The Young Oxford History Of Britain & Ireland (OUP 1996)- A Real Life Review

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I have gaps in my historical knowledge.  It’s likely that most of us educated in England would admit that.  At school I studied certain periods of history (some more than once).  I went on to study History at college but the eras largely overlapped with what I had done at school, leaving gaps of time about which I knew very little.  And I’ll admit that my knowledge of Scottish, Welsh and Irish history is even sparser.  This 500 page book is written for a young audience (although not that young, given the demands it makes on the reader, so probably early/mid-teens).  It seemed to offer an ideal overview of British and Irish history.  The general editor is Professor Kenneth O Morgan and it has been put together by five authors with distinguished historical backgrounds.  It spans from the time when the land mass which became Britain and Ireland was still joined to looking ahead what the new Millennium might bring.  The text is generously broken up with pictures, photos, maps and diagrams.

On reading it I can confirm that it provided me with a good overview and showed me how our history fits together.  Obviously, given its scope and audience it’s all rather fleeting.  I can’t claim to be that more knowledgeable about the periods I knew less about (Medieval and The Georgians, for example), but what is impressive is the range of subjects covered both within the text and through the illustrations.  Photos, portraits, diagrams and maps are used very effectively and they do enrich the text and can often give little snippets of information not included elsewhere.  At the back there is a list of the English Royal Line Of Succession and Scottish Kings  & Queens (I was largely unfamiliar with this particular list) and UK ministers up to, because of the publication of the book, John Major.  Obviously, this type of book dates easily but twenty-one years on it does not seem jarring.  Here, the vast scope and range of the book is to its benefit.

The index looks pretty comprehensive and this would most likely provide most readers’ introduction to the text.  I’ve read it from cover to cover, but probably most would dip in and out.  This is going to last me a little while, until once again I start chiding myself about how little I know about the country in which I live and then I’ll no doubt seek out something similar.

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The Young Oxford History Of Britain and Ireland was published by the Oxford University Press in  1996.

A Life Discarded – Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate 2016) – A Real Life Review

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Biographer Alexander Master’s latest highly unusual subject following his acclaimed 2006 “Stuart: A Life Backwards” (excellent TV adaptation starring Tom Hardy in 2007) and “Simon: The Genius In My Basement” (2012) made its presence known following a discovery in a skip.  A friend found 148 diaries abandoned in Cambridge.  He passed them on to another friend and when she became ill Alexander became the keeper of this extraordinary find, a vast number of diaries and notebooks filled with great intensity over a period of decades by person unknown.

What Masters had in his home was the work of the most prolific diarist of all time (Guinness Book of Records had recognised “newspaperman” Edward Robb Ellis’ 22 million words but here is something like 40 million words ) a record of one life and found in a skip.

It took Masters five years to discover the identity of the diarist.  The words became something of an obsession for him.  He pored over the writing looking for clues, at writing which became smaller as the writer aged becoming miniscule in later volumes.  A life which had begun with hope and optimism with many potential avenues became frustrated, disturbed even close to madness as the sequence continued.

I’m purposely giving little away about Masters’ subject because the gradual uncovering of the biographical details is one of the great strengths of this book.  Biographers obviously begin with research and getting to know and understand their subject before putting pen to paper, here we get a fascinating alternative process of nothing being known and everything having to be deduced from a personal monologue.  Diaries are not the best way to discover some things, even the basic biographical details such as gender, name, description are rare in this type of personal writing (why would you write about the things you know already?) and remained very much hidden amongst the millions of words.  The very nature of diaries is their tendency to be outlets for outpourings of the irrational and unanalysed.  So how much of a person’s life is actually revealed in this way?

This is certainly a real life with a difference and it is the process rather than the life itself which becomes gripping.  Extracts from the diary are not as prevalent as might be expected and are more used to put together a picture of the writer and why their life’s work ended up in a skip.  It reminded me occasionally of Alan Bennett’s “Lady In a Van” but instead of the physical presence of Miss Shepherd  turning up outside in her old van here we have the presence of the 148 volumes which takes over Master’s existence in much the same way as  Miss Shepherd did.

