Books Monthly home page august 2016               

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I'm a huge fan of Tarzan, but from what I've seen in the trailers and on TV of the new Legend of Tarzan, this has to be one of the worst Tarzan films ever. A comedy cameo from Samuel L Jackson doesn't help, but the guy playing Tarzan, Skarsgaard, is dire - hes not even good looking, and his delivery of his lines is pathetic. The apes are great, but that's about it. The story is laughable, too. The problem is, Tarzan films, with the exception of one, have always been made by people who haven't read the books.


Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan are classic literature, as romantic as Jane Austen, as thrilling as anything by Robert Louis Stevenson or Tolkien. They describe a baby boy, protected to the last by his father, Lord Greystoke, and raised by a tribe of great apes when a mother ape carrying a dead infant, swaps it for the baby human. Burroughs's description of how the infant tarzan teaches himself to read using his baby books, how he survives threats from jealous apes using his own cunning and intelligence, which are far superior to theirs is inspired - Burroughs believed that the upper classes were inherently more intelligent than the lower classes; mistakenly, obviously, but it nevertheless makes for a good story.


When Tarzan first meets Jane, he can read and write, but the only language he can speak is that of his own tribe, the apes. Eventually he is taught French by his friend, the soldier, D'Arnot, and takes his place in civilised society. When he is thrown overboard in The Return of Tarzan, he returns to the jungle, only to find that his beloved Jane is in peril. The story is up there with the best of the early fantasy writers. But filmmakers always have to change something, and no one has ever come close to putting the proper Tarzan story on the big or small screen. Of the TV tarzans, Ron Ely was obviously the very best. And the one film that almost got it right? That was Tarzan the Apeman, starring the delectable Bo Derek, of whom we see rather a lot; and Miles O'Keefe playing the very best Tarzan ever. This new film is dire, worse than John Carter, in my opinion, and I haven't seen more than say two-three minutes. I don't need to. It doesn't look very good at all to me.


Update on Holly: 28th July 2016 - more than four weeks on from the diagnosis of her lymphoma, Holly is still full of beans and behaving perfectly normally, chasing balls, rabbits, deer etc. It sometimes seems as though her breathing may be causing her problems, but she eats everything in sight and asks for more, she pees and poos normally, and other than the occasional snorting noise, she seems OK. She may only have a few weeks left, or not even that, but she's certainly giving it a go!


Update on Skipper: 28th July 2016 - the very aggressive tumour in his eye is back and growing. As we understand it, the only choice we have is for his eye to be removed, but despite assurances to the contrary, we don't believe he would cope. He is hugely highly strung, the most active dog we've ever had, and it seems criminal to mutilate him for the sake of maybe 3-6 months when he's had ten fabulous years as probably the most beautiful border collie in the world.


We knew we would have to say goodbye to them at some point in our lives, but eight years old (Holly) and ten years old (Skipper) seems far too early to us. Of the six dogs we've had, these two are the only ones we've had vaccinated every year, and most of them lived to over 14 years. In recent months we've read more and more about the dangers of the vaccines and particularly that one of them is suspected of causing cancer. Many vets around the world say that the first vaccination is sufficient for ten years but it may take years before the greedy pharmaceutical firms are forced to agree. We can't help thinking that Holly's cancer occurred shortly after this year's vaccination. Meanwhile, our two beautiful dogs continue to enjoy life as they always have done. We're making the most of them while we still have them!




