Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

The third of The Folio Society’s editions of Neil Gaiman’s greatest works, after American Gods and Anansi Boys, is the first one I have purchased as I already have very nice editions of the first two. However I had somehow not actually read Neverwhere, although I was familiar with it having listened to the 2013 radio play version several times. Whilst reading Neil’s ‘Introduction to this text’ I was surprised to discover that it had originally been a BBC TV series back in 1996 which I had completely missed and that Neil wrote the original novel partly so he could save the bits he liked that were either impossible to film within the constraints of the budget or were subsequently being cut from the show. He further expanded the book and removed some of the more obscure London references for a later international version and the version here is what is now known as the ‘Author’s Preferred Text’ where in 2006 he went back to both earlier iterations and merged them, bringing back the bits cut and also writing yet more new text to blend them seamlessly. The cast list for the radio adaptation, which was my first introduction to the book, is frankly amazing as can be seen in the Wikipedia entry for it and it was because of this when it was announced as a title for this years Autumn/Winter collection by The Folio Society I bought it immediately.

Neverwhere is a dark fantasy set in London Above and London Below, Richard Mayhew is an ordinary office worker but one evening on his way to restaurant for a meeting with his fiance and her boss finds an injured girl lying on the pavement. Ignoring his girlfriend’s insistence to just leave her as they are already late for the meal he instead decides to take her back to his home when she refuses medical assistance. Later his fiance calls to break off their engagement but by then Richard’s life has changed completely for the girl is a lady from one of the great houses of London Below and he is now irrevocably caught up in her escape from assassins sent to wipe out her family and her plans to avenge them.

London Below is a hidden place from almost all the inhabitants of London Above, partly on the tube lines, partly in the sewers, partly on the rooftops of London as we know it and partly in huge caverns invisible to those above. Door, for that is the girls name, needs help to escape from the murderous Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar and asks Richard to find the Marquis de Carabas with the assistance of the Rat Speakers. A lot of the character names seem very familiar to anyone who knows London, an aged man living on the rooftops is Old Bailey, Earls Court rides a tube train in a carriage that nobody seems to notice and which resembles a medieval court inside. There is also the scary Night’s Bridge where people disappear into the darkness and the realm of The Black Friars. One touch I particularly liked was The Floating Market, which moves around London Above completely invisible to the people there. Richard first encounters it in Harrod’s then later on it is on HMS Belfast, this is a place for the inhabitants of London Below to gather with a truce between all peoples.

This version of the book also includes the follow up short story ‘How The Marquis Got His Coat Back’, written in 2014, which introduces the very dangerous Shepherds of Shepherds Bush and the Elephant who controls Elephant and Castle. It has also been confirmed by Gaiman that he is writing a sequel novel called ‘The Seven Sisters’ which is paused whilst he is working on TV adaptations.

It’s only four chapters in, and waiting for me to stop showrunning and start writing.

Neil Gaiman’s twitter feed 24th January 2019

The book is, of course, beautiful with seven full page and two double page illustrations along with twenty one chapter headings all produced by Chris Malbon and the chosen font, Mentor with Tommaso as the chapter headings, is extremely clear making the 392 page book a delight to read and I devoured it in just two sittings getting completely immersed in the story. The picture above is of Richard and Door’s first encounter with The Angel Islington. The Folio Society also produced a short video on the release of this book on the 1st September 2022, which can be found here.

I loved the book, and the short story, and can’t work out why it took Folio Society to publish this version before I finally got round to owning a copy and reading it, roll on The Seven Sisters.

Fern Hill – Dylan Thomas

From the Phoenix Poetry 60 paperbacks of 1996 comes this great collection of Dylan Thomas poems featuring most of his most popular works other than ‘Under Milk Wood’ which I have covered in a previous blog back in 2018. There are thirty three poems in the collection including the brilliant ‘Do Not go Gentle into that Good Night’, a refusal to meekly accept death and of course the titular work ‘Fern Hill’ which describes an idyllic childhood, all life is here. What I love about Dylan Thomas is his wonderful sparse descriptive writing epitomised by the first poem in the book ‘Prologue’

This day winding down now
At God speeded summer's end
In the torrent salmon sun,
In my seashaken house
On a breakneck of rocks
Tangled with chirrup and fruit,
Froth, flute, fin, and quill
At a wood's dancing hoof,
By scummed, starfish sands
With their fishwife cross
Gulls, pipers, cockles, and snails,
Out there, crow black, men
Tackled with clouds, who kneel
To the sunset nets,
First 14 lines of Prologue by Dylan Thomas

This small book is an excellent introduction to the works of Thomas who despite being Welsh wrote only in English and the cover illustration is a lovely portrait of him by Augustus John which now hangs in the National Museum of Wales. Despite this being just a short collection it took me several days to read as I kept going back over the poems, savouring the words and pausing over particularly beautiful phrases that caught my imagination. The subject matters are often dark, and death is a frequent topic making him a difficult read at times but well worth persevering with. The powerful verse will pull you in even though I sometimes had to read a poem a few times to fully pick up the rhythm and appreciate it fully before I discovered that as part of his broadcasting career with the BBC a lot of his works are available on youtube being read by him such as this example of Fern Hill.

