Author Rob Banks at matchday signing of An Irrational Hatred of Luton

  • September 13, 2010 11:29
  • Katy Scholes

West Ham fans on Saturday were greeted at their local Newham bookshop by the sunshiny faces of lifelong West Ham supporters Rob Banks and Iain Dale. Rob was there signing copies of his newly republished An Irrational Hatred of Luton which charts a lifetime of ups and downs for one avid Hammer.

Sadly, West Ham suffered a 3-1 defeat at the hands of a less-relentless-than-usual, Chelsea. However, Scott Parker's goal was nothing short of awesome and was a great way to break their clean sheet since the season began.

In other equally important but highly irrelevant news, Bobby Zamora has broken his leg but the mainstream sporting media is too busy talking about Wayne Rooney 'playing away from home' - see what I did there - than on this devastating blow to Fulham's title *ahem* hopes. Speaking of Wayne Rooney, buy Rooney's Gold, a biography by one of the BBC's leading investigative journalists, John Sweeney, here.

Let's take a moment to wish Bobby a speedy recovery - that goes for Rob and Iain too, I'm sure.

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The Power of the Focus Group

  • September 10, 2010 13:09
  • Katy Scholes

Deborah Mattinson, Gordon Brown's chief political pollster and author of Talking To A Brick Wall talks to Total Politics magazine about why focus groups are still important references for politicians.

Eight swing voters assemble in a suburban sitting room. Clutching a glass of Coca-Cola or wine, scrambling for the comfy chair rather than share the sofa with a stranger, they may be shy at first, but gradually gain confidence as the evening wears on. It's a focus group and their views count.

Psychologists developed focus groups in the 1950s to complement statistical data. They are small scale, informal and discursive, providing deeper, diagnostic insight into consumer behaviour. Margaret Thatcher's adviser, Tim Bell, pioneered their application to UK politics in 1978 while developing Saatchi's highly effective "Labour isn't working" campaign.

To read more click here, to buy Deborah's Talking To A Brick Wall for £17.99 click here.

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Real-life espionage is nothing like James Bond - actually it is, says Mick Smith

  • September 08, 2010 14:37
  • Katy Scholes

By Mick Smith

The resurgence of interest in espionage comes at an opportune time for us here at Biteback. It has been fuelled by the FBI’s discovery of Russian intelligence service sleeper cells spread across America, including the beautiful blonde Russian spy Anna Chapman, and the tragic, and still unexplained, case of a GCHQ officer murdered in Pimlico. We expect spy thrillers to be laced with murder, mystery and the odd femme fatale, but after years of being told that “the real stuff is nothing like James Bond”, it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that it very often is.

Certainly, as far as my latest book SIX: A History of Britain’s Secret Service, is concerned, there is very little evidence that “it’s nothing like James Bond”, rather the reverse. SIX is so full of murder and mayhem that we made it the sub-title of the book, and this first part, covering the period from the Service’s foundation in 1909 to the outbreak of the Second World War, is packed with Boy’s Own heroes, and noir-style femmes fatales, many of whom have never been heard of before.

But SIX is not the only espionage book we’re publishing. We have just published the three opening titles of our exciting new series Dialogue Espionage Classics, with several more titles already on the stocks waiting to go to print, one of them a book that the British government completely suppressed when it first came out, of which more very soon. <!--more-->

The first of the Espionage Classics has very close parallels to the Russian “illegal” spy network across the United States, which seems like a throwback to the 1950s and the great atom spies, an era covered in great depth by Vin Arthey’s latest book The Kremlin’s Geordie Spy. This is the absolutely extraordinary story of Vilyam Fisher, the Russian spy who, under the cover name Rudolf Abel, ran the agent networks that included notorious atom spies like Julius Rosenberg and Ted Hall. Fisher was so important to the Russians that he was swapped for Gary Powers, the pilot of a U2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Not the least extraordinary thing about Fisher, lauded in Russia as one of its espionage heroes of secret with America – they even put him on a stamp – is that he was born plain Willie Fisher in the Benwell area of Newcastle, where they filmed Byker Grove in fact!

