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London 1976: Genesis Bootlegs

It is June 1976, the beginning of a long and swelteringly hot British summer. The backdrop is one of industrial decline, financial crisis and political turmoil, and the music scene is soon to experience a not-unconnected upheaval of its own.

Deep Purple’s brilliant but moody guitarist has left the band. Emerson, Lake and Palmer are on an extended break, having released no new material since 1973 — and fellow prog-rock giants, Yes, none since 1974. Led Zeppelin are battling both the UK exchequer and personal demons: they are tax exiles and Robert Plant is lucky to have survived a serious car crash. Pink Floyd are holed up at their new Britannia Row Studios in London, writing their bleakest album to date.

In short, rock music’s titans are lacking a sense of direction, and punk is about to emerge from the underground to chart a very different course.

Genesis are also undergoing a revolution of sorts, their music fast evolving out of its prog-rock beginnings. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway had itself been a departure, a boundaries-redefining concept album recorded under highly strained circumstances. Eventually, Peter Gabriel — lead vocalist, focus of much of the on-stage theatrics and, in the eyes of most uninformed onlookers, the group’s leader — left.

And then there were four.

The band were keen to continue without Peter. The musical ideas flowed, but it was music in search of a vocalist, the story often told of how one replacement singer after the next was tested and rejected before drummer Phil Collins eventually stepped up.

Rather than the usual catch-all ‘Words and music by Genesis’ formula, songwriters were now individually credited for the first time. Tony Banks’s growing dominance is therefore evident to the reader as well as the listener. Two of the eight tracks on 1976’s A Trick Of The Tail are Banks solo compositions, and he is credited as co-writer on all the others. Overall, the mood is undeniably softer, warmer and more FM-friendly — easier on the ear after the shock of The Lamb: the sharp edges we associate with Gabriel-era Genesis have been smoothed away.

This bootleg, which sounds wonderful throughout, is from the Hammersmith Odeon in London on 10 June 1976. It is complete except for a couple of fade-ins between songs and is probably an official recording, as Phil announces to the audience that the show is being taped for release. It was recorded midway through a British and European tour, the second night of a run of shows at Hammersmith.

It wasn’t only the music for The Lamb that was wildly ambitious: the stage production featured elaborate costumes (for Peter at least), triple screens to project images illustrating the narrative, even a giant inflatable penis. On this tour, the staging is more conventional, though on a budget more suited to the larger venues they are now playing.

The setlist, like the band, has undergone something of a transformation:

Dance On A Volcano / The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway / Fly On A Windshield / Carpet Crawlers / The Cinema Show / Robbery, Assault And Battery /White Mountain / Firth Of Fifth / Entangled / Squonk / Supper’s Ready / I Know What I Like / Los Endos / it. / Watcher Of The Skies


Much of what is familiar to fans from the 1977 Seconds Out album, which omitted most of the Wind And Wuthering tracks played on that tour, is already in place. Indeed, the version of The Cinema Show included on side four of the original live album was actually recorded on this 1976 tour. Squonk is here too, placed midway in the set. Firth Of Fifth has lost its piano introduction; I Know What I Like has found its tambourine solo. We are also introduced for the first time to Harry, anti-hero of Robbery, Assault And Battery, here preparing to “rob the Brentford Nylon Offices of their weekly takings”.

“Good evening, London! Great to be back,” announces the band’s new lead vocalist, Phil Collins, after the opening song. No explanations for Peter’s absence; no apologies, certainly. One of only two references to past Genesis history is a mention of the previous tour when they played the Lamb album in its entirety, Phil’s happy-go-lucky persona immediately asserting itself:

…tonight we’ve taken three pieces from the story — a bit here, a bit over there and a bit around here — put ‘em together and rather casually retitled it ‘Lamb Stew’.

Phil has huge shoes to fill, but he fits into them comfortably. The spotlight wasn’t a completely new experience for him: he had, of course, performed on stage from a young age. A tour of North America had also presumably ironed out a few front-man wrinkles. His voice is not yet as strong as it will become — he reaches the falsettos but struggles to find the necessary power at times, particularly on Entangled — but he is superb with the classic Gabriel-era songs and, despite disappearing behind the drum kit from time to time, never seems to miss a mark.

Gone, then, is the manic intensity of Peter and his ever more bizarre cast of characters. Gone, too, is a brooding presence stage right. Steve Hackett has grown — literally so, as he now stands throughout the show. His appearance, too, is visibly altering — no longer shielded behind the heavy-rimmed glasses, the thick, black beard and the dark clothes. The release of his debut solo album, Voyage Of The Acolyte, was clearly about more than just the music.

He even gets to speak. Introducing Entangled as a song about a man who needs psychiatric help for a recurring nightmare, he responds to a playful shout of “Why?” from out in the audience with: “because he’s suffering from insomnia, that’s why, you idiot!” A more assertive Steve, indeed.

Unlike on Seconds Out — he left the band during the mixing process — Hackett’s guitar is delightfully prominent in the mix throughout this recording and is a joy to hear, not least during Carpet Crawlers and, of course, the epic Firth Of Fifth. It must be said that Phil’s introduction of Steve as “the man they couldn’t gag, the Cambridge rapist” is jaw-droppingly inappropriate to modern sensibilities.

And then we are introduced to the new man at the back:

… our resident, temporary, permanent, stand-in drummer … the well-known misprint and typing error Mr Bill Bloomington … Straight £5 a night, he’s not bad, is he?

Bill Bruford is far from being an anonymous presence. To these untrained ears, the duets with Phil sound terrific, and he serves up a percussion masterclass, particularly on Supper’s Ready: indeed, during the latter stage of Willow Farm, Bruford seems determined to hit everything except for the empty milk bottles outside the stage door. However, he was apparently too much of an maverick for a band highly reliant on cues on stage, and he did not return for the Wind And Wuthering tour.

An unexpected delight on first hearing is the return of White Mountain to the set. Mike Rutherford takes us on a nostalgic journey back into Genesis’s past to when “the clinking of beer mugs could be heard very clearly” during songs from the Trespass album — “acoustic songs off the Trespass albums”, he quickly clarifies, presumably after shouts for The Knife. Elsewhere, Steve informs us that the lyrics of Entangled are based on a painting by Kim Poor, who went on to design several of his solo album covers and who he later married.

Dance On a Volcano and Los Endos bookend the show, as they do on A Trick Of The Tail. For fans growing up on Seconds Out, it’s odd to hear them separated out in this way — particularly the drawn-out introduction to Los Endos which was omitted on subsequent tours. The encore, familiar from the (UK version of the) Three Sides Live album, starts with the song it. from The Lamb before segueing into a shortened version of Watcher Of The Skies. The same format — with two different songs — was used on the Wind And Wuthering tour.

Selling England By The Pound is probably (at least in this fan’s opinion) their best studio album, but the 1976-1977 period — what we might refer to as The Tony Banks Years — represents Genesis in their prime, particularly on stage. Their music, led by Tony’s keyboards, is ambitious yet accessible, Steve Hackett is still committed (it seems) to the band, and Phil Collins has successfully made the transition from drummer to front man, able to deliver Gabriel-era material as least as convincingly as Peter himself. Their stage lighting and production is also becoming vastly more ambitious. This bootleg, then, is an outstanding recording of Genesis at their peak.

Note: This Hammersmith 10 June bootleg is, to my knowledge, the best audio recording of a complete Genesis show from 1976. A 42-minute film of Genesis live in 1976 called Genesis: In Concert is now widely available, having been officially released as part of a reissues package for A Trick Of The Tail. Sadly, it is heavily edited but features about 30 minutes’ worth of excellent footage shot elsewhere on the British tour. It sounds great too. As mentioned above, the version of The Cinema Show used on Seconds Out was from 1976, as was it. / Watcher Of The Skies from the UK version of Three Sides Live. Entangled, recorded at Stafford Bingley Hall, appeared on the Archive 2: 1976-1992 collection.

Click to read Montreal 1974: Genesis Bootlegs

Click to read about Seconds Out and Genesis live in 1977

Montreal 1974: Genesis Bootlegs

It is 1974. In Britain and parts of Europe, notably Italy — though not yet North America — Genesis have broken through to the big time: top-ten albums, decent-sized venues such as the London Rainbow, front-cover status in Melody Maker. This bootleg — an FM radio broadcast — captures the band in Montreal on 21 April. For many longtime fans, this is ‘classic’ Genesis: the Tony Banks / Phil Collins / Peter Gabriel / Steve Hackett / Mike Rutherford line-up. It is the era of the Mellotron and twelve-string guitars, of fox heads and old-man masks, of hermaphrodites and hogweed.

As on the previous tour, Watcher Of The Skies opens proceedings — the eerie, doom-laden sound of the Mellotron familiar to fans from the Foxtrot and Genesis Live albums, a foretaste of the drama and (imagined) theatrics to come. Prog rock à la Genesis delights in long, complex pieces with repeated changes of mood and tempo. The set-list draws from three classic albums of the genre — Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and the then-current Selling England By The Pound:

Watcher Of The Skies / Dancing With The Moonlit Knight / The Cinema Show / I Know What I Like / Firth Of Fifth / The Musical Box / Horizons / The Battle Of Epping Forest / Supper’s Ready

The first ‘proper’ Genesis album, Trespass, is here unrepresented. The Knife, the standout Trespass track, was only very occasionally played on the tour as an encore, it seems. Indeed, on most nights they appear to have ditched an encore altogether.

Lacking the studio polish of the official releases to balance the sound and smooth away the rough edges, several passages here sound pleasingly urgent and aggressive, and it is interesting to compare the songs that also feature on the official Genesis Live album, released a year or so earlier. The bass (or bass pedal) during the Watcher Of The Skies opening is more apparent, for example, adding to the sense of drama and foreboding, and during the heavier Musical Box sections it is as if Steve is battling to control his volume pedal.

One of many examples of amateurish cover art for this much-copied radio broadcast: at least part of the image (Mike Rutherford) is reversed and it is actually from the later Lamb Lies Down tour.

This recording is by no means perfect — radio interference leaks into the sound during quieter passages — but one of the pleasures of bootlegs for fans is the chance to hear their favourite bands in the raw, as it were: the mistakes and mishaps on stage, the experiments that didn’t work and were subsequently dropped, the early performances of songs before further reworking.

The Cinema Show is a case in point. An undoubted Genesis masterpiece, it is hard to believe (see the Chapter and Verse book) that it almost wasn’t recorded. Here it is played in full, complete with Tony’s opening solo, dropped for subsequent tours. Played on keyboard rather than grand piano, it lacks the majesty of the original recording — in other words, it’s easy to see why it was dropped in favour of the powerful “The path is clear…” opening. Steve’s playing also seems at times to be a little less fluent than on the later Seconds Out version, for example.

Other than the opening and closing drone sound, I Know What I Like is less drawn-out than in later years — and better for it. Bootlegs capture Peter weaving his elaborate between-song stories — here delivered in schoolboy-though-passable French to the Quebecois French-Canadian audience. They are also the only way — at the time of writing, at least — to hear live versions of The Battle Of Epping Forest. Only Steve’s Horizons, played here on electric guitar, seems a little out of place. It appears to have been alternated on this tour with another slight song, More Feel Me, sung by Phil, which features on the Genesis Archive #1 release, recorded at the Rainbow in October ‘73.

Searching for images of the band to accompany this article, I was struck by how bare the visual record of the Gabriel period appears to be. For more thoughts on Genesis as a visual spectacle at this time, see below.

