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JOHNDMR

JOHNDMR
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Member since: 06.10.2000

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

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      • "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 / 9 Readings / 9 Ratings
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      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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      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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      • More +
        14.06.2014 10:55
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        • "Several classic tracks"

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        • None

        One of the American classics of its era

        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.

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          09.06.2014 20:54
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          Driving music at full throttle - at its best

          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.

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            03.06.2014 07:04
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            • "Great choice of material from their early days"

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            • "Long since superseded by more recent compilations"

            Classic early Stones

            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.

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              24.05.2014 13:41
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              Enthralling tale of an evil man

              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.

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                18.03.2014 10:39
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                Dark humour and tragedy in a novel of war in Africa, 1914-18

                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 BOOK

                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.

                THE AUTHOR

                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.

                OVERALL

                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.

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                • The Albums - Abba / Music Album / 40 Readings / 39 Ratings
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                  15.03.2014 15:26
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                  ABBA - The Complete Works, pretty well, 1972-82

                  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'.

                  FINALLY

                  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.

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                    10.03.2014 09:37
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                    London stockbroker deserts family and career for the Bohemian life abroad

                    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 BOOK

                    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.

                    OVERALL

                    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.

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                      08.03.2014 20:10
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                      What really happened on a summer's day in 1961, and why? 50 years later, a witness finds out

                      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.

                      THE BOOK

                      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.

                      THE AUTHOR

                      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'.

                      FINALLY

                      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.

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                        05.03.2014 09:55
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                        Gabriele d'Annunzio, Italian poet, novelist, adventurer, philanderer and would-be leader

                        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.

                        THE 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.

                        THE AUTHOR

                        Lucy Hallett-Hughes, biographer and historian, is also the author of 'Cleopatra: Histories, dreams and distortions', and a book reviewer for the Sunday Times.

                        OVERALL

                        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.

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                          01.03.2014 12:08
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                          Tom Jones - an overview of his career, 1965-2010

                          One of the few advantages of growing, well - older, is that you gradually come to accept, appreciate and maybe even love the music which you hated when you were a snotty kid at school and dismissed as something only fit for your parents or grandparents. But we all eventually become like our parents in some way. Sir Tom Jones was once a tuxedo-clad all-round entertainer whom many of us wrote off as just another Las Vegas crooner. Now, in his seventies, he is not merely an eclectic performer who can and will sing something from almost any genre, but also a national treasure.

                          With a string of hits that spans almost fifty years, it was almost inevitable that his 70th birthday in 2010 would be marked by another new compilation from his back catalogue, including a couple of items from what was then his then most recent album. This collection contains 29 tracks on two CDs, providing about 92 minutes of music.

                          THE MUSIC

                          As the recordings seem to be in more or less random rather than chronological order, I'll start with the earliest, rather than disc one track one. Normally I prefer these compilations to begin at the beginning and work up to the present day, but the see-sawing between past and present sometimes makes for a more interesting listening experience. So, resisting the temptation to comment in minute detail on the lot, I'll take these tracks roughly in order of original release.

                          'It's Not Unusual', his first single to make the charts, reached No. 1 in 1965 and No. 17 on reissue in 1987. Originally written with Sandie Shaw in mind, it was a big bold tune with that gutsy vocal complemented well by brass and a few nice guitar licks, rumoured to have been played by Jimmy Page in his session musician days, though nobody is certain. By the way, when I was a mobile DJ in the late 80s, I was surprised to get youngsters coming up and asking for anything by Tom Jones. They were having a laugh, I thought, until I played this one night and they absolutely went wild on the dancefloor. Only then did I realise that he really was cool with the new generation.

                          After that, it was richly orchestrated ballad time. 'With These Hands' was another Top 20 hit, and though it shows demonstrates that his voice was ideally suited to the style (as did many of his subsequent singles), I find the song rather dull. Then he began recording film themes, with the more catchy 'What's New Pussycat' one of the most memorable hits from his early days, but the rather less inspired James Bond theme 'Thunderball' faring less well. But he was still rock'n'rollin', as the inclusion of an early album track, Little Richard's frenetic 'Bama Lama Bama Loo' reminds us.

