Yeah Yeah Yeah- Bob Stanley (2013)

This book’s scope is so huge that it is difficult to be able to succinctly describe it.  In 2022 Bob Stanley published “Let’s Do It” (number 2 in my current Books Of The Year list) and that book was in many ways a prequel to this written more or less a decade on.  This earlier book focuses on pop music really from the introduction of the first UK charts in 1952 and has as its focus the vast seismic shift – The Beatles, whose presence seems almost there from that point on but actually do not dominate proceedings here as much as I had expected them to do.

Bob Stanley completed a gargantuan task in relating the developments and shifts in popular music up to his publication date- maintaining a good balance between the UK and US markets and touching upon almost every form of popular music which had a moment in the spotlight in the past 70+ years.  He does it in a way that I’m equally fascinated with reading about the major and minor performers in genres I’m not even interested in (US Country, Metal, Britpop etc) as in those areas of music I feel I know well.

There is so much to be enjoyed in this book but I must admit that compared to “Let’s Do It” I sometimes felt a little fatigued by it all here with so much information in rapid succession.  I felt we were given more space in the later book and that “Let’s Do It” actually had a greater freshness because I hadn’t lived through those years.  I didn’t have the feelings about acts I’d built up watching “Top Of The Pops” and reading “Record Mirror”.  I felt this affected how I responded to the author’s writing.  One telling point of difference is that when I read “Let’s Do It” I went overboard on looking up more about artists and putting them into Spotify playlists.  This time, hardly any, I didn’t have the same openness to what I thought I might like or not like because I had lived through much of the period examined and had my own ideas which proved harder for the author to shake.

What I do love is Bob Stanley’s turn of phrase and his enthusiasm for what is joyful in music which is often laugh out loud funny, as it was in “Let’s Do It”.  Once again, I love his apt descriptions.  Here he is on 70’s glam-rock legends Slade;

Dickensian singer Noddy Holder had a voice like John Lennon screaming down the chimney of the QE2; rosy-cheeked bassist Jim Lea looked as if he lived with his mum and bred racing pigeons; Dave Hill on guitar had the most rabbity face in the  world; while drummer Don Powell chewed gum and stared into space- even after he’d been in a horrific car crash and lost most of his memory, he looked exactly the same.

This book is nearly a decade old which makes The Epilogue where Bob Stanley does a bit of projection into the future fascinating.  After decades of glory days there was a definite decline in the way pop music was perceived from probably the mid 90’s.  The stalwart barometer of taste “Top Of The Pops” fizzled out, the UK music press lost major titles and the UK chart became about marketing, with tracks attaining their highest position in the first week of sale there wasn’t the excitement of watching singles climb their way to the top.  He states he misses going to a record shop and that “Without the detail, pop music doesn’t have the desirability it once had; it’s not as wantable. Instant downloads require no effort and so demands less of an emotional connection -it’s less likely that you will devote time and effort to getting inside a new record, trying to understand it, if you haven’t made a physical journey to track it down in the first place.”

Ten years on and the unpredictability of pop means that this statement is both more so (with the predominance of streaming and the vast choice of instant access music) and less so (with the revitalisation of the vinyl market).  That is one of the great things about pop music, you never really know what is going to be around the corner but something will be.

This is an essential book about pop history even if it did not fill me with quite the same love and awe as “Let’s Do It.”  For anyone wanting an overview of popular cultural life in the last 50+ years this is a dream of a book.

“Yeah Yeah Yeah” was first published by Faber in 2013.

Fire Island – Jack Parlett (2022)

In the nineteenth century it provided poetic inspiration for Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde reputedly visited.  In the 1930s it became the summer home for a trio of artists who some describe as “The Fire Island School Of Painting.”  Literary and artistic giants saw it as an escape to write or to party- Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward stayed here.  American poet Frank O’Hara was killed on the beach here.  Patricia Highsmith got drunk here.  David Hockney looked pale here, Derek Jarman made a short film, James Baldwin came to write (and felt out of place).  Perhaps the first example of gay pornography to filter into the mainstream was filmed here in 1971.  It developed into a symbol of hedonism where the landscape and fantastic views felt slightly at odds with the loud disco music from tea dances and cruising.  The Village People sang about it offering us a “funky weekend” as long as we “don’t go in the bushes.” Edmund White and Andrew Holleran used it as a setting to enrich their fiction.  AIDS decimated it, for a while it became a ghostly memorial with ashes of those taken sprinkled into the sea.  It became a film location in that first-wave of AIDS related films like “Parting Glances” (1986) and “Longtime Companion”(1989)- important movies which proved so difficult to watch.  It became once again part of the well-heeled gay circuit with accusations of elitism and poor inclusiveness and it has recently been the location in the available on Disney+ in the UK bright and brash gay rom-com “Fire Island” (2022).  I’ve always been fascinated by the contradictions of this place – Utopia for some, Hell for others.

