Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A Tour de Force

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted from the outset that sporting memoirs, of any description, are not generally given much airtime on this blog. In fact, it is fair to say that they are usually given a very wide berth. But every so often a book comes along that forces one to re-examine our preconceptions. How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France by ITV’s intrepid sports journalist Ned Boulting is one such book.

Part memoir, part travelogue, How I Won the Yellow Jumper is a hilarious account of Ned’s eight years covering that most famous and illustrious of road cycle races, the Tour de France. From inauspicious beginnings, (on his maiden Tour, he referred to the coveted yellow jersey as a ‘jumper’ live on TV - a howler of such magnitude, it is surprising ITV didn’t cancel his contract on the spot) to his emergence as one of the sport’s most respected journalists, Ned recounts his experiences with remarkable honesty.

Ned Boulting
The book is essentially a collection of vignettes which illustrate what it means to exist within the annual hive of frenzied activity that constitutes the Tour de France. These snapshots, as seen through Ned’s eyes, provide a unique insight into what life must be like for the army of people – cyclists, reporters, photographers, fans, even chefs – who make up the Tour’s colossal entourage. And Ned is well placed to make such observations. His position as an accredited Tour reporter allows him a glimpse into the rarefied world of professional cycling, while at the same time compelling him to operate on its periphery. From this unique vantage point, Ned has an unfettered view of the good, the bad and the ugly that make up La Grande Boucle. And he doesn’t shy away from the job in hand. With flashes of searing insight, the author dishes the dirt on cycling’s grandees, allowing the reader to see a side of Lance Armstrong, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins et al, which is usually carefully edited from view.

Quite apart from the obvious cycling anecdotes, the reader is also regaled with tales of male camaraderie, as Ned and his production team struggle to deal with life on the road. Whether it’s an unhelpful SatNav or the constant hunt for launderette facilities, the book has the feeling of a boy’s own adventure story throughout. Add to this the wonderful descriptive passages which evoke the beauty of the French countryside, and the chapter on food which takes the reader on a mouth-watering gastronomic journey, this is a book that has it all. It will appeal to not just the cycling enthusiast, but also the foodie, the traveller and anybody who enjoys a good ole yarn.

Oh, and did I mention it is very, very funny?

How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France by Ned Boulting is published on June 2nd by Yellow Jersey Press (an imprint of Random House).

Monday, 30 May 2011

On This Day ... The Death of Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe
On this day, May 30th, in 1593, the acclaimed Elizabethan playwright, poet and author, Christopher Marlowe, died in mysterious circumstances at the age of 29.

A contemporary of William Shakespeare (he was about 2 months older than the Bard), Marlowe was a prolific writer in the years leading up to his premature death. He published 5 plays, including The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus, as well as numerous translations including a version of Ovid's Elegies.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with controversial historical figures, he has been remembered more for the puzzling aspects of his life and the unexplained circumstances of his death, than for his outstanding literary talent.

Despite lack of any definitive proof, it has often been alleged that Marlowe worked as a spy for Elizabeth I's government.  This theory has grown out of some speculation that he was close to Thomas Walsingham, first cousin of Sir Francis Walsingham, who was a member of Elizabeth's Privy Council and who had many links to espionage networks across Europe.  Whether or not Marlowe was recruited as a spy will perhaps always remain a mystery, as will the circumstances surrounding his death, which have spawned innumerable conspiracy theories ...

On May 18th 1593, a warrant was issued by the Privy Council for Marlowe's arrest.  He was accused of having written some material that was deemed 'heretical' by the government of the day.  Upon hearing of the warrant, Marlowe duly presented himself to the Privy Council on May 20th, only to be told that the Council was not sitting on that day.  He was instructed to make daily reports of his whereabouts to the authorities until his case was heard, an obligation he fulfilled faithfully.  Until May 30th, that is, when he got involved in a bar fight over an unpaid bill, during which he was faithfully stabbed.

