The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – review

Cuckoo's Calling, with alternative cover art.

Cuckoo’s Calling, with alternative cover art.

John Kenneth (JK) Galbraith was a Canadian and American economist, public official, and diplomat, and a leading proponent of 20th-century American liberalism.

JK Rowling is the well-known author of children’s fiction.

Ro(bert) Galbraith is the pseudonym chosen by Rowling to publish a series of pleasingly old-fashioned detective novels. This is the first.

At first, I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. Descriptions of the familiar wreckage of the Crossrail building works at the end of Tottenham Court Road? An office in Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street)? An unwanted temporary secretary who turns out to be frighteningly competent? A down-at-heel (down one heel, anyway) detective who mostly handles divorces but finds himself investigating a murder?

Check, check, check. After a while, you just go with it. It’s fun. She’s having fun. He’s down at heel, you say? Correct. He’s so down at heel, he has to wear a prosthetic leg. Boom-tish.

I started reading this on the weekend that Peaches Geldof died. The story concerns a supermodel who has died of an apparent suicide. There’s a feeding frenzy in the press, everyone poring over pictures of her. Phones were hacked. It was quite disconcertingly real, given the familiar London settings.

I’ve never read any Harry Potter. But I like a good detective novel, and what I like about this is that it’s unashamedly in love with the genre. Detectives are unlucky in love, hopeless at relationships, damaged, but still better than the sweaty doughnut munchers who miss all the clues and don’t investigate properly.

I’m not going to blast this for being clichéd, because it’s too much fun. And what Galbraith/Rowling has obviously spotted is that nobody does this kind of thing anymore. A good old-fashioned yarn, featuring a detective with an office, and a secretary, a pile of pot noodles, and a camp bed in the corner.

This is the antidote to the fashion for the doom-laden grimness of Scandi-noir. Very enjoyable.

Now TV Box and Entertainment Month Pass

Springsteen DVD included for scale!

Springsteen DVD included for scale!

You may have seen this advertised interminably on Pick TV, if, like me, you’ve been watching the re-runs of Futurama and/or Stargate Atlantis etc.

NowTV is Sky’s version of internet TV, offering a way of getting Sky content without a long-term contract or satellite dish or Sky+ box. The current introductory price for a NowTV Entertainment Month Pass is £4.99.

You can buy the pass and watch on a tablet or laptop, and you can also purchase (for just under a tenner) the NowTV Box, which is smaller, even, than the Apple TV box. It connects to an HDMI port on your TV, and your wireless network.

I’ve been wanting to sample Game of Thrones, among some other things. Pick have shown a few GoT episodes. I thought it looked all right, and at least had some interesting female characters. But I wasn’t interested enough to spend £55 on a Blu-Ray boxed set. Neither was I interested enough to pay £1.80 something per episode on Amazon’s streaming video service.

It occurred to me that with the current offer, NowTV is probably the cheapest way to watch GoT without committing yourself too much. For £35, I bought the box and a 6-month pass, which should give me plenty of time to plough through it. As others have pointed out, the box is a bargain, as it ships with an HDMI cable, which would cost you close to a tenner, or even more, if you were foolish enough to buy one at high street prices.

It arrived promptly, and was dead easy to set up. I must say, shipping the thing with the HDMI cable in the box takes a lot of hassle out of the situation. Sure, it’s a bit of a pain entering passwords and user names using the arrows on a remote control, but it was glitch free. Once up and running, it’s extremely efficient, getting to the Home screen and loading content much more quickly than any other internet content through my Sony TV and Blu-Ray.

Video quality may be an issue for some. I’ve read reviews that the live sport streams (paid for separately, a much more expensively) are a bit ropey. For me, 720p content is absolutely fine. You have to remember that most of the content being broadcast on Freeview is Standard Definition anyway. Most of the stuff I’ve got sitting on my shelves is SD (on DVD), and so 720p is already better. Anyway, if GoT was to be shown on Pick (or Five, if Sky/Discovery end up buying it), it would be shown in SD.

