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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (jocularius ludicrum)

There’s No Business Like It!

I’ve been reading a lot of show business biographies this month which is rather odd because, by and large, I hate show business biographies and so I almost never read them. In my opinion, if you’ve read one, then you’ve read them all. They are all the same – early struggles, shameless name-dropping, sycophantic gushing about influential colleagues, eventual success on stage and/or screen, more sycophantic gushing, the end.

I’m not sure I really know who Miriam Margolyes actually is. I gather she was in one of the Harry Potter films, so I must have seen her on the screen, but she didn’t really make a lasting impression on me. However I read her autobiography This Much Is True for two reasons. One was that a reviewer for the Guardian newspaper told me that it was screamingly funny and another was because I’d seen her on The Graham Norton Show and I thought she made a brilliant guest. The other person on the show with her was the rapper Will.I.Am and she made mincemeat out of him, poor chap. He, like, was like completely like unable to like speak a like sentence without like inserting like far too many like unnecessary like occurrences of like the word like, like.  Miriam objected to this sloppy speech habit and refused to allow him to use the word at all, telling him off severely every time the word slipped out between his lips. Being an obliging sort of a fellow, he tried very hard to do what she told him to do. Unfortunately, the verbal tic was just too deeply engrained in his vocal chords and he simply couldn’t do it. By the end of the show he was unable to say any words at all for fear of annoying Miriam. To be fair to Will.I.Am, he took all the teasing in very good part, genuinely tried to behave himself and laughed hugely at himself for failing so abysmally. And there was clearly no malice on Miriam’s part either – she was just having fun – and it was a genuinely amusing bit of television.

So I picked up her autobiography full of hope, but my hopes were quickly dashed. Clearly the Guardian reviewer and I have very different senses of humour, because I didn’t laugh once as I read the book. Occasionally I smiled a little bit, but that’s as far as it went. Miriam even discusses the incident with Will.I.Am in the book and she manages to make it sound rather dull and ordinary despite the fact that it was actually very funny indeed when I saw it on the screen.

There were a couple of interesting things about the biography though. Miriam most definitely does not indulge in sycophantic show-biz gushing. If she doesn’t like a person, she says so – for example, she met several of the Monty Python team when she was at university and she strongly objected to the way they treated her. She refers to them as "shits" and she still hasn’t forgiven them even though it’s been more than sixty years since they upset her. They are not the only people who she despises and the book is well worth reading just for her delightfully candid opinions about a lot of famous people. Given what she actually left in the text, I’m surprised that she hasn’t been sued six ways from Sunday and I really can’t help wondering just what her publisher’s lawyers might have insisted that she remove from the original manuscript. I’d love to read the unexpurgated version, it must be quite incendiary stuff!

She also makes no secret of the fact that, despite having been a lesbian all her life, she has spent a significant amount of time giving blow jobs to lots of men, sometimes just to make them feel good, because she has a kind heart, sometimes to reward them for their good behaviour, and sometimes because she saw it as a way to advance her career. She is silent as to whether or not she gave Will.I.Am a blow job following the ordeal that she put him through on The Graham Norton Show. I hope she did. He certainly deserved one...

Bob Mortimer is half of the very unfunny "comedy" duo Reeves and Mortimer. I don’t think they’ve ever managed to make me laugh. However Bob himself has become a mainstay of a, for want of a better word, panel / quiz, show called Would I Lie to You? In which he tells some of the most outrageous tales which invariably have the audience, and me, in stitches and which surprisingly often turn out to be quite true – for example, when he was seven years old he burned down his house, and when he was a teenager he was part of a punk group called Dog Dirt. What’s not to like?

So I was quite looking forward to reading his autobiography And Away and, by and large, I wasn’t disappointed with it. Before his show business career (which he drifted into quite by accident) Bob Mortimer was a solicitor. He actually has two law degrees, which is pretty impressive in and of  itself. He claims that he only managed to get the degrees because he was so cripplingly shy that he never managed to make any friends at university which meant that he had nothing else to do other than stay in his room and study hard. I find that very easy to believe…

He quickly became disillusioned with the practice of law, but he couldn’t think of anything better to do until, in 1986, he went to the Goldsmith's Tavern in New Cross, London, where he saw a show starring the comedian Vic Reeves. Mortimer enjoyed the performance so much that, for once, he managed to overcome his shyness and he introduced himself to Reeves after the show. The two soon became good friends, wrote a lot of material together and performed together and the rest, as they say, is history.