William Shakespeare
Perhaps the most pervasive conspiracy theory to have sprung up after Marlowe's death was with regard to the Shakespearean authorship controversy.  The has been much debate surrounding the issue of who actually wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare, with many believing the the man from Stratford had neither the education nor the social standing to produce writings that displayed such an indepth knowledge of the workings of courts across Europe.  Proponents of the Marlovian Theory argue that Christopher Marlowe faked his own death in 1593 to escape the charges of heresy, and then went one to write under the pseudonym of William Shakespeare.  This theory is, for the most part, discounted by scholars ... but it does raise an interesting question: If Marlowe had not met with a premature death on that day in 1593, would he have gone on to produce works to rival those of William Shakespeare?  If he had lived, would he have had as profound effect on the development of the English language as his contemporary?

The mind boggles at the possibilities ...

Marlowe's signature

For more about the Shakespearean authorship controversy, read:

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

A Cautionary Tale

Pigeon English is the debut offering from up-and-coming author Stephen Kelman. Set over a period of five months, the story is narrated by an eleven-year-old boy, Harrison Opoku, who has recently arrived in London from Ghana. Ostensibly about Harrison’s struggle to adapt to his new environment, the novel provides a damning insight into the many social problems, and the very real dangers, faced by kids living in inner-city housing estates today.

Fascinated by the recent stabbing of a boy from one of the local towerblocks, Harrison, inspired by TV shows like CSI, innocently sets about investigating the murder. In doing so, he unwittingly jeopardizes the safety of both himself and his family. Throughout the book, Harrison’s worldview is unfailingly optimistic and somewhat romanticized, and as such, he remains blissfully oblivious to the dangers that lurk all around. The reader, on the other hand, is painfully aware of the pitfalls he faces, and feels immense frustration that we cannot warn him of them.

Stephen Kelman
Among the novel’s most remarkable accomplishments is the authentic voice the author captures in his lead character. Apart from Emma Donohue’s Room, I cannot recall another writer who has so successfully ‘got inside the head’ of a child protagonist. Kelman’s depiction of Harri’s internal monologue is both unnerving and captivating.

Another of the novel’s successes is its convincing characterizations. Through Harri, the reader is introduced to an intriguing cast of characters, from the relatively harmless petty thief, Terry Takeaway and his pit-bull Asbo, to the ominous gang-members X-Fire (pronounced Crossfire) and Killa. This realistic portrayal of a cross-section of inner-city life adds a great degree of authenticity to the story. The one character that didn’t quite work was the pigeon – befriended by Harrison and cast in the role of his guardian angel, the paragraphs narrated by Pigeon seemed oddly out of place. The reader was left confused as to the pigeon’s relevance to the story until the very end.

Initially, the dialogue was baffling - a combination of Ghanaian English mixed with the grating and sometimes nonsensical slang favoured by London’s tough inner-city teenagers was more than a little bewildering. (Asweh, he was just a confusionist, innit!) Fortunately, any perplexity soon dissipated once the reader got to grips with the vernacular.

Pigeon English is a story that is both harrowing and uplifting by turns. At the end, however, the reader is left with a profound sense of heartbreak - not just because of Harrison’s fate, but also because we are only too aware that this is a story that plays out, in real life, every day, in the innumerable housing estates in our capital city and beyond.

4 / 5
Pigeon English is published by Bloomsbury.
With thanks to The Omnivore (http://www.theomnivore.co.uk)

Friday, 13 May 2011

A Book Fit for a King

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible.

Commissioned in 1603 by the newly-crowned James I of England, this new version of the Bible took a group of 50 scholars over seven years to complete.

The result is widely regarded as a literary masterpiece and is the cornerstone on which our modern language was built. In fact, the influence of the King James Bible on the development of English is rivalled only by the works of William Shakespeare.

Read my article on The King James Bible 1611 - 2011 here:

Frontispiece from the first edition of the King James Bible

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

On This Day ... The Nazis Light the Fires of Hate

Today’s Notable Anniversary continues on the theme of Nazi Germany (see below).

On this day (May 10th) in 1933, the Office for Press and Propaganda of the German Student Association committed an unforgivable crime against culture and literary heritage. In university towns and cities across Germany, the student arm of the Nazi party carried out book burning ceremonies, reducing 25,000 books deemed to be ‘un-German’ or ‘against the German spirit’ to ash. This purge of literary works was often accompanied by many rousing speeches from Nazi party officials, like this one from the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda himself, Joseph Goebbels.

