Posted: Mon 3rd Jan 2022

Bob Gaffey reviews this years Costa Book Awards

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales
This article is old - Published: Monday, Jan 3rd, 2022

As part of his regualar series, former mayor of Mold, Bob Gaffey has reviewed the four short-listed books in the Costa biography category.

Launched in 1971, the Costa Book Awards is one of the UK’s most prestigious and popular book prizes and celebrates the most enjoyable books of the year by writers resident in the UK and Ireland.

Uniquely, the prize has five categories – First NovelNovelBiographyPoetry and Children’s Book – with one of the five winning books selected as the overall Costa Book of the year and each category is judged separately by a panel of three judges per category. The Costa Book of the Year is then chosen by a nine-member panel which includes representatives from the original panels who are joined by other well-known people who love reading.

Books are entered by publishers and entry for the Awards closes at the end of June each year. The author of the Costa Book of the Year receives a cheque for £30,000, presented at an awards ceremony at the end of January.

THE MOTH AND THE MOUNTAIN by ED CAESAR.

A true story of love, war and Everest.

This is a biography of Maurice Wilson who was a Yorkshireman and was obsessed with climbing Everest on his own. It had never been achieved by anyone at that time in the early 1930s. The author has won awards for his books and has written on subjects from money-laundering to the world’s longest tennis match. The book is shortlisted for the Biography section for the Costa awards 2021. The title refers to MW buying a Tiger Moth plane with the intention of flying to the mountain and then climbing it by himself. An added interesting point in the book is that he’d never flown a plane and was an extremely inexperienced climber.

Ed starts off the book with how he got the MW bug, as others had done before him, as it’s virtually unbelievable what he achieved and what he tried to achieve. It would have been a normal story in a boy’s own magazine of derring-do, but it’s a true, if amazing story of an amazing man.  Ed goes into the lengths he went to, to accumulate all the knowledge and details of the life of MW which enables him to write the story. A crucial source was the daily journal that MW kept. The Wilson family are based in Bradford and run a successful company which makes them a middle-class family. The three sons are involved in WW1 with varying results. The horrors of the war are gone into and especially the damage done to Victor Wilson in particular. Maurice had realised that he was a lion led by donkeys and took against the authorities. These were the people who had all the power and looked after themselves and sent the lower classes into deathly hopeless situations. This feeling was enhanced when they refused him a war pension even though he had been injured, spent time in hospital and sent home.

The 1920s saw the UK in a depression. Even though he married Beatrice Slater in 1922, he emigrates to New Zealand in 1923 looking to make his fortune. In 1924 he cables his wife to join him there and she does. On arrival she finds that he has met another woman who he is in love with. She divorces him as a result. “Beatrice was homeless, heartbroken, penniless, and 11,000 miles from home….she was still in New Zealand in 1926 when MW married his lover”. This is a theme in the book where he falls in love with someone, wins her over, and then moves on to someone else. In 1932 he meets a married couple, Enid and Len Evans, and these three become extremely close for the rest of their lives. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that Enid loved both of them and that they were both willing to share her.

MW develops an obsession to be the first man to climb the highest mountain in the world, Everest. Not only the first, but to do it all by himself. Expeditions had tried and failed up to 1930 even though they had local experts supporting them and vast resources backing them up. The book is not about a rich, Oxbridge genius and geek with nothing else to do. He has limited funds and relies a great deal on his mother sending him money to help him along. Being refused a war pension angers him, especially due to the pain he suffered from it for the rest of his life. Also how he saw the war destroyed his older brother, Victor. He pays for flying lessons, reads maps, buys a solo Tiger Moth, reads books on the subject; nothing is going to stop him achieving the only thing on his bucket list.

The British government hear of this man who is determined to fly to Everest and climb it. It is just as determined to stop him from doing so. They are scared of him upsetting the countries he is going to fly over without their permission. They have peace treaties with these countries and are frightened that he will cause an incident and destroy these treaties. Thus they try every trick in the book to stop him, some legal, some underhand. The conflict between this Yorkshireman and his government is a major theme in the book. He always seems to find a way around their obstacles.

