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I put a spell on you – the book

Book cover - Nina Simone

A book for Christmas? A fascinating real life story of a mega star, Nina Simone.

Book cover - Nina Simone

Nina Simone was a remarkable pianist and one of the great singers of the 20th century with a strikingly unique voice and presentation which could be powerful or tender or bitter, but always captivating.

I recently discovered that she had written an autobiography which is not surprisingly, entitled  I put a spell on you.

What lay behind that impression of great inner strength?
Like many people I have always been curious about the real life, behind the scenes, experience, of world famous people.. To the world, to you and me, they may have always looked supremely confident and capable. This biography reveals her complex and troubled character.

Poor beginnings?
It had always been my impression that Nina Simone grew up in poor circumstances, but that is an oversimplification.

She was the sixth of eight children. Her father had been a working man who had become a successful businessman and, at one time owned three businesses  –   a dry cleaning business, a barbers shop, a road hauliers business, For a few years the family had lived in a big house  with a very large garden. They had their own tennis court, but at the time Nina was born the family had hit really bad times. 
The Great Depression caused all three of her father’s businesses to collapse. They moved to a smaller house. The house burned down. Her father became seriously ill and had a major operation which put him out of work for several years. This was the time of great poverty for the family,  the time of Nina’s early childhood.

As a result of this they had to move to a small community living in shacks in the woods. Nina’s family made their shack into a superior one by building on a bathroom. Without toilet facilities their neighbours just had to use the woods.. 

Musical family  –  talent plus incredible hard work
Both of Nina’s parents played the piano as did all her brothers and sisters. When Nina was only a toddler she was impressing everybody with her ability to play the piano. She stood out even in her talented family.

She developed an ambition to become a  classical concert pianist. Added to her natural talent was a real passion for playing the piano which resulted in her practicing five hours a day in her late teenage years.

She studied classical piano in New York and Philadelphia and auditioned for one of the top classical music colleges in the US, The Curtis Institute of Music. She failed the audition and was devastated. Everyone told her, and she was personally convinced, the reason she failed was because she was black. For a time she decided to give up music altogether.

Nina Simone was very angry about racism in the US all her life and was very active in the Civil Rights Movement appearing on platforms speaking and singing alongside Martin Luther King.

Mixing marriage and stage career
She married twice, the first time for two years and the second time for 10 years. Her second marriage was to Andy Stroud who was also her manager. Towards the end of the 10 years Nina was feeling that Andy was very much more her manager than her husband and she needed rest and reassurance rather than a relentless programme of performing around the world. 

Bad with audiences
Nina Simone had a reputation for not always giving her best to her audiences and sometimes being very bad tempered with them. I took our family to see Nina perform at The Dome in Brighton, I think in the year 1990. There was a support act which was a bit lacklustre and it performed for a very long time. 

We were beginning to get the impression we would never see Nina Simone, but eventually she appeared on stage and performed a very short set. Then it became clear that that was it and she walked off the stage followed by her musicians. The audience shouted for more but she never returned.

Her autobiography gives some clue as to what might have been going on in her mind. Talking about the end of her marriage many years before the Dome appearance She wrote  “ We went on as before, touring, arguing and making up, never getting once close to the real issues. We just pushed on blindly until every so often my nervous exhaustion would force a crisis and I’d be late on stage or give a bad performance. Then we’d rest up just long enough for me to recover before starting up again.  I guess I wanted more from Andy than he was prepared to give.” 

Then comes a tragic insight into her personal feelings and experience as a top entertainer. “What I needed most was something that few men I have ever known have been able to give me, a sense of peace. My whole life had been full of doubt and insecurity, and I was never confident about what I was doing. I’d lie awake nights worrying about complicated musical arrangements, whether or not we’d make the plane the next morning, if I was still attractive to men, anything and everything. All I really needed was someone to pull on my hand and say, ‘ You’re ok Nina. Leave yourself alone.’ Andy wasn’t the sort of man to do that, never had been.” 

She went on to have many affairs around the world. Some of them were happy others were deeply frustrating or disappointing. She had an affair with a hotel porter in Barbados and a long affair with the prime minister of Barbados. 

Final years
She spent her final years living in France..

Nina Simone performed in Britain on many occasions, especially at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London,  also the Royal Festival Hall,  the  Barbican Centre and venues in Liverpool, Glasgow and Brighton. Her last performance was in Poland.

For the years 2002 and 2003 she was booked to do several gigs in England, but she was dying of breast cancer and the gigs were cancelled. 

Three days before her death the Curtis  Institute of Music awarded her a doctorate in music all those years after they had rejected her. She died in the south of France on 21 April 2003 at the age of seventy.

I put a spell on you  –  the autobiography of Nina Simone. Published by Da Capo Press in the US. Available in the UK.

Nina Simone Pensive
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Publisher Saxon Books Returns

Publisher Saxon Books returns poster

Publisher Saxon Books Returns

Publisher Saxon Books returns poster

Popular and long established war poetry anthologies are not only back on sale again, but for a short time are being offered at big discounts. For example, Minds at War, which is one of the largest anthologies of poetry of the First World War. 