This thin strip of land some 32 miles in length off the Long Island coast is perhaps the second most recognised gay location after The Stonewall Inn.  Its cultural and literary significance has lasted for decades and alongside the thousands that adored it there are detractors with very valid objections as well as confusingly detractors who also adored it- this is the enigma of Fire Island.

And the person who has decided to record this cultural and literary history in this new publication from Granta is a 30 year old British man.  This is a good idea, it gives a fresh perspective on an area bogged down in its own history and inconsistencies.  Jack Parlett visited first whilst researching the poet Frank O’ Hara who wrote, partied and died here.  Parlett experienced the same feelings of alienation and belonging which has affected so many of its visitors over the years and in this work subtitled “Love, loss and liberation in an American Paradise” he incorporates memoir to explain why.

From the relaxed development of Cherry Grove with its communal mix of renters including families and lesbians and gay men to the growth of the more hedonistic, wealthy white gay male dominated area of The Pines (together with its cruising area The Meat Rack) Parlett effectively tracks developments and their significance in gay history and sensibilities.  There’s a potent mix of the literary and academic, the political and the positives and contradictions of this location.  It’s imbued with a nostalgia for past times – I found myself thinking I would have liked to have visited at that point in time, oh and at that point in time….which makes it an intoxicating subject for a historical examination.

I loved the idea of this book, I loved the British perspective which added another layer and Jack Parlett has handled his material well.  I might have liked visual representations for some of his references but a few seconds on Google will find things and no doubt saved the publishers from forking out for reproduction rights.

Fire Island was published in 2022 by Granta in the UK.

All The Lies They Did Not Tell- Pablo Trincia (2022)

Amazon had this as one of their monthly free Prime Reads choices back in July 2022.  Its subtitle “The True Story Of Satanic Panic In An Italian Community” had me interested and remembering my desire to read more true crime I went for it.

This investigative work focuses on what became known as the Devils Of The Bassa Modenese Case which I had not heard of but which caused a huge furore in the late 1990s and led to 16 children being removed from families, convictions and acquittals and a number of deaths of adults associated with the case.

Pablo Trincia’s research into this led to a podcast with investigative journalist Alessia Rafanelli and evolved into this book which has been translated from the Italian by Elettra Pauletto.  Structurally, it does resemble a podcast eschewing a strictly chronological approach to focus on those involved and their stories with the interweaving and retreading of material that this structure involves.  Initially, I found it a little confusing to separate the families but this soon falls into place.

The events are extraordinary.  It is hard to imagine what happened here and the snowballing of such panics but similar things were happening in other countries and can be attributed to the way children were questioned by authorities.  Concerns about a family of vulnerable children led to tales of horrific satanic abuse involving almost everyone these children knew of.  Sexual abuse, torture, rituals, decapitations of cats and children killing other children in buildings and cemeteries horrified authorities who began widescale arrests, family separations and trials.

How much was true and how it came about became the author’s obsession.  He says;

“The story was like a black hole.  The more I looked into it, the more it seemed to bend social and behavioural norms and alter the relationship between cause and effect- things I’d always taken for granted.  It seemed like a parallel universe where everything was deformed.”

The author got lucky as he got hold of much information from a couple of people who had been totally driven by the cases and had lots of documentation and who had both died since the trials and from that he began to piece together what had actually happened.  Was this a case of false memory and how could that have affected so many children or was Satanism thriving in this small part of Catholic Italy in the 1990s?  It’s a sobering, involving account.  It is hard to believe that something like this could ever happen again, it reflects a terrifying moment in the history of abuse investigations where circumstances proved ripe for these life-destroying accusations.

All The Lies They Did Not Tell was published by Amazon Crossing in 2022.

