Bill Bryson: Made in America

Bryson Made in AmericaBryson is at his best when anchored to his research desk, surveying the world and its idiosyncrasies with laboured intent, and crafting his reactions in a precise and detailed way. In the past I have cast aspersions on Bryson the ‘traveller’, in works such as Notes from a Small Island, Down Under and (more recently) The Road to Little Dribbling, but Bryson the forensic historian and linguistician is in a different league.

Made in America is a long detailed cursive look at the development of a country, from the arrival of its First Pilgrim Fathers to the present day. With every generation, and with every advance in industry and technology, the English that was originally exported to the new continent is gradually changed, making the language in its ‘pure form’ as  used by the mother country look increasingly static and archaic.

To enjoy this 500 page journey through the development of a language, you have to be fundamentally interested in language itself, but Bryson does have the literary ability to get you interested in almost any topic, and this makes an entertaining and informative read for the general reading public.


…..and right outside my house, I am reminded of the famous ‘sakura’ (Japanese cherry blossom) of last year. Happy memories……


Bike meets its ‘fellow yellow’….


Caitlin Thomas: My life with Dylan Thomas

To really get an inside view of someone’s life, though not necessarily entirely objective, read an account by someone who lived with him/her for several years and, in this case, bore his children, drank with him, fought with him, competed with him in the arena ofDylan Thomas marital infidelities………and the list could go on.

This is no reverential view of a man who has come to be viewed as the national poet of Wales. Not only did Dylan Thomas write with a poetic fluency that belied his lack of sobriety, but his poems touched deep seated nerve points for all humanity, and revealed a tortured personality struggling to ‘align the stars’ of his very existence. His death at the  tender age of 39 was sudden and unexpected, but longevity was never really on the cards for a man who could ‘drink for Wales’.

Caitlin, his wife, was an equally tortured character, who spent the best part of 40 years as an unrepentant alcoholic but, in her final 20 years of sobriety (she lived to be 81) was able to reflect on the destructive relationship she had had with Dylan, describing in all its raw and explosive detail the alcoholic self-immolation that both of them submitted to, and couldn’t control. This is the story of two tragic lives, but from it emerged the immortal verse that is now celebrated across the world.

Bradley Wiggins: My Time

1232534_BradleyMyTime_yjp_jktThose who achieve celebrity status through sport have a narrow window of time to make the most of their opportunities in life. In the space of 10-15 years, they have to embark on a precarious road to perfection in their chosen sport, win the titles and trophies available to them, and then tell the world about their experiences through a series of ghost-written autobiographies. In the world of cycling, as in most other sports, there has been a veritable tsunami of publications over the last few years, amongst them a couple covering the fortunes of Bradley Wiggins. This volume, My Time, has a very narrow focus indeed. It is concerned mainly with the key year of his cycling career: 2012.

Although he had experienced success on the track in previous Olympics, his switch to road racing proved to be a challenging change of direction. But it all came together in 2012 when he won a series of early season races (Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie, Dauphiné Liberé), followed by the first ever British win in the Tour de France, then concluded by a truly magnificent performance in the time trial of the London Olympics, where he won a gold medal. 2012 was his golden year, a year where everything went right, and at its conclusion, he was ready to move on……….back to the track for the Rio Olympics.

William Fotheringham, his co-writer, has done a good job of revealing both the talent and character of the man who is known affectionately by his fans as Wiggo.

Bill Bryson: The road to Little Dribbling

The-Road-to-Little-Dribbling-235x350Ah, Mr Bill Bryson again! His most recent tome is constantly in your face in every bookshop. But I continue to find him, in equal measure, both infuriating and endearing. Now that he has British citizenship (without giving up his American, of course), when he eventually shuffles off this mortal coil (not just yet I hope), he will be lauded as a proverbial ‘national treasure’. Though he has said many bad things about this little country of ours, they have always been pronounced from a podium of love. So, before I spell out some of his many redeeming qualities, justifying his future ennoblement as a ‘national treasure’, let me tip the balance a little.