Much of the sense of drama came from Peter’s on-stage antics, inevitably all but lost in audio-only recordings. To the already established costume-changes — bat wings, fox’s head and the rest — he has now added the character of Britannia, who introduces Dancing With The Moonlit Knight. Its closing section evokes a pastoral feel; Steve’s lilting guitar combines with the soft tones of the Mellotron, Peter’s flute, the sound of church bells ringing and even the call of the cuckoo.

It serves to further accentuate a strain of eccentric Englishness that lies at the heart of early Genesis, with lyrical themes and references ranging from King Canute and Kew Gardens to fox hunting and evocations of quiet country villages. The lyrics — and Peter’s vocal delivery more generally — are also a source of much of the quietly eccentric humour. As well as bringing to life a rich cast of characters, he has developed a number of peculiar vocal mannerisms, enunciating particular words and phrases in a singular style — “has life again destroyed life?” during Watcher Of The Skies, to take one example. Elsewhere, with the band still not quite ready to begin after Peter’s ‘Britannia’ monologue setting up Dancing With The Moonlit Knight, he utters a single word — “Interlude” — as if he were part of a Monty Python continuity sketch.

This quaint and quirky and distinctly English sense of the absurd is further explored in I Know What I Like and The Battle Of Epping Forest, each with its cast of characters, whose eccentricities are played out on stage by Peter. The latter, in particular, features whimsical wordplay — “a robbing hood”, “a karmamechanic with overall charms” — and there’s an amusingly down-to-earth little interchange involving Phil on backing vocals: “What’s the trouble, then?” It’s easy to picture Peter shuffling across the stage as the lecherous old man in The Musical Box, as he wheezes lines like “Brush back your hair and let me feel your flesh”.

The climax of the show is the epic Supper’s Ready, perhaps the quintessential prog-rock piece. The closing section of the song, As Sure as Eggs Is Eggs, is soaring, magnificent, glorious. Yet, watching the official Shepperton Studios live footage, shot the previous October, the song’s visual power comes principally from the use of simple fluorescent effects. Indeed, watching the film as a whole, the viewer is struck by its amateurish feel: the set is extremely basic, the lighting is poor and Peter’s costumes look home-made. The dramatic energy comes from the music and, in particular, from Peter’s extraordinary on-stage performance. In this sense, too, the Selling England tour represents a crossroads for Genesis.

Genesis at Headley Grange recording the Lamb album, a few months after the Montreal concert. This photo was by Richard Haines. You can see more of his work at genesisfan.net

In a radical departure, the band played The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway in its entirety on the following tour, with only The Musical Box and sometimes Watcher Of The Skies surviving as encores. Peter then left the band. This bootleg is valuable, therefore, in capturing the end of a Genesis era, with the band at their prog-rock peak. By 1976, they were back with Phil on vocals, a much more expensive and professional-looking stage show, much — though by no means all — of this classic material retired, and a warmer, less edgy sound.

Note: Officially released live recordings at the time of writing are Genesis Live, and the Genesis Archive #1 recordings from the Rainbow (October 1973) and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. The official but as-yet-unreleased film of the band recorded at Shepperton Studios in late-October 1973 is widely available online, as is a longer version of the Genesis Live recordings, including more between-song audio and Supper’s Ready, and a longer version of the Rainbow show.

An Apostrophes Question: Or Is It?

TOWNS PLAN ran a Mirror headline last week on a page tweeted by Wigan MP Lisa Nandy. Which towns are planning what, I wondered, before realising that it was in fact a reference to a plan for towns. Ambiguous, to say the least — but that’s newspaper headlines for you. Brevity rules. My favourite — again in the Mirror and dating, I believe, to 1943 — refers to the movements of General Montgomery: MONTY FLIES BACK TO FRONT.

Anyway, I digress. What actually intrigued me about the TOWNS PLAN headline was this: is it good English?

To backtrack a little …

It started with a simple question that has long been nagging away: does the phrase parents evening require an apostrophe? Should it be parents’ evening? I have seen it with and — probably more frequently — without. Having worked my whole life in education, it’s one of those phrases I can’t avoid or sidestep, and so I decided to search out the categorical, authoritative answer — better still, a rule.

Instead, I found a muddle, prompting questions rather than answers and confusion instead of clarity.

For starters, are we dealing with a grammar issue to do with nouns or a punctuation issue to do with apostrophes — or a combination of the two? Welcome to a world of nouns functioning as adjectives, of singular and plural nouns used interchangeably, of apostrophes sometimes used and sometimes not.

Plural noun modifiers

The admissions facilitator at a genetics testing firm, a part-time comics author and public affairs professional, recently sat with the elections commissioner on the energy emergencies executive committee. A former member of the British Growers Association interested in arms sales, he left the airport departures area to seek careers guidance. After consulting the retail prices index, he changed the airline’s fares policy in order to prevent a prisons emergency.

Eh?

Utter drivel, obviously — a nonsense paragraph intended solely to illustrate the ubiquity of plural noun modifiers (the underlined bits) in contemporary English usage. All these phrases — and many, many more — have appeared in my newspaper of choice (The Guardian) recently.

Is this language evolution in action, a Guardian fetish perhaps — or have plural noun modifiers always been a standard part of English grammar? Am I just suffering from a form of availability bias? In other words, plural noun modifiers are on my mind at the moment, and so my brain is consciously noting each and every example I see, leading me to the erroneous conclusion that there are now far more of them in use than there used to be.

Attributive nouns

Two words, two nouns – one in front of the other: admissions and facilitator, departures and area. If I understand it correctly, in constructions like these the first noun is called — depending on your source — a noun modifier, a noun premodifier, a noun adjunct or an attributive noun (the one I will use). In simple terms, in the same way that the adjective green modifies door when Shakin’ Stevens sings Green Door, the noun admissions is acting like an adjective to modify the word facilitator.

I should add for clarity purposes (or perhaps that should be ‘for purposes of clarity’) that I initially googled the phrase ‘adjectival noun’, only to find that it apparently relates to the opposite of what I am discussing here — in other words, an adjective acting like a noun rather than the other way round. Examples are:

The Irish
The rich

We use attributive nouns all the time, usually without any problem. As the website Grammar Style in British English says:

In many cases, we naturally avoid both the apostrophe s and the of-possessive and instead use the possessing noun as an adjective or an attribute of another noun. For example, we would say the bathroom window rather than the bathroom’s window or the window of the bathroom. In this context, the word bathroom is an attributive noun describing the window.

They are all around us — literally, in my case, as I sit here and type:

  • computer keyboard
  • pencil case
  • compact disc player
  • picture frame
  • bookcase (a compound noun made up of book and case)
  • jigsaw piece

Some nouns are used exclusively or primarily as plurals, such as arms meaning ‘weapons’ or customs, referring to what you go through at the border between countries. Clearly, these act as attributive nouns in phrases like arms race and customs union in the same way that singular nouns do — bicycle race and credit union, for example.

That’s fine, but then I read this in the entry on ‘noun adjuncts’ on Wikipedia:

Noun adjuncts were traditionally mostly singular (eg “trouser press”), but there is a recent trend towards more use of plural ones. Many of these can also be or were originally interpreted and spelled as plural possessives (e.g. “chemicals’ agency”, “writers’ conference”, “Rangers’ hockey game”), but they are now often written without the apostrophe, although decisions on when to do so require editorial judgement.

Rules 0 Judgement 1. For someone who yearns for clarity, that’s not an encouraging sign.

Singular or plural modifier — or both?

Does my copy of the Oxford Guide To English Usage [1993 edition] clarify matters? Alas, no — though I note that its section on the different ways that plurals are formed is headed plural formation rather than plurals’ formation or plurals formation. I wonder whether that is because, strictly speaking, I should have written the previous sentence ‘… the different ways that the plural is formed’ — hence, plural formation.

A 28 August Guardian article on schools was headlined Tories’ controversial school plans. Forgetting the apostrophe issue for a moment, why did they not write schools plans — the Tories’ plans for schools? The article then mentioned plans for a crackdown on pupils’ behaviour. Why not a crackdown on pupil behaviour? It spoke of the government’s academies and free schools policy but then quoted from a leaked government document that spoke of the free school programme.

A singular noun modifier often does the job of a plural noun modifier without changing the meaning of the sentence: the government could introduce a carbon credit scheme or a carbon credits scheme; Britain might be facing a prison emergency or a prisons emergency; Hong Kong protesters can fill the airport departure area or the airport departures area; the power cut can result from system failure or systems failure; and we can surely talk about the food and drink industry — there is in fact an organisation called the Food and Drink Federation — or the food and drinks industry.

Alas, this doesn’t always work. Adults clothing (whether it should be with or without an apostrophe) is surely not the same thing as adult clothing. A schools minister (again, with or without the apostrophe) is part of the government, but a school minister sounds like someone who says prayers in assembly. On a school website, the phrase student representative John Smith might mean that John is a student, a representative of students, or both.

And I am still no clearer about which of these phrases — if any — require an apostrophe.

Possessive noun or attributive noun?

I have written for years about humanities teachers, special needs education, options evenings and sports days. It has never once occurred to me that an apostrophe might be required in any of these constructions. So why, then, do I write about parents’ evening or the local boys’ school? Should it in fact be boys school and parents evening?

I don’t think so, but why not? To put it in another way: when is it a possessive noun (requiring an apostrophe) and when is it an attributive noun (not requiring an apostrophe)?

The website ThoughtCo.com offers the following advice:

The apostrophe is omitted when a plural head noun ending in s functions as an adjective rather than as a possessor; in other words, when the relation between the plural head noun and the second noun could be expressed by the prepositions ‘for’ or ‘by’ rather than the possessive ‘of’: carpenters union, New York Mets first baseman. If the plural form of the head noun does not end in s, however, the apostrophe is used: the people’s republic, a children’s hospital.

Hmm. Yes, the rules of English usage are full of quirks, inconsistencies and exceptions, but this separate rule for plurals not ending in ‘s’ strikes me as less than satisfactory. As for the sense of ‘for’ or ‘by’, let’s go back to basics for a moment.

We know that one of the uses of the apostrophe is to denote possession:

The boy’s pencils means ‘the pencils of/belonging to the boy’
The boys’ pencils means ‘the pencils of/belonging to the boys’ (more than one)

But there’s a little more to it than that. To quote Gyles Brandreth from page 73 of his informative, useful and funny book Have You Eaten Grandma?:

It is there to show possession — to indicate that a thing or a person belongs or relates to someone or something [my underlining]

That’s the point: the apostrophe sometimes indicates something other than possession. Gyles cites some examples:

  • The boys’ school
  • Teachers’ Break Room
  • Ladies’ and Men’s Outfitters
  • Birmingham Children’s Hospital

These all made perfect sense to me, demonstrating that the apostrophe sometimes denotes more than mere possession and/or ownership:

  • The boys’ school is a school exclusively for boys — they don’t own it
  • The teachers’ break room – I assume an American equivalent of our staff room – is for the use of teachers
  • Ladies’ outfitters supply ladies with clothes — it’s a supplier for ladies
  • The children’s hospital treats children specifically — it’s a hospital for them

Here’s the rub. All of these plural-noun-modifier phrases — carbon credits scheme, human rights protester, accounts scandal — also carry with them the sense of ‘for’, ‘by’ or ‘relating to’.

So, to repeat the question: when is an apostrophe required and when is it not? How do we distinguish between a possessive noun phrase (requiring an apostrophe) like boys’ school and an attributive noun phrase (apostrophe not required) like prisons emergency?

The BBC to the rescue?

Whenever I am struggling with a question relating to English usage, I often look for relevant examples on the BBC website. It’s not perfect, by any means: news articles are obviously usually written at pace; I am guessing that copy-editing processes will inevitably be less thorough than in, say, the book-publishing industry; and it’s not unusual to find inconsistencies — try googling BBC + special advisor and then BBC + special adviser.

