In her discussion of Stonehenge, Liz Williams writes: “There is a legend that Merlin simply flew the entire circle from Ireland, which I think we can rule out.” This is typical of her approach. She is not embarrassed by the unprovable, but has a robust attitude to the wilder flights of fancy.
Thus, she makes judicious assessments of, for instance, claims that present magic accesses ancient knowledge (weak), and considers what we can actually know about druidic practices (not much for sure), but she does find the roots and traces of pre-christian spirituality in a culture which didn’t take notes.
We are on much firmer ground when it comes to witchcraft, wicca and cunning folk, and Liz is able to tidy up Tim’s confusion between them.
You have to salute a debut novel that swaggers its ambition. Boasting the subtitle “A quantum whodunnit”, Decoherence duly boasts chapters called ‘Entanglement’, ‘Wave Function’, ‘Entropy’ and so on. Our hero, Sirius Peabody, is a theoretical physicist, and his way of seeing the world is very much the substrate of this cheerful murder mystery. Chris Kirkham has great fun with this: “The whole police approach defied the laws of physics”, says Sirius at one point. And since the police are notoriously Newtonian in their approach to crime, Peabody and his new best friend, the lovely Annabelle Bronte (yes, she has a sister) feel compelled to try to solve the crime with reference to the wave-particle duality and super-positioning. It sounds more high falutin’ than it really is. Chris never lets the physics get in the way of the phun.
To have been young in London in the 1960’s must have been very heaven. At least if you had a yen to see live music in clubs and pubs and a dilapidated hotel on an island in the River Thames. The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Cream, Pink Floyd… (stop me when it gets dizzying). The city was a musical crucible, taking American jazz and blues, English folk and whimsy, and a host of European influences, and transmuting them into the spun gold of classic rock, with a little help from art colleges and a couple of fellows named Marshall.
Stephen Tow and Tim Haigh are both young enough to have missed the party, and old enough to have gazed backwards wistfully from the late ‘70’s at what seemed then (and to be honest, seems still) a golden age. They share their enthusiasm via a transatlantic Skype connection.
Well-behaved women don’t make history, and we need to be a bit grown up about our approach to feminism. That is the starting point of the new book from Helen Lewis. Lewis is a trenchant and thoughtful journalist, and also an amusing and witty contributor to satirical BBC shows. Happily both these sides of her outlook are on display in this entertaining book. By focussing on eleven of the struggles that have got us this far in the quest for an equal society – Divorce, Education, Abortion, Safety and so on – she discusses the history, the current issues, the state of play and the women who got us here in a terrifically readable way. Polemical, funny and extremely well-informed.
Barry Forshaw is one of the UK’s leading experts on crime fiction. Writer, commentator, editor, broadcaster and enthusiast, his fingerprints are everywhere. If anybody knows where the bodies are buried, it is he. Why is crime fiction the most popular of all genres? It’s a mystery, an enigma, a puzzle. And every puzzle has a solution. Tim Haigh pounded the mean streets and leant on his informers, he sifted the evidence and demolished the alibis, he kissed the femme fatale and sent the samples to the forensic lab to be… forensicced, and eventually he felt Barry’s collar, hauling him down the nick for a little chat. We find them face to face across a plastic table in a drab interview room with the two-way mirror and the dual tape recorder.
You have to wonder why the office of Prime Minister is so coveted. While many politicians aspire to Number Ten, more or less all the Prime Ministers in this book spent at least some of their time in office in political Hell. And yet they typically cling on to office like grim death, and in some cases never get over its loss.
Steve Richards, the most thoughtful and incisive of journalists and commentators, has written a detailed and hugely entertaining study of the nine Prime Ministers of the modern era, from Harold Wilson to Theresa May.
Packed with anecdote and analysis, and unashamedly fascinated by
the elements of leadership required to succeed, Steve’s book sets out to
explode the easy caricatures and show the abilities and qualities each Prime
Minister brought to the job, and why they were so often not the right
In an overview of the great political thinkers of the ages, comprising thirty of the most trenchant minds in history, you would imagine that there would be room for the Sage of Hounslow. But for some reason Plato, Aquinas, Hobbes and Kant are all preferred to Tim Haigh, who doesn’t rate a chapter to himself. Go figure.
“Politics”, wrote Lord Roseberry, “…is an evil-smelling bog.” It is the thesis of this brisk tour d’horizon that on the contrary, ideas matter in political discourse, and the writers pursue this notion with a kind of Plutarch’s lives of great philosophers. Highly readable, and with a subtly understated agenda – that the greatest political thinking of the past might provide a sort of corrective to the malaise of the present nadir – How To Think Politically is an elegant primer in the field.
It is not unusual in Silicon Valley for head office to lay on dinner for the employees. The cost is nugatory in these fabulously money-rich tech companies and it encourages people to work past quitting time, and eat before going home. It is typical of Travis Kalanick, founder of Uber, that he gave this practice a twist – he stipulated that dinner would not be served before 8:15 p.m. And that story is about the most benign thing we learn about him in Mike Isaac’s wonderfully lucid account of Kalanick and the business he built in his own monstrous image. Dazzling growth, commitment to excess, chicanery, toxic culture, contempt for the rules and a single-minded determination to fight dirty and win big, Uber may be the most egregious exemplar of the great Silicon Valley enfants terribles.
