A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles – not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.
‘Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left’ by Michael Newman
Twenty years on, I can still vividly recall scanning the shelves of the university library – me, an eager second-year history/politics undergraduate – in search of a Marxist critique of fascism and happening across a book by Nicos Poulantzas. Three hours, one much-thumbed dictionary, two headache tablets and five pages later, I gave up. My next encounter with the World of Marx was Professor David McLellan’s 1973 biography of Marx himself: well researched and worthy, to be sure, but dense and daunting for the uninitiated. Finding Ralph Miliband was something of a revelation, therefore, for here was a academic – what’s more, an avowedly Marxist academic – with both the ability and the willingness to elucidate Marxist ideas in an accessible way.
Miliband’s most influential book – The State In Capitalist Society – transformed the political sciences in the 1970s and provoked a famous debate with the aforementioned Poulantzas, in part concerning the role and importance of abstract theorising. Poulantzas championed an ultra-theoretical school of Marxism that shunned empiricism and seemed to glory in abstruse theorisation. For these ‘Althusserians’, Marxism had its own discourse, purposely distinct from much of the terminology and assumptions of ‘bourgeois’ debate and thus intelligible only to those who could decode its arcane meanings. Miliband, on the other hand, always sought to test even the most basic of assumptions within the Marxist tradition with reference to the ‘real world’. Moreover, Marxism was much more than a theory for Miliband: it was a guide to action.
As Michael Newman’s book shows, Miliband was an academic, a teacher but, above all, a committed socialist – happiest when he felt he was contributing to the advancement of the left. Thus, in Parliamentary Socialism – the book that secured his international reputation in 1962 – by analysing the reasons for the Labour Party’s failure to implement ‘socialism’, he was implicitly offering a guide to future action. Apart from a brief flirtation with the Bevanites in the 1950s and the Bennite left in the 1980s, Miliband kept his distance from the Labour Party, highly sceptical as he was of its efficacy as an agent of socialist change. He spent his adult life in the ultimately fruitless search for a suitable vehicle to secure a political breakthrough, wedded to the belief that only a class-based political party could do so.
Born in 1924 into a Jewish home, Miliband’s political consciousness was awakened by the Nazi menace in the late-1930s. Though the death camps cast a dark shadow over his childhood and youth, Miliband was one of a number of European refugees who escaped the clutches of the Nazis, finding sanctuary in Britain and going on to form the nucleus of a radical intelligentsia that helped shape the cultural, academic and – to an extent – political landscape of the 1960s and early-70s. Indeed, Miliband lived through a remarkable, if turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful, period for the left. This book is in part, therefore, also a history of the British left from the twin crises caused by de-Stalinisation and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 through the upheavals of 1968 to the challenge of Thatcherism and the collapse of Soviet-type communism.
In writing the book, Newman had access to family, friends and Miliband’s own letters and papers, including a diary and notes made in 1983 for a planned but never completed autobiography. Newman uses this impressive selection of primary source material to paint a convincing portrait of the ‘private’ man as well as the more familiar public figure. His style is – like Miliband’s own – both accessible and, on the whole, eminently readable. A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles – not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.
On the other hand, given the breadth of Miliband’s interests and concerns, judicious editing might have resulted in a more balanced book. Several extracts from Miliband’s work are quoted verbatim and at excessive length. Elsewhere, 13 pages are devoted to ‘the troubles’ at the LSE in 1968 and an entire chapter to his involvement in a campaign for academic freedom. This particular reader frankly hoped for less description and rather more in the way of reflection on matters such as Miliband’s position on academic freedom (which was somewhat inconsistent), his widening disagreements with others on the New Left vis-à-vis the nature and role of the working class by the 1980s and the wisdom of his wish to see a Marxist party of a non-dogmatic nature filling the void between the Labour Party and the Leninist CPGB (which he held in little short of contempt). Tightly written summaries of Miliband’s ideas and actions and relevant narrative would have given Newman more space for his own analysis, commentary and judgements.
This review relates to the edition published in 2002 by Merlin Press. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.
Essential listening in its day…Live Killers is flawed but brilliant nonetheless…Queen’s catalogue of restored and remastered live recordings currently contains a gaping pizza oven-shaped hole…[T]he quality of the Rainbow ’74 box set, recorded five years earlier than Live Killers, presumably on significantly inferior equipment, demonstrates that analogue recordings from the ‘70s era can be cleaned up to an exceptional standard.
Queen played at the Dallas Convention Center in Texas on 28 October 1978, the opening night of what became their Jazz world tour, which came to an end fourteen months later with a concert in aid of Kampuchea at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.
Recorded in continental Europe between January and March 1979, Live Killers is an album that I seldom play nowadays, preferring unofficial recordings, some of which are excellent, if obviously flawed in terms of sound quality. With the fortieth anniversary of its release approaching – and with fingers crossed for the appearance of some sort of retrospective late-’70s live package – this seems an opportune moment to re-join Queen on their 1979 European tour, to once again be “transported effortlessly from city to city”1, and to evaluate afresh an album that captured the band at a transition-point in their career – before Mack and Munich, before magic and miracles, before true global mega-stardom and mega-bucks.
In 1981, as a Queen-mad adolescent, I wrote the following in one of many scrapbook ‘biographies’:
In fact, everything about this album is commendable, from the striking cover to the interesting sleeve notes to, of course, the music.
Live Killers was everything a Queen fan could ask for, the perfect memento from their breathless classic-era concerts – whether you got to see them in the flesh back then or not.
The whole piece reads in similarly fulsome fashion. But scroll back to the opening sentence – “Queen had long been known for their out-sized stadium rock shows”. Not true. This ‘review’ (and others like it) is little more than imprecise, cliché-ridden hyperbole. It’s the Queen of legend, the stadium-bestriding giants of later folklore. The reality is that in the late-70s – pre-South America, pre-Live Aid, pre-Magic Tour – our heroes were still very much an indoor arena band.
Judging from the more discerning reviews on Amazon and from various posts on fan forums, one recurring strain of thought seems to be that the album slots into the decent-document-of-the-live-show-at-the-time category – in other words, nearly but not quite. Gary Graff, writing in Phil Sutcliffe’s excellent ‘Ultimate Illustrated History’ book, unintentionally (I think) damned the album with faint praise, describing it as “solid and at times striking”2. He’s writing, lest we forget, about arguably rock’s most compelling live act.
Live Killers has had a chequered history. It sold well, if not spectacularly, and some initial music press reviews, at least, were not entirely unfavourable. Its rawness and apparent lack of polish met with approval. ‘Record Mirror’ described it as “a triumph”. Even ‘Sounds’ awarded the album three stars out of five3. However, despite this and a number of grudgingly positive reviews of the subsequent Crazy Tour (of which the Mick Middles review in ‘Sounds’ is a classic example), the music press remained almost uniformly hostile to the band. Punk and new wave might have burned themselves out by 1979-1980, but ska (urban, working-class, multicultural) and the ‘New Romantics’ (synthesized electronic pop, highly stylised fashion) were the coming Big Things. Queen were decidedly uncool.
In particular, Live Killers struggled in comparison with Thin Lizzy’s critically acclaimed Live And Dangerous, released in 1978. There were certainly similarities: even the title ‘Live Killers’ carried echoes of the earlier release. Criticism of Queen’s performance – the apparent bias towards newer material, the use of recorded tape during the show, the lengthy guitar and timpani solos – segued into familiar attacks on the band as pompous, self-indulgent and out of touch. Thin Lizzy, on the other hand, better suited the new wave aesthetic: street-wise outsiders with lyrics that romanticized rough, tough working-class culture.
Criticism also surfaced from within the Queen camp. The official fortieth-anniversary history states that the band were “under pressure to come up with a live album”4. Georg Purvis attributes expressions of frustration and dissatisfaction to all four band members5, though he supplies few, if any, dates and supporting references to provide meaningful context. Elsewhere, in comments attributed to 1983, Brian talks wearily of the inescapability of live albums. On Redbeard’s In The Studio ‘rockumentary’ show about The Game, both Roger and Brian are dismissive of the album. A 2001 remaster was well received but I can find no evidence of anyone suggesting it was a major improvement on the original mix. It was seemingly not deemed worthy of a reissue as part of the 2011 remasters package and, at the time of writing, it does not appear to be available in the official Queen online shop.
Everyone releases a live record. It’s just a filler before the next studio album. It will curb the sale of bootlegs sold at exorbitant prices. It all sounds so remarkably un-Queen-like: the uncompromising perfectionists forced to compromise and to meet the expectations of others. This is hardly the obstinate, headstrong ‘Queen’ whose debut single featured a drum solo, who released a six-minute single (seven minutes when Roy Thomas Baker gets into his stride) against unanimous industry advice and who, filled with unwavering self-belief, walked away from John Reid’s management in 1978 and into the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s highest-paid directors.
Double (even triple) live albums were almost de rigueur: Seconds Out, Strangers In The Night, Tokyo Tapes, to name just a few, all date from this period. Plans for a Queen live album had repeatedly been shelved during their early career. The bootleg often circulated as ‘Sheetkickers’ appears to be a professionally mixed 40-minute edit of the February ‘74 Rainbow show. The November Rainbow shows were filmed, of course, as well as the 1977 Earls Court6 shows. Perhaps the feeling was that film would better capture the theatricality and visual power of the band. The 33-minute Queen At The Rainbow film was shown in cinemas in 1976, but without an accompanying audio soundtrack release. Once the home video market was established in the ‘80s, We Will Rock You, Rock In Rio and Live In Budapest all appeared within the space of three years.
