ERA: The autobiography of R4D by J Mac Hulbert

An autobiography of a racing car!

ERA R4D is possibly one of the most famous pre-war racing cars still to be racing. Mac Hulbert owned and raced R4D from 2000 to 2015 and, I think, is the person to have owned it longest after it’s original owner, Raymond Mays.

Mays and Peter Berthon designed and developed the car in 1935 and Mays raced it until the early 1950s. Since then it has been owned by a number of rich, eccentric men, almost all who have raced in it.

I remember the car racing from various outings to Vintage Sports Car Club meets in the 1980s. One of my friends – the one who lent me this book – it a bit of an ERA nut so we always had to properly watch the races where ERAs were running and got a running commentary of which car was which.

Honestly, I would rather listen to Chris rabbit on about what he knows about ERAs than have to read this book again!

The pictures in the book are fabulous and from all eras. There are some nice potted biographies of the various people who have owned R4B or had some significant involvement it. But, my God, the book is a dry read! I’m so glad I never had to attend one of Mac Hulbert’s marketing lectures at Columbia Uni!

The bulk of the book is, regrettably, a list of the race meets where R4B has raced each season, where it was placed and any problems there were with the car. This could have been achieved in a nice, neat table placed in an appendix and the book could, and should, have been an exciting story of what the car is like to handle, the challenges of racing and about the people who made, and continue to make, this amazing car a thing of beauty.

This book is £60 on Amazon and eBay. That’s a lot of money to spend on a boring book!

Nazi Wives: the women at the top of Hitler’s Germany – James Wylie

Another 99p bargain Kindle book this is a fairly superficial biography of Eva Braun, Carin and Emmy Goering, Ilse Hess, Margaret Himmler, Lina Heydrich, Gerda Bormann, and Magda Goebbels.

Although this book skimmed over through the lives of these women it was good to read about a group of people who seem to have been forgotten about.

It was good to get a sense of where these women came from and who they were apart from adjunctions to their famous spouses.

The book considers the relationships these women had with their, mostly, womanising husbands, their relationships with each other and the jockeying for Hitler’s favour that went on in the higher echelons of the Nazi Party.

It also describes a little of what happened to those who survived the war.

All in all, this book was good value for money. I added to my knowledge of Nazi Germany and it was engaging to read. It was, as this type of group biography tends to be, frustratingly light on detail.

Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper by Donald Henderson

A murder – definitely not a mystery – novel set during World War II, this book was either a freebie or 99p Kindle download and, either way, well worth it for an afternoon’s entertainment.

The book is told from the point of view of the murderer. We know whodunnit and Mr Bowling tells us his rationale for his murders. He also tells us that he wants to be caught and stopped but each time fate intervenes to keep him out of the hands of the police.

Just as he thinks justice will never catch up with him, he meets Miss Mason, falls in love with her, realises he wants to be safe and gets brought in for questioning by the police.

Miss Mason, unexpectedly, gives Mr Bowling a false alibi and the police have to let him go whilst warning him he is a “person of interest” to them.

The book has some parts that makes you want to shout “just get on with it” but, on the whole, it clips along at a fair rate.

What made it better than the usual 99p bargain whodunnit is the ambiguity of the ending. Why did Miss Mason, barely knowing Mr Bowling, give him an alibi? Is she also a serial killer? Will Mr Bowling get his comeuppance, or will he and Miss Mason live happily every after? I like books with ambiguous endings, where I can invest any number of possible finales for the protagonists.

I enjoyed this book.

What matters in Jane Austen? By John Mullan

Periodically I like a book that delves into a topic and asks questions about it. This is one of those books.

I’m not sure how I heard about the book, but I found a picture of the cover on my phone when I was having a clear out and ordered a copy.

Mullan looks at 20 different themes ranging from how do Jane Austen’s look? to are ill people to blame for their illnesses?

The author looks for evidence from Austen’s books as well as what is known about her life, her family, and their correspondence. There are also some references to Austen’s contemporaries.

I liked the fact that the book made me think about Jane Austen’s book a bit more deeply than I have since I studied Emma for A-level English Lit. It also made me want to reread the books, which I haven’t done for years: I have a sense of anticipation at reacquainting myself with some old friends.

