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‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
Released in 1978, the follow-up to the classic ''Night Moves'' this was Bob Seger''s big breakthrough album, with almost all the nine tracks surefire winners. The opener, ''Hollywood Nights'', also his debut UK chart single (No. 42), a song about life in the fast lane, with neat lyrical touches - ''All those big city nights, in those high rolling hills'' - is driven by a galloping beat, chugging piano from Little Feat''s Bill Payne, funky bassline which delivers a glorious little run towards the end. An edited version is still heavily played on radio today, but there''s no substitute for the full five-minute version. ''Still the Same'', the previous single, is more or less a ballad, featuring mainly acoustic guitar and piano in the backing. ''Old Time Rock''n''Roll'', one of only two non-self-penned numbers here, is a delightfully infectious song in which he laments that ''today''s music ain''t got the same soul...don''t try to take me to a disco'', with guitar and sax sharing honours on the instrumental break. ''Till it Shines'' is a mid-tempo number with the Eagles'' Glenn Frey on guitar. ''Feel Like a Number'' finds more passion, an angry song about the dehumanisation of society and the average person in the street being treated as just another statistic. Side two of the original album opens with a gutsy bluesy rocker written and first recorded by Frankie Miller, sometimes regarded in the 70s as a Scottish Seger or Springsteen. Next up is the best-known song ''We''ve Got Tonight'', a gorgeous ballad since devalued by numerous inferior cover versions. But it''s a true classic with Seger''s tender vocal pitched at first against gentle keyboards, drums holding back until the interlude, and a terrific build-up with the backing vocalists joining in much later. ''Brave Strangers'', at six minutes plus, the longest track, has echoes of his earlier classic ''Night Moves'' in the lyrics, a song about not being lovers, ''just brave strangers, as we rolled and tumbled through the night''. It starts with a Northern soul kind of tempo, then slows down about halfway through, with smoky late night sax and backing vocals, then picking up speed again. It''s topped off with ''The Famous Final Scene'', a poignant piece about the end of a love affair. With a wonderfully subtle string arrangement, piano and organ complementing each other, and restrained lead guitar, it makes a brilliant closing track. Now on CD, at the time it was a collector''s dream - on black vinyl silver vinyl, and even picture disc. Those were the days. This s one of the seminal American rock albums of the seventies, and still sounds just as powerful nearly forty years on.
Not exactly pop, not exactly punk, not exactly heavy metal, The Motors were indisputably one of the best, most entertaining, singles-friendly outfits to hit the airwaves in 1977. Sadly they never quite achieved the lasting success they deserved, and had called it a day by 1982. This 17-track collection is a more than adequate reminder of why they were so special. Opening with the full-length six minutes-plus epic that was ''Dancing The Night Away'', with that astonishing guitar intro, killer hook and chorus, it takes the best of the singles and selections from the three albums they released during their prime. If you only remember them for one record, it''s probably the 1978 No. 4 hit ''Airport'', with shades of 10 cc at their best. But don''t forget the likeable if slightly over-commercial ''Forget About You'', the raw bass-driven funk of ''Cold Love'', the slightly punkish ''You Beat The Hell Outta Me'', the hard driving ''Emergency'', and above all the glorious, criminally underrated ''Love And Loneliness'', with its epic keyboards and guitar, and echoes of ''Born To Run''. The group were originally a four-piece, comprising Andy McMaster (vocals, bass, keyboards), Nick Garvey (vocals, guitar), Bram Tchaikovsky (vocals, guitar - and no, it wasn't his real name), and Ricky Slaughter (vocals, drums).
By the time of the last album, they had been reduced to a duo with McMaster and Garvey, plus session musicians. It was a brief career, but while it lasted they were magnificent. Maybe they were just too versatile for their own good and fans never knew what to expect next. But at budget price, this set is rarely less than excellent.
Though it has long since been superseded by many more compilations over the years as the hits kept on coming, this was the first Rolling Stones hits collection, released in 1966, and as the one which collected their first hits together, it remains the prime 'Early Hits' set. As such it traces their raw blues and rock'n'roll era, from the cover versions of Buddy Holly's 'Not Fade Away', and the Bobby & Shirley Womack song 'It's All Over Now', which gave them their first No. 1, to the solid gold Jagger-Richard gems like '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction', 'Get Off Of My Cloud', '19th Nervous Breakdown', and 'Paint It Black', up to what was at the time their current hit, the now comparatively forgotten 'Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow'. The pictures are well chosen, reminding us of the young group who still dressed relatively conventionally, as well as of the era when the multi-talented instrumentalist Brian Jones was the main innovator, always ready to pursue new ideas, before personal indulgences sadly took over.