The second of these Dialogue Espionage Classics is Codename Rygor, the story of one of the most brilliant of Poland’s wartime spies. Mieczysław Zygfryd Słowikowski, who as the title suggests was known by the codename Rygor, organised a major Polish spy network in France before going to Algiers, then controlled by the Vichy French government, which was collaborating with Germany. Słowikowski set up Agency Africa, a highly successful espionage network under cover of running a cornflakes factory. It has always been claimed that the intelligence that led to the 1942 allied invasion of North Africa, known as Operation Torch, was provided by the US Consul-General in Algiers Robert Daniel Murphy. In fact, like the breaking of the German Enigma ciphers, this is just another area of Second World War history where the Poles were robbed of the credit they deserved. The bulk of the intelligence came from Rygor and was passed to the Americans via Murphy and to the British via MI6. Codename Rygor, Słowikowski’s own account of his wartime exploits, sets the record straight.

The third of the first three books in our classic tales of espionage is a new version of The Emperor’s Codes, my own account of the work of Britain’s Second World War codebreakers on the Japanese codes and ciphers. The concentration on the brilliant work done by Bletchley Park on the Enigma ciphers, another area where the Poles rightly feel they never get enough credit, has led to the important work they also did on Japanese codes and ciphers being forgotten. This new edition of The Emperor’s Codes includes two appendices by Edward Simpson, who led a good deal of the work done at Bletchley Park on JN25, the main Japanese naval code, and he tells you exactly how to break JN25 in the comfort of your own home! Go on, give it a go. Why not?

The Emperor’s Codes is only the first of a number of books we are planning to publish on Bletchley Park, one of which, The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, to be published early next year, includes a chapter by Keith Batey. He was one of the least known of the codebreakers doing the really difficult work of attacking the Enigma machine ciphers, but no less important for that. Sadly, Keith passed away last month. You can read an account of what he did at Bletchley, and also for the University of Oxford, in this obituary.

All of these titles are available to buy or pre-order from the Biteback website.

Mick Smith is the defence correspondent for the Sunday Times.

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Brought to Book: David Seymour

  • September 08, 2010 09:37
  • Katy Scholes

Co-author of Why Join a Trade Union? David Seymour tells us about his favourite book and more, in Brought to Book.

What is your favourite book?

If ever I was on Desert Island Discs, the problem wouldn't be choosing eight records but one book. Even eight books is a near-impossible choice.
So I am going to cheat here and name not one favourite but eight: The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov (Doestoyevsky). The most fantastic story-telling and impossible to choose between them. Bleak House. My favourite Dickens. Never tire of reading it. Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis. Lovingly detailed and heartbreaking emotion, almost too painful to finish. Love In The Time of Cholera and A Hundred Years of Solitude. Again, can't choose between these magnificent Marquez stories. Don Quixote. So wonderful I drove my children mad reading them excerpts over breakfast. My Secret Garden. May be a children's book but I still cry every time I read it. And finally Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. The most incredible telling of Siegried Sassoon's journey from young country boy to the trenches of World War One.

What was your favourite book as a child?

No contest. The Famous Five, from Five On A Treasure Island through the whole incredible adventures. No childhood should be without them. Even today.<!--more-->

What book did you take on holiday this year?

You expect the man behind The Wire to produce a great book but Homicide is even better than that. It is the story of his year spent with the Baltimore homicide detectives. Wonderful writing, extraordinary stories and then the final kicker - not only is it all true, the detectives are real including their names. Went from that to Trollope's first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her? Have read one or two of the series before but picked up all six for £5.95 in Guildford's brilliant Oxfam bookshop recently so they are my new project. If I finish it before my holiday ends (I am still away at the time of writing this) I will carry on with my current project, Casanova's My Life. Up to volume 11. Totally wonderful.

What is your favourite political book/biography?

In third place, the autobiography of Judge John J. Sirica. From log cabin to the Chief Justice who broke the Watergate scandal. The ultimate example of what is remarkable about the American dream. Runner-up, Tony Benn's diaries. Real history and real politics as it was dictated every night, including him washing his socks in a crummy hotel room at 2am after a hard day on the campaign trail. But the winner, to the shock and dismay of my friends, is Margaret Thatcher's The Downing Street Years. And not only because my greatest journalistic triumph was pinching it from under the nose of Andrew Neil when he was editor of the Sunday Times and had paid £3 million for the pleasure of publishing it exclusively. This is authentic political autobiography, no punches pulled, the wings plucked off her rivals with icy disdain, but compassion and concern shown for those who worked with her (how unlike our own recently departed prime minister).

