One of Them – Michael Cashman

One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square  Michael Cashman

Michael Cashman (centre) with Ian McKellen (right).  Image: Alamy

Early doors: Michael Cashman is called ‘one of them’. He realises pretty soon what that means and the truth of it. He cannot keep his eyes off the bodies of some of his schoolmates and, before big school, he has been picked out by men who do not hold themselves back from taking their pleasures with him. He has to find a way, as many abused children do, to ‘switch off’ and go to another place. Before too long, however, Cashman is an equal partner in the seduction stakes and few others, even in the swinging sixties, were in such a good position to take advantage of opportunities.


One of Them tells the story of Cashman’s life. Times were different when he was born, at the end of 1950, in the East End of London. In those days there was no connection between his home place near Cable Street and the glories of the West End. The word ‘queer’ had yet to be abandoned before being defiantly taken up again decades later. And the adjective ‘gay’ had yet to be applied to sex. Unlike anyone else, because of his very specific talents, young Cashman was able to leap from one world to the other, East to West and back again, generally on the top deck of the red, no. 15 London bus. He could dance, sing and act, landing at age 12, the part of Oliver, in the fourth year of the musical.

As a very young woman I moved on the edges of the same scene: Soho, Mayfair and Earls Court and I knew about cruising and cottaging as some as my best friends were doing it. But I don’t think I knew Cashman and I certainly had no chance of becoming a star of stage and screen. I am grateful, however, for the few years that formed an interlude from ‘normality’. You can be a long time living a respectable life and it is good to look back to walking on the wild side.

Poplar Baths. Image: Wikipedia

Cashman has plenty to look back upon. Cast in every part for which he auditioned. Photographs with Elizabeth Taylor. Intimacies with celebrities. Countless liaisons. Schmeissing with a long raffia mop in the Poplar Baths. Don’t ask.

In 1967, when he was 16, Cashman moved in with his 24-year-old lover, Lee who was 24 at the time. It was still illegal for homosexual men under 21 to have sex, even in private. One night a straight man came round to the flat intent on raping Cashman. Using an ‘incessant pouring out of words’ as his weapon he managed to dissuade the physically stronger man from a penetrative assault. Afterwards, afraid to go to the police because of his age and sexuality, he wonders if it would have been better to turn off the switch in his head as he did when a child. The affair with Lee lasted several years but was always dogged by his partner’s infidelities and suicidal tendencies.

After one such attempt involving a shotgun, Lee was hospitalised and whilst visiting him Cashman witnessed two doctors saving a woman’s life. Aged 25 he decided it was time to train as a doctor. Using his savings and working as a hospital porter, Cashman started to cram for O and A levels. Physics proved an intractable problem. After two attempts at achieving the necessary high grade the dream of medicine eluded him. But the foray into a world of public service foreshadowed later directions in Cashman’s career.


Before he began his life in politics there were stints at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scunthorpe and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. Cashman got to work with brilliant directors such as Trevor Nunn and also, encouraged by the legendary literary agent, Peggy Ramsey, busied himself with writing plays. In 1986 he joined the cast of EastEnders playing the gay character, Colin Russell. The first homosexual kiss on TV was a chaste peck on the cheek but it was more than enough to cause a furore. Cashman, or Colin, was now a household name and it was difficult for him to move around London unremarked.

Around that time there was a fair amount of hysteria enflamed by press coverage of HIV/AIDS, termed the ‘gay plague’. In Westminster Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced and passed an amendment to the Local Government Act (1988). Known as Clause or Section 28 this deplored the ‘pretence’ of homosexual families such as those depicted in the children’s book, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. It outlawed the award of taxpayers’ monies to any institution supporting gay men or lesbians. One would have thought that politicians had never heard of the pink pound or realised that homosexuals pay tax at the same rate as heterosexuals.


