Books, TV and Films, April 2021

3 April

I avoid opening Amazon’s emails telling me what their omniscient algorithms think I should be buying and I never even look at the latest fiction and non-fiction charts so, other than skimming the Guardian’s Review magazine on Saturdays, I am always rather in the dark about new book releases. Now that bookshops are open again — well, they will be in a few days — it’s an opportunity to start paying more attention to new writing in history, biography and politics. (Though I remain loath to buy books about the contemporary political scene, which almost by definition date very quickly, I will probably make an exception for Peter Oborne’s The Assault on Truth, a favourite topic of mine these days.)

More than ever this last year I have been drawn back to old favourites — books that first made an impression on me years ago, or that have outstanding literary merit, or that are recognised as classics. High up on that list is the three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher. Volume I is called The Prophet Armed and covers the years up to 1921.

Deutscher is widely recognised as one of the outstanding Marxists of the time (he was active from the late-1920s until his death in 1967) — a highly influential activist, historian and journalist. The Prophet Armed is beautifully written. Though its scholarship will now of course be superseded, at the time (it was published in 1954) it made extensive use of previously unavailable material. And, although Deutscher is very much associated with the Trotskyist wing of world communism, his biography is by no means hagiographic, paying due attention to Trotsky’s flaws, mistakes and misjudgements.

Trotsky has always struck me as — even more than Lenin — the towering figure of the Russian Revolution. He was a more charismatic leader than Lenin, a more engaging public speaker, a more gifted writer and to my mind (though this is certainly arguable) a more daring strategist and effective organiser and administrator, certainly in the period from 1917 to 1921. It was Trotsky who was at the centre of events in 1905, as chair of the Petrograd Soviet. It was Trotsky who masterminded the seizure of power in October 1917. And it was Trotsky who created the Red Army from virtually nothing and ‘saved’ the revolution from defeat in the ensuing civil war. 

Much writing about the Russian Revolution itself — perhaps most notably in recent years the work of Robert Service, formerly professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford — comes from historians whose work is influenced by their hostility to communism, perhaps involving the conviction that the later horrors of Stalinism and the broader failings of the Soviet state were/are an intrinsic part of the communist package, or who assume that the revolutionaries were all along motivated largely by cynical, violent and base urges. The sympathetic pen of Deutscher, on the other hand, reminds the reader of what the revolutionaries themselves believed they were fighting for — the introduction of true equality between all peoples and the flourishing of genuine freedom and democracy through the eradication of all forms of exploitation.

All of which gives the closing chapter of Volume I in particular —entitled Defeat in Victory — the air of Greek tragedy: the opponents of imperialist war waging aggressive war against Poland; the emancipators of working people introducing forced militarisation of labour and the widespread use of terror; the proponents of true democracy instituting a one-party state, banning dissent even within the Communist Party itself and crushing rebellion at the previously loyal Kronstadt naval base.

5 April

Not being a telly addict I have missed out on a huge amount of quality television over the years. Take your pick from the last thirty-five years – Our Friends Up North, 24, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad: a mouth-watering smorgasbord of highly acclaimed drama and I haven’t seen any of them.

Part of the problem is that by the time a programme becomes a bleep on my radar, it’s already too late: the series is underway, plots and characters are established, threads are busily interweaving and knotting. Okay, I am exaggerating. DVD box sets have been around for ever (though it’s an expensive mistake if a programme turns out to be a turn-off rather than a turn-on) and cable/satellite TV, catch-up TV and TV on demand mean that, unlike in the old days, I can make the effort if I really want to. Plenty of ‘classics’ repeated from the very beginning. Take The Eagle’s Nest, for example, the first ever episode of The New Avengers from 1976, which I watched (again) recently. Who can resist a Hitler-didn’t-really-die-in Berlin-in-1945 plotline?

To quote The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn, let’s ignore the fact that I arrived at the party late and celebrate the fact that I have turned up at all. I first watched both Friends and The Office about a decade after they initially aired. The ten series of Spooks filled much of the first lockdown, and I have watched all bar the first series of Unforgotten during the current one.

Which brings us to Line of Duty. Mother of God, it’s good. There’s the (admittedly rather daft) ‘Who is H?’ story arc, the Arnott–Fleming partnership (though the serious overuse of ‘mate’ is starting to grate) and then there are the Ted-isms. Now we’re sucking diesel.

Best of all are the set-piece extended grillings in the interview room: the cat and mouse, the shifts in the power balance, the perfectly cued-up evidence, the beautifully timed interjections — all apparently with no pre-interview preparation time from AC–12’s finest. Wonderfully executed dramatic licence. No doubt the reality is far less slick; try listening to any of the US president’s press secretaries (even the articulate ones) after watching a CJ Cregg monologue in The West Wing (again).

12 April

From Line of Duty and Unforgotten back to detective fiction; this time John Rebus rather than another Poirot. I first started collecting Rebus after noticing that they are a charity shop staple. My intention was/is to read them in chronological order. The first Rebus novel (written by Ian Rankin) was Knots and Crosses, published in 1987. I am up to the seventh in the series, 1996’s Let It Bleed.

I have a memory of Rankin saying that it was with this novel — or perhaps it was the next one, Black and Blue, which is considerably longer — that he felt that his writing really improved. There is a definite sense here of the two things for which the Rebus novels are perhaps best known: the city of Edinburgh itself, and the many backstreet dives that Rebus frequents — and loses himself in — both socially and professionally. The title, a reference to a Rolling Stones song (Rebus is a big fan), describes both the malfunctioning heating in Rebus’ flat and a painful gum abscess. It also serves as a metaphor for the corruption among Edinburgh’s elite that Rebus is investigating.

Let It Bleed is certainly an enjoyable read, excellently plotted and structured. One thing that slightly puzzles me about Rankin’s writing is that it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the narrator’s voice, which is infused with humour, irony and sarcasm, from that of Rebus himself. A couple of examples. The DCI has been seriously injured and the station talk is all about who will step into his shoes: “The rumours piled up faster than the collection money”. Then there’s a photo of a kidnapped girl “which somehow the media got their paws on”.

18 April

Don’t be fooled into thinking that McDonald & Dodds, one of ITV’s more recent detective dramas, is set in the city of Bath. The real location is the same alternate universe (© American Sci-Fi) as Midsomer Murders, where the sky is perpetually blue, the rolling countryside is liberally splashed with bright greens and yellows, and life rolls along at a sedate, self-satisfied pace. Swearing, litter and graffiti don’t exist. Even the mass murderers are considerate enough not to upset the idyll with anything as vulgar as a gore-splattered crime scene. The viewer is left wondering whether a body that has been hacked to pieces even bleeds.

The writers have managed to conjure up one more permutation of the ‘mismatched partners’ trope — this time it’s a dull, plodding but really quite sharp old hand (think Inspector Columbo) paired with an ambitious, brash but likeable woman of colour from the Big City. It’s all good cartoonish fun, an enjoyable antidote to the darkness typical of most crime drama. Chief Superintendent Houseman, however, is a caricature too far. Imagine a younger and (much) slimmer version of Chief Superintendent Strange from Inspector Morse. This comment (to DCI McDonald) made me laugh though: “You tick boxes that haven’t been invented yet.”

30 April

The odd thing about reading Leninism Under Lenin by Marcel Liebman (another thinker who, like Isaac Deutscher, was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks but not blind to their mistakes and failings) is that I was less clear in my understanding of how to define Leninism at the end of the book that I was before I began it. That’s not a fault of the book — for a work focusing as much on political theory as on actual historical events it is admirably clear and accessibly written.

I might previously have said that Lenin’s main contribution to the development of Marxism was the idea of a tightly knit group of professional revolutionaries held together by iron discipline. Yet Liebman shows that — both during the long years of Lenin’s exile before 1917 and even more so in the first years after the revolution — Lenin was regularly outvoted and his views opposed or ignored by various factions within the party (and I don’t mean the Mensheviks).

Or I might have said that the idea of the party as the elite vanguard of the working class, its historic role being to develop the revolutionary consciousness of the broad mass of workers who thought only in terms of economic wants, was the essence of Leninism. Yet the revolutions of both 1905 and February 1917 were essentially spontaneous uprisings, the Bolsheviks failing on both occasions to predict, still less to lead and direct, the flow of events — in the Bolsheviks’ own terms, the masses were ahead of the party in their consciousness.

At other times, however, the idea of the party acting in what it claimed was the objective interest of the workers — regardless of what the workers themselves wanted or believed at a particular moment — left the Bolsheviks open to accusations of ‘substitutism’, a charge levelled not least by Trotsky before he joined the party on the eve of the revolution. By 1921 (say) this charge carried real force and brought into question the legitimacy of the entire regime: with the collapse of industry and after years of civil war there hardly was a working class left in Russia and yet the Soviet government justified its single-party rule and its extreme measures in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Books, TV and Films, March 2021

1 March

Having just watched the recent Elisabeth Moss film The Invisible Man, I am reading the original novel, written by HG Wells and published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I have never been scientifically minded but two film adaptations of HG Wells novels — The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) — made a huge impression on me as a child, which perhaps explains why I found remakes of both films (one with Tom Cruise and the other with Guy Pearce) disappointing.

Another childhood memory is a TV series called The Invisible Man, with David McCallum, who was already a hero of mine from his role in Colditz (which I was watching even at the age of about eight). Henry Darrow, perhaps best known for his role as Manolito in The High Chaparral, played a plastic surgeon who created a synthetic skin. At about the same time there was also a series called The Gemini Man, starring Ben Murphy (yet another childhood hero of mine from his role in Alias Smith and Jones), who could control his invisibility with a latest-thing-at-the-time digital watch.

But I always avoided the original Wells novels after my childhood self was intimidated by the very first line of The Time Machine:

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.

The Time Machine, HG Wells

9 March

The opening chapters of The Invisible Man read almost like a piece of comedic writing. Gradually, however, the story moves to a much darker place as more and more of the invisible man is revealed to us. At first Griffin is brusque and bad tempered. Soon he becomes aggressive and violent. Eventually he is revealed as unhinged and completely amoral.

He steals to get much-needed cash. Then he matter-of-factly reveals that he robbed his father, who subsequently killed himself. Finally we learn of Griffin’s deranged vision: to be the autocratic ruler of a new society founded on a reign of terror, with punishments meted out by an unseen hand.

He [the invisible ruler] must take some town … and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways — scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.

The Invisible Man, HG Wells

I have always unthinkingly bracketed Wells as a champion of science, but in passages such as this he is surely exploring the darker places that the misuse of science can take us, thus foreshadowing some of the horrors of the twentieth century.

10 March

Channel 5 made a marvellous job of rebooting All Creatures Great and Small, but their latest attempt to muscle in on the world of Agatha Christie — Agatha and the Midnight Murders — is much less successful. Making Christie herself the focus is Channel 5’s way, so I read, of getting round the problem of having none of the rights to her books. This effort is set during the Second World War. Short of money, Christie is selling off the rights to her final Poirot novel (in which she kills off Poirot) to a private buyer, a superfan who will thereby keep Poirot alive. (I needed that last bit confirmed online because it wasn’t at all obvious from the script.)

It isn’t just Christie who is short of money. The whole production screams ‘low budget’. Much of the action takes place in a single location, the cellar area of a hotel; despite the confined space, the murderer seems to have no trouble bumping off his victims without being seen.

12 March

The Decline of British Power, written by Correlli Barnett, was published in 1972. It was the first of three books he wrote — the others were The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation and The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities 1945–50 — that set out a ‘declinist’ thesis, basically that Britain experienced a catastrophic collapse in its political, economic and military power and standing in the twentieth century.

Though the focus of The Decline of British Power is the period between the world wars, the first part of the book makes clear that, in Barnett’s view, the roots of Britain’s decline stretch back into the nineteenth century. He targets a particular way of thinking, a dominant culture — what at one point he calls ‘romantic liberal idealism’. He is particularly scathing about the triumph of evangelical moralism which he says was responsible for a spiritual revolution that affected and infected the elite public schools in the high Victorian era, the formative years for many of those in positions of power after the First World War.