Speaking of the BBC, I note that Dragons’ Den is back on — apostrophe in place. But, hang on, they have also been showing repeats of Dad’s Army. Apostrophe in place — but shouldn’t it be Dads’ Army? How many older gents were there in the Home Guard?

But it’s a starting-point, and so I was spooked when I saw, splashed across my television screen, a banner headline on the BBC News channel that included the phrase schools minister. It just looked a bit iffy. Nick Gibb is the minister for schools (well, school standards). Ditto, prisons minister, equalities minister and so on. When Rory Stewart was the minister for prisons, was he not the prisons’ minister? To be clear, this isn’t just a BBC thing, as a cursory check on government websites confirms.

We don’t use an apostrophe. Okay, I get that — but why not? What’s the rule?

Animate or inanimate?

One obvious point is that schools, prisons, equalities, carbon credits, human rights, accounts etc are all inanimate objects or abstract nouns, as opposed to sentient beings — people or animals. The Guardian did include an apostrophe in these phrases it has used recently:

  • pilots’ union
  • taxpayers’ money
  • workers’ compensation agency and workers’ compensation case
  • treasurers’ review
  • frequent flyers’ levy

The noun modifier in all of these examples relates to people. Is that, then, a deciding factor? Possibly — and possibly not. I am currently reading Peter H Wilson’s book Europe’s Tragedy, which refers to the four monasteries dispute (no apostrophe and no capitals) and the Brothers’ Quarrel (apostrophe and capitals). A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming (the fiction book I was reading when I began drafting this article) refers to the residents’ bar, the reservations system and a baggage handlers’ strike.

On the other hand — damn it! — The Guardian referred recently to 2014’s football hooligans drama The Guvnors. Even football hooligans qualify as sentient beings. The paper referred to the Taxpayers’ Alliance and then, later in the same article, to the Taxpayers Alliance. The organisation itself, by the way, does use an apostrophe in its name.

In fact, organisations are highly inconsistent in this regard. The Girls’ Day School Trust, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and BALPA (in full it’s the British Airline Pilots’ Association) use the apostrophe; the Magistrates Association, the self-styled HomeOwners Alliance and Citizens Advice don’t. Actually, that’s not quite true. Click around the Magistrates Association website and you quickly realise that they themselves can’t decide.

The Grammar and Style in British English website — the apostrophe section of which refers to dogs’ home and teachers’ union — describes business organisations, clubs and trade unions as “a law unto themselves” and makes clear its dim view of the absence of an apostrophe in names such as Barclays, Prison Officers Association, Queens Park Rangers and United Nations Headquarters, as well as street names and the like.

I thought I was starting to get to grips with The Guardian’s style rules, but they had a bafflingly inconsistent day on 17 August — The Grauniad at its best:

  • …animals rights’ march
  • …citizen’s assembly — surely a typo
  • …April Fools Day

Here are a few more, seen since I first uploaded this article:

  • …a number of terrorist victims campaign groups (3 October 2019)
  • …criticism of fossil fuel corporations involvement in the arts (3 October 2019)

Perhaps I should write to Paul Chadwick – he’s their readers’ editor (their title, not mine).

The Americans to the rescue — not

I continued my Google quest for enlightenment. Another US website, The Guide to Grammar and Writing suggests an interesting test:

If you can insert another modifer between the -s word and whatever it modifies, you’re probably dealing with a possessive. Additional modifiers will also help determine which form to use.

Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw three touchdown passes. (plural as modifier)
The Patriots’ [new] quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, threw three touchdown passes. (possessive as modifier]

Following this guidance, I guess I might write about the girls’ outstanding school to refer to a specific group of girls — the school itself might or might not be a single-sex establishment — but the outstanding girls school.

The same website goes on to refer to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which apparently says (note: it is behind a paywall, so I cannot confirm the accuracy of this paraphrasing):

… if singular nouns can act as attributive nouns — city government, tax relief — then plural nouns should be able to act as attributive nouns: consumers group, teachers union. This principle is not universally endorsed, however, and writers must remember to be consistent within a document.

Gulp: they just look wrong to me. I was more than a little relieved to read that final sentence.

The American author and occasional blogger CS Lakin also refers to the “venerable” (her word) CMOS in an interesting blog. She writes:

Their solution is to remove the apostrophe in proper nouns. For example:

Midwest Governors Association
Department of Veterans Affairs
North Dakota Hamster Lovers Association.

But keep these types as possessives:

employees’ cafeteria
farmers’ market
men’s soccer club

This distinction seems ridiculous to me. It also seems to contradict what the Guide to Grammar and Writing (quoted above) claims that the CMOS advises – consumers group, teachers union etc.

Back to Gyles Brandreth’s book, he refers on page 82 to the 2018 Oscars’ Ceremony. What rule or convention is that following, I ask myself?

Plural nouns that don’t end in ‘s’

The dilemma seems to instantly disappear with plurals that don’t end in an ‘s’:

Men’s clothing; women’s football, children’s toys

We would never see the words mens, womens or childrens.

If it’s men’s clothing, surely it is boys’ clothing? If it’s women’s football, surely it is girls’ football? Amber Rudd was until recently the minister for women and equalities in the government. News organisations (including the BBC) are happy to refer to the women’s minister but also to the equalities minister. If she was the women’s minister, why not the equalities’ minister?

As a political aside, legislation is interesting. The 1989 act relating to children, to take just one example, is the Children Act — not the Children’s Act — as is Ian McEwan’s book and the 2004 legislation relating to children, the latter nevertheless detailing the role of the children’s commissioner, not the children commissioner.

A way forward?
So am I any the wiser?

It seems to me that there are plural (possessive) noun phrases that definitely require an apostrophe and there are plural (attributive) noun phrases that are clearly functioning adjectivally and therefore don’t require an apostrophe — United States senator, economics professor.

It is possible that examples of the latter are on the increase. There are also phrases about which there seems to be no consensus: apostrophes are sometimes used and sometimes not.

Does any of this actually matter? A Guardian ‘Long Read’ feature on Thursday 15 August called ‘The Myth of Language Decline’ discussed the question of language evolution, making the point that it has always happened. Language is fluid. The author quoted remarks made by Douglas Adams about people’s attitudes to change, actually about technology but equally applicable to language:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary.
Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

My love of language started as a teenager with two inspirational Latin teachers: Latin schools you in the importance of logical rules. The authorities I tend to consult for guidance – anything published by Oxford University Press, the websites of universities and high-performing schools, the Grammar and Style in British English website, the Queen’s English Society – are all likely to be upholders of rules and tradition, instinctively wary of change, perhaps prone to seeing a failure to follow set rules and established conventions as a decline in standards.

American websites, on the other hand, seem far more willing to embrace language evolution. After all, the Americans rewrote the rules on spelling in the nineteenth century.

Is this, then, all a conspiracy by an unholy alliance of Americans and language anarchists to debase the Queen’s English? It would be entirely in keeping with the ethos of The Guardian that, if indeed there is a “recent trend” [a Wikipedia phrase] towards use of plural modifiers without an apostrophe, the paper has embraced it. It prides itself on being at the cutting edge of style.

The Guardian’s policy on the use of capital letters, for example, reflects its hostility to deference. This example featured on its front page on 16 August 2019: “… after public pressure from president Donald Trump”. It also seems to have declared war on hyphens: antisemitism, nonfiction, multibillion, noncompliance. Non-compliance, indeed.

I referred earlier to Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H Wilson. It’s a history of (in the book’s rendering) the Thirty Years War. Many (perhaps most, but definitely not all — Simon Schama’s book Citizens refers repeatedly to the Seven Years’ War) writers omit the apostrophe — ditto the Hundred Years War. Yet it seems to be generally accepted that phrases such as two minutes’ notice are correct — the venerable Fowler’s Modern English Usage apparently commenting that an apostrophe was required if only because it would be essential if we were writing one minute’s notice. That consistency thing again — and the difficulty caused by plural nouns ending in an ‘s’.

Until I come across some unambiguous guidance, I will attempt to keep to these ‘rules’:

  • Always use an apostrophe with nouns relating to sentient beings: parents’ evening but also options evening
  • Always use an apostrophe if the plural noun does not end in an ‘s’
  • In the case of organisations etc, use capitals and follow how they themselves render their name: Taxpayers’ Alliance but also HomeOwners Alliance
  • Further to the above, the HomeOwners Alliance sees itself as a homeowners’ alliance
  • Adhere to the basic principle: use as little punctuation as possible while maintaining clarity and accuracy

Calling All Stations: Not The Worst Genesis Album

Setting to one side From Genesis To Revelation, essentially a pre-Genesis album written and recorded by schoolboys — literally so: they were still pupils at Charterhouse when the first demos were put down — Calling All Stations is almost certainly most fans’ least favourite Genesis album. It’s the embarrassing uncle, the black sheep of the family, the unloved one, the one that nobody mentions.

It was released in 1997, five or so years after We Can’t Dance and one year after the official announcement that Phil Collins — drummer, lead vocalist and one-man ‘80s hit machine — was leaving the band. And then there were two.

Enter Ray Wilson on vocals, ex-singer with a minor-league outfit called Stiltskin, whose fifteen minutes in the spotlight — a number-one single — came courtesy of a Levi’s advert. And then there were three … again. It was a distinctly odd choice, with age and musical experience only two of the glaring differences between, on the one hand, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford — ex-public school, softly-spoken practitioners of traditional English reserve, home-counties chaps to the marrow — and, on the other, Wilson, a brash working-class lad from Scotland.

In relative terms — relative, that is, to previous Genesis record sales — the album bombed, as did the subsequent tour: the US leg was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. Plans for a second album were scrapped out of concern for the Genesis name. And then there were none.

Looking back, Tony and Mike damned the album with the faintest of praise:

I felt that the … album was OK (Mike Rutherford)
I … thought the album turned out pretty well (Tony Banks)

Quotes from Genesis — Chapter And Verse (2007)

I remember checking out the lead-off single, Congo, a couple of times and taking an immediate dislike to it, not least the cringeworthy attempt at an arty, politically on-message video. Middle-aged men desperately trying to look cool didn’t work for me (aged 30 at the time). On the back of Congo, I gave the album one highly sceptical and cursory listen, decided it was crap and duly parked it for the best part of twenty years.

Out of curiosity, I dusted it off — literally — just a couple of years ago and gave it a spin. At first, only two or three tracks stood out, but I persisted and the whole album soon started to grow on me.

Eleven tracks, 67 minutes of music — and no out-and-out fillers or obvious padding. It certainly starts strongly, the title track a moody and dramatic guitar-driven affair with BIG Collins-esque drums and a soaring chorus. Congo isn’t as poor as I remember, though the inclusion of African rhythms to bookend the song invites inevitable comparisons — and not flattering ones — with Peter Gabriel’s epic Biko.

Even the more run-of-the-mill efforts — Small Talk, If That’s What You Need, There Must Be Some Other Way — are listenable and certainly no weaker than the selection of songs on side two of their self-titled 1983 album (the one that starts with Mama, a song that isn’t as strong as people say it is). The Abacab album runs for 47 minutes and includes two of the weakest songs in the entire Genesis canon — Who Dunnit? and Another Record.

Calling All Stations isn’t classic Genesis, of course, but it sounds good, there are some great hooks and instrumental passages dotted around, and Ray can certainly sing — a husky voice, deeper and less warm than Phil’s, closer in fact to Peter Gabriel’s.

