Who & Me – Barry Letts

Barry Letts was an actor, writer, director and producer for decades, mainly for the BBC, and is most famous as the series producer of Doctor Who from Jon Pertwee’s second story in 1969 to Tom Baker’s first in 1974 returning as executive producer at the end of Baker’s long run in the part in 1980. He also directed several stories for Doctor Who starting with the Patrick Troughton story ‘The Enemy of the World’ and wrote others although this was done using pseudonyms as the BBC at the time did not approve of the series producer also writing episodes. The front cover shows Barry, in the striped shirt, and Jon Pertwee, in full costume as his dandy Doctor Who leaning on a dalek. Terrence Dicks, who wrote the foreword, was script editor on Doctor Who between 1968 and 1974 and these two men formed a strong partnership which drove the programme back out of the doldrums of the end of the Troughton era and up the viewing ratings. Katy Manning played Jo Grant, one of the Doctor’s companions during this period.

The book doesn’t only cover Doctor Who but delves back into Barry Letts’ decades long acting career and how he progressed into a writer, then director before finally being persuaded to be a producer, which he would only do if he was still allowed to direct the occasional story line. It is worth noting for anyone who only knows the modern re-invention of Doctor Who that back in the 1960’s there would be over forty episodes a year, every year, and stories would normally be told over four, five, six or even seven episodes rather than the at most two episode individual stories in modern Who. The workload was tremendous and Letts was responsible for improving the process by reducing the number of episodes to twenty five a year along with recording episodes in pairs so reducing the need for constantly building and taking down sets so allowing more time for recording along with other changes to scheduling.

Letts is brutally honest about his successes and failures over the years and readily admits things he got wrong such as his first directing job on ‘The Enemy of the World’ which lacked pace in numerous parts especially in the one surviving episode which definitely drags out the material. I watched this again after reading the book and can see why he really wasn’t happy about the end result. In complete contrast he was also responsible for possibly my favourite story of ‘classic Doctor Who’ which was ‘The Daemons’ which came to its climax around my ninth birthday and with it’s story about black magic and the raising of a demon absolutely enthralled and terrified me as a young child. It also has probably the best line for The Brigadier in all his appearances instructing one of his soldiers “Chap with the wings there, five rounds rapid!“. Along the way he explains a lot of what both the director and producer actually did on TV programmes of the time and this was really interesting as it a side of the making of TV that isn’t covered very often. He also covers the work of Terrence Dicks in just how a script comes to be agreed and written from the initial ideas to outlines, then initial script, leading to fine tuning with cuts and additions to make each episode not only the right length but also to maintain the flow of the story.

So here we are at the end of our second season which is where I always intended to end this first volume.

Start of chapter 22 of Who & Me

The final chapter of the book starts with the words above, but sadly Letts didn’t even live to see this volume get released as he died in October 2009 aged 84, shortly before publication, leading to a final short postscript by his family thanking people for their good wishes after his death was announced. The book was an interesting read and he dropped so many hints of things that he wanted to cover in a later volume eventually leading up to Tom Baker’s first story as Doctor Who which would have tied back nicely to the first book in my August Sci-fi autobiography readings. It is such a pity that the cancer he had been suffering from for years got him before he could even start on the second book as I’m sure we would have learnt a lot more about the jobs of producer and director.

The Man in the Rubber Mask – Robert Llewellyn

Continuing my August theme of autobiographies by British sci-fi actors and writers and in complete contrast to last week’s Who on Earth is Tom Baker this book by Robert Llewellyn spends almost all its time talking about the making of Red Dwarf and also includes the update that was most missed in last weeks book. This, effectively second volume, added to the original from 1994 takes the total page count up to 341 rather than the 191 occupied by its first iteration and also the story from series five and the failed American pilot through to series ten and the return of Red Dwarf as a hopefully regular event. This updated edition was published by Unbound in 2013 so nineteen years after his original volume and because it concentrates on the subject implied by the cover is a considerably more interesting read for the sci-fi fan than Tom Baker’s book, although that was fun for different reasons.