Along with, the newly-outed, Ian McKellen Cashman became a figurehead for the campaign against Section 28. As the movement grew so did the realisation that there should be an organisation to promote LGBT rights. West End actors, directors and writers involved themselves in fundraising galas to establish premises and staff for Stonewall – then, as now, a controversial institution. At this stage in his life Cashman had been in a long term but crisis-ridden relationship with his future husband Paul Cottingham.

Both men were working as actors, although only Cashman had real success. Their interest in politics was growing and in 1997 Cottingham was employed as a ‘celebrity catcher’, or High Value fundraiser, at the Labour Party’s HQ in Millbank. By1999 Cashman was MEP for the West Midlands and he and Cottingham had to live separately most of the time. Cashman’s career in Strasbourg and Brussels was lauded and, almost before he had been awarded the CBE, he was on the list for a baronetcy. He met the Queen, Prince Philip and Charles.


But the best of times was over. Both parents died and although he and Cottingham bought a villa in Turkey looking forward to happy years of retirement it was not long before a vicious cancer ended their relationship. Cashman nursed Cottingham – they had entered civil partnership in 2006 – and watched him take his final painful breath surrounded by friends and family.   Lonely and lovelorn, he took his place in the House of Lords, four days later.


Now living in the area where he was born Michael, Lord Cashman can take the river bus to work. On the way he sees the places on either bank of the Thames where he spent time with Paul Cottingham, the love of his life. He sails under the bridges over which they crossed hand in hand laughing or arguing as they conducted their fine romance.

One of Them will please many whilst bringing a tear to the eye of some. Cashman can namedrop for England and his story recounts changes to the great city of London as well as the manners and mores of its bustling citizens as they navigate the streets and the customs. It is not literature, being merely descriptive, and there is no sense of intimacy with its cast of thousands, or indeed with the two central characters. It is a case of and then … and then … and then … but then, he has lived a very interesting life.

Works cited

Cashman, M.  One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square. 2020. Bloomsbury.

A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 22nd February 2020.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.











I YOU WE THEM Dan Gretton

I YOU WE THEM   Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today

Dan Gretton

The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.

In truth there are two ways to live in this vale of sorrows that we call the world. One is to rage against the evil that men do. The other is to observe everything through our sideways peripheral vision, squinting to exclude horror, whilst focussing on what shade of Farrow and Ball paint to use in our dining room so that the tints of teal in our Williams Morris curtains leap into the foreground.


In the English language there are two types of consonant sound that indicate evil. The first is sibilance, which we use to hiss at the villain. The second is the harshest of all harsh sounds, the letter ‘k’. It is bad, very bad. If we look at the phrase, desk-killers, we see and hear two adjacent ‘k’s, forcing us, if we were to articulate them, to pause between the ‘k’ of desk and the ‘k’ of killers. There are also two letters ‘s’. So in speaking it out loud, ‘desk killers’ does, indeed, hiss and curse the villain.

Adolph Eichmann, desk killer.  Image Getty.

As you would expect the original word in German is an almost untranslatable compound noun: Schreibtischaeter. I cannot pronounce, it but if I could I think it would sound like hawking and spitting phlegm. That action can spread disease, notably mono nucleuses, but as can be seen on the football field or in the high street it has become as mundane as any other sort of evil. Schreibtischaeter is, like ‘the banality of evil’ one of Hannah Arendt’s expressions.

Adolf Hitler was not a desk-killer: he was far more extraordinary – diagnosed as sociopathic, schizophrenic, psychopathically narcissistic or all of the above. But, according to his architect Albert Speer, he encouraged people to categorise or pigeonhole, not only their actions, but their thoughts. In this way people could maintain their status as normal whilst actually being mass killers or committing genocide. Dan Gretton has spent around twenty years researching those who sat at their desks and carried out orders. He looks at fascism and the Holocaust but also at Swiss banks and global oil companies. His gaze moves from Europe to Africa and beyond. There are many accounts here and others still to be recorded.


