Andy and Don

Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, by Daniel De Vise

Simon & Schuster (2015), Kindle edition, 320 pages


As a kid, I was not much taken by the Andy Griffiths Show. For one thing it was in black & white, and we were too infatuated with colour (which only arrived in Australia in 1974). It was also more than a decade old by then, and had already been gone from American TV for most of my lifetime. It was also a show with lots of love but little action, and I preferred action shows like Westerns and cop shows, like most kids. But I did love the whistled theme, which is repeating in my head as I write. And the doings of Mayberry have somehow filtered into my consciousness without my realization, to the extent that I can effortlessly remember all the characters. This wonderful book, then, brings back a lot of memories, and is a timely inside look at one of the great comedic partnerships of TV. Andy Griffith and Don Knotts came from similar poor, rural, Southern backgrounds. Griffith was born into grinding poverty, and slept in a drawer for a part of his childhood. Knotts’ mother had a nervous breakdown after his birth, and he was abused by his alcoholic father. But both men were able to rise above their backgrounds, through the hard grind of local theatre, bit parts in films and TV, developing their comedic characters, Griffith as the honest, straight-talking Southern boy, Knotts as the nervous twitchy little man who had a genius for catastrophe. They first met on the set of No Time for Sergeants in 1958, and a lifelong partnership was formed. In 1960, after years of trying, Andy Griffith was given the green light for his own TV show. One of his first acts was to enlist Knotts to be his c0-star in the Andy Griffith Show. It was to be one of the most successful shows in TV history, running for 8 years, spawning several spin-offs and reunions, and enshrining both Griffith and Knotts in comedy’s hall of fame forever. De Vise delivers a warts and all depiction of Griffiths’ and Knotts’ parallel lives. Neither man was trouble-free off set. Griffiths had a towering temper, resented being upstaged, an carried grudges for a long time. Knotts was a compulsive hypochondriac, a heavy drinker and taker of prescription pills. Both men were womanizers and went through several marriages and numerous relationships each. None of this takes away from the majesty of their comic achievement, however, on set they were a perfect partnership. A lovely book that not only covers two men’s lives and their achievements, but also in passing the history of television itself. As I said, I have no great memory of the show itself, but its does bring back wonderful memories of watching TV in that era. A really enthralling and nostalgic read.


In Montmartre

In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris, 1900-1910, by Sue Roe

Penguin (2015), Paperback, 384 pages


Sometimes slow-moving, but wonderfully atmospheric account of Montmartre’s second coming as the centre of the art world. After the heyday of Impressionism in the 1870’s, at the turn of the century a new clique of ambitious young artists gathered among the seedy clubs, decrepit hovels and cramped cafes surrounding the storied hill on the Right Bank. The Moulin de la Galette, an authentic windmill as opposed to the ersatz Moulin Rouge, and much trendier, was the early meeting place for Picasso, Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain, Modigliani, who were all beginning their artistic careers, and still feeling their way through the post-Impressionist era. For a decade, formative strands of modern art swirled around the Bateau-Lavoir, a seedy garret where Picasso lived in squalor with his indolent mistress Fernande Olivier and tried to sell paintings, moving quickly through his Blue period, and his Rose Period, before moving into what Matisse had described in passing as “cubism.” Roe sets the book as a double act between Matisse and Picasso, the family man versus the womanising vagabond, but really Picasso steals the show. His “bande” (Vlaminck, Derain and Braque), as well as sundry hangers-on, swagger through the streets of Montmartre, drinking to excess, smoking opium, chopping and changing lovers  like they do their clothes. Out of this chaos comes the beginnings of modern art. Rose includes plenty of the non-artists who clung to the art cabal, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Guillame Appollinaire, Maurice Utrillo and Suzanne Valadon. Roe evokes the atmosphere of Belle Epoque Paris perfectly, you can practically see the dancers in the nightclubs, smell the absinthe, watch the inebriated artists stumble back to their garrets at dawn. A wonderful book, full of lovely anecdotes, for anyone who loves art, or anyone who just loves people-watching. Highly recommended.



The Murder Road

The Murder Road, by Stephen Booth

Sphere (2016), Paperback, 496 pages


I have heard Booth’s long running series described as the anti-Midsomer Murders, and there’s certainly some truth to that. Instead of Midsomer’s pretty countryside, twee villages and charming eccentric characters, Booth offers the bleakness of the Peak District, small huddled villages and ugly towns, and sullen, troubled  characters with dark secrets. In this installment, Ben Cooper is called on to investigate the murder of a truck driver after his vehicle becomes stuck under a bridge, blocking access to a tiny, ramshackle village. The inhabitants are less than impressed by having their only road cut off and cause Cooper grief in a number of ways as he struggles to ascertain  why the driver was so far out of his way,  and what connection the murder has to a horrific traffic accident from eight years before and the suicide of a bereaved widower. In addition, he is having to cope with big changes in his team. Long-time comic relief Gavin Murfin has retired, and new detective Dev Sharma, whom Cooper has his doubts about, arrives. His long-time partner, nemesis, and sexual tension magnet Diane Fry is far away in Nottingham, and makes only a cameo appearance, albeit a decisive one that seems likely alter their relationship forever. Its unlikely anyone will ever read Booth’s works for excitement, they are more of a slow burn. But the brooding atmosphere and simmering tension is captivating, and the Peak District setting, both lovely and forbidding, complements the story to perfection. Think of it as Midsomer noir and you’re probably very close. Personally I love these books, and while I realise they are not to everyone’s taste, if you like gritty police procedurals, particularly if they are set in captivating locales like these, you will love them too.


