Saturday, 27 December 2008

Mojo #183

I like Mojo magazine. I know it has an unhealthy obsession with the Beatles, but still it’s the best music journal there’s ever been. Which is why I have all 183 issues, filed away neatly in boxes in my library. And why I’m always so pleased when I get a mention in there.

So, many thanks to Ian Harrison for the splendid coverage in the current issue of my book Halfway to Paradise, containing the wondrous photographs of Harry Hammond:

Friday, 19 December 2008

Magic Gardens

I’m somewhat slow off the mark, I know, but I feel I ought to mention the publication of Magic Gardens: The Underwater Art of Susan Williams-Ellis, a book for which I wrote an introduction and, together with Thamasin Marsh, selected and shaped the images.

Susan was the daughter of Clough Williams-Ellis, the man who built Portmeirion, and in her own right she was a fine designer. Her best known designs came with Portmeirion Potteries (most famously with their Botanic Garden range), but she had a long and varied career with a fantastic body of work.

There was a particular interest in the world of the sea. Back in the 1940s she learnt how to scuba dive and developed the tools that enabled her to sketch underwater. On her return to land, she would then work these sketches up as paintings. The same technique was employed in later life as she and her husband, Euan, travelled around the tropical waters of the world (though by then she preferred snorkelling to scuba diving), and it this work that is represented in Magic Gardens.

The book is available from the Portmeirion online shop, and this is a selection of images from it (the music is Trepanning by loungecore gods, the Gentle People):

Monday, 15 December 2008

Remembering Ruby Flipper

Things I wish I’d know when I was writing…

In my book Crisis? What Crisis?, I quote an entry in Michael Palin’s diary from 1978 in which he acknowledges the poor state of the economy, but concludes that, despite everything: ‘I’m better disposed to letting the present Labour government run my country for me than any other group – apart, perhaps, from Pan’s People.’

And, purely as an aside, I point out that sadly he was behind the times, that ‘the five-woman dance troupe Pan’s People had recently retired, after ten years of providing visual relief for dads obliged by their children to watch Top of the Pops. They were replaced by the short-lived and barely remembered Ruby Flipper, whose mixed-gender line-up failed to console a bereaved audience.’

It was, of course, an entirely gratuitous reference to Ruby Flipper, included only because they so often fail to get a mention, lost between memories of Pan’s People and Legs and Co. But I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for them after their inexplicable performance to the sounds of David Bowie’s TVC15 in 1976.

And the reason this turns up now is that I’ve been reading Ian Gittins’ excellent history of Top of the Pops – Mishaps, Miming and Music: True Adventures of TV’s No. 1 Pop Show (BBC Books, 2007) – in which he reveals that Ruby Flipper were removed from the show on the direct instructions of Bill Cotton, then Controller of BBC.

This is the story as told by Flick Colby, the resident choreographer on the series: ‘Bill Cotton called me in to the BBC and said the British public didn’t want to see black men dancing with white women. I argued, but he told me to form another all-girl group or I was out.’ And so Legs and Co were born.

I didn’t know that until yesterday, which is a shame since I would certainly have included it in the section on the BBC’s attitude towards race. It would have fitted in well in the discussion about The Black and White Minstrel Show (which, let us never forget, ran on television from 1958 right through to 1978 – that is, it was still on after Ruby Flipper had been axed), particularly since I make explicit reference to the issue that so troubled Mr Cotton:

‘Initially the blackface make-up was worn by all the singers, but early on it was decided to restrict it to the men only, presenting the culturally curious spectacle of white women dancing with caricatures of black men, as though such a depiction might inoculate the nation against the possibility of miscegenation.’

In the years that followed the eventual (belated) cancellation of the televised version of The Black and White Minstrel Show, there were loud and repeated complaints that the viewing millions were being deprived of a harmless bit of entertainment. Even if there were some kind of racism, it was argued, it was unconscious and certainly not intentional. But Mr Cotton clearly knew what he was doing.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Vince Eager

Back in the 1950s, at the dawn of British rock and roll, the premier manager in the country was Larry Parnes. He had been involved in the early career of Tommy Steele, the country’s first rock star, and when he began to build a roster of artists, he decided to rename his charges in the same manner: homely first name, dynamic surname. So were born Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Duffy Power and Georgie Fame.

And so too did a young kid from Grantham, previously known as Roy Taylor, find himself rebranded as Vince Eager.

Vince was a popular live act and a big star on television, but – hampered, as were so many at the time, by unsympathetic material and production – his records didn’t really do him justice. Consequently his career hasn’t been defined simply by a hit or two from his teenage years.

And that career has been, and remains, hugely impressive. He’s still working, and his voice is still one of the best in the business.

Vince provided invaluable help when I was working on my book, Halfway to Paradise, and his own memoirs, The Rock ’n’ Roll Files, proved a wonderful source of information (as well as being a romping good read). Since publication, he has also been helping to promote the book.

We shall be appearing together on John Holmes’ afternoon show on BBC Radio Nottingham on Tuesday, 18th November, to which you should be able to listen online, even if you’re unfortunate enough not to live in Brian Clough country.

Meanwhile visit Vince’s own site and buy his book:

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Aftermath of Aberfan

My memories are inevitably vague, but I think the Aberfan disaster of 1966 was the first news story that I noticed. I was then just starting school, and it would have been difficult to miss the coverage of the landslide of coal-waste avalanching down on a small village. For the first buildings to be hit were the schools, and when the final death toll was reckoned up, it turned out that 116 of the 144 victims were children.

What I obviously didn’t register at the time was the full scandal – the fact that the disaster could have been avoided, had the National Coal Board heeded the warnings that the slurry tip was on a stream that made it structurally unsound.

Nor did I know anything about the continuing story, the second tragedy that engulfed the survivors and the bereaved. As money poured in from around the world, a disaster relief fund was set up, with around £1.8 million contributed (nearer £25 million at today’s prices), most of it from individuals wanting to help out.

But the money didn’t make it through to the intended recipients. Instead it sat in the bank, accumulating interest for the local council.

Which is where my late friend, John Summers, entered the story. Writing then for the Sunday Telegraph, he was the one Fleet Street journalist who wouldn’t let go of the story. He returned repeatedly to Aberfan (just five miles from Rhymni where he grew up), wrote about the families in the Telegraph and in Harpers Bazaar and Queen magazines, and even issued himself the High Court writ that released some of the funds.

All of which is much in my mind because I have today been reading through some of those articles by John and putting them on the site dedicated to him (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

For John himself, it was a turning-point in his life. He began his campaigning as a journalist and emerged as a novelist, the whole tragic story having been incorporated into his first novel, Edge of Disaster. For those interested in his work, it’s worth comparing his articles with the published, and slightly fictionalized, account from that book.

Oh, and for anyone intrigued by the mention in the Daily Telegraph’s obituary of a feud between John and his former lecturer, Kingsley ‘Bopa’ Amis, I recently put the relevant material online as well.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

John’s Return Home

John Summers left instructions that he wanted his remains to be interred in the family plot in Rhymni Cemetery, and today a small group of friends and family gathered to see his wishes honoured.

Amongst many other things, John was probably the most travelled man I’ve ever met, bringing back tales from all over the world. But wherever he went, and in whatever he wrote, he kept a part of his heart for the valleys of South Wales where he grew up, and particularly for Rhymni.

That background formed the basis of his finest novel, The Raging Summer, named in honour of Rhymni’s greatest poet Idris Davies, whose long poem The Angry Summer had depicted the town in the days of the Depression.

So, in memory of John, and in commemoration of the return of his mortal remains to his hometown, here are some lines from The Angry Summer:

And one by one the lights shall go out
in all the valleys, leaving isolated lamps, silver pins,
sticking into the inverted velvet of the midnight air.
And you shall listen then to the silence
that is not silence, to the murmur
of the uneasy centuries among the ancient hills and valleys
as here you stand with the mountain breeze on your brow.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Paperback Crisis

One of the benefits of the Internet is that it saves one’s publishers having to communicate directly.

I knew that Aurum Press were thinking of bringing out my book from earlier this year, Crisis? What Crisis?, as a paperback, but it wasn’t till I was idly surfing through Amazon that I got to see the cover and to learn the details.

So for those of you already planning your beach reading for next year, can I recommend this fine piece of work, available for only £9 and published on 19 March 2009:

And in the meantime, of course, the hardback is still available and would make a splendid Christmas gift.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Halfway to Paradise

My latest book was published on Monday. It kind of passed me by a little, since there was no big party to celebrate this momentous occasion, but then I’m not quite sure whether such things as launch parties actually exist – certainly I’ve never seen one.

