The Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood & Mary Killen (2017) – A Real Life Review

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I love Channel 4’s “Googlebox” and always enjoy the contributions of Giles and Mary (or Nutty and Nutty as they call each other) from their thatched Wiltshire cottage. I wasn’t absolutely convinced I needed to read a book written by them, fearing that it might be a cash-in for the Christmas market with little merit which would vanish after the present-buying was over, but someone whose opinion I valued recommended it and I thought I’d give it a go. I was pleased I did.

gilesandmary2Giles and Mary have become recognisable enough for French and Saunders to parody them in undoubtedly the most successful sections of their most recent show with Dawn playing Giles with the right level of Alan Bennett-ness and Jennifer as Mary becoming gradually absorbed by the fabric of her armchair.

gilesandmary3Not Giles and Mary

We’ve taken to this couple because they seem to know each other so well. We can sense the long-suffering of Mary towards Giles’ ability to wind her up, often with a twinkle in his eye with her keen to put him back on the right track. In a preamble they say that Gogglebox has saved their 30 year marriage as all that TV watching has got them to sit down together and communicate as well as giving us all a chance to see how frustrating Giles can be! Both having a background in writing and creating they agreed to the diary format of this book as it offered the chance to produce (in Giles’ words “anecdotal accounts of the various hurdles life and marriage throws up at a couple in a bid to try and see what, in the dread words of the politicians lessons can be learned”. For Mary, someone who admits to recording their disagreements and typing up a transcript, this format would also seem to be ideal.

Much of this is based on the problems of Giles – a procrastinating artist “stranded in the Seventies”, a fledgling eco-warrior and keen gardener who relishes opportunities to be annoying and Mary’s constant busyness, rooting around to locate lost objects and attempting to fit too much into each day whose ideal times of her married life have been when she has had a live-in assistant to act as buffer between her and her husband.

It is these differences between them that work so well. It’s consistently amusing, occasionally laugh-out loud funny and interspersed with illustrations from Giles which adds to the text. I’m hoping and believing here that we are getting the real Giles and Mary and not some representation dreamt up in a marketing office. Much of the joy is in recognising our own traits in this couple’s interactions with one another. I think most of us would come off as a combination of Giles and Mary and would certainly appreciate each of their frustrations with one another. It provides a good, plausible picture of a long-term relationship in action. I don’t think you even need to be familiar with them to enjoy this book as the whole thing feels like we have been invited into their world and it is fun spending time with them.

threestars

The Diary Of Two Nobodies was published by Virgin in 2017

 

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Stronger – Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter (Blink 2017) – A Real Life Review

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“Stronger” is the story of Jeff Bauman, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time- the finishing line of the Boston Marathon 2013 when a terrorist bomb exploded.  Jeff lost both legs in the blast and became the figurehead for “Boston Strong”, the city’s defiant response to the atrocity.

The film version is dominated by a mesmerising Oscar-worthy performance by Gyllenhaal.  I was less comfortable with the depiction of those around him.  The working-class American culture of sport, beer and banter I found quite distancing and I was concerned this might be amplified in the book.

It actually isn’t.  I found the book less sobering and more hopeful.  In the film Jeff seems quite isolated from those around him trying to do his best of him.  I felt the support more appropriate in the book with him existing less as a vacuum.  He is involved with others injured in the blast right from the start, he is actually with a couple of his girlfriend’s friends at the Marathon and not alone as shown in the film and their recovery does influence his.

The narrative arc of the film puts Jeff into a downward spiral which levels out only when he eventually agrees to meet Carlos, the man who saved his life at the scene, whereas Carlos was actually a vital part in Jeff’s recovery right from the start.

