Beyond the Wand – Tom Felton

Published last month (October 2022), this is a really fun autobiography, even though I have to admit that I have never managed to get on with the Harry Potter books or the films. However I have heard Tom being interviewed a few times and his totally laid back and unpretentious style, so unlike the character of Draco Malfoy he plays in the films, drew me to this book pretty well as soon as it came out. I wasn’t to be disappointed. The foreword is by Emma Watson.

Tom is likewise eloquent about his friendship with Emma and several times states his admiration for her along with Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint especially over the very strange childhoods that these three child actors had. As the filming schedule of the Harry Potter was relentless all three existed in a bubble of private tutoring alongside their filming commitments. These were the only three to have this regime however, Tom along with all the other child actors went to a normal school but with random absences to be on set and he freely admits that he took advantage of this to bunk off school as it would be assumed he was working on Harry Potter. At thirteen when he started filming the series he was also significantly older than the three stars, Daniel and Rupert were eleven and Emma just nine years old and that age gap is important when you are so young, this all meant that whilst he wasn’t particularly close to the other three at least at the start of the movie series his friendship with them all has continued long after the films stopped.

Obviously most people reading this book will be looking for insights into the making of the Harry Potter films and yes that is covered with chapters talking about the various actors he worked with and what he learned from their vast experience. The cream of British acting talent were involved in the films over the years and even though at the start Tom had hardly heard of a lot of them he certainly learnt to respect their talent and almost used the films as an ultimate acting class. But, if like me, you haven’t seen the films then there is still a lot to be got out of this autobiography and Tom’s confusion when people treated him as the character he played, abusing him for what Draco had done is genuine and quite funny.

Tom also isn’t shy about writing about his failings, either a one off shoplifting offence done under peer pressure from the other lads at his school or during the time his elder brother Chris was his chaperone on set them disappearing all night to go carp fishing. Chris is a well known angler and Tom also loved nothing better than getting his equipment out and fishing through the night. Indeed when it came to filming the green screen quidditch sequences each actor had a photograph on a pole which marked where their eye line was supposed to be in each shot, somebody had Cameron Diaz, Tom had a particularly attractive carp. He also covers his time avoiding and then eventually spending time in rehab after his drinking and cannabis smoking got too much after the Harry Potter films had finished and he had moved to Hollywood. All in all this is a very honest book and well worth a read.

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.

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.

The Man and His Paintings – David Shepherd

The paintings behind David Shepherd in the cover photograph are some of his best known works, ‘Black Five Country’, ‘The Four Gentlemen of Tsavo’ and ‘Winter of 43, Somewhere in England’. These three works represent the three subjects for which he is most famous, the end of steam railways, wildlife (especially elephants) and aircraft. This large format book (33cm x 24½cm) was first published in 1985 by David & Charles and is now sadly long out of print as are the other titles featuring his work that they published. The book consists of approximately five thousand words by Cyril Littlewood, founder of the Young People’s Trust for Endangered Species by way of an introduction to David Shepherd and his work and roughly twenty to twenty-five thousand words of biographical detail by Shepherd himself plus often comprehensive descriptions of each of the sixty one featured paintings along with numerous sketches in both black and white and colour.

As can be seen in the two examples, above and below these paragraphs the book’s format is simple and elegant. Each featured painting is reproduced on the right hand page whilst the description by David as to how he came to produce the work is on the facing page with sketches filling in the page if there is room. In many cases the story he is telling about how the work was produced or received by the public or the commissioning client fills the page so there is no room for an additional sketch. It’s hard to believe that these paintings are the work of somebody who was rejected by the Slade School of Fine Art as having ‘no talent whatsoever’ when he applied to study there. As he explains in the biographical section of the book that he subsequently made his career in art at all was down to a chance meeting with professional artist Robin Goodwin at a party and despite Goodwin agreeing with the Slade he did agree to try to teach him.

