Monthly Archives: January 2015

Reading to remember

As I read the accounts of survivors this Holocaust Memorial Day, it struck me that many of them came from those who had been children during World War II. One even remembered her sister being born in the camp. Even so, they were saying that this was likely to be the last year they would be fit and well enough to visit Poland for the ceremonies.

wire

As interest in the War started to rise during my childhood, and the survivors began to find some comfort in recounting events long-buried, I read a number of memoirs of the events, both in class and out of it. I probably started with Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, telling of a very ordered, quiet life and home interrupted by derring-do with the Dutch Resistance and eventual imprisonment.

Then I picked out Kitty Hart-Moxon’s record of her Return to Auschwitz from our school library. At the time I was at boarding school and couldn’t contemplate what the death camp showers actually meant or looked like. Gazing up at the institutional shower head above me and taking an extra big gulp of air before turning it on, just in case.

Anne Frank’s story was televised when I was a similar age, able to swoon with her over Peter and chafe at being locked up day after day with her family. I remember thinking how tragic it was that she died so close to the end, that if she could have held out a little longer, food and medicine might have been forthcoming. As if the survival of one diarist might have outweighed those lost. And if it is possible to wish for young Anne’s survival, why not that of all the others?

Then there was Schindler – his Ark first, then List – before a borrowed Primo Levi or two. My favourite being If Not Now, When? perhaps because of its partisans who fought back against the Nazis despite the seeming impossibility of victory at that time. And I notice that across all of these narratives it seems as if we prefer the hopeful outcome. That evil can be defeated s0 its victims can return to ‘normal’. It was difficult to read of Kitty Hart-Moxon dealing with colleagues in the UK who would joke about the tattooed numbers on her arm.

Again, a failure of my imagination. As a child I couldn’t understand how you could escape that from all that horror to die by your own hand, as Levi had done, as one of the characters in the excellent, engrossing film The Counterfeiters does, just minutes after the end of the War. It took further reading and here Maus opened my eyes still wider. Surviving was only a part, not the end. Only perhaps the end of the beginning, as the nightmares didn’t stop when the camps were liberated.

Stupidly, I had always thought Zyklon B a humane, clinical death. The science seduces you into believing it was something like chloroform. Maus knocked that right out of my mind. Art Spiegelman’s use of mice and cats to tell his father’s story life – both during and after the War – makes the brutality worse, perhaps because it reminded me of the humanity of those history tells us should be monsters but aren’t. Instead they were family men and women. Competent officers, effective administrators and clerks, who signed off on mass murder as if it were no more than shipping goods from A to B.

And what of when the goods were human beings? Although most memoirs feature the journeys to the camps, they are usually eclipsed by what is waiting on arrival. Jorge Semprún’s The Cattle Truck (also published as The Long Voyage) opens with 120 men being packed in for five days of hell on the way to another – the camp at Buchenwald. It is one of the most claustrophobic openings to a book I have encountered and completely unforgettable. He uses the time to recount his story to an older man, measuring out the miles in tales of his capture, Resistance life and youth in Spain during the Civil War.

Semprún has written extensively of his deportation to the camp, calling it the defining moment of his life. He also speaks in this interview of the blending of his memories with narrative devices more commonly found in fiction:

… my books are generally both memoirs and novels, both fiction and first-hand testimony. My aim was to create a synthesis of the two genres…

When I was working on the most painful parts of the autobiographical narrative, the ones I had postponed for so long, I forced myself to be as stringent as possible, to be absolutely faithful to the historical truth. I did not want to romanticize any of the details, or to distract the reader with dramatic turns of event or artificial moments of narrative tension. So I decided to use my imagination only when it felt necessary in order to produce a more lucid image of my overall experience of the camp.

Works of imagination have the power to deliver sometimes unfathomable truths to readers. Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is not entirely a novel of the Holocaust, yet it lurks in the shadows. On the surface, one would think his infidelities, relationship with his daughter and wife are what are pressing on poet JHJ, that and the work he is supposed to be doing while he dozes in the sun. Women weave around him – daughter, neighbour, wife, lover, friend – but it is the memories of Joe’s mother and sister that endure and prove fundamental.

