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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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
GEORGE HARRISON, 1978-9 When George Harrison recorded this, his sixth solo studio album since The Beatles had disbanded and the second on his own Dark Horse label, he was in a more contented frame of mind than he had been for some years. The 'My Sweet Lord' plagiarism court case was behind him, he had just married for the second time, and his son Dhani had just been born, although it had also been a time of sadness with the recent death of his father Harry. Even so, this is clearly the work of a relaxed artist totally at peace with the world, much of it having been written while he was on holiday in Hawaii. But can a relaxed artist, who has now decided to put family first and his musical career second, and more or less retired from performing live for an indefinite period, still produce great work? THE ALBUM Released in February 1979, the original album contained ten songs, all self-penned, one of them a collaboration with his regular guest keyboard player Gary Wright. The 2004 remastered reissue (which I am reviewing) also includes one bonus track, an acoustic demo of one of the other songs. It reached No. 39 (UK) and No. 14 (US), and three singles were released from it in Britain and America, though only the first one charted. The opening number and second single, 'Love Comes To Everyone', features Eric Clapton playing the guitar intro, and Steve Winwood on polymoog. So it's interesting to note that this means there are two members of Blind Faith together on the same track, but don't expect anything bluesy. No, as the title indicates, this is George at his most romantic and melodic, and the message of course is summed up in the title. For the first few years of his solo career, George was revisiting songs which he had originally written and recorded with The Beatles. 'Not Guilty', which was an angry statement to John and Paul about how he was in no way to blame of getting in the way of their careers, or of leading them all astray to go to India and see the Maharishi, was first recorded by them for the 'White Album' sessions in 1968. They went through 101 takes in the studio, more than for any other number in their career - and somebody was still not satisfied with the result, as it was left off the album in the end. At last, he nailed it on his own. With electric piano and a lightly picked acoustic guitar predominant, it's a gently shuffling, almost lightly jazzy tune, full of minor chords, and in a way different from anything else on the album. I almost wish he had gone the whole hog and brought a Dixieland-type band or a brass section along, as it would have been very suitable. Nevertheless it still works well in this stripped-back context. (The Beatles' own and rather heavier version can be found on 'Anthology 2', released in 1995). Having written the much-loved 'Here Comes The Sun' about ten years earlier, he waited (or so he said) to see if anybody would choose 'Here Comes The Moon'. Nobody did, so he decided to take up the challenge himself. After spending all day on the beach in Hawaii, he and his wife Olivia would watch the sunset and wait for the moon to come out. Like its godfather, the song is a gentle, rather folksy song with a lovely, very distinctive acoustic guitar intro. The bonus track at the end of the album is an early one-take acoustic demo of same. After that, it's a spot of ragtime, more or less. 'Soft-Hearted Hana' is a gently bouncy number, partly recorded at a pub in Henley, hence the sound of punters at the bar at the beginning. At the final fade-out, the instruments speed up, as if somebody has put a hand on the tape reel to hurry it along slightly. 'Blow Away' is the best-known track, having had some airplay and been a minor hit at the time (No. 51 UK, No. 16 US). It was written during a time of heavy rain when the blocked drains were causing leaks in his house at Friar Park, and he had gone briefly to his garden shed to get away from it all for a while. (Having written most of this review on a torrentially wet winter's day at home, I can sympathise with that - though I'm not taking my laptop into the garden shed, thank you). The message of the lyrics is basically one of no matter how bad things may appear at the time, if you think positively they will get better. A gentle verse is succeeded by a more powerful chorus, and just before the end one of those wonderful melodic yet gritty slide guitar solos. Although Warner Brothers (who distributed George's label Dark Horse Records at the time) gave 'Faster' the bonus of a picture disc when they made it the third single, it failed to make the charts. It's a shame, because this is the most up-tempo and in some ways the strongest, certainly the most instant song on this collection, the closest he gets to, er, rockin' out to use a cliché, and the closest link to the 'All Things Must Pass' sound. Had it been a hit, royalties would have gone to a good cause, as they were pledged to the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Fund, in memory of the Swedish-born Formula One driver who had recently died of cancer. Celebrating his fascination with motor racing, it was inspired mainly by his visits to the racetrack and his friendship with drivers Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda. Appropriate sound effects driving from one stereo channel to the other give way to a full guitar and strings arrangement, and a catchy hook, even if the forced rhyme in the line 'He's the master of going faster' does sound a bit cheesy. Then it's a return to gentler, more dreamy pastures for the remaining four songs, mostly inspired by the contentment of family life. 