What do you think is the most significant book of past decade?

Difficult, as in my opinion it hasn't yet been written. Has to be about the unfolding disaster of New Labour. So will give it to Andrew Rawnsley's double expose of what went on in government. I had hesitated, but when Ed Balls accused Rawnsley of being entirely reponsible for the "fictional" rift between Blair and Brown, I felt Andrew deserved it.

Which literary character would you like to be?

Is Casanova allowed? Probably not. He was a real person. Besides, I am not sure that the undoubted pleasure was worth the pain of the STDs that followed regularly. So how about Prince Lev Nokolyevitch Myshkin, the idiot in Dostoyevsky's book of that name. He was no idiot at all. In fact, he was an insightful, thoughtful sympathetic man who people considered stupid because of his simple approach to life. The attitude of a child, in fact. Seems to me like a perfect description of a good journalist, writer or politician.

Why Join a Trade Union? is available from the Biteback website, priced £6.99

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Hiring Andy Coulson: still paying dividends for the coalition government

  • September 07, 2010 15:02
  • Katy Scholes

Writes Nicholas Jones, author of Campaign 2010: The Making of the Prime Minister.

Andy Coulson’s crucial role in helping David Cameron win the backing of the Murdoch press is still paying handsome dividends for the coalition government.

One of his first tasks on being appointed the Conservatives’ media chief in the spring of 2007 – four months after resigning as editor of the News of the World – was to convince Cameron of the importance of aligning party policy with the Sun’s style of campaigning journalism.

Coulson considered his greatest journalistic achievement to be the introduction of ‘Sarah’s Law’, the News of the World’s long running and ultimately successful campaign to allow parents access to information about known paedophiles who could pose a risk to children.

Under Coulson’s guidance Cameron learned how to exploit the mindset of the Murdoch press and he began to tailor the Conservatives PR tactics to take advantage of its campaigns. He promised a ‘forces’ manifesto’ in response to the Sun’s support for ‘Our Boys’; and in November 2008 he supplied a signed article giving his personal backing on the day the Sun launched a petition to force the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith, head of children’s services for the London Borough of Haringey, in the ‘Baby P case’.<!--more-->

‘Labour’s lost it’ was the banner headline on the Sun’s front page when it announced that it had abandoned Gordon Brown on the morning after his speech to the 2009 Labour conference. An editorial said the paper believed ‘Cameron’s Conservatives' could put ‘the “great” back into Great Britain’.

The Sun’s support for the Conservatives during the 2010 general election has continued during the early months of the coalition government. Coulson is now the Downing Street director of communications and he has made sure that the Prime Minister has lost none of his flair for aligning himself with the paper’s campaigning journalism.

In mid August Cameron launched the Sun’s campaign against social security abuse with a signed article headlined: ‘People will not get away with fraud’ (Sun, 12.8.2010). The Sun has a hotline number and a dedicated email address for readers to report benefit cheats and has published a succession of stories about ‘scroungers’ and ‘spongers’ living off benefits.

A campaign like this, in a newspaper with a circulation the size of the Sun, does feed through into wider news coverage about the justification for an imminent crackdown and tightening of the rules for qualifying for job seeker’s allowance or disability living allowance, one of the key priorities of the autumn spending round.

Once Coulson was signed up as the Conservatives’ director of communications, after resigning in the wake of the prison sentences imposed in the News of the World scandal over the tapping of mobile phones, he began to work his way back into media circles. One of his first assignments was taking Cameron to the annual lunch of the Journalists’ Charity at which Cameron declared his support for Britain’s great tradition of campaigning journalism; he singled out the Sun for praise for its investigation into the plight of forces families.

The link between Cameron and the Murdoch press is explored in greater detail in Campaign 2010.

Campaign 2010: The Making of the Prime Minister is available from the Biteback website.

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