Minds at War anthology book cover

                     See  and

What happened?

You will probably remember that my publishing company was almost destroyed by a combination of things, covid, the tragic bankruptcy of my distributor (Vine House Distribution), the takeover of the warehousing company where our books were stored.

The latter’s new owners, who stored millions of books for the UK’s largest publishers, decided to combine the stock held in various warehouses and store in one mega warehouse. The transfer of so many books and the keeping of accurate records of the ownership of every box to be moved was a major logistics challenge.

Unfortunately, in the process of moving hundreds of lorry loads of boxes of books across the country and relocating stock in the new warehouse, the precise warehouse locations of many of the books belonging to Saxon Books were not recorded. In other words, HUNDREDS OF BOOKS WERE LOST!

They have now been found and are back on sale!

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Ernest Hemingway – Fascinating BBC Documentary on i-player

Ernest Hemingway - 1899–1961 - Fascinating Documentary on BBC i-player

We have just started watching a fascinating BBC iPlayer documentary about the life of Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway was one of America’s most celebrated novelists and short story writers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

He was a war reporter and himself a victim of war, being seriously wounded when he was an ambulance driver in Italy in the First World War.

My own attempt to read Hemingway as a teenager was not a happy one. I found his pared-down, colourless style barren and tedious to read. Perhaps I had chosen the wrong story to start with or maybe it was just my immaturity or maybe it was a very poor piece of Hemingway’s writing.

Hemingway’s colourful life

However, Hemingway certainly had a full, difficult and interesting life, and in his lifetime relished his macho image as a hunting, fishing, heavy drinking womanizer who married four times.
After a period of severe depression and ECT treatment he ended his life by shooting himself at the age of 61. His father, his sister Ursula and his brother Leicester also killed themselves.

First episode

I have watched only the first episode of the documentary. Hemingway’s story is told with thoughtful, intelligent detail and remarkable black and white footage to accompany the account of his prosperous but difficult childhood and his first world war adventure which led to him being seriously wounded in Italy. This first episode also covers Hemingway’s first marriage and his time in Paris when he met a number of well-known 20th century writers.

His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, depicts life among the dissolute thinkers and drinkers in Paris at this time, the early 1920s.

The programme has tempted me to take another look at some of Hemingway’s writing.


Each of the six episodes lasts for 50 minutes and is available on BBC iPlayer.

The series will be available for the next 11 months which will take us up to May or June 2022.

Accessing i-player with Chromecast

There are obviously several ways of accessing iPlayer but our own method is to find the programme on my Android mobile phone (about £150, which I have had for three years). Then, by pressing the “Cast” icon we send the programme to our telly. This happens with the aid of the very cheap but very effective Chromecast dongle (about £40) plugged into the back of the telly. The programme plays with great picture detail and sound quality. Our internet connection is part of the system and the phone is acting as a sort of remote control.

You can see what Amazon has to offer by clicking a link below.

David Roberts

30 July 2021

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Important and fascinating book about Iraq

Iraq, its breakup and exploitation by Western powers, is described in this important and fascinating book by Riad El Taher, O Daughter of Babylon.

Riad El-Taher, born in Iraq tells the story of his remarkable life: how he came to Britain as a teenager and trained as an engineer and worked for a number of engineering companies in the UK. He became a pioneering engineer working on design and development for the North Sea Norwegian off-shore oil fields. He also worked in oil production in Iraq and Kuwait.

Successful businessman

He started his own companies, organising oil production and supplying equipment to oil producers. For a while he employed hundreds of people and became very rich, until catastrophes in the Middle East destroyed his main business overnight.

He became a British citizen in 1980.

Forward-looking farmer

When he returned to Iraq he became a farmer operating on ecological principles. Also, for a while he developed a free-range poultry farm in the New Forest in the UK but concluded such a farm could not operate economically at that time.

Iraq under threat

Riad El-Taher was distressed by what was happening to his homeland and so decided to transfer his energies from running a business to working to end the deeply misguided and destructive sanctions that the UN imposed on Iraq and later to prevent the threatened 2003 war against Iraq. He campaigned tirelessly for years on behalf of Iraq and was interviewed many times on British and American television. He was a speaker at major anti-war rallies in the UK.

Outspoken critic

In his work and later campaigning he met businessmen, senior officials and politicians in Middle Eastern countries (including Saddam Hussein) and British politicians. He was an outspoken and fearless critic of many of the people he met and the policies which he believed were so ill-conceived.
He was dismayed by the character of Arabs that he attempted to work with and what he considered to be the Islamic mindset.

Tragic conclusion

His story is tragic. In spite of his enormous energy and his passionate work to save Iraq from destruction he went from riches to rags and ended up in 2011 in a British prison for infringing UN Oil Sanctions. He claimed that major oil companies were doing similar things but were never prosecuted.

He wrote much of his book in prison but it needed additional work to prepare it for publication. His friend, Francis Clark-Lowes undertook this considerable task.