In talking of what has been lost, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated captured the lost shtetl life while The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – which I read in a sticky hot Bangkok December – Michael Chabon’s tale of an imagined Alaskan town peopled by many of the six million, having escaped there in the Thirties, brought a different perspective. I seem to recall (although searching can’t track it down) the author saying that the Holocaust had robbed him of the great networks of European Jewish life: the uncles and aunts, great-grandparents, cousins, friends of the family and distant relatives, that would have been his otherwise.

Seventy years on, what we sometimes think of as historical events, read in textbooks and ‘witnessed’ at arm’s length via films and memoirs, is still part of the unspoken horror of family remembrance, containing the power to warp and destroy relationships down through generations. As even the children of the Holocaust pass into old age and beyond, soon all we will be left with are their stories and their conviction that to know the truth is to guard against it happening again.

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Naomi’s Room

We have all been there, so it’s not hard to conjure up the scenario. A bustling Saturday shopping afternoon, you try to manoeuvre yourself through the lagoon of people who bash past oblivious to anyone in their pathway. Basic manners and people skills: clearly two lessons that were eradicated from their upbringing. People who were not brought up, but rather brought down.

You clasp tight hold of the child’s hand by your side. But being an infant, this is no ordinary day, no day is ever ordinary when you are three or four. It’s a world of imaginative possibilities. An escalator is a runway to a sci-fi alien world, a conveyor belt to the land of robots. A discarded take away box is a trunk of treasure and then there are all the neon flashing distractions of window displays and other excitements.

You may lose your grip for a fraction of a second, look down and he or she is still there, look away and then back and the kid has vanished, gone! This is every adult who is responsible for a child’s absolute nightmare. Because adults know the darkness of the world we inhabit. In that fleeting moment, the amygdala does not just hijack the brain, it tortures it.

Generally a few seconds later the child re-appears, you catch sight of him or her and your heart returns back to its normal rhythm. You shout, an almost roar, out of sheer panic about wandering off and how it is naughty or some other disdainful reprimand. It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s just words, noise expressing your inner fear. And equilibrium is restored.

But what happens if the child does not re-appear?

This is precisely the dilemma that Jonathan Aycliffe throws at his reader in the beginning of the short tale of terror NAOMI’S ROOM. From the onset he establishes his tale in the land of comfortable academia. It’s domestic bliss with Charles, the main protagonist, aged 30, his wife Lucy, 26, and their daughter Naomi who is 4.

It’s a world of possibilities,

Your life seems so directed when you are thirty.

Charles is a published promising academic, with an acclaimed piece on Gawain and the Green Knight. The loving couple and their daughter live a charmed life and the action starts with the two prepping for Naomi’s first proper Christmas. Taking Naomi on a trip to London, on Christmas Eve, her mood is one of excitement.

Naomi’s sense of adventure was infectious.

This picturesque idyll is not so much shattered as completely decimated when Naomi goes missing.

Nothing bad happened to children on Christmas Eve.

Each chapter is crafted to keep you reading on with a suspenseful final paragraph. This tale is in the style of supernatural masters like M.R. James and Susan Hill. The sadistic style of writing that is unflinching in its descriptions, slashes the canvas of comfort and provides an engrossing narrative. It is horror writing at its best, suspenseful, chilling and occasionally gruesome.

I’d say you know it’s a captivating tale when you open the envelope it came in as you come home from a solid day of graft and decide to look at the first paragraph to realise you are 80 pages in and the last hour or two has gone by. It was only when I finished NAOMI’S ROOM that I actually looked at the cover in greater detail. Thankfully, I had not given it a glance as on reflection this could have put me off, a naff superimposed stock image of a spooky child clutching a doll over a staircase was about as sinister as athlete’s foot, but I guess that depends on the severity of the foot ailment!

naomis-room

If like me you choose to read this tale in a room of your own, I can guarantee that when you bed down in the evening, a light of sorts will have to be turned firmly on somewhere in sight of the naked eye. You will hope that the mind does not decide to work overtime and you will hope that Madam Sleep wrestles you quickly into unconsciousness.