Shepherd started off his commercial art three years after starting training with Goodwin and was painting aircraft. initially civilian and then military with several of his works hanging in the Officer’s Mess of various UK regiments but his big break came when he was flown out to Africa by the Royal Air Force and they didn’t want pictures of planes, as they saw enough of them, what they wanted was the wildlife and so he painted his first elephant and that really started his career. His very first career plan was to be a game warden in Africa and in fact he even flew out to Kenya as a young man and presented himself as prospective employee at a reserve only to be told to go home as they didn’t need an untrained and callow youth getting in the way of their work. Painting the wildlife many years after that initial rejection brought his early interest in conservation to the for and he would go on to raise a huge amount of money by selling wildlife prints for charity.

Shepherd’s fascination with steam trains went far beyond painting them, he actually purchased two from British Rail as they were being withdrawn, restored them to their original beauty and ran them on ‘The East Somerset Railway’ a preserved line he helped set up, although both locomotives are now owned by ‘The North Yorkshire Moors Railway’ another preserved line. Although I was first drawn to Shepherd’s works via the wildlife paintings it is his work showing the last days of United Kingdom steam that I most admire now. The book was really interesting in that it showed the development of his career from aircraft art which he often couldn’t sell even for £25 to the massively successful prints which really made his name with the general public. Nowadays you would need to spend in the order of £100,000 to purchase a Shepherd original although few of them are on the market. Sadly David Shepherd died in 2017 at the age of eighty six but the foundation he set up to continue his charitable work has raised over a million pounds over the years and continues to do excellent work with wildlife conservation in Africa and Asia.

Music, Food and Love – Guo Yue & Clare Farrow

Guo Yue was born in Beijing in 1958 so was eight years old when the Cultural Revolution began and this memoir is of a childhood through a period of turmoil as Chairman Mao ran his country into the ground from The Great Leap Forward in 1958 with the re-organisation of China into collectives dedicated to single products which largely failed and ignored the skilled workforce elsewhere who were now forced to do something different, usually badly, to the personality cult of the The Cultural Revolution. Yue was given this name as it means leap forward (Chinese names are family name first, then given name) to mark the year of his birth and the book largely follows his life from then until May 1982 when he left China to study music in London. As you can imagine because he was a child throughout most of the events this is not a usual book about China in those times, rather it is story of family life and survival in a period of extreme upheaval most of which made little sense to the small boy growing up in a two room home around a courtyard of an abandoned temple which was populated by various musicians who had been allocated rooms there in 1949 during another of Mao’s policies.

His overwhelming memories are of making music, cooking, eating and making what fun he could with his friends, politics only creeps in when it impacts his family, those also living in the courtyard or his school friends. His father died in 1964 and this obviously had a massive impact on the family not only emotionally but financially. His mother was a teacher and intellectual who spoke several languages which of course drew the ire of the People’s Army when the Cultural Revolution began and she was eventually bundled off into the countryside to work the land as a punishment for intelligence only reappearing for the occasional night to see how her six children were coping without parents and comfort her youngest, Yue. Eventually she was too exhausted and ill to continue to be in the fields and she was returned home but by then her health was broken.

Yue describes his neighbourhood and the various shops he would run errands to for his elder sisters to get the rationed ingredients they needed and cheap restaurants he would later gather at with friends in his teens before joining the army as a musician beautifully. The map at the start of the book helps you follow him around his local part of north eastern Beijing. You also register his bewilderment and things suddenly change at the whim of Chairman Mao and the changes again ten years after the start of the Cultural Revolution when Mao died and subsequent leaders unravelled the his immensely damaging policies. His fellow author is his wife Clare Farrow a writer and editor on various arts publications specialising in architecture.

One of the joys of the book is that it also includes recipes. At the end of most chapters there is a short list of dishes mentioned in the text and the final seventy pages consists of a quick guide to Chinese cookery and numerous recipes that have had minor tweaks to allow for the unavailability of some of the ingredients used in revolutionary China in London in 2006.