Arthur Burdon, a surgeon, has come to visit Paris and in particular to see his fiancee, art student Margaret Dauncey. On his first evening there he is introduced by a colleague, Dr Porhoet, to Arthur Haddo, who claims to be a magician. When Arthur, Margaret and her friend Susie are sceptical about his claims, he performs various unpleasant tricks to prove it to them. Margaret finds that he makes her flesh creep, and the others also take a strong dislike to him; although very fat and ugly, he still exudes a strange charm which some women seem to find irresistible. Margaret starts to feel sorry for him, decides she really rather likes him after all, and has her suspicions that Arthur and Susie are becoming romantically involved. She spends more time with Oliver and realises that she is in love with him - or else falling under his spell. Arthur has a feeling that all is not well between them, but his mind is set at rest after they have a very pleasant dinner out one evening. She pretends she is still utterly besotted by him, but after they part company for the night she keeps her rendezvous with Oliver, they get secretly married at once and return to England. Once Arthur finds out what has happened he is beside himself, and fears lest her life is in danger. Making it his mission to save her from herself, or from Haddo, he returns to England, taking Susie and Dr Porhoet with him. From then on an air of unreality, horror and even science fiction takes over what has until now been quite a realistic story. Maugham builds the tension chillingly to the point where the reader knows that something very unpleasant is going to happen...
Although this was written and published in the first decade of the twentieth century, it reads very well. Occasionally it is a little full of rather over-florid description but not to the extent of being off-putting. At around 230 pages in paperback, the length is just about right. I thoroughly recommend this as a chilling, exciting read.
William Boyd is one of those contemporary novelists who has been on my must-try list for a long time. This tale, set mostly in East Africa during the First World War, seemed as good as any with which to start. (For a start, it was the only one of his on our shelves at work...)
The popular image of World War One is that of a series of campaigns on mainland Europe, mainly the colossal waste of life in battles such as that of the Somme on the western front. There were also clashes between British and German forces in and around present-day Tanzania, which was in those days the German colony of Tanganyika, with one British soldier prophesying that they would 'all melt like ice-cream in the sun'. Boyd's novel is fiction, though as his acknowledgements at the front indicate, he has been painstaking in his research on the historical background, and a map showing the route taken by the German forces is provided at the front.
Temple Smith is an American expatriate farm-owner and engineer who runs a sisal plantation near Mount Kilimanjaro. For some years he has been on the best of terms with an Anglo-German neighbour, Eric von Bishop. The outbreak of war changes that, and once Smith's painstakingly built-up business is destroyed he finds himself having to join the British army, determined on revenge against the man who has become his bitterest foe.
Next we go to England and meet the brothers Gabriel and Felix Cobb, an upper-class military family. Gabriel, a Captain in the army, marries Charis in July 1914 and they go on honeymoon in Normandy, but it is overshadowed partly by his extreme shyness with his wife between the sheets and partly by increasingly ominous news from the papers, and they have to cut it short in order to return to England, so he can join his regiment in time to be posted to Africa. Felix, a pacifist and something of a family rebel, very much at odds with his peppery old father, initially goes to Oxford where he has set his heart on getting a degree. Having been slightly envious of his brother who married such a lovely wife, once brother is several thousand miles away in Africa and having an affair out there, Felix decides that while the cat's away the mice will play, and they have an affair. For me, this was the most moving part of the whole story, though I won't spoil it by saying why. His time at Oxford is cut short, and despite his weak eyes he enlists in the army anyway. Nobody escapes the call to arms.
At times this book is a black comedy, a savage indictment of the futility of war and the ineptitude of military commanders, of destroyed lives and relationships, of snatched adulterous affairs between those who are determined to live for the moment as they are probably doomed anyway, and the occasional rather gross encounter with a prostitute who puts her client off by spitting rather noisily and spectacularly on to a tin roof outside. People are killed not only in battle or by disease, but also as a result of sheer ineptitude which would be quite funny if only it was not so sad at the same time. In particular there is an inept intelligence officer, Wheech-Browning (the term 'intelligence' proves ironic), who leads various expeditions in which at least one of his companions die pointless deaths.