For those not familiar with the series Red Dwarf is a very long running British comedy sci-fi programme set on a spaceship three million years in the future with a sole surviving human crew member along with a hologram of another of the crew created by the ships computer so that Lister doesn’t go mad. There is also The Cat, a humanoid descendent of a cat smuggled onto the ship by Lister three million years ago and the reason why he was placed into stasis as a punishment back then and why he survived the radiation leak which killed everyone else on the ship. Holly, the ship’s computer, decided not to end Lister’s stasis punishment until the radiation had fallen to a safe level, hence the millions of years leap in time.

Although the robot Kryten was introduced in series two of Red Dwarf it was supposedly a one episode appearance. however when the decision was made to bring him back in the next series as a regular character the original actor, David Ross, was no longer available and Robert Llewellyn was cast as his replacement so the book starts with series three when Llewellyn was involved. It is worth noting that at the end of almost every series it is clear from Llewellyn’s writing that there is no expectation by cast or writers that there will be another so the fact that in 2020 the feature length story ‘The Promised Land’ was first broadcast, thirty two years after series one and two and half years after the previous series twelve went out is a continuing surprise to everyone involved especially after the ten year gap between series eight and ‘Back to Earth’ which was retrospectively counted as series nine. Throughout the book Llewellyn provides considerable detail regarding the shooting of every episode which means he must have kept a diary as he is regularly bemoaning his lack of memory for his lines and refers to the rest of the cast as ‘proper actors’ who can actually remember what they are supposed to be doing. In fact he is particularly struck by Craig Charles’s apparent ability to remember a script after one or two basic read throughs. As the only member of the British cast to be involved in the disastrous, and never broadcast, American remake he also provides considerable insights as to how that went which actually seemed fine at the time once a usable script was produced.

There have been various lengthy gaps between series where Llewellyn has been up to various other writing, performing and filming opportunities including the eleven years of hosting Scrapheap Challenge on Channel 4 when it looked like Red Dwarf was finally over. These are covered including what the other cast members were up to during these breaks but the book is largely concerned with Red Dwarf so although it could be read and enjoyed by somebody who has never seen the show ideally you need to have seen some if not all of the seventy three episodes and one full length TV movie. Needles to say I have…

As a side note seeing that the page count has gone up by 150, albeit with some blank pages around the start of the new section there is considerably more than 43.17% more smeg (see caption bottom right on the cover) which is roughly the figure you get if you divide the new printed pages by the total printed pages but which clearly isn’t the correct calculation as there are 148 new pages beyond the 191 original so in reality 77.49% more smeg. If you don’t know what smeg is you aren’t a Red Dwarf fan, suffice to say it is the word used instead of swearing in the scripts. This obvious, and to mathematicians mildly annoying, error is about the only bad thing I can say about the book, it was an excellent read and highly informative about not only the practical making of the shows and Robert’s regular moaning about the rubber prosthetics he had to wear for the part (which he keeps apologising for doing) but also gives an insight into the genius of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor the creators, writers and producers of the show.

Who on Earth is Tom Baker?

Every August I give myself a theme for the books that month and this year it is autobiographies of people associated with British science fiction or fantasy. I’m starting with the twenty five year old autobiography of, for me, the best Doctor Who, Tom Baker, who held the role from 1974 to 1981 and starred in 178 episodes during that time, far more than any other actor in the role.

The book is 262 pages long plus an unnumbered 8 page introduction, he doesn’t get the role he is most famous for until page 191 and leaves the job on page 229 so don’t expect huge revelations about Doctor Who despite the cover photo and indeed the title. In fact my favourite Who story in the book is when Baker desperately wanted to see a particular episode where he had been held underwater despite his deep fear of such a thing happening as he can’t swim and is terrified of water and he had never been able to see the episode as he was doing publicity tours, this is also years before home TV recording was possible. He had reached Preston on his way home by the time the episode was due and after trying to see it in the windows of TV shops none of which had it on eventually knocked on the door of a house with children’s bicycles outside and asked if they were going to watch the show. Being recognised he was led into the living room where the two children were already glued to the TV in anticipation and sat quietly at the back of the room so the children only gradually became aware that Doctor Who was sitting with them watching the show. Perfectly reasonably they couldn’t believe what was happening and it took numerous double takes, checking the TV screen and the person sitting behind them before they accepted the unlikely was actually true. The story was picked up by the local press thereby really making their school friends jealous.