Of course, real life is more complex than movie adaptations and I got a lot from the book about the stages Jeff went through, both physically and mentally and he comes across more rounded than the film’s depiction. There he is portrayed as the man who “never shows up”, the irony being when he did he ended up losing his legs.  In real life he seems more reliable and supportive.  Smaller events have been combined and ramped up to add dramatic value to the movie, inevitably.  The film should be seen for its tour-de-force lead performance and strong back-up from Miranda Richardson as well as hitting home one man’s determination to succeed.  The book should be read for its stronger emphasis on hope and support and for a community’s response to a personal tragedy caused by atrocity.

fourstars

Stronger was published in 2017 by Blink Publishing.  My review of the film version can be found here

 

Hollywood Babylon– It’s Back! – Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince (Blood Moon 2008) – A Real Life Review

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The original version of “Hollywood Babylon” first appeared in France in 1959.  An incredibly scandalous reveal of Tinsel town that had to wait until 1965 for a US publisher brave enough to put it out.  Within ten days it was banned and did not appear again until a decade later.  Written by American film-maker Kenneth Anger ,who claimed to be in the know concerning scandals, the first volume had an emphasis on the stars of early Hollywood and the silent era.  A second volume appeared in 1984.  Many of Anger’s claims have been strongly denied if not always completely unproven so they have hung around as rumour and urban legend.  The books are sleazy and compelling in equal measures, I’ve read both over the years. 

So enthused by the format were Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince that in 2008 they claimed “it’s back” with another volume of scandal, rumour and sleaze ranging from the Hollywood in its hey-day to modern Tinseltown. (Tom Cruise certainly does not get off lightly here).  Anger was decidedly angered by Porter and Prince muscling in on a direct copy of style, format and general grubbiness.

Truman Capote (a source of a number of the scurrilous titbits in this book) reputedly said that gossip will become the literature of the twenty-first century (and he should have known being a tremendous gossip himself) so maybe what we have here is literature in its purest form.  Movie heart-throb Rock Hudson (another gossip) said “In Hollywood you can keep a mistress, or a boyfriend, maybe both.  You can go gay, bi or pan-sexual.  Just don’t tell anybody and don’t get caught.  What do you expect when you bring the world’s most beautiful people together in the same town?”  This quote does seem to be the raison d’etre for this book.

It’s not an easy read.  By adopting the style of the original and of classic scandal magazines from “Confidential” of the 1950s to the National Enquirer it has ended up as vague, repetitive writing, keen to go off on tangents, with grainy black and white photography which may or not provide proof to their claims.

It will rouse strong emotions.  I read a (withdrawn) library copy and there’s a chunk of pages which have been roughly ripped out (hence the withdrawal and not by me I hasten to add).  I know where there’s another copy (hopefully undefiled) and will be keen to see what has been so forcefully extracted (oddly enough it from the contents it seems to be the end of a section concerning Lucille Ball!)

The lips are pursed and the dirt is dished throughout.  Some may be familiar stories and there’s a great deal of emphasis on who slept with who, who was secretly gay, and what was the size of the equipment they were doing all this sleeping around with.  Thus Ivor Novello is linked with Winston Churchill, Mick Jagger with Eric Clapton and James Dean and Marilyn Monroe with just about everybody.  Does any of it matter?  Of course not, but there is still something compelling in this catalogue of stories with dubious provenance that kept me reading even when I felt quite grubby doing so.

I recently watched on Netflix the documentary film “Tab Hunter Confidential” in which the 50’s heart-throb movie star and singer puts into context his hiding of his sexuality in a calm, admirable way.  It is the weird attitude of Hollywood and its hypocrisy (recently brought into focus with all those accusations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey) which has brought about all this net curtain-twitching from Porter and Prince.

This book is one of a sizeable output from Blood Moon Productions who on their website claim to be “applying the standards of today to the Hollywood scandals of yesterday” and they do this in volumes dedicated to performers such as Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, Peter O’ Toole, The Gabor sisters – the list goes on, including even politicians (Donald Trump: The Man Who Would Be King is a recent Porter and Prince work).  Scanning down this back catalogue on bloodmoonproductionscom I couldn’t help but think “Ooh, I’d like to read that” on quite a few occasions.  I know it’s all a far cry from the literary blogger I strive to be (Ha Ha!) but sometimes I just can’t help looking to the gutter for inspiration!

threestars

 

Hollywood Babylon It’s Back!” was published by Blood Moon in 2008

The Book Of Forgotten Authors – Christopher Fowler (2017) – A Book About Books Review

 

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Now, this is just the sort of book to throw out my reading schedule. Novelist Christopher Fowler briefly examines the careers of 99 authors, who either used to be big but have faded from prominence or who deserved to be more popular than they were. It’s a fascinating, highly readable book which is both illuminating and nostalgic. The author has always been a voracious reader and book purchaser and he’s certainly done the groundwork for us here.

