Day Four

Important milestone to log at the start of Day Four: I finished reading one of my books last night before bed. The Kennedys by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, first published in 1984, which means the saga ends just as David Kennedy dies. He was one of Robert Kennedy’s 11 kids. (Did you know the Kennedys were Catholic?) It’s been a rip-roaring read and I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in Camelot but doesn’t necessarily want to read lots of conspiracy theories about who shot JFK and RFK. It’s about the family, first and foremost, and the effect the deaths had on the family are what Collier and Horowitz are interested in.

Before the day begins, I am up very early and uploading a few CDs onto my laptop which I have managed to get from 6 Music: Submarine EP by Alex Turner, Grinderman 2 by Grinderman and Witchhazel by Matt Berry (I’m meeting him later when he guests on Roundtable).

Now I have to stop writing this and start writing a) five Films Of The Day for Radio Times (I usually split these duties with Barry Norman, but he’s been pressed into service memorialising Elizabeth Taylor, so I’m doing his), and b) some jokes for 7 Day Sunday. These must all be done and delivered by lunchtime. It’s another of those days where I split my day fairly evenly between writing and talking. These are the two main things that I do for money.

Please note, whoever it was who said they found this week of blog entries “creepy” and foreboding – possibly because of my black t-shirts – that I am wearing a bright green stripy top today.

Phew. I’ve been out and about a lot this week, with no clear days, so have only passed through the British Library sporadically and for short shifts. I completed the five Films Of The Day for Radio Times before I left the house: for the record, Wanted, Donnie Darko, Just Friends, The Kingdom and High School Musical 3, as we aim to please a wide audience with our choices and terrestrial premieres are automatically shunted to the top of the pile, for self-evident reasons of public service. If I have my own reservations about any of the choices, I am allowed to express them, and I made clear that you have to be child of a certain age to enjoy High School Musical, and I am not a child.

I sent my Radio Times copy through at 08.57 and travelled up to King’s Cross to write all my topical gags for 7 Day Sunday at the Library, sending those through, completed, at 11.24, and that’s my urgent work done. Incidentally, I seem to have been having more success logging on to the Library’s free wi-fi this week – it has been playing me up since before Christmas and despite their best efforts, the dedicated IT Support people couldn’t crack the reason why. Maybe they have fixed something at their end using all the information I gave them, including my AirPort ID number. It’s still not 100% efficient, but after that nightmare patch during which I couldn’t even log in and was forced instead to resentfully use up the monthly capacity of my dongle, I’m grateful for anything.

That said, I couldn’t get a network at all when I needed to send off my work, so I was forced into Costa in St Pancras (the station itself, paradise that it is, has free wi-fi). Here, I cashed in the chips on my loyalty swipe card for a £2.45 medium soya latte – unlike the other chains, they do not charge extra for soya – and completed my business. I can’t work out if it’s the Library or my ageing MacBook that’s the problem, but if the AirPort picks up St Pancras wi-fi instantly, it can’t be me, can it? I found myself at the centre of an uninvited commotion in Costa when, having picked up my coffee and paid, the metal rack where they display some cakes fell off the counter and onto me. It crashed to the floor, and I heard myself exclaim, “Fuck!” It must have been pretty precariously balanced to fall off the counter, but my first thought was to apologise to those in the queue behind me for saying, “Fuck!” “Sorry for swearing,” I said, which I hope was appreciated.

The Costa staff, whose rapid response was admirable, asked me if I was OK. I was OK. I was more worried about a) swearing in mixed company, and b) the wasted cakes. Maybe they put them back in the booby-trapped display rack and sold them. They were certainly picked up within the boundaries of the Five Second Rule.

Anyway, here’s a picture of me in the Piazza outside the British Library to calm me, and you, down.

(If you look in the bottom left-hand corner behind the woman’s head, you can just make out one of the seven yellow signs that read CAUTION: STEPS.)

Another achievement: yesterday, I finished reading almost every word of last week’s New Yorker, which included a great expanded book review about Major General William “Wild Bill” Donovan who was put in charge of America’s Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War, a lyrical overview of Abbas Kiarostami’s films, a hilarious memoir by Tina Fey about her time as head writer on Saturday Night Live, a review of a New York revival of Jason Miller’s play That Championship Season and a nice piece about the father of gerontology, G Stanley Hall. Add that to the BP oil spill epic and you’ve got what counts as a vintage issue of the magazine. I don’t usually read all of it. The new issue has arrived to replace it, and there’s one piece I fancied on first flick through, something about writer’s block in Hollywood. Could be a bit heavy with roughage, this one. We’ll see.

My next stop is a studio in Central London where Mr Blue Sky is being edited, and where the new scene I have written will be recorded. Enjoying the Grinderman album, by the way.