'Dark Sweet Lady' is a gentle mid-tempo song with mainly acoustic guitar and marimbas, with a deliberately Hawaiian/Spanish flavour. On the slower 'Your Love Is Forever', the music was written first and he wrote the lyrics afterwards. Like the previous number, it was written for Olivia, and it shows his mastery of being able to create a special atmosphere on slide guitar. 'Soft Touch' was inspired by the birth of Dhani, with a lovely electric guitar phrase dominating the tune throughout. Finally 'If You Believe', the collaboration with Gary Wright, is an optimistic number, written mainly on new year's day 1978, about how 'You can worry your life away with not knowing what each new day may bring to you, or take each day as it goes on'. Cue another gorgeous slide guitar and melody, and a lovely chorus which soon grows on you. PACKAGING The twelve-page booklet includes several photos of George, one with Jackie Stewart as they stroll beside the Grand Prix racetrack. Lyrics to and his notes about each song are included, as well as a list of musicians involved. OVERALL As one of those who has always much preferred George Harrison's solo material to that of the other Beatles, I was ready to enjoy this before I heard it for the first time. To be as objective as possible, the first two or three times I listened right through, I thought it was a little bland. But then that usual plaintive, slightly vulnerable feeling that has always characterised his songs, and that warm gentle charm came through. 'Blow Away' and 'Faster' are the most immediate numbers but don't expect anything too commercial, although some of the guitar solos will stick in your head after a while. It's a gentle, semi-acoustic collection for the most part, soft-rock verging on folk reminiscent of, say, what Gerry Rafferty was also doing at the time - minus the occasional Celtic touches of the latter. It may not convert anyone, and if Harrison's music isn't really to your taste it won't appeal. But if you are a fan of his better-known material and aren't expecting another Phil Spector-like wall of sound with extravagant strings, brass and backing vocals and plenty of echo, you will find this impossible to dislike.
Between 1840 and 1880 British life and society underwent a gradual but major change. Young adults in the latter year would have seen a very different country from that in which an earlier generation came to maturity. The land in which poverty, disease, squalor and injustice were endemic, and in which the Chartists had agitated for fairer rights for all, had been largely transformed by the modernising factors of social upheaval and industrial change. THE BOOK In his preface, Heffer defines his aims in this lengthy book (over 800 pages of text) as part social, part intellectual, and part political history of this transition period. Rather than presenting a chronological account, he takes specific themes in detail. To a certain extent, he also tells the story through particular individuals who left their mark on public life and consciousness in helping to develop 'the new Britain'. The first personality to be examined in depth is Dr Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, who told his boys that they were soldiers of Christ, 'and could want no better regiment'. He regarded the army and navy as dens of iniquity and profanity. It was an unfortunate opinion to hold, in view of the fact that the armed services were the major careers available to young men in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless his high-minded moralism, as Heffer acknowledges, played a major role in changing the climate of the age and culminating in what we regard as Victorianism. His influence would surely have been greater if he had not died suddenly in his forties. Among the movements that helped to shape the era, Chartism was perhaps second to none. During the hungry forties, some of the most optimistic radicals saw Britain as ripe for revolution, although as is so often the case, the movers and shakers were divided between those who advocated violence and those who stove to attain their ends by peaceful means. Ironically the climax of the Chartist Movement, a mass protest on Kennington Common in 1848, was a failure. Yet within eighty years, all the demands of the People's Charter, except for annual parliaments, were granted, including secret ballots, universal male suffrage, and roughly equal-sized constituencies. If the 1840s was the decade of radical protest, the 1850s - or at least the first part - was dominated by the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It would never work, the pessimists insisted, but the success of Prince Albert's great brainchild took everyone by surprise. British manufacture and trade were boosted, and part of the financial surplus went towards the creation of 'Albertopolis' at Kensington, the legacy of which can be seen to this day in the Albert Hall and national museums nearby. Yet within ten years the never robust and constantly overworked Albert was dead, like Arnold only in his forties. He was to be commemorated by the Albert Memorial, the creation of which was a remarkable saga in itself, as also portrayed in these pages. Yet there were many high minds left to continue the legacy of Arnold, Albert and others in the years ahead. The prime ministerial sparring of Disraeli and Gladstone, the sterling work in the field of nursing performed by Florence Nightingale (although, a little strangely, no reference to the role of Mary Seacole), the joint influence of leading art critic John Ruskin and architect Augustus Pugin, and Emily Davies, a pioneer of education for women, all contributed to the political, social and artistic development of the age. Charles Dickens may be remembered best as a novelist, but his campaigning for the abolition of public executions should not be underestimated. We have indeed come a long way since the time when the hanging of a murderer would take place on the gallows for all to see, and attract a crowd of thousands who regarded it in much the same way as a day at