Eric Idle lives and writes on the bright side of life

Several years ago I reviewed Monty Python alumnus John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway (This Parrot is Definitely Not Dead). Another Python’er, Eric Idle has now come out with his version of their epic story and as a fan of their silly, British humour, I couldn’t wait to read it. Always Look On The Bright Side of Life, A Sortabiography by Eric Idle is not only the title of his autobiographical book but the final chorus written originally by Idle for their famous movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The song Always Look On The Bright Side of Life was sung by the group of followers who surrounded Brian as they were being crucified at the end of the movie. Interestingly, that iconic song is now the most requested song at British funerals and has given me serious thought for future consideration—which says a lot about my own sense of humour.

Eric Idle (“We couldn’t afford a second name. There was a war on.”) was born in 1943 in County Durham, east of Liverpool during the bombing and raised during the years of deprivation and austerity that followed. His father died when he was only three years old and unable to cope with raising her young son as a single mother, his mother enrolled him in a severe military boarding school/orphanage at the age of seven where he remained until he graduated at nineteen. He always remembered his grim school years as “a twelve-year prison sentence”. The only benefit from the experience was he qualified for a scholarship to Cambridge University where he met John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and eventually Terry Gilliam. Their university drama experiments in comedy became Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Idle’s book is a literate, fun read, beginning right on page one. Being funny requires being smart and all the Pythons were smart. John Cleese graduated in Law, Graham Chapman in Medicine and Eric Idle studied English. Based on the popularity of skits they had written and performed in local shows, the group was given an obsure time slot by BBC at the end of the day before they went off the air, just before the showing of the Queen on a horse to the accompaniment of the national anthem. With sketches like “Is your wife a goer? Nudge, Nudge.” they soon gained a loyal audience. Each member had veto rights on the material and business management issues, a practice they maintained throughout their careers as Pythons.

Chapter 8 of the book was particularly sweet. Titled “Whither Canada”, Idle describes how their international careers really took off with their tour of Canada in 1973. They had no idea they were so popular overseas until they arrived at Toronto airport to screaming fans welcoming them. A mass protest had previously been staged in front of CBC headquarters when CBC tried to cancel the show. Canadians understood and loved their kind of humour, which was not the case when they started in the United States. The Pythons were surprised by Canada’s vast size as they travelled across the country joyfully singing The Lumberjack Song dressed as Mounties at each of their stops. With their promoters generously providing alcohol and drugs, they began what Idle himself describes as his years of being an asshole, a very naughty boy. He’d left a young wife and baby behind in England and his bad behaviour ultimately resulted in divorce.

By this time, their comedy records were selling well and they gained traction in the United States despite being introduced by David Brenner sitting in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show with the words “I’ve never heard of these guys. People say they’re funny. Please welcome Monty Python.” The same material that had just carried them across Canada on gales of laughter was greeted with total silence south of the border. British humour (which Canadian humour very much resembles) appeals to a different mindset, based more on the clever use of words, irony and accents. American humour is more in-your-face and easily understood. Obviously, the Americans soon caught on and Monty Python’s Flying Circus quickly gained a cult following.

Eric Idle

The group grew in popularity despite the inevitable disagreements and personality conflicts. They genuinely loved each other and their work. While they continued performing as a group, they also pursued individual projects, some of which were very successful; others not so much. With fans and friends that included rock stars, royalty, comedians and international celebrities, their trajectory continued onward and upward. Best friends grew to include George Harrison, Robin Williams, Billy Connolly and so many others mentioned in the book. George Harrison mortgaged his London home to raise the capital needed to finance The Life of Brian. Without sounding like he’s name-dropping, Eric Idle’s circle of friends includes high-profile names from the business of entertainment, in the same way we make friends with the lesser-known people in the businesses we worked in.

His moral epiphany came at age thirty-three after a night of debauchery in Barbados. “This has got to stop. You are no longer enjoying it. It’s just a desperate itch.” he told himself. That was the beginning of reform. He would no longer eat meat, temporarily abstained from sins of the flesh and curbed other bad habits. After a period of abstinence, he met his second wife Tania at the New York loft of Dan Ackroyd (another Canadian connection) and began a more controlled, saner lifestyle, but still with the humour, irreverence, and brilliance for which the Pythons are famous.