It does amaze me the fixation that society seems to have with fictional horror and crime. The world is crammed with gruesome realities from IS to UKIP, yet we still have an innate fascination with atrocities from watching hangings in Elizabethan times to reading penny dreadful novels in Victorian days, the 1970’s slasher flicks to the bordering-on-snuff films of the SAW franchise.

Perhaps we are all just twisted souls?

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The tortoise had it right!

Next time you’re in a public space, a café, a bar arena or even a restaurant, take a peep around at how many people either alone, in couples or groups of friends are on their phones, travelling the internet, keeping up to speed with the latest viral sensation.

everyday robots Copy = Babycakes romero

This need for a flash spectacle is fantastically portrayed in the recent film BIRDMAN. Michael Keaton’s character, a washed up actor, gets accidentally locked out of his Broadway production naked midway through the play’s performance and has to walk through a congested Times Square. A common nightmare that I and I am sure others have.

People are addicted to the net, trailing through Twitter, Facebook and the like, an endless stream of information flowing like a river full of driftwood that cannot be used for anything of purpose. Although there will be an occasional salmon. This buzzing is constant on all apps.  We are all moving so fast and trying to achieve the unachievable.

I saw Carl Honore talk on the excellent TED site last year on slowing down and paying more attention to what is around us. His discussion on the slow movement encouraged me to buy his book, IN PRAISE OF SLOW. I generally buy a lot of books from the site ABE books. As they deal in second-hand copies, there is always something exciting about getting a book someone else has had, with occasional receipt or ticket as book markers, scribbling inside and the odd personal message.

In praise of slowIn general the books come in a day or two from the time I order them.  For some reason this particular book took a few weeks. Perhaps a witty bookseller was teaching me a lesson before I had even opened the pages of the manifesto. In keeping with the title of this book, I have read it slowly over the last few weeks. Normally when I am captivated by a subject I consume it quite fast, but I felt particularly with this topic it would be better to cogitate over each idea. I’d highly recommend reading it in a similar fashion.

Warhol said,

We spend much of our lives seeing without observing.

This is very apparent in the arguments put forward in the for a slower approach to all aspects of our lives from sex to food. To start the New Year, ten minutes hate caught up with Carl Honore and asked him to summarise why we should slow down:

  1. To recharge your physical batteries. Our bodies burn out when stuck in fast-forward. Pausing from time to time to rest allows us to enjoy life with more energy.

  2. To look back. Memories are hard to form when we live too fast. Pausing allows us to savour and learn from past experiences.

  3. To see the big picture. Pausing to reflect allows us to look beyond the trivial distractions of the moment to ponder the deeper questions: Who am I? What is my purpose here? How can I make the world a better place?

  4. To take pleasure. Many of us are racing through life rather than living it. Pausing allows us to engage fully with the moment, which means doing everything better and enjoying it more.

  5. To connect. Relationships wither when we try to rush them. Pausing allows us to listen to other people, to be with them fully. It also allows others to connect with us.

  6. To be more creative. Neuroscience tells us that slowing down is an essential pre-condition for creativity. Pausing allows us to unleash our imagination and creative powers in the workplace and everywhere else.

  7. To save the world. We are burning out the planet by consuming much more than we need. And much shopping is driven by impulse decisions. Pausing allows us to resist the siren call of turbo-consumerism and to make sensible decisions about what to buy.

You can find more information here.

So far for 2015, I am trying to ensure I spend quality time with friends and family, where they have my undivided attention, not ‘oh, I just need to take this call.’

I’ve joined a rambling club so a couple of times a month I can land in the middle of nowhere and walk for the day without any digital toxins, using a compass not a sat nav. I find it quite disturbing to be told you have reached your final destination, it sounds too much like death. In the same way I can never get over the fact they call an airport a terminal, after all that is also too, too final.

