Mother’s Boy by Howard Jacobson


  This, the author’s potted autobiography up until the time when his first book was published, was on a 99p Kindle offer, so I bought it because the Jacobsons were my grandparents’ neighbours when Howard was growing up, and I thought I’d enjoy reading about places I recognised.  And I did.  However, whilst it’s entertainingly written, I’m not sure how interesting the tale of someone’s fairly ordinary suburban upbringing, and then his relationship and career ups and downs, would be to general readers.

Some of it’s interesting from a general cultural viewpoint, life in postwar Britain.  He went to the local grammar school, the same school as my dad, and from there to Cambridge.  The grammar school system enabled so many people whose parents had left school at 14 to go on to further education.  But most of the first half of the book’s about his own family and the relationships within it.   He later spent some time in Australia, then Wolverhampton, then Cornwall, and then moved to London, and we hear about how he came to write his first book after many years of drifting.  We also hear about how he married three times – third time lucky!

If you know North Manchester, you’ll be doing a lot of smiling and nodding during the first half of the book.   And you’ll enjoy it if you’re a fan of Jacobson’s books and want to know more about him.  If neither … well, the self-deprecating humour and the Adrian Mole-esque moroseness do make for quite good reading, but I’m just not sure how much it’ll appeal to the general reader.   


Michael Palin: Into Iraq – Channel 5


Babylon, Ur, the Tigris and the Euphrates.  They’re names out of childhood religious studies lessons, and Michael Palin got to see them all!  As well as Kurdish New Year celebrations, Islamic holy sites, oilfields, marshes, salt flats, and so much more.  This was brilliant.

I was expecting ancient ruins, war damage, historic souks and the Rivers of Babylon from the start.  Instead, the first episode was all about Kurdistan.  Well, that’s the least that the Kurds deserve after the way the West let them down after the war of 1990.  The programme actually started in Turkey, with the very delicate subject of Kurdish rights there and an emphasis of how limited they are, before moving into Iraqi Kurdistan where everything was far more positive.   We were shown signs of how wealthy a minority there are now, and, although it *is* a minority, even less well-off people seemed very positive about life for Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan.   We also got to enjoy the incredible Kurdish New Year celebrations.

The second episode included a lot of different aspects of this very complex country.  We saw Michael visit some of Iraq’s oilfields, and hear about how oil was discovered in the country during the period of British rule in the 1920s, then have to wait at military checkpoints as operations were being carried out against ISIS.   He visited the 9th century Great Mosque of Samarra, before going on to Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, and hearing about a horrific massacre carried out by ISIS.  Then on to fascinating Baghdad.   He also noted that very few women were out in public, and that women weren’t even allowed to sit in certain areas of restaurants, or any areas at all unless accompanied by a husband or fiance, and spoke to a young woman about the problems that that presents.

The final episode saw him visit Babylon.   How amazing to be able to visit one of the most famous ancient cities in the world.  Unfortunately, little of what he saw was actually ancient: Saddam Hussein reconstructed it in the 1980s!   Oh well.  Then on to the Shia holy city of Karbala, which was incredible.  He also visited a school, where a classful of quite young children spoke perfect English.  Then on to Nasariyah, from where he visited the Great Zigurrat of Ur.  Yes, Ur, the Sumerian city from which Abraham is supposed to have set off.  Bizarrely, there was no-one else there, whereas Karbala had been heaving.  And then by boat to see the marshes, now thankfully recovered from the damage done by Saddam Hussein, but sadly threatened by rising temperatures.  And then on to the coast, where he saw the salt pans and also the ambitious construction of a vast new port.   It really was very interesting and at times awe-inspiring.  It was just such a shame that the ruins of ancient Babylon had disappeared under walls put up in the 1980s!

Michael Palin’s a very engaging presenter, and there are so many different facets to Iraq.  Very, very interesting series.


My Grandparents’ War (series 2) – Channel 4


The loss of the Queen marks a break with the wartime generation, and a reminder that there aren’t now many of that generation left with us.  It’s important that their stories not be forgotten, and this series shows celebrities looking into the roles played by their grandparents during the War.  First up was Kit Harington, whose two sets of grandparents each met and married whilst serving in the war effort in their different ways.

His maternal grandfather was in the Army, and, following a training accident, was admitted to the Exeter hospital where his future wife was serving as a VAD.  Later, he fought at Monte Cassino.  We saw Kit meeting a 99-year-old lady who’d been in the same team as his grandmother, and also visiting a Commonwealth war cemetery at Monte Cassino, and reading some of the poetry which his grandfather had written partly to try to cope with PTSD.

On his father’s side, both grandparents had been posted to the Caribbean.  His grandmother was with the censorship office in Barbados, and his grandfather had been with naval intelligence, detailed to keep an eye on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  He’d have known both Ian Fleming and Kim Philby.