As evidenced on the excellent Queenlive.ca website and in Brian’s Queen In 3D book7, the stunning front cover photograph is from one of the Japanese shows, subsequently manipulated to incorporate Brian into the shot. The original inner gatefold offered a busy montage of live shots drawn from across the band’s career, though (like the set list) leaning heavily towards recent tours. Impressive stuff.
Much less impressive, on the other hand, are the inner sleeve notes. Useful context and insightful remarks are buried away amidst cliché (“literally fighting its way up the charts”), misleading comment (Now I’m Here…“used as an encore and later dropped” – it was dropped for perhaps as little as a week8 on the News Of The World tour), the occasional baffling statement (Keep Yourself Alive “having gone full circle over the years” – so when was it played significantly differently, one wonders?) and a sprinkling of sugary sentiment (“a very singable tune with sentiments never forgotten by Queen fans”). From the single-minded foursome who supposedly almost wrecked the launch of Queen II by fussing over problems with the cover9, the egregious proofing errors – “eerieness”, “raport”, “his live album”, “form News Of The World” – are particularly inexcusable.
Cue the thunderclap and the album begins at breakneck speed. The fast version of We Will Rock You, previously unavailable, is as exhilarating as when I first heard it at Stafford Bingley Hall in May 1978 and remains my favourite Queen set opener. Let Me Entertain You sits in its rightful place near the beginning of the show. It is baffling why this song was placed as the closing track on side one of Jazz (even more incongruous, though obviously unintentional, is its placing in the middle of thirteen tracks on the Jazz CD). A six-song medley follows. End of side one: a chance to draw breath.
Side two leans heavily on audience participation, a quest for ‘authenticity’ that Roger was keen to emphasise in interviews at the time10. Now I’m Here features Freddie’s call-and-response routine: a later staple of the show (‘Day-O’), it was new on the Jazz tour. The acoustic set slows the pace with its more laid-back, singalong feel. Brian’s guitar solo dominates the magnificent third side, though it’s a shame that Spread Your Wings features its conventional ending rather than the sensational, upbeat BBC session version. Side four brings the show to a close with the obligatory encores.
Given the limitations of space (four sides, approximately 22 minutes each), it is a varied and well-balanced package, relatively faithful to the actual set list running order. However, debate has always surrounded the omissions deemed necessary to fit the show onto four sides. Three songs – If You Can’t Beat Them, Fat Bottomed Girls and It’s Late – were all ‘occasional’ rather than permanent fixtures of the set list over the fourteen-month world tour as a whole – played on some nights and not others, often alternated and usually the first to be dropped to make room for any new additions (for example, current single Don’t Stop Me Now was introduced on the European leg, Teo Torriatte was performed in Japan, and Mustapha, Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Save Me were all in the Crazy Tour set).
None of these ‘occasional’ songs was included on Live Killers. As a solid rather than exceptional track from the Jazz album, If You Can’t Beat Them is perhaps the least surprising, though the live version outshines the original. It’s Late was presumably left out on grounds of length. More surprising was the omission of Fat Bottomed Girls – recent single, inspiration for the Jazz promotional visuals and a full-throated stage rocker. The biggest shock, however, was the absence of Somebody To Love, again presumably due to its length – performed live, it lasted around seven minutes. Roger once commented that the band initially had difficulty translating the song to the stage11. But it remained a live staple almost to the very end, a bona fide Queen classic12.
The ever-evolving medley – not quite “play the Hits” [sic] as described in the sleeve notes – was another staple of the ‘70s show. Pacy and punchy, it featured snippets of singles and album tracks alike. Here, Roger’s vocal on I’m In Love With My Car and Brian’s harmonizer effects on Get Down Make Love are undoubted highlights. You’re My Best Friend, on the other hand, feels rather lightweight and out of place, though Queen fan, musician and YouTube reviewer James Rundle disagrees and singles it out for particular praise. It was dropped for the 1980 European tour.
Elsewhere the rather pointless Mustapha teaser sits incongruously at the beginning of side four. ‘Sounds’ magazine, among others, criticised the inclusion of the taped operatic section of Bohemian Rhapsody, also on side four. Yet it is difficult to see how it could have been left out: as Live Magic later proved with horrific effect, editing songs results in disaster.
The inclusion of the entire three-song acoustic mini-set is also debatable. Only the Magic Tour, which also included a medley of rock ‘n’ roll standards, featured a longer acoustic interlude. Between 1980 and 1982, Love Of My Life was the sole acoustic song, though the semi-acoustic Save Me featured earlier in the set. An obvious alternative would have been to omit Dreamer’s Ball and Brian’s long band introduction before ’39 (included, presumably, as light relief and to illustrate the exuberance of a typical Queen audience). As an aside, how ironic it seems to hear Brian referencing Roger’s tiger-skin trousers.
Based on the 1994 remaster track timings, the original four sides of vinyl add up to 22m 18s, 24m 52s, 22m 01s and 21m 08s respectively. Taking 25 minutes as the upper limit, an alternative track listing for the original vinyl release might have been:
Side One: We Will Rock You / Let Me Entertain You / If You Can’t Beat Them / Medley – omitting You’re My Best Friend
Side Two: Somebody To Love / Now I’m Here / Love Of My Life / ‘39
Side Three: Don’t Stop Me Now / Spread Your Wings / Brighton Rock
Side Four: Keep Yourself Alive13 / Bohemian Rhapsody – omitting Mustapha / Tie Your Mother Down / Sheer Heart Attack / We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions / God Save The Queen
The poor quality of the overall sound is often highlighted – and rightly so. With a few notable exceptions such as I’m In Love With My Car – where the instruments seem separated out and clearer in the mix – much of the album sounds muddied and muffled, like listening through cotton buds rather than headphones. In Purvis’s opinion, “the band sounds muddled, some of the instruments are poorly mixed, and the audience levels are inconsistent”14. Imagine an album restored to the standard of the version of Sheer Heart Attack included in the News Of The World box set15: recorded at one of the Paris shows, it is genuinely raw, pulsating and anarchic.
The extent to which the tapes were tampered with during the mixing process is a matter of debate. Mark Blake describes Live Killers as “an undoctored account…loud and messy”16. Purvis quotes Brian as insisting “vehemently” that there were no overdubs17. Phil Sutcliffe’s book, on the other hand, quotes Roger that “only the bass drum was live”18 – presumably speaking here with tongue firmly in cheek.
Given Queen’s reputation in the studio, this was never going to be a warts-‘n’-all release. Most – if not all – of the European shows were recorded, with songs selected from different nights. The website Queenlive.ca contains a brilliant track-by-track analysis, demonstrating that individual songs were often made up of recordings spliced together from different nights. I have neither a music producer’s ear nor a high-quality sound system. But even to this non-specialist, the change of ‘feel’ midway through songs and the ‘movement’ of instruments around the stereo mix were giant clues about the amount of general interference.
At times, the studio tampering is blatant. Why, for example, add an echo to Freddie’s introduction to Now I’m Here, recorded in Frankfurt on 2 February? The vocal at the beginning of Don’t Stop Me Now (up to “ecstasy”) has also almost certainly been added later. A tough song to sing, no doubt, and usually performed immediately after a frenetic and gruelling Now I’m Here, it was perhaps used as an opportunity for Freddie to catch his breath at the piano. The opening of the song was generally played with guitar substituting for the vocal. Of fourteen live recordings in my possession from 1979, the only exceptions to this are Newcastle (which includes three words: “Gonna have myself”) and the filmed Hammersmith show on Boxing Night, when he sang about half the opening lines, his voice being generally superb all evening after a four-day break.
Equally extraordinary was the selection of Love Of My Life as lead-off single, edging out Body Language in the most-bizarre-choice-of-first-single competition. From the band’s perspective, it obviously showcased the crowd-participation element of the show, as well as introducing a completely different side of their music to the general singles-buying public. This author has a vague recollection of Roger valiantly defending the single on a Radio 1 ‘Roundtable’ review show. It sank without trace (in the UK at least), their worst chart performance since Keep Yourself Alive. The obvious choice should surely have been We Will Rock You (fast) – new, catchy and a perfect advert for the album. The frenetic version of Keep Yourself Alive – debut single, of course – might also have worked well, an appropriate way to bookend this phase of their career.
Essential listening in its day (it was, after all, the only live product officially available until 1984), Live Killers is flawed but brilliant nonetheless. The original tapes sit in the archives as well as the complete Paris footage, at least according to Brian19. Queen’s catalogue of restored and remastered live recordings currently contains a gaping pizza oven-shaped hole. If there is to be some kind of re-release, it will almost certainly be an enhanced package, not just an improved version of the original Live Killers album. One hopes, naturally, for a complete, unadulterated document of the Jazz tour. Even allowing for Brian’s comments about persistent sound problems on the tour, the quality of the Rainbow ’74 box set, recorded five years earlier than Live Killers, presumably on significantly inferior equipment, demonstrates that analogue recordings from the ‘70s era can be cleaned up to an exceptional standard.
I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes…I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.