The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho – Paterson Joseph (Dialogue 2022)

Paterson Joseph is a noted British actor of stage and screen.  I saw him most recently in the Suranne Jones starring BBC TV Drama “Vigil” playing the Commanding Officer of the beleaguered submarine.  He has now joined the sphere of actors turning to fiction writing with very worthy intentions to fill some of the gaps of pre-Windrush Black British history by giving us a fictional account of the life of this notable 18th Century character, who became the first African man to vote in a British election.  The author has been researching this life for twenty years, and has written and performed a one-man play. He has now rightly decided (if not only because of the gaps in what is actually known) to recreate the man known as Sancho as Historical Fiction.

What is done really well here is in the feel of the piece. Paterson Joseph has obviously submerged himself in the fiction of the time and without doubt in “Tristram Shandy”, the author of which, Laurence Sterne makes a brief appearance here. With a combination of a memoir intended for the main character’s son, diary entries and letters to and from his betrothed we get a real sense of Sancho and the world he inhabits.

Initially, as a child, a dress up doll/valet for three spinsters Sancho finds an entrée into society under the eye of the Duke of Montagu.  It is a precarious arrangement and there are many turns of fortune for this black man in 18th Century London.  Deemed at various times a novelty, a creative talent, a threat and a runaway slave Sancho has to wrestle with his own inconsistencies and this makes for fascinating reading.  In the eyes of some he is seen as deserving of a place in high society for others he is the lowest of the low.  How does a man come to terms with his own self-worth in such circumstances?

The early sections of this book are just splendid, as Sancho ages it grows more reflective, the tale shifts significantly to his wife-to-be Anne’s experiences in an epistolary section of the book which serves to contrast experiences outside of Britain but doesn’t work as well as the London-based writings.  Throughout there is a feel of authenticity, even when the structure (as in all actual eighteenth-century novels I have read) feels jerky.  There were areas of the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho which I felt could have been fleshed out more but I welcome the opportunity of getting to know this man through this novel.  I am thinking this could be the best actor-turned-writer novel I’ve read since 1960’s icon and model Marsha Hunt’s “Joy” from 1990.

The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho is published by Dialogue Books on 6th October 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

And Away…- Bob Mortimer (2021)

Although I’ve really enjoyed a healthy amount of the work of Bob Mortimer over the years I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this best-selling autobiography if it had not been for his appearances on BBC TV’s “Would I Lie To You”.  I came to this series quite late and have been watching catch-up earlier editions almost daily throughout this summer, and one thing I’ve learnt, is that if Bob Mortimer is a guest you are in for a treat.  His anecdotes on incidents of his life (not always true as that is the nature of the game but usually so) made me want to find out more.

Some of these anecdotes make it to the book and are very representative of the life of Bob Mortimer.  Born in Middlesbrough in 1959 we get a childhood shadowed by the early loss of his dad, his eventual decision to become a solicitor until an invitation to see a comedy show at a South London pub introduced him to Vic Reeves and in the fullness of time led him to being one half (although he wouldn’t credit himself with an equal fraction) of one of the best-loved comedy duos of our time.

I think those “WILTY” guest spots where Bob allows himself to shine through and his downbeat fishing shows with Paul Whitehouse were significant in the germination of this book but central to it is his 2015 quadruple heart-bypass and recovery.  Alongside this narrative thread which continues for most of the book is the chronological tale of Bob’s life.

The latent hypochondriac in me found the health stuff unsettling and I might not have chosen to read this had I known it was so central but we know that this has a happy ending and the Bob who recovers is a person more at ease with himself.  For much it is a tale of chronic shyness, of not fitting in, of undervaluing achievements (Who knew that his acting in the BBCTV reboot of “Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) caused him such anxieties?) and yet coming much closer to calm, even a wisdom in his present life (well a wisdom that gets him to share; “As you age do not fear the elasticated waistband; it can be a good friend”).

His acknowledgement of the importance of comedy partner Jim Moir (Vic Reeves) is also central and it is here that the laugh out loud moments (not as many as I was expecting) tended to come.  There’s a good balance of the career and personal life which is something I always appreciate in a biography.

I really enjoyed spending time with Bob Mortimer and despite his self-effacing nature I felt he shared so well and I got a good understanding of him professionally and as a person.  You don’t get that in many celebrity autobiographies.  I’m delighted this book has been such a success.

And Away was published in 2021 by Simon & Schuster.  The paperback edition is now available.

Let’s Do It- Bob Stanley (2022)

This is the second non-fiction work with this title I’ve read this year.  First up was a five star biography of Victoria Wood by Jasper Rees, this second “Let’s Do It”  also merits my highest rating.  Subtitled “The Birth Of Pop” by music writer, DJ, film producer and founding member of classy pop act Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley.

