I wrote a whole post of books related to the monarchy back in the early summer before the Platinum Jubilee – if you’re following what’s been going on in the UK in the last week, then do go back and read it – you can find it here.
It’s been a busy week of posts here on the blog, and I wasn’t planning to post anything today, but then the news came through that Sir Antony Sher had died. This blog is about books and writing, but please bear with me for this crossover with one of my other passions. Some of you probably know that I love going to the theatre. Going to see a show was one of the things I missed the most during the pandemic.
I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing performances on stage through the years – some of them from names you’ll recognise from films and TV – like Mark Rylance, Judi Dench and Angela Lansbury – some of them more known to the theatre world. Antony Sher is one of the latter. When it was announced that he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness earlier this year, I was surprised that Him Indoors didn’t recognise his name (or his picture), until I checked back through his IMDB page and realised that most of his credits were for filmed versions of plays. I only saw him on stage once – playing Macbeth at the Swan in about 2000 – but it was amazing. I had been studying Macbeth at school and had struggled (as most school children do I think) with the Shakespearean language. But there was Antony Sher (and Harriet Walter) on stage making it all seem understandable and easy in a way that it wasn’t on the page. I hadn’t seen a lot of live Shakespeare at that point, but I had seen enough to know that it didn’t always work like that.
As Sher worked principally for the RSC in recent years – where his husband is artistic director – and a trip to Stratford always seems like a special effort, and the RSC in London can be quite expensive and hard to get (especially when the reviews were good), that’s my only experience of seeing him live on stage. So why am I writing about him on a book blog? Well it’s because that Macbeth really was very, very good but also because of the books he wrote about his acting.
Although I love going to the theatre, I have never wanted to be on stage myself. The closest I have got since primary school plays was playing in the band for the school musical. The process of creating a performance was a bit of a mystery to me. And that’s where Antony Sher’s Year of the Fat Knight came into my life. I liked it so much I bought his other books about creating great Shakespearean roles and they were equally brilliant. It really gave me a sense of the work and the research that goes into building a performance and creating a character – and probably made me a more critical and analytical theatre goer. Wonderful writing, wonderful acting. And an interesting life, well lived. I’m sorry that there will be no more performances to watch or books to read about them.
So today marks 75 years since VE Day and the end of the Second World War in Europe. The world is upside down at the moment, and although we have a bank holiday here in the UK today plans for big events to celebrate this have been shelved, for obvious reasons. This morning I was hanging out of the attic window trying to spot the Red Arrows flying over on their way home after their central London flyover and then I watched (and observed) the two minute silence at 11 am.
I was going to write a post full of World War Two reading recommendations for today, but it didn’t really feel right. Instead, I want to ask you to be kind to yourself, to your family and to your friends; and to take a bit of time if you can to remember all the people who served or contributed to the war effort. I have been thinking mostly about my grandfathers today, and I wanted to share a bit about them with you.
This first photo is my Grandpa on my mum’s side, Douglas Ward. He was in the Royal Engineers, worked on the railways (including on the Hush Hush train and on the Mallard) and helped build components for the Mullberry harbour that towed across the Channel to Arromanches, then he landed on the beaches on D Day and went on across Europe to Hamburg where he worked on boats at the docks. Mum still has his army book because he was never properly demobbed. It shows if he hadn’t been released for essential work – to go back and take over as chief engineer at the factory he worked in pre-war – he would have been posted to the Far East. He went on to be the chief engineer at a number of shoe factories in Northampton. We lived next door to him and my grandma for most of my childhood (my parents live in my grandparents house now) and he hardly ever talked about the war. But he was very proud of being a Royal Engineer and the skills that he learned.
Crouching down in the middle of this photo is my other grandad, Ivor Wilde. I know even less about what he was up to during the war because he died when I was a baby. But I do know that he was in the RAF and served in India. The photo below is of him and my granny. They got married during the war, and my dad’s older sister was born in 1946. My grandad went on to be a farmer, stand as a candidate to be an Member of Parliament and eventually set up a fencing company which is still in the family today. I wish he’d been around a bit longer for me to get to know him the way that I knew my other grandpa.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope everyone is enjoying the bank holiday. Stay safe and happy reading.
Another sad week, but another life well lived – maybe even better lived than Doris Day‘s. Her life story – her flight from Nazi Germany as a child, coming to writing for children when she was at home as a full-time mum, still producing new books right up into her 90s, when she could also be spotted out and about in Barnes – is one that will inspire you as much as her books did when you were a child.
There have been so many lovely stories and the obits all pay testament to a wonderful woman with an amazing gift. There’s not much I can really add. Except that I wanted to mark her passing somehow. I was out for lunch with a friend last week and we went into a bookshop on our walk. She’s got a new baby so we were looking at the children’s books. I ended up buying Mog the Forgetful Cat for her, because every child should have a copy of Mog. I should add that I think her little girl (six months old) already had a copy of The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Which is exactly as it should be and a total testament to the power of Kerr’s books.
Lots of people on Twitter yesterday were quoting from – or posting pictures from – Goodbye Mog, which is probably the saddest picture book I’ve ever read. I ended up teary eyed in the office and on the train. Kerr had such a way with words and pictures. I hope she knew how much her books meant to everyone. All the stories of her at her publisher’s summer parties – in a lovely frock, with a drink in hand – being mobbed by authors who’d read and loved her books as a child make me think that she might have had an inkling. And I hope that I’m as fun and sprightly as she was at 95.
