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20 May 2011

Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

David Byrne is better known for his music than his writing output. Although he's authored quite a few books this one stands out as one of his more mainstream offerings.

It's a book driven by, and full of, a passion for cycling and written by a practising pedal-head. Someone who's enthusiastically used a bicycle as a principal form transportation in his native New York since the early 1980s. And who endeavours to explore various parts of the world in the same human-powered manner.

The first chapter is a wide-ranging, and rather nostalgic, exploration into a number of American Cities. Unfortunately, he encounters many rather frustrating, disconnected rides through communities chopped into ghettos by massive concrete ribbons.

Subsequent chapters are dedicated to one particular city. As seen from a cyclist perspective, it offers a new way of exploring and interacting with cities you might already have some knowledge about. His artistic eye picks out the unconventional, the significant, the sublime and the striking across the urban landscape and in the local art, music and film culture.

Always a deep thinker, his views are heartfelt and expressed with zeal - at times in an intensely earnest discourse. His observations and very personal points of view are enhanced by a collection of text-embedded photographs. As you might expect, the majority of these images are very different to the usual tourist fare, and interesting in their own right.

It's a brilliantly eccentric and highly personal book, delivered in a lovely embossed cloth cover. Even the epilogue entertains with its look into the future of transportation, and an eye catching selection of drawings illustrating some of his bike rack designs - many of which now adorn the streets of NewYork.

15 May 2011

John (Richard Thomas) Sullivan

John Richard Thomas Sullivan failed his 11-plus exam and left school at 15 without any qualifications. The result was a succession of uninspiring jobs until one day a friend showed him a newspaper article about the TV scriptwriter Johnny Speight. He read that Speight earned £1000 for each of his Till Death Us Do Part episodes; equivalent to Sullivan's annual salary. It made a seminal impression.

He bought a second-hand typewriter, self-help books, studied English, and started work on a upmarket sitcom called Gentlemen. However, his self-motivated endeavours provided little in the way of success. At the age of 30 he took a job as a BBC scene-shifter, in an attempt to make useful writing contacts.

After encouragement from Ronnie Barker he started writing comedy sketches for The Two Ronnies and Dave Allen. Subsequently legendary producer producer Dennis Main Wilson accepted his story idea about a suburban social revolutionary, and Sullivan immediately took time off work to write a pilot episode. His Citizen Smith sitcom proved to be a great success, and was ultimately extended to four series.

He continued by writing the incredibly successful Only Fools and Horses, set in his childhood South London stomping ground and full of its colourful, down-to-earth characters. In the process he also penned many other notable series, including Just Good Friends, Dear John, Roger Roger and Heartbreak Hotel.

A fall out with the BBC led to the ITV Dickens-influenced comedy drama Micawber, followed later by the Fools and Horses spinoff Green Green Grass. In 2011 his final series Rock & Chips was aired; a Fools and Horses prequel set in the 1960s. A fitting tribute following Sullivan's untimely death, at the age of 64 on 23rd April 2011.

It's a remarkable story. A source of inspiration and encouragement for any writer.

12 May 2011

Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James

Written by one of our present day detective fiction masters, this slim volume contains a plethora of historical background, author analysis and exploration of writing methods. A book conceived following a request by the Bodleian Library's Publishing Department, located in her native Oxford.

From start to finish it's intelligent, insightful and informative. And she doesn't sit on the fence when expressing her views on fellow authors' techniques and proficiencies - for example Agatha Christie's reliance on 'pasteboard characters' and occasional less-than-credible narrative scenarios. But, for myself, this only adds to the book's readability.

Many pages are devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle's famous 221B Baker Street tenant, the literary richness of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the graphic realism of Dorothy L. Sayers and the story telling brilliance of Agatha Christie with her talent to deceive. And there's similar thoughtful discussion on Richard Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Georges Simenon, and many others.

It's always interesting to hear an author articulate her approach to novel writing. In particular, there's her rational, clearly presented argument for preferring a setting-based starting point, a notion which differs from many other authors in this genre.

In the forward P. D. James declares her intention to 'interest and entertain'. Regardless of whether you're a fan of detective fiction, I believe she achieves this aim. A particularly illuminating book in so many ways, and a fascinating read.

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

This highly individual book, from the much loved and missed Beryl Bainbridge, is the antithesis to a dry, historical tale of Scott's fateful Antarctic expedition.

With amazingly inventive imagination and striking clarity, she digs deep into the makeup of these familiar characters. The arresting result is they burst into life; convincingly real, alluringly complex lives, complete with loves, aspirations, fears, regrets and inner conflicts.

Few other writers are likely to achieve such rich character renditions. Totally credible and identifiable renditions.  Renditions that exhibit all the strength, fragility, confidence, vulnerability and emotional complexity you'd expect from men destined for such an expedition and ultimate fate. Men described in the book as, "misfits, victims of a changing world."

Interestingly each of these five main characters - Petty Officer Edgar (Taf) Evans, Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson, Capt. Robert Falcon (Con) Scott, Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers and Capt. Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates - are given their own chapter, written from the first-person narrative viewpoint.

These chapters are full of engaging dialogue; intimate conversation and drinking stories revealing past experiences, warmly remembered comrades and shared adventures. The story begins just before embarking on the long voyage south. Each subsequent chapter progresses through the 21 month timeline, guiding the reader inexorability towards its finale.

6 May 2011

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Rarely does a book induce me to say, 'an absolute delight', but this one did.

A sumptuously appointed narrative revolves around the Queen's abruptly acquired, all consuming passion for reading, and the ensuing miscellany of court antics, equerry interactions and other deliciously humorous situations.

The clever, understated, sure-footed prose and dialogue is so believable, so real, you feel as if you are actually there; observing silently, unnoticed in the corner of the room.

His bold, seemingly nerveless decision to choose and emphatically capture our monarch as the lead character, is matched by an ability to carry it off so effortlessly. 

Personally, I thought it had the feel of a classic. A classic in conception, originality and execution. And definitely classic Alan Bennett - a master of his craft.

Being a rather slim, 121 page volume its easily devoured in a session or two; time simply whizzing by. And yes, I wanted more, much more, more of the same. Please.

What does the Queen herself think of the book I wonder? One can only guess, but I'm sure this author knows the real answer.

1 May 2011

Fishing in Utopia by Andrew Brown

Part memoir, part nostalgic reminisce of a lost Sweden, part insight into a life of thoughts and words.

It's an entangled journey. Andrew Brown's very English childhood in Oxford, interjected by two years in Stockholm. A chance meeting with his future Swedish wife in a North Wales care home. A seminal period near Gothenburg, metamorphosing into a Swedish family man, while trying to discover himself. Followed by a self-launched writing career, bouncing between London and Scandinavia.

A journey threaded by a literary trail of fishing stories and experiences. A passion for angling that pumps like a main arterial vein. A passion that demands visits to silently desolate, engagingly surreal, forest bound lakes and rivers - described in poetic-like prose.

The time-travelling chapters and reflective nature of the first-person narrative, induce an awareness of a life passing by. Never really feeling at home in England or Sweden, this conflict adds a distinct objectiveness and sense of detachment when musing on the world around him. Yet he's undoubtedly in touch with the Swedish mindset, culture and deep rooted history.

Unsurprisingly, I found the writing references particularly interesting. His tentative and rather inauspicious start being transformed by some highly newsworthy stories, leading to a new life as a freelance journalist, columnist and author.
Sweden's enviable global status in the 1960s and 70s disappeared during the 1980s - suddenly and seemingly irreversibly. In the end he seems torn between a love for the country and the people and a despair for the future of them both.