How far do you go?

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There are many ways of choosing books to read. Some people go by the ‘blurb’ on the cover or the subject matter as suggested by the title, others by the first few pages, some by the last few pages, and yet others simply by the reputation of the author.

Having chosen one, how do you decide whether to read it from start to finish or to abandon it?  

If I can get through the first ten or so pages, I will continue reading it. So, I conclude from this that when I am writing a book it is very important to engage the reader from the very first page. In addition, when the book appears on sites like Amazon, the sample that becomes available for potential buyers is these first few pages.

If I am not enjoying a book by the hundredth page, I will happily stop reading the book, and then choose another. If, on the other hand, I am fully enjoying or finding a book interesting as I reach page 100, there is a very good chance that I will read the whole book.

What is your decision-making process for deciding whether or not to stick with a book?

So near, but so far



I have been working on the manuscript of my latest book, about whose subject I will write sooner or later.

I have reached a stage at which I keep reading through the whole text, trying to put myself in the place of a potential reader, and from that position I make modifications, which I hope will improve the quality of the book. Each time I look at it, I make more changes, many corrections, some additions, and many more deletions to eliminate my natural tendency towards verbosity. So, my book is nearing completion, but has far to go before publishing it.

Soon, I will be ready to show my manuscript to some kind volunteers to get their candid (I hope) opinions, comments, and criticisms on what I have produced so far.  If I do not do this, I will become self-satisfied and the book might begin to suffer. Also, I need to know whether what I have written is, in priciple, likely to be worth reading! Then, it will be back to the ‘drawing board’ to modify my work in the light of what my test readers tell me.

Finally, I will need to proof-read my book, format it properly, and add a few illustrations before publishing my ‘oeuvre’. From conceiving an idea to finishing a book based on it is a long process, frustrating at times but largely enjoyable.

It was not all bad in East Germany


For those of you who are too young to remember, Germany was divided into two separate countries, West Germany and East Germany (‘DDR’), between the end of World War 2 (‘WW2’) and 1990 (when the two countries were united into one). The DDR was a socialist republic overshadowed by the USSR.

Many years after the re-unification of Germany, our German-built Bosch dish-washing machine broke down. The engineer who came to mend it, fixed it in a couple of minutes, but remained talking to us for half an hour. He had been brought up in the DDR. He wanted to explain to us that contrary to all that we might have heard about the evils of the DDR and the difficulties its citizens faced, it was not all bad. He told us that, for example, education was good, there was little or no unemployment, and there had been a great sense of camaraderie. It was very important for our engineer that we should not think ill of the former DDR.

Recently, I finished reading an excellent book about the DDR, Red Love written by Maxim Leo and published in English in 2013. Leo was born in 1970, and like our Bosch engineer, does not damn the DDR, but takes care to point out that living in that former country was not at all easy or straightforward. For anyone curious about life in the DDR, this book is very illuminating. However, there is much more to this short book than describing the DDR.

What is most fascinating in Leo’s book is his stories about his two grandfathers, both of whom lived in the DDR. One of them remembered life being reasonable during the Nazi regime. Despite his grandson’s questioning, it is not clear what he did during those terrible times. The other grandfather led an exciting and dangerous life as a member of the French resistance during WW2. His story is gripping. 

Leo’s parents are also interestingly described. They were both in favour of, or atleast not completely against, the regime in the DDR. Each of them expressed their didfferent critical views of the political system, but neither of them did so strongly that they fell out of favour with it.

The book is a very readable translation of the original German translation. It provides a fascinating insight into life in the DDR and the period that preceded it. It was a book that I found difficult to put down, a real ‘page-turner’. Some of what I read in it chimes well with what our dish washing machine engineer told us.

Looking for something?



I write a great deal in my spare time. Apart from blogs like this one, I write books about subjects that require a considerable amount of research. I have a British Library (‘BL’) reader’s card, which gives me access to an unbelievable collection of material. However, even though I live not far from the BL, it is quite time-consuming getting to and from the material inside the library. Apart from security checks at the BL, one must leave many items, which are forbidden in the reading rooms (e.g. food, drink, all kinds of writing implements apart from pencils), in a locker in te basement. Once in the reading rooms, the BL becomes a joy to work in.


Over the years, I have been using another kind of library. It is on-line, and is reached by typing . Using its superb search engine, you can explore its collection in many ways, such as by author, by title, by keywords, etc. What comes up, if you are lucky, is a set of scanned volumes of relevant books or pamphlets. By clicking on an item, you are given the option of downloading it (.pdf, Kindle, and other formats), reading the scanned book using a very practical online reader, or reading a typed transcript of the entire text online. If the item is one you need, it is a lot easier reading it via this website than having to ‘schlep’ to the BL. This is especially the case if you do not live in London.


