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JOHNDMR

JOHNDMR
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Member since: 06.10.2000

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      16.08.2014 20:55
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      • "Thought-provoking study of money and economics"

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      • "Requires thorough understanding of economics to appreciate"
      • " more economic history"
      • "Not exactly biography"

      So what exactly is money?

      I expected this to be a biography or history of money through the ages. The opening chapter, an account of the economy of the Pacific island of Yap, seemed to confirm this. It tells how in the nineteenth century Yap had an unwieldy coinage consisting of stone wheels 12ft in diameter, called fei. The population did not carry these around, let alone own them, but they were part of a sophisticated system of credit management.

      After this, Martin examines the old time-honoured systems of coinage, medieval tally-sticks and barter, and discusses the six-month closure of Irish banks in 1970, following the breakdown in industrial relations between the banks and their employees. But cheques were exchanged as usual, though they could not be presented at the banks.

      For the most part this is a history of various financial crises, culminating in the recent near-meltdown, following the British government’s overdraft to Northern Rock in 2007 and the collapse of US investment bank Lehman Brothers a year later. The ensuing recession is still with us and as it would take a brave person to forecast any end in sight, no assessment will be possible for years. Some comparison with the crash of the late 1920s onwards would have been useful, but the world of 2008 was a very different one from that of 1929, so any like-for-like comparison might not mean much.

      Martin then analyses the ever-changing manifestations of money. About 90% of national money in the USA and around 97% in Britain has no physical existence at all, but consists of account balances held by our banks. The only tangible apparatus employed in most monetary payments today is a plastic card and a keypad.

      What is money? Debts have often been used as money; is money a debt? Because we use credit accounts and a clearing system, does this make the credit and clearing system what we call money, rather than the change which we carry around in our pocket, or the bank balance which we access at the ATM or online? Or was it something abstract used by medieval rulers for credit when they needed to devalue currencies, usually to finance war? There is no clear answer.

      The nearest history came to finding one was when the seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke decided the pound was identical with the amount of silver it contained, and that economic laws were on a level with those of physics. This led to the science of classical economics, and a philosophy that the economic system would always return to equilibrium. Sadly the result was a belief that monetary society could regulate itself, a principle largely responsible for exacerbating the Great Famine in 1840s Ireland.

      Now we stand several years into the latest Great Depression. Money and banking, Martin concludes, are what brought us here, and once correctly restructured will bring us out again. This is a very thought-provoking, thoroughly researched book, but demands much concentration and assumes a wealth of economic knowledge.

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      15.08.2014 18:25
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      • " compulsive page-turner"
      • "Exciting story"

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      • " really"
      • None

      Femme fatale, or woman wronged?

      London-based architect Geoffrey Staddon has a good career behind him. In 1908 he was commissioned to build a country pile, Clouds Frome, in Herefordshire, which led to being asked to create a luxury hotel in London, destroyed during a Zeppelin raid in the Great War with severe loss of life. By 1923 his practice is ticking over unspectacularly, and his marriage to Angela which produced only one child, a victim of the global influenza epidemic of 1918, is in trouble. Then he learns that Consuela, wife of Victor Caswell, for whom Clouds Frome was built, has been charged with murder.

      After completing the house, he had sensed tensions in Victor and Consuela’s marriage, and become the latter’s lover. Taken from her native Brazil to England to marry an uncaring husband who saw her mainly as a trophy to wear on his arm at social occasions, she was bored, unhappy, and ready to welcome any man willing to offer friendship and more. Fearing he was becoming too deeply entwined, he left her to life with the husband whom he feared could never make her happy.

      Now he is convinced of her innocence, while the rest of the family are sure she must be guilty, and destined for the gallows. She sends her 11-year-old daughter Jacinta, astonishingly mature for her years, to ask him to help save her mother. He cannot really refuse, and so begins a remarkable saga of subterfuge, grim goings-on, and unpleasant people out to frustrate or ensnare him. It does nothing for his marriage, or for the good name of his practice. Fortunately friends are ready to stand by him, and at least one member of the otherwise rather obnoxious Caswell family is prepared to help see that justice prevails. The trail takes him to France, Hereford, Holloway Prison, and the Old Bailey.

      At first the story moves a little slowly. In the early pages it alternates between flashbacks to pre-war England, and narration (all in the first person, by Staddon himself) of present-day events. But soon I was finding the book increasingly hard to put down.

      There are some astonishing twists; murky secrets are uncovered, a few more people suffer violent deaths, and some are revealed to be very different from the characters they appeared to be at the start of the story. It’s almost impossible to say anything in detail about them, or about the story, without spoilers. But just when you think they have reached the end, along comes another surprise. And another.

      Goddard manages to transport his characters back into a historical setting so effectively that you feel as if you were there, looking in at them from the outside. None are dashing heroes or knights in shining armour. They are either rather ordinary people or scheming monsters in sheep’s clothing. Staddon is basically a good man, but sometimes a little naive and easily manipulated.
      For a cracking good page-turner of a thriller, look no further.

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      13.08.2014 13:26
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      • "One of the most eclectic bands of their era"
      • "Packed selection from the band's back catalogue"

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      • None

      Classic soul, blues and pop from one of Birmingham's finest groups

      There are several Spencer Davis Group compilations available, but they were at their artistic as well as commercial peak while they were The Steve Winwood Band in all but name. This 51-track double-CD looks as if it contains the entire output (three albums, various singles and EPs) of what they recorded together up to 1967, and it’s astonishing to think that the multi-talented vocalist and multi-instrumentalist was still only 18 when he left them to form his own band Traffic.

      Obviously the highlights here are the five top 20 hits, two of which reached No. 1 and a third No. 2. Any connoisseur of 60s music will recall the classics ‘Keep On Running’ with that sharp fuzz-tone guitar, ‘Somebody Help Me’, and the organ riff-driven ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ and ‘I’m A Man’. The rest of it is divided between blue-eyed soul, and blues, some instrumental and some vocal, a kind of cross between Booker T & the MGs and B.B. King, some skiffle, and even a nod to more commercial pop. These guys were nothing if not eclectic, but like most of their contemporaries, they were reliant mainly on covering songs by others, usually from the American market, although Stevie’s presence on some of the songwriting credits gave an indication of things to come.

      In a short review it’s impossible to give a complete overview of this basket of goodies. All I can do is single out some of the other highlights. ‘Waltz For Lumumba’ is certainly not a waltz, but a four-minute jam built mainly around a bass and organ riff; this, ‘Stevie’s Groove’ and ‘Trampoline’, instrumentals which follows a similar pattern, sound like they were conceived and taped straightaway in the studios, as their attempts to play something in the vein of ‘Green Onions’. The soulful ‘Every Little it Hurts’, ‘I’ll Drown In My Own Tears’, and the evergreen ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ are marvellous ballads, with Stevie’s vocal offset so well by that shimmering organ. ‘Goodbye Stevie’ is a rousing piece of piano boogie, reminiscent of 1920s ragtime numbers like ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’. There are a few nods to Leadbelly’s skiffle repertoire in ‘This Hammer’ and ‘Midnight Special’, pure blues in Mean Woman Blues’ and ‘Dust My Blues’, as well as their interpretation of Albert King’s ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ (not to be confused with the Roy Orbison favourite), and the more poppy but still likeable ‘Back Into My Life Again’, a song from their final sessions which they did not release at the time because they felt it was too commercial.