Anyway, whingeing aside, the book is completely wonderful. Published by the V&A and titled Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, it contains around 250 photos by the great Harry Hammond, accompanied by my own fine text. It tells the story of the early days of rock and roll, covering roughly the decade of 1954-64, from skiffle to the Beatles, or – in media shorthand – from Austerity Britain to Swinging London.

Yours for a mere £25, or for an even more mere £17-50 from Amazon, it’s about as perfect a Christmas gift as you could ever hope for. There are some extracts and images available if you click on this link.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

A Spoonful of Sugar

I’ve been getting fascinated by a blog titled The Hospital Shop, and feel I ought to draw it to your attention.

There are these two women, Sylvie and Joyce, who are volunteers working in a hospital shop in Lancashire. And their boss appears to have sent them on a course of evening classes to learn how to use computers. They don’t seem to have quite got the hang of it, but they’re great value for money, as they take turns to gossip and snipe at each other – genuinely very funny, though I don’t know how much of the humour is intentional.

I’d say they reminded me of Alan Bennett characters, except they’re the wrong side of the Pennines.

Much recommended. However odd it sounds.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Failed Gods

‘Depressions can be seen as what happens when inequality gets out of hand in a market system. At one end of the scale there is a growth in poverty, which in turn leads to high debt as people struggle to maintain their living standards. They either borrow or consume less. At the other end inequality encourages bouts of wild speculation as the rich find themselves with piles of spare cash. Speculation leads to bubbles, and bubbles lead to crashes...’

That was Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson in their classic (if slightly neglected) book, The Age of Insecurity, back in 1998.

At the time, of course, they were wildly out-of-step with the times – off-message, as it was then known. Certainly no one in the triumphalist Blairite camp wanted to hear their warning that New Labour was ultimately headed for disaster, and that it was a mistake to abandon time-honoured social democratic values of egalitarianism in favour of the fantasy of the free market.

For ten years the Cassandra warnings have continued to pour forth. And, like Cassandra, it turns out that Elliott and Atkinson were right all along. Their devastating summary of the Blair years, Fantasy Island, came out in Spring 2007 and rained all over Gordon Brown’s parade just as the band was striking up.

Their most recent book, The Gods That Failed, dissects the roots of the current crisis. Its sales figures suggest that maybe people are listening: ‘Markets are not Magic. Debt is not Freedom.’

Whether the Labour Party has the courage to return to its egalitarian traditions is another matter.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

John Summers’ funeral

The funeral was held on Tuesday, 7 October 2008 of John Summers at Swansea Crematorium.

It was a sad occasion, obviously, but also a real honour and pleasure to meet many of John’s friends and family, almost all of them for the first time. He was a very special man and will be much missed.

There was a reading from one of John’s novels, The Raging Summer, and - for those new to his work - this passage is probably as good a place to start as any. It contains so many of the elements that are found in his work: sensually descriptive writing that touches on nature, on his Welsh roots, on politics and on why anyone would want to be a writer:

‘To write books. Just words. So that afterwards the reader would feel, yes, that it had all happened to him and to her. Then each book would no longer belong to me but belong to them too and they would, with even more than my own small determination, fight for it and protect it because it was for ever theirs now.’

As one of those readers, I do indeed feel the need to fight for and protect John’s work. The Raging Summer is out of print at present (though copies can be found at, but a couple of years back, when John was in hospital, I promised him that it would one day be republished.

I intend to honour that promise.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Scotland in Crisis

With the American and British financial system in near-terminal decline, threatening a potential collapse in the western economy such as we haven’t seen in generations, no corner of the British Isles is unaffected.

The Evening News in Edinburgh isn’t the only paper to have dusted off one of the all-time great headlines, but it is perhaps the only one to identify the real issue at stake – the state of play at Heart of Midlothian Football Club:
My thanks to Michelle Coomber for sending me a copy of this blatant plug for my current book.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Private View

Last night was the private view of Steve Thomas' exhibition, Big Biba and Other Stories, and a fine evening it was as well. (Apart from anything else, they seemed to be selling lots of copies of our 2006 book, Welcome to Big Biba.) My thanks and congratulations to Steve and to Donald Smith, the director of the gallery.

The show is at the Chelsea Space, John Islip Street, London (next door to Tate Britain) and continues through to 18 October. Entrance is free, and it's worth a visit.

Here's a photo of some baked beans:

And here's the great man himself:

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Dai Chavez

Having mentioned in my last entry the wonderful character Dai Chavez in John Summers’ novel The Raging Summer, I thought I’d better introduce him more formally.

So here’s a moment from his musical career. If you like this, do have a look at some of the other extracts from The Raging Summer – there’s some fabulous stuff there:

Later on, during the middle of the war, Rumni became the talk of the neighbourhood when Dai Chavez broke up the Full-Temperance and Full Gospel Seven Valleys Eisteddfod Great Tent Evangelist Mission. Just as the recitation of ‘Deffro Zion!’ (‘Awake Zion!’) was about to be rendered by the massed religious reciting congregations of Zoar, Penuel and Moriah chapels, the curtain stuck on stage.

Dai, who was there with his accordion slung over his shoulder ready to bike over to the Catholic Friday night dance, volunteered to play a few suitable tunes to the massed audience while the men worked to get the curtain unstuck. Standing on the middle of the stage in front of the curtain, with all the faces of the Full-Temperance and Gospel audience looking up at him, he struck up ‘Roll out the Barrel’.

He interpreted the frenzied signals of Lloyd Penuel from the side of the stage as encouragement and went on for another fifteen verses, whilst whitely-shocked Nonconformist ministers and their wives stood and walked out. It was not until Williams Williams Tin-Chapel finally marched on-stage and tore the accordion off him that he halted with a last squeal of notes.

‘There you are,’ Dai said afterwards. ‘You try and show willing and go out to help people but that’s all the thanks you set for it...’

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Raging Summer

I’ve been re-reading John Summers’ best novel, The Raging Summer (1972). And it’s wonderful – a book that gets better with every reading.

The setting is John’s childhood in a mining village in the South Wales valleys of the 1930s. It’s a place and a time so far removed from my own life that I can’t claim any knowledge of it, but those who did experience the world of which he wrote vouch for the truth of its depiction of time and place. And I can at least vouch for the truth of its depiction of humanity in all its everyday dreams and struggles.

Part of the genius lies in the dazzling virtuosity of the writing. It ranges from comedy to fury, from pen-portraits to anecdote, all delivered in a prose style that bears the hallmarks of the oral tradition of Welsh literature, with its repetitions and heaped adjectives that approach at times the rhythms of poetry.

In an ideal world, I’d put the whole thing online, but (a) I’m not sure about the legality at the moment, and (b) it’d take too long to scan and code it. Anyway, I very much hope we can get it republished in due course, and you’ll be able to read it all then.

For the time being, though, I’ve put a few extracts on the website I set up for John. These include: his memory of the great miner-poet Idris Davies who inspired him to write the novel in the first place; a passage about Edward VIII’s visit to the Valleys, which prompts bitter reflections on the relationship between London and Wales; a portrait of an archetypal preacher, Williams Williams Tin-Chapel, that ends with a characteristically deflating joke; and a hilarious account of how the Second World War came to town.

There’s also the beginning of the story of the Rose of Tahiti, a chapter that could stand alone as one of the greatest short stories in 20th century literature. The extract doesn’t do anything like full justice to the totality, but it’s still beautifully and brilliantly observed.

And that’s the problem, of course, with just having extracts. I’ve tried to encompass some of the sheer diversity of subject and tone, but a mere five thousand words or so simply can’t do it. The sheer joy of a character like Dai Chavez, for example, needs to be experienced in real time as he pops up throughout the book, commenting on the action like a comedy Chorus, always optimistic, never changing.

‘When I looked at Dai Chavez,’ writes John at the end of the novel, remembering a recent encounter, ‘I realized that what I was looking at was a man who, through his life, was extremely happy. He had always had little and now he had little enough and still he was happy. He probably didn’t even know how happy he was. The happiest kind of happiness.’

And, while I’m quoting from the book, this is John on the literary ambition that took him out into the world, to make his name and to change the lives of many thousands of people, including mine:

‘To write books. Just words. So that afterwards the reader would feel, yes, that it had all happened to him and to her. Then each book would no longer belong to me but belong to them too and they would, with even more than my own small determination, fight for it and protect it because it was for ever theirs now.’

He was, and remains, an inspiration.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Steve Thomas exhibition

The exhibition that's going to set London alight this autumn starts next week (it's got a fabulous catalogue as well...)

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Halfway to Paradise - first copies

One of the best bits of writing a book is when the advance copies turn up and you actually get to hold the finished product in your hand. And that’s exactly where I’m at with Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock.