Instead of the suspicious minds of pre-Victorian statesmen, there was trustfulness; instead of a worldly scepticism, a childlike innocence and optimism. And instead of a toughness, even a ruthlessness, in the pursuit of English [sic] interests, there was a yielding readiness to appease the wrath of other nations … Whereas the pre-Victorian Englishman had been renowned for his quarrelsome temper and his willingness to back his argument with his fists — or his feet — now the modern British, like the elderly, shrank from conflict or unpleasantness of any kind.

The Decline of British Power, Correlli Barnett

His criticisms of a supposed anti-science and anti-technology bias in school curriculums, a major explanation (he says) for Britain’s subsequent chronic economic underperformance, are one reason that Barnett’s books were popular on the Thatcherite right in the ’80s and ’90s. The irony is that Barnett also identified free trade (central to the Thatcherite economic model, of course) as a cause of, rather than a solution for, Britain’s dismal economic record. Barnett was much more of an advocate of an active, interventionist state than the laissez-faire zealots.

The Decline of British Power includes plenty of footnotes. Nevertheless, at the back of the reader’s mind must be the concern that Barnett was presenting a very one-sided argument. The infamous Amritsar massacre of 1919, for example, when General Dyer ordered troops of the British Indian Army to fire into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians, killing at least 379 people and injuring over 1,200 others, is described as being the result of “unfortunate decisions”. That’s one way of phrasing it. The deaths and the calculated humiliation of the local population led to “a spasm of moral indignation and philanthropic emotion in Britain”. To be clear, moral indignation and philanthropic emotion are bad things in Barnett’s worldview. He spits out phrases like “tender-minded”. There is no place for values like compassion or even duty (India, for example, should have been abandoned as a drain on the empire), still less for what we would now call an ethical foreign policy.

His ‘declinist’ thesis is a startling one: Britain achieved global pre-eminence when its strategy was dictated by ruthless self-interest. The reader is thus left with a second problem: was Barnett simply looking back fondly to the world of the eighteenth century or was he seriously advocating a return to such a nakedly amoral grand strategy?

16 March

Yet another new detective drama comes to the screen — Grace, based on novels by Peter James which to be honest I wasn’t aware of. It was a good idea to base this ‘pilot’ episode on the first book, as it nicely interweaves the storyline about a man who suddenly vanishes with a life-changing incident from Detective Superintendent Roy Grace’s own past. As with Unforgotten, I liked the portrayal of easy, informal relationships between the investigating team; the hostile, unsympathetic assistant chief constable, on the other hand, felt like something of a cliché.

20 March

The publication this week of the government’s integrated review of foreign and defence policy brought me back to thinking about the work of Correlli Barnett (see above). With all the caveats about Barnett’s approach to writing history, he nevertheless made a convincing case that Britain was woefully unprepared for the strategic challenges posed by Germany, Japan and Italy that arose in the 1930s.

Governments faced huge financial pressures, even before the Great Depression led to swingeing cuts in public spending; it was convenient economics as well as convenient politics to focus on disarmament and collective security through the League of Nations. Even when a programme of rearmament was belatedly introduced in the mid-1930s, it was not on the scale required. Nor were the opposition parties any more clear-sighted. The Labour Party, in particular, was all over the place in its thinking about defence, uttering pieties about collective security and yet repeatedly refusing to support the increases in defence spending required to make collective security credible.

Fundamental disagreements about foreign and defence policy between the political parties are not common. There is usually a basic consensus about Britain’s strategic requirements. That’s why, for all the political mudslinging, it almost invariably feels like politicians reading from pre-prepared, oft-repeated scripts. Regardless of which party is in government, increases in defence spending routinely attract criticism, especially if any other departmental budget is being reduced; cuts in defence spending or shifts in the balance of spending within the overall defence budget, meanwhile, are always cited as evidence of weakness on defence or of a lack of strategic thinking.

However, just as in the ’30s when there was no consensus about how Britain should defend itself and the ’80s when Labour adopted a policy of supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament, the current debate about the integrated review feels different, perhaps because so much of what is in it — particularly the so-called ‘pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific region — inevitably follows from the historically divisive decision to implement a hard Brexit and turn our focus decisively away from Europe.

21 March

The Sixth Lamentation is a book I picked up from a charity shop. Its title intrigued me, with the promise of some kind of religious, possibly supernatural theme (as in things like ‘The Ninth Gate’). I always enjoy starting a novel with no idea what it is about. Based on the opening twenty pages or so, it seems to be a historical mystery going back to Paris during the Occupation of the Second World War. If so, this is territory that Sebastian Faulks explored more recently with Paris Echo.

28 March

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Get Carter, regularly voted as one of the most important British films of all time (the equally good The Long Good Friday is forty years old). It is gripping viewing not just because it redefined the gangster film genre but also as a piece of social history, capturing a community in the grip of economic and cultural decline.

Much of the action takes place amid Newcastle’s working-class community. The backdrop of dilapidated housing and grim back-street locations, the use of documentary-style footage of the city’s pubs and clubs, and the depictions of brutal violence all combine to give the film a gritty and menacing authenticity. Sometimes it is the incidental details that stick in the mind: when Jack Carter is disturbed from his bed by two thugs and tumbles to the floor, there is a chamber pot next to the shotgun that he is reaching for under the bed.

29 March

It isn’t often that I immediately want to re-read a book I have just finished: The Sixth Lamentation is an exception.

The author, William Brodrick, was a monk who left his order and became a lawyer and then a writer. His background is reflected in the storyline: it is set partly in a priory in the ’90s, where a Nazi war criminal has claimed sanctuary, and is in part also about the ensuing court case. At its heart is a mystery surrounding the betrayal and break-up of an organisation in Occupied France in the Second World War that was smuggling Jewish children to safety.

Part of the reason why I want to re-read The Sixth Lamentation is because it is such a multi-layered novel, with literary allusions and spiritual insights interwoven into an already complex storyline. There is too much going on to sum it up adequately in a few sentences; suffice it to say that the themes of love, duty, sacrifice and forgiveness loom large. The book occasionally threatens to keel over under its own weight — references to Bedivere, one of the Knights of the Round Table, are a bit clunky, for example — but for intellectual daring it brings to mind The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, though the puff-quote on the front of the book says ‘Worthy of le Carré at his best’. Either way, it’s no mean comparison.

It isn’t made clear but the title is a reference to the book of Lamentations in the Bible, which (as best as I can gather) contains five laments for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. It seems reasonable to assume that ‘the sixth lamentation’ is a reference to the Holocaust.

Books, TV and Films, February 2021

1 February

Age of Empire 1875–1914 is the final part of Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy about what he called ‘the long nineteenth century’, beginning with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending with the outbreak of war in 1914. I bought this book at university when it was first published in 1987. It follows the same broad approach of the first two volumes, opening with a general economic survey, thus emphasising the centrality in Marxist thinking of economic developments to any understanding of history, before moving on to the social and political scene, culture and ideas etc.

One change, however, is a chapter specifically focusing on women. I remember Hobsbawm commenting on this in interviews at the time, an admission of sorts that the Marxist left had hitherto failed to give due weight to women’s struggle for equality in its historical and political analyses. This lacuna was one aspect of a more fundamental weakness. By the mid-1980s the traditional class-centric perspective was very much under threat from newer voices on the left who could see how capitalism was evolving — particularly the decline of the heavy industrial sector and the shift towards globalisation — and who were keen to embrace conceptions of identity based not just on the workplace but on gender, race and sexuality etc.

Their intellectual home was a remarkable magazine called Marxism Today which, despite retaining its old tagline ‘the theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist Party’, championed a radical new agenda at odds with the (very) old guard of the CPGB and their house newspaper, the Morning Star. Interviewees included the Labour leader Neil Kinnock and even the brash Tory politician Edwina Currie. Despite his seeming indifference to feminism, Eric Hobsbawn was one of the intellectual heavyweights influencing Marxism Today. Even before the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, he had given a seminal lecture called The Forward March of Labour Halted? which described how the traditional working class was fracturing.

3 February

The 2020 film The Invisible Man is a very up-to-the-minute take on the classic HG Wells story. The plot revolves around the idea often referred to as ‘gaslighting’, everybody’s favourite insult these days, especially when hurled in the direction of politicians. It is used to mean manipulating someone psychologically so that they end up doubting themselves and even, in extreme cases, reality and their own sanity. The film stars Elisabeth Moss, who seems to have achieved A-list celebrity status following her success in The Handmaid’s Tale, though I know her from twenty years ago as Zoe Bartlet, one of the president’s daughters in (probably) my all-time favourite series, The West Wing.

4 February

Speaking of people doubting reality and their own sanity, Marcella is one of the few drama series that I have watched in real time (as opposed to months or years after it was initially shown). Its central conceit — a highly capable police detective with extreme mental health issues — made for a compelling first series, though, inevitably, the follow-up stretched credibility up to and beyond breaking point.

It seems an age since series two was broadcast. Marcella is now in Northern Ireland, having been rescued from the streets by a shadowy police intelligence unit keen to make use of a talented officer officially registered as dead. I binge-watched the eight episodes over four days, enjoying the drama rather than worrying too much about implausible plot developments.

One wonders how the Maguire family, sufficiently sophisticated, ruthless and well connected to become the pre-eminent crime family in an area with a long and tragic history of troubles, manages to implode within a matter of weeks; or, indeed, why they would allow such a suspicious and manipulative character as ‘Keira’ to live in the family home, the nerve centre of operations, when they clearly have no compunction about bumping off anyone who seems to threaten their status.

Fellow ex-Brookside regular Amanda Burton joins Anna Friel in the cast. Amanda was a primetime regular in Silent Witness in the ’90s but I remember her as the middle-class Heather when Brookside first started in the ’80s. Her performance in the final two episodes of Marcella, following a significant plot twist, is the acting highlight of the series.

10 February

The Odessa File (starring a very young-looking Jon Voight) is one of those ‘classics’ — like Ice Station Zebra and The Heroes of Telemark, both of which I watched recently — that pop up fairly regularly on television, usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The film is overlong and underwhelming but it’s the novel that I remember, written by Frederick Forsyth, who made his name with the thriller The Day of the Jackal. I read both books probably as a sixth-former, just becoming aware of page-turning novels as an enjoyable way to learn about historical events. Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins were other writers I read a lot — books like Partisans and The Eagle Has Landed, both set during the Second World War.

12 February

“Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” This description appears on page 1 of Call for the Dead, the first chapter of which is entitled A Brief History of George Smiley. It was John le Carré’s first novel, published in 1961. The announcement of his death seems as good an excuse as any to read more le Carré.

For some reason I was under the impression that Smiley is only a fleeting presence in this first novel; he is, in fact, its central character. Le Carré didn’t start writing full-time until after the huge success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold; in Call for the Dead he is still finding his way and perhaps reveals a little too much. What I liked so much about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People was their depiction of an inscrutable, enigmatic Smiley, at home in the shadowy world of espionage.

13 February

The film Lady Macbeth reminded me of Fanny Lye Deliver’d. Both are good low-budget productions, both are set during key moments in England’s past — the Industrial Revolution and the period of Cromwellian rule respectively — and both explore class and gender relations in times when society was rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal. The main difference is that, in the case of Lady Macbeth, I gradually lost my initial sympathy for the female lead, who is locked (almost literally) in a loveless household with her weak, drink-sodden husband and his dour and domineering father. The clue was in the title, I guess.

14 February

A few years ago the art historian and TV regular Janina Ramirez promoted her BBC Four documentary England’s Reformation: Three Books That Changed a Nation by encouraging her Twitter followers to post pictures of the three books that have most influenced them. I chose The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, the first book I remember being read to my class at school, when I was about eight; the Complete Sherlock Holmes, which got me through a not very enjoyable school exchange visit to France when I was fourteen; and Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock, the first full-length history book I read, when I was a sixth-former.