First things first: I don’t read enough fiction. It’s not that I don’t try. I do, I really do. Disregarding Christopher Hitchens’ witty riposte to the old adage that everyone has a book inside them (actually said by Hitchens in relation to autobiographies and memoirs, it seems), I am not immune to the urge to write fiction: it is the middle-of-the-back itch that remains unscratched. So I know that I really ought to be immersing myself in the form. After all, isn’t the experts’ advice always the same: read, read and read some more?
Besides, who needs a reason to pick up a novel? I love words. I am in awe of skilful writing, regardless of genre. I enjoy a good story well told, and I delight in piecing together well-crafted, meandering, multi-layered plots. And yet, for all my good intentions, a familiar pattern invariably repeats, like a Newtonian law of reading: barely have I negotiated the opening chapters of a novel before the gravitational pull of non-fiction, usually something historical, political and/or biographical, becomes irresistible.
I hold learned and literary types in ridiculously high esteem, if for no other reason than their assumed ability to handle the question: what should I read next? An adjustment to my work-life balance two years ago created significant additional reading time: a wonderful opportunity but also a source of frustration, as bookish retirees the world over have doubtless discovered. So many intriguing literary avenues along which to wander for the first time; so many interesting new titles to explore, even down the relatively well-trodden paths of modern and contemporary history.
At the same time, there are books upon books shouting out to be re-read. Perhaps I didn’t really appreciate or grasp them first time around. Maybe they are just so bloody good. They are here now, sitting impatiently on the shelves around me, vying for my attention. I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader, so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes: to pick a random selection, Volume III of Bullock’s biography of Ernie Bevin (900 pages), Bullock’s earlier biography of Hitler (800 pages), Michael Foot’s two-volume biography of Aneurin Bevan (1100 pages) and Kenneth O Morgan’s history of the Attlee government (a mere 500 pages). I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.
A word about my reading habits. I read every day and usually have three texts (one of which is the daily newspaper) on the go. The ‘classic’ slot kick-starts a typical day, the theory being that my mind is at its freshest first thing in the morning. Hatched as a way of negotiating War And Peace, the plan was then to tackle Dickens in chronological order, having been drawn in by David Copperfield. However, after The Pickwick Papers I was immediately sidetracked by Tess Of The D’Urbervilles (terrific) and The Rainbow (a real struggle). Now this pre-breakfast window is used for anything I consider too intense or ‘high-brow’ to be my main read of the day. For the last three months, I have been working through Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume Main Currents Of Marxism. My ‘main’ read – picked up at various points of the day – alternates between non-fiction and fiction, probably on something like a – crikey – 5:1 ratio.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading fiction, popular as well as so-called ‘middle-brow’. Opening Stephen King’s 11. 22. 63 was like being transported back (sorry) to my teenage years, lapping up King classics such as Carrie, The Shining and Salem’s Lot for the first time. Gripping, all of them – or so it felt to my fourteen-year-old self. To experience the frisson that comes with not wanting to put a book down – rushing home from wherever, desperate to discover what happens next, recklessly staying up late to devour another chapter. To suffer the exquisite torture of reading a book that is almost literally unputdownable – at once exciting and excruciating. It’s the best kind of legal high, recommended for young and old alike.
It was the horror genre that weaned me away from football and music magazines and hooked me instead on reading books for pleasure. Back in the late ‘70s, virtually all horror films were certified ‘X’ (re-labelled as ‘18’ in 1982). This was before home video so, as a teenager, they were off-limits at the cinema. But no such restriction existed on books; the horror section of Wigan’s main bookshop quickly became a regular stop-off during Saturday-afternoon trawls of the town’s record shops. Stephen King was an early favourite, though I eventually tired of his formulaic writing style, as were James Herbert and even Dennis Wheatley from a different era. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist scared the shit out of me. Impossible to see at the cinema, of course, but nobody even lifted a disapproving eyebrow at the bookshop. Speaking of Wheatley, black magic films, as opposed to gory horror, were more likely to be shown on television. I consider The Devil Rides Out as the acme, Christopher Lee as the noble white knight playing wonderfully against type.
And so to The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Why this particular book – and why now?
Cover quotes from The Independent and The Observer, plus the accompanying back-page blurb, did their job in piquing my interest, though references to The Da Vinci Code were mildly off-putting and any combination of words – usually involving ‘effortlessly’ or ‘seamlessly’ – about weaving together past and present must qualify as a cliché by now. Anyway, Kate Mosse has since set the back-and-forth-in-time bar dizzyingly high with Labyrinth. The Rule Of Four has a modern-day Princeton University setting but links back to Renaissance Italy.
Although modern history has always been my passion, I have strayed with increasing confidence over recent years from the familiar world of twentieth-century politics. Well-researched historical fiction is an accessible and enticing way into other historical worlds and, if the writing itch is ever scratched, my novel will likely be – at least in part – historical. As an aside, Jim Naughtie’s recent Meet The Author interview with Alison Weir was illuminating. An acclaimed (Tudor) historian who inhabits both writing worlds – fiction and non-fiction – it was fascinating to hear her discuss the different disciplines and methodologies involved.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies hold my attention far better than a David Starkey tome, though this may merely reflect my low opinion of acerbic, odious, right-wing historians. The depictions of nineteenth-century England in Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell and The Essex Serpent are enchanting. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night In Winter (set in the Soviet Union) stands out, as does more or less everything – past or present – by Robert Harris. There’s Sebastian Faulks, of course. Human Traces may well be my favourite novel: dense, complex and challenging, it perfectly captures the intellectual temper of the times. I also have a particular penchant for time-travel stories, whatever the medium: Stephen Fry’s Making History and Ben Elton’s Time And Time Again are bona fide page-turners.
Having first engaged with John Le Carré aged seventeen via Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am drawn to the puzzles, politics and moral ambiguities of the espionage world. The plot of The Rule Of Four revolves around a historical mystery – more precisely, a secret hidden within an arcane Renaissance text. Mainstream television usually leaves me cold but I make time for well-written mysteries and detective dramas – the likes of Inspector Morse (plus sequel and prequel), Poirot and Jonathan Creek. The recent Maigret reboot on ITV, with Rowan Atkinson as the title character, is terrific. Lucy Mangan in The Guardian dismissed the pilot as plodding and wooden (‘leaden’, to be precise), but I found it to be deliciously dark and broody.
I am also a Holmesian of sorts. Watching re-runs of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes a couple of years ago found me reaching again for my dog-eared collection of the original Conan Doyle stories. The Name Of The Rose is another satisfyingly dense and intricate novel (complete with a sprinkling of Sherlock Holmes references) that thoroughly merits a re-read. Umberto Eco was, of course, a polymath – an expert in semiotics and aesthetics as well as medieval history and much else besides. In other words, a learned and literary type. My kind of writer.
And so, back to Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset. I am currently on page 204. What’s next on the ‘to do’ list, I wonder…
Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator – a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers.
‘Nye Bevan’ by John Campbell
Arguably, Aneurin Bevan, the miner-turned-politician who became in roughly equal measure the darling of the British labour movement and the bête noire of the right-wing establishment, is better remembered than any other member of the historic 1945-51 Labour government – better than his colleagues Ernie Bevin (part-architect of NATO), Stafford ‘Austerity’ Cripps and even the Prime Minister himself, Clem Attlee. This is because Bevan’s name will be forever linked in the public consciousness with the NHS, which, as Minister of Health, he brought into being in 1948.
Unlike every other political issue of that era (it pre-dates serious squabbles over Europe by more than a decade and outlasted the Cold War), the health service continues to excite debate and controversy today. In this splendid biography, John Campbell examines the pertinent issues: the extent to which the NHS was Bevan’s own creation; his dealings with interested parties such as the BMA; the administrative and financial structures put in place to support this audacious social experiment; and the post-1948 political fallout.
Tellingly, however, Campbell devotes a mere 30 or so pages directly to the NHS – though indirectly it casts a lengthy shadow across the latter half of the book and the final decade of his life – because there was, in fact, so much more to this remarkable figure, a combustible mix of self-taught intellectual, instinctive rebel, eager, ambitious minister and charismatic leader. Campbell provides us with a fully rounded portrait of the man as well as analysing his impact on the Labour Party. He tackles with impeccable balance the highs and lows of Bevan’s life: the (relatively few) periods of triumph as well as the more frequent times of struggle, failure and schism – not to mention odd moments of bathos, most notably the publication of an eagerly anticipated book In Place Of Fear in 1952.
Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator – a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers. Moreover, it becomes apparent that his judgements about politics, about future developments, about the nature of mankind no less, were often seriously flawed – a consequence of a deterministic Marxism that he learnt in his youth and carried almost to the grave.
The controversies surrounding Bevan did not end with his untimely death in 1960. The party wounds of the 1950s, patched up for the 1959 hustings, were reopened well before the election of Wilson’s unhappy government in 1964. Thus, the first volume of Michael Foot’s biography, published in 1962, brilliantly written to be sure, is hagiographic and tendentious and reads best, as Campbell himself says, as “an episode in the long-running civil war” within the party.
Foot, himself a born rebel and Bevan’s Acolyte-in-Chief, refused to serve in Wilson’s first government and then renewed the fight with a second volume in 1973. In an excellent Introduction, Campbell deals with Bevan’s political legacy, particularly the claim made for Bevan’s imprimatur by a host of Labour politicians (the latest, to update Campbell, being John Reid, Blair’s Health Secretary since 2003) as they re-brand and re-invent policies – or (increasingly) consign them to the dustbin – and seek to sell a new manifesto to a deeply sceptical and conservative movement.