I’m so 20th century

There are not enough hours in the day, as the band Gomez noted. I am a voracious reader. I am also self-employed. These two truths do not rub along too easily together. I am one of those people – not rare – who always has more than one book on the go, a couple at home, one in my bag for public transport. At the moment I have three books on the go that I wish I had more time to read. I’d like a week off work so that I could concentrate on one and finish it. Then I could add a new one to the carousel and not get enough time to read that. When you are self-employed, you become very conscious of not working. (Word recently gave me two books to read and review, which means reading and working – Nileism by Allan Brown and The Celestial Café by Stuart Murdoch – so I put my leisuretime books on hold and read those.) My other problem is that I tend to pick big, fat books, which take up a lot of space in my bag which might be more usefully employed for a packed lunch.

My three books are, as pictured, Israel by Martin Gilbert (first published in 1998, but revised in 2008), The Kennedys: An American Drama by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (published in 1984), and When The Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett (published in 2009). The first, which I bought and started reading in 2009 after the three-week Gaza War and put aside when it was usurped by something a little easier, is back in circulation because of Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise on C4, which has not just reignited my interest in the troubled region, but underlined how little I know about its history. I aim to rectify that.

The second I bought in 1988 when I was co-writing a daft play about the assassination of JFK called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out. This was in the dark days before the internet, and the quickest way to “research” his shooting was to buy a book that covered it. I only read the assassination chapter at the time, and filed the book away for what turned out to be over 20 years. I plucked it from the bookshelf before Christmas after yet another documentary on TV about the Kennedys. Even though the family tree that’s helpfully supplied ends in 1984, at which point lot of Kennedys now dead were still alive, it’s their rise to prominence that I’m interested in and which is proving fascinating. It’s not just about trivia, but you’ll love this: in 1929 patriarch Joseph Kennedy made so many phonecalls to his lover Gloria Swanson that he had the highest personal phone bill in America for that year.

The third book is the easiest read of the three, although still unwieldy as I have it as a pre-publication advance proof, with a plain orange cover. Over Christmas and New Year, this was the book, and I was getting through its detailed political history of Britain in the 1970s at a rate of knots not seen since I rattled through the complete works of David Peace two years ago. (A rare excursion into fiction, although his novels are so rooted in history, they almost count as non-fiction.) When The Lights Went Out I would recommend to anyone who’s interested in the way we live now, since so much of the pain we’re feeling in 21st century Britain has its origins in what happened between the election of Heath in 1970 and the election Thatcher in 1979. It deserves finishing. I owe it that. I owe Andy Beckett that, for all his thorough research, and all the dying 70s politicians he interviewed in the process. But Sir Martin Gilbert, a historian who has written more books than most of us will read in a lifetime, has barged Beckett off the top of the pile. I will return to Britain in the 70s, of course, but for much of the foreseeable I’ll be at the birth of a nation in Palestine.

So, like some kind of time traveller limited to the 20th century, I’m currently in Britain in the 1970s circa the Social Contract, Palestine in the 1920s circa the Balfour Declaration, and Hyannis Port in the 1940s circa the death of “Young Joe” Kennedy in a disastrous American bombing raid called Operation Aphrodite. Each time I pick up a book, I have to reacclimatise to the era and the climate. What I observe about myself, with no forward planning about what I’m going to read next, is that I am clearly a 20th century man. I have spent the last 15 years educating myself. I was no good at history at school. I’m not sure it was as interesting at O-level in the 70s – my main memory was the Industrial Revolution: canals, looms, the Stockton-Darlington line – and I certainly struggled to engage with it. I failed O-level history. In fact I got a “U” grade, which isn’t a grade, as it stood for ungraded. So, in my thirties I returned to the subject and filled my shelves with history books. I even joined a history book club, which meant one new paperback a month. I read about the Reformation, and about the two World Wars, and about the Russian gulags, and the Vietnam war, and … actually, apart from the Reformation, you can start to spot a theme. I devoted myself to understanding the 20th century. I’m still at it.

History is so much more fun when you plan your own curriculum. I think researching my biography of Billy Bragg in 1997 – using books, as I was pre-dial-up – really concentrated my mind on getting to grips with the century we were then still living through. Not all history books are fun to read. Some are dry. Some, like John Keegan and Eric Hobsbawn, are not. I’ll be honest, Israel is fairly dry – which is apt, I guess, as the very inhospitability of the Arab soil lies at the heart of the Zionists’ story, of the physical struggle and determination to lay down roots in a foreign land they felt was theirs, and the century of trouble that led to – but I will persevere. I notice that Simon Sebag-Montifiore has a new book out called Jerusalem, and he’s a very readable historian, but that doesn’t fit in with my New Year’s Resolution, which I am determined to stick to: only read books I already own.

I will review all three books when I finish them. I can see in a secondary pile Robert Service’s biography of Lenin and a brilliant book about post-Communist Russia called The Oligarchs by David Hoffman, both of which I started and set aside when more pressing reads took over. I will return to those first. Because I already own them.