I’m inclined to only work with 720p on my own account, and I’ve always wondered why people are obsessed with 1080p, which only hogs more bandwidth and disc space than it really needs to. How clearly do you want to be able to see peoples’ chicken pox scars, anyway?

As to the service itself, be aware that only some Sky content is available from the beginning. Game of Thrones can be watched from the beginning of Season 1, but The Blacklist, which also interests me, perhaps because it’s still being broadcast, is only available on a Catch-up basis, which means, the most recent few episodes. I guess it depends whether Sky own the repeat rights, or something. With GoT, I would guess its availability is a sign that it won’t be available on a Freeview channel any time soon. Whereas The Blacklist? Maybe it will turn up on Four or Five at some point? Who knows. Anyway, I’ll watch what I can, and in six months I’ll decide whether to cancel the pass before paying for any more content.

(As well as Sky content, you can access iPlayer, 4oD, Demand Five, and other channels, including Vevo music videos.)

You have the option of buying passes for Movies and Sport, but (as indicated above), these cost more. I’ve got very little interest in either.

Reading something I wrote four years ago


I wonder if many other people, specifically writers, have ever done this?

I did a NaNoWriMo a few years ago, 2009, and got winner goodies such as the CreateSpace code, the one that allows you to get a copy of your book printed through Amazon’s self-punishing publishing platform for physical goods. It was just a proof, but I spent some time designing the book’s contents and covers. It may have been the last time I used my old Adobe Creative Suite applications, the ones that were mellowing on my old iMac, the one I recently smashed up and took to the recycling centre. So I think I designed the book in InDesign and Illustrator, complete with drop caps and other fancy-pants details.

And I got one copy printed. What I intended to do was go through it looking for the kind of errors you don’t spot on a screen. But something happened, and I didn’t get around to it.

What happened? Sometimes work takes over, gets too intense for any side projects, might have been that. Or it might have been my usual writing pattern: I decided quite quickly that it wasn’t any good. So I put it on the shelf and forgot about it.

I recently finished another NaNo project, and went all the way, this time to kindle publication, and it’s even available in print-on-demand paperback. All of which prompted me to pick up my single copy of The Obald and start reading it.

I honestly expected to discover that it was as awful as I thought it was, and to quickly lose interest. 273 pages into it, and I’ve abandoned what I had been reading (“Robert Galbraith’s” The Cuckoo’s Calling, since you ask) and I’ve been really enjoying it. Embarrassing as it is to trump your own blowhole, it’s actually pretty good. The nice thing is how much of it I’ve forgotten.

The Obald has a long history, in truth. I first wrote a version of it in 1983. It was, then, my second or third novel. I was 20 years old. It followed the usual pattern: initial enthusiasm from me; initial rejection from the first couple of publishers I approached; dejection; abandonment.

I take no for an answer maybe up to three times, then I give up. No stamina, no staying power, no gumption. Fragile ego, call it what you will. I’ve called myself on it many times over the years. I simply lose belief in what I’ve written. It was actually a work of great imagination, then. There were ideas in it that turned up elsewhere, not stolen from me, but in the Great Minds Thinking Alike run of things.

Anyway, thinking about it years later, as I prepared for NaNoWriMo, I thought of how a lot of the ideas in it had (sort of) come to pass. The first was written at the height of Thatcher’s powers, after her Falklands triumph, at a time of high paranoia and social division. I wondered how I might write it differently, now. In between times, I’d taken part of the story and written a short story (published in the late Slow Dancer magazine). And then I turned part of that into a poem, which quickly became a song (long gone).

It was an idea that wouldn’t die, so I wrote it again. This time I did it in two halves: the first set in a version of 1983, the second in a version of 2013.

Reading it again today, it’s clear that it doesn’t deserve to die. So I’m planning to do something with it. When I’ve finished reading it: I’ve forgotten how it ends. Here’s the blurb:

‘You’ve got to stop using the phone,’ she said.

‘Sorry. Last time. I need to get in touch with our friend. Can you pass a message?’

