Radio Blah Blah: Records and Record Buying in 1977

Giving away my record collection about ten years ago — all bar a couple of rarities — was an easy decision to make. Vinyl might once again (in 2020) be the cool way to listen to music, but not a decade ago, a time when record shops were an endangered species. Besides, there is no turntable in the house to play them on and I have CDs of everything I used to own, many with remastered sound and/or additional tracks.

Dusting off the old vinyl in the loft to help me compile a list of the first records I ever bought is not, therefore, an option. The official charts website will instead be my trusty guide through the gathering gloom of failing memory.

This ought to be easier with singles than with albums. Record shops used to stock albums going back years, but singles carried more of a ‘sell by’ date. Most shops sold older singles as well, usually in tightly packed, randomly ordered rows — and no doubt I picked up one or two singles cheaply long after they had fallen out of the charts — but I am fairly confident that I bought everything mentioned below when it was actually in the charts, making it possible to establish a more or less accurate timeline.

First, some pre-history.

My parents were not pop-music people. The only pop records I recall in the house when I was young were a couple of early Beatles EPs and Teenage Rampage by The Sweet (still my favourite Sweet song). That dates the memory to about 1974. Later there was a copy of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, presumably bought by my brother, who is older than me. The less said about my impromptu science experiment — playing the b-side using a nail as a stylus — the better. Hint: It is a one-time experiment.

I was too young to watch Van der Valk on television (early 1970s, with Barry Foster as the title character) but was obsessed with the theme tune, played by the Simon Park Orchestra. Eye Level reached No 1 in 1973. There was also a version with words sung by Matt Munro called And You Smiled. We had an album of popular TV themes as well. Favourites of mine, probably not on the album, included The World at War, Colditz and The Avengers.

I was a kid; there was inevitably a novelty single or two. One was a spoof song called King of the Cops, featuring somebody doing impressions of TV detectives to the tune of King of the Road by Roger Miller. The other was Trail of the Lonesome Pine by Laurel and Hardy, the beginning of a lifelong affection. I was gutted that it peaked at No 2, unaware that the song in its way was Bohemian Rhapsody. Over the years I have agonised every time a Queen single has stalled at No 2 — it is quite a list — so that probably counts as a bit of irony.

We bought our first music centre in about 1976: a radio, record player and cassette player, all in one. It meant that you could tape things directly from the radio or from a record, so the quality of the recording was good. I remember endlessly playing and re-playing a BASF C60 cassette with only four songs on it. One was definitely Mississippi by Pussycat and another was If You Leave Me Now by Chicago — so probably October or November 1976. The other two may have been Under the Moon of Love by Showaddywaddy and either Dancing Queen or Money Money Money by Abba. More about them shortly.

And so to January 1977. Jim Callaghan had taken over from Harold Wilson as Labour prime minister the previous April, Jimmy Carter was just beginning his term in office as US president, and the Christmas hit When a Child Is Born by Johnny Mathis was still No 1 in the first Top 30 of the new year.

I was 10 and beginning to soak up music like a sponge. This included obsessing about the singles chart, frantically scribbling down every song as it was read out on Radio 1 before writing the whole thing up neatly afterwards. I then taped all the new entries off the radio, using a mini-library of cassettes, with the DJ’s waffle over the intro and outro of each song lopped off. There were cassettes for repeat use and one reserved for songs I liked. Cassettes came with a small plastic square in the top corner; breaking it stopped you from accidentally taping over the contents.

There is a familiarity about the Top 30s of January 1977, so I must have been a regular listener by this point. A few songs are admittedly a complete blank — Bionic Santa by Chris Hill? — but it is surprisingly easy to remember the ones I hated. The chart of 23 January features Don’t Cry for Me Argentina by Julie Covington, When I Need You by Leo Sayer and David Soul singing Don’t Give Up On Us Baby. The entire universe watched Starsky and Hutch but it was obvious even to a 10-year-old that ‘Hutch’ wasn’t No 1 because of his singing voice.