Here’s just a few of the articles that I read about her yesterday: The BBC’s obituary, the Independent’s obituary The Guardian had an obituary but also collected some reader recollections. I’ve also got her Desert Island Discs on my listen list as well as this essay from the TLS Writing with borrowed words still to read.
As I write this The Tiger Who Came To Tea and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit are best sellers in their categories on Amazon.co.uk. And Tiger is 99p on Kindle, Pink Rabbit £2.99. If you haven’t read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – her book for older children telling the story of her family’s escape from Nazi Germany – take this chance, you really should.
You may not know this about me, but my all time favourite five films are probably Pillow Talk, Some Like It Hot, The Philadelphia Story, Mary Poppins and The Parent Trap (the Haley Mills one). And once you get over the fact that all my favourite films are more than 50 years old, you’ve probably figured out that the death of Doris Day left me feeling quite sad this week. Actually, my favourite films also shadow my reading tastes in many ways, so maybe you’re not so surprised after all.
In case you’ve never seen it, Pillow Talk is the story of an interior decorator who’s feuding with the playboy she shares a party line with. He finds out what she looks like, decides he likes the look of her and adopts a fake persona to try and get in her pants. Of course he falls in love but she’s less pleased when she finds out who he really is. Yes, by modern standards, there are a few issues – how well does she actually know him when they get their happily ever after considering he’s been playing her – but if we were to turn it into romance tropes, it’s an enemies to lovers, reformed rake, love triangle, sassy confident heroine thing. And whoo boy is that a whole lot of some of my favourite tropes. Here’s the trailer – which is very, very retro…
Pillow Talk got Doris her only Oscar nomination, but she was the top female box office start of the late fifties and early sixties and she deserved more. I’ve seen pretty much the whole of the Doris Day film canon – I had a Lovefilm rental subscription in my final year of uni and used it wisely – and as the best of the obituaries have been trying to point out, she was more than “just” Hollywood’s favourite girl next door. Everyone has heard of Calamity Jane – and she is brilliant in it – but she’s also fabulous in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Yes she got stuck in a type – the second Rock Hudson sex comedy, Lover Come Back, isn’t as good as Pillow Talk – and is even more dubious by modern standards as he gets her knocked up while in a false persona – but it’s still got a few laughs and hey, it was daring for the time and got an Oscar Best Screenplay nod (Pillow Talk won that Oscar). And it’s the law of diminishing returns because Send Me No Flowers – the third and final Rock n Doris – isn’t as good as Lover Come Back, although are some nice farcical moments there.
Move Over Darling has it’s moments – with Doris playing a wife back from the dead after a plane crash and trying to win her husband James Garner back from his new fiancee. I prefer it to her first film with Garner, The Thrill of It All, but that has its moments too, as well as highlighting the repetitive formula of Hollywood at the time – got a success? Repeat it with the same actors and a slightly different premise. On the musicals from, as well as Calamity Jane, Doris gets to be fabulous in the Pajama Game, but all the prints I’ve seen of it have been terrible, so I’m giving you the Calamity Jane trailer instead.
Calamity Jane was my first introduction to Doris back when I was really young, but as a teen in the late 1990s, early 2000s, I loved romantic comedies. And when I first saw Pillow Talk, back in those teenage years, it was my introduction to the films of the past that had got us to the modern films that I loved. It started me down the rabbit hole that lead me to Katherine Hepburn’s screwball comedies and all the rest. There’s been a bit of a dearth of romantic comedies of that type in the last few years, so imagine how much I was cheered up at the end of the week when this trailer for Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe dropped. And I’ll leave you on that optimistic note.
We all knew that this was how this would end. Ever since Sir Terry announced he had early onset Alzheimer’s, we knew he would be gone too soon. But I had still hoped it was further away.
Alzheimer’s is always cruel, but it seemed particularly unfair that it should hit a man whose mind was so sharp, so bright, so inventive. I’m terrified of death, but I understood his passionate fight for assisted dying. Pratchett created a flat world carried on four elephants on the back of a giant turtle, where dwarves, trolls and golems lived side by side with people. Why would he want to carry on when his mind was no longer capable of remembering what day it is, or recognising people. I hope it never progressed that far for him.
I was introduced to Discworld by my school librarian when I was about 13 – Jingo was the newest book at the time – although the first I read was Wyrd Sisters. I loved Star Trek, but didn’t really see myself as a fantasy reader. Discworld changed that. I had always read a lot, but Sir Terry’s books introduced me to something new and opened the doors to books I would never previously have considered. Even if few other worlds could compare to the Disc.
Choosing a favourite is near impossible, I love Rincewind, Vimes and the Witches. Tiffany Aching is a joy. Any book is improved by the presence of The Patrician. But Moist von Lipwig was a late arriving treat. I’ve listened to the audiobooks of Going Postal and Making Money more times than I care to count. I wanted the Moist the tax collector book – but Raising Steam was brilliant.
I can’t believe there will be no more.
Thank you Sir Terry, for all the joy and pleasure your books have given me and millions of others. I will sit down and read them all again, just as soon as the thought of it doesn’t make me cry.