“Grinding It Out” by Ray Kroc (1977)

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“I have always believed that each man makes his own happiness and is responsible for his own problems.”

Ray Kroc’s name is perhaps not one that comes immediately to mind when you’re thinking about the most influential people in history, but there’s no denying he belongs in the list. He may not have discovered gravity, or come up with the theory of evolution, or invented the aeroplane, but he changed the face of the planet in such a way that there is no doubt at all that you’ve come up against his business at some point in your life. That’s because Ray Kroc is the man who made McDonalds.

Born in 1902, it wasn’t until Kroc was in his fifties that he moved into the fast food industry. Having heard rumours of a Californian restaurant run by two brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald, he jetted out to visit them and was so impressed by what he saw, he convinced them to let him begin opening franchises across the country, with the first one opening in Illinois in 1954. It was, almost immediately, a success. This book, written in 1977 and thus only really detailing the first twenty-five years of the business, is Kroc’s own story of how it happened.

Penned as something of a cross between an autobiography and a business manual, Grinding It Out explores the tenacity of Ray Kroc and his insistence on doing things right, not skimping on quality, and the sheer enthusiasm and passion he shows for whatever he may be working on. He was at times a pianist, a door-to-door salesman and even joined up to help in World War One, finding himself in the same company as a quiet cartoonist called Walt Disney, no less. He eventually began selling paper cups, and later milkshake machines, and it turned out he had a natural flair for salesmanship and business. Seeing McDonalds as something that could become enormous, he made a deal with the brothers and set about turning it into the behemoth that we know (and many of us love) today.

Being an autobiography, Kroc surely skips over some of his less pleasant traits, although it’s clear even from his own narration that he’s rather arrogant, pig-headed, and while he’s not always against admitting he’s made a mistake, he would rather everyone just did as he told them. He was married three times, but with the first two he ensures his ex-wife is left with a large alimony that can keep her comfortable for the rest of her life. Towards the end of the book, the company begins doing a lot for charity, in particular setting up Ronald McDonald House, and he’s not backwards in coming forwards and telling you about what a gracious, generous soul he is. Nonetheless, for all the faults he seems to have and hide, he’s a thoroughly engaging narrator. It is said that “even his enemies agree there are three things Ray Kroc does damned well: sell hamburgers, make money, and tell stories.” It’s true in spades. He’s in turn funny, charming and while you know he’d probably be a nightmare to meet, he certainly knows how to keep your attention.

Given that the book was written in 1977 and Kroc died of heart failure in 1984 (although it is said he worked right up until the end), this is only the beginning of the McDonalds story, and therefore the last forty years are entirely absent. This means that while we learn about how the kitchens were set up and see the introduction of the Big Mac and Ronald McDonald, there are no mentions of McNuggets, Happy Meals, or salads. Nonetheless, we do get to learn about how exactly the Filet-O-Fish came into being, why the Hulaburger failed, and where the Shamrock Shake had its genesis.

Love McDonalds and Kroc’s work or hate it, you cannot deny that he was certainly influential, and it’s fascinating to learn more about the man behind the company.

Pass the McNuggets.

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“How Not To Be A Boy” by Robert Webb (2017)

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“If I get this right, Tess Rampling will definitely want to have sex with me.”

Over the last few years I’ve read a number of books with a “how to” premise. In theory, I now know how to find love in a bookshop, how to talk to girls at parties, and how to stop time. Before beginning this blog I even read a book called How To Bag a Jabberwock, just in case one ever reared its head across the hills of southern England. But now it’s time to turn the concept on it’s head. It’s time to learn how not to be a boy.

Robert Webb is, in my humble opinion, one of the funniest men working in television today. Peep Show is incredible, and whenever he pops up on a panel show – which is much less often than his comedy sidekick David Mitchell – it’s always a delight. His life, however, was not always so cheerful. Webb struggled from a young age with society’s expectations. Boys weren’t supposed to cry, or talk about their emotions. Men were meant to like football and beer, and not take themselves too seriously. Therapy was for girls, boys were meant to be brave, and it certainly wasn’t OK to fall in love with other boys. Before he was even eighteen, he had to deal with an abusive father, the death of his mother, and people who expected him to be something he didn’t want to be.

In his memoirs, he explores his life through the lens of gender stereotypes and explains how toxic the culture of masculinity is. There’s a reason that so many men kill themselves, and maybe having hundreds of relationship books published that treat men and women as two different species hasn’t really helped humanity. As Webb grows and explores both his internal and external worlds, he discovers love, hope, tragedy, comedy, loss, battles he never asked to be involved in, and William Wordsworth. Determined and precocious from a young age, he decides that if he has any hope of being happy, he needs to be famous and that involves getting into the Cambridge Footlights.