Infuriatingly, what I struggle to like about Bryson’s travel writing is that he’s not really a traveller at all. He’s a dilettante of the travelling world. His journeys are seldom continuous, self-supported (his wife does most of his bookings) and don’t seem to have any obvious direction that provide any kind of logic to his meanderings. He pretends to be following his own ‘Bryson line’, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, but the only evidence that he actually does this is where he starts from (Bognor Regis) and where he finishes (Cape Wrath). Nowhere on the journey do we suspect he is remotely near the Bryson line. And given that the Scottish leg of the journey is no more than a quick train dash up to the far north west, visiting nowhere en route, I begin to wonder why he bothered in the first place.

I groan interminably when he assesses the worth of places on the strength of the kinds of shops and cafés on the high streets, and anywhere that has a bookshop qualifies it (in his biased opinion) for a 5 star rating. Too often he flits from town to town, has a coffee and a snack (groan-worthy repetition in every chapter), and within an hour or two he has formulated his opinion about the town (for better or worse), before flitting on to the next place. He never actually engages with anyone, apart from waiters and serving staff. He makes observations from afar, from inside his own little Brysonian bubble, and the inhabitants of these places will either be hugely delighted or mortally offended by his judgements.  In short, he covers too many places, too superficially, without any evidence of continuity in his journey. His book amounts to a lot of disconnected snapshots, taken over a period of time, to fit in with his many other engagements, and (I suspect) a team of researchers have helped him to fill the gaps with what have become (endearingly) the many Bryson witty observations and capsules of British history.

Endearingly, however, he does have a lot of redeeming qualities, enough (in fact) to earn him a handsome living from the millions of books he has sold. His vantage point of being the ‘foreigner’ on British soil gives him a unique perspective for both lavishing praise and dealing out the dirt. After a few chapters, he has laid bare his personality and temperament so clearly that, if he were to visit your town or village, you reckon you could predict his reaction immediately. But you may not be sure that you would ever want him to pay a visit…….

The two literary devices that make his writings so eminently readable include his skilful use of language (he’s a master of the art of drawing word-pictures) and his sense of humour. The latter is a clever fusion of self-deprecating observations with reputation-destroying gibes and jeers directed at people and groups who need to learn a thing or two. The thing about Bryson is that he manages to criticise others with a smile on his face, making us all feel that he is on our side anyway, and he really loves us.

However, once I have had a dose of Bryson, I’m done for a year or two, thankful that he doesn’t churn out the books in multiples of anything other than one at a time.

JP Rodgers: For the love of my mother

Hundreds of ‘misery memoirs’ have been written in the last 20 years by a group of emerging Irish writers who want nothing more than to reveal the details of their miserable childhood. Amongst the earliest and most successful was the late Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, but the offerings on the whole have been poorly written, by people who JP Rodgerssimply wanted to get something important ‘off their chests’. The themes invariably include poverty, violence, drunkenness, desertion, abusive priests and nuns, cruelty of workhouses and laundries, intolerance, separation of unmarried mothers from their new born child, and the unchecked authoritarianism of the Catholic church.

JP Rodgers is one of this band of writers, writing his first published book in later life, and the child of one such unmarried mother, who was put out for adoption while his mother remained incarcerated in one of the notorious laundries run by nuns. His mother managed to escape (climbing over a wall) after almost 30 years in an institution, and in the fullness of time, along a route fraught with trauma, she eventually re-connected with her son and lived her twilight years with the love and support of family around her.

I applaud JP Rodgers  for his efforts. It does fall short in many areas, especially in the re-creation of imagined dialogue and the development of characters, but he attempts to see the world of his mother through her eyes which, given that he was not even born during much of the story, nor had he even made any contact with her until later life, requires a huge shift of the imagination. Most memoirs are classed as ‘creative non-fiction’. The author cannot conceivably know or remember everything, but JP Rodgers does a valiant job of bringing the life story of his mother alive.

