‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke’

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Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys

by Viv Albertine

I don’t read many biographies to be truthful. I don’t know why really. In the book club, biographies are frowned upon as a lesser form of writing, quite why I don’t know, it’s on of our many weird rules: no biographies. On the QT, I like a bit of historical bio action and in the past I’ve voraciously consumed weighty tomes on Churchill, Hitler, Julian Cope and Humphrey Bogart to name a few randoms. In truth I don’t remember much about them and perhaps that’s the curse of the biography: ephemeral in many ways.

So when I was handed a copy of Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys I thought I’d slip it in between ‘serious’ book club books for a little light relief. The title comes from what her mum accurately surmised as her primary interests when she was younger, and sets the tone for a bright and honest journey from seventies London, being in a punk band and to be honest, an ordinary woman’s life with no holds barred. The opening chapter coverers in detail her lack of interest in masturbation this honesty sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The first half of the book is a solidly engaging and innocent romp through London seen through a teenager’s eyes: the beginning of punk, it’s magnesium-bright pinnacle and its inevitable fizzling out. As someone who was too young to catch the first wave of punk, this is a breathlessly enjoyable sequence that shines alight on the surprisingly random and quite frankly coincidental series of events that led to the watershed in music that was punk. Just after punk in the early eighties, we all imagined it was some kind of co-ordniated movement to dethrone the establishment, but it was just a bunch of disaffected kids who were in the right place at the right time—with wrong kind of attitude.

Viv’s voice is clear and distinctive. She confesses to the reader all manner of surprising feelings centred on inadequacy and fear which is refreshing when punk was all about conveying an attitude with a look. For her the veneer and sneer of sexualised punk was just that, a front but it gave her the permission to be different. But we’re in good hands with Viv throughout and she never fails to convince even when she makes some quite frankly crazy decisions. I can completely identify with the attitude that lead to her embrace punk is such a passionate way: we were post war kids and we were part of a new generation that felt the old ways had had it and it was in with the new. I even felt the reverberations of that in post punk—new wave took a sanitised version of punk and ran with it, leather keks and all.

The second half of the book is where it gets really interesting for me. After she leaves The Slits her life opens up in front of her and she realises that she has to do something with it. Her story then becomes one of education, families, relationships ending, illness and some successes. In short, the normal life of any woman. Viv is always true to herself though and the bravery (and innocence) that led her as a 14 year old to travel to Amsterdam and live in a squat manifests itself in all kinds of situations in her life. But she is always true to herself—eventually—whether it is music or relationships.

So this is no light relief biographical sideshow, it’s a moving and engaging story of an extraordinary life and an ordinary life, meshed together.

The man who was Thursday

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Four out of ten

This month’s book club book was very strange. It was by the relatively well-known British author, G K Chesterton. I have no idea how it came about as I wasn’t in attendance last month…but here goes.

It’s worth up front saying that finishing this book was a bit of a challenge: I left my hard copy in a Leeds hotel room – accidentally I might add —but downloaded e-book at the last-minute to finish it. And for some reason it was easier to finish it in a digital format: go figure. I found the book hard graft initially to get into, a difficult book to read for some reason; perhaps it was the language, not sure. Once into it though, the pages turned easily and I finished it with hours to spare, pre book club…even though I wasn’t actually there in person.

First thing to say is that this is a completely mental book. Farcical at every turn, it was almost like an episode of Ripping Yarns with some chapters full on Python-esque thrown in for good measure. It had elements of the surreal; reminding me of a Magritte show I saw in Liverpool a couple of years ago. Bowler hats, steam trains, apples, you get the picture. It also felt satirical but I’m not really sure what about, but more on that later. I also enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of London and skies were very visual and quite lyrical, quite at odds with the rest of the book.

The plot was ludicrous, every move telegraphed at every chapter and certainly to the modern reader it seemed quite eccentric. It was both funny and engaging sporadically and ridiculously old-fashioned. Parts are very Dickensian with echoes of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (perhaps it’s the period) and interesting to note Chesterton had a Dickensian obsession himself, writing a biography of Dickens. As in most Dickens books, London plays a starring role and this book has the city central to the action.

I particularly liked a proto James Bond underground bunker / secret agent entrance to a secret lair —Ian Fleming had clearly read this book as did many Cold War / TV writers…for example the Man from Uncle secret entrance through the laundry business mimicked the grimy boozer tunnel described in the book. At times this book felt quite futuristic for the period it was written.