      Like Manfred Mann they were one of those bands who revelled in blues, soul and jazz while forced to make some compromises to the pop market in order to sell singles and keep the record company happy. But they made the best of the compromise, and nearly fifty years on most of this stuff sounds pretty timeless.

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        11.08.2014 17:57
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        • "Thoughtful if rather bitter lyrics"
        • "Fine songs and playing"

        Disadvantages

        • "The very occasional less interesting track"

        Disillusion with the music business resulted in a great, much-overlooked album

        Success in the music business was something Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, the duo who comprised Stealers Wheel, didn’t want if the lyrics and titles on this 1973 album are anything to go by. Both were passionate about music, but loathed the business aspects and artificial glamour.

        The opening song, ‘Good Businessman’, says it all: ‘Got to get back to the telephone, make some money from a complete unknown’. Wonderful vocal harmonies, and a tough backing of guitar, keyboards and sax. ‘Star’ continues the theme, with harmonica, kazoo and woodblocks, and wonderful piano, but again fierce lyric: ‘After all you’ve been through tell me what will you do, when you find yourself back on the shelf?’

        ‘Wheelin’’ is like a chant, with lots of echo on the vocal harmonies. It ends with the title repeated over and over, fading out as an explosion of tubular bells fades in, segueing into the next track, ‘Waltz (You Know It Makes Sense)’. It’s like opening an old music box, with a shimmering church organ, harp and glockenspiel. Again there’s a sting in the lyrical tail, reminding that ‘If you let it all slip away, you’re gonna be sorry some day’. On ‘What More Could You Want’, Rafferty asks sarcastically: ‘You look the part in your faded levi shirt, you’ve got a brand new telecaster, so what more could you want?’ There’s some strong wah-wah guitar, and chunky electric keyboards. Next the wistful ‘Over My Head’, with stately piano chords and organ on a song in which the main characters sit up talking through the night and walk outside to watch the sunrise.

        ‘Blind Faith’, a mid-tempo, bluesy song is a song about the joys of starting a band, and then the disillusion: ‘Looking back, it all seems kind of sad, We just sat around and watched it all go bad.’ The mood is however sweetened by some bouncy piano and lively ‘bop-shoo-wop’ backing vocals. ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Mind’ is one of the most obviously Beatles-influenced songs, with slow measured piano chords and a George Harrisonesque guitar solo.

        ‘Steamboat Row’ is a Rafferty song about his father, a miner who walked fifteen miles to work every day, fifteen miles back, from and to their home in Steamboat Row. With the wistful steel guitar, it’s almost country-like with attractive harmonica. With its chopping piano chords, ‘Back On My Feet Again’ sounds like Lennon during the late Beatles and early solo period eras, while On ‘Who Cares’ low-key piano and smoky sax conjure up a pleasant atmosphere. Finally, ‘Everything Will Turn Out Fine’ is a re-recording of a song originally taped with the old band as a single. Whereas the first had an arrangement almost identical to ‘Stuck In The Middle’, this has a sharper beat and energetic slide guitar, with words again oozing irony and sarcasm.

        It’s not a cheerful album, but a very listenable one. If you enjoyed ‘Stuck In The Middle’, or Rafferty’s solo work, you will certainly enjoy this.

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      • More +
        09.08.2014 12:35
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        • " page-turning story"
        • Exciting
        • Well-constructed

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        • None

        A fascinating thriller of skeletons rattling in the family cupboard

        In September 1981 Chris Napier is at Truro for his niece’s wedding and his parents’ golden wedding anniversary. A reception is to be held at Tredower House, former family home and now Cornwall’s premier hotel and conference centre under the management of Chris’s well-heeled brother-in-law Trevor.
        Outside the marquee, Chris meets a tramp-like figure, who he realises is boyhood pal Nicky Lanyon, now fallen on hard times. After some stilted conversation, Trevor appears and angrily sends Nicky away. As he runs off, Chris explains who he was – the son of a man executed in 1947 for his great-uncle Joshua’s murder. There it might have ended, if only Chris had not revisited that same spot in the garden next morning and found Nicky again, his corpse hanging from a tree.

        Part of the story is told in flashbacks. Chris and Nicky, both born in 1936, went to school together, friends until Joshua Carnoweth was murdered. Two men were convicted and sentenced to death, one the hit-man and one the man who paid him. The former, Edmund Tully, had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment and was released a few years later. The latter, Michael Lanyon, was hanged, but his young son always maintained his innocence.

        Chris attends the inquest, and an unscrupulous local journalist scents a major story which he suspects he can sell for big money. Various others are soon on the trail, including a smartly-dressed young lady solicitor who calls on him at his office and tells him she is acting on instructions from his ex-wife, demanding a payoff for helping him to set up the business in the first place. The solicitor turns out to have one or two other lucrative and somewhat dubious sidelines under different names.

        The main characters have cupboards fairly rattling with skeletons. Chris was virtually disowned by his father for going into showbiz management with a rock group in the mid-60s, before he had a brief stormy marriage and slid into an alcoholic haze, but is now sober. He knows the family has concealed some unsavoury secrets in addition to Joshua’s murder, with at least one other violent death, gay affairs, financial skulduggery, suspected blackmail and more. In a trail from Truro to Pangbourne, to Clacton, to Hebden Bridge and back, Chris learns more than he has bargained for, particularly where his irascible father is concerned.

        This is the fourth Goddard I have read, and while one or two others seemed a little slow to start, this one plunges almost headlong into a web of tangled, dysfunctional family relationships, deceit, and people masquerading under false identities. Although Chris is flawed and far from perfect as is generally the case with Goddard's leading characters, he turns out a better person than most others of his family, or the dodgy characters pursuing him.

        There are several unpredictable twists in the saga, based around false identities, and astonishing revelations of past events. It’s definitely a page-turner, ingeniously constructed and wholeheartedly recommended.

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        05.08.2014 20:06
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        • "Characters brought vividly to life"
        • "Well researched"
        • "An often sad tale well told"

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        Close look at royal lives in a time of turbulent change

        The subject is Queen Victoria’s five granddaughters who became European Queens or Empresses consort, in order of birth Maud, Queen of Norway; Sophie, Queen of Greece; Alexandra, Empress of Russia; Marie, Queen of Roumania; and Victoria Eugenie, Queen of Spain.
        The text is divided into four parts, firstly sovereigns in the making, from the births and childhoods of all five until the death of their grandmother. By then the first four were married and mothers themselves. The second part examines their lives during the ‘Edwardian summer’, the third the years of ‘disaster and triumph’ from 1914 to 1920, and finally ‘denouement’, to the death of the youngest in 1969.