Tony and Mike are in charge, of course. Drafted in after much of the music had already been written, Ray’s creative input was apparently minimal — a musical idea here, some lyrics there. I have recently bought Banks Vaults, a box set of Tony’s solo albums. A Curious Feeling apart, I am hearing his solo stuff for the first time and currently playing it non-stop. Much of it is great; some of it is outstanding. There are echoes of his solo work, particularly from Still and Strictly Inc, all through Calling All Stations. Other than The Living Years, I am unfamiliar with the back catalogue of Mike and the Mechanics — Mike’s extra-curricular project — but If That’s What You Need is what I imagine a typical Mechanics song sounds like.

When Calling All Stations is good, it’s very good. Shipwrecked, for example, has a great chorus. Anyone familiar with Morrissey’s work might note a similarity between the main keyboard riff and a fairly obscure Morrissey b-side called Lost (released, coincidentally, in the same year).

As on the previous We Can’t Dance album, the inclusion of longer songs allows the band to break free from the verse-chorus-bridge straitjacket. The Dividing Line runs to eight minutes and features some terrific keyboard lines, reminding me of Tony’s excellent The Serpent Said from his 1995 album Strictly Inc.

It also sounds like they enticed Phil back to play drums on the track. In fact, the drumming throughout the album is strikingly good, especially considering that Genesis were without a permanent drummer. The stool at the back was occupied by two guest musicians, one of whom — Nir Zidkyahu — was then invited on the subsequent tour.

The lyrics of One Man’s Fool (among other songs) may be distinctly uninspired at times — “One man’s hot is another man’s cold” — but its overall message about the dangers of (religious) fanaticism, written pre-9/11, of course, resonates now more than ever. This, the closing song, was the first to really hold my attention. At nine minutes, it’s the longest of the album’s eleven tracks, shifting gear midway through to conclude the album in style. Tony — the writer, presumably — sees it differently. Speaking about writing music with Phil’s voice (and creative input) in mind, he is quoted thus:

The first half of the song was good, but the second half suffered. If Phil had been there I just know it would have just taken off and gone somewhere else.

Tony Banks, quoted in Genesis — Chapter And Verse (2007)

Alien Afternoon is the quirkiest song on the album. It quickly settles into a fairly unremarkable groove: a humdrum tune with humdrum lyrics about a humdrum existence. Something seems to happen to our narrator mid-song — a paranormal episode or extra-terrestrial experience of some kind. Ghostly voices ring out like an angelic choir — “We are home / We are your home / We are all your home” — with suitably unsettling and other-worldly mood music from Tony and Mike. A close encounter of the Genesis kind. Great stuff.

Again, it very much reminds me of another song — probably my favourite by Simon and Garfunkel, The Only Living Boy In New York. Paul is fed up, stuck at home writing songs for the new album while Art is away in Mexico pursuing a film career. Then we hear Art’s heavily treated vocal calling from the ether — “Here I am” — as if he’s hearing Paul from afar.

Genesis excel at songs dealing with despair, pain and loss — the live version of Afterglow on Seconds Out towers above everything. Not About Us sounds like classic Mike writing. It is not unlike his Snowbound, a favourite from And Then There Were Three. Along the same lines, Uncertain Weather is probably the best song on the album. The ease with which the listener can project his or her own experiences onto lines about fading photographs and fading memories gives the song added power:

All gone long ago
Leaving no trace
Disappearing like smoke in the wind

Uncertain Weather

Goosebumps-good. Alas, the spell is broken by the inclusion of awful half-spoken lines midway through the song.

Overall, then, Calling All Stations is not bad at all: it’s time to bring the uncle in from the cold. For readers who know their Genesis history, it’s nowhere near as good as anything from the ‘70s but, especially if shortened to about 50 minutes (the length of a typical first-released-on-vinyl Genesis album), it would certainly stand comparison with anything released post-Duke (1980). It is better than Abacab (1981) and Genesis (1983), and probably on a par with Invisible Touch (1986) and We Can’t Dance (1991).

Queen On Fire – Live At The Bowl: Reviewing The Review

I was interested to see what, if anything, had changed – my Queen knowledge, my opinions, other contextual information – in the fifteen years since I wrote my review of the Queen On Fire – Live At The Bowl DVD. At the time, I titled the review ‘A Crown Jewel’ and awarded the DVD five stars out of five. It was published on Amazon in November 2004, a week or so after the DVD’s release.

As I write now (July 2019), the DVD is not available from the official online shop, though the audio is available for download. It was never officially released on Blu-ray.


For Queen obsessives, the advent of remastered CD and DVD has served to keep the – ahem – ‘magic’ alive long after the demise of the band itself as a creative unit. The latest release is this long-awaited Milton Keynes Bowl concert, recorded June 1982, on the European leg of the Hot Space tour. A heavily-edited film of the show was first used, improbably enough, on Channel 4’s alternative music show The Tube in 1983; that edit has since featured regularly on VH1. Individual songs have also appeared in video montages and compilations. Now, after the success of the Live at Wembley Stadium DVD, this is the MK show in its entirety – warts ‘n’ all – and very welcome it is too.

Clearly, the opening sentence was written in the resigned belief that the days of Queen as a going concern were over. Though purists would doubtless question the whole notion that Queen are again a creative unit, the ‘Queen’ brand is certainly very much alive and kicking. The beginnings of the Queen/Paul Rodgers collaboration were in 2004, leading to major tours in 2005 and 2008 and to the The Cosmos Rocks album. Even more successful has been the Queen/Adam Lambert collaboration. That’s not to mention the longevity of the We Will Rock You stage musical and the phenomenal success of the Bohemian Rhapsody film.

Alas, not quite every wart was in fact included in the DVD. Check out the clip below [at roughly 2:22] which was left in the original Channel 4 broadcast but polished out of the Live At The Bowl release.

Previous ‘live’ offerings from Queen too often suffered from heavy handed editing, remixing and general interference, sometimes due to the limitations of technology at the time but more often in a mistaken attempt at quality assurance. The nadir is 1986’s Live Magic which employs a ghastly mixture of omission and (unbelievably) song editing to fit a two-hour show onto LP. A close second is the video of 1985’s Rock In Rio triumph: Brian May’s guitar is hopelessly buried in the mix and the overall band sound is dull and blunted. Now, as this DVD demonstrates, even on basic home equipment, digital remastering brings a raw freshness to the sound as well as sharpness and colour to the picture.

I think this paragraph generally holds true, though whether the freshness and sharpness I applauded at the time is simply the result of digital mastering I now realise I am not expert enough to say. I have written elsewhere about the failure of official releases to capture and authentically convey the live Queen sound. The release of the Live at the Rainbow ’74 box set in 2014 set a new benchmark. Despite the “limitations of technology at the time”, both of the 1974 concerts sound superb – particularly the 31 March gig. I still regard the Procession/Father To Son opening as possibly the most powerful beginning to a live album ever, though to be fair the Milton Keynes opener (Flash/The Hero) is magnificent too.

After the pomp and grandeur of two world tours between 1977 and 1979, their stage show by 1982 had adopted a pared-down, ‘hot and spacey’ feel to match their changing musical direction. The grandiose ‘Crown’ lighting rig in 1977-78 and the ‘Pizza Oven’ roof of lights that spectacularly adorns the Live Killers sleeve were replaced by relatively modest, moving banks of lights and powerful spots. Musically, while the new songs from the sharply criticised Hot Space album undoubtedly benefit from a live work-out, this viewer well remembers their muted greeting by the crowd at the previous week’s Elland Road concert.

Absolutely. Back Chat and Staying Power both sound superb. It baffles me why one of these two songs was not released as the lead-off single for the Hot Space album. For the subsequent US and Japanese tours, other Hot Space tracks were given a workout, notably Put Out The Fire and Calling All Girls. Even Body Language didn’t sound completely awful played live. As it happens, I have recently been listening to Genesis bootlegs from roughly the same period: the muted crowd reaction to the newer Abacab material is similar to what I describe here. It was a tough time to be a fan of ’70s rock giants!

However, Queen always delivered onstage and this DVD magnificently captures the power of Queen live. Freddie is in particularly mischievous form, teasing and energising the crowd (“are you ready…are you ready brothers and sisters?”). The consummate showman bounds across the stage and athletically utilises gangways incorporated into the stage set to project the band in larger venues. Though Freddie did not personally write a Queen blockbuster after 1979’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love, he was still fit and lithe, aged 35 in 1982, the singing voice strong and assured. Only later did a combination of wear and tear, age and smoking lead to difficulties at the end of long shows and tours. Before AIDS (first identified in 1983), it is also interesting to note the overtly sexual nature of much of his onstage banter, strutting and posing.

The obvious error in the above paragraph is the one relating to Freddie’s voice. When I wrote those words, I hadn’t really heard many bootlegs of Queen shows, so I only had official releases and what I remember actually hearing live to go on – neither of which is (sad to say) a reliable guide. Having listened to a lot of bootlegs since 2004, I now realise how inaccurate the statement is. In reality, from the later-1970s at the very latest, Freddie was often struggling with his voice on stage – especially towards the end of long tours and particularly towards the end of shows.

Japan definitely got the shortest of short straws in this respect – unfortunate, as they were particularly keen to film the band’s concerts. With the exception of the February ’81 Budokan shows, all of the band’s tours to Japan followed on from extensive touring in other parts of the world. Listen, to take just one example, to how Freddie struggles to sing Bohemian Rhapsody during the 1979 Japanese dates. You can point to lots of similar examples from the ’82 and ’85 tours. We Are The Champions always presented problems – Roger to the rescue! – as did (from ’84 onwards) Radio Ga Ga.

Now think about the official releases. Montreal ’81 – voice superb – came after a month-long break. Milton Keynes ’82 – voice superb – came after a three-day break on a mini-British tour of just four shows. Live Aid too – voice superb – came after a very lengthy break. Hammersmith ’79 – not an official release (yet, I hope!) but generally acknowledged, I would say, to be a superb vocal performance – came after a four-day break (and Christmas dinner).

Jumping ahead to Wembley ’86, there were relatively long breaks between most shows on the Magic Tour. But Freddie was older, the stage was enormous and the filmed Saturday show followed on from the additional Friday concert. It’s not too bad vocally, but there’s lots of stuff sung in – what is it called? – the lower register, masked by the impressive-sounding cod-operatic delivery. True, Budapest was a stronger vocal performance than Wembley, but it came on the back of a five-day break.

The performance – and the filming – is not quite as polished as 1986 and casual buyers might begin their collection with the aforementioned Live At Wembley Stadium DVD. It was 1985’s Live Aid that truly elevated Queen to superstar status. In 1982, the set list still contained obligatory new-album material and hard-rocking (but relatively uncommercial) stage favourites like We Will Rock You (fast) and Sheer Heart Attack. For the Queen connoisseur, however, there is much to enjoy. Particular highlights include Somebody To Love: a singalong favourite and live staple from 1976, it was inexplicably left off the Live Killers LP and finally dropped in 1986. If Queen’s finest hour (or, rather, 17 minutes) at Live Aid can be criticised, it is surely the inclusion of Hammer To Fall at the expense of Somebody To Love.

Absolutely. The whole show sounds great, and the performance of Somebody To Love is indeed a highlight, as is The Hero opening, Fat Bottomed Girls – “You made an asshole outta me!” – and Save Me, to choose just three. I also still think I am correct about the Live Aid set.

One criticism I don’t mention is that the final twenty minutes or so feel a touch predictable. Once Freddie plays the opening bars of Bohemian Rhapsody, you can guess how things are going to pan out. The close of the show could have done with some refreshing by this point, I think. After all, albeit with some moving things around on occasion (and the introduction along the way of Another One Bites The Dust), Tie Your Mother Down / Sheer Heart Attack / We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions had been the basis of the latter part of the show since 1977.