In I YOU WE THEM Gretton does not let us off easily. The title denies us the right to see the villains as THEM because I YOU and WE make up US, not THEM. We are all, in our denial or ignorance or apathy THEM, the banal desk killers. Some of us are, on a daily basis, actual desk killers. Our actions in, for example, moving our call centre out of a city, or our own paltry savings offshore, can destroy livelihoods and mutilate lives.

But on the other hand, Gretton does let us off very easily. I YOU WE THEM runs to more than one thousand pages.   And, horrifyingly, this tome only contains the first two, of four, volumes. Surely Gretton knows that the physical size of the book will divert prospective readers elsewhere? It is easy, if you are searching for a hair shirt, to find something equally educational and depressing at only 400 pages. I am not sure that I expect to meet anyone in my lifetime who has read the 1000 plus pages of this book in its entirety.

And so. What can be said in mitigation? Well, part of what attracts me to the book are its friends and relations. There are few writers more influential in recent European literature than W. G. Sebald, John Berger and Iain Sinclair. All three of these men ground themselves, as does Gretton, in walking. They walk and think and write. In I YOU WE THEM Gretton walks and talks with these men and/or writes about them. In this way Gretton provides a safe cohort of serious thinkers who are also decent men. They are companions who surround us, like a band of like-minded hobbits, on our quest for an understanding of evil.

As in By Our Selves, the 2015 film about poet John Clare, directed by Sinclair in collaboration with Andrew Kötting, walking is both a love poem to nature as well as a protest against confinement and political borders. There is also with Gretton’s friend, J, an ongoing, lifelong walk around the coast of the United Kingdom and some long walks in Germany. J and he have planned ahead and already identified their final, tarmacked, trail in Brighton, chosen for the days when they have to travel in electric wheelchairs rather than on foot.


The purpose of the talking walks is to create links, like Australian Aboriginal Song lines, to join physically together areas which have fallen apart. Before the destruction of the Berlin wall Gretton and J map a walk from London to Kassel in West Germany and beyond to the East and finally into the Soviet Union. Their hope in 1987 when they started it is that, before they die, they will be able to complete what they call the West-Linie-Ost unhindered.

Maps and map-reading are important too. One chapter is called ‘A Walk from Goethe’s Gartenhaus to the Gates of Buchenwald: 10,166 Steps. It is preceded, on pages 8019 and 8020, by a map of this walk. There are other maps dotted around near page 250 which show Gretton and J walking around Berlin. They walked there for ten days to try to understand ‘physically and conceptually’ the Holocaust and its origins. They wanted to find out who the desk-killers were and to position them within a triumvirate of Perpetrators or Victims or Bystanders. And of these three the ugliest of all, perhaps, are the bystanders, who by ‘billions upon billions of words and small actions’ made ‘genocide possible’ in Germany, the country which Gretton sees as the ‘most civilised’ in Europe.

Gates of Buchenwald 1945.

Goethe is one of the most civilised of Europeans and the meadow at his garden house a place of tranquillity in which he wrote undisturbed. Here Gretton observes that in ‘living nature nothing happens that is not in connection with the whole’.   Just over ten thousand steps further at Buchenwald or beech wood he states ‘for the first time in my life the natural world, the beauty of trees, seems a mockery’. He notes that although the birds vacated the area for the duration of the final solution, now the finches are back chattering, it seems inappropriately, on the telegraph wires.

I YOU WE THEM is a serious book which gazes unflinchingly at some of the worst atrocities committed by men. Gretton leavens the weight with his own, often, poignant and self-deprecating, accounts of his personal life and relationships. He writes of the glory of love and of how describing it is as difficult ‘as trying to bottle light from the stars’. But then, always at the back of his mind is the fact that most desk-killers experience the wild passion of romantic love and feel joy at the birth of their children. The problem is that they can separate that intimate love and empathy from the part of themselves which sends orders for the deaths of thousands of other people.