        Alexandra, the obstinate, ill-fated mother of four daughters and then the haemophiliac Tsarevich, often at death’s door, fell under the spell of Rasputin. Perpetual anxiety about her boy undermined her health and ‘led them to the abyss’ and beyond – plus her husband, herself and their children to their brutal deaths at Ekaterinburg.

        Marie, Queen of Roumania, was a flamboyant lady with a larger than life personality, Initially miserable in her adopted country, she made the best of a difficult job with her kindly but bland husband King Ferdinand. Her widowhood was darkened by the behaviour of eldest son King Carol, an appalling son, brother, husband and father who showed his family precious little kindness, even when she was slowly dying.

        Sophie of Greece led a tragic life, ostracised by her brother, Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany and a victim of mainly French wartime propaganda for supporting her husband, King Constantine, in his neutrality. They abdicated, only recalled from exile after their second son Alexander, a reluctant King in their absence, died after being bitten by a pet monkey. A disastrous war against Turkey led to further exile, illness and death for one and then the other soon afterwards.

        Victoria Eugenia of Spain, who with her husband King Alfonso, narrowly escaped being blown up by an anarchist on their wedding day, did not even have a happy family life, all but one of her sons haemophiliacs. Alfonso found his consolation with other women, and they died, unofficially separated, after years in exile.

        Maud, youngest daughter of King Edward VII, a shy, retiring woman, had envisaged a quiet life when she married her Danish cousin, and unexpectedly became Queen as a result of Norway’s independence from Sweden and the appointment of her husband as the new kingdom’s monarch, Haakon VII. Unpretentious and with a keen sense of humour, she spent her life out of the spotlight as far as possible and died of a heart attack on a visit to London in 1938.

        As Gelardi concludes, it was their dignity, devotion to duty, strong sense of responsibility and steadfastness in the face of adversity that ‘makes their stories compelling and timeless’. This makes an excellent read.

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        02.08.2014 13:36
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        Advantages

        • "At least one potential classic"
        • "Some very moving and deeply personal songs"

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        • "Swamped by unsympathetic electro-gloss"

        Good songs - shame about the technology

        There have been a few famous break-up albums in music history, based around and largely inspired by the end of an artist’s marriage or relationship. Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’, Phil Collins’ ‘Face Values’, and Richard Thompson’s ‘Hand of Kindness’ are probably the best-known. Gerry Rafferty’s ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’, first released in 1992 and excluding compilations his last to chart (one week at No. 73), is not so well remembered.

        With 12 tracks, nine written by Gerry, one by his brother Jim, one co-written by both, and the other an Allen Toussaint song, and 57 minutes time, it’s a good album, and might have been a great one but for - well, read on.

        Reading the lyrics, provided in the 16-page booklet, it’s evident that they were the work of a suffering man. Although I never owned this on vinyl (and I don't think it was ever released thus), I can see it falling into two equal halves, one on each side. The first is about the grief, heartache, regret and anger in seeing it all go on the rocks, the second a weary, sometimes pleading sometimes resigned aftermath in which the writer faces up to the fact that it’s over.

        ‘Time’s Caught Up On You’ starts with a short multi-tracked accapella that sounds like it was recorded in a cave (that’s a compliment) with loads of echo. It leads into a gentle, almost mid-tempo song with lots going on on the keyboards, restrained lead guitars and sax. Lyrically, it’s about waking up from a younger, more carefree life that has soured somewhat ‘from this dark night of the soul’ and musing about how ‘now you don’t cut it like you used to do’.
        ‘I See Red’, written by Jim R, ratchets up the anger a little. There’s another sax intro, some rather fiercer if still restrained guitar, and more keyboards. The message is one of those that can be interpreted at several different levels, but I see it as mainly an expression of anger at being pushed around and given all the wrong advice from all the wrong people – ‘Stop, pay the price, she said to me, take this advice: You’re out of your head, I said stop, hold the phone – this has to be cut to the bone – Too bad – I see red.’

        'It's EasyTo Talk’ is the first of the really hurting songs. The opening lines, ‘I love you so much, but you’re leaving today – somehow we’ve lost touch – I can’t make you stay’ set the scene as he sings of a relationship that went awry. Mood-wise, it’s a slow, moody number, with some nice lazy pedal steel and bottleneck guitar supplementing the keyboards and percussion. It’s a mood and sound explored further on the next song, ‘I Could be Wrong’ – ‘A love affair ends, and now we’re just friends, the real thing is gone, but I could be wrong.’
        The first of the really great songs comes with ‘Don’t Speak Of My Heart’. The lyrics are so naked they almost ooze suffering – ‘Don’t speak of my heart, it hurts too much, take a look at my face, I still need, I still bleed.’ It also boasts one of the loveliest tunes, almost hymn-like in a way, with mournful guitar and what sounds like a harpsichord on the intro. Further in there’s a full string section and a touch of Hammond organ, , which gives the song far more poignancy than the continued electro-keyboard sound which frankly in my opinion is overused. And although their voices sound way apart, I was reminded by Roy Orbison by Gerry’s delivery on this one.

        No punches are pulled on a rearrangement of Allen Toussaint’s ‘Get Out Of My Life Woman’. Best known as a mid-60s soul hit for Lee Dorsey, here Gerry turns the song completely on its head and, after a 45-second intro which sounds like guitar and sax creating a Celtic bagpipe-like sound, turns it into a more funky electro-guitar rocker more reminiscent of ZZ Top (think ‘Legs’ and ‘Viva Las Vegas’) than anything else.

        The album’s crowning glory must be ‘Don’t Give Up On Me’, unquestionably the strongest tune of all, again with beautifully touching, heartrending lyrics – ‘In the dying embers of the midnight hour – all these things brought me misery.’ Add some glorious bottleneck guitar and mandolin from Bryn Howarth, and it really doesn’t get any better. It was also a recurring personal favourite of Terry Wogan when he hosted the Radio 2 weekday breakfast show.

        By comparison, the unexceptional ‘Hang On’ sounds a little nondescript. There’s another thoughtful lyric, along the lines of hanging on when life gets tough, but once we’ve got past the lovely Celtic air-like intro and the bouncy saxophone passage, it’s a bit deja-vu. Shades of his 1979 hit ‘Get It Right Next Time’ come to mind, but not quite so strongly.

        ‘Love And Affection’ is the longest song at over six minutes. Slower, with a drum programming and piano intro, the lyric muses about what it was like when love was new, they gazed into the wishing well, and every day was a sunny day. Love and affection turned his world around, but now his other half is free to be what she wants to be. It’s one of those moody, low-key songs that can sound rather dull the first couple of times, but dig deeper and it comes across as something really rather special.

        There’s further bitterness to come, in the self-explanatory ‘Does He Know What He’s Taken On’. Musically it’s another almost up-tempo number with a faintly oriental sound in the keyboards. If you can imagine Bryan Ferry’s 1977 hit ‘Tokyo Joe’ with Gerry instead of Bryan singing to a similar backing track, that should give you the idea. And as for the lyrics – that fist-shaking title says it all. Interesting to note that one of the backing vocalists here is Joe Egan, his former sparring partner in Stealers Wheel during their ‘Stuck In The Middle’ days.

