Can’t Get There From Here

Do you ever stand in your younger self’s shoes, glance into the future and wonder how on earth you got there from here? Tony King does this in ‘The Tastemaker’, wondering at the end of the book how his young self in Eastbourne, hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ for the first time, could possibly believe the way in which the/his future was about to unfurl. A life spent living the rock’n’roll dream, yet doing so essentially under the radar. A life lived with the likes of Elton John, The Rolling Stones and John Lennon. Fairy tales are more believable.

To say that ‘The Tastemaker’ is a memoir is something of a red herring, for really it is a scattershot mix of moments clipped from the dipping wings of memory; anecdotes stitched together into some semblance of chronological narrative form. To say that it barely hangs together as a book is a criticism only in so much as one gets the distinct feeling that the written word is by far the least effective medium for Tony King to be sharing these escapades and observations. They read like short bursts of excited, barely connected slippages of time. You can almost hear the gaps between the paragraphs being filled with King taking a moment before saying “and then there was the time when…” or “did I ever tell you about…” and off again in a breathless charge into the sequinned spangle of the past. There is a definite sense that ‘The Tastemaker’ would be best experienced as a series of meetings in an exclusive club where the clientele are the holograms or 22nd Century avatars of the “legends and geniuses of rock music” whose life King has shared. A club where you might be thrilled beyond belief to have been invited to but in which, after a little while, you are not entirely certain you would like to stay for the long haul.

I have long had a problem with the notion of ‘genius’. It seems to me that not only is it often so easily bandied about as to be meaningless, but it also diminishes the very qualities that make individuals successful. Leaving aside the complexities of defining ‘success’, it strikes me that the term ‘genius’ infers some ineffable natural quality that in turn effectively masks the requirement for hard work to turn that quality into something worthwhile. The mediation of ‘geniuses’ perpetuates this mythology, but that is part of the role of the Entertainment Industry after all. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The man who, in many instances throughout the 1960s and certainly the 1970s, was Tony King. Working as hard as the artists he was promoting and having almost as much of a ball whilst doing so. Perhaps more so, since he would be all but invisible outside of the rarified circles he mixed in. ‘Celebrity’ must be a curse in many respects, but such is the price.

‘The Tastemaker’, however, is hardly a book to fully lift the curtain of Oz and reveal the grubby inner workings. Such an action would surely be entirely alien to Tony King, a man whose loyalty and common courtesy emanate graciously from the pages just as effectively as does his devotion to the music he felt driven to worship and serve. There are far too many extraordinary anecdotes in the book to single out any for particular note but all of them reverberate gloriously with a warmth and presence that encapsulates the era in which they take place. Historical details contextualise everything in a marvellous flickery haze, like watching home movies in a living room clouded by smoke rather than the blockbusters of the time in cavernous cinemas. Or, to put it in musical terms, like having Elton John perform ‘Your Song’ in your front room rather than in Madison Square Garden. There is an illusory intimacy that is surely not altogether accidental. It might be a glimpse behind a curtain, but there is too an implicit understanding that there is more hidden somewhere else. Curtains cloaking curtains. Rooms within rooms. As I said, fairy tales seem more real than this. We love to suspend belief, or at least to edit our gaze.

Reading ’The Tastemaker’ it is tempting to wonder whether the times for the likes of John Lennon, Elton John, The Rolling Stones or Tony King might ever truly come again. Do these ‘legends’ belong to a distinct moment in time when Popular Culture was globally homogenised to the balancing point where shared experience was at its peak? A point from where it teetered precariously for the merest blink of an eye before plunging into the maelstrom of a torrent where distinct streams became ever more fractured and where ‘global’ recognition became lessened and shorn of value? Or is that just me projecting my own experience? Out of touch, clueless and blissfully so. Perhaps someone will write a similar book in time where names like Ed Sheeran will reverberate with the same qualities as Lennon and Jagger. And fair play if they do. Whatever…

So do you ever stand in your younger self’s shoes, glance into the future and wonder how on earth you got there from here? My own younger self would surely, like Tony King, gaze on my own unfurling future and think “what the hell…?” In turn I think the same when glancing in the rearview mirror. Head shakes. Discomfort and disbelief. No regrets, but still. Fuck sake.

There is none of this in ‘The Tastemaker’ but you have to think there is at least the possibility such moments might have passed. Perhaps not. Perhaps that’s just another one of those traits of ‘successful’ people. One of the elements that make up ‘genius’. Don’t look back. And if you do, ignore the leering unpleasantness you might see there. At most, add a faint wash of sorrow and a hint of gracious regret that is always qualified with “but what could I do?” Mostly though, celebrate the magic, the beauty and the value of the friendships. That and the love of the cats that you meet on the way…

Ready for Romance

If one or two of my more recent forays into the realm of detective fiction have left me a little tired then this is perhaps due to the fact that my attention has been somewhat diverted by Other Things. Notable amongst these have been visitations (and at times re-visitations) to the enormously rich body of work left by Ronald Blythe who passed at the start of 2023 aged one hundred years. What a life. I find Blythe’s writing to be deceptively soothing. Deceptive because there is, in his soft tone, something of the excitable school child flitting hither and thither. There is always a treasure trove of reference points to be chased when reading Blythe.

Yet despite his texts so often being tightly packed with jumping off points for exploration, Blythe also understands that Less Is More. There is little of the extraneous in his writing. Tangents veer off quite naturally and the lines loop exquisitely back into the design of the whole, like some magnificent illuminated manuscript carved as an Edward Bawden print block.