John Campbell is a fine, experienced biographer, scrupulously fair in the judgements that he reaches. The book is authoritatively written and meticulously researched, marred only by a handful of proofing errors. I confess to finding one ‘Wildean’ slip (a reference to Alan Bullock’s book Earnest (sic) Bevin in the bibliography) highly amusing but, as a reader with no knowledge of the publishing world, I am puzzled as to why such errors should remain to blight later editions of published works. This book was originally published under the title Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism in 1987 and re-issued with an abridged title ten years later, presumably to mark the coincidence of the centenary of Bevan’s birth and Blair’s first landslide.
Reading Campbell opens a window on the politics of a bygone era, allowing us to draw comparisons with modern times. Take age, for example. With Tony Blair having been Prime Minister for seven years by the time he reached 50, it is fascinating to learn that Bevan himself was the most junior member of the 1945 Cabinet aged 47. Or, take the press. Setting the headlines Bevan received c1951 alongside the obituary notices of a decade later, reminds one of the kicking meted out to Tony Benn, Bevan’s successor as Labour’s bogey man in the 1970s and 1980s, now rather fondly admired as a harmless, slightly eccentric, elder statesman.
The writer uses a 1997 Introduction to update us on important political developments in the decade since the first edition; the main text, however, seems to be untouched and, as Campbell went to some trouble to relate the political controversies in Bevan’s life to the issues of the 1980s (particularly Neil Kinnock’s battles to modernise party policy vis-à-vis nationalisation and unilateralism), the reader is left with an unmistakeable sense of the ephemerality and sheer unpredictability of modern politics. For example, writing in 1987, Campbell was obviously taking seriously predictions of the Labour Party’s terminal electoral decline (p253 – “Some would say [the 1951 election defeat] was the beginning of the end of the Labour Party”); a mere 14 years later in 2001 it was the Conservatives about whom such prognostications were being uttered.
I thoroughly recommended this marvellous book to political animals and the intelligent general reader alike.
This review relates to the edition published in 1997. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.
I discovered Rush around 1977, eleven years old and just encountering the giants of what was then being disparaged and dismissed as ‘dinosaur rock’ – the likes of Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd. The band’s prog-rock era, with its elaborate pieces, grandiose sweep and multi-layered depths, culminating in the two ‘Cygnus’ albums, represents for me their creative peak. Epics such as 2112, Xanadu and La Villa Strangiato are a timeless joy, forty-plus years after their release.
It looks increasingly like that’s finally and, at least semi-officially, it: Canadian rock legends Rush are no longer a going concern, it seems. Anecdotes about various age-related physical ailments and wanting to spend more time with the family have been circulating for some time but, for this fan, the absence of European dates on the back of the ‘R40’ American tour said it all. It’s impossible in a few paragraphs to do more than scratch the surface of the Rush phenomenon, of course, but – for what it’s worth – here are a few random reflections on (cliché-alert) Canada’s premier power trio.
First of all, ‘rock legends’ – really?! After all, it’s a reasonable bet that more than a few music fans, young and not so young, would probably struggle to identify anything much by Rush beyond those staples of rock CD ‘Best Of…’ collections, The Spirit Of Radio and Tom Sawyer. Not for nothing have Rush been characterised as ‘the biggest cult band in the world’. Yet the statistics – gazillions of album sales over forty years, supported by countless sold-out tours – are undeniable. Deeply unfashionable, maybe, but in a long and distinguished career they have repeatedly reinvented themselves and their music since those early Page-inspired riffs and Tolkien lyrical references.
I discovered Rush around 1977, eleven years old and just encountering the giants of what was then being disparaged and dismissed as ‘dinosaur rock’ – the likes of Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd. The band’s prog-rock era, with its elaborate pieces, grandiose sweep and multi-layered depths, culminating in the two ‘Cygnus’ albums, represents for me their creative peak. Epics such as 2112, Xanadu and La Villa Strangiato are a timeless joy, forty-plus years after their release.
In the wake of punk, a stripped-down, simplified, back-to-basics aesthetic revolutionised rock music. In 1978 Yes released an album made up of nine songs; Led Zeppelin jettisoned the extended solos on their 1980 European tour, almost halving the show’s duration; and if there was an overarching theme to Genesis’ 1981 album, it was neatly encapsulated by a stark a-b-a-c-a-b song structure. Meanwhile, a ‘new wave of British heavy metal’ – the likes of Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Whitesnake – surfaced in Britain and made it big in America: commercial, catchy, radio-friendly.
Rush too moved with the times. The Spirit Of Radio’s opening riff heralded a decade of musical invention and experimentation. Prog-rock epics were replaced by shorter, streamlined, more accessible songs. Geddy’s increasing use of keyboards, at times challenging the primacy of Alex’s guitars in the mix, coupled with Neil’s embrace of electronic drums, modernised their sound. The early ‘80s – Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals – represent the band’s most commercially successful period, their moment in the sun.
For some, this new sound was too mellow, anodyne, adulterated. Actually I love those albums but, anyway, the appeal of Rush was always about more than just the music. Fiercely proud of their musical proficiency, Rush were also clever, thoughtful and cultured. Take their album artwork and prodigious sleeve notes, packed with witty, sometimes arcane, references – Brought to you by the letter ‘M’ – or the exhaustive inventories, meticulously cataloguing the band’s equipment, seemingly down to the last bass pedal, guitar pick and cymbal. Speaking of the tour programme, how exhilarating it was to read Neil’s word-perfect mini-essays, tracing the gestation of the current album, its musical forms and lyrical themes.
My least favourite albums are probably those from the ‘90s. Pick up anything from Presto to Test For Echo and expect a collection of maybe ten five-minute songs – including a title track and an instrumental. In a word: formulaic. Yet the ‘90s also produced a sprinkling of undoubted career highs, not least Bravado, Neil Peart’s hymn to heroic failure. Rush were not alone in negotiating creative peaks and troughs but I remain baffled by Planet Rock magazine’s ‘Buyer’s Guide’, which recently [Issue 2: July 2017] featured nothing after 1985’s Power Windows in their Rush top ten. How many groups can boast of releasing two outstanding albums –– worthy of comparison with the very best in the canon – in the autumn of their career? I refer, of course, to Snakes And Arrows and Clockwork Angels.
I came late to the first three albums (repackaged as a collection called Archives after the success of 2112). It’s a story of a band finding its feet and the tale of 2112 as a make-or-break album is well known. I rarely play the first album, despite the classics Working Man and Finding My Way. Perhaps it’s my nod to Neil Peart; his absence makes Rush (the album) feel more like pre-Rush. I delved deeper into Fly By Night (Peart’s first album) after rediscovering All The World’s A Stage – particularly the hidden gem In The End and the album’s tour de force By-Tor and the Snow Dog. So typical of the band’s ambition and early experimentation, the savage fight for dominion is perfectly realised through the snarling interplay of bass and guitar, rival champions of Hell and the Overworld.
Most intriguing, for me at least, is the somewhat maligned Caress of Steel. I Think I’m Going Bald may be a rare misfire but Bastille Day was a raucous live opener in its day (inexplicably nudged out by Lakeside Park on the R40 tour). The Fountain Of Lamneth, originally taking up the whole of Side Two, is a consistently overlooked bundle of interesting, if semi-formed, ideas. Like digging through The March Of The Black Queen on Queen II to unearth the roots of Bohemian Rhapsody, this bold twenty-minute musical experiment, with its discrete sections, frequent mood changes and complex time signatures, foreshadows their coming masterpiece.
I only saw Rush in concert in the latter years; ‘R30’ was my first tour. Their live show is exceptionally well documented on film and CD. Has any other group released quite so much live material during their ‘active’ years, I wonder? The musicianship was always exemplary, the visuals compelling and the band’s humour, often self-deprecating, at its most conspicuous. But with only three people, the complexity and multi-instrumentation of the music made it difficult to faithfully reproduce the Rush sound live. Technology to the rescue: but therein lies a quandary. How much of the ‘live’ Mystic Rhythms, to take a random example, was actually being played live? One consequence of overuse of backing tracks was too few opportunities to experiment on stage. Only on the very final tours did the band begin to rectify this, creating space in the set to, well, fiddle around a bit.
Then there are the words.
How grating it is whenever someone lazily pigeon-holes Rush’s lyrics as ‘fantasy/Dungeons & Dragons’. Just as the band repeatedly reinterpreted and reinvented their sound, so Peart’s writing ranged across numerous forms and themes. Yet his words were always crafted with style, wit and intelligence. Take Losing It from Signals, Peart’s meditation on the effects of ageing on the creative process, its wistful sentiments perfectly complemented by the plaintive echoes of the electric violin. Or Closer To The Heart: What better commitment from parent to child than “You can be the captain and I will draw the chart”? Or Afterimage: What more fitting summation of the devastating impact of unexpected loss than “Suddenly you were gone / from all the lives you left your mark upon”?
The lyrical themes of Snakes and Arrows album from 2007 cover similar ground to the book ‘God Is Not Great’ by Christopher Hitchens (also 2007) and Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ (published a year earlier). Peart was wrestling with these issues much earlier, of course. Free Will (1980), for example, rejects the notion of supernatural determinism: “A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance”. Mystic Rhythms (1985) is a paean to what Dawkins himself later called ‘the magic of reality’.