  Book of the Month: DK's Star Wars Year By Year



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Now to business: July 22nd saw the cinema release of the third of the new Star Trek movies... September 8th 1966 was the broadcast date in the US of the very first of the Star Trek: The Original Series episodes, and Books Monthly will be celebrating fifty years of Star Trek in the September issue of course. I remember as if it were yesterday, picking up a book in the local branch of W H Smith in Stevenage, in the summer of 1967, a slim paperback by respected SF author James Blish, simply called Star Trek. I'd read books by James Blish before - I can't say he was my favourite SF author, that honour went at that time to Isaac Asimov, whose Foundation Trilogy was paramount, for me, closely followed by Arthur C Clarke and Eric Frank Russell, whose short stories were amazing! But I bought the Star Trek book, I loved it, and I made a mental note of the advice on the back cover of the book, which was to pay close attention to the pointy-eared Vulcan, Mr Spock. I noted also, that on the front cover, it said "Based on the exciting new NBC-TV series created by Gene Roddenberry". I didn't have a clue as to who Gene Roddenberry was, but I was thrilled to find out several years later that Star Trek was going to be broadcast on the BBC! Our only experience of televised science fiction in those days was Dr Who, which didn't really grab me at the time. Star Trek was first shown on BBC 1 on 12th July 1969, almost three years after it was first broadcast on US TV - I can't imagine British audiences waiting that long nowadays! The rest, as they say, is history, and that is what will be celebrated in the September issue. In the meantime, read about the fabulous books on offer this month, and then read Jerry Dowlen's superb article about the late, much-lamented John Mortimer - a grand issue all round, I think! See you next month...

Growing up in the fifties (and the sixties) - part 5: entertainment part one...

We've touched on the subject of entertainment in the fifties and the sixties briefly in the past - last month I mentioned Listen With Mother and Children's Hour. There are plenty of books about the fifties and the sixties but you'd have to read countless biographies of various famous baby boomers to get the full picture, because these books (some good, some very bad, like the Chris Tarrant one I spoke about last month) are limited in what they can say, and there are inevitably some sweeping generalisations. For example, I can only speak as someone who was brought up with a radio (firstly a large radio that sat on a table in one of the alcoves, the one to the left of the fireplace in the lounge; secondly a transistor radio of which I have spoken before; thirdly a radiogram), and no television. Lots of baby boomers will tell you "in those days we made our own entertainment", and in the case of my family that was certainly true. In fact, our family bore more resemblance to the Bennett family in Pride and Prejudice than to a typical 1950s family, in that my mum played the piano, my dad played a variety of stringed instruments, most of them very badly, my sister Jean played the piano, whilst I started off with the recorder, graduated to the violin, and then after the incident with the violin teacher, who was a forerunner of the modern paedophile, I graduated to, and taught myself, the guitar.


We made music as often as we could, especially when we had visitors, because uncles played banjos and mandolin banjos, other uncles played mandolins; we had, in our possession, too, a piano accordion, and we knew people who could play the dulcimer and the banjo. A great uncle could play the spoons, others had served in the army and could play a snare drum. We made an almighty racket, but it was fun, and funny - you should have heard our rendition of Franz von Suppé's Poet and Peasant Overture - the Portsmouth Sinfonia had nothing on us, we invented the bad noise! Individually, we were all competent players. Much of the trouble stemmed from the fact that I heard people like Django Reinhardt playing a "standard" like "Lady Be Good", and I wanted it at that speed, and with those instrumental breaks so that I could show off my guitar-playing skills... when we all played, it was chaos. When we had a full house, everyone wanted to hear "standards" like the Stephen Foster songs (Camptown Races), or the ones Connie Francis was making famous (again) like "Who's Sorry Now", right back to old turn of the century music hall songs like "She Was a Sweet Little Dickie-Bird, Tweet, tweet tweet, she went..." It was a cacophony, a cacophony my Dad once managed to capture on reel-to-reel tape. I don't know why it was called reel-to-reel tape as though there were other options - there was no other method of recording around at that time!


Ok, we weren't unique - lots of families had pianos in their homes, we just happened to use ours a lot. When there was nothing to do, I would sit at it and pound out "The Old Rugged Cross" because it was a simple enough tune, one that I could just about manage with a made-up left hand accompaniment of my own. Chopsticks was too easy by far, and anyway, it required two people. It wasn't a prerequesite in the 1950s that a daughter should be able to sing and play the piano, but my sister Jean could play Schubert's Marche Militaire, and various pieces by Chopin very well indeed, as I recall as well as lots of other pieces, e.g. The Wedding of the Painted Doll. My Mum was a kind of precursor to Mrs Mills (look her up - she was at one time almost as famous as Winifred Atwell (look her up, too!). The radio was on from morning till night, because there was always something on. I was brought up listening to the radio - if Mum was in the kitchen preparing that evening's family dinner, and she didn't want me under her feet, she would put me in the front room in front of the radio and I would listen to Listen With Mother, once the announcer had assured herself that I was "sitting comfortably". In 1956 or 1957, when I was ten years old, Acker Bilk brought out a recording of Marching Through Georgia. By this time I had been exposed to various great recordings of the 1930s on 78rpm shellac records of bands like Harry Roy, Cab Calloway, Jack Hylton, Ambrose, etc., etc. My Dad had 78s of the Quintette Du Hot Club de France that simply blew me away. And then there was Chris Barber's Jazz Band, with Petite Fleur and Whistling Rufus.