        The dreamy ‘The Light Of Love’, co-written by Gerry and Jim, opens with some gorgeous cor anglais. For a moment I almost expected to hear Karen Carpenter start singing. There’s a more optimistic feel in the lyrics, after the despair and anger reflected in previous tracks. To finish with, ‘Life Goes On’ is another song that alternates between resignation and looking forward to a brighter future, culminating in a minute or so of lively drum programming and sax.

        The 12-page booklet contains lyrics, plus personnel for each track. It’s a very stark-looking front cover design, and inside a batch of graphic images which presumably have some significance though I can’t work out what, plus one pic of Gerry in monochrome on the back. Do you remember the classic, slightly surreal artwork on his most successful solo albums, and on the three albums he made in the 1970s as part of Stealers Wheel, by John Patrick Byrne? None of that here, sadly.

        Having looked individually at every song, I’ll say it. Lyrically, this is for the most part a fine bunch of songs. I just wish that Gerry and co-producer Hugh Murphy hadn’t tried so hard to make it sound contemporary and very much a record of its time. From around the mid-80s, almost every record made in Britain had to have wall-to-wall drum programming, doubtless cost-effective and quicker, and quite frankly sucked the life out of many an otherwise good record. I remember with a shudder hearing a Lindisfarne album of the late 80s which suffered the same way. Gerry’s early albums were a masterly balance between acoustic and electric instruments, with somebody hitting a proper drum kit or tapping a proper keyboard. What Ultravox and Depeche Mode were doing worked fine for them, but it just didn’t work here. Even the lead guitars and saxes are blanded down and smoothed into little more than muzaky add-ons. Remember how the guitar solo almost screamed eerily at you in ‘Baker Street’? I could have done with more of that here.

        Moreover, knowing what we do about the tragic aspects of Gerry’s life – the introverted, reluctant star whose two greatest hits (‘Stuck In The Middle’ and ‘Baker Street’) were inspired by frustrations with various aspects of the music business, the man who struggled with fame and whose marriage broke up because of the alcoholism which would kill him at the age of 63 – the record sounds plain wrong. I almost hear the voice of a record company telling him that he’s recorded some very moving songs - but to sell albums in quantity, he's got to sweeten it with all those sequencers, computer programming stuff et al. In doing so, they’ve taken a lot of the raw emotion out of the songs. As Gerry and Hugh co-produced it (and they did the same for his two classic, best-ever albums, ‘City to City’ and ‘Night Owl’), we can’t absolve them from blame.

        Part of me loves this album, while part of me would love to hear it remixed without all that electro-gloss. As Gerry and Hugh are both long since gone, that probably won’t happen. I feel mean giving it only three stars, as the songs deserve a higher rating, but that's how it goes.

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        • More +
          31.07.2014 19:51
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          • "Inventive play on words"
          • " offbeat humour"
          • Amusing

          Disadvantages

          • "Only funny in small doses"
          • "Some very dated references"

          Lennon's thoughtfowl piece of work; amusing in small doses and rather dated

          John Lennon was one of the most famous people of the 20th century. You don’t need me to tell you that he was a Liverpudlian singer-songwriter, peace activist, musician, and one of The Beatles, who spent the last few years of his life living in New York City and was shot dead by a fruitcake in 1980 at the age of 40. So I don’t need to mention it.

          During the height of Beatlemania, he used to doodle or write short poems or nonsense stories and draw cartoonish pictures to pass the time. There must have been a good deal of time for Lennon, to pass away on tour, if only while they were waiting for screaming fans to leave them alone and go back home. Some of them were seen by Tom Maschler, the literary editor at Jonathan Cape at the time, who encouraged him to produce more. The results were published in two very successful short books in 1964 and 1965.

          The drawings have something of the American humourist James Thurber (who had died in 1961) about them, though Lennon’s are rather more crude, while the writings are not that far removed from the likes of Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash and Stanley Unwin. There is a kind of clever anarchic wordplay about his prose, a comic perversion of the English language, where people are invited to send in stabbed undressed envelopes, caramels escape from Wormy Scabs, and people's faces light up like boiling warts.

          Why did Harassed MacMillion go golphing mit Bod Hobe? In one short story a character stud in front of the fire with a thoughtfowl face, smirking his pile, and casting an occasional gland at the massage. We find a very topical allusion for 1964; Azue orl gnome, Harassed Wilsod won the General Erection, with a very small marjorie over the Torchies, thus pudding the Laboring Partly back into powell after a large abcess. (The defeated outgoing Prime Minister was Sir Alice Doubtless-Whom, by the way). There is also a piece on 'Snore Wife and some Several Dwarfs', and a twelve-verse poem about 'The Fat Budgie'. I could quote endless more phrases or titles, but those little fragments ought to give you a pretty clear idea of the rest.

          It's guaranteed to raise a chuckle at least, if you're in the right mood. But it might be best savoured in small doses. Humour is a very personal thing, and from what we know about Lennon as a personality, he was noted for quite an acerbic, even cruel sense of humour that was not universally appreciated, least of all by those who were on the receiving end, in his early days. Like those lavish Monty Python spin-off books that became all the rage a few years later, it's a rather acquired taste that is probably very much a product of its time. In the mid-60s the Beatles were tearing up the rules on popular culture and setting new boundaries themselves, and in a sense this book of writings was part of the process, even though the Lennon of the mid-60s is better remembered nowadays for songs like 'Nowhere Man', ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and 'Norwegian Wood' than these books. Even though, it should be remembered that his books have been regularly reissued in one volume by various publishers over the years, and has rarely if ever been out of print. As EMI Records will tell you, anything by Lennon has always been saleable, even compilations of demo tapes which he recorded for his own amusement and would probably have destroyed if he ever considered for a moment that anybody would release them.

          They're amusing and a kind of period piece, and it goes without saying that the political allusions have dated it. Much the same could be said about the average issue of ‘Punch’ from the 19th century, though you’d be hard-pressed to find many people nowadays who would split their sides at their quaint Victorian wit.

          If you're a fan of Lennon's musical work, I think you would enjoy this. Equally I can see it leaving many others cold. Obviously any artifact – be it the written word or anything else – by one of the four most famous men in the world in 1964 was manna from heaven to any publisher at that time and was guaranteed to fly out of the shops on arrival. But would these pieces have readily found their way into print had they been written by a complete unknown? Possibly not. And I wonder what the more intense, peace-crusading Lennon of the early 1970s would have thought of his books by then. Some people may have thought that the ‘new John Lennon’ who in all seriousness advised people to send acorns to world leaders, stay in bed and grow their hair for peace (I think I’ve got that right, haven’t I), and issued long-playing records featuring 20 minutes of human heartbeat was even more funny.

          At the risk of sounding cynical (and was he not a notorious cynic himself?), let us ask ourselves whether Lennon would have been proud of these literary contributions and the sideline he had secured himself as an author, or whether he would have looked back on them as puerile meanderings which managed to fool the great and the good reviewers in the broadsheets to great effect, in those heady days when any member of the Fab Four only had to cough to get a round of applause. That's up to you to decide.

