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Friday, 22 May 2015


I've been browsing through the wonderful archive site belonging to the brilliant Clive James, once upon a time the only reason to buy The Observer newspaper.

The site link is here - http://www.clivejames.com/

and you will see just how monumentally informative, entertaining and extensive his writing et al is, packaged in this handy corner of the Internet.

I'm almost at the end of his BBC 'A Point Of View' broadcasts, ten-minute essays on everything and anything.  Here's a piece from the one I have just finished.  He has been talking about climate science, climate change, fact, fiction and mischief.

"Sceptics, say the believers, don’t care about the future of the human race. But being sceptical has always been one of the best ways of caring about the future of the human race. For example, it was from scepticism that modern medicine emerged, questioning the common belief that diseases were caused by magic, or could be cured by it. A conjecture can be dressed up as a dead certainty with enough rhetoric, and protected against dissent with enough threatening language, but finally it has to meet the only test of science, which is that any theory must fit the facts, and the facts can’t be altered to suit the theory."

Do yourself a favour, if you are stuck for reading material.  Check out the site. It even contains much of the material from his TV critic's column in The Observer, 10 years (1972 to 1982), a masterclass in how to write such stuff.  Much of today's criticism is nasty and too jokey for its own good.  But, Clive James did it better than anyone.

Thursday, 21 May 2015


Over the years I have lost track of the 'job' of Poet Laureate, so I thought I'd try to freshen my understanding and, amongst others, came across this article from The Independent, May 2009, just as Carol Ann Duffy was about to be announced as the latest PL.

You might find it interesting.  I did.  It was written by Andy McSmith.

His final section asks some yes/no questions:

"Do we need someone to mark national events with a poem?


* This is an old tradition evoking Britain down the ages and it costs next to nothing. Why end it?

* The Laureate is an ambassador for poetic craft from whom school pupils, and others, can take inspiration.

* In an age of shallow celebrity, the Poet Laureate is someone famous for genuine achievement.


* It is an insult to expect a serious poet to compose verses to mark a royal wedding or some such event.

* In most cases, being appointed seems to have a deadening effect on the office-holder's creativity.

*Since when was a Prime Minister qualified to nominate the country's foremost poet?"

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


I've just received this email from Christina Gabbitas.  I think it is self-explanatory regarding her passion for children's reading, writing, drawing and general creativity.

I had to share it.

"Good morning,

Thank you so much for being a judge on the 2015 initiative, and for your continued support, it is greatly appreciated.

The top three

Winner: Bouncing Bananas by Millie Davis of Pennthorpe School, West Sussex
2nd: Route Healthy  by Isabelle Blackburn, Teeside School
3rd: Bikes  Bethan Jellett - Hambleton Primary, Selby

This has been another amazing journey, visiting many schools along the way, from Selby to Sharjah (UAE)

There were over 5,500 entries, which is fabulous. I now have the task of choosing fifty poems to be published in Volume  3 of the poetry book. All poems in the top twenty will be included. There are a number of poems from the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, which will also be included.

As a result of the 2014 initiative, Barnardos charity has received just over £1,000, from book sales.
The Invitation To Capture The Primary School Nation 'Children’s Poetry Volume 2,' is a contender for The Peoples Book Prize, Dame Beryl Bainbridge First Time Author Award. This is a wonderful accolade for the children to take through life. (think positive thoughts for them on the 27th May)   

I am currently in liaison with Great Ormond Street Hospital with a view to showcasing/displaying some of the children work within the hospital, with a small event. I will keep you informed. 

My next stop is WHSmith Stratford Upon Avon on 30th May, where I will be encouraging children to call into the store with a poem, with a possibility of one being included in the next publication. I will also be signing Felicity Fly series. Welcome To The World Of Felicity Fly, is a FINALIST in the Peoples Book Prize, there are seven days remaining to vote, here is the link :)  http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/book.php?id=1156&nf=1

will be announcing more details very soon about www.childrensreadingfestivals.com - Giving children from all backgrounds an equal opportunity of having access to more books and experiencing a festival

THANK YOU so much once again. I will email you with further news/articles about the initiative.