I have been tempted recently to re-read either the Hitler biography — a true classic — or Bullock’s later Parallel Lives, a joint biography of Hitler and Stalin. Both, however, are huge books and I need to read The Third Reich at War, the final part of Richard J Evans’s Nazi Germany trilogy.

20 February

Two more films.

The Rhythm Section starts promisingly. Stephanie is a bright young woman whose life has fallen apart after all her family were killed in a plane crash; we later find out that she should have been on the plane as well and that they were only on that particular flight because of her. An investigative journalist tracks her down to a brothel and reveals that the crash was actually the result of a terrorist bomb. Unfortunately, The Rhythm Section starts to lose its rhythm at this point. Stephanie locates a ruthless and highly secretive ‘off-the-grid’ MI6 agent by typing a postcode into Google Maps. He then trains her to impersonate a dead assassin and soon she is commanding $2 million per hit. Villanelle in Killing Eve does it all with a lot more panache.

I realised after about 20 minutes that I have already seen Child 44, a film about a hunt for a child killer. The selling point (for me) is that it is set in the old Soviet Union, predominantly in 1953 (the year that Stalin died). The film’s hook is that, as the party line was that murder (or indeed any crime) was a capitalist disease and therefore impossible in the socialist paradise, to even conduct a serial-killer investigation was potentially a treasonous act.

It is too simplistic to say that the Stalinist state tried to somehow abolish crime. What was common was criminal behaviour explained away as the result of mental illness or counter-revolutionary activity. Some have also criticised the stodginess of the film and particularly the Russian accents. I found it a convincing depiction of a workers’ anti-paradise in which state power had grown to monstrous proportions, ordinary working people lived lives of fear, often in conditions of abject squalor, and the most active and ruthless criminal of all was the state itself.

26 February

Imagine being a rock music fan just discovering Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. One of the benefits of never having been a telly addict is that I get to pick and choose from an inexhaustible supply of seriously good programmes from years gone by. The police cold-case drama Unforgotten, for example. Based on the lavish praise heaped on it ahead of the new series, I decided to give it a go. And it is terrific. Each episode is about 45 minutes long. I watched almost a complete series in one Friday evening binge.

They’re up to series four. I can access series two and three from ITV Hub but series one is currently only available via Netflix (which I would have to pay for). That seems annoyingly arbitrary. If ITV are promoting past series of a currently running drama via their on-demand platform, it surely makes sense to make the whole thing available.

So, series two it is. Fortunately, there is no story arc overhanging from the first series. I immediately warmed to the two central characters, DCI Stuart and DI Khan. It’s their ordinariness — the lack of glamour, the absence of power politics, their basic decency and humanity. How refreshing to see them working as a team and treating colleagues with respect, rather than endlessly pulling rank, shouting at subordinates and flying off the handle when an investigation doesn’t go exactly to plan or yield instant results.

28 February

The Third Reich at War has reached 1945. It is still impossible to read about the Second World War without feeling sickened by the enormity of what took place, particularly in eastern Europe — the wanton destruction, the sadistic cruelty, the mass slaughter. Much of it (though not all) was carried out in the name of Germany and, as Richard Evans makes clear, perpetrated by regular soldiers as well as by fanatical Nazis, though to nothing like the same extent. And as Evans also points out, it is inconceivable that millions of ordinary Germans back home were unaware of what was happening, at least in broad terms, once the systematic extermination of the Jews was underway.

The savagery began not with the death camps but as soon as the German army invaded Poland in September 1939 — looting, burning and pillaging, large-scale summary executions, mass killings and so on, carried out not just against Jews but against all those the Nazis deemed inferior. And yet Hitler was never more popular in Germany than in 1940. How quickly and easily a civilised nation, drunk on victory and seduced by lies, had succumbed to barbarism.

In 1943, according to Evans, the Luftwaffe general Adolf Galland reported to Hermann Goering (in overall charge of the Luftwaffe) that he had proof from shot-down pilots and plane debris in Aachen that the Americans had managed to develop fighter planes with added-on fuel tanks, increasing their range. This meant that fighters would now be able to escort bomber planes further into Europe, thus increasing the devastation to Germany’s cities. Goering, who had boasted at the start of the war that not a single enemy bomb would fall on Germany, replied: “I herewith give you an official order that they weren’t there!”

On 6 March 2021, footage circulated on Twitter with the caption: ‘Parents encouraging kids to burn masks on Idaho Capitol steps’. This may or may not be an isolated incident, but there is no doubt that we are once again living in the West in an age when cranks, firebrands and demagogues are no longer on the forgotten fringes but part of mainstream political debate. Millions of people are again prepared to follow leaders who have little or no regard for science, objective truth and reasoned argument; who attack the pillars of an open, just and tolerant society such as free and fair elections, an independent judiciary and investigative journalism; and who peddle conspiracy theories and preach bigotry and intolerance.

Frankfurt 1981: Genesis Bootlegs

I blame Peter.

Or maybe Hugh.

No. Perhaps it’s all Phil’s fault.

That’s Peter Gabriel, Hugh Padgham and Phil Collins.

Blaming them for what exactly? Well, that drum sound for starters, known as a ‘gated’ or ‘gated reverb’ sound, apparently. It was a big (in more than one sense) part of the transformation of Genesis as they followed a new chart-friendly formula at the start of the new decade. And it wasn’t just the Genesis sound that radically changed. The writer Stuart Maconie (quoted on Wikipedia) described Phil’s use of the gated drum sound on his first solo single as “setting the template”; another writer (also via Wikipedia) called it “the sound of the ’80s”.

And all, it seems, a happy accident. Phil was helping Peter with his third album (‘Melt’). Peter didn’t want to use any cymbals at all. Hugh, the engineer, was therefore able to place the mics much closer to the drums than normal. A few tweaks of various knobs and, hey presto, the booming drums of Intruder kicked off Peter’s highly acclaimed album (the first one of his I bought, on the back of a great review in Sounds, and still a favourite). Fast-forward a few months, and Hugh and Phil try to recreate the sound for Phil’s solo song In the Air Tonight. Forty years, and the occasional gorilla, later and it still packs a mighty punch.

Hugh was also on board as engineer for the new Genesis album. The Duke sessions had already seen a fresh approach to writing — more collaborative, more spontaneous. This method was taken further with the new album. Tony, Phil and Mike contributed just one individually written song each; the others were all studio creations.

With Padgham on board, it wasn’t just the drums that sounded different. I hated the Abacab artwork at the time, but there’s no doubt that it neatly encapsulated the music it housed: bold, brash, stark. It was also abstract — as abstract as the title track, a gibberish word made up of letters representing an early arrangement of the song. As Tony said, this is not an album with lyrics about goblins and fairies.

To say that I loathed the music as well as the cover would be going too far. Genesis were certainly not the only ’70s band to be modernising their sound at the start of the new decade, and the first 30 minutes of Abacab are enjoyable enough.

The title track bursts in like a surprise guest and, like many good album openers, sets the mood for what is to come; the second half of the song, meanwhile, is more of a leisurely (if somewhat unadventurous) jam, with plenty of space in the soundscape for instruments to breathe.

Keep It Dark has an experimental quirkiness about it. No Reply at All — with its Earth Wind and Fire horns — is distinctly un-Genesis and, as such, bound to divide opinion, but it’s catchy and has a great middle eight. Me and Sarah Jane (Tony’s song) is probably the closest thing to ‘typical’ Genesis and perhaps the best track on the album, along with Dodo/Lurker which opens the original side two.

At this point, however, there is a startling drop-off in quality. The final third of the album lacks sparkle and ends, with Another Record, on a decidedly downbeat note. Of Who Dunnit?, more below.

The album was released in September 1981. Looking back, Tony, Mike and Phil seem to emphasise the album’s importance (Phil, in Chapter and Verse: “This gave us a genuine reason to carry on…”) rather than its quality. Tellingly, none of its songs featured on the 2007 reunion tour. And it certainly divided fans at the time: at their show at Leiden in Holland, for example, the new songs were loudly booed. But whatever the views of long-time Genesis fans, the wider public seemed to like the new direction, at least judging by record sales — it was Number One in the UK and sold more than two million copies in the USA. The commercial success of both single and album cemented Genesis’s place in the big league.

Concerts in mainland Europe to coincide with the album’s release were followed by a tour of North America and then shows at Wembley Arena and Birmingham NEC just prior to Christmas. A live double album was released six months later.

I have written elsewhere that Seconds Out, recorded primarily on the Wind and Wuthering tour in 1977, is one of the great live albums. It is safe to say that Three Sides Live isn’t. The album did much at the time to strengthen my misgivings about this ‘new’ Genesis, in part perhaps because it is such a difficult album to categorise and ends up trying to offer something for everyone. It suggests that the band themselves were unsure about how far to push their new sound and still wrestling with the ongoing conflict between what Phil was now regularly referring to as “old shit” and “new shit”.

The original sides one and two are a somewhat random and randomly organised selection of highlights from the Duke and Abacab albums. The combination of Behind the Lines and Duchess was an effective show opener on the Duke tour, though here relegated to side two. Similarly, Dodo/Lurker and Abacab were live highlights from the current tour.

Turn It On Again, a big audience-widening hit, opens side one, even though it actually featured towards the end of the main set. Misunderstanding and Follow You Follow Me (the latter from the Duke tour, as it was dropped for the Abacab tour) ratchet up the singles quotient. The outlier is Me and Sarah Jane, a standout track from the Abacab album but hardly a live showstopper. Much of side three is given over to the medley of old songs, ending with Afterglow, the only song also to feature on Seconds Out.

And then the bizarre side four. The UK iteration of Three Sides Live featured three apparently randomly chosen classics, as played in 1976, 1978 and 1980 — a pattern of sorts there at least. The closing it. / Watcher of the Skies, the encore on the Trick of the Tail tour, thus features both Steve Hackett and Bill Bruford. The rest of the world, meanwhile, got a compilation of the recent single Paperlate and some non-album b-sides — hence the album’s title.

Random, indeed. One thing Three Sides Live did have in common with Seconds Out: it misrepresented the Genesis show. The set list for the 1981 legs of the Abacab tour was as follows:

Behind the Lines / Duchess / The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway / Dodo/Lurker /Abacab / Carpet Crawlers / Me and Sarah Jane / Misunderstanding / No Reply at All / Firth of Fifth / Man on the Corner / Who Dunnit? / In the Cage / The Cinema Show [excerpt] / The Colony of Slippermen [excerpt] / Afterglow / Turn It On Again / Dance on a Volcano / Los Endos / I Know What I Like

The songs shown crossed through were not included on Three Sides Live

The outstanding bootleg from the Abacab tour is from Frankfurt on 30 October. It is astonishingly good, an absolute must-have for any Genesis fan’s collection. It demonstrates that Genesis hadn’t suddenly become a crap band, even for those of the opinion that the new album was very much heading in the wrong direction, and that the show as a whole retained a reasonable balance between older and newer material, a fact that wasn’t obvious from Three Sides Live.


Long-time favourites such as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (restored to the set after a four-year hiatus) and Carpet Crawlers still sound great. Firth of Fifth also returns, this time of course with Daryl in the spotlight rather than Steve. Fans of ’70s Genesis are unlikely to bemoan a set list liberally studded with gems of old; on the other hand, despite a back catalogue bulging with crown jewels, much of it remains locked away in the vaults. The In the Cage medley, augmented for this tour with the keyboard solo from The Colony of Slippermen, is now on its third journey round the world. The close of the show — Dance on a Volcano, the drum duet and Los Endos, ending with an encore of I Know What I Like — also feels more than a little familiar.

Unsurprisingly, there is more of an ’80s vibe or sensibility about all of these revisited classics. There’s Phil’s ad lib during The Lamb, for example: “I’m not your kind, bitch — I’m Rael!” And then there’s the shoutier, more aggressive vocal during songs like Man on the Corner and I Know What I Like. Or perhaps it’s just that Phil’s singing voice, like his on-stage persona, has simply become harsher and raspier after years of touring.