We now know that earlier in the Hot Space tour they appear to have mixed things up a bit — Tie Your Mother Down and Sheer Heart Attack were both tried out at the beginning of the set after The Hero, for example, and Liar was even played on a couple of occasions — but by the time of the British shows they had reverted to the ‘usual’ ending. It’s just a thought, but one wonders whether they were nervous at the reaction to their new material and tacking to safer waters.

Another fine Milton Keynes moment is the gloriously un-PC Fat Bottomed Girls. Unfortunately, a raucously out-of-tune scream by Freddie has been polished out – but at least problems with Brian May’s lead during his earlier solo spot have been left in; anoraks truly treasure such moments! This tour is also noteworthy for fans as the first to feature additional (off-stage) keyboards to supplement the band’s sound. Brian’s ‘chat’ before Love Of My Life is also somewhat unusual. Dedicating the song to people “who have given up their lives for what they believe”, it is a reference to the Falklands War that dominated the headlines that spring and summer: Queen were in an acutely difficult position as they had played in Argentina the previous year, were selling phenomenally well over there and had just released a single in English and Spanish – Las Palabras De Amor.

Overall, Live At Milton Keynes Bowl is another top quality Queen DVD. What delights await next Christmas? Paris 1979? Houston or Earl’s Court 1977? Hyde Park 1976, please.

As it happens, none of the above suggestions have yet seen the official light of day in full. Oddly enough, I didn’t mention Hammersmith 1979. I had high hopes that footage from 1979 might be released this year — there is plenty of it — to tie in with the fortieth anniversary of the release of Live Killers. Alas, nothing has appeared as yet.

Footage of Sweet Lady from Hyde Park has appeared as a DVD extra, and some of the Houston footage was used in the Old Grey Whistle Test documentary released in 2017. My Melancholy Blues and We Will Rock You (fast) from the same gig have also appeared officially, as have Fat Bottomed Girls and Sheer Heart Attack from Paris.

I neglected to mention the bonus material in the original review. It’s decidely patchy. There are some tour interviews, a photo gallery backed with a live version of Calling All Girls, some backstage Milton Keynes material, and some footage from Austria earlier in the tour. The highlight is about thirty minutes’ worth of footage from Japan from November 1982, the very final show of the world tour. It has long been available as a Japan-only VHS release. As suggested above, with Freddie’s voice cracking in places, the show is unlikely ever to be given a full release.

Seconds Out — The Greatest Live Album?

When the audience heard Phil announce at, say, Southampton Gaumont Theatre on 20 January 1977 that “this next one is from our new record”, did they already have an inkling that what they were hearing was one of a collection of songs that would stand the test of time – songs that are as fresh and exhilarating to hear in 2019 as they were when first released over forty years earlier?

Reflections on Seconds Out and Genesis live on the 1977 Wind And Wuthering tour

I probably bought Seconds Out in 1979 aged twelve or thirteen, having discovered the band via And Then There Were Three. As luck would have it, my local library stocked Armando Gallo’s lavishly illustrated book, I Know What I Like, so I soon had a good sense of how Seconds Out fitted into the Genesis story. Recorded in Paris in June 1977 towards the end of six months on the road promoting the Wind And Wuthering album, it captures ‘old’ Genesis and features almost the very last performances of the four-plus-one line-up: Steve Hackett’s absence from mixing-desk duties over the summer effectively signalled his departure from the band. If memory serves, Gallo refers in his book to this being his favourite tour, the band, he says, performing almost flawlessly night after night.

The original October 1977 release featured twelve tracks spread across four sides of vinyl:

Side 1: Squonk / Carpet Crawlers / Robbery, Assault And Battery / Afterglow
Side 2: Firth Of Fifth / I Know What I Like / The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway / The Musical Box (excerpt)
Side 3: Supper’s Ready
Side 4: The Cinema Show / Dance On A Volcano / Los Endos

With Peter Gabriel’s departure in 1975, the harshness and aggression noticeable in their earlier material – the likes of The Return Of The Giant Hogweed – has given way to a softer and more polished sound. In part, this comes from Phil Collins – his vocal more soothing and melodic than Peter’s husky voice. Tony Banks, meanwhile, is the dominant musical presence, his lush keyboard sound leading the way in song after song and smoothing away the rough edges of the original recordings. With Steve Hackett’s guitar often an elusive, spectral presence floating free in the air, it falls to Mike Rutherford’s bass to provide counterpoint to Tony, such as during the exquisite keyboard solo starting at roughly 2:25 of Robbery, Assault And Battery.

I found this list when I was going through some old papers. It’s called ‘Top 50 Albums’ and dated 14 August 1983. I’m more than a little surprised that I put Simon and Garfunkel at number one; I think I’d just bought the album and was blown away with it. However, pretty much everything listed here would still be in my top 40 (though not necessarily in the same order) and much of it in my top 20.

Carpet Crawlers – an unlikely staple of the live show over the years – builds gently but insistently from its delicate opening. Robbery, Assault And Battery bounces with cockney swagger, allowing Phil to dust off his boyhood Artful Dodger character. The Dance On A Volcano / Los Endos medley closes the main set in thrilling fashion, as the 747 landing lights and dry ice depicted in the spectacular front-cover photo bathe the stage in ghostly white.

It gets better. Ahead of us lie the four finest Genesis moments on record.

A Genesis diehard will more than likely argue that Supper’s Ready, which dominates the third quarter of the set, is the band’s signature song – their Stairway To Heaven, their Smoke On The Water. It is epic, ambitious, daring – and on Seconds Out it is magnificent. The delightful sound mix helps, of course, but so does Phil’s front-man masterclass – by turns quirky and playful, soaring and majestic – offering his own interpretation of the song and more than doing justice to Peter’s original vocal.

The finale, As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs, is heady stuff indeed:

The lord of lords
King of kings
Has returned to lead his children home
To take them to the New Jerusalem

Supper’s Ready

Turn it up to 11, sit back and try not to shed a tear or two.

Two songs from arguably their best album – Selling England By The Pound – are a particular joy. The Cinema Show is a patchwork quilt of musical ideas – a succession of miniature keyboard flourishes and dazzling drum fills from the Bruford-Collins combination at the back, building to a show-stopping bass run from Mike at approximately 9:52. Though it is primarily a Tony Banks song, Firth Of Fifth is Steve’s moment in the limelight. Often a peripheral presence, here is a chance for guitar to take centre stage.

And then there is Afterglow – an as-good-as-it-gets, goosebumps Genesis moment.

Now I’ve lost everything I give to you my soul
The meaning of all that I believed before escapes me in this world of none
I miss you more

Afterglow

Written in minutes (says Tony) and set lyrically in the immediate aftermath of some cataclysm or other, it builds from a hypnotic guitar riff to a spine-tingling climax, complete with angelic choir1, an effect he uses elsewhere on the album with equally dramatic results.

Ironically, Squonk is, for this fan at least, one of the weaker tracks – ironic in the sense that, for obvious reasons, the set opener is usually exceptionally strong. I Know What I Like, their first hit single, is also a dip of sorts. Performed live, it stretches out over eight minutes and more, a space for Phil’s on-stage antics with a tambourine. It’s an interlude of musical light relief, though the improvised middle section drags somewhat.

Everything I thought I knew about Genesis live in the seventies came from three sources: the Gabriel-era Genesis Live album, Gallo’s book and Seconds Out. Times change. Today the Genesis fan has an abundance of source material – the lengthy interviews making up the official Chapter And Verse book, for example, are a mine of useful detail, anecdote and context.

Armando Gallo had privileged behind-the-scenes access, but we can all now follow in his footsteps and check out the tour at various stops along the way. These reflections are based on seven excellent bootlegs from the Wind And Wuthering tour, all readily available for download completely free of charge: the London Rainbow and Southampton (January), Dallas and San Francisco (March), Sao Paolo (May), Earl’s Court, London (June) and Zurich (July). Listening to them offers us a far more complete picture of Genesis live in 1977 than the one presented by Seconds Out.

A cover of one of several excellent Genesis bootlegs from 1977. Sadly the Viva Les Bootlegs website is no longer updated, but there are other sites where bootlegs can be downloaded free of charge.

The actual running-order of the live show varied considerably from the Seconds Out track-listing. After some experimentation during the initial British dates (including, it seems, the short-lived inclusion of Lilywhite Lilith and Wot Gorilla), the set list eventually settled down to this:

Squonk / One For The Vine / Robbery, Assault And Battery / Your Own Special Way / Firth Of Fifth / Carpet Crawlers / In That Quiet Earth / Afterglow / Eleventh Earl Of Mar / Supper’s Ready / Dance On A Volcano / Los Endos / The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway / The Musical Box (excerpt)

Songs that were played live but don’t appear on Seconds Out are shown struck through

Eleventh Earl Of Mar occasionally opened the set, and The Knife was included as an additional encore towards the very end of the tour, featuring on the Earl’s Court bootleg. All In A Mouse’s Night was played in the first few shows and then dropped relatively quickly for no obvious reason. Your Own Special Way was probably included as the then-current single. On stage, it falls rather flat despite some gorgeous additional piano from Tony. With the release of the Spot The Pigeon EP later in the year, the lesser-known but excellent b-side Inside And Out, another showcase for Steve’s guitar, took its place.

The Cinema Show was recorded on the band’s previous tour – it had been dropped from the set by 1977. The reason for its inclusion here is not immediately obvious – a courtesy to Bill Bruford, perhaps (the band’s first fill-in drummer on stage: Chester Thompson took over drumming duties for the Wind And Wuthering tour and features on the rest of the album), or a discreet admission that leaving it out of the set had been an error (it was back for the next tour).

The decision to include The Cinema Show on Seconds Out and to omit several songs from Wind And Wuthering has a significant impact on the overall musical balance of the album. Unlike the live show, it is dominated by Gabriel-era music – in total, something like two-thirds, including the entirety of sides two and three – whereas at Dallas on 19 March, to choose one gig at random, Gabriel-era music comprises less than half the set. Five songs from Wind And Wuthering are performed (it was six in the early shows when All In A Mouse’s Night was played), of which only Afterglow eventually made it onto Seconds Out.

A cutting from the excellent The Genesis Archive fan site

The words ‘supper’s ready’ are spoken by Phil to introduce, well, Supper’s Ready. They are the only words spoken on the album (except for a brief, breathless “merci, Paris” and “merci, bonsoir”). It is all deeply serious. Except, in reality, it wasn’t. Seconds Out omits all the between-song chatter – and there’s a lot of it – and with it much of the humour that was integral to a Genesis show.

Phil is at the centre of it all, naturally. He’s following a tradition started by Peter, filling space to allow time for retuning and assorted tweaking and twiddling. So we miss out on the dodgy exploits of Harry the bank robber and the saucy goings-on of two virgins, Romeo and Juliet, the detail more or less titillating from one night to the next, presumably depending on whether the show was being broadcast live on radio. Mike joins in the fun. Your Own Special Way – about “Myrtle the Mermaid” – is apparently “racing up the Venezualan charts”. The story of Eleventh Earl Of Mar, meanwhile, is set in Scotland, “a small country just north of England”. This levity is all perhaps a bit too much for Steve, who politely informs the audience that Firth Of Fifth is “a song about a river”.

When the audience heard Phil announce at, say, Southampton Gaumont Theatre on 20 January 1977 that “this next one is from our new record”, did they already have an inkling that what they were hearing was one of a collection of songs that would stand the test of time – songs that are as fresh and exhilarating to hear in 2019 as they were when first released over forty years earlier?