For Gretton the way forward is through making connections and links and routes rather than erecting walls and strengthening boundaries.

Dan Gretton. Image:

In a book of this magnitude an index is a basic essential. Perhaps one will accompany the next published volume?   Gretton thinks, as I do, that Primo Levi is one of the most important thinkers on this subject. It would be great to be able to look Levi up and see all the instances where he or his books If This is A Man or If Not Now When? are cited. Gretton himself returns to Levi again and again and he should facilitate that for us too.

I YOU WE THEM is infinitely painful, and is endless, but perhaps that is the point.


Works Cited


Gretton, D. I YOU WE THEM: Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today. 2020. Heinemann.

Levi, P. If Not Now When? Giulio Einaudi. 1982.

—. If This is A Man. Giulio Einaudi. 1947.

A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 8th February 2020.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.








A Letter Marked Personal

A Letter Marked Personal  J. P. Donleavy


In my teens I read J. P. Donleavy’s cult novel The Ginger Man and professed to like it. In truth I was somewhat bemused by Donleavy’s style: modernist with a changing narrative voice and a laddish wit, one which, at the time, I did not recognise as misogynistic. As the years, since its publication date of 1955, have passed I have come to understand that Donleavy’s attitude towards women, like those of his male characters, is what he describes as ‘very anti-feminist’.

Donleavy died in 2017, and it is wrong to speak ill of the dead, so I hoped to find the energy and anarchy of Donleavy’s first protagonist in the pages of A Letter Marked Personal. Johnny Depp, who holds the film rights for The Ginger Man, describes this last novel, published posthumously, as an opportunity to ‘savour his savage, jocular prose and divine insights into the most absurd thing of all: the human condition’. Sounds good to me.


A Letter Marked Personal is set in New York, Donleavy’s birthplace, rather than his adopted country, Ireland, a location in which he was never fully comfortable, retiring behind the gates of his country estate, Levington Park, in Westmeath, and rarely venturing out.   Nathan Johnson, the central character of A Letter Marked Personal, shares with most of Donleavy’s other heroes, a propensity to use phrases taken from the idiolect of upper class Englishmen. This is a class that Donleavy himself aspired to, running his place near Mullingar, as if it were one of the heritage castles in Leicestershire.  Unfortunately for him neither Americans, nor Irish residents, are generally accepted into that milieu.

A Letter Marked Personal focuses on two of Donleavy’s enduring interests: the nubile body of a young woman and the acquisition of a grand house.   Iowa, Nathan’s youngest and most beautiful employee comes with an alluring physique and hayseeds in her hair. Blueberry Hill, on the other hand, has a lake, stables, lawns and an assortment of grossly large and ornamented furnishings. If one had a vulgar mind, as Nathan does, one might understand that the advertised particulars of the property, ‘Fully Furnished and Ready for Gracious Country Living’ apply both to woman and house.

Donleavy, wearing tweeds,  huntin’, shootin’ and fishing’

Both seem irresistible but neither can outbid the rest and recreation to be found not with them, nor with Nathan’s lovely wife Muriel and their stupendous Central Park penthouse apartment, but in his original windowless office near the Flatiron Building. It is in this haven that Nathan finds, as he listens to Mahler, the solace that his uneasy soul requires. Because, Nathan, sadly, is a troubled man. Whilst Muriel spends her days keeping up appearances, physically in terms of exercise classes and beauty appointments and culturally in terms of charity balls and theatre visits, Nathan is a solitary figure.

When he is in conversation it is generally on the phone. Calling him constantly are his accountants to report on possible embezzlements. He doesn’t really like the accountants, and may prefer those who are stealing his assets. The narrative uncoils with little action and much introspection by Nathan. The centre of his life, his business enterprise, is threatened by the letter mentioned in the title. At that point he must look about himself and decide which aspects of his life are durable and which are mere bagatelle.