The new chart was announced on Radio 1 on Tuesdays. Top of the Pops was on BBC One on Thursdays and there was a weekly chart show on the radio on Sundays — the Top 20 at first, later morphing into the Top 40. Knowing the exact order of songs to be played, this is where the taping mainly happened. Presented by Tom Browne back when I first started listening, it was a simultaneous broadcast on Radio 1 and Radio 2 — and in glorious stereo. Radio 1 itself was only in mono. As the reception, particularly after dark, was awful, it made recording anything from it a waste of time.

The chart of 30 January features a couple of 7-out-of-10 songs by groups I now listen to a lot: Don’t Believe a Word (Thin Lizzy) and New Kid in Town (The Eagles). But only one song grabbed me at the time: More Than a Feeling by Boston. It remains a huge favourite, a definite maybe for my yet-to-be-written list of the 20 best songs by 20 different artists (there are about 50 songs on that particular shortlist). I didn’t buy it, but the song later featured on a fairly obscure film soundtrack album that I got sometime in 1978 called FM.

The film itself wasn’t a success. Almost certainly I bought the soundtrack because it included We Will Rock You (a hefty 2 minutes out of 80 minutes of music). Looking back at the track list, it is still too ‘American’ for my taste — James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Linda Ronstadt — but I immediately warmed to Life in the Fast Lane (The Eagles), Life’s Been Good (Joe Walsh) and Lido Shuffle by Boz Scaggs.

And so we get to 6 February 1977.

Boogie Nights (Heatwave), Don’t Leave Me This Way (Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes) and Chanson d’Amour (Manhattan Transfer) have joined Leo Sayer, Julie Covington and David Soul at the top end of the charts. But new in at No 30 is Rockaria by ELO — I think, my first ‘proper’ single.

I picked up a great-value box set of the entire ELO catalogue on CD not long ago. Their first few albums, in particular — featuring Roy Wood as much as Jeff Lynne — are excellent and unexpectedly experimental in places. A New World Record was their big commercial breakthrough; Rockaria was one of several singles from it. Beyond the reference to Beethoven, the lyrics seemed like gobbledygook. I probably liked the song for the ‘novelty’ operatic voice and the feel-good, upbeat tempo.

A month or so later and Knowing Me Knowing You is dominating the charts. It is blindingly obvious to me now that Abba were exceptional — classic pop tunes, brilliant arrangements and surprisingly dark lyrics — but I detested them at the time. David Bowie’s Sound and Vision is also in the top 3. Apart from the catchy riff, I liked its unusual structure: a short piece anyway, the vocals only come in halfway through. This was the start of Bowie’s Berlin period when he did some of his most influential work, though it didn’t sell particularly well by his standards. Sound and Vision was his last really big hit until Ashes to Ashes in 1980. Even Heroes, released later in 1977, was not much of a commercial success.

Once I was buying albums, most Saturdays involved touring the record shops of Wigan, principally Javelin and Roy Hurst’s, who in an act of wanton vandalism routinely stamped their name and address in ink on inner sleeves. But on this particular occasion in April I walked down to Mr Records, a local shop on the main road in Pemberton — long gone now, of course (the shop, not Pemberton) — intending to buy another single. Have I the Right by the Dead End Kids, No 6 on 24 April, was top of the shortlist, though 10cc, The Eagles and Peter Gabriel all had records out as well. Solsbury Hill was Gabriel’s first solo single after leaving Genesis. It is still one of my favourites; even as a 10-year-old I must have liked it.

Sad to say, I didn’t choose any of them. Instead — idiot alert — I bought the latest Top of the Pops album. The vinyl equivalent of the Turkey Twizzler, Top of the Pops albums were cheap and full of shit. Singles probably cost about 90p, albums perhaps £3.50. My weekly pocket money was 50p, let’s say, so I could afford a record every few weeks. A Top of the Pops album featured a dozen or so current hits — the Now! of its day — at a bargain price of about £1.20. Cheap but, alas, not cheerful. None of the tracks were original versions; they were all played (badly, if memory serves) by an in-house band. The one and only attractive thing about a Top of the Pops album was the model on the cover.