Bootlegs offer us a more rounded picture than official releases – rough edges and raw mixes, mistakes and miscues – and as such they are essential listening for any fan. But Seconds Out provides something more. Beautifully mixed (to my amateur’s ears, at least), it captures a band at the peak of their game, playing many of their finest songs and sounding exquisite throughout. It is a classic album – classic in the sense of ‘the best, the highest quality’, but classic also in its timelessness. It deserves a place on the shortest of shortlists of the greatest live albums of all time.

Hercule Poirot’s First Case

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)

After revisiting the very final David Suchet TV adaptations on ITV3 fairly recently, I chanced upon a four-novel Poirot omnibus — actually two omnibuses, eight novels in total — in a local charity shop. Serendipity. Time to acquaint myself for the first time with Poirot in print.

Though a random selection — the novels are not sequential and, beyond the obvious, there is no linking theme — one omnibus did at least begin with The Mysterious Affair At Styles, the very first book of the Poirot series. That matters — a lot. A desire for completeness, perhaps. Begin at the beginning: Book One, Volume I, Series One, Episode One. It feels rude not to.

First, a little background. The detective novel was already an established and lucrative publishing phenomenon by the end of the nineteenth century. Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins are sometimes cited as pioneers of the genre — Poe’s The Murders In The Rue Morgue was published in 1841 and Collins’s The Moonstone in 1868 — and characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Raffles and Father Brown were familiar to readers by the time Poirot first appeared in 1920. As literacy rates soared, the detective novel fed a growing popular appetite for sensational, lightweight (in more than one sense) reading.

The historian AJP Taylor described Agatha Christie, who was writing mainly in the so-called ‘golden age’ of detective fiction between the wars, as “the acknowledged queen in this art”. Having sampled so little of Christie’s writing (though plenty of film and television adaptations of her work), it seems prudent to heed the wise counsel of the incomparable Sherlock Holmes, who famously cautioned against rushing to judgement:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.”

Sherlock Holmes in A Study In Scarlet (1887)

I will therefore go no further than the tentative but tame and unsurprising observation that The Mysterious Affair At Styles seems entirely typical of the genre at that time: the country-house setting; the simmering family tensions and jealousies, with legacy disputes the default motive for murder; the long list of likely suspects. Christie’s directness and economy of style are remarkable, a counterblast, perhaps, to the weighty, sprawling novels so typical of the nineteenth century — Dickens, Elliot, Hugo. Indeed, the entire ‘Styles’ novel took just six hours to read.

There is little attempt at literary craftmanship — no descriptive digressions immersing the reader in location and atmosphere, no cleverly interwoven sub-plots or carefully constructed layers of meaning. The murder plot is (almost) all. Detail is provided insofar as it serves the needs of the plot, principally to widen the net of suspicion and usually to misdirect the reader — all the better to build suspense before the Big Reveal. Equally striking (to this reader, at least) is the poverty of language employed by Christie: I lost count of the number of times, for example, she refers to Hastings’s “lively curiosity”.

Consider the opening chapter, ‘I Go To Styles’ — the ‘I’ being Captain Hastings, who, like Holmes’s Watson, is our narrator and a casualty of war. In ten whirlwind pages, we are introduced to the Cavendish family, family friend Evie, and Cynthia, a foster child of sorts. Though the murder is yet to occur, the soon-to-be victim is obvious, as are at least three likely suspects: the husband, the brooding, troubled brother and a “sinister” (Hastings’s word) doctor, who happens (luckily for us) to be an expert in poisons. Indeed. the efficacy of poison as a modus operandi for dispatching someone is matter-of-factly discussed over afternoon tea. Poirot’s little grey cells will not be required to work out how the murder was committed.

Styles is a world apart: it is a gentrified world of privilege and entitlement, of property and inherited wealth, of starched-collar formality and strict etiquette. Women are referred to throughout as ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. John Cavendish refers to his mother not as ‘mother’, ‘mum’ or even ‘mummy’ — but as ‘mater’. Endless summer days are spent lounging around the pool, playing tennis or going for long walks.

The landscape is sketched from the pages of William Blake. The industrial revolution, the most tumultuous and transformative event in our history, has by-passed this particular corner of England’s green and pleasant land. There is little or no factory-based work, no pollution, no cramped, stifling urban life. The few labourers we encounter are rough and ready but nonetheless deferential to their social superiors, like the gardener who doffs his cap on entering the boudoir. The servants, respectful and loyal, know their place and freely accept this ‘natural’ order of things, though (helpfully) they do like to listen at doors as their masters and mistresses bicker.

Set (and in fact written) during the First World War, the novel describes a world on which the sun was slowly setting, of course. Despite the trappings of privilege, the younger women are gainfully employed in war-related work: John’s wife works as a farmhand and Cynthia is a VAD, working in a dispensary — perfect for the poisonous plot! These details — and Hastings’s convalescence — notwithstanding, the war screams its absence. Like industrialisation, even total war cannot sully this pastoral idyll. The faithful parlourmaid Dorcas, described by Hastings as “a fine specimen … of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out”, bemoans at one point the presence of a female gardener wearing breeches — surely the end of civilisation as we know it.

Novels are invaluable as windows into the attitudes, values and social mores of the time — and into peculiarities of speech and language. People ‘ejaculate’ and have ‘a queer way’. Cheerful people are ‘gay’. Women are ‘handsome’. Unpleasant men are ‘bounders’ and ‘rascally’. Bad things are ‘damnable’.

Less quaint is the unmistakeable whiff of casual racism and xenophobia. At least one of the comic-book suspects will invariably be sinister, somehow foreign-looking and ‘alien’ – a word that Hastings actually uses. Inglethorp, the main suspect, has an enormous black beard. Dr Bauerstein, an expert in poisons, is “a Polish Jew”. The supposedly sluttish temptress Mrs Raikes is a “gipsy” girl. It is worth noting that the 1990 television adaptation omits Dr Bauerstein completely, and Mrs Raikes becomes merely a farmer’s wife.

An obsession with race was central to Nazi ideology, ending in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that concerns about the mental and physical health of the population also preoccupied inter-war Britain. The question of how to improve the racial ‘stock’ was not confined to the outer fringes of political debate; genetics, eugenics, sterilization and birth control were high up the agenda. Indeed, the historian Richard Overy has written:

“…the high point of the British eugenics movement, and of eugenics internationally, came in the years between the two world wars.”

Richard Overy, The Morbid Age

In a society rigidly defined by class, social snobbery is not hard to uncover, but the language of everyday discourse often betrays this wider obsession with racial hygiene and race improvement. For example, the overwhelming importance of maintaining the proverbial stiff upper lip even in the face of calamity — the death of Mrs Inglethorp — is expressed thus:

“Decorum and good breeding naturally enjoined that our demeanour should be much as usual…”

Captain Hastings, Chapter V

An absence of backbone, on the other hand, merits Hastings’s disdain:

“Never, I thought, had his indecision of character been more apparent.”

Captain Hastings, Chapter III

Lest we think this is merely the sneering of a snobbish Hastings, consider Poirot’s comment on an argument involving Lucy Cavendish:

“It was an astonishing thing for a woman of her breeding to do.”

Hercule Poirot, Chapter V

Later, reflecting upon the actions of Evie Howard, he comments thus:

“There is nothing weak-minded or degenerate about Miss Howard. She is an excellent specimen of well balanced English beef and brawn. She is sanity itself.”

Hercule Poirot, Chapter VIII

The cast of supporting characters are mere cardboard cut-outs; only the two principals — Hastings and Poirot himself — are given space to breathe and come alive. His friends might well have described Hastings as a ‘good sort’ — loyal, trustworthy and thoroughly decent. A true Englishman, they would doubtless have said. Confronted with a damsel in distress — a woman he has in fact known for barely a day — he impulsively proposes marriage. Like Nigel Bruce’s Watson, he is rather credulous and dim-witted. Fancying himself as something of a private detective, he is initially dismissive of Poirot’s thought-processes and obscure lines of questioning. Similar to the Holmes-Watson relationship, ‘the master’ sometimes treats ‘the assistant’ rudely, dismissively and thoughtlessly, only to offer profuse apologies later.

“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all…There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

Poirot to Hastings, Chapter VIII

Hastings interprets this remark as a compliment, a recognition of his “true worth”. As with the earlier Holmes stories, the assistant-as-narrator device allows the novelist to engage in obfuscation and misdirection, withholding reveals in order to build mystery and suspense.

And what of Poirot himself? A Belgian refugee from his war-torn homeland, he is conveniently living with other compatriots in the village that Hastings (who knew him before the war) happens to be visiting. He is meticulous and particular, to be sure, but perhaps not yet quite the fully-drawn dandy portrayed by Suchet, Ustinov and Finney, and certainly not the athletic swashbuckler depicted in Kenneth Branagh’s recent film. Of the John Malkovitch portrayal, I offer no comment.

Holmes felt so strongly about the dangers of leaping to judgement that he later reiterated the point almost word for word:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal In Bohemia (1892)

So my quest to uncover the original Poirot will go on. The omnibuses contain several other novels in addition to this first adventure. A reservation on the Orient Express awaits, as does an evening of bridge (Cards On The Table) and a visit to End House to confront the peril that lies therein. John Buchan’s thirty-nine steps are also yet to be climbed, and, going further back in time, the multi-layered, Benedictine world of Umberto Eco is long overdue a revisit. Yet the lure of Baker Street — the pipe, the violin, Mrs Hudson’s cooking — is impossible to ignore for long. The game is afoot.

Enlightenment Now: Book Review

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world – fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy.

Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker (2018 edition)

I agree with Bill.

Gates, that is. Bill Gates. The front cover of the paperback edition of Enlightenment Now boasts a striking quote from the co-founder of Microsoft, multi-billionaire and philanthropist: “My new favourite book of all time”. Hyperbole? Well, perhaps, but Enlightenment Now is good, very good – an absolute must-read for progressives in these benighted times.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

Steven Pinker first appeared on my radar about six years ago when I took a chance on The Better Angels Of Our Nature, the ‘other’ book in a Waterstones ‘Buy one, get one half-price’ offer. Something of a punt in the dark, this impulse purchase demonstrated the influence the high-street chain exerts through its store layout choices and promotional campaigns. Would I have selected the book in any other circumstances? Almost certainly not. Knowing nothing of the author (of whom, more below), the book was shouting ‘trendy’ (to be clear, that’s a bad thing), but I was intrigued by its self-stylisation as “a history of violence and humanity” as well as its breathtaking ambition. It wasn’t always like this.

By way of background, a mea culpa: I plead guilty to years of appalling narrow-mindedness. From sixth-form days way back when, my reading interests extended little further than modern British and European history and politics. One shelf after another filled up with books drawn from a narrow circle of academic historians, political biographers, politicians, broadsheet journalists – or some combination of the above, people like Michael Foot. Hidebound by conservatism, I indulged year after year in comfort reading, to the extent even of skipping the arts and culture surveys to be found in most general histories.

The rigid compartmentalisation condemned in CP Snow’s Two Cultures (which Pinker references) – the one scientific, the other literary – ensured that I neglected even to entertain the notion that a science-grounded book could be read for pleasure. This was less intellectual snobbery (Snow’s charge) and more the absence of three key intellectual attributes on my part: a solid grasp of basic science and mathematics, confidence and – most important of all – curiosity. Reluctant to sail beyond the near horizon, seasickness struck whenever I dared venture out of sight of the calm, comforting shores of modern political history.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

My own enlightenment – if that is not too grand a word – came achingly slowly, beginning with the occasional history of some earlier time or place; my interest in Marxism led me to the English Civil War, for example. Peter Ackroyd’s felicitous prose was a sure guide through the byways of early England, having chanced upon the initial volume of his planned six-volume history from a shop specialising in remaindered books (volume five came out recently). The Shield of Achilles by Phillip Bobbitt was a challenging but rewarding introduction to multi-disciplinary writing. By the time I picked up Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History about ten years ago, I was sold: an ambitious, sprawling ‘intellectual history’ of just about everything – from the beginnings of civilisation, language, religion and writing to the turn of the twentieth century and Freud, Nietzsche and modernism. Watson’s A Terrible Beauty is equally good on modern times.