Another strength is how Masters’ biography has to shift gears as details are uncovered.  We have seen this recently in Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy” which changes track when research brings something astonishing about her subject to light but Masters is doing this all the time as assumptions are proved incorrect often built from passing remarks and gut feelings.  The twists and turns in the development of his narrative are really quite thrilling.

There, I think I’ve completed this without giving much away.  This book is best approached as a blank slate to really get maximum enjoyment from it.  Read it before you find out too much about it.

fourstars

A Life Discarded was published by Fourth Estate in hardback in May 2016 and in paperback in February 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

When We Rise – Cleve Jones (Constable 2017) – A Real Life Review

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Cleve Jones is an important figure in the fight for equality for the LGBT community in the USA.  He is also a survivor who lost hundreds of friends during the most horrific years of the AIDS pandemic.

This is his memoir and as a record of life in 70’s/80’s San Francisco this is about as good as it gets.  So much so that a six part TV series has been made of this book which has recently been shown in America.  On board for direction duties is Gus Van Sant and the screenplay has been written by Dustin Lance Black.  Both these were Oscar nominated (Black won) for their work on “Milk” (2008) about another very notable San Franciscan activist and politician, Harvey Milk who was murdered in 1978 and was very much a mentor for Jones.  Dustin Lance Black appears in the later years of Jones’ memoir and is well known in the UK as the partner of Olympic diver Tom Daley.  This promises to be a major television event and is currently apparently available to view on Netflix.  (I don’t have a Netflix subscription but am considering it on the strength of this alone).

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Dustin Lance Black, author Cleve Jones and Tom Daley

Jones is now 62, which makes him part of the generation who grew up with few acceptable gay role models leading to isolation and a belief that no-one else was like them.  Moving to the larger cities, especially in the USA, they developed a sense of community which, by strength of numbers, saw a beginning to challenge unfair laws and attitudes.  There were the short-lived decadent days of disco followed by the decimation of those communities by AIDS.  Jones is ten years younger than Armistead Maupin, this memoir feels contemporaneous to the novelist’s “Tales Of The City” series and those who relish Maupin’s San Francisco will want to explore Jones’ factual examination.

What I liked about this book is its celebration of Jones as a survivor and his unassuming approach to playing such a significant part in American Gay History.  The workings of US politics is somewhat of a mystery to me but Cleve the activist details his achievements in stopping a law prohibiting gay people working in schools, improvements in the access of medical treatments and wider issues affecting those working in the hospitality industry.  These achievements were largely brought about by mobilising the community. There is an awareness throughout of what else is going on in the world and he comes across as intelligent, impassioned and strong even when the odds are very much stacked against him socially, politically, economically and medically.  Cleve Jones also originated the NAMES Quilt Project which provided the first real memorial to those lost to AIDS, one of the most touching and sobering things I have ever seen.  Cleve was also around when the Rainbow Flag became adopted as a symbol, the relating of this being another high spot in his memoir.

At the end of “When We Rise” Jones states; “My generation is disappearing; I want the new generation to know what our lives were like, what we fought for, what we lost and what we won.” So much was lost but finishing this book leaves this reader with a great sense of how much was won.

fourstars

When We Rise was published by Constable in 2017

The Harlem Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction – Cheryl A Wall (OUP 2016)

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I very much like the idea of Oxford University Press’ “A Very Short Introduction” series.  They can provide a good starting point for a subject with suggestions for further reading to add more depth than these short overviews can do.  Established in 1995, there is now the staggering figure of over 450 volumes.  I have only read a couple and neither of these were complete introductions to me- they were on subjects I knew something about or were very interested in.  To test the effectiveness of this series maybe I should be selecting something completely alien to me, such as “The History Of Chemistry” or “Geopolitics” but life is probably too short for even these very short introductions when it comes to some areas.

