Sojourn in Mantua

Photo by Steven Porter. © 2014
Photo by Steven Porter. © 2014

A guy gets off the train from Verona and immediately puts his suitcase down. It’s of the size you could bring on a flight as hand luggage. He unzips it. He takes out his jacket. Under that are about twenty cans of Pepsi and a few of Fanta or some other brand of orange. He rakes around, as if trying to locate something else, but there’s nothing except fizzy drinks. He takes out a can of Pepsi, opens it, and walks off towards the station exit. The can appears to be leaking.


What I Read in 2013

This post is about what I’ve been reading rather than books published this year, at least in most cases.

But let’s start with my big disappointment of 2013 – David Peace’s Red or Dead. A novel about Bill Shankly’s Liverpool? Can’t go wrong with that I thought, especially having enjoyed The Damned United. But the repetitive prose goes a step too far here. At  times it looks as if it has been cut and pasted into different chapters in order to go over stuff yet again. This eventually wore me down and I didn’t even get to the half-time oranges with what must be one of the longest novels ever written about football. For me, the author only succeeded in making the life and career of one of football’s most colourful characters appear tedious. I’d rather read a Shankly biography than plough through the rest of it.

Speaking of biographies, I’ve read a few this year. Some People Are Crazy: The John Martyn Story is a great read with John Neil Munro providing a fine insight into the life of one of my favourite musicians. I suspect that many who knew Martyn would not talk well of him as a person. Munro does not overlook this, but in order to get permission to work on the book about the late singer/songwriter, there may have been a limit to what he could include. Like me, Munro is clearly a fan of the artist and so the focus is rightly on his career and music.

Morrissey’s autobiography, which I wrote a full review of recently, is another very entertaining read related to the music industry. And one interesting biography that had passed under my radar was The Tailor of Inverness. Matthew Zajak’s tribute to his Polish father was initially a successful play but transfers well into this non-fiction work, as Zajak uncovers a few surprises about his dad’s past during World War Two and finds some unknown relatives along the way.

In terms of self-published releases, I enjoyed Brendan Gisby’s The Burrymen War, a tale of sectarianism and strange rituals on the East coast of Scotland, while Stuart Ayris’ novella The Buddhas of Borneo was an original and unorthodox piece of travel writing. All Dogs are Blue by  the late Brazilian author Rodrigo Souza Leao’s was another oddball novella that does unusual things with language.

Unexpected bonuses of the year, as I had never heard of the book or writer in either case until friends gave or mentioned them to me, were Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and The Songs of Manolo Escobar by Carlos Alba. There is a full review of the the latter here. The former is a  piece of investigative journalism with some intriguing case studies that seems to conclude that we are all touched by madness to a degree and that psychopathy of some sort is never far away.

Finally, my current reading includes Anne Quinn’s novel Berg, from the 1960’s. It’s quite odd and although short it’s not the easiest of reads due to the blur between what is actually happening and what the protagonist is imagining or fantasisng about. But I intend to persist with it. I’m also still about halfway through The Godfather. It’s always interesting to compare book and film versions, but I like to go against the grain and find examples of movies that are better than the novels, and I reckon this is one of them. Until next year. Cheers.

Morrissey Autobiography

mozBorn of Irish stock, Morrissey paints a vulgar picture of his childhood in monochrome. His recollections of his home city are as grim and northern as the sight of Ena Sharples in her hairnet. Manchester in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was still much the same as the place that had shocked Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. Only the presence of Top of the Pops provided ‘a rare flash of glamor in our oh so very pale lives’.

School days offered no hope, only mindless violence. Mr Coleman, the head at St Wilfred’s, was ‘convincingly old, unable to praise and his military servitude is the murdered child within’. Miss Redmond ‘will never marry and will die smelling of attics’ and Miss Dudley was a ‘sexual hoax’. One supposes these are some of the ‘belligerent ghouls’ of the Headmaster Ritual from the Meat is Murder album.

St Mary’s Secondary Modern in Stretford was no better. Just more humiliating beatings dished out to th consoling sounds of a Glam Rock soundtrack. By then, Morrissey was into T Rex, Bowie, Mott the Hoople and Roxy Music, though the latter dropped in his estimations when ‘Bryan Ferry announces that his favourite food is veal – second only to foie gras in savage cruelty’.

