Book of 2016: Nomad – Alan Partridge

Book of 2016: Nomad – Alan Partridge

Okay, before we begin, Nomad isn’t the best literary book you’ll ever read, or even the standout performer of 2016. But it is Alan Partridge, on his best form. That alone deserves all the accolades thrown at it. It’s the best humorous book since I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan.

Alan Partridge has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Steve Coogan is no longer trying to distance himself from the character to gain validation for his talent. Perhaps we can thank the critical success of Philomena for this? Since then he has fully embraced Partridge in a feature film, more Mid Morning Matters, Welcome to the Places of My Life, and Scissored Isle.

Throughout these its clear the character still works and he understands how to keep it relevant. It’s been a long time since I’m Alan Partridge but the essence of what made that show works still exists but the Partridge Universe has grown since then. Alan has become the thing of comedy folklore.

Nomad is Alan’s tale of recounting his father’s unfulfilled footsteps. He constantly reminds you, it isn’t for a TV show or exposure. The reason he decides to go on a walk is to connect with his deceased father. They were never close, as he explained in his autobiography, but when he discovers an old box of possessions in his loft it plants a seed.

His father, it appears, should have attended an interview at Dungeness Power Station but got a letter confirming his non-attendance. In the same box were receipts from the day of the journey, signposting his stops at petrol stations (one with a blot of blood). This allows Alan to plot a route. He decides to embark on the same journey.

Why it has to be on foot has nothing to do with a new TV show. The chasing up of a TV producer is more coincidence and ensuring the British public get to experience the pilgrimage.

Interspersed between the main narrative are chapters that further expand on Partridge myths featuring real life celebs, meaning a few new stories come to life. The fictional accounts range from the reoccurring Eammon Holmes and Bill Oddie, to a random David Essex footnote, and a rant aimed at Noel Edmonds.

The gaps between movie and recent TV shows are filled in. We get to know what happened (to a degree) with Geordie Michael. His recent love life, which was a subplot in Mid Morning Matters, gets a further mention. Lynn is here, though he never says her name. Forbes McAllister’s death (Knowing Me, Knowing You) is even addressed in a footnote.

His version of events we’ve seen on screen are retold. Through the eyes of Alan, Alpha Papa is a completely different story.

Annabel Swanswim even gets a mention for the keen-eyed fan. Along with Fernando, Sidekick Simon and the trio of Julia Bradbury, Clare Balding and Michael Portillo have supporting (if very small) roles. It all adds colour to the life of a man that is now embedded in the public consciousness.

One liners come think and fast, too many to list and it’d be unfair to rob them for those that are yet to read the book. But you know you’re onto something special when lines like: So you’ll forgive me if my gast wasn’t exactly flabbered, are accredited to Paul Ross from 1990.

And the grammatically challenging: People were letting their hair down. But the only thing Partridge was letting down was ‘not his guard’.

Similes are especially good throughout, like: throbbing like a frog’s neck. And the fear that a ‘welly on’ is pensioner slang for an erection. The quirks and observations litter the pages. He takes aim at all classes and pokes derision at things that are so not Partridge (The Great British Bake Off).

Needless to say (…I had the last laugh), it doesn’t run as planned, Partridge’s personality requiring the sort of nourishment destined to always evade an honest run at success. His failures somehow further the character. It’s like when Del Boy and Rodney became millionaires, the magic of the comedy left them. Alan is the perineal loser, it’s what makes him endure and become endearing.

Book of the Year? Alan would probably say, “It’s the best book since Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab.”

Advertisements

Damon Hill: Watching the Wheels

Damon Hill: Watching the Wheels

Damon Hill was always a different type of motorsport star. In the flamboyant world of Formula One he came across as reserved. In a sport dominated by money, he struggled to the top. A successful family name, that should have eased the transition, proved to be a burden. Unlike stars today, he never cashed in with a cheap autobiography at the time. Twenty years later, Hill explains why in his book Watching the Wheels.

Damon Hill was unique and also a first. The history books will forever state he and his legendary father Graham were the first father and son to win F1 Driver World Championships. His father’s career and untimely death shaped Hill’s formative years and adult life in ways that took decades for him to understand.

Before Hill begins his story, the foreword explains his absence during the decades between retiring and re-emerging into public life as a broadcaster. In a brave and important move, he discusses his battle with depression. Raising awareness to the issue and explaining its nature will give hope to many sufferers.

After facing up to his demons, and sharing them with the reader, it’s understandable that Hill doesn’t shy away from how they were created. Before diving into the autobiography, it’d be fine to expect little of Graham Hill’s story. His shadow loomed over Damon’s career and it was something he could never find the speed to race away from.

His account of his younger years explains what it was like to live with a larger than life character. How Graham, like Damon would be himself, was a late addition to the sport. The effects of his fame did affect his mother at times and there’s a sense Damon adored, admired, and worshipped his father while feeling he was inaccessible.