Having said that there is surprising little about Doctor Who in the book Tom Baker’s life is fascinating and it is written with considerable humour. Born in 1934 he came from a poor Liverpudlian catholic family and he was very religious as a child and youth, eventually becoming a novice monk at the age of fifteen and remaining in holy orders for almost six years, initially in Jersey and later near Market Drayton in Shropshire. The description of his time in the monasteries is funny and terrible at the same time, he clearly had an awful time as a monk but this was nothing to the truly awful time he had with the family of his first wife who appear to have regarded him as little more than cheap labour for their various businesses and treated him with disdain. But his earliest ambition, as a young child in wartime Liverpool was to be an orphan… This was due to the gifts such as hats and jackets along with a card from the President that an child orphaned during the war could expect to receive from America and these were highly prized. He even told his teacher at school, when she started going round the class asking what her pupils wanted to be when they grew up, that he wanted to be an orphan and this earned him a swift trip to the headmasters office.

There are plenty of stories about his slowly building acting career, which until Doctor Who never paid enough for him not to have other jobs as well, indeed he was working as a building site labourer when he got the role of Doctor Who. Post Doctor Who there are tales of drinking in Soho clubs and bars with the likes of the artist Francis Bacon and journalist Jeffrey Bernard both notorious heavy drinkers until eventually his third wife, who he is still married to, managed to lure him away from the city to the countryside and a rural happiness that is where the book finishes. Overall it’s a good and entertaining read although I’d like an updated version, he was continued to work on film, TV and radio through most of the last twenty five years so an additional few chapters are certainly called for.

My copy of the book is the 1997 first edition and is signed by Tom Baker.

Figuring: The Joy of Numbers – Shakuntala Devi

As a child I was fascinated by mathematics, but especially by tricks and shortcuts that could be done. I started reading Martin Gardner’s section of Scientific American when I was eleven or twelve years old, I don’t claim to have understood all of it but each month my knowledge of recreational mathematics was stretched just that little bit more. I’ll cover one or more of his books in a later blog. However in 1977, when I was fifteen, this book was published and it was written by somebody who, at least partly, earned her living from amazing feats of mental arithmetic, I had to get a copy, and this book is still on my shelves today. Some of it I already knew but there were whole sections where she explained how to do tricks that I had seen done but which had baffled me such as calculating the day of the week for any date given to you or working out square and cube roots in your head. I remember practising these tricks for hours until I could do them too.

The book starts of simply by looking at each of the digits 0 to 9 in detail, explaining what is special about each of them and giving tips around multiplying and dividing by them, patterns in their multiplication tables etc. She then moves on to chapters about multiplication, addition, division and a very short chapter on subtraction. These chapters not only suggest shortcuts, which I still use today, to perform such calculations but ways to quickly check if the answer you get makes sense such as casting out nines. The book really caught my attention however when we reach calculating squares, cubes, square roots and cube roots. Amazingly cube roots which non mathematicians would assume to be much more difficult then square roots are actually very simple and fifth roots are even easier, square roots proved to be quite tricky. But just to see how easy extracting a cube root lets look at all you need to know, worryingly forty five years later I can still remember this:

  • 1 cubed = 1
  • 2 cubed = 8
  • 3 cubed = 27
  • 4 cubed = 64
  • 5 cubed = 125
  • 6 cubed = 216
  • 7 cubed = 343
  • 8 cubed = 512
  • 9 cubed = 729

Assuming that we are starting with 474,552 (which is 78 x 78 x 78) how do you get the right answer? Well first of all look at the thousands i.e. 474, this comes between 343 and 516 so the first digit is the cube root of the lower number which is 7. Next you will notice that all the cubes in the list above end with a different number and you just need to find the one that ends with the same digit as the number you are trying to extract the root of which in this case is 2 which matches 512 or 8 cubed and there we have the answer, the 7 from the thousands value along with the 8 from the final digit gives the required answer of 78. Notice that it was simply a case of knowing the first nine cubes and no actual calculation was performed on 474,552 in order to get the right answer.

Calculating the day of the week is a bit more tricky as you need to memorise four tables, admittedly the first of which is simply the first four values from the seven times table so this barely counts as a table and the working out is also more involved. I can’t do this in my head anymore and frankly with the all pervading computers or mobile phones with calendars on them what was once a occasionally handy ability is now of no use whatsoever as you are rarely that far from a device where you can look up the day for a specific date if you need it. When I was a teenager however this was quite impressive at least amongst the other maths fans at school and I got to be pretty quick at it.