The final chapter in the book had an otherworldly, almost supernatural feel that had echoes for me of the Master and Margarita party chapter — praise indeed. It was both surreal and druggy. There were also religious references aplenty, both overt and tucked away. From the Old Testament days of creation to Jesus’ quote about having to drink from his cup, I found the collision of religion and anarchy a bit obvious.

It was interesting to think about modern terrorism in the context of the anarchists depcted in this book, would Al Qaeda sympathisers be ignored in the manner of these pseudo terrorists? imagine a similar gathering in a curry house in Bradford talking of bombings…All one has to do these days is say the word bomb or type in the word dynamite to a search engine and alarm bells are triggered.

I then got thinking about ‘hiding in plain view’ and of course it has modern-day resonance…Jimmy Saville, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter, Cyril Smith, all hiding in plain view using their stature, celebrity, and wealth to conceal their activities. Quite a powerful thought.

I found the anarchists not very anarchistic and to be honest, wasn’t really sure what they were rebelling against. I was puzzled with their quaint club style (more rules it seems than our own book club it seemed) and I wanted to know why were anarchists so prominent in 1908 and what worried that society so? Was it the Russian movement, the build up to WW1 or was it the fragile transition from Victorian old world culture to brave new world of technology and advancement?

Fundamentally I’m left unsure why the intellectuals were seeking to embrace the destruction of society and establishment. Interesting to see in our modern era it seems to me like it’s not esoteric intellectuals who seek the destruction of society as we know it, but religious fundamentalists.

I scored the book a four as for the majority of the book it was simply a farce with clunky exposition, enjoyable to read but the real nuggets were few and far between.

 

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

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This year has been another classic year for our book club. As we get to the end of the year, we always take a backwards glance at the year’s books in our annual review and it’s always a delight to go back over the reading material and re-appraise the books—time often provides another filter in which to consider their impact.

We have read some really challenging and stimulating books this year in book club and none more so than the latest: a slim collection of short stories by Nobel prize winner, Alice Munro. I’ve said many times before, the measure of a great book club book is the conversation it stimulates, the book itself doesn’t have to be amazing: in fact if it is, it’s usually high scores all round and a fairly dull meeting ensues.

I think we’ve only read short stories before on one occasion (Sci Fi as I recall) and we knew we were in safe short story hands with Munro, given her recent Nobel accolade for her literature. Awards are no guarantee of a satisfying book and discussion as we’ve found in the past, but the book ticked a lot of boxes, so in we went.

This book was easy to read, although I found short stories need to be consumed in one sitting, otherwise the characters in different story fuse together. In fact looking back, I feel the themes were far more important across the collection than the characters. Good short stories are impressive feats of writing too—a compelling and believable world has to be created quickly and efficiently with no luxury of 800 pages to flesh it out.

Munro examines the trajectories of lives, criss-crossing, delicately woven together, smashed part, unfolding, unravelling. She tackles the difficult issues of the bargains we make with ourselves to make things work or rationalise in our hearts and heads. She enjoys the untidy nature of life which, as much as we try to keep it in order, can never be mastered. She is a master at portraying the complexity of emotions, the fragility of relationships, unbreakable family ties, duty and responsibility. Furniture is a theme that re-occurs constantly, an analogy I think for the everyday stuff that surrounds us in our lives, physical things that we can move around but never goes away.

The men in her book are hard, unattainable, dutiful, arms length objects of female desire to be lusted after or fearful of. The women are trapped, hemmed in by their duty and loyalty, occupying traditional stereotypes that perhaps speaks more of her Canadian home.

Her prose is like a delicate filigree, beautifully realising the relentlessly chilly tales. I found many of the stories bereft of emotion, Munro doesn’t flinch from the harshness of life and relationships, as the reader, one gets cold comfort from her elegant, neatly realised writing.

This collection is ultimately a mediation on morality and mortality—each story prodding, poking, picking at the edges of life. There aren’t many answers to be found in her pages, she simply sets out the scenes and asks the reader to decide. As each story unfolds, Munro seems to get bolder, finishing with the powerful Bear came over the mountain, laying out the components of loss: memory, relationships, tragedy and mundanity.