The showcase of F1, in days where it was a different type of showbiz and the community was close rather than filled with suspicious rivals, didn’t appeal to the young Hill. He was a shy, under confident child. The attention that came his way he tried to avoid, feeling it wasn’t deserved, and he didn’t want to be defined by the success of others.

Despite the negatives that came with fame, like being singled out in school, he had a happy childhood. Sadly, when he lists the reasons why, labouring the point, it reads like a top ten of superficial positives. It could be a sign that even before his father passed, Damon was destined to have emotional difficulties.

The painful realisation Damon was getting closer to his father before his passing is even more upsetting. He uses the book as a means to exonerate Graham’s role in the plane crashed that took his life and those of his team on board. It rightly lays falsehoods to rest, explains how rumours had played like Chinese whispers over the years. And refers to a crash investigator that offers probable causes for the incident. It enables the legend of Graham Hill to continue untarnished.

After his father’s death, he buried the pain, choosing not to mourn, believing his father would have done the same. He had to assume the role of man of the house before he was a legal adult. The lavish lifestyle started to fade away. Lawsuits against the family and the loss of income meant the Hills went into survival mode.

Fast forward to adulthood and Damon found himself working in the building trade. The graft enabled him to focus, stopping his mind from dwelling on his father. It’s quite telling that during these stories he refers to “that Scottish man” and “the Irish man” he worked with for four weeks. Even after a month the class divide meant they were labels, not named people. Or at least, people not worthy of remembering now.

His passion was racing bikes, and he became a delivery driver around London, claiming the day-to-day hustle in the traffic honed his driving skills. During this period he met his future wife Georgie. Theirs was a stop-start relationship but it’s clear they had a deep connection early on. Sadly, the reader only gets an insight during the early days. Once F1 begins, the chapters are filled with a notable lack of family life.

His journey to Formula One wasn’t through desire. Damon preferred motorcycle racing but realised the chance of career-ending injury was high, the rewards low. So he took the decision to race single-seater cars.

It wasn’t a smooth transition, he lacked funding but it’s hard to fully empathise with his hardships when he explains how a Beatle rang him to offer the £75,000 required to race the following season. Through a good sponsorship deal he finally secured a safer drive and managed to get on the radar.

By his own admission, he was never the standout performer, and people like Johnny Herbert and Martin Brundle were the established names of his generation. But he had an inner grit that people overlooked all his career.

He wasn’t trying to capitalise on his father’s fame, quite the opposite. He wanted to right a wrong, complete the family mission, and discover his true self.

Of course, he achieved that aim. He added a British Grand Prix victory to the family heirloom, a thing that had eluded his father. And repeated the feat of being crowned champion of the world.

The standoffishness and inaccessibility that made him less lovable than people like Nigel Mansell, permeates the pages. But this shows how he has always been genuine, wearing his heart on his sleeve.

A quiet heart doesn’t mean a smaller one.

The brooding intensity was mistaken for not being passionate enough. He explains his treatment at Williams, how he was never a preferred choice, even after keeping the team close-knit following Ayrton Senna’s untimely passing.

The comparisons to rate Hill have always been lopsided. No one would ever claim he was a Senna, he even called upon the spirit of the great Brazilian to help him in Japan, but he wasn’t below the likes of fan-favourite Mansell. Hill never had a number two like Riccardo Patrese.

He partnered the best of all time, a David Coulthard in his peak, Mansell himself, world champion Jacques Villeneuve, and the brother of his chief nemesis Ralf Schumacher.

Those looking for a better insight to the battle with Michael may be disappointed. We get a glimpse into his mindset but a golden opportunity is missed when he mentions driving to see the German laid up in hospital with broken legs. This was after the 1999 British Grand Prix.

Instead we break to hear about more contract woes, it would have been nice to see that interaction. What was their relationship like as Michael was bed ridden? Especially poignant now the seven-time world champion may never communicate with the wider world again.

Early on in the book Hill talks about how motorsport is dangerous and we should never move away from the part of nature that is drawn to it like moths to a flame. Ultimately, the sense of that danger is what made him want to leave.

People will draw their own conclusions as to how successful Hill’s endeavours were. He was a victim of the British media’s classic “build ‘em up, to knock ‘em down” formula. As a wronged loser, they adored him. As a champion, they tore strips from him.

Perhaps this has had Hill on the defensive ever since. Parts of the book read like a list of excuses rather than reasons. He also has a sense of entitlement that can’t be overlooked. There are undertones throughout that Michael Schumacher was the chosen driver, protected by his team and given preferential treatment.

Later he demands special treatment believing he has earned it and paid his dues. Many drivers before and since have sacrificed just as much and never had the gifts that were delivered to Damon.