No such schoolboy error a week or two later, buying what was probably single number two: Hotel California by The Eagles. Like Rockaria, it is unusual and distinctive — six minutes plus, with a lengthy introduction and, of course, perhaps the greatest twin-guitars solo of all time. Definitely a thing for guitars, then. In our first music lesson at my new school in September we were asked what instrument we would like to learn; I wrote ‘electronic guitar’. Songs with offbeat arrangements seem to be high on my list, too — soon after buying Hotel California, I got 10cc’s Good Morning Judge, a clever, quirky song by a clever, quirky group.

Another stone-cold classic (unknown to me) in this week’s chart is Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple. Also up there is the ultimate earworm, Mah-Na, Mah-Na by the Muppets, and a fantastic but only moderately successful song called Lonely Boy by Andrew Gold that often gets a mention on Ken Bruce’s Pop Master quiz.

The charts tended to behave in a fairly predictable way: perhaps five or six new entries on the Top 30, with the highest new entry and the highest climber always getting a special mention. Going Underground by The Jam was the first single I remember actually entering the chart at No 1, a few years later. It is the most uneven double A-sided single I know: Going Underground is one of The Jam’s best songs and Dreams of Children one of their worst.

The highest new entry of 29 May is God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols, in at No 11. Listening to the Sunday chart rundown I wait, fingers poised above ‘Record’ and ‘Play’.

“In at No 11, the highest new entry this week is God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols … and at No 10 is OK by the Rock Follies …”

They didn’t play it. They didn’t play God Save the Queen. Why not?! What did I know of BBC bans and names like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. Lyrics like “fascist regime” were yet more gobbledygook. By the following week it was No 2, just beaten to No 1 by Rod Stewart. Again it wasn’t played. It is often said, of course, that God Save the Queen was actually the ‘real’ No 1, but that this was deemed unacceptable in the week of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee by the bowler-hatted powers-that-be.

If you have been reading closely, Mah-Na, Mah-Na may be playing in your head by now.

Speaking of Her Majesty, at some point in the first half of the year two friends at school — Keith and Andy — mentioned the names Freddie Mercury and Queen. Somebody to Love was already on one of my cassettes, ending with the final note of the piano and DJ Tom Browne saying “Ha! Qu–” before I pressed the Stop button. I wasn’t even aware of their next single, Tie Your Mother Down, which didn’t trouble the scorers — a shame, as it’s their best ‘live’ video.

I had already taped Elton John’s Greatest Hits, which my dad had borrowed from somebody at work. There are few better openings to an album — albeit a greatest hits collection — than Your Song followed by Daniel. But I am fairly certain that the first album I actually bought was Queen’s A Day at the Races, possibly in Llandudno and probably during the Whitsun holiday in late-May.

Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy — actually ‘Queen’s First EP’ — was their next single. It may have been my next buy, though possibly one I bought some time later. DJs spoke of records ‘climbing’ the charts and then ‘peaking’ and ‘dropping’. Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy was one of those that actually yo-yo-ed around: 36 … 29 … 21 … 24 … 19 … 17 … 23 … 22.

Off school ill one day and lying in bed listening to Radio 1 (it may have been the Tony Blackburn show, 9am to 12pm), I heard Fool’s Overture by Supertramp. This was unusual because (a) it is an album track and daytime Radio 1 tended to play only singles, and (b) it is about 10 minutes long. Give a Little Bit was Supertramp’s current single. I didn’t buy it and, surprisingly (because it is brilliant), it was only a very minor hit, but their album Even in the Quietest Moments, which includes both songs, was another of my first album buys.

