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Robert Harris has no need to hedge his bets for the launch of his new financial thriller

Best-selling author Robert Harris  seems set for another stunning success with his new novel, The Fear Index, his first truly contemporary thriller after a string of historical ones taking in Imperial Rome, Hitler, Stalin, code-breaking and Tony Blair.

The Fear Factor, due out from Hutchinson in September, is set in the dizzy world of high finance and competing hedge funds.  Already the film rights have been sold to Fox and Harris is shortly to begin work on the screenplay.

And researching the novel – Harris was a Newsnight and Panorama reporter before becoming a Fleet Street columnist – gave him a totally new insight into the lives of high flying hedge fund managers.

“It was an absolutely eye-opener for me – to go into these hedge funds and find that the people working there were all PhDs,” 54-year-old Harris, who lives in Kintbury, tells The Bookseller.

“I felt I was at the cutting edge and I felt, I may be wrong, that nowhere in fiction – either in films or in novels – has anyone really written about how the financial world is ticking.”

“Of course there have been novels set in hedge funds, but no novel that shows it as it really is – which is so dependent on science, physicists and mathematicians and computer programmers.”

His central character is Geneva-based Dr Alex Hoffman, a former CERN physicist turned spectacularly successful hedge fund manager who develops a secret system of computer algorithms to trade on the world’s financial markets – and attempts made to destroy him.

He describes The Fear Index as a sort of 21st century Frankenstein or “gothic realism”, as he prefers.

“The gothic novel is generally about the hinterland between  human beings and the other, the supernatural,” he explains.  “But our hinterland, in quite a realistic way, is now between being human and being a machine.

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Jonny hits a high note with his musical prowess on three instruments

Three exams for three different musical instruments – guitar, piano and saxophone -- and three distinctions.

So, at 13, Jonny Budd is undoubtedly top of the class at St John’s School, Marlborough, an admired performer with his own and other bands, and now due to play at next month’s Marlborough International Jazz Festival.

Yet his musical enterprise began almost casually when he picked up the guitar his marketing consultant father, Ben Budd, played occasionally at their home in Ramsbury and strummed it.

“I think I was nine or 10,” he recalls. “My dad used to play it about once a month but he didn’t get stuck into music as I did and took lessons. And I went on from playing rock – people like Jimmi Hendrix, Slash from Guns and Roses – to taking it seriously.”

So seriously that while at Ramsbury Primary School he teamed up with four friends to form The Demented with his sister, Luci, now 16, providing the vocals, and progressed further by learning to play the alto saxophone and the piano.

Two years ago he took part in a summer school run by the International Guitar Foundation in Bath, which resulted in him being presented with a £700 electric guitar as the most improved student of the week, to which he has now added his Grade 8 exam distinction.

That is the instrument he plays with the Marlborough Youth Jazz Orchestra, destined to perform at the Jazz Festival on July 17, and he will be playing twice at the Royal British Legion Party on The Hill on July 23, first with the Youth Jazz Orchestra and then with The Demented.

This too is a major event being headlined by The Wurzels, the chart toppers from the 70s.

Jonny is now more into jazz than rock, though he enjoys listening to classical guitar masters like Segovia and plays classical pieces himself.

“Kids these days don’t seem to be inspired by rock music any more,” he says. “It isn’t as inspiring as it used to be. They prefer electronic music that’s made on computers.”

But that doesn’t attract Jonny. “You’ve always got to put feeling into whatever you’re playing,” he insists. “All the great musicians do that. Otherwise it’s going to sound a bit fake.”

And Jonny, as his fans agree, is no fake.

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Children's book illustrator scoops award

The adventures of a hare, a turtle and a duck have won a professional illustrator an accolade from international book publisher PanMacmillan.

Gone Fishing, by Chantal Bourgonje, has been Highly Commended by the judges in the Macmillan Prize for Children's Book Illustrations, one of only 13 books chosen from 300 entries to receive an award.

She was told of her success on the same day that another of her illustrated children's books, Fierce Grey Mouse, went live on Apples iTunes store, and on the day she was told she had been accepted for a Master's degree in drawing.

“It was an incredible twelve hours,” she told Marlborough News Online from her Burbage home this week.

Gone Fishing follows the story a hare, a turtle and a duck from bath time to a fishing expedition, an encounter with the mud monster and back into the bath to get clean again.

Meanwhile, Fierce Grey Mouse is receiving plaudits of its own. This week Apple's adjudicators listed it as 'noteworthy' – a boon to downloads.

The app – which is available to read and play on the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch - is animated and interactive. Chantal had to produce hundreds of slightly different illustrations to ensure the animation looked as smooth as possible.

The book has been narrated in Chantal's native Dutch, Spanish and six variations of English, including American, Australian, Kiwi, Irish, English adult and English child.

The narration can be switched off and the newspaper cut-out text can be replaced by an easy-to-read font to encourage children to explore the book for themselves.

The Fierce Grey Mouse follows the fortunes of a little mouse who eats his porridge, drinks his milk, does his exercises and practices his pouncing in a bid to be as fierce wild animals like the leopard and the eagle. It is aimed at children from two to six years.