All of which means that my head has variously been turned by dips into John Clare, Francis Kilvert, James Woodforde and of course looking back at John Nash again. Paul too, naturally, and Ravillious and Bawden, all of whom seem to be quite fashionable (again). I’ve also been reading and looking at Thomas Hennell, who I have not noticed Blythe mention yet surely fits into the same universe, being a friend of Bawden and that circle. Hennell was also a lay preacher, which is a nice Blythe connection I suppose. Then there are Kurt Hutton’s photographs and James Hamilton-Paterson’s writing about Ships, Planes, Cars and Trains and the great dismantling of Britain (“the British disease in microcosm: laissez-faire government that, in its ideological obsession with shareholder profitability, puts off planning the nation’s infrastructure in the hope that private enterprise will take care of the future: something that has yet to happen anywhere on earth.”). All diverting and/or peerlessly riveting in turn.

Mostly though I have been distracted from detective fiction by more of those Furrowed Middlebrow books that the Dean Street Press have put out these past years. Foolishly I had turned my nose up at them for some time, assuming that they must surely be trashy romances. And whilst, yes, there is a lot of romance in their pages there is nothing trashy about them. Best leave that to the racey pulps, for which there is most certainly a place, just not perhaps in the drawing rooms of the millions of middle class readers who enjoyed the likes of Susan Scarlett and D.E. Stevenson in their prime.

I wrote about my discovery of Scarlett (or Noel Streatfeild if you prefer) a couple of months ago and really everything said there stands. There is still a place for froth and flimsy just as there is for fun’n’frenzy, and more of Streatfeild’s Scarlett novels remain on my to-be-read shelves as reliable backups for when the world gets just too dark and dreary to bear looking at. She’s been joined there by D.E. Stevenson, whose first Miss Buncle book I so enjoyed last year in a classy Persephone reissue. I admit I am looking forward to the remaining Buncle’s but there is so much else to discover and I rather think they might be lovely Spring and Summer reads, when the garden beckons and the warmth of the sun might heal so many wounds, physical and spiritual. Meanwhile it has been Stevenson’s ‘trilogy’ of novels from 1949 to 1951 that have most recently lit up the darkest depths of Winter.

In many ways 1949’s ‘Vittoria Cottage’ is the odd one out of the trilogy as it alone is set in the balmy Southern climes of England as opposed to the isolated rural farming landscapes of the Scottish Borders that root ‘Music In The Hills’ and ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ (aka ‘Shoulder The Sky’). ‘Vittoria Cottage’ is also the book in the trilogy that is most easily read as a standalone novel since the threads and characters that feed into the next two are fairly minimal. It’s a lovely book in its own right and is fired through with the kind of post-war detail and musing that I am increasingly a sucker for. There is uncertainty and confusion. There are characters struggling to cope with the aftermath of trauma. There are truckloads of insecurity and impulses for self-sacrifice. It might all be rather overwhelming were it not for Stevenson’s deftness of touch and core of warmth and humanity. One rather gets the feeling that Stevenson would ascribe to the notion that neither being an optimist or a pessimist make a difference to the outcome of anything, but that the optimist has a rather happier time waiting.

‘Vittoria Cottage’ then is an optimistic novel, as are ‘Rough Weather’ and ‘Music In The Hills’, in which there may be cads and blighters but you know that in the end Those Kinds Of People will be inevitably sad and empty (they do “nothing but chase pleasure from morning to night without ever catching up with it.”) and will get their comeuppance. Everything in the books is calculated to be largely free from risk and it is hardly a spoiler to say that in the isolating snow storm that inevitably descends in ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ there are no tragedies to speak of and all adventures end happily ever after. This is the kind of book that Stevenson wrote: unapologetically chirpy and none the worse for that. One can imagine them bringing solace to the hardship of a post-war world of rationing, just as they might do in our 21st Century when “the difficulty of existing [might make] existence hardly worth while…”

If ‘Vittoria Cottage’ does a vague job of introducing characters that will be at the heart of the remaining two books, and ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ plays on the resilience of love in the face of adversity (with a side of the unbelievable for good measure) then ‘Music In The Hills’ is the one which feels most wholeheartedly complete in itself. Here Stevenson indulges us with some tremendous invocations of landscape, where the imaginary Drumburly and Mureth are amalgams of aspects of the Scottish Border country that Stevenson, whose father was a first cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson, knew and loved. Whilst many of the place names are fictitious, Dumfries and Lockerbie are both mentioned as is Gretna Green. Indeed Gretna is mentioned in one of the most uncomfortable portions of the book in which closeted 14 year old Eleanor falls in love with a man twice her age and talks about running away to Gretna to get married. Perhaps she had been reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’. To be fair to Stevenson (and her key character of James Derring) the inappropriateness of that crush is well handled and Stevenson uses it to make a nice point about the ‘invisible’ nature of women’s desire. James, confused by the feelings engendered by unexpected devotion, rambles on about how “Girls never talk about men. It isn’t the right thing. It isn’t done. Girls talk about—about hockey and—and things like that.”” Eleanor replies doubtfully with ““I don’t think you’re right… At school the girls talked a lot about their boy-friends…””

‘Music In The Hills’ deals at its heart with notions of a woman’s place within a man’s world and if the views expressed are essentially conservative and traditionalist then at least they are contextualised within the period and none of the women characters are portrayed as anything but accomplished and stoic. Central to the book is Rhoda, an artist who exited ‘Vittoria Cottage’ with head held high and a heartbroken James Dering in her wake. In ‘Music In The Hills’ Rhoda again makes the point that “If I married I could go on painting as a hobby but not as a career. It’s different for a man. A man can do the thing he’s good at and be married too. A woman can’t.” Or can she? The fact that I have already noted that Stevenson is at core an optimist and that nothing particularly unexpected happens in the books might give you the answer to that particular question, but again this is hardly a spoiler. These books are essentially fairy tales for grown ups (one hesitates to say ‘adult’ for there are no Adult Themes in evidence, really) and there is not much wrong with that.