Sadly Thomas died in 1953 just two weeks after his 39th birthday, primarily from pneumonia although his heavy drinking could not have helped, and with his passing the world was deprived of arguably one of its finest poets who had only just finished his famous play for voices ‘Under Milk Wood’. I want to finish with extracts from the poem that first brought me to Dylan Thomas and which shows the raw power of his verse probably more than any other of his works.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

First three and last four lines of Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas

The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s – Rachel Ferguson

With a title like that how could I resist? For those of you unfamiliar with the Woolworth’s name it was a high street range of budget stores in various parts of the world starting in America and later arriving in the UK up until 2008 when the UK side of the business went into administration with over eight hundred shops closing just after Christmas that year. They sold everything from records to sweets, children’s clothing to household goods, toys to books, indeed Woolworth’s was the first big customer for the newly launched Penguin Books back in 1935. It is therefore inconceivable that the Brontë’s would have shopped there even if their timelines had crossed, but Charlotte, the last of the Brontë sisters, died fifty four years before American businessman Frank Woolworth opened his first store in the UK. So what is going on with the title?

OK, time for a confession, I wrote that opening paragraph back on the 24th May intending to read this relatively short book quickly, get this blog written and free up time around my birthday when I was going to meet a very good friend for the weekend whom I hadn’t seen for almost three years due to covid restrictions. As I write this paragraph it is the 25th June, my birthday is long gone, I am still only 84 pages into the full 182 and I hate the awful, shallow, self-centred characters that make up most of the story. The widowed Mrs Carne has brought up three daughters two of which are now adult, Deirdre is a journalist, Katrine starting on a career as an actress and Sheil, the youngest is only eleven. All four of them live fantasy lives still referring to talking dolls from the childhood of Deirdre and Katrine, writing letters from the dolls and sending them to themselves and making up stories about, and correspondence from, people they have met or simply read about as though they know them well. At this point in the book Deirdre has managed to insinuate herself into the home of Sir Herbert and Lady Toddington; a couple that all four of the dreadful Carne’s have obsessed about for three years ever since Mrs Carne did a week of jury service and Sir Herbert Toddington was the judge to the point at which Agatha Martin, Sheil’s governess, is convinced that they do actually know them.

Will I get any further into the book? It’s been haunting me for almost a month now since I put it down mid chapter totally frustrated by the characters and haven’t picked it back up apart from this morning to check the names for this entry.

Right it is now the 13th of July and I have finally completed the chapter where I gave up and the book is at last beginning to make a bit more sense, good job as I am now almost two thirds of the way through. The Brontë’s had even been discussed at the end of that chapter, if only rather disparagingly, with a comment by Sir Herbert that Anne Brontë never wrote anything quotable. So a quick reference to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (I have the 4th edition) to check this out only to find that none of the Brontë’s appear in this rather large volume, which as an English writing family probably makes them unique in that nothing any of them wrote is regarded as quotable. This book is a real struggle and if I wasn’t writing this blog then I would probably have given up long ago but it now feels like a challenge. This is also the first of these blogs to have become a sort of diary entry, I wonder when I will actually finish it?

Well I can now answer the question at the end of the last paragraph with the 2nd September finally seeing the conclusion of the book, and I would never have done it if I hadn’t looked up other reviews and found others with the same problem but saying that it got better. And yes it did with the last sixty pages if not flying by at least manageable in one sitting. The governess, Miss Martin, finally had enough of the family and left during this section and I knew exactly how she felt, but not before meeting the ghosts of Charlotte and Emily Bell, as they introduced themselves although they are clearly two of the Brontë sisters, when they came to visit the Carne’s. This is where the book completely pivots so that the reader isn’t sure what has been going on in the previous 150 pages as it is explained that whilst in Yorkshire the Carne’s had been holding seances and had contacted the entire Brontë family before rapidly leaving to come back south and this was them returning the visit. Are the fantasies of the family more than that? I don’t know and frankly don’t care enough to try to work it out especially when the Toddington’s start to completely step into the fantasy lives created for them by the Carne’s and all pretence of reasonableness from them also slips away. When Lady Toddington says, at the end of the Christmas party which is where the book also finishes, that she saw the Brontë’s in Woolworth’s the other day buying notepads I was half relieved that I could finally answer the question posed at the beginning of this review and half just pleased that I was at the end of page 179 of 182 so the end was near.

Rachel Ferguson wrote at least eight other books, according to the back flap of the dust wrapper, but Penguin only ever published this one. As you can probably gather I don’t recommend reading this book and her entire oeuvre is probably worth avoiding.

Elisabeth Sladen the Autobiography

2005, My first day on the new job.

I took my place in front of my little paper sign and glanced around the table. And there, just across from me and down to my left, a face from my childhood leapt out from among the throng.
Sarah Jane Smith was quietly leafing through a script and composing herself for the afternoon ahead

If Sarah was here, there was nothing to worry about. Later that afternoon she would be calling me Doctor. The little eight-year-old in my head (who was frankly reeling at the fact I was in that room at all) was soothed, and of course thrilled, that the Doctor’s one true assistant was there to look out for him.