I read Bob’s work in “Record Collector” and even when I have no connection with what he is writing about (just a glance at my 100 Essential CD Countdown will show I’m pretty much on the margins for what “Record Collector” considers significant) I always enjoy his column and when I heard about this book decided that this author would probably be up to the gargantuan task he has set himself.

Over nearly 600 pages in the hardback edition Bob Stanley illuminates the history, the chronology and the connections of popular music, giving pretty much equal weight to the US and UK- a parallel history which had points of convergence and divergence over the decades but one in which the UK, until the British Invasion of the 1960s pretty much took the supporting role. 

This is very much the story before the British Invasion.  I haven’t read his critically acclaimed “Yeah Yeah Yeah” (2013) which is a chronicle of modern pop and for which this is a much needed prequel of what went on before and I would say this history, maybe because of its further distance from us could be the more fascinating.

Is there a starting point in the development of popular music?  It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to cite Ragtime and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” from 1899, the sheet music of which was the first to sell a million copies and  from this point the author is able to track the separation of “serious” classical music to what came to be considered “popular” and its huge significance to our world.  He succinctly sums up the appeal and influence of the major players along the way including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra as well as shining lights on people whose positions attained in the pop hierarchy may not have been as stellar, for one reason or another.

Bob Stanley is a brilliant guide because you do believe he has absorbed all this music from decades before any of us were born and his love of popular music, in all its forms, shine through.  He can be great when he’s not buying it (Al Jolson, Rice/Lloyd Webber, much of Tom Jones) but in a book where the scope is so huge and there’s so many names to be mentioned that half a page suggests an artist who has really made an impact his writing can be outstanding. 

On Nat King Cole;

Gradually his style became sleeker, soft and comforting, but slightly rough, like corduroy.  His delivery, like his piano playing, was relaxed, economical and emphatic.  When he sang you felt like you could trust him completely, and when he told a story, it sounded as if he was making it up off the top of his head.

On the (still) under-rated British singer Matt Monro, who Stanley acknowledges “there was never anything but kindness and warmth in his singing”;

He still looked like the bus conductor he had been before turning pro, like he’d just given the school bully a clip round the ear and chucked him off the 68 to Chalk Farm.  No matter what the exotic setting on his album covers, you could cut the shot of Monro and place him on a Watney’s pub backdrop and it would fit just as well.  A pint of bitter at his side, a fag in his hand.  Never a cigar.  Part of his classiness was that he never looked down on his own.  Monro was a working man’s hero.  In this respect certainly, he was Sinatra’s equal.”

On Shirley Bassey;

“When she sang Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender” in 1967 (wouldn’t you like to have fun, fun, fun?) it was like the hardest girl in school had taken a shine to you and was repeatedly slamming you against her locker door.”

If you had never heard of these three artists Stanley’s interpretation of what made them fit into the pop canon would be enough.

Is there a central character in the way that I suspect (but don’t know) that The Beatles would dominate “Yeah Yeah Yeah”?  Answer- not really because the fickle nature of pop suggests there’s always something else around the corner, those who survive were able to reinvent themselves or their timing was just right to take them onto the next big thing and judging by index references that would be Frank Sinatra (who Bob Stanley really wishes had stuck to his original retirement plan of 1971), Duke Ellington (so influential and who moved back and forth from “serious” to “pop”) and Bing Crosby (who was so popular).  Also hugely significant is the body of songs now known as The Great American Songbook from the greatest songwriters of all time and whose influence can be felt throughout the 500+ pages (and played a very important part in the careers of those I’ve mentioned above).

Reading books about music nowadays is a treat because with Spotify you can be seconds away from listening to performers whose work you would probably never have accessed.  Here are some of the artists I added to playlists whilst reading this book who I feel need to be discovered/rediscovered by me: –

Reginald Foresythe, Henry Hall, Art Tatum, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, Dick Haymes, Frankie Laine, The Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Roy Hamilton, The Tokens, Caterina Valente, Chris Connor, Nat King Cole, Earl Bostic, Sammy Davis Jnr

Reading this book has been a joy and I feel there is more to come in discovering some of the music I read about.  Highly recommended for all music fans and I will very soon be purchasing “Yeah Yeah Yeah” for the next part of the story.

Let’s Do It was published in hardback by Faber in May 2022.

