Fast Women; the drivers who changed the face of motor racing – John Bullock

I started reading about women racing drivers years ago when I was bought a book called The Woman and the Car by Dorothy Levitt, originally published in 1909 and designed to help women maintain their cars.  I was fascinated by the fact that in the early part of 20th century a woman had been a successful works team driver for the Napier team.  Dorothy Levitt has been one of my role models since reading her book.  The picture at the top of this article is of her.

Then, last year, a friend bought a pre-war MG and asked me to research it and the history of the previous owners, trying to find a racing pedigree for the car.  We haven’t quite managed to do that yet but my research has led me to find out about other women racing drivers of the early 20th century, many of whom are in this book.

The book is an odd mish-mash of fact and chatty reminiscences.  It doesn’t cover the lives of all, or even most, of the women drivers I have come across.  It doesn’t give all the drivers equal space. And, I think, the author has his favourites amongst the drivers; possibly those he knew.  In a lot of ways this reflects my experience of trying to find out about the women who raced MGs; they have disappeared into the mists of time, written out of history by the disappearance of the marques they drove for and the increasing, post-WWII of sexism in motor sport.

Anyway, soap-box moment over!

The book is an interesting read.  It starts with Camille du Gast, the French adrenaline-junkie who was the first woman to complete a parachute jump (in 1895) as well as racing cars and boats.

Much to my delight there is a chapter on Dorothy Levitt, giving me more information about her away from the race track.  I didn’t know she got into racing because she was a temporary secretary at Napier when Selwyn Edge was looking for a British woman to rival Camille du Gast!

I was also pleased to find part of a chapter covering the life of Margaret Allan; she was a member of the all-women MG Le Mans team of 1935.  She also worked at Bletchley Park during WWII, which provides a nice link to something else I’m interested in.

Another gripe about the book is that although it is supposed to a book about women racing drivers there are far too many diversions into what their menfolk were doing in the racing world.  If I was being charitable I would say these parts were to fill gaps where there is little or no information about the women.  I could also say that it is indicative of the chauvinist world of motor racing!

To summarise, you will probably have guessed that I like this book because it gives me more information about a subject I am really interested in.  I dislike it because it shows how little the racing world cares about a group of drivers who were remarkable for their achievements regardless of their gender.  As a work of literature it is poor, yet it kept me interested and engaged throughout.

Click here for an interesting article on early motoring from Sunday Times


The Lady Penelope – Sally Varlow

A biography of Lady Penelope Devereux, sister to the Earl of Essex, who was Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite.

Sally Valow claims she wants to reclaim Lady Penelope from the vilification started by Robert Cecil during the reign of James I.  The book covers what is known of her life, or what can be inferred, from various letters, other people’s diaries, Court records and legal records.

Lady Penelope was born into a privileged circle.  She had royal connections and her parents were favourites of Queen Elizabeth – at least whilst her father was alive.  After the death of Lord Hereford her mother married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and incurred the wrath of the Queen!  Despite this both Penelope and her brother, Robert Earl of Essex, were popular at Court.

Penelope was married to Lord Rich, a wealthy landowner with Puritanical tendencies, for dynastic reasons but later fell in love with Lord Mountjoy who she had a long and happy relationship with.  During the reign of James I she and Lord Rich were divorced, almost unheard of at the time, on the understanding neither would marry again.  Penelope broke this agreement by marrying Lord Mountjoy and thus offended King James, bringing to an end her glittering Court career.

In a lot of respects Penelope was a very modern woman.  She was intelligent, educated and a political “mover and shaker”.  At the time of the Essex plot against Queen Elizabeth she was believed to have been one of the instigators and plotters.

I didn’t find the book particularly gripping or easy to read.  Somehow Lady Penelope never quite came off the page, which is disappointing for someone who must have been a vibrant character in her lifetime.

I did however enjoy understanding more about Elizabeth’s Court and the key players in it during the Queen’s later years.

Click here to find out more about the Essex Rebellion

Click here to read Sir Philip Sidney’s poems about Penelope


Casino Royale – Ian Fleming

Casino Royale is the first Bond novel I ever read.  I think must have been about 15 when I read it and I remember being shocked by how dark and sadistic it was in parts.  It was certainly much darker than the Connery, Lazenby and Moore films I grew up watching with my father.  So, when Amazon offered it as a 99p Kindle deal I thought I would reread it.

It’s always interesting to go back to the source material when you’ve seen a film version of something; what has been altered, left out and added in can tell you a lot about the gap between publication and reaching the big screen.  I’m quite fond of the recent cinema version of Casino Royale, which might possibly have something to do with Daniel Craig, and I think it’s a good addition to the canon of Bond movies.

I found the book to be an uncomfortable read.  It isn’t just the dark sadism of the beating and torture Bond receives at the hands of Le Chiffre (something glossed over lightly in the film) but the dark and deep-rooted sexist, anti-woman language that peppers the book.  As an example Bond is described as feeling that making love to the cold Vesper Lynd would be like raping her anew every time and that he was excited at the thought.  What a repellent and abhorrent concept.  I know the book was written in a different era with different social norms but I’m loathe to believe this was acceptable and accepted even in the 1950s!

