Whisper of the Moon Moth – Lindsay Jayne Ashford

The latest of my 99p Amazon Daily Deals I actually started reading this some time ago and got sidetracked, which I think says something about the beginning of this book.  The book’s start is pleasant but doesn’t really grab you, making it easy to put to one side if something more interesting turns up.  This is a shame as the middle part of the book was interesting.

I should probably let you know at this stage that the book is a fictionalised biography of the life of the film star Merle Oberon from her time as a young woman in Calcutta to the point she marries the director Alexander Korda.

Before reading this I didn’t know much about who Merle Oberon was.  I vaguely remembered that she was in the film of Wuthering Heights, which I loathe because it is given a happy ending.

What I have learned from this book is that whilst she was alive Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson made sure her background was entirely fictional to hide the fact she was Anglo-Indian, which would have made her persona non grata in Hollywood.

The book takes what facts have been discovered about her and turns them into a reasonably plausible story of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book gives a good flavour of the lives of Anglo-Indian people trying to be accepted as more English than Indian to improve their lot in life.  This is interesting from a sociology perspective but the least interesting part of Estelle’s story.  And I think that because I read this section in dribs and drabs I kept forgetting who Estelle was going to become.

The parts about the young girl and her mother working out how to survive in cold, dreary London are really interesting.  This is where the story starts to come more alive as Estelle moves into the film industry and moves up the ladder, changing her name and history to facilitate it.

The book doesn’t sidestep the numerous people Merle had affaires with although it does edit some of them out and cleans them up into “love affaires” rather than rungs on the career ladder, which I suspect they were.

The most annoying parts of the book are where it casts certain people as villains of the story when there is no evidence they were, for example the part where Vivian Leigh blackmails Merle into not taking a screen test for the part of Scarlett O’Hara.  This doesn’t seem very fair to me.  It’s ok to cast villains when they are wholly fictional but not when they were once living, breathing people and there is no evidence of it.

The true end of the book occurs around the death of Oberon’s mother when she learns that her mother was actually her grandmother and her sister, long estranged from their mother, was her birth mother…and her father was still her father!  This must have been a shocking revelation, assuming Estelle grew up without knowing the truth.

The actual end of the book is a summary of what happened after this revelation and Oberon’s marriage to Alexander Korda.  This is simply a list of facts and spoiled the book for me.  I would have much preferred a suggested further reading list or a link to an online biography.

Overall, this was an interesting book but I think I would have preferred a genuine biography to this fictionalised one.


The Kindness of Strangers; The Autobiography – Kate Adie

I probably wouldn’t have bought this book but a friend left it when he’d finished reading it whilst staying with us and I happened to pick it up and start reading it without thinking much about it.  I’m so pleased I did.

I am familiar with who Kate Adie is.  She was the war journalist du jour when I was in my early 20s and famous for always wearing her pearl earrings no matter how dire the situation she found herself in.  I hadn’t given much thought to who she is and how she ended up as a war journalist.  If I had I think I would have expected her to have begun her career as a journalist on a local paper, graduated to a national and then moved into television.

The truth is more interesting and, I think, not a path open to people nowadays.

The book starts by giving an overview of growing up in Sunderland in the 1950s/60s, in a reasonably affluent household.  It really gets into its stride when Adie finishes her degree and joins the embryonic Radio Durham as a producer.  The whole experience sounds utterly chaotic, totally exhausting and a whole lot of fun.

The transition from Radio Durham to Radio Bristol to television and from producer to reporter appears to have been a matter of pure chance and of being in the right place at the right time when someone needed someone to do something and there wasn’t the time of budget to find a person with experience.  There is a strong sense of “everyone is in this together” and “we’ll find a way to make it work” ethos when Adie is talking about the BBC in the early parts of the book.

Adie herself comes across as likable and fun.  There were several laugh out loud moments in book – a bit disconcerting for fellow train passengers! – which was unexpected.  Having mainly seen Adie report from war zones I have always had the impression that she is a very serious woman.  Looks like I was much mistaken.

My main criticism of the book though is that I really don’t feel I know much about Kate Adie as a person; the “what makes her tick”, what does she enjoy doing when she isn’t reporting, who are her family.  I think this is fairly typical of an autobiography where an individual is more likely to draw boundaries between what they are happy for people to know and what remains private.  I understand the desire to do this but it does lead to an incomplete picture of the person.

However, if you want to know more about life at the Beeb when local radio was new and there were fewer rules and regulations this is an interesting place to start.

Double Cross; the true story of the D-Day Spies – Ben Macintyre

I couldn’t resist reading more about the D-Day spies after having read Operation Garbo and Ben Mackintyre seemed a good place to start; I always find his books readable and this one was no different.