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        • More +
          27.07.2014 14:22
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          • "Interesting collective biography"
          • "A fascinating era of modern history"

          Disadvantages

          • "Several factual inaccuracies"
          • "Informal style a little grating at times"

          A lively overview of the pre-eminent monarchs at the outbreak of World War I

          Having long been fascinated with the immediate pre-World War One era, I have read several books on the ‘fall of eagles’ theme, viewing the age and the end of the three major imperial dynasties – the German, Austrian, and Russian. This is the first I have seen which chooses a different slant on the issue, namely that of the three imperial cousins. As a Roman Catholic, Emperor Francis Joseph was not family, but King George V of Great Britain (imperial by virtue of being head of the British Empire), Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, were all part of the family network whom Queen Victoria, grandmother to the two former and grandmother-in-law to the latter, fondly hoped would oversee the peaceful co-existence of the major part of Europe.

          There are many different ways of telling the story. In her introduction, Miranda Carter notes that in a sense it begins with their relationships with Queen Victoria and her son, King George’s father, King Edward VII, and there were times when she thought of calling the book ‘Four Emperors and an Empress’.
          The trio on whom she concentrates were all born within ten years of each other. Wilhelm was almost born dead as a result of a painful delivery which also nearly killed his eighteen-year-old mother, and left with a damaged left arm as well as possible brain damage because of the lack of oxygen during those crucial first few minutes. George and Nicholas did not enter the world physically handicapped, but they both had their flaws as characters. Both were the sons of huge larger-than-life fathers whom they respected but with whom they had little in common. Edward was a generally kindly yet occasionally terrifying father, and while he had the good sense to see that his son was prepared for the throne as well as possible, George was a diffident man who felt ill at ease with politicians and other sovereigns, one who would rather have lived out his days as a country squire with his family, his shooting and his stamp collection. Nicholas was terrified of the massive, bear-like father who reigned over Russia as Tsar Alexander III, who belittled his young adult son as a mere boy, and died after an incapacitating illness at an early age, leaving him woefully ill-prepared as well as very much under the thumb of a wife who was pathologically shy, standoffish and did not realise the importance of being liked or respected by their subjects.

          The author paints a lively picture of the personalities of all three, their wives, and the other main players. One or two crisp sentences convey a good deal, as in for example her description of Queen Victoria as one who ‘didn’t much like the idea that she had no function but to look decorative’ and who despite her constitutional powerlessness was the pre-eminent monarch in the whole world, at the head of the world’s most prestigious royal family.

          Regrettably, she is somewhat error-prone. The Queen had nine children, not eight; her Prussian grandson Waldemar died of diphtheria at the age of eleven, not fifteen; the constant references to Princess Mary Louise are irritating when every other book I have seen, and the title page of her own memoirs, gives her the correct name of Marie Louise; and in three pages of genealogical tables at the front, I counted no less than twelve incorrect dates. (In all fairness, from experience I’m aware that sometimes publishers are at fault in not taking authors’ proof corrections on board properly, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt on that one).

          From the 1880s onwards, the general situation vis-à-vis relations between different European countries becomes more complex, and the author keeps the biographical matter against the historical background going very effectively. The Anglo-German rivalry, underlined by the rivalry between the young Kaiser and his ‘uncle Bertie’, still only an heir to the throne, and culminating in the naval arms race, is portrayed as clearly as the stark situation of Russia where the imperial court and aristocracy seemed to live in one gilded world while their often starving subjects had to manage in very different conditions. The role of King Edward VII is rightly emphasised, particularly his talent for winning over previously hostile parties, as his charm offensive in Paris in 1903 makes clear. As we draw closer towards 1914, the picture of increasing mutual suspicion and paranoia is built up through the successive crises of diplomatic incidents which threatened to escalate into war, notably the Kaiser’s blundering at the time of the ‘Tangier crisis’ and the Russian fleet’s firing on British fishing boats in the North Sea, thinking they were Japanese vessels (the Russo-Japanese War was in progress at the time, with Russia definitely coming off worst). The dilemma of the Tsar, distracted by a sickly son and heir and a blindly obstinate yet increasingly unwell wife, and the malign presence of the notorious Rasputin, is handled well too.

          Treading a path through the jungle of events between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo and the outbreak of war six weeks later is not an easy task, but she lays the facts out clearly and very readably. There had long been an uneasy love-hate-don’t really-trust-you atmosphere between the Kaiser, the Tsar and both Kings of Great Britain in turn, and yet the Kaiser’s fatal belief that King George V and his government would remain neutral in the event of Germany declaring war on Russia, or France, or both, was crucial to the course of events.

          The final chapter ends at November 1918, with one of the three acknowledging the cheers of his crowds from the palace balcony. As for the other two – well, you may know what happened to them, but to avoid accusations of a spoiler, if such a thing is possible in historical non-fiction, I’ll leave that one hanging in the air. An Epilogue ties up the loose ends over the next two decades or so and beyond.

          In addition to the (somewhat mis-dated) genealogical tables, there are maps of Europe and Russia on the endpapers, and two very good sections of black and white plates. I was interested to notice one I had never seen before, one of the elderly white-bearded Wilhelm engrossed in his newspaper, an image far removed from the self-proclaimed warlord of popular legend.

          Notwithstanding the criticisms mentioned above, this is a very readable book that tells the story well. There were times when I felt the style was in danger of becoming a little too informal (call me old-fashioned), but the author does bring their personalities and the times to life very well. She also does seem a little over-critical of her subjects on occasion, as if showing a lack of understanding of the tightrope a constitutional monarch had to walk when parliamentary democracy was taking great strides forward and encroaching on the royal prerogative of sovereigns who often saw themselves as upholding the divine right of kings and queens to a certain extent. All the same, she reminds us that King George V was at times less than grateful to Lloyd George, who may have been one of the most left-wing prime ministers this country ever had but continued to argue the case for maintaining the monarchy when others might have been less supportive. This is close on 500 pages of a packed, very entertaining read.

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          • More +
            23.07.2014 20:16
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            • "Excellent playing"
            • "Several very good songs"

            Disadvantages

            • "Some rather pedestrian lyrics"
            • "A few run-of-the-mill tracks"

            Despite some good songs, one of Harrison's less essential albums

            ‘Somewhere in England’ had a troubled birth. George Harrison completed the album, the third he had recorded since setting up his own Dark Horse label, and submitted it to Warner Bros in November 1980. They rejected it, claiming that four of the tracks were too laid-back for commercial release, and also finding fault with the front cover design, which showed an image of Harrison superimposed on a map of the British Isles. Wearily he agreed to replace the tracks in question and send them a different sleeve design altogether.