I really regret rereading this book and I will find it hard to displace the images and feelings it created when I next watch the film.

On the plus side, it has saved me a fortune as I was seriously contemplating buying the original hardback Bond novels as my next collection!

Winter Men – Jesper Bugge Kold

This is another of my 99p Kindle Daily Deal purchases and one that at first I regretted buying.

I started reading the book at least 3 times and then set it aside wondering what had induced me to read it.

It seemed to be about a former Nazi who had escaped to somewhere in South America, grown old and then died.  But it seemed to be being told by someone who didn’t know him other than by watching the man go about his daily routine.

Typically, I got into the book when it was just about all that was available to read on a flight.  Once I got beyond the beginning, at the end of the life of one of the main characters, the real story began.

It is the story of the Strangl family from Hamburg.  The main characters are Karl, Gerhard and August.  Karl and Gerhard are brothers and August is Karl’s son. At the beginning of the book Karl is running the family clothing business and trying to accommodate the Nazis to win contracts from them.  Gerhard is a mathematics Professor at the university and a published author of a mathematics book.  August is an introverted child ill at ease within a society that values macho-military skills.

Via different routes both Karl and Gerhard end up working for the SS and August ends up in the army.  Karl ends up on the Eastern Front managing a supply chain.  August is also in Russia and a very frightened, inept soldier.  Gerhard ends up managing the logistics of moving Jews to Concentration Camps and then working in a Camp.

Gerhard is the only one to survive and he is the man who escapes to South America, the character at the beginning of the book.

I think overall the book is inconsistent.  Some parts are absorbing and interesting whilst others you read simply to get through to the next interesting bit.  I’m pleased I read it although I probably won’t seek out another book by this author.

The bit that lingers with me is the recognition that all of these characters were complicit in the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime but they are not monsters.  They are “normal” people sucked into doing extraordinary, dreadful things.  It’s chilling to read how easily it might happen.

Tom Kerridge’s Dopamine Diet: My low-carb, stay-happy way to lose weight – Tom Kerridge

As a TV chef I like Tom Kerridge.  He comes across as a normal, cheerful soul who enjoys life.  I also enjoy watching his cookery programme and think his food always looks like something you’d actually want to eat.

I’ve also been really impressed with how much weight he has lost, which is partly why we bought his diet book.

It’s probably important at this stage to point out that I see cookery books as reading matter rather than a book of recipes to try out.  I occasionally have a go but not very often; I once made a New Year resolution to cook from a recipe book at least once a month.  It lasted exactly 1 month!

I did have the best of intentions to actually try some of the recipes.  The problem is that some of the best sounding dishes were the omelettes…and my partner is allergic to eggs, which makes them a no-go area.  Even the smell of them makes him ill.

The other problem is that the recipes are quite chef-y – time consuming and requiring ingredients that aren’t commonly available to non-chefs living in a rural village unless you plan well In advance.

As a book I enjoyed reading about how Kerridge created his diet to work for him and his lifestyle.  I liked the creativity he used to make sure his taste buds were satisfied by what he was eating.

As a diet I liked the fact the author was visible proof that it worked. But as a diet it really doesn’t work for two people who travel quite a distance to work and can’t be bothered to do too much to prepare and cook an evening meal when they eventually arrive home.  Neither does it really work for two people who don’t have great culinary skills.

Flesh and Blood – Patricia Cornwell

I’m sorry but this is going to be more a rant than a book review!  I used to really love the Kay Scarpetta books of Patricia Cornwell but really!  Just how many dead people can you bring back to life in one series!  And how unlucky can one person be to have all of these not quite dead people either in her life or after her life!

Each new book seems to have a storyline more preposterous than the last.  This series is getting silly and I just can’t be bothered to read any more to see if it gets back on track.

At the start of the series I thought Kay Scarpetta was a great central character.  She was portrayed as an intelligent, savvy woman with sharp instincts and skills.  She now appears to be a hopeless judge of character – my HR-focussed brain screams out that given the number of employees she’s had who turn out to be psychopaths this woman should never be allowed within 5 miles of a selection panel – and such a terrible person that half the population of the eastern seaboard are out to get her.

And, worst of all, it’s put me off re-reading the early books, which I enjoyed and were regular “comfort” reads.

Sorry, Ms Cornwell, but it’s time to retire Scarpetta before you become a laughing-stock as an author.

The Penguin Lessons – Tom Michell

A book bought on a whim simply because of the cute picture on the front.  And worth every penny!  I loved this book.

I should probably say that it is aimed at young adults so don’t expect anything too deep and meaty but it is a heart-warming, true story about a teacher who rescues a penguin from an oil-slicked beach.  Once he’s rescued the bird and cleaned it up he tries to return it the ocean but it just turns around and follows him back.