As the story evolves, there are rare moments of humour. As one leading character says, 'I mean, good God, there is meant to be a war on, you know. You can't just swan up to Heinrich Hun and say, "Look here, old chap, any chance of a cease-fire while we carry out an insurance assessment?"'
But the humour dwindles and there are at least one or two episodes of tragedy. Little more can be said without giving too much away, but this being war, everyone does not live happily ever after. The general picture, as is often the case with novels that have a Great War setting, is of a world turned upside down and altered beyond recognition by a pointless conflict into which someone on high blundered, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces.
William Boyd was born in 1952 in Ghana. His first novel, 'A Good Man in Africa' (1981), was published while he was a lecturer in English at Oxford. He has published several others, including 'Stars and Bars' and 'Brazzaville Beach', as well as three collections of short stories.
Boyd's characters are convincing personalities, whether reactionary old souls who grew up in a different age and do not realise the world has moved on, or eager young souls whose idealism is about to receive a short sharp reality check. His descriptions of life in the last sunset of Edwardian England, about to be swept away, and of life in the army in the African heat, are all convincingly drawn.
There were moments about halfway through where I felt it was losing focus and I was losing the plot (or was it the author?), but then after a while the narrative would get back on track. It's not a particularly comfortable or cheerful read, but an entertaining one.
If you're a fair to middling fan of ABBA, the chances are that you'll have at least one of their several compilation CDs in your collection. I suspect about 1 in 20 of the music-loving population probably has 'Gold Greatest Hits', for example, which has rarely been out of the charts since its release in 1992.
So, apart from the 'cashing-in on the 'Mamma Mia' movie' malarkey in 2008, was there really any point in putting this boxed set containing everything they ever did, apart from the post-split live set? For true fans - and I would count myself among them - yes, it's justifiable. Despite the price tag it even made the album charts for four weeks, albeit reaching no higher than No. 89.
FIRSTLY, WHICH ALBUMS ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
In order of release, they are 'Ring Ring' (1973), 'Waterloo' (1974), 'ABBA' (1975), 'Arrival' (1976), 'ABBA - The Album' (1978), 'Voulez-Vous' (1979), Super Trouper' (1980), 'The Visitors' (1981), and exclusive to this package, 'Bonus Tracks', 17 cuts which were mainly non-album A- or B-sides, or else non-English language versions. Completing the set is a booklet including a short discography, credits, photographs, brief commentaries and a time-line up to 1983.
SECONDLY, HOW MUCH WILL IT COST, AND IS IT WORTH SPLASHING OUT IF YOU HAVE MUCH OF IT ALREADY?
It depends how much you are prepared to pay. I picked up this set in an HMV sale for £15. Amazon, who generally offer CDs way below the high street price, were listing it at a whopping £44.98 at the time. Last time I looked, it was around the £27 mark, but with other sellers on the site offering it at £18 or so. Surf around and save yourself a packet.
THIRDLY, DO YOU WANT A COMPLETE TRACK-BY-TRACK EVALUATION?
No? Good - I think you and I have other things to do for the next six months. If you've got this far, I'm probably preaching to the converted, who always found the Scandinavian foursome a guilty pleasure and are relieved that after the backlash of the late 80s, are glad they can admit to having loved them all along. A recent poll, published in the 'Daily Telegraph', of bands that readers would most like to reform put them in first place with 25% of the vote, above Pink Floyd and the Police.
However, I'll offer a few thoughts, random choices and opinions on the musical content. I love at least 75% of their work, often listen to it at home, even play one or two of their songs with the group I play with, and never do a disco without featuring at least one or two. They made the occasional recording which does nothing for me (I've always found 'Thank You For the Music' irritatingly corny, and would rather not hear it again), but anybody with a back catalogue including such classics as 'Mamma Mia', 'SOS' (named by Pete Townshend as the most perfect pop song ever), 'Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight'), the powerful 'Does Your Mother Know' (one of the best songs Status Quo never wrote), and the evergreen 'Waterloo', all of which still sound as fresh and timeless as they did when I first heard them in the 1970s, is worthy of anyone's respect.