            Just as he was about to enter the studio again to finish it, everyone was shocked by the murder of John Lennon. He promptly took an unfinished song which he had started as a backing track, intended for Ringo Starr, who had rejected it because the key was too high for him to sing. After rewriting the lyrics as a Lennon tribute, he recorded it with Starr on drums, Paul and Linda McCartney plus Denny Laine, of the McCartneys’ recently-disbanded Wings on backing vocals, and a string arrangement from Beatles’ producer George Martin. The result, ‘All Those Years Ago’, became his biggest hit single for several years and also the centrepiece of the rejigged and re-sleeved album, issued in June 1981, which peaked at No. 11 (US) and No. 13 (UK).

            As with Harrison’s other albums originally released on the Dark Horse label between 1976 and 1987, it was remastered and reissued in 2004 by EMI with bonus material, albeit only one track - an acoustic demo of one of the other songs.

            The opening track, ‘Blood From A Clone’, was one of the other three new songs submitted. Warner Bros either didn’t listen to it very hard or shrugged it off, because it must be one of the most angry, anti-record company songs ever committed to tape/vinyl/CD by a major artist. Alongside that infectious, more or less reggae lead guitar and jerky bass is a snarling lyric that lays bare his bitterness against the company for whom he was working, the trendy accountants who wanted him to change endlessly with the times. Revenge on an overbearing record company is sweet. ‘They say they like it, but in the market, it may not go down well’ is one savage line; ‘Could be they lack roots, they’re still wearing jack boots’ is another. The chorus,‘Don’t have time for the music, They want the blood from a clone’, makes it very obvious. But it’s such an infectious song that you have to listen quite carefully, or read the lyrics in the booklet, to get it fully.
            ‘Unconsciousness Rules’ is more subtly angry. A more poppy song with sprightly lead guitar and backing vocals, playful piano, great washes of organ and an almost jazzy sax sound, it sounds to me like a swipe at some of the more mindless dance music around at the time – ‘You dance at the discotheque, That’s why you look such a wreck’.

            Having got all that off his chest, he’s into more spiritual waters next. ‘Life Itself’ could be a love song, or more probably another variation on the religious ‘My Sweet Lord’ theme. A ballad with plaintive vocals and majestic guitar, there’s an endearing simplicity – if possibly a shade too simple – about the lyrics.

            Next up was the song to which the album owed its selling power, and chances are it’s the only one you’ll remember unless you’re a diehard George fan. ‘All Those Years Ago’ is perhaps a bit incongruous. For a tribute song it’s surprisingly jaunty and upbeat, although on the other hand it could be argued that Lennon might not have wanted to be commemorated by a funereal dirge. This is anything but. Eastern strings, bouncy bass and piano, and as already mentioned the other three former Beatles plus their producer, all got together to remember their departed colleague: ‘And you were the one they backed up to the wall, All those years ago, You were the one who imagined it all.’ It manages to be wistful and celebratory all at once, no mean feat, and is undoubtedly one of the strongest songs here.

            Next comes one of two songs by Hoagy Carmichael, ‘Baltimore Oriole’. I find this rather out of place. Much as I might like the song, George Harrison recording songs from the jazz age doesn’t really sound right in this context. That smooth synth-keyboards and saxes intro might be all right for the likes of George Michael, but not here.

            However the other George redeems himself on ‘Teardrops’. I’ve got minor reservations about the lyrics – ‘I’ve had my share of crying buckets full of teardrops’ sounds rather amateur, somehow – but otherwise the song and arrangement compensate in what is one of the album’s highlights. An intro of pounding bass guitar, tinkling synths (reminiscent of an incredible, and woefully-overlooked minor hit from 1980 by The Motors, ‘Love and Loneliness’, a great favourite of mine), a sweep down the piano keyboard, and rattling tambourine alongside a sturdy drum beat, take you into a very infectious chorus. And some good, uniquely Harrisonesque slide guitar appears later on. This was the second single from the album, but sadly never became a hit.

            Unhappily, the remaining four tracks aren’t really quite up to standard. ‘That Which I Have Lost’ is the best of a not so brilliant bunch. There’s a countryish shuffle with some attractive acoustic guitar picking as well as a touch of nifty electric work on the instrument, but the song is nothing special to start with. The low-key ‘Writing’s On The Wall’, a doomy philosophical lyric, starts off very quiet and low-key, and sounds for a while as if it’s about to build into something really special, but never does. Another Hoagy Carmichael number, ‘Hong Kong Blues’, opens with an oriental gong (well it would, wouldn’t it?), and is quite spirited with some fairly jaunty guitar and horns, but like ‘Oriole’, sounds rather out of context.

            Finally, ‘Save The World’ is another of those sincere ecological songs that could have been so much better if only the chorus wasn’t so mind-numbingly obvious. ‘We’ve got to save the world, Someone’s children they may need it’ - well, yes, and the message comes across – images of birds and wildlife destroyed to keep some millionaires employed are sentiments that you can hardly argue with – and this was over thirty years ago (I almost said ‘all those years ago’). A few well-chosen sounds effects, like cash registers, the sound of a crying baby and of approaching gunfire, are edited in at intervals. It’s halfway towards being great, and certainly worthy in idea, but a songwriter of Harrison’s calibre might have expressed it rather more subtly. His lyrical gifts were clearly on the wane, and he could have done with a collaborator to sharpen the words up.

            As a bonus track, 'Save The World’ reappears as a basic demo with just acoustic guitar. Frankly, I’d have been happy had the rejected tracks been reinstated instead. ‘Sat Singing’, ‘Lay His Head’, ‘Tears Of The World’ and ‘The Flying Hour’ can all be tracked down if you look on YouTube. They are certainly no worse than anything that made it to the final cut, and in one or two cases, they are arguable better than one or two of the weaker songs you will find on the album. ‘The Flying Hour’ is particularly good, and interestingly it was co-written by Harrison and guitarist Mick Ralphs, who was at the time with Bad Company and had previously been a member of Mott The Hoople.

            Included is a 12-page booklet, fronted by the original rejected design, which includes all the lyrics, personnel credits and photographs. One is of Harrison at the mixing desk with his son Dhani, then only a toddler, on his knee, and another shows him with percussionist Ray Cooper at the Tate Gallery, standing in front of a 1967 abstract painting by Mark Boyle. The same can be seen in the 1981 release front cover behind Harrison’s head [added by me below, alongside the once-rejected design now reinstated for the CD].

            For a fan like me, there are enough good Harrison songs to make it worth owning. Having said that, the general view among fans and critics remains that despite the highlights it’s not one of his stronger, more consistent albums. Recommended if you’re already a fan, but certainly not essential.

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          • More +
            20.07.2014 13:50
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            • "Well illustrated"
            • "Thoroughly researched"
            • "Vivid telling of the family history"

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            • None

            Thorough chronicle of a family at war with itself

            With so many recent books published on various aspects of Tudor history, it becomes harder to find a new angle or approach to the subject. Leanda de Lisle has thus pulled off the almost-impossible. Her starting point is not the battle of Bosworth and Henry Tudor’s claiming of the throne as King Henry VII in 1485, as favoured by most historians, but an event nearly fifty years earlier, the death and funeral of Catherine de Valois. The widow of King Henry V, Catherine married secondly the Welsh squire Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur, known to posterity as Owen Tudor. Their elder son Edmund later married Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of John of Gaunt, one of King Edward III’s several sons, and it was the only child of this union, born when his mother was a mere girl thirteen years of age, who would become the victor on Bosworth Field.