To combat the 24 hour online working society that we have become, where we can work anytime and anyplace, I now have a tech-free curfew for a few hours every day, I keep away from a digital screen. I can still write down my ideas but only in a sketch book. No digital sound beats the scratching down on to paper with a sharpened pencil. In the orchestration of our lives, we would all benefit from a marked rallentando, before the inevitable conclusion that awaits us all.

tortoise and the hare

As Simon and Garfunkel aptly sang in The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy):

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the moment last…

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Lily Poole by Jack O’Donnell

How much is too much to spend on a book? As with so much in life, George Orwell has already considered and quantified the answer for you. That said, I imagine the ideal price of a book is different for all of us and, while I love picking up the out-of-copyright classics and browsing through the 99p list on Amazon, for me – for a new-ish book I have a real hankering to read – the sweet spot is around a fiver. Perhaps it is a relic of all those book tokens I used to get for birthdays and Christmases.

So how much would you spend for a book that hasn’t been written or printed yet? Unbound is a concept akin to Kickstarter, for both established and new authors who are seeking funding for new works of fiction or non-fiction. They have already created a bit of a splash with their backing of Paul Kingsnorth’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted The Wake. For the readers, it is about becoming more than a consumer, being a talent-spotter perhaps, or paying it forward. You may even gain the opportunity to name a character…

And for the writers? As Miranda Ward writes in her Unbound-published and utterly brilliant book F**k The Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice:

This whole idea is fundamentally about sustaining yourself, as a creative type, so that you can create more. Ultimately, it’s always about the creative output, and the act of creating, not about the money, the money is simply what allows that process of creation to occur unfettered.

Of course, to be successful at this you need to – let’s be real, here – milk your contacts list for all its worth. You need benefactors, patrons and preferably rich ones, as every Renaissance artist knew. Or you need your idea to resonate with many, many people, so that they see fit to bung you a tenner. In these straitened times, that’s no mean feat. But if anyone is worthy of a portion of your hard-earned, it’s ABCtales writer Jack O’Donnell.

Jack

His novel-to-be Lily Poole, ‘a ghost story without a ghost’, is currently at 47% with an array of different pledge rewards available. Here is the pitch:

Lily Poole breaks the mould of horror fiction to ask serious and urgent questions about society and psychology, and does it while telling a gripping story about murder and deception, about Scotland and mental health, and about love and family.

There’s also an excerpt from the book available on the pledging page and I am sure it will whet your appetite for more. Which will be forthcoming, if enough of us stick some cash in the hat. Articles on the future of books and publishing are often full of doom and gloom, and who knows where things will eventually end. I wouldn’t want to venture any predictions. Other than to say that Unbound offers an alternative, a chance to discover books from outside mainstream publishing – such as their recent ‘Women in Print’ initiative – and to follow them from idea to realisation. How could any book lover resist?

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The Sound of the City

My desk space in the city is located just off Dale Street. I love walking to work across town in the morning, past the sprinkling of market traders that are left, setting up for the day ahead. I see steaming cups of tea being administered to people who look like they desperately need them. I try to interact with this dying breed of trader. Use them or lose them! I try to buy vegetables from the stalls as often as I can. I could not get a pumpkin at Halloween last year for love nor money. One of the regular stalls I go to complained about how they simply cannot compete with the supermarkets,

Even I had to buy mine from the Asda, lad!

I love this humour that is used as an attitude in this city. The unshakeable wit of Scousers that can be heard everywhere. Recently on a bus a teenage girl was arguing/flirting with one of her male friends, who had taken a picture of her on his phone,

Do you know it’s illegal to keep a picture on ye phone if the other person doesn’t want you to?

She barked. To which he quickly retorted,

Do you know it’s illegal to have them eyebrows?

The acidic comeback is natural to the average Scouser. It’s all part of the sound of the city. It is all about survival. I have noticed in the past few years, a couple of the flower sellers have vanished on my route, withering away into nothing like the flowers they sold. There is still the occasional Eccoooooooooooo of an Echo seller and thankfully the sounds of the buskers if you can manage to ferry your way past the Predator, the Alien, a balloon squeezing Mario (plumbing obviously has been affected by the recession) and the odd Olaf. (Please note it is not recommended to tell a three-year old if the said man in a snowman costume is not present by stating, ‘he must have melted’, as my nephew was traumatised by this for several hours after.)