I credit the incomparable Richard Dawkins with curing my myopia, enabling me to see that the scientific community is equally capable of writing in an elegant and arresting manner. The God Delusion combined an impressive knowledge of religion and ethics with science, history and philosophy. Now I read the likes of Climbing Mount Improbable and The Ancestor’s Tale for pleasure, even if the science quickly passes over my head (though Dawkins’s more recent The Magic Of Reality – written for young people but great for buffoons like me – is a splendid introduction to the mysteries of the scientific world). A Damascene conversion of sorts.

‘The Better Angels…’, then, chimed with my new-found interest in culture and ideas, principally science, philosophy and religion, and sprawling thematic histories. It delivered in spades. A Harvard professor, Pinker’s field is cognitive science, which (as best as I can narrow it down) involves the study of the use of language, the workings of the brain and psychology, the mind and human nature. But Pinker’s writing is a polymathic tour-de-force: he seems equally at ease with history, philosophy, political science, linguistics and statistics. He writes with utter believability, supporting his arguments with a staggering array of empirical evidence, regularly citing up-to-date research and effortlessly deploying pithy quotes from thinkers old and new.

His recent Enlightenment Now picks up the same central argument as ‘The Better Angels…’ that – notwithstanding your everyday impressions and assumptions – the world is in fact becoming a better place. Not perfect, note, but better. Not the smallest achievement of the book is the reproduction of 88 graphs, carrying data on everything from calorie intake and childhood stunting to retirement, life satisfaction and loneliness, in order to demonstrate in visual form his core argument about human progress.

At first read, his thesis feels counter-intuitive and simply wrong, at odds with the news that confronts us every single day (he has a convincing theory about this too, of course). Just in the last few days, for example, we have read of an appalling massacre in Sri Lanka, of civil war in Libya, of unrest in Algeria and Sudan, of continuing austerity, cuts and rising debt, of rising knife crime, of air pollution, of species extinction and of other climate-change perils. A typical newsweek, in other words.

The sceptic might choose to start with Pinker’s thought experiment. Ask yourself when in history you would want to be born, assuming that you had no control over where in the world you were born, your economic and social circumstances, your gender, your skin colour, the state of your mental and physical health and so on. The answer, he says, is an emphatic one: you would want to be born now.

Pinker focuses not on the ephemeral, the quotidian or the blip – the stuff of the daily headlines – but on longer-term patterns and trends. The core of the book is a demonstration of his belief that human progress is an empirical hypothesis that can be tested. In one scintillating chapter after another, he does exactly that – examining everything from personal safety and war to education, health, longevity and so on.

Pinker is clear-sighted about the enemies of progress: intuition, religious faith and scripture, authority and unquestioned obedience. Too often, we deny the very fact of progress, and he outlines a variety of fallacies and cognitive biases – the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, negativity bias and so on – to which we are all prone. As human beings, we are often unreasoning and irrational, generalising from anecdotes, seeking to confirm prior beliefs, reasoning from stereotypes, ignoring evidence that disconfirms and so on. Nevertheless, his case is that, since the Enlightenment two hundred years ago, we have used reason and science to improve our knowledge and understanding, to overcome our cognitive weaknesses and thereby enhance human flourishing.

He rejects the idea of any kind of ‘Grand Plan’, a cosmic force of God, nature or history propelling us inexorably forward. Progress has been hard-won and must not be taken for granted. We have learned to use the tools of reason to combat unreason and irrationality: free speech and open criticism, fact checking, empirical testing and sober, logical analysis. Pinker is a champion of science and scientific reasoning, and of humanism, the belief that the ultimate moral purpose is to enhance the flourishing of individual human beings (as opposed to the tribe, race, faith etc). He argues that forces of cosmopolitanism – education, art, mobility, urbanisation – have helped develop what he calls our ‘circle of sympathy’, our sense of compassion, our ability to empathise and our concern for the welfare of others. I remember a similar point being made about the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century by, I think, Sebastian Faulks.

Pinker is difficult to categorise. It would certainly be far too simplistic to pigeon-hole him as a ‘lefty liberal’. He believes in the efficacy of free trade, market-based economics and free enterprise (though not of unregulated, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism), detests ‘political correctness’ – something else that he believes inhibits progress by feeding the false narrative of populists and anti-progressives – and espouses a variety of policy positions anathema to many on the left. He is sanguine about developments in artificial intelligence, adopts a moderate position on climate change (in a nutshell, we have serious problems but it’s not all doom and gloom, and extreme solutions are not the answer) and supports nuclear power and genetic modification of crops.

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world – fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy. Michael Gove famously claimed during the 2016 Brexit referendum that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”. Pinker loudly and proudly proclaims the value of learning and of experts. He offers hope, but it is hope grounded not in faith but in reason and in evidence, welcome sustenance for even the most Panglossian of optimists.

Darkest Hour: Film Review

‘Darkest Hour’ offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains. In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision – his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb.

The year is 1940 and Britain is in dire straits. Abroad, the German army is sweeping across western Europe, a defeatist mentality paralyses the French top ranks, and the British army faces imminent annihilation at Dunkirk, probably to be followed by the invasion of Britain itself. At home, Churchill must negotiate a fragile coalition government, a divided Conservative Party, and rebellious and ambitious cabinet colleagues.

Darkest Hour, the 2017 film starring Gary Oldman that deals with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, inevitably resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst: the UK’s relationship with the European continent is currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, with not a little hyperbolic talk about existential threats to our freedom and independence.

An example of a meme circulated on social media during the Brexit debate.

These tumultuous events of 1940 and Britain’s survival were, of course, exhaustively mined by Britain’s wartime propaganda machine, turning calamitous defeat and near-disaster into a form of national triumph. Ministry of Information shorts, such as Channel Incident (starring a young Peggy Ashcroft) and Neighbours Under Fire, trumpeted the indomitable will of the British people – the ‘Very Well, Alone’ mood of popular defiance also captured in David Low’s cartoons of the time and the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ in the face of the Luftwaffe’s aerial onslaught.

Widely circulated on social media in October 2018

I have discussed elsewhere the issue of ‘fake history’ and film – questions of historical accuracy and fidelity to the facts, the portrayal of people and events from the past, and the inevitable trade-off between historical ‘truth’ and entertainment. What makes Darkest Hour compelling viewing – beyond undeniable echoes in our current political travails – is the knowledge that those wartime propaganda lines about defiance and British exceptionalism have now been resurrected and shamelessly peddled by cheerleaders in the diehard Brexit camp to support their views about the Brexit negotiations, the opportunities and threats posed by a no-deal outcome, and our current crop of political leaders.

Darkest Hour includes virtually no scenes of actual fighting, though the reality of Britain’s perilous strategic position casts its shadow across virtually every scene. The focus of the film is essentially Winston Churchill, hailed by many – especially on the right – as our national saviour. In 2002 (Golden Jubilee year, of course), he was proclaimed the greatest Briton in a BBC poll, and ‘he’ featured prominently in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. To be fair, and perhaps in an indication of our changing national temper (or maybe just a reflection of the BBC2 audience), he lost out to Alan Turing and others in a 2019 BBC poll of the twentieth century’s greatest icon.

Churchill is arguably the most instantly recognisable figure from our past: the huge cigar, the V-for-Victory salute and the wobbly jowls delivering soaring oratory are etched into the popular consciousness. One effect of biographies and biopics (the good ones, anyway) is to flesh out and ‘humanize’ distant figures – to uncover something of the real person behind the myth. In Darkest Hour, we see glimpses of the husband and family man, the man of privilege baffled by the Tube map, the playful man giggling with the secretarial staff and (crucially) the man of doubt. His eccentricities and larger-than-life character are fully on display – dictating memos from his bed (and from the bathroom), consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, berating his personal staff for the slightest of errors.

One cannot help but feel that aspects of Churchill’s personal conduct, long dismissed – perhaps even applauded – as quirky, eccentric and idiosyncratic, would in today’s #MeToo climate be condemned as unacceptable bullying and sexist behaviour. Films about personalities and events from the past nevertheless reflect the mood, norms and expectations of the times in which they were made. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges for director and scriptwriter.

The secretary Elizabeth Layton is assigned a key role in the script.

In the film, a key role is therefore assigned to a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary, the script manoeuvres her close to the action and the locus of power, often involving her in intimate, one-to-one situations with Churchill (intimate in the sense that both can reveal hidden worries and doubts). Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

Darkest Hour offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains (with, in this case, Neville Chamberlain perhaps somewhere in the middle). In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision – his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb. He becomes forgetful and – the ultimate catastrophe for a politician feted for his ability to communicate – struggles to find the words, before rediscovering his mojo with the help of the great British public in the controversial ‘Underground’ scene – controversial in the sense that it is purely fictional.

The George VI portrayed here is very different from the vulnerable king in The King’s Speech

The George VI presented to us is also of interest. Though the icy relationship between Churchill and the king thaws somewhat as the film progresses, the viewer will struggle to reconcile this monarch with Colin Firth’s portrayal in The King’s Speech. In the latter, he is warm, vulnerable and all-too-human. Here, he is remote, cold, bigoted and snobbish. The scene where he surreptitiously wipes his hand behind his back after it has been kissed by Churchill is particularly telling. Later, in an ironic turn, it is the king who urges the prime minister to listen to the voice of the people, precipitating Churchill’s journey of rediscovery on the Underground.

The role of arch-baddie is, however, reserved for Lord Halifax, the king’s confidant and political puppet-master, pulling Chamberlain’s strings in a bid to engineer a compromise peace with Hitler, thus preventing a German invasion and safeguarding the British Empire. He is calculating and scheming, refusing to take on the role of prime minister after Chamberlain’s resignation as the time is ‘not yet right’. The England (sic) he cherishes and seeks to preserve is that of the upper-class gentleman and country estate, a land of strict social division, of privilege and entitlement. Compare this with the portrayal of the ordinary Englishman and Englishwoman: patriotic, decent and resolute.

Films recreating events from the past must find imaginative ways to contextualise events, plugging gaps in the viewer’s historical knowledge and ensuring that the storyline makes sense. Here, for example, Churchill explains to someone who would have known the situation perfectly well that the king disliked him because he (Churchill) supported his (George’s) brother’s desire to marry Wallis Simpson. To establish the reasons for Churchill’s unpopularity with many Tories, we are offered a montage of politicians in whispered discussion, each with a gripe against Churchill: it is a ‘greatest hits’ of his errors and failings – serial infidelity to the Conservative Party, Gallipoli, India and the Gold Standard.

The House of Commons as theatre

The scenes in the Chamber of the House of Commons are pure theatre – the bear-pit atmosphere and the dramatic lighting, as if a solitary spotlight were picking out the speaker at the despatch box, the surrounding benches (front and back) almost in darkness – the more so to accentuate order papers furiously batting the air.

The debates themselves do not (inevitably) ring particularly true. For example, the two-day debate that led to Chamberlain’s resignation is here shortened to about five minutes. Labour’s Clement Attlee is forensic and withering – far too much so, if the recent biography by John Below is to be trusted. Crucially, the damning verdict of backbench Conservative MP Leo Amery, invoking Cromwell to the Rump Parliament – “In the name of God, go!” – is expunged from the record, as it wouldn’t serve the narrative, namely that Churchill did not have the Tory backbenches behind him and that his support came from the Labour benches. To the end, Chamberlain appears to command the loyalty of the Conservative MPs – a surreptitious wave of the handkerchief his signal to the backbench troops whether or not to show their support for the new prime minister.