"You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour—to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past…. Out of these ashes the phoenix of a new age will arise…. Oh Century! Oh Science! It is a joy to be alive!"

Joseph Goebbels delivering his speech
The list of works which were deemed ‘un-German’ is lengthy. Books by Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, HG Wells, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Charles Darwin and Marcel Proust, among many others, met a fiery end. Incidentally, German writers were not spared – works by Albert Einstein, Ludwig Renn and the 19th century Jewish-German poet Heinrich Hein, who wrote the prophetic line "Where they burn books, they will also burn people" were also committed to the flames.

Interestingly, in a much less publicized but equally significant way , the Allies were also guilty of large-scale book burning. In 1946, during the de-Nazification of Germany, millions of books and artworks by proponents of the Nazi regime were destroyed. That's not something we hear about very often, is it?

Lest We Forget

“All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing”.

The sentiment expressed in this oft-used phrase forms the basis for Hans Fallada’s extraordinarily moving novel, Alone in Berlin. Published in Germany in 1947 under the title, Every Man Dies Alone (Jeder stirbt für sich allein), it is based on true events.

The novel tells the story of an unassuming, working-class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel who, distraught by the death of the son in the Second World War, begin a campaign of resistance against Hitler and the Nazi party. Their acts of rebellion are small, some would even say insignificant – they write one postcard a week, inciting civil disobedience by denouncing Hitler, the Nazis and the war that killed their son. The postcards, dropped randomly all over Berlin, were intended to be a rallying call, imploring recipients not to blindly succumb to the tyranny of the Nazis. Despite the small-scale nature of Otto and Anna’s revolt, a Gestapo inspector becomes obsessed with tracking them down. He eventually succeeds, and the Quangels pay the ultimate price for their deeds – they are imprisoned, tortured, subjected to a show-trial and eventually executed.

It quickly becomes apparent to the reader, however, that the actual subject of the novel is not Otto and Anna Quangel – the real focus of the book is in fact the Nazi regime, and more precisely, its brutality and effectiveness at suppressing all opposition, however small. The author paints a vivid picture of what life was like for everyday Germans living under Nazi control … and therein lies the novel’s greatest achievement. Fallada masterfully evokes an ominous atmosphere of pervasive anxiety, apprehension and distrust, where ordinary citizens live in abject fear of the Gestapo, and as such are prepared to turn a blind eye to their atrocities. One tends to forget that, quite aside from his crimes against Jews and other elements of society he deemed undesirable, Hitler’s despotism and cruelty was directed at all German citizens – the Führer proved himself to be equally adept at killing his own people as he was at killing Jews.

Alone in Berlin is a story of man’s inhumanity to man. There is no uplifting or redemptive ending, just as there was no uplifting or redemptive ending to the Second World War. The novel is bleak and utterly depressing, and for this very reason it is an absolute must-read … because if we are to learn lessons from history, we must never forget it.

Otto and Elise Hampel, the couple who inspired Alone in Berlin

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Wonderful World of Self-Publishing

Original Illustration by Denslow
When the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum (who died on this day in 1919), couldn't find a publisher for his beguiling children's story, he joined forces with the book's illustrator, William Wallace Denslow to fund a private publication.

Little did they know then that the story would become a children's classic, spawning a long series of sequels written by Baum and a host of of other authors after Baum's death.

Since it's first tentative publication in 1900, the book has never been out of print - an argument for self-publication, if ever there was one!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Marcus Wareing at St Pancras

Stunning architecture and delectable food - a marriage made in heaven!

In this piece for lovefood.com, restaurant critic Giles Coren talks about Marcus Wareing's new restaurant, which is about to open in London's St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.

Worth a watch, if only to ogle at the splendour of the building, which is inarguably one of the city's finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture.


Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Mark Twain on Obituaries and Funerals

Today's Notable Quotable comes from the American author and humorist, Mark Twain (1835 - 1910), who reveals a certain cynicism when contemplating the subject of death and obituaries.

"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure".

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying that I approved of it".

Obviously, Twain didn't place much stock in the ancient idiom never speak ill of the dead!

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

Despite the fact we are a long way from Guy Fawkes Night, the historically curious among you may be interested in an article I have written for the brilliant History in an Hour blog on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and Fawkes' involvement in it.

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.