But one of the most gratifying sounds is the one I often hear, the music from rehearsal rooms on Dale Street. A banging drum set beat as I walk to work early in the morning and guitar solos flooding into the night air as I finish in the evening. This always raises a smile on my face, as you can hear the soul that is going into the practice. It is so much more refreshing a sound than ‘Cashier number three please.’ It is part of the DNA of this city, music, yes respecting the past but also moving progressively forward, to the future bands.

princes buildings

I was appalled at the news that this magnet for musical talent, the Princes Studios could be threatened with closure. We need to close a vital creative hub – that makes great sense! We need new apartments in the city like the world needs Ebola!

As those behind a recent petition to the Council asking to save the building have written:

Princes Studios currently houses over 250 musicians and 50+ bands who make up a large percentage of Liverpool’s illustrious music scene.

If the building closes it will have a huge negative impact on the Liverpool music scene as there is a chronic shortage of flexible and permanent rehearsal space in the city.

I was so proud to show off this City over the holidays to friends who were genuinely shocked by the culture, humour, history and vibe that we have. I do wish I was equally as proud of its elected leaders. The local Council – the alleged custodians of the city – do not seem to realise they do not own this city, the people do!

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The world can never have enough glitter!

In the limbo period of Xmas and New Year I found myself taking several parties of friends and families around the Pool of Life at different times. It is quite something, seeing the City through the eyes of strangers, aliens to its charms. I have a love affair with the City Centre which anybody who has read features on here previously will know.

The first shock to my friends was that the Museums are free!

If you have not had the pleasure of embarking on a ship as an emigrant at the Maritime Museum, do so! Although the black wigs on the dummies looked like they could have been stolen from a Human League Appreciation party. The Walker has a wealth of art, so much that only a limited supply is actually on display. Check out the new exhibit of Liverpool images though the years to see views of Castle Street and the St John’s Market resembling Covent Garden.

In a world where Russia creates ridiculous restrictions for LGBT drivers, it was an absolute pleasure to show off the cultural richness the City proudly exhibits and particularly the work of Homotopia:

  •  An ongoing exhibition about Gay life in the Navy with HELLO SAILOR at the Maritime Museum. It was an insight to discover that the common Scouse term bevvy (slang for a drink) stems from Polari .
  • The internationally ground-breaking April Ashley exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool Life. April Ashley has LIVED a life, a pioneer in LGBT history. I read the book April Ashley’s Odyssey last year. What a ride! From dining with aristocracy and being dated by Hollywood royalty to being skint in Hay-on-Wye, living on tinned food.
  • THE GANG, photographs by Catherine Opie at The Walker. Her collection of portraits of LGBT friends, an entourage of individuality, subverts American archetypes.

OPIE-square-The-GangCatherine Opie sums up how far we have come in terms of equality,

I made THE GANG after individually shooting them all for the 1991 body of work, Being and Having. It was great to see them with their moustaches and I couldn’t resist making some group photos of them…..I think it is perfect in celebrating Homotopia as this work was made 20 years ago, in relationship to visibility within my queer community. It is good to reflect on the equality that has been achieved, as well as the fight in regard to homophobia that continues.

So to banish the January blues, I would suggest painting over the grey and dark bleakness brought to us by the weather by catching the Technicolor works on display at all of the above.

Sail away to another land.
Check out the LGBT exhibitions.
The world can never have enough glitter!
And the Museums are free!

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Everybody’s looking for something

At a recent re-union with my two close friends, I went through my archive to find photographs from our collective past, remember photographs? Actual hard copies, actual physical images? I had a suitcase-full from the University days in Aberystwyth: theatre projects, pantomime and holidays, all shared histories. At the time we looked so fresh, yet were stacked with insecurities. It was striking how visually we had changed, faces, bodies, the core of the physical.

One of the funniest – yet lamest at the same time – cracker jokes I had this year was about Santa having to discipline his staff, as productivity on toy production was down in his factories. This was due to the Elves taking Elfies. Indeed, if you think about it, 2014 was the year of the selfie.