the races. A generation of children were eternally grateful to Thomas Barnardo for his sterling work, even though he was not above a little dubious public relations work in being forced to admit that he faked 'before' and 'after' photographs of rescued infants in order to inspire people to subscribe to his good causes - or lie about his qualifications in order to call himself a 'doctor'. However, the end surely justified the means. And 'spin' didn't begin with 20th century politicians. A long chapter on the rights of women lays bare the way in which women were treated as second- (if not third-) class citizens at the beginning of the era. We have an illuminating account of the dysfunctional family life of Caroline Norton and her husband George, a barrister and MP, and her campaign on behalf of oppressed women everywhere. It started when the marriage broke down, she was barred from the house and her children were taken away from her. Had it not been for her, the Divorce Act which came into force in 1858 would undoubtedly have had to wait for many more years. Religion, Heffer insinuates, was the key. This was a much more God-fearing age than our own. An official report published in 1854 took it for granted that it was everyone's duty to attend church at least once every Sunday, hence the constant programme of building and refurbishment of so many churches. Ministers, civil servants and philanthropists all strove to reduce the poverty of an urban industrial society in their pursuit of a better life for all, even if their aims did not always coincide. He concludes at the end of this tremendous literary feast that it was a great age, thanks to the conjunction of technological revolution, wealth, energy and high minds. The pursuit of perfection had been a minority activity in 1838, but 'had become almost an obligation by 1880.' FINALLY The book is undoubtedly one for the specialist reader, but as a survey of the Victorian age and how it helped to transform Britain into a modern country, I found it a rewarding and very well-researched read, but even so it seemed heavy going at times.
THE CLASH Like many other punk outfits, when the Clash crash-landed onto the news pages of the then highly influential weekly music press in 1977, they were only too eager to disown most of rock music's recent past. Only a few acts like the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and Mott The Hoople escaped their scorn. Most of the others were quickly swept into the graveyard with the philosophy that this was Year Zero, and nothing that happened earlier mattered. As we know with hindsight, and as the author makes clear, all the punk icons had a wider variety of influences and heroes than they dared to admit at the time. The Clash were no exception, with front man Joe Strummer being a fan of retro rock'n'roll and R&B, guitarist Mick Jones of 1960s guitar-based pop and rock, bassist Paul Simonon of reggae, and drummer Topper Headon of soul, funk and jazz. Without their grounding in and awareness of several earlier genres, as well as their fascination with London, America and Jamaica, and popular arts and culture, this third album would not have been the diverse set that it eventually turned out to be. THE BOOK When I began reading these 500 pages or so, my initial feeling was - how could anybody write a book THIS long on one album? Soon, it became clear that I had been slightly misled by the title. Although 'London Calling', long feted as the best LP - now a single CD, of course - ever made by one of punk's most seminal groups, is the focal point, this volume also charts in detail the history and development of the Clash to that point, their subsequent career, decline and legacy. It's more than just the story of one piece of recorded work. I learnt a good deal about the Clash's early history, in particular on the battles with their record company and the US arm of same (which initially didn't want to issue the debut album in America on the grounds that the sound quality was sub-standard - somebody there clearly didn't understand the first thing about punk, eh?), the in-fighting between members, the love-hate relationship with Britain and the media, and the drugs, with Headon at one stage not that far off becoming another Sid Vicious-style casualty. I was also interested in various little details, such as the state of Strummer's guitars. When he took them into the studio, one of the senior engineers was appalled to see the rust on his strings and pickups. It was just as well that his skills on the instrument were so rudimentary, resulting in Jones having to do most of the guitar overdubs. Strummer's lack of patience, it seems, never allowed for anything as fancy as overdubbing. And the story would not have been complete without plenty about the role of veteran producer Guy Stevens, in his heyday a much respected figure but sadly at this stage an alcoholic who was out of it most of the time and nearing the end of his short life. One of the most interesting sidelights is an examination of how the band managed to manoeuvre the reluctant, cost-conscious CBS Records into allowing them to release a double album without pricing it out of the reach of ordinary fans. There was no need for a gatefold sleeve, they stipulated. Maybe they could put out a single album with an additional single, or a four-track 7" EP? A 12" EP, maybe? OK, why not go the whole hog and put two 12" long players in a single sleeve? Of course, in the 21st century and the days of CDs or downloads, we are denied the variety of these different formats. That's technological progress for you... (Says one who fondly remembers the days of vinyl in all imaginable sizes, colours, even shapes). Over 200 pages are devoted to a track-by-track history of each song on the album. Gray's research is staggering, and this section really is a labour of love. It's almost as if he was there in the studio all the time as he