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Retirement beckoning this summer (but at the tender age of 60 I'll need to look for something part-time at least). My music review blog, is up and running if you're interested. Laptop playing up...

Reviews written

since 28/08/2015


Behind Enemy Lines - Sir Tommy MacPherson, Richard Bath 19/03/2017

One man's tale, one man's considerable impact

Behind Enemy Lines - Sir Tommy MacPherson, Richard Bath (A little galling to propose this product and have a "Lifted" review bag the "First review" - but there you go!!) This book tells a gripping story, and its fascination derives from several factors. Firstly, it is essentially one man’s wartime story. It is autobiographical (though was written with assistance) and recounted in the first person, which makes it more dramatic and immediate. Secondly, it’s about one man who had a huge impact on the outcome of various campaigns during the Second World War. This is especially striking given that he wasn’t a politician or a military chief of staff, but an officer very much on the ground, taking part in or leading small-scale military actions. This is reflected in the decorations he was awarded. At the time of the publication of the book, Sir Tommy MacPherson was the most decorated living British soldier, with three Military Crosses, three (French) Croix de Guerre and a Legion d’Honeur, and a papal knighthood. I found it fascinating for a few other reasons, too. Although I was aware that Yugoslavia sought to extend its border into Italian territory as the War drew on and the Germans began to withdraw from Italy, this book gave some interesting insights into President Tito’s aspirations – and how they were defeated. The book I have the paperback edition, with 272 pages and 8 pages of black and white photographs. I think it’s a slight pity that the illustrations haven’t been reproduced on glossy paper, which would have ...

Do you see your garden as a haven, a labour of love or a chore to keep on top of? 09/03/2017

Therapy for me, a mini haven for wildlife

Do you see your garden as a haven, a labour of love or a chore to keep on top of? Limited time means that I’d like to be a more active gardener, but, my garden brings me great enjoyment and, I hope, does the same for some wildlife. My garden is pretty much of “pocket handkerchief” size, both front and back, situated on the edge of town. But Mrs M and I try to do what we can to give nature a hand. I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a passionate interest in wildlife. Mowing the lawn became a phaff. The previous house owners made most of the back garden into a patio, with concrete flags on the lower level and slate crazy paving on the upper one (I gather it was “obtained” free from somewhere, like the materials that built the extension, but there you go). I ran out of patience with pushing and constantly turning a lawn mower across a tiny front lawn, and over two hard winters the grass got severely damaged due to our crossing it to replenish the bird feeder. The CHORE was laid to rest. I laid a woven but porous membrane and laid creamy brown pebbles. As well as removing the need to mow, it looks brighter on a dreary winter day than grass does! (photo 1) One advantage of a small garden – besides minimising the time required to maintain it – is that it makes me think hard about what to plant and grow. Everything has to earn its place in some way or other. Sometimes things don't turn out as expected, but there's always another year! Far from being a chore, I find gardening VERY THERAPEUTIC. Sitting around watching TV isn’t my thing, and ...

The Nazi Hunters - Damien Lewis 22/02/2017

A fight against soldiers and a fight for justice

The Nazi Hunters - Damien Lewis This book tells a story so secret that for a long time that even many within the Special Air Service knew nothing about. In fact, the publication of this book constitutes its first public telling. Officially disbanded in 1945 (though reconstituted in the 1950s, the SAS operated semi-officially into 1948, tasked with a highly sensitive and secret mission. Their task met considerable military and political pressure, and it is to the tribute especially of Colonel Brian Franks and a Russian Prince, Yurka Galitzine who had helpful connections in Britain. Two tales, not one The unusual aspect of this book is that it really tells two stories, though they are closely connected. <><><> Where it began… In 1944, eighty SAS men were dropped by parachute into the French mountains on the French-German border. The Germans were in retreat – but, contrary to intelligence received, a large number of German troops were stationed in the area, and were aware of the parachute drop almost immediately. Notwithstanding the challenges of the forested mountains and the dogged determination of the local French civilians to maintain silence, the hunt was soon up. Local maquisards (“Resistance”) and British troops alike played mouse-and-cat with the Germans. The task was intended to be two-fold. Firstly, the men were to oversee and coordinate airdrops and distribution of much-needed weapons for the French maquis. Secondly, they were to create havoc, disruption and fear among the German troops by ...