In its time (1976), the lyrics of 2112 – “Inspired by the genius of Ayn Rand” – earned the band a certain notoriety after elements of the British music press condemned its anti-totalitarian message as proto-fascism. While Ayn Rand’s philosophy is certainly associated with the extreme neo-liberals of the postwar years, the charge surely says more about the political and cultural myopia of the left in the 1970s. Following the collapse of communism, who seriously doubts that totalitarianism in all its forms – whether of the left or of the right – stifles freedom and creativity?
Too many themes, too many wonderful lines. Perhaps then it is fitting that the final song on the final album is The Garden – Peart’s nod to Voltaire’s novel Candide – in which the narrator talks (metaphorically) of “a garden to nurture and respect”. For this fan at least, Rush leave us a wonderful legacy of forty years of music worthy of nurture and respect.
A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional – and brief – pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next.
‘My Life’ by Bill Clinton
Jed Bartlet, the fictional US President in TV’s The West Wing, is a political hero of mine, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I find myself instinctively warming to Bill Clinton. The Bartlet character is, in part, a reflection of Clinton – a deeply religious, hard working, liberal internationalist, driven by the desire to serve community and country.
A self-styled ‘New Democrat’, Clinton first came to national prominence as Governor of Arkansas in the 1980s. Architect of the once-fashionable ‘Third Way’, Clinton modernised the progressive message by co-opting core ideas from the conservative agenda (fiscal hawkishness, family values, work not welfare) and infusing them with a strong belief in social justice and opportunity for all. Along the way, he revitalised a factious Democratic Party, forced the Republicans to the wilderness of the radical right and blazed a trail for his soulmate Tony Blair to follow in Britain after 1994.
I approached this autobiography with some trepidation – as well as a dictionary of American idioms and an atlas. Though a keen student of politics, I am a novice with regard to American government; its systems, structures and procedures seem arcane and baffling. Another potential obstacle for the British reader is the vernacular of American politics, a problem compounded by the folksy, conversational style of Clinton’s writing. Hence, I’m still not au fait with the politics of campaign finance reform, ‘soft money’ and the rest and Clinton’s confession that, during preparations for the 1996 Presidential TV debates, George Mitchell “cleaned my clock” just mystified me!
Aside from the Bartlet parallels, it is evident that the Clinton presidency has proved a rich seam of storylines and subplots for The West Wing – as well as helping this reader negotiate his way through the White House labyrinth. Thus, I was suitably prepared for the bizarre tradition of pardoning a turkey each Thanksgiving; meanwhile, issues as diverse as brinkmanship in the Taiwan Straits, America’s refusal to sign an anti-landmines treaty and backstairs haggling with Congressional movers and shakers all have a familiar feel.
‘My Life’ is really two books spliced together – the one more enjoyable than the other. The weaker ‘Book 2’ covers the years of Clinton’s presidency. Written as a breathless narrative, this diary of events is a whistle-stop tour of domestic and (especially) international politics – a handy primer, perhaps, for first-year politics undergraduates – with everything from trade relations with South America to climate change negotiations meriting a paragraph or so.
A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional – and brief – pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next. Even opportunities for mourning – whether for family (his mother), close friends and colleagues (Vince Foster) or political leaders (Yitzhak Rabin) – are sharply curtailed in the maelstrom of activity, and Clinton himself questions the extent to which he was truly master of ceremonies.
Less welcome is the overwhelming sense that everyone – but everyone – merits a line; My Life reads in places like a roll-call of thanks, of debts acknowledged and repaid. Yet, we are told that the final draft omitted “countless” numbers of people along the way! Central to Clinton’s survival and success in the cut-throat world of American politics was his remarkable ability, from a young age, to stockpile friendships (the so-called FOB – ‘Friends Of Bill’) and build up networks of powerful acquaintances across the social spectrum who could be mobilised when required to campaign tirelessly on his behalf.
This is a major thread running through ‘Book 1’ – the years before 1993. At times, the young Clinton comes across as almost too earnest: the reader comes to expect each paragraph to end with a lesson gleaned from each experience or happenstance of life. Nevertheless, it’s an appealing story of an intelligent and thoughtful young man raised in a poverty-stricken southern state struggling to come to terms with trends in postwar society, through university (including two years at Oxford) under the shadow of Vietnam and ultimately to a career in politics.
Some readers will buy this book to read about the scandals that bedevilled his time in office. It is, of course, Clinton’s opportunity to present his own version of events but there is enough soul-searching and self-criticism throughout the book to convince me of his basic integrity, humanity and overwhelming commitment to public service. If his version of the ‘Whitewater’ story is one-sided then it is arguably a welcome corrective after incessant mudslinging by a largely hostile and partisan media, happy to accept financial backing from implacable opponents of Clinton and to weigh in with presumptions of guilt. Revealingly, Clinton refers to ‘Whitewater World’. He is implying, in effect, that the obsessives who lived the story year-on-year were ‘on another planet’ but it also suggests a psychological need to ‘box off’ Whitewater in his own mind in order to get on with the day-to-day job of governing.
The absence of prurient detail is welcome but his sexual shenanigans did have a major impact on his life story: they put his marriage under intense strain, almost cost him the Democratic nomination in 1992 and led to an impeachment trial. Yet, the first reference to his adultery only comes during his account of the Gennifer Flowers furore at the time of the New Hampshire primary in early-1992. Politicians are, of course, entitled to a private life that is private but this politician has written his autobiography – ‘My life’ not ‘My Political Life’ – and one is left in this case with a nagging sense of a lack of full disclosure.
This review relates to the hardback edition, published in 2004. It was uploaded to Amazon in August 2004. The only alteration to the text is the addition of several paragraph breaks and of the word ‘nagging’ in the final sentence.
Six months later, when asked by the English teacher the title of my individual project, I proposed ‘Queen’. “But you ‘did’ Queen at the talent show and at the Christmas disco,” she protested wearily. How little she understood.
Memories, my memories
How long can you stay
To haunt my days1
(Brian May, All Dead, All Dead, 1977)
These reminiscences are neither comprehensive nor authoritative; still less do they amount to any kind of a history of Queen, ‘personal’ or otherwise. Rather, like the scrapbooks I used to lovingly fill, it is an attempt to glue down fading memories and slowly-blurring mental snapshots and to capture odd (literally, in some cases) anecdotes of a typically obsessive schoolboy, all of which are bound up in a variety of Queen-related items acquired over the years.
Much of what is recounted here occurred in my secondary school years from 1977 to 1982. Younger Queen fans reading this should remember that the 1970s were a distant land without YouTube, Spotify and BluRay, without MTV and VH1, without even home video machines. Radio 1 was transmitted on crackly medium wave in mono sound; Radio 2 was for old people. Quality rock music on the three (yes, three!) TV channels was virtually non-existent. Top Of The Pops was an excruciating mime-fest and The Old Grey Whistle Test, by the late-‘70s, privileged Annie Nightingale and new wave over Whispering Bob’s ‘progressive’ rock.2 If you happened to miss what little was broadcast – well, tough.
Yet, despite it all, we survived! For those who were there, “these days are all gone now, but some things remain…”
George Tremlett’s paperback was written in 1975 and published the following year. The final page offers a tantalising glimpse of the ‘new’ stage show, which opened with Bohemian Rhapsody, though the last entry in the appendix’s ‘Queen Chronology’ lists two nights in Brisbane, 22-23 April 1976, one of which was presumably scheduled (hence its listing) but does not appear actually to have taken place (according to my edition of Greg Brooks’ Queen Live). Greedy for knowledge of my new heroes, I must have picked the book up sometime in 1977 or – more likely – 1978, in any case well before the advent of glossy, informative and comprehensive music magazines like Q. In the weekly music papers – principally NME, Sounds & Melody Maker – coverage of Queen was scarce, uninformative and, in the main, hostile. Aside from the anodyne fan club biography, Tremlett was my introduction to the World of Queen.
The book is competently written and researched. Evidently, Tremlett enjoyed ready access to Brian’s parents and he quotes Brian’s father extensively; Freddie’s parents, Bomi & Jer Bulsara, by contrast, appear to have been much more guarded and unforthcoming (perhaps wishing to keep a low profile, mindful of widespread racial prejudice in 1970s England). The text adds a little colour to Brian’s often-repeated statement – on the documentary Days Of Our Lives, for example – that his father only really ‘got’ Queen after Brian flew his parents to Madison Square Garden (presumably in February 1977, Queen’s first show there).3 For example, though acknowledging the existence of family tensions, Harold May, speaking to the author in 1975, says: “We still think that Queen II was a masterpiece”.
My copy is dog-eared and much-thumbed; its black-and-white photos were long ago sacrificed for display on my bedroom walls. A separate appendix reprints personal questionnaires completed by the band (date unspecified but the most contemporary reference appears to be Queen II, released in March 1974). Something of the band’s individual personalities is revealed here. Freddie lists his ‘special talent’ as “ponsing and poovery”, a singular turn of phrase reminiscent of the equally unforgettable ‘Bechstein Debauchery’. John’s ‘dream’ is “wet”. Unsurprisingly, Brian seems to have approached the task the most earnestly of the four. After thirty-plus years, I finally tackled The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse (Brian’s ‘favourite book’) – an interesting and typically cerebral read, if somewhat dated now.
