The Thalidomide Catastrophe is a book written by Martin Johnson, Raymond G. Stokes, and Tobias Arndt. Released today, I was lucky enough to be able to review an advanced reader copy.

As a journalist, I have been interested in this story for a while now; I’m working on a story that’s related to it. It was also around the tie of the fiftieth anniversary BBC documentary that I was introduced to the concept of Thalidomide. (What still strikes me-and what is further illustrated by the book-is the lack of awareness or knowledge of it.)

The tagline on the cover says it all: ‘How it happened, who was responsible and why the search for justice continues after more than six decades.’

The Cover:

The cover is brilliant, in my opinion. It’s stark-the white background, with the innocuous object of a medicinal bottle. It looks harmless, however because of the history since Thalidomide was on the market makes it kind of terrifying. It’s horrific to think that this pill-marketed on the basis of apparently being a “wonder drug”-was, and still is capable of so much harm.

The white background also makes it stand out on a book shelf; if I was at a bookshop, my eye would catch this. I’d be curious as to what it was about, etc.

Content:

Initially, I found it a little bit hard to get into. I think that after seeing Attacking The Devil, I perhaps expected too much of the book. My expectations were also flawed in this respect; the book gets into the nitty gritty of Thalidomide, not the Sunday Times campaign. (It’s not about the journalistic side. It’s the full-on, comprehensive history.)

It’s also shocking to me how there hasn’t truly been justice. I haven’t got to this particular chapter yet, however it is alleged that there was corruption surrounding the German trial. There is a lack of accountability surrounding Thalidomide, and I can’t understand that. Surely, as an empathetic human, you’d do your best to help, when you’ve caused this catastrophe?

I was also struck by the images that are dotted throughout. I have met one Thalidomider; however, I wasn’t aware of the full range of disabilities that Thalidomide caused. (It sounds silly, doesn’t it?)

There had previously been a disconnect for me; it’s all very well to watch footage on the TV or whatever. There’s a distance in that respect; I don’t think that there is with books and photos. The use of photography bought it home to me, making this story truly alive for me.

What would I have changed?

At times the book can be clunky, in the way it’s written; however, I think that is partly caused by being a book of history. It’s not a book about people; it’s the factual facet.

Conclusion:

I think that this is a book that everyone should read, or at least be aware of. Thalidomide is known for its notoriety, however I don’t think the full scale of its history is known. I hope that this book goes towards correcting some of that, along with bringing it into the public consciousness. And I hope that this book, in its majestic state, goes towards contributing to the justice that has been denied for so long.

As a follow up, could I make a suggestion? I’d like to have a book of interviews, with people involved: so people like Mikey Argy, Harold Evans, people at the trust, etc.

The Thalidomide Catastrophe is published by Onwards and Upwards. For more information, visit their website. You can buy the book here. 


Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to be gifted this book at my own request. I have not been paid to review this. For more information, please see my disclaimer.

My first introduction to Tina Brown came when Googling, surfing the web on a break; Orion were about to release The Vanity Fair Diaries. (Bear in mind this was near the end of last year.) It appealed to me instantly; the personal diaries of an editor, glossy figures, and the challenges of turning around a failing brand? Check.


I think it should be noted that this book is a thick volume; at over a decade, these diaries have been edited before being printed. It also makes me wonder; what has been left out?

Content and plot.

The introduction instantly sets the scene, with the first few entries elaborating further; Brown is barely thirty when arriving in New York as a consultant for Vanity Fair. The sense of frustration is also palpable from the beginning, in the sense of actually getting the editorship. Then: just how to save a magazine? 

Journalistically, the content is also interesting. There’s a lot about the editorship, the daily choices, moving in what seems to be a man’s world.As one publication put it in their headline, it was a supreme balancing act.  However, I’m not sure it would necessarily appeal to a wider audience; in this respect, the book is very ‘niche’.

In terms of style, I think Brown has a novelists pen coupled with a journalistic sensibility; she makes people instantly memorable.

I also like how the book has a wider sense of the time; there’s a sense of being on the edge, technology speeding things up, going at a quicker pace.