describes how they were conceived, recorded and gradually built up, often with the aid of outside musicians such as the brass section who also worked with their contemporaries Graham Parker and The Rumour (a sadly underrated outfit, in my view) among others. Nevertheless there is occasionally, arguably. a little too much information. When describing the track 'Spanish Bombs', for example, his explanatory text runs to two or three pages about the history of Spain since the declaration of a republic in 1931, Franco and the Spanish Civil War. Fascinating as it is, a précis would have made for a somewhat more taut book. I wonder how many Clash fans are equally interested in Spanish history - maybe I'm maligning them. However that's only a minor quibble, and such sections are easily skimmed through if the reader wants. And although the Clash and their output may not have radiated much good humour, it is amusing to read of an assessment of the homage, pastiche and borrowing from earlier sources on so many tracks of the album. They were not meant as 'sneeringly dismissive spoofs', Gray tells us, otherwise that might have made the quartet nothing more than a sour-faced version of the Barron Knights, a durable (established 1959 and as far as I know still going) if terminally unhip cabaret group of pop parodists. Once the record has been dissected at length, there is plenty of detail on the band's later fractious history, Strummer's falling out with the others in turn, eventual disbanding and a reconciliation of sorts before his sudden death in 2002. Then there is the album's, as well as the title track's, reputation and continuing presence in many polls of 'best record of the 70s/rock era/all time, etc.' - delete as appropriate - and even the band's influence on the likes of Dylan and Springsteen. FINALLY It's a lengthy read (nearly 500 pages of fairly closely-spaced text in paperback, plus two sections of black and white plates), and it's probably only for the committed fan, or for anyone who is particularly interested in the minutiae of the rock business. But that includes me - I certainly found the whole detail fascinating, so I think it merits five stars. The research has been meticulous, with no stone left unturned. And yes, as I had never heard the CD in its entirety before, it actually motivated me to go to Amazon Marketplace and seek out a copy.
I first heard of Nick Drake a few months after his death, when I read an article on him in 'NME' which immediately ignited my interest. However, it was years before I ever heard any of his music. Like Eva Cassidy, he has ironically attracted a fan base many years too late, although his record sales have never approached hers. NICK DRAKE Born in 1948 to comfortably well-off upper-middle class parents (his elder sister is the actress Gabrielle Drake), he studied at Cambridge University but did not complete the course, the lure of a musical career being too strong. He released three albums between 1969 and 1972, containing his songs sung to his acoustic guitar accompaniment, plus unobtrusive backing from a chamber ensemble and other musicians, notably Richard Thompson on occasion. Musically, his voice had something of the timbre of Thompson, and of Colin Blunstone, while his songs were somewhat Leonard Cohen-like in their introspective melancholy. But he was a diffident live performer and interviewee, and seemed to expect the world to beat a path to his door. He did little to promote his records, turn up to radio or TV sessions, or indeed play the showbiz game at all. According to Muff (brother of Steve) Winwood, who was Island Records A&R manager at the time, he was frustrating as he threw one opportunity after another away because 'he was so untogether...a complete pain in the arse.' His friend Robert Kirby felt sympathetically (if helplessly) that he was 'a great artist in creative mode.' In other words, he did it his own way - if he did it at all. THE BOOK Trevor Dann tells the painful story very well in this book. It is more than just a biography of a short-lived under-achiever, and is also to some extent an account of the times in which he lived. I was at school at the time, but I was aware of the general mood of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was fashionable to be anti-establishment to some extent for the hell of it, and if you were upper or middle class, it was almost obligatory to prove your credentials by being a bit of a rebel. The same spirit seems to have infected Nicholas Rodney Drake. Dabbling in LSD, cannabis and heroin clearly did not help what was basically a rather fragile personality. As one of his friends, quoted at length in the biography, told Dann, 'It's an irony that people say drugs don't do any harm, but the two people I knew [Nick and one other] who took them are both dead!' Moreover, this was the brief era between the breaking down of barriers in the early 1960s, and the mass unemployment and economic depression of the mid-1970s. For a few years, people in their late teens and early twenties were more or less free to do whatever they liked. In retrospect, maybe it was the generation which had too much freedom. There are obvious parallels with Nick's contemporaries Peter Green, Brian Jones, Syd Barrett and others. Like them, he had a passion for making and creating music, but was unable to live the lifestyle or do what was required of him. He never became a star (and would almost certainly have been unable to cope with it if he could have), but one cannot help but feel that a greater willingness to listen to others around him would have gone a long way. There is also something of the Amy Winehouse saga about him - except that Nick was no hell-raiser, and led a pretty secluded life without being shadowed by the tabloid press all the time. It is a sad, but fascinating tale. I am one of those people who can probably never read enough about musical performers of the