Leningrad State of Siege - Michael Jones 13/02/2017

When bread becomes currency

Leningrad State of Siege - Michael Jones Most people equate the word “siege” with a medieval castle surrounded by a hostile army, cutting off supplies and forcing it to capitulate, despite being well defended by thick walls and towers. This book tells of a modern siege that lasted for 870 days from 1941 to 1943 by the German army. They shelled Leningrad repeatedly, and central food stores were the first targets. Hundreds of thousands died of cold and starvation (tragically the siege spanned two exceptionally severe winters). Wood was in short supply, and furniture was used for fuel. Broken windows were covered with cardboard; there wasn’t enough wood for coffins, and many were buried in mass graves, often having laid in streets where they fell for a days or weeks. At the peak of the siege thousands died on a daily basis. Glue was scraped from furniture as a food supplement. One survivor tells of watching her aged parents failing and hoping that they would die soon, to inherit the most precious legacy – their bread ration. Leather belts were boiled and eaten, a little at a time. The daily bread ration for white collar workers was cut from 250 grams to 125. Even this comprised decreasing amounts of flour, supplemented by wood shavings, floor sweepings, and dust. The most awful aspect of all was the siege’s aim, however. The goal was not to capture but to destroy it – and to do so by starvation. To Hitler, the city represented the embodiment of the Bolshevism that he detested. The book I like the way that the ...

The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich - Callum Macdonald 06/02/2017

An exciting tale thoroughly but unengagingly told

The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich - Callum Macdonald More years ago than I care to remember I saw a movie, “Operation: Daybreak” – about an attempt to assassinate a leading Nazi official in Czechoslovakia in 1942. Since then another movie has been released, “Operation Anthropoid”, which I haven’t seen. This book caught my eye (no prizes for guessing where!) and, intrigued by the subject and with vague recollections of the ending of the movie that I saw, I decided to buy it. Unlike many of the other books about the Second World War that I’ve read (and reviewed!) I have mixed feelings about this one, as I’ll explain. Part of the fascination lies in the assassination being the only wartime assassination of a senior Nazi official undertaken under British auspices. Who? Reinhard Heydrich was one of the most distrusted Nazi leaders within the leadership as well as one of the most feared beyond it. His broad, unmanly hips and high pitched voice had caused him to be bullied in his early manhood. He was suspected of being partly Jewish, and although this was untrue, it earned him the nickname “The blond Moses” in the navy, and dogged him into his fledgling political activist days. Having attained a position of prominence, and with the protection of Himmler, he had set his sights high. He aspired to be Hitler’s successor when the Fuhrer had passed away (it was assumed after all that the Reich would last for a thousand years!) More importantly, he was seen in this light by some other leading Nazis. He had a dossier on endless ...

Cameras or smart phones: how do you capture magical moments? 29/01/2017

It's all about the quality

Cameras or smart phones: how do you capture magical moments? I don’t have a middle name, but if I did it would perhaps be “Jurassic”. The answer to this question is easy for me. I don’t have a smart phone. I do have a mobile, but with a fairly low IQ rather than being smart. I don’t use my mobile phone much, though I’m tempted to pretend to use it more to give me an excuse to expect others to get out of my way on pavements and in shops. Although it has a camera, I haven’t used it much. I can see the advantage of having a device ready to hand to capture this or that image when out. I can really appreciate the value of a smart phone camera for capturing fleeting moments of children having fun or of other “grabbed” shots. But for most magical moments I’d choose a camera every time. Versatility I do know that quality smart phones can capture a decent shot. The lenses are quite good and there’s enough technical wizardry to deliver a decent image in terms of definition. I must admit that there have been occasions when I’ve wished I’d had a reasonable camera in my pocket; there have been too many occasions when I’ve been without a camera and seen something I’ve wanted to snap. Often, though, this is my own fault. I should know better. Okay, it isn’t convenient to carry my fairly bulky bridge cameras everywhere I go – or to risk it getting damaged or stolen. There’s really no excuse for me to go out for the day and leave it behind just because it’s a place we’ve been before and of which I have a number of photos already! And whilst it ...