Forget self-driving cars…….

Cole Moreton: Is God still an Englishman?

When you find a book with an intriguing title on your bookshelf, and you have no memory of how it got there, there’s only one solution: read it.

If you still think of England, or even Britain, as a Christian country, think again. This country may have a long history as a predominantly Christian country, but “the times, they are a’changing”. Walk into most churches in the country, whether in a city centre or a tiny hamlet, and you only have to count the pew-capacity of each church to realise that, in bygone times, many more people attended church than the handful that do today. In fact, if it weren’t for the huge numbers of Christian immigrants coming in from Eastern Europe and Africa, the decline in numbers amongst the indigenous population would have synods and church boards scrambling in search of solutions.

Is-God-Still-an-EnglishmanCole Moreton’s assessment of the state of play runs parallel to a description of his own brushes with the world of faith, moving from a high octane conversion during the Billy Graham rallies in the 1980s, through a more sedate commitment as a Church Times reporter in the 1990s, to the eventual abandonment of his faith during a particularly challenging period in his life. During the flow of his own faith narrative, he looks especially keenly at the narrative of the Anglican Church, the established church of England, with all the associated anachronisms and contradictions it poses in a predominantly non-Christian environment. Will it survive? Apparently not, according to Moreton.

Much more than just a decline in numbers attending and supporting their local churches, the demise of the church is also threatened by internal disintegration caused by issues such as gay marriage and gay bishops, women priests and bishops, and a monarchy that pretends to represent a majority religious view amongst the country’s citizens. According to Moreton, if the Church can’t move with the times and disconnect itself from antiquated beliefs and expectations, it will degenerate into a minority cult……..and may even disappear.

Rob Hayles: Easy Rider

I’ve read enough early life autobiographies of elite cyclists to be able to predict the format and style of the writing. The success of these books in the marketplace depends on the ‘merchandising’ of a household name, the ‘big book’ format of the hardback edition, and the easy journalistic style of writing employed by the vast majority of ghost writers. To say these books are written by  the authors themselves is to overestimate their literaryRob hayles easy rider skills. Most such authors probably haven’t read a single book since they left school, let alone written one, so they sit with their chosen ghost writer for a few days being interviewed, and the transcript of the interview will be painstakingly fashioned into the final volume.

Having said that, this volume by Rob Hayles is a worthy read. Not the household name like his latter day successors in the cycling world, Hayles, nevertheless, featured strongly on the track in the years leading up to the mighty explosion of team GB onto the scene. His palmares include gold, silver and bronze medals in the Olympics, as well as successes in the World Championships, and he even partnered a youthful Brad Wiggins and Mark Cavendish in the early days of their respective careers.

Unlike most such autobiographies, this has been written at the end of his cycling career, so there is an air of historical narrative about the style, which lends a little more to its gravity and worthiness.

Miguel Delibes: Los Santos Inocentes

A disturbing picture of the early years of the Franco regime in Spain, and the brutal relationship between the ruling classes and the peasants who serve their needs.

miguel delibes - los santos inocentesDelibes wrote this book in the early 1980s, the final episode of his rural trilogy, but his style has changed. His handling of character, the description of the landscapes, his use of language and dialogue have moved on from his earlier novels. With the democratising of Spain and the new-found freedoms of expression, Delibes has been able to expand his vision and dig deeper into the grittiness of life in the 1940s.

Los Santos Inocentes is the story of the relationship between an impoverished family that serves the needs of the local wealthy landowner, and  el Señorito Iván himself. It is an abusive relationship. He exploits them to serve his own needs, neglecting the health and welfare of people who have desperate needs of their own.

The story is never going to have a happy ending, but do we feel a certain catharsis at the retributive ending? If you don’t read Spanish, seek out an English translation (The Holy Innocents), or find a sub-titled copy of the award-winning  film made in 1984.