Have you taken an Uber recently? … Are you sure you still want to?
“I’d like to say Thank You on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.” John Lennon on the roof of the Apple Building on January 30th 1969 at the end of the last public Beatles performance. It had been the Greatest Show on Earth, but what if it hadn’t happened? What if the Beatles had not passed the vital 1962 audition with George Martin at Parlophone which got them their recording deal? As well as being a friend of the Beatles, Ray Connolly is exactly contemporary with them, and comes from the same part of the world. He has a terrific feel for the time and place and a marvellous ear for Beatle talk. Sorry, Boys, You Failed the Audition is a delightful novella about the boys getting on with their lives, and one woman’s determination that their music should be heard.
Incidentally, this book was also a Radio Play on the BBC.
15,000 years ago, Britain was a very different place. The ice age was ending, and the country was lush and untamed. Sea level was then so low that Dogger Bank, in the North Sea, was then Doggerland, and our ancestors lived there, sharing the land with a dazzling variety of megafauna – big animals to you and me. And what a cast list – lions, wolves, woolly mammoths and rhinos, bears and bison and many more. For palaeontologist, Dr Ross Barnett, this was barely yesterday. Unlike the dinosaurs, people exactly like us met these animals and knew them. They have only just disappeared. By turns elegiac, scientific, enthusiastic and indignant, The Missing Lynx is a wonderfully accessible picture of this lost fauna, and the story of what happened to them.
In the privacy of my complacency, I am pleased to count myself moderately bright – not Stephen Fry clever but, you know, able to tie my own shoelaces and read without moving my lips. So it is bracing for me to venture from time to time into areas of learning where I find myself very much the pedestrian, and the reason I do here is because I am very interested in the matter of how algorithms impact upon our lives and in the relation between artificial intelligence and human consciousness.
Rob Smith is a bona fide expert in evolutionary algorithms. He has helped create software systems that learn fighter jet manoeuvres, describe immune system behaviour, reveal emotion in financial markets and explain how social networks propagate political polarisation.
Despite their ubiquity, algorithms are not well understood by the general population. They are now so complex that nobody can properly unpack them, and they display emergent properties that no-one can predict or control. Rob Smith has written a magnificently lucid book explaining how we got here and showing what algorithms are and what they are not. Carefully delineating how they were developed, and what assumptions and prejudices underlie them, he has written a timely and engaging book for the interested layman. Me, in other words.
What is the purpose of debate? Is it to convince somebody, somewhere of something, or is it merely to undermine the other side and bolster your own prejudices?
You may have noticed that political discourse is not always conducted in a civil and measured manner. Especially when the participants are physically removed from each other, say via journalistic writing or social media. In particular, right-wing polemicists are fond of throwing around terms like ‘libtards’, and claiming to have ‘crushed’ or ‘destroyed’ their opponents. There is an unattractive swagger to the claims of some of these people to have exclusive title to the use of logic. Ben Burgis, a philosophy PhD and avowedly Marxist, thinks that the left needs to work on its debating chops.
In his feisty little book he discusses the way that the right has claimed the high ground of dispassion, and proposes approaches and tools for countering this unwarranted security. Taking aim at the traditional leftist hostility to the very notion of logic, and such right-wing bêtes noire as Ben Shapiro, Burgis takes up the cudgels on the side of the angels. “Don’t mistake this book as a plea for civility” he writes. Not much danger of that, Ben.
We all have our guilty pleasures. Mine include horror films, prog rock and, for the purposes of this interview, comic books. For me it was American super-heroes: Batman and the Fantastic Four and speech balloons screaming, “Mortal, I say thee nay!” and “Not all my power can save me!” But actually, comic books have come a long way since the cheap paper and four-colour separation of my childhood. They are glossier, they are more detailed, much better presented, and much more expensive. Joel Meadows takes a tour of some of the finest and most illustrious practitioners of the art of graphic story-telling, bearding them in their lairs – or ‘studios’ – exploring their techniques and work-spaces in a sumptuously illustrated volume. From stalwarts of the industry such as Bill Sienkiewicz and Walt Simonson to current stars like Frank Quitley and Frank Cho, he takes us right to their drawing-boards. It is a lovely book and it vividly reminds us what we liked about comic-books in the first place – the drawings.
Joel highlights some upcoming events. We will list them here as information becomes available:
A man can travel well and he can travel badly*. The hero of Randy Ross’s God Bless Cambodia is on the ‘badly’ end of the scale. At 48 Randy Burns is tired of ‘the miserable game’ (dating). He has been laid off from his job. His friends are getting paired up and unavailable to him. And then in a bookshop he comes across a travel guide that promises marvels and delights if he were to take a four month tour of the world on the cheap. It is lying. A succession of red-eye flights takes Randy through South America, Europe, Africa and the far east, searching for romance, but more often discovering that he had arrived out of season. Randy, the author, mines a rich seam of comedy in the misery of a certain kind of American man out of his comfort zone. Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson it is not. But then maybe Bill Bryson has never tried to hire a ‘money-honey’ girlfriend in Thailand. Tim talked with Randy on skype while somebody was fixing Randy’s roof. With a hammer. *Women always travel well.
When we use the word ‘philosophy’ what we usually mean is “western philosophy’. But as the philosopher and bestselling author Julian Baggini points out in his new book, western philosophy accounts for only around 20% of the world’s population. Other peoples have other philosophical traditions, and as Dr Baggini argues, the underlying philosophical assumptions inform and shape the ways we think and live, even if we never consider them.