Of course a collection of stories like this got us all hot under the collar and a seriously good discussion ensued. I scored the book highly as this is clearly the work of a great writer and writing this, three weeks after we met, the themes have matured and lurk in the back of my mind, gloomily reminding me that it’s a fine line between happiness and sadness. And it’s a line that we all tread daily.

The North (and almost everything in it)

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The NME always seemed impossibly glamorous to me growing up in the bleak, fucked up Leeds of the late seventies. We had little glamour in the city: Revie’s Leeds United were long gone, replaced by a series of dysfunctional teams that could never fill their stylishly brutal boots. The city centre was a ghost town with fountains perpetually filled with spectres of foam. The North seemed to have nothing going for it and as usual, London was the centre of attention.

Music was one of the ways we could escape the harsh reality of Britain and when music started to become important to me, so did the NME. It was a window into another world, speaking of bands making the big time, fantastically hip scenes that I could only dream of being in, the glamour of touring the UK and beyond and a mythical London that boasted Carnaby Street and The King’s Road. I’ll talk more about myth making later but these were imagined narratives for me that were anything but dark and satanic.

My favourite NME writer was Paul Morley. At the time I knew little of him except he got all the top jobs, wrote the most provocatively and was always at odds with everything, always challenging and probing. He would never review an album, he would pontificate endlessly about philosophy and then write a paragraph on the record. He would provoke and piss off artists with his own seemingly pretentious approach, but he did set the NME apart at the time, seizing the high intellectual ground from the plodding rock journos on Sounds or the inanity of Smash Hits.

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Morley was destined for great things and went on to found ZTT records that, amongst other things, made Frankie Goes to Hollywood famous. These days, Morley can be seen, heard and read across all media forms as a serious writer, observer, reviewer and all round ‘cultural commentator’. Like him or not (and many don’t), his views are well-considered and always demand consideration.

The North (and almost everything in it) is Morley’s latest book –  a weighty tome that although I bought it a few months ago, I’ve only managed to read the first quarter. But I’m not anxious about that, honest. Sometimes big books challenge the reader, daring them to come and have a go if you’re hard enough and there’s no doubting there’s a little of that with this book. The number of pages and scale of ambition screams SERIOUS WRITER!! But the macro experience is much more intimate, drawing the reader in to snapshots, narratives, factoids, lists (Morley loves lists) and a style of writing that can take some getting used to. The combination of stream of consciousness and hard facts set the tone for a philosophical but factually driven journey of how the North is the North and what that actually means to people who live in the North and those that don’t.

We made the short journey to Ilkley (Victorian spa town near Leeds) to hear him talk about his book and his relationship with the North as part of the excellent Ilkley Literature Festival. The event was a well attended, genteel gathering at the appropriately faded glamour of a large hotel in Ilkley. The format worked well with interviewer and questions although I wasn’t entirely convinced that the host had read the book (and who can blame him, it is mahoosive), but perhaps I’m being unfair.

Morley comes across as a suitably dour, erudite Mancunian who grasped his chance at London NME fame at the right time, but never forgot his roots. I was interested in his assertion that he ‘never went to work in London, but at the NME’ and his affirmation that he ‘took the North with him’ and didn’t leave it behind. I liked his thinking there – I work in both Leeds and London and the North/South divide is a well-worn and tiresome discussion most business people are fond of exploring endlessly. Morley contends that the North South divide is an ideological construct, created to keep Northerners in their place. Conversely, he takes the North with him wherever he goes, as state of mind not just a geographic location. I’m aware as I write that sounds incredibly pretentious, but it’s altogether a more progressive discussion.

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I was also taken with another of Morley’s ideas: people and cities can be architects of their own fame. He explored the theme of myth making in the North and charted the rise and renaissance of Manchester’s music scene right back to The Sex Pistols appearing at The Free Trades hall in 1977. Of course, we have no idea if any of this is really true, but we make our own myths and they in turn become reality, part of the narrative of where we live.

There’s a lot to like (and dislike) about Paul Morley, but it’s no dispute that he is good value for money. For his followers, he is a Northern provocateur camped in the belly of the capitalist beast, prodding, annoying, carping. For his detractors, he is a turncoat living not in his beloved North but in the cosseted comfort of a W1 flat, drinking lattes all day long and eating sun-dried tomatoes.

Of course, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle but we do need more people like Morley stirring it up in a stereotypically Northern way. I came away challenged to think about my own Northernness in a different way and my own perception where the North begins and ends, both physically and metaphorically. The North is both a comforting, recognisable account of a physical place we all know but also a challenges our pre conceived ideas of what The North is and can be.