Possessed: The Life Of Joan Crawford – Donald Spoto (Hutchinson 2011)

Donald Spoto is a prolific American biographer who has written many Hollywood themed works, but also on the Royal Family and religious figures.  His first book, on Hitchcock, came out in 1976.  He is now in his eighties and living with his husband in Denmark.  There have only been a couple of works published since this biography, which is informed by his many years of experience of writing about the film industry.

Joan Crawford, known in her heyday as “The Movie Queen” has been much written about but views on her life and work took a different direction when disgruntled daughter Christina wrote “Mommie Dearest” (1978) which gained additional notoriety with the 1981 movie adaptation with such a sublimely over the top performance by Faye Dunaway (which she feels damaged her career) that it assured its place as one of the all-time cult films.

All this has not been good for Joan Crawford’s reputation.  It’s not been helped that her most remembered film now is the atypical Grand Guignol melodrama of “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” (1962) which pitched her against Bette Davis as battling siblings and which was not representative of her long career and prolific output.  Also, it was not helped by the only film roles available to her after this being mainly campy, low-budget efforts and not helped either by Shaun Considine’s 1989 “Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud” which looked at the relationship between the two stars in an unflattering light (incidentally one of my favourite biographies of all time).

Spoto believes we have it wrong.  He feels much of “Mommie Dearest” was invented and goes to some lengths to disprove the notorious “wire coat hanger” incident and believes there wasn’t much rivalry between Crawford and Davis.  Such perceptions have clouded Spoto’s subject who he believes is one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses (she was certainly one of the most popular). He states:

“She was a recognizably human and passionate woman who entertained millions; she made egregious mistakes and learnt from them; and she always had a legion of friends and countless admirers.”

Spoto’s own aim in this work is to play down the sensational aspects and highlight the career, focusing in on the films (70 of her 87 films still exist in some form).

Part of Joan Crawford’s long-lasting success was in her talent for reinvention as well as that, in a time of aloof glamour, (such as Garbo and Dietrich) she represented the accessible and hard-working, acknowledging the poverty she had escaped from and was in touch with her fans.  She did this by communicating with them to an extent which borders on the unique.  Spoto wrote to her when he was 11 and got a reply.  I have, in my possession, a letter from 1964 thanking a fan for a Christmas card.  This was a conscious move which assured her longevity and support, even at times when she was labelled “box office poison” by movie magazines.  She always befriended crew and had high expectations of the productions she worked on and yet the reputation we have been left of her was that she was a nightmare to work with.

I think probably the truth, as much as we’ll ever know it now that few from that time are still around is somewhere between Spoto’s underplaying and Christina’s monstrous recreation.  I did enjoy reading about her films in Spoto’s accounts but his wish to sweep the bitching under the carpet can trip him up.  He says no actors ever refused to work with her but had earlier stated that Spencer Tracy turned down the opportunity to work with her a second time.  The filming of the western “Johnny Guitar” (1954) is the stuff of movie legend with sparks blazing between Crawford and co-star Mercedes McCambridge.  Spoto is keen to acknowledge alcoholic McCambridge’s bad behaviour and tends to let Crawford off the hook slightly, despite her shredding her co-star’s costumes and prompting the director to say about her; “As a human being, Miss Crawford is a very great actress.

I don’t want to come across as if I’m disappointed by Spoto’s measured appraisal of her career.  I’m fascinated by Crawford as an actress and disappointed that the number of films that still get shown and/or are readily available feels limited compared to other less significant actresses of her era.  I do think she was very much of her time and the type of material chosen for her has not dated so well.  She was a terrific movie star whose lasting popularity in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s show she was sublimely good at what she did and I welcomed Donald Spoto’s rebalancing of her life and career.  I suspect, however, that I’m more likely to return to Shaun Considine’s gleeful mauling as my definitive work.

Possessed: The Life Of Joan Crawford was published in 2011 by Hutchinson.

The Village That Died For England -Patrick Wright (1995)

December 1943- The sleepy coastal Dorset village, Tyneham, is taken over by the British Military for use as a firing range, incorporating it into neighbouring areas such as Lulworth and Bovington, already being used for manoeuvres and tanks.  The village, which included a school, church and post office is emptied of its residents who are relocated to other parts of Dorset.  They are told they can come back when the war is over.  They never return.

These are the bare bones.  It’s certainly not as simple as this idyllic bit of lost England being subsumed by officialdom suggests and Patrick Wright is on hand to tell this story which feels as British as an Ealing film comedy.