                          By 1966 it looked as if his career was on the wane, until he covered a minor American country hit, the sentimental but very likeable 'Green Green Grass of Home'. This one completely turned his fortunes around, giving him the Christmas No. 1 where it stayed for seven weeks and his biggest hit ever. An inspired string arrangement with some subtle organ and piano work, it actually has quite a dark lyric, being sung by a man dreaming he is going home to see his family, until he wakes up on his last morning in prison before his execution. (It's ironic to think hundreds of people were probably buying this cheerless single for each other for Christmas.)

                          Stick with a winning formula. Tom's next hits were similarly (if slightly less morbid) country ballads and love songs, the big-voiced 'Detroit City' (with a lovely intro of a low-pitched guitar string being tuned up slightly for the first few seconds), 'Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings', and 'I'll Never Fall In Love Again'. Probably the best-remembered song from this era is the melodramatic hit from 1968, another death disc 'Delilah'. Part ballad, part waltz, part singalong, with big band, Mexican trumpets and flamenco guitars, this tells the tale of a man who goes to stab his lady to death for cheating on him. (Very politically incorrect, but it never stopped him singing it at the Diamond Jubilee pop concert). Again a rather chilling little tale, but musically it's still irresistible. And at least he followed it with a more cheerful song in 'Not Unusual' vein, the equally infectious Italian song 'Help Yourself'.

                          Most of the next few hits were ballads (with plenty left out - see below), including an old Shirley Bassey hit, 'I (Who Have Nothing)', but there were a few big brassy soul tunes, like 'She's a Lady' and 'Daughter of Darkness'. For my money, one of the very best tracks on this collection is his version of 'Resurrection Shuffle', a hit for Ashton, Gardner & Dyke in 1971 and a minor US success for Tom later that year. It's a funky, jazzy dance number fired by a full brass riff, and an absolute powerhouse of a vocal.

                          By the early 1970s he was becoming a big light entertainment name, heading for the cabaret circuit, and the hits were starting to dry up. In view of his virtual disappearance from the public eye, his extraordinary comeback in the 1980s onwards seems all the more remarkable. He demonstrated that he was at home in almost all musical genres, quite often duetting with other singers, duos and groups (as well as Morecambe & Wise - but that's another story). There was the electropop of Prince's 'Kiss' with The Art of Noise, a smouldering 'Mama Told Me Not To Come' with The Stereophonics, every bit as good as the original hit by Three Dog Night, the swaggering 'Sex Bomb' with Mousse-T, an impassioned 'Burning Down The House' with the Cardigans, and the rather kitsch but still fun 'Baby It's Cold Outside' with Cerys Matthews. There was also a belter of a soul-dance tune, 'If I Only Knew'.

                          One of his major collaborations in the 21st century was an album with Jools Holland, on which he went back to his rock'n'roll and big band, almost bluesy jazzy roots. From that there's a no-holds barred 'It'll Be Me', a song first recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis and many more since then. There's another electro dance hit, 'Stoned In Love' recorded by Chicane and a Top 10 hit in 2006, which I wasn't sure about at first but which has proved a bit of a grower.

                          It's good to note that some of the best songs, in my view anyway, are from the more recent stages of his career. From 2008, 'Give a Little Love' was co-written by him, and it's a soul-type number with thoughtful lyrics along the lines of 'Livin' in a world where there's plenty, so how come we're runnin' on empty'.

