Monday, September 3, 2018

THE MAN WHO SAVED PARIS: Roger West’s Ride 1914, By Michael Carragher, Unicorn Publishing Group, UK

Lieutenant Roger R.F. West, DSO

For those with only general knowledge of the events of World War I, here is an on-the-scene memoir that will bring it alive. This is an important book because it gives us one man’s story while placing him within the conflict happening all around him. British-born Roger West was of Anglo-German stock, with many German friends, but when the war broke out he volunteered to serve with the British. Being an expert motorcyclist, he was assigned as a despatch rider to the 19th Brigade in France, which bore the brunt of the fighting in the first few weeks in 1914. Even while in the heat of battle, he jotted events in his diary (Aug 4-Sept 18) and told of many hair-raising experiences.

The bridge at Pontoise-lès-Noyon
Historian Michael Carragher proposes that it was a seemingly casual act by West that changed the course of the war. When West discovered that the bridge at Pontoise-lès-Noyon had been left open to the German advance, he volunteered to ride back and blow it up. This prevented the Germans from crossing a key river and soundly defeating the French and British since, by taking Paris, the Germans would have won the war in a matter of weeks.
West’s diary entries are reproduced in full, with explanations by Carragher that give a broader picture of how West’s experiences fit in with the horrors occurring that same time. We learn how German armies poured through neutral Belgium in their attempt to destroy the French military and sweep down to take Paris. Only the tiny British Expeditionary Force got in the way, and their fighting has achieved a mythical status for the endurance of British regulars in the face of the ruthless might of the Germans who outnumbered them several times over.
British despatch rider
West tells an absorbing story of how he moved around the battlefield amid chaos and uncertainty and his account is full of atmosphere and detail. Even though he was crippled with a badly damaged foot, he still rode around the clock, delivering dispatches and directing and assisting soldiers separated from their units. The picture of an exhausted but determined young man, trundling around the battlefield on a worn-out motorcycle, is gripping, thanks to West’s vivid descriptions of those times.
After the war West was awarded The Distinguished Service Order (DSO) the first decoration awarded to the Intelligence Corps for his bold act that had saved Paris. In his memoir, written later but based on his diary, West modestly states: “I was astonished when I heard the idea put about that I had saved Paris… a gross if enthusiastic overstatement… but the demolition of the bridge at Pontoise no doubt played some part in the outcome of events.”
German Cavalry Patrol
One moving incident haunted him all his life. While hiding beside a road in France he saw a German patrol approaching. In his own words: “So here were 21 Cavalry, at 200 yards or less; and myself prone in the long grass above them. I sighted on the leader and then another and another. Eleven of them at least were sitting ducks, and as good as dead, and maybe all 21 before they could reach any sort of cover. It was my duty to kill them. Or was it? For once, in the impersonality of war, I could see them close-to, as fellow men, such men as I had met and been friends with at Bonn University before the war. The horses slopped along with heavy feet, and the leader’s head was bowed on his chest from sheer exhaustion. So, they had been having a hard time too. I squeezed the trigger lightly but not enough to fire, and then crawled back down the embankment to my cycle. I tried to rationalize it to myself - my rifle was full of dust and might have jammed; I was probably unsteady and might have missed; but I knew in my heart I could not have murdered those men.”
The book stays true to Roger West, showing how the tough time he had in the war, and the loss of so many dear comrades, led to his lifelong suffering from PTSD, then called shell shock. After the war was over he left England and moved to British Columbia whose mountains calmed his spirit. In 1938 he moved with his wife to California and became an advisor to Paramount Pictures, working on many movies before ending his days in Carmel, aged 84.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