I didn’t like the fact that Mullan has a tendency to state as fact things I think are open to interpretation. I really don’t like being told what to think!

Overall, I’m pleased I read the book. It has given me a wider understanding of Jane Austen’s world. But, ultimately, it’s a lightweight novelty book to frivol away an afternoon with.

Wilkie by WE (Wilkie) Wilkinson with Chris Jones

A man most people won’t have heard of but who was part of the backbone of pre-War British motor sport and who was also a big part of the post-War scene.

This is the sort of autobiography where an old man has told his stories to what would now be called a ghost writer and they have been turned into a book. As with all autobiographies, this means it isn’t a complete story, some stories have, I suspect, been sanitised and others left out.

None the less it is an interesting book about a really interesting man.

Wilkie left school at 14, in 1914, because he wanted to do “war work”. He ended up working for an engineer and so began his lifelong obsession with engines.

After the war he drove and maintained buses but started working on car and bike engines, making them run better and faster.

Eventually, in the 1930s he went to work for the Evans family at Belleview Garage and helped them to set up the racing business. The 2 Evans brothers and sister, Doreen, were all well known drivers in the 1930s.

During World War II Wilkie worked on aero engines and post-war worked exclusively with racing teams: Ron Purnell, Murchison Motors, Ecurie Ecosse and finally BRM. One gets the impression that post-war life was not a happy time for Wilkie, particularly the time at BRM seems like one long struggle.

The Ultra Secret by F W Winterbotham

A slightly scandalous book when it was published in 1974, this was the first book to be written about Bletchley Park and the work carried out there during World War II.

FW Winterbotham was Head of RAF Intelligence and was actively involved in spying on newly Nazi Germany and the decoding working carried out at Bletchley.

The book was controversial because many of those who had worked at Bletchley still felt their work should remain secret under the Official Secrets Act and the records of what happened there were still sealed.

It is based on Winterbotham’s memories and notes he made during the war, presumably a series of diaries. This makes the book selective in what it covers but also interesting because it is a very personal account.

It is mostly positive about what the Ultra decrypts achieved to help the war effort and about the way information was disseminated to protect sources. This means that it also glosses over some of the more controversial decisions made, such as not to reveal that Coventry was under threat of a serious raid.

The book also skimps on details of Ultra that didn’t relate to the author’s part of the war effort. The Pacific War and how USA used Ultra barely get a mention.

If you want to know the history of Ultra, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re interested in the people who helped to set up Bletchley and what happened to information after it was decoded, I’d definitely recommend it.

An interesting book…and it’s always nice to read something that was once a bit controversial!

Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

I would probably never have read this book if it hadn’t been for my cousin giving it to me with a recommendation and wanting something easy to read during a busy work time. The premise of the book intrigues me, as someone who is interested in history: what would happen if you could go back in time, stop something awful happening and change history?

The premise of the book is that Isaac Newton developed the theory that time travel is possible but only at a particular time and a particular place where timelines coincide. The keepers of the secret are certain Cambridge Professors and at the key date and time they need to send someone back in time to change history.

Hugh Stanton, ex-Army, famous survivalist, and a man whose family has been killed in a traffic accident, is chosen to be the one who goes back in time. It is decided he needs to stop Archduke Franz Ferdinand from being killed by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in 1914.

The story unfolds and Hugh realises how disastrous his intervention has been.

The book was, for me, a definite page turner. I enjoy the “what ifs” of history and although the quality of the writing didn’t impress me it was good to read something outside my usual genres.

My partner, who is particularly interested in Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand thanks to a storytelling history teacher, was much less impressed. I suspect not a gritty enough whodunnit for him.

It doesn’t tempt me to read any other Ben Elton novels but, if you like history and a couple of quirky surprises, I’d recommend it as a good brain-down-time read.

Romeo and Juliet – The Handlebards at Kiplin Hall

Woohoo, hurray, hurrah, and lots of other positive, shouty noises. I finally got to see a live theatre performance yesterday evening.

For the last 3 years going to a Handlebards performance has become a bit of a summer tradition. It’s Shakespeare but not as you’d see it in an actual theatre.