                          From 2010 there are three songs from his most successful non-compilation album ever, 'Praise and Blame', an album initially and ironically disowned by the top brass at his new record company who in a leaked e-mail said that the idea of Sir Tom making a record of blues and gospel tunes was, er, some kind of a sick joke, and demanded his money back. 'Didn't It Rain' is a gospel-cum-pop number again co-written by him, and with that simple setting it could almost be a Status Quo number. 'What Good Am I' is an introspective and little-known Bob Dylan song, a slow number which has a kind of hymn-like quality:

                          'What good am I if I say foolish things
                          And I laugh in the face - of what sorrow brings
                          And I just turn my back - while you silently die'

                          Best of all is 'Burning Hell', a John Lee Hooker blues standard featuring some razor-sharp slide guitar and gloriously unobtrusive rhythm guitar and drums. I sometimes wish Tom had been recording songs like this long ago, but that he can explore new fields like this at a late stage in his career, so good on him.

                          THE PERFECT COMPILATION?

                          Sadly, in some ways it's a bit of a wasted opportunity, hence only four stars. The quality of what we have is almost uniformly very good to excellent, though I could do without the 'Full Monty Medley', which only features him part of the way through. But as the discs only provide 45 and 47 minutes playing time respectively, there would have been room for several of the major hits which are conspicuous by their absence. 'I'm Coming Home', 'Till', and 'A Boy From Nowhere', all of which reached No. 2 in the charts, are nowhere to be found. Ditto others like 'Love Me Tonight', 'A Minute Of Your Time', 'The Young New Mexican Puppeteer', 'Letter To Lucille', and 'Somethin' Bout You Baby I Like'. Another omission which I'd like to have seen on here is his mighty duet with John Farnham of AC/DC's classic 'It's a Long Way to the Top'. Better burn my own, I suppose...

                          PACKAGING

                          An eight-page booklet gives a full list of tracks, composing publishing credits and dates, sometimes rather brief and not always accurate ('It's Not Unusual', 1993? I think not), plus two pages of retrospective notes by journalist Andrew Perry.

                          OVERALL

                          Nearly all the songs on this album are very good to great, and on the whole it's the best of the best. But the track selection could and should have been more comprehensive.

                          Finally this was one of my rare, in fact more or less unique recent CD high street purchases where Amazon (£9.20 at the time), was beaten by HMV (£6.99).

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                            26.02.2014 10:44
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                            Great Britain during the 1914-18 war, and the impact the war had on the country

                            Throughout the nineteenth century, Britain was regularly at war with one or more overseas nation, be it France, Russia, South Africa or elsewhere. These conflicts generally passed the public by, except for families who had loved ones serving overseas. When the declaration of war against Germany was announced to the crowds in London in August 1914, it was assumed that once again most people would not be affected, and that it would probably be over by Christmas. This was proved wrong on both counts. A weary conflict dragged on for four long years, and nobody in Britain escaped from the long shadow which it cast.

                            THE BOOK

                            Television presenter and quizmaster as well as author, Jeremy Paxman has his own personal family tale of the conflict to tell. On 7 August 1915, 24-year-old Charles Edmund Dickson was killed on active service in Turkey. He was one of thousands of eager young recruits who had gone to fight for King and Country, only to leave a grieving widowed mother behind as he was destined to become another of the many names carved on war memorials up and down the country for later generations to come and gaze at. Mr Dickson was Paxman's great-uncle Charlie.

                            Books on the First World War are plentiful enough, and there will doubtless be more in the coming months to mark the centenary year. What makes this one so compulsively readable is not just Paxman's compelling style, spiced with the occasional dry sense of humour to bring some light relief to what is fundamentally a pretty sombre subject. It is also his crisp and straightforward portrayal of the facts, from the midnight deadline in August 1914 which came and went without any response to a British demand that Germany should withdraw her troops from Belgium, to the Armistice some four years later, against a setting of the impact it had on everyday British life and how this changed as a result.