Tim is perhaps the ideal reader for this book, insofar as he is
fairly parochial in his philosophical outlook, and he found it stimulating to
be asked to consider the bigger picture and see how other traditions chime
with, contrast with, and shine a light on the western outlook. He found it
rewarding and enlightening, and he couldn’t wait to tackle some of the issues
in conversation with the writer, and also to take up the cudgels on behalf of
“Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? We will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’. Thank you, mister man, they said, thanking him.” So wrote John Lennon, shortly before he became the most famous man on the planet.
And that’s all the background you’re getting. Tim is a self-confessed Beatles anorak. Many people have Chekhov’s Revolver on their mantelpiece, but only Tim has Stanislavski’s Sgt Pepper and Dostoevsky’s Rubber Soul as well. And he is only too delighted to delve into the minutiae of John Lennon’s life with a fellow… anorak.
There are countless Lennon biographies, which variously just map out the events of his life, or in lurid terms portray a monster, or a broken child or a grotesque. Being John Lennon is not a memoir, but a full-scale life by a man who knew Lennon well, as a friend, and shows him as a human being. Ray Connolly met the Beatles when they were making Magical Mystery Tour, and he was one of the journalists Lennon regularly turned to when he wanted to talk. And Lennon loved to talk. About the Beatles, about Paul McCartney, about Yoko Ono, about May Pang, and everything else in his life. But mostly about John Lennon.
On the personal level Tom Kirkham was already having a bad year. He was feeling his mental health wobbling. And Tom Idolised Prince. He was devastated. He felt the urgent need to do something to give his life structure and purpose. So he decided to attend a live music gig every week for the next year. Music is Tom’s balm and his passion. And with this plan he at least knew what he had to do. No matter how he felt, he had to get to that gig. Pop Life is a heartfelt, funny, ever so slightly crazed chronicle of that intense year.
John Maynard Keynes said, “Above all, let finance be primarily national.” Keynes understood the dangers of unfettered finance, and if he’d had his way the Bretton Woods system of international controls would have been still stronger. In his new book, the distinguished journalist and commentator, Robert Kuttner, writes, “Government needs to explicitly assert its right to prevent global laissez-faire forces from undermining its capacity to devise and broker a decent social compact at home.”
Kuttner’s book brilliantly sketches the construction before and after the Second World War of a system in which capitalism was effectively regulated and delivered widespread benefits, at least within the western democracies, and its dismantlement in the period since the mid-70’s. He shows with admiral lucidity how and why the free-trade shibboleths captured the centre-left and acquired the power to hugely favour a tiny and very narrow section to the disadvantage of the overwhelming majority.
We can see the results in the election of President Trump, in Brexit and in the rise of ultra-nationalist far-right parties in Europe and beyond. The dangers are obvious, and Kuttner draws disturbing parallels with the rise of fascism in the thirties. Can democracy survive? Tim was hoping to ask him that very question.
When we visit Toby Litt in his office at Birkbeck University of London he tells us that all the books in the building have had to be removed because the Georgian building can’t take the weight. All, it seems, except those in his office, which appears to be single-handedly keeping the faith. This seems right. Toby is very much a man of literature – he teaches creative writing at Birkbeck and he has published thirteen fine novels and collections of stories. But Toby’s new book is not fiction. It is by turns a meditation on his ancestry, the meaning of being a father, an examination of the neglected sport of Cumberland and Westmoreland Wrestling, an essay on writing and a treatise on masculinity. Somehow it all adds up..
You might think it eccentric to speak of a golden age of satanic possession, murderous infants, flesh-eating crustaceans and Nazi leprechauns, but for enthusiasts of paperback horror novels, the 70’s and 80’s were the glory days. This was a time of the most lurid nightmares spawned, it seemed, from the very bowels of Hell. This was a time when books were proud to be horror rather than ‘chiller’ or ‘thriller’, and when the word Satan on the cover was a guarantee of sales (even if there was nothing supernatural inside). Grady Hendrix has written a hugely entertaining history and celebration of this splendid time. We talked to Grady via skype from a restaurant kitchen in downtown New York. At least that’s where he said he was… we haven’t visited our basement since. Continue reading →
Christopher Fowler is a good friend of this site, having appeared with us three times already. But then, he will keep writing books that we find irresistible. This time he has assembled an Aladdin’s Cave of writers who have been neglected in one way or another. Some of them have been completely forgotten, as the title suggests – Rosalind Erskine anybody? – but then there are the writers whose names are familiar, but whose books we have forgotten to read – Ronald Firbank, Leslie Charteris? – or who have fallen out of favour (or print) – Dennis Wheatley, Sven Hassell, Barbara Pym?
This is catnip to Tim. He dived into the contents list like a kid in a sweetshop, finding the authors he has read, noting the ones he should have, and discovering some he is certainly going to. He got together with Chris in his palatial, minimalist flat to discuss their shared enthusiasm over a cup of tea.
