, and to say that the last third is tough going would be an understatement.
Not in the sense that you aren't thoroughly gripped by the story, and excellent writing, but the
I thought that this was excellent.
Half Blood Blues follows the lives of a group of black and mixed-race jazz musicians plying their trade in Berlin as the second world war approaches. The book opens in Paris, where they've fled, and where one of their number is arrested. Then we hop back to Berlin, and also see events from the early nineties, where a letter has appeared out of nowhere.
What follows is an incredible insight into a group of people I suspect few of us had really ever thought about - black people under Nazi occupation.
The Sisters Brothers is essentially a western. But a western with a wonderful tone of voice. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired killers. Ending a man's life means very little to them, and they perform their tasks with alacrity. They work for the Commodore, a powerful man who dispatches people who cross his path. The book opens with the pair heading out from Oregon to the goldrush of California, where they have a man they need to kill.
What makes this novel so enjoyable is the dialogue the pair of them have. We follow events from Eli's perspective. He's slightly less violent, although he has a temper. And really, he wants to give up the whole "hired killers" thing, and settle down to open a trading post somewhere. Highly recommended.
Pigeon English is one of only two books in the shortlist that's set completely in the present day. We explore the word from the perspective of the 11 year old Harri, a recent immigrant from Ghana who lives with his mum and sister in a council block in London. Another boy has been murdered, and as the story unfolds Harri and his friend begin to "investigate" the murder.
The dialogue in this book is wonderful. Even more that Room, I really felt that the author, Stephen Kelman, had truly got into the head of this young boy. It all rang true, and the things that delight and amaze small children from any culture are truly reflected in this book.
Harri likes making lists, and at times the novel is broken up as he presents a list of things that fall under a particular category - the rules of school or people who are "Vs" other people. Again, thoroughly recommended.
There really was a lot of nonsense surrounding the Booker this year talking about what should and shouldn't have been included. I've read neither Alan Hollinghurst nor Philip Hensher, but then reviews of their most recent titles don't especially appeal to me.
In any case, this struck me as a pretty worthwhile list of titles, and I enjoyed them all.
I think I'd say that Jamrach's Menagarie is the book I liked the most, but The Sisters Brothers came a close second, and I can't complain about a single title on the shortlist at all. If nothing else, the list did shake up my fiction reading beyond some of the usual suspects, and that can't have done me any harm.
Here's a timely book.
I received my copy of this book on Friday - 4th February. The introduction, penned by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, is dated 1st February! I know publishing speeds have moved on quite a lot, but it's still pretty remarkable.
The Guardian was serialising parts of this book last week. Whoever is behind the Wikileaks Twitter account, is seemingly unimpressed. A tweet from 2 Feb reads "The Guardian book serialization contains malicious libels. We will be taking action." I can but defer to David Allen Green over at the New Statesman.
And as I type, Julian Assange is in court as Sweden tries to extradite him in a hearing expected to last two days.
But what about the book? It essentially details the inside track on the background to Wikileaks as an organisation, and Julian Assange in particular. It then tells in more detail the story of how The Guardian, and other publications inluding Der Spiegal and the New York Times made, sometimes fractious, agreements with Assange to release various US classified information into the public domain.
It started with Afghan and Iraq war logs, and of course has culminated in the release of those diplomatic cables.
This book is authored by David Leigh and Luke Harding, both of whom were involved closely in The Guardian's dealings with Wikileaks and Assange - the former in particular. So the only odd thing is that sometimes the authors themselves are referred to in the third person, although it's perhaps more usual in co-authored titles.
What emerges from the book is a fascinating look at the way Assange operates and looks at how hard it can sometimes be to even track him down, let alone make agreements with him. The sexual allegations from Sweden are also detailed, and although the same information has been published in the paper, you do tend to come away with slightly less conspiracy-theory thoughts about Assange's situation.
Bradley Manning, the US serviceman who is believed to have leaked the documents in the first place, is also gone into. I find it interesting how little coverage there has been about Manning, who's essentially in solitary confinement and isn't even allowed to do press-ups in his cell. And this man has dual British/American nationality.
I suppose that the timing of this book could be a little curious in that the Assange story isn't over yet, although the bulk of the Wikileaks cable haul has now appeared (albeit through the Daily Telegraph latterly, since Assange has completely fallen out with The Guardian). As I say, his extradition procedings are taking place right now.
In terms of comparison, I can only really compare this with Richard Harris' classic look at the Sunday Times publication of fake Hitler diaries: Selling Hitler.
I suspect that updates to this will be required in due course, but in the meantime, it's well worth a read.
I'm not going to try to keep this review up to date with current events, but two things have happened since I wrote this at lunchtime today.