The perfectly furled city gent’s umbrella remains intact as other trappings whizz away like sparks off a Catherine wheel. Depp is right, A Letter Marked Personal is an absurdist triumph and a fitting finale to Donleavy’s career.

Works cited

Donleavy, J. P. A Letter Marked Personal. Lilliput. 2019.

—. The Ginger Man. Olympia Press. 1955.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on 30th November 2019.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

Don’t Think a Single Thought

Unknown-2.jpegDon’t Think a Single Thought

Diana Cambridge

English journalist Diana Cambridge is a great fan of the late American writer, Sue Kaufman. Living in very comfortable circumstances in Manhattan, Kaufman wrote well-regarded novels and short stories, mostly about New York wives living, like herself, under the dual curses of depression and boredom.


In preparation for her first novel, Don’t Think a Single Thought, Cambridge re-read Kaufman’s work, and has used as stimuli the short story, ‘Icarus’, the novel, Falling Bodies and Kaufman’s most famous tale, Diary of a Mad Housewife, later a film with Carrie Snodgress. Although the novel is mainly set, like Kaufman’s own work, in the early 1960s it seems strangely modern. Any post-9/11 text will be tainted by that disaster, and Cambridge’s focus on bodies falling from skyscrapers, aligns it with this century as well as the last.


Cambridge’s protagonist, like Kaufman’s in Falling Bodies, is called Emma. She walks anxiously on the streets of New York. It is not overflying jets that she fears but the possibility of someone jumping from above and landing on her. This worry, rather than being rational, seems to be a manifestation of her melancholia. Emma finds her life profoundly disappointing. Like all New Yorkers she sees a psychiatrist who warns her that self-medicating with Nembutal and Equanil, should be replaced by exercise and social activity.

But when Emma and her husband, Jonathan, go to parties and barbeques, they are surrounded by people who are drinking heavily. Alcohol and pills seem to fuel their society as much or more than lobster, oysters and steaks. In Don’t Think a Single Thought, women come in for intense criticism because they seem to have mushy brains with no ideas, and they twitter on about maids, children and washing machines. Emma and Jonathan, on the other hand, converse conceptually, although she is, apparently, not able to match his ‘logical and intelligent assessment’.

Jonathan does not have much of a voice in Cambridge’s novel. She hands the narrative over to him occasionally and the reader learns that he is not, perhaps, as kind and supportive as Emma thinks. Behind the veneer, in which he proffers excellent advice, is narcissicism, meaning that he has before, and will again, betray Emma. Digressing from Kaufman’s style and content, Cambridge painstaking builds, for her heroine, a psychological background, not of abuse in the conventional sense, but of neglect and cruelty.

Behind the fug of tranquilising drugs, Emma lives in a world in which children get lost or go missing. Her existence is punctuated by fugues featuring children dying – sometimes by drowning but also by falling or failing to breath. Motherhood is presented simultaneously as despicable and enviable, whilst childlessness infiltrates Emma’s dreams. Adopted children and adoptive parents are depicted as both unlovable and unloving.


Balanced against this sadness is Emma’s beauty, achieved by personal grooming and astute choices of clothes and accessories. The cover image shows Emma as a Jackie Kennedy lookalike, dressed in the very same pink two-piece that was drenched in the President’s blood and brain fragments. Emma’s life does not include quite such a dramatic event, although two characters die in car crashes, but her levels of misery and despair approach those often seen on Jackie’s face as she negotiated life. Emma witnesses her beauty fade and retreats from the battle to paint her youth back on her face.

Emma is a skilled writer but setbacks with publishers and scriptwriters destroy her confidence. She does not have the resilience to overcome these difficulties and like Sue Kaufman she descends into hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. Don’t Think a Single Thought resembles Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a novel which reimagined both Virginia Woolf’s life and her novel, Mrs Dalloway, Diana Cambridge proffers a moving recreation of the New York society inhabited by Sue Kaufman and her characters.

Works cited

Cambridge, Diana.  Don’t Think a Single Thought. 2019. Louise Walters Books.