This realm of the Furrowed Middlebrow, then, is one that I find myself being pulled into more and more and there are so many things to discover. I find it intriguing that one can go through life almost ignorant of whole trenches of culture and that the discoveries one makes that feel excitingly unique are in fact quite obvious. It’s rather like ‘discovering’ The Beatles when one is 55 and feeling as though they may be a secret treasure. The ‘reality’ rather bumps one on the head. And of course I say ‘one’ when really all I mean is me. I’m sure that others are vastly different and know immeasurably more about all sorts of things. There was a time when that might have made me feel inferior and rather dim, but whilst I suspect there will always be a trace of that in my response to the world (it may be, as people are fond of saying, “in my DNA”, even though I suspect this is actually all but impossible scientifically speaking) I’m now quite happy to simply enjoy the discoveries and live the moments. James Hamilton-Paterson suggests that one “trick for avoiding the threat of the future [is] to live in the past”. If that is true then roll up Barbara Pym and Stella Gibbons. Let’s be having some more of Margaret Kennedy and E.M. Delafield. Let’s delve into more of the 40 books that D.E. Stevenson wrote in the space of 40 years. Line ‘em up. I’m ready for romance.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 13

‘Shalimar’ by Davina Quinlivan
Published in 2022 by Little Toller Books. Buy direct here.
This review was originally published by Caught By The River here.

Tolstoy famously reckoned that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” whilst just over a century later Douglas Coupland figured that this could all be simplified down to the notion that “All families are psychotic.” Writerly conceits both, of course, but surely underpinned by the truth that any understanding of immediate and extended human family is damnably tricky and endlessly elusive. Yet despite or because of this it seems also to be some kind of ageless imperative: Who am I? How did I get here? Same as it ever was…

Davina Quinlivan undertakes a deeply personal exploration of her own family history in the elegant, eloquent magical realism of ‘Shalimar’, although wisely chooses to do so in part as a means of engaging with themes of migration and sense of place and belonging. Structured in three sections, the book explores distinct places (Burma, Surrey, Devon) and periods of Quinlivan’s personal history. This underlying structure allows the author to tease out specifics (some of the historical contextualising of Burma, for instance, is particularly interesting) whilst also necessarily casting out the tendrils of individual transformation that bridge across all three. Time wrinkles and slips continuations of the past into the present. Ghosts slip through these crinkles and settle gently on our hearts, tempting us back to go forward.

My own interest in family might be described as ambivalent at best, for whilst I admit a degree of interest in the physical geography of my genetic past (hill farms and coal mines, a TB clinic turned into a caravan park), my interest in individual’s lives is almost entirely non-existent. Perhaps it sounds heartless and crass to suggest that the individual is a fleeting irrelevance in the face of more lasting physical presence, but I’ve become comfortable with that. Perhaps too this explains my complete inability to empathise with those (irrespective of gender) who appear to feel a physical need to have children. I have looked inwardly to the place where I imagine others experience this feeling and have seen a gaping chasm of emptiness. Which is needlessly theatrical of course, because the lack of something does not necessarily suggest a void waiting to be filled. So whilst I believe I can understand something of the drive for genetic continuation, this is solely in abstract terms. Emotionally, I feel nothing.

As such, I admit that I find it very difficult to generate much interest in other peoples’ families, Quinlivan’s included. Yet whilst this may be me projecting, I cannot help but sense in ‘Shalimar’ a tacit acknowledgement that if there are few things more boring than reading about other people’s dreams or drug stories, then hearing about their families is a topic following closely behind. It’s those broader themes of the book, therefore, that succeed in drawing me in. The elliptical trails of colour that weave around meditations on loss, place, nature and the very act of movement through landscape are captivating and deliciously drawn. It may be down to Quinlivan’s background in the academic world of film criticism, but regardless, ‘Shalimar’ displays an astute understanding of pace and innate awareness of when a scene might have outstayed its welcome. The ebb and flow between the personal and what we might broadly accept as being the universal is perfectly portrayed, whilst the inevitable references to films and books are dropped at opportune moments and always fit seamlessly with the underlying narrative, often defying gravity in that they simultaneously inform and are themselves informed by the context around them.

It’s the concluding section of the book (titled ‘Devon, Rivers’) that really floors me though. I read it in the haunted Ayrshire landscapes of my own youth; these twenty pages consumed whilst sitting in a hotel room on the hillside where once the ghosts of young men dreamt of distant shores and of life being plain sailing. A quarter of a century has passed since then, and if the place no longer drains my energy in the way I remember (or imagine?) it once doing, the dull aches are nevertheless recognisable. They penetrate my carefully constructed defences, hostile companions to the constant presence of sciatic pain. Some days I wish that my memory could be as numb as the lower right leg that denies the existence of hail battering against it on winter cycle rides. Perhaps perception really is everything and if things cannot be felt then they surely do not exist? Some days I dive into this belief and let its non-existence enfold me.

Quinlivan’s short passages about Devon, then, are like laser guided munitions ripping deliciously through my defences. Riddled with familiar place names, they leave me breathless with an almost physical yearning for the place I have called home for more than half of my life. Thorverton, Brampford Speke, Silverton, the road between Rewe and my own home village of sixteen years: names that necessarily resonate with deeply rooted personal memory, yes, but also with something altogether more intangible and spiritual. A surprisingly powerful surge of emotion rushes through me as I read these pages, like sap rising from the depths. The sun dipping below the horizon beyond Ailsa Craig might be visually beautiful, but it cannot hope to compete with this love for another place.

There is a lovely moment in this section where Quinlivan and her own children point to their home on the aged OS map that hangs in the Killerton estate visitor’s centre. It is a moment of connection to an unknown past within a precious present and an unseen future. One of those wrinkles in time. I have looked at the same map, and whilst our house does not yet feature (our street is still an orchard), I can at least point to Joan Dewdney’s cottage, out of whose thatched roof hordes of sparrows descend daily to nibble the greens in our garden.