I read it on the train on the way to college and found myself slightly resenting my colleague when he wanted to talk on the way home and I couldn’t read a bit more of my book without appearing really rude!

The most powerful statement in this book is somewhere near the beginning when it states that by 1943 Tar Robertson, Head of the Double Cross section of MI5 knew – not just thought or guessed but knew – that every spy the Abwehr thought they had in Britain was actually working for him.  Think about that for a moment.  I find it utterly astonishing, especially considering the Russian spies who were undetected in the higher echelons on the Secret Services!

As well as including Juan Pujol Garcia – Agent Garbo – this book tells the stories of Dusko Popov, a Serbian playboy, Roman Czerniawski, a passionately patriotic Pole, Lily Sergeyev, a bored French woman, Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, a Peruvian playgirl and Johnny Jebsen, an anti-Nazi German Abwehr officer.

The individual stories have a slightly incredible feel to them, almost a feeling of “this has to be true because you just couldn’t make it up” and yet together this group of remarkable people helped to save the lives of many of the soldiers who were part of the D-Day landings.  Their misdirections kept units of the German Army tied up away from Normandy.

The stories that stand out for me are those of Lily Sergeyev and Johnny Jebsen.

Sergeyev’s because I feel she wasn’t treated particularly well.  It is remarked upon throughout the book that double agents are a tricky bunch of people to deal with.  You have to keep them happy/occupied/interested in what they are doing to make sure they don’t become triple agents.  It doesn’t seem beyond the capability of the secret services to have turned a blind eye to Sergeyev bringing her dog into the UK.  Especially when it seems to have been the only thing she really cared for.  MI5 were lucky that Sergeyev cared more about the work she was doing than in engaging in payback.  They were fortunate that Lily was content to know she could screw things up if she wanted to.

Jebsen’s is a more difficult story.  He was a close friend of Dusko Popov and each tacitly admitted to the other they were spies without spelling it out.  Jebsen was seen as a risk by the Double Cross team, in part because he was a Abwehr officer and in part because of his lifestyle.  He knew he was at risk of being abducted by the Gestapo, because of some financial mis-doings, and of being whisked back to Germany from Lisbon.  Unfortunately, he trusted his boss in Lisbon and didn’t have time to alert the British and escape.  The Double Cross team knew Jebsen’s health wasn’t good and expected him to break easily under torture.  This happened close to D-Day and everyone in the Double Cross team was concerned that Operation Fortitude would be blown out of the water.  As well as anxiously trying to find out what had happened to Jebsen they were searching the transcripts from Bletchley to find out if their misinformation was still being believed. Against all the odds Jebsen held out and reports came in, after the war, that he was sent to Mauthausen and then Sachsenhausen.  He disappeared from there and Ian Wilson, his MI5 handler, spent until his death in 1978 trying to find out what happened to him.  A remarkable man.

This is another great and readable book about spying in WWII from Ben Mackintyre.  I would definitely recommend it if you want to know more about Operation Fortitude and the people who created it.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

I kept looking at this book for ages before I decided to buy it.  And then it sat on my pile of books to read before I decided to read it.  I wonder what it is about somethings that interest and intrigue us but not enough to compel us to immediate action?

Anyway, its time came last weekend on a flight home from Cork.  This was a perfect book for one of those times when you want to be distracted from yourself but without having to invest too many brain cells in the process of assimilating what is being read.

The basic premise of the story is that in 1922 Count Alexander Illich Rostov is sentenced to internal exile in newly Bolshevik Russia.  His place of exile is the Hotel Metropol in Moscow.  Count Alexander is safe as long as he doesn’t set foot outside the hotel doors.

The story is about Rostov’s life from 1922 to 1954.  It tells of his friendships with the hotel staff.  It portrays the growing confidence of the Bolshevik regime seen through their activities in the hotel.  It relates how old and young learn from each other when it tells the story of Rostov’s friendship with lonely child Nina and then his guardianship of her daughter Sofia.  Mostly the book tells us that it doesn’t matter how wide or narrow your physical horizons it is the openness of your mind to the possibilities life has to offer that counts.

If you discount the total improbability of someone being sentenced to imprisonment in a luxury hotel when they are accused of being an unrepentant aristocrat this is a gentle, enjoyable story of how a person’s life unfolds.

I found it frustrating not knowing what happened to Nina.  Although, having read a fair bit of the history of the Bolshevik revolutions I can guess what is likely to have happened.

I suspect this might end up being one of those comfort reads that I go back to when I’m feeling unwell or out of sorts with the modern world.