With kind wishes


Christina Gabbitas


I first posted this in April last year.

Colourpoint Books (November 2013)

I was born and raised in Belfast. My teenage years, circa 1965 to 1973, coincided with the beginnings of "the Troubles".  In the early 70s, I was a Trainee Manager in British Home Stores in the city centre and, like many people, I had to navigate security gates, long queues, body and bag searches to get to work.  We endured bomb scares and, every now and then, the shuddering reality of nerve and glass shattering explosions.  It was an awful time and things got even worse in the years after I left to pursue my work ambitions.

But in my "Belfast years", I was an avid reader of local newspapers.  We were an Irish News family and I would catch up with that publication in the evenings at home.  But I loved the Belfast Telegraph, read on the bus home, because of it's news coverage and especially for the input of the wonderful cartoonist Rowel Friers and the wit and wisdom of writers Billy Simpson, John Pepper and Alf McCreary, amongst others.  Alf McCreary was different from the rest because, as I saw it, he was always perceptive and razor-sharp when it came to analysing the human condition in all its good, bad and ugly forms.

So, I was delighted to see that Mr McCreary had written a book about his life, work and times.  On a recent visit to Belfast, I bought a copy and over the past couple of weeks I have enjoyed travelling through his life.

I remembered his honesty, reporting the facts, and his clear understanding of the complications, frustrations and emotions inherent in Northern Ireland's history.  He did not shirk his responsibility to tell the truth regardless of boundaries, tribal, religious, political or otherwise.

I remember reading his book Survivors in the mid-70s, stories of innocent victims of the violence and mayhem in Northern Ireland, and it shook me because it was shocking, harrowing, emotional and real - as it was meant to be.  This book stands, in my opinion, as one of the best pieces of evidence that war is good for nothing and always bad for people who just want to get on with their normal lives.

I learned quite a bit about Alf McCreary's life.  Apart from his successful and award-winning journalistic career in Northern Ireland, notably in and around the Belfast Telegraph, I had been unaware of his extensive travels to some of the world's other trouble spots on behalf of Christian Aid, his tenure as head of information at Queen's University and just how many books he had amassed as writer, co-writer and contributor.

There are so many things to quote from the book but I was struck by this extract from a speech he made in 1976 - that's 1976 - nearly 40 years ago, and as I read it again and again, I wonder, taking into consideration constant political bickering about relative trivia, if much has changed: 

"We have a short fuse and a long memory, we look forward, not back, to 1690 and 1916. We lack vision, we lack compassion, we lack statesmen, we lack politicians. We even lack ideas.

I look forward to a society where I can walk without fear in Royal Avenue, or East Belfast or the Bogside. I want a society where we will have politics and not a sectarian pantomime, where tomorrow is more important than today.

I look forward to the day when we in Ulster will use our brains (and we have them) and not our brawn; where power will come from the pen and not the sword; from the ballot box and not the barrel of a gun. I look forward to the day when I can look into the eyes of my children and know that this is a fit place for a child to live."

I am so pleased that Alf McCreary wrote his autobiography.  His writing was part of my education as I road the number 13 bus home.  His wisdom and humanity shine through this excellent book.

Monday, 18 May 2015


My review of this book appeared in Tribune in June, 2011.

Michael O’Mara  £9.99
For a book on significant speeches published in 2011 to end in 2008 indicates, even with a time lag for editing, proofing and printing, that no one has set the world on fire with scintillating oratory in the last couple of years.  Depending on your point of view, the world is going through some global menopausal change or to hell in a handcart, ideal circumstances, therefore, for a great leader to step up onto the podium and rouse us, stiffen our sinews and encourage us to imitate the actions of a tiger. But where is such a person in our hour of need?  

This book, with a distinct lack of Blair, Brown, Cameron or Clegg, presents us with some of history’s most powerful words from the ancient Greeks to Barack Obama.  To get the greatest benefit from the book however, the speeches must tickle your inner Olivier and be read out loud, otherwise the words lie flat and lifeless.  Choose your moment and location with care! 