In 1933 he sets off and the escapades he gets into flying to Nepal is exciting and dangerous in equal amounts. He has to constantly land and re-fuel in different countries. Some of whom had been warned in advance by the UK not to help him and stop him if possible. It’s very much cat and mouse as he slowly but surely makes it to Nepal, by hook and by crook. Most people would not have dared to do the journey, and most of those who dared would have failed. MW is so stubborn and determined, it’s obvious he must succeed or die trying. Wherever he is, he writes love letters to Enid back in Blighty. He has a fanatical belief in himself and his theory. “he cut down to a meal a day, then just to fruit, and then to nothing but water. By purifying he could purify his soul… he often quoted the Gospel of John”.

The second half of the book is his struggle in how he starts and stops and starts again the climb up the mountain. You can’t believe how he keeps going through all the obstacles and mishaps that take place. “You wonder if his whole story, the broken relationships, the spiritual mania, the purging fasts, the demented mission to Everest, was born out of an unsettled sense of his true self”. Several times he is near death on the climb but just about makes it by the skin of his teeth. “I realised doing that long trek back that the only true romance I’ve had in life was from my mother. Now close to death on the mountain, he wished only for the purity and safe harbour of maternal love”. ( This reminded me very much of George Floyd pleading for his mother just before his death throes.) “The story of MW’s adventure blazed around the world three times: once in 1933 when he bested the Air Ministry and set off for India, another time in 1934 when he went missing on Everest, and a year later when his body was discovered”.

CONSUMED: A SISTER’S STORY

This is a shortlisted book for the Costa category of biographies of 2021. The author, Arifa Akbar, is a theatre critic for the Guardian. She used to be a senior journalist for the Independent before she was one of many made redundant when their print edition ended. AA had a sister Fauzia Akbar, born in 1970, AA was born in 1972, and the brother, Tariq in 1974. The mother, Bela, had an arranged marriage at 25 to a man of 37. They came to live in London in 1977 where the 3 siblings only spoke Urdu and had a life of poverty. The father was born in India and the mother in Pakistan. The siblings lived their first years in Pakistan. In London their father had poor paying jobs and the main one was as a train guard on the railways. 

The biography is of the life of the eldest, Fauzia, who died in 2016 at the age of 45. The family thought she was getting better in hospital and would leave and go back to her life. It was a great shock when she passed away. The grief AA feels and suffers for years is detailed in great depth and gives the title of the book. AA is very obviously CONSUMED by grief and writing the book would have been therapeutic and painful in equal measure. AA is so well read and so cultured that she seeks to make sense of it all through a variety of means. She does it through opera, paintings, reading of famous women who had died similar deaths, reading and seeing plays of women who have been through the same or similar illness and death.

A major theme in the book is how the two daughters were treated by the father. AA was the apple of his eye whereas he constantly looked down on FA and was constantly negative towards her. AA talks about whether she herself unintentionally helped in this negativity by underestimating the damage it was causing. “It is hard to see the monster father when he is not being a monster to you”. AA goes on to university and has a successful career in journalism. FA goes on to have a desperate life of depression, eating disorders such as binge eating followed by starving herself.  The two sisters were incredibly close up to 2012 when they had a big argument and fell out. This is another reason for the guilt AA feels in that she thought eventually they would get back together again. She didn’t  expect FA to die at such a young age.

The hospital tried to find out what exactly was wrong with FA; they didn’t diagnose the illness until it was too late. It was TB which is a killer unless treated correctly, and still kills all over the world. The medical establishment accepts that it is a difficult disease to discover. AA requests all the documentation the hospital had on her sister. A massive document which clarifies how hard they tried to find out what was wrong with her and how they failed. AA discusses the conversations she had with the doctors before and after the death. FA’s life of pain and suffering is laid out in great detail from attempted suicide to “seven stones and in a daze in 2006 hit by a bus….in constant and acute pain for the rest of her life….spent several months in a locked psychiatric ward”, and it goes on and on. She seemed to be turning her life around by getting on an art college course but died halfway through the course.

AA goes all over the world doing research into people dying of TB. For example, AA goes to the bedroom where Keats died of TB at 25 overlooking the Spanish Stairs in Rome. She looks at the Greek tragedies especially Antigone, also Vincent Van Gough’s suicide and his brother Theo. She clarifies the parallels between famous siblings and their deaths and her family’s. The depth AA goes to to try and understand all that’s happened to her family is very deep. It would probably put off some because of the obsession which consumes her. Nevertheless I give it 4 stars.