Nowadays, everybody airbrushes, changes, edits, deletes! We all do it, we all modify our digital life experiences promoting the fun times and the happy memories. We are all self-aware to a degree, but only projecting what we want the world to see. We are all Public Relations agents. Some admittedly are better than others.

It made me extremely happy to see a musician I have admired, Ms. Annie Lennox in a portrait that did not iron out her life lines or laughter marks. An image that did not tone and gloss her face to resemble an alabaster porcelain doll. To be raw, to be unaltered, to be authentic.

annie lennox

It reminded me of an anecdote I heard about Audrey Hepburn, who was appearing on the front of Vogue. One assistant, when showing her copy from the shoot, told her not to worry about the wrinkles as they would airbrush them out of the picture. To which this dignified actress said,

Don’t you dare! Leave them all in. I have earned every single one of them.

The recent picture of the Eurythmic legend was accompanied by a telling quote about our society on the Purple Clover Facebook page,

There’s this youth culture that is really, really powerful and really, really strong, but what it does is it really discards other people once they reach a certain age.

I actually think that people are so powerful and interesting – women especially – when they reach my age. We’ve got so much to say, but popular culture is so reductive that we just talk about whether we’ve got wrinkles, or whether we’ve put weight on, or lost weight, or whether we’ve changed our hair style. I just find that so shallow.

Perhaps we all should be made to read Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps we all could do with a reminder of what happens when you try and remain youthful for eternity. Perhaps it’s time to delete that picture in the attic or re-examine the profile image of our digital selves?

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On homesickness

Who that has not suffered it understands the pain of exile?

– George Orwell, Burmese Days

To be quite honest, having travelled back on average once a year for the slightly more than four years so far spent outside the UK, to call it ‘exile’ is to overstate the case slightly. In these days of free internet calls and the journey not taking three weeks by boat, it is a bit daft to consider oneself banished far from all the good things of home.

image

Can’t be trusted in the sweet aisle, clearly…

That said, a relative bought a print of the Albert Dock and Three Graces in Liverpool for my wall in Japan and there are some mornings it is difficult to look at, the ache from not being able to walk into the frame is too much. Missing the city as if it were an old friend is a strange feeling – the flesh and blood should have a bigger call on the emotions than bricks and mortar – but as I have been exploring this festive season, there is just something special about the Pool of Life.

Missing it too much, however, can feel like a betrayal of the other city I call home. Life in Tokyo is great, if not without its minor annoyances, just as would be the case with anywhere. The trick that homesickness plays is to mask all the deficiencies of home, while throwing a shadow over all the benefits of away. Then you are in danger of becoming one of those awful bores, lacking any sense of perspective, that have been plaguing expat life since at least the Thirties:

He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.

– Burmese Days (of course!)

The flip side of that is that, since returning, I find myself looking at my fellow shoppers, diners and train passengers wondering which of them ‘looks a bit UKIP’. A recommendation from brazzo70 in the comments on this post to check out Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe 2014 underlined all the ways in which the home country is leaving me behind (who in the hell commissioned Tumble? Danny Dyer in Eastenders? Nigel Farange appearing on anything? WHY WASN’T I CONSULTED ABOUT ANY OF THIS?)

 In an attempt to stave off the next bout of pining, measures have been implemented to bridge the gap. A Christmas present to myself was an annual subscription to Private Eye, so from later in the month you can expect to hear howls of outrage from my direction about a week after the original story first breaks. I also managed to register to vote as an overseas voter: this is open to all who left within the last 15 years and were registered before they left. Watch out, David Cameron!

All I need to do now is arrange for regular shipments of Maltesers…

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The Life of ‘The Master’

In the epicentre of the city, an electrical jungle, it seemed quite fitting that I started to read a biography of Lou Reed in Lime Street station, Liverpool. The speed of life was all around as I leafed through the pages of the book, LOU REED, THE LIFE BY MICK WALL. It was so cold you could smell the frost. Trains sighed, constantly in a mood. A distant whistle, then a robotic articulation read out train departures, all clipped vowels and pronounced words mixed with the click-clack of heels. A bird scream shattered the air.