Miguel Delibes: Las Ratas (Rats)

In the second volume of his rural trilogy, Delibes returns to themes that preoccupy theLas ratas impoverished village communities in the north of Spain in the post-civil war years of the 1940s. The central character is a young lad called El Nini, who lives with his ‘uncle’ in a cave on the outskirts of the village. The story mixes a huge amount of rural wisdom, through the aphorisms of an old man thought to be 100 years old, through references to saints’ days that mark out the farming calendar according to the weather and seasons, and the knowledge of locals who have battled with nature over the decades.

El Nini is a child whose parentage is shrouded in mystery. He has more grandparents than genetically possible, and El Ratero is known as his ‘uncle’, but we are left in some doubt about that. The local authorities want to evacuate El Ratero and El Nini from their cave, to smarten up the image of the community and attract tourists, but they refuse to leave. They live on nothing but the few reales made from hunting rats, which they sell for food (tastes better than chicken, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, they say).

The story is another attempt by Delibes to champion the rights of the poor to maintain the way of life that they love, even though they choose to be condemned to lifelong poverty.

El Camino by Miguel Delibes

One of the greatest disappointments for English readers is the almost total lack of English translations of most of the Spanish classics. Apart from the still-living Javier Marías, the world imagined that Spanish literature died when García Lorca was murdered during the Spanish Civil War. It is true that authors during the Franco regime had to be circumspect about their topics, given the intrusiveness of state censorship, but such conditions can generate a brand of writing that betrays all kinds of subtleties missing from normal liberally-written literature.

el_caminoOne of the greatest of post-civil war literary giants, Miguel Delibes was a newspaper editor and prolific writer, and amongst his many offerings is a rural trilogy, including El Camino (The Way). The other two volumes are Los santos inocentes (The holy innocents) and Las Ratas (The rats). All three novels are set in the years of deprivation of the 1940s and 1950s, when the Spanish nation toiled to drag itself up from the disaster of civil war. In El Camino, we follow the early years of childhood of Daniel, el Mochuelo who lives in a northern Spanish town near the coast. Daniel is torn between the driving ambition of his father (a humble cheesemaker), who has saved all his life to send his son to a private school in the city, and Daniel’s own wish to stay in the village, with his friends, with all the things that he is familiar with. As an 11 year old, happy with the prospect of becoming a cheesemaker like his father, he fails to understand why his father has made them all suffer, depriving the family of basic comforts in life, just to send Daniel to the city to be educated like a gentleman.

Through Daniel, Delibes cleverly gets us to reassess our own ambitions and tendencies in life, and see them for they really are.

A blind cyclist……

Truly astonishing……


Walking home from Mongolia by Rob Lilwall

Walking home from MongoliaWhatever we do in life, to succeed we need to take inspiration from others. Even the most motivated people need a motivator. My relatively humble expeditions nearly always have an origin in someone else’s ideas, and those ideas usually come from people who have made huge sacrifices to achieve their ambitions.

Rob Lilwall had spent three years on the road cycling home from Siberia, covering about 75,000km. Like most true adventurers, it didn’t take long before those itchy feet started seeking out a new adventure. Based in Hong Kong, he planned a walking route of 5000km from Mongolia, crossing the heartland of China, back to his home in Hong Kong. He did it with a companion, Leon, who was a fledgling cameraman, and the resulting story became both a book and DVD.

Well written, engaging and honest. He reveals both their successes and failures, their ups and their downs, the ins and outs of his relationship with Leon, the failure of film footage in the first few weeks, the challenges of the journey itself……. Anyone who has completed a major expedition will understand some of the changing fortunes they experienced, and will sympathise. But it’s all part of the package. It’s what makes adventurers like Rob much-sought-after motivational speakers, and authors of books and films that inspire others.