1. First David Leigh, one of the book's co-authors, has reported on Twitter that The Guardian or the authors will not be sued.
2. Luke Harding, the book's other co-author, and The Guardian's Moscow correspondent, has been deported from Russia, in what is believed to be the first deportation of a journalist since the cold war.
The former is obviously good news, since it was would surely be extremely hypocritical.
The latter is terrible news, and seems to be directly aimed at Harding following his reporting of the Wikileaks cables that talk about Russia.
Russia is sounding like a really fun country to go to for the 2018 World Cup...
In 1985, I won two tickets in a local newspaper comeptition to see the new Clint Eastwood western, Pale Rider, at the ABC Enfield (now Tesco). It was the first time I'd been in a cinema to see a western. That was partly because westerns didn't appeal to a 15 year old boy, and partly because they simply weren't being made any more. Westerns were something you ran into when BBC1's Grandstand or ITV's World of Sport didn't have anything worth watching on a Saturday afternoon - probably horse racing on the former, and "all-in" wrestling on the latter. BBC2 would probably be showing a western. I'd either return to the horse racing, or probably just go out.
That archetypal Saturday afternoon western almost certainly starred John Wayne. It seemed to be the law. I wasn't interested. In later years, I'd come to appreciate films like Rio Bravo and High Noon. The former even stars John Wayne. But I wasn't a fan. Perhaps at some point in the future I'll reappraise Wayne, but I'm not there yet.
One of his most famous roles is as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. While I can picture Wayne in his Marshall's uniform and wearing an eye-patch, I think that's more from stills and clips rather than actually seeing the film. I have no memory of the actual story.
I always look forward with great anticipation to any new Coen brothers film, but in this instance, I decided that it was worth reading the original Charles Portis novel. It's a short book, and tells the tale in a first person narrative from the viewpoint of the 14 year old Mattie Ross.
The opening paragraph is one of those gripping ones that just stick with you as soon as you've read them:
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.
That pretty well lays out the story of the film in a simple and effective manner.
The edition of the novel I read with a film tie-in cover, comes with an introduction from Donna Tartt for whom this is a favourite book (Incidentally - she's not the fastest writer is she? It's been a while since The Little Friend). But I could immediately see what she loves about the book which incredibly went out of print for a while. At least that won't happen again - in a digital ebook age anyway.
Getting back to the Coen brothers' version of True Grit - it really is another exceptional piece of work. It sticks rigidly to the narrative of the book, introducing only a couple of minor elements of difference which don't affect the flow especially. I loved it.
Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, the marshall that young Miss Ross believes shows the most "grit" and is therefore the right man to avenge her father's murder. He has such a drawl, that to my British ears, it took a little while to attune myself to his dialect, but he's a terrific character and Bridges' performance is excellent.
When I first saw the trailer to this film, I watched it intensely and then reached the end where the stars' names appeared on-screen. Suddenly Matt Damon's name appeared. Huh? I didn't recall seeing him in the trailer. Perhaps he hadn't featured very much. But he had. He plays the supercilious Texas Ranger LaBeouf ("la-beef" as opposed to the way Shia pronounces his name). He swaggers around in the most enormous spurs ever seen, telling tales about how proud he and his fellow Rangers are. Anyone who's seen Damon cameoing on things like 30 Rock knows that he can do comedy well, and it's a fine turn here.
Finally there's Hailee Steinfeld who plays the young Mattie Ross. Her character is the very epitomy of head-strong as she's determined to accompany Cogburn on the manhunt that she has hired him for. She's great in her first film role. What I do find extraordinary is that even though she's essentially in every scene of the film, she's only been nominated in the Supporting Actress category in the Oscars. According to the LA Times this is purely Paramount playing the odds game. They didn't think someone so young could ever win Best Actress in Leading Role, so they put her in the Supporting Role category. Utter nonsense. Her role is the equal of Bridges and Damon. BAFTA are somewhat tougher about such things, and she's nominated in the Leading Actress category. For what it's worth, I suspect she won't win in either awards as they're both tough categories.
Anyway, the film is excellent. The book is excellent. And you should definitely read or see one of them. You should probably do both.
Occassionally, when you delve into the non-Sky branded movie channels with names like True Movies or Movies 4 Men, you might have come across a TV movie called The Late Shift. It was a dramatisation of a book by New York Times television writer Bill Carter's account of the hostilities surrounding the succession of hosts of the Tonight Show on NBC. Both the TV movie and book told the story of the shenanigans surrounding the retirement of Johnny Carson and the story of who would suceed him.
Jay Leno won out over David Letterman. Letterman moved over to CBS and created his own show there going up against Leno. And there, the two have been for the last seventeen years or so.