The noisy chaos of a city, its people and their stories. The very madness of living that Lou Reed quite skilfully captured in his music. The singer lived the majority of his life in the middle of the similar hustle of New York City.

lou reed the life mick wall

This biography focuses on the rise and fall, rise and fall again cycle that the artist had during his lifetime. At times he was arrogant, vengeful and downright nasty.

He can’t leave any situation alone or any scab unpicked.

It was Mr. David Bowie who dubbed Lou Reed the ‘Master’. Yet they fought quite publicly, on many occasions. But we all love a Rock ‘n’ Roll feud, remember Oasis versus Blur?

What I discovered about the idol was not endearing. You don’t always have to like your idols; you can fall out and be frustrated by their actions. After all, it is okay to be contradictory, that is a necessary part of being human.

I continued to read the book at 6am on the day after Boxing Day, with a cup of tea and a bowl rammed with Yule log and extra-thick Jersey cream, which did make me giggle. I was reading about the musicians’ hedonistic exploration, dibble-dabbling in pharmaceuticals and narcotics as I was devouring the bowl of wrongness. How rock n roll, what a game, eh!

Thankfully, this festive over indulgence can be combatted by a couple of extra sets of sit ups. It’s clear from this book that a diet of heroin, LSD and other toxins cannot be so easily sorted. I have seen first-hand friends who danced the tango ballad with drugs in their twenties only to have hangovers either take root immediately or more innocuously in their mid- to late-thirties and forties. They had forgotten to read the small print, that drugs could lead to paranoia, claustrophobia and other anxieties, sometimes heaped together.

Kierkegaard said,

Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.

Wall’s no nonsense style of writing highlights the damage that the New York City man’s vices did to his mental well-being but hints at how it also stimulated his finer hours, like the pieces BERLIN and TRANSFORMER.

lou reed Berlin

I walk around Liverpool and hear the fragments of pieces of conversation, banter, arguments and all that I love about the city, the language, the talk, the buzzing. Where else in the world would you find scrawled on a toilet wall,
‘Ye ma’s baldy and collects Panini stickers’?

The type of dry sense of humour that is apparent in Lou Reed’s work. A great lyric in his track LAST GREAT AMERICAN WHALE (on the album NEW YORK) about where this sea creature has been spotted is delivered in that inimitable Yankee drawl,

My mother said she saw him in Chinatown, but you can’t always trust your mother.

I think Lou Reed would have loved Liverpool and its kick-ass attitude, finding the humour in the tragic.  It was his sardonic take on life that attracted me initially to his music. Its tales of picaresque characters from Warhol’s Factory, the broken people, transvestites, street workers and drug fiends who bleed glitter, glamour and damage. A cast of deranged souls.

velvet underground

The unsettling sound of THE VELVET UNDERGROUND with Nico’s droning somnambulist chanteuse next to Reed’s sandpaper-scratched vocal chords. John Cale’s avant-garde experimental score next to Mo Tucker’s anarchic drum beat. I remember buying their first album with Warhol’s Banana on the front from PROBE records, when I was a teenage bag of tie-dyed insecurities with blue hair and eye brow piercings, trying to standout but really unknowingly conforming. It was like something else! I lost track of his career trajectory as I grew up, with his pieces like albums ECSTASY and THE RAVEN.

This entertaining rock biography does exactly what it sets out to do, talk about Lou Reed and his musical legacy. It is also unflinching in describing his personal life, there is no airbrushing of the past. I found I didn’t warm to his attitude, but it has encouraged me to re-visit his back catalogue particularly. Like I said, you don’t have to like your idols, the person who created the music. It is, after all, the work that will always stand out.

Perhaps Bowie was right and he was the ‘master’, but I will let you be the judge of that.