The book itself is published next month, when the main shipment arrives from China, but the advance copies are with us, and they look fantastic. Harry Hammond’s photos of the great rock stars of the 1950s and early-‘60s are wonderful things and this is the best reproduction I’ve ever seen of them.

To celebrate, I’ve started the process of putting extracts from the book on my website. A further extract will appear each week over the next month and a half. To whet your appetite, here’s a photo of the very beautiful Little Richard (© V&A Images):

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Crisis? What Crisis? – The Podcast

Now available from another episode in thir fine podcast series: Tim Haigh Reads Books. And this time, he's in conversation with, er, me in a discussion of my book Crisis? What Crisis?

I’m sure it’s very good, but I wouldn’t really know. I do know, however, that it was a pleasure to record, and my thanks go to Tim, John Mindlin and all at Green-Shoot.

Crisis? What Crisis? is published by Aurum Press and can be bought online from Waterstone's.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Spanking Mary Whitehouse

I’ve been reading some of John Summers’ old articles. It’s a constant astonishment to find the number of people he interviewed: WH Auden, William Burroughs and LP Hartley are amongst those I didn’t know about, as well as Eugene O’Neill in his last ever interview.

And then there was Mary Whitehouse. John spoke to her in 1965 after Kenneth Tynan had broken a broadcasting taboo by saying the word ‘fuck’ on television, and - predictably - she wasn't best pleased.

‘Little boys’ language,’ she tutted. ‘He wants his bottom smacked.’

Well, quite. But how did she know?

Saturday, 30 August 2008

John Summers obituary

A fine obituary to the late John Summers appears in today's Daily Telegraph. My thanks to Mr Roger Wilkes for his unfailing courtesy and professionalism in compiling this piece (and for finding such fabulous pictures).

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

John Summers website

John Summers died a week ago. In the hope that I can help to preserve his memory and promote his wonderful writing, I’ve created a website in his name:

It includes extracts from John’s books, together with a few of his interviews with the likes of Kingsley Amis and Rocky Marciano, as well as an interview with John himself from the great Welsh website The Wolfman Knew My Father. It also brings together my own reviews of John’s novels.

This is far from complete – I hope to be adding many more extracts from his work, and other people’s reviews of the books – but it is at least a start.

It is, of course, a start that I really should have made during John’s own lifetime. And I feel a little bad for not having done so. News of a death is so often accompanied by feelings of guilt, an awareness of having done those things we ought not to have done, and having left undone those things we ought to have done.

This is my attempt to make amends. And to honour the best writer I ever had the privilege of meeting, let alone of calling a friend.

Friday, 22 August 2008

John Summers

This piece was written in the immediate aftermath of hearing of John's death. It contains - I have since discovered - some factual inaccuracies, but I have refrained from changing my first response. Please also see this website for a fuller and more accurate picture of the man and his work - Alwyn W Turner, 30 August 2008.

It is with great regret and sorrow that I have to record the death of John Summers.

John was one of the finest writers of our time. Two of his novels, in particular – Edge of Violence (1969) and The Raging Summer (1972) – rank alongside the best literature written in the last fifty years. There’s a humanist passion that burns through his works, combined with a gift for description that is simply breathtaking.

I came to know John only recently, in 2003, when his attention was drawn to a review I’d written online, enthusing about one of his books. He became a substantial presence in my life, communicating regularly via phone (from a call-box, since he didn’t have a phone) and, even more often, via the post. Because John was a voluminous letter-writer; it wasn’t unusual to receive three or four letters in a day, all typed on manual typewriters that he’d buy from boot-sales and all contained in recycled envelopes.

It’s difficult to write about him at the moment, even though I feel the need to do so. I hope that I can do better justice to his memory later on, with greater reflection, but right now I want to say a few words.

He was an extraordinary man, and he had lived an extraordinary life. Running away to sea from his Welsh home at an early age, he’d worked his passage around the world before – in his late-20s – he decided to take up writing.

He became a journalist on the Daily Telegraph, and frequently insisted that it was his late arrival in Fleet Street that kept him so fiercely independent. Alongside him worked Paul Foot, to whom he was to dedicate his novel The Rag Parade (describing him as ‘a real journalist’).

In 1966 John was sent to cover the Aberfan disaster, when the criminal negligence of the National Coal Board resulted in the killing of 116 children and 28 adults. Refusing to accept the tragedy as simply a story, he became an active campaigner for the rights of the survivors and the bereaved, pursuing their case up to the high court as they tried to unlock the monies that had been received from around the world for a relief fund.

He wrote a series of articles in the Telegraph and in Queen magazine, and his first novel, Edge of Violence (retitled The Disaster for its paperback editions), was based on his experience, though for legal reasons the names were changed, so that Aberfan became Abertaf. The book launch was held at the House of Commons and was attended by many of the bereaved from the village.

The events – both the disaster itself, and the subsequent attempts by the establishment to protect its own – were a recurring theme in his letters. He saw Aberfan as symbolic of the human failings of capitalism.

The Edge of Violence was very successful, not least in the Soviet Union. John was invited to tour the country, from which came a fine volume of travel-writing, The Red and The Black. His respect for the achievements of Soviet communism was another common thread in his letters. He fell in love with Russia, a nation that he believed had a proper respect for literature.

There’s a certain irony that he should die so soon after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a writer for whom he had no time whatsoever. Nonetheless, there were points of comparison. There was a stubborn refusal to accept that this society was sufficient, an awkward determination to speak out, a horrified repudiation of herd-like consumerism.

A closer parallel, though, was name-checked in The Raging Summer, a book based on John’s own childhood in the Welsh valleys of the 1930s. Writing of his fictionalized hometown, he says: ‘There would be no Mikhail Sholokov born from here: no And Quiet Flows The Don. From a place like this there would only be something always slightly comic; no grandeur. A comical waste and a folly.’

But he was wrong, because this truly is the voice of the Welsh Sholokov: it’s a magnificent book, and its account of the horrors of the Depression are the best I’ve ever read.

That, though, makes it sound like a depressing read. And it’s not. Like all his work, there’s a joy in life itself that sweeps you away. At the risk of being self-indulgent, this is from my review of The Raging Summer:

‘Beyond the “comical waste and folly” there is the essential human dignity of the struggle with avoidable adversity. There's an engagement with life. Some of the characters find strength in nationalism or socialism, but even amongst those whose politics are inchoate at best, the assertion of individuality becomes itself an act of defiance. And, this being a great work of literature, the truth is undimmed by distance: their stories are still inspiring and instructive and utterly entrancing.’

The same was true of the John I knew in the last years of his life. By the time I came into contact with him, he’d already endured the series of misfortunes that increasingly caused him difficulties, but he continued to rail against the stupidities and evil he saw in the world. His book Dylan was a fictional account of a great Welsh writer clearly based on Dylan Thomas, and inevitably I’m reminded as I write this of ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’.

He didn’t.

I learned a great deal from John. Apart from anything else, here was a man who’d been to parts of the world I shall never see, who’d met and interviewed everyone from Evelyn Waugh to Rocky Marciano, and who’d developed a beautiful, utterly distinctive prose-style:

‘Examine every word carefully that you ever read in a newspaper. Find out who owns the paper and then wash the muck off each shovelful of words dumped down on your doorstep each day. Wash off the dross of muck on them and see if the wretched journalist who was paid to write them (poor man, he probably has a wife and a mortgage he has sold himself to a newspaper for) might have managed to secrete a few little gleaming gems of knowledge through the fine sieve of his newspaper's editorial department.’

It was only five years that I knew John. But there was an intensity to the man that didn’t seem to be dependant on time or age. He could be challenging, provocative, annoying, even endearingly eccentric, but always passionate. He had an integrity that I’ve never met before.

He was a fascinating man. And a great, a truly great, writer.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Tim Haigh vs Dr Death

David Owen is one of the more fascinating figures to have inhabited British politics over the last four decades. Promoted to foreign secretary by Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan at an absurdly young age, and one of the founder-members of the SDP (before splitting that party as well), he was potentially the best leader the Tory Party never had.

He's also, of course a doctor, and his most recent book, In Sickness And In Power (Methuen), combines his twin interests in medicine and politics - an account of how ill-health impacts upon the behaviour of world leaders, and thereby influences the course of world history.

It's a fascinating subject and you can hear him discussing it with the very wonderful Tim Haigh here: Tim Haigh Reads Books.

This is the first of a new series of podcasts from It's much recommended (and not simply because I'll be turning up in a later podcast).