Shakespeare and the Countess

Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle That Gave Birth to the Globe, by Chris Laoutaris

Penguin (2015), Paperback, 544 pages


The title is actually somewhat misleading, since the Bard makes only a cameo appearance. It is really a biography of one of the more influential and remarkable women in an age of remarkable women. Elizabeth Russell, by her own styling the Dowager Countess of Bedford, although hardly anyone else recognised her as such, was a well-educated, fiercely Puritan and anti-Catholic woman, dedicate in the main to fighting for the recognition of her daughters’ claim to the riches of the Earldom of Bedford, from which she was tragically cut off when her husband died before inheriting the title. She was certainly a woman who would go to any lengths to attain what she wanted, and it was here that Shakespeare and his players ran afoul of her. It was their intention to operate a playhouse in Blackfriars, where Elizabeth happened to live, and she would have none of it. She amassed the signatures of other notable residents of the area, including some of Shakespeare’s own sponsors, in a petition against it and forced the Bard and his players to look elsewhere. The end result, of course, was the Globe Theatre, the most iconic playhouse in history. However, looking at this from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, this was a very minor incident in an eventful life, and the book reinforces that point. While it tends to drag in some areas as it follows the minutiae of Elizabethan politics, this is a fascinating read. Laoutaris has done well to find a previously largely unknown incident in the life of one of the most studied individuals in literary history, and from it has extracted the life story of a woman who is as little-known as Shakespeare is lauded. I really do love history that disinters remarkable individuals who have been largely forgotten and brings them back to life. This is a superb example.


The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio

The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal, by Hubert Wolf

OUP (2015), Hardcover, 496 pages


An absorbing if dry examination of a scandal that the Vatican buried as deep as it could for 150 years. In 1858, a German princess domiciled in a convent in Rome sent out a desperate cry for help, claiming she was about to be murdered. After her rescue, the Church set about investigating her claims. What emerged was so disturbing that the case was referred to the Holy Office for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern incarnation of the Inquisition. But this was not the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, dedicated to torture and the stake to weed out heretics, this was a pedantic and dedicated prosecutor’s office, staffed by lawyers rather than witch-hunters. The whole book thus becomes an meticulous investigation of the evidence collected. What the investigators discovered was that the seemingly peaceful convent was a hotbed of heresy, sexual misconduct and bullying leading to murder and attempted murder. The investigation came to centre on Sr Maria Luisa, a young and beautiful nun who had risen to hold several key position in the convent through having some form of hold over the abbess. Once there, she conspired to institute worship of the convent’s founder, whose alleged holiness had been discredited by the Church, manufactured letters purporting to be from Jesus and the Virgin Mary endorsing her actions, and seduced other young and naive nuns into sexual activities under the guise of administering “blessings”. Even worse, nuns who had rejected these activities died under mysterious circumstances, a fate which nearly befell Princess Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. She also seduced her confessor, who turned out himself to be rather more than just a humble misguided priest. Wolf demonstrates how this seemingly minor scandal fed into the wider struggle within the church between the so-called Ultramontanists, led by the Jesuits, hard-line conservatives who wanted complete domination by Rome, and the liberal reformers, who wanted a more decentralized, pastoral church. As it turned out, Maria Luisa’s humble confessor turned out be a key player in this debate who happened to be lying low under an assumed name. In the end, the Church punished the transgressors, the nuns severely, the priests much more leniently, dissolved the convent and pushed the whole business as far down in the archives as they could. The result for the nuns was truly tragic. Poorly educated peasant girls for the most part, caught up in an environment they were ill-prepared for, they were made the scapegoats and the remainder of their lives, Sr Maria Luisa in particular, were hellish. This is an essentially dry and fairly legalistic book, but the detail that Wolf provides so carefully is absorbing and shocking. Religious sceptics will have a field day scoffing at the naivete and superstition of ignorant people which is depicted so clearly here, but you won’t be able to help feeling great sorrow for many of the participants. It’s a very human story despite its legalistic nature.


Bog Bodies Uncovered

Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green

Thames & Hudson (2015), Hardcover, 224 pages.


Like many people, I was captivated by reading as a teenager P.V. Glob’s seminal The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved, which introduced the world to the truly astonishing discoveries, which had actually been occurring for centuries, of perfectly preserved 2000 year old corpses  being excavated in the peat bogs of Northern Europe. In Glob’s dry precise text and wonderful  black and white photos, I was introduced to Tollund Man’s perfect, peaceful face, Grauballe Man’s tortured scream, and the sinister “blindfold” covering the eyes of Windeby Girl. In later years I was absorbed by the saga of perhaps the most famous bog body ever, Lindow Man from Cheshire, which precipitated a veritable flood of bog body books, ranging from the scientifically exact to complete crap. Now all of these famous corpses are revisited, along with many newer discoveries, in this excellent book which updates the science of bog preservation. Wonderfully written by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, who navigates the perilous line between scientific exactitude and popular appeal with deft precision, this is a genuinely exciting book to read. Simply put, the advances in both the number of bodies discovered and the science of how they lived and died and of their amazing preservation has been staggering. Apart from the science, which is carefully kept to the level that the average intellect can understand without sacrificing its veracity, a wonderful picture is built up of the lives of the societies from which these unfortunates came from, and why they were chosen to be deliberately killed, offering in horrific ways, and interred forever in the peaty waters. I have seldom read a better mix of science and human interest. For anyone who remembers reading Glob’s book, or was caught up in the Lindow Man saga, or who is just interested in a unique snapshot of the lives of certain unlucky individuals from long ago, this is a must-read.