The German War: a nation under arms, 1939 – 1945 – Nicholas Stargardt

The blurb on the back of this book describes it as being a history of the ordinary people of Germany using the letters and diaries during the war years.

I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while but saving it as a bit of a treat.  More about ordinary people and less of an historians perspective on what was happening.

It didn’t work out quite like that.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting book and it does seek to understand the extent to which ordinary German citizens were bought into the Nazi ethos and what alternative beliefs were current.  It just has more of an historian’s perspective and few quoted letters and diaries than I was expecting.

The book is in 5 parts; Defend the Attack, Masters of Europe, The Shadow of 1812, Stalemate, The War Comes Home and Total Defeat.

The first shock, to me, was that to the average German citizen the British were seen as the aggressors of war who wanted to encircle and weaken Germany.  Oddly, I’ve never come across this before.  I understand that nations always find another nation to blame when they choose to start a war but I was genuinely shocked that Britain was being held accountable. Probably gross naivety on my part!

The second shock was that Viktor Klemperer comes out of the book with his image slightly tarnished.  I’ve never actually read his diaries although I know of them so hadn’t realised he actually led a very sheltered life during the war and never ended up in a KL. I recognise that it seems unfair to blame him for that stroke of luck, which allowed him to survive.  And I feel uncomfortable with my reaction.  But…

However, what mostly comes out of reading this book is that whilst things were going well most people were happy to go along with things.  When things started going badly people couldn’t see an alternative to continuing going along with things.  The Nazi propaganda machine didn’t convince all the people all of the time but it did a ruthlessly effective job at doing it for a lot of the people a lot of the time.  A useful reminder of how important it is to gather your news from multiple sources.

It wasn’t quite the book I was expecting but it was a different perspective and I’m pleased that I have read it.

Eleanor the secret Queen; the woman who put Richard III on the throne – John Ashdown-Hill

A biography of Eleanor Talbot, the woman whose alleged marriage to Edward IV meant his children by Elizabeth Woodville were illegitimate and allowed Richard III to depose his nephews.

This book tells what little is known, or can be inferred about Eleanor Talbot.

Talbot was the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury by his second wife.  Her first husband was Sir Thomas Butler, son of Lord Sudebury.  her second husband may, or may not have been the man who became Edward IV.

As is often the case with medieval woman, Eleanor is a shadowy figure and doesn’t come across as particularly interesting so it’s hard to imagine what Edward might have seen in her other than a challenge.  Her younger sister comes across as much better company!

What was interesting was understanding more about how solemnly medieval England viewed pre-contract marriages and understanding more of life in Plantagenet Britain.

Ultimately though I found the book frustrating.  I want to understand, as far as I can, just how it came about that Richard III came to his throne.  I want to understand the Court’s response to the allegations of  Edward and Eleanor’s pre-contract.  This book just doesn’t do it.  It takes too many leaps of faith and presents them as fact to cast any real illumination onto the subject.

Operation Garbo; the personal story of the most successful spy of WWII – Juan Pujol Garcia and Nigel West

This is one of those autobiographies you just couldn’t make up; no one would accept the story as it’s just so incredible.

Juan Pujol Garcia was a British double agent in WWII who managed to persuade the German Secret Service that his entirely fictitious British spy ring existed and then persuaded them to accept the fictitious information he fed them from the fictitious spy ring!

Juan Pujol Garcia was, to cut a long story short, a chicken farmer who spent the Spanish Civil War avoiding fighting for either side. At the outbreak of WWII he wanted to help defeat the Nazis, again without fighting.  He offered his services as a spy to the British, who declined.  He offered his services to the Germans who accepted and encouraged him to travel to Britain.  He claimed to have travelled but in reality was in Lisbon making up reports from hat he thought might be interesting and from consulting library books about Britain.  Britain eventually recruited him after learning about his reports from decoded Enigma messages between Madrid and Berlin.

Once recruited by MI6 his “spy ring” expanded and through it Allied High Command were able to send useful misinformation to Nazi Germany, in particular the misdirects about D-Day.

The parts of the book written by Pujol Garcia are memoir and Nigel West contributes an historian’s perspective of the same points.

I loved finding out more about Garbo and his amazing, fictitious spy ring.  It was good to get more detail about some of the things I’ve read in other books such as MacIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat.

The problem is, mainly, that this is in part an autobiography.  I got a strong sense that Pujol Garcia is telling a very sanitized version of his story and he’s very assertive about telling his reader how apolitical he was and how desperate to help Britain defeat the Nazis.  I suspect the reality was a bit more complicated.  I’m not suggesting that Garbo was not really important to the war effort, he was, but in real life people don’t just wear a white hat or a black hat, they are a combination of both.

I would definitely recommend reading this book though.