 

Something wicked

When I go on holiday I usually take along a stack of books to read. I know you Kindle types will be laughing at my old fangled ways with paper and ink, but I do prefer a physical book at certain times even if it does play havoc with my baggage allowance. There’s something about the tactile nature of reading a paper based novel and the way that the glue melts in extreme temperatures and all the pages fall out…I digress.

Amongst my recent stash of holiday readage I took a couple of companion pieces. Or at least that’s what I discovered after I read them because when I bought them I had no idea they would be beautiful to read on after the other. The first was Neil Gaman’s latest The ocean at the end of the lane and the second was Ray Bradbury’s Something wicked this way comes.

Both these books came by recommendation and previous experience of the authors work – I’d read a fair bit of Gaman previously, my favourite being his superlative American Gods, read my review of it here.  I’d not read any Bradbury previously but I’d heard a lot about his work and not being able to talk the boys book club into having a go at one of his books, I decided that I’d be better off reading it off my own bat.

 

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The Ocean (I’ll truncate) is a slender volume hot on the heels of the might tome that was American Gods. I read the hardback version which was a lovely treat as the physicality – touch, smell, weight – is reassuring with a story of this kind, I have no idea why…perhaps it helps to bring a realism to an otherworldly tale. This book tells the story of a boy and a girl in an almost fable like way that’s set in our world but also sits along side a magical, mythical otherworld. Gaman likes these kinds of constructs and uses them to access our childhood dreams – and nightmares – and brings them to life freely and vividly.

The Ocean is a dreamlike book that dips in and out of our so-called real existence into another supernatural and mystical realm, inhabited by flying wolf manta rays, millennia-old witches and unsettling spectral shed beings. It explores hard hitting themes as child abuse and suicide and how these affect children and the mechanisms they use to cope with them. It’s a poetic, ancient story set against the backdrop of childhood and the fear of growing up and indeed grown ups.

I had no idea Something wicked would be a suitable book to follow with. The two central characters are young boys, Jim Nightshade  and Will Halloway (both great names) living in small town USA in the nineteen fifties (I think). Either way, it’s a time of innocence before the advent of the internet and mass media consumption, when the thought of the carnival coming to town would generate huge excitement.

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This is a refreshingly simple tale of evil coming to visit a small town and the ghoulish delights of a devilish troupe of intolerant carnival folk – ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’ (Bradbury has a way with brilliant names) – who have been peddling their evil ways for centuries. Althought the book tells a familiar story,  it’s the innocence of the tale that is part of the charm – it doesn’t try shock horror tactics – this is all about the anticipation, the atmosphere, the mood and the cracking yarn that Bradbury spins. 

Something wicked is all about time and how it affects all of us. The boys are desperate to grow up and their fathers yearn for a life when they were younger. The malevolent and Mr Dark is at the black heart of the book, almost devil-like in his alluring, tempting ways. 

The book easily and surreptitiously delivers themes around belief and fear and the control people have over each other, for positive and negative. It explores our feelings towards age and growth and fits beautifully with the themes Gaman uses in Ocean. The author implies that our own self centred wishes and desires are the things that restrict us from enjoying the simple pleasures in life which lead ultimately to fulfillment.

It’s a source of frustration for me that books in the fantasy/horror genre are never taken as ‘serious’ literature. Both Ocean and Wicked have been praised highly in certain circles and I would certainly join in that praise. These books use serious, grown up themes to tell entertaining and thought provoking stories. There is a real sense with both books, once opened, the real world disappears but rest assured it’s never too far away in the telling.

Heart books for Valentine’s Day

This is a deceptively whimsical take on classic book covers by the guys at ReDesign to coincide with Valentine’s day. The covers are witty and simple and beautifully conceived – and they made me smile.

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Popular lies about Graphic Design

 

In an attempt to dispel the various myths, misconceptions and outright lies that permeate the industry of design, New York-based British designer and art director Craig Ward has written a book called ‘Popular Lies About Graphic Design’.

The author 10 years of experience tackles everything from design fetishists, Helvetica’s neutrality and ‘urgent’ briefs to more worthy topics such as design education, the supposed death of print, client relationships and the perfect pitch.

Sounds like the kind of book that would be good for both designers and clients alike to read. It looks great too.