Moreover, you can trace a definite development in their work through these albums. 'Ring Ring' (1972), the earliest, and 'Waterloo' (1974), are pretty uncomplicated pop, maybe a tad Euro-cheesy but at their best with a definite spark which set them apart from the competition. 'Ring Ring' itself, submitted as an Eurovision entry in 1973 though it did not make the finals, is still an utterly infectious tune that for me stands up just as well over forty years later. 'ABBA', 'Arrival' and 'ABBA - The Album' all show them refining their craft and getting better, 'Voulez-Vous' tips its hat to the Miami disco sound, and finally 'Super Trouper' and the stark 'The Visitors' demonstrate a final sober maturity as well as indicating that they had taken it as far as they could. Quit while you're winning. They did.
Let me point you in the direction of a few lesser-known numbers which are surely worthy of your attention.
If you played 'Watch Out' (from 'Waterloo', and the B-side to the single of the same name) to someone and asked 'em to guess who it was, they'd be forgiven for suggesting it could be by awesome glam-rock contemporaries The Sweet. 'So Long' (from 'ABBA'), was a single in late 1974 that bombed, their only one ever to miss the Top 50 altogether, but while it may have a similar tempo to 'Waterloo' and a sax arrangement with every sign of being inspired heavily by the style of Roy Wood and Wizzard, it still packs a hell of a punch. From that same album, the inspired kinda-classical instrumental piece 'Intermezzo No. 1' sounds like Leonard Bernstein jamming with ELO. (We're still waiting for No. 2, by the way). 'The Eagle' (from 'The Album') is a slightly eerie, restrained slice of electro-pop which was released as a single almost everywhere but the UK, and cited by the Human League as a major influence on them. One listen to the latter's 'Don't You Want Me' makes that blindingly obvious. 'As Good As New' (from 'Voulez-Vous') was very much Bee Gees-influenced, but the orchestral intro and first few bars sound like they're borrowed straight out of a Gilbert & Sullivan overture before the funky dance bit. Finally, 'The Visitors' (the title track of the last album), reputedly Kenny Everett's favourite-ever ABBA song, is an utterly chilling, unsettling, synthesiser-driven epic about Russian dissidents living in fear of a knock on the door from the KGB. Some critics have said it out-Joy Divisions Joy Division at their bleakest. In Beatles terms, it's a bit like listening to 'Strawberry Fields Forever' or 'A Day in the Life' after hearing 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'.
DESIGN AND PACKAGING
Each of the CDs comes in a small cardboard sleeve, which is a replica of the original vinyl album. I will qualify that slightly - 'ABBA - The Album' was originally released in 1978 in a gatefold sleeve, whereas this one just comes with the front and back design. Moreover, the last two vinyl albums also had a lyric insert, though I don't know if this was provided for in the corresponding CD booklets, although I suspect it probably was. There are no lyrics in this set under review. The box is matt black, with a shiny silver/blue logo on the front, and thumbnail images of each album on the back. This corresponds to a whole array of multiple CD box packages from numerous artists released within the last two or three years, containing the original releases (sometimes with a few bonus tracks to augment what was on the vinyl), but just in basic replica LP sleeves without any inserts or other extras, in order to keep the price down.
Another rather neat touch is the design of each CD. No boring black print on silver, but instead a small blue centre 'label' surrounded by black, designed to make each one look like a smaller version of a vinyl single. I'm a sucker for these things.
If you want the lyrics, go google them! And despite what some may say, not all the songs were nonsense. They later admitted in an interview that early efforts like 'Dum Dum Diddle' were pretty embarrassing, but they (or rather lyricist and guitarist Benny Andersson) did explore some fairly sombre themes, and pretty successfully for someone for whom English was not the first language. 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' and 'The Winner Takes It All' are about as poignant numbers about the cracks in or final break-up of a marriage as you will find anywhere this side of Bob Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks', or Richard Thompson's 'Hand of Kindness'.
A 40-page booklet includes a short essay about the group, a timeline of events in their story from 1972 (when they made their first recordings as a quartet) to 1983 (the date of their last single release, 'Under Attack'), with a selection of photos, followed by track listings for each album, and a full list of all the musicians (where known) who played on the recordings. One interesting bit of trivia - pretty well all of these were Scandinavian, as you would expect, but I noticed that one of the saxophonists was Raphael Ravenscroft, best known as the creator of that immortal sax line on Gerry Rafferty's 'Baker Street'.