            A glance at the two invaluable genealogical tables in the first pages of this volume will reveal what a tangled line it was between Edward III, the Plantagenets, and the houses of Lancaster, York and Tudor who all jostled for the ultimate prize during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Add to that a love-hate relationship with the Scottish monarchs, related more than once by marriage to contemporary English and French royalty, the schism with the Roman Catholic church under Henry VIII which led to the fierce rivalry between Catholic and Protestant, and perpetual conspiracies on behalf of rival claimants, and it is easy to see why the Tudors’ hold on the English crown was never secure. A friend one week could be a bitter enemy the next, and a potentially fatal illness of a crowned head could inspire several would-be kings or queens regnant to chance their arm. It was indeed a family – or rather several branches of the same family – at war.

            We are guided gently through the Wars of the Roses, the rise of the Woodville family, and the everlasting mystery of the Princes in the Tower. Wisely, the author does not lay blame decisively at the door of any particular person as being responsible for the deaths of Edward V and his younger brother Richard, reminding us that it could have been either of the two sovereigns who succeeded him, or the ambitious Duke of Buckingham, or alternatively the scheming Sir James Tyrrell.

            The chequered fortunes of Henry Tudor, the onetime refugee in Brittany who became King, are charted vividly as are his son’s reign, the latter’s break with Rome and his obsession with marrying a Queen who would give him a legal male heir. As we all know, his lifelong obsession with becoming the father of a legitimate and healthy King to succeed him was hardly a success, and the sheer detail of the reign of terror which engulfed so many in England during the last ten years or so of his rule is chronicled in all its savagery. Maybe we have taken it for granted since our schooldays that the versatile Renaissance man we might remember as ‘Bluff King Hal’ could be an irascible old devil who had two of his wives executed, but this history reminds us just how sensitive to opposition and how unforgiving this most vindictive of monarchs, the ‘hippopotamus in scarlet hose’ as he is fetchingly described in these pages, really was. Whether the head injury caused by a severe fall from his horse in 1536, leaving him unconscious for two hours, caused him to become a raving psychopath for the rest of his life or not, is left to speculation. Nevertheless, it seems at least to have been a tipping point in that it was partly responsible for Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage of her saviour, the son whose healthy birth might have saved her neck. From then on the number of executions escalated sharply.

            Poor sickly Edward, the only son of the equally poor sickly Jane Seymour, might have become every bit as autocratic and ruthless as his father once he was King, but his death at the age of fifteen robbed history of the chance to find out. With no male heirs anywhere in sight, the way was open for several princesses to claim the throne. Curiously it was not one of his sisters whom Edward nominated as his successor, but his cousin, Lady Jane Grey. The young woman who reigned for nine days and was within a year executed alongside her husband was not, as is suggested in this book, just an innocent and vulnerable child, but a far more interesting and ambivalent figure than the idealised girl of outdated tradition.

            The remaining fifty years of the powerful but fragile and ultimately doomed dynasty would be dominated by the two warring half-sisters and their cousin. The two winners, Mary and Elizabeth, both wore the crown of England in turn, one for a fleeting five years and the other nine times as long. The loser, another Mary, had become Queen of Scotland while still in the cradle, and Queen consort of France for a brief interlude as well, but was destined to lose both thrones and spend almost twenty years in captivity. Hers was a sad existence, only brought to an end like so many others in Tudor England by the executioner’s axe.

            Life was a grim business in Tudor England. To play a prominent role in the country and not finish one’s career on the scaffold, the gallows or at the stake, or a victim of ill-health and early death from natural causes, often seems like a major achievement. Even ‘Good Queen Bess’ could be every bit as cruel as her father and elder sibling, and it is reported that after the northern rebellion of 1569, she ordered hangings in every village involved. The toll of those executed is estimated at around 900, more than four times as many as those put to death by Henry VIII after the Pilgrimage of Grace some three decades earlier.

            This is a remarkable if often chilling story of determined men and women, locked together in the most desperate of power struggles. Most of us who are interested in English history have a rough grasp of the personalities and events, but the thoroughness of this account helps us to see the Tudor age in a new light. It is also a picturesque chronicle of what is traditionally seen as one of the most fascinating periods of our island story which deserves to take its place alongside the best of all the Tudor histories and biographies that have clamoured for our attention over the last few years. The two sections of colour plates, mostly portraits, are also very well chosen.

            We are not lacking in choice for books on the Tudors these days, but among those I have seen and read, this ranks as one of the very best.

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          • More +
            19.07.2014 00:00
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            • "Well-flavoured chocolate biscuit"

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            • "Flavour not quite as strong as a pure chocolate bar"

            A chocolate biscuit that has stood the test of time

            Launched in the mid-1930s and relaunched in 2004, Nestle Blue Riband is one of the company''''s flagship chocolate biscuits. The title of it apparently comes from an unofficial award which was presented to ocean liners which used to cross the Atlantic shortly before the Second World War.

            Turning to the biscuit, it consists of a single finger bar with a wafer centre, containing a small amount of chocolate cream, covered in a thin layer of milk chocolate, in a (surprise surprise) blue wrapper with a picture of the biscuit on the front. The principle is similar to the better-known Kit Kat, but the chocolate is a little sweeter if thinner, and the wafer tastes stronger, although again thinner and more crumbly than the double K.

            As ever, prices fluctuate but they generally cost around £1.50, sometimes less, for an 8-pack, or £2.50 for a 16-pack, and are widely available at most supermarkets and general stores. Each bar weighs 19.3 gm and contains 99 calories (5% Recommended Dietary Allowance); Sugars - 9.7 gm (11% RDA); Fat - 4.9 gm (7% RDA); Saturates - 3.1 gm (16% RDA); Salt - Trace (1% RDA), so as chocolate snacks go these biscuits score well on the healthy scale. They contain no artificial colours, flavours, hydrogenated fat, nuts, eggs, sweeteners or preservatives and are suitable for vegetarians.

            As such, they make an idea treat with a cup of tea or coffee, or as an addition to the lunch box when working. I find the chocolate and the wafer centre go well together, making for a good crisp texture without being over-sweet, and they leave a pleasant aftertaste.

            Some people say that they give off a good strong chocolate smell when you remove the wrapper, but with my poor sense of smell I don''''t really notice, so I''''ll take that on trust. In conclusion, the taste and flavour are not quite as strong as, say, a pure bar of Dairy Milk or Galaxy chocolate, but that probably makes it more healthy and better for the figure. Moreover, having been around for almost eighty years, it is clearly a well-established favourite, good value and thoroughly recommended.