‘I’m going to London with her tonight.’

‘What? Why?’

‘I’m going to show her where I think it is,’ she hissed.

It’s 1983, and Culture Club are in the charts. Somewhere beneath London, an unnamed government department is beginning to use a computer database to keep tabs on domestic extremists.

Near Geneva, work has started on the 27 kilometre tunnel which will eventually house the Large Hadron Collider. Protesters against Cruise and Polaris missiles are mobilising around Europe. As NATO undertakes a military exercise, Soviet Nuclear weapons are pointed at the West.

Meanwhile, a young woman who doesn’t belong is trying to help her father prevent climate catastrophe.

Ronnie Collins tries to fly under the radar. All he wants from his job is a payslip at the end of the month and no hassle. He has enough trouble trying to sort out his sort-of relationship with his sort-of girlfriend without worrying about the mysterious and attractive person across the street and what she’s up to.

Martina McBride: Everlasting (review)

EverlastingI missed Martina McBride’s appearance at the recent Country to Country festival at the O2 in London – I’d decided not to buy tickets on the basis that there were too many male artists, and anyway, Ms McBride should have been headlining for chrissake.

A few years ago, Martina released a collection of country classics, Timeless, on which I wasn’t keen. She has a great voice, but the material wasn’t my kind of thing. I actually prefer the country music of Martina’s era.

A few albums later and she’s back with Everlasting, which this time is a collection of classic pop-soul numbers mainly from the 1960s. These were originally recorded by the likes of Aretha, Sam Cooke, Jimmy Ruffin, The Supremes, Otis Redding, and the Teddy Bears. For many, those who prize the originals above all else, it’s simply sacrilege to even attempt to cover these. But there’s no need for an either/or construction (as ever). You can have both, and why not?

Ms McBride has a powerful, clear voice, which has mostly been applied to the country genre, but here she proves she can do blue eyed soul with the best of them. The arrangements are fairly straightforward, but she makes each song her own, and the production (Don Was) is top notch. Her “Suspicious Minds” is performed at a slower tempo than Elvis’ (or Dwight Yoakam’s), but it works. Perhaps my favourite is her fairly straight take on “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.”

The iTunes bonus tracks are Sade’s “By Your Side” and P!nk’s “Perfect” (with cleaned up lyrics).

This is a corking set that will likely introduce some people to some 50-year-old classics, which is no bad thing.

Chapeau Mistral Jacket Review

velo_003002-w600 velo_002001-w600I bought this mid-weight jacket because I needed an extra layer for colder days. It’s not the sort of thing I’ll need in France in the summer, but it will certainly see use early and late in the season in the UK.

It’s quite thick fabric (they call it ecorepel®) which is designed to repel water and dirt — useful on my routes, which still feature the odd road-wide puddles caused by field run-off, not to mention the tons of dirt left on the road by farm machinery. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to wear on a very warm day. The fabric feels quite coarse and inflexible to touch, but is soft on the inside and actually quite stretchy. It feels thicker, but (unlike a rain jacket), it’s breathable, which means you shouldn’t overheat.

I went for the XXL size, and although this means the sleeves are on the long side, it felt like the right decision. It’s nice and long at the back, which I like, and it offers extra protection from splashes and spray. I also like the diagonal zip and the colour, rust, which is a good match for my black and orange bike. It’s a really nice looking jacket, I think. Made in Portugal.

Today was around 14°, probably getting towards the upper end of the temperature range for this kind of thing, but it was windy and mostly cloudy, with a few spits and spots of rain at the beginning of my ride. I wore a Helly Hansen base layer, a summer weight Decathlon jersey (from completely the other end of the price range: it cost me just €9 last summer), and then this jacket on the top. It was fine. I didn’t overheat, and I didn’t feel as if I was too bulked up.

