Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Surprise! A Birthday Reading List

This Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf (my weekly literature show on North Manchester FM) began with a mystery theme. All the books I talked about had something in common, but I didn’t reveal what that was until then end of the show. Did you work out the theme?

As I revealed, all the writers featured on the show (and some of the musicians too) have the same birthday… and it’s my birthday too! So Happy Birthday to all of us! You can catch the show again on the player at the end of this post, but, as promised on the show, here’s a list of the books I featured.

Television and Me: The Memoirs of John Logie Baird, ed. by Malcolm Baird (2007)

I think it might have been a result of the theme, but today’s list was very memoir-heavy. I do like to keep things eclectic on the show though, so they’re a very varied selection (in terms of both subject and style). The first autobiography I talked about on the show was one that I didn’t even know existed!

John Logie Baird – a man who is sometimes credited as the inventor of television, though also sometimes overlooked entirely – originally wrote down his memoirs in 1941. As his son (and editor) Malcolm Baird has said, these were memoirs ‘in the literal sense’ – memories. Eventually, these writings were collected together into a volume that was published in 2004, before being re-edited with footnotes and introduction and republished in 2007. Television and Me is not what I was expecting, but I mean that in a good way. It’s livelier (and grumpier) than I anticipated, and it is as much about John Logie Baird’s adventures in business as it is about the nuts and bolts (or tubes and screens) of his most successful creation. Come for the TV history, stay for the failed jam factory!

Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North by Stuart Maconie (2007)

Although the list is quite memoir-heavy, this next one might be better described as a travel book (though it does undoubtedly have some autobiographical reflections in there). Maconie’s book is a journey around the north of England, exploring the history and culture of the various places visited, but also the identity of the people who call themselves northerners.

Pies and Prejudice considers the question of what – exactly – the ‘north’ is through a series of affectionate, humorous, occasionally grumpy, and thought-provoking chapters that travel around the north (though, it has to be said, with a bit of a bias towards the north-west). Maconie writes about the stereotypes of northerness, but also about where those stereotypes come from and the reasons why they persist. It’s an engaging and fun read, but it’s also a deep and detailed exploration of cultural history (including, of course, pop culture) and identity.

Mr Nice by Howard Marks (1996)

Back to the memoirs now… and a pretty well-known one that caused a bit of controversy when it first came out.

Howard Marks’s book is about his dramatic career as a drug dealer. He recounts his success as a smuggler, his underworld associations across multiple countries, the sheer complexity of his operations, and his eventual arrest and incarceration. Nefarious as all this, Marks tells his tale with a sort of swaggering bravado that is occasionally hard to resist. Some people have questioned whether everything in the book is true, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to approach this one. It’s all about the story, and the charisma of the storyteller. As a reader, it’s best to just go along with the ride. Like John Logie Baird’s memoirs, the drama of the events described is often totally overshadowed by the personality of the writer. (It isn’t often I get to compare John Logie Baird and Howard Marks! I guess that’s the fun of these themed shows!)

Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India by Madhur Jaffrey (2006)

Continuing with the memoirs now, but onto one that might make you a bit peckish! And, again, it wasn’t one that I knew about until I was putting together this show, despite having been familiar with Jaffrey’s better-known cookbooks since I was young.

Renowned food writer Madhur Jaffrey’s memoir describes her childhood in pre-Partition Delhi. In many ways, it’s a privileged and exotic upbringing – exotic both to the (assumed) British readership of the book, but also exotic in Delhi itself, as Jaffrey discusses her family’s Kayastha heritage in ways that are sometimes rather romantic. As Malcolm Baird said of his father’s writings, this is a memoir in the literal sense. Jaffrey is sharing memories of her childhood, and it should come as no surprise that a huge number of these are food memories. The tastes, smells and textures of the foods she remembers are vividly depicted throughout and, if the book really has made you peckish, Jaffrey ends by sharing over thirty of her family’s recipes for you to try yourself.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Be Read With the Lights On (1974)

Something a bit different now (it wasn’t all memoirs today!). Alfred Hitchcock lent his name to countless books over the years, though I’m not sure exactly how much creative input he had with them all. I knew I wanted to include Hitchcock on today’s list, because I’ve known I shared a birthday with him since I first became a fan of his. I decided to choose this particular title, because I acquired (though I can’t remember when or how) a copy of this one when I was a young teenager, shortly after I first fell in love with Psycho.

Stories to Be Read With the Lights On is an anthology of short stories, most of which have been well anthologized elsewhere. It’s not a horror collection as such, but rather ‘chillers’ (some suspense, some ghost stories and some crime). On a personal note, this collection is where, being a little bit too young for Tales of the Unexpected when it was broadcast, that I first encountered Roald Dahl’s short fiction for adults and, specifically, ‘The Landlady’, which remains a big favourite of mine to this day. I loved this collection as a teenager, so I’m intending to reread it as a result of this show to see how it’s held up. (Follow me on Twitter to see how it goes!)

To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers by Philippe Petit (2002)

And finally, another memoir full of swaggering bravado! Philippe Petit is the high-wire performer whose vertigo-inspiring tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 was the subject of the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, and the dramatization The Walk (2015).

To Reach the Clouds is Petit’s own account of this unbelievable stunt, and it provided a lot of the source material for Man on Wire. It’s a story of passion, obsession, and a fair amount of self-assurance. Petit’s determination to pull off the impossible high-wire feat required years of planning, a close circle of confidantes and a lot of bottle. At times, the project almost feels like a heist, particularly in the way Petit assembles his crew and scopes out his target. Fortunately (mild spoilers), pride doesn’t come before a fall on this occasion. However, you may well be left with some lingering questions…

To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here:

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