Phil’s monologues seem to be getting longer, and maybe it’s to do with the larger venues on this tour but the between-song chatter generally feels less playful; the introduction to Man on the Corner at Frankfurt — “Everybody thinks he’s a bit stupid” — isn’t funny at all. There’s plenty of the usual Carry On-style slapstick but, as noted in the reviews of the earlier tours, some of it hasn’t aged at all well, like the description (at the final show at Birmingham) of Cindy Lou as a “beautiful young tart” and comments like “the good things in life — necrophilia, bestiality, incest, rape.”

The new album features heavily — six tracks. As noted above, the standout live tracks are probably Dodo/Lurker and Abacab, played back to back in one fifteen-minute burst. Less successful are No Reply at All, minus the horn section, and to a lesser extent Me and Sarah Jane, neither of which was retained for the following tour.

The low point, however, comes mid-show — a mediocre Man on the Corner, whose mysterious subject is not so much standing around as wandering aimlessly towards a downbeat drum-machine destination, abruptly morphs into Who Dunnit? Watching Tony Banks, a naughty gleam in his eye, discuss the song is to imagine him back at Charterhouse, refusing to apologise to the house master for some minor act of teenage rebellion, like drawing a willy on a textbook or turning up for class with a shaved head. Who Dunnit? is awful but Tony doesn’t care. It’s his punk moment.


Following the release of the Three Sides Live album in June 1982 (and an accompanying film), the band toured again with a revamped set.

Dance on a Volcano / Behind the Lines / Follow You Follow Me / Dodo/Lurker / Abacab / Supper’s Ready / Misunderstanding / Man on the Corner / Who Dunnit? / In the Cage / The Cinema Show [excerpt] / The Colony of Slippermen [excerpt] / Afterglow / Turn It On Again / Los Endos / The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway / Watcher of the Skies / I Know What I Like

Dance on a Volcano is back opening the set for the first time since 1976. Another highlight is an extended bridge between The Lamb and Watcher of the Skies. The most eye-catching change, however, is the return of Supper’s Ready (along with the two virgins, Romeo and Juliet), played for the first time since 1977. It features on a very good bootleg of part of the Saratoga Springs show on 26 August. The performance itself is terrific too, in spite of Phil’s silly Mexican/Spanish ad libs during the Willow Farm section. One wonders whether this was the origins of (the now rather cringe-inducing) Illegal Alien on their next album, in the same way that Paperlate is said to have emerged out of soundchecks of Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.

In early October the five touring members of Genesis joined with Peter Gabriel for the one-off Six of the Best concert at Milton Keynes to raise money following the commercial failure of the first WOMAD festival which left Peter facing financial ruin. Steve Hackett joined them on stage for the encores. It was a nostalgic — and final — reprise of ‘old’ Genesis. The following year was to see even greater commercial success for the band and the beginnings of global superstardom for Phil as a solo artist.

More about Genesis

1977

A selection of classic Genesis concerts on the Wind and Wuthering tour

1978

And then there were three … plus two: the first tour without Steve Hackett

1980

Genesis, 1980 — and this time it’s personal. Reflections on the Duke era.

Books, TV and Films, January 2021

2 January

A fantastic way to kick off the new year — Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of Hilary Mantel’s fictional account of the later life of Thomas Cromwell, the architect of much that went on in the name of Henry VIII in the 1530s. This volume focuses on the events of 1535–6, particularly the fall from favour of Anne Boleyn and Henry’s courtship of Jane Seymour.

Lacking in-depth knowledge of Tudor politics, I found Diarmaid MacCulloch’s acclaimed biography of Cromwell tough going at times. Historical fiction — the well-written variety — can be a friend to the uninitiated, an entrée into worlds only dimly understood. As well as requiring encyclopaedic knowledge and command of the sources, the writing of historical fiction takes a different approach to that of the historian or biographer and requires a different skill set. There is, for example, no room for ‘possibly’, ‘probably’, ‘maybe’, ‘on balance’. It is, in part at least, history of the imagination. And Hilary Mantel is a master of the form. The Mirror and the Light, the third part of the trilogy, awaits.

7 January

And so to Revolution, the 1980s film starring Al Pacino and directed by Hugh Hudson (of Chariots of Fire fame). It was shown on a fairly obscure channel and was not an easy watch. The two things may be linked. There was some narration from the Pacino character but it was still difficult at times to follow the wildly improbable story, which spanned the years of the American War of Independence. The dull sound certainly didn’t help; nor did Pacino’s odd accent and mumbled delivery. I read that there was a director’s cut released in 2009. Surely that can’t be the version I watched.

Yesterday was the day when a Trumpian mob descended on Washington DC’s Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the result of the presidential election. One of the protesters referenced the events of 1776 in an attempt to justify the mob’s actions, as if America’s essence is forever defined by conflict and upheaval. What dangerous nonsense.

For all its faults, Revolution reminds us that war is not noble and cathartic but bloody and savage. It depicts cruelty, inhumanity and stupidity on both sides, with men and women struggling to survive amidst squalor and filth. Yorktown, scene of a pivotal battle in 1781, is shown as little more than a hilltop, defended by a hastily thrown together collection of flimsy barricades.

10 January

BBC Four is repeating The Night Manager, the brilliant adaptation of the novel by John le Carré that was first shown in 2016. It’s their tribute to le Carré, who has of course recently died. I first read a book-club edition of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a sixth-former, recovering from a hernia operation. Leaving aside the likes of Stephen King and James Herbert, it was — along with Animal Farm and 1984 — one of the first ‘serious’ novels that I really enjoyed.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is probably my favourite, but each le Carré book is both a masterclass of intelligent writing and a puzzle to unravel. Yes, there are layers I am not penetrating, references I am not understanding, nuances I am not appreciating. That’s why it’s no hardship to pick any of them off the shelf to re-read. Not to mention the ones that I have still to tackle for the first time.

12 January

Steven Pinker is one of those individuals sometimes described as a ‘public intellectual’. Richard Dawkins is another. In Dawkins’ case it was perhaps in part because at one time his position at Oxford was as professor for the public understanding of science. As for Pinker and people like Michael Sandel (the ‘public philosopher’), it seems to be a term that gets attached to someone who is erudite and highly qualified but also engaging to listen to and able to communicate complex and challenging ideas in an accessible way.

Pinker isn’t always the most fluent of speakers (a few too many ‘aahs’ in conversation and an annoying tendency to read out his PowerPoint slides during presentations) but he writes beautifully. I am currently reading his book about writing, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. It is much more than a dry manual of grammar and punctuation, though Pinker includes plenty of helpful tips, pointers and explanations in the final — and longest — chapter.

A key point he makes is that (in English at least) there is no equivalent of the Highway Code that sets out hard and fast rules on usage. Nor is there an all-knowing, all-powerful “tribunal of lexicographers” (his phrase) issuing decrees from on high. Instead, the prescriptive rules that we follow are tacit conventions, accepted by the overwhelming majority of literate people to ensure clarity and prevent misunderstandings or simply in the interests of elegance and style. And many of the ‘rules’ we follow (such as not starting a sentence with ‘and’ like I just did) are nothing more than the equivalent of old wives’ tales with little or no basis in logic.

I will certainly be closely studying (or should that be ‘studying closely’?) the sections dealing with grammar and syntax. Much of my understanding of language came from learning Latin as a teenager, though with no formal training in grammar itself I am like a musician who plays by ear rather than by reading music. I can usually sense a problem with a piece of writing without necessarily being able to explain in grammatical terms what the problem is.

Pinker also brings his expertise in cognitive science to help the writer understand not just how to write elegantly but also how to maximise the reader’s understanding, and his chapter on ‘the curse of knowledge’ is an eye-opener for anyone writing for a non-specialist audience.

I find writing an arduous process — a struggle even on good days and free from the tyranny of deadlines — so it was reassuring to read Pinker’s description of how he writes:

I rework every sentence a few times before going on to the next, and revise the whole chapter two or three times before I show it to anyone. Then, with feedback in hand, I revise each chapter twice more before circling back and giving the entire book at least two complete passes of polishing. Only then does it go to the copy editor …

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

19 January

Some — though by no means all — of the historian EP Thompson’s thoughts on political theory and left politics might be past their sell-by date, but the writing itself is still fresh. The Poverty of Theory is a collection of four (in)famous long essays. First up is The Peculiarities of the English, written in 1965. How about this for an extended metaphor:

Our authors [Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, whose work he is critiquing] bring to this analysis the zest of explorers. They set out on their circumnavigation by discarding, with derision, the old speculative charts … But our explorers are heroic and missionary. We hold our breath in suspense as the first Marxist landfall is made upon this uncharted Northland. Amidst the tundra and sphagnum moss of English empiricism they are willing to build true conventicles to convert the poor trade unionist aborigines from their corporative myths to the hegemonic light.

EP Thompson, The Peculiarities of the English

23 January

Having really not enjoyed reading Lesley-Ann Jones’ biography of Freddie Mercury recently, I have gone back to a book I cited in my review of it as an example of good writing, Mark Blake’s Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen. Well, I will certainly be revising my wording if the opening chapter is anything to go by.

  • Blake states that Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones introduced the band to the stage at Live Aid at 6.44pm. An on-stage clock visible at the start of Radio Ga Ga (ie the second song) shows the time as 6.44pm. The time usual given for the start of Queen’s performance (eg on disc 2 of the Queen at Montreal dvd) is 6.41pm. It might seem a trivial point except that the writer himself chooses to give a precise time. If doing so, at least get the facts correct.
  • He describes Freddie’s piano as being stage left. It is stage right, using standard stage directions (ie left and right are from the perspective of the performer looking out at the audience).
  • This, on page 4, isn’t even a sentence: “But its promo video, with scenes lifted from the 1920s sci-fi movie Metropolis, which helped to sell the song.”

There’s plenty more, just in the opening chapter.

25 January

The Night Manager was quite superb — high-end production values, sumptuous locations befitting a seriously wealthy arms dealer, great performances from the likes of Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman. And, above all, the plotting. This might not be served up as Cold War fare, but all the familiar Le Carré ingredients are there — bravery, compromise, betrayal, with a tasty side dish of moral ambiguity and general murkiness.

And now another treat — All the President’s Men, the 1976 film of the investigation by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the Watergate break-in, which ultimately led to President Nixon’s resignation. The film doesn’t try to tell the whole story. Anyone hoping for a detailed exposé of the corrupt networks spreading out from the Oval Office should look elsewhere.

This is a film about investigative journalism in its prime, about how good reporters go about their work even in the most intimidating and claustrophobic of circumstances. The film adopts a realist approach in depicting the hurly-burly of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation at the Post’s massive open-plan office — cross-talking and interrupted dialogue, incidental and inconsequential detail, lots of background noise. It’s like a fly-on-the-wall documentary years before the genre really took off.

The film is also wonderfully atmospheric — the shadowy parking lot where Woodward meets Deep Throat, the flag on the balcony they use to secretly communicate, the shuffling and mumbling of countless nervous interviewees, terrified of being seen speaking to journalists.

With press freedom under threat as never before, All the President’s Men is a must-watch.

28 January

The Mark Blake Queen biography continues to underwhelm — from ‘well written’ to ‘decently written’ to ‘decently written, at least in part’. Shoddy proofing and the occasional egregious cliché apart, the main problem is that, like the Lesley-Ann Jones book, it loses its shape once the narrative reaches the point at which Queen had reached ‘rock star’ level — 1977, say.

Take this paragraph, typical of the second half of the book:

Taylor and Mercury would see out the summer of 1979 enjoying all the perks of moneyed rock stardom. They were among the spectators watching Bjorn Borg win the men’s singles final at Wimbledon … Later, Taylor and Dominique Beyrand holidayed in the South of France. On the drive down to St Tropez, the engine on Taylor’s new Ferrari blew up, rendering the car a wreck (a similar fate would befall his Aston Martin). In September, Mercury celebrated his thirty-third birthday with another lavish soiree and began plotting his next career move.