Kaufman, S. Diary of a Mad Housewife. 1971. Penguin.

—. Falling Bodies. 1974. Doubleday & Co.

—. ‘Icarus”in The Master and Other Stories.  1976. Hamish Hamilton.

Diary of a Mad Housewife. Dir. Frank Perry.  1970. Universal.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 16th November 2019.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.




Ireland in the European Eye

Ireland in the European Eye. Edited by Gisela Holfter and Bettina Migge

See Ireland First:  Irish Tourist Association. 1928.

Ireland in the European Eye is an eclectic set of essays collated by Gisela Halfter and Bettina Migge. The volume emerged from work done between 2014 and 2018 by the Royal Irish Academy’s committee for the study of Language, Literature, Culture and Communication. The idea is that the essays should, through European arts, show how Ireland is perceived from the continent.

Gisela Holfter. University of Limerick.

The editors faced several problems. The scope and range of their project is enormous, embracing many European states and a variety of art forms, whilst many of the contributions are, as is often the case with academic writing, focused on microscopically small issues.

Secondly, in between continental Europe and Ireland looms the bulk of Great Britain. Unless you want to adopt a misty-eyed stereotypical view of a legend-ridden, romantic landscape of Atlantic crags, lakes and hills with green fields dotted by the white and black of grazing livestock, you must see Ireland as a conjoined twin. Severing her from Northern Island would result in a loss of blood which would likely prove fatal.

Bettina Migge: University College Dublin

Thirdly, of course, there is the banana skin of Brexit. Any socio-political book, compiled and published before a definitive Brexit date is bound to contain inaccuracies and unproven assumptions.

But Halfter and Migge seem unbowed. Their balance of male and female contributors serve up a smorgasbord of subjects. Just like the arrangement of dishes on hotel continental breakfast tables they are labelled clearly. There is an introductory section of three essays which provide historical background and contextualisation.   Part Two looks at literature, probing the ways that Ireland is represented in European texts as well as how a variety of countries respond to Irish Literature. A third part widens out to other forms of art including architecture, film, music and fine art whilst the final unit looks at tourism and journalism.


The penultimate contribution is a study of the AerLingus inflight magazine, cara. Focussing on the years between 1997 and 2017, Linda King analyses some covers of the journal in terms of the concept of Irishness within the field of tourism. Earlier examples, accompanied by colour reproductions, seem to be heavily aimed at American and European tourists, extolling as they do the Guinness Storehouse and a lovely ruined castle surrounded by daisy spotted meadows.

Later there are covers aimed at luring the Irish to exotic places such as Prague, Palma and Nice. It is a convincing piece of work detailing the airline’s marketing strategy response to the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger.


An earlier chapter by David Clark looks at Ireland in the literatures of Spain. It concentrates mainly on regions that have longed for independence, including Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque Country. Clark states that the Galician ‘Nós (Ourselves) movement drank from the twin cups of Irish nationalism and Joycean modernism’. One Galician writer, Xosé Cid Cabido entitled a novel Blúmsdei – a phonetic transcription of Bloomsday, whilst another, Manuel Rivas, restyled his family name as O’Rivas. MUnknown-2.jpegeanwhile in Madrid, Mario Vargas Llosa, an immigrant from Peru, published in 2010, the same year that he became Nobel laureate in literature, The Dream of the Celt, fictionalising the life of Roger Casement.   Irish critics, Fintan O’Toole and Colm Toíbín, find the novel flawed and Clark, himself, thinks that the absence of Ireland as a location is a handicap in reimagining Casement’s Irish nationalism.

An essay by Finola Kane discusses what she calls ‘the architectural embodiment of the Irish nation’. Kane shows that travel writing has, over the past two centuries, presented Ireland as a country of domestic architecture. Portrayals sometimes tell narratives of cabin evictions or, like one of Paul Henry’s chocolate box paintings, depict white cottages nestling in moorland. She argues that ‘depopulated rural landscapes are a personification of Ireland’ which endures.