You might think a man who had a couple of Dr Who serials under his belt (1980’s – the Sylvester McCoy era), might rest on his laurels, but like the rest of us Ben Aaronovitch has a living to make. Ben has a solid CV of writing for television and TV spinoffs, but he has recently been making serious waves with his series of supernatural police procedural novels and graphic novels, starting in 2011 with Rivers Of London. He allows that the success of these Peter Grant books has considerably exceeded his expectations. But we’re not surprised. There is always room for well-written, funny, urban fantasy, right?. We met Ben at his publishers in Blackfriars to discuss the latest instalment – The Furthest Station. Continue reading →
Steve Richards has presented a series of half hour broadcasts for the BBC about British prime ministers, which he delivers as live and without a script or even notes. They are brilliantly insightful, and wonderfully fluent. With characteristic modesty, Steve says that any of us might have made these programmes, on the grounds that we all lived through those times. He is wrong. He is among our most distinguished and trenchant political journalists, and I doubt that there are six people in the country who could have made them.
His new book considers the most fascinating development of recent politics – the rise of the outsider. A loss of trust and faith in the mainstream, he says, is a trend and he considers how the political mainstream has lost its mojo while the agenda has been hijacked by individuals and organisations that in times past would never have come close to power. Essentially, says Steve, the centre-left and the centre-right in one case abandoned ideology and in the other lurched into incoherence. In this interview, we discuss how this happened, what it is doing and what it is going to mean.
Since his Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution, Robert Newman’s entirely iconoclastic re-examination of the evidence has excited readers and listeners with its unashamed linking of the science with wider issues, specifically socio-political ones. In his latest book, Neuropolis – a brain science survival guide, Newman targets a sub-species of pop-neuroscience that he dubs bro-science – a pessimistic, denigrating take on the brain that is based more on macho posing than on research. He sets out to destroy it using proper science. Continue reading →
“Since his death in 1960, Timothy J Haigh has been widely recognised as the least gifted of the great mystery novelists of the golden age of travel writing…” So begins the introduction to Z is for Zeugma. Yes, Tim has killed himself off for fun.
Switching chairs for the purpose, he finds himself as interviewee rather than -er, for this playful little book. John Mindlin is obliged to step and ask the questions just this once.
In this not-really-a-novel-at-all Tim gives free rein to his propensity for embracing any joke that occurs to him in a loose narrative that sends up every cliché of crime writing, and quite a lot of several other genres.
“Z is for Zeugma is the first of (Tim Haigh’s) posthumous works. Let us hope there will be many more.”
If you’re outside the UK, please click on the book cover image to buy the book.
When Philip Norman published “Shout” in 1980, it quickly became and long remained the standard Beatles biography. It was noted at the time that there was a marked preference for Lennon over McCartney in that book and Philip was pretty much tagged anti-McCartney. In the years since then, he has reassessed his attitude and came to the conclusion that he had been unfair. McCartney, he now acknowledges, is colossally talented, nobody’s lightweight and is a better and more interesting man than he had been given credit for.
As it happens, Tim didn’t pick up on the bias in “Shout!” because he shared it and, like Philip, has followed a parallel path to a huge admiration fo Paul McCartney. Tim loved Philip’s recent biography of Mick Jagger so he was dying to read his superb full life of McCartney.
We last spoke to the great American crime writer, Lawrence Block, nearly two years ago. Although Larry is one of the world’s great travelers – he has visited something like 135 different countries – he was at home in New York on this occasion, while we are in London, England. We toyed with the idea of going to the shore and rigging up a transatlantic telephone with two tin cans and a very long piece of string, but opted instead for the technological wizardry of Skype.
The new book finds Larry very much on form: The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes is a steamy noir thriller of sex and violence, reminiscent of James M Cain. We were intrigued by the moral ambiguity, the insalubrious setting of inland Florida, and especially the consummate skill with which he handles the pretty full-frontal erotica. But of course, Lawrence Block has form in that area…
It goes without saying that there is a difference in kind between what you “believe” and what I “know to be true”. Whether it is the True Religion (be it Judaism, Christianity or Islam), Dawkinsite scientific certainty or the Demonstrable Facts of realpolitik, we all have our cherished articles of faith, and it can be fighting talk to question the shibboleths. So you might think that Jamie Cawley is a brave man to undertake a panoramic discussion of belief as a recurring phenomenon in human societies. Between the worldwide emergence of polytheism and the contemporary creed of Environmentalism, he makes a brisk and entertaining tour of the high watermarks of belief around the world, which will almost certainly offend many, and that, in Tim’s opinion, is a noble ambition.
I first met Mike Ripley at a beano in 1990 to celebrate Collins Crime Club, for which occasion a special collection of stories was published. I can prove my claim about my whereabouts on that nefarious occasion in 1990, and by way of evidence we present Exhibit #1, the bloodied corpse of my contemporary account of the assembly of (literary) killers for Collins Crime Club.
1. Tim at the Collins Crime Club - 1990
I barely escaped with my life!
Click here to buy the book
I still have that book (well, of course I do!), and it contains the story which was my first encounter with Fitzroy Maclean Angel. It says something about the story that I have a remarkably vivid recollection of it. Mike has written fifteen novels about Angel, and, in that quarter century, a handful of short stories. I have read the novels, of course, but the rest of the stories are new to me. Angels and Others is, so to speak, the Complete Short Stories (since it includes all Mike’s non-Angel stories as well.)
You’ll have noticed that I have not really categorised the Angel books, because while broadly in the genre of crime writing, I’m not sure exactly in which sub-genre they sit. Happily, Mike knows, and he was able to set me straight.