The book finishes with chapters on special numbers and finally tricks and puzzles most of which, even then, I had already encountered but this book stretched still further my mathematical skills and I loved it. It has been great fun reading it again and finding out what I remembered and what I had forgotten. Shakuntala Devi died at the age of 83 in 2013 and wrote several books on mathematics along with astrology and oddly ‘The World of Homosexuals’ which she claimed was inspired by her marriage to a homosexual man but Figuring: The Joy of Numbers is probably her best known work, at least outside India although sadly it appears to now be out of print. If you know a child interested in mathematics I suggest trying to get a copy for them, it really is a joy.

Lonely Planet Unpacked – Various

This collection of twenty six stories of travel disasters by some of the Lonely Planet guidebook writers can be read as a series of useful precautionary tales or just as a very entertaining book where you keep thinking I’m glad I’ve never been there. It was published in 1999 as part of the regrettably short lived Lonely Planet Journeys series and was obviously popular as the follow up volume, imaginatively entitled, Lonely planet Unpacked Again came out in 2001 this time with thirty one travel disaster stories some of which are by the authors also featured in this volume, clearly people to avoid travelling with. The obvious exception to this list of people to avoid is Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, and a man who has been everywhere so can definitely be excused the odd travel problem and in this book is merely faced by an extremely drunk Tibetan trying to get into the vehicle Tony was in by repeatedly headbutting the windscreen.

Some of the problems faced by the writers are relatively easily solved, such as with Bruce Cameron who uses a wheelchair so is rightly worried each time he arrives at a new location that he can access the bedroom and bathroom and in Tuscany this involves a very helpful landlord at the rented villa removing not only doors but the in one case the door frame and even part of a wall so that this could be achieved. Others are more concerning with Pat Yale travelling alone in Kenya who on her first day in Nairobi fell in a dark hotel corridor and broke her wrist so ending up with four weeks in plaster and heavily restricted as to what she could do. Precautionary tales include John Mock (another writer in both volumes) talking about the dangers of travelling in Pakistan and specifically the Karakoram Highway which takes you to Gilgit in the Hindukush and some amazing trekking routes. Unfortunately the KKH, as it is known, is one of the most dangerous roads in the world with regular rockfalls, an extremely narrow roadway with precipitous drops into the Indus river far below and armed locals who see closing the road as a way of getting what they want. The only alternative, at least when Mock is writing was Pakistan International Airways with their fleet of antique and barely functioning planes, he documents several trips between Gilgit and Islamabad, none of which I would be looking to be on. Amazing he never saw anyone actually crash off that road but Jennifer Brewer managed to go off the edge of a road in of all places Åland, an extremely flat island in the Baltic Sea belonging to Finland, possibly in the only part of the island such a feat could be achieved and with only 8km on her hire car tachometer.

The book bounces all over the world from China to India, various African countries but surprisingly only Brazil is representing South and Central America, a part of the world where I’ve had a couple of dodgy experiences and which I was expecting to be featured more. Sometimes the disaster is self inflicted, more often it’s encounters with other people or animals where the problems arise and for Randall Peffer who describes riding out a hurricane in Puerto Rico it just feels like the world is out to get you. The book is an easy read, I would pick it up go through a couple of the short stories and then put it back down again oh so glad that in my various out of the way journeys I’ve never had to put up with whatever I’ve just read about. Like all the Lonely Planet Journey’s books it is out of print but it, and it’s follow up, are readily available on the secondary market.

The Life and Times of the Real Winnie-the-Pooh – Shirley Harrison

This week my book choice is a most unusual biography, because although the subject is internationally famous a lot of people don’t know that there is a real Winnie-the-Pooh who was actually owned by Christopher Robin. He has led a very interesting ‘life’ culminating in his retirement along with some of his friends in the Children’s Library in New York and the story is very well told in this entertaining volume. I have to say that I knew some of this story but there was still a lot of material that was new to me. I’ve been a teddy bear collector for over twenty years and a book collector most of my life, now combining both of these interests by occasionally purchasing books signed by A A Milne, E H Shepard, Christopher Robin Milne and even H Fraser-Simson (of which more later).

