The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent, by Mick Conefrey
Oneworld Publications (2015), Hardcover, 336 pages
I think it’s definitely no secret now that I’m a climbing and mountaineering groupie of fanatic proportions. Despite my crippling fear of heights (or perhaps because of it), I am drawn to sagas of climbing derring-do at ridiculous altitudes. And this is a cracker. K2 is possibly my favourite mountain (Everest is so last century, after all). It is so perfect in its dimensions, so photogenic, so remote, so forbidding, so utterly brutal to the foolhardy, the unprepared or the just plain unlucky, as to possess a magic and a fascination that for me, Everest just doesn’t have. This is is the story of K2 from its first discovery, hidden away in such a remote part of the Karakoram between present-day Pakistan and China, that up until its first attempted ascent in 1902, the number of Westerners who had actually seen it could be counted on one hand. Conefrey covers that first whimsical, almost comic attempt by noted occultist Aleister Crowley (a competent climber when he wasn’t plumbing the depths of sexual and blasphemous depravity), to the later attempts by various American teams in the 1930s, then again in the early 1950s when the US “owned” K2 exactly as the British “owned “Everest”, and then the surprising final conquest by the unheralded Italians in 1954, and then comprehensively deals with the bitter controversy which pitted team-mates against one another and that has dogged that conquest ever since. It makes for a fantastic read, especially since many of the stories are much less well-known than their equivalents from Everest, which brings a freshness to the narrative. The larger than life characters too, are well-depicted in all their often flawed heroicism. Crowley and his companion, inventor Oscar Eckenstein, the Duke of Abruzzi, who had the honour of having his name applied to one of K2’s best known features, the Americans Charlie Houston and Fritz Weissner, who suffered the agonising near-miss of getting to within reaching distance of the top only to be held back by a panicky Sherpa, and the cheerful but totally unsuitable Dudley Wolfe, possibly the unfittest man ever to attempt an 8000 metre peak, and who died along with three Sherpas high on the mountain. The ill-fated 1953 American expedition is dominated by the tragic story of Art Gilkey, immobilised by thrombophlebitis as his companions attempted to carry him down the mountain, only for him to be swept away while his friends desperately tried to save him. The there is the heroics of the 1954 Italian expedition, which despite a total fracture between the irascible leader Ardito Desio and his climbers, somehow managed to deposit Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli on the summit on 30th July 1954. (And had they known the controversy that would engulf them for the next 50 years, brought on by their team-mate, Italy’s greatest ever climber Walter Bonatti, they may well have chosen to stay on the summit). This is simply a great read, ripping stuff about the conquest of the last great unknowns on the face of the planet. Brilliant!
A Very Courageous Decision: The Inside Story of Yes Minister, by Graham McCann
Aurum Press (2014), Hardcover, 384 pages
There are very few comedic television shows which have had such an impact on the social and political real world as the BBC comedy Yes Minister, and its subsequent successor Yes, Prime Minister, which during their relatively short run between 1980 and 1984, and 1986 and 1988 respectively, shook up the public image of politicians and civil servants as no other comedy program has ever done. The legacy of the show, apart from memories of a brilliantly witty, superbly written and acted series, is that any revelations of government bungling or civil service shenanigans, immediately evokes calls of “Yes, Minister”, and it will be immediately and implicitly understood by the public at large, even among those who have never actually seen the shows. McCann’s carefully written and detailed book is both the story of how the show came to be, and its blossoming impact on the viewing public and the politico-social world. McCann starts with the early careers of writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, two very different individuals, one fervently left-wing, the other equally as vehemently right of centre, who came to evolve a idea for a series revolving around a career civil servant, a newly elected minister, and his private secretary. The story of the early evolution of the series from idea to screenplay to casted series to production is covered closely and in immaculate detail. McCann is highly experienced in writing books of this nature, having previously penned similar books about Open All Hours and Fawlty Towers, and the book is meticulously and absorbingly written, with comments from all the people involved in the production, including actors and crew. particularly interesting is the way in the which the charactters of Sir Humphrey Appleby, Jim Hacker and Bernard Woolley evolved through the skill of the actors playing them. McCann goes on to cover the whole of the two series, and the subsequent revivals on the stage and screen, as well as demonstrating the massive impact it had on British politics, with MPs embracing the show, and queuing up to give their best wisecracks about it at question time. No less a fan than the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher, all but demanded the chance to appear in a skit about the show. This is a terrific book, by turns absorbing, funny, sentimental, occasionally sad and informative. This is certainly one of the better books I have ever read in this genre. Highly recommended.