It is a puzzle why I bought nothing during the summer holidays because there were some great songs around between June and August — Telephone Line (ELO), Match of the Day (Genesis), Fanfare for the Common Man (ELP), Oxygene (Jean-Michel Jarre), Dancin’ in the Moonlight (Thin Lizzy).

A big summer hit was the groundbreaking I Feel Love by Donna Summer, with its Giorgio Moroder electronic pulse: it is yet another song that I loathed at the time but grudgingly appreciate nowadays. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley died in the middle of August. His single Way Down had failed to even reach the Top 40 but suddenly raced to the top of the chart when his death was announced. Much the same thing happened after the murder of John Lennon in December 1980. His then-new album Double Fantasy was No 1, as were the singles Woman and (Just Like) Starting Over — collectively his biggest hits since the Imagine single and album a decade earlier.

I bought We Are the Champions as soon as it came out in early October. Maybe all my money was going on buying Queen albums because my next single only entered the Top 30 several weeks later: She’s Not There by Santana. It’s a great song (an old Zombies hit) but it was definitely the spectacular and (for a single) lengthy guitar solos that caught my ear. That guitar thing again; not that I had any idea who Carlos Santana was.

In contrast, it was the synth solo that stood out on my next buy, another old song, though a re-release not a cover: Virginia Plain by Roxy Music. The second coming of Roxy Music in the late 1970s was not to my taste — too suave, too smooth — but Virginia Plain is from their earlier art-house period when Brian Eno was in the band. Whenever Eno later collaborated with musicians I listen to, he always added a magical ingredient, something deliciously quirky and offbeat: try The Waiting Room by Genesis or Memories Can’t Wait by Talking Heads (with that brilliantly jarring and discordant middle eight at roughly 2:01, before it all comes back in tune with the line “Everything is very quiet…”).

The chart of 6 November sticks in the memory. We Are the Champions was on its way to becoming a big hit, getting to No 6 the previous week. There was every expectation that it would be top 3 this week. Radio 1’s Paul Burnett always announced the new chart at 12.45pm on Tuesdays, straight after Newsbeat. He played the new No 5 through to No 2 and then did the rundown of the full Top 30, finishing by playing whatever was No 1. This all happily coincided with school lunchtime. My friend and fellow Queen fan Keith lived in the road behind school. We sat in his porch with a transistor radio listening in. I didn’t expect Champions to be either No 5 or No 4. It wasn’t. Nor was it No 3. Great, it was No 2. Except it wasn’t.

A non-mover at No 6. Cue the end of the world.

Well, not quite. The following week it jumped again to No 2 and looked all set to be their second No 1, only for Abba’s Name of the Game to crush our hopes. For two weeks running the top 3 was Abba, Queen and Status Quo’s Rockin’ All Over the World. Then Paul McCartney and Wings were No 1 forever with the turgid Mull of Kintyre (actually, nine weeks — the same, coincidentally, as Bohemian Rhapsody first time around).

A television advert for an album, presumably broadcast in the run-up to Christmas, acclaimed the band in question as rock gods who routinely sold out stadiums in America. Impressive stuff. I was duly intrigued. They were Yes, and the album was Going for the One. I bought the single of the same name, actually their second hit from the album. The first was the exquisite Wonderous Stories, the spelling of which looks like something Americans would write. The song’s writer Jon Anderson is from Accrington, but he is a West Coast hippie through and through. The b-side of Going for the One was called Awaken PT 1, which I cheerfully pronounced ‘pee tee 1’. The penny didn’t drop until I bought the album a couple of years later that it was ‘Part 1’: the full version lasts about 15 minutes.

Going for the One was my final buy of 1977. By this time I was fast becoming a Queen-aholic [more memories from the 1970s here]. I joined the fan club and saw them in concert for the first time the following May. This is also roughly the time when the local British Legion started a weekly disco for under-18s. The DJ used to play a handful of heavy-rock tracks, the same ones week in and week out; Paranoid and Black Dog are two I remember. It was my introduction to headbanging.