I can’t help but wonder if our paths have crossed. Perhaps as I’ve cycled home along Green Lane, returning from rides between the high Devon hedgerows? Perhaps on a walk to the 15th Century church isolated in sheep-filled fields or over the Exe in the Secret Garden on a summer’s afternoon? Not that it matters much of course, for as ‘Shalimar’ itself suggests, the energies from these places that nourish us will continue to exist long after our flesh and blood have evaporated into the void. Our connections, genetic or otherwise, may root in one place and give meaning and context, but only the magic of place will endure, perhaps enriched by the imprint of our impermanence. There is something oddly comforting in that, even for a cold fish like me.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 12

‘Return Of A Native’ by Vron Ware
Published 2022 by Repeater Books. Buy direct here.
This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post here.

Hall’s Farm sits on the lower slopes of Higher Metcombe, a stone’s throw from the Western edge of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I pass it regularly on my bicycle, in a blur going down and rather more sedately going up. It’s home to The Metcombe Herd, which perhaps sounds like a rural 1960s Peter Frampton tribute band, but is actually a gang of pedigree Holstein Friesian cows. There’s a nice little sign on the end of one of the outbuildings proclaiming this, although lately it’s obscured by a larger one announcing that the farmhouse, its outbuildings and 18 acres are up for sale. I dread to think what will become of the place. Will it continue as a small working farm or will it fall foul of the drive to turn every available piece of rural architecture into second homes and holiday lets? Will the fields be dotted with Yurts and will signs for Glamping replace the one for The Metcombe Herd? Sadly, it feels inevitable. West Hill, with its exclusive gated properties, is a stone’s throw away, after all, and one imagines the inhabitants there would rather have more Chelsea Tractors in the lanes rather than mucky Masseys towing trailers of slurry.

There was a time when I was profoundly mistrustful of the countryside. I remember Lawrence of Felt/Denim/Mozart telling me the same thing. About how he was terrified of rural sounds. Animals, birds, whatever. That and the silence. He said he needed the reassuring constant thrum of the city to feel safe and alive. At the time I was living in the centre of Exeter which was hardly a metropolis (a visiting musician from LA described it at the time as being ‘pastoral’) but I kind of knew what Lawrence meant. During this time I also lumped farmers in with every other type of rural dweller as being ignorant blood-thirsty Tories to be despised and ridiculed, every one a cartoon comic strip villain from Chris T-T’s ‘The Huntsman Comes A Calling’. Foolish and naive, of course, particularly since my own ancestry is firmly rooted in the soil of tenant farmers and Ayrshire fields. My great-great grandfather bred champion chickens, and the High Park farm at which various ancestors worked still sits above Cairn Hill in New Cumnock, a stone’s throw from the council house I was born in and the now empty site of the school I once attended.

It is only in more recent years that my (at best) ambivalence towards the countryside and farmers has shifted. Sixteen years of living in a village in the Exe valley have been the primary driver for this, I’m sure, although there is some symbiosis too with my reading an increasing amount of what I guess folks refer to as ‘nature writing’. Any previous urban arrogance/ignorance about the countryside then has dissipated, more youthful perceptions of the rural/urban divides replaced by developing understanding of the complexities and inter-connectedness of what we see around us. There is certainly something of this in Vron Ware’s excellent ‘Return Of A Native’. I first read some extracts of the book on Caught By The River and was immediately taken by the imagery of the fingerpost sign defaced at a crossroads in the depths of Hampshire. Ware’s writing around this sign and its significance is captivating. She weaves elliptical stories around it, ruminates on meaning and impermanence. This kind of personal rumination is common in so many non-fiction books these days, but as I have mentioned previously, it is a welcome strategy for it allows the reader to understand the inevitable interplay between the global and the personal. Ware does this as well, if not better than most, and the passages about moving to and fro between London and the Hampshire cottage of the/her past to visit her mother are poignant and tender. That space between the rural and the urban is played out in sensitive, understated ways. There is anger and frustration here too, however, aimed mostly at those who have made excessive financial gain out of exploitation of resources/the land/the rural population. There is some excellent historical exploration of the shift from essentially horse-powered ‘human’ scale farming to mechanised agriculture on an industrial scale, particularly around the development of the factory farmed chicken, and throughout the book there are fascinating excavations that explore the relationships between land ‘ownership’, exploitation, slavery, hunting, class, betrayal, rock and pop culture and all points in between. Ware is always engagingly informative about these issues (as one would expect given her decades of writing about racism, gender, history and national identity) but is clearly keen not to fall into the trap of being overly judgemental or to be tempted by the simple stance of ideology. Instead her overviews strike a fine balance between righteous indignation and the pragmatic awareness that Things Are Complicated. Except when they aren’t, of course, which means that any kind of obnoxious apologist attitudes towards racism, sexism and exploitation of the working classes are given short shrift. There is not much love lost either for City Bankers (yes, the rhyming slang is very definitely implicit) who used the Banking crisis of 2008/9 as an opportunity to syphon money into the purchase of cheap agricultural land, thereby protecting their capital and not coincidentally benefiting from tax breaks. Ware additionally shines a light on how these new ‘hobby farmers’ were/are quite happy for these farms to operate at losses, deductible for tax purposes from their obscene City bonuses. All of which doesn’t exactly fill me with hope for the future of Hall’s Farm.

Mature, expansive, yet engagingly personal, ‘Return Of A Native’ then is a compelling outline of the state of England’s rural landscape in the 21st Century and how it got there, for better or for worse.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 7

‘Blue Suede Clues’ by Daniel Klein
Originally published 2002, reissued 2022 by Dean Street Press.
This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post here.

So what did you do on September 19th 2022? Like many in the UK I am no royalist, yet I have no problem with many who are and have no issue with anyone who chose to spend the day on the streets of London or in front of television sets. For royalist or not, this has surely been a significant punctuation point in the history of the UK, for better or for worse, and everyone has their reasons. Me, I spent much of the day at the beach, skimming on a paddle-board over the barely concealed rocks of Branscombe Ebb at high tide and swimming in the sea at Littlecombe Shoot. Overhead the blue skies gave way to the growing threat of glowering grey clouds building above Coxe’s cliff. If one were given to looking for symbolism and metaphor in nature then there was much to take pleasure in. And then, in the afternoon, I read about The King.