FREE ALBANIA

This is a shortlisted book for the COSTA BIOGRAPHY category written by an Albanian and she is now a Professor of Political Theory at the LSE. 

I have always been interested in this country since we were refused entry into it on a coach. The coach was travelling from London to Athens in the 70s and it was the sensible route to cut across Albania, just as we’d done with France and Switzerland. However, we were forced to take the scenic route around it to Greece. We were informed that people were extremely rarely allowed in or out of Albania.

 The story is in essence an auto-biography of a child brought up in an extremely authoritarian state under Enver Hoxha. The people are brainwashed into thinking of him and Stalin as gods. Communism is great and outside countries are enemies trying to undermine them, Animal Farm style.

Lea is obviously very precocious as we see with the questions she asks of adults. Her parents and grandmother, who she lives with, must have been constantly walking on egg-shells with her trying to raise her. This is because they realise they live in a police state but have to hide it from all or be severely punished by the state. They want to be honest with their difficult daughter and bring her up with honesty but can’t. This comes across very well as Lea can’t understand why they don’t have a picture of Enver on their mantelpiece like everyone else. As Lea grows up, things become more and more complicated and confusing for her. She has to get used to strange things. You queue for things such as food but could use items, “you could leave an old shop bag, can, a brick or a stone…this was when I learned that queues could go on for an entire day or several nights”. Her family listened to Italian radio in secret. The poverty in society is well presented and how everybody was in debt. Her parents talk a lot about universities that friends and family go to and the subjects they study. It is only when she gets to her teens does she find out that this was a code language the 3 adults spoke in. Universities were prisons, the subjects were the crimes they were accused of eg. International politics was treason, economics was financial crimes and so on. Anybody who didn’t have blind faith in the system tended to finish up in jail.

With the collapse of the USSR all things begin to change in her country. The chapter THE END OF HISTORY explains that all the prizes she won at school, “would soon become museum relics, memories from a different era, fragments of a past life that someone had lived, somewhere….12-12-90 my country was officially declared a multi-party state with free elections”. Her parents now tell her that they never believed in the state, they merely mouthed it. Obviously Lea’s identity was totally based on the life she had lived before and being brainwashed into. This had all been false. “I was someone, then I became someone else”. The anecdotes she provides of family life are wonderfully put and clarify the life that Albanians suffered under a Stalinist state. You see this false, overpowering life and society through the eyes of a young girl growing up. It reminded me of WHEN HITLER STOLE PINK RABBIT.

In the early 90s Albanians are encouraged to invest in new great schemes with promises of wonderful interest rates; most do. These turn out to be pyramid schemes which collapse in 1997 leading to civil war. Lea describes the chaos and fear as criminal gangs run riot in the streets with Kalashnikovs and other weapons. All live in fear. Many try and leave the country mainly to neighbouring Italy to escape the anarchy. Previously foreign countries tried to entice Albanians to leave and come to them and “freedom”. Now that they are allowed to leave these countries turn them away. The transformation to a liberal, market economy (“the shock therapy”) that outside experts encourage and install cause untold pain and suffering to the people. A common statement was, “we survived the Turks, the fascists, the Nazis, the Soviets and the Chinese. We’ll survive the World Bank”. Little did they know.  We learn about what happens as Lea writes a diary day-by-day of events; mayhem and chaos.

Lea is so bright that she is allowed by her family to go and study in Italy. She is so successful that she finishes up as a teaching Professor in one of the most prestigious institutions in the West. The book is as personal and personable as Kerr’s book and must have a strong chance in the Costa competition.  

THE HIGH HOUSE-JESSIE GREENGRASS.

A shortlisted novel for the Costa fiction category for 2021.  It’s highly fancied by the bookies but it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve got it wrong. It’s the only book on this shortlist I’ve read and I gave it 3 stars. I would hope that there is a better one on the list than this. It reminded me of BEWILDERMENT by Powers which was shortlisted for this year’s Booker. That was a story about the climate crisis and the relationships between a family of three. HH is a story about the climate crisis and the relationships between a family of four: Francesca, father, Pauly and Carol. There are two others involved: Grandy and Sally. These two operate as caretakers for the village which is mostly made up of holiday homes. Thus this issue is a theme in the novel.