In this volume, within 5 chapters and an epilogue, Rutgers University Professor of English, Cheryl A Wall gives a good overview of the period of Black American cultural history which has been termed “The Harlem Renaissance”.  I was very interested to see this title amongst the new “VSI” Oxford publications (alongside Learning, Blood, Translation, Public Health and Indian Cinema).  I knew of and have read (although many years ago) some of the poetry of Langston Hughes, who I assumed would be one of the key figures in this analysis.  I hoped I would read about Zora Neale Hurston whose 1937 novel“Their Eyes Were Watching God” very much impressed me (not knowing then that Wall is a Hurston expert) and looked forward to reading about such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker all of whom  I thought were probably of the right time period.

Writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston

The actual starting point of this “Renaissance” is up for debate.  Certainly the return of African-American soldiers from World War I, bringing back considerable life experiences would have paved the way somewhat as would the experimental “live while you can” atmosphere of the more liberal early 1920’s. Wall, however cites a dinner in 1924 at the Civic Club in Manhattan, an integrated event hosted by the editor of “Opportunity” magazine which was seen as the “debut of the younger school of Negro writers” alongside established African-American intellectuals such as W.E.B Du Bois.

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W.E.B Du Bois

Wall tracks this movement which became centred (although not exclusively so) on Harlem which had both a large vibrant African-American population and a number of nightspots (eg: Cotton Club) which attracted a white audience keen to see what Harlem had to offer.  The Renaissance also spread across to France (especially Paris and Montmartre where ex-soldiers settled to create a burgeoning club and night life scene, assisted by the more relaxed attitudes towards race by the French and dynamic performers such as Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker.

Sidney Bechet & Josephine Baker, causing a stir in France

It also was not just an urban movement, Wall argues, as it took in the American South where a number of these “New Negro” writers originated and which (in Zora Neale Hurston, amongst others’ case) provided the inspiration for work.  The rhythms of dialect, the words of spirituals and the music of the blues all had a part to play.

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Marcus Garvey

Wall’s emphasis is on the writers and poets but the trailblazers I had hoped to read about were all present and correct.  She’s also illuminating on the role of early civil rights leaders such as the aforementioned Du Bois and especially Marcus Garvey, who I’d heard about but was never sure how he fitted in.  He seems to have been a fascinating individual who stirred emotions both positive and negative and is someone I would like to find out more about.  So for that reason, if no other, Wall has certainly achieved the aim of the Very Short Introductions as far as I am concerned as it has got me to want to read more.  I might have liked a more detailed further reading list but that once again can be a springboard for Amazon suggestions.  This is a very short introduction which did not feel in any way sketchy or rushed and is a good way into the subject.

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The Harlem Renaissance is published by Oxford University Press in .  I would very much like to thank the publishers for the review copy.

What Happened, Miss Simone? – Alan Light (Canongate 2016) – A Real Life Review

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Music journalist Alan Light has put this biography together using the research material for a Netflix documentary film directed by Liz Garbus.  There was obviously a wealth of information on this unique performer and Light has done a very good job in pooling this all together to provide a fascinating biography on a fascinating subject.

Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymons in 1933, the sixth of eight children from Tryon, North Carolina showed early musical talent playing piano at church and began lessons with the intention of becoming a classical pianist.  Her application for a scholarship at the esteemed Curtis Institute was turned down.  Simone always believed this was because she was a black woman and this rejection became very much a foundation stone for her life and career.  The pop and jazz world beckoned, (requiring a name change so her mother wouldn’t find out), but for Simone, this was always a second-rate choice with second-rate audiences who did not always seem as engrossed as she believed a classical audience would.  A 1959 American hit, a cover of Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” (amazingly her only US single hit reaching number 18) began a career which encompassed many musical styles and certainly had its highs and lows.  There was a marriage where abuse was commonplace and Simone could not lose the feeling that she was being exploited by those around her personally and professionally.

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By the mid 60’s Simone had become highly involved in the civil rights movement  This led to her writing and recording what was termed “The Black National Anthem”, the stupendous “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” (perhaps the greatest protest song of all time).  This together with tracks such as “Mississippi Goddamn”, “Four Women” and an embracing of the Black Power movement and her need to educate her audiences led to her being deemed as a radical which would have been to some detriment to her career in the whites-dominated music industry and led to further disillusionment with her homeland.