And then Acker Bilk. I was sent out to the city, on the bus, to the Bon Marché department store, to seek out a copy of Marching Through Georgia - or it may even have been Under The Double Eagle... Anyway, I was entrusted with the family's funds to purchase this record, and I managed to return home with Chris Barber's Petite Fleur... It was daft, really, because I liked Acker Bilk's record better - it made no sense, unless that particular record had not yet reached Gloucester. Radio was universal, piped into every home in Britain, but deliveries of certain commodities didn't always reach "the sticks", i.e. rural Gloucestershire, for quite some time after they were played on the radio. Ah, yes! The radio. We had the radio to listen to, and we also had a wind-up gramophone, of course, to play those 78rpm shellac records on, and a never-ending supply of needles - they wore out quite quickly, you see. I would spend hours playing jazz and big band records on it - and my Uncle Ernie also gave me opera and symphony sets to play on it as well. Tosca occupied twelve 78rpm records, I think, if not more. Chris Barber and Acker Bilk came on the blue Pye Jazz label as I recall. I remember buying The Kingston Trio's Tom Dooley with money given to me as a kind of consolation when my beloved Gran died - I was sent to spend the day with Jean at her place of work in Cheltenham on the day of her funeral, I was eleven years old. I'd been to visit Gran in hospital, a huge ward with beds lined up on either side against the wall, austere and unwelcoming. She never came out of hospital and the day she was buried I was given a ten bob (fifty pence) note and we went off to Cheltenham. I found a record shop, and a bookshop, and I bought Tom Dooley in the first, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in the second.


Shortly after that I spotted a radiogram outside Currys in the Oxbode, Gloucester, and nagged and nagged and nagged until my Mum caved in and put a deposit on it, the rest to be paid in instalments over six months. It meant that we would be able to play modern records, 45s and LP records! And it had a better radio. Our old radio struggled to find Radio Luxembourg - all crackles and hisses as you turned the tuning dial, and then eventually you got Bob Monkhouse and Dennis Goodwin playing records that people hated one last time before they smashed them audibly in the Radio Luxembourg studio. Naive as I was back then, I believed that you would never have to listen to that record again because it had been smashed to smithereens live on air... My love affair with radio began with Listen With Mother, but soon I was listening to everything while my Mum did washing, ironing, cooking etc., Woman's Hour, Housewives Choice, Children's Favourites, Life With The Lyons, The Clitheroe Kid, Much Binding in the Marsh, Workers' Playtime, A Story, a Hymn, and a Prayer, The Goons, Mrs Dale's Diary - later, when I was in my teens, I would race home from school (a long enough journey, seven miles, first by a sequence of buses, then on my bike), getting home just in time for Mrs Dale's Diary: "I've been so worried about Jim lately...". My first teenaged crush was on Jenny Dale, Mrs Dale's daughter, for the simple reason that I fell in love with her voice!