Three Spanish volumes

More time for reading, more time for getting back to a much neglected source of reading: Spanish literature. None of these are demanding in terms of attention and time, so all of them are rapid reads, with some interesting lexical challenges in colloquialisms and slang specific to a country, time, generation etc.

Manos en la nuca: Angel Parra

Manos en la nucaAngel Parra suffered for his left-wing political beliefs in the Chilean revolution of 1973, when a right-wing dictatorship unseated the socialist government, imprisoned and summarily executed thousands of opponents, and encouraged a whole generation of Chileans to opt for exile as the only route of escape. This is an insider’s view of what it was like to be imprisoned during this period.




Escuela y prisiones de Vicentito González: Juan Eslava Galán

A seemingly autobiographical novel, we follow the early life of Vicentito as he grows fromEscuela y prisiones being a small child, through the various phases of his schooling in the south of Spain, to adulthood. It provides a vivid portrayal of the impoverished levels of education on offer in Spain in the post-civil war years, of corruption, of child abuse amongst religious orders, of authoritarianism and a general tendency to use physical violence in the education of children. Vicentito is portrayed as a victim of abuse in every school he attended, but happily accepted his own responsibility for the destiny he was served with.

Cazar al cazador: Francisco Nunez Roldán

Not my genre of choice, but an easy read to fill a handful of hours. Cazar al cazadorA murder mystery which is surprisingly un-mysterious, because the author chooses to tell you who the murderer is early on in the story. But there are some interesting twists and turns, some insights into rural life in Andalucía and, if nothing else, you can brush up on your knowledge of Spanish words related to the natural world, especially birds.

Janapar: love on a bike by Tom Allen

Tom Allen, at the age of 23, set off from his home in Middleton, Northamptonshire, to cycle round the world, in the company of a couple of like-minded friends. With no maps and no guidebooks, this was to be an adventure like no other he had ever experienced. Four years and three continents later, no longer in the company of his cycling companions, but now accompanied by an Armenian-speaking Iranian wife, he arrived back at his parental home in Middleton. So what really happened?

This is the story of both a book and film produced by Tom, the result of a journey that was only sketched out on paper before they set off, but was so subject to change as the days janapar-ogp-imageand weeks slipped by, that the original focus (that of cycling round the world) was completely lost. If you read travel diaries to be inspired to follow in the footsteps of others, or simply to be entertained in your armchair, this may not do the trick for you. Tom’s use of the English language is above the normal grade for this type of writing, and he digs deeply into his own inner soul to reveal his innermost feelings, but he loses that lightness of touch that will inspire the hesitant to follow in his footsteps. His prose digs and delves into the darker side of his experience, the loss of friendships as he breaks up with his cycling companions, followed by the tensions posed by his new relationship, whether he should come or go, whether she is able to break the ties of a conservative Iranian family.

By the end, as we read of the final hours riding towards Tom’s parental home in Middleton, along with Tenny, his new Iranian wife, we pick up a sense of optimism about the future, but he seems to acknowledge there will still be many hurdles to overcome.

The bliss of ignorance?

Seven years ago this month, I was reminded of a basic truth in life: none of us is indestructible. No matter how fit and active you are, no matter how many miles you cycle or run, the morrow can bring an unexpected surprise. Seven years ago (almost to the day), I came off my bike on black ice and spent six months recovering from a broken femur. In other words, I was reminded of the essential frailty of the human body.

Ten days ago I had enjoyed the liberating freedom of a 65 mile ride in warm winter sunshine, and had planned another 50 mile ride the next day. The body was in good shape, the eagerness was there to ride the miles, and I was getting myself prepared for a week of volcano cycling in Gran Canaria. I had every reason to feel bright and breezy when I leapt out of bed, but I was reminded once again of the frailty of the human body.