On a school holiday to a residential site called Hammarbank in the Lake District in July 1978 we played a copy of 24 Carat Purple (a sort of Deep Purple ‘best of’, one of many) to death in the evenings on the communal record player. Another Hammarbank favourite was the single Rosalie by Thin Lizzy from their album Live and Dangerous, which I got for my birthday soon afterwards. It is one of the great live albums.

That, then, was my year that was. Plenty there that I still like and listen to, as well as much that passed me by at the time. It was the following year — 1978 — that I properly started to build up my album collection. Some of the early punk singles were already charting by the end of 1977, but the likes of Genesis, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were on my horizon, and my brother was playing weird, heavy prog rock by a Canadian band with a singer who seemed to literally shriek about hallowed halls, temples of Syrinx and drinking the milk of paradise [my Rush appreciation here]. There was never any doubt that it was rock music for me.

There is just one outlier that comes to mind, a record that bucks the guitar-heavy trend — a K-Tel album. These compilations were better than their Top of the Pops equivalents because they featured original versions of songs, though with early fade-outs to fit in more tracks. This particular K-Tel collection was called Disco Fever. I have no idea why I was obsessed with this album but I was, for a few weeks at least. Baccara. The Floaters. Hot Chocolate… Not too many screaming lead singers or scorching guitar solos to be found on that album, then.

Mah-Na, Mah-Na.

More about Music


Growing up as a Queen fan: teenage tales told through 10 Queen-related objects


An appreciation of (cliché-alert) Canada’s finest power trio. RIP Neil Peart


My history of Genesis, told via their best bootlegs, reaches the Duke tour in 1980

Books, TV and Films, September 2020

2 September

I re-watched The Ninth Gate, having referred to it in my recent Dennis Wheatley blog. Considering that it is directed by Roman Polanski — highly renowned, if controversial for non-film reasons; my favourite film of his is The Pianist — it plods quite a bit and the special effects aren’t up to much (the mysterious guardian angel’s ‘flying’ sequences are woefully bad). In a sentence, I much prefer the individual ingredients — antiquarian books, mysterious codes for summoning the devil etc — to the finished meal.

I have also watched Joker. I am not into the Marvel/DC stuff at all and haven’t seen any of the many ‘modern’ Batman films except the very first one with Michael Keaton (in which Jack Nicholson played the Joker). Does Joker even count as a ‘Batman’ film? I saw it as a searing indictment of the way American society deals with mental illness and its poor and downtrodden more generally.

4 September

A book that has been on my must-read list for quite some time is Love, Paul Gambaccini, the DJ’s account of his year under arrest as part of Operation Yewtree, the police’s investigation into allegations of sexual conduct among ‘celebrities’ and other assorted VIPs in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile revelations.

It is basically Gambaccini’s edited diaries for the year. As he himself says, if the police are going to arrest a journalist, they shouldn’t be surprised if the journalist keeps a journal. What happened to Gambaccini is shocking, and the book is a very uncomfortable read. You could put it down after a hundred pages without missing a great deal because Gambaccini’s life was basically put on hold for a year, despite the fact that he was never charged.

After his arrest it was like he was caught in a temporal loop. D-Day was roughly two months or so down the line, the date on which the police would inform him whether or not he would actually be charged. In those two months, as well as constant speculation on snippets of information gleaned from the police and other sources, there is much support from family and friends, many outbursts of anger, much cold shouldering and lots of eating out. Behind it all is a general build-up of tension as D-Day approaches. Then: complete anti-climax, as he is blithely informed that he is being rebailed for another few weeks. And so the cycle repeats. This nightmare went on for a year.

Gambaccini worries on 8 August: “What if the book I am writing is also met with a national yawn?” If so, that would be a shame because this is an important book, one that needs to be widely read. Sadly, I fear the worst; it doesn’t appear to have even made it to paperback.