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Son of Wakey Wakey and the Six-Five Special

The obituaries for Sir Bill Cotton, who died last week, centred – quite rightly – on his astonishing record in television light entertainment. He was, after all, the man who brought Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies, The Generation Game and Parkinson to the BBC, shaping the look of Saturday night for a generation and more.

But, without wishing to be disrespectful to the man and his contribution to British culture, there’s also been something that’s troubling me.

According to the BBC website: ‘Cotton brought pop music show Six-Five Special to BBC television,’ a comment echoed by other obituaries. The Daily Telegraph also claimed that he was responsible for ‘the discovery of Tommy Steele’.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. But let’s not get carried away.

Just to be clear: Tommy Steele was discovered by John Kennedy, with Larry Parnes subsequently brought into the management team.

And while Cotton did work on Six-Five Special, it’s a gross distortion of history to give him the credit for the show. Because the credit belongs pretty much exclusively to the very great Jack Good. It was he who was the original producer in 1957, the man who made sure that the emphasis in this new series for teenagers was very firmly on music.

That hadn’t been the original intention at all. Good’s co-producer was to be Josephine Douglas, who had much more traditional ideas: ‘Jo wanted film excerpts on mountaineering – hobbies-for-the-youngsters kind of a programme; I wanted all music.’ His solution was elegant; he invited Douglas to present the show, along with disc jockey Pete Murray, thereby ensuring her absence from the control box.

So, although Six-Five Special did emerge as a magazine show, with sports features and with resident comedians Mike and Bernie Winters, it was the music that caught the popular imagination. Amongst those who benefited most from the programme were Tommy Steele and Lonnie Donegan, while Marty Wilde, Jim Dale and Vince Eager got their first break here.

And, quite apart from the content, it was Good who constructed the look of the programme. In particular, he took the revolutionary step of placing the audience between the camera and the performer, so that they could be seen dancing to the music of the live bands. And he refused to patronize his viewers by pretending that a TV programme was somehow an objective observation of an event; instead he admitted frankly that this was a constructed experience: ‘Who gives a damn if a camera comes into shot?’ he asked rhetorically.

As George Melly pointed out in the context of the look of 1960s youth culture: ‘he virtually invented the pop style.’ The influence was felt not merely in rock and roll television, but far beyond, from That Was The Week That Was onwards.

Having put the record straight a little, then, here’s a photo of the late Sir Bill Cotton, with his bandleader father Billy Cotton (© V&A Images). Taken by Harry Hammond, this picture, together with some wonderful shots of Six-Five Special, can be found in my forthcoming book, Halfway To Paradise: The Birth of British Rock.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Did You Miss Me? (Yeah!)

Hello, hello? He’s back again. The imminent release of Paul Gadd (a.k.a. Gary Glitter) from a Vietnamese jail is being greeted with all the tabloid outrage that one has come to expect from the British media.

So since the moral high-ground is getting mighty crowded, let us instead praise Gary Glitter. Let’s celebrate the magnificence of his persona and work, particularly during his glory days in the 1970s.

Because he really was quite something. I wrote a bit about him in the book, Cult Rock Posters 1972-1982, that I did with Roger Crimlis a couple of years back. And I did so on the basis that you can’t look at rock imagery in the 1970s without referring to Gary Glitter: he was key to the decade’s attitude to stardom: self-made, self-perpetuated, self-conscious.

His breakthrough came in 1972 when ‘Rock and Roll (Part 2)’ finally made the charts, several months after it had been released. But it wasn’t his first record by any means. That had come way back in 1960, under the name of Paul Raven, and he’d spent much of the intervening twelve years dreaming of what it would be like to be a star. And working out how to make the most of his moment when it arrived.

In his autobiography, Glitter explained that he’d learnt at the leather-clad knee of rock legend Vince Taylor: ‘To him, a rock and roller’s image was everything, and he believed you shouldn’t let the public see you as your real self, because you’d never appear special to them again.’

But when that first hit did come, it was hardly what Gary had expected. The a-side was supposed to be ‘Rock and Roll (Part 1)’, not the instrumental flip, to which he contributed little beyond the occasional shout of ‘Hey!’ As Glitter Band member, John Springate, once pointed out: ‘He’s probably the only singer that’s ever made it on an instrumental.’

And, despite the gimmicky name that he’d invented for the record, it didn’t sell on image at all. Because no one knew who the artist was, nor what he looked like. It grew in the discos and fairgrounds of the nation long before the broadcast media picked up on him.

So come his first appearance on Top of the Pops, he went for it big time. The first stirrings of glam rock were being felt – Marc Bolan and Slade were hitting the charts regularly by now, David Bowie was starting his Ziggy Stardust phase and the Sweet were urging their songwriters to get a bit heavier on the guitars – and Gary invented a figure that would be the ultimate incarnation (or reductio ad absurdum, depending on taste) of the new style.

In so doing, he created an alternative name for the genre – glitter pop – as well as one of the most memorable characters in rock history. Much mocked, even at the time, for being too old, too fat and too hairy to be a convincing teen star, he was nonetheless exactly that. And much more.

Because there are a couple of things that seldom get mentioned about Gary Glitter. First, the records were fantastic. His first dozen singles are all impeccable pieces of bubblegum rock and roll. Produced by Mike Leander, they were pure rhythm and riff, with the instruments crushed so heavily together that it was virtually impossible to tell quite what the ingredients were – though the inclusion of John Rossall’s trombone underpinning the sax section was a key element.

And the second thing to remember is that Gary was a phenomenal live performer. In the 1980s and ‘90s the act became more and more of a self-parodic pantomime, but his was still a masterly stage presence, always in absolute command of his audience. And in the early Glitter years, when that audience comprised screaming fans rather than nostalgics, he was unbeatable. He’d learned his craft the hard way, with years in the German clubs and with a stint as the warm-up man on Ready Steady Go, and boy did the experience pay off. Similarly his use of television as a medium for his absurd yet endearing excess was unparalleled.

He was, in short, pretty much perfect as a pop star. Entirely within the tradition of rock and roll, while at the same time being unmistakeably original.

I know he’s got himself into some difficulties over the last decade, but let’s not pretend to be too shocked about this. Anyone who’s ever glanced at the history of rock should be able to rattle off the names of at least a dozen major stars who’ve had a penchant for under-aged sex; it does kinda go with the territory. Even if he were guilty of the offences for which he was sentenced in Vietnam (and I didn’t see the evidence, so I’m in no position to know), it doesn’t change the fact that he was one of the great showmen of rock and roll.

Remember him this way.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The London Olympics

As the Olympics get under way in Beijing (or Pekin, as some of us still think of it), one’s mind naturally turns to the London Olympics.

Not the 2012 Games, obviously. The prospect of that nonsense is so horrible that all one do is avert one’s eyes and whistle loudly.

Nor even the Austerity Olympics of 1948.

No, I was thinking of the 1988 Games. Not that London actually staged the event. Nor indeed did we even bid for them. But we did think about it.

In 1979 the GLC, then under the control of the Conservative administration led by Horace Cutler, put out a consultative document in an attempt to spark a debate over whether it was worth going for the Games.

Two options were put forward. The first was the budget version, with a refurbishment of Wembley Stadium, the erection of a temporary athletes’ village and the utilization of existing venues for the minor sports. The second was a more ambitious scheme with a new stadium and permanent village to be built in Docklands.

The costs, including in both cases a major investment in the traffic infrastructure, were £545 million for the cheap option and £1.2 billion for the up-market version.

Obviously those figures don’t mean much nearly thirty years on. So I went to the Bank of England inflation calculator, and it turns out that the more expensive scheme would cost a shade under £4.5 billion at today’s prices.

That’s less than half the current estimate for the 2012 Games. Maybe I’m being naïve, or maybe they were being naïve in 1979, but what the hell’s happened to the Olympics that it’s so bloated?

Mind you, the one thing they were at least honest about back then: they admitted that the Games would make a loss, estimated at being around £220 million. We’ll be lucky to get away with that in 2012.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Crisis and Discontent

The title of my book, Crisis? What Crisis?, comes from one of the most celebrated political misquotes of the 1970s (kind of a modern equivalent of ‘Let them eat cake’) as expressed in a Sun headline on 11 January 1979.

The context was the coldest January in Britain since 1963, and a strike by the drivers of oil tankers and lorries. The resultant fuel shortage was raising the forecourt price of petrol by up to 400%, panic buying was creating food shortages, and there were reports that two million workers could be laid off if the situation continued.

Meanwhile Jim Callaghan, the Labour prime minister, was out of the country on a six-day summit meeting on the agreeably warm Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

When he flew back, he told the reporters gathered to greet him that things weren’t as bad as they made out: ‘I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos,’ he said in the reassuring, emollient tones that had served him so well over the years.