Eric Idle

The book chronicles the conception and development of such movies as Life of Brian, The Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life and their highly successful Hollywood Bowl show. Eric Idle had married Tania and they were the parents of a daughter, Lily. Anecdotes abound including many references to parties and other events with famous people. It’s a nice slice of “how the other half lives”, which was always remarkable to him, having been raised poor and lower class in the industrial Midlands of England. His own production of the musical Spamalot is still running.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Always Look On The Bright Side of Life. Eric Idle is intelligent, obviously extremely funny and a very good writer. He’s kind to his fellow Pythons in this memoir. His reflections on life from the perspective of a seventy-five-year-old are interesting and relevant for boomers who also lived through all the good times in the sixties, seventies and later decades. With Graham Chapman deceased before his time and Terry Jones now living with dementia, he realizes their time is running out. The Pythons have won multiple awards, the love and affection of millions of people and even had a postage stamp dedicated to them. With typical humour, he’s contemplating his demise with his last words being “Say no more . . .”. If you don’t get British humour or Monty Python in particular, you could give the book a pass, but you’d be missing out on lots of celebrity gossip as well. If you appreciate them like do, give it a go. I think you’ll enjoy it. I’d give it 8 out of 10.

To see my favourite Python sketch, FOUR YORKSHIREMEN, click on the image.
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Disappearing Earth offers a peek into everyday life in a remote Russian community

Certain books appeal to me for their ability to transport me to another place, another culture or another time that I would never otherwise have the opportunity to experience. That’s what appealed to me about Disappearing Earth, a novel by Julia Phillips. It’s set in Kamchatka, a remote peninsula extending south from the eastern coast of Siberia in Russia. It’s a contemporary story about the abduction of two young sisters, 8-year-old Sophia and 12-year-old Alyona on a warm August day. This crime is the unifying thread that ties a wide variety of characters together as communities and individuals attempt to solve the mystery of their disappearance.

The police provide more thorough searches and investigations into the missing ‘white’ Russian girls while a young indigenous girl who has been missing for four years receives none of the same attention and consideration. Sound familiar? Are the abductions related? Are the girls alive or dead? What happened to each of them? We’re confronted with the anguish of the mothers of these girls and see how important their participation in the investigation affects the outcomes.

The plot unfolds like a series of short stories. Each chapter is a snapshot of a group of characters whose relevance and interrelationships don’t become evident until the end of the story. I found this approach to story-telling to be a bit confusing and with more than forty characters to keep track of, it was a bit overwhelming at times. Despite this, I loved the story and kept ploughing through.

What particularly fascinated me about this book was the glimpse into the lives of a mixture of ‘white’ Russians and people indigenous to the area. It’s a cultural crossover shared by Canadians with our own indigenous people and there are many parallels to be drawn. There’s a certain amount of racism by the Russians toward the original people and the author is careful to treat both sides with respect. We’re introduced to interesting insights into the traditional lives of indigenous people in the remote northeast of the Asian continent. In the context of modern life this includes cell phones, traffic circles, social problems and local customs.

Disappearing Earth was recommended for summer reading in the July issue of Oprah magazine. I’m often reluctant to read her recommendations as they tend to be dark and depressing. This book, however, was gripping and even a bit educational. It can be hard work at times wading through the parallel lives of all the characters but it’s worth it in the end. You’ll learn a lot about contemporary Russia with its lingering communist influence, through the daily lives of the characters. I found it hard to put the book down and for this reason, I think Disappearing Earth rates 7 out of 10.

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Japanese occupation of Singapore still resonates today

Every so often we read a book that gives us a renewed appreciation for when and where we were born. That’s what struck me the most after reading How We Disappeareda novel by Jing-Jing Lee. I’ve always felt I won the lottery being born in Canada as a baby boomer after the end of the Second World War. Growing up in a free country that offers so many opportunities and privileges as well as a comfortable standard of living is truly a gift.

The main character of this book, Wang Di was not so lucky. Born to Chinese parents in Singapore, she was only seventeen years old when the Japanese defeated the British and occupied the tiny island. While its citizens were shocked and devastated that the British were unable to protect them, they braced for changes that went far beyond anything they could have anticipated. Not only did the Japanese soldiers conduct regular raids of private homes and businesses to confiscate food and personal belongings, they soon took away their young daughters who were recruited to serve as ‘comfort women’, servicing Japanese soldiers in make-shift brothels.