The book includes speeches from Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Emmeline Pankhurst, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, JFK and Malcolm X to name a few.  It is impossible not to be moved, inspired, incensed or outraged by some of the messages within.  There are many examples of great speeches like Elizabeth I’s review of the army at Tilbury, full of passion and commitment as she vows “to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust”.  

Fast forward to Colonel Tim Collins addressing his troops as they awaited the order to advance in the Iraq war and we hear well-prepared but nonetheless effective and morale-boosting rhetoric including “if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.”  

Patrick Pearse, the Irish Nationalist, railed against the British at the graveside of a fellow patriot: “They have left us with our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree will never be at peace.”  

The great political lovers, Thatcher and Reagan feature too.  Maggie’s “the lady’s not for turning” performance and Ronnie’s “tear down this (Berlin) wall” showpiece give an indication of the bullishness of the 1980s.  

As the book’s title suggests, Martin Luther King’s great “dream’ rhetoric stills packs a punch. At the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, as he shouted out “Thank God, we are free at last”, the crowd would have walked through fire for him and with him. 

Nostalgia can be a major distortion today, but who would we follow without question in 2011?  Who commands our deepest trust and respect?  This book reminds us about past greatness and about the weaknesses of modern leadership in a world that is crying out for trustworthy politicians who really give a damn about the people.

Sunday, 17 May 2015


Here's a review I wrote about one of my favourite books published in the past couple of years. The review was published in Tribune magazine in 2011.

By Frank McLynn
Yale University Press
Product Details

From the outset, Frank McLynn states very clearly that Captain James Cook was the finest maritime explorer in the history of the world, not one of the finest but the finest without a doubt.  He had no apparent fear of the sea and was confident he could deal with the very worst the oceans could muster. His journey from very poor beginnings to being lauded as master of the seas is fascinating.  Cook was born in 1728 in Marton-in-Cleveland, North Yorkshire, to his labouring father James and mother Grace.  He was one of six siblings and survived them all.  McLynn speculates his way through young Cook’s childhood and education in Great Ayton, making assumptions about his demeanour and personality, and trying to fish around for tentative links to his eventual nautical career.  But he is probably right about Cook’s work ethic as a growing boy because he had little choice but to graft and earn money to contribute to the family coffers.  He was a shop assistant before becoming an apprentice merchant seaman, based in Whitby.  He stayed in the merchant navy for nine years and through his employer and acquaintances, absorbed Quaker influences that may well have shaped “his modesty, plainness, taciturnity, hatred of idleness and gossip, disbelief in a transcendent god, and general humourlessness.” His presence in coastal Whitby whetted his appetite for the sea and his apprenticeship gave him the opportunity to learn everything about ships including the functions of the sails and how to handle vessels in rough weather conditions.  The sea was his passport to better things, the only escape route for this ambitious young man born into poverty. 

After cutting his teeth on the Newcastle to London coal runs and various other merchant excursions, Cook decided to join the Royal Navy, convinced that it would satisfy his ambitious desire for adventure, power, status and money.  He was identified as a talented individual and steadily rose through the ranks, gaining more and more experience of ship-handling and crew management.  It is safe to say that he was not afraid to get his hands dirty.  He had an appetite for learning and absorbed surveying experience during the Seven Years War between Britain and France in North America, charting expertise along the Newfoundland coast and mathematical and astronomical knowledge as he studied to be the best seafaring leader he could be.  The book crochets along knitting facts, assumptions and guess work, sometimes drowning the story in avalanches of detail that do not necessarily tell us anything specific about Cook’s personal relationships, psychology, behaviour and emotions.  Frank McLynn shifts from conventional biography to historical perspective to sailor’s handbook with some skill while the reader moves from interesting and exhilarating episodes to more mundane, plodding passages describing technical matters to the nth degree.  But it is the extent of his travels that makes Cook such an admirable and interesting historical adventurer. 

