Category Archives: Books

World Book Night 2012

I have been lucky enough to be a giver for World Book Night twice now.

It’s the most amazing organisation based on a very simple but powerful idea.  Getting people passionate about books and reading to hand out books they love to spread the word……. reading is really fantastic.

Last year I was lucky enough to be a giver of Stuart:  A Life Backwards, a book very dear to me.  It makes for very tough reading in parts and I did worry that I was handing out a book that might have issues in it that “9 to 5ers” as Stuart himself called them might not be aware of/or want to think about. Stuart wanted his story told and managed to get his rather dry academic biographer (Alexander Masters) to turn his life into a real page turner, a thriller, like a Tom Clancy novel.  I felt very proud to be part of the first World Book Night and to continue to help pass this remarkable, often hilarious, sometimes very sad, story on to new readers.

This year I thought maybe I should try to go for something completely different and I was so happy to be chosen to give I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  A sweet charming tale of a girl growing up in England in the 1930s.   I arranged to give it to some of the girls at the high school I work at.  I did worry it might be too gentle for the Twilight Generation. (Although there is plenty of  longing in it for fans of Team Edward).  I hoped that no matter which decade you grew up in, there are certain universal themes that girls everywhere can relate to.

This year I was even brave enough to approach some strangers.  I worked out the best question to open with was “When was the last time you read a book?”  with a big smile on my face.  If the answer was “errr” and then a very long pause I knew I had a contender.

The books have generally been very well received.  I only had 3 knock backs.. and all my co-lunch time supervisors.   They are not interested in reading.  I wondered what it would take to reach them.  Ah well,  I thought you can’t please everyone, but I was surprised one wouldn’t even take it for her teenage daughter.

It is the most wonderful feeling to speak to someone who hasn’t read for a while and put a book in their hand, a completely altruistic gift.  Both years I have been overwhelmingly and very powerfully taken aback by the pleasure, the strength of feeling I received giving these books.  I thought it might be nice for someone to receive a free book, but I didn’t think I would feel the emotions too.

So I really want to thank the organisers for all their hard work.  I am so grateful to be part of something so unique and satisfying.  I hope this is an annual event for many years to come and that these books are sent off on long adventures and journeys, enjoyed by many, many new readers and that people come to love “to lose (their) thoughts in other men’s minds” just as Charles Lamb once described so wonderfully and accurately when he was asked what he enjoyed about reading.

Obesity: A Taxing Problem

Whilst I was on holiday I caught a  snippet of news, the report in The Lancet urging Governments to tax junk food.  I also heard someone, probably from a food manufacturer or one of their lobbyists saying that taxation wouldn’t work.

My blood was boiling.  I consider some of those food manufacturers akin to drug dealers, pushing high fat, high sugar, high salt foods onto us, getting us hooked and making BILLIONS out of our misery.

If you disagree or think these are claims  are too strong, or that I am over stating the case then I suggest you read The End of Overeating by David A Kessler MD and then let me know what you think.

David Kessler has worked in US Public Health Administration for many years and holds many honours for his work.  He stood up to the US tobacco industry and introduced many programmes including the regulation of marketing and sale of tobacco products to children.  He has also introduced nutrition labelling for food.

In his book The End of Overeating Kessler looks at the reasons why we are now in the midst of this obesity crisis.

Putting it very simply junk food manufacturers know about the bliss point, a point where we get the greatest pleasure from a mixture of sugar, fat and salt.   They are actively engaged in creating foodstuffs that hit the bliss point, making their products irresistible.  “Irresistible Products”.  This is the holy grail for companies such as Doritos, they ensure a high degree of “repeat”, customers will keep coming back and buying again and again.

If this wasn’t bad enough, Kessler also explains how eating more sugar, fat and salt makes us crave more products with higher levels of sugar, fat and salt.  This is known as “palatability” and it’s this hyperpalatability that we are being bombarded with from all directions, from fast food outlets to crisps, chocolates, cookies, biscuits and cakes, that makes us put food into our mouths long after our calorific needs are satisfied.