Literary influences include Oscar Wilde of course. AE Housman also held great appeal: ‘Housman suffered throughout his life, and therefore (and not surprisingly) his life became an unyielding attempt not to cooperate.’ But it’s film, TV and other pop culture references of the period that predominate.

In his youth, Morrissey virtually stumbled onto the set of Coronation Street only to be labelled a ‘nuisance’ by Bernard Youens (aka Stan Ogden). It wouldn’t be the last time but the incident resulted in the soon-to-be-Smith getting a part as an extra in an Edwardian drama. Though an acting career never appealed, he’d turn down the chance to appear in Emmerdale and Eastenders many years hence: ‘The most fascinating aspect of both offers is that somebody somewhere had thought it was a good idea.’

He did have a stab at writing a script for Coronation Street, but, sadly, the powers-that-be were not impressed with a finale that had Violet Carson (playing the aforementioned Ena Sharples) turn to the camera, one eyebrow arched, asking, ‘Do I really look like a fan of X-Ray Spex?’.

His world expands a little with trips to visit friends in London and then to the USA to visit his aunt, who had emigrated there. Not an opportunity that would have presented itself to many young working-class Mancunians in the mid-70’s, I reckon.

Then Punk explodes and fizzles out before one Johnny Marr turns up at the door. Since the Smiths were my favourite band at the time, this story and others from those years are familiar. But even if you’ve grown up with the music of the Smiths, there are surprises in store.

Having already lived in a haunted flat in London, a very odd incident occurs on a drive with friends up to Saddleworth Moor. It’s one of the most evocative passages in this eloquently written and absorbing book. The story is so bizarre that you can’t help but wonder if Morrissey is toying with the reader, scattering a few red herrings around and chuckling to himself.

Some time after the breakup of The Smiths, Morrissey returns again, this time with Marr, to Saddleworth Moor; the setting for the controversial Suffer Little Children from the first album. The former does not seem to understand the breakup or is just not for telling. It seems it was all down to Marr: ‘I didn’t want to ever go solo… I thought The Smiths would run for at least thirty albums.’

Yet, it all fell apart so quickly after Strangeways Here We Come – an album both Morrissey and Marr considered the band’s best. It’s time to tell the tale of throwing it away at the peak of your powers.

Harsher criticsim is reserved for supremos Geoff Travis and Tony Wilson of Rough Trade and Factory Records respectively, Siouxsie Sioux, and perhaps most surprisingly, stingy Sandie Shaw. Don’t meet your idols! But Marr comes across as a decent bloke who, in his efforts to get on with everybody, is a little too slippery and elusive for his own good at times.

Morrissey’s true nemesis is Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, who took the songwriting duo to court in 1996 and won his case for a 25% cut of band royalties. According to the vocalist, ‘Johnny and I signed to Rough Trade as the Smiths’. He insists that 10% was the figure agreed with the additional members.

Although interesting to hear Morrissey’s perspective, the trial section gets quite tedious and for a time descends into a lengthy rant against High Court judge John Weeks (who found in Joyce’s favour). Even the quality of the prose seems to go out the window here. It was the only part of the book that bored me and takes up way more space in the story than it should as Morrissey repeats himself over and over to vent his spleen and hammer home his points. He dealt more creatively with this episode on his Maladjusted album. But the court case narrative does have its moments as Moz’s bitchiness reaches new heights in comedy and melodrama: ‘By now, Marr, Rourke and Joyce have magically transformed into the Beverly Sisters, each chanting how that awful Morrissey has destroyed their lives….’

After the decision was reached “Joyce Iscariot raced to the press caped in victory: ‘It’s not about money,’ he kept saying, which told everyone that it had purely and absolutely been about nothing but money. .. Johnny’s crime is that he watched it all and said nothing, hoping to avoid the noose already tight around my own neck…”

‘Sickened, I left England. The good life is out there somewhere…’

He been fortunate enough (or unlucky?) to work with some of his idols: Bowie is more than an acquaintance, ex –Spider Mick Ronson produced Your Arsenal shortly before his death, and Moz helped revive the career of the New York Dolls. Kirsty McColl was another dear friend and he seems quite close to Chrissie Hynde, who Marr worked with briefly in the Pretenders after the Smiths split.