Mark Blake, Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen

It reads like a chronicle, detailing one fact or event after another. A generous reader might argue that the opening sentence frames the paragraph — Roger and Freddie enjoying the good life. But what about Brian and John? Where are they? Were they not “enjoying the perks of moneyed rock stardom”? That opening sentence is more like a convenient hook on which to hang some random facts. And what’s this nonsense about a “next career move”? Freddie was preparing for a one-time performance with the Royal Ballet Company. He performed two songs. That’s it.

I read the final 100 pages of the book in under three hours. There was little or nothing to hold the reader’s attention, just a collection of details, many of which — far from being ‘untold’ — are readily accessible for even the most casual of fans from other sources.

29 January

As a devotee of the original Conan Doyle books, I am usually reluctant to engage with the seemingly endless new interpretations of the Sherlock Holmes stories and characters. The first series of Sherlock, set in the modern day, was fabulous — wonderfully creative and full of fun — but later episodes became increasingly ridiculous. Robert Downey Jr’s swashbuckling Holmes was enjoyable, though equally ridiculous. I always steer well clear of spoofs.

It was a delight, then, to watch a very different iteration of the great detective in the film Mr Holmes. Ian McKellen stars as the detective in extreme old age, having retired almost 30 years earlier to keep bees in Sussex.

This is a gentle and wistful Holmes, who has lost almost everything of importance to him. His few significant others are dead — Watson (referred to throughout as ‘John’) and Mrs Hudson. Now his memory, too, is fading fast. He is aware that his final case must have ended in failure — hence the decision to retire — but can no longer remember the details except for the knowledge that the version penned by Watson is false. Two backstories are woven into the storyline, as the eminent logician and scientist is brought face to face with the one great chink in his armour — his lack of humanity.

McKellen is excellent as both the dashing sixty-something detective and the fragile nonagenarian. Children in leading roles are often a weak link but Milo Parker is terrific as the housekeeper’s young son, Roger, whose intellect and curiosity help to reignite Holmes’ own. I love Laura Linney but she is a rather curious choice for the part of the widowed housekeeper — “of no fixed accent,” to quote the film critic Mark Kermode. That made me chuckle.

Books, TV and Films, December 2020

1 December

Straight in at Number One on my reading list goes A Promised Land, the first volume of Barack Obama’s memoirs. Just a quick word on the cover price — a wallet-busting £35 (selling at half price in Asda). It’s said that the Obamas negotiated a book deal in the tens of millions of dollars. Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, was a worldwide bestseller. I am sure that the publishers are expecting something similar from A Promised Land, but, even for a volume running to 700-plus pages, the cover price is seriously off the charts.

3 December

The Homesman is a remarkable film. Set in the 1850s, it shows the harsh, bleak reality of the American West and the meaning of rugged individualism. I suppose it might be called ‘revisionist’. It is certainly nothing like the sanitised westerns on which my generation grew up.

At the centre is a compelling character called Mary Bea Cuddy, played beautifully by Hilary Swank. An intelligent, hard-working, pious and fiercely independent woman, she volunteers to undertake a long and dangerous journey to transport three mentally ill women to a place of refuge. She longs to find a man to marry, only to be rebuffed as plain and bossy when she raises it with a potential (though, frankly, unsuitable) candidate. To hear her repeat almost the exact-same proposal to a second, equally unsuitable, individual later in the film is heartbreaking.

8 December

I picked up the Obama book not knowing quite what to expect. I was aware that he has published other books, and so I was unsure how much of a ‘Life’ A Promised Land would be. The answer is: not much. There are details about his childhood and early adulthood, including Harvard Law School, and his time as a state senator in Illinois and then a US senator, but it is all somewhat sketchy. By page 80 he is running for the presidency.

The themes are there almost from the off — change, hope, unity across the divides, building a grassroots campaign. For those of us on the moderate progressive wing of politics, Obama is surely the most inspiring leader of the last generation. At a moment when the nightmare of Trump’s presidency finally appears to be all but over, reading Obama’s beautifully written account of his rise to power is to be filled again with a rush of optimism and hope for the coming decade.

At the same time the book leaves a lingering sense of uneasiness. Democracy in the USA has — barely — survived the stress test of the 2020 election. Probably. Possibly. It is worth remembering that one of the candidates went to court to try and nullify the legitimately cast votes of millions of US citizens, a tactic that was supported and applauded by millions of other American citizens. As parts one and two of the Obama book remind us, the USA is in almost permanent election mode, lawyers are as indispensable as campaign volunteers and any serious candidate needs to raise millions of dollars just to get a seat at the table. Politicians are in effect beholden to vested interests, wheeler-dealers and power-brokers. It is a strange notion of what democracy means.

17 December

It looks like volume one of Obama’s memoirs is going to close with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, a few months after the disastrous (from the Democrats’ perspective) midterm elections. Obama is as eloquent on the page as he is in front of a microphone — I have no trouble believing that these 700 pages are entirely his own work — but what really sets these memoirs apart for me is their frankness.

Obama is open about the strains that his chosen career placed on his marriage and unforgiving in his assessments — of himself, his colleagues, his opponents and others whose paths he crossed on the domestic and world stage. As well as the fine words and the high-flying rhetoric, there is also Obama the everyman. The pages are peppered with profanities, and it is clear that his younger days revolved around playing and watching sports, drinking beer and attempts to “get laid” — his phrase.

It’s easy to see why his original plan for a one-volume, 500-page effort was quickly revised. Every issue — from healthcare to Middle Eastern politics — begins with a page or two of background before we learn in detail about what was discussed, who said what and who did (or didn’t do) what. We get pen portraits of prominent people he meets. Some of his assessments — for example of President Sarkozy of France — are less than flattering. These sketches generally follow a template, even down to commenting on hairstyles. Take this example, about Benjamin Netanyahu:

Built like a linebacker, with a square jaw, broad features, and a gray comb-over…

A Promised Land, Barack Obama, p630

For British readers there are some inevitable Americanisms to navigate — ‘gotten’, ‘swiftboated’, ‘the Queen of England’ — as well as Obama’s annoying habit of referring to people as ‘folks’. Occasionally, too, he lapses into campaign-speech mode — money, for example, is usually rendered as ‘tax dollars’ and at one point he even questions how willing Europe’s wealthier nations would be to see their tax dollars redistributed to people in other countries. Oops.

On the whole, however, he is an eloquent champion of progressive politics, the merits of gradualism and rational over irrational thought. Though he is usually content to explain away the many attacks he faced as the rough and tumble of politics, his anger and outrage at unacceptable behaviour sometimes announce themselves — for example in his description of a hurriedly arranged meeting with the CEOs of leading banks and financial institutions, who were happily pocketing massive bonuses in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, despite the government having committed eye-watering sums of money to prop up the financial system.

19 December

A short piece in yesterday’s Guardian on comfort reads at Christmas suggested Hercule Poirot’s Christmas — exactly the book I had opened earlier that morning, though more for something light after my last two heavyweight reads. It’s my third Poirot and the first not to feature Captain Hastings as narrator. Instead, Agatha Christie conjures up the most hilariously unlikely dialogue between loved ones as a way of conveying scene-setting information:

Why my brother George ever married a girl twenty years younger than himself I can’t think! George was always a fool!

Alfred Lee to his wife, Lydia

20 December

From comfort reads to comfort viewing. This morning I watched the first episode of the reboot of All Creatures Great and Small. The original TV series with Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy and Peter Davison was a staple of the eighties, of course. I wasn’t an avid watcher but the characters, the scenery and the music are unforgettable. I also have copies of the first four Herriot books in two omnibuses, All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful.

I must admit that I hesitated before recording this new iteration. The six episodes have been sitting in the My Recordings folder since they were first broadcast. I am not a fan of Channel 5, though I read that they are now investing heavily in more serious programming. Anyway, if the first episode is typical, I am glad I did. It’s beautifully done, doesn’t cut any obvious corners and, of course, the scenery is breathtaking.

22 December

Another short read — the story of the making of The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The book is written by Guardian journalist John Harris. I picked up the book itself a few years ago when HMV shops weren’t an endangered species on the high street, an impulse buy from a selection on display beside the sales aisle — a temptation I normally try to resist. Having just bought some decent, middle-of-the-range headphones, I have been listening to a lot of Pink Floyd, a band who specialised in audio experimentation and sound-effects wizardry.

23 December

Based on a friend’s recommendation I took the plunge and made a start on watching The Fall a few days ago. It’s not quite a commitment on the scale of Spooks — three series, five or six 60-minute episodes per series. I have just finished series two (the final — and very much climactic —episode was actually 90 minutes: it’s intriguing where series three will go now).

Gillian Anderson, as the senior investigating officer DCS Stella Gibson, is outstanding as always, and the whole drama itself is excellently written. Two things stand out for me. The first is that the focus is as much on the killer as it is on Gibson and the police effort; the killer’s identity is revealed to the viewer from the beginning. This is very much not a whodunnit. Secondly, the drama doesn’t always go in the direction one might expect. Characters come and go; potential sub-plot developments, such as the shooting of DS Olson and his links to organised crime, or fallout from Gibson’s unorthodox sexual liaisons, are hinted at before melting away. Some might see it as flawed writing; I find its refusal to slavishly follow obvious narrative lines refreshing.

25 December

My intention is to use the last week of the year to work my way through a backlog of Guardian ‘long reads’, political articles, book reviews and the like that are increasingly cluttering up my coffee table. But I couldn’t resist making a start on Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.

30 December

Two enjoyable films to finish off the year. The first was Lynn + Lucy, a story of a lifelong friendship that turns tragically bad. The eponymous women, both with young families, live in an undisclosed location that might be one of the new towns that orbit London. Though a very convincing depiction of working-class life, its themes and concerns cut across class boundaries, not least the toxic effects of rumour and gossip on friendships and communities.

The second was The Death of Stalin. I am not generally a fan of satirical films but the historical setting was irresistibly intriguing. The film is well worth watching for the way it lampoons the communist leaders of the day (Michael Palin as Molotov and Jeffery Tambor as Malenkov, in particular, were laugh-out-loud funny) and more generally in this populist age as a commentary on dictatorship and unfettered political power. Apparently the film is or at least was banned in Russia, an act of censorship by Putin’s regime that speaks volumes.

Books About Freddie Mercury and Queen


Reviewing a biography of Queen by Laura Jackson on Amazon back in 2002, I bemoaned “the frustrations of the literate Queen fan”. It was a (very) clumsy — not to mention pompous — way of saying that here was yet another 300 or so pages of drivel in the ‘popular’ biography genre (ie books about celebrities written for the mass market).

“What is so desperately needed [I went on to say] is a Johnny Rogan of the Queen world to give us a sympathetic yet objective account; yes, to unearth the obscure but also to offer us much more. Someone to detail the downs as comprehensively as the ups, the mistakes as well as the triumphs. Someone to probe, to question, to challenge.” I have never been a big reader of books about music (precisely because of the non-existent quality threshold), but Johnny Rogan’s biography of the Smiths, The Severed Alliance, was at that moment in time by far the best I had come across, combining thorough research with great writing.

Things have moved on in the last couple of decades, though I still generally steer clear of music-related books. There is decent and often good writing to be found in music magazines, not to mention several websites catering for obsessives interested in arcana, minutiae and all things encyclopaedic. My go-to website is queenlive.ca

There are also some good Queen books out there now as well. The first to appear was As It Began in 1992, written by Jim Jenkins and Jacky Gunn. An important caveat is that the authors are both lifelong fans (Jacky is a longtime runner of the fan club) and neither of them is (to my knowledge) a writer. Nevertheless, As It Began plugged a big knowledge gap.

Another notable book, by Peter Freestone, came out in 1998. ‘Phoebe’ was Freddie’s personal assistant for the last twelve or so years of the singer’s life. Although the publisher’s blurb did not augur well — “the most intimate account of Mercury’s life ever written … Now [Freestone] tells all” — it was actually a very enlightening and enjoyable insight into Freddie’s life, a book for genuine fans who wanted to know more about their hero but not in an obsessive or prurient way. I wrote at the time: “For anyone curious to know about Freddie’s lifestyle, this book surpasses anything else I’ve seen.”