This badge reminds me of the time I first discovered Queen through school friends, even though it was probably purchased much later. It’s an example of the cheap, knock-off seaside fare that we bought as kids; the 1978 Jazz font is juxtaposed with a 1977 promotional image. Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy started my singles collection (yes, it’s an EP); A Day At The Races was my first album, possibly picked up on holiday in Llandudno during the Whitsun school holidays. Albums were relatively expensive to buy in those days – about £4. In October ’77, as my mum was still sceptical about my fascination with Queen, she took me round to her friend’s house one evening; her friend’s son had a copy of the new album, News Of The World, and it was aired in full to check that I did actually like it. I remember nearly falling off the chair during the Sheer Heart Attack solo, worrying that the record player was faulty or that the needle had stuck.
Fellow-fanatic and school-friend Keith and I hatched a frankly ridiculous plan to enter the school Christmas talent competition and mime to We Are The Champions, Queen’s then-current single. Armed with a cassette tape player, an acoustic guitar, a genuine electric bass (minus amplifier or power lead) and a set of textbooks for drums (with real drumsticks, making all the difference), we cajoled friends Tommy and Shaun to join in – doubtless bribing them with 2oz of pear drops or the like. Bizarrely, we survived the ‘audition’ and then, foreshadowing Queen’s Live Aid triumph eight years later, stole the show on the night. I, by the way, was Freddie – an upside-down golf club substituting for the iconic microphone. Leotards, bangles and black nail varnish were mercifully absent. Looking back, I still feel a touch of guilt about the other entrants, who presumably had some genuine talent or other.
At the first years’ disco a few days later, Keith and I somehow coaxed the entire year group onto their hands and knees to hammer out We Will Rock You on the hall floor. An impressive sight, if somewhat odd – given that this now-iconic song had yet to find its place in the wider public consciousness and was, at that time, ‘merely’ a b-side. Six months later, when asked by the English teacher the title of my individual project, I proposed ‘Queen’. “But you ‘did’ Queen at the talent show and at the Christmas disco,” she protested wearily. How little she understood.
This Japanese import of the first album is, I think, one of the first ‘rarities’ I ever bought – and still a favourite. Apart from the cost of the item itself, buying a rarity involved either a trip to the nearest city where record shops were much better stocked or an agonising ten-day wait for the cheque to clear, if buying by mail order from the back of Sounds. Imported Japanese singles and LPs – at hugely inflated prices – were quite the rage in the late-‘70s, with their reputation for quality and excellent packaging. Certainly, the vinyl felt thicker and less flimsy than the British equivalent, the cover was made of thick card and each release was presented with an exotic wraparound label (the Japanese lettering prominently displayed) and a thin plastic covering.4 This particular item – the debut album – offered two additional attractions for me. Firstly, the distinctive red Elektra cover, quite different from the standard EMI version (Elektra was Queen’s record label in much of the non-European world in the ‘70s). Secondly, all Japanese LPs contained a lyric sheet – not included in the EMI release.
I was eager to have unravelled some of the rather difficult-to-decipher lines. Alas, I had failed to factor in the somewhat limited abilities of the translator. For example: “Gonna blast it around / This music’s gonna make you a star / Girl’s in your arms and she gassed / And you should go far…” is supposedly from the final verse of Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll. For years I struggled to nail down the precise wording of Freddie’s follow-up to Roger’s line “Do you think you’re better every day?” in Keep Yourself Alive. Our Japanese wordsmith came up with: “No, I just think all roads just lead right into my grave”. My 1994 Digital Master Series CD booklet, on the other hand, renders it thus: “I just think I’m two steps nearer to my grave”. One of my favourite Queen ironies is that Keep Yourself Alive, a live staple, was always performed towards the end of the set as a rousing, get-’em-out-of-their-seats, celebration of life; the meaning behind Brian’s lyrics is undoubtedly much darker.
This sew-on badge was, I think, a renewal gift from the fan club. I first joined in spring ’78 so it’s probably from 1979 or perhaps 1980. Sadly, I have very little memorabilia left from my years in the fan club. Just like the photos in Tremlett’s book, the quarterly magazines were mercilessly pillaged to decorate my bedroom (alongside the nude bicycle race poster from Jazz, which mum inexplicably allowed me to display). The tour programmes from 1978, 1979 (my favourite) and 1980 all met a similar fate. Insane acts of vandalism, when I reflect back, but this was twenty-five years or more before eBay. Besides, what does an acne-dotted thirteen-year-old understand of nostalgia?
Each member of the band wrote an annual letter for the fan club magazine.5 Freddie’s letters were always light and gossipy – buying a new piano, taking up smoking. I have no recollection of John’s, to be honest (humble apologies, John). I do, however, recall my frustration at Roger’s autumn ’78 contribution because he wasted precious space listing the tracks on the forthcoming album (Jazz). He also judged it to be their “best” yet. I doubt he or posterity now agrees. Brian’s contributions were densely packed and scrawled like a doctor’s prescription.
I somehow deciphered Brian’s all-but-illegible handwriting in the spring 1981 magazine, in which he proudly announced the release of the film Flash Gordon (music by Queen, of course) – ‘I managed to get in there and turn the music up’, or words to that effect. What lingers in the mind, however, is his heartfelt plea to us fans not to attend the screening if our local cinema had yet to install state-of-the-art stereo sound. I live in Wigan, not Leicester Square; we are pioneers of pie-eating, not of new technology. Do I choose the rock (no pun intended) or the hard place: either boycott brand new Queen music or snub the wishes of Brian May? I confess I chose the latter. Brian, I can only beg your forgiveness. I wonder, is this a good time to admit that I’ve never seen We Will Rock You?
This Jazz lyric sheet was a freebie sent to all fan club members in late-’78 after the release of the Jazz album, the first one not to include printed lyrics since their debut. Four individual portraits adorn the reverse. Brian looks pensive (nothing new there), as does Freddie; perhaps he is still dreaming of the Tour de France (which allegedly inspired him to write Bicycle Race when it passed close by their recording studio in Montreux). Roger holds a cigarette defiantly aloft; John sports his severe ‘skinhead’ haircut. The excellent Queen Live website dates Freddie’s shot to a press conference held the day after the infamous New Orleans party on 31 October 1978. It always puzzled me that they didn’t print the lyrics to Mustapha and I still can’t follow the words of Bicycle Race in print without being convinced by the end of the song that ‘bicycle’ is spelt incorrectly. Try it.
Within months of Jazz, Queen Live Killers was available; I was, by this time, a teenager and spending hours secreted in my bedroom. However, while normal lads thumbed girlie magazines or girlie bra-straps, I was using an old walking stick to mime Brian’s guitar parts (swapped for a tennis racquet during the acoustic set). A toy cannon perched perilously on a pile of Beano annuals doubled as a microphone for Roger’s vocals (more substantial vocal parts than Brian’s, I always thought). Silly, silly, silly. Or was I subconsciously revisiting Tim Staffell’s stories of Freddie miming to Jimi Hendrix with a twelve-inch ruler in the art room at Ealing College that I’d lapped up from reading Tremlett?
The picture from the Another One Bites The Dust picture sleeve is, of course, a still from the Play The Game video, released in mid-1980. Back then, the only way to be sure of seeing a video was on Top Of The Pops. This shot prompts the memory of a strike in the summer of 1980 (either at the BBC or by the Musicians’ Union or Equity; I forget which). TOTP was off air, a casualty of the strike, and I only caught the video once – perhaps on ITV’s Tiswas. I was devastated. For all I knew, it might never be broadcast in public again, thus demonstrating complete ignorance of the fact that we were in fact on the cusp of a phenomenal technological and communications revolution. Within three years, my parents had bought our first home video machine and I was able to watch (and watch again…and again…) Queen’s Greatest Flix, a sixty-minute tape of the band’s music videos, available at the press of a button. How lucky I felt.
Speaking of Tiswas (a raucous, groundbreaking, Saturday morning show aimed at kids but probably watched by as many adults – especially dads), I remember Roger and John making a guest appearance at the time of the Crazy Tour in ’79, offering a gold disc as a competition prize. The question was to name the two Marx Brothers’ films used as Queen album titles. Answers on a postcard. I duly sent off my entry, cleverly adding (or so I thought) that ‘Duck Soup’ was also the title of a Queen bootleg. I didn’t win.
Back to technology. I am reminded of dragging mum round town, hours before a long, boring coach journey to France during Easter 1981, scouring the high street for a curious item Roger was photographed holding in the 1980 tour programme. Wigan’s electrical retailers were collectively baffled by my description – why didn’t I take the photo, I wonder? And yet, by the following Christmas, a Sony Walkman was the must-have accessory for any teenage fan of music. Maybe Roger had picked his up on the 1980 US tour – itself a reminder of how far so-called ‘advanced’ Britain lagged technologically behind other parts of the world, notably Japan and the USA.