That was rather exciting, but the roles of all four grandparents were fascinating, and the programme was really very well done.  This is an excellent series, and highly recommended.  And readers of A Chalet Girl from Kenya may be interested to know that the third episode, featuring Emeli Sande, covers the Mau Mau Rebellion.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal by Sebastian Fest


And so the curtain will finally fall on the “Fedal” era this evening.  Hopefully we’ll continue to see Rafa playing for a while yet, but Roger’s retiring and that means that, after tonight, the “Fedal” era will officially be over.  Yes, all right, Djokovic has dominated much of the past decade, but the Roger-Rafa rivalry is special, and the fact that Roger wanted his last match to be played alongside Rafa says it all.

I love Rafa, everyone knows that, but Roger is very special too, and there’s just something about the rivalry between them.  Friendship, respect, and the way in which they’ve brought the best out of each other.  I think 2008, 2009 and 2010 saw the peak of it, notably the 2008 Wimbledon final and the 2009 Australian Open final, but it’s something that’s lasted for over seventeen years.

Is it the greatest rivalry in the history of sport?  It may be.  It may not be: there are many others, notably that between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.  OK, let’s not get too into the “greatest rivalry” debate, because that leads to the GOAT debate and I’m a bit sick of the GOAT debate.  Let’s appreciate each player for everything they’ve given us, and not drive ourselves mad comparing very different players with each other, or with players from different eras.   Let’s just appreciate them.  Because they’ve given us so much.  It’s been an incredible ride, and I wish Roger all the best in his retirement.

What about the book, then?   This is supposed to be a book review, after all!   Well, it’s very readable for tennis fans.  It’s not chronological: it’s by topic.  Injuries.  Coaches.  Various other things.  That makes it rather bitty, and also means that most chapters are about either Roger or Rafa, not both.  Some of the chapters are really rather odd: there’s one about each player’s relationship with the author’s home country of Argentina, which I’d hardly have said was a huge factor in their careers.  If you follow tennis closely, you’ll probably already know pretty much everything that it has to say, but it’s an enjoyable read, apart from a few slight hiccups in translation.  I should imagine that we’ll see quite a few books coming out to mark Roger’s retirement, and also to mark Serena’s retirement.

Two great eras have ended at once, the Serena era and the Roger era – and, yes, obviously there has been a Roger era, and there still is a Rafa era, as well as there being a Fedal era.   They’re not a double act.  They’re two individual greats – but each of them has been even greater than they might have been otherwise because of the presence of each other.   What a rivalry it’s been, and what an era it’s been.  And now it’s over, and Carlitos, Casper, Daniil, Felix, Frances, Sascha, Matteo, Taylor, Stef, Denis and various others will pick up the baton as time moves on; but I’m not sure that we’ll ever see anything else like the Fedal era.  Roger, Rafa, thank you so much, for everything you’ve given the world of tennis and the world in general.  Oh, and this book’s only £1.99 on Kindle, so read it, wallow in nostalgia, and enjoy.

Britain’s Secret War Babies – Channel 4


  This programme was about two people seeking to find their fathers, African-American GIs stationed in Britain during the war.  It was sad to hear that many black GIs with white British girlfriends had been unable to marry them because the US Army had refused permission, even when there was a baby on the way.   That left the women concerned with a choice between bringing up a child alone, with the stigma of illegitimacy and the additional issue of raising a mixed-race child in areas which were otherwise 100% white, or giving the child up.

In the two cases covered by this programme, one woman had been kept apart from the child’s father by her own mother, who didn’t want her daughter and grandchild moving to America, and the other woman had married a British boyfriend who’d ill-treated both her and her son when he realised that the child couldn’t be his.

Both the stories had happy endings in the programme, in that the biological fathers were identified, and half-siblings who were happy to meet the two “war babies” found; but, as the programme said, many people haven’t been able to trace their fathers, and many children grew up in care because their mothers couldn’t keep them and mixed-race children were difficult to place for adoption.  The presenter seemed determined to stress the negative aspects of everything, but even taking a more balanced view, it’s quite a sad part of wartime history.   Some couples would have been unable to marry anyway, because one or both partners were already married, because of family objections or because they just didn’t want to, but hundreds of children could have had very different lives if there hadn’t been that US Army objection to mixed marriages – marriages which would have been perfectly legal in Britain.

The presenter clearly had an agenda and kept trying to turn things on to it, but the human stories won through, and at least each of the “war babies” involved found their American relations and were welcomed by them.  Happy endings.