A Connemara village: Paul Henry.

And therein lies the rub. Many non-Irish contributors are unable to negotiate beyond the Ireland they absorbed from the cadences of Yeats’s lyric poetry. The more mundane reality, such as in ‘September 1913’, which speaks of urban fingers ‘fumbling in a greasy till’, eludes them.

Works cited

Cid Cabido, X. Blúmsdei. Xerais De Galicia Edicions. 2006.

Eds. Gisela Holfter and Bettina Migge. Ireland in the European Eye.  Royal Irish Academy. 2019.

Vargos Llosa, M. The Dream of the Celt. Faber & Faber. 2010.

A version of this review was first published on page 45 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.


The Bad Trip

The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties    James Riley


Eat your heart out Tarantino.  Here’s a boy who really knows his way around your ‘hood.


James Riley bookends The Bad Trip with accounts of two surreal films by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In Apotheosis a camera attached to a rising balloon records the diminishing figures of John and Yoko as they stand below. A few months later they made Apotheosis No. 2 which was more or less the same except this time the couple were shrouded in dark habits and hoods. Riley says that as the spectator watches them shrink and then be lost from view it is hard not to be reminded of Lennon’s untimely death some ten years later.


In contrast to the comparative silence of the films Riley interjects the ruckus of the so-called Woodstock of the West Coast, Altamont Speedway 1969, at which violence broke out when a Hells Angel stabbed a young woman, Meredith Hunter, to death as the Rolling Stones plunged through their set.

He also ties the two Apotheosises to the satanic horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, then in post-production, and to its director Roman Polanski whose pregnant wife Sharon Tate was butchered, along with some friends, by the Manson family. In fact The Bad Trip would be good context for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.


Riley is a Fellow of English Literature at Girton College, Cambridge where he specialises in modern and contemporary literature, popular film and 1960s culture. Who better to lead us on a pilgrimage to the decade of peace, love and flower-power and then to turn and look back, like Job on Sodom and Gomorrah, and penetrate the dark side?

James Riley

In 1969 Michael Wadleigh was commissioned to make a documentary of a rock festival. The resulting film, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, has become an icon of the era. Plucky hippies abandon their cars on the road and hike to the natural arena in which the event is being held. Everyone is prepared to give everything, including peace, a chance. There is footage of naked fauns and dryads cavorting in a lake. And when the raindrops keep falling on their heads what option is there other than dancing and chanting to appease the gods?

Soundtrack Album Cover Photo

The guitarist of Country Joe and the Fish, Barry Melton, states: ‘I can always tell who was really there […] when they tell me it was great I know they saw the movie and they weren’t at the gig’.   In The Bad Trip Riley emphasises the failings and miseries of the festival, the ‘broken equipment, the sinking waterlogged stage and a sodden, exhausted and sleep deprived crowd’. He summarises by saying that Woodstock ‘had descended, within a matter of days, into a filthy ocean awash with bad acid and bad trips’.

This is one example of how Riley presents the dream of a peaceful, loving counterculture as little more than an illusion. As soon as a lovely entity is created, cracks and fissures start to break the skin and then coalesce to produce vast voids through which can be viewed destruction and decay. An example is Rosemary’s Baby in which a longed for pregnancy starts to show aberrant signs and the resulting issue is, veritably, the son of Satan. Something is rotten in the Age of Aquarius.


Riley’s The Bad Trip is like a box of white chocolate truffles. Each chapter is a melange of tempting delights with titles such as ‘The Devil’s Business’, ‘Surrender to the Void’ and ‘The Rebirth of Dionysus’, containing tastes of Beat poetry, LSD, the moon landing, J. G. Ballard, assassinations and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It is beautifully structured and written, a wonderful confection: crack the crisp shells with your teeth and run your tongue around the corrupting centres.