Our noble species has a fraught relationship with intoxicants, narcotics, stimulants and hallucinogens. We crave their mind-altering powers, but once they become woven into the fabric of our cultures, we have to either come to terms with them, or make generally futile attempts to shun them. The range of substances is breathtaking, from the completely natural – peyote, alcohol, tobacco – to the explicitly synthetic – LSD, Ecstasy and the dazzling variety of contemporary designer drugs – but what is most striking is the ubiquity of the human embrace of the possibilities of getting out of our heads. We are a junkie species.
Books about drugs are catnip to Tim, so he tracked Mike Jay to an opium den in Turnham Green, to get his fix by discussing this succinct and beautifully illustrated overview of the relationship we have had with mind-altering substances. It was an intoxicating interview.
As a youth in Iran, Armin Navabi was advised that if a Muslim boy died before the age of fifteen, God, in his infinite benevolence, would ensure that he went to heaven. Terrified that he would miss his step and fall into divine disfavour, Armin threw himself out of a window when he was fourteen, hoping to cash in on this guarantee. Happily he did not perish, although he spent many months in a wheelchair. This gave him a good deal of time to think, and the end point of his reflections was atheism.
Later he founded Atheist Republic, a non-profit organisation aimed at creating a worldwide community of atheists, and with the purpose of joining in the controversy that is raging these days about the status of religion in general. Why There Is No God is his primer for new participants in the debate. It is a good-natured book offering twenty arguments for the existence of God and adumbrating the atheist responses to them.
Senator Burton K Wheeler put the question best: If the war in Europe was America’s war, why was she not fighting it? It was the vital question of its day. Should America join the European war or not?
There are various approaches to history where wars are concerned. One is military history – who shot whom. Much more interesting is the political intrigue – who came out on top, and how.
After the Great War, there was a strong, not to say, dominant strain of isolationism, a huge apprehension of the dangers of getting into another European war.
The isolationists were a mixed bunch, comprising principled constitutionalists liberals, and American Firsters, through to appeasers, defeatists, anti-semites, and outright fascist sympathisers. The cast includes Charles Lindbergh, Joseph Kennedy, Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, Father Coughlin, not to mention the politicians including Wheeler. The broad outline of the story is fairly well known, and has been tackled piecemeal by other historians, but it takes Nicholas Wapshott to tell the full sweeping story in beautiful lucidity of how Roosevelt subtly dealt with each of his opponents and transformed public opinion, and in fact, triumphantly, came out on top. I spoke with him on the eve of publication.
If your taste runs to the dead-pan, you could do worse than read Toby Litt. By turns funny, scabrous, touching, serious, playful and obsessive, his twelfth book, Life-like is presented with an absolutely straight face. How are you supposed to take this? Are you intended to laugh? Is it OK to be aroused? Does that passage really belong in this book? Toby never blinks.
Toby’s interest in form and experimentation is well-established, and so this book is neither properly a novel nor a simple story collection, with the focus flying apart from the starting point of the marriage of Agatha and Paddy, with whom we are familiar from Toby’s eighth book, Ghost Stories. Tim loved that novel, so he was very happy to come back to these characters, and, when it turned out that Toby wanted to play games in the new book, Tim was delighted to join in.
No Man’s Land is already littered with books on the Great War, and there will be many more hurled into the fray, but not many of them will be as original as this thoughtful and engaging treatment by the historian Alwyn W Turner. Ostensibly a history of the bugle call that came to symbolise the honour of a military death, it ranges very much more widely, taking in all the main symbols of remembrance (all associated with the First War rather than the Second) and serves also as a history of the development of social attitudes towards the soldier, and of public opinion in locating the significance of war.
Callie is a young woman with a bit of a past (and a mild case of nyctophobia), an adoring husband and a home filled with light … but where there is light there must also be darkness…
Christopher Fowler made his name with chiller fiction, and Nyctophobia is a splendid return to the genre. It takes a gleeful inventory of the elements of the ghost story, and finds new ways to creep up on you, and most importantly of all – it is scary. Tim spent the night he read it nervously going round his house turning all the lights on.
Anne McCaffrey was the first woman to win the prestigious Hugo award for science fiction, and also the first woman to win a Nebula award. In her Dragonriders of Pern series she created one of the great fantasy novels sequence. It comprises more than thirty novels, most of which include dragons, and is notable for pioneering the inclusion of strong and effective women in science fiction.
Anne McCaffrey died in 2011 at the age of 85, but back in 1990 Tim had the great pleasure of meeting her to discuss the fourteenth book in the series, Renegades of Pern. They got on like a house on fire.
In Albert Campion, Margery Allingham created one of the timeless golden age detectives, often spoken of in the same breath as Lord Peter Wimsey and Inspector Alleyn. When she died in 1963 her husband and collaborator Philip Youngman Carter continued the series for two more books. A third was left incomplete. Well, we say incomplete. There was merely a fragment, four chapters kicking off a new Campion novel, but with no plot outline or notes for how it was supposed to continue.
Mike Ripley made his name with the brilliant comedy thriller ‘Angel’ series. In 2012 the Margery Allingham Society asked him to finish the incomplete Campion book, which he called Mr Campion’s Farewell.
Tim is a long-standing fan of Angel, and is easily persuaded to become a fan of Campion as well. For Tim, it was time to meet Campion in person, and also Ripley, believe it or not.