And the Sun summed up his comments in that famous headline: Crisis? What Crisis?

He hadn’t actually said that, hadn’t even used the word ‘crisis’, but the expression attached itself to him instantly and came to symbolize the Labour government’s apparent dislocation from reality. And the main reason that it stuck was that it was already in common usage.

The phrase came originally from the 1973 film of Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Day of the Jackal (though not from the book). By the winter of that year, during the oil crisis that helped bring down the Conservative government of Edward Heath, it was being used as a headline in the Daily Mail. It even turned up in the Sun itself in 1974, trailing a television programme in which David Dimbleby looked at American portrayals of contemporary Britain. And in 1975 the progressive-pop band Supertramp released a hit album with the title.

In short, the words were already in the air, waiting to be given the killer application.

The other great cliché of January 1979 was ‘the winter of discontent’. And again it wasn’t a new coinage for British politics in the ‘70s. A headline in London’s Evening Standard in February 1974 read: The Winter of Our Discontent. That was during the three-day week that Heath had called in response to industrial action by the miners.

In both cases, then, the phrases ‘crisis? what crisis?’ and ‘the winter of discontent’ were originally employed to refer to a Conservative administration, but went on to become primarily associated with a Labour government. As I point out in the book:

‘Thus did 1978-79 adopt the linguistic imagery – and eclipse the memory – of 1973-74, so that the Labour Party became associated with all the ills of 1970s Britain, as though the pre-Thatcher Tories had never really existed, or rather as though they had been closet socialists all along. In future years the phrase “the winter of discontent” would frequently prompt confused memories of the three-day week, alongside the genuine events of the Callaghan era.’

And the reason I’m prompted to write this blog-entry is that I just came across a page on the BBC website that includes these words:

‘Mrs Thatcher came to power during an especially creative period for UK music in the early aftermath of the punk rock movement which had experienced its first stirrings three years earlier.
‘Set against a backdrop of a three-day week and the winter of discontent, homegrown protest music began to flourish like never before, giving a voice to a young disenfranchised audience.’

You see what I mean? The three-day week was in January-February 1974; its imposition was an act of desperation by a Tory cabinet that included Margaret Thatcher. Nothing to do with what is meant here by the winter of discontent, which occurred five years later under Jim Callaghan.

But it all gets mixed up together. And it shouldn’t, you know, it really shouldn’t.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Neue Deutsche Welle

Back in 1980 I was living in Herford, West Germany. Our local rock venue was a former cinema named the Scala, which in the 1960s had put on gigs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Who and the Cream.

The tradition continued, and I saw some great performances, mostly by visiting acts like UB40, Basement Five, Dillinger &c. The Cure were particularly fine – Robert Smith gave me some dexys before the show, and so many encores were demanded that they had to repeat songs they’d already played, since they’d run out of material.

But the gig I remember best was a mini-festival of six Neue Deutsche Welle bands.

For those who missed out on it, the NDW was a fabulous moment in rock history (starting around 1980), when German musicians embraced the spirit of punk and transformed it into something really quite special.

Part of the joy of the movement was that it covered such a phenomenal range of music. Unlike the earlier British incarnation of punk, there was no set of rules to which the bands were expected to adhere, no new orthodoxy. The result was a wide diversity of attitude and sounds, embracing not only new wave, but also electronica, scratchy funk, cabaret, ska and dub.

Very little of this travelled overseas. In Britain X-Mal Deutschland were accepted as part of goth, while the music press celebrated the austere industrialists in Einsturzende Neubauten, die Krupps and DAF. Curiously, though, the most authentic representative of NDW was Trio’s hit Da Da Da, which reached #2 in 1982. Not a record that was ever taken very seriously, of course (despite being covered by the mighty Elastica), but then, that was the point.

You see, it wasn’t all Teutonic grimness round these parts. What Britain missed was the humour and the playfulness.

To put it in context…

There was a charged political atmosphere at the time. The Red Army Faction had been defeated, and the election of Ronald Reagan as American president – which led to the rebirth of CND in Britain – was felt even more keenly in a country that was largely occupied by the US Army and that was touted as the frontline of World War III. When politicians blithely talked about battlefield nuclear weapons, Germany was the battlefield they had in mind.

Consequently NDW included a strong vein of left-wing sloganeering (Alternativ by the Front, Heil Reagan by Blitz), but it also saw a kind of rebirth of Dada, perhaps with the Residents as midwife. Groups like Reifenstahl, der Plan and Wirtschaftswunder gleefully mixed up nursery rhymes, out-of-tune horns and exaggerated vocal mannerisms, mocking the absurdity of the modern world. The very lack of overt politics felt like a political statement in itself.

It didn’t last, of course. Record companies, confronted with an upsurge of new talent, co-opted and compromised in time-honoured fashion and by 1984 were giving us the likes of Nena and Peter Schilling. All very well in their own right, but a bit like getting Toyah as a substitute for Johnny Rotten.

The band who really should have made it were Ideal, fronted by the movement’s sex symbol, the unfortunately named Annette Humpe. Essentially a straightforward new wave group, they had great tunes and even greater charm. They were briefly signed to Virgin in the UK, and were brought over for a showcase gig at the Venue in Victoria, London to promote their English-language single ‘Sex in the Desert’. It didn’t work. My brother and I were down the front, dancing with perhaps two dozen German tourists, but we were separated by acres of empty space from the handful of Virgin executives at the bar. I don’t think the press bothered to come.

Anyway, to return to that 1980 NDW gig in Herford. There were two stand-out bands. Toto Lotto shouted a lot and had an atonal sax honking away as they dismembered the Ramones’ Oh Oh, I Love Her So. And P1/E offered slightly disturbing little electronic love songs that were steeped in the history of pop music – like a cross between Kraftwerk and Suicide.

I bought singles by both bands that night, and got my copy of 49 Second Romance by P1/E signed by Alexander Hacke. Here he is revisiting the song many years later and adding in quotes from some other stuff that’s probably a bit more familiar:

Monday, 28 July 2008

Steve Thomas: Big Biba and Other Stories

My friend Steve Thomas has an exhibition of his work coming up at the Chelsea Space in London (17 September – 18 October 2008). I’ve just written a press release for the show, which I’d like to share with you here:

‘Steve, I really dig your artwork, man’ – Mick Jagger, 1969

Male model, artist, designer, rock & roll manager, King’s Road roué and teller of tall tales… Steve Thomas is one of the few survivors of the 1960s who can still remember it all. He’s the man who designed the legendary Big Biba shop, who went on to work for years as Paul McCartney’s personal designer, who created the livery for Formula 1 teams (and for London buses to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee) and whose style helped define the restaurant and club environment of the 1980s.

In the ‘60s, having left Chelsea School of Art, he inhabited the fringes of the record industry, hyping hit singles for Peter Frampton’s first band, The Herd (who he had discovered) and designing record sleeves for acts including PJ Proby and the Rolling Stones.

Then in 1971 came his big break when Barbara Hulanicki invited him and his design partner, Tim Whitmore, to design the new Biba store: a seven-storey department store filled with own-brand products. The Sunday Times called the result ‘the most beautiful store in the world.’

Subsequent work included building a studio for the recording of ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and adventures in Mexico City, New York and Toronto (designing the revolving restaurant 1300 feet up the CN Tower). In the 1980s, as speed and dope gave way to cocaine hedonism, Steve became the architect for the hippest of showbiz hang-outs, among them the Restaurant in Dolphin Square, the Pheasantry and John Conteh’s bar JC’s, as well as the Roof Gardens Club in Miami.

And in an era of conspicuous affluence, Steve stumbled into designing some of the most legendary advertising and branding campaigns of recent decades, including Lucky Strikes, Levi’s, Esso and Pepsi Cola.

Still working, his 2007 shop-design for Parisian punks April 77 has been called a ‘Biba for the 21st century’.

This is the first time a retrospective of Steve’s work has been staged in London.

Friday, 25 July 2008


Yes, I know I’m getting a bit carried away with making You Tube trailers for my books, but here’s another one:

This one features vintage photos of Portmeirion Village, about which I wrote an essay in a book I edited a couple of years back. The place looks a bit different now (it’s in colour, apart from anything else), but it’s still as magical as ever it was.

I hadn’t been to Portmeirion before I was invited to edit the book (invited by Mark Eastment, then of Antique Collectors Club and now of the V&A, who gets a bit miffed if he doesn’t get a mention). But it only takes an evening there to understand entirely why people fall in love with the village. There really is no other place like it.

Happily, I've been working with Portmeirion again over the last few months, together with my partner, on a new book – Magic Gardens: The Underwater Art of Susan Williams-Ellis.