SAN FAIRY ANN By Michael Carragher Published by FireStep Press, Brighton, UK

Review by Tony Murphy

Author Michael Carragher is a teacher in Ireland who specializes in First World War Studies and it is his opinion that it was the British dispatch riders, on British motorcycles, who prevented a German victory. An avid motorcyclist, Carragher gives a convincing presentation in this book that shows the day-to-day activities of the riders. The title captures the maybe daredevil attitude of these men (yes, they were all men) as they cheerfully made a joking adaptation of the French saying “Ca ne fait rien!” that means “It doesn’t matter!”
This dreadful “War to End all Wars” lasted over four years and resulted in more than 20 million deaths. It introduced new technologies such as aircraft and tanks to the battlefields of Europe and involved armies from all over the world. 
Why does Carragher say the dispatch riders won the war? Communications! The Germans, who relied on horses for their cavalry and to pull large bulky cannons, chose radios for communications. Then in its infancy, radios were unreliable and easily intercepted, far less efficient than the person-to-person dispatch rider.
They could communicate directly with the troops in the trenches and always had an advantage in traffic situations. A corporal on a bike had priority over a general in a Rolls Royce in traffic jams (of which there were many) with convoys sometimes ten miles long on muddy trails that passed for roads. A dispatch rider, when heading to the front, could carry a basket on his back with more than a dozen carrier pigeons to be left with those in the trenches so they could communicate with HQ when needed.
Ironically, it was the Germans who had invented the motorcycle 40 years earlier and these riders experienced technical problems with their British motorcycles.  The manufacturers across the English Channel were continually trying to make their bikes more suitable for war. Drive belts were better than chains? Yes, they were. Side valve engines were the design of choice. Why? Carragher is convincing in his analysis of the reasons for these and other technical features of the day.
And what about the bikes themselves? The Triumphs actually originated in Germany years before but were now made in Britain. There were about 25 different brands in service, including Douglas twins, BSA’s, Norton’s and Matchless, a number of them fitted with sidecars carrying machine guns, called “Chariots of Automatic Fire.” In 1914 when the war started the British army had 166 motorcycles and by 1918 when it ended they had 48 thousand.
Carragher gives us an excellent summary of the war itself, with the causes and the politics that prolonged what could have been a shorter and less costly conflict. But the story of the bikes and their brave riders and their heroic exploits provides most entertaining reading that almost counters the depressing history lesson of the death and destruction of 100 years ago.

My brother Tony Murphy knows about the motorcycle world having been the top racer in the USA at the age of 21, a title he held for 4 years. Later he joined  Peterson Publishing as Editor for Motorcycle Magazine. He presently represents ROTAX in the US as the sole importer of often rare or difficult to find motorcycle parts.

Friday, May 25, 2018


I met Mae West in a quite amusing and memorable way back in 1976 when she was appearing on the Dick Cavett Show on CBS. This was when I was the TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter and was invited to a press party to celebrate Mae West’s historic reappearance on screen (no matter how small the screen she could always fill it magnificently).

When I arrived at the festivities there she was, in a low-cut red-spangled gown, with the familiar shoulder-length blonde wig, sitting like a queen on a throne, surrounded by a bevy of men. All the male reporters from the industry had turned up to see and talk to this Goddess. I saw how she was talking with her deep growl, and provocative smile, and heard their laughter and retorts. I started to move closer so I could join the adoring crowd – after all I was a significant journalist at a major event and paths always opened for me.

However, a young women, obviously a publicist for the show, stopped me. I’m sorry she said, You can’t go over there. Miss West never allows women reporters to get even close to her.
I stopped, prepared to argue, ready to insist, but then I looked over to the dais and saw why. This was a love fest, men adored her, men got it. Of course, women, myself included, would have noted the creases in the red dress, the dusty blonde wig, the deteriorated countenance of this legendary octogenarian diva.

Mae West was a genius of illusion. The woman that her male worshipers wished we all could be - sexy, witty, challenging, independent, and ready for whatever action they imagined. Was she beautiful? She was 83 and yes there was a radiance to her that transcended time. Okay Mae, I smiled to myself, I got it!

As the Hollywood Reporter is a paper of record, my review of the show is somewhere in the HR archive, and you can see the full Cavett interview on You Tube.