The bear on the cover is the real Winnie-the-Pooh originally made by probably the finest teddy bear maker in the UK, Farnell, and purchased from Harrods for Christopher Robin’s first birthday in 1921. Over the years he was joined by a cuddly pig named Poglet and later the smaller and easier to carry version named Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo all arrived too in fairly quick succession. Rabbit and Owl who also appear in the books were additions by A A Milne, they were never actual toys owned by Christopher Robin. Those people who have visited Pooh in his retirement home are often surprised that not only doesn’t he look like the Disney version but he also is very different to the one drawn by E H Shepard. In fact the model for the bear in the books is Shepard’s daughters teddy which was probably a Steiff.

New York Children’s Library has Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet and Kanga, sadly Roo was lost at the family home of Cotchford Farm well before the toys made their crossing to America in 1947, originally for a short visit which turned into a permanent stay. They were originally held at the offices of Milne’s USA publishers E P Dutton but transferred to the library in 1987. During their time at Dutton they travelled all over America and Pooh even came back to England for three brief visits, including once flying on Concorde when Pooh was invited onto the flight deck to meet the Captain, he really was an international celebrity.

The rear of the book has some of the lovely photos selected to illustrate the story, several of which I hadn’t seen before including top left Christopher Robin starting school alongside his childhood friend Anne and below that an eight or nine year old Christopher Robin with some of the toys, Pooh and Eeyore are on the floor with Tigger under his left arm and Poglet in his right. Piglet is only three inches (7½cm) tall so this is definitely Poglet. In the middle is the original Winnie Bear with his owner Lieutenant Colebourn before he was donated to London Zoo early in WWI, which is where Christopher Robin met him and the then four year old Edward Bear was renamed Winnie in his honour. To the right of that image is the bridge in Ashdown forest where the game Pooh-sticks was played and named. At the bottom of the page is Christopher Robin’s first school bag from when he went to boarding school at the age of nine and marks the end of his time with Pooh as his constant companion. The fact that his father had used his real name in the books led to Christopher Robin being bullied at school and he built up a resentment to the books that he held for a large part of his adult life, only becoming reconciled with the characters and his and their ever growing fame much later on.

The book not only follows Winnie-the-Pooh on his journeys but also summarises the lives of the Milne family including the somewhat surprising decision by the naturally reclusive Christopher Robin to open The Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, although he did keep a fairly low profile about his links to the toy animals of his childhood and the books they led to. I do have a complete set of the paperbacks signed by him though which presumably originally came from his bookshop.

Above is Winnie-the-Pooh as drawn by E H Shepard for comparison with the actual cuddly teddy bear show on the front cover.

Winnie-the-Pooh continues to have massive fame around the world, considerably helped by the Disney version which with films and merchandising generates billions of pounds every year, A A Milne in his will left money to his family but also to set up The Milne Trust which uses his royalties from the characters for charitable causes and Disney, to be fair, also donates significant sums to charities. The book ends with a summary of the main beneficiaries. As for H Fraser-Simson, he was a composer who lived near the Milne’s London home and it was he that set several of the poems from ‘When We Were Very Young’ and ‘Now We Are Six’ to music with the tunes that I learnt as a child. At 102 years old Winnie-the-Pooh has now outlived all his compatriots and looks to just becoming more famous as the years go on and this tribute to a much loved bear was a really good read.

The Greek Coffin Mystery – Ellery Queen

As a lover of mystery and crime novels it is perhaps surprising that this was my first time reading Ellery Queen and the fact that I have started at the fourth book is due entirely to this being the only Ellery Queen that I possess. Let’s get the somewhat complicated back story of the authorship out of the way first and then dive into this surprisingly long (363 pages) crime novel. Ellery Queen is given as the author as well as the name of the private detective featuring in the book, in fact it is the work of two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, who also individually wrote crime novels under those names. To add to the confusion both those names are also pseudonyms; Frederic Dannay’s real name was Daniel Nathan whilst his cousin Manfred Bennington Lee was really Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky. Between them they wrote over thirty Ellery Queen novels and collections of short stories and there were also a few later books which were ghostwritten by various other authors and supervised by Lee.