A note on the characters.

I think this memoir was timely in one sense, given today’s politics. For instance, Boris Johnson appears in the book, albeit briefly. (With my interest in politics, I was smiling at this particular entry.) There’s also Donald Trump-the domineering, overbearing character who appears at various times in the book. It’s slightly eerie in a way.

Should you read it?

If you remember the eighties, this is a book for you. (I don’t-being born well after-so at times I was left wondering “Who is x, y, z?”) If you also enjoy magazines, then this is also the book for you-it recalls what could be coined as a ‘golden age’ for journalism. I enjoyed it, although I had to plod through a little bit; I would have loved to have worked for Brown at this time.


Buy The Vanity Fair Diaries on Amazon. 

Update: where it says films, the film “I, Tonya” should also be added. 
February was a bit of a difficult month for me. I had been sick for a long time-due to the numerous bugs that have been going round. This meant going back and forth to the Doctor’s office, and trying to cope with my workload in between. But I am happy to report that I am better now!

jOURNALISTICALLY:

I went up to the NCTJ Student Council conference! (So, when you’re on an NCTJ course, each class has a ‘Rep’ who reports to the council. For my course, that’s me.) This was in Birmingham-and meant making the longest trip I have ever undertaken solo. But: I got to meet lots of Editors, Journalists, and network! You can read about it here. 
Alistair Morgan, the author of Untold, also came to my course building to give a talk; out of respect for his privacy, I’m not going to blog about it. However, you should definitely listen to the Podcast and/or read the book. (But I was so excited for this-although I had to kick myself out of bed, due to tiredness as I was sick. He also signed my book!)
I also got to interview Sir Harold Evans for an assignment; I’ll be posting more about this later, however it was a very big deal for me.

Writing:

This month, I gave up writing my column. (Various reasons-and I’m not going into it.) But I have written more for The Growing Up Guide, and my review of War Horse was posted on Brighton Girl. 

Media consumption:

I haven’t read as many books as I would like to, simply because I was very ill for the first two weeks of this month, and I have been busier than usual. I read two in the end: Good Times, Bad Times by Harold Evans (research purposes!), and Everything Is Lies by Helen Callaghan.
Books have not been my solace this month; I have been looking for something different, something different than the bog-standard thing written for people my age. (Carlos Ruiz Zafron is having his novel translated, which I have been eagerly awaiting for a long time-I can’t wait to read it. But until then, if you have any suggestions, do leave them in the comments.)
I also watched Black Panther and Darkest Hour at the cinema. (Black Panther I enjoyed for its diversity, but I thought the music during car chases was a bit anti climatic. Darkest Hour? Way too over-hyped. The portrait of Churchill is too patriotic, and doesn’t have the depth of character; I also think that parts of the film were misleading in terms of historical accuracy.) On Netflix, I watched The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies; the things that happened to this man horrify me! The last film I watched was Back To The Future; I’ve also been gorging on boxsets as I work.

NCTJ:

I think I’m getting on alright? I’m not sure where I am at yet, to be totally honest.
I took another sixty words per minute exam, however I think I didn’t pass it; my hands were shaking due to a late night, and I was very tired. But I know that I can do this-I have practiced and practiced-which makes it the more frustrating.
I’m struggling a little bit with Law, and I feel nervous about the exams; there is so much to memorise, in terms of statues, but there is also the theory. (E.g given a scenario such as working on a magazine, what would you do to avoid the risk of Defamation?)

Lets see what March brings.

What was your favourite gift you were given at Christmas?