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            • More +
              24.06.2014 21:54
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              • " little-known songs"
              • "Several fine underrated"
              • "One classic Top 10 hit"

              Disadvantages

              • "Occasionally a little bland"

              Clowns to the left, jokers to the right, and other songs

              The first of three albums made by Stealers Wheel was the only one they made as a five-piece quintet, before joint leaders and main writers Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan decided to continue as a duo with session musicians. It was produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the partnership behind much of the Drifters'' and some of Elvis Presley''s early singles. The result for the most part if a laid-back soft-rock burner, like Lindisfarne meets Crosby, Stills & Nash. Track one, the melancholy, exquisite ''Late Again'', begins with Egan''s vocal accompanied only by harmonium, before Rafferty''s vocal harmony, the rhythm section and later a sax join in. The only hit single from the album, the ironic masterpiece ''Stuck in the Middle'', written after a nightmare of a record company reception where they were surrounded by men in suits and beautiful people, or ''clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right'', is undoubtedly the strongest track. ''Another Meaning'' is a slower number with what sounds like piano and mandolin in the forefront, and the one where the Lindisfarne comparisons are most obvious. The most hard rocking moments on the whole record come in ''I Get By'', led by stabbing guitar chords which, plus Egan''s rasping vocal, make it sound more like Free or Bad Company than anyone else. Then it''s back to the gentle soft-rock of ''Outside Looking In'', where the lead guitar adds bite to an otherwise pretty low-key number. What was side two of the original album starts with ''Johnny''s Song'', mid-paced, almost funky, with more searing lead guitar. The upbeat ''Next To Me'', slightly late Beatles periodish in approach, and the more rocking ''Jose'' follow, with two slower songs to finish. ''Gets So Lonely'' is a mellow ballad, pleasant if a shade dull, completely eclipsed by the enchanting ''You Put Something Better Inside Me''. This, a single at the time which failed to chart, has a gorgeous melody and romantic lyric which would surely qualify it for anybody''s album of favourite love songs. The album may not grab you on first listen, but a few plays allow the charm to shine through until you realise just how good it really is. There''s far more to it than just one much-loved Top 10 hit and a supporting cast of songs you may well have never even heard of before. John Patrick Byrne''s cover painting of the group''s faces as wild animals, which loses some of its impact on a tiny CD cover, is a delight as well.

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            • The Boat That Rocked (DVD) / DVD / 10 Readings / 10 Ratings
              More +
              21.06.2014 16:55
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              • "A classic pop soundtrack"
              • "Lively comedy with a serious side"

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              • "One or two words and records perhaps not around in the 1960s"

              The sixties rocked; this boat and this film rocked with the best of 'em.

              The year is 1966. BBC Radio broadcasts less than 45 minutes per day of recorded pop music while the pirates do so, 24 hours a day. Enter 17-year-old Carl, just expelled from school after being caught smoking. His mother sends him to stay with godfather Quentin, boss of Radio Rock, a pirate ship keeping narrowly within the law by broadcasting to Britain from the North sea. Radio Rock is modelled loosely on Radio Caroline, one of the main pirate stations of the era until closed down in 1967 and replaced with Radio 1, which employed several of its DJs. The plot is fairly basic: a bunch of over-the-top DJs exchange banter with each other when not extolling their virtues on air and proclaiming that they and their music are the best, or not trying to bed some cute young lady on board. But they are under threat. Sir Alistair Dormandy, a government minister (based on Anthony Wedgwood Benn, the Postmaster-general who outlawed the pirates) is taking on the drug-takers, lawbreakers and fornicators by closing down this rock''n''roll pornography. When told that such broadcasting is not strictly illegal, he is told that if you don''t like something, you simply legislate against it. War is declared - government vs pirate radio. Though basically comedy, there are one or two poignant scenes. A marriage of convenience on board ship doesn''t last long, and Carl asks his mother one or two questions regarding his paternity; the answer is not what he expects. As a former DJ myself and as someone whose teens were vastly improved by this rock''n''roll pornography, I adored the soundtrack. How could a batch of oldies like ''Jumpin'' Jack Flash'', ''Lazy Sunday'', Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)'', ''She''d Rather Be With Me'', ''The Happening'', and ''A Whiter Shade of Pale'' be improved upon? It''s also fun to see the jocks on board bopping around to the records, and then a swift cut to schoolchildren, mums and dads at home, office workers and nurses cheerfully gyrating around to the same 45 as it blares from their transistor radios. I loved the cast; most of the DJs are appropriately complete nutters, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman whose performance as he Count was modelled on Emperor Rosko; Bill Nighy as the school monitor-like controller Quentin, trying to keep his team on the right side of caution while really just as much an anti-establishment free spirit as the rest; and Kenneth Branagh as the pompous Dormandy. The DJs are ego-tripping stereotypes, with no attempt to probe deeper into their personalities. But within a single feature film, that isn''t really possible. It may not make much sense to a younger generation, but those of us who remember the golden age of sixties pop heaven and the pirates will surely get it and adore it. I did.

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            • More +
              18.06.2014 22:30
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              • "Evokes the atmosphere of Edwardian and 1920s England well"
              • "Gripping story with a neat twist at the end"

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              • "Almost loses focus about halfway through"

              Love, death and a secret that will eventually be revealed

              As a girl of thirteen, Grace Reeves went into service at Riverton, a grand house in the heart of the Essex countryside, during the last days of Edwardian Britain. By 1999, when the story in the book begins, she is a frail but still mentally sharp woman of 98 in a nursing home. 75 years earlier there was a tragedy at the house, when the young poet R.S. Hunter apparently shot himself in circumstances which have remained a tragedy ever since. Now, on the eve of the new millennium, a film is being made on the subject. As everyone else who was there at the time has long since died, her memories will be invaluable. From the film director''s office, we go back to when young Grace was working at Riverton for the Hartford family. Although fraternisation between the classes is frowned upon, she soon establishes a connection with young siblings David, Hannah and Emmeline. One Christmas David brings home a schoolfriend, Robbie Hunter, to whom one of the sisters takes something of a shine while the other remains indifferent. Then everyone''s existence is shattered by the war. David is one of many who joins the call to arms and never returns. By the early 1920s Hannah is living in London, unhappily married to Teddy, a businessman with whom she has little in common. Emmeline, four years younger, is one of the Bright Young Things, just living for cocktails, the Charleston, parties lasting until dawn, and participation in dodgy films, much to Hannah''s horror. Shell-shocked Robbie, a survivor from the trenches, now a successful if deeply troubled poet, tracks Hannah down to return a book David had lent him. One thing leads to another and they begin an affair. Emmeline becomes part of the triangle in a way, while Teddy is apparently too preoccupied to notice. The greater part of this book is set in the years between 1914 and 1924, but at intervals we are brought back to the present day, or rather to the end of the century. For as Grace recalls the events of that night for the benefit of the film director, she realises the truth has never been revealed. After all these years, she decides that before she dies, she should tell somebody all. With the aid of her daughter Ruth, she records a series of tapes for the benefit of her grandson Marcus. So what really went on that night in 1924? Was it suicide, or was there a cover-up to protect the good name of the family? It is a long read, around 600 pages, and I had the feeling that around halfway through it was in danger of losing focus a little. But then the tension built up again, before all was revealed at the end...

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