The book is, as you would expect, full of rage. In subsequent media interviews (he went on to campaign for a change in the law on bail) he is careful to frame the debate in terms of two equal victims — the person assaulted and the person falsely accused. Apart from the outrageous way that Gambaccini and others were treated, one of the troubling things for me, as a long-time Guardian reader, is that Gambaccini — himself a lifelong Labour supporter and active fundraiser — is clear that his most vocal support came from the right-wing commentariat, the likes of Richard Littlejohn. From The Guardian, nothing. It has a different agenda.

And of course the book throws a spotlight on the shocking state of our justice system, which faces death by a thousand cuts. This case seriously stretched someone like Gambaccini, a relatively wealthy individual with access to extremely rich friends. The awful reality is that ‘justice’ in such cases is the preserve of the rich and almost certainly out of the reach of people of ordinary means.

Gambaccini himself — the ‘professor of pop’ — is a thoroughly likeable chap, which we knew anyway, I suppose. There is more than a little humour mixed in with the rage, and he can be forgiven the odd wince-inducing remark. Top of the latter list: “As a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran turned franchise icon might say, make it so.” It’s a reference to Patrick Stewart, if you aren’t a Star Trek fan.

5 September

Freddie Mercury’s birthday. Yesterday I asked some friends how old they thought he would be if he were still alive. Nobody went above 70. He would actually be 74 today. Although Queen’s first album only came out in 1973, they are of a similar age to others who broke through in the sixties. Jimmy Page and Roger Daltrey, for example, are both 76.

7 September

Time for some serious film watching ahead of the new football season. One that has been waiting in the My Recordings folder for far too long is The Post. Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep; why on earth did I not watch this the day it was first shown?

Written around the publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers in the early seventies (which basically showed that the US government had been lying about the war in Vietnam for a very long time), it is a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men, the story of the Watergate exposé starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

This time around there is no Woodward and Bernstein. The star of the show is the Washington Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks. The film has an unashamedly liberal agenda and, though set fifty years ago, its central message — the freedom of the press is a sine qua non of a liberal and democratic society, holding those in power to account — resonates in the Trump world of ‘fake news’ and naked attacks on the media.

I wrote the following about Darkest Hour, the 2017 film about Winston Churchill in 1940:

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.

Diogenes, Darkest Hour film review

I doubt there are many settings more “dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men” than the upper echelons of the Washington Post in the seventies. Thus, running in parallel with the journalistic scoop story, the script follows the tribulations of the paper’s owner Katharine Graham, who is played by Streep.

I don’t know anything about what really went on behind the scenes at the Post. Graham is portrayed in the film as a woman at first seemingly out of her depth, having been placed in the hot seat by the death of her husband. The decision to publish the secret documents could bankrupt the paper. Should she authorise publication or not? Eventually standing up to the (all male) board — with the great Bradley Whitford playing a deliciously sinister role, his naked chauvinism visible for all to see by the film’s end — she backs her editor.

12 September

Well, I have finally broken my unwritten rule of alternating between fact and fiction this year. A number of books have been shouting at me to be re-read, I think because I noticed that the Labour politician Lord Adonis has written a biography of Ernie Bevin. I am very tempted to re-read the third volume of Alan Bullock’s biography, but it’s about 900 pages (and the text is unusually small) so I will wait until I am a bit less busy.

The Adonis book reminded me of the biography of Aneurin Bevan I read a year or so ago by Nick Thomas-Symonds, who is currently the shadow home secretary. He might be a former Oxford academic and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, but it was a really disappointing book. I am not a huge fan of ‘serving’ politicians writing books about their heroes. Having said that, I do want to re-read Michael Foot’s Bevan biography, if only to enjoy it as a literary treat (and, yes, I know, I didn’t enjoy Foot’s biography of HG Wells).

In the end I decided to re-read Age of Capital, the second volume of Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the ‘long’ nineteenth century. I re-read Age of Revolution last year, and I plan to get round to Age of Empire again at some point to complete the trilogy.