time. The ins and outs of Nick's signing with Island Records, told with the help of those who worked with him, the recording of those three albums during his lifetime, the half-hearted promotion, muted critical reaction and reception, and the inept live performances, are all recounted in often heartrending detail. A singer-songwriter who made no attempt to talk to or establish any rapport with his audience, relied on one guitar which had to be tuned differently and at length between each song, and who tended to stop one number halfway through before deciding to do another, plainly had a lot to learn about self-presentation. Not surprisingly, after a few poor performances, he gave up playing live altogether. Airplay during his lifetime seems to have been confined to the occasional session for or spin by the likes of John Peel and Bob Harris on Radio 1. In one sense, Nick was born and died before his time. It was an age when little was known or understood about depression. By early 1972, the time that his third and last album 'Pink Moon' was released, he had become a sullen, pathetic figure, increasingly detached from the world. He apparently knew that he was 'damaged', complaining that the record company, businessmen, and 'the whole system' were powers beyond his reach which controlled him. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and put on heavy prescription drugs, but when not taking them, his mood swings were alarming. The end, in November 1974, was all too inevitable. Increasingly dirty, unkempt, and disconnected, he was only 26 when his family discovered him dead on the bed one morning. Whether he had genuinely had enough of life and had deliberately or accidentally overdosed is something which divides those who knew him to this day; his sister is among those who believes it was intentional. In this biography Dann has talked to several people who knew him well, or as well as it was possible to get to know somebody so impenetrable. At the end he examines the various theories as to his death, and the effect that prescription drugs probably had on his system. He also writes of Nick's posthumous standing, and the slow but steady growth in his reputation, alongside the repackaging of his material by the record company which now realised to its amazement that it hardly needed to promote his back catalogue, as an audience was already out there waiting. (Astonishingly, in 2004 a compilation album and two singles all briefly graced the charts in turn). As a Nick Drake fan as well as BBC radio and TV producer, whose CV includes stints as presenter on BBC local radio and later as a producer of 'The Old Grey Whistle Test', Dann was in a unique position to convey his enthusiasm to a wider audience. FINALLY For its insight into the life and soul of a creative yet troubled musical talent, this book is well worth reading, even by anyone who barely knows his work. If you don't, try the sound samples on Amazon and audio clips on Youtube; sadly, no video footage of any performances survives. I'd go further and say that for anybody interested in reading about the case history of somebody who battled with drugs and depression for several years, this will make an enlightening if sombre read. Writing as somebody who has recently begun to take an interest in reading about people with mental issues, I know I would have found this interesting, even if it had not pressed my 1960s/1970s musical buttons.
WHY I READ THIS BOOK About three years ago, having battled with what I considered to be mild depression on and off over a long period of time, I found matters getting much worse after a combination of severe stress at work and major anxieties at home. After consulting Occupational Health at my place of work and being signed off sick, I was referred by my GP to a mental health team, who then referred me to a specialist autism unit with a view to a possible official diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. After a few consultations (for which I had to wait almost 18 months), the official diagnosis was that 'evidence from the assessment indicated that I present with symptoms which are consistent with a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder'. The difference between the two not being that significant, I felt it would be useful to read up on the problem. This was the book which leapt out at me as I trawled the library shelves. The author himself was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 27, rather younger than I am now. THE BOOK In the introduction, contributed by a practising therapist, the point is made that Asperger syndrome is 'not a disease or a defect, merely a set of differences.' The author then looks at aspects of anxiety, relating partly to his own experiences of the condition as a youngster and partly to general theories of anxiety and stress, based to some extent on the writings and researchers of others. He writes about responses to stress, the problem of poor coping skills, panic attacks, and traumatic stress. As he emphasises, life in the 21st century has placed on us many demands which we did not face, or perhaps to a lesser extent, than in earlier times. The buzzword is multi-tasking - for example, e-mails to check on and respond to every day, responsibilities at work, keeping abreast of the bills, and so on. And some of us are better at multi-tasking than others. People with Asperger's generally have a low tolerance for dealing with the pressure, for keeping on top of frustrating situations and events in our lives. They may be misunderstood at school by their teachers, and later on discriminated against at work by the boss, even fired without due cause, They may be hypersensitive to bright lights, loud noises, certain smells or kinds of fabrics, they may be exacting ultra-perfectionists (if you want a proof reader, they would do the job perfectly), and have problems with reading non-verbal cues. Attention deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression often affect those who have Asperger's, although they do not necessarily go hand in hand. I was naturally interested in what he had to say about depression in relation to the condition, which he classifies as a mood disorder often to be found in those who also have an anxiety disorder. While no two cases are exactly alike, it seems true to assume that the two go hand in hand. EMS (early maladaptive schemas) are discussed, underlining the problems of those who have EMS/negative core beliefs in not trusting the world, or not feeling secure in their ability to function independently or surviving without outside support. They may have problems communicating, forming relationships, and find that dating does not come naturally to them. Perhaps the most important chapter is the one on meltdowns, or basically 'losing it', throwing a major wobbly, or however you might define it. The question is raised as to whether an 'Aspie' needs psychotherapy, though I have the feeling that the author is not over-impressed with the ability of therapists to provide a solution. The inference is that by and large they are not that well-qualified to help effectively. Maybe Dubin has simply met too many of the bad ones. Alternatively, if he's being cynical about people with the right high-falutin string of letters after their name to wave a magic wand, I'm with him 100%. On a similar subject, he answers the question of anti-anxiety medication. While admitting he does not consider himself an expert, he acknowledges that there are several different drug classes that treat anxiety disorders. At the same time, he stresses that his own experience in taking anti-depressants has shown him that drugs do help him reach an equilibrium. They can be helpful, he says, but they are not panaceas. Speaking as one who likewise doesn't believe in running to prescription drugs for the sake of it, again I personally couldn't agree more. Asperger's cannot be cured, but he demonstrates how it can be managed more effectively. To round off the book, he takes the novel step of interviewing his parents. (This is of course a luxury not available to all of us - it wasn't to me). His father tells him that at the age of four or five he was very anxious about being in social situations, such as being invited to a children's birthday party and having to socialize with several other children at the same time. Finally, there is an Aspie self-checklist, in which he lists 100 Asperger traits that he listed after being diagnosed, and which he felt characterized who he was. Throughout this review, I have resisted the temptation to put myself centre-stage. It would have been easy for me to keep on saying throughout, 'yes, I'm ticking this box - and this one - and this one', which I was doing to some extent while reading the book and taking notes. But I have preferred to keep my focus on the book itself. CONCLUSION I found this, at a little over 200 pages of reasonably spaced print, a very useful read. The text is well laid out, with each chapter divided into useful sub-sections and with a short crisp list of action points, no more than a sentence long, at the end. Not having studied medicine or psychology, I initially approached it with a vague sense that much of it might be over my head, but it wasn't. As someone who was in the throes of what might be called something of a mid-life crisis (at the difficult time alluded to above, my wife and I seriously believed that my job was at risk at one stage), I found it very helpful as regards analyzing a number of my problems. Although the author is American, the fact that this book is written from what might be called an American perspective did not prove a disadvantage. There are several books available on dealing with children who are on the autistic spectrum or who have Asperger's, but this appears to be one of the very few written for an adult with the condition. I would certainly recommend this book not merely to anybody who has a child thus affected, or is perhaps concerned that they are on the fringes themselves. Having more recently read up information on the National Autistic Society website, and attended a couple of afternoon workshops at work on managing students with autism and associated problems, it is apparent that a significant number of adults have it yet remain undiagnosed. In fact, anybody who is curious about the condition would benefit from browsing this book at least and absorbing the salient points.
Had Charles Kenneth Horne stuck to his business career, he might have been remembered by the company as well as by the family he left behind, but by few others. However, this successful but rather mundane matter is not surprisingly forgotten, and he is fondly revered as one of the leading lights of groundbreaking 1960s British comedy. KENNETH HORNE Born in 1907, the youngest of seven children of a Congregationalist minister and Liberal MP who died when his son was only seven, Horne was a competent sportsman but indolent student who was sent down from university for poor attendance and results. While working for the Triplex Safety Glass Company Ltd in Birmingham, he joined a local dance band as saxophonist and occasional vocalist. During the war he joined the RAF in which he rose to the rank of Wing Commander, formed a concert party, and was soon headhunted as a rising young comedy talent by the BBC. Out of this, and a close friendship which developed into a long working relationship with his like-minded colleague Richard Murdoch, grew the very popular comedy series 'Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh', a fictitious RAF station. As Bob Monkhouse, a teenager at the time, would say, it was the kind of programme listeners could laugh at for half an hour 'and yet find no lines, other than catchphrases, that you could repeat to your friends and get a laugh with.' Within