That apart, it's difficult to fault. As suggested above, just shop around, right? If you can find it for less than £20, that's around £2 per CD with a nice little black box and booklet thrown in. Combined with the quality of the music, that has to be worth five stars. And if you ever wondered whether they made anything of value beyond what you probably know off by heart after years of owning 'ABBA Gold', the merest dip into this collection is ample proof that they did.
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) seems to have slipped rather sharply from public favour in recent years. Yet for much of his career, particularly between the wars, he was one of the most successful British writers of all (novels, short stories and plays), and 'The Moon and Sixpence', first published in 1919, went on to become one of his most popular titles. By modern standards it is fairly short, running to little over 200 pages in standard-size paperback.
The story is based fairly loosely on the life of the French artist Paul Gauguin, a post-impressionist painter who was remembered best for the extraordinarily colourful paintings he did in Tahiti, where he settled after leaving France and spent the last disease-ridden years of his life. The central character of the tale is Charles Strickland, a middle-aged stockbroker from London, who abandons his successful career, wife and family in order to pursue his vocation - or perhaps better to say obsession - as a painter. In fact the novel is disguised as biography, even going to the extent of citing three other (fictitious) biographies of Strickland in the footnotes, plus the (apparent) name and year of publication. (I wonder if any other unsuspecting readers have fallen for it and tried to track these books down anywhere).
His saga is told by a first-person narrator, an author whose name we never learn. He has been introduced to the apparently very ordinary Strickland through the latter's wife, and first meets him at a rather boring dinner party, 'the kind of party which makes you wonder why the hostess has troubled to bid her guests, and why the guests have troubled to come.' He immediately finds Strickland 'good, honest, dull, and plain'. Fortunately he had no great expectations that evening, as Mrs Strickland had had the decency to warn him beforehand that he would be 'bored to extinction', adding that she would be extremely grateful if he could come. Sometimes there's nothing like a little mission of mercy.
Maugham's novels tend to be rather cynical and to some minds depressing, but I find they generally have a plot and pace which compensates for that and makes them very readable. This one is no exception.
A little while later, we learn that Strickland has suddenly done a runner and settled in Paris, having shed all the comforts of his predictable life in London and deciding he now wants to be a painter. He is staying in seedy hotels, prepared to put up with starvation and illness just as long as he can lead the life he wants. The narrator is sent there by the distraught Mrs Strickland to try and persuade him to come back to his old life and family, and is repelled to find how utterly callous and indifferent he has now become to the feelings of anyone but himself. 'Won't it mean anything to you to let you know that people loathe and despise you?' he is asked. No, is the scornful answer. He is now totally unrecognisable from the man he was before, completely driven and single-minded; nothing else matters, but the desire to express himself through his art.
With barely any money left, his only means of support is a helping financial hand from Dirk Stroeve, a successful Dutch painter who is a friend of his and of the narrator. When Strickland falls seriously ill, partly as a result of self-neglect, Stroeve's wife Blanche immediately goes to nurse him back to health. From that, it is only a short step to her abandoning her husband for the artist. It then turns out that he was only using her as a model and had no intention of offering her serious companionship. Dirk is distraught when she leaves her, and even more so when she is cast aside without a second thought and takes her life in despair.
The narrator eventually returns to England. Some years later he is told that Strickland has moved to Tahiti and died there. He is keen to find out what became of him, goes out to the south seas, and through the recollections of those who knew him, including a ship captain and the woman who became his common-law wife and bore him a child, he manages to piece the story together of his last years.
The plot, basically quite a simple one, is well-handled, and the thoroughly dislikeable character of Strickland is convincingly if coldly drawn. We never learn much about the narrator, but this was doubtless the author's aim - an unexceptional man, who does not try or aspire to overshadow the central character who turns out to be far less ordinary than he appeared during the opening pages of the book. I first read it in my early teens with great enjoyment, came back to it very recently (having forgotten pretty well everything but the basic story in the meantime), and I found it just as rewarding the second time round.
Although Maugham is rather out of fashion today, as mentioned above, he seems to have been elevated to 'twentieth century classic status' these days. His major novels have been kept regularly in print thanks to successive publishers, and as ever there's always the public library. This seems to have remained one of his most popular titles, and I would certainly recommend it.