My blackout and fall are having their consequences. Although atrial fibrillation has not been definitively diagnosed, until I see a cardiologist, I have to take  medication for it as a ‘just in case’. And the collateral damage to the back is obviously going to take weeks, or even months, to heal. So, freed up from all my natural eagerness to get out on the bike and ride the miles, I suddenly find myself with the imposed latitude to concentrate on writing. To the many kind people who have  encouraged me over the years to begin writing books about my exploits, I thank you. My excuse has always been that I’ve been much too occupied planning and going on adventures to find the time for sedentary pursuits like writing. Every time I look out of the window, the allure of the open countryside beckons.

And I thought there was no cure for it……..


The unhappy serendipity

A hard lesson that I have failed to learn throughout my life is the art of getting out of bed safely. Yes, you have read that correctly…..getting out of bed safely. Be warned, the simple process of shedding the torpors of sleep to re-enter the world of the living can be fraught with potholes and thorns along the road. Let me explain.

I am, of course, speaking from very recent personal experience. I became a ‘cropper’ the other day by simply getting out of bed. Hard to believe, I know. I can be counted amongst the majority of people (I think)  who return to waking consciousness in the mornings and delay the moment of getting out of bed, sometimes by minutes, sometimes by much more. Of course, waking up does not guarantee an immediate eagerness to get up. Two very different things. Last Wednesday, however, was an exception for this unwary riser. For some reason, totally out of character, I jumped out of bed with inexplicable enthusiasm and headed for the bathroom, only to find my blood pressure went into a downward spiral, and I landed in a heap on the floor, injuring my back in the process.

Jenny panicked, called the emergency services, prised herself into the bathroom and helped me get into the recovery position until the paramedics arrived. It’s only in situations like these that you really learn the true worth of people like paramedics. Working in a very confined space, they managed to administer all that was required, take ECGs, strap me firmly to a board stretcher and expertly lowered me down a very difficult staircase.

An X ray revealed a fracture to the T12, but it was inconclusive about whether it was caused by the fall. Apparently we can live many years with historic situations like these only for them to be revealed by accident in later life. There was much talk of me being fitted with a body brace, but I confounded them by passing all the physiotherapist’s tests, such as walking upstairs and toilet management. So now back at home, minus the body brace, plus a truly impressive array of pain-killers, I await follow-ups to check out the fracture in a few weeks time, and to determine the cause of the blackout. There are murmurings of atrial fibrillation……… Hey-ho!



Doing good better by William MacAskill

There are about 165,000 charities registered in the UK. The ones you know tend to be headline charities that do a lot of media advertising, junk-mailing, and have administration teams worthy of a FTSE 100 company. We all like to support  family members and friends who run marathons, cycle trek across Europe, jump out of planes and abseil down cliff faces, especially if they are supporting a worthy cause. If the charity they are Doing good bettersupporting is looking for a cure for cancer, financing guide-dogs for the blind, giving holidays for deprived city kids or protecting wildlife, or any of a thousand different very worthy causes, it will make us feel good about putting our hands in our pockets and donating.

As you get into MacAskill’s book, you may be forgiven for thinking that he is a bit of a party-pooper. He is very analytical in his view of charities, and asks uncomfortable questions about the real value and effectiveness of charities that pull at our heart strings. The author is not just an academic teaching at Oxford University, he has also co-founded two not-for-profit ventures to help people donate more effectively and to find careers for people who have the welfare of others at heart. This book has a very powerful message, though you may not agree with everything he says. But if you tune into the general intention behind the analyses, it will make you think very carefully about the charities you donate to in the future.

Do you donate to salvage your own conscience? Are you looking for the feel-good factor? Or do you think carefully about the effectiveness of every pound/dollar you donate? Many of us are naturally drawn by the close ties of friendship and blood relatives, and we like to support them in their ventures. If a close relative dies of cancer, it’s a natural reaction to raise money for a cancer charity. But are these the right motives? Do we need to be much more calculating before we part with hard earned pennies?

Some of the answers can be found in Doing good better, but more importantly it raises the difficult questions we all need to address.

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