Francesca has been left the house by an uncle which is on high ground with a piece of land including a barn, outbuildings and a mill.  Carol’s father, called father, gets together with Francesca and have a baby, Paul called Pauly. Thus Carol and Pauly are half siblings.  Sally’s parents we have to assume have died and she lives in a cottage with Grandy, her grandfather. Francesca and father are both uni. lecturers and she goes all over the world lecturing on the climate crisis. She is very intense and keeps all at an arm’s length. Francesca gets Grandy and Sally to live in the HH and act as caretakers. Thus in the HH four live together: Sally, Caro, Grandy and Pauly. How these four rub together is the main theme of the book as the climate crisis gets worse and worse until it finally laps up to their door. Most of the planet is flooded or in drought with thousands/millions dead or homeless.

The book starts off with the quote, “you think you have time, and then, you don’t”. The novel then goes into how we are sleepwalking into a nightmare and only react when it’s too late. Pauly’s parents die in a catastrophe but Francesca has foreseen the dangers. She has organized all the necessary supplies in the barn/outbuildings for the four living at the HH. It’s almost as if she had foreseen that she and father would be killed and she’d prepared for it. The slow but sure descent is well clarified as things fall apart all over the world. Grandy is the one who holds all things together but is so old he is living on borrowed time. 

“He told dad that it seemed awful to him, how much he had watched being forgotten, all the arts and crafts of wooden ships, he said, and then the rest of it, the manned lighthouses, sextants, celestial navigation. All gone, it took him years to learn it, only for it to become obsolete….he needed to tell someone just so that he could because that the loss at least could be remembered”. They get to realize how much forward planning Francesca had not only thought of, but organized for. “Francesca had built the HH for Pauly, it was a sanctuary, and Grandy and I were a fabric of it like the well and the barn; a way of ensuring the safety of her son”.

I got confused sometimes between Sally and Carol and had to turn to my notes to clarify things. No explanation is given for whatever happened to Sally’s parents or Carol’s mother. Very little is given on father too. I thought it was enjoyable even though it’s a depressing subject. I didn’t enjoy it as much as BEWILDERMENT which is very similar in many ways. I would hope that there is a better novel and that the bookies are wrong again.

FALL – JOHN PRESTON

Shortlisted for the Bailie-Gifford and the Costa in 2021 this charts the upbringing, rise and fall of the media mogul. I had always thought that he had committed suicide even though many thought murder or accident. This book clarifies in my mind what actually happened. I have decided not to write a normal review as I saw too many parallels with Donald Trump. I have decided to write of their similarities which were many, and their differences which were few. One thing that was very different was their upbringing as Trump was born into wealth and became a millionaire before he was a teenager. Max. was raised in extreme poverty in Czechoslovakia into a Jewish family. The family surname was Hoch, “Max would go on to change his name 4 times by the age of 23…..the family lived in a 2 room wooden shack with earth floors …eventually 9 children, newborn babies and toddlers slept in cots suspended from the ceiling”.

A difference was that Trump chickened out of war with his bone spurs excuse sorted by a very friendly family doctor, whereas Max fought bravely in WW2 and was decorated by Monty.”Max disappeared into the fog of war and emerged 18 months later, he would have changed his religion, age, nationality, and name….in 1944 by now fluent in: German, English, Hungarian, Czech, and his native Yiddish…in 1946 he was promoted to captain and became a British citizen”. In the late 40s, early 50s there was a lot of talk of his enterprise and rule-breaking. However, “in June 1955 200 creditors voted to bring in the Official Receiver and wind up” the company he’d set up. This reminded me of Trump’s casinos which were closed down and rule breaking getting licenses for them…. “perhaps his most important ability was that he had an unerring ability to home in on people’s weakest points”. Trump has this same ability many say. Also all who knew Maxwell say, “he was fiercely resistant to any glimmer of introspection”, which all say of Trump.