Having recently moved to Dorset after only ever holidaying here decades ago I’m finding myself stirred by long distant memories and back in the early 1980s I could recall a visit to a lost, abandoned village.  I hadn’t thought about it for years but moving here I began to wonder about it, I couldn’t even recall its name.  I saw this in Dorchester’s Waterstones and realised this was just the book to fill in the memory gaps.

I read the 1995 hardback edition from the library but it was reissued in paperback in 2021 by Repeater Books with a new introduction which brings the story up to date.

This is an unusual non-fiction choice for me and I wasn’t totally at ease with the author’s style, initially.  I found it slightly wandering to begin with and he didn’t bring me in  as a newcomer to his subject- I felt he assumed I’d know things I didn’t and with the passage of time there will be fewer of us who remember the national controversy over Tyneham which simmered from the war years onwards so a new edition would seem a good idea.

It is far less about the good, dislocated people of Tyneham than the reasons for the decisions made for them and the development of this part of the Dorset coast in National Defence.  There’s some memorable characters who made their home in this area before the war, including Rolf Gardiner, who promoted youth work camps and of whom there’s quite a bit here; the literary set of the Powys family as well as the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and her same-sex partner Valentine Ackland; the fiery squire of the Lulworth Castle who may or may not have been tainted by the Curse of Tutankhamun and who sat and watched  his castle burn down in 1929 (I’ve just found out it was restored and is now an English Heritage site).  In his bringing these people back to life Wright’s account shines brightest.

There’s some mileage to be had in the rival associations aiming to repopulate Tyneham in the late 1960s-70s where hippy idealism both works with and clashes against the established order with young firebrand Rodney Legg taking central stage.

It is more than a story of lost England as within Tyneham’s takeover and the decades spent in trying to get it back for the residents there’s really a pocket guide to the shifts in values and priorities of the nation.  Class, unsubstantiated fears and prejudices and relationships with authority all play their fascinating part in this tale which is equally complex and straightforward.  A measure of the success of this type of book is whether it makes me want to read more about the subject and although I feel that most of the texts would be bucolic reminiscences from those who lived thereabouts at the time Wright has certainly piqued my interest.  I also think a visit to Tyneham might be on the cards.

I read the Jonathan Cape 1995 hardback edition but it would probably be easier to find the 2021 Repeater paperback reissue.

Let’s Do It – Jasper Rees (2020)

Here’s a big book, the authorised biography of Victoria Wood that I’ve only just got round to despite it being one of my books I’d wished I’d read in 2020 (still only up to 70% of this list).  I think I’ve been a little nervous of this really hoping that Rees gets the balance right between the career and public persona and the very different private person and juggling also the humour of her work and zest for life with the inevitable sadness at reading of a life which ended too soon.

I don’t know of the author, but as a journalist, he seemed to have a professional but not close relationship with Victoria Wood in her latter years.  I was heartened by this book appearing on a number of Best Book Of The Year lists and one description of it was that it was “impeccable”.  It certainly is thorough.  This is the definitive biography of Victoria Wood, no one else need bother.  Rees has had access to all the right people and material and herein is included really all we would need to know.

He does indicate at the start that Victoria Wood was collecting material for a memoir, making audio tapes which he had access to.  It would have been fascinating to see how such a private person would have approached such a publication but it is unlikely that it would have been as thorough and probing as this biography.

It was so important to me that Rees got this right as Victoria Wood (1953-2016) is, in my opinion, the greatest British comedian.  I don’t think a single day goes by without at least one of her lines coming into my head.  Whilst reading this book I dug out a DVD of her award-winning “As Seen On TV” and was staggered to see how many of these were almost low-key asides in their original setting rather than fanfared jokes; often said by characters who were not central in the sketch.  This shows how good her writing was on every level.  And, despite this genius, not everything she did hit home, the same viewing showed that some of the early songs at piano have not dated well and yet, for many years, this was her bread and butter and the first flush of fame came when she performed comedy songs on 70’s TV talent show “New Faces” and topical songs on “That’s Life”.