Christopher Fowler need not have any real fears of being forgotten, certainly not by me. You wouldn’t know it from this blog as this is probably his first mention in over 400 posts but since I’ve been keeping my own meticulous records of what I’ve been reading (I’ve always done this but lost a book which went back quite a few years), so we’re talking the last 23 years here, he is the author whom I’ve read the largest number of books by.

This book puts the Fowler total up to 15 (+ 1 I’ve read twice in this time) which pushes him further ahead from his nearest competitors , Charles Dickens (12) and Peter Ackroyd (11 + 2 re-reads). I’ve still got plenty of Fowler to discover, a quick tot-up of his books listed inside the front cover suggest 43 publications in total. I did gobble up a number of his horror novels in a short space of time in the mid to late 90’s after discovering “Spanky” (1994), a Faustian tale of a pact with the devil, which I still consider to be his best. In recent years he has concentrated on the Bryant & May detective series. I realise, with a fair amount of shock, that the last of his books I read was the third in this sequence “77 Clocks” and that was 10 years ago now! I haven’t forgotten you, Mr Fowler, honest! (I did last re-read “Spanky” in 2013).

Here the author tackles his findings alphabetically with considerably more than 99 names actually being thrown into the mix as in addition to the potted biographies and commentaries on individuals there’s also sections of forgotten authors linked to themes and genres.

It wasn’t long before I found myself making lists of those I’ve already read (not many and those a long time ago), those whose books I have unread on my shelves (5), those I can get from the library (36), those I can get on Kindle for free (4), for under £1 (8), or at a higher price (8) and those I can buy from Amazon (32). This left just those whose books do not seem readily available (4) or just too collectable for my budget (2). So thanks for all this, Mr Fowler, I’m supposed to be reviewing, not spending my time making lists!
And now I’ve got said lists I’m going to have to use them! So starting with what I have on my shelves already I hope over the coming months to unforget as many authors as possible. So this would include Margery Allingham, (a Golden Age of Crime Fiction writer who appears time and time again on recommended lists), I have a copy of her “Police At The Funeral” to start me off. There’s also Edmund Crispin (I bought a set of his Gervaise Fen novels from “The Book People”), Patrick Dennis (I bought his “Auntie Mame” because I love the Rosalind Russell film version and it’s pretty pricey on DVD), Barbara Pym’s “Excellent Women” (Book People purchase set again) and Edgar Wallace (a mammoth Wordsworth publication of “The Complete Four Just Men” taking up considerable shelf space). I’m adding these to the reading mix over the coming months and will of course be letting you know what I think and then I’ll move onto the others. Christopher Fowler has whetted my appetite so much I want to read them all!

This book would make a great present for bibliophiles – even those who claim to have “read everything” may find some hidden gems. A number of them are names that you’d remember from bookshop visits from your past, but may have never read. It could be time to put this right.

fourstars

The Book Of Forgotten Authors was published by Riverrun in October 2017.

Good As You – Paul Flynn (2017) – A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “From Prejudice To Pride: 30 Years Of Gay Britain” Paul Flynn’s non-fiction publication seems a timely work.  Gay Pride has been particularly visible this year in our streets and through the media celebration of fifty years of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.  The grainy black and white footage of men dancing together at a house party has been used many times in various television documentaries produced recently.  Such is the paucity of images from this era.

Flynn uses a different starting point to show how far we have come in this cultural history of Gay Britain.  As a twelve year old boy growing up in Wythenshawe his life experienced a seismic shift around a TV on a Thursday night watching the perennial British game-changer “Top Of The Pops”.  In our multi-platform digital age it’s hard to recall just how influential to young Britain this show was.  Two acts with  openly band members appeared in 1984- The Communards and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax” (banned by the BBC) seemed to suggest aspects of life certainly never portrayed on a chart-topping single before.