                            Almost unbelievably, for some of those who took part it was not a bad war at first. In particular, the Christmas ceasefire in 1914 when British and German soldiers briefly put aside their national differences and fraternised as they swopped conversation and cigarettes is revealed as an instance when there was hope for mankind. Sadly it soon gave way to worsening conditions as the conflict dragged wearily on, with grim conditions on the western front, where the sickening smell of dead bodies and excrement hung over everything, and where rats grew enormous from feasting on the corpses. (My apologies if that's a shade gross for some readers, but at the risk of stating the obvious, war is a vile business). Newspapers fed their readers wildly over-optimistic stories of progress in the early months, only to be contradicted by soldiers returning on sick leave who were angered by what they saw as misplaced propaganda if not downright lies. And how true were the stories about German soldiers raping and mutilating women and young children as they advanced on Belgium, or of German factories where the dead were boiled down inside vast cauldrons to provide raw material for pig-feed and fertilizer? Sensational twaddle, avers the author, pointing out that the German government denied the latter story as fabrication. They would, wouldn't they? Meanwhile, British governments provided no corroboration of the facts but did nothing to deny it. They wouldn't, would they?

                            The ineptitude of some of the generals and the appalling catastrophe of mass casualties at the battle of the Somme are factors which still have the power to amaze us a hundred years after the event. 1916 was indeed something of an annus horribilis in war terms with a failure at the battle of Jutland, officially seen as an indecisive conflict but claimed as a victory by both sides despite the number of dead and wounded, the loss of 'Your Country Needs You' poster hero Lord Kitchener at sea, and the Easter Rising in Dublin, put down with what seemed like unnecessary vindictiveness and too many executions. The entry into the war a year later of America, declaring that the German submarine campaign was 'a warfare against mankind', was undoubtedly a turning point.

                            Too many soldiers and sailors did not come back, and girls at a school in Bournemouth were warned by a senior mistress that only one out of ten of them could ever hope to marry, because so many of the young men they might have married had been killed. One of the young men who was spared for greater things was young Lieutenant Harold Macmillan of the Grenadier Guards. Having been shot in the thigh in no-man's-land, he lay badly wounded in a shell hole for almost a day, awaiting rescue and passing the time when he was not unconscious by reading Greek literature. When he returned home, he was one of many who would feel a sense of guilt that he had lived while so many others had not. Forty years later, he became Prime Minister.

                            It was not the war to end wars, as so many had hoped, but the profound changes which it wrought in British society are emphasised. The conflict altered the relationship between classes, between the sexes, and it had a profound effect on the political system. There was a pronounced break between the Edwardian way of life and that which came after peace was declared, and in some ways it made Britain the country it is today. Paxman says that in retrospect the war was the great punctuation point in modern British history, the moment when the nation decided that what lay ahead of them would never be as grand as their past, and they began to walk backwards into the future.

                            OVERALL

                            Paxman's books are a joy to read. He has the knack of taking a British institution, or a subject from the past (or a combination of both), and writing about it in a lively manner, full of wisdom and insight and the occasional wry observation along the way, always arousing our curiosity. There will be many books on the 1914-18 hostilities coming along in the next few months, but if you want a fairly succinct general account, I suspect that few if any are likely to improve on this one.

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                              23.02.2014 10:34
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                              A good alternative to large fingers on the mobile phone

                              As somebody who came comparatively recently, and a little reluctantly, to using a mobile phone, I soon mastered the art of dialling on it - well, sufficiently to get by - but I enjoyed texting about as much as pulling my teeth out. My wife, to whom her mobile is like a third arm, insisted that I had to get it right. Impossible, I said. I can put hands to keyboard and write e-mails, reviews for pay-per-view sites (and others), even full-length books. But not on this [expletive deleted] phone. Not one that makes sense, anyway. My fingers will wrap themselves cheerfully around a guitar, even a mandolin fretboard, on which the frets are quite small. But...

                              A few weeks of the wrong keys getting under my somewhat less than diminutive fingers and sending her total gobbledeygook meant that the message got through. (To be fair, some of her messages to me also contain rather unorthodox spelling too). One day she produced a rather neat little metallic gold-coloured pen-like object, about four inches long, which she said she had found in a shop in town for about £5. Instead of a nib there was a small black rubber bulb-shaped end. Try this, she said.