Some of the people Morrissey gets on with, or respects, are surprising, including Elton John and Morten and the rest of those ‘inherently decent’ lads from Aha! There’s over two decades of solo work to delve into, as opposed to the handful of years the Smiths were together. Now understanding a little better the background to all that, and realising how much I have lost track of it all, has led me to revisit the back catalogue and discover many gems among consistently good albums. He’d only just started something he couldn’t finish. But that’s another story…

The Songs of Manolo Escobar

The Songs of Manolo EscobarThe Songs of Manolo Escobar by Carlos Alba
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an unexpected bonus. I’d never heard of the book or even the writer. But it was given to me by someone who knows my tastes. At first glance I thought it might be a biography. In fact, it’s a novel narrated by Antonio Noguera whose from a Spanish family living in Glasgow. The author turns out to be a successful journalist-cum-novelist from a similar background to his protagonist.

Alba has neatly constructed a work of fiction that is both very entertaining and convincing, with a three part non-linear narrative which flits between Glasgow, London and Spain. Given that it spans much of the second half of the twentieth century, the Spanish Civil War almost inevitably weaves its way into the storyline. Faced with an ailing marriage and the illness of a close relative, Antonio returns to Lleida province, in Catalonia, to try to find out more about his family history.

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The World is Ever Changing

roegThis is not your typical autobiography. For anyone familiar with Roeg’s film work (Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, etc) that may not come as any great surprise. He’s never been keen on presenting his art in a straightforward and chronological fashion. For that reason, the only other autobiography I’ve read that sprung to mind while I was reading this was Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Likewise, this is more a series of thoughts, incidents and events that are only very loosely connected, if at all. Roeg’s chapters are built around aspects of film: image, sound, script, directing, etc. He does talk about what motivates and inspires him, but not a great deal about his private life. Perhaps he thinks that would be a bit boring and credit should be given for that. He comes across as someone more interested in life (and film) than of talking himself up. On the other hand, this makes him quite an evasive character. So it might disappoint anyone looking for a no-holds-barred type of autobiography, full of celebrity scandal. But he does tell us how he blew the chance to work with Marlon Brando, and without any lingering sense of bitterness. There’s also a very curious kind of spiritual experience mentioned towards the end of this concise book. I really enjoyed it. Some might consider it too brief an encounter, but it’s hard to find fault with it. Leave them wanting more… Be brave… Look now.

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The Man Who Fell To Earth

Over three months since my last post, so just to let you know I’m still on Planet Earth. Normal service will resume shortly with an article on football in Sheffield, where I’ve been hiding out.

Also, there will be a short review of film director Nicolos Roeg’s unusual autobiography ‘The World is Ever Changing’. Indeed it is. Catch you soon then!

Sputnik Sweetheart

Sputnik-SweetheartWorld of Books has reached the landmark of 100 posts. I’ve decided to celebrate it with a review of a short novel by one of my favourite contemporary writers. Sputnik Sweetheart is only the second or third novel I’ve read by Haruki Murakami. But I’ve seen enough to be convinced that he is one of the best novelists around today and I intend to read a lot more of his work.

In some ways, he reminds me a little of Richard Brautigan; an author I loved in my younger days. The American was also influenced by Japanese writing and culture, so it may be that they share some of the same influences. Oddly enough, Brautigan even had a book of stories called The Tokyo-Montana Express. Both can be considered counter-culture writers of sorts because Murakami rejects the work of some of Japan’s literary heavyweights (such as Yukio Mishima) in favour of Western literature.

However, the similarities I see between Murakami and Brautigan come down to two things: the deceptive simplicity of the writing and the use of strange and original metaphors. Sputnik Sweetheart includes similies such as, “I drew the curtain aside, and there was the moon, floating in the sky like some pale, clever orphan” or “Imagine The Greatest Hits of Bobby Darin minus Mack The Knife.That’s what my eyes would be like without you.” Wonderfully imaginative metaphors rich with poetry make a welcome change from tired old clichés.

Sputnik Sweetheart is narrated by a young teacher known simply as K. He is in love with a female friend called Samire, who in turn has fallen for Miu, a woman who runs her own wine business. Unexpected events lead to all temporarily leaving Japan for a Greek Island where one of them goes missing. The book’s intriguing title comes from the fact that Samire is an aspiring writer who is fond of Kerouac, and Miu, being a little older, confuses the word ‘Sputnik’ with ‘Beatnik’.

