“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.

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“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 are 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.

“Nerd Do Well” by Simon Pegg (2010)

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pegg“It was never my intention to write an autobiography.”

On one of my many and frequent excursions into London, I last year found myself absolutely bladdered and ended up in a small pub which I believe was above a theatre, somewhere on the Isle of Dogs. I can’t remember it’s name, nor it’s exact location, but what I do remember is that on one wall there was an alcove filled with second hand books. A sign next to them indicated that if you popped some change into the pot, you could take away anything you wanted. I fished around in my pockets, dropped the meagre change I had into the pot and pulled down two books: Kraken by China Miéville, and Simon Pegg’s memoirs, Nerd Do Well, the latter of which I will get around to talking about once I finish this meandering introduction.

Simon Pegg is, of course, known for working on both brilliant TV shows (Spaced, Big Train, etc) and films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, etc), displaying himself as both a talented actor and writer, as well as a man who seems really understand the medium and “get” what works and what doesn’t. When combined with the likes of Edgar Wright, Nick Frost, Jessica Hynes and so forth, he becomes almost unstoppable.

His memoirs, like they all tend to, detail his childhood, formative school years, later education, springboard into the world of comedy and film, and his meetings with cinema’s great and good. It’s also a love letter to those films that made him the big kid he is today, such as Star Wars and George Romero’s classic zombie flicks. There’s no denying that when it’s finished, I still like Pegg, and it’s clear that he’s talented, intelligent, passionate and, above all, perhaps strangest of all for someone who has just written a memoir, incredibly private.

It was only after finishing that I thought about how you very rarely see his name in the papers in any situation that isn’t directly related to a project he’s working on, which is absolutely not a complaint, because a man is entitled to his private life. It seems odd, therefore, to want to write a book about oneself.

The book deals heavily with Pegg’s childhood, talking about his friends, cinematic obsessions, schooldays and early theatrical accomplishments. In fact, so much of the book is given over to the first ten or fifteen years of his life that all the stuff that happened since he became famous barely has the space to shine. He actually acknowledges that himself at the end of the book, saying that to him the things that he did in his youth are far more interesting than what came later. He also says that he doesn’t want to get to into it, not because he has any bad things to say about people in particular, but simply because in writing memoirs you’re having to talk about other people, and that may not always go down so well. I do understand all that, I do, but it’s still a bit disappointing.

You may be gathering from this review that I didn’t like the book much and, unfortunately, you’d be right. I really like Pegg, and I really wanted to like this book, but his reliance on talking about his nerdy fascinations overwhelms the rest of the text. He spends numerous chapters dissecting Star Wars, going over his experiences watching the films for the first time and talking about the intricaties and cleverness of plotting and the series place in the world of science fiction and modern film making. It’s done well, too. Pegg isn’t an idiot, but sadly I’ve never seen Star Wars, have no interest in doing so, and so most of it just went over my head. It’s like when I read Victoria Coren Mitchell’s memoirs and realised I don’t know anything about poker.

Maybe it’s just me (but I don’t think it is), but I wanted to know more about what it was like working on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the latter of which is mentioned on just five fleeting occasions. This is the same problem I had with John Cleese’s book too – I want to know the secrets behind Fawlty Towers, not about his childhood. Not that either Cleese or Pegg’s lives were boring, but they also weren’t particularly dramatic.

I also should confess that I can’t give a full review about another part of Pegg’s book. In between chapters, Pegg has written an intentionally bad action novel with himself as a Bond-esque hero with a servant robot and all sorts of other oddities. There’s eleven or twelve chapters of it and, after reading the first two, I didn’t bother reading the rest. Whether they add to the tale or not, I don’t know.

So, sorry Simon, firstly for skipping out a bunch of chapters, and also for not being enchanted by your book. I’m still a big fan, but it’s like the old saying goes: never meet your heroes, and sometimes don’t even read their autobiography.

“So, Anyway…” by John Cleese (2014)

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cleese“I made my first public appearance on the stairs up to the school nurse’s room, at St Peter’s Preparatory School, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, on 13 September 1948.”

I have a pretty broad taste when it comes to comedy, enjoying in equal measure the utter surrealism of The Goon Show, the smart, political wit of Yes, Minister, and the observational humour of Peter Kay. (Although not all comedy tickles my fancy – I still don’t understand the popularity of The Mighty Boosh.) Much of this comes from my dad, I think. He was the right age in the sixties and seventies to enjoy all the best sitcoms and as such, pass them down to me, imbuing within me a love as strong as his own for things like Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Blackadder, and The Two Ronnies. (Again, there are gaps in this knowledge – I never understood what he saw in Bottom, and neither of us ever felt much affection for Only Fools and Horses.) Two shows, however, are definite stand out favourites: Fawlty Towers and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

John Cleese is, of course, one of the driving forces behind both of these behemoths of the comedy landscape and upon news of him releasing his memoirs, I excitedly picked them up and readied myself to dive into his life story.

Born in Weston-super-Mare in 1939, Cleese lived a charmed but somewhat sheltered childhood in the West Country, with a father who adored him and a mother who was always slightly distant. The first half of the book details his education, including his brief stint as a teacher and his time at Cambridge. The second half focuses on his sidestep into show business – he had studied law and criminology at university – and he writes with great humour about a life that seems to have had its hardships, but mostly has been fun, exciting and graced with luck.

It’s a good read, and it’s definitely funny, showing why he is one of the best comedy writers of his generation (if not all time), peppered throughout with sketches and details about his time working with some of the other biggest names in comedy at the time. Aside from the other Pythons, he also worked with Ronnies Barker and Corbett, David Frost, Nicholas Smith, all three of the Goodies, Peter Sellers, and many more. He hasn’t much bad to say about any of them, meaning his few fleeting negative comments about Bill Oddie and Terry Jones stand out like a Norwegian Blue in a white snowscape. The passages about his best friend and former writing partner Graham Chapman are particularly heartening.

I have come away from the book with the feeling that he is overall a very nice man who finds it hard to say no, understands that he is funny, has a great thirst for knowledge – something I particularly admire – and a firm work ethic. He dislikes few people, is self-deprecating but never overly so, and is generally awkwardly British. However, I also came away somewhat disappointed.

Like many people reading this, I mostly went into it to find out more about the workings of his greatest legacies. However, in a book that is 404 pages long, the Monty Python team doesn’t form until page 383. Fawlty Towers is mentioned only a few times and none of his marriages (save to that of Connie Booth) are discussed. It isn’t a bad biography – it’s very enjoyable and interesting, as is the man himself – but it cuts off just at the part we’re all probably gagging to hear about. Maybe this is the point – maybe we’ve all heard so much about his hits that he doesn’t want to retread old ground. I can understand that.

Or are we, then, to expect a sequel, whereby he deals with the events with the Pythons and the creation of Basil Fawlty? One hopes so, but the book ends with a brief discussion of the 2014 revival show, suggesting that there won’t be. It would be a great shame as, while I know people will lap up this book, they would probably love that even more.

So please don’t take this as a bad review. It’s really well written, and Cleese’s humour and sense of fun pervades throughout. I just found myself left hanging.

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