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A year in books – 2014 – J. C. Greenway

Like my good pal, Mr Maguire, I have taken a more systematic approach to reading this year by making a reading plan. It wasn’t too exact, reckoning on two books a month and allowing for other discoveries by only planning for 10 months instead of 12. It sounds unbelievably dull, but as it paid off in an extra 15 books read this year, it might become a permanent feature! Access to free, out of copyright downloads means that I read more ebooks this year. They are just too convenient to avoid these days, however strong the preference for the turning of an actual page.

stack-of-booksWhile putting this plan down on paper, I decided that I wanted to read more from outside the ‘dead, white, European male’ perspective which so often makes up my reading. As this year started as the last ended, with a whole bunch of classy spy novels, this wasn’t altogether successful, but the effort will continue when planning next year’s books. I also want to read more works in translation, to disprove that theory that English-speaking readers won’t touch such books. Also this year I was lucky enough to get an offer of free downloads from the website Unbound, which introduced me to many new writers as well as a new way of publishing books.

Here is my list of books read in 2014, with links to reviews written along the way, as well as some further thoughts following. In chronological order, I read this year:

  1. Mike and Psmith, P. G. Wodehouse
  2. Psmith in the City, P. G. Wodehouse
  3. Crying Just Like Anybody: A Fiction Desk Anthology
  4. A Murder of Quality, John le Carré
  5. The Looking Glass War, John le Carré
  6. My Name Is Loco and I am a Racist, Baye McNeil
  7. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  8. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  9. Under Fire, Henri Barbusse
  10. Piggy Monk Square, Grace Jolliffe
  11. Down the Figure 7, Trevor Hoyle
  12. These Turbulent Times, Paul Tomkins
  13. I’m The One, Miha Mazzini (short story)
  14. A Game With Sharpened Knives, Neil Belton
  15. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  16. Burmese Days, George Orwell
  17. Jew Boy, Simon Blumenfeld
  18. The Interpreters, Ben Anderson
  19. A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut
  20. The Road Home, Rose Tremain
  21. Our Game, John le Carré
  22. The Summing Up, W. Somerset Maugham
  23. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell
  24. The Lighthouse, Alison Moore
  25. The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth
  26. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre
  27. Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
  28. Elephant Moon, John Sweeney
  29. Salt & Old Vines, Richard W. H. Bray
  30. F**k The Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice, Miranda Ward
  31. Cause for Alarm, Eric Ambler
  32. The Honourable Schoolboy, John le Carré
  33. Wigs on the Green, Nancy Mitford
  34. The Sweetest Dream, Doris Lessing
  35. Coming Up For Air, George Orwell
  36. Conversations With Spirits, E. O. Higgins
  37. Empire of the Sun, J. G. Ballard
  38. Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway

Looking at my list, it seems that I didn’t do too well at #readwomen2014, with just seven women appearing. The inter-war period still seems to be my favourite, with 14 books either being written or set in the Twenties and Thirties. It is going to take a more concerted effort next year to break away from the old, dead, European men.

Some highlights this year were set very close to home, with Piggy Monk Square by Grace Jolliffe and Trevor Hoyle’s Down The Figure 7 offering two completely different perspectives on growing up in the North of England. Jew Boy by Simon Blumenfeld contrasted with and provoked thought as well as Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying.

Spy novels remain a pleasure, so it was engrossing to pick up Ben Macintyre’s tale of the real-life mole in our midst, Kim Philby. Miranda Ward’s book – part manifesto, part memoir – of making it or not in the music and other creative industries prompted much highlighting and scribbling in notebooks. Conversations With Spirits by E.O. Higgins was a triumph, taking on spiritualism and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, it should be read by all.

Despite its World War II setting, nods to Orwell and plucky heroine, I couldn’t warm to Elephant Moon by John Sweeney. It had all the right ingredients and should have been a cracking tale, but felt far too slow to me. Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse is undoubtably the work of a skilled writer, but I disliked her characters so much it was difficult to spend time with them.

When it comes to picking a best book of the year, there really is only one candidate. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was unlike anything else, written in an edited version of Old English and rewarding the dedicated reader with a finely woven and masterfully rendered story. Language and narrative both perfectly combined. The writer announced that this is planned to be the first of a trilogy, which is very happy news and something to look forward to placing on a future list.

So, how about you? How did you get on and which were your favourite reads of the year?

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