Susan, of course, was the daughter of Clough Williams-Ellis, the man who built Portmeirion, and in her own right was the founder of Portmeirion Potteries. In that capacity, she helped shape the style of the 1960s and went on to create the Botanic Garden range of tableware.

She also had a lifelong infatuation with the world underwater and spent thirty years painting what she saw. Which is the subject of the forthcoming book.

And no doubt there’ll be a new video along when that one comes out as well.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

PhotoIcon magazine

PhotoIcon – for those who missed the first six issues – is about as cool a photo magazine as there’s ever been.

To prove it, the new issue, just published, is devoted to the photograph in rock and roll. And alongside articles on the likes of Gered Mankowitz and Annie Leibovitz is a fabulous six-page spread on Harry Hammond.

I should, of course, declare an interest. I wrote the piece in question, and the images are from my forthcoming book, Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock (V&A Publishing, 2008).

But even so, it’s the kind of magazine you’re going to want to own. A snip at just £4-95.

Move It

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Move It, the debut single by Cliff Richard and the Drifters. A grateful nation offers its congratulations to him and the boys, and its thanks for realizing the concept of British rock and roll.

Move It wasn’t actually the first British rock and roll record (that honour belonged to Tony Crombie and his Rockets with Teach You to Rock nearly two years earlier). Nor even was it the first great one: a couple of months before Cliff, Marty Wilde had released his version of Endless Sleep, a track that was actually better than the Jody Reynolds original.

But Move It was the first classic rock and roll performance to originate here – a song written by the Drifters’ guitarist Ian Samwell, not a cover of an American record.

It was an epoch-making moment in popular culture. ‘An exciting number with throbbing beat,’ enthused the NME reviewer. ‘If you’re an addict of the big beat, then this is a “must” for your collection.’

In later years Cliff was to say of the ‘50s: ‘We British never really competed.’ But he was being unduly modest; Move It proved that a rock record made in a London studio was capable of rivalling anything coming out of America, setting the tone for the next decade’s domination of the genre by Britain.

The following year, 1959, demonstrated that the track wasn’t a mere flash-in-the-pan, with a handful of classic records: Cliff and the Drifters released Livin’ Lovin’ Doll, Mean Streak and Dynamite; Wilde hit new heights on his self-penned Bad Boy; Vince Taylor and the Playboys launched a cult reputation with Brand New Cadillac; and Billy Fury debuted with his own song Maybe Tomorrow, while Johnnie Kidd and the Pirates did the same with Please Don’t Touch.

The originator, however, wasn’t an instant success, and it wasn’t until October 1958 that Move It finally broke into the top five, peaking at #2.

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of that event, I’ve got a book coming out this October. Titled Halfway To Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, it’s being published by the V&A, and it’s centred on the fabulous photographs taken during the period by British showbiz legend, Harry Hammond.

For those who can’t wait for publication, the slide-show at the beginning of this blog entry shows some of the photos of Cliff used in the book.

While this one shows some of the other images from the book:

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Lies, Damned Lies and Webstats

My somewhat valedictory note about my website Trash Fiction yesterday reminded me that I did do a sort of blog-type thing for the site in 2003, though I never posted it. I think it was intended as an email newsletter. In any event, the only bit I can find is the following passage, which I reproduce for my own interest, if not yours.
I’d like to point out that I’m not as obsessive about webstats these days. Possibly because my current hosting company don’t provide such detailed information.

When I first started Trash Fiction, I had no idea why I was doing it, where it was going or why anyone would ever want to visit it. Two years down the line, and all that’s changed. Now I know why people visit it.

I know because of my addiction to the webstats helpfully provided by my hosting company. On a daily basis they tell me what it was that people entered in search engines in order to arrive at my site. And it turns out that the most common names are Fiona Richmond, Rudolph Hess and Mandy Rice Davies. Well they would be, wouldn’t they?

Nestling just behind this curious trinity are mini-skirts, teen teases and wrestlers (both female and professional). A little further down the charts, I find Tommy Steele and the late Arthur Mullard neck-and-neck with Joyce McKinney, she of manacled Mormon fame, whilst Oh! Calcutta and Nell in Bridewell are also doing good traffic.

In short, despite what I consider to be a pretty wide-ranging selection of books, many of them neglected and forgotten masterpieces of popular culture, what it really comes down to is sex. To be more specific, British sex. With a bit of light entertainment on the side.

And, of course, Herr Hess.

Except that there’s also Peter Tinniswood to give me hope that something a little more elevated is pulling in the punters. Actually he represents a fairly strong current, which seems to correlate to a Radio 4 audience. The visitors coming in for Tinniswood escalated enormously immediately following his death, and received a further boost when some of his work was repeated in tribute to him. Similarly a Radio 4 documentary on the Angry Brigade saw a short-lived wave of anarchists storming the Google barricades.

Presumably there are also explanations, of which I’m ignorant, for the other peaks. In January 2003, for example, more than a hundred people turned up in pursuit of Lindi St Clair (the absurdly endowed prostitute and former parliamentary candidate for the Correction Party), but in the following five months she received not a single visitor. Whatever it was that Ms St Clair did last January, I’m afraid I missed it.

Then there are the one-offs, the searches that have only ever worked on one occasion: ‘Billy Connolly’s incidental music’, ‘eternal nymphet’ and – a particular favourite for the more intrepid holiday-maker – ‘Satan World’.

But I suspect some of these entries are circular. The fact that someone once came in search of ‘alistair campbell porn forum’ intrigued me sufficiently to try it out myself, and I found myself visiting the weblog of someone ruminating on the fine distinction to be made between art and porn. (Mr Campbell’s early work, needless to say, fell into the latter camp.) The fact that I did so will register on the webstats of the person running that site and no doubt I too will go down as a one-off freak.

Mostly though, the charts are dominated by regulars: people or books who are at least mentioned in Trash Fiction, but who don’t get much of a look-in elsewhere. Which means essentially the minor figures of British culture as remembered by the over-forties. People like the great Kent Walton.

‘Have a good week … till next week.’ That was his catchphrase.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Trash Fiction Trashed

I think it’s time I admitted defeat.

Back in 2001 I started a website called Trash Fiction, which was dedicated to the contents of my bookshelves – mainly paperback originals from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. And very good it is too.

But I haven’t added anything to it for ages. Not since my own books started getting published at a regular rate. Come October, I’ll have had seven books out in the space of four years, and – what with that schedule and a day job – it’s left me very little time for writing other things.

And Trash Fiction has been the main casualty.

I’ve also – and not necessarily in an attractive way – started to get very possessive about the books I’m reading. The stuff I write tends to draw quite heavily on popular culture, and I find myself hoarding away books that aren’t very well remembered, so that I can use them in my own work. I’m not sure if this is egomania or paranoia. Or indeed if the two are separable.

But I do think it’s time to accept that Trash Fiction probably won’t get updated again for a while. I shall keep it online, with the intention of returning to it when I find that I’ve run out of publishers prepared to work with me. But it’ll effectively be in suspended animation, kept going only by the life support system of the Internet.

I’ll be sorry to (sort of) leave it behind. It’s provided me with some very fine experiences over the years. I was contacted by some of the authors featured on the site and by other enthusiasts for the byways of British literature. I got a feature in the pages of Mojo magazine. I even got myself quoted in the blurb for a US reprint of James Robert Barker’s classic rock and roll novel Fuel-Injected Dreams. It was fun.

And I received lots of odd emails. The one I treasure most came from a man in Michigan who wrote to me asking if I could pass a message on to Muhammad Ali. ‘I am wanting,’ the message ran, ‘to ask him to be our special speaker for a Christmas Party that we are giving for the Blank County Foster Children.’ Obviously a worthwhile cause (though since Mr Ali is a devout Muslim, his celebrations of Christmas may be somewhat muted), but it does leave one wondering why an American thinks that a person running a site in North London about second-hand paperbacks would have a direct line of access to the former heavyweight champion of the world.

And the answer apparently is that I have a page on Jack Olsen’s 1967 biography (titled Cassius Clay, incidentally). Even so, it seems extraordinary that a web-search on Muhammad Ali would have brought someone to my site. I just tried Google and there are over 3.4 million results. Even the name Cassius Clay produces over 300,000 references.

I was also once contacted by a young man who was booked in to get his first-ever tattoo. Who – he wanted to know – are the best artists to go to? How does someone just starting down this path know what he’s letting himself in for? Is World of Tattoos (the establishment he was planning to patronize) a reputable studio?