Wang Di’s story is a composite of thousands of similar stories experienced by women in China, Malaysia and Korea who were subjected to brutal treatment, starvation rations and moral humiliation at the hands of the Japanese for several years. The women’s lives were treated as disposable and if they were no longer able to work due to illness or if they tried to escape, they were simply shot and replaced by someone else.

During her incarceration by the Japanese, Wang Di barely survived. Servicing between 30 and 50 soldiers every day for the duration of her three-year ordeal, she witnessed humanity at its worst, interspersed with tiny, infrequent acts of kindness. She witnessed death, deprivation, and brutality, all the while knowing that she would never be able to return to the normal life she had before she was captured. Knowing her future life would be worthless, she often considered death as a viable option.

Ordinarily, I prefer to read a book with the plot unfolding in chronological order but in this case, the author’s switching back and forth between Wang Di telling her own story in the first person and the voice of 12-year-old Kevin many years later is a welcome relief. As a reader, I needed the emotional break from Wang Di’s heartbreaking story when Kevin’s voice takes over. Kevin is researching his family history more than sixty years later, after listening to his grandmother’s mysterious deathbed confession.

After his grandmother dies, Kevin discovers a series of unposted letters in her personal belongings. Written to an unknown person many decades earlier, they reveal a secret she held but never revealed and Kevin sets about trying to uncover what she had been concealing throughout her lifetime and how her secret related to his family. When Kevin starts putting the pieces of his family history together, all the disparate pieces of the story come together and not quite as I expected. It was easy to make assumptions about how the plot would develop but the author cleverly baits us and then presents something unexpected.

Tragic and heartbreaking as the story is, I could not put it down. We’re given rare insights into the daily lives of the poorer citizens of Singapore during the time of the Japanese occupation. In a colony of blended cultures and nationalities, it’s fascinating to read about how the people lived, worked, what they hoped for and what they believed in. Based on historical truths, the story is shocking and fascinating. Without giving away too much, I will tell you that it has a happy ending which is a welcome relief after reading about such a tragedy. I’d rate Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared 8.5 out of 10. 

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Cathy Guisewite is back with the opposite of a graphic novel . . . a narrative cartoon

There isn’t a boomer gal alive who hasn’t at one time clipped a Cathy cartoon out of the daily newspaper and attached it to her fridge, tacked it to her bulletin board at work, or sent it to a friend. We were devastated when she ‘retired’ from her daily comic strip a few years ago but she’s back in the saddle with a new book that picks up where she left off. Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault by Cathy Guisewite is like reading her famous comic strip in narrative style—fifty scenarios written out in essay form—which is interesting and fun to read. Despite her high profile for more than thirty years of drawing her comic strips, I really knew very little about her personal life and this book provided some valuable back story.

Cathy Guisewite was born in 1950 in Dayton, Ohio. With two sisters, a stay-at-home mother and a father in the advertising business, she was the stereotypical baby boomer. By the time she finished college and started working for an ad agency, she had become part of a massive swell of young boomer women who were faced with challenges and opportunities unknown and not experienced by previous generations. Baby boomer women could now supposedly achieve business success while marrying and raising children. None of these life stages had been experienced in quite the same way before and we weren’t always successful in negotiating the career, dating, marriage and motherhood scenes. Cathy quickly picked up on these conflicts and brilliantly began detailing the challenges faced by our generation in a little cartoon that was soon syndicated by newspapers around the world.

As I was reading each of the fifty essays, I found myself imaging how she would have drawn them. Each one was worth several cartoon strips alone so it was like reading more than a year’s worth of Cathy cartoons in my imagination. What I hadn’t realized is that the real Cathy didn’t marry until she was forty-seven and by then she was already the mother of an adopted daughter to whom she is devoted and who is a major source of new material for the book. That knowledge had me reflecting on the struggles her cartoon alter-ego, Andrea faced when she became a mother.