I never much liked Bob Mortimer when he was part of the Reeves and Mortimer double act but his solo career proved quite conclusively that he had been overshadowed by his partner. Once he was given the chance to shine by himself, he quickly proved himself to be a very funny man indeed and this is reflected in his autobiography which is often laugh out loud funny and always very insightful. Slightly to my surprise, I rather enjoyed it. But beware, if you’ve seen very much of Would I Lie to You? you will already be familiar with a lot of Bob Mortimer’s anecdotes.

If you are anything like me, you have almost certainly never heard of Cassandra Peterson though you may well be familiar with her alter ego Elvira, the smoulderingly sexy, vampirish character who introduces schlock horror movies on the television. Her autobiography is called Yours Cruelly, Elvira. It is subtitled Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark and it is an utter delight from start to finish.

On Good Friday in 1953, when she was 18 months old Cassandra Peterson reached out for a pot that was simmering on the stove and doused herself from head to foot in boiling water. She suffered third-degree burns that covered much of her body. She survived the ordeal, though she still bears the scars to this day. Perhaps because of the accident, she was always a loner as a child and when her school friends were playing with Barbie dolls, she was watching horror movies on the TV, building model kits of Frankenstein and Dracula, and falling in love with Vincent Price.

She had a complicated relationship with her mother, which effectively amounted to child abuse and she ran away from home when she was 14. She got a job as a go-go dancer in a bar. She adored rock music and throughout her teens she went to every concert she could find and tried very hard to argue her way back stage so that she could meet and greet her heroes. Effectively she was a groupie, though she claims to have remained a virgin during these years. Her encounters with Jimmy Page and Eric Burdon put a severe strain on that state (and gave her some entertaining anecdotes to amuse her friends with in later years), but she insists that she did manage to escape unscathed. Eventually...

Her experience as a go-go dancer opened up some show business doors for her and she became a Las Vegas showgirl. Her groupie exploits went up a notch when she started this new career and she found herself fending off advances from the likes of Andy Williams and others. She also had several career-changing encounters with Elvis Presley. In later years, no longer quite so much of a virgin, she grappled with Tom Jones, as a result of which she has much to say about the size and potency of his willy.

Eventually she found a modicum of success in the business when she created the character of Elvira and argued her way into a job hosting horror movies at a Los Angeles TV station.

Perversely, I think the reason why her autobiography reads as well as it does is because she was never really very much of a success at anything. She was never a star, except in a very minor way, and so she could remain quite detached in her view of the business of show business. She was, of course, very familiar with the sordid world that lay behind the glitz and the glamour, and she knew how fragile it really was, and just how easily the bubble could burst. To a large extent, she’s always been on the outside looking in. Combine that with her irrepressible (and very wicked) sense of humour and you have a winning formula. As I said before, the book is a constant delight and it really doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Cassandra Peterson and / or if you only have the vaguest notion of who Elvira might be.

The cream of this crop of autobiographies is Billy Connolly’s Windswept and Interesting. Much of what Billy says in the book is familiar from other autobiographical snippets that he has published over the years and from the parts of his life that he has spoken about at length on stage. But this is his first attempt to tell the whole of his story all the way from woe to go.

Quite late in the book, Billy reveals that he hasn’t actually written it. Rather he has dictated it into a recorder and some poor transcriber has had to listen to the recording and turn his ramblings back into words on paper. Hopefully not messing with them too much along the way…

Because Billy suffers from Parkinson’s disease, it is likely that he’s no longer physically capable of actually writing his memoirs, but happily this has a very beneficial side effect on the nature of his autobiography. Because Billy is simply talking into a microphone, just freely-associating and casually following the stream of his own consciousness, he can let himself be guided by his muse as it trots up and down side roads and takes itself off on tangents. This, of course, is exactly how he structures his stage shows. He admits quite happily that when he goes on stage he never has any real idea at all about what he is going to say or how he is going to say it. Therefore every show is different, every show is a new beginning. When he opens his mouth on stage, what comes out is always unplanned. He just makes it up as he goes along. Consequently his autobiography reads very much like a transcript of one of his stage shows, and we all know how funny they are!

