Friday, 29 October 2010

My life with Hedy Lamarr

I wrote my book on Hedy some five years ago. If you haven’t heard of her, she was a very beautiful Austrian actress who shockingly became the first skinny dipper on film back in 1930. Perhaps more shocking still, she took out a patent based on the technology of torpedo control during the Second World War. And, shock on shock, that technology forms the basis of the Bluetooth solution for computer comms.

She died at the turn of the millennium yet interest in her life has grown since then, and still grows. Many people are drawn to her as an iconic film star, but the real draw is her invention. I taught people about spread spectrum (the general title for stuff like Bluetooth) at the time that it was coming into its own and I shamelessly used Hedy’s image to spice up my courses. When I abandoned the technical world to become a writer and guide Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and mobile phone was one of the first books that I wrote. It is a compound biography: of her life, of the life of her piano playing co-inventor George Antheil, and of the technology itself. It also addresses the question that occurs to so many people: how come an actress and a piano player invented something as fundamental as spread spectrum. And its corollary – did they?

My book is by no means a best seller, but it does sell gradually and consistently via Amazon. And it certainly gets me about. Yesterday I had a call from a delightful young lady who is putting together a documentary series on famous women for the BBC. She is keen to cover the ‘scientific side of Hedy’s life,’ something that I am regularly consulted on. I told her that the BBC is broadcasting a series on great inventors in November, which includes Hedy. She said that was very interesting, but I sensed that I was the bearer of bad news. Wallace and Grommet introduce the inventors series and I met them during filming of the Hedy Lamarr programme. They are not real you know, but there were very large replicas of them in the vestibule of Aardman’s Bristol HQ.

A few weeks ago an extremely energetic man visited me. He writes biogs of famous film stars and is interested in putting together a joint project, a new book on Hedy with equal emphasis on her life and the invention, and hawking this to his publishers. A year or two back I was interviewed by a New York radio station about Hedy and her life as an inventor. And before that I travelled to Boston to take part in a documentary on Hedy and her technology. Yes, it certainly gets me about.

It’s all been great fun, though sometimes I feel that I am carried along on Hedy’s petticoats. After all, it is her fame that brings people to me. And her fame continues: two, yes two, new books on the star, who would now be ninety–six years old if she had survived, have been released this year.

The only thing that I bring to the scene is my book and my knowledge of the technological world into which her invention fits. She was the real star, and she still shines. I was the scribe, and I am still writing. You can see more details about her, spread spectrum, and the book at

Friday, 22 October 2010

Review of 'Tuesdays with Morrie' and of death in general

Tuesdays with Morrie is about death. The last book that I read about death was  Philip Roth's Everyman and it left me thoroughly depressed. This book is by Mitch Albon and, for the most part, it left me unmoved. It focuses on a young man (Mitch) who was taken under the wing of his professor (Morrie) as an undergraduate. Mitch absorbed much of Morrie's socialistic, caring, thinking, anti-materialistic philosophy, then launched off into a life of capitalistic, greedy, celebrity led materialism.

Morrie's approaching death through ALS is a public one, Through a TV interview Mitch discovers that his old prof is dying and begins to visit him regularly (on Tuesdays, of course) right up until the end. Morrie is the sort of man who seems to drip pearls of philosophical wisdom as regularly we, of South-West England, drop aitches (the letter 'h') from the beginning of our words. Morrie's philosophy is somewhat homespun: there is much about the appreciation of nature, the importance of love, undying friendships and relationships. You can't criticise it, it's all good stuff, but all the same I found it a little mawkish. What Morrie and I would choose to do on our last healthy day before death would have little in common.