His first major voyage of discovery, from 1768 to 1771, took him to Tahiti and presented the opportunity to chart New Zealand on the world map for the first time before sailing on to Australia, New Guinea and Java.  The second major voyage was for exploration of the South Seas and Antarctica from 1772 to 1775.  By this time, Cook had become the first man to circumnavigate the world in both directions. His third and last major voyage had the objectives of exploring more of the Pacific region.  He visited New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti and Christmas Island, before discovering what are now the Hawaiian Islands.  After exploring British Columbia and Alaska, Cook headed back to Hawaii where he was to die in a brutal skirmish along with members of his crew and opposing local warriors.  The fatal incident involved efforts to retrieve a stolen boat from Kealakekua Beach.  Cook, a non-swimmer, surprisingly for an accomplished seaman, was stranded (some say abandoned) on shore and was clubbed and stabbed to death, before being incinerated along with the other bodies.  Conflict and antagonism with the Hawaiians and his own men had contributed to the captain’s demise.  He was 51 years old.  The chapter “Tragedy on Kealakekekua Beach” is an example of how McLynn can write exciting, compelling narrative. 

Away from the sea, Cook’s personal life was not easy.  With his wife Elizabeth, they had six children, five sons and a daughter.  Cook was outlived by one son and by his wife who was 94 years old when she died.  Her home-based story would be an interesting complement to her husband’s seafaring career.  She would stay behind as housewife and mother, managing the home and bearing the emotional brunt of the tragic deaths of their children, while he could sail away and distance himself from domestic chores and traumas.

Captain Cook, amongst historians and descendants of the inhabitants of places he visited, divides opinion about his legacy.  McLynn discusses his reputation as supreme master of the seas but also, according to some of his critics, as an alleged  “evil white man”, racist, imperialist, man of violence, spreader of venereal disease and cynical killer.  His naval achievements are also called into question because much is made of his own involvement but little is written about the enormous amount of help and support he had from the Admiralty, the Royal Society, scientists, botanists, various other patrons and, of course, his officers and crews.  To some he is a monumental and model hero.  To others he is the villainous personification of British and capitalist arrogance.  On a recent trip to Whitby, I discovered that Captain Cook is also a tourist attraction with all that is good and noble about him on display for visitors from far and wide.  There is a grand statue of him looking out to sea.  On the day of my visit, I spotted a seagull on top of his head and liberal amounts of droppings on his face and shoulders, an illustration, perhaps, of this historical giant rightly standing tall and proud, yet attracting some derision from those who may acknowledge that he was indeed the finest maritime explorer ever, but that he had many personal and character flaws that deny him a perfect appraisal.  Frank McLynn has written a hefty book, one that requires patience to read and time to reflect.  It is a great biography of a fascinating and important life.

Friday, 15 May 2015


A Maverick Life: The Jack Kelly StoryTo look inside, go to Amazon

A Maverick Life: The Jack Kelly Story
Linda J Alexander

I'm glad Linda J Alexander wrote the Jack Kelly story.  He's a bit of a forgotten man in some ways.  I have been a fan of westerns since I was knee-high to a cornflakes box and I had the good sense to be born in the golden era of TV westerns in the late 50s/early 60s - Bronco, Cheyenne, Wagon Train, Laramie, etc and, the greatest of them all, Maverick.

The Jack Kelly/James Garner combo was terrific and even watching reruns as recently as last year, the magic is still there on screen.

Garner left the show and went on to a great career in films and TV.  Kelly stayed a bit longer, was eventually "let go", the show folded and he found himself trying hard to capitalise on his TV fame and popularity.  He balanced his working life between screen and theatre, eventually abandoning both for local politics.  After Maverick, he was a kind of go-to-guest-star for TV series.  I remember him fondly in a couple of The Rockford Files and an Alias Smith and Jones episode, amongst others.

The book charts his career very well and fills in a lot of details about his fascinating early showbiz-related upbringing and his often thwarted ambitions to be a big star.  James Garner, post-Maverick, moved forward.  Jack Kelly seemed to slip backwards, sadly.

There are lots of stories, insights and what sound like assumptions in his private life and, at times the book gets a little bogged down in domestic stuff.

But that's a minor gripe.  I loved Jack Kelly's work, his charm, his humour, his great voice and now I know a lot more about him, I am encouraged to seek out his films to remind myself of his CV.

Congratulations to Linda J Alexander on a great book and thanks for reminding us of this wonderful actor.

(Jack Kelly 16 September 1927 - 7 November 1992)