Who would you turn to if the discipline of economics was in a crisis and you were looking for a solution: Mr Spock or Captain Kirk? Mr Spock would work through the existing data with methodical rigour and implacable logic, while Captain Kirk would make an intuitive leap in the manner of Copernicus or Darwin, and show us an entirely new way of looking at the problem. In his book, Money, Blood and Revolution, George Cooper contends that what economics needs right now is a Captain Kirk, to provide a paradigm shift by simply taking a different perspective on the existing picture. Tim comes blundering in with all the insight and acuity of Nurse Chappell, but minus the miniskirt, to explore George’s vision of a simplified model of economic systems and the engine of prosperity.
Humaira Shahid might have had a gilded life, and no-one would have blamed her. She was born into the privileged classes of Pakistan, enjoyed a happy and liberal childhood, and married well into a newspaper dynasty. The important men in her life adored her and admired her and encouraged her to fulfil herself rather than take the subservient role imposed on many Pakistani women. She became an academic, teaching literature, and that might have been that. But Humaira’s personal life contained a series of heartbreaking tragedies, and as she participated in her husband’s journalistic activities, she gained a first-hand knowledge of dreadful injustice and suffering in Pakistan. Driven by a fiery passion she became, first a campaigning editor, and then a vocal member of the Assembly in Punjab Province.
Devotion And Defiance is Humaira’s account of the course of her career. It is a fascinating insight into the workings of Pakistani politics, a rallying call to arms on behalf of the oppressed and brutalised women of Pakistan, and also a touching memoir of her own life.
Bernie Rhodenbarr is the owner of an antiquarian bookshop in New York City. He is best friends with a lesbian who owns the nearby dog grooming parlour, and they eat lunch together every day. He is nearly friends with the local cop, Ray Kirshman, who regards him as an unofficial consultant. But most of all, Bernie is a burglar. When a man named Smith comes into the store and asks him to steal an original manuscript of an F Scott Fitzgerald story, Bernie finds himself embroiled in a couple of tangled webs, which he is uniquely qualified to untangle.
Lawrence Block is a past master at this kind of thing, weaving in to his fabric obsessive collectors, early American siversmithing, literary backstories, and, naturally, a juicy murder. Half the fun is seeing how he brings all these elements together for the finale, but the other half is the fluent writing that gets you there.
“I’d follow you anywhere. If you don’t know that, what do you know?”. So says George to his wife Margaret as they journey, at her behest, to try and get back their grandson. In a beautiful and utterly memorable novel, Larry Watson takes us to the bleak
and unforgiving landscape of the Badlands of North Dakota in 1951 and into the lives of complex and vivid characters.
The book is the road trip and the confrontation at the end of it. It is a journey that Tim was thrilled to follow every step of the way.
Yesterday, we heard the sad news of the death of Iain Banks at the unacceptably young age of 59. Iain was never the darling of the literary establishment, but he was the favourite author of hundreds of thousands of passionate readers, and Tim had rated him one of the best of his generation since his stunning debut with The Wasp Factory in 1984.
In 1995 Tim interviewed Iain on the occasion of the publication of his fourteenth novel, Whit. Iain was unfailingly friendly and forthcoming whenever we asked for access to him. With grateful thanks to Iain for his kindness to this site, we present this slightly edited version of that interview.
There was a time when film publicity consisted of having a poster painted, and sending the posters with the reels of film in the van when they were delivered to the cinemas.
And then advertising industry foot-soldiers Christopher Fowler and Jim Sturgeon had an idea. What the movies needed was somebody who did film publicity in a much more imaginative way. They were right.
What happened after that is laugh out loud funny, indiscreet and revealing, and treads cheerfully on the feet of silver screen glamour; and it is all weirdly plausible.
Whether he is telling the story of his ill-judged first visit to the Cannes Film Festival (everybody’s first visit to Cannes is a horror story), facing up to his responsibility for the Brentford Nylons advertising campaign, or offering his insights into the darker corners of movie history, Fowler is excellent company.
But Film Freak is also a thoughtful meditation on what has been lost in movies, and a tender account of the final days of the British Film Industry in Soho.
London Fields is in many ways the quintessential Martin Amis novel. At the end of the Twentieth century – ten years in the future when Tim interviewed him in 1989–there are looming portents of global catastrophe, which stand in for Amis’s fear of nuclear annihilation. There is sex, there is mystery, there are post-modern games with authorship, there are degenerate underclass characters, including one of Amis’s immortal creations in Keith Tallent, the would-be darts magus, and there are bucketloads of scabrous humour. But there is also tenderness and a heartfelt investment in children and the future. If Amis has never written anything better than London Fields since then, there is no shame in that.
After half a century as a great novelist and America’s finest essayist, in 1995 Gore Vidal got round to writing… well, not an autobiography, but at any rate a memoir. Why a memoir? Gore told Tim that by the age of seventy he found that he figured in hundreds of other people’s memoirs, and that from his point of view they had almost all got it wrong. Whether this was due to self-serving lapses in memory or shameless lying, Gore decided to
proffer a few corrections. If this also meant indulging in a spot of high class gossip, that was OK too. He had plenty to gossip about.