Everybody carries a few secrets with them, and sometimes take one or two to the grave. Or else they will yield one or two to their nearest and dearest in the nick of time.
It is 2011, and Dorothy Nicolson, nee Smitham, is dying. Her eldest daughter Laurel, a very successful actress, has long been puzzled by an unsettling - well, shocking - event which she witnessed while playing in her treehouse in the garden one summer's day when she was a sheltered young thing of 16, fifty years earlier. She and her siblings were about to have a picnic-cum-birthday party for Gerald, the youngest of the children, then aged two. Then an odd-looking man suddenly appeared, and...
Although she was only vaguely aware of what happened at the time, the episode has never ceased to haunt her. The police arrived, spoke to her and her parents, and the matter was regarded as over. But as far as Laurel was concerned, that little conversation with the friendly bobby was not real closure. What really occurred? Well, in a sense she knew, because she saw it all - but why? Half a century later, her curiosity is still not appeased.
Although the story - or rather Chapter 1 of the book - starts at 1961, the rest of it darts to and fro. Most of it alternates between 2011 when Laurel is trying to get to the root of the mystery, and 1941, some of the darkest hours of Britain in World War Two, when Dorothy was a young woman on her own who had left her family behind and gone to a new life for herself in bomb-ravaged London, while trying like several million others to avoid the worst that the Luftwaffe could throw at them. So were her boyfriend Jimmy, her friend Vivien (or was she really a friend?) and the latter's husband Henry, who was at that time an up-and-coming young novelist.
Apart from the regular seesaw between past and present, with a sixty-year interval between the two, there is also a brief interlude which takes us back to Australia in 1929. With the help of a few clues and a good deal of intuition, Laurel starts to piece together what has become an astonishing, even quite complex family mystery.
As Dorothy comes out of hospital to spend her last few weeks at home, her mind is plainly wandering but she, in her own way, seems driven to tell Laurel about it and lay the mystery to rest. For this elderly woman the spirit is willing but the body is weak, slowly but surely packing up. A few maternal gasps, plus a convoluted trail which includes an address in London and some research in archives in the British Library, help Laurel to put the last pieces in the jigsaw. What happened to that closely-knit little group in wartime London in the end? For instance, there are some scattered references in print and online, notably Wikipedia, to the career of Henry Jenkins, whose early promise was never quite fulfilled. But whatever became of him?
As the story unfolds between past and present, little clues are dotted around the pages. I thought I had worked out part of the puzzle about two-thirds of the way through, but I wasn't sure - and there was at least one more twist to come a good deal further on. Dorothy herself provides the final answer in what are more or less her last dying words. It is as if she has delivered her final remarkable secret, or rather, confirmed what Laurel had gradually worked out for herself, and now knows she can go to meet her maker.
Kate Morton's powers of description and portraits of the major characters involved, including Laurel's siblings, can hardly be faulted, and she builds the tension up very well. However, I thought this book suffered a little from the all-too-common fault of modern novels of being overlong. During the middle it started to lose some momentum for me, as if events were being piled on top of one another or else padded out too much for the sake of it, without really bringing the narrative forward and keeping the momentum going. Altogether the book is close to 600 pages, and in my view it would have been more effectively told if shortened a little. However, the fact that I held on and stayed to the astonishing end basically says it all.
Kate Morton, one of Australia's foremost modern writers, was born in 1976. This is her fourth novel, the others including 'The House at Riverton' and 'The Forgotten Garden'.
My stumbling on this book was partly the result of finding it in our recent influx of contemporary fiction added to stock at work and being fascinated by the blurb on the back. It was also partly through the recommendation of my wife, who with her workload gets less time for a good book or two than she would like, but recently came across one of Kate Morton's titles and was sufficiently impressed to read all four in fairly quick succession. She did however remark that this one impressed her a little less than the others, on the grounds that she was not really taken with the story so much.
On balance, I enjoyed it, thought the story was very well constructed, and the ending certainly took me by surprise. However I came very close to skimming some of the pages about halfway through in my eagerness to cut to the chase until it started moving again.