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Nina struggled with mental-health issues and her reputation for being “difficult”, and in fact quite often terrifying, was down to a severe bipolar disorder.  The increasing need to be medicated and her own reluctance to take this medication at times makes for extraordinarily chilling reading.  An account of her involvement with the Pamplona music festival is fairly mind-blowing.  But, however difficult she might be, you could not ignore the talent and some people did whatever they could to stick with her.  Fans were loyal despite her testing of their patience, through late arrivals, arguments and bad-tempered performances and no-shows and also through the trappings of touring which could easily become too much for her.  Always unpredictable in her repertoire, she had the ability to move an audience to raptures (as well as occasional boos).

The title for both the book and documentary comes from a poem by Maya Angelou. Much of what I read in Light’s biography did not come as too much of a surprise.  Nina’s struggles were well documented in her lifetime.  You can get a great sense of the turmoil in her 1991 autobiography “I Put A Spell On You”, which is both highly readable yet confused and confusing.

She may have been hard to like but it was easy to fall in love with that voice and great talent.  She was a real tour-de-force, a complete one-off who defies categorisation and whose like we will never see again.  Alan Light portrays this clearly and respectfully and aims to illuminate the genius of the performer conflicted with the traumas and tensions of the woman.

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What Happened, Miss Simone was published in hardback by Canongate in March 2016  and will be published in paperback in 2017.  Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Kathy Kirby – Secrets, Loves And Lip Gloss – James Harman (2005)- A Real Life Review

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This is a very British tale.  The story of the singer dubbed “The British Marilyn Monroe” who at one point in the mid 1960’s was reputed to be the highest paid woman on UK television – and then it all went wrong.  I think this is what is termed a “published on demand book” (I got my copy from Amazon ) by Harman, a life-long fan who went one step further and for a short time believed he could engineer a comeback when he became Kathy Kirby’s manager.  It didn’t turn out quite the way he planned it.

                                    Kathy Kirby   and Ambrose at the peak of their fame                                                      

 Essex-born Kirby was discovered by Bert Ambrose, a band leader, big in the 1940’s, who by this time was really from another era who saw her as a way of bringing a younger audience to his venues.  Her look, the obvious glamour and the fantastic voice made her a television regular and she was very much a household name even before she began a run of chart hits in 1963-5.  Kirby was very much controlled by the much older Ambrose and they became lovers.  He reputedly financially exploited her, gambling away her money whilst all the time convincing her she was a great star.  When Ambrose died Kathy went into free fall- a catalogue of bankruptcy, incarceration in a mental hospital, inappropriate relationships, attempted comebacks and increasing mental health problems.  For the last years of her life she lived very much as a recluse, shunning the limelight she once craved.  She died in 2011, but throughout Harman’s work there is the hope that she would return and shine in show business again.

The structure of the book is odd.  It begins with an extended series of tributes from those in the business, wishing her well.  Frank Ifield uses it as an excuse to plug his autobiography and when you get to singer from much the same era, Julie Rogers, beginning “Kathy and I never met” you do begin to question this format.  The narrative throughout is brokn up by italicised sections of Harman’s own words and reminiscences, rather needlessly as the whole book is surely his own words and reminiscences.  That aside, this book is a permanent fixture on my bookshelves because of the absolutely fascinating story he tells.  I re-read this to remind myself of some of the incredible things that happened to her before reviewing the Essential CD – The Very Best Of Kathy Kirby.  Kathy was obviously too naive for a life in show-business but kept attempting to bounce back – a real survivor.  She was also too honest for the press and many  way hastened her own “downfall” by the things she told them.  The media treated her very much as the girl who found fame and lost it, creating a self perpetuating myth which got her selling stories but probably didn’t do her much good.  If anyone wanted a view on the fickleness of fame it was Kathy they turned to.  The Sunday press were always keen on stories about her and scandal made good reading- her every mistake and misery was taken apart by the press.

Kathy was really just a victim of changing tastes in popular culture.  By the 1960’s fame was not a life-long thing it had maybe been the generation before  and Kathy became one of the many casualties of changes in pop music at this time and yet she railed against this.  She was determined to remain a star, her legion of fans saw her always as a star but bookings diminished to bingo halls and restaurants as, despite the talent, she was just no longer in vogue and that had a serious effect.  As time went by she became deemed to be“difficult” which further compounded things.