What to make of this book though? It features Detective Inspector Richard Queen and his private detective son Ellery, who improbably gets to sit in on all meetings and interviews, along with visiting crime scenes just as if he was an actual member of the police force, he can even apparently make arrests. Indeed it took me some time to realise that Ellery Queen was, unlike his father, not actually an official part of the police. The story initially is simply the case of a missing will following the death of an elderly art dealer in New York. When it is worked out that the only place the will could have been put in the short time available from when it was last seen to when it was discovered to be missing is in Georg Khalkis’s coffin before the lid was screwed down an exhumation is ordered. The coffin being opened however is found to have two bodies in it, Khalkis and a mystery corpse and the case becomes murder and the problem is not just who killed the unknown victim but who are they… With thirty nine characters (including the police and Ellery) it can get complicated and I was glad of the list of people at the front of the book when trying to sort out the different relationships between them all.

The story is split up into two books, the first ending with the arrest of yet another incorrect suspect but with the police apparently satisfied that this time they have got their man. The second book details the collapse of the case against the arrested person and the slow discovery of the clues leading to the true murderer and thief. One thing I really liked was at the end of the thirtieth chapter where there is a break in the story for Ellery Queen to speak directly to the reader and make clear that at this point you have read all the clues needed to solve the case and that there is only one solution that fits everything you know. With almost sixty pages still to go it provided a break where I could go back in my mind over what has happened in the first three hundred pages and try to solve it. I have to admit that the actual solution was so surprising that I didn’t get it but yes everything fitted once you knew who did it.

This edition of The Greek Coffin Mystery was published as part of the Penguin Drop Caps series of twenty six books each with an author starting with a different letter and it is particularly appropriate for this to be Ellery Queen book chosen for Q as the chapters in this one are titled as an acrostic spelling out the titles and author. First published in 1932, the first Penguin Books edition came out in May 1957, this hardback was published in 2013 for the American and Canadian market only.

As I said at the start this was my first Ellery Queen mystery and whilst I enjoyed it I did find the character of Ellery Queen rather annoying. Reading about later books in the series he apparently does calm down a lot as the series progresses with far fewer irritating build ups to an incorrect accusation than occurs in this story. Maybe I ought to read one of the later books to see if I like him better.

How to Build a Universe – Professor Brian Cox & Robin Ince

Based on the highly successful BBC Radio 4 series ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ this is science book like no other I have read. The radio show is also difficult to explain to people that haven’t listened to it, and you definitely should listen to it (link at the end of this blog) because it is co-hosted by on the one hand a Professor of Particle Physics at Manchester University and on the other a stand up comedian which is an extremely unlikely combination but works brilliantly. The look of the book matches the slightly anarchic structure of the radio show which in an early episode whilst discussing something completely different wandered onto the subject of “is a strawberry alive or dead?” They have come back to this subject on other occasions and I was pleased to see this being treated in the book as shown below:

The science for the most part is not overly challenging and the only really complex section is the largest, an eighty page chapter entitled ‘Recipe to Build a Universe’ which is almost entirely written by Brian Cox and as Robin writes:

This is the hard bit of the book. You may need a pencil to underline sections or just to occasionally jab into your leg or skull as you ask “but what does it all mean?” Don’t let this put you off

Page 80

In truth I have read so many books on this topic that it was relatively easy to follow and I largely sailed through this bit as it is so well written. Although a background of nuclear physics, coincidentally at Manchester University although six years before Brian went there to do his degree, possibly also helped. It also helped that the book is actually very funny especially during interplay between Cox and Ince, I laughed out loud at several sections and particularly a part written by Robin with increasingly irritated footnotes correcting him by Brian.

Other topics covered include the concept of infinity, space travel, the ultimate death of the universe and lots of things in between. In this way it is very similar to the radio show in that the main subject of a chapter, or indeed an episode, can be lost briefly if something interesting comes up as an aside. ‘Schrödinger’s strawberry’ (is it alive or is it dead) alluded to in the first chapter of this review is a prime case in point. You will learn a lot from this book but it won’t feel like it at the time unlike tackling something like Relativity by Albert Einstein or any of the four important science books I read one after another in August 2020. The style is easily approachable and the need for Brian to make sure that Robin is following the points as he makes them keeps the text grounded, although Robin Ince has now written his own science book ‘The Importance of Being Interested’ which I have a copy of so expect a review of that in a couple of months or so.