The book is chock full of great Cathy-isms:

  • Not my fault the headlines were so depressing this morning, the only way I could reclaim some personal power was to go online and buy another pair of shoes! (which I personally did, yesterday)
  • Not my fault that I believe my wants and needs are more deeply understood by Amazon Prime than by 99 percent of the men I ever dated!
  • What if men had a store full of the equivalent of padded push-up bras for their manhood and peer pressure from their entire generation to shop there?
  • My generation ruined retirement. Nobody gets to get old anymore. Why can’t we just sit in nice plastic lawn chairs in the backyard like Grandma used to?

She shares her joys and the frustrations of motherhood. As part of the sandwich generation, Guisewite is subject to the push and pull of parenting in both directions—with her own daughter (who is now in college) and keeping watch on her aging parents. Her stories about trying to bring her 90-year-old parents into the twenty-first century with wireless devices, decluttering and healthy eating are not only hilarious to read but soooo relateable for boomers.

Cathy Guisewite and her equally famous mother.

We grew up with Cathy, sharing her boyfriend/relationship challenges, fashion foibles, mother issues, career politics, and we even loved her little dog, Electra. Whatever she faced, we’d faced it too. Too many pairs of seemingly similar black shoes, weight and fashion challenges, bathing suit shame, we’ve all been there. We loved the caring innocence of her mother’s watchful eye, her father’s protective hand and her girlfriends’ empathy and loyalty. As she lived her life, so did we. We shared her pain and rejoiced in her minor triumphs.

Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault is a fast read. I bookmarked so many pages of her descriptions of issues with her parents that I don’t think she missed a single thing we haven’t all experienced. Ironically, the only thing I think would have improved the book is a few more of her brilliant illustrations. We love Cathy and I thoroughly enjoyed her book. If you’re looking for something on the lighter side, then you’ll enjoy Fifty Things. I’d give it 8 out of 10.

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Kudos to Chatelaine and Dove soap for recognizing that all women are beautiful

Different covers were released in different areas.

When I received the June/July 2019 issue of Chatelaine magazine in my mailbox this week I was a little taken aback—at first. Featured on the cover of the annual swimsuit issue (a cliché if there ever was one) is a full-bodied woman of indeterminate age wearing a coral-coloured swimsuit, a straw sunhat, and a huge smile. The more I thought about it and went through its pages, the bigger the smile grew on my own face. It takes courage for a major magazine to turn the tables on the media’s narrow definition of beauty.

Canada’s own Chatelaine magazine and Dove soap have joined forces to recognize that even though we’re not all six feet tall, blonde, blue-eyed and weigh less than a single maple leaf, we’re still beautiful. Dove has been running this campaign for many years. They’ve earned kudos for their marketing and women appreciate their efforts, but this is the first time I’ve seen a national magazine take it a step further.

Just as I was considering canceling my decades-long subscription to Chatelaine, they’ve totally redeemed themselves. I still prefer most of my mags in print version so I can rip pages out to save recipes or inspirational fashion pics. The spread on page 20-22 is a summary of book recommendations for summer which is always appreciated, especially when it includes Canadian authors. I like the way they’re categorized—Best Character, Best Dystopian Thriller, Best History Lesson and so on.

They’ve also included their Drugstore Hall of Fame picks for makeup, skin, body and hair care products. It’s always fun and somewhat reassuring to read what others are using and prefer, especially when we don’t have to lay out $400.00 for an eye cream. There are the usual fashion items, sensible advice on health issues and a Winners’ Spotlight on everyday household products preferred by Canadians. I haven’t had a chance yet to read the extensive piece about Chrystia Freeland written by Leah McLaren but it’s on my to-do list.

There’s plenty more great material in this issue but I don’t want to spoil all the fun for you. Do yourself and print publications a favour. Please pick up a newsstand copy of the June/July edition of Chatelaine. The cover appearing at your newsstand or grocery store may not be the same as mine as Chatelaine has published its June/July issue with a series of different covers featuring pictures real women can identify with and relate to. Imagine that! Show your support for their brave editorial step. It’s also a vote for a more diverse definition of beauty, something long overdue in media. Put the June/July 2019 issue of Chatelaine on your grocery list and pick up a copy while it’s still available.


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Kudos to Chatelaine and Dove soap for recognizing that all women are beautiful
Different covers were released in different areas.