a few years he was much in demand on radio and later TV, especially comedy, panel game and quiz shows like 'Call My Bluff', 'Top Of The Form', and even the 50s-60s weekly new record release programme 'Juke Box Jury'. For some time he was also a regular presenter of the request programme 'Housewives' Choice' - yes, even in the swinging 60s such slots were not yet the anachronism they would surely seem today. (And it's rather amusing to think that this briefly made him a DJ on Radios 1 and 2. Did they ever offer him 'Top Of The Pops' as well, I wonder?). It was however the comedy shows 'Beyond Our Ken' and 'Round The Horne' which ensured his immortality. THE BOOK This biography tells the story well of one of Britain's great funny men. He was not a stand-up comedian of the Billy Connolly or Ben Elton kind, and beside such names he would probably seem impossibly staid. On the whole his programmes were based on a subtle, dignified, almost unquotable kind of humour which loses a certain amount on the printing page, but for thousands of listeners week after week it was unmissable. Almost half a century later, editions of his shows are still being broadcast on the digital station BBC4 Extra. Horne's own characters had ingenious names like Ebenezer Kukpowder, Lord Tantamount Horseposture, and Beau Nydle, alongside a cast who played such worthy folks as the tramp J. Peasmold Gruntfuttock, the ham actress Dame Celia Molestrangler, and the palm-reader Madame Osiris Gnomeclencher. The most famous of all was the terrible folksinger Rambling Syd Rumpo, played by 'Carry On' star Kenneth Williams - (all together now - 'Ooooh - stop messing about!') - while Bill Pertwee, later of 'Dad's Army', was also a regular sidekick. As one of the scriptwriters, Barry Took, commented, Horne was 'the maypole around which the brilliant cast would dance.' Such programmes were always a lively affair, and fun, for the cast to make as well as for the listening public. Significantly Williams was also a regular in (Tony) 'Hancock's Half Hour', but found the latter a depressing experience after what he called 'the jolly warmth of Beyond Our Ken.' During the mid-60s, when the permissive society was starting to push back the barriers of radio comedy and poke gentle fun at the establishment in a way which had seemed unthinkable a few years earlier, Kenneth Horne became to radio what 'Beyond The Fringe' and 'That Was The Week That Was' were to theatre and TV. Later groundbreaking shows like 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' and 'The Young Ones' would do the same a few years hence. 'Round The Horne' was ahead of its time in also featuring a couple of gays, the ultra-camp Julian and his friend Sandy, and was daring enough to include a monologue marking the centenary of the birth of the crumpet - and broadcast it on Easter Sunday 1965. Hardly very daring, we might think today - but it provoked an outraged letter to the BBC from one Conservative MP on the grounds of bad taste. A few others would protest about the occasional innuendo. Horne, unruffled, declared he was 'all for censorship. If ever I see a double entendre, I whip it out!'. Yet the biography is in some ways a rather sad book. I was fascinated to read that after the Second World War Horne was leading dual careers for about twelve years, juggling his high-powered business interests with the broadcasting. Not surprisingly the resulting stress, and commuting over much of the country week in week out, led to a stroke at the age of 50 and a severe warning that he would have to choose between one or the other - or else he was a dead man. Fortunately for posterity, he decided to resign from his business posts and stick with entertainment. Even so, the doctors were concerned for his mental well-being, fearing that he would succumb to depression if he was unable to work at all. He would tell friends that he was never happy unless working, and a man who could boast proudly when he was 'down to a 60-hour week' was clearly a glutton for punishment. How it all ended - well, you can find the answer online, but if you decide to read this title, you will find no spoiler in this review. While he throve on almost ceaseless activity, his private life was less successful. A first marriage to a Duke's daughter was annulled within two years on the grounds of non-consummation, and a second lasted little longer, with his wife giving birth to a stillborn son. He married a third time to a war widow with a small daughter, and although the marriage endured it seems to have been a loveless affair for the most part. Although the author does not say as much, we are left with the impression that much as he enjoyed female company (and a few affairs along the way), Horne drove himself on ceaselessly to find the fulfilment in his business and broadcasting roles denied to him beyond his own front door. Beau Nydle? Anything but, I think. The text is complemented by a comprehensive selection of photographs, including family snaps and shots with broadcasting colleagues, in the centre plates section. FINALLY Basically this is a gentle book, admittedly pretty generous and uncritical - but, all things considered, there seems to have been little if anything to criticise. It did not have me laughing aloud much, and I did not really expect it to. Horne was an unlikely comic figure, more like a dignified kindly uncle, as befitted a captain of industry and former officer in the services. Perhaps it goes to underline how much humour has changed in the last sixty years or so. With my admittedly somewhat distant days of remembering how much my family and I enjoyed the radio shows at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. For anyone whose introduction to humour was with the household names of the 1980s, it may seem like a world away, though I'm prepared to bet that a number of them probably studied and learnt from the Kenneth Horne generation.