Naturally there is only one King. Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. Hot dog. But did you know that he was also the King of private investigators? It is perhaps hard to fathom, but in the early part of the 21st Century, American author Daniel Klein made this astonishing discovery whilst engaged in some academic research into Presley’s life and career in the early 1960s*. How this escaped Peter Guralnick’s forensic two part biography of Elvis is anyone’s guess, but there you are. Yet rather than challenge Guralnick’s surely peerless work, Klein decided to place these new revelations into works of fiction, meticulously placing clues and references to people, places, events and artefacts that one would find in the pages of ‘Last Train To Memphis’ with these new discoveries. Originally published in the early noughties, Klein’s four novels have been republished by the fine folks at Dean Street Press and are well worth seeking out.

The books in the short series all take their title from familiar Elvis numbers, hence ‘Kill Me Tender’, ‘Blue Suede Clues’, ‘Viva Las Vengeance’ and (my personal favourite) ‘Such Vicious Minds’. One might well cringe and suggest that the pun is the lowest form of wit, or bristle in anger at the mere thought of poking fun at anything related to The King, but there might be an argument there that one might have no sense of fun and what, after all, is Pop culture without a hefty dose of fun and frenzy? Both those elements are certainly gleefully threaded all the way through ‘Blue Suede Clues’, a book that I have, to my surprise, thoroughly enjoyed racing through in the past few days. To say that I was initially sceptical about the idea of Elvis as PI would be an understatement, yet the surreal qualities of the situation really are hugely entertaining. Relax into it and suddenly it feels like watching Nicholas Cage playing Philip Marlowe in a film scripted by Ross MacDonald and directed by The Marx Brothers. One rather wonders what Greil Marcus would make of it all.

Naturally there is a lot of Elvis mythology in ‘Blue Suede Clues’ and I suspect that the entire quartet of books provides a pretty fine whistle-stop tour of the crucial ingredients of The King’s story. In ‘Blue Suede Clues’ then we delve into themes of sexual repression and confusion (there’s a lot of reference to Freud, which MacDonald would have surely enjoyed playing with in that imaginary script I mentioned); the tension of Presley’s tug-of-love between Ann-Margret and Priscilla; the connectedness of twins and the attendant feelings of loss and betrayal (Jesse Garon gets a lot of mentions, though disappointingly there is no sneaky reference to any Desperadoes); the importance of junk food, and hamburgers in particular (White Tower gets some excellent product placement, although at the time of the book’s original 2002 publication the franchise was in near terminal decline, so I doubt they benefited much from any publicity); and the incipient dependence on prescription painkillers (Klein traces this to an incident involving a stunt harness whilst Presley was making ‘Kissin’ Cousins’, the filming of which provides the contextual roots for the entire book). If one were being overly critical it would be easy to suggest that many of these historical references feel forced, yet in truth they are no more so than other such details dropped hamfistedly into period fiction. Indeed, Klein seems to positively revel in weaving his surreal fictional Elvis amongst these ‘real’ situations and people. There is an implicit understanding that with Fame comes the surrendering of ownership of one’s personality. That, indeed, personality is by default splintered, with the self necessarily becoming multiple (hence the appropriateness of the whole ruptured twin symbolism in Presley’s life). Except not so clumsily pseudo-psychological. Instead, hammy winks are thrown. We are all in on the joke. Hot dog.

*this assertion may not be entirely accurate.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 6

‘Belle Nash and The Bath Soufflé’ by William Keeling
Published 2022 by Envelope Books. Buy from Hive in the UK here.
This review was originally published as part of a longer piece here.

At the end of July this year we spent a day in Bath. More than thirty years have passed since I’d last been in the city and, no-doubt thanks to its status as A Very Picturesque Place, it looked much as I remembered it. The gorgeous Bath stone glowed magnificently in the late evening sun and the ghosts of Regency elegance glinted in the side streets. Lovely. One thing that had noticeably changed, however, were the contents of so many of those classically proportioned buildings. Where once there were shops selling Things, now there seems to be an endless stream of cafes, wine-bars, restaurants and bistros; the Service industries fully in command of the High Street (and the alleyways). In Paris some fifteen years ago we overheard a young Australian woman complaining to her partner that “you can’t just go from eating place to eating place.” In the cities of the 2020’s, it seems, that’s largely all you CAN do. Progress, eh?

One shop that was still in the same place was Waterstones book shop. Thirty years ago I would have been hovering around the poetry section, picking out collections of Rilke, Baudelaire and Rimbaud (sometimes I want to slap my younger self around the head for being so insufferably earnest) but this time I didn’t wander far from Crime Fiction. Progress, eh? The contents of those shelves looked comfortingly familiar, but although there was nothing ‘new’ that grabbed my attention it did take me past a table displaying some ‘recommended’ titles. In prime position amongst these was a paperback sporting a faux-Regency period news sheet with a headline of ‘Belle Nash and The Bath Soufflé’. Perfectly pitched and positioned to appeal to the passing tourist trade, I’m almost ashamed to admit that the ruse worked, although I admit too that Jeanette Winterson’s cover quote suggesting the book to be “Funny, clever, silly in the right kind of way” also helped tip the book into my Summer Shopping Bag.