Hill should be applauded for speaking out about mental health issues and be thanked for taking a trip to the nostalgic years of his racing days and the enduring memory of his father’s. It’s unlikely this self-written book will win over many new fans but its greatest triumph is detailing the recovery of a man lost in the wilderness.

Book Review: After You

Book Review: After You

The difficult second album, or in this case, the sequel to cash-in on the movie adaptation of the first. Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You was the sort of romantic novel (dare I say, “chick-lit”?) that transcended labels and made its way to the mainstream. It dealt with difficult subject matters like disabilities and euthanasia. Along the way Moyes managed to sneak the characters inside your heart so that by the end of the book it looked like your hay fever was playing up or you’d been cutting onions all day.

The tears this time start much earlier but they are ones of frustration. Apparently the author decided to pen a sequel because people kept asking what happened to Louisa Clark after the first novel. What was her life like after falling in love and having to watch the man pursue assisted suicide at Dignitas? How did she spend the wealth he’s left? Had she followed his instruction to live life to the full in his honour?

It was a complete tale. The happy ending, after such a painful story, was the hope Louisa would go on to lead a fuller life.
Or we can pause that thought and catch up with her working at an airport bar for a boss she hates, living in a paid-for but soulless flat, estranged from her family (being strict Catholics, they didn’t appreciate the suicide element).

Despite travelling, Lou hasn’t found herself by the start of After You. That journey from country to country left her feeling isolated. Just like before she met and fell for the deceased Will Traynor, she is lost and without direction. Except this time she has a bundle of guilt to carry around.

Had the book paused here and explored this loneliness, it could have built on the underlying themes that made Louisa’s character so strong and engaging first time around. You can feel her loss and how she is lost because of it.

Instead Moyes turns her disarray into a plot device which sees Louisa get drunk and walk along the edge of her rooftop balcony. When she is startled by a voice from behind her at the window, down she falls. A neighbours table and patio equipment help break the fall, her body and the novel lie in pieces below.

Cue the not-so-subtle additions to the cast list. A comforting male paramedic (we’ll need him for a love interest later), the return of her parents (near death is a good way to repopulate a dwindling cast), a support group to speed up the grieving process, and eventually, the return of that mystery female voice.

That turns out to be Lily, a precocious tearaway of a sixteen-year-old . . . and Will’s daughter.

Lily’s mother – never painted as anything more than a selfish, self-centred example of bad parenting – had chosen to refrain from telling Will about Lily. In those days he was a womaniser and it seemed he wouldn’t have cared. So Lily grew up fatherless, until her mother married, then became isolated as the unwanted step-child.

Upon discovering she has another family, she sets out to connect with them. Her research and endeavour leads her to Lou. Lily wades into her existence, a whirlwind or questions and trouble. Without chance to pause for breath, the girl is using her flat as a second home and turning her life upside down.

For the first half of the book, her interruptions leave little in the way for compassion. She’s the type of stranger any sane person would have sent packing. Seemingly thoughtless and on a self-destructive path, all she does is create havoc for Lou and fails to find the common ground with her father’s parents.

What makes these interludes harder to process is how moments that should make you gasp just bring about a sigh. And time becomes irregular. Entire passages are filled with language that makes it sound like months must have passed, to find out it’s been a little over a week. It’s the sort of forced progression that goes against the techniques used in Me Before You.

Then the first real bomb drops.

We learn why Lily has been so wayward. The reasons she has been edgy with certain reoccurring strangers and what has made her so tormented. Suddenly you feel angry for her and once again Moyes proves she can secretly plant little compassion seeds that are slowly watered as she tells a tale.

Lily and Lou are reunited after a painful period of separation and they start to move forward together, honouring the theme of the book, and Will’s message to “Live well.”

Although it appears Lou could be doing this at the expense of her own happiness, even to the extent of turning down a dream job in New York, proving that doing the right thing and the thing that feels right is often complicated and far from clear-cut.

It’s moving enough to cut Moyes some slack for the awkward love scenes and Lou’s descriptions (she has developed a desire to sniff things a lot) and baffling oversights. We’re supposed to believe she lived in Paris for months, picked up parts of the language but was bamboozled by the French naming of beef cheeks on a menu, only to later use the phrase in her narration, “entente cordiale,” as if it were an everyday occurrence.

But these gripes don’t ruin what was an ambitious attempt to breathe life into a story that had already been completed first time around. The scenes are sometimes forced, but overall Lou’s natural way and humour, not to mention her caring spirit, shine through.

The final sequences may be too over the top for some, it’s telling that Jojo Moyes has had her head in movie scripts because we get the big Hollywood ending. But it’s also clear she still has the ability to draw believable characters that pull on heart strings.

Will there be a third in the series? Probably. Let’s hope next time Lou manages to stay more grounded from the start.