Fast forward to the last couple of years, and this book re-engages with some of those previous protagonists, as well as the new kids on the block. In particular, there's Conan O'Brien.
For years O'Brien followed Leno's nightly 11.35pm show with his own hour long 12.35am show. NBC, keen to avoid the mistakes they'd made years earlier when the Leno/Letterman issue became very ugly, decided back in 2004 to promise O'Brien that'd he take over the Tonight Show five years hence. Then, as those years passed by, they also realised that they wanted to hang on to Jay Leno, who's numbers were still good, and who was number one in "late night".
NBC's solution was to bring Jay Leno forward into the 10pm hour where traditionally more expensive dramas such as ER had run. A talk show is much cheaper to produce, so they both hung on to Leno, avoiding the possibility that he'd end up on a rival network with a new show in the same time period, plus it saved the network a lot of cash. In the meantime, the new presenter of the Tonight Show was Conan O'Brien.
At least that's what they'd hoped would happen. But as is the case so often in the entertainment industry, things didn't quite turn out how all would hope.
Bill Carter tells a great story, and makes what are effectively internal wranglings between corporate executives a compulsive read. He's spoken to all the key players and produced a very fair, and I'd say, pretty balanced view of procedings.
While in the UK we don't have the history of these kinds of shows, despite over the years, various people trying to launch them, many of their traits are recognisable in shows like those of Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton. I do think it's interesting that the most successful of the US late night shows is actually Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart - it's permamently series-linked on my Sky+. ITV2 used to show David Letterman for a while, and CNBC still shows a couple of Jay Leno shows at weekends. But largely, the big players in US late night are unknown to us. In particular, I find Leno's brand of humour actually painful to watch. He's a so-so interviewer compared to Letterman, but the forced format of the monologue is not to my tastes. I think our topical panel games like Have I Got News For You or Mock the Week tend to work in gags more naturally.
The ending of the whole affair is no real secret, although it's quite astonishing how deep the hole that NBC managed to dig for itself was. They ended up settling for millions. And in the end, nobody won.
There's a question-mark longterm over the future of these shows in a world where perhaps the short-form video clip is becoming pre-eminant in younger demographics. The shows exist because they're profitable. But how long will that remain the case?
Anyway, if you're in any way interested in the wranglings of how US TV networks actually work, then this is well worth a read. Carter also wrote the excellent Desperate Networks back in 2006.
It's been too long. Much too long.
Carl Hiaasen has finally published a new novel, four years after his last adult novel (yes, I realise that fans of Donna Tartt or readers awaiting the next in the A Song of Fire and Ice saga have had to wait longer). In the intervening years, Hiaasen has been publishing some non-fiction as well as a series of books for kids. But he's back with something for the rest of us, and it's a return to form.
If you've not read a Carl HIaasen novel before, then stop reading this blog, and run out and buy one. His comic take on the lowlifes and sleazeballs may seem to be far too ridiculous to be true. But readers of his (infuriatingly infrequent) column in the Miami Herald will realise that fiction can barely capture what happens in real life in that part of the world.
Star Island tells the tale of a pop-starlet who most certainly isn't Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera or Miley Cyrus. We know this, because they, and many others who regularly appear in tacky weekly publications, are name-checked. Instead we follow the exploits of "Cherry Pye" a young singer managed by her parents in the period leading up to the release of her new album "Skantily Klad".
Pye's sole talents seem to be her libido and ability to hoover up narcotics in any form that they come. So her management team also hire a lookalike to go to parties and be photographed when their young ward is dealing with one of her regular bouts of "dietary problems."
Meanwhile, "Bang Abbot" is a former Pulitzer Prize winning photographer (the exact details of his prize-winning shot, I shan't spoil) turned paparazzo who is stalking Pye in the belief that he can capture some shots of her last hours before she inevitably pops her clogs.
The action flits around Miami and the Everglades, with some familiar characters making a reappearances amongst the many new grotesques that Hiaasen conjours up here.
Aside from the fact that Hiaasen obviously doesn't know a great deal about DSLR cameras, it's a great romp, and a fun read. It's probably not his best book, but it's plenty good enough. It's just a shame that Hachette/Little Brown/Sphere are making UK readers wait until November for the UK publication. I had to order the US edition from Amazon.com to sate my thirst.
I've read two books by comedians in the last couple of weeks - which is pretty unusual for me. I tend to stray away from anything written by anyone even approaching "celebrity" status. But for various reasons I made an effort to read these books both pretty much on their respective publication dates.