For anyone who wonders “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” Harman’s tale is an eye-opener and very much a tale of the shallow world of showbusiness and the vulnerability of some who rose to the top.

fourstars

Kathy Kirby- Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss was published by Mediaworld in 2005

Confessions Of A GP – Dr Benjamin Daniels (2012)- A Real Life Review

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This was a special edition of a book chosen for World Book Night 2014.  It wasn’t a book that I had heard of before and in fact the title reminded me of the 1970’s series of books (and films) written by Timothy Lea that used to get passed around under the table at school.  (You know the ones….Driving Instructor…Window Cleaner) But no, Robin Askwith’s character hasn’t taken a more intellectual career path.  This is really more like Channel 5’s “GP’s Behind Closed Doors” in book form.

Dr Daniels is a pseudonym for someone working in the NHS who, at time of writing,  had been a GP for a few years and was actually, all things weighed up, loving it.  (Well he was at the time he wrote this book).  This was a good choice for a World Book Night pick, considering its remit to get those who do not normally pick up a book to read.  It is presented as a series of anecdotes and observations, mostly just a few pages long as Daniels ruminates on his life as a GP.  (It is quick to read, accessible and jumps around from amusing to sad, to thought provoking, to disturbing in rapid succession – and there’s an ample helping of bums, tits and willies.)  Ultimately, for the book fan, this structure is a little unsettling, you don’t get the flow of the reading process and it’s hard to feel that you’re not speed-reading- an anathema to us bibliophiles.

The variation is quite refreshing, however, in that Daniels does not let us wallow in the darker side of the job for too long.  There’s a good balance between the patients he has encountered and his thoughts on the NHS (he’s a big fan). Daniels is very open on what he feels is often the limited role a GP plays in our recovery.  He doesn’t feel that he cures that many patients.  For most, it is the listening, the taking health concerns seriously that does the trick.  Also, referring at the right time to the right person is an essential part of the job.  He discusses practice targets, ten minute appointment slots and regularly advises us how to get the most out of our GP by being good patients.  It is professional, does not scaremonger and is the exact opposite to reading the grisly health supplements in The Daily Mail.  I do rather think, however, that readers of that would be the most likely readers of this.

There are also interesting comments about the likelihood of things we’ve been led to believe are quite common.  At time of writing Daniels tells us that he has never as a GP been presented with a case of meningitis nor had to jab something sharp between the ribs to reinflate a deflated lung (this despite it being the first condition he learnt about at medical school- “spontaneous pneumothorax” for those who like the full knowledge).  There’s also the continual blurring of social services and government admin which makes the life of the GP tougher and takes away patient appointment time.

I did enjoy my appointment with Dr Daniels.  I can’t envisage it being a book that I’d want to keep and read again, but perhaps maybe that is a good thing.  Perhaps he’s cured me of my latent hypochondria that will tempt me to read lurid health scares over and over again.  Does anyone else have a medical handbook that automatically opens (because of overuse) to worst possible case scenarios?

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Confessions Of A GP was published by the Friday Project in 2012.  I read the  2014 World Book Night edition with additional extras.

Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought With Good Manners – Andy Merriman (2009) – A Real Life Review

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Many years ago I read “Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit” (1983) written by “adopted” daughter Dawn Langley Simmons.  This was an extraordinary tale that stayed with me in an unsettling way.  Dawn had started off  life as Gordon, although he had, if I remember the account rightly, both sets of genitalia.  In teenage years Simmons was rushed to hospital in agony with internal bleeding which turned out to be menstruation.  An operation was needed and Gordon was then Dawn and went on to marry and claimed to have had a baby.  Much of this has apparently now been refuted and Simmons called a fantasist and one of a number of people who exploited the naivety of Rutherford and her husband.  Merriman cites the 2004 publication “Peninsula Of Lies” by Edward Ball as the one that shatters the myths and I must seek that book out because this was one of the aspects which still confused me after reading this biography.

Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) was one of the greatest British character actors of all time.  I read Merriman’s previous book on Hattie Jacques and that had been a very good read.  This is a man who knows and values his larger than life British character actresses.  This is a book that has been sat on my shelves for some time and I’ve been itching to get round to it.  (The Library Book Bingo I have been participating in gave me the chance).

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I think since Rutherford’s death it has been pretty much forgotten just how popular a performer she was and for a long period of time.  Perhaps now she is best remembered as the 1960’s Miss Marple in a series of films which appear quite regularly on television and which Agatha Christie was reputed to hate (fabulous theme music) but she had been a star for at least twenty years before that.  Her breakthrough came as the medium Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s play (and subsequent 1945 film) “Blithe Spirit”.  In 1963 she won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the Burton/Taylor vehicle “The VIP’s” and in 1967 was made a Dame.

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Blithe Spirit

Merriman begins by exploring a family secret which had great repercussions for Rutherford’s outlook on life and her mental health.  He rattles through Margaret’s development as an actor and we get to sympathise that her  looks and appearance ruled out glamorous leading lady roles and throughout the book will on a lady who it seemed rarely said an unkind word to anyone and who was highly respected in the entertainment industry.  Margaret came as part of a double act.  She was married to actor Stringer Davis from 1945 to her death and she had it stipulated in contracts that he be given a part in her productions.  (“Spotting Stringer” is a good game to play in many of her movies.  In the Miss Marple films he was given perhaps his most meaty role of his career with the specially written-in Mr Stringer part).  He was absolutely devoted to her and relished the role of “Mr Rutherford”.  Merriman speculates a little as to whether the Davis/Rutherford match was all that it seemed but generally he’s a sympathetic biographer who mentions but tends to steer clear of stirring up any scandal.

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Husband and wife in “Murder Ahoy”

This is a good read and also a touching one.  Rutherford regularly checked herself in for electric shock treatments,  suffered mental health issues throughout her life, was probably manic depressive (bipolar in today’s jargon) and was taken for a ride by some people who managed to get close to her and Stringer.  Add to this her inability to deal with financial matters  and you’ll know that this comic genius had much sadness to endure.

fourstars

Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought With Good Manners  was published by Aurum in 2009

The Top 100 Best-Selling Albums – Edited by James Bennett (Igloo 2005)- A Real Life Review

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This is a real coffee table book.  In fact, I’ve drunk coffee on smaller tables than this.  A weighty tome I got it online from Poundland (£1) who must be seriously out of pocket based on postage alone.  It was published ten years ago so that needs to be taken into account.  We get the ten best selling albums of the 50’s, twenty from the 1960s-90s and 10 from the 00’s, so not strictly the 100 best selling of all time, but I’m quibbling.

Each album has a double page spread with sumptuously reproduced front cover art which takes up the whole of the page, which is a joy for those of us who have now got used to miniscule CD covers.  There is information about each album on the facing page and  it is this which lets the book down.  It is often clunkily written, it doesn’t feel especially trustworthy and a “fact box” adds little.  There’s not a great deal of analysis about the actual albums and the information given is a tad too superficial.

It does make for surprising reading, however.  It is based upon global sales and obviously the US must account for much of these as there is a lot of overblown stadium rock in the lists which is a little unsettling and whereas it might not shock too many to discover the revelation that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was the biggest of the 80’s (29.3 million at time of book’s compilation which was before his demise and the surge of sales that caused) some of the other biggest for each decade are less predictable  – Norah Jones for the 00s, Shania Twain for the 90s, a Christmas album from Elvis for the 50’s.

I think this book looks good, weighs a ton, reads quite well but is not going to demand a permanent place on my bookshelves.

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The Top 100 Best Selling Albums was published by Igloo in 2005.  If UK readers fancy it check out the Poundland site first.

Mae West: An Icon In Black And White – Jill Watts (OUP 2001)- A Real Life Review

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“It isn’t what I do, but how I do it.  It isn’t what I say but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.”