These highly significant acts challenged the stereotypical depiction of gay men for a generation brought up on John Inman, Danny La Rue and Larry Grayson.  As much as Quentin Crisp’s life portrayed in “The Naked Civil Servant” (1975) had been lauded as ground-breaking television (and it was) it distressed many unsure of their sexuality and probably banged as many closet doors shut tight at it opened. 

These men had their own part to play towards acceptance but we needed to open the closet door a little wider to let other representations and role-models out.

From this time forward the whole of British society begins to inch towards a time where equality and gay marriage becomes both possible and stops mattering to objectors so much that they think the world will implode if it happens.  It’s certainly been a one step forward one step back approach and Flynn records with this with clarity and conviction.  There’s the characters of Colin and Barry in “Eastenders” which for a time became “Eastbenders” after a hateful diatribe from the Sun newspaper after Colin gave Barry a peck on the forehead.  Michael Cashman, who played Colin, now sits in the House of Lords, an out gay pillar of establishment with a superb record on gay rights whilst the straight actor who played Barry found himself afterwards being turned down by children’s television because he had played a gay character on TV.  That move from unacceptability to acceptance and recognition is tracked in this book.  Following this ludicrous objection it seems extraordinary that within a short space of time we had “Queer As Folk”, Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will Young victorious in “Pop Idol.

goodasyou7The kiss that supposedly distressed a nation

There is an examination of the music industry where Stephen Gateley was forced to open the closet door by a tabloid threatening to out him amidst a climate where the whole collapse of Boyzone’s career was anticipated should this information ever come out.  This was evidence that the Britain the media portrayed was different to how things were as his honesty was applauded and his popularity soared.  From here this nervous industry is followed to Olly Alexander from chart-topping Years and Years where his sexuality is just a given and who made a recent personal and brave documentary about the mental health issues of teens coming out.

Along the way there are chapters on the AIDS crisis and the British government response which undoubtedly saved many lives and terrified us all, regardless of sexuality or risk; the development of Manchester into a gay-friendly city; the importance of the pink pound leading to publications such as “Attitude” and the part sport has to play from the shameful treatment of Justin Fashanu, forced to put his head unwillingly above the parapet leading to a hounding which led to his suicide to Tom Daley, whose public coming out and marriage to a man, where the age difference might once have been deemed “predatory” being totally accepted because we all now understand that this national treasure is happy and living his life as he should.  Professional football still has a long way to go with these issues.

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Dustin & Tom – “as good as you”

This is an informative, nostalgic read.  It is very much a personal response from Flynn who went from his Wythenshawe front room to a journalism career, to London, to ending up as a guest at Elton and David’s wedding.  He certainly has the experiences, the authority and involvement in what he records to offer his take on developments.  There were many things I had  forgotten, many things I didn’t know and many things I did not realise the significance of at the time, as to how they fit into this British journey “from prejudice to pride”.  It is a great read for the general reader, for anyone interested in social history and is a highly illuminating book on popular culture.  I really enjoyed it. Once again I find myself hovering towards the five star buttons but on reflection this is a book which feels very much of its time (2017) so might not have the lasting value my all-time classic rating of 5 stars would suggest.  But it’s certainly a very close call.

 fourstars

Good As You was published by Ebury Press, part of the Penguin Random House group in 2017.

 

 

Queer City – Peter Ackroyd (2017) – A Real Life Review

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With this book Peter Ackroyd eases himself into my Top 3 most read authors from the last 22 years that I’ve been keeping count. This is the 11th book of his I have read (plus there’s a couple I’ve read twice). The crowning glory of his 30+ year writing career (so far) is his monumental “London: The Biography” (2000), the best history of a geographical location I have ever read and my Book of The Year in the year I read it. Some of his London-based fiction has also been first-class.