As a shy, private person it must have been difficult for Victoria as fans felt that they had such a personal bond with her.  She tried to keep a brave face on in public but people could find her prickly and taciturn away from the limelight and even when in it.  I lived in Highgate when she did, would often see her around and was one time rendered speechless by her when teaching as she appeared in my classroom on a school visit for prospective parents (both of her children attended the Primary School I worked at).  This was a school which had more than its fair share of notable parents but this was the first time I felt myself floundering in presence of celebrity.  With someone as good as she was at analysing speech I felt my words being analysed as I spoke to the class, when, in reality, even if she was listening, she was just a mum looking around.

Rees gets this private/public person split very well.  She was demanding to work for, rewriting and striving for perfection and insisting on actors being word-perfect and not deviating from her script.  She was driven, as indeed she had to be, at the time there was no woman writing comedy in this way, there was much resistance to female led female written comedy on British television (“As Seen On TV” predated the first French & Saunders TV series by three years).  She was a pioneer, who achieved so many firsts in her career.  Jasper Rees is also strong in celebrating this, it made me want to go back and experience her work again, always a good marker for a biography.  What I don’t think I need to do is read any more about her life as it is all here- the years of struggling after the New Faces appearance, her marriage, the children, divorce and final illness set alongside the comedy magic she produced. This book deserves my five star rating.

Let’s Do It: Authorised Biography Of Victoria Wood was published by Trapeze in hardback in 2020 and paperback in 2021. Since then Jasper Rees has put together a collection of unseen sketches, songs and other memorabilia in his November 2021 publication “Victoria Wood Unseen On TV” which I am adding to my To Be Read list.

Dickens – Peter Ackroyd (1990)

It’s been a longer than usual interval between blog posts and this has been for two reasons.  Firstly, I have moved home from the Isle Of Wight to Weymouth, Dorset and have spent the last couple of weeks unpacking boxes and getting to know a new unfamiliar area.  Secondly, I have been reading for the last five weeks this beast of a book which comes in at 1195 pages in this edition.

It was always a bit of a no-brainer for me to get round to this eventually as Peter Ackroyd is my 3rd most read author of all time and Charles Dickens my 4th with between them 10 titles in my yearly Book Of The Year lists and here we have Ackroyd writing about Dickens – at great length!

In 2002 a condensed version appeared but I always had a hankering to read the original and seeing it in a second hand bookshop I could not resist.  And so I have spent the last five weeks lugging around this very heavy volume, keeping it away from removal boxes.  I started it stressed, not knowing whether the move would go ahead at all, it has been a companion through many sleepless nights, I carried on reading during the move which was also stressful to a more calm, settled time when I am beginning to recognise this strange new home I’ve moved to as my own.  It felt appropriate that Dickens who has always been a part of my reading life should have been there for me during this time.

I’d got a little way through and checking my records discovered I had actually read the shorter version of this book in 2007.  I had no memory of this, so this is in fact, a re-read although there is a lot of extra material here.

This is no doubt a labour of love for the author, the research seems meticulous, it is so detailed and you really get to know the subject.  Even though I have read Dickens’ biographies before (surprisingly even Ackroyd’s) I’m not sure how much I had retained about his life, especially as so much seems to bleed into his fiction.  Ackroyd has read everything Dickens wrote including he believes, all surviving correspondence, an extraordinary task in itself.  I’ve read all the novels once, although for some it would be 40 years ago and I haven’t read any of this author for 15 years since I struggled through the unfinished “Mystery Of Edwin Drood” and reading this made me really want to go back through all the novels again and surely that is a sign of a good biography.

Ackroyd stresses the importance of the background of the author in playing its part in the man he was to become.  From the child working in a blacking factory (this was not known by most family and friends until after his death and tainted his relationship with his mother as when he left this hideous working environment she was keen for him to go back to it) and his spendthrift father forming the son into a workaholic driven by his writing and later by his public performances which completely burnt him out and which some saw as his raison d’etre whilst others believed drove him to an early grave. There are occasional fictional interludes from Ackroyd himself bonding the biographer with the author.  These are quirky and change the pace but I am not sure what they add (I don’t recall if these were dispensed with in the shorter version, I suspect not).  The notes are well presented in a very readable commentary form and didn’t slow me down in the way that too many references and footnotes often do.

Back in 2007 I rated the shorter version four stars but this is a five star read, despite and also because of its sheer length.  It certainly has made me want to read more on this subject even though I may have just finished the definitive biography.  Also, lugging this book around at such a significant time in my own life has given it additional resonance.  I will not forget the time spent reading this book and for that it deserves my top rating.

Dickens was first published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1990.  The abridged version (640 pages) was published by Vintage in 2002