14 September

I watched the fourth and final episode of Lethal White, the latest TV outing for Strike, the London private detective created by Robert Galbraith, better known as JK Rowling. I have never actually checked but I assume that the pseudonym is at least in part linked to JK Galbraith, the famous liberal economist. Strike is something of a rarity for me: a drama that I found at the very beginning (I actually went back and watched The Cuckoo’s Calling on iPlayer last week), and I am so glad I did.

The plot of Lethal White is ridiculously convoluted and hard to follow (made even worse because I watched the episodes more or less as broadcast, with a week’s gap in between, and I have a memory like a sieve; normally I record them and watch the whole thing in my own time), but it didn’t really matter because much of the drama actually revolves around the relationship between Strike and his assistant Robin. Two convincingly drawn characters, a great ongoing will-they-won’t-they thing, and brilliant performances from Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger (who reminds me a bit of Jodie Comer, also sensational as Villanelle in Killing Eve).

15 September

After a run of first-class films I have hit a brick wall of sorts with Ad Astra. It’s one of those films which I think we are meant to regard as deep and meaningful, but it didn’t do a huge amount for me; maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. I have never been a huge fan of first-person voiceovers: is it me or do they always sound phlegmatic and, dare I say it, bored?

I assume the echoes of Apocalypse Now, itself based on the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, are deliberate: a journey into the unknown; delusions of grandeur; the questioning of old certainties.

In its visuals I suppose it will be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were indeed some impressive scenes (none more so than the opening sequence where he plunges to earth from an impossibly tall structure that reaches into space). The extra-vehicular goings-on in Neptune’s orbit were stunning but completely ridiculous. The buggy chase across the Moon actually reminded me of Diamonds Are Forever as much as anything, and the Mars interiors looked like something from a Gerry Anderson set.

16 September

I am always amazed — perhaps ‘incredulous’ is the word — when some cultural or intellectual figure of note, quizzed on what they are currently reading, promptly reels off four or five titles. It is rare that I even have two books on the go at the same time. My brain just can’t handle it, and I also have a vague sense that it is disrespectful to the author. I have made an exception at the moment, if only because the second one isn’t actually a standard book as such. As well as Hobsbawm I am reading Countdown Cath.

The ‘Cath’ of the title is Cathy Hytner, best known as one of the original Countdown presenting team back in the early eighties. As I say, it is very different from the books I normally read. For starters, it is extremely slight — 80 pages, about 10 of which are of photographs. Nor is it a product of the ‘official’ book world. Rather, it is a more or less DIY effort, published with the help of a friend, I think. Don’t pick it up expecting a polished publication.

Covering the period from her childhood in the fifties to leaving Countdown in the late-eighties, this collection of memories was written in self-isolation during the lockdown of March onwards. In an afterword, Cathy describes the writing experience as “cathartic”. For the reader, meanwhile, the very first paragraph of a blurb on the opening page — “unwanted fourth daughter”, “neglected childhood years”, “hidden cost” — prepares us for what is to come.

It is an unvarnished and at times sad and deeply moving tale. Its mini-chapters (sometimes less than a page in length) — and particularly the repeated use of titles beginning with the words ‘Picture This’ — add to the sense that Cathy is candidly showing us snapshots from the life of a working-class girl from Manchester. It isn’t all grim up north. There is laughter mixed in with the tears and glamour as well as gloom. But, at a time when one side in the culture war rages that demands for equality are a sign that the world has gone mad, Cathy’s stories from the modelling and TV worlds of the seventies and eighties are a timely reminder of the abysmal way in which we are capable of treating each other — and, indeed, routinely did not all that long ago. A quick glance at Gyles Brandreth’s published diaries, Something Sensational to Read in the Train, confirms that producer John Meade was indeed a complete shit.

With a bit of imagination I can join the dots between the houses, shops and streets of Cathy’s childhood and my early-years visits to my grandmother’s house a decade and a half later. It was a warm, welcoming and loving household; I was lucky. But, even as a young child, I had a sense of the make-do-and-mend reality of Nanna’s day-to-day life. It wasn’t just the television that was in black and white. To slightly misquote Harold Macmillan, most of us have never had it so good. It is all too easy to look back nostalgically on the good old days that, in reality, never actually existed.