This, in her own words sums up perfectly the Hollywood legend, Mae West (1893-1981).  It explains why she was successful and also why she encountered problems, particularly with censorship, throughout her career.  It also connects her with, in Jill Watts’ words her links to “African-American tricksterism and signification” (more of this later, although as a British reader of this book I’m still a little vague on the details).

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Mae West began on stage at a very young age and alternated between Vaudeville (fairly respectable) and Burlesque (less so).  She created the character of “Mae West”, which cemented herself into American and European culture.  She wrote plays.  “Sex” (1926) landed her in prison for obscenity (after it had been playing for a year).  “Diamond Lil” (1928) established her as a major star.  At one point she was reputed to be the second wealthiest American after William Randolph Hearst.  Hollywood (eventually) beckoned (when she was nearly 40) when old pal George Raft pushed for her to be in his “Night After Night”.  In what must have been one of the rarest and earliest examples of Hollywood reverse inequality Raft starred in the movie for $191 a week whilst West co-starred for $4,000 a week.

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Hollywood, initially nervous of her controversial reputation began to see her potential and began greenlighting a series of films which began with “She Done Him Wrong” (1933) her biggest and best during which she wielded extraordinary power for a woman in the Hollywood studio system.

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Cary Grant and Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong”

Nowadays we would find little sexually outrageous in West’s output but she regularly overstepped the boundaries of the Hays Code of censorship, brought in to return respectability to the movie world.  We might, however, express surprise at the existence of her much raided and closed down theatrical show about homosexuality featuring a  cast of drag queens in 1927, as it probably seems at least five decades ahead of its time.  Much of the obscenity was implied (cue much reading of scripts in courtrooms to spot the implications) and was indeed mainly because (back to my opening quote) to how things were said by Mae and what she was doing when she said them.

This is the second book about Mae West I’ve ever read.  Mary Beth Hamilton’s “The Queen Of Camp” didn’t really bring the star to life for me in the way I thought it would.  I enjoyed this more but again have reservations.

Watts begins her very thorough and quite academic study of West’s life and career by citing two rumours that were commonplace during West’s lifetime.  Firstly, that she was actually a man and secondly that she had African-American heritage and was in the terms of the time “passing as white”.  The first rumour was firmly disproved at the time of her death and has probably much to say about how a powerful woman was viewed.  The second hinges on, and this is not known definitively, whether she had an African-American grandfather.  Immaterial of this, Watts argues, is the performer’s  heavy borrowing for her character “Mae West” from African-American traditions and the quips and the use of language for which she became famous is a form of “signification” and that the character is based upon “the trickster” of African-American folk tales.  West’s famous “shimmy dance”, her walk and love of blues were adapted from her experiences in black nightclubs.  Her total acceptance of African-American friends and lovers was unusual at the time and she carried this consistently through her private and professional life.  Her play about mixed relationships even began a tour of the South and led to a lynch mob after her leading male.

True, nowadays, we can cite racism in her films which cast African-American actresses as her maids but their relationship was different to most films and something bordering on equality was often implied if not explicitly stated and she was known to be adamant in her support for casting even within the limits which mainstream Hollywood set.  There’s also the issue that for a time in her early career she performed in “blackface” in an act termed as a “coon shouter”.

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Mae West, Gertrude Howard and Hattie McDaniel

It is these issues which makes up the “Icon In Black And White”of Watts’  subtitle and provides the focus for her work.  It is all very interesting but perhaps I should have read a more general biography first.  Watts, however, does not stint on biographical detail.  We end up knowing as much about West’s private life as she chose to reveal (actually very little despite her continual sexual witticisms and bravado), there’s quite thorough break-d0wn of the plot of her films and we get a good sense of Mae West the person, the character and the star.

This was one extraordinary lady and I think perhaps over the last generation her star has waned a little.  “She Done Him Wrong” is a superb movie and at the other end of her career there’s much entertainment to be had (most of it unintentional, or was it?) in her last film, the pretty disastrous “Sextette” (1979) with Mae’s final outing as an 86 year old sex goddess.  I want to read more about her thanks to Watt’s depiction of a woman born both decades ahead of her time and yet very much part of it.

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Mae West and friends in “Sextette”

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Mae West: An Icon In Black And White was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.