The Works 26/01/2017

It Works for me!

The Works Like most towns, my home town sees increasing numbers of shops closing down. Where’s a bloke to go at dinnertime (please note, my mid-day break ISN’T lunch time!) Unless I have something to buy at Wilko’s or maybe a magazine to browse in WH Smiths (who, to my horror are trying to push customers into self-service – GRRR!) there’s only really one shop worth browsing – The Works! Readers of my book reviews will know that many of them have been purchased at my local shop. Maybe when I die I will be nominated their patron saint! What it isn’t… I think it’s only fair at the outset to consider what The Works ISN’T. Although most of the stock consists of books, The Works ISN’T a specialist bookshop. Many years ago, I worked in an independent bookshop. If customers came in and asked for a paperback novel by a best-selling author, we could order it (provided it was still in print) if we didn’t have a copy. We didn’t know every title we had in stock, but with repeated tidying and rearranging of stock on the shelves during quiet spells we had a fair idea of what we did and didn’t have. Stock was ordered to try to meet demand, and paperbacks that didn’t sell were often returned to the publisher for credit (or, more usually, the covers were torn off by the rep and taken away for credit; the coverless books were either trashed or taken by staff). The Works ISN’T a specialist shop. It’s a discount store. Its stock of books is publishers’ “remainders” – books that the publisher ...

Do The Birds Still Sing In Hell? - Jim Greasley Horace 21/01/2017

"... misery, genocide, enslavement... one man's daring..."

Do The Birds Still Sing In Hell? - Jim Greasley Horace In a comedy film (I won’t say which in case it spoils it should you decide to watch it!) two escaped prisoners find themselves needing… to break back into jail! It makes for a great comic scenario. Surely, though, the point is that it’s funny because it’s too far-fetched to be true – isn’t it? This book tells the true story of a British Prisoner Of War during the Second World War who did just that. Amazingly, he did this not once but an estimated two hundred times! The author and the book Essentially this is one man’s recollections as told to Ken Scott. In the foreword, Scott recounts how he was introduced to an ageing War veteran who wanted to approached by a man who wanted to tell his story. With disarming honesty Scott relates his inward groans and eye-rolling, his scepticism and forcing himself to be polite as he anticipated wasting precious time on a futile appointment. As the conversation progressed, however, he fell spellbound as the true story of Horace (“Jim”) Greasley began to unfold… Horace (or “Jim”) Horace was conscripted and found himself in the 2nd/5th Battalion Leicesters. He received his nickname “Jim” from a comrade who didn’t like the idea of sharing living quarters with someone called Horace. I found even the story of his conscription very moving, as he had the offer of a reserved occupation but declined. It makes a poignant start (well, nearly the start) to his tale. Despite coming close to death several times (both before and after his ...

Brother Sinner & the Whale - Kelly Joe Phelps 14/01/2017

"Spit me outta..."

Brother Sinner & the Whale - Kelly Joe Phelps Soon after seeing TV footage of Kelly Joe Phelps playing at the Cambridge Folk Festival years ago, I bought his debut album, the great “Lead Me On.” I’ve reviewed that album here. In my opinion that album hasn’t been beaten, which isn’t so much a criticism of his later work as praise for that one. A number of years and several musical twists and turns later we find this album. Who? Kelly Joe Phelps comes from Washington State in the north-west of the USA. Initially his main acoustic guitar style was “lap style”. Instead of holding the instrument in the normal way, the guitar is balanced on the player’s lap, on its back with the strings facing upwards. This facilitates some very accurate and emotive playing by sliding a metal bar along one or several strings. The sound is the same as when a player slips a metal or glass tube (or “bottleneck”; originally they were made from cut-down bottles) over a finger when holding the guitar in the traditional way, but the lap-style technique allows a much more nuanced playing style. Kelly Joe later made songwriting his main focus, but has again refocused his attention on both playing and writing. He was born in 1959 and has had a number of personal as well as professional ups and downs over the years. This album seems to have sprung from a personal crisis and a return to his musical and religious roots. The album This album comes in the increasingly popular (though not with me!) card packaging. It's minimally arranged, with Kelly Joe ...