The topics of gender, sexuality and the stereotypes surrounding each seem to be on the mind of the zeitgeist quite a lot. I think part of this has come from the fact that mental health has also become a huge topic, and it has revealed the startling statistics behind suicide, depression and anxiety. Men are told, generally, from an early age that it’s “unmanly” to express their feelings, and so they get bottled up and often converted into anger. Webb frequently points out throughout the book that the emotions that he – or any of the men he knows – display are quickly transmuted into anger and, sometimes, violence. Indeed, the phrase “man up” is surely soon to be retired. The book is a refreshing breath of air in its openness of the topic.

Not only is it one of the Very Important Books for today’s society (see also, Animal by Sara Pascoe and Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig) it’s also very moving and very funny. Webb has overcome things I can only imagine to become who he is. He is frank and honest about his life and the decisions he’s made within it. He is incredibly candid regarding his relationships, sexuality and failings, and it makes him all the more likeable.

As someone who, like Webb, struggled with the concept of masculinity, this book is a tonic and vital. I was a kid who cried a lot. I cry less now, but for years I didn’t cry at all. I’ve always been more comfortable with girls and women as my friends, have no interest in football, have always loved books, and was never particularly bothered about what other boys thought of me at school. It’s important, I feel, for people to know that the gender stereotypes are rubbish. Women are strong, men like pink, and both can be utterly useless at expressing their feelings. This is important not only for the next generation coming up and their descendants, but also for those who have been struggling with unfounded expectations for so long. A really wonderful book.

“Spectacles” by Sue Perkins (2015)

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“My first memory of Dad was him approaching my cot.”

Humour isn’t the only thing I look for in a book, but everyone would rather laugh and cry, I’m sure. As such, I am automatically attracted to books about funny people. Sue Perkins is one of those. I’ve always been vaguely aware of her and her comedy life partner Mel Giedroyc, but they didn’t properly cement themselves as favourites until The Great British Bake Off, by which time everyone else had taken them into their hearts as well. I’ve always enjoyed their friendship from afar, and their easy banter, and so since one of them has a book out now, I decided to take a dip.

Spectacles is like many other autobiographies. Let’s be honest, they’re all, broadly speaking, of a type. We learn about the writer as a child, relive their school days, see them fail and deal with setbacks in their career, before being granted National Treasure status. In those respects, Perkins tells a story we all know. However, there’s something else going on here that puts it on a pedestal above others I’ve read.

There are laughs from the very beginning, where she openly admits that she’s changed a few details to “protect the innocent” and “make you like me”. Then we see the moment she tells her family she’s writing the book, and how they all worry about their appearance. Her father wants it to be known he’s tall (he isn’t), and her sister would rather not be mentioned at all. This version of events lasts three pages, before the far more interesting and messy reality sets in. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Perkins has a sublime way with words that I envy, and even when you think you can see a punchline coming, she’ll sidestep you and reveal something even funnier.

Her relationship with Mel is painted in wonderful colours, showing its natural progression. They are clearly very much in love in the way that few best friends can ever claim to be, but she still manages to find the time to explain, almost every time Mel’s name comes up, that Sue is the younger of the pair (by two years). From performing shows at Edinburgh with one person in the audience, to chasing one another around a white marquee in an attempt to lick out the bowls, they are silly, lovely and sweet. Have they ever had a cross word with one another? You wouldn’t think so reading this, and I’d be prepared to accept that it’s the truth.

She is modest, too. Almost nothing is made of her time as President of Cambridge Footlights, a topic that I’m sure would be hugely interesting. She’ll focus on how she has nearly cocked up her career several times by turning down big shows and instead hosting dross – even she can’t really bring herself to remind everyone about Don’t Scare the Hare. She gives us a tantalising glimpse into the worlds of Supersizers and Bake Off, providing a light sprinkling of celebrity anecdotes that leave us hungry for more. But, as ever, I understand that the book is about her, and frankly she’s plenty interesting enough.

Despite the comedy, she’s also very open about the struggles she’s dealt with. Her father’s ordeal with cancer, the decline and death of her beloved beagle Pickle, the breakdown of her relationships and the discovery that she had a brain tumour that had left her infertile. You don’t laugh at these pages, and they provide the balance that show life isn’t all joy. She is brutally honest about the pain these moments caused, and I just wanted to give her a hug.

Charming, honest, hilarious, brave and moving. You cannot get a better combination.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“Love, Nina” by Nina Stibbe (2013)

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love nina“Being a nanny is great.”