Winterson is certainly not wrong in her views on the book, although I’m not convinced that the ending is particularly “strangely moving” nor entirely as “unexpected” as she suggests. The book does, however, rattle along at a decent pace and is certainly deliciously funny, even if it is also a little eye-rollingly obvious in its ambition to transpose 21st Century liberal obsessions with sexual identity politics onto the early 19th Century. I’m sure that Daily Mail readers would detest it for its ‘wokeness’, which is likely as strong a recommendation as one really needs, I suppose. As a piece of historical fiction the novel is naturally fired through with delicious period flavour, although thankfully does not fall into the trap of peppering the prose liberally with specific references. Instead, author William Keeling (Esq) saves most of the historical contextualisation for a series of footnotes filled with historical trivia that punctuate each chapter. It’s the kind of non-fiction technique that one might expect from a former (Financial Times) journalist and it works particularly well given that the fictional narrator is himself allegedly re-telling stories written by his uncle, “The Late Dr. W.B. Keeling of Gay Street.” Covering such topics as English Folk songs; Mary Wollstonecraft; the decriminalisation (or otherwise) of same-sex relations; the height of Queen Victoria; “The worst Poet Laureate in history” (James Pye); Regency politics; The Vedas (as also mentioned liberally in Sara Gran’s terrific ‘Claire DeWitt’ trilogy which I also, finally, read recently); Slavery; the misogyny of Church and State and the fate of King Adolf Frederick of Sweden (a prototype for the Pythons’ Mr Creosote, that fate involved cream buns), these wittily condensed notes could easily make an enormously entertaining book by themselves.

As already mentioned, the story itself skips along at a rollicking pace, taking in such delights as disreputable merchants cutting corners to maximise profits and personal gain, corrupt city officials turning blind eyes in favour of similar personal gains, the dark underbelly of the working classes and the exploited poor turning sexual tricks to, ahem, service the aforementioned disreputable and corrupt ‘Gentlemen’ and the wanton hypocrisy of a society that celebrates systemic sexism and racism even whilst denying their existence. Sound familiar yet?

One could certainly argue that we don’t need a piece of comedic historical fiction/social political satire to alert us to the fact that such practices and attitudes are not only depressingly prevalent in the present day, but that neither are they particularly New. One could equally argue, however, that in such desperately depressing times as we seem to be inhabiting, we might as well have a bitter, cruel laugh at our own expense whilst Society curdles and crumbles around us. Progress, eh?

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 5

‘When Does The Mind Bending Start?’ by Gordon King
Published 2022 by Bonnier Books. Buy from Hive in the UK here.
This review was originally posted on the Unpopular blog here.

I miss The World Of Twist. I’ve got the t-shirt, picked up along with the expanded reissue of the group’s single LP ‘Quality Street’ a few years back. I hadn’t known that the artist Jeremy Deller was a fan though. I’d always had a lot of time for Deller and his love for The World Of Twist merely cemented that opinion. He opened the sleeve notes for that reissue with a few lines saying how he hated writing so that all he could say were that The World Of Twist were the Roxy Music of his generation. Which I suppose (since he was born a couple of weeks before me) means my generation. Or even My Generation. Whatever.

The line about Roxy Music opens up ‘When Does The Mind Bending Start?’, a biography-of-sorts of the band from guitarist Gordon King. Since the demise of WOT King went on to be a key element in Earl Brutus and The Pre New, both groups who, you know, if you know you know. Both made brilliant records and both were deliciously wild and weird. But still, they weren’t The World Of Twist, and King’s book, which is effortlessly engaging and remarkably evocative of the times, almost acknowledges this fact. He knows what we all lost.

The times, in case you need getting up to speed, would be the (mostly post) Madchester era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and whilst the book is certainly peppered with references to the likes of Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and their ilk, it’s clear that for King and his gang of like-minded truth seekers, World Of Twist were always travelling a path apart. Outside of time and space, The World Of Twist were all about creating their own universe and mythologies. It’s clear, reading King’s tremendous book, that the ley line leading to the temple of Twist passed through the likes of Roxy, Eno, Hawkwind, Genesis, Yes and all points Prog before racing through key punctuation marks of the Punk and post-Punk deviants such as Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Fall, Magazine, Clock DVA etc. It’s a lineage that makes a lot of sense to me now, although at the time I would have sneered naively at the Prog references, locked as I was in the myopic, mediated falsity of a Punk Year Zero. No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones… blah blah blah. Being some years younger than King and perhaps immeasurably more naive, I had no concept of much music prior to 1977 or so when my mates started buying funny coloured 7″ singles at Speed and talking in riddles. So when The World Of Twist covered The Rolling Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’, I could see by the writing credits on the label that it was a Jagger/Richards number and that by rights I should hate it, but… man, it sounded divine. Assuming that this was some groovy take that sounded nothing like the original (I must have missed the reviews of the single at the time that pointed out otherwise), it was a bit of a shock some years later to discover that it was in fact a very faithful facsimile pulled off with love and pleasure. Similarly, it took me years to realise that ‘This Too Shall Pass Away’ was a cover of a number by The Honeycombs, they of the magnificent ‘Have I The Right’ that for years I knew of only from the Dead End Kids, of all places. Says it all. All of which I’m sure makes it obvious that I was never hip enough to catch The World Of Twist playing one of their psychedelic extravaganza live shows, so it wasn’t until that expanded reissue that I picked up on the fact that they played The MC5’s ‘Kick Out The Jams’. I mean, of course they did. It made perfect sense. How could they NOT?