Friday, September 1, 2017

NOT MY FATHER’S SON …a memoir by Alan Cumming


Christine Dixon, my Harriet Tubman actress, is appearing on a TV series in New York, “Instinct,” with Alan Cumming as the star. Having seen his work in Cabaret on Broadway, and being an admirer, I was interested to find he had written a memoir, “Not My Father’s Son.” 
Alan in Cabaret

Turns out his father had claimed that, due to his mother’s extra marital affair, Alan was not his child. In this book, the search for answers makes for an emotional detective story as a young man wonders, if not him, then who is my father? 
Tony Murphy
Coincidentally, my younger brother, Tony, was 6 months old when my father ran off with another woman. My father’s affair had been going on for more than a year and apparently he told his paramour he was not having sexual relations with his wife. Therefore, my mother was a bad woman and Tony was not my father’s child. 

In “Not My Father’s Son” there are 2 mysteries that parallel each other. Alan is being filmed for a documentary TV series, “Who Do You Think You Are?” in a search for the truth behind his maternal grandfather’s tragic death. Over a period of months the film crew take him from England to France to Singapore, unmasking the story of a WW2 hero who never came home and died mysteriously in a foreign land. 

For 10 years, my brother lived with a loving elderly couple until my mother brought us all to America. In fact, he never met my father until he was 38 years old. By then Tony Murphy was famous in the motorcycle world, winning the US Speed Racing title when he was only 21 and holding it for 3 more years. 

The walls in his large ranch house in Antelope Valley are covered with photos from his championship days, along with the medallion from Trailblazers Hall of Fame

Alan's parents

While Alan is reeling from the facts he learns about his grandfather, a man he never met, he is drawn into a greater drama. Is it possible that the brutality he experienced from his father was punishment for being the result of a betrayal by his beloved mother. Where does the truth lie? The parallels are mind-boggling. 
My parents
Was my mother unfaithful to my father, which gave him reason to abandon her and seek happiness elsewhere? After the woman died, my father came to America to visit us and, when he returned to England, amazed everyone by proudly showing photos of “my son in America!” It takes a leap of faith to know your own son, or does it?

Today there is DNA, and a parent can no longer disown their own child. Alan, in the book, goes the distance and takes the leap to DNA testing, a journey that my brother and I are still considering. As Tony says, “I want to know the truth. If I’m not his son I’ll be quite happy to not have been acknowledged by him.”

Read the book. You will not be able to put it down. When I worked for Dell Publishing there were 2 rules for buying a book: If the phone rang and you had to put it aside, did you immediately return to it? And, if you took it home, did you stay up until 3 a.m. to finish it?
“Not My Father’s Son” is definitely a 3 a.m. book!

Friday, August 25, 2017


This is from a prompt on July 10, 2013 in The Tuesday Writers Group at Durant Library in Hollywood.

I am determined to get back to my own creative writing. It seems self-indulgent since I rarely show my poems or stories to anyone but have submitted quite a few with no response. When I write articles, reviews or essays it’s a different story. I get published but then it’s about other people’s lives or creative work, not my own. Why is this? 

I love reading my old works – in fact I am deeply moved and often dazzled by the deep emotions they evoke. My relationship with my father, my childhood, my first loves, fascinate me. Someone said, “Write what you know” and I have. But no one said, “Share it with others” so I secrete it away in dusty old files. But I keep the hand-scrawled poems, keep the tear-filled memories, love to read them – I am awed by their power – but do not believe anyone else will feel the same.

Do all writers feel this deep scared shame about their honest work? If it is great writing, will anyone even recognize it? 

Colleges teach about the greatness of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry, students study his words, but in his own time no one even listened. He died unrecognized. 

          And we all know that Vincent Van Gogh painted master works that now sell for millions, but in his lifetime never sold a painting. 