Autobiography is a risk. A celebrity can write their life story and be pretty sure that it’ll sell and people will be interested. A non-famous person, though, will never get the step up that fame provides, at least when the book is first published. It’s not to say that the non-celebrity will have a life less interesting than the celebrity, the opposite is absolutely possible and perhaps in some ways more likely, as while I like celebrity biogs, eventually they start to merge into one, sometimes becoming merely lists of plays, films or name drops.

So I started reading Love, Nina because it was the story of an unknown, a woman who had published the letters written to her sister (Vic) during the time she was nannying in London in the 1980s. It was a notable choice because she worked for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her sons Sam and Will Frears (now an actor and director, respectively). I’d love to give more of a summary of the plot, but that’s about it. Nina writes letters, we get a glimpse into 80s literary London (which should be far more interesting than she makes it) and she worries if she doesn’t get Thomas Hardy.

The front and back covers, as well as the first three pages of the book are printed with reviews containing no less than twenty-six uses of the word “funny”, “hilarious” or similar. Given that most of these are attributed to newspapers, they’re clearly not all from friends trying to big her up, but it does make me wonder if they’d been given the wrong manuscript to read. Oh sure, the observations of the children, Sam and Will, are occasionally quite amusing, but none of this is laugh out loud stuff. Stibbe has all the concerns of typical twenty-somethings of the decade, but is somewhat oblivious to the wider world.

This is most obvious when you come to learn that Alan Bennett (the Alan Bennett) is a frequent guest at the house and joins them for dinner most nights. His voice utterly fails to come through, mind, and Stibbe seems completely unimpressed by his existence. She is also nonplussed by the fact that Michael Frayn and Jonathan Miller also live in their street, meaning that the book is literary London through the eyes of someone who doesn’t understand the significance of what she’s seeing.

It’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on as well, given that very rarely are any dates given. The odd letter here and there has a year on it, sometimes a month, but Stibbe herself admits that some of them may well be out of order, and it’s disconcerting to realise that you’ve suddenly skipped six months ahead. What happened in that time? The letters are one-sided (we never see Vic’s response), so we have to interpret cryptic replies to unseen questions ourselves and are left wondering what’s going on. Because of the style, too, there is no real beginning or end. We don’t find out how Stibbe came to be working there, and the letters stop just as abruptly as they start. If you’re looking for something with a plot, don’t bother looking here. I get that real life pretty much doesn’t have a plot, but it feels like something should’ve been constructed.

All in all, for the comments of the kids (both of whom seem far older than the ages given to them), it might be worth taking a look at, but it doesn’t deserve double-digit declarations of hilarity. This is the book they’re talking about when they tell you not to judge them by their covers.

“Only When I Laugh” by Paul Merton (2014)

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only when“I used to enjoy sitting inside my parents’ wardrobe.”

Comedy has always been a pretty big part of my life. Not in the sense that I want to be a comedian (you have to be funny for that, and I’m not), but in the sense that I love comedy of all kinds, be it highbrow, slapstick or satirical. Therefore, reading about the lives of comedians is something that interests me but, if you’ve been sticking around this blog for a while, you’ll know that that doesn’t always go to plan. Julie Walters wrote an excellent autobiography. So did Dawn French. Simon Pegg, not so much. It was therefore with more than a little trepidation that I approached Paul Merton’s memoirs. I really like Paul’s style, and I wanted to really like the book. I hoped it was a good one.

It begins, as these things are wont to do, with his childhood, growing up with his parents, grandfather, and younger sister in south London. He was a shy child but upon going to the circus one day and discovering the clowns, he knew that all he wanted to do was get on the stage and make people laugh.

The book slides through his school days (genuinely quite hilarious) and then into him stepping naively into the real world and living in a small bedsit, determined to get onto stage or screen but not knowing how. He and his friend John write endless sketches and scripts, but his chance finally comes when a comedy club, The Comedy Store, opens in London. He arranges to do a five minute set for them, and his policeman on acid sketch goes down a treat. Soon he’s performing all the time, then heading to Edinburgh to perform in the festival, and before long television comes calling and he finds himself on camera as he goes from success to success with his own sketch show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and, of course, Have I Got News For You.

But it’s not all happy and ha-ha, as Merton discusses his time spent in a psychiatric hospital with refreshing honesty. They are some of the best chapters, as we see him struggling to come to terms with who he is and what has happened to him. He may not dwell on events (at one point, he thought he was being hunted down by the Freemasons), he doesn’t gloss over them either. They are a block of tragedy in an otherwise comedic life.