The Handlebards usually have 2 touring companies – 4 women and 4 blokes – who cycle round the country to the Edinburgh Festival and back performing Shakespeare plays in a variety of venues.

Because of lockdown, this year has been somewhat different but 3 of the actors, who happen to live in the same house, decided to do a touring production of Romeo and Juliet.

We went to see them at Kiplin Hall near Richmond in North Yorkshire. The Hall was built in 1619, so it’s easy to imagine that touring troops of actors have performed Shakespeare’s plays on the West Lawn since it was built.

I don’t imagine that many of those productions have managed to be quite as anarchic as this one though!

It must be a challenge stripping a play as well known as this one back to its essential components so that it can be performed by 3 people. That they managed to do this is credit to the skill of the actors and director. I’d like to name check them to give them credit, but I can’t find any where on The Handlebards social media channels that tells me who they are. The actors may be Lucy, Paul, and Tom. Please, Handlebards, give them some public acknowledgement.

It reminds me why I always buy a programme when I go to the theatre. I understand why programmes weren’t available, but it’s the first time since I was 11 years old that I haven’t had a programme from a production I’ve seen.

Anyway, back to the production.

This was always going to be Romeo and Juliet played for laughs; you can’t play it serious when both Juliet and Romeo have to get up to play other parts when they’ve just died! Actually, I think the laughs, and laughing at death, is exactly what we needed whilst we are living through such uncertain times.

Extra laughs were provided as Michael tried to put on a plastic poncho as the drizzle started to settle in! I didn’t really it was such a complicated job. Not only did our party get the giggles but a few others sitting around us too.

For me, open air theatre will never replace going to see a production in an actual theatre. I miss the buzz and chatter as people start taking their seats. That expectant silence that falls as the house lights go down is magical to me. And staying dry when it’s raining outside is always a bonus.

But, since I can’t go to an actual theatre, and since I love the anarchy of The Handlebards, I’ll take what I can and recommend you do the same and get out to see them.

Click here to find out more about The Handlebards

Click here to find out more about Kiplin Hall

The photograph at the top is by Rah Petherbridge

The American Agent – Jacqueline Winspear

This is the 15th book in the Masie Dobbs series. In brief, Masie Dobbs was a servant with a penchant for reading. Her employers discovered this, educated her and, after Cambridge and World War 1, she becomes a private investigator.

I’ve read all the books: they are the type of down-time books I like to curl up with on a rainy afternoon. I loved the first nine, was a bit bored with the next three, the following 2 were so-so and this one felt as though Winspear has found her mojo again.

The book is set mainly in London during the blitz. Maisie and her friend Priscilla are driving ambulances, Priscilla’s son Tom is coming to terms with losing an arm at Dunkirk and an American journalist has been murdered.

Scotland Yard co-opt Maisie to help catch the killer against a backdrop of a serious accident for Priscilla, a romance, and an adoption.

In other words, this was, for me, a perfect book for a chilly, rainy Saturday afternoon.

October: The story of the Russian revolution – China Mieville

A history of the Russian revolution, mainly in Petrograd, from February to October 1917. This book looks at the shifting of power: individual power, that of the different parties and that of the factions within the parties.

I should have really enjoyed this book. I am fascinated by the Russian revolution and it did add to my knowledge of what was going on and what I learned from John Reid’s Ten Days That Shook the World. I didn’t enjoy it because I felt I was being lectured. It had an element of Trotsky’s didactic style about it without any of the sense of Trotsky’s passion behind the words. When I was doing my professional qualifications there was a core module I had to pass, that I had no interest in and was taught be a dry and dusty old-school lecturer. Reading this book felt a bit like going to those lectures: a chore.

To consider the positives, I did learn more about the details of the revolution and the twists and turns it took. I particularly liked the epilogue that considered where some of the key turning points might have been; the “what ifs” of history are endlessly fascinating.

Was the epilogue worth ploughing through the rest of the book? No!

If you want to read about the revolution go to John Reid’s Ten Days That Shook the World, The Russian Revolutions by David Footman or 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution edited by Boris Dralyuk.