Eleven is the most recent novel from Mark Watson, who's worryingly good at what he does. You might know him from We Need Answers, or just about any programme that takes comedians as pannelists. But he also wrote one of the best, if not the best, programme to air on television over Christmas 2009, A Child's Christmases in Wales.
This book centres around Xavier Ireland, an overnight DJ on a London radio station with an unusual name (there is a reason for this). The number eleven refers to a number of other characters, who are related in various ways to one another, even if they're not aware of it. Although we spend most of our time with Xavier, who continues to battle some demons from a previous life, while not really getting too involved emotionally in his current one, we also take meandering detours into the lives of others.
I always find books set in radio stations interesting, if only because they rarely, if ever, accurately represent the workplace. The station in Watson's book isn't too far from the truth however. And I guess that he either knows people who work on the radio, and has been a guest on enough stations to pick up the general gist of what happens.
I found the book to be a real pager turner with the plot not always following precisely the trajectory that you're expecting.
Good Morning Nantwich, subtitled Adventures on Breakfast Radio, is also a page turner, if not for exactly the same reasons.
It's fair that I should point out that I'm not especially a Phill Jupitus fan. I watch Buzcocks when it happens to be on, rather than seeking it out. And I must admit that I've never actually heard him on-air. I did hear Jupitus read an extract from this book at Latitude recently, and that did make me buy this, if out of interest only.
This is Jupitus' book detailing his time spent on GLR, and mostly BBC 6 Music. Jupitus loves radio, but seems to like little of what actually gets broadcast. He admits to listening to solely listening to Radio 2 and Radio 4 towards the beginning of the book.
But when he gets a job on the BBC's London station, GLR, he first of all enjoys the pleasure that relative freedom offers him, but by the end, he's fallen out of love with the station as a new management broom sweeps through. The same is broadly speaking the case with 6 Music.
In particular he has a loathing of commercial radio. At one point in this book, he spends an entire chapter detailing a nameless four hour commercial radio breakfast show. I completely agree, that this particular breakfast show obviously is inane, with a woeful selection of music and a pair of presenters who sound dreadful. But, as even he understands, lots of people like this kind of radio. It's not demanding, but lots of people - for good or for bad - don't like to be challenged by the radio. It's something that simply helps to get them through the day. He gets upset that Girls Aloud are played twice in the same show. Yet, the reality is that he wouldn't ever choose to listen to a station that plays Girls Aloud out of choice. In the same way that I can get upset about what The Sun or the Daily Mail is printing, I make a choice in not buying those publications. However, personally upsetting I find those media outlets, I understand that they wouldn't exist commercially, were it not for the fact that millions of people do enjoy them.
That of course, does not mean that we should all have to follow a lowest common denominator form of radio. And I believe that as well as 6 Music, there are other stations and programmes that are able avoid that kind of thing. But I also think it's illuminating that Jupitus, by the end of his book, admits that as he began to fall out with his management, despite having more freedom on his show than just about anybody else in radio, commercial or otherwise, he'd been broadcasting a radio station that was directed to his own personal tastes. He also freely admits personally profiting from recording radio adverts for HMV and Duracell.
The recent hullaballoo surrounding the impending closure, and then saving of 6 Music has resulted in many more listeners finding the staiton and enjoying it. Jupitus' work is bookended by concerns about the future of the station, although the vast majority of the book was obviously written before the station was placed on the chopping block. As a result, he doesn't paint a gloriously rosy picture of 6 Music. He's often upset that budgets didn't allow for him to do more things with his show. But budgets are a reality for everyone - commercial and BBC. He gets sent to a bad hotel in Belfast and personally pays to book himself and his team into a much nicer (and more expensive) hotel. His annoyance about 6 Music taking three years to get the ability to receive texts from listeners is a fair complaint though.
The book is also a little "padded" for my taste. As well as spending a long chapter taking apart a commercial breakfast show link by link, we're also treated to a full run-through of Jupitus' final show which comes across as a bit nauseous in print. While I'm sure it was very special for him, his team, and many of his listeners, I think an editor should have cut it down.
Overall, this is a pretty honest book. It doesn't especially make me like Jupitus any more or less than I had previously; indeed I'm not sure I'd want to employ Jupitus on the basis of this book. Everyone working in radio should strive to do the best that they can, be they working for the BBC or commercial radio, remaining mindful of the broad church of likes and tastes. Some parts of commercial radio deserve a good kicking, but I think that Jupitus isn't painting a fair picture. If you were to do something as crass as put my iPod on shuffle, what you'd get is something that I'd love, but almost certainly nobody else. Just because it suits my tastes, I'm not sure it'd make good radio.
Note: Yes - I've been woeful at recording what I'm reading on this blog. Anyone would think that I've actually stopped reading. That's not the case!