There are two very good ‘coffee table’ books, both now much cheaper than when first published (and perhaps available under different titles). One is the official 40 Years of Queen (2011). The other is Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Crown Kings of Rock by Phil Sutcliffe. Both books are sumptuously presented, full of great photos and packed with memorabilia (the official book, literally so). I should also mention Brian May’s Queen in 3–D which is a must-have for a Queen fan, one that literally presents Queen in a new way. Meanwhile, the nearest thing to a Johnny Rogan-type book is Mark Blake’s detailed and, for the most part, decently written Is This the Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen?

And so we come to Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones, a book I resisted buying when it was released and only picked up from a charity shop a few weeks ago. Originally published in 2011, it was reissued in 2018 with a new title, no doubt to cash in on the release of the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic. I am not aware of an official tie-in but snippets of the film script mirror the book’s contents (most obviously Freddie’s ‘coming out’ conversation with his girlfriend Mary Austin — though I strongly suspect the supposed dialogue between Freddie and Mary was already in the public domain when this book was published).

It is not uncommon for books (and films) to begin with a scene-setting introduction, usually a pivotal moment in the story arc — something to whet the appetite, to build towards. Mark Blake chose Live Aid for his Queen biography (as, of course, the Bohemian Rhapsody film did too); he later chose Live 8 for his excellent Pink Floyd biography, the performance at Hyde Park when those best of enemies, Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters, put aside decades of ill-will for twenty minutes to help out starving people.  

Lesley-Ann Jones has not one but two such chapters: an introduction entitled Montreux and Live Aid as chapter one. It is chapter two — Zanzibar — that whisks us back to Freddie’s childhood. The introduction is written in the first person. Fair enough for an introductory chapter, perhaps, but this Jones-centred perspective foreshadows one of the most irritating features of the book: the author’s frankly intrusive presence. Jones evidently wants the reader to be aware of two things: (i) that she has done plenty of background research (ii) that she had some privileged access to the band back in the day. The inclusion of photos of the author with some of her interviewees handily reinforces these twin messages.

The very first sentence of the introduction is: “We didn’t write it at the time.” Her point is that music journalists (of whom she is one) did not take notes or use tape recordings in many of their interviews; instead, they relied on memory, frantically scribbling things down at the first available opportunity. In chapter one our location is a quiet bar in Montreux in the early hours of a spring day in 1986, just before Queen embarked on their biggest ever European tour. She and a fellow hack had found themselves in conversation with Freddie who — for whatever reason — was opening up to them. On page 5 there is a paragraph — in quotation marks — of more than 100 words. There are several such paragraphs — Freddie’s words, seemingly verbatim. Quite a feat: either Jones has a prodigious memory or quotes such as these are not quite what they seem. Or perhaps it comes with the territory: the pages of Obama’s memoirs, just published, for example, are peppered with snatches of conversation.

The list of interviewees is long and includes several people who played a notable part in Freddie’s life — Peter Freestone, Jim Hutton and so on. There’s also Spike Edney to talk about the final two tours. On the other hand, it is hard to see what unique insights session musician James Nisbet, who never to my knowledge worked with Queen, brings to the table. As far as I can tell, Jones has not interviewed any of the surviving members of the band for the book; nor does she appear to have had special access to either Mary Austin or Jim Beach, Queen’s longtime manager and one of the executors of Freddie’s will.

Many of the quotes the author uses seem to be recycled from previous research that she has done or taken from other publications and programmes. Much of the Live Aid chapter, for example, is built around previously available material. With quotes featuring so prominently throughout the book, the lack of quality control is a weakness. In offering us his thoughts on Freddie’s lyrics, Frank Allen, bassist with the Searchers, refers to two songs that Freddie didn’t even write.

Lexico defines ‘definitive’ as “the most authoritative of its kind” and ‘authoritative’ as “considered to be the best of its kind and unlikely to be improved upon”. Despite the recommendation of Sir Tim Rice in one of the puff-quotes, Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury is neither definitive nor authoritative. To be fair to Jones, it is not riddled with the sort of factual howlers common to other books about Queen. But even if we interpret ‘definitive’ in a looser sense to mean ‘covering all relevant areas in appropriate depth’, it is not that either.

In an attempt to appear definitive the writer offers a mass of redundant detail. There is a paragraph about the history of the unrest in Tanzania and Zanzibar in 1963–4 that led the Bulsara family to relocate to London. We learn about Zoroastrian rituals, even though Freddie never seems to have adhered to them. These parts of the book feel like quick cut-and-paste jobs from Wikipedia. Other research lowlights include reproduction of a band press release about the Magic Tour (x miles of cable etc); a paragraph of completely irrelevant detail about Elton John’s marriage, and the name and date of birth of his son; even a couple of paragraphs on the semiotics of clothing in gay nightclub culture.

This is a shame because at times Jones puts her journalistic skills to good use, uncovering some minor but nevertheless intriguing facts about Freddie’s early life. Tracking down Freddie’s first ‘girlfriend’ gives us a fresh perspective on his teenage years, and the best nugget of all is that, if Jones is correct, Freddie lied about his O-level results. [I now realise that Mark Blake’s book, published a year earlier, makes the same claim.]

The book as a whole is unbalanced and suffers from some glaring omissions. Much of its first half might be described as ‘emergence of a rock star’, but there is little of value here for the reader interested in the music itself. Take, for example, two significant early Freddie songs from Queen II. The lyrics of The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke are based on a detailed and intricate painting by troubled nineteenth-century artist Richard Dadd. They are obviously the result of painstaking research, certainly not something one would associate with later-era Freddie. The March of the Black Queen, meanwhile, over-reaches and almost keels over under the weight of its grandiosity; yet it is utterly audacious and quite magnificent. It is impossible to listen to Bohemian Rhapsody and not hear echoes of Black Queen.

From Jones there is not a word about either song. The narrative focus at this point is on describing Queen’s commercial breakthrough. And then — once we reach 1975–6 and the extraordinary success of Bohemian Rhapsody — it shifts largely to price-of-fame stuff, specifically its destructive effects. This is, of course, a biography of Freddie Mercury and not a book about Queen and their music, but Jones’ approach means that interesting and relevant questions about Freddie go all but unexplored:

  • What kinds of songs did Freddie write and what were the main themes in his lyrics?
  • How and why did his songs change over the years?
  • What was the nature of his creative input into the band in later years?
  • How did his friendship with each member of the band evolve over time?

A more imaginative approach to structure might have involved organising the book into different parts or themes. Separate sections dealing (a) with Freddie’s personal life and (b) with Queen and their music would have ensured that the one wasn’t completely elbowed out by the other. It would also have helped keep details of Freddie’s personal life within reasonable limits and helped the writer to focus more on how it developed over the years.

Alas, details about Freddie’s relationships move to centre stage, increasingly consisting of interview quotes reproduced at length. By the time the narrative reaches the 1980s, discussion of Queen’s music is relegated to a handful of anodyne sentences indistinguishable from the content of the fan club magazines of the time — except for the occasional somewhat bizarre throwaway, such as Roger’s second solo album being “widely ridiculed”. References to the rest of the band’s personal lives, on the other hand, are typical of tabloid newspaper fare:

Brian had already managed to fall in love with a girl called Peaches down in New Orleans. John, generally mindful of his domestic commitments, had taken up with the bottle. Roger was always the life and soul of anyone’s party, rarely knowingly alone between midnight and breakfast.

Bohemian Rhapsody, page 182

This is not the only weakness of the writing. Any biography is prone to succumbing to a form of teleology — the sense that the subject’s rise was somehow inevitable, events all part of a long-term plan mapped out at the very beginning. Most people who reach the top are clearly driven; it is one of the reasons why they get there. Equally, however, we all have grandiose aspirations and ambitions in our youth. It is an easy mistake to make to confuse the one with the other.

An example of this comes in chapter one when Jones asserts that Live Aid was Queen’s “ultimate moment, towards which they had been building their entire career”. This ridiculous assertion might usefully be described as ‘hindsightery’ — explaining the motivations behind decisions in terms of what later transpired.

Brian and Roger were in a group called Smile; Freddie, though already a friend, was in various bands of his own, one of which was called Wreckage. In chapter six we are told: “He soon quit the band [Wreckage], resolved to wait for Brian’s and Roger’s pennies to drop, and auditioned for a band called Sour Milk Sea.” It surely isn’t just the writing that is dodgy in that sentence. What actual evidence does Jones have that Freddie was patiently waiting for Smile to implode so that he could step in?

Some of the writing just reads like Sunday-supplement copy. Smile were on the bill for an event at the Royal Albert Hall, as were the band Free: “… little could Brian and Roger have known that, thirty-five years later, they would be collaborating with Free’s lead singer Paul Rodgers.” No, I don’t imagine they could have known. Or this: “Freddie was not yet ready for anything like marriage. Little did his family know at that stage that he never would be.”

There’s more. A poorly edited version of Liar from the first album was released in North America by their record company (ie without the band’s input): “It had now dawned on the band that, only by retaining close to complete control over their work could they relax enough to take risks with their creativity. This was to set the template for Queen’s entire career.”

Equally dubious is the practice of describing how the writer imagines someone would feel. Take this, about Freddie’s birth: “When the news reached her husband at work, Bomi rejoiced. The family name would continue.” Regarding the decision to send Freddie thousands of kilometres away to boarding school in India: “Jer and Bomi must have felt that they were doing the right thing at the time.”

There is an awful lot of speculation and guesswork masquerading as psychology — attempts to ‘uncover the real X’, another celebrity biography trope. Jones uses several epigraphs (quotes at the beginning of each chapter) from a “consultant psychiatrist”. Most of the time, though, it’s amateur-hour stuff: “Perhaps what he felt in his heart was …”. Friends and colleagues offer their wisdom too. Here’s Jim Hutton: “All the petting and stroking which he lavished on the cats, for example: it was what he wanted for himself.”

Worst of all is the chapter on Mary Austin, complete with comments from “music publisher Bernard Doherty”. The depths are properly plumbed when he witters on about the “Mother Mary” lyric in Let It Be by the Beatles — “coincidentally”, we are told, released in 1970, the year that Freddie met Mary. “Mary was the Mary in that song. She was pure.” To his comment that by the end they weren’t having sex, Jones asks rhetorically: “Because by this time Freddie had chosen to be gay, rendering Mary a born-again virgin?” Then there is an attempt to describe Mary’s feelings for Freddie as “Mother Love”, ending with: “No surprise that this would eventually become the title of a plaintive track sung by Freddie and Brian …”. Yuk.

The attempts to interpret Freddie’s lyrics are awful — it is a subject that Freddie himself hated discussing. A page of utter tosh about the lyrics of Seven Seas of Rhye ends with: “We can’t know”. Tim Rice’s musings on the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody are quoted at length, and space is even found (again) for the views of the Searchers bassist.

Expect plenty of ridiculous tabloid-esque hyperbole. Roger is described as “almost too beautiful”, as if he were some Greek god. Smile’s music is described thus: “… dramatic drums, insistent guitars, strong lead vocals and intelligent harmonies … The overall effect was multi-layered, embellished and breathtaking.”

A much-overused word in music journalism is ‘legendary’. Jones doesn’t disappoint. The Queen logo designed by Freddie is “now legendary”. DJ Alan Freeman’s ‘not ‘arf’ catchprase is similarly “legendary”. Rockfield Studios, where Bohemian Rhapsody was part-recorded, has “legendary status”: indeed it is legendary because Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded there.

To conclude, then, this isn’t the worst book of its type — it is well researched and the author has uncovered some interesting nuggets — but the reader should nevertheless be prepared for the sensationalism and hyperbole typical of the tabloid journalist rather than the objective, dispassionate approach of the serious writer.