The Pyrenees with Michael Portillo – Channel 5



It was strange to see Michael, whilst still garishly-clad, on foot rather than by train; but I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of this new series, which saw him walking through mountainous parts of the Basque country.   It’s an area with special resonance for him, because his parents met whilst his Spanish refugee father was working/studying in Britain and his Scottish mother was caring for Basque children evacuated after the bombing of Guernica.  Thankfully, ETA have stuck to the ceasefire for years, and the beautiful area is very welcoming to tourists.

Thirty-five years ago, the late Howard Kendall became manager of Athletic Bilbao.  Having done great things with Everton, a lot was expected of him; but he struggled, largely because they’d only sign players either born in or trained in football in the Basque country.  That’s got nothing to do with Michael’s programme, sorry, but it did teach English football fans a lot about Basque issues.  The rule’s still in place now.

We saw Michael meet a walking stick maker, a smuggler, a British author living in a Basque village – and made very welcome there – a miller, a stone maker, and an expert in local mythology.  And, of course, we learnt a bit about food and drink in the area.   Then, at the end, we saw him join the Camino route, and talk about its importance.

He’s such a wonderful presenter, and I enjoyed every minute of this.  As he said, he thought his best days were behind him when he left politics, but they most certainly weren’t.  Looking forward to more.



India in 1947: Partition in Colour – Channel 4


It would have been nice if, to mark the 75th anniversary of “Freedom at Midnight”, one of our TV channels had shown a programme focusing on everything that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have achieved since independence.  But no.  Instead, we have to rake over whether or not Nehru was having it off with Edwina Mountbatten, and slag off Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah for not making a better job of an impossible situation.   Don’t get me wrong: the violence and the refugee crisis that followed partition was horrific.   But something focusing on the more positive aspects of independence, and the 75 years since then, would have been a lot more welcome.  The colourised pictures were interesting to see, but only really formed a backdrop for the negative narrative.

No-one got a good press in this, but, as I’ve said, it was an impossible situation by 1947.  I’m not sure that anyone could have done much better, and I’m not sure how helpful it was just to go on about the alleged faults of the three main leaders.  Gandhi, incidentally, was completely ignored.

Mountbatten was slagged off over the partition plan, but the programme claimed that he had nothing to do with it anyway, and it was all the work of the civil service.   Both Mountbatten and Nehru were slagged off for having a close personal relationship and leaving Jinnah out in the cold.  Or, rather, out in the heat, when the others took off to the Hills.  And of fiddling the border decisions to suit India.

Jinnah didn’t get a very good press either.  It was pointed out that Islamic fundamentalists tried to assassinate him because they were so angry about partition.   But other Muslims didn’t want to be a minority in a mainly Hindu India.  Jinnah was in a no-win situation: they all were. The programme also talked about complaints regarding the borders, but, wherever the borders had been, a lot of people would still have felt that they had to move.

Even the British Army came in for criticism.   Excuse me, but how were 50,000 troops supposed to deal with violence on such a scale? And the head of the Boundary Commission was criticised for having dysentery.  Oh, and for not being “an Alpha Male”.

The one person who got a tiny amount of praise was Edwina Mountbatten, but they were far more interested in her relationship with Nehru than in her work with refugees.

The narrators did concede that, by mid-1947, the fear and violence were out of control, and there wasn’t much that anyone could have done to improve things.   But they just seemed determined to be negative about everything.   The programme didn’t even point out that Freedom at Midnight created the world’s largest democracy.

And it said nothing that we haven’t heard a hundred times before.  I’d far rather have seen a programme about how India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have progressed since 1947, and I’d really have liked to have heard just one word of positivity.   This was almost 100% negativity.  Two hours of negativity.

King Richard


Back in the day, the BBC used to produce an annual Wimbledon preview magazine/brochure, which my teenage self used to read assiduously.  The 1992 edition claimed that an 11-year-old kid called Venus Williams was set for stardom, and that her 10-year-old sister, Serena Williams, was shaping up to be even better.   Jennifer Capriati had made her professional debut at just 14, and Monica Seles had won her first Grand Slam title at 16 and Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario had both won theirs at 17 … but predicting stardom for kids of 10 and 11 still seemed a bit mad.   The rest, as they say, is history.

Tennis won’t be the same without Serena.

For Jennifer Capriati, it was too much, too young.   But the Williams sisters, the girls from a working-class background, who grew up playing tennis in public parks, got it right.  It was their dad, Richard Williams, who planned their careers, who’s the King Richard of this film – no crusades, depositions or Princes in the Tower!  Venus and Serena were involved in the making of the film and it does rather eulogise Richard, who by some accounts can be very difficult to deal with – but the fact is that, yes, he got it right. 

There’s been a lot of unpleasantness over pushy tennis parents, and there’ve also been players who’ve either burnt out and or been unable to cope with the pressure of fame; but Venus and Serena have both handled it very well, and without any family fallings out.   