If you have not come across this website and you are looking for texts published long ago and not so distantly, head for, and give it a try!


My picture is part of a screen-shot of a page of results from


A brief glimpse of the past



“… and set off after the cab. He dismissed it by Panzer’s Delicatessen on Bayswater Road…

So, wrote Frederick Forsyth in his novel The Fourth Protocol

If you look for Panzers today, you will not find it in Bayswater. There is a Panzer’s delicatessen in St Johns Wood, but it is not the same firm.

The shop was on Bayswater, facing the Czech Embassy, between Linden Gardensand Claricarde Gardens.  Panzers was still in business in 1985. It closed sometime after that (before 1993). 

A couple of days ago, I noticed that the shop front of a recently closed branch of  the wine retailer Oddbins was being renovated. The sign board above the display window had been removed, revealing some old tiling. Barely discernable on the tiling were three letters ‘PAN’, these being the first three letters of ‘Panzers’. For a brief time, the remains of the now long-gone delicatessen mentioned by Frederick Forsyth may be seen by passers  by. Soon, it will either be removed or covered up.

This long lost shop also appears in another well-known novel, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. She wrote:

She painted until one and then drove me down to Kensington for lunch … 

… She took me to a little Italian place for lunch, down near where she and Leo live, called Panzer’s Pasta and Pizza …”

A photograph taken in the 1970s shows that there were two Panzers close to each other in Bayswater (see: I have posted a detail from it. The branch, whose sign was partially revealed recently is marked with a red arrow. The other branch, which I suspect was the one in Helene Hanff’s book, is marked with a yellow arrow:


Taxi in Tirana

In May 2016, my wife and I landed in Albania at Tirana’s airport. There was a line of taxis whose drivers were all eager to drive us into the city centre and to accept either local currency or Euros. At other times during our trip, getting a taxi was never a problem. However, thirty-two years earlier, when Albania was a strictly controlled Stalinist dictatorship (at least as as repressive as North Korea is today) , getting to hire a taxi was impossible as this excerpt from my book “Albania on my Mind”  will demonstrate.


A ‘busy’ street in Tirana in 1984

“After we had eaten lunch at the hotel, a group of us went into the square outside it. We saw a long line of taxis, which were waiting vacantly by a booking booth. We wondered how often these were hired and by whom; there was not a soul in sight taking the slightest interest in them. One of us walked up to the booth and asked the man sitting inside whether we could hire a taxi to take us up to Mount Dajti, some way outside Tirana. Just when it seemed that we had succeeded in hiring a cab, another person inside the booth lifted a telephone receiver, listened for a moment, and then whispered something to the man with whom we had just negotiated. He beckoned to us, and pointed at the hotel. Somehow, he made it clear to us that we needed to book the taxi not from him, but from the hotel reception desk.


Tirana 1984. Typically empty main square (Skanderbeg Square)

We trouped back into the hotel’s lobby and made a beeline for the reception desk. Two suited men, sitting on a sofa nearby, looked at us over the tops of their newspapers. As we reached the desk, I noticed that the doors of one of the hotel’s two lifts were opening. Our Albanian guide Eduart hurried through them and towards the receptionist, who was beginning to attend to us. 
“What do you need?” Eduart asked us, out of breath.
“We want to hire a taxi.”
“We want to visit Mount Dajti?”
“Why should you do that?”
“We need some fresh country air. We’ve been in the city for too long.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Eduart protested. “You have already spent many days in the countryside.”
“But, that’s what we want, and we believe that the views from Mount Dajti are magnificent.”
“You cannot go.”
“Why ever not?” we asked.
“There is a lot of traffic. The roads are crowded.” We looked at Eduart disbelievingly. Traffic congestion was certainly not a problem in Albania in 1984.

“You know that there’s a big national cycle race on at the moment.”
“That was over long ago,” one of us objected. “We saw the posters announcing it along the roads.”
“You can visit Mother Albania, but no further.”
We had already visited the Mother Albania monument, which was located in the outskirts of the town. However, as we were determined to not to give in to our obstreperous guide, we agreed to his compromise.
“Alright,” we said.
Then, Eduart said menacingly:
“You may take the taxi to Mother Albania, but remember that if anything happens to you, we cannot take any responsibility for your safety. You will not be protected by your group visa.” “We’ll risk it,” one of us said.
I did not like the threatening sound of Eduart’s voice, but followed the rest of our small group back to the taxi rank. When we arrived there no more that ten minutes after we had left it, we found that all of the taxis had disappeared, and also there was an extremely long line of people waiting in a queue outside the booth. Accepting defeat, we made our way on foot to …”


Traffic in Tirana, 2016


It is available from Amazon,,, and on Kindle


Some men of history



My interest in history began when I was about six years old. I could read well by that age. My parents gave me a book called “Looking at History”. It was a simply written thoroughly informative book with many line drawings illustrating everyday life in the British Isles from earliest times to the twentieth century. The book, published in 1955, was one of my treasures. I loved leafing through it. It was created by the historian RJ Unstead (1915-88). This book kindled my life-long interest in history.  One birthday, my parents gave me another book by Unstead, “People in History: Caractacus to Alexander Fleming”. Published in 1959, it contains a series of simple but informative biographies of important British historical personalities.” This was another book that I read over and over again.