And his reason for asking these questions of me was that I had a review of George Burchett’s 1958 book Memoirs of a Tattooist on my site. Sadly, that doesn’t make me much of an expert on the subject. It’s on the same page, incidentally, as Sheila Cousins’ 1953 classic To Beg I Am Ashamed: The Autobiography of a Prostitute.

But I can’t help you on that front either, I’m afraid.

Monday, 14 July 2008

The Bombing of Biba

I’m not quite sure what the correct etiquette/pose is supposed to be about getting reviews of one’s books. I have a suspicion that one is supposed to claim that one doesn’t read the things, but presumably we all do and, for those of us who aren’t household names (and never likely to be), they’re surely a source of deep joy.

Certainly they are for me. Someone I’ve never met has been paid to read my book and write about it. From the thousands of books that could have been chosen, they’ve chosen mine. Cool.

It helps, of course, if the comments that get printed are positive and – so far – things have been going pretty well for my latest book, Crisis? What Crisis? There have been the expected comments about things that I left out (inevitable in an attempt to discuss the whole of 1970s Britain in a single volume), but mostly it’s been encouraging.

In another world, since publication, I’ve also been posting extracts from the book on my website from time to time. And coincidentally I added a piece about the Angry Brigade’s bombing of the fashion legend, Biba, last week – just as Francis Beckett (a fine writer, by the way) was pointing out in a review in the Guardian that:

‘The author once wrote a book about the clothes store Biba, and Biba pops up in this account far more frequently than its influence justifies.’

Well, maybe he’s right. After all, he adds that my ‘wide-ranging selection of fact … is eclectic, not to say eccentric.’ Which is certainly true. I have hobby-horses that I like to ride. And I really like Biba: its story seems to me to encapsulate so much about the early-1970s.

Anyway this is the most significant passage about Biba – the story of how it was bombed by the Angry Brigade, and the curious fact that the anarchist terrorist group involved went on to inspire a trouser named the Angry Pants.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

A Very Strange Woman

My most recent book - Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s - is published by Aurum Press. Aurum has its own blog, where you might sometimes see my scribblings. But since I'd like to keep my stuff together, I'm re-posting this piece that I wrote on 29 May 2008, following the BBC drama about Mary Whitehouse...

I had the pleasure of Mary Whitehouse once.

Back in the late-1970s she came to my school to lecture us about the evils of the modern world, the moral pitfalls that we, as tender teenagers, should take care to avoid.

I asked her a question, in fact. Asked her about how absurd it was that the blasphemy laws protected a minority faith in a secular society. (This in the context of the prosecution she was mounting of Gay News magazine for blasphemous libel.) She didn’t answer, of course – she was too seasoned for the likes of me to get even to first base.

But two things stayed with me from her speech.

First, her obsession with communism. She argued that the Soviet Union was attempting to undermine capitalism, democracy and Christianity (which were apparently interchangeable constructs) through the medium of pornography.

And second, her belief that her campaign to clean the filth out of society had been successful. She cited as evidence for this the absence of satire on television, perhaps failing to notice that by that stage the Sex Pistols meant a great deal more to most of us than That Was The Week That Was. She was, I thought, too busy celebrating past conflicts to recognize that the country had changed, and that all the changes were, from her point of view, surely for the worse.

Amanda Coe’s play, Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, on BBC2 last night, was equally stuck in the mud of an old battlefield. Centred on Whitehouse’s struggle to get a hearing from the BBC – and from her sworn enemy Hugh Carleton Greene, the then director-general – it was set entirely in the 1960s. And, as her friend Bill Deedes once pointed out, ‘The 1960s were rough times for people with the message Mrs Whitehouse sought to deliver.’

The Whitehouse we saw was thus an essentially impotent figure. Played by Julie Walters in a manner that was less Mary Whitehouse than it was, er, Julie Walters, she was seen as a thorn in the flesh of the BBC, but little more than a thorn. Perfectly true of the times, of course, but she became much more significant.

The play followed her from her days as concerned Christian parent into the birth of her more familiar incarnation as a self-publicizing complainer about pretty much anything and everything: Dr Who, Pinky and Perky, the lyrics of the Beatles’ ‘I Am the Walrus’ (not for its clear drug-fuelled consciousness, but for the use of the word ‘knickers’). And then it stopped. Which was a shame, because that’s just when she became really interesting.

Amidst all the headline-grabbing stuff in the early-1970s about Chuck Berry’s ding-a-ling, Whitehouse had a much more political agenda. The mass membership of her National Viewers and Listeners Association (VALA) was primarily motivated by a distaste for what was perceived to be obscenity, but she had no hesitation in using the platform this gave her to intervene in matters of party politics. For her, as for Roy Jenkins on the opposite side of the fence, permissiveness and liberalism skipped hand-in-hand.

Amd she didn't approve.

So when Panorama had the nerve to ask some difficult questions of Northern Ireland prime minister, Brian Faulkner, she demanded to know ‘where the sympathies of the BBC lie in relation to Northern Ireland’. And during the three-day week in January 1974, called by Tory prime minister Ted Heath in response to an overtime ban by the National Union of Miners, she denounced the corporation for being ‘committed to polarisation of public sentiment in favour of the miners.’

There was just a hint of this in Filth, as Whitehouse complained about the BBC’s ‘propaganda for the left that verges on communism’. But mostly the play presented her as a single-issue campaigner. ‘Dearie me,’ she said, ‘we’re not political.’

And that simply wasn’t true. She’d first met her husband, Ernest (played brilliantly here by Alun Armstrong) in the 1930s when they were both members of the evangelical Oxford Group, later known as Moral Re-Armament. And although the Oxford Group was primarily and overtly religious, it had a strong political, as well, as moral, compass. Its founder, Frank Buchman, was so committed to the cause of anti-communism that he was even seduced by the ideological allure of fascism: ‘I thank Heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler,’ he enthused in 1936.

The Whitehouses shared Buchman’s passionate opposition to the Soviet Union as a godless, evil force in the world. Ernest Whitehouse believed that the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament prophesied the (temporary) triumph of communism, and his wife had no hesitation in seeing reds both under and in the bed: ‘They’ve infiltrated the trade unions,’ she argued. ‘Why does anyone still believe they haven’t infiltrated broadcasting?’

As VALA continued into the political turmoil of the 1970s, these attitudes – present from the outset – came ever more to the fore, helping to build the social coalition that would ultimately see the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Whitehouse’s ability to win battles remained dubious at best, and the campaigns against sex and swearing on television were ultimately doomed to failure. But she did live to see a new right-wing consensus built in this green and pleasant land. And she even lived to see the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe.

Which brings me back to that claim of hers that’s been baffling me for nearly thirty years now. Was she really saying that porn was fuelled by Moscow gold? Did she really believe that the controlling interest in capitalism’s most profitable industry was held by the Soviet Union, at a time when that country was not exactly renowned for its ability to foster enterprise? And if so, who’s funding it now, when the Internet is being deluged with porn from the democratic nations of the former Soviet bloc?

What a very strange woman she was.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Good Samaritan

One of the inexorable laws of writing non-fiction books is that, as soon as you’ve published, new information will turn up that you wished you’d known when you were writing.

A few years back, I wrote a book on the Biba stores and within days of it hitting the shelves, I was contacted by people who’d worked there and who had tales to tell. I even discovered that one of my best friends, the architect and thriller writer Brian Freeborn, had included a rather charming little elegy to Biba in his novel Ten Days, Mr Cain? (Secker & Warburg, 1977).

In the latter instance, I slipped the reference into a subsequent book, Welcome to Big Biba. But even so, it wasn’t until I later re-visited Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (Secker & Warburg, 1975) that I found another wonderful bit about the hero’s wife nipping up to London on a regular basis to spend a dirty weekend with her lover, occasions which she liked to call ‘Biba weekends’, since she’d always visit the shop when in town.

So I put that bit into my most recent book, Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s, since I figured it was unlikely I’d write a third book on Biba.

Now, however, I find something that should have been included in Crisis? What Crisis? And, in the absence of anywhere else, I thought I’d write about it here.

Towards the end of that book, I suggest that the principal political split in Britain at the end of the 1970s could be summarised by two interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

On the one side was Margaret Thatcher, who explained the moral of the tale to Brian Walden on Weekend World in her first major TV interview after her election as prime minister in 1979. ‘No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions,’ she remarked; ‘he had money as well.’

And, she said, this confirmed her vision of the society she wished to build, a society that eschewed the socialist obsession with egalitarianism. ‘If opportunity and talent is unequally distributed, then allowing people to exercise that talent and opportunity means more inequality, but it also means you drag up the poor people, because there are the resources to do so.’