As the film shows, Richard Williams pulled them out of the Rick Macci Academy and stopped them from playing in official junior tournaments, and that worked for them.   But it was a gamble.  The film does a good job of showing how expensive tennis is, and how, for that reason, a lot of players in the 1990s were desperate to turn pro and get professional sponsorship.   It’s not like football, where clubs will sign kids at an early age, and where there’s no pressure to move to a specialised academy.   It’s a lot of money.  And, for that reason, most players are from relatively well-to-do backgrounds – and the film shows how there can be snobbery and even racism at some of the famous/infamous American country clubs.

It’s not such a problem in the UK, because the LTA has a lot of money with which to help out young players, but it is elsewhere: the Kazakh Tennis Federation persuaded Elena Rybakina and several other players to take Kazakh nationality, using its oil money.  Richard gambled – and won. 

This film didn’t get very good reviews, but I quite enjoyed it – but then I was bound to enjoy a tennis film.  One minor quibble – referring to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario as “Vicario” rather than “Sanchez Vicario”.  That wouldn’t have happened.  And, whilst most of it was about Venus, because originally most of it was about Venus, as she was the eldest, I thought they could have shown a bit more about what it was like for your sister to be your main rival, but I can understand that they didn’t want to go down that route.   

All in all, it really wasn’t bad.  It’s an amazing story.  It’s really quite creepy that a parent should decide that their children are going to be professional tennis players (or professional footballers, singers, dancers or anything else) when those children are barely out of nappies, and yet it’s all worked out for them.   That in itself is amazing, and that makes the film worth seeing.

Lenny Henry’s Caribbean Britain – BBC 2


It was rather nice to hear the Manchester United Calypso being mentioned as an early example of Caribbean influence on British culture 🙂 .  I’m not quite sure when it was revived, probably about 10 years ago, but it was the first ever official United song recorded, in the mid-1950s, when it was sung by Edric Connor, who’d come to the UK from Trinidad.   I like calypso music.  I don’t, I have to say, get grime music at all: this programme began with someone chanting “Brush your teeth, brush your teeth” whilst two red buses went past, and I just did not see/hear the appeal!   But we don’t all have to like everything, eh?

This two-programme series had its moments, but, compared to the positivity of Back In Time For Birmingham, it was quite negative. It felt at times, especially during the first episode, as if they were accusing practically everyone – other than Big Ted and Little Ted, who were pictured with Floella Benjamin and brought back lots of memories – of being racist; and there were a lot of references to “them” and “us”.

But, as I said, it had its moments – the Notting Hill Carnival was shown in a very positive light, as were Rastafarian, reggae and ska music. And jungle and grime, but I’m too old for them 😄.  There was also quite a lot about art, TV and theatre, and most of that was relatively positive. certainly in the second episode.  What Lenny Henry said about black comedians feeling that they had to poke fun at themselves will resonate with comedians from any sort of minority group, and I really enjoyed the sections about Caribbean food.  But there did seem to be this very strong emphasis on “them and us”, and I’m not sure how helpful that was.

I was expecting there to be quite a lot about sport, given the number of top British sportspeople with Caribbean heritage, but all we really got was how great Viv Richards was.  Yes, of course he was great, but I was disappointed not to get any mention of black British sportspeople as opposed to West Indian sportspeople.  Maybe they avoided that because everyone knows about the huge contribution made to British sport by people with Caribbean heritage, and they wanted to focus on the arts and cookery instead?

I enjoyed the second episode much more than the first, probably because it featured some big names from the ’80s, but, overall it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.




Camilla’s Country Life – ITV


This was a really lovely programme, about the Duchess of Cornwall guest-editing the 13th July edition of Country Life to mark her 75th birthday.   Camilla hasn’t put a foot wrong since she married Prince Charles, despite having to put up with a lot of vilification from sections of the media and Diana fanatics.  She does a great deal of charity work and, as the programme pointed out several times, she *is* set to be our Queen one day.   It was great to get to know more about her, starting with seeing her with her sister and hearing about their Blytonesque childhood summers at their maternal grandparents’ country pile in Hampshire.  And it was also lovely to hear that the Duchess of Cambridge had taken the magazine cover photos: they obviously get on very well.  I can’t abide dogs and I’m nervous of horses, but she’s obviously very keen on both, and also on gardening, giving her a lot in common with Prince Charles, the Queen and Princess Anne.

Jeremy Clarkson also got a look in!   So did roast chicken.  And Philip Treacy’s hats.  But much of the programme focused on her charity work – with domestic violence charities, disabled service personnel, the Big Lunch project and a riding school in South London.   I thought that she came across very well, and it was a good opportunity to learn more about her.  A very nice programme all round!