My mother died in the month of April this year, soon after her 93rd birthday. Last week, her bungalow was finally sold. In the intervening months her bits and pieces were distributed amongst the family, trashed, or given to charities. In a way this dismantling of a life by disposing of possessions is more painful that the death itself. It is as if you are delving into some one's inner privacy - and you are. There were no shocking discoveries, nothing like that, it's just... well a little distasteful. I can understand why sometimes rooms are sealed so that the dead person is somehow preserved. But, when all is said and done, my mother has gone. I had my 'Tuesdays' with her and we enjoyed each others company until the last. She was ready to go: her body had deteriorated naturally with age and most days were "bad days" towards the end. She often told me "I never wanted to live to this age". Nevertheless she died with her mental faculties mostly intact and was, until the last few weeks, living with the help of carers in her own home. My sisters and I were with her at the very end and the funeral was as she would have wanted (except that I let the side down; I broke down during my speech summarising her life and had to sit down, ah well).

I have written a novel which is, sort of, based on death though, like many others in the genre, it's really an opportunity to review some one's life. The novel Just Crossing is based on a real life experience. I met this much older man as I was travelling through the channel tunnel to France. He told me that he was on his way to Paris to meet his first love for the last time. He went on to talk about his life and that conversation became the genesis of my novel. You can download it from my bookshop ( if you wish. I am revising it at the moment. I wrote the story some time ago and it needed a revision - just editorial mainly, the basic story remains as it was: encapsulated in the time at which it was written.

As to death. I'm now aware that mine is no longer an unimaginably distant thing. I deal with this by savouring the remaining years. Akin to most I vaguely imagined that I might live forever, yet know now that I cannot. That's why I travel, keep visiting the pub and continue writing. Therein lies a sort of immortality perhaps.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Mr Nice at the movies

I have written two books featuring Howard Marks. Oxford Rogues includes the life of the famous cannabis smuggler amongst nine other naughty boys from the city. This derives from an early book called Rogue Males: Three men of Oxford which contains potted biogs of Howard and the two Richard Burtons and then spins off into a pot and beer induced fiction. Both are available at the bookshop (

I used Howard’s own biography, Mr Nice, and a number of other books in my research and have heard many rumours of his book becoming a film since then. Now the film is out: I saw it last night.

Amongst the rumours various big names were hitched to the lead part, but it was finally given to Rhys Ifans, a friend of Howard’s from his Super Furry Animals days. It was a good choice, Rhys does look like Howard and has the ambience of the man off to a tee. I did not know of Rhys before, but thought that I recognised him. Later I found that he acted the scary part of Jed in Enduring Love. Scary!

The film starts and ends with Howard addressing an enthusiastic audience in one of his one man-shows. A good touch which shows the man at his most anarchic and in the only role in which I know him personally. He appears at the Oxford Union where the callow students greet him like a world champion heavyweight entering a boxing ring. I like Howard, but he is not a heavyweight and nor is the film. It has an amateur feel to it which is probably deliberate and can be effective. Here it just seemed amateur. During the intro I noted that it was sponsored by the National Lottery: a strange linking of charity, gambling and drug dealing.

I enjoyed Howard’s book, though it does go on a bit. Many of the things that were etched into my memory were cut by the film: particularly scenes from the Far East showing Howard lugging heavy suitcases laden with drug cash around hot sweaty streets and the bizarre outing in the Philipines with nuns and dwarves. I know that you have to cut, but why include such long scenes of lithe, naked female bodies circling a drug-hazed Howard in Oxford (OK, I do know why), and why did the awful McCann have to show his decorated penis to Judy beside the Majorcan swimming pool? I can’t remember that in the book. Maybe I’ve blotted it out?

The film rolled on and I found myself thinking about the pub. Would anywhere be open when Mr Nice rolled to a close? This was not a good sign. Then I began to consider which pub I might go to. A very bad sign. Perhaps I expected too much, after all I do know this stuff in some detail.