On the other side of the political divide, there was the veteran left-winger Ian Mikardo who celebrated in his memoirs (Back-Bencher, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988) the frequently derided figure of the political activist, as opposed to the much vaunted silent majority.

These latter he characterized as: ‘the people who stay silent, who don’t utter a word of protest against the fruits of social injustice and deprivation; or against the system which hoards mountains of food in cold stores in rich countries whilst millions starve in the waste-lands; or against the erosion for company profit of the world’s natural resources, and the pollution of its air and its rivers and its oceans; or against the slide towards nuclear war and nuclear winter and nuclear holocaust.’

And, he concluded: ‘The Good Samaritan was an activist: those who passed by on the other side were members of the silent majority.’

(There was yet another interpretation of the Good Samaritan, this time from the one serious student of the New Testament in the House of Commons. Enoch Powell insisted that the story had to be understood in the historical context of those who heard it first, an audience who would have understood the racial relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans: ‘If the parable has a “moral”, it is that Jews and Samaritans should remember that they are not merely neighbours (literally) but kinsmen.’)

Having spent some time exploring this dispute over political interpretations of the teachings of Jesus, I was a little miffed today to find another reference in the popular fiction of the era. So I thought I’d mention it now.

I’ve been reading Anthony Price’s splendid Our Man in Camelot (Victor Gollancz, 1975), undoubtedly the best Cold War espionage thriller with Arthurian overtones I’ve ever read. And in it a CIA agent explains that ‘the moment of gratitude was also the most vulnerable one.’ In other words:

‘Remember what the Good Samaritan probably said to the guy as he rolled on the bandages: “Going down to Jericho, eh? Say, maybe you could give me an introduction to the Chamber of Commerce there?”’

Social networking – that’s the point of charity. Apparently.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Gambling on Gordon

The first bet I ever placed was in 1984, and paid off very nicely when Pebbles romped home to victory in the 1000 Guineas at odds of 16-1. The following year I backed Dennis Taylor at the start of the World Snooker tournament to win the title at 25-1, though a last-minute loss of confidence saw me take the each-way option, to my subsequent regret as he came back from seemingly inevitable humiliation to beat Steve Davis on the final ball of the final frame.

Somewhat predictably, I peaked too early, and my sporadic gambling career has been marked by a series of lost stakes ever since. The sequence of ill-considered punts culminated some eighteen months ago, as Tony Blair was preparing to vacate Downing Street, with what I’ve promised myself was definitely my last bet: twenty quid said that Peter Hain would be the next leader of the Labour Party.

As you’ll have noticed, I was entirely wrong. Hain didn’t get the leadership. He didn’t even get the deputy-leadership. In fact, shortly after coming fifth in a field of six for that job, he was obliged even to step down from the cabinet altogether, after some controversy over campaign contributions.

Despite the loss of the money, though, I still reckon my reasoning was sound. I argued that Gordon Brown was so clearly the wrong man for the job that Labour MPs would see the error of their ways and would decide against an act of collective political suicide.

Obviously the party cards were stacked in his favour, but equally obviously he could never put together the kind of cross-class coalition needed to defeat a Tory Party that was so successfully reinventing itself under David Cameron. Why, then, would Labour MPs vote in a leader almost guaranteed to lose them their jobs at the next election?

As we celebrate the completion of Brown’s first year in office, none of this seems to have been invalidated by events.

Admittedly my endorsement of Hain was less prescient – but it’s hard to see how he could have made a worse fist of being prime minister than Brown has done. My logic said that he was old enough not to stand in the way of younger pretenders for too long, and could have made a decent compromise candidate, taking Labour to probable defeat, but leaving Cameron with a minority government or – at worst – a very small majority.

In any event, the Labour Party evidently wasn’t thinking what I was thinking, and now it’s stuck with a leader who appears destined to emulate Jim Callaghan’s unenviable record of being prime minister without ever winning a general election.

The similarities between Brown and Callaghan are striking. Both followed a prime minister who had proved adept at winning elections (three triumphs for Blair, four for Harold Wilson), but who had lost the support of the party, was considered a bit too shallow and gimmicky, and seemed exhausted by office. In both cases, the new incumbent was a former chancellor who was regarded as a good Labour man, a safe pair of hands with a strong emotional and structural attachment to what used to be known as This Great Movement of Ours.

And yet, once in office, they disappointed their followers, pursuing right-wing economic policies almost indistinguishable from those of the Conservative Party, and finding themselves locked in damaging pay disputes with public sector workers whose support should have been automatic.

Both have been castigated for failing to call an election: Callaghan in autumn 1978, and Brown in autumn 2007. In both cases they would probably have won, Brown by virtue of novelty at least. Callaghan went on to lose to Margaret Thatcher the following year; Brown has the comfort of another two years before time runs out.

Both faced rising enthusiasm for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. And both were vulnerable to English suspicion for representing constituencies outside England.

The differences between the two men, however, are proving ever more significant as the months pass.

Callaghan was, above all, distinguished by his enormous breadth of experience in office. He had been a minister in the government of Clement Atlee (at the department of transport, he’d introduced cats’ eyes and zebra crossings to the nation’s roads), and apart from being chancellor, had also served as home secretary and foreign secretary. Quite possibly he will prove to be the last ever prime minister to have also held the other major offices of state. And while he hadn’t been a conspicuous success at any of those previous jobs, he did at least know in some considerable detail how government and Whitehall worked.

Brown, on the other hand, spent fourteen years on the opposition benches before being catapulted into Number Eleven. He’s never run – or even participated in running – a spending department. For someone who, unlike Blair, hasn’t shied away from the word ‘socialism’, it wouldn’t have done any harm to have known what it was like to argue for more resources, rather than simply to hold the purse-strings.

Beyond the economy, the difference in style was evident in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election last month, where the Tories celebrated taking their first by-election seat from Labour since Ilford North thirty years ago.

That election, back in 1978, came just weeks after Thatcher’s famous World In Action broadcast in which she successfully appealed to the supporters of Enoch Powell, warning that ‘People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’. In the election itself, Sir Keith Joseph built explicitly on this position, with a direct plea to the Jewish vote: ‘Therefore I say that the electors of Ilford North, including the Jews – who are just like everyone else, as the saying goes, only more so – have good reason for supporting Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party on immigration.’

The effect was all that could have been hoped for, and the defeat of Labour’s Tessa Jowell was greeted with dismay on the left: ‘The party is depressed at the apparent success of Thatcher’s exploitation of the race issue,’ noted Benn glumly in his diary

In Crewe & Nantwich it was the Labour Party that was accused of playing the race card, from their slogan for Tamsin Dunwoody (‘One of us’) downwards. Callaghan was not exactly in the progressive vanguard when it came to race and immigration (‘We don’t want any more blacks in Britain,’ he’d told Benn in 1970), but under his leadership, at least Labour didn’t descend to the dog-whistle. To do so, and then to lose, looks like the tactics of desperation.

Then there’s the question of temperament. Callaghan’s public persona was that of Sunny Jim, a cheerful calming presence in times of trouble. His image of unflappable reassurance may have cost him dear in the winter of discontent (prompting the famous ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ misquote in the Sun), but mostly it stood him in good stead and saw him retain a high level of personal support: before, during and after the 1979 general election, he scored higher in opinion polls than did either his party or Thatcher.

Nowadays, Brown trails even Labour’s lowly standing in the polls. And despite all attempts to re-vamp his image and all the encouragement to smile more often, he still looks as though a slightly sulky gloom is his default position. One can’t help but be reminded of P.G. Wodehouse’s comment that ‘It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.’

Most important of all is the difference between the two men’s assumption of office. Callaghan came through in 1976 as the victor in a contest that saw a host of substantial and weighty challengers: Roy Jenkins, Anthony Crosland, Tony Benn, Denis Healey and Michael Foot, any one of whom could make a plausible case as a potential prime minister. They were the best and brightest candidates available, and they came from right across the spectrum of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Had Brown faced a similar field a year ago, he would probably still have won, but he would have emerged with the kind of unquestionable authority that he now so patently lacks. It would have been hard for the press to indulge in the promotion of, say, David Milliband’s cause if he’d already been seen off by Brown.

And of course it would have given me at least an outside chance of seeing a return on my stake.

But then again, to return to one of my few successes at the bookmakers, in 1985 Dennis Taylor was eight frames to nil down before he staged that remarkable comeback to snatch victory from Steve Davis. A rotund, uncharismatic figure from the Celtic fringes proved capable of overcoming the golden young star who everyone thought was invincible. And he did it by sheer resilience and a refusal to accept defeat when it was staring him in the face.

Maybe, just maybe, Brown is not the new Callaghan at all; maybe he’s the new Dennis Taylor.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.