An exhibition of work by all the Macmillan Prize winners will be held at the prestigious Foyles Gallery in Charing Cross Road, London from May 24 to 27.

Fierce Grey Mouse is currently available on iTunes. A second app book, Finn's Paper Hat, will be published on iTunes in June.

To find out more about Chantal's work log on to

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The Marlborough connection with the remarkable Mr Speaker Bercow

Gerald Isaaman reviews BERCOW – MR SPEAKER by Bobby Friedman (Gibson Square, £17.99)

My MP, the elegantly tall Tory Claire Perry, confronted John Bercow, the miniature man now Mr Speaker, in the Commons tearoom and offered him a surprising sexual delight, to ensure he might call her when she stood up on the green benches.

When the inevitable scandal hit the headlines, not only was she praised for her effrontery, but she claimed that Bercow thought it all hilarious. And Claire declared: “He’s doing a good job – all that stuff about the anti-Speaker campaign is rubbish!”

Bobby Friedman’s compelling biography, sub-headed Rowdy Living in the Tory Party, was completed before this episode happened last month. Yet, remarkably, his opening chapter presents David Cameron standing in a Commons urinal next to a Labour MP and telling him explicitly: “John Bercow doesn’t count.”

All this lewdness is perhaps unfitting in discussing the youngest ever Speaker in Commons’ history or his 14 years as Tory MP for the safe seat of Buckingham, who, more than anything, has tried to tame extravagant excesses – and silly boy antics -- of his parliamentary colleagues.

But it does indeed indicate the passions he rouses within and without his party, the more so because he is brave and vociferous and, more importantly, has undergone an amazing political conversion from arch right-winger wanting to repatriate immigrants to calling for more black and Asian MPs.

He stands out, if nothing else, as someone unafraid to expose the worst of political prejudices and fight for a better, if not necessarily big, society, a formidable champion indeed.

Moreover, he has an amazing wife, Sally, who experimented smoking cannabis while a pupil at Marlborough College. Cameron’s wife Samantha was there are the same time –no guilt by association of course, the more so since Sally wants to become a Labour MP, even party leader.

All of which is a long way from Bercow’s Romanian grandfather, Jack Bercowitch, who escaped anti-semitism to arrive in London at the turn of the last century and become a furrier in Spitalfields. And a long way too from Bercow’s own father, Charles, once a car salesman in London’s once notorious Warren Street, and his non-Jewish wife, Brenda Bailey, a secretary to a legal firm when they met.

Growing up in the North London suburbs, including Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley, young Bercow proved himself a precocious, acne-suffering tiny tot who accepted the “Jew boy” taunts of his school bullies, fighting back with dazzling wit that left them daunted.

He proved himself a tennis ace before politics ruled his ambitions, announcing to his detractors that he would end up in the Cabinet. His talent – and his determination – were steadfast as he headed for Essex University, the chairmanship of the Federation of Conservative Students and a banking job in the City.

BBC political journalist Bobby Friedman, 26, himself a former president of the Students ‘ Union at Cambridge, insists that his biography is neither a hatchet job nor a hagiography.

“People know that they’re reading a book that aims to be scrupulously fair,” he told me. “The reader also knows that everything that’s in it is there on merit.”

He found it an advantage that Bercow refused to co-operate, though not preventing a total of more than friends and contacts talking to him. “They were able to speak more freely and open up, letting me in on the previously unknown stories they had of John and of politics,” he explained.

That was after he chose Bercow as his subject because he always attracted a media frenzy, especially in the run-up to him becoming Speaker. “John is fascinating – his life is a goldmine of great stories, strong emotions and funny anecdotes,” said Friedman.

“As a biographer, it’s incredibly rewarding to have a subject always invoking strong emotion and making waves. John does that in abundance.”

In a wider context, his biography tells the story of a dramatically changing Tory Party following its 1997 defeat by New Labour, how it struggled to revive itself during a period when Bercow went so far left as to resign from the Shadow Cabinet over a three-line whip, to vote against gay adoption.

“The tipping point for John came when he realised that there needed to be a process of change,” he added. “Like any politician, there was an element of expediency, but there has been an undeniable wholesale shift in his views.”

That alienated him from the Tory front bench and brought about the unsuccessful bid to prevent Bercow becoming Speaker. Yet Bercow  continued undaunted, aided in particular by his dazzling wife Sally.

“John’s political transformation, which is perhaps the most remarkable of a generation, was in train long before he and Sally were married,” Friedman pointed out. “But there’s no doubt, though, of how close they are. There’s no doubt that in more recent times Sally’s advice has been an important factor.

“He is a real political character, one of the few left, more’s the pity – and there is plenty more to be had from him.”

The biography very much reflects today’s parliamentary circus where politicians have demoted themselves because of their own cowardly indiscretions and public confidence is shattered.

The result is that we have a sound-bite system that means nothing, the politicians failing to recognise that the electorate are crying out for a fairer system fit for purpose, one in which they can put their trust, instead of being preached too by people out of touch with their desires.

That’s why Speaker Bercow, despite his diminutive nature, does stand above the crowd.

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