King makes it clear in his book just how important theatrical elements such as Brother J.C. Crawford’s evangelical on stage introductions to the MC5 were to the formation of The World Of Twist (and indeed, to Earl Brutus and The Pre New). In an early chapter entitled ‘Bill Nelson’s in His Tube’ (and incidentally, there is a massive 6CD reissue of Nelson’s Red Noise ‘Art/Empire/Industry’ set coming later this month on Cherry Red) King outlines his nine point plan for forming a band. Point eight is: “Conceptualise. This is essential. Amazingly, it’s the most neglected, overlooked part of forming a band, but you skip this step and you are doomed.” I suspect there is more than a touch of irony in there, as World Of Twist, Earl Brutus and The Pre New were conceptualised to the point of Fine (Pop) Art and were all, for the most part, doomed to the peripheries of ‘success’. Which, perhaps, is why there were all so interesting, ‘success’ being entirely defined by the criteria one chooses to apply after all. Certainly in terms of Chart Success, it was World Of Twist that came closest, with singles hovering tantalisingly close to breaking into the top 40 before falling away, deflated and sad like wrinkled balloons at a birthday party. They did the TV circuit to an extent too, with their performance of ‘The Storm’ on The Word being a particular triumph, enjoyed enormously by Holly Johnson at the time, as one would rather hope and expect. But if World Of Twist were, commercially speaking, not as successful as they (or their label, Circa) would have liked, conceptually they were worlds apart from the run of the mill humdrum of the rest of the charts. Conceptually they were way ahead. Conceptually they were the best band, the greatest gang on the planet.

The gang element was played out most perfectly on the photograph that graced the inner gatefold of ‘Quality Street’. Composed and shot by James Fry (younger brother of Martin Fry, he of New Pop Pioneers ABC) but conceptualised largely by King, it is a photograph that contrasts magically with the Georgian period-drama costume extravaganza of his main cover shot. From the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells (I always thought it might have been Bath) Fry moves the group into some backwater back alley and captures the group looking like something from ‘Bronco Bullfrog’. ‘Iconic’ was made for images like this and King rightly proclaims it as “the greatest rock band photo ever shot”. The photo shoot appears in the background of the video for ‘Sweets’, where an impossibly young (and incredibly cool) looking Bob Stanley wanders past, Bob being the central character in the video playing the group’s biggest fan. It was hardly acting, for Bob was certainly a long standing fan. His CAFF label would release a World Of Twist 7″ and his Icerink imprint would give Earl Brutus their first outings. Later, Bob’s group Saint Etienne would write and record ‘Train Drivers in Eyeliner’ for their 2017 album ‘Home Counties’ in tribute to Nick Sanderson. Indeed, Saint Etienne were one of the few groups contemporary with The World Of Twist that one might have mentioned in the same breath. The mighty Intastella, with whom World Of Twist were almost inextricably linked at the time, and Denim also spring to mind. Maybe Luke Haines’ Baader Meinhoff and Black Box Recorder, although they were much later of course but imbued with the same spirit for sure.

Hardly the typical Rock Biog, ‘When Does The Mind Bending Start’ is nevertheless peppered with Amusing Anecdotes, but these are often delivered with a self-deprecating air of almost apologetic bemusement which makes it very easy to warm to King and the group. My favourite is one where King misses out by a few hours on joining the rest of the group as cameos in the background of a Rolling Stones video, although his tale of meeting a drunk Kris Novoselic runs it close and is typically good natured and measured. There’s a typical lovely warmth to his conclusion to this anecdote: “I never really got Nirvana, it all sounded a bit like The Police to me, but Kurt Cobain, for the few seconds I spent in is company, seemed like a nice lad.”

There’s no bitterness in the books towards the record label or to managers or ‘suits’ who tend to come off badly in these kinds of stories. There is even little irritation shown to The Media who, inevitably, turned on the group that they had previously championed. Indeed, King proudly includes scathing reviews of their final single, their cover of The Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’ that initially appeared on the flip of first single ‘The Storm’. King even professes to the Melody Maker piece, which concludes that this is “A song for swinging-losers” is his favourite piece of WOT press. By this point in the story of course King appreciates that it’s all but over for The World Of Twist, the brief window of opportunity closing before their eyes. It might be the benefit of age or the calming balm of distance, but the book is imbued with a lovely sense of peace that is often missing in such things. A recognition that It Wasn’t To Be. That life moves on and that we take what treasures and pleasures from it that we can. Making things precious, or whatever.

It’s abundantly clear too just how much love King has for the characters who accompanied him on the journey with The World Of Twist, several of whom are tragically no longer with us. David Hardy, the band’s manager and, as King points out in the initial outline of characters, “the only adult in this story”; Martin Wright of Intastella and the incomparable Laugh; Nick Sanderson, who drummed with World Of Twist, Clock DVA, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Gun Club, fronted Earl Brutus and was the inspiration for the aforementioned ‘Train Drivers in Eyeliner’. And of course there is Tony Ogden, front man extraordinaire with his leather shirt tucked into white jeans, massive belt buckles shimmering under the mirror ball and fighting his way out of a tinfoil underworld, like Lou Reed boxing his way out of The Factory. If there is a regret in ‘When Does The Mind Bending Start’ it is perhaps that King and Ogden grew apart towards the end of The World Of Twist and that, in some ways, robbed us of some particularly special possibilities.

So I’ve got the t-shirt and now I’ve read the book. And I still miss The World Of Twist.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 3

‘Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library’ by Johnny Rodger
Published 2022 by The Drouth. Available to buy direct here.
A version of this review was originally published as part of a longer piece here.

In the parlance of the city in question, large swathes of Johnny Rodger’s ‘Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library’ make me feel ‘thick as mince’. That’s okay though, because it is also book that is by turns humorous, playful, and philosophically engaging. It is also, for me, enormously emotionally engaging (as indeed I’m certain it will be for any former alumni of the Mackintosh school) and this personal connection is heightened further, perhaps, by Rodger’s observation early in the book that for many years he had the best office location in Glasgow. Looking out from the brutalist Bourdon building across Scott Street, Rodger must have had much the same view as I did in my final year at GSA: the magical west facade of the Mackintosh building housing the fabled library.