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In 1960, I entered The Hall School, a prestigious educational establishment in London’s Swiss Cottage area. This school’s main aim was to educate boys sufficiently well so that they could enter the best private secondary schools. To enter these schools, an examination called ‘Common Entrance’ had to be passed with high marks. One of the papers in this test was history. At The Hall, history was taught with only one goal: passing the Common Entrance. Year after year, our history teachers guided us from Julius Caesar’s arrival in Kent to the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. What seemed to be important was knowing the dates of events rather than the significance of these happenings. History was reduced to monotonous chronology.

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Things did not improve when I entered my secondary school Highgate (founded 1565). History was compulsory in the first year. It was taught by a well-known historian AW Palmer, who has published many books. For some unaccountable reason we had to study the history of the USA. Palmer managed to make it both incomprehensible and uninteresting. This was one of the many reasons that I gave up history in favour of the school’s alternative to it: physics. In fairness to Palmer, his “A Dictionary of Modern History, 1789-1945” (published in 1964) fascinated me. It covered a period of history that was poorly covered at The Hall and had fascinated me from an early age. I believe that my interest in what Palmer termed as “Modern History” began when I was about twelve. It was then I began looking at the adults’ section of Golders Green’s public library and discovered books about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.


Gwyneth Klappholtz, who was married to Kurt – one of my father’s colleagues at the London School of Economics, taught history at a state school. I used to visit the Klappholtz home regularly in my teens. Gwyneth picked up on my interest in history and recommended me an author whom I feel can write history superbly. The historian Alistair Horne (1925-2017) has written over twenty-six books. I have read several of those. My favourite is “The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71” (published 1967, during the time when I used to visit the Klappholz family regularly). Horne writes history as if he were a really good novelist, yet everything he wrote was based on solid, reliable historical research. His books are a joy to read. This is something that the other writers of history, whom I am about to mention, share: an ability to present, often complicated historical situations, in a clear, easily readable form.

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At about the time I discovered Horne, I found an exciting book amongst my father’s library of mostly erudite books on economics. It was called “The Golden Trade of the Moors”. Written by Edward William Bovill (1892-1966), it describes how the Moors crossed the Sahara with salt to exchange for gold in sub-Saharan Africa, where salt was scarce, and worth its weight in gold. Although I enjoyed this book, I have not read anything else by this author.

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My PhD supervisor, a medical doctor and physiologist, introduced me to another very readable historian, the American William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859). This remarkable historian had very poor eyesight. Often, whist he was doing historical research an assistant was required to read documents and other literature to him. He had a phenomenally good memory, which must have been a great help if he had to perform most of his research through the eyes of another. He wrote mainly about aspects of Spanish and Spanish-American history.

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Christopher Hibbert (1924-2008) is another very readable historian. He has written over fifty books, many of which are historical biographies. I have particularly enjoyed his accounts of the lives of King George III and his son King George IV.  Like the other historians I have been describing he combines erudition with literary skill. In 1983, he edited the magisterial, splendid “The London Encylopaedia” with Ben Weinreb.

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About four years ago just before my first trip to Sicily, I read “The Sicilian Vespers.” This deals with a complex series of events leading up to a revolt of the Sicilians against their French occupiers in 1282. Although the author Steven Runciman (1903-2000) does not make the story appear simple, he skilfully navigates the reader through the complicated intertwining strands of history leading up to the event. Some decades before visiting city, I read Runciman’s “The Fall of Constantinople 1453”, another captivating but historically accurate account of an important turning point in the history of Europe.

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In October 2018, I made another visit to Sicily, mainly Palermo. That city and nearby Cefalu contain buildings erected while the Normans occupied Sicily. They took over the island several years before invading Britain. The Normans in Sicily built fine churches and palaces. Often these buildings contain elements of Arabic architecture. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. The leading account of the Normans in Sicily (and southern Italy) was written by the prolific John Julius Norwich (1929-2018). Although he claimed to be no expert on the subject, his two-volume history of the Normans in Sicily is both scholarly and very readable. As with the works of the other authors mentioned, reading this history is both informative and pleasurable. In addition, Norwich injects humour at appropriate places. I am looking forward to reading other books by him including his highly-rated history of Venice.