Vidal had an enviable pedigree. His maternal grandfather was the legendary T P Gore, Oklahama’s first senator. His father was FDR’s Secretary of Aviation (and incidentally had an affair with Emilia Earhart). Gore himself was born at West Point and was intimate with the cream of Washington society. His political friends included Eleanor Roosevelt and JFK. His artistic peers included Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando. Vidal had known everybody, and was not shy of dishing the dirt on any of them.
Tim fell upon Palimpsest as a starving man upon food, and couldn’t wait to pump Vidal for gossip about some of the great and the good, and especially the liars.
John Mortimer occupied positions at the very top of not one but two professions. He was a great writer – we need think no further than A Voyage Around My Father, and he was one of the most eminent barristers and QCs of his generation. The happy collision of these two strings to his bow was of course Rumpole of the Bailey, and in 1995 Tim had the pleasure of discussing with him the tenth collection of stories, Rumpole And The Angel Of Death.
Salman Rushdie is one of our most distinguished writers, having made a shattering entrance with Midnight’s Children (now coming out as a film). He ascended to an unwecome level of notoriety when The Satanic Verses provoked Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against him. But despite the terrifying contingency into which his life was pitched, he continued to write novels of seething vitality and, in 1995, Tim spoke with him about one of these: The Moor’s Last Sigh.
Sir Terry Pratchett is a legend. The Discworld series set the gold standard for comic fantasy. Tim has been a fan since the very first book, and in this rare interview from 1995 he talked to Terry about the eighteenth Discworld book, Maskerade. Tim was delighted with the return of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, but the book really takes off when Agnes Nitt decides that she wants to become a diva, and we are treated to the grand guignol Discworld take on the world of opera…
Fifty years a star. Gracefulness incarnate. Irresistable to women. Vain and arrogant, perhaps, but with so much to boast of.
But enough about Tim.
Mick Jagger is by contrast an accountant.
You think you know him. The drugs. Marianne Faithfull and the mars bar. The murder at Altamont. The parsimony. The priapism. The seven children with four different women. The ruthless wresting of control of the Rolling Stones from first Andrew Oldham, then Brian Jones, then Keith Richards.
Jagger has lived his life in the public glare, and yet he remains an enigma. He never much liked doing drugs. He was a wonderful friend to both Brian and Keith. He was admittedly a lousy husband, but a terrific father – the children all adore him. There is much more
to Jagger than meets his eye.
Philip Norman is a past master of the rock biography (Buddy Holly, Neil Sedaka, the Stones, the Beatles, John Lennon). He first interviewed Mick Jagger in 1965 and knows the period intimately. In his new book he turns his forensic brilliance on to the
quintessential rock star.
The Gzilt came close to being one of the founding civilisations of the Culture, but they have come to the point where they are ready to Sublime to the next level of existence. You might think that their minds would be on higher things, but there are still political shenanigans to stir the pudding before they’re ready for Nirvana. Not least, there is the vexed question of which of the competing scavenger species lays claim to the technology and territory the Gzilt are giving up.
Iain M Banks thinks of the Culture as his virtual train set, which he periodically takes out to play with for another five hundred pages. The Hydrogen Sonata is the thirteenth book in this superb series of science fiction novels.
Tim Haigh appears to many of us to be a modestly unprepossessing human being, but he is actually the humanoid avatar of a Culture ship named the Kindle With A Vast But Inflexible Memory. He fired up his neural lace and downloaded his mind-state one more time to discuss The Hydrogen Sonata with Iain, and find out why in the future ‘sublime’ is a verb.
A woman dies for no apparent reason in a church in Fleet Street. A pair of children were playing Witch-Hunter nearby and they placed a curse on her. This is meat and drink to Bryant and May, the superannuated detectives in Christopher Fowler’s entertaining series. Further equally inexplicable deaths follow, but the detectives are obliged to undertake a job for their political boss whose glamorous, foreign wife is showing increasing signs of instability.
Christopher Fowler gained an enviable reputation as a writer of what he calls ‘dark fiction’ and his brilliant feel for the underside of life feeds in satisfyingly to his more recent persona as a writer of cheerful murder mysteries.
After spending a delightful week with Bryant and May in the shadows and basements and secret places of London, Tim met Chris in the airy reassurance of a penthouse terrace in London to make a couple of confessions of his own.
Richard Dawkins has said that there is no such thing as a Muslim child, only the child of Muslim parents. Saint Richard’s admirers are wont to characterise the imposition of religious delusions as a variety of child-abuse but not all Atheist writers are that militant.
Alom Shaha was brough up in a Muslim community. He is now a physics teacher and a thoughtful and tolerant atheist, who has left the delusions far behind, without giving up any part of his heritage.
His new book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook is his account of this journey, and also a meditation on the questions that might exercise others taking the the same road.
The writer Alwyn Turner has spotted a fascinating statistical anomaly and it is this: the generation to which he belongs has produced significantly fewer front rank politicians than those either side of it. Or indeed any generation within living memory. In fact it would be fair to say that, politically speaking, this is a lost generation. Being a social historian Alwyn was prompted to figure out why, and the answer is his ebook, Things can Only Get Bitter. He identifies the pivotal 1992 general election as the crucial event, and analyses the impact on popular culture of the disgust of a generation which turned instead to comedy, music, movies, and publishing. By coincidence Tim is of precisely the same generation, so it was more or less on the order of a certainty that he would need to get hold of Alwyn and ask him how come he had failed to become leader of the Conservative party.
