The release of a film about the one-time porn star Linda Lovelace brings back a not entirely happy family memory. I think it must have been in 1974 when my father was writing theatre criticism for the magazine Encounter that he got an invitation from a man called Jimmy Vaughan to view a film he had imported illegally with the puzzling title Deep Throat. I think he contacted my father because he had written an amusing tongue in cheek ( as it were) review of Oh Calcutta! ( a pun on the French, meaning " what an arse you have"). My father was invited to a screening of the film in a small studio in Wardour Street and he thought to invite a few family and friends along. It was, I have to say, an eye opener. I read journalists now suggesting it was "tame" and we would not be shocked by it now. But it was not tame at all. There was a general sense of unease as the first film reel went through and then the lights went up while the second reel was put up. I don't recall how many of us were there ...Read more
It is a custom for people who rent out their apartments to holidaymakers to have a few shelves of books that they and their guests have read. And so it is in the charming apartment we have been staying in in Collioure, a seaside town in the Catalan district of south east France. I had brought with me Jonathan Fanzen's Freedom which I tossed aside about half way through, wondering why someone would spend nine years, as the story goes, creating characters he clearly despised. I gave up when I realised I did not care what happened to any of them. Luckily I had also brought Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns which gripped me from the first sentence:more than once, I put the book down with tears welling in my eyes. But when I put it aside, there were a few days to go so I went to the shelves of the holiday apartment owned by an English couple most of whose guests were English. There was a the anticipated range of light, popular fiction. I was looking for something more substantial ...Read more
One of the brief fifteen minute talks I gave recently at the Southbank Centre as part of its The Rest is Noise festival was on the extraordinary organisation Mass Observation which was founded in 1937 in London. Charles Madge, a poet and journalist, Humphrey Jennings a film maker and Tom Harrisson a self-styled anthropologist decided, as part of a project to monitor the mood of the nation, that the English working classes should be studied as if they were a tribe of savages. Harrisson, a keen bird watcher had got a taste for social observation while living with cannibals in the South Pacific and on his return to England camped in Bolton, Lancashire to live amongst the natives. Known to Mass Observation as "Worktown" it became the focus of some intense scrutiny when volunteer "observers" arrived to study the social habits of the locals. The idea was to publish the results in a series of books but only one, The Pub and the People, got into print before the war broke ...Read more
Richard Trevithick's 1804 "strong steam" engine
I recorded Dan Snow’s Locomotion: a history of the railway to see what he had to say about Richard Trevithick, the Cornish mining engineer who built the first working steam locomotives one of which carried 50 tons of iron and 70 men nearly ten miles in 1804. But there was no mention of him. Episode one lurched from a stationary steam engine which pulled a cable to Stephenson’s Rocket in 1830. Nothing in between. And everything that went right in that quarter of a century, every innovation was attributed to Stephenson and his son Robert, who was a mere lad when Trevithick visited them in the North East. I spun back and forth to find out if there was an account of the radical change in technology which made the steam locomotive possible. Nothing. Just a vague reference to steam engines evolving. I sat there thinking: this programme is not on the rails. Everything about it was wrong. Where on earth did Snow and his ...Read more
I was very pleased to receive this cutting from The Independent of a brief interview with the author Terry Pratchett who happened, at the time,to be reading my book about the North American natural ice trade. This pat on the back from the hugely successful Pratchett made my day, and week!