Some of the points made in this article were also made in the article ‘Fake History’ and Film.

‘Fake History’ and Film

Elizabeth I meets Mary, Queen of Scots! Churchill rediscovers his mojo on the Underground! Homosexual genius Alan Turing is blackmailed by Soviet spy John Cairncross at Bletchley Park! Hmmm. Memo to self: ‘Films based on historical events are not documentaries. Stop judging them as if they are.’

The above are not happenings in an alternate reality but scenes from films about real people, their lives mediated through ‘Hollywood’ – just three examples of what we might call ‘fake history’ offered up for our viewing pleasure in well-known films released over the last few years about famous people and/or events. The buzz surrounding two recent films that focus on the lives of female monarchs from Britain’s past – Mary Queen Of Scots (about the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I) and The Favourite (about Queen Anne) – has poured lighter-fuel on a debate that seems to smoulder away all but unnoticed before re-igniting whenever a blockbuster film portraying iconic figures and events from the past is released.

Fake history Saving Private Ryan
Though lauded for its realistic depiction of war, Saving Private Ryan has also been much criticised for ignoring the role of the British armed forces and those of other countries in the D-Day landings.

The usual suspects – lower case, not the Kevin Spacey film – have again been hauled in to take up their place in the line-up of cinematic shame: films such as The Patriot, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, all charged with the heinous crime of playing fast and loose with ‘the truth’. The only surprise is that nobody appears to have brought up Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise comes within minutes of bringing down the Third Reich.

The debate about ‘fake history’ operates at a number of levels, with questions of historical accuracy morphing into arguments about how much fidelity to the facts actually matters and broader discussions about representations of the past.

At its simplest is a binary question, the answer to which is either ‘yes, this did happen, that’s accurate’ or ‘no, that didn’t happen, that’s not how it really was’. We’re not just talking feature films and television dramas, of course. Any self-respecting pub quizzer will doubtless remind us that, when Cassius declares in Julius Caesar that “The clock has stricken three”, Shakespeare had (deliberately or otherwise) penned an anachronism – mechanical clocks of that type were not around in the first century BC.

Playing ‘fake history’ is fun for all the family. BBC Bitesize (targeted at a young audience) recently ran an online article highlighting inaccuracies in eight popular films – the Alpine escape of the von Trapp family from the clutches of the evil Nazis in The Sound Of Music, the death of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in Gladiator, the clothing worn by thirteenth-century Scots in Braveheart. And so on.

There are deeper issues involved, however – not least the rather important question of what we mean by ‘the truth’ – and unsurprisingly these trickier matters attract the interest of heavyweight journalists and academic historians alike. In this latest round, for example, Oxford historian and BBC4 regular Dr Janina Ramirez was commissioned to write a piece on The Favourite for The Sunday Times. The Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins set out his views in a typically forthright piece – ‘The new threat to truth: fake history films’. He accused film-makers of claiming “the right to mis-sell films as history”, sexing them up with invention, out of fear that “accuracy will not put bums on seats”.

This terrain encompasses all ‘texts’, not just headline-grabbing films about famous people and events found on the school history curriculum. Take two other recent films, both of which might well have come with some variation or other of the words ‘based on real events’ attached. And what is ‘based on real events’ exactly – a neutral statement, a caveat, a disclaimer, a cop-out?

Fake history Stan and Ollie
Stan And Ollie depicts Stan arguing about money with Hal Roach on the set of Way Out West, with Ollie caught in the middle.

The first, Stan And Ollie, uses a Laurel and Hardy music hall tour of Britain in the twilight of their careers as a vehicle for exploring the duo’s relationship. As a narrative frame, it works brilliantly well, though I don’t know enough about their actual story to make confident assertions about how accurate it all is. My gut instinct is to doubt the literal ‘truth’ of certain events depicted, such as the on-set arguments between Stan and Hal Roach and Ollie’s collapse in Worthing, and the accuracy of the portrayal of characters such as the scheming, oleaginous impresario, Delfont.

The second, meanwhile, I have discussed in detail elsewhere: the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, a film that wields a knife with wilful abandon as it cuts the Queen story to shreds. Guitarist Brian May has spoken of his journey of understanding as an executive producer, ending (he says) with the realisation that a film is a very different beast from a documentary – but that both are valid artistic means of telling a story. He is, in effect, criticising those Queen fans unable to move beyond the film’s cavalier approach to the facts. That formula – ‘based on real events’ – is, if nothing else, an elastic one. Maybe that’s part of the problem: how exactly are viewers expected to know how literally to believe what is being portrayed?

Fake history The Exception Himmler Kaiser Wilhelm II
The Exception suggests that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler met with Wilhelm II in 1940 and offered him the chance to return to Germany as Head of State in a ruse to flush out anti-Nazi monarchists.

Of course, should we so choose, we have the option of consulting Professor Wikipedia for (usually) in-depth analysis of the accuracy of this or that scene, portrayal or storyline. My immediate reaction after watching the excellent film The Exception, about Kaiser Wilhelm II in exile in Holland in 1940, was to reach for a biography of the ex-German emperor to clarify how much of it was true (answer: not much). But how many of us ever bother? It’s a fair bet that many film-goers and TV-watchers don’t give the matter a second thought and/or don’t particularly care whether a film is accurate or not – as long as they are entertained.

The business of films, in more than one sense, is first and foremost to entertain – fair enough. Self-styled “public historian, broadcaster, author, and historical consultant to Film & TV” Greg Jenner disagrees with the Simon Jenkins line quoted above, tweeting recently about the importance of historians engaging with pop culture:

Historical films are not “fake history”; they’re stories. They aren’t documentaries and nor do they try to be. So long as historians are able to publicly respond (which we do in droves) these films are helpful, not a hindrance, in stimulating public fascination with the past.

Greg Jenner

In other words, if films are stimulating public interest in the past, that’s surely a good thing, right? Jenner says that historians are taking part “in droves”. I accept that it would be churlish to ignore or downplay the tireless efforts of a wide range of academics and others (a big shout-out here to classroom teachers) to engage with the public via an ever-widening variety of platforms – from websites and podcasts to public lectures and TV programmes.

But a nagging question remains: beyond a stratum of enthusiastic, educated amateur history buffs – to borrow Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, “that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen” – how much actual purchase is there at grassroots level among non-history buffs? I refer, perhaps, to those who drink at that bustling yet ever so elusive pub, the Dog and Duck, spoken of in hallowed terms by politicians and social commentators alike, where issues of the day are discussed by ‘ordinary’ folk over a warm pint of beer or glass of wine.

I also accept that, although accuracy obviously matters a great deal in historical re-creations, it isn’t the be-all and end-all – and perhaps not even the most important element of a film. A film may include plenty of inaccuracies, even wholly fictionalised situations, and yet still be bloody good, as Stan And Ollie certainly showed (assuming the narrative isn’t all literally true). After all, most if not all the dialogue in every historical film is made up: who knows who said what to whom in reality? A great artist – actor, writer or director – uses their raw material – part-fact, part-fiction – to capture and convey the essence of a person or situation, hopefully revealing deeper or more complete truths. In that sense, even if some of it didn’t really happen, Stan And Ollie still stands up as an utterly delightful window into the world of Laurel and Hardy, funny, moving and sad – a warm-hearted, bittersweet film about friendship, fame and the inexorable passing of time.

I further agree that it is naive and simplistic to expect ‘the truth’ (singular). A ‘text’ – a book, a play, a film, a painting – is a representation (literally, a re-presenting) of the past, an authorial construct based at least in part on the selection and presentation of information. As the historian Anthony Beevor has argued persuasively, the price of supping with the Hollywood devil is stomaching a degree of creative licence for film-makers with regards to ‘what really happened’.

At its worst, however, this Faustian pact leads to oversimplification (not to mention ‘dumbing down’), serious distortion and the flattening of individuals and historical situations into one-dimensional caricatures. It filters out complexity, balance, nuance, ambiguity and paradox. It does not permit doubt, ambivalence and confusion. In other words, it comes at the expense of the stuff of reality and cheapens the study of the past. Ask John McDonnell, who foolishly accepted the request to reduce the life and career of Winston Churchill to a single word.

Films are also products of their time, reflecting the mood, norms and expectations of the day. However, unless handled skilfully by writer and director, they can end up seeming uncomfortably forced and contrived. Darkest Hour, the 2017 film dealing with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, is an intriguing case in this respect. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges.

Fake history Darkest Hour Underground Winston Churchill
Darkest Hour includes an entirely fictional scene set on the London Underground.

In the film, a key supporting player is therefore a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary in the typing pool, she is manoeuvred close to the action and the locus of power, often involved in one-to-one situations with Churchill. Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

A David Low cartoon from 1940. The caption read:”Very Well, Alone”. This mood of popular defiance was a feature of the fictional ‘Churchill on the Underground’ scene in the film Darkest Hour.

In the film’s ‘Underground’ scene – wholly fictional, of course – the passengers (a handy cross-section of the British people – men, women and children) are united, defiant and resolute. It is like a David Low cartoon brought to life, a re-creation of the mood portrayed in the official propaganda films of the time and later mythologised as ‘the spirit of the Blitz’. It is a version of history for the Brexiteers.

One of the passengers is a young black man, who appears to be in the company of a white woman – whether friend, lover or spouse is left unclear. While not wholly implausible in 1940, this depiction of relaxed attitudes to inter-racial relationships (and even friendships when involving people of the opposite sex) nevertheless feels anachronistic, and it is certainly very different from attitudes portrayed in the recent Rosamund Pike/David Oyelowo film set partly in late-’40s Britain, A United Kingdom.

And of course, as consumers of history – watchers of films, readers of books etc. – we sprinkle our diet with liberal (small ‘l’) helpings of our own beliefs, values and biases. With our relationship with the European continent currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, and with much hyperbolic talk about threats to our freedom, Darkest Hour resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst. Would the ‘ordinary’, non-political, non-Eurosceptic viewer have felt this way about the film ten years ago, say?

Or take the films of Mel Gibson as both actor and director. Now something of a bête noire of the film industry and the wider public1, how much are people’s opinions of his work influenced by opinions of the man (drunk, misogynist, Christian extremist, anti-Semite are some of the labels attached to him)? Or, mutatis mutandis, re-read this paragraph, replacing the name in the first sentence with ‘Woody Allen’ or ‘Kevin Spacey’.

As a keen student of history, I feel protective of the people, events and circumstances of the past, and instinctively recoil at falsification, at bias and at individuals and their reputations being brazenly glorified or traduced. When I open a history book – especially on the many topics about which I know little or nothing – I bring to it certain expectations and assumptions. First and foremost, I want accuracy and fidelity to the facts. Secondly, I trust that the representations shown to me – and judgements offered – by the writer are judiciously reached, based on the best available evidence. I want to learn about three-dimensional characters, not black-and-white ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Where doubt about the evidence exists, I want it to be made clear that doubt exists.

Fake history Adolf Hitler Downfall
Bruno Ganz’s brilliant performance in Downfall was both celebrated and criticised for ‘humanizing’ Adolf Hitler.

Is it too much to expect all this of a film – and to be entertained as well? In the week of Bruno Ganz’s death, it is worth remembering what can be achieved. Though no Hollywood blockbuster, and perhaps known to many people only via much-circulated social media memes with joke subtitles, Downfall – and particularly Ganz’s electrifying portrayal of Adolf Hitler – demonstrates that films can indeed combine serious, well-researched history and gripping entertainment. More, please.