Max’s wife, Betty, said “Bob’s need to be loved was so great that he tortured himself…all emotional ties were kept to a minimum. Max had no real confidants only glorified acquaintances”. A common acceptance of Trump is the same; he marries and divorces whenever it suits him. He has said that if Melania left him, he’d just get another one. Trump loves to be loved as we can see at his Maga rallies.  In 1967 an extremely rich American was about to buy Max’s company, Pergamon Press, for a fantastic price but with Max helping to run it. It was discovered that its profits had been massively over-estimated by Max through deceit and fraud. The terms of the deal were significantly altered as a result. “the company no longer belonged to him. Max said, you can’t expect me to be anything other than very, very sad”. … “The DTI Report into the sale of Pergamon was devastating for Max… “within the space of 3.5 years, M had lost his eldest son, his company, his parliamentary seat, and now his reputation….Max found a technical loophole which enabled him to starve Pergamon of funds, a legal war took place….effectively Leasco had paid £25M for an empty shell…much of M’s time was spent in US trying to raise funds to buy back Pergamon…on 20-1-74 Steinberg agreed to sell M his personal 38% of holding  in Pergamon for £600K, 4years earlier he’d paid $9M for the same shares. (Very much like Trump who was extremely litigious and totally ruthless , see Mar-a-Lago). Coutts said of M, there’s no question of morality or conscience. M is no 1 and what M wants is the most important thing and to hell with anything else”. If that is not a definition of Trump I don’t know what is.

In 1969 his wife writes a note to him, “to prove my love to you after 25 years is that I should give you your freedom…he continued to have affairs…this didn’t explain the relish he took in humiliating people..addicted to drama…a compulsive need to be centre stage”. This could have been said of Trump. Max goes on to own Oxford FC and the British Printing Corporation, he loved to own things and have his name associated with them; very Trump like. “Richard Stott noticed how there tended to be a big difference between people’s behaviour in front of Max…in M’s presence, normally swaggering, bullish people would often become sycophantic  to the point of spinelessness”  (ditto Trump.) “Max insisted on making all the decisions himself no matter how minor.” (A common criticism of Trump is that he micro-manages everything and knows every detail of what’s going on in his business.) Many stated that Max treated his sons with contempt in front of them.( Trump ditto.)

“a psychiatrist called Tom Pitt-Aitkins asked Mike Molloy how he was getting on with Max…I’ve got people inside who are less crazy than him. You actually think he’s clinically mad? said Molloy. Pitt-Aitkins nodded. Does he blame others when things go wrong? Yes he does. Does he make grandiose claims for all his business motives? Yes. How does he treat his family? Like slaves. The man’s off his head, said P.A.  He’ll end up bringing his whole empire around him…he wants to leave a great heritage for his children. He’ll leave nothing to them, he said, just ashes”. 

“Max bought a building next door and re-christened it Maxwell House. (Trump Tower). The top floor was converted into a luxury apartment where M would spend most of his time…Simon Grigg was his valet and said that if you showed him weakness, you’d had it. He’d frequently reduce people to quivering wrecks. Peter Jay who worked for M said, it was as if he was literally uncivilized, like some great wooly mammoth stalking through a primeval forest wholly unaware of things like good and evil”. (This is how I see Trump with the Republican Party where he has destroyed all and now totally owns it.) He had no hobbies, no private activities and no friends.” (apart from golf this is Trump).   “his diet was incredible, eating like a horse, getting massive, awesome appetite”.

“M borrowed money from a total of 44 different banks and syndicates. (where have we heard this before). All of these were only too happy to lend him whatever he wanted. At last he had joined the Big 10 League, an unofficial club of the top world’s media moguls. (for Trump it was to be on the Forbes List).  Gerald Ronson says that he loves Ghislaine and has contempt for his sons. Only has a photo of her on his desk.” (Trump’s daughter Ivanka is the apple of his eye). “in 1988 he had a joint party to celebrate his 65th and the 40th anniversary of his company Pergamon Press. June 1988 was predicted to outdo them all, around 3000 guests had been invited that it had been decided to hold it over 3 nights. (Trump wanted a military parade to celebrate himself). Mirror Pension funds now £300M. run by BIM were transferred to the Maxwell Charitable Trust based in Lichtenstein…it is safe from scrutiny and free of tax (Trump’s accounts are permanently under audit, shame that). ..but Maxwell Communication Corporation, MCC, was crippled by debt…he had to borrow  even more heavily from the banks….for some years now, the chief barber at the Savoy. Wheeler, had been coming to Maxwell House every week to dye his hair and eyebrows, imparts thickness, body etc” (we all know of Trump’s efforts to convert his skin to orange and hide the true state of his hair).