Tim Peake’s Ask an Astronaut is not a show business biography and I’m not sure it set out to be an autobiography at all, but nevertheless, that’s what it turned out to be.

Tim Peake is a British Army Air Corps officer, European Space Agency astronaut and a former International Space Station (ISS) crew member. After he returned from his sojourn in the space station he made himself available to answer any and all questions that anyone might have about his mission, his training, what it takes to be an astronaut, anything and everything at all really. The result is this absolutely fascinating book which is part autobiography and part applied science and technology. The delightfully full and frank answers he gives to the questions that people have asked him delve deeply into his background and upbringing, talk about exactly why he wanted to become an astronaut in the first place, and about how he set out to realise that ambition. He tells us just what is involved in a space mission, what daily life was like on the space station and, of course, he tells you more than you ever really wanted know when he answers that perennial favourite question, just how do astronauts go the toilet?

He pulls no punches. He answers every question fully and in detail, no matter how potentially embarrassing it may be (you can’t embarrass an astronaut, they spend far much time being probed by doctors to get embarrassed about anything at all). The result is utterly fascinating. When I was a child I wanted to be an astronaut. Now that I know how to become one I’m not sure I want to be an astronaut any more. Nevertheless there’s part of me, deep down, that still wants to go into space. If William Shatner can do it, why can’t I?

If you read Robert Conroy’s novel Red Inferno in conjunction with his novel 1945 it becomes clear that they form two sides of a very similar coin. Each complements the other. (I reviewed 1945 a couple of years ago. You’ll find the review here). Both novels are alternate history stories. 1945 assumes that Japan did not surrender after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead they fought on and the novel concerns itself with the military strategies and tactics of that situation. Red Inferno takes place in Europe in 1945. The Russian and Allied armies are sweeping through the wreckage of the Third Reich on their way to Berlin. The war in Europe is all over, bar the shouting. In our world, the armies stopped at the borders that had been agreed at the Yalta conference in February 1945 which had decided the shape of post-war Germany. In the novel, the Russian army pays no attention to the Yalta decisions and continues to advance. It isn’t long before the Allied armies find themselves fighting the Russians and World War II has morphed into Word War III with no real interval between the two…

In itself, it’s not an unreasonable scenario. It is well known that Churchill was keen to turn on the Russians once the war in Europe was over, and it seems likely that several American Generals (particularly MacArthur) would have supported such an action. It never happened, but it all too easily could have...

Conroy tells his story in a series of vignettes told from the point of view of the soldiers on both sides of the campaigns, and from viewpoint of the Allied and Soviet generals and politicians who are formulating the strategies demanded by the situation as it unfolds. It’s all horribly convincing, particularly when, as seems inevitable, the decision is made to deploy the atomic bombs in Europe, rather than in Japan. The results of that decision are, of course, quite horrendous.

Conroy has clearly done a lot of research. The devil is always in the details and the details are very convincing indeed. Time and again I found myself nodding happily. Yes! That’s exactly right, that’s exactly what would have happened!

As an example, it is clear to me that Conroy has the character of the British General Montgomery perfectly defined and pinned down. Montgomery was an excellent general when he had time to formulate concrete plans – his brilliant victory at El Alamein was due, in large part, to the two or three months he had available to plan his campaign in minute detail. He was much less effective when the situation was more fluid. In our world, he made a complete mess of the Arnhem campaign which changed direction almost by the minute. In the world of Robert Conroy’s novel, Montgomery utterly fails to cope with the ever changing Russian tactics, has a nervous breakdown and has to be replaced. This is exactly what I would have expected of Montgomery and I was very pleased with Conroy’s interpretation of his character. (As an aside, it is common knowledge that Eisenhower detested Montgomery and Eisenhower’s opinion may well have influenced the direction of Conroy’s thinking, since Eisenhower himself is a major character in the novel).