This important story

Riad’s story is partly personal and his many observations along the way, his idealism, courage, energy and what he acknowledged as his naivety make the whole book a fascinating read, but perhaps its main value is in shedding light on the criminal behaviour of western powers, particularly Britain and the US in bringing about the destruction of a functioning and prosperous society with a generous welfare state. See explanation below: Iraq, international law and the consequences of western action

International law is very clear in outlawing starting a war against a country which is not engaged in warlike activity against it. Iraq, it was clear to the tens of millions around the world who protested against the war that Iraq was not a threat to any country.

The negative aspects of life in Iraq have been well rehearsed in our media. Iraq was run as a ruthless dictatorship with consequent fear and violence. Our media neglected to mention the positive elements in Iraq.

The wars against Iraq and the UN sanctions have been beyond tragedy for the people of Iraq. They have also had terrible repercussions for the west where we are still paying the price in the form of the threat of terrorism. How easy it was to pass through airport security before the 2003 attack on Iraq! The middle east is still unstable and suffering, producing millions of refuges. We are also living with the guilt and shame of what was done in our name. 

Some of Riad El-Taher’s observations in

O Daughter of Babylon

Consequences of the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq and earlier western actions 

Loss of the intellectual elite

“The mass immigration, estimated at a figure of around 4.5 million, has been actively assisted by the US and UK occupiers who were particularly keen to facilitate the departure of Christians and professionals. It has been reported that the majority of the teaching staff of the elite Saddam university has moved to the US; that is to say, those who were not assassinated in the chaos which followed the war. Power generation, water purification, and sewage treatment is now as bad as it was in the worst days of sanctions, thanks to precision bombing, civil unrest and neglect by the occupiers. The transport sector is equally degraded, and food production has fallen.” (p1/2)

The road to democracy

“ What is democracy? I believe the basic minimum is a parliamentary system with free elections and secret ballots, a free press, free markets, and the unshackling of citizens from limitations to their development such as lack of education and healthcare. Iraq before 2003, like Libya before 2011, offered free education and medical care, using their oil wealth to pay for it. Certainly neither of these countries under their autocratic rulers were models of democracy, but they had started down the long road which leads to fully just societies.
Even when I lived in Iraq in the 1950s we had a parliament and elections which were probably more democratic than what passes for democracy post 2003. And yet the Western powers, in their wisdom, decided to destroy my country and Libya, and unleash chaos instead. The rise of ISIS in both countries is a direct result of these misguided Western policies.” (p307)

Middle East in turmoil  –  so much to regret

“In the aftermath of Blair’s 2003 War, the region is on fire. There is mass emigration of professionals and ethnic and religious minorities, while extremism, emergencies, and dysfunctional governments fill the chaotic vacuum. Advantage has been taken of the sectarian nature of Iraq to divide and rule, while the wealth of the country has been sequestered, undermining education and medical care. The oil flow which used to pay for it is now controlled by multinationals and social justice has been replaced by a global economy controlled by the very rich. Freedom of movement is severely restricted by the requirement to obtain permits to travel around the country, and like Palestine, Iraq is now littered with roadblocks at which permits to travel have to be produced.” (p 308)

“I feel deep sorrow for the needless loss of Iraqi lives as well as for the young British and US combatants who placed themselves in harm’s way. This war and occupation is not a British or American war but a misadventure by the coalition of the neo-cons and Bush-Blair in their quest for oil and self advancement.” (p312)

Riad El-Taher

Riad El-Taher died of prostate cancer in Hove in November 2018, aged about 79 shortly before the publication of his book.


Iraq, international law and the consequences of western action

The negative aspects of life in Iraq have been well rehearsed in our media. Iraq was run as a ruthless dictatorship with consequent fear and violence. Our media neglected to mention the positive elements in Iraq.

International law is very clear in outlawing starting a war against a country which is not engaged in warlike activity against it. Iraq, it was clear to the tens of millions around the world who protested against the planned war that Iraq was not a threat to any country.

The world has been made an unhappier place. The wars against Iraq and the UN sanctions have been beyond tragedy for the people of Iraq. They have also had terrible repercussions for the west where we are still paying the price in the form of the threat of terrorism. How easy it was to pass through airport security before the 2003 attack on Iraq! The middle east is still unstable and suffering, producing millions of refugees. We are also living with the guilt and shame of what was done in our name.

David Roberts
28 April 2021

Francis Clark-Lowes

Francis Clark-Lowes left school at 16 and started out as an engineering apprentice. Later he gained a degree in Sociology.
He was a civil servant for 6 years, during which time he studied Arabic. After that he walked (literally) to Cairo, where he worked as a teacher in a secondary school for a year.
He travelled on round the world, working for a while in Japan, before returning to the UK. There he was recruited by the English Language Training department of Saudi Arabian Airlines, and spent 9 years in the kingdom.
Returning again to the UK he obtained an MA in the Psychology of Therapy, and then a doctorate on an aspect of the history of psychoanalysis. For many years he worked as a psychotherapist, while continuing his interest in the Middle East, doing German translation work and running adult education classes on a range of subjects.
He has published his doctoral thesis on the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel, and, as editor-cum-ghost-writer of Riad El-Taher’s book, O Daughter of Babylon.

LINK TO TALK AND DISCUSSION ABOUT THIS BOOK – valid only April and May 2021 

You can use this link to buy this book