I’ve been ill (end-of-term-itis, a cold virus brought on by stress and the arrival of a holiday — common to teachers everywhere), so it was touch and go as to whether I’d go out. While I have to stay at home at Easter to mark coursework, I was really hoping to get in some miles in the holiday, to regain some fitness and start enjoying my new bike more. So it has been a frustrating beginning to the holiday. Rain, wind, and the virus, coughing my guts up all night a couple of nights ago, and knocking myself out with some please-make-me-drowsy cough medicine last night. This morning, I was still coughing, but my chest didn’t feel as tight.

So I risked it. There’s always a danger you’re going to give yourself a relapse, but I felt the air was warm enough not to cause problems, and I had no intention of pushing it, so I wasn’t breathing too deeply anyway. I went for “fat burner” pace. I felt all right for a couple of miles, and then my legs felt kinda weak the rest of the time, probably because of the virus.

There was no need to carry anything in the jacket’s copious pockets, but for longer rides, it will certainly be useful: there’s a waterproof zip pocket for keys/valuables, if needed, and three other pockets for gels, and your pump, if you’re that way inclined. There’s some reflective piping around the zip pocket.

So I was all Chapeau-ed up today, wearing the bib shorts I reviewed a while ago. No problems with the saddle today (Charge Spoon wins). My aches and pains in order of botheration: left hip; low back; right foot. That the foot was the least of my problems today was something of a breakthrough.

I’ve got my eye on Friday afternoon for the next outing. Here’s hoping.

Wesco pepper grinder

photoI have never once been satisfied with a pepper mill. I was so disillusioned with them that I have been relying on a pestle and mortar for a couple of years. I can confirm, however, that when you need a pinch of pepper in a hurry, this system is a pain in the arse.

Pepper grinders have a number of issues. Wear and tear is a problem. The wooden kind are especially prone to cracking or breaking when dropped, and repeated opening and closing can cause wear. The very act of using it creates fatal wear and tear. Stainless steel models tend to be ugly, and the battery powered electric models are overpriced and not very good. I reserve special disdain for the over-sized pepper mill, which might make sense in a restaurant, but not elsewhere.  All I’ve tried tend to be fiddly to fill, and the grinding underside tends to get clogged up, vulnerable as it is to the humid atmosphere of the kitchen. The worst sin, in my eyes, is the anaemic quantity of pepper produced when you grind. I don’t want to stand grinding away for ages to get the amount I need.

In France, in my favoured equipment porn shop, Ambence et Styles, they charge a fortune for pepper grinders – probably because they can get away with it. Like many of life’s purchasing decisions, you really want to try one of these things for quite a long while before committing yourself. Bicycle saddles. Shoes. It wasn’t so much that I objected to the price, but I wanted to understand why. Why, for example, is a pepper grinder at €60 better than one from the supermarket that costs €7 (I did in fact get one for that price in Cora last year, which is okay)?

I’ve occasionally gone for the option of buying peppercorns with a grinder built into the lid of the jar. These tend to last long enough, and yet it seems so wasteful to throw it away when it inevitably stops working efficiently.

Clearly, as with coffee grinders, ceramic is the key material. This Wesco grinder from John Lewis has ceramic grinders and what they call CrushGrind technology. It also has a metal body in a range of pleasant colours, which covers a glass interior. I love the looks, and chose mint, mainly because I want to get away from the tyranny of having kitchen appliances in matching colours. We’re all over the place, which is how I want it.

Easy to fill, you screw the metal body over the top and store it, unusually with the grinder pointing upwards, with a plastic cap to protect it from spills and humidity. It’s heavy, even when empty, and has a pleasing heft. The grinder is adjustable – from coarse to fine – and a few twists produces a pleasing quantity of pepper.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre – Review

a-spy-among-friends-lst133169Kim Philby was the Charles Foster Kane of spies: a labyrinth without a centre, a simulacrum of a human being, all reflection and no original.

You’d think there was nothing new to be said about all this, but this book (and linked documentary) has a fair crack at it. As time goes by, more and more of the once-too-secret stuff is revealed. It was only in the 80s that Thatch revealed Blunt as the 4th Man in the Cambridge spy ring, and back then none of the damage Philby did was really in the public domain. Make no mistake: Philby arranged for lots of people to be killed, hundreds of them. So is there anything new to add?