If you are at all interested in alternate history novels, you could do a lot worse than read Red Inferno. I found it utterly fascinating.

Meg Elison’s The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife is an absolutely brilliant after the catastrophe novel, one of the best that I have ever read. It is thought provoking, meaningful, eye-opening, and important. It’s also quite a thrilling read!

A pandemic has wiped out almost all of the Earth’s population. Women have suffered more than men – perhaps 99% of them have died. Consequently women have become a very sought after commodity to the small, though still significant, percentage of men who remain after the pandemic has burned itself out. As you might expect from a book of this kind, strong men gather harems for themselves and they have little regard for the rights of the women they collect. To these men, women are there only for sexual gratification. They are raped, sold to traders, and generally treated like animals rather than like human beings. This actually seems a rather short sighted strategy to me. Mistreating such a scarce resource is surely going to have disastrous long term effects when the women start to die from the treatment they receive. Wouldn’t it make more sense to coddle and protect them instead? But who ever said that men were able to think constructively about the long term? I suppose it all depends on which brain they happen to be using at the time.

Despite the situation, some women do manage to transcend it and organise themselves into hives. Because of the scarcity of women, it turns out not to be hard for a strong single-minded woman to set herself up as a queen bee, using her sexuality to keep control of her male population of workers and drones. It’s an interesting bit of role reversal and, in retrospect, quite an obvious one which the author examines with a certain glee!

There are even some well organised communities that manage to avoid both these extremes and retain some vestiges of pre-pandemic life, though sometimes their organisation proves, in the end, to be rather too fragile to last for very long.

The unnamed midwife herself is a survivor of the pandemic and we travel with her as she starts to discover the ways of this new and frightening environment. She used to be a gynaecological nurse back in the day when such professions actually meant something, and now she makes it her goal to do her best to give the few women who remain proper birth control options. Pregnancy is a very dangerous condition in this brave new world. Obviously, despite her best efforts, pregnancies do continue to occur. When this happens, she tries her best to help with the few births that actually come to term. In this case, her priority is always to save the life of the mother – almost invariably, the children are stillborn. The future of the human race looks very grim.

For self protection, the midwife disguises herself as a man and adopts various masculine names in the several communities she encounters in her travels. She sees, and comments upon, all the new gender roles and characteristics that a severely restricted population has brought into being. Often what she sees is not very pretty. By and large, men have regressed, becoming scary and animalistic, trying constantly to prove their alpha status for the sake of self protection, kudos and (hopefully) reproduction rights. The book leans heavily towards trying to define gender roles and it questions the way that societal pressures define such things. But the novel is not the shrill feminist tract that it could so easily have been. Meg Elison is far too skilful an artist to fall into that simplistic trap. Instead, it’s a very thoughtful re-examination of just how much society defines gender and how much gender defines society. Obviously there are no simple answers to such a complex question so the story tends to lean towards the descriptive rather than the prescriptive, but nevertheless it always remains fascinating, thoughtful, insightful and often quite thrilling to boot because the surface story itself remains tense and exciting all the way through!

The protagonist is a strong and empowering woman. She is easy to identify with and you have to admire the way in which she copes when everything she knows turns upside down and goes away. What a shame we don't ever get to learn her name.

The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife is complete in itself. It clearly doesn’t need any sequels. Therefore, of course, it has two. The Book of Etta takes place a generation or so after the events of the first book. I found it very predictable and I gave up about half way through it. The Book of Flora is the third book in the trilogy. I haven’t read it and I don’t suppose that I ever will.

Miriam Margolyes This Much Is True John Murray
Bob Mortimer And Away Gallery UK
Cassandra Peterson Yours Cruelly Elvira Hachette
Billy Connolly Windswept and Interesting Hodder & Stoughton
Tim Peake Ask An Astronaut Century
Robert Conroy Red Inferno Ballantine
Meg Elison The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife 47North
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