How often have you heard people of my generation say that we made our own entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s? It was true. If there was nothing on the radio, you'd head outside for a kickabout up the recreation fields (weather permitting); if the weather was foul, you'd find a comic or a book to read. Homework? No one I knew ever spent more than an hour on homework after the first novelty of being told to do some as the first few months of Grammar school wore off in 1957. Minimum effort went into homework - you did enough to get by and no more. "Could do so much better" was a regular comment on my end of term reports. If I never ended up outside the top three boys in my class, why would I bother to do more? There was too much other stuff to do, but for me it centred around the radio, with its endless music and radio plays, or else football or adventure games, or reading. Many's the time I asked if I could go to bed early so that I could sit up in bed on a summer's evening and read until it was time for sleep. I had toy cars and lorries, but no model railway, and no building bricks, although I did have Meccano. The beauty of Meccano was that our indoor market in the city sold individual pieces of Meccano so that you could add easily and cheaply to your collection. And then Airfix kits arrived on the scene. The first ones were 2/6d, or half a crown. They sold them in Woolworths, of which there were two branches in Gloucester, one in Southgate, one in Northgate. At the age of eleven (1957 - the same year I started at the Crypt Grammar School, Gloucester), my Mum and I walked down the road to the post office in Ermin Street, which doubled as a newsagent, and she asked Mr Lees if I could be given a job as a newspaper delivery boy.


I don't know what the law was back then regarding working age for children, but I got the job and from that day I never ever got out of bed later than 5 o'clock in the morning, often completing two delivery rounds before taking home my Dad's Daily Telegraph, having my breakfast and setting off for school at around ten past eight. I have never liked the Daily Telegraph, preferring my Uncles' Daily Mirror, with its saucy Jane cartoon, or the Daily Sketch, which I think had a pull-out children's newspaper back in the fifties. I liked the idea that an adult newspaper thought enough about children to give them their own version of the news. It was in that pull-out that I started to notice advertisements: for children's books, of which I already had a growing collection; and for bicycles. As a respected newspaper delivery boy I desperately needed a bicycle. In fact I desperately needed a four-speed BSA with drop handlebars and nothing was going to stop me getting it. Upstairs in Currys I'd seen my dream machine, and the money I was earning from my paper rounds would soon provide me with enough money for the deposit. Except my dream collapsed overnight when Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, clamped down on hire purchase by doubling the amount you had to pay for a deposit, and, I think, reduced the time you had to pay the balance. I had set my heart on having that bike, and although I did get it, with the aid of contributions from Mum, Dad, Jean and my various Uncles, I hated Macmillan and the conservatives from the moment that hire purchase announcement was made, and I've hated them ever since, for a variety of reasons.


My bike was the envy of the neighbourhood. It was richly decorated in black and yellow, and with its four gears, was already one better than every other boy's in the street. The ginger haired twins who lived next door rode it first. My previous bike was a Tri-Ang tricycle with a huge boot and a notch in the boot into which could be inserted a pushing road. When we went on family walks up Green Street to Cooper's Hill, My Dad would push me on my trike, and our sandwiches and pop would go in the boot. I craved that new four-speed BSA in the same way that I simply had to have that radiogram, which still needed a new needle every now and then, but probably only once every six months, rather than every three or four records! But I couldn't ride a two-wheeled bicycle. Not yet. It took hours and hours of practice, up and down Boverton Drive, day after day before I was competent and could ride my own bike. Looking back, I don't think I ever mastered the gears, but simply ended up pumping my legs faster and faster, which is why, I think, I have legs like tree trunks. But the bike allowed me the freedom to explore where I lived to an extent that I had only ever dreamed of before. Riding my bike was entertainment on a completely new scale. I was free to ride all around the village and beyond - I even cycled to Churchdown one day to meet Jean at her Secondary Modern School and ride home with her - a day off from the Crypt for some reason, and it was an excuse to get the bike out. Punctures were few and far between, and I only ever remember my chain coming off once in all the time I had the bike. I took it with me when we moved to Stevenage in 1963 and explored the whole of the New Town on it, but then I got home from work one day and discovered that my Mum had given it away to a local lad who didn't have a bike, because she thought I no longer used or needed it!


On the radio, Brian Matthew was lighting up our lives with the Saturday Skiffle Club, with groundbreaking records like Rock Island Line by Lonnie Donegan, and records by Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys, Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey.


By the end of the 1950s, we had a small collection of "modern" records: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was the first ten inch LP I ever bought, on the Embassy label, which was Woolworth's own label. I'd heard it on the radio and had to have it. And then I started to buy 45rpm singles - Connie Francis, Russ Conway, etc., etc. and then the Beatles happened. It's a story I've recounted before but it's worth repeating... in next month's issue.



The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its eighteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.