Sleepers: The Complete Series (DVD) 12/01/2017

"I've started dreaming in Russian again..."

Sleepers: The Complete Series (DVD) Mrs M and I really enjoyed watching this the first time around. It was shown on one of the Freeview channels a few years ago, and we have a DVD recorder hooked up to the television – but we missed the first couple of episodes! It’s no exaggeration to say that, on and off, we’ve looked out for its release over the years. I was delighted finally to see it – released this autumn, shortly before Christmas. It would be a present that Mrs M would be delighted to receive and that, like the best gifts, could be enjoyed by others, too – notably me! We’d forgotten much of it but have thoroughly enjoyed watching it again, and we will watch it again and again. The scenario… MOSCOW… The old order has gone. In KGB headquarters a surprising discovery is made. Mock English street fronts are peopled by mannequins in 1960s clothing. There are reproduction house rooms decked out with English 1960s furniture and wallpaper – and more mannequins -along with a record player and vacuum cleaner. It’s a former training arena for KGB agents of the Cold War period. A more remarkable discovery is to follow. An antiquated radio transmitter is switched on. Against all the odds it picks up a signal. ECCLES, GREATER MANCHESTER… Albert Robinson is happily married with children to Sandra (whom he affectionately calls “squidgy-face”) and has children. He works in a brewery and is a union official. He speaks with a local accent. He has a bizarre past known to only one other man in the UK – and even to ...

Bletchley Park The Secret Archives - Sinclair McKay 05/01/2017

A unique take on the "codebreakers"

Bletchley Park The Secret Archives - Sinclair McKay At the outset of this review I think I should say that, unlike the subject of most my book reviews, I DIDN’T buy this book from my local “The Works”. It’s only fair to add, though, that Mrs M DID buy it there, as a present for me! Feel free to skip the following introductory section if you wish; it’s an overview of the place and work of Bletchley Park in the Second World War rather than an evaluation of the book. Introducing Bletchley Park Probably most adults will have heard of Bletchley Park,, and, if they have, two names will come to mind. Firstly there’s Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who – far from singlehandedly, however! – helped to break the “codes” of tactical German messages that had been intercepted. His greatest contribution was the invention of a machine that would be able to sift through numerous possible solutions, drastically reducing the time and manual work involved. The second name that springs to mind is Enigma, the typewriter-like machine invented in Switzerland between the Wars to protect the security of commercial communications. Germany extended its complexity with additional rotating wheels that contained the letters that would be typed as substitutes for the actual ones, and with additional wiring. Rules regarding its operation were especially rigorous within the German navy (and a fifth rotating wheel was added for their use, too). The genius of the machine was this; the rotating wheels meant that in an enciphered message, a given ...

The Unreturning Army - Huntly Gordon 27/12/2016

'This isn't a very healthy spot,' he replied

The Unreturning Army - Huntly Gordon The title of this book caught my eye. That, and the subtitle “The Classic Memoir Of A Field Gunner In Flanders”. I’ve mentioned in other reviews of war books that my main interest in the subject isn’t so much the big picture of battles or engagements as the parts played – and impact experienced – by individuals. The quotation from which the title derives speaks of a whole generation of lost youth. THAT was the “army” that never returned. Some survived – but they were youths no longer. The survivors had lost their innocence, their very youth – they were catapulted into manhood overnight. And their experiences dogged them for the remainder of their lives. In many cases their trauma was exacerbated by feelings of guilt that they had survived when so many friends and comrades hadn’t. There is no better way, of course, to get a feel for the experience and impact of serving in armed conflict than to read first-hand accounts. The author Huntly Gordon was born into a fairly wealthy family, and attended private schools (including, in early childhood, a girls’ school!) before joining the army as an artillery officer at a time when guns and limbers were still drawn by teams of horses or mules. He survived the conflict, and his memoirs were published in 1967. They are mainly in the form of frequent letters written to his mother as the events described unfolded. The book The original book was expanded in 2013 by his son, who discovered additional material. I found the book easy ...