In this case, there’s a recording of the time Philby was “braced” by his friend Nicholas Elliott in a Beirut hotel room. The game was up, the gaff was blown, and a few days later, Philby faded away to Moscow. From the base of this recorded conversation, and the long-term friendship it ended, Macintyre retells the story of Philby. In this version, Burgess and Maclean are peripheral characters, Blunt barely registers, and the fifth man makes no appearance. But there are familiar characters: Otto (Arnold Deutsch), the recruiter; Theo Maly, the agent runner (who was summoned back to Moscow to be purged, knew it, and still went); Litzi Friedmann, the first Mrs Philby, and so on.

The Profumo affair of 1963, the Chatterly Trial, the Beatles’ first LP, all that, are our familiar landmarks on the road to the destruction of the British establishment—but for sheer embarrassment, there is nothing like the head of Soviet counterintelligence turning out to be a Soviet spy. And how did he get away with it? Because he went to a posh school and a top university, Philby was considered to be above reproach (as were Burgess and Maclean). Even when Maclean (Homer) was exposed, and escorted to Moscow by Burgess who just a few days before had been staying with Philby in Washington, DC, — even then, Philby was able to stammer through the interrogations and convince the other chaps in the Service that he was innocent. “I know his people.”

MI5 are characterised here as chippy professional types (“players” in cricketing terms) as opposed to the “gentlemen” of MI6. MI5 were convinced of Philby’s guilt, seeing through his clubbable façade, but were thwarted at every turn by the Sixers, even up to the end. Whereas Five wanted to nail him and put him on trial (surely he would have hanged for seeing to the deaths of so many), Six were more inclined to offer him a deal and then let him escape, by conspicuously not watching him or his Beirut flat, even after he had confessed.

(Theory: if Elliott had handed Philby a loaded pistol, with an admonition to “do the right thing,” suspect Philby would have shot Elliott.)

How serious was all this? Thanks to Philby, the Soviets were able to round up and execute all of the non-communist anti-Nazi networks in Eastern Germany. This meant that the potential opposition to communist rule in Germany was filleted. Anti-Soviet fighters sent, Bay-of-Pigs style, into other Communist bloc countries such as Albania were immediately caught, and their friends and families rounded up and executed. The post-war history of Europe was shaped by these events, and the anti-Soviet resistance was fatally weakened. Philby passed on everything. His friendship with James Jesus Angleton of the CIA gave him access to American secrets and operational details. Angleton became so paranoid after Philby was exposed that he did untold damage to the inner culture of the CIA.

The damage done to the British establishment was also fatal. They lost their legitimacy, they lost the respect of the public, and at the end of the 60s, Murdoch moved in for the kill. Of course, they’re still there, in their hollowed-out way, the red-faced public school Oxbridge boys (mostly boys), but they’re mere hand puppets for the corporations, aren’t they? And they no longer feel that their privilege and upbringing makes them destined for public service: they’re in it for the money. It’s a fine difference, the difference between seeing yourself at the top but still part of a society and the difference between seeing yourself at the top and not connected to society.

The key message of the Philby affair should be that the British people have nothing to lose by getting rid of these people. They’re not smarter, they’re not better, they don’t deserve to be and cannot be trusted to be in charge of anything. And as to all that secrecy, it turns out that most of it was kept secret simply to avoid embarrassment. No threat to national security (which was already damaged): just red faces all round, so let’s avoid a scandal.

The book has a couple of extra goodies: an Afterword by John Le Carré, which is a lot more than just a paragraph or two – it’s a quite detailed transcription of Le Carré’s own conversations with Elliott; and a collection of fascinating photographs. There’s nothing quite like staring into the eyes of people who were involved in significant historic events. One person you don’t see pictured, however, is Konstantin Volkov, the Soviet diplomat defector who, along with his wife, was betrayed by Philby, spirited back to Moscow wrapped in bandages, and erased from history (along with his family and that of his wife).