When starting my journalism course (you can read more about it here) one of my teachers mentioned Harold Evans. A lot. So, I googled him-and asked for his biography My Paperchase, for Christmas. In retrospect, this seemed rather apt, given the trade I’m training for.
After reading it, I came to the conclusion that this book needs to be adapted to a drama, at least a Netflix box set . Stuffed full to the brim with captivating tales of the newspaper trade, if it was on the big screen, it would have a captive audience. With reference to the recent release of The Post (wonderful film!), this seems even more prevalent.
The sections of the book that deal with his career in investigative journalism had me captivated the most. Exposure of a Soviet spy? Check. There’s also the issue of Thalidomide; how can a journalist, who sees such an injustice, help the people at the heart of the story, when their position is legally precarious? You change the law as you go along. (Although more complex than just this simple sentence,  you can find out more  in the brilliant Netflix documentary Attacking The Devil. See the trailer here.)
My favourite chapter is “Death In Cairo”. Parts of this book shocked me-after all, I am only eighteen, and haven’t experienced as much as the author. It was this chapter that shocked me the most of all. A member of The Sunday Times fails to check into his hotel room; what happens next? I think that it also shows what it means to be an investigative journalist . There’s also interesting revelations; the office of the paper has had things stolen from it, for instance.
I was also struck by how kind Harry seems to be throughout the book; he has a real love of journalism, but also people. From helping the people affected by Thalidomide, to travelling down to the Deep South (complete with opposition to the sheer level of racism throughout), it almost appears integral to his success as a journalist. He can be brusque, sometimes blunt, yet people make up the core of the book. (Prior to Christmas, he also send me a tweet, including the line: ‘Without honest, brave reporting, we are blind.”) Moments of hilarity are also sporadically sprinkled throughout the book.
That’s the best sort of journalist and personality traits/
I think that the book could have benefitted from being more chronological; there are jumps forward and back in time. It can be confusing at times, and I found it difficult to keep track of the timeline of events. I would have also have liked to have seen more about Evans’ time in America, like the book The Vanity Fair Diaries, by Tina Brown (his wife.) The book can also occasionally be abrupt; perhaps the connections between chapters could have been more polished.
This book has something for everyone; whether you’re training to be a journalist, or are a journalist, like a good story, etc, I think this is the book for you.

Click here to buy the book.

Starting my NCTJ qualification left me with a lot of thoughts; in fact, my head is very rarely not buzzing with story ideas, questions, shorthand outlines, snatches of poetry, possible drawings. So: I thought I would share 100 thoughts that I have had about being on this course with you. Some may be cynical, sarcastic, tongue in cheek, but this is to convey the variety of moods and situations:

  1. “Wow, everyone here is so much older than me! They are so intimidating!”
  2. “But actually, I really like them. They are so cool.”
  3. “I wish I could be like them.”
  4. “Shorthand?! SHORTHAND?!”
  5. *Sees a new outline* “What the Frick frack does that mean?”
  6. *Curiosity overtakes* “Got any good stories, classmate?”
  7. “I’m a JOURNALIST NOW!
  8. “So many numbers, so little time… What’s 52A again?”
  9. *On someone saying something controversial* “I’m not sure what to think, but I won’t judge you out loud, in the interests of not being biased.”
  10. “Why do journalists get such flack?”
  11. “Oh, now I understand why…” (On hearing about Untold, the podcast.)
  12. “I’d like to know more about X,Y,Z”
  13. *On seeing a news story breaking in the kitchen meeting room* “GOTTA WATCH THIS!”
  14. “Remind me: what’s privilege again?”
  15. “And what are the two different parts again to the schedule?”
  16. “SO MANY ABBREVIATIONS!”
  17. “Repeat after me: IPSO, PCC, JDF…”
  18. “What is the Shorthand outline to…?”
  19. “What is Floccinaucinihilipilification in Shorthand?”
  20. Yes, really.
  21. “Talking on the Landline to strangers is hard”
  22. *Develops new tone for talking on the phone to convey possible stress*
  23. “Oh, that probably sounds like I’m p***** off. Whoops”
  24. “Press offices are so helpful…”
  25. “Press offices are not AT ALL HELPFUL, I JUST WANT THE INFORMATION I NEED!”
  26. “Stay calm, stay cool”
  27. “People ask me “Why do you want to be a journalist?” a lot. I shall scream if I’m asked this any time soon.”
  28. “Can you actually be unbiased in a news broadcast?”
  29. Concludes: not always. Humans are too complex.
  30. And my own bias can get in the way sometimes.
  31. But it’s best not too let it.
  32. *Sees a news story breaking late at night* “I MUST TEXT MY CLASSMATE WHO THIS IS RELEVANT TO”
  33. *On another cabinet minister resigning * “Boom, boom, boom, Another One Bites The Dust”
  34. “Don’t get too involved, Lydia”
  35. *Sees something happening* “THIS IS A GOOD STORY”
  36. *Creates list of emails to send about stories”
  37. “I best write this a diary, or I will loose track of who I’m taking to”
  38. “Yep, lost track”
  39. “Oh, wait, wait, I understand where I’m going”
  40. “Why do people in high places have expensive phone numbers to call?”
  41. “JUST TELL ME THE INFORMATION, I NEED IT!”
  42. *On receipt of said information* “Thank you kindly, good sir. You have a good day now.”
  43. *Receives the exact same email from someone continually* “Sir, I’m not going to do the story you want. No matter how many times you ask me”
  44. *Researches email blocking functions for spam and the above mentioned scenario*
  45. *Blocks incessant story tips*
  46. *Sees something interesting on Twitter* “Maybe they’d be a good story?”
  47. 10 minutes later: “No, something better will turn up.”
  48. Or: “Get me their details now!!”
  49. “Asking questions is so hard..”
  50. “But not if you write them down!”
  51. “Will I ever get to being able to write 100 words a minute in Shorthand?”
  52. “Or even 60 words?”
  53. “I’ve got forty words a minute!”
  54. “Time to celebrate this major achievement!”
  55. *Saves a tiny bottle of champagne for graduation*
  56. “I’m so worried about the examined Portfolio”
  57. “Please Mr Newspaperman, let me write this…”
  58. “How do people get a record of splashes on the front page?”
  59. “Everyone should listen to Untold!”
  60. “Harold Evans is my hero! I really wish that I could meet him, and his wife, Tina Brown.”
  61. “Investigations is what I would love to go into.”
  62. “How do investigatory journalists get stories?”
  63. “Surveillance to the excess is wrong! How is it even legal?”
  64. “Gotta protect my sources..”
  65. “How could I get a national story?”
  66. “NOT ALL JOURNALISTS ARE ‘SCUM’ AND I WILL DEFEND MY TRADE UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE”
  67. “However, there are some crimes committed by journalists that are disgusting”
  68. “This is my calling..”
  69. “This world is going way too fast for me. This means I need to land a story quicker..”
  70. ” ‘No one pays like News Of The World’ Uggghh”
  71. “I can’t wait for Public affairs”
  72. “Ah, politics…”
  73. “I’m so grateful that I haven’t taken the fast track course”
  74. “I’m going up in the world!! How the Frick frack did I get here?”
  75. “How do people communicate? It’s hard asking questions!”
  76. “Law is definitely my favourite”
  77. “I need chips for lunch. GIVE ME CHIPS, BEING A JOURNALIST DEMANDS A LOT FROM ME!”
  78. “Spelling is the bane of my life.”
  79. “As is Shorthand”
  80. “Who is the guest speaker going to be this week?”
  81. “I can’t wait for the ….. ……. talk” (I can’t blog about this just yet.)
  82. “I’m gonna write questions for guests who are coming down.”
  83. Research knows best”
  84. “Can’t go wrong with Research.”
  85. “I should start drinking more. It seems to make good anecdotes.”
  86. “Security is paramount.”
  87. I wish I could be as good a journalist as Ben Bradlee”
  88. “Or even Harry Evans”
  89. “And Caitlin Moran!”
  90. “Or Tina Brown”
  91. “Don’t ask, you don’t get”
  92. “It’s very hard interviewing people face-to-face”
  93. “But then again, I would rather be the interviewer, not the interviewee”
  94. “Do we really have a free Press?”
  95. “Why would Leveson 2 apparently be a bad idea? It should happen-we need accountability.”
  96. “Accountability for people in power, that is.”
  97. “All I wish to do is to help people”
  98. “Gotta look professional”
  99. “Here I go!”
  100. “I have finally found my home”