Eventually, Tom decides to try to smuggle the penguin across the border from Uruguay to the school in Buenos Aires where he is teaching.  When he gets back to the school everyone, pupils and staff alike, welcome the bird into the community.  Juan Salvador, as the penguin is named, becomes confidante, companion and confidence builder for the boys.  It is a story of how humans interact with other animals and how they respond to us.

This was the perfect book to read at the start of a new job; engaging, interesting, enough new things to learn but not too challenging.  I enjoyed it hugely, although I might have found it a bit lightweight had I read it with my brain not bent out of shape through learning my new job.

The bits of the book I didn’t enjoy relate to the beginning – I’m scared of dead birds so a description of Michell finding a beach full of them was, frankly, terrifying! – and another bit that I can’t reveal without spoiling the book for people who haven’t read it.

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who is interested in animals, Gerald Durrell-type books and similar or anyone who wants a cosy book to curl up with.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan

This isn’t the kind of book I would normally choose but something about it called to me from a charity shop bookshelf; probably the fact that it is about a bookshop!

Essentially, the plot revolves around a young man – Clay Jannon – stumbling into a night-shift job at the eponymous bookshop.  The bookshop is an old mysterious play with not many customers although those there are, are odd.

To amuse himself Clay designs a 3D computer model of the bookshop and unwittingly cracks a code.

The book then becomes more of a thriller than a book about a bookshop.

I enjoyed about 2/3 of this book.  Mr Penumbra, Clay and Clay’s random assortment of friends are quite engaging and I liked the way Clay pulled his network together to help solve the problems they faced.

I liked the descriptions of the bookshop as well.  It’s the kind of place I like to visit and I could almost smell that lovely, musty old book scent from the descriptions.

I didn’t like the last 1/3 of the book.  I felt it all got a bit silly and ridiculous.  It almost felt as though one person had written the first part, put it away for a decade or so and then either come back to finish it having evolved into a different person or got someone else to finish writing it.  I feel slightly cheated by it; I found the first parts absorbing and looked forward to picking my book up again only to hit loony tunes-ville in the last part.

Would I recommend this book?  Yes, but, a bit like A Suitable Boy, with reservations about the ending.

Salome – Oscar Wilde – Directed by Owen Horsley for RSC

I’m really not sure where to start writing this week’s blog.  My partner came out of the theatre saying he didn’t understand the point of Salome being played by a man.  My question was more fundamental; I didn’t get the point of the play!

I don’t think this is particularly a problem with the play.  I think it’s mostly about me and the fact that I’m emotionally knackered with other stuff going on in my life just now.  I just don’t think I had the capacity to engage with what was happening on the stage.

I think this was a useful reminder to me that whatever we watch, read or listen to there needs to be a level of emotional engagement with it for us to either “get it” or reject it.  Salome simply washed over me.

Thinking back over the production I recognise that the acting was good.  Matthew Pidgeon was good as Herod; drunk as a skunk and fascinated by his step-daughter in the early parts of the play and rapidly sobered by the horrific demands of the step-daughter for Iokanaan’s head.

Matthew Tennyson was interesting as Salome; an air of innocence on the cusp of adulthood ripening to thwarted, manipulative lust during the dance.

The words of the play are beautifully poetic and evocative.  At some point, when I can uncover the Complete Oscar Wilde book and a Bible from my piles of books, I’d like to go back to the sources and reflect on how Wilde draws from the Bible and how Owen Horsley draws on both for his production.

In the meantime, note to self; spend some time catching up with myself so next time I’m at the theatre I’m in the right frame of mind!

Click here to find out more about RSC production of Salome

Double for Murder – John Creasey

This review isn’t really about the novel but about John Creasey, a prolific author of 562 books!

I was first introduced to John Creasey (and his various pseudonyms) by my Dad when I was a young teenager.  I’d grown out of children’s books but wasn’t really ready for adult books and there was no such thing as young adult fiction in the mid-1970s.  I’d read every Agatha Christie I could lay my hands on, polished off all the Leslie Charteris the local library had in stock and was at a bit of a loose end.  The Baron and the Toff series came along at the exactly the right time and I have collected most of both series since that time.

The books were written between the late 1930s and late 1970s and are dated and sexist in a similar way to the Saint novels of Charteris.  Unlike Charteris, however, the women are not always damsels in distress in need of rescuing.  In fact John Mannering’s wife is a partner in a lot of the later stories.  Both The Toff and The Baron are similar in many ways to The Saint.  They use the skills of criminals to bring justice and retribution to people the Police can’t touch.  And they often work with a tame detective who had previously been trying to bring them down.

The books are short and perfect for those times when you want something to read that isn’t too taxing – they are a definite improvement on daytime TV when you’re slumped on the sofa feeling poorly!  But you don’t want to read too many of them in one sitting or you realise just how formulaic they are.

What interests me is just why The Saint books remain so popular when the John Creasey ones have fallen out of fashion?  They are no better written, no less formulaic and clichéd yet they seem to have endured.  My guess is it’s down to the lovely, late Roger Moore.

May be I should start a campaign to get some of the John Creasey’s reissued?

Click here to find out more about John Creasey