The radio show is just embarking on its twenty fourth series, some of the earlier ones only had four episodes but it now seems to have settled on six and all of them are available on the BBC website via this link. The shows on the site are usually the extended podcast versions rather than the original thirty (now forty five) minute broadcast. The usual format is that Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined by two scientists who specialise in the subject selected for that episode and also another comedian who may have a science background but more often does not. A notable exception to this format, and an episode that is well worth listening to, was the astronaut special from series 22 where they were joined by astronauts Helen Sharman, Chris Hadfield, Nicole Stott and Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart. The book is great fun, the radio show even more so.

A Shropshire Lad – A E Housman

I have lived in Shropshire for the past eleven years and have seen copies of A Shropshire Lad numerous times in various bookshops across the county but never bought it. I think mainly because I knew that Housman never visited Shropshire before writing this collection of poems celebrating the county and he only came here briefly after becoming permanently associated in the public’s mind with Shropshire so doubted that he would have much insight into this extremely beautiful part of England. Sure enough whilst reading it became clear that even geographic details, which he gleaned from a tourist guidebook whilst writing the poems in London, were incorrect but the poems are not really about Shropshire anyway but about war and the untimely death of youths both in conflict and otherwise, including suicide. It cannot be described as a cheery read.

Let’s tackle a couple of the poems with more glaring geographic issues first just to get these out of the way, starting with one of the few poems to have a title rather than just a number, XXVIII The Welsh Marches which starts

          High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
          Islanded in Severn stream;

Well Shrewsbury may be built in a loop of the river Severn but it certainly isn’t on an island, indeed Shrewsbury castle stands guard on the northern side of the river defending the land entrance to the town. The poem continues in it’s fourth verse with

          When Severn down to Buildwas ran
          Coloured with the death of man,

Buildwas is roughly seventeen miles (27½ km) from Shrewsbury and the river has a significant volume by then so there is no way that blood from a Saxon battle, which would have involved hundreds rather than tens of thousands of combatants at that period of history, would still be visible in the water by the time it got there. The most obvious error though is in poem LXI Hughley Steeple, I don’t even need to quote the poem as Hughley church has a timber framed belfry but it certainly doesn’t have a steeple. But that doesn’t stop Housman giving it one with a prominent weather vane on top, which it also doesn’t have.

Ludlow gets mentioned in five of the sixty three poems and Wenlock Edge, which is a nineteen mile (30 km) long escarpment appears twice. Although even in, probably the most famous poem from the set, known as ‘On Wenlock Edge’ although not actually titled, geography isn’t Housman’s strong point as it mentions the Roman city of Uriconium, the ruins of which are fifteen miles (24 km) from Wenlock Edge. But the poem is a really good example of the style of the collection and has been set numerous times to music, most notably by Ralph Vaughan Williams who included other poems from the set as well in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge.

          XXXI

          On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
           His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

          'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
           When Uricon the city stood:
          'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
           But then it threshed another wood.

          Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
           At yonder heaving hill would stare:
          The blood that warms an English yeoman,
           The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

          There, like the wind through woods in riot,
           Through him the gale of life blew high;
          The tree of man was never quiet:
           Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
          To-day the Roman and his trouble
           Are ashes under Uricon.

As said above most of the poems don’t concern Shropshire in particular but rather the perils of war and death. The collection was first published in 1896 but didn’t really start to sell in significant numbers until the start of the Second Boer War and massively rose again during the First World War when the death of young soldiers was so keenly felt across the country. The overall body count across the series of poems is surprisingly high and it is nearly always young men who are speaking from the grave (a common theme of the poems) to those yet to die. I don’t really know what I expected from the poems as I genuinely didn’t know anything about them apart from the title before I came to read the book but I can’t say they particularly appealed to me. There is however a brief glimpse or two of albeit grim humour amongst the largely unrelenting gloom.

          XXVII

          "Is my team ploughing,
           That I was used to drive
          And hear the harness jingle
           When I was man alive?"

          Ay, the horses trample,
           The harness jingles now;
          No change though you lie under
           The land you used to plough.

          "Is football playing
           Along the river shore,
          With lads to chase the leather,
           Now I stand up no more?"

          Ay, the ball is flying,
           The lads play heart and soul;
          The goal stands up, the keeper
           Stands up to keep the goal.

          "Is my girl happy,
           That I thought hard to leave,
          And has she tired of weeping
           As she lies down at eve?"