17 September

I finished the Hobsbawm book. As usual, he writes in the preface that the book is aimed at the general reader (his own Age of Revolution puts it best: “that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen”). I am intrigued to meet this general reader. As someone who has been reading history for forty years I find Hobsbawm’s histories never less than challenging: wide-ranging, learned and — despite his protestations — requiring more than a passing familiarity with at least the main events of the period. Curiously, my (paperback) edition shows the copyright as 1962, but it was in fact published in 1975.

For all Hobsbawm’s intellectual prowess the book does have serious flaws. The repeated references to Marx date it somewhat (and its unapologetically Marxist perspective paints the world in bleak terms). Despite its global canvas it defaults repeatedly to Europe, principally Britain and France. I will frankly have to re-read the chapter on the arts to get to grips with what Hobsbawm was arguing. More generally, for a lifelong champion of the so-called lower classes, his observations on culture are extraordinarily elitist.

The great Richard J Evans has written a brilliant biography of Hobsbawm, and it is to Evans’s The Pursuit of Power rather than to Hobsbawn that I would now turn if I wanted an overview of the nineteenth century.

22 September

Reading Eric Hobsbawn has led me back to EP Thompson, another great Marxist historian. I am re-reading The Crisis of Theory by Scott Hamilton.

Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963, is hailed as a classic, breaking new ground in terms of its subject matter and its methodological approach. He fell out spectacularly with Perry Anderson and the New Left Review circle of Marxists in the sixties and seventies. While they were under the spell of continental Marxists and a ‘cold’, structuralist approach to thinking about history and society — a sense that we are powerless in the face of ‘objective’ economic laws — Thompson emphasised consciousness and agency. He combined this with a fierce pride in the struggles of ordinary people throughout (British) history.

Some of Thompson’s ideas now seem hopelessly romantic — indeed, towards the end of his life he seems to have become disillusioned not just with Marxism but with the left more generally — but the values that underpin his ‘socialist humanism’ strike me as more relevant than ever.

24 September

After a run of non-fiction reading it was time to pick up a novel again, as per my new year’s resolution. I have read pretty much everything by Sebastian Faulks, including On Green Dolphin Street earlier this year. I count Human Traces as one of my all-time favourite books. For some reason I haven’t yet read his latest — Paris Echo — even though it was published in paperback in 2018. So, here goes …

29 September

Paris Echo has all the familiar Faulks trademarks, not least an incredible sense of place. If I had to sum up in one word what I love about Faulks’s writing, it would probably be ‘interweaving’. It is there in all his books but is absolutely central to this one — the ‘echoes’ of the title. One story weaves in and out of another; characters intermingle, one with another; the past intersects with the present; locations intersect with stories. It is all wonderfully, wonderfully crafted. Overarching it all is a deep love of, and respect for, the past.

We are back in Faulks’ beloved France. The two central characters are Hannah, an American historian researching women’s experiences in Paris during the Occupation, and Tariq, an undocumented Moroccan immigrant, whose family history has been shaped by France’s colonial past. Both arrive in Paris looking for something, though neither is clear quite what that ‘something’ is.

The novel is full of mystery. There is the fragility and contingency of Hannah’s work, as she tries to reconstruct the past. As a historian by training and someone who reads a lot of history, I was struck by the observation that people who live through ‘historic’ events might not experience them as such, especially if their most pressing day-to-day priority is simply survival.

There are many unanswered questions surrounding Tariq, too. What was the traumatic experience in his family’s recent past? What is the nature of his out-of-body ‘autoscopic’ experiences? Is Clemence real or just a drug-induced hallucination? For the reader it is frustrating — but fitting — that Faulks doesn’t give us any easy answers to these and other conundrums.

More Books, TV & Film Chat


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