Extracts from the Foreword of this book by David Tennant

The final book in my August selection of Sci-fi autobiographies had to Elisabeth Sladen, best known for her role as Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who in the mid 1970’s, but who re-appeared in David Tennant’s fourth broadcast episode (but the third filmed) as the Doctor in 2005 and later went on to have her own programme ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ which ran for five series up until 2011. David Tennant was clearly a fan, and so was I, although not to the extent of having posters of her on his childhood bedroom walls as he did. This book was a joy to read and despite its 334 pages plus the foreword and acknowledgements from her daughter Sadie it positively flew past it is so well written. The final draft of the book was delivered for her to read through just before Christmas 2010 but family was always more important than work for Elisabeth so it was put in a drawer and she was always so tired recently. The scripts were coming through for series five of the Sarah Jane Adventures and she need to prioritise those before her own project but in February 2011 she was diagnosed with cancer and just two months later she died aged only sixty five. In a heart breaking final chapter her husband, Brian Miller, and her daughter describe picking the book up some months after her death and reading it, then deciding that it had to be published, I’m so glad they did.

The book is far more than her involvement with Doctor Who, Elisabeth was an established theatre actress for twenty years before getting the role that truly made her name and that part of her career is given proper coverage as she learnt her craft, met and married Brian and toured all over the country with occasional TV, radio and film parts. We also get her time post Doctor Who back in theatres and various TV roles as well as the times she spent in America on the convention circuit with her first Doctor, Jon Pertwee, where she was always a popular speaker. Unlike Tom Baker’s autobiography which I reviewed first in this brief series Sladen does focus on her time in Doctor Who. She was cast for the role by Barry Letts and also worked on the first two series of Tom Baker’s Doctor and frankly we learn more about the start of his time in the role from this book than in his own autobiography. The story continues up until she decides to retire from acting in the early 2000’s as the roles simply weren’t coming through, then in 2005 she gets a call from Russel T Davies who had restarted Doctor Who after more than fifteen years off the TV screens and suddenly she ended up busier than ever.

It’s a fascinating book and her memory for details going back decades adds a lot to the enjoyment of reading it but is sadly out of print. I bought my copy when it first came out and read it then and it was fun to get it back off the shelf eleven years later. Frankly I’ve been building up to this book all month, deliberately including Tom’s and Barry’s books and finishing with Elisabeth’s. I was eleven when her first Doctor Who story, ‘The Time Warrior’, was broadcast and she was in a total of eighty episodes in that first time in the role so for me she will always be, as David Tennant put it in his foreword ‘the Doctor’s one true assistant’ and so sadly taken from us when her career was blossoming all over again.

I, Robert – Robert Rankin

I, Robert is not so much an autobiography but rather a series of loosely connected anecdotes which when read as a whole coalesce into an autobiography. It is by no means in true chronological order, apart from the second half of which more later, but rather a series of chapters, each just a handful of pages long, which deal with one or more aspects of his life. The title is of course based on the Isaac Asimov short story I Robot and the cover picture shows Rankin as Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet so you get two puns for the price of one which is very much in Rankin’s style. I have read a lot of Robert Rankin’s works in the last two or three years and have even reviewed his first book ‘The Antipope’ on this blog back in April 2019. Reading my way through Rankin’s books was the perfect antidote to sitting at home during the coronavirus lock downs, I own a shop so my business was closed down by the government for long periods of time, his humour largely helped to keep me going so I was really looking forward to reading this book and I wasn’t disappointed.

I, Robert was self published as a limited edition in 2015 and at the time of writing he still hasn’t sold out of the 5000 copies that were printed so if you are interested it can be found here.

The second half of the book is a series of chapters each about some aspect of one of his books in chronological order. Here he tells stories about how the books came to be written, problems with publishers and who the various characters in his books were actually based on. Rankin himself is apparently Jim Pooley, a long standing character from the Brentford series of books that is about to reach its twelfth (and apparently final) volume with Normanghast. In total thirty four books are discussed in some depth written between 1981 (The Antipope) and 2012 (The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the World). There is also a section at the end where he discusses losing his contract with Orion and deciding to self publish, which is what he exclusively does now, and also the final ‘contractual obligation’ book when Orion realised that right at the beginning of his contract with them he had been paid for three books but only written two. This was actually by agreement with his editor at the time but she had moved on and they wanted their pound of flesh so in 2013 his final mainstream published work (The Chickens of Atlantis and Other Foul and Filthy Fiends) came out, it’s not bad but not one of his better works.

There are also tales of misidentification in the book including spending a remarkably quiet three week signing tour in New Zealand because they had booked the crime writer Ian Rankin but the publishers had sent Robert leading to all publicity about the tour being hurriedly removed at the book shops he was going to and hardly anyone turning up. Some time later the two writers met and Robert told him about his lovely all expenses paid holiday with his wife and apparently Ian Rankin was not amused. This leads to the final page of the first half of the book which I will just leave here as it is pretty well explanatory apart from knowing that the picture on the left is the Marquess of Bath whilst Robert Rankin is on the right.

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.