Merton deals with all three of his marriages here, and there’s not a bad word to be said about his first to Caroline Quentin, the only one that ended in divorce. (His second wife died, and he’s still married to the third.) He seems to be a genuinely sweet man, and despite making a living making people laugh, he appears to be rather shy. There are some odd nuggets to be discovered about him in here too that I would never have guessed, including the fact that he hand writes all his material and has never learnt to type, and also doesn’t own a mobile phone.

Unlike many of these memoirs, his early life was not littered with meetings of the great and good, although they do come later. He meets a bunch of well-known comedians at The Comedy Store, and later has run-ins with such greats as Peter Cook and Eric Idle. He has been close friends with Julian Clary for a long time, something I never knew, but otherwise his life seems remarkably un-celebrity-like.

Best of all, because I am a nosy bastard for wanting to know what’s going on in the world of show business, he spends a good portion of time talking about Have I Got News For You, giving some detail on Angus’s departure, and also talking about some of the best and worst guests they’ve had on the show, even going so far as to note the worst presenter they’ve ever had. (It’s one I have to agree with, actually – the episode was appalling.) It also comes across that he and Ian Hislop do genuinely like one another, which is a blessed relief.

Merton writes with charm and warmth, although unusually for an autobiography, I never once heard his voice telling me the story. I think that might be because we never seem to hear him speak at length anywhere. That’s not a complaint either. He’s clearly a man who likes to perform, but also likes his private life. He says at one point that he never likes to do things that involve him being a celebrity to be gawked at, and I think that’s a very good line to take.

Merton has produced a hugely interesting autobiography and his highs and lows should be of interest to anyone who he’s ever made laugh – and surely that’s everyone?

“An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth” by Chris Hadfield (2013)

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astronaut“The windows of a spaceship casually frame miracles.”

I’ll never go to space, that’s, at this point, a given. This won’t stop me from being fascinated by the idea of it, though. By now, over five hundred people have been up there and seen the world from above, and to me they are surely the luckiest people in history. I’ve never read in much detail about any of them though. Enter Colonel Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station.

Colonel Hadfield first went to space in 1995 when he visited Mir. In 2001, he was in a team that helped construct part of the ISS, and in 2012 he returned to be its commander. All told, he’s spent nearly four thousand hours in space. You may remember him because during his last trip, on the advice of his son, he took to social media to share videos about life in space, and it all ended with him recording a version of Space Oddity while floating around the station that immediately went viral back here on Earth.

To say these are his memoirs is to miss the point. His early life is covered with speed but details that he’s wanted to be an astronaut ever since he was nine years old, and so at that moment starting living his life the way he thought an astronaut should, eating the right things and behaving in the right way. He is a man who is passionate about space and exploration, and this continues through his writing. The book is split into three sections – “Pre-Launch”, “Liftoff” and “Coming Down To Earth” – and throughout each one Hadfield goes into detail on his training, some of the experiences he’s had, and how best to cope in truly bizarre circumstances.

In short, this is actually a book of advice, but not so directly as to just list rules for us to live by. Hadfield takes all he’s learnt in his twenty-three years as an astronaut and applies it to general life. He notes that being obsessive about small details doesn’t make you a worrier, it makes you prepared should anything go wrong. He argues that we should attempt to be a neutral effect – a zero – in situations, especially where we’re new to the team, rather than trying to prove yourself as better than everyone else, or worse, causing aggravation and irritation to those around you. (This is particularly important to an astronaut, as in space, there’s nowhere to hide. If you’re pissed off at someone, you can’t go for a walk around the block to calm down.) He also talks about how arrogance never gets you anywhere and modesty is key. Hadfield himself is perhaps one of the most modest people I’ve encountered, completely understanding that just because you’re an astronaut, it doesn’t mean you get to do all the spacewalks. Sometimes you have to stay back and fix the toilet. Sure, he shows he is capable of jealousy and frustration, but he doesn’t ever let those emotions get out of control.

The book is interesting simply because it shows the life of an astronaut for what it really is – tedious, time-consuming and hugely varied. When not in space (and very few astronauts ever get there), they work on Earth helping those in space and trying to make everything better for everyone. Hadfield alone has been in numerous departments over the years, from robotics to communications, and it seems that promotions can happen in every direction – up, down and sideways. He says it’s important to not let that bother you. You may feel a hero while you’re on the ISS, but a few weeks after you’re back, you’ll be working in a mid-level office position somewhere in Houston and no one will care. We see astronauts as superheroes and thrillseekers, but Hadfield says that those kinds of people would never make it. They need to be people who are obsessed with detail, remain calm under pressure and are willing to spend hours a day doing the same tests over and over again, not to mention spending over half the year away from home and taking exams almost every day. In Russian.

This book won’t teach you how to become an astronaut, but it may teach you how to be a better human.

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