Later in the Far from the Madding Crowd I told a drinking companion where I had been. He said that he had read the book and started talking about scenes from South America! There are no scenes from South America in Mr Nice! It flashed through my mind that he was talking about the follow up book Señor Nice. Based on my night at the cinema I don’t think that Señor Nice will ever be made into a film.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Going West

I’ve had a week off. No work on the bookshop (, no guiding, lots of beer and quite a lot of travel. My son moved from Southampton to Exeter recently so the trip was mainly to see what he’s up to. I liked Exeter. I liked it more than Southampton which I found fascinating and disappointing in almost equal measure. Both cities were bombed extensively in WW2 and so the extent of 60s infill in the centres is extensive.
Exeter seems to have plenty of old buildings and is intriguingly hilly. My best memory will be of the walk from the old wharf area along the River Exe and its parallel canal to the deliciously mellow, wood fire warmed, nicely stocked, Double Locks pub. It is a treasure and, though we were not welcomed into the near empty bar, it does have the feel of a real pub. During an evening in the city there were more treasures to imbibe in and a feast of mini-pies in the bar-cum-restaurant of a nice Young’s hotel.
The cathedral in Exeter is impressive, especially the fine vaulted ceiling which stretches with diminishing breadth into the distance. I was interested to see a plaque to R D Blackmore, the author of Lorna Doone. I connect him with Exeter since he attended Exeter College in Oxford, but he was in fact born much nearer to Oxford than Exeter. However, I found that his father was a man of Exeter originally and that Blackmore did spend most of his life there. I was pleased to see the memorial to Bishop Stapledon: he was the founder of Exeter College and, I learned, was murdered in the riots that followed the removal of Edward II from the throne.
After Exeter we moved to Salcombe, a pleasant town which lies on the coast of a ria – a sea inlet rather than a river mouth. The ria looks stunningly beautiful as you descend towards the town, its colour varying from aquamarine to slate grey according to angle and sun. Finally we holed up at Plymouth and refreshed our sparse knowledge of the Spanish Armada and Sir Francis Drake by circumventing the Sound, walking the Hoe, staring at Drake’s statue, and wandering around the city museum. Plymouth, like Southampton, is excellent in parts and like Exeter and Salcombe is perfectly placed in its watery surroundings.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Just read: Transmission by Hari Kunzru

Charlene, in a comment below asked: “Are you launching a blog that sells books or are you launching a blog about book shops?” Good question – it’s complicated. My bookshop is on the web to sell books and this blog is part of it. But the bookshop is for fun too, especially the backroom with its pub and all. I like to think of the blog as the conversations I might have with some customers if the bookshop was real rather than virtual. It’s about writing on my writing, but also about writing on the writing of others. So here goes with the latter.

I’ve just finished reading the novel Transmission, and I miss it. Always the sign of a good book.

I did not take to the book at first. The initial chapter contained a lot of disconnected paragraphs separated by short italicised statements, and a list of unpunctuated one liners, also disconnected. Nothing against experimentation of course, but don’t expect me to enjoy it.

It took me a while to befriend the main character Arjun Mehta. Arjun is an Indian computer geek with an intimate sister, a traditional family, an obsession for an Indian film actress and an obsessive desire to escape to the promise of America. I grew to like him more as he finally took off for his dream job in the USA and sympathised when his dream rapidly disintegrated. This made me even happier when the dream job did finally become a reality.

The title ‘Transmission’ means something to me that it does not to many. In my past life transmission was all about sending signals, over wires or radio links or whatever, and all the things that can go wrong with the signals. I was delighted to find that Kunzru has a similar understanding of the word and makes constant reference to the impossibility of receiving a perfect message: be that a spoken one or one sent via email or whatever.

I didn’t like Guy with his meaningless corporate psychobabble and shallow life, but did warm to Kunzru’s devastating portrayal of racy PR. I didn’t like his girlfriend much either and was beginning to wonder if all the different tales in this book were merely a series of unrelated threads.

Then the glorious denouement begins as Arjun’s virus is unleashed onto a world grown fat and overly dependent on its IT systems. Gradually all of those threads are drawn together in a very satisfying way even though Arjun and his adored film actress both vanish without trace. Good stuff. I shall read another novel of his someday.