So you can probably tell I would be excited to read this publication. I had anticipated another large volume but when I saw it in a bookshop I was surprised that it looked rather slim (232 pages + bibliography and index). That made me a little concerned and I was hoping that it wasn’t made up of material taken from “London: The Biography”. It isn’t; it’s a completely new history subtitled “Gay London from the Romans to the present day”. What I like about Ackroyd’s historical non-fiction is how it feels learned and academic and yet how very readable it all is. “London”, given its size might be a book a reader might just dip in and out of but I read it like a thriller and relished every word.

Well, here, I’m going to start with a personal gripe. I’m not thrilled by the title. Ackroyd defends his use of the term “Queer” as the word now commonly used by academics and “Queer Studies” appears in universities. A recent exhibition (and book) celebrating “Queer British Art” appeared at around the time of this book’s publication at Tate Britain and the word also appears now as the Q in the abbreviated LGBTQIA (although some will say it’s for “questioning”). The word rankles with its association of dodgy men in raincoats but I’m going to let it go and find out just what is in between the covers.

Ackroyd encompasses the raison d’etre behind the book with his final words: “This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.”

What was it about this city which led to its being, throughout time, a magnet for its sexually curious residents? According to Ackroyd; “The city was known to be both a jungle and a labyrinth where gay life could flourish, each street leading to another and then another; there was no end to the possibilities or to the adventures. It provoked the restless need to explore.”

He takes a chronological view of these Gay Londoners. For a good chunk of early history there were no terms for “homosexuality” and people just did pretty much what they did without labels. There is also a marked difference between genders. Lesbianism was never made illegal (Queen Victoria reputedly refusing to acknowledge its existence) and over the centuries Ackroyd makes mention of a number of instances where female partnerships caused little storm and they were occasionally even married by confused clergymen, sometimes by one impersonating a male in a ruse which might not be discovered until after her death. There have also been times when homosexuality was more ignored than tolerated, especially at Court (there’s been more than one gay royal) and within the Church but generally the plight of the gay man has not been especially happy. Obviously the nature of using existing evidence means that Ackroyd’s research will tend to be on incidents which moved over into public knowledge and these will most likely be court cases when something has gone wrong. There’s the odd surprising fact, however. He states that in terms of population, there were probably as many “gay bars” in 17th Century as in 21st Century London.

For many gay men, as we know, their sexual identity led to ruin and shame, punishment or their murder. Many faced public wrath at pillories and public hangings and Britain was slower than most to adopt change. By the eighteenth century much of Europe had abandoned execution for the “crime” of being gay. Britain, alarmed by the Continent and especially by France clamped down further in a bid to establish its separation from Europe (given events over the last year can’t stop the hairs rising on back of my head just a little here). Homosexuality was seen as “a foreign vice. It was un-English” (never mind that the French referred to certain sexual practices as “anglais”). The last two men hanged in England died in 1835 but the death sentence was not actually abolished until 1861.

After this date you might not hang for it but; “It is arguable that in the first half of the twentieth century, however, gays of both sexes were subject to a level of prejudice and intolerance not seen before in Western history, entrapment, imprisonment and sudden police raids became familiar characteristics of London life.”

So not especially a joyful celebration here then. I think Ackroyd does rush through the twentieth century somewhat in his race towards equality. I think I was expecting a little more focus on those places that had real history and importance for gay people. (Coincidentally, this was catered for, to some extent, by Channel 4’s “Britain’s Great Gay Buildings” first shown on 24th June 2017). Ackroyd seems more confident with dealing with the academic evidence than the popular culture which steeped places like Heaven, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern and The Black Cap. He does look to the future at what equality and gay marriage will end up meaning to the more subversive “underground” aspects of London (the “twilight world” that the News Of The World and Sunday People used to refer to) which is rapidly disappearing as we all settle down to domestic environments.

This is often a very readable, undeniably racy account of our capital city and its more diverse residents. There’s some wonderful characters along the way and far too many meet unhappy ends. It’s a good read but do not expect it to have either the magnitude or scope of “London: The Biography”,

fourstars

Queer City was published by Chatto and Windus in a hardback edition in May 2017.

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 to 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 Prime 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.

threestars

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.