Can government action fix a broken economy? Eighty years ago John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek arrived at diametrically opposed conclusions. Far from being a dry and technical academic argument, it was then and is now the central division within political economy.
The story of the row between these men and their followers is explosive and astonishingly bad-tempered. Bring up the subject with any politician or social scientist and they will be aware of this story. But only now has anybody written the book.
There’s nothing Tim Loves more than a knock-down, drag out, punch up between intellectual heavyweights, so he met Nicholas Wapshott at his London publishers to talk
about the economics and the politics and the personalities involved, bringing it right up to date to consider how Keynes and Hayek would address the present difficulties.
Larry Watson is better known in his native America than in the UK, but Tim has been a fan since Larry’s first novel Montana 1948. Eight novels have followed, each one telling a compelling story in Larry’s characteristic limpid prose. His new book, American Boy, is a luminous coming of age story set in the early 1962 when grown ups had the sex and the teenagers were envious of them, the exact reverse of the present day. Larry in Wisconsin and Tim in Finchley discussed the book via the magic of Skype.
Political diaries can be turgid and self-serving or they can be witty and revealing. Chris Mullins diaries are firmly in the second category. The final volume, A Walk-On Part, is brilliantly insightful, satisfyingly indiscreet, tender and tough, and marvellously resonant for today’s politics. Chris had a front-row seat on the circus that was New Labour. Tim met him at his publisher’s offices in London and talked about the historic landslide election of Labour Government in 1997, Rupert Murdoch, Lost Leaders, and why Chris had a black and white television in his London flat.
You may remember Survivors and Blake’s Seven. You may even remember that they were created by Terry Nation. But Terry Nation’s immortality will always be tied up with invention of The Daleks. Alwyn W Turner has written a lively and fascinating account of Terry Nation’s times and career, from his radio days with Ted Ray and Tony Hancock, through the glory years of The Saint, The Avengers and countless others. Tim chased Alwyn through a petrified forest towards a steel-covered city populated by the last few mutant descendants of the human race, while a doomsday bomb ticked its countdown to oblivion, pausing only to chat about why Terry Nation’s television shows got under your skin.
When the dust settles we will observe that more books have been written about New Labour than about any other British administration, yes, including Mrs Thatcher’s febrile season in the sun. But let the Peter Mandelsons and the Alistair Campbells and even the Tony Blairs make room: Steve Richards of The Independent has written the most incisive, authoritative and readable account yet of the implausible story of Gordon Brown and new Labour. Tim and Steve discussed Brown’s astonishing longevity at the top of British politics, and his relationship with Tony Blair, and why there is nobody else from that government worth talking about.
Russell Hoban defies comparison with other writers. There is nobody else writing books like his. If his readership is select, he is nonetheless one of those writers whose new book we read as a matter of course. You never know what you’re going to get, except that it will delight and tease and intrigue, and take you in unexpected directions. A Russell Hoban novel is mysterious. You will think you have got hold of it, and want to share it with your friends, and then when you try to pin it down and tell someone about it, you will find that its solidities and vivid themes have escaped you like smoke. You will be left with stray phrases and images and brilliant flashes that worked better for him than they do for you. Tim visited the incomparable Russell Hoban in his London home to talk about his typically elusive and compelling new novel, Angelica, Lost and Found which embraces myth and poetry while cleaving to an idiosyncratic vision of present day San Francisco, rooted in the most concrete details.
Is Iain Banks our best novelist? If our criteria are muscular prose, brilliant plotting and an apparently effortless manipulation of character then he certainly has a claim. At any rate he is among our most entertaining, robust and inventive writers. On the occasion of the publication of his new science fiction novel, Surface Detail, he talked to Tim Haigh, discussing such questions as why advanced civilisations would create Hells, whether continuity of consciousness is necessary to personhood, and whether suffering and anguish have any significance in virtual reality, while not neglecting big explosions in space, laser cannons, artificial intelligences of dubious sanity and why spaceships ought to have extravagantly strange names.
Iain Banks is one of the most successful and productive British novelists of his generation; a writer of apparently boundless invention and self-confidence. Since 1984, with the publication of The Wasp Factory, he has reached a huge and devoted audience with his mainstream books and his series of science fiction novels. Tim met Iain Banks in a hotel room in Central London and set about the job of talking to him about the his writing, his career and in particular about his new novel, Transition; although before that he felt obliged to check that Iain was happy to be Scottish.
Britain in the 1970’s is revisited in vivid technicolour by Alwyn Turner in his new book, “Crisis, What Crisis?”. Tim Haigh visited Alwyn at home to discuss the politics, the cultural upheavals, the t.v and the pop music of the 1970’s. Enoch Powell and Tony Benn: Coronation Street and Love Thy Neighbour, feminism and homosexuality, they ranged far and wide, agreeing to differ only on the vexed question of whether Middle Of The Road and Showaddywaddy were more important than Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
Tim Haigh visited Lord David Owen, sometimes known as Doctor Death in a previous life, to discuss his new book, “In Sickness And In Power- illness in heads of government during the last 100 years”. While Dr Owen has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, he nonetheless talked in fascinating and almost indiscreet detail about politicians, some of whom he has known, and considers whether he might have succumbed himself to ‘hubris syndrome’ if he had, as he might have expected, become Prime Minister of Great Britain.