Let’s finish with three examples of pure-grade drivel. After stating that Brian and Roger soon came round to the name ‘Queen’, Jones says this: “The point being that no male could be more macho, more straight nor more besotted by women than these two.” As for Queen’s response to the arrival of punk: “There was only one thing for it,” says Jones — the “only one thing” she refers to was not to adapt to the changing mood but to tour North America supported by Thin Lizzy. And finally, an extremely tenuous connection between Queen and David Essex, involving Mel Bush — he managed Essex at the time of his Gonna Make You a Star hit and then promoted a breakthrough Queen tour in 1974 — is described by Jones as a “bizarre twist of fate”. Bizarre, indeed.


More about Queen

185–161

Queen songs ranked — plus an explanation of the rationale and ground rules I adopted

Live Killers

Reflections on Queen’s first live album, forty-ish years after its release

Queen Memories

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

Books, TV and Films, November 2020

1 November

With a due sense of dread I have started to read Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones. I generally avoid the ‘popular’ biography genre — books about celebrities written for a mass-market audience. From the few I have read over the years (mainly about Queen), such books seem to be badly researched, full of drivel and appallingly written — like reading a 300-page edition of the Sun newspaper.

This particular book, which I picked up from a charity shop recently, was originally published in 2011 and then reissued in 2018 with a new title to cash in on the release of the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic. I am not aware of an official tie-in but snippets of the film script mirror the book’s contents (most obviously Freddie’s ‘coming out’ conversation with his girlfriend Mary Austin).

2 November

I have just watched a couple of terrific films — two snapshots, set a century or so apart, from America’s sad, shocking and shameful history of race relations. Despite adopting markedly different approaches to storytelling, both are tremendously uplifting.

Harriet is a biopic of Harriet Tubman, who first came to prominence in the 1850s (ie before the American Civil War) as part of the so-called underground railroad, having herself escaped slavery by walking over 100 miles from Maryland to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In total she is thought to have helped bring around 70 people to freedom. A remarkable woman, Tubman also played a prominent role during the civil war, before becoming involved in the movement for female suffrage.

On several occasions the film shows Tubman being ‘guided’ to safety after divine intervention in the form of messages received during fainting spells. (Tubman suffered brain injuries after having been beaten as a child by her slave master.) The film amply demonstrates how Tubman drew strength and succour from her religious faith, but this added mystical element detracted, in my view, from its impact as a historical account. The viewer is tempted to ask why such an apparently benevolent, omnipotent and interventionist God seemed happy enough to permit the barbaric practice of slavery to go ahead for hundreds of years.

The role of Tubman is played with fierce intensity by Cynthia Erivo. Her eyes seem to light up when she is confronted by one seemingly insurmountable hurdle after another. Sadly, the stories of women such as Tubman are not widely known. On a similar theme of women forgotten, ignored or airbrushed from history, Hidden Figures focuses on the stories of three black women who worked in different capacities for Nasa in the sixties, a time when the USA was demonstrably lagging behind the Soviet Union in the space race.

It is distressing to watch yet more evidence of the racial bigotry — ingrained and structural as well as everyday and casual — that was prevalent in large parts of the United States within the lifetime of many people alive today. And yet what is particularly enjoyable about Hidden Figures is that it drives its message home in a non-didactic and often humorous and irreverent way. To take just one example: an embattled head of the Space Task Group (played by Kevin Costner), frustrated by yet another setback, asks a room full of identikit white-skinned and white-shirted middle-aged men for reasons to explain the group’s lack of progress.

3 November

Another great film — A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. Like, I suspect, many people in the UK, I had never even heard of Fred Rogers, a longtime children’s TV host in the USA. Fred is more than just everybody’s favourite uncle; he appears to be the epitome of goodness itself, like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King rolled into one. Lloyd Vogel is a troubled magazine reporter, with a track record of writing unflattering profiles of people. Given the task of writing a short piece on Rogers, a job he considers beneath him, his cynical mind is unable to accept that Fred can really be as saintly as he appears, and the reporter is determined to dig up dirt.

Others can comment knowledgeably about Tom Hanks’s portrayal of Fred Rogers. I was impressed that, though undoubtedly a feel-good film, it skilfully avoided the obvious risks of schmaltz and sickly sentimentality. The very final scene, Rogers alone at the piano as the production crew slowly leave the studio, perhaps offered an answer of sorts to Vogel’s doubts.

7 November

Where to start with the Freddie Mercury book? There has been enough teeth-gnashing to merit a separate blog. Meanwhile, we go from the ridiculous to (hopefully) the sublime — Diarmaid MacCulloch’s acclaimed biography, Thomas Cromwell.

14 November

When I woke up yesterday I listened to the news reports about continued upheaval in Number 10 following the resignation of Lee Cain as the government’s director of communications. By the end of the day Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s top adviser, had also gone. Today’s Guardian headline describes it as the end of the “Cummings era”. How extraordinary it is that in twenty-first century Britain an unelected official should be seen as somehow defining an era. So often the machinations of government take place behind closed doors, and yet rarely do officials, advisers and civil servants have a public face.

And then I read this about Thomas Cromwell:

“By the second half of 1533, it was clear that the Secretaryship was in fact if not in name in Cromwell’s hands: one of those silent transfers of power to a man without a public face which characterised his first four years in royal service.”

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell

15 November

And so to the four-part BBC drama Roadkill. Written by well-known writer David Hare and starring Hugh Laurie, I knew it was going to be good — The Night Manager, also starring Hugh Laurie, was one of the best dramas I have seen for a long time — but it was so cleverly constructed I think it surpassed my expectations. I had rather assumed — based on I-don’t-quite-know-what — that the story would be about a devious, amoral, probably Tory politician, presumably a hit-and-run (‘Roadkill’), and consequent cover-ups and assorted dirty deeds and nastiness.

It was, of course, so much more. Yes, an investigative journalist is killed in a hit-and-run. And yes, a deer is run over in the middle of a country road. But the title ‘Roadkill’ needs interpreting much more broadly, perhaps taking in the sense of ‘collateral damage’. Like many of my favourite dramas, it combined plot and character development beautifully. It’s no exaggeration to say that not a single major character is completely flawless: all have their foibles and failings to a greater or lesser extent. It would be an interesting exercise to rank them in order of ‘goodness’. By the final episode I somehow found myself rooting for Peter Laurence (Hugh Laurie).

Roadkill was also a great advert for diversity: female prime minister; female chief of staff; female investigative reporter; female deputy editor at a big newspaper; female newspaper proprietor; BAME female top barrister; BAME barrister’s assistant; lesbian chauffeur; female permanent secretary in the Department of Justice etc. Hopefully there will come a time when we don’t even notice.

16 November

Fanny Lye Deliver’d is a low-budget production which demonstrates that excellent films don’t have to cost a fortune to make. Set in (Oliver) Cromwell’s England, it revolves around Fanny, her ageing husband John and young son. They live an austere life, according to a strict Puritan and highly patriarchal ethic: Fanny and her son are regularly beaten with a crop by John. Into their lives come a young couple with very different ideas about social and property relations.

The film clearly takes inspiration from the famous Marxist historian Christopher Hill. The words ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, which Hill used as the title of one of his books, are referenced in the film. It wasn’t clear exactly what ‘sect’ these new arrivals followed, but they were libertines, embracing sensual and sexual freedom as part of a general imperative to enjoy life on Earth (in other words, downplaying any notion of Heaven). As well as this battle of ideas, which brought to mind the late-sixties film Witchfinder General, the isolated cottage setting put me in mind of Straw Dogs, another film in which the established order is threatened from without.

18 November

Back to Ian McEwan. A few weeks ago it was On Chesil Beach. This time it is The Children Act. Both are films of McEwan novels, with screenplays written by McEwan himself. Both are excellent.

The Children Act centres on an eminent judge in the Family Division and a case involving a seventeen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness refusing — with the blessing of his parents and the elders of his church — a potentially life-saving treatment that involves the transfusion of blood. This was an interesting premise for me not least because I spent a year chatting weekly to two Jehovah’s Witnesses who patiently taught me about their beliefs.

25 November

I finally finished the Cromwell biography today. It is approximately 550 pages of fairly dense text, taking 20 days to work through at something under 30 pages a day on average. It was an enjoyable but not at times an easy read, certainly not for someone like me who is well read in neither church nor Tudor history.

A week or so after key prime ministerial advisers Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain left their posts, it was interesting to read about how quickly Thomas Cromwell, another power behind the throne, met his comeuppance. Even in the early months of 1540 there was no real hint of his coming fall, though his support for the marriage to Anne of Cleves was a disaster from the moment Henry VIII set eyes on her. Then, seemingly within days, Cromwell was gone, executed in July 1540. Henry’s obvious subsequent regret at his rash decision also reminds us in these last days of the Trump regime of the dangers of emotionally unstable and capricious leaders.

26 November

Having thoroughly enjoyed the film of The Children Act, I had to go back to the original novel. I have no knowledge of academic film studies, but it is interesting at least to note the differences between book and film — all changes made, presumably, for sound dramatic reasons. It is a guitar not a violin that Adam is learning to play in the film. The role of Pauling, Fiona’s clerk, is not so clearly defined in the book; in particular, he does not witness the kiss between Fiona and Adam as he does in the film. And the closing musical performance is realised quite differently in book and film.

In a mini essay at the end of the book the author makes clear that the legal cases he uses (or at least the main ones) are all based on real-life cases. The novel itself is yet another McEwan masterclass. Two passages, in particular, I found devastatingly good — his description of a legal case involving Siamese twins, and a jaundiced perspective on the reality of family breakdown and shattered communities.

Books, TV and Films, October 2020

1 October

The Romantics and Us is the latest TV series from Simon Schama, who is perhaps best known to non-historians for his A History of Britain TV series at the turn of the millennium. Watching this is part of ongoing efforts to broaden my cultural awareness. Art is one of many weak spots.

Schama himself is fascinating. He is a frequent interviewee on news and current affairs programmes like BBC’s Question Time. Unlike Peter Hennessy, who I mentioned last month in the same context, I find him frustrating to listen to in open discussion — the ‘umms’ and ‘errs’ and unpolished sentences matching his sometimes awkward physical jerkiness as he tries to articulate his thoughts. I find him much more watchable when he is working to one of his own scripts. One of his specialisms is art history; he fizzes with enthusiasm and radiates authority (assuming you can fizz and radiate at the same time).

He is also an absolute joy to read. I finally tackled Citizens, his huge and rather unorthodox history of the French Revolution, last year. And I will never forget his essay on the front page of The Guardian after 9/11, powerful and moving. It is included in a book of his collected writings called Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. Odd how memory plays tricks. I was sure it was the front-page lead in the newspaper the very next day, but the book dates it to 14 September.

2 October

Not quite uncharted territory but my latest read sets me on a journey I don’t normally undertake. My destination is the world pre-1600, specifically the Tudor court of Henry VII. Winter King by Thomas Penn comes highly recommended, judging by the cover quotes and the prestigious awards it has garnered.

As a proofreader, my antennae are attuned to these things, I suppose, but I was immediately intrigued by the style rules the book follows. A basic rule followed by most style guides is that jobs and roles are lower case and titles are upper case. I agonise over the distinction sometimes and, judging by proofreaders’ blogs, nothing seems to infuriate people more than seeing their prestigious role in a company rendered in lower case, as if it is an egregious attack on their dignity or a personal slight. Take the time to look when you are reading your ‘quality’ newspaper (maybe not the Telegraph, though) or trawling a respected news website like the BBC’s, and you will indeed see ‘the president’, ‘the prime minister’, ‘the chief executive of …’ and so on.

Anyway, a sentence from Winter King (page 85 of the paperback, opened at random):

The entourage, which included Garter king-at-arms John Writhe and a number of prominent nobles, was headed by Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey.

4 October

I watched both episodes of Honour last night. Terrific, not least Keeley Hawes as DI Caroline Goode. I know Hawes from Ashes to Ashes (for which she drew a lot of unfair criticism initially, the series being compared unfavourably to Life on Mars) and more recently from my Spooks lockdown binge-watch (she appeared in the first couple of series or so).