And worst of all over time, the stimulus and reward of these foods changes the brain chemistry, we are driven by dopamine to seek out the reward of the food, even when we only see “cues” such as an advert or pass a restaurant or shop, despite not actually being hungry.  The brain starts to rewire itself and will work very very hard to get the food that it “wants”, even when it doesn’t need it.  This was the most scary bit of the book for me.  To think that children might be having their brains rewired, leading to a life time of battling with food.  It also made those free giveaways at McDonald’s even more sinister: Children are being “rewarded” twice, once by the food and then reinforced by the toy.

You don’t even want to know what is said about KFC, put it this way that secret recipe is the perfect vehicle for getting even more fat and salt down us.

There is information about how the food industry tries to make the food easier to chew (inject more fat into it).  Easier to chew means we eat faster and therefore will eat more (which of course equals more profits for the companies and bigger bodies for us).  How Food has become Entertainment, and the Power of Priming, how sometimes just a taste of a food is enough to trigger over-eating even when we are not remotely hungry.

It is an educational, sobering, and at times a frightening read.

Kessler does offer solutions, and says we need to look at our conditioned hypereating as a biological challenge not a character flaw.  Effective treatment which will break the “cue, urge, reward” habit cycle at the core of the problem.  We need to look at food in a whole new way.

I have only very briefly outlined a 300+ page book, but I urge anyone to read it and not be so angry that we have allowed the junk food industry to grow so unchallenged, leaving us with a ticking time bomb health issue.  There are of course other issues and solutions but The End of Overeating tackles a very important area that is not being given nearly enough attention ie the role and responsibility of the food industry.

I really hope that the Government will  look at this obesity crisis without self-interested pressure from the junk food manufacturers.  We need to get tougher on this industry: Tax their products like cigarettes have been; Get much tougher on all tv advertising aimed at children, not just around children’s programmes; Stop the portion sizes rising ever larger; Cut back even more on the salt, fat and sugar in refined foods.

I imagine like the tobacco industry the junk food industry will have very powerful lobbyists protecting their profits.  But this is money that is literally being made from the fat of the land, from every packet of crisps they make more irresistible,”once you start, you just can’t stop”, from every super-sized chocolate product out of all proportion of need or appetite, a child is being potentially being condemned to a lifetime of obesity and health problems.  And if that isn’t immoral I don’t know what is.

One Day

One of my very favourite books of the past few years is about to be released as a major motion picture.

One Day is the story of Emma and Dexter, friends from university, we chart their lives from the point of one day every year, St Swithin’s Day, 15 July.

They first meet in 1988, and as I read the book I realised I must be the same age at Emma and Dexter, their social histories so chimed so accurately with mine, it was uncanny. Even the songs mentioned from each year had special memories for me. The 90s in particular were staggeringly accurate. I could I have been a character in the book, so precisely similar were the social and political events. I have never read a book like it before.

I would urge anyone to read it, first before the film comes out, it is a wonderful, tender, clever, funny and heartbreaking honest story about life and how we relate to our friends and loved ones.

So when a book is this treasured, it is always a gamble when the film comes out. David Nicholls, the author, is someone  I have loved since he wrote for Cold Feet.  I have watched out for any his work.  He wrote a couple of excellent one-off dramas with Fay Ripley including I Saw You, and an absolutely hilarious Shakespeare- Re-Told, Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice (Sarah Parish) and Benedick (Damien Lewis) were regional news anchors. It was pitch perfect.

He has also form in adapting his own work for the big screen.  His wonderful, witty, and often laugh out loud funny coming of age comedy, Starter For Ten was made also into a film and he also wrote the screenplay for that too.  If you haven’t read the book or seen that film, I can definitely recommend both.  The “hero” of the story Brian, is leaving a provincial town to go to university and is very unworldly to say the least. His horizons broaden considerably, rapidly and sometimes very painfully especially when he attempts to join the University Challenge Team.  The film is just as good as the book.  The cast is incredible and contains the cream of current British acting crop, such as James McAvoy, (Atonement, Last King of Scotland, X-Men First Class) Rebecca Hall, (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon) Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia, The Duchess), James Corden (everything recently!), Alice Eve, (SATC II) Benedict Cumberbatch, (Sherlock to name just one!!) all in fairly early roles in their careers

So this brings me quite neatly onto my dilemma, my feelings of reticence about the film, One Day.  It has been adapted by David Nicholls, (I have heard him say that he wouldn’t let anyone else cut his work) so I feel secure that he will do a wonderful job.  Jim Sturgess, IS Dexter, the casting there is perfect.  He has the right combination of cheeky lad and arrogance with the potential for more.  And without invoking spoilers I feel very secure that Jodie Whittaker, Rafe Spall, Romola Garai will also be perfect in their roles.