In September 2007 I was visiting my original home town of Nantwich in Cheshire, England to go to its excellent annual Food Festival where Guo Yue was one of the celebrity chefs doing a cookery demonstration, so I actually bought the book from him at the time and he signed it for me in both Pinyin Chinese and English. From memory he cooked two or three of the dishes featured in the book and as I had a front row seat I managed to try some. Sadly the festival has been cancelled again this year due to the uncertainties around what can and cannot be done done the pandemic but I hope to go again in 2022.

Yue also played one of his flutes at the end of the cooking demonstration. Apologies for the poor quality of the image but it was taken with only the natural light through a marquee roof using a mobile phone, which back in 2007 did not possess the camera quality of modern smart phones. In 2006 Guo Yue went back to Beijing to work on an album also called Music, Food and Love and you can see a video recorded then here.

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand – John Birmingham

Firstly a warning, the book contains strong language and lots of stories of excessive drug and alcohol use and things that happen when that happens, but don’t let that put you off unless you really don’t think that it is suitable for you. That said this book is so incredibly funny and yet so believable that when Birmingham says that it all really happened to him you have to believe him, and it certainly could be true that he had eighty nine of the craziest people house share with him over the years. I know I wouldn’t last five minutes with any of them. Birmingham is an Australian and all the places he lived are in various Australian cities, starting with Brisbane but including Sydney, Melbourne and others over thirteen different properties. Sometimes he moved because he just wanted to, more often it was to get away from his housemates and at least once to avoid being killed by one of them. Because the book isn’t told sequentially and there is no timescale it’s difficult to tell over how long a period it all takes place but some properties he left really quickly whilst in others he was the last man standing.

Interspersed amongst the text are grey shaded passages written by other people who have also experienced Australian house sharing hell. These are a little confusing at first as they appear right in the middle of stories that Birmingham is telling about his own particular nightmare cohabitants. Initially I tried to read them as interludes but it soon became clear that it was easier to get to the end of whatever horror story we were in at the time and then go back and read the one or two extra bits I had skipped, There are also a few extras that are several pages long and in a different typeface to resemble typewritten sections which are too long to be the greyed inserts but clearly Birmingham thought were so funny they had to be included somehow, all these occur at the end of chapters with a full page greyed out intro.

Milo won the house competition for not changing out of his jeans. PJ and I dropped out at four and five weeks respectively, but Milo, who liked the feel of rotting denim – “It’s like a second skin!” – was pronounced the champion at ten weeks and told to have a bath or leave. It was an all-male house.

There are various comparisons of all-male and mixed sex house shares, being male Birmingham obviously has limited experiences of all female occupation, and the general consensus is that for sheer disgustingness nothing beats the all-male property especially if the occupancy level is well above that intended. Set against that for true angst you need to have at least one woman in there (males tend to descend into their own chilled out pit of squalor) and if two, or more, of the housemates are in a sexual relationship it’s probably time to get out of there fast before the whole thing implodes. The other thing that will definitely kill an otherwise happy house is the introduction of a junkie, not just for the drug taking but also for the petty thefts to feed the habit and the tendency to attract the attention of the police with consequences for all. The title of the book comes from the opening line and ‘He’ was named Jeffrey. Jeffrey had joined an otherwise happy house only recently but it turned out he was a junkie, he had died whilst watching TV after a night out where he had had probably one too many of his drug of choice that evening and had passed out and died whilst eating the said felafel, the yogurt dressing had run down over the puncture marks in his arm. It was apparently Birmingham’s first dead housemate, he doesn’t however say if it was his last.

Whilst looking this book up to make sure it was still in print, it is, I found that it had subsequently been made into a long running play, a film in 2001 and a graphic novel in 2004 so it’s popularity, especially in its native Australia, seems assured. John Birmingham is now an established writer of both fiction and non-fiction, this was his first book although he had written articles and stories for a few magazines before this.