Prick with a Fork, by Larissa Dubecki
Allen & Unwin (2016), Paperback, 304 pages
Larissa Dubecki is now a well-known Australian food critic and writer, with a noted acerbic touch to her written output. Those wondering why she does tend to dip her pen in acid when reviewing restaurants will perhaps have their question answered by reading this inflammatory tome. For as it happens, Larissa, now on top of the food service food chain, as it were, began her career at the bottom, as a much put-upon waitress in a number of seamy, sleazy eateries, where apart from the arrogance, stupidity and just plain selfishness of the clientele, she had to contend with randy cooks, rampant drug-taking, disappearing cash, orgies in the cool-rooms and unintelligent restaurant owners who all believe their 1 star establishment is destined to be the next big thing. Dubecki pulls no punches, the writing is fast and frenetic and she plays the shock value for all its worth, producing what can only be described as Restaurant Babylon. In between her shocking and sometime quite disgusting tales, she has included many amusing anecdotes and asides from other participants in the hospitality industry. For myself, I found the gross-out stuff became quite excessive, and the manic writing style just a little OTT. For all that though, it’s still an entertaining and educational look at an industry that prides itself on being cutting-edge and trendy to the max. Many hipsters may die from sheer shock upon reading this book, for it punctures the mega-cool veneer of the foodie industry with needle-sharp precision, while the rest of us will get a good laugh, and maybe chose the next place we choose to dine just a bit more carefully.
The Strangers Who Came Home: The First Australian Cricket Tour of England, by John Lazenby
Bloomsbury (2016), Paperback, 304 pages
A wonderful read for all cricket tragics, like myself. In 1878, an intrepid band of Australians (most of whom regarded themselves as Englishmen still), set out to tour the Old Dart and to try to beat the English at their own game. Following the successful English tour of the previous year, which involved the first official Test match ever played, the Australian Eleven as they were known, embarked on one of the most epic sporting tours of all time. They would play 72 matches on three continents, cross two oceans, and take the best of a year to complete the tour. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly beating the powerful MCC side in a single afternoon at Lords, a victory that shattered English complacency and contempt regarding the sporting prowess of colonials, and laid the foundations of the continuing cricket rivalry between England and Australia, now into its 3rd century and showing no signs of abating. But the side also played 42 other matches against English and Scottish sides of varying strengths, winning some and losing some, encountering foul weather, terrible pitches, outright cheating and crowd hostility, but also plenty of good competition, healthy rivalry, press adulation and playing some damn good cricket along the way. Lazenby does an excellent job of bringing this almost forgotten tour to life, every significant ball and shot in every match being described in loving detail, with plenty of news reports and anecdotes that evoke wonderfully the spirit of the times. The book is full of larger than life characters, such as W.G. Grace, the giant of English cricket, the demon fast bowler Fred Spofforth, who broke wickets and English hearts, the incredibly hard-hitting batsman Charles Bannerman, and the “Prince of Wicketkeepers”, Jack Blackham. This is vintage cricket-writing at its best, reminiscent of legends such as Cardus and Arlott. Cricket tragics and fans of classic sporting contests in general will love this.
Dreadnought: The Ship that Changed the World, by Roger Parkinson
I.B. Tauris (2014), Hardcover, 304 pages
The title is actually a misnomer, the book covers far more than just the building of the eponymous battleship that in 1906, changed the face of naval warfare. It is actually an account of the development of capital ship strategy in the world’s major navies btween the 1870s and the 1920s, starting with the first ironclad warships with breech-loading weapons and ending with the 15 inch gunned behemoths that fought in the last pitched battle between battleships at Jutland and were effectively outlawed at the Washington Naval Conference in 1921 because the ruinous cost of building them had nearly bankrupted some nations, including Britain. This is an interesting, well-paced book, taking what can be a dense subject and making it easily accessible to the lay reader without sacrifcing any of the essential detail. In between the description of the various features of each succeeding class of warship, Parkinson manages to inject many of the personalities that were responsible for the developments in naval strategy. Larger than life characters such as Jacky Fisher, Winston Churchill, Alfred von Tirpitz, Kaiser Wilhelm, Admirals Jellicoe, Beatty and Scheer, stride through the pages. Parkinson also manages to look beyond the Britain-Germany arms race that dominates so many books of this kind, to show what was happening in the other major navies of the world. France, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Japan and the USA, and even the South American republics, are all covered, and the book shows just how even the extravagant cost of these monster ships was not enough to deter even relatively poor countries from joining in the race. This is a truly absorbing book, one of the best I have read in this subject area, highly recommended for all this intrigued by naval history, war at sea, or the history of the early 20th century.