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.

Anxiety for Beginners: a personal investigation – Eleanor Morgan

I bought this book on a whim: it was a 99p deal on Kindle and I was in the middle of a period of night time anxiety being a menopause symptom.

The one, very clear thing I learned from this book is that although my anxiety levels have stopped me sleeping, they can’t really be classed as serious. In an odd way this has helped me to sleep better.

Otherwise this book is a weird mix of boring and interesting. It has taken me about 3 months to read it because of that.

The book is in 3 parts. The first part is Eleanor Morgan’s personal journey of living with anxiety and depression from the age of 17. The other 2 sections are about the science of anxiety and how it impacts differently on different people.

Having read Morgan’s story I can’t imagine what it must be like living with high anxiety levels that impact on your ability to live life.

Overall, the book makes me think about managers and organisations struggling to support employees with mental ill health. It’s like trying to understand the shape of water.

Did I enjoy this book? No. Did I learn something from it? Sort of.

I admire Morgan for writing this book and I hope some of her readers get help and support from it. But for me its voice just didn’t reach out to me.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr, author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea, was born in Germany. Her father, a noted theatre critic had openly criticised the Nazi regime and both parents had Jewish heritage so, when her father heard a rumour their passports were going to be confiscated, the family fled.

This book is the fictionalised account of their journey from Berlin to Switzerland, where they lived for a while, to Paris, where they lived in poverty and finally to Britain.

The book gives a clear picture of the privileged lifestyle the family lived in Berlin and maps the rapid changes in fortunes as both parents struggle with their changed circumstances; the father finds it difficult to get work and the mother to come to terms with having to do the housework after living a life with servants.

I loved the child’s eye view of what was happening. There is a real sense of the child accepting what has happened but not understanding it. This is a picture of the Nazification of Germany and the gathering storm clouds of World war 2 from a different perspective. As an adult I know what’s coming, which informs how I read this book.

I wonder if I would have read the book differently had I read it as a child? How much of it would I have understood?

I would certainly have identified with Anna’s regret over choosing to take her new doll on their flight to Switzerland and leaving the beloved pink rabbit behind in Berlin to be, in the child’s head, stolen by Hitler.

The book finishes when the family arrive in London. It’s slightly frustrating not knowing what happened next. Also, what happened to their friends in Zurich and Paris. And did the grandparents in the south of France survive?

Overall, this book is a good introduction for children to some of the themes of WW2. It’s well written, as you would expect from Judith Kerr and I would definitely recommend it.

NB The photograph at the top is of the family whilst they lived in Berlin. Judith is sitting on her mother’s knee and Max, her brother, on their father’s.

The Daisy Dalrymple series by Carola Dunn

As well as period school stories my other favourite comfort reading is a good period murder mystery story.

The Daisy Dalrymple series ticks lots of boxes for me: it doesn’t take too much brainpower to read them, I can read one in an afternoon, I like the main characters and you always kind of know where they’re going.

I haven’t reread any of these books for ages so, in the early days of lockdown, I had a bit of a binge read and read 12 on the trot. I should probably have stopped at 10 as the last 2 felt a bit tedious.

Because it’s a while since I last read these books I’d sort of forgotten the plots and enjoyed rediscovering them and seeing how long it took me to remember who the murderer was. I also enjoyed getting to know Daisy, Alec and their friends again.

I also spotted, for the first time, the link between Daisy and Jane Austen, which I’m quite chuffed at.

I enjoyed rereading these books. I still like the series. Time for something that involves switching my brain on again!

Castle School series by Sylvia Little

If you’ve read my blog before you’ll know that one of my favourite comfort reading options is period school stories so I was delighted to find this new-to-me series.

I’m not sure where I picked it up from but I was clearing out photos on my phone and found a picture of what turned out to be the second book in the series.

I don’t really like reading a series out of order but when I found and bought The Twins at Castle School I didn’t realise there was a series and that this wasn’t the first. Serves me right for not having done my research I guess!

Even more frustrating I can’t find a copy of the 6th book in the series – Castle School on the War Path – so if anyone hears of one please let me know.

The basic premise is that a boarding school has a girls section at one end of town and a boys at the other. Under a previous Head the girls and boys were forbidden from mixing. Under the new they are encouraged and encouraged to learn to become responsible members of society.

I liked the fact that there is an expectation that the girls will have careers and that they are encouraged to take on responsibilities. There is some of the casual sexism of the period they were written (1940s) but it isn’t too intrusive.

The series follows a group of friends through several terms. I found this slightly confusing as the main group are seniors and include the Head Girl and House Prefects. To me, this suggests they are Senior Sixth form. But the books cover more than 3 terms, which suggests not. But why would you have a Head Girl and her senior prefects from lower down the school?

The friends are mainly credible characters except Smokey the male lead. I found him really annoying and a bit of a bully, so I don’t understand why he is seen as such a leader.

Smokey apart, I enjoyed following this group of friends as they learn about responsibility and have improbable adventures. I great way to while away a few hours at the beginning of lockdown.

Now I just need to get hold of the missing book…

Click here to find out some surprising facts about Sylvia Little