Works cited

Apotheosis, Apotheosis No. 2. Films by john Lennon, Yoko One and Nick Knowland. 1969.

Davis, H. S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Penguin. 1971.

Riley, J. The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties. Icon Books. 2019.

Rosemary’s Baby. Dir. Polanski, R. William Castle Productions. 1968.

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music. Dir. Michael Wadleigh. Warner Bros. 1970.

A version of this review was first published on page 42 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 9th November 2019.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.





A Half Baked Idea

A Half Baked Idea by Olivia Potts

A melange of joy and grief, A Half-Baked Idea takes cookery writing and recipes to an emotional high.

Like Baked Alaska Olivia Potts’s first book, A Half Baked Idea, is a miracle of chemistry. Hot and golden on the outside with a frozen centre. The Secret Barrister, whoever she is, has vowed to eat her wig if it is not the book of the summer. Or was that summer pudding?Unknown.jpeg

Enough of the food jokes. A Half Baked Idea is a serious enterprise which deals mainly with death and its destabilising sense of loss. Potts’s beloved mother, died suddenly at only 54, and the shock reverberated through her daughter’s very being, ameliorated only by hours of semi-successful cooking experiments.

Bereavement made Potts feel as if she were sitting in a steadily cooling bath but as month followed month she found that baking was like adding a kettle of boiling water to the soul-eclipsing chill that surrounded her.


Contact with her widower father and her desolate sister, Madeleine, failed to bring comfort but a new boyfriend, eventually to become her husband, offered solace through small but daily acts of kindness and compassion.   A far better cook than she, Sam mentored her through her first homemade pizza, recipe included.


Until her death Ruth had been the cook of the family, even though she was not a great fan of the activity. Her motto was that if you knew how to make a thing, such as white sauce, you never need do it again. Instead you could buy a ready meal, fish pie, for example. One speciality in the Potts household was shepherd’s pie, recipe provided, which included all but one spoonful of a tin of baked beans. Stomach-churning. And worse, as the tin was opened, a mouthful of cold ‘cheeky beans’ was savoured and gulped down by the chef. Yum?


The Potts parents were both lawyers and Olivia, their elder child, followed in their footsteps. She was a pupil in chambers, reading for the Bar, when her mother died. (Potts hates all euphemisms such as passing, or resting in peace and repeats throughout ‘Mum is dead’ or ‘my mother is dead’.) At that time she was waiting to hear whether her chambers would secure her tenancy thus ending her pupillage.

They did accept her. Soon after that, however, Potts realised that although law was in her family blood she wanted out. She determined to cook herself from grief to joy. But it wasn’t quite as easy as that. Potts was reading dozens of books and memoirs about grief and death. She invented and incessantly played a game: Grief Top Trumps. The rules are that she works how and why her experience of her mother’s death was more terrible than any one else’s reaction to a bereavement. She obsesses, seeking out the deaths of other women, such as Linda Bellingham of the Oxo advertisement and Victoria Wood, and weeping uncontrollably. ‘Mum’s death’ Potts states, ‘was the only story I had to tell’. And not only that, she wanted to steal everyone else’s grief and hug it to her chest.


Training at Le Cordon Bleu provided a tight discipline and disasters in cuisine, although unwelcome, are not lasting. And so Potts learnt resilience. She learnt to start again the next day and keep practising. She learnt the joy of a perfect crème anglaise – recipe omitted. But Potts says that for her ‘every joy is now a sadness’ because it cannot be shared with her mother.


In A Half Baked Idea Potts reveals much of herself and chronicles her eventual recovery from the terrible blow. She is both wise and foolish but her honest account is, ultimately, uplifting. I am not sure about all the recipes though – especially the banana cake which demands that the fruit is first blackened in the freezer. Yuk!

Works cited

Potts, O. A Half Baked Idea. Penguin. 2019.

A version of this review was first published on page 34 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 19th October 2019.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.