Honour tackled the subject of so-called honour killing via the real-life case of Banaz Mahmod, a young Iraqi Kurdish woman from London who was murdered on the orders of members of her family because she ended an abusive forced marriage and started a relationship with someone of her own choosing.

The drama has received some criticism because its focus was the police investigation and not the murder victim herself. Be that as it may, I found it compelling, moving and terribly sad, not least the failure of the police to protect Banaz Mahmod on at least four separate occasions before her actual murder occurred.

I found its depiction of the work of the police entirely believable — from the under-resourced computer analyst to the long hours of boring but essential investigative work. There was nothing remotely glamorous about this portrayal, a sense nicely reflected by Keeley Hawes as the down-to-earth and — dare I say — dowdy detective inspector in charge of the case. We are so used to scenes of senior officers using their rank to scold or belittle their junior colleagues — none more so, perhaps, than the curmudgeon-in-chief Inspector Morse — that it was also refreshing to see how well DI Goode worked with, and led, her team, who referred to her affectionately as ‘Smudge’. Off the top of my head, the only other fictional senior police officer I can think of who is unfailingly polite to junior officers is Columbo.

9 October

I recommended the original The Dead Zone film (ie not the later TV series, which I haven’t seen) to a friend and decided to watch it again myself. It’s a film I first watched at the cinema back in 1983. At the time (I was in the sixth form) I was a regular cinemagoer, influenced by a friend who was a huge film buff. It was the time when video shops were beginning to take off, so a huge selection of previously unavailable films was suddenly at my fingertips. My friend was heavily into cult directors like Brian de Palma and Nicholas Roeg. The Dead Zone was, I think, the first mainstream film of David Cronenberg, a cult horror director, who went on to do a remake of The Fly with Jeff Goldblum.

Watching it again, the film perhaps feels a little dated in places, particularly the ‘visions’ sequences. But what is most noticeable is how stripped back the storytelling is. Anyone familiar with the author Stephen King’s writing will know that he likes to take his time. It’s a hefty book and it meanders around (or so I thought when I read it, which was almost certainly only after having seen the film), with a much more prominent role assigned to the charismatic politician, Greg Stillson.

The film, by contrast, is very sharply focused: the accident, the visions, the rise of Stillson. Only the suicide of the homicidal police officer feels somewhat out of place, as if Cronenberg is clinging to his horror roots. The bathroom scene in which Officer Dodd opens his mouth wide before impaling himself on the open scissors — bringing to mind countless sci-fi and horror films in which an alien in human form finally reveals its true non-human appearance — is not quickly forgotten.

I found all the characters (and the actors’ performances) convincing — particularly Johnny’s long-suffering parents and the sympathetic doctor played by Herbert Lom. Christopher Walken is outstanding as the awkward misfit, his body slowly weakening as his visions become ever stronger. Martin Sheen has specialised over the years in playing charismatic politicians, of course, though a political figure less like President Josiah Bartlet (of The West Wing) than the malevolent Greg Stillson is hard to imagine. With his finger literally on the nuclear button, Stillson’s unhinged ravings in the film’s closing sequence make for uncomfortable viewing in the age of Trump.

10 October

I get frustrated at the build-up of unwatched films and other programmes in the ‘My Recordings’ folder of my TV box, and then I add to the problem by not only recording new things but also revisiting stuff I have already seen. Yesterday, The Dead Zone; today, Maigret Has a Plan, the pilot for the short-lived series of ITV Maigret dramas starring Rowan Atkinson.

I thoroughly enjoyed it first time round and was surprised to read some less than flattering reviews. The Guardian‘s TV critic called it “leaden”; I wrote back then that it was “dark and broody”. Far from regarding it as slow and ponderous, ‘giving itself time to breathe’ is precisely what I most enjoyed about it. Wasn’t this exactly what critics were applauding when Inspector Morse reinvented TV drama with its single-episode, two-hour dramas back in the eighties?

13 October

I finished Winter King earlier today. It is a terrific book, one that has definitely fired up my curiosity for reading more pre-1500 history, about which I know so little. Considering that he reigned for 24 years, Henry VII is almost the ignored Tudor. Time and again, the focus of books, documentaries and films seems to be Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, with Mary I close behind (and Edward VI the forgotten rather than the ignored Tudor). Thomas Penn shows us what a fascinating and controversial reign it was.

Two things resonated powerfully as I read the book. The first were the steps taken blatantly to rewrite history at the start of the new king’s reign in a bid to strengthen his extremely weak claim to the throne (he was the grandson of the Welshman Owen Tudor who had married Henry V’s widow). The aphorism ‘History is written by the victors’ is heard so often that it probably counts as a cliché, but the thing about clichés is that they usually contain at least a kernel of truth. Terms like ‘spin’ and ‘fake news’ are part of modern-day political vocabulary, but are they anything other than just new ways of describing patterns of behaviour that have always existed in the world of power politics?

The second was how the Crown rode roughshod over any notion of justice, fairness and the rule of law in its insatiable appetite for wealth. Of course, England was far from being a modern constitutional monarchy in the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, proponents of English exceptionalism love rolling out a narrative that explains how our fundamental rights and liberties as ‘free-born Englishmen’, first set down in Magna Carta and enshrined in common law, have been passed down to us through the centuries.

It is as much myth as reality, of course. Magna Carta says nothing about fundamental liberties, let alone parliaments, human rights and democracy; it was a document drawn up by the barons in their tussle with the king of the day. Meanwhile, Penn shows how, during the reign of Henry VII nearly 300 years later, the king and his chosen advisers made a mockery of any sense of fairness, employing an army of spies and informers as they targeted well-to-do individuals, threw them in jail and plundered their wealth with impunity. In order to help secure an orderly transition of power after the king’s death in 1509, one of his son’s first acts was to issue a general pardon making clear that in future justice would be “freely, righteously and indifferently applied”. Needless to say, it wasn’t.

Having being shocked and dismayed by Love, Paul Gambaccini, Winter King reinforced anxieties about present-day ‘rule of law’ issues, not least the principle of an impartial justice system. Rights we think of as fundamental suddenly no longer seem sacrosanct but rather up for debate. The government, to take just one example, has indicated that it intends to look at the role of the Supreme Court, with a view to clipping its wings.

Recent events in the USA, meanwhile — and the possibility that the Supreme Court may (again) play a decisive role in deciding who the next president will be — are deeply disturbing, especially when the choosing of the most recently appointed Supreme Court justice was such a nakedly political act (Trump himself openly declaring that he wanted his appointee Amy Coney Barrett on the bench before the presidential election on 3 November). The more I read of the political system in the USA, the more it seems an appalling advert for a written constitution, as much a corruption of ‘democracy’ as the Soviet Union and its satellites were a corruption of ‘Marxism’.

[Added: 28 October] This sense of angst was deepened after I watched a brilliant film documentary on the Sky Arts channel called White Riot, about the rise of Rock Against Racism in the years after 1976. The context was appalling levels of racism in the UK and the growing popularity of the National Front. The levels of everyday racism — and the behaviour of elements within the police force — were dreadful. Another reminder for people over, say, the age of 50 that the sixties and seventies were not the good old days.

Now for another Sam Bourne. This time, The Chosen One.

15 October

Blimey. This paragraph in The Chosen One made me laugh out loud. It was written in 2010, long before Trump came along to debase the office of American president. Sam Bourne is the nom de plume of Jonathan Freedland, a Guardian columnist who writes knowledgeably on, among many other things, American politics:

Americans could tolerate all manner of weaknesses in each other — especially if they were accompanied by contrition and redemption — but not in a president. They needed their president to be above all that, to be stronger than they were. Few men ever met that impossible standard. But a nation that looked to its leader to be a kind of tribal father never stopped expecting.

from The Chosen One, Sam Bourne (2010)

21 October

I finished the Sam Bourne book with the usual double helping. Brilliant, as ever. His publishers use the tagline ‘Suspense with substance’. Like a Robert Harris novel, you know that with Sam Bourne you are going to get not just all the elements of a pageturner but also cleverly constructed plots, well-researched detail and credible characters.

I dipped my toe into the murky waters of writing about politics with two blogs earlier this year, focusing particularly on what I described as ‘failures of leadership’. As Boris Johnson continues to demonstrate that he is not up to the job of being prime minister in a crisis, it is time to read the views of someone who really knows what they are talking about — the political commentator Steve Richards and his book The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson.

23 October

A rare visit to a bookshop today, my first since July. So many interesting new titles (this autumn was apparently a bumper time for new books, many of them delayed because of the pandemic); lots to look forward to when they eventually appear in paperback. I spent some time browsing in the history section; again, lots to choose from, especially with Winter King whetting my appetite for pre-1600 history. I bought another Thomas Penn book, this one called The Brothers York. Fifteenth-century England is not something I know a great deal about. There was another book that I will probably pick up on my next visit — The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones, which, as a more general history of the Wars of the Roses, might have been a better place to start. I found his The Plantagenets very accessible a couple of years ago.

A book I have been intending to read for some time is the biography of Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCulloch. It has received sensational reviews, and will doubtless be an interesting companion piece to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, which has of course been similarly lauded. Two masterly writers of history; two contrasting approaches. I thoroughly enjoyed MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity and his book about the Reformation is practically shouting at me as well.

Much of the history I read is produced by left-leaning or avowedly left-wing writers, but I would like to think that I am open-minded enough to enjoy writers who look at history from a different vantage point. These are the things that matter: the thoroughness of the research, the writer’s judgements and the quality of the writing. Simon Heffer is very much a creature of the right, a long-time columnist for the Daily Mail. That said, I enjoyed his biography of Enoch Powell, and so the third book I picked up from the shop was his The Age of Decadence, a history of Britain between 1880 and 1914.

28 October

Steve Richards’s book on prime ministers since Harold Wilson is every bit as good as I thought it would be. He is someone whose political analysis I always listen to.

Although the book is set out with separate chapters on each prime minister bookended by an introduction and conclusion, one of its real strengths is that Richards is throughout comparing and contrasting them — what was similar and different in terms of their qualities, their approach, the events that confronted them and so on. It is an excellent and stimulating work of analysis and ensures that he does not get bogged down in unnecessary narrative.

As the subtitle says, his theme is leadership, and he continually returns to his ‘lessons of leadership’ — where it was demonstrated, where it was lacking, leadership traits that tended to produce good outcomes, and traits that contributed to bad outcomes. You probably won’t agree with every judgement he makes but, having been a watcher of politics for decades, he is a compelling and authoritative voice.

One criticism I would make of the book is that the writing lacks a bit of polish. It is the first Steve Richards book that I have read, but I am assuming it is connected with how the book came together. Most of the chapters are based on a series of unscripted straight-to-camera broadcasts (à la AJP Taylor) that he did on the Parliament Channel. As I say, he is constantly comparing and contrasting prime ministers, so there is inevitably some repetition. But it is noticeable how often particular words are repeated, sometimes within the same paragraph.

At one point, for example, I think I counted three uses of the word ‘fleetingly’ on the same page. The word ‘slaughtered’ (not my favourite word anyway) crops up more often than in a Stephen King novel — as in, ‘The Conservatives were slaughtered at the 1997 election’. Other errors (I think) include David Cameron’s ‘hug a husky’ policy (wasn’t it ‘hug a hoodie’?) and (regarding Gordon Brown) ‘the means justified the ends’. Like Richard Evans’s The Rise of the Nazis, there is also a howler in paragraph one of page one: “Boris Johnson, who entered Number Ten following the seismic general election in 2019.” It is curious that such errors were not corrected for the paperback edition.

More Books, TV & Film Chat

July

Philomena; On Chesil Beach (the film); Richard J Evans; The Second Sleep; Marxism

August

On Chesil Beach (the book); Peter Hennessy; vampire films; Ben Elton; Ice Station Zebra

September

Paul Gambaccini and Yewtree; The Post, Strike and Ad Astra; Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo

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

Queen

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

Rush

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

Genesis

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