Is it because I can believe I am like them – an undiscovered genius – as long as I keep my work hidden. The clever stuff is out there. I get my kicks from being printed, being online. Dare I ever open those dead files? Or is it better not to know? Is it better to be discovered or is it better to feel that, after I’m gone, I might join with them, and Emily Dickinson, and so many others.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017



Twenty years ago my husband Ralph and I wrote a musical about the early Women’s Rights movement in the 1850’s. Because the issue of slavery was an important feature in the story, in one rewrite I added the character of Harriet Tubman. About ten years ago, when we were living in Staten Island, I read an amazing book by a woman who had actually interviewed Harriet when she was living in Auburn, New York after the Civil War. Ralph and I had received a number of grants from the Staten Island Arts Council to write and produce musicals and I now felt inspired to write a new work based on Harriet’s actual words. However, in a meeting with the African American Grants Director, Ben Jacobs, I expressed my hesitation over tackling this Harriet Tubman project. I said, “As a white woman, I don’t feel I have the right to be writing about the greatest African American woman in history.” Ben looked at me with eyebrows raised and said bluntly: “Get over it!” So I went home and started the play that very day, handed it in at the last minute, and two months later was awarded a $2,000 grant to write and direct “Harriet Tubman Herself.”

It started as a two-person play with myself, as Sarah Bradford, interviewing Harriet with questions taken directly from the book. My choice of an actress for Harriet was Christine Dixon, whose work I knew. When Christine performed in our interactive Christmas musical, “Santa Claus is Missing” she portrayed Dasher, the lead reindeer, who gathered children from the audience to come up as reindeer and help her draw Santa’s sleigh. I had observed how she dealt with shy or belligerent or confused little ones She always calmed them by her uncanny ability to be natural and persuasive so they trusted her and believed in her. I wanted my Harriet to be a real human being, not a waxworks impersonation of someone we never really met. I knew Christine had that special ability, she was not only a brilliant actress and singer, but she was there, totally there, in every sense of the word.

Having been a Broadway critic and seen a number of The Greats in performance I have always observed that acting is not ‘acting’ but ‘being’ so when you are watching a great performer you don’t think ‘Wow, he or she is really good!’ In fact you don’t think at all. You know this is the real thing with no affectation or falsity. You forget you are watching an actor because you are seeing a real person. My knowledge and instincts told me this was Christine’s special ability so I wrote the play, with gospel songs and spirituals, specifically for her.

Ralph wrote a number of songs to add to the more famous spirituals and we started performing at the local libraries. After a few months of embracing the material, and observing how well it worked, the artistic director of Staten Island’s Sundog Theatre, Susan Fenley, saw it as perfect for their School performance series. With my agreement, Susan worked with Christine to make it into a totally one-woman show and the race was on. Schools, Community Centers and Senior centers throughout the New York area welcomed Christine to come there as Harriet all year long. This grew into an annual tour along the East Coast and, for the past 8 years, Christine, as Harriet Tubman herself, has been engaging audiences from Harriet’s home in upstate New York, down through New York, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina even into the Caribbean. As of today, with over 326 actual performances we can now count the 310 standing ovations she has received at every show.

Years from now people will be saying, “Did you ever see Christine Dixon as Harriet Tubman?” And thousands of people, not only African Americans, will remember it well because when they were a child the real Harriet Tubman came to their church or school and made them realize what a great person is really like. With Christine they met a living, breathing woman who maybe shook their hand or bump-fisted them, and even drew them up to the stage where she led them to freedom. Whether Harriet Tubman’s picture appears on a stamp, a twenty-dollar bill, or as a distant moving image on a movie screen, they know they had the greatest privilege. Because they met Harriet, touched her, saw her tears and her laughter, her courage and her determination, and saw how much she loved her people, her family, and best of all, how she loved them too.
 Christine takes her performance right into the audience so she is present at that moment with them and it has to be experienced to truly appreciate. Christine Dixon is a great actress but, as Harriet Tubman, she transcends the technique of acting when she channels Harriet Tubman at the exact moment in time as her performing. With rowdy teens she is a scolding momma, with little ones she is the cuddling adult that loves them unreservedly, with adults she is the challenging force that awakens their instinct for play while strengthening their awe and admiration for this acknowledged icon. Yes, it’s Harriet Tubman in person and everyone who cares for humanity needs to be encouraged by this informal but informative hour with Harriet Tubman Herself!
Morna Murphy Martell
Hollywood, CA