Leader of French network spying on German military installations during WW2 was a beautiful, courageous young woman

When I started reading Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by New York Times’ bestselling author Lynne Olson, I assumed it was a novel of historical fiction—a story built around the experiences of true-life heroes of the French Resistance during World War II. To my surprise and ultimately much more rewarding to read, it turned out to be non-fiction. This book is a history lesson that is long overdue. We’ve read a lot of stories over the years about the bravery and heroic efforts of French citizens who risked their lives and the lives of their families to fight Nazi oppression during World War II from within but most of them pick up at particular points in time during the war and feature male heroes. This book examines the very birth, growth and maturity of the intelligence spying network Alliance, headed by a woman and known by the Gestapo as Noah’s Ark (agents’ had animal code names).

Alliance began with just two people—Georges Loustaunau-Lacau known by the code name Navarre and his second-in-command, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. They met socially at a party also attended by Charles de Gaulle in Paris in 1936. Marie-Madeleine was only twenty-six years old, an attractive blonde mother of two who lived apart from her conservative military husband. The future of France was fragile under a series of weak governments. Hitler’s growing imperialism and the threat of war were foremost in everyone’s mind. Marie-Madeleine’s obvious intelligence, political beliefs and the fact she owned her own car attracted the attention of Navarre and he invited her to act as courier for an intelligence-gathering network he was creating to support a free France.

Marie-Madeleine proved to be extremely adept and capable at her new job. Her duties multiplied and when Navarre was captured by the Germans in 1940, she assumed leadership of their growing network. At the age of only thirty-one she was la patronne, the boss. Alliance was focused solely on gathering military intelligence while other networks handled sabotage, repatriating allied soldiers and other anti-German activities. She tried to maintain a neutral position throughout conflicting power struggles between various political factions within France, focusing on a common goal of liberating France from the Germans.

Members of Alliance formed cells to report to British MI6 on naval and other military installations that were being built in France, particularly along the south and west coasts. As the network grew, it became more difficult to maintain security. Gestapo and French pro-German police became increasingly more sophisticated in ferreting out resistance fighters and their lives were in constant danger. With strong cells in Marseille, the west coast of France, Vichy and Paris, they were able to radio critical intelligence back to MI6 in England.

Alliance recruited agents from across the spectrum of the French population. They included aristocrats, farmers, lorry drivers, policemen, former members of the military, doctors and priests. Their numbers dropped after the many Gestapo raids and had to be rebuilt. Coding systems, security and procedures were constantly being revamped to prevent detection and were not always successful. There were the inevitable traitors who penetrated their ranks and were the most dangerous of all. Love affairs also blossomed under life and death conditions and even Marie-Madeleine herself was not immune. Although captured, she managed to escape and hold her network together.

Feminism in Europe during WWII was unheard of and the fact that this highly effective network was lead by a woman was significant. Both the German and French governments considered women secondary citizens and encouraged them to concentrate on home and children. Restrictions on women included “the death penalty for performing an abortion, made it more difficult to get a divorce, barred married women from working in the public sector, and ordered all female students in high school to take classes in housekeeping.”

Marie-Madeleine Fourcade survived the war and remained active in French political issues.

This book is nothing short of astonishing—a fascinating read. Although non-fiction, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War reads like a novel. The writing is beautiful and easy to follow. Original photographs of the individuals who were major players are included and lend a personal touch to their amazing stories. The narrative proceeds in chronological order (just the way I like a book to unfold) and the amount of research required to bring this story to print is mind-boggling. I absolutely could not put this book down and even as I tore through it I hated to see it end. Those of us who have never lived through war or foreign occupation cannot imagine the hardships faced by everyday citizens under such conditions.

Her gender was kept secret from MI6 in the beginning and even as agents were recruited some were skeptical that a woman could do the job as well as a man. Her agents provided critical information that shaped the allied effort on D-Day and the push toward Berlin. Shockingly, she proved herself to be superior in every way and loyalty was assured when agents quickly became aware of her capability and leadership skills. After the war, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade did not receive the recognition and awards many lesser male counterparts enjoyed, simply because she was a woman. I rate this book 9 out of 10 and guarantee you will not be able to put it down.

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