          Ay, she lies down lightly,
           She lies not down to weep:
          Your girl is well contented.
           Be still, my lad, and sleep.

          "Is my friend hearty,
           Now I am thin and pine,
          And has he found to sleep in
           A better bed than mine?"

          Yes, lad, I lie easy,
           I lie as lads would choose;
          I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
           Never ask me whose.

My copy is from the 2009 series of twenty books by Penguin called ‘English Journeys’ and I do have the complete set, all of which have very attractive covers. If there is any of these that you would like me to cover in a future blog entry then please send me a comment.

The Motorcycle Diaries – Che Guevara

The book tells the story of a journey made almost on a whim by Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado almost the full length of South America initially using Guevara’s 500cc Norton motorcycle which is what gives the book its title. However from when they leave Buenos Aires on 4th January 1952 to arriving in Caracas on 17th July almost all the trip is done via hitch-hiking on lorries as the bike broke completely between Lautaro and Los Angeles in southern Chile on the 21st February. At the time Guevara was a student doctor and Granado was a qualified biochemist and taking what was intended to be a year long break to explore South America was seen as madness but neither man could be persuaded to delay the trip. Ernesto would return to medical school and qualify as a doctor before becoming known the world over as Che Guevara the revolutionary who helped Fidel Castro overthrow Fulgencio Batista the then dictator in Cuba before going on to assist in various revolutionary movements across South America and even in Africa. Che simply means pal or mate in Argentinian Spanish but it was the name he would have as his own for most of his adult life and is still how he is best known today.

But this book precedes his fame, he was only 23 when they set out, Granado was 29, and this review is published on my blog on what would have been Ernesto Guevara’s 94th birthday (14th June) if he hadn’t been executed by Bolivian forces on the 9th October 1967 when he was just 39. It wasn’t Guevara’s first journey by motorbike, he had already done at least one very long trip but that was by himself, taking Granado as well just on the one bike was somewhat overloading its capacity and it really didn’t take long for the poor roads and the extra weight to take its toll. At first they just used wire to hold the bike together but then they started to get repeated punctures which proved tricky to fix especially when splits started happening due to multiple holes near one another and the bike finally broke its steering column which consigned it to the scrap heap. This was not a luxury trip, they were largely impoverished on the journey living from hand to mouth, cadging beds and food as well as they could and using a largely fake fame as famous Argentinian leprosy specialists to ingratiate themselves with anyone they could. To be fair Granado did know a lot about leprosy and Guevara was considering making it his speciality when he graduated and they did visit several leper colonies on the trip so they probably knew more than anyone else apart from the specialist doctors at the colonies. But even this appeal to peoples charity didn’t work very well so they were often cold and hungry.

Amongst other ‘cons’ they used to get looked after was to stare dreamily into space after asking what the date was and saying ‘Oh we have been on the road for a year as of today’ and people would help them celebrate by buying food and drink. Guevara was particularly good at when being offered a drink he would just sip at it and when asked why he would explain that Argentinians don’t just drink they would always have food with alcohol and it felt strange to just have a drink. This would invariably get some food on the table for them. The full journey was to head south from Buenos Aires into Chile, go north through that country and then onto Peru, where they visited Lake Titicaca and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. They continued from Peru into Colombia and Venezuela where Guevara and Granado split up so that Guevera could get back to university by plane. This final stage however didn’t go to plan, as so much of the entire journey hadn’t, as to get a cheap flight he agreed to help ship racehorses to Miami with the plane due to fly back to Caracas and then onto Buenos Aires the next day. Instead the plane broke down in Miami and he was stuck there for a month waiting for it to be fixed.

The book was first published in 1993, with the translation into English by Ann Wright published in 1995 by Verso, so well after Guevara’s death, and was put together from his manuscript notes written during the journey. There is also a preface and an epilogue, both written by Guevara’s father, the epilogue details the fraught long unwanted stay in America. I have to say that this particular copy of the book, the thirteenth impression by Fourth Estate, is very badly printed with considerable over inking on random pages making it quite difficult to read in places but it was well worth the effort to get a glimpse into the development of a future revolutionary. You can see in his writing a change as he glimpses the extreme poverty that a lot of the continent is stuck in and the largely despotic rulers that control the lives of the population. Definitely a recommended read.