Gabriele d'Annunzio was a strange and, perhaps fortunately for everyone else (especially for most of those with whom he was acquainted) unique character, a kind of 20th century Renaissance man who almost defies posterity to pigeonhole him. At various times he was a poet, novelist, dramatist, journalist, adventurer, self-styled demagogue and philanderer. Although he lost several friends during the First World War, as well as the sight of one eye when his plane was shot down, he had a passion for war, seeing bloodshed as manly and death in battle as glorious self-sacrifice.
He had the dodgiest of moral compasses, and additionally he was hardly the good-looking young man he apparently believed himself to be. One French courtesan who firmly rebuffed his physical advances later called him 'a frightful gnome with red-rimmed eyes and no eyelashes, no hair, greenish teeth, bad breath and the manners of a mountebank'. Had he been alive today, he would have probably been an instant celebrity and media personality with a very short shelf-life. One half Jeremy Clarkson, one half Russell Brand, one might say. A contemporary likened him to 'a pike, a predator of other people's ideas which he powerfully reshaped', hence the title of this book.
Born Gabriele Rapagnetta in Abruzzo in 1863, Gabriele d'Annunzio took his surname from a distant relative who had left an estate to his father. At first he seemed destined to be remembered mainly as a poet, publishing three volumes of verse by his eighteenth birthday. Shortly before the first appeared in an expanded second edition, a major newspaper editor received an anonymous postcard saying that the promising young poet had just had a fatal fall from his horse. It was reported in the press across Italy. Alive to the value of self-promotion, d'Annunzio had sent the postcard himself. Needless to say, it did the sales of his book nothing but good.
Ever restless, he soon realised he was put on earth to do more than publish poetry. He married and had a family, but domesticity did not become him. There would be a long line of affairs, and he would recount his sexual conquests in detail in several of his notorious novels and plays. A life of literature and debauchery was not enough, as he sought a role on the political stage. Apparently it was the fault of the philosopher Nietzsche, whose work he read at the age of thirty, and who convinced him that men such as himself were Supermen, Beyond Good and Evil. (Nearly forty years later, if I might digress, P.G. Wodehouse published a Bertie Wooster story in which Jeeves warned Bertie that Nietzsche was fundamentally unsound. D'Annunzio did not have the benefit of Jeeves or even Wodehouse).
He then turned to politics, calling on his fellow Italians to enter the war and complete the unification of their country by annexing parts of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, and calling for those who advocated neutrality to be punished if not physically attacked. 'If it is considered a crime to incite citizens to violence,' he told crowds at a public meeting in 1915, 'then I boast of committing that crime.' Not long afterwards, Italy declared war on Austria, although the decision had been made already. He was one of the few public figures who rejoiced in the war, even though he lost many friends that way, in addition to his eye, as mentioned above. For him, the Armistice in 1918 was bad news; 'I smell the stench of peace.'
One year later, his career reached its pinnacle when he led an army of sorts into the city of Fiume, now Rijeka in Croatia, which had a largely Italian population. For fifteen months he ruled it as a dictator, an uncrowned king. The episode was an embarrassment to the Italian government, who drove him out and into retirement. He had had his brief moment of glory, and was a kind of inspiration for Benito Mussolini, who seized power in Italy in 1922, but his career was over.
Lucy Hallett-Hughes, biographer and historian, is also the author of 'Cleopatra: Histories, dreams and distortions', and a book reviewer for the Sunday Times.
This is a vivid biography of a strange life, although perhaps appropriately in view of its subject matter it does break with some of the standard biographical conventions. The first 75 pages or so are a three-chapter essay on his life and career in which chronology is thrown to the four winds. Only after that do we begin reading a more or less cradle to grave account of his life and times. Even then, the author's narrative occasionally slips from the past to the present tense. For much of the last chapter, after a straightforward narrative in the past tense, the story is told in the present - in the form of diary entries, prefaced by dates - sometimes the full day, sometimes just the month and year. It's very inventive, yes, but in a novel, I would find that distracting, as for me it breaks the flow, and in a serious work of history or biography, even more so.
Also, paradoxically, it is a long biography of a man who throve on his own publicity, but frankly achieved very little in his seventy-five years. Even today, he is barely considered a notable figure in Italian literature, so much as a curiosity. I came to this book never having heard of the man before. It makes for an interesting read, although bearing in mind what an insignificant figure he ultimately was, I feel he hardly deserved such a lengthy memorial. He would certainly not have been a pleasant man to know.
'The Pike' won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, and the Costa Book Award for biography in 2013.