“After almost 50 years he demands a divorce, said she was mad, and wanted nothing more to do with her…I don’t want to see you again..son advises her, Don’t do an Ivana Trump on him..i wondered what on earth had happened to the man I had loved so dearly, slaved for and protected all my life……on 4-6-90 M is with President Gorbachev at his side…but MCC running at a considerable loss… Max bought £75M shares in July 1990 alone to try and keep the share value up…by Nov 90 MCC’s total debt had run to over £2.4B…..his wife’s 70th birthday party..cost of £250K…M changed the tax year of Mirror Pension funds to tie in with the year of the Mirror Group…but this meant there was no need to audit the Pension accounts for another 6 months..it would have shown that in April alone M had sold £96M of assets but not transferred it back…he’d used it to prop up other parts of his teetering empire”. The book goes on and on of how he was trying to keep the company afloat, breaking all the rules and borrowing millions more and more; living on borrowed time. Now the strain and stress was taking a huge toll on his physical as well as his mental well-being.

“His Finance Director was threatening to resign after discovering £255M. had disappeared from the accounts….M had now borrowed more than £1B. and the banks were now threatening….Neil Kinnock said that talking to him was always like walking on egg-shells, his skin was awfully thin for such a big guy like that….M asked Joe Haines to his suite and asked if i was loyal to him. I replied that I was loyal to the Mirror but this wasn’t what he wanted to hear…Alistair Campbell said he was on a top floor very small balcony with M and I had this feeling that M wanted to tip over…his chauffeur Fealtey said M was finding it difficult to breath”. It was all kicking off on Nov 5th all the chickens were coming home to roost including the Met Police, and Bank Of England Governor.  “Nov 5 was to be the day of reckoning on almost every front”..M found dead in the sea after being on Lady Ghislaine. 

Statesmen send condolences: Gorbachev, Thatcher, Bush, Kohl et al. Was it murder? “ Captain Rankin said we have equipment for detecting vessels that comes within 5 miles of us. The ship’s staff  seem to believe that it was suicide. All the pressure had built up to this, his actions up to coming on board the ship, his actions on the ship, his actions  with the keys and all the circumstantial evidence points to suicide. The headlines included, “The Crook of the Century”. It all came out that the pension fund of the company he had spent. “In the end most of the employees received half of what they were owed, thanks to a combination of a government bailout, and money paid back by sheepish investment bankers who had formerly advised Max and were looking to salvage their reputations.”

For me it was very striking the similarities between Maxwell and Trump: incredible arrogance, contempt for others, obsessed with how they looked, ignored or broke rules and norms unless it was for their benefit, both big eaters and big men, both massive delusions of grandeur, both wanted incredible wealth and power and didn’t care how they got it, lots of affairs behind their wives’ backs, sadistic in their treatment of others, borrowed massive amounts of money from institutions leading to massive loans which did for Max in the end and many predict will do for Trump also, they both cheat and are extremely creative in their accounting, ie fraud (as Michael Cohen testified under oath), many psychiatrists have said that Trump has mental problems as the 1 above stated re-Maxwell, neither do introspection, both micro-manage, both extremely litigious, asking of personal loyalty as Trump did with James Comey who also gave the wrong answer which cost him his career. Both drama queens who wanted centre stage. I believe that the same thing will happen to Trump in that his loans will do for him. What he does then? We can only keep our fingers crossed.

About Bob Gaffey

Bob Gaffey was mayor of Mold between 2017 and 2018.

He spent six years as a town councillor in Mold, raising more than £10,000 towards the restoration of Bailey Hill in the town as part of a project to turn the former Norman settlement into an outdoor attraction.

The funds were raised by holding events during his time as mayor in 2017/18.

The former union representative is currently chair of the Wrexham, Denbighshire and Flintshire branch of Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales and the Delyn branch of Plaid Cymru.

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