Current Issue Special: End of Year Celebration 2016 24/12/2016

Keeping it in perspective?

Current Issue Special: End of Year Celebration 2016 I love Christmas, and even though next year will bring my 60th birthday, every Christmas morning I am up before anyone else (my grown up children usually stay with us for a few days). Christmas and New Year do also bring some challenges my way, however. A religious or a commercial holiday? Although I was brought up to attend church, I date my true embracing of the Christian faith to my mid-teens. The best way to describe it would be that, rather than it being an allegiance a church, the personal pronoun came to the fore. Rather than only being able to think of God’s love for people I became amazed at his love for me, and rather than thinking of Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the world I was – and remain – thrilled that he is my Saviour. Over about forty-five years and despite some knocks, these convictions have been a solid ground of comfort and source of strength. I’m committed to the life of the church to which I belong, but it’s personal faith that’s the prime thing. So, the question whether Christmas is a religious or a commercial holiday is a little tricky, simply because it’s a challenge to keep the birth of Christ in view amidst all the other elements! I’ve known some people who solve this problem by opting out of the giving and receiving of presents and the sending of cards altogether, in effect abstaining from Christmas. I sympathise in some respects, but it isn’t a practice I could follow. So – we endeavour to keep Christmas as much a “religious” ...

Essential - Martin Carthy 20/12/2016

Start here for an English folk legend's music

Essential - Martin Carthy +++++++++++++++ +++++ Please note: sadly, but perhaps understandably due to constraints experienced by Ciao, music reviews are not only exempt from Premium Fund/Diamond eligibility, but are also outside the scope of any points awards – they earn nothing at all for the reviewer. Feel free, then to rate or not to rate, but any feedback would be welcome as I am writing this for my pleasure and in the hope that some readers may find it useful! +++++++++++++++ +++++ Martin Carthy is little known outside folk circles but is a legend within them. Anyone wishing to explore traditional English folk music could do far worse than to start with one of his albums. He is a fine singer with an assured, natural and slightly nasal sound, and a very adept guitar (and mandolin) player. I’ve been privileged to see him live on several occasions. Who? In a career that commenced in the 1960s and continues today, Martin has performed and recorded solo, and with several bands, including The Albion Band, Steeleye Span, Brass Monkey, the Watersons (having married Norma Waterson) and his daughter Eliza Carthy. Repeatedly through his career he gigged with the late, great fiddle player, Dave Swarbrick. Martin plays guitar in altered tunings that produce something of a drone sound. American guitarist and teacher Stefan Grossman once described the sound as at one and the same time authentic yet funky. Martin delivers songs in a slightly unusual way. His empathy with the lyrics means that at ...

Lonely Planet's Beautiful World - Lonely Planet 15/12/2016

"And I think to myself... what a beautiful world.."

Lonely Planet's Beautiful World - Lonely Planet Photography is one of my hobbies, and landscape photography is my favourite subject. One side-effect is that I love “coffee table” picture books. I saw this last week in a high street discounted bookshop – aw, come on, you know which one I mean – it’s the one I keep mentioning in my book reviews! At full price I may not have bought it at all, and certainly not so near to Christmas, but at a mere £6 it was a superb bargain. It really isn’t easy reviewing an entirely pictorial book, even one as striking as this – I’ll do my best! Please also note that some of the Ciao criteria don't apply for a purely pictorial book. The introduction The book has only one page of text, an introduction, but as it sets out its purpose it seems worth mentioning. “The experience of beauty is an emotional one, brought about through context; there’s the people you’re with ,or the people you’re not with; there’s your mood, where you are in life… “When you look at a photograph of a beautiful place, that context disappears… We wanted to create a context that helped bring some of those connections to bear. The images are arranged in chapters that reflect an aspect of life... “…dive in and marvel over the undeniable fact; it IS a beautiful world.” The structure Apart from the introduction, single line captions describing the locations, and a brief index/credits of photographs with a line or two of text against each, this book is entirely a book of photographs of the “beautiful world”. There are ...
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