Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The giddy carousel of pop

Rock Stars Stole My Life!Oh, the "Giddy Carousel of Pop"! Mark Ellen's amusing and nostalgic memoir brought back many happy music-based memories: Dad making annoying comments during Top of the Pops; sniggering with a chum over copies of Smash Hits; being in a band.

More seriously, the book traces the changing face of music journalism and the consumption of music since The Beatles. It also touches on what the life of a pop/rock star might be like.

Thank you too, Mark Ellen, for puncturing the pomposity of the music snob. I guffawed at the opposing descriptions of Frank Zappa: "a cryptic genius working at the coalface of the avant-garde", versus "a hideous dullard who upended groupies and wrote lewd songs about it." And I laughed even harder at Captain Beefheart: "a brave sonic explorer patrolling the outer limits of self-expression" versus "a crashing bore whose death-rattle vocal could curdle milk and whose music knotted the knees and brought dance-floors to a shuddering halt."

Friday, 23 November 2018

Sorry Mr Orwell ...

Fifty Orwell Essays [linked table of contents]Perhaps it's a little unfair to award Orwell's collection of 50 essays a mere three out of five stars. Some of the essays are brilliant, but there are plenty that, on first reading, are just ok. For instance, it was difficult to properly enjoy his discussion of the merits of Helen's Babies, or James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution, since they mean nothing to me. I would have got more from the essay on Gulliver's Travels if I had actually read Swift's work, and my knowledge of Shakespeare's King Lear was found wanting in the reading of the essay about Tolstoy.

There are, however, absolute gems in this collection: extracts from The Road to Wigan Pier; The Lion and the Unicorn; Such, Such Were the Joys. His prose is to the point, he is not afraid to criticise injustice and speak out about totalitarianism and nationalism. The essays have provided some insight into the man, and I dare say, once I've corrected my own ignorance, I shal re-read the book and award it five stars.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Don't blame the victims

The TruantsThe Truants begins on a park bench. As dawn approaches, a vampire who has been alive since pre-history, is waiting to end his life. A teenager approaches, demands money, pulls out a knife and stabs him. In the immediate aftermath, the knife infects two children with the old-one's blood, thwarting his suicide attempt and allowing him to intermittently control the victims: Peter, an infant who has been abused since birth; Danny, a beloved son who enjoys Harry Potter.

Author Lee Markham was inspired by real life events: murders committed by children; the London riots during summer 2011. So the book shines a light on the hellish life for many in today's Britain. Generations have lived with abuse, yet society "blames the victims of [the] sins for the sins [-] perpetrated against them." It warns that once life becomes hopeless, when "there is nothing to lose, and perhaps nothing even to gain, then why not just lash out?"

Then again, if you're just after a decent horror story, the book provides some gory scenes and a gripping account of a desperate search to retrieve a bloodied knife before it infects the city.

Friday, 16 November 2018

The original psycho-biddy

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?Henry Farrell's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opens in 1908 with the famous child star having a tantrum in public. "What's ever to become of a child like that?" comments the matron of one of Baby Jane Hudson's fidgeting fans. "It's the others I pity, the ones who'll have to live with her," is the ominous reply.

Fast forward to 1959, and we find Jane living with her sister Blanche, who has been confined to a wheelchair since an accident involving a car damaged her legs and put an end to her movie career. They remain together because their dying father told them, "You are sisters, [-] the same flesh and blood. And that means that you've always got to stick together, no matter what." The adult Jane is still having tantrums, as well as periods of dark brooding, and bouts of drunkenness. Her behaviour becomes even more erratic after the sisters watch Blanche's old movies on TV. Initially Blanche makes the excuse "that it's really all my own fault," but as her fear of her sister increases, she must secretly try to engage the help of various characters: Edna Stitt the sensible cleaner; Mrs. Bates the star-struck neighbour; Edwin Flagg, Jane's would-be musical accompanist.

There is plenty of suspense and the story is told with a fast pace. It is a great example of gothic horror, all the more disturbing because fear is caused by someone experiencing psychosis rather than by something supernatural.

The ending is the best bit, and it will make you reassess the whole tale.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

American market, American methods

England Made Me"She might have been waiting for her lover." So opens Graham Greene's book, England Made Me, in a railway station cafe, where Kate Ferrant is expecting to meet her twin brother Anthony. She intends to persuade her boss, Swedish industrialist Erik Krogh, to give a job to the feckless twin, who is unable to "open his mouth without lying."

Krogh employs Anthony as his bodyguard as he secretively works to ensure the success of his business expansion. The Swede's greed leads him to practise insider-trading, selling short, and suppressing workers' rights. It can be seen as a critical observation of international capitalism, as Krogh justifies his actions because "he had entered the American market, he had to be prepared for American methods." He believes "there's no such thing [-] as actual value. [-] There's only the price people are willing to pay."

This idea of value is also examined in the story's treatment of the class system. Krogh, from a working class background, can afford to buy all the trappings of the rich, upper-class circles to which his business success has brought him, but he struggles to fit in. He also struggles to appreciate art, literature and opera, seeing them only as reflections of wealth. Anthony, the product of a public school education, understands them but thinks they are boring and consequently worthless. He describes Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as "just about a fellow who sends his friend to bring him back a wife." He would rather go dancing with a girl at the Tivoli amusement park.

Anthony eventually becomes disillusioned with Sweden and recognizes his own inability to settle into a different class role, that of someone who must earn a living. He feels he is an "exile from his country and his class," without the resources to hold his place in society and "so conditioned" that he "hadn't the vigour to resist." He decides to return to England, but as with most Graham Greene stories, there is unlikely to be a happy ending.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

He who loves money never has enough

The Ballad of a Small PlayerI used to imagine Hell as a Sisyphean search for friends in a packed, Covent Garden Piano & Pitcher bar on a Friday night. In The Ballad of a Small Player, Lawrence Osborne describes a different version of purgatory, that of the impossible task of making money in the garish interiors and themed decors of casinos. Anyone who has wandered through Las Vegas gaming palaces will recognize the oppressive setting of Osborne's story, where addicts are oblivious to the passing of time. He conjures up a seedy world where logic, reason and causality are replaced by a belief in coincidence and luck.

The action takes place over a short period of time in the life of Lord Doyle, who is not a lord, and whose name may not be Doyle. He is an English con man, living in exile in a casino hotel in Macau, surviving by gambling stolen money. When we meet him, he is on a losing streak and down to his last few thousand HK dollars.

Doyle is a lonely character, although he claims to have two male friends. The three men beg money from each other when they lose, and lie in order to avoid paying their debts. They attract female company only when they have cash to spare. In a brief encounter with one of these women, named Dao-Ming, Doyle is forced to look at himself as he really is: "Something about her had made me feel ashamed, [-] how repulsive I must be, how oppressive and pitiful."

And so the book is essentially a study of Doyle's character; sad, lonely, stuck in his way of life, haunted by his failures and crimes, unable and unwilling to escape what is a living hell. The oppressive atmosphere and a feeling that the protagonist is drifting toward destruction are very Graham Greene-ish, something that other reviewers have commented on. About half way through one senses that something in Doyle's world is not quite right, but in terms of plot, one might say that not much happens except that a man loses money and makes money, and in the process, loses his soul.