Of the myriad images taken of Queen over the years – with the tag ‘previously unseen’ increasingly the rule rather than the exception – why does this remain my favourite photograph of the band (well, of Freddie, to be precise)? For me, it captures quintessential ‘Queen’. Freddie’s mesmerising pose exudes pomp, grandeur and theatricality and endows the photograph with a symmetrical, choreographed quality, demonstrating an astonishing mastery of stagecraft. I adore the concert lighting from the mid-‘70s and remain baffled as to why the magnificent Hyde Park footage has never been cleaned up and officially released.6
The photograph also represents my favourite era of Queen (roughly ’74-‘76) and – heresy, I admit – for me, ‘Lap of the Gods…’ was always a more exhilarating set-closer than ‘Champions’. Yes, I realise that ‘Champions’ was actually the final encore, but you get my drift. Later-era Freddie was a showman, an entertainer, captivating and charismatic, to be sure. But this is early-era Freddie: camp and fey, yet majestic and arrogant. Incidentally, why, I ask myself, are dry ice and flash-bombs so under-used on stage these days? Are they disparaged, perhaps, as ‘70s-era kitsch?7
This is the front page of one of many Queen lists and ‘biographies’ I wrote through my teenage years. The font comes from The Game, simply because I found it the easiest to copy. Note the mock-serious use of the ‘Published’ symbol and date, as if this were some sort of official publication. I was obsessed with writing histories of Queen (I taught history for many years – is there a connection, I wonder?). My schoolboy efforts shamelessly plagiarised information (and not a few clichés) gleaned from Tremlett and a similar paperback written by Larry Pryce, as well as the fan club magazines, of course. These biographies were painstakingly ‘illustrated’ – another home for many of my cut-out magazine photos. It certainly helped me acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge of the concert venues of the UK and USA, not to mention the catalogue numbers of all single and album releases up to Hot Space, after the release of which it became rather predictable: ‘Queen1’ (the catalogue number of Radio Ga Ga), ‘Queen2’ etc…spoiled the fun somewhat.
Unlike many record labels, EMI (was it their decision?) omitted song timings on record labels or sleeves. As a result, a particularly diverting (‘geekish’, some would say) activity was to use the stopwatch facility on my then-new digital watch to time the length of each track. As a Genesis, Led Zeppelin and Yes fan too, it irked me that Queen never indulged (a very ‘Roger’ word) in long, drawn-out epics. By the by, a consequence of this innocent pastime is that my collection of original picture sleeves is now virtually worthless. With one carefree wave of my biro, I forever disfigured them by inscribing the a-side and b-side timings in a suitably prominent position. No matter.
I agonised over the ‘true’ length of segued songs such as Flick Of The Wrist, Love Of My Life and Teo Torriatte. Sadly, EMI’s experts do not appear to have been similarly exercised in the run-up to the initial release of Queen’s back catalogue on CD. Faulty indexing/mastering of Queen II resulted in the final verse of The March Of The Black Queen being tacked on to the beginning of Funny How Love Is. An egregious error for any fan.
This sketch dates from 1979, I think. My dad was a draughtsman by trade, talented at drawing and painting. He spent hours helping me with my art homework, making me aware of ‘the vanishing point’, perspective and light and shade. He produced fantastic pencil drawings of Brian, first at Hyde Park8 and then on the Jazz tour, making ingenious use of the shapes in a razor blade to re-create the ‘pizza-oven’ roof of lights. After copying cartoon figures and caricatures, ‘Roger’ was my first effort at drawing a human face.
Image-wise, Roger was my favourite as a teenager, obsessed as I was with his immaculate white teeth and flowing blond hair (before ‘the snip’, around the time of the British shows in May/June 1977). Frustrating battles with mum over the length of my hair – usually the Friday before the start of the new school term – loomed over my teenage years and defined the limits of my adolescent rebelliousness. I always lost. Meanwhile, Brian’s musical sensibilities and extraordinary work at the cutting edge of astrophysics, stereo photography and animal welfare long ago secured his promotion to ‘favourite band member’ status. Besides, he and I share a birthday (the date, not the year). So there.
I wonder what you regard your most valuable Queen possession to be. For me, it is a simple piece of paper: the ticket stub for my first ever Queen concert, Stafford Bingley Hall, 6 May 1978, during the News Of The World European tour. Re-reading set lists and hearing recordings from the tour, I confess that virtually nothing of the concert itself has lingered in the memory. According to Queen Live, the band performed the standard set list. Perhaps I was just too young. Memories of my second gig – the Liverpool Empire, 6 December 1979, on the Crazy Tour – are much more vivid.
I have just two recollections of the Bingley concert. First, as a highly self-conscious eleven-year-old, I stupidly decided not to wear my glasses and so, standing at the back of the venue, saw virtually nothing except a myopic blur. Magnificent crown lighting rig? What magnificent crown lighting rig?! Second, the volume. As a kid of the mid-‘70s, music meant a transistor radio, a record player (or music centre, if money permitted) and the occasional disco in a large, echo-filled room. None of this had prepared me for Queen’s assault on the senses. I still half-jest to friends about the ‘ten’ minutes it took to disentangle actual music from the ear-splitting din that washed over me like a tsunami.
After the show, Keith and I wrote letters to the band via the fan club. I enclosed my ticket in my letter to Brian and waited. And waited. One day, weeks – or perhaps months – later, a ‘Queen’ envelope arrived, addressed in Brian’s unmistakeable hand and enclosing the aforementioned ticket, duly signed. Priceless.
A version of this article was first published as a ‘fan feature’ on the official Queen website in August 2012. These footnotes relate to information that has come to light in the intervening six years.
One is left with a nagging sense of disappointment that the Grand Old Man of the British centre didn’t bequeath to us the definitive story of this liberal internationalist and champion of progressive politics – a man very much like Jenkins himself, in fact.
‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ by Roy Jenkins
A ‘Note on the Text’ declares that Roy Jenkins died “[s]hortly before completing the final text of this book”. We are further told that the text was completed by Professor Richard Neustadt to whom Jenkins was intending to show his manuscript. Perhaps Jenkins then planned to flesh out the book; for, in truth, this slight work has much more the feel of a draft rather than the finished product.
Its focus continued Jenkins’ penchant for tackling the ‘greats’ of modern political history; FDR is certainly in the top rank of American presidents. This book probably arose out of the writing of his magnificent ‘Churchill’, as the stories of these “two great superstars” so obviously converged in the years 1940 to 1945; there are also many parallels as well as points of contact in their lives – as Jenkins is quick to draw out.
However, the myriad references to Churchill (and to a lesser extent Gladstone) eventually become irksome and increasingly feel like fillers – evidence, in fact, of an unpolished, unfinished work. Frankly, after ‘Gladstone’ and ‘Churchill’, 720 pages and 1024 pages respectively, this book seems altogether too slight for a political giant such as FDR. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically inferior about the slim biographical volume (see Norman Stone’s ‘Hitler’, for example) but, if this really was Jenkins’ intention, then the reader is left questioning the overall shape and balance of the book. To cite one example from page 99, Jenkins devotes a lengthy paragraph to details of the international context of the later-1930s. And yet, major events in FDR’s career worthy of in-depth exploration – his time in the federal government before and during the First World War and his governorship of New York between 1928 and 1932, to cite two glaring examples – are all but passed over or sketched out in cursory detail. Elsewhere, storylines are left dangling in the air; his wife Eleanor, for example, a key figure in the early part of the book, virtually disappears from the story after 1933.
For the intelligent general reader, important factual information is often lacking (what, for example, was the “very messy naval drugs and homosexual scandal” of 1919-1920?); meanwhile, the student of American history is left bemoaning the absence of definitive, closely argued Jenkinsonian judgements on the New Deal and Allied Grand Strategy during the Second World War. A further tell-tale sign of a ‘work in progress’ is Jenkins’ observation on page 21 that “the politics of party loyalty from time to time makes monkeys of all who accept it”. Quite possibly true – and Jenkins would know as well as most – but this reader was rather disappointed when Jenkins reuses exactly the same idiom on page 113. Further, for a biographer with such an ability to select the telling phrase or the revealing anecdote, it seems curious that that he should feel the need (p123) to spell out the punchline to the “savage joke” of Britain’s military superiority in 1940-41. This reader also found the Americanised text – “behavior”, “harbor” and so on – an annoyance.
And yet, as always, there is much to admire in Jenkins’ style – the felicitous phrase, vivid imagery (“mahogany-voiced”) and idiosyncratic choice of vocabulary (“eleemosynary” – meaning charitable) – though, at times, even Jenkins perhaps overreaches slightly (the medal table image on page 4 and the extended dancing metaphor on page 126-7 spring to mind). The confidence with which he draws comparisons between historical personalities is a joy; we can revel in his assessment of the best US presidents, the most effective vice-presidents and the British prime ministers who outstayed their welcome. His pen-portraits of people (one senses that Jenkins actually knew them – which, on occasion, he did) and places are deliciously well drawn; he effortlessly sketches the privileged milieu of America’s New York-based patrician class into which FDR was born. In so doing, he demonstrates that the skilled biographer is at least as well placed to portray an historical time and place as the writer of a general history. The trademark wit and an eye for quirky detail are still evident; his observation that, when staying at FDR’s family home, King George VI would probably have had to traverse the bedroom of the Canadian PM (also a guest) for a midnight pee is quintessential Jenkins.
This book can be recommended in the general sense that anything written by Roy Jenkins is worth reading. But in truth it is something of an anticlimax, an unsatisfactory swansong after two magna opera. It is questionable whether Jenkins has even nailed the case for FDR’s greatness. One is left with a nagging sense of disappointment that the Grand Old Man of the British centre didn’t bequeath to us the definitive story of this liberal internationalist and champion of progressive politics – a man very much like Jenkins himself, in fact.