                              I found it worked very well. However it received pretty regular use more or less every day. On the rare occasions when I forgot to take it with me to work, I tried almost hammering on the touch screen of my phone with my finger, even my nail (my nails aren't sharp, but even so I'm not sure it was a good idea), and eventually got results of a sort - but only of a sort.

                              After about six months the bulb end was beginning to disintegrate. These artefacts clearly have a limited life expectancy, I thought to myself, as I sat down to search on Amazon. Before you ask, I did so on my desktop PC at home, not on my Samsung, which does have the internet, but I am still the kind of person who would rather not use the phone to go online unless I have to. The old eyes aren't very enthusiastic, you see. Amazon came up trumps as ever.

                              Before I go any further, I should point out that if you click on the screen, it will direct you to the 'TOPDIGI HSPBP High Capacitive Stylus Pens For Apple/HTC/Samsung/Any Touch Screen Black And Pink'. In other words, two high capacitive stylus pens. The page you are taken to tells you that they have very soft capacitive (nice word) rubber at the tip to prevent scratch or grease getting on the screen. The grease element is presumably another argument for not using your pinky. It also points out that they are 100% high quality elegant design and light in weight (well, of course they would if they wanted you to buy them, wouldn't they?), and that they are very portable and easy to carry around. Hmmm, I think that one's obvious.

                              OH DEAR

                              Then comes the bad news. The product is currently unavailable, and 'we don't know when or if this item will be back in stock'.

                              Go on, sigh.

                              NEVER MIND

                              Now comes the good news. Try typing 'cellphone stylus' or something similar into the Amazon search box, and you will be led to more or less the same thing. Cue a little fanfare for the, take a deep breath, SODIAL(TM) 3 pcs Aqua Blue/Black/Red Capacitive Stylus/styli Touch Screen Cellphone Tablet Pen for iPhone 4 4s 3 3Gs iPod Touch iPad 2 Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy, BlackBerry Playbook AMM0101US, Barnes and Noble Nook Color, Droid Bionic. If you're not particularly techie-minded, and I'm not, don't take fright. Oh, I will put my hand up and admit that I did cut and paste that little chunk into my review. I don't really think I can paraphrase the same information in the style of, say, Stephen King, or Irvine Welsh, or even Jane Austen. So I didn't try. It's just a mobile phone stylus, no matter what language you wrap it up in, right?

                              THE VERDICT

                              It looks simple, and it is simple. There's no more to it than meets the eye. It clips onto your pocket, or slips into your handbag if you have one (I don't, you'll be relieved to hear). The few reviews I have seen elsewhere suggest that it does the job very well, and my experience is that it is far preferable to trying with your fingers. Oh, and the first time I forgot to take mine to work, I did try and use a pencil in the office with an indiarubber tip on the end. It didn't work, though I don't think it did the phone any harm. But if you think a pencil will make a good substitute, forget it.

                              My set of three styluses (styli?) cost me around £2.10 a few weeks ago, plus free postage as I ordered a couple of boxes of catfood with them. Amazon says that they are among items which are cost-prohibitive to despatch on their own, which sounds fair enough. If you haven't got three cats like I have, or even one cat, you will surely be able to find something else on Amazon you need instead, like that book, DVD or lawnmover you always wanted. You haven't got a lawn either? Honestly, some people are so hard to please.

                              Last time I checked - and I am being serious this time - they were priced at £3.05 free delivery with super saver delivery. I've no idea what they would be on the high street, and haven't bothered to look as I don't need to. But as with so many products obtainable online, the fact that my wife paid considerably more in the shop suggests that ordering online is the way to do it.

                              I'm fully prepared for each stylus to last for only a few months before the rubber tip cracks. Other reviews elsewhere have said that the tip is also prone to come off, although I have never yet had this problem. But a set of three is pretty cheap and therefore easily replaceable, so in my opinion it's hard to fault.

                              And I reviewed catfood several months ago.

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