"People in America talk about 'The Beatles, the Stones, The Who.' For me it's 'The Beatles, the Stones, The Kinks.'" Those words, quoted at the start of this book, are those of Pete Townshend of The Who himself. He is certainly not alone in his verdict that, at the height of the swinging sixties in Britain, the quartet from Muswell Hill were No 3 in the premier music league. A lack of consistent chart success since their heyday has done nothing to diminish their reputation as a band, or that of leader Ray Davies as one of the most gifted and loved British songwriters of the last fifty years. THE BOOK I had previously read two very well-researched biographies of the Kinks some years ago, both published around the time they were coming to the end of their very chequered career. Hasted's account follows the story through to the present day, when it is recognized that their music is now very much part of our musical heritage. All bands can be pretty volatile at the best of times, but the Kinks were so explosive that in retrospect it seems astonishing that they lasted for over three decades. The author takes us through the beginnings, of the Davies' family upbringing in North London, through Ray and Dave's teenage years and semi-pro outfits until the Ravens became the Kinks and shot to fame in 1964 with 'You Really Got Me'. From there, it is a fascinating but sometimes poignant tale. There were many creative conflicts, fights onstage, notably the episode in 1965 when the generally placid drummer Mick Avory, goaded beyond endurance one night, hurled a cymbal at the increasingly provocative Dave Davies onstage one night, feared he had decapitated him and literally fled the venue in order to avoid what they all feared could be a possible charge of manslaughter. There were nervous and marital breakdowns, episodes of drink and drug abuse, heart scares, overdoses, and at least one suicide attempt. More recently Dave has suffered a stroke, and resumed recording, though has not yet been given medical permission to play live again. Original bassist Peter Quaife, something of a stabilizing influence during the early days, soon found his role in the band impossible, left in 1968 and died in 2010 after a long struggle with renal failure. Ray was shot in the leg in 2004 while trying to apprehend a robber in the street and has yet to make a complete recovery. Yet these are the negative aspects. It would be less than just to focus on the positive side. The group would not have outlasted most of their contemporaries as a creative force had the talent not been there in the first place. It was significant that the ever-eclectic Ray Davies grew up listening not only to blues and rock'n'roll, but also the great musicals, and the likes of Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. Hasted devotes considerable attention to some of the most important songs, and not just 'You Really Got Me' itself. He tells us that the last of the early riff-driven singles, 'Till The End Of The Day', is the one that Ray has named his favourite of the band's 45s, examines 'A Well Respected Man', the one which really changed their direction from what passed for hard rock in 1965 to social commentary and satire, and 'Dedicated Follower Of Fashion', originally written in white hot anger as a swipe against ultra-trendies - but which turned out to be more of a George Formby song for the 1960s. (It really is one of the great singalong numbers of its era). Much later on, there is a detailed look at how 'Come Dancing', their last glorious burst of Top 20 success in 1983, came about as he looked back at his childhood and family memories. It is all rather ironic in view of the fact that, towards the late 60s, Ray told his appalled record company that they were going to concentrate on albums as he was no longer interested in writing hit singles, hence the failure of the poorly-promoted but now justly revered album 'The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society'. The ups and downs, the obsession with concept albums, particularly the 'Preservation' project which led the other members to complain that the band had been turned into an amateur dramatic society, and the constant love-hate relationship between the Davies brothers, is chronicled vividly in these pages. The facets of Ray Davies' often contradictory personality are portrayed with insight. This is a man who admits he was a socialist who became successful, 'and it made a lie out of what I was,' a man who said a prayer on the day that Labour leader John Smith died as he was concerned about what would happen to England, yet one noted for his wistful evocations in song of a more harmonious England which used to be in the 20th century but is gone, never to return. Perhaps we should be grateful that they were banned from touring the USA for some years after a disastrous 1965 stateside episode and had to stay back in ol' Blighty, otherwise some of those ultra-English songs might never have been written. FINALLY Count me as a lifelong fan, one who knew I would love this book. I was fascinated by every page, yet though I thought I had followed the band fairly knowledgeably, I still learnt a good deal - and not just the hitherto little-known fact that Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel fame is a cousin of the Davies brothers. Hasted has spoken to Ray, Dave, and several former members, and presented us with a perceptive portrait that - apart from the lack of an index - is unlikely to be bettered. The photos are well chosen, particularly a poignant one showing the four original members at a Hall of Fame induction in 2005 - the last time they would ever meet. Just to convince you that the book isn't too desperately serious throughout, let me leave you with a picture of the group on tour in the US in 1970. One of their managers was lecturing some of them for behaving badly and getting a reputation in America for being total imbeciles. They were suitably contrite - until their keyboard player John Gosling, nicknamed 'the Baptist' because of his long hair and faintly Biblical appearance, burst in - having been to the joke shop, and come to the meeting wearing a Viking helmet as he brandished a Viking horn. End of managerial lecture.