I should also mention this is a translation. That might seem like a statement of the obvious, but many people read novels without giving it a second thought and don’t consider the implications. In other words, we rely on someone else to give us a true flavor of what Murakami is about. It is only thanks to translators like Philip Gabriel that we are able to enter into the magical world of this Japanese genius.

Primal Scream

Another taster from my work-in-progress Edina Street…
I bump into Kirsty and Bob, or whatever his name is, snuggled up in a right cosy looking corner of Pearce’s. Would’ve gone somewhere else if I’d clocked them first. But I’ve got a pint of 80 Shilling in my hand now.
“Alright, Donnie?”
“Oh aye. What yous been up to?”
It’s sticking in my craw to ask. Should’ve blanked them. And he’s still wearing that stupid fucking hat, like the one Dylan has on the cover of his first album.
“Just been to see Primal Scream up at the Venue.”
“Aye? Good gig was it?”
“No bad. Thought they were better the last time I saw them but….”
The cap adds weight to his opinion of course. Gives him the air of an NME journo or something.
“I didn’t miss anything then? They’ve run their course, I reckon.”
“Kirsty enjoyed it. Didn’t you?”
He ruffles her hair. Smiles. Patronising bastard, so he is.
“Aye, it was great. I think they get better and better.”
“I thought Kirsty said you were into them?”
“I still like Sonic Flower Groove. But they’ve kinda turned into rock gods now, have they no?”
So the lovebirds had been speaking about me? Well, at least I’m not totally out of the picture… But this pint of 80 tastes very bitter.

Liverpool Basque

The Liverpool BasqueThe Liverpool Basque by Helen Forrester
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a novel about Manuel Echaniz, now an old man in Canada, looking back on his life. As the title suggests, he was of Basque stock and brought up in Liverpool.

My main criticism of this book is that although there is likely to be a lot of sadness and death involved in the thoughts of someone so old, the Grim Reaper’s axe seems to be swinging relentlessly throughout. Granted, these immigrants had no easy life but perhaps Helen Forrester could have injected a bit more humour, even of the black variety, into proceedings.

That said, I would not describe this novel as harrowing. And it has many qualities, not least of which it is well written and careful structured, albeit a little conservative in its prose for my own tastes. There’s a nice balance of female andn male character perspectives, too.

This family saga is a convincing portrayal of an immigrant community in the first half of the twentieth century. And there are some glimpses into Basque culture and history. The way that historical events are weaved into the tale works very well.

Three stars out of five may seem a little harsh. Not a light read, but in other ways quite traditionaI, I’d give this novel seven out of ten. And the ending took me somewhat by surprise in spite of all that had gone before.

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Saint Patrick’s Day (1991)

Another snapshot of life on Edina St, the sequel to Countries of the World.

Donnie and Alex (aka The Claw) are in the pub.
– Why are we drinking to some Irish saint?
– We’re not. We’re celebrating the release of the Birmingham Six.
– That was on Thursday, Donnie.
– Aye. But we were skint then, weren’t we?
– Yeah, but… We’re nae even proper Fenians.
– Doesn’t matter what foot you kick with, Alex. It’s not about that, is it? Some things just aren’t right.
– Ok. How can you be sure they’re innocent these Birmingham blokes?
– You think they’d be letting them loose as an act of goodwill for St Patrick’s Day or something? Humiliating the Crown Court and what have you so that half a dozen more Micks could go out on the lash this weekend? The fact is, they’d been charged with handling explosives when they were playing fucking Snap.
– Aye, whatever. I’ve got the power…
– Well, ya werena singing that when ya were manhandled into the Black Maria the other week. The Polis never tell porkies, eh? You’ve never been slapped about in the back of the van or the cells? They’ve never tried to pin other stuff on ya?
– I give as good as I get… but you’re right enough. Filth.
– The only reason these boys are out is coz the establishment knows it hasn’t got a leg to stand on. And neither will you after you’ve had a six pints of the black stuff… We’re going to do the right thing for those unlucky fuckers.
–  I’ll drink to that. But lighten up and put something decent on the jukebox, eh? It’s supposed to be happy hour ya miserable cunt.