No my feelings of reservations are for Anne Hathaway.  I don’t even mind that she is American, Hamster girl, Rene Zelliweger owned Bridget Jones, I can’t imagine anyone could have played that British girl better than her.  No my feelings about Anne Hathaway are that Emma in One Day, was BLONDE, sort of average looking and from LEEDS.  Yes from Leeds.  I understand Anne Hathaway studiously worked at her northern accent, but she is a Hollywood superstar.  No matter how they they try to dumb her looks down, she is still staggeringly beautiful and (again without spoilers) this misses a very vital and important part at the heart of the novel. Every time I look at the publicity for the film, I am hearing Nooooooooo in my head.   This isn’t right and it is making me not want to see the film.

I know I shouldn’t care too much, but when I read the Time Travelers Wife, (another treasured book) all I could see was Rachel McAdams as Claire Abshire, and it was very exciting when she was indeed cast in the role.

Ah well, I will have to wait and see, maybe I should pluck up the courage and go and see the film but every time I look at Anne’s Emma I can’t bear it, and that is no way to feel about anything you have loved.

Here’s the trailer, judge for yourself and let me know what you think…..

Oranges and Sunshine

I have just finished reading Oranges and Sunshine. It was a deeply shocking book.

It’s the true story of one very remarkable woman, Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham, and her fight to reunite families divided by time and distance.

This is the story of the Child Migrants.  In the post war period  up to 10,000 children were removed from children’s homes up and down the UK  and sent to the furthest reaches of the Commonwealth, particularly Australia.  Often these children were taken without parental consent, transported abroad believing they would be adopted by families in Australia and ride to school on horseback and pick fruit from the trees.  On arrival  they discovered the reality.  They were to live in ill-equipped institutions out in the bush, in blistering heat.  They became a commodity – cheap building labour, domestic servants or farm hands.

Many of the children were told their parents were dead, that no one wanted them in the UK.   They were not given their birth certificates and often given false family information so that tracking down their parents would be almost impossible.

Margaret Humphreys worked tirelessly, with very little money and scant help from Governments or the charities who sent the children overseas in the first place.  The book looks at the issues of family and identity, showing how emotionally devastating it was for these children not to have any social history.  Many of whom spent 40 years wondering what they did so wrong that the country of their birth did not want them.  Rootless throughout their lives, they never felt Australian, never had a passport.   One migrant talked about the deep sense of shame when she got married that she didn’t have a birth certificate.  The youngest children were only five years old when they set sail from Britain, and sadly children sent to the Christian Brothers, part of the Catholic Church were also sexually abused.

It is shocking to think that these practices continued up until 1970, and even more shocking that the Establishment did not acknowledge these crimes until  24th February 2010, when Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised on behalf of the British Government.

Margaret Humphreys first started her campaign in 1986, a time before the internet, when to research birth certificates  she would have to go to St Catherine’s House in London.  She physically searched through the millions of individual records, knowing that time wasn’t on her side.  The parents of migrant children were now elderly and there was immense pressure to reunite families before the parents died.  In many many cases she did, but there were also many cases where time just ran out.

Margaret Humphries has now been honoured by both the British and Australian governments.  Jim Loach (son of Ken, himself a leading light in social realism films), has recently directed a movie version of ‘Oranges and Sunshine’, about her life and work.  I am so glad that her relentless fight for these abandoned children has been recognised.   I hope the reissue of the book and now the film will bring greater prominence to the cause.

The word HERO is banded about too easily this days but after reading her book, there is no doubt in my mind that Margaret Humphreys is exactly that.  A true hero.

Child Migrants Trust Website