This review relates to the hardback edition, published by Macmillan in 2004. It was uploaded to Amazon in June 2017.
The viewer can almost feel the heat generated by the ‘pizza oven’ lighting rig (page 135) or reach out to touch the various drums and cymbals that surround Roger on stage (page 151, for example).
‘Queen In 3-D’ by Brian May
Brian May is an extraordinary individual. Best known as one of the members of the legendary group Queen and widely acknowledged to be one of the most innovative guitarists in the history of rock music, he is also an accomplished astrophysicist with a PhD in interplanetary dust and a tireless campaigner on behalf of the cause of animal welfare. May is also an aficionado of Victorian photography, his interest in which is closed linked to a lifelong passion for the world of 3-D photographs – stereoscopy.
The result is this magnificent book: lavishly packaged, beautifully presented and full of hundreds of previously unseen photographs – many but not all in 3-D – spanning the entirety of Queen’s career up to the final tour with Freddie Mercury in 1986 and beyond to Brian and Roger’s collaborations with Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert. The extraordinary influence on Brian of his parents – particularly his father, Harold, with whom he famously built his ‘Red Special’ guitar – is also evident through the inclusion of intimate family photographs, including Brian’s first efforts to take 3-D photographs in the back garden as a child and pictures of proud mum and dad visiting Brian on tour in the USA in 1977.
For the reader interested in learning the basics of stereoscopy, there is a full but accessible explanation at the beginning of the book of the principles and techniques of 3-D photography and, throughout, references to the different makes and models of camera used to take various photographs. The real joy of the book, however, is to be found in the photographs themselves – many taken spontaneously – capturing the band and its entourage on and off stage, at work and at play. For the Queen obsessive (like me), there is treasure to be found on every page.
Despite the limitations of camera technology, every phase of the band’s career is well represented, thanks in part to May’s (increasing) willingness to lend his camera(s) to others to capture pictures of the band, particularly on stage. The result is that ‘the early years’ are documented visually as never before – from shots of the band in rehearsal above a long-forgotten pub before the release of the first album to moments of relaxation during the recording of A Night At The Opera. Their tours of Japan are particularly well represented – perhaps because new technology was available to buy over there long before it hit western shops.
Though the older photographs inevitably lack a certain sharpness, the graininess actually serves to enhance their authenticity, irresistibly drawing the viewer into the scene. This book demonstrates that, at its most effective, 3-D photography offers a far more intimate and ‘realistic’ representation of a moment than conventional ‘flat’ photographs. Consider, for example, the feelings of claustrophobia induced in the viewer by the back-of-the-limousine photograph of the band on page 36 and the image of Freddie, Mary and John huddled in an aeroplane crossing the American continent on page 103. The viewer can almost feel the heat generated by the ‘pizza oven’ lighting rig (page 135) or reach out to touch the various drums and cymbals that surround Roger on stage (page 151, for example).
There is a substantial accompanying text (and captions), placing the individual photographs in their historical and geographical context. More than that, the text reads almost as a mini-history of the band, sketchy in places but nevertheless packed with insights and anecdotes, many previously unheard – at least by this reader. As May says in his introduction, the text is entirely his own, unmediated by a co-author or ghost writer. His ‘voice’ is instantly recognisable to visitors to ‘Brian’s Soapbox’ on his website and, for the most part, this works absolutely fine. Only occasionally do detours up and down the byways and ‘B’ roads of May’s many passions threaten to distract us on this wonderfully nostalgic journey – recurring references to animal rights, in particular. Less agreeable are references to up-to-the-minute (2017) political issues – particularly Trump and Brexit – the inclusion of which will inevitably ‘date’ those segments of the text.
Having paid £50 for the book, inevitably I find that the few errors and typos grate – not least, the thank-you dedication to Roger on page 4 (“benificence” – unless that’s an in-joke). There are also references to “Jeff Lynn” and “Max von Sidow”. The involvement of Queen archivist Greg Brooks ensures that the factual history is extremely accurate, though the caption on page 134 that the robot face on Roger’s bass drum was never used in Europe is simply wrong, as many photographs can attest. This reader did feel that the picture of the stage set-up at Madison Square Garden on page 167 was somewhat misleading. Its appearance beneath a chapter-heading stating ‘1980’ with a caption urging the reader to compare it with a picture taken in February 1977 implies a three-year gap between the two photographs, when in fact the page 167 picture is clearly from the News Of The World tour in November 1977 (the magnificent ‘Crown’ lighting rig is clearly visible) – a gap of only a few months. One puzzle is May’s reference to Led Zeppelin’s dramatic lighting effects on stage; he refers to witnessing a powerful performance of Kashmir in Wisconsin. Kashmir appeared on the Physical Graffiti album, released in 1975, but May dates the performance to “just before we were a proper touring entity”. Either his memory is faulty on this point or he is suggesting that Queen only really ‘got their act together’ with the live show from the A Night At The Opera tour later in 1975.
Nonetheless, these minor quibbles – hopefully, corrected or clarified in a future edition – pale into insignificance when set against the many, many delights to be found in this five-star book.
This review was first uploaded to Amazon in May 2017.
The flimsier the historical evidence, the more entertaining the characters and stories.
Maybe not a ‘law’ of history, but a useful rule of thumb nevertheless. Diogenes has bequeathed us nothing in writing. Instead, into the historical vacuum of evidential mystery and uncertainty rushes a combination of myths, tall tales and caricature. Not so much EP Thompson’s enormous condescension of posterity as its insatiable desire for a good story. Hence the modern-day popularity of tabloid newspapers, celebrity gossip and online ‘clickbait’ stories. Who cares if the reality is altogether more down to earth and prosaic?
There is certainly no shortage of good stories relating to Diogenes: the man who lived in a tub; the man who walked round in daylight with a lamp ‘looking for a man’; the man who was lippy to Alexander the Great and lived to tell the tale; the man who masturbated, urinated and defecated in public.
In fact, other than a few scraps, little is known for certain about Diogenes. He was born in the late fifth century BC in Sinope, a bustling seaport on the Black Sea. As a young man, he was caught up in some sort of scandal, possibly involving his father and the local currency, forcing him to leave his home and possessions behind. One story has him consulting the oracle at Delphi and receiving advice to ‘deface the currency’. At face value, a typically enigmatic oracular pronouncement – given that currency defacement may have been at the heart of the earlier scandal. But, if we interpret ‘currency’ to refer to conventional standards and codes of behaviour, then the instruction becomes one of cocking a snook at polite society, of deliberately upsetting the applecart. If so, this puts him somewhere near the head of a long line of contrarians and non-conformists through history – the sort of people AJP Taylor, in a different context, referred to affectionately as ‘troublemakers’.
The story of Diogenes reminds us of the old truism about taking time to dig deeper rather than rushing to judgement. Diogenes and his master Antisthenes are regarded as the original Cynics, founders of the Cynic school of philosophy. Cynicism, an unappealing and unpleasant attribute, well described by HG Wells as “humour in ill health” is defined by the OED as “[b]elieving that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity” and “[c]oncerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted standards in order to achieve them.” But the name ‘cynic’ actually derives from the Greek for ‘dog-like’ and was a reference to the extreme squalor in which Diogenes and others chose to live.
His inspiration was Socrates, who rejected the link between material comforts and happiness, as well as fiercely championing open-mindedness and the right to question authority. It became the basis of his method of teaching (‘Socratic dialogue’) and a supreme virtue in itself. Stories of the lifestyle Diogenes chose – dressing in rags, begging, eschewing the comforts of conventional life – sound remarkably similar to the extreme asceticism practised by religious adherents down the ages. Rejection of crude materialism and of conventional standards and norms of living was their route to freedom – freedom, that is, from human failings such as pride, desire and jealousy. Diogenes’ follower, Crates, supposedly abandoned a rich inheritance to embrace the life of the Cynic. Only with the actions of later followers of Diogenes and the first Cynics – shamelessly living off the largesse of others, relentlessly satirical and sarcastic – did ‘cynicism’ acquire the characteristics we now associate with the word.
As for his more extreme utterances, given that none of his writings survive (if indeed he even wrote anything) who can possibly say whether words and views attributed to him – in favour of cannibalism and incest, for example – were actually said and, even if they were, whether they were meant literally or just for shock value, another way of upsetting conventional tastes? In reality, the antecedents of many of the values and principles that liberal democracy rightly cherishes – freedom of conscience, universal brotherhood, respect for all life, including that of animals – can be found in the teachings of Socrates and the Cynics who followed. Far from being cynical in its modern usage, they were passionately interested in moral virtue: the representation of Diogenes as the ‘man with a lamp’ actually links to his supposed search for a truly ‘just’ man.
And so we have the fictional Diogenes Club, first mentioned in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Containing “the most unsociable and unclubable [sic] men in town”, its members were expected to ignore each other and talking was not permitted under any circumstances. Eccentric, peculiar, unconventional – the name ‘Diogenes’ seems fitting. Yet the word ‘cosmopolitan’ – citizen of the world – possibly originated with Diogenes. In these days of growing intolerance, rampant bigotry and narrow-minded xenophobia, at levels not witnessed since the 1930s, this minor fact, apart from anything else, seems to me to recommend him as a figure of interest.