‘Glasgow Cool of Art’ is necessarily then an emotional read, yet it is to Rodger’s immense credit that he balances this out with a great deal of considered research and philosophical reflection. Naturally a great deal of this reflection hinges on the fundamental question about What To Do With The Mackintosh Building, with the focus on the Library being a symbolic and functional vehicle for doing this. So there is much philosophical exploration about the nature of the physical and the ephemeral, about the nature of (architectural) drawing and where reality exists within (or without) that context. There is also consideration of the fundamental question of what we might mean by ‘ruin’, where Rodger uses a Graham Greene story about the demolition of a Wren house from inside by a gang of boys. I’m only intermittently convinced by Greene (and less and less as time goes by), so don’t feel compelled to read the text in question, but the questions that Rodger uses the story to frame within the context of the GSA are certainly interesting.

The whole book is one that treads the tightrope between academia and accessibility to great effect. Its structure is framed around the fact that only 13 books from the ‘original’ fire in 2014 were deemed to have survived, and this is a gratifyingly appropriate concept, arcing as it does between the worlds of architecture and fine art, academic exposition and entertaining literature. So whilst enjoyment of the book might inevitably be increased by a reader’s emotional connection to the specific physical spaces in question, it’s hardly a pre-requisite, for ‘Glasgow Cool of Art’ is a rich and rewarding exploration of thinking regardless. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed being made to feel quite so stupid quite so much as when reading it.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 1

‘Iconicon’ by John Grindrod.
Published 2022 by Faber and Faber. Available to buy on the Caught By The River shop here.
This review was originally published by Caught By The River.

With his 2013 book ‘Concretopia’ John Grindrod took us on an illuminating tour of Britain’s Post War (New) townscapes. A place and time where mid-century Modernist style and a sense of social responsibility rubbed shoulders with seedy, greedy corruption, it neatly lays the groundwork for ‘Iconicon’, in which the author embarks on a journey around the landmark buildings of Britain from 1980 to the present day.

Structured in three parts that broadly mirror UK government shifts from Thatcherite Tory to Blairite (New) Labour and back again to Coalition/Johnson Tory, the book is as much about social and political history as it is about architecture; inevitably so as there is a intrinsic relationship between governance and building, be that in the form of predominantly public funded projects such as those to celebrate the Millennium or in the endless expanses of housing driven by private developers. Grindrod elegantly weaves each of these threads into the body of ‘Iconicon’ whilst also doing an admirable job of balancing historical context with architectural detail. Each element ably supports the other with seamless transitions, like an unlikely double act feeding each other lines. Or, in the language of architectural illustration, balancing the broad sweeps of exterior perspectives with exquisite pen drawings of entrance detailing. Just so.

Now during my own brief flirtation with architecture at Glasgow’s Macintosh School in the early 80s, one of the things I found most off-putting was the dryness of the writing about the subject. Inevitably this says much more about my ludicrously immature 17 year old self than anything else, but I really did long for someone to write about architecture the way ‘Smash Hits’ wrote about Pop music. John Grindrod doesn’t quite summon the spirit of Neil Tennant’s ‘Bitz!’ but there is certainly an agreeable degree of pop cultural reference threading through everything (Heaven 17, Blur and MGMT provide the titles of the book’s three sections, for example). So whilst ‘Iconicon’ may be less subjective than ‘Concretopia’ in the sense that it necessarily covers architectural styles straying from Grindrod’s core passion of Modernism, this pop-cultural influence means that a significant amount of the author’s personality still seems to seep through the pages. This is no bad thing.

The book starts in 1980, and whilst the polarising ‘greed is good’ mantra of that decade has made it very difficult to be objective in retrospect, particularly for anyone who lived through it, Grindrod manages to navigate through this landscape with a deft awareness of the opposing forces of hyper-capitalism/neoliberalism and social(ist) responsibility. In this he comes across very much like Andy Beckett in the excellent ‘Promised You A Miracle’, adroitly balancing an acknowledgement that some kind of transition to a post-Industrial (and, indeed, Post-Modern) society was arguably necessary whilst addressing the thought that perhaps Thatcher’s ideologically driven demonisation and demolition of working class solidarity was A Bit Much. Indeed, Thatcherism’s ‘Right To Buy’ flagship policy is in many ways the single common thread that unites each of the three parts of ‘Iconicon’; a spark that really ignited the peculiarly British obsession with Property (and it’s attendant, apparently self-perpetuating media circus) and where the economic cycles of boom and bust have arguably caused the most pain.

These days, meanwhile, it seems to be very fashionable to be unapologetically damning of Tony Blair’s New Labour period of government, yet Grindrod does a fine job of capturing the tangible air of optimism that pervaded the country after decades of Tory dissolution. At the heart of this period in the book lie the twin thrusts of devolved governance to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Millennium projects, each of which are dealt with in enough detail to keep one engaged and informed, but neither are so lengthy as to leave one bored and anxious to move onto the next part of the story. It’s a tricky skill to master, but Grindrod has done so admirably.

As the book progresses through more recent times it naturally becomes much more difficult to be objective about political and social aspects within a broader historical context. Grindrod gives it a decent go, although it’s never too difficult to guess where his allegiances and sensibilities might lie. The chapter on the Grenfell disaster in particular does a masterful job of simultaneously breaking and hardening one’s heart, its place in our collective memory still too close and the emotions too raw to allow anyone off the many significant hooks that continue to dangle. With a righteous indignation and anger tempered by anguish at the human cost, Grindrod does a sterling job of placing the tragedy within both the political and building contexts, thereby once again illuminating the inextricable connections between the two.

It would be easy then to leave ‘Iconicon’ in something of a negative, even desperate frame of mind and it’s to Grindrod’s credit that he does not do so. Instead, like Barnabas Calder in ‘Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency’, Grindrod chooses to find fragments of hope and positivity in the work of young architects and planners working below the radar of our neoliberal overlords. There is a hope and a trust that these fragmentary independents may be united by something beyond the stifling soundbites of populism and are bound instead by the soft yet strong societal fabric of decency, kindness and mutual respect. Solidarity based on shared humanity rather than divisive ideology. One can’t help but look forward to the built environment such trajectories might lead to, and one rather hopes that John Grindrod will be there to write about them.