A great and terrible King; Edward I and the forging of Britain – Marc Morris

A biography of King Edward I of England, a King I know a bit about having read the biography of his first Queen, Eleanor of Castile, last year.

It is interesting to read more than one account of the same events from different perspectives and by different authors so it was useful to have what I learned from the book about Eleanor in the back of my mind whilst reading this book.

I hadn’t realised before reading this and the book about Eleanor just what an impact Edward I had on the development of the UK.  It could have become a very different nation had different decisions been made during Edward’s reign.  A policy of inclusion, rather than a policy of seeking submission, in Wales, Ireland and Scotland would have seen the 4 nations develop along very different lines.

Also, the expensive war waged by Edward to regain his Duchy of Gascony had a significant impact on the development of England as a nation-state.  Edward used every possible means to raise the money for his war and left England, Wales and Ireland in poverty to do so.

On the plus side Edward tried to make England a more law-abiding country with fewer injustices and fewer less corruption than during his father’s reign.

Edward comes across as an interesting character, full of energy and very active up until the end of his life.  He certainly doesn’t come across as a modern man although a lot of what we would see as his bad qualities now were what was expected of Kings in the 13th century.

As always with a biography of a medieval character, chunks of the book seemed quite superficial and there are a lot of inferences made about where the King might have been and why.  I understand the practicalities and lack of evidence but it does make it difficult to piece together a cohesive picture of what a person was like and I find it a bit frustrating.

On the plus side I am building up a better understand of the Plantagenet dynasty and the Kings and Queens of England.

Jack and the Beanstalk – York Theatre Royal

Yes, it’s that time of year again; the Old Jokes Home outing to the pantomime. Hurrah!

I was really looking forward to this, especially since I had 2 exams to sit during the afternoon and was in need of some light relief.

It’s fair to say that with York Theatre Royal pantomime it doesn’t really matter what the title is; it is, essentially, the same panto with the same cast playing more or less the same parts they’ve played for the last millennium just with new music and different costumes.  This pantomime has a cult following; some people have been going to see Berwick Kaler as the Dame for 39 years so the Old Jokes Home at only 9 years are merely babbies and bairns.

Firstly, it was great to see Martin Barrass back in action after missing last year’s panto following a serious motorbike accident.

Secondly, it’s great to see Berwick Kaler looking hale and hearty after his heart bypass surgery.  It wouldn’t be the same without him.

The problem with this year’s panto though is that it was clearly suffering from lack of time to prepare it properly.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it very much.  The slapstick was silly, David Leonard’s evil Dr McCarb was a wonderful baddy and there were the usual pauses whilst cast members got their giggles under control.  It just felt as though there hadn’t been time to do a proper script – I assume there is one so people have a point of reference to riff from – and the time had to be filled up with a lot of singing and dancing.  I did like “Stand by your Mam” though.

York Theatre Royal pantomime is, without doubt, a must-see event, and will continue to be.  But I really hope Berwick Kaler has a more tranquil year in 2018 and more time to write another stonkingly good panto.


Bob Harris: Still whispering after all these years – Bob Harris

A fairly candid autobiography of Bob Harris the DJ and television broadcaster.  This book tells Bob’s story from his early life, his adult personal life and his life in and around music from the 1970s up to the present day.

I’m not really old enough to “get” Bob Harris.  By the time I was old enough to watch Old Grey Whistle Test it was Janice Long presenting and the programme was past its best.  I enjoyed listening to Bob’s Saturday late night programme when it was on Radio 2.  I didn’t like all the music but I did like how eclectic it was and how knowledgeable Bob was.  I think my response to the book reflects this; don’t really get the cultural references and some of it is interesting and thought-provoking.

I did enjoy learning more about the Old Grey Whistle Test.  I loved learning that the phrase emanated from the Brill Building and the way the song writers knew if they had written a hit or not.  It was also interesting to find out how the programme was made and just how involved everyone was in the planning and execution of each one.

I liked finding out more about the music business from a non-musician’s perspective.  It adds to what I’ve learned from the autobiographies of musicians like Springsteen, Keith Richards and John Lydon.

Harris himself doesn’t come out of the book particularly well.  I think he sums it up quite well when he says he was a married man living the life of a single man.  He comes across as quite selfish and self-centred in his private life.

The book seems to run out of steam towards the end – perhaps Harris had a deadline to meet – and I think the quality of the book deteriorates.  The later chapters are a bit of a “famous people I know” fest and the writing becomes trashy-novelesque, with all friendships being “deep and meaningful” relationships; what happened to just being good friends with someone and simply enjoying their company?

Another of those 2/3s good forget the last 1/3 books.