Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On – Nik A Ramli (2012) – A Real Life Review

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What is the right thing to do when just as your biography is going to press the subject dies? Do you hold back publication and revise its contents? I think I would probably say yes to this. Do you carry on and publish anyway after all, knowing that not many readers will know when a book actually came out, that’s a possibility. What Nik A Ramli does in his first piece of biographical non-fiction is acknowledge the passing in an author’s note at the start of the book, use the dates of the life (1948-2012) prominently on the cover but does not change the main text one iota. I’m not sure whether that’s appropriate.

That decision leads to a slightly off taste as Ramli focuses on the legendary disco star’s past, present and future in later chapters such as “Still Going Strong: A New Departure” and “Into The Future” when he makes it clear elsewhere that he knows that there isn’t going to be any future.

Now I, like Ramli, who is better known as a Malaysian Interior Designer who specialises in “laid back glamour” am a big Donna Summer fan. I have included four of her albums in my Essential CD listings. I feel that up to now she has not been served well by the printed word. I read an early 80’s unauthorised biography which said little and even “Ordinary Girl” her 2003 autobiography written with Marc Eliot was a disappointment which just skimmed the surface. There is room for a definitive examination of the life and career of one of the most successful female artists of all time whose record sales reputedly exceed 130 million. I’d always hoped that someone like J. Randy Taraborrelli would apply his thorough, analytical eye to her and produce something very entertaining but this hasn’t happened.

Ramli has produced what is very much a fan’s viewpoint which borders on hagiography. I have no problems with that, the whole work comes across as a labour of love and I always admire these. He’s done tons of research and seemingly watched and read everything and has carried out interviews with people qualified to comment on Donna’s career including DJ Paul Gambaccini, fellow disco-diva Gloria Gaynor and her one-time producer and great supporter Pete Waterman. Unfortunately, what he hasn’t done is put this research all together very well. This is a first-time writer in need of support to structure a convincing narrative and that support (and editing) obviously wasn’t there. The style is breathless throughout, which becomes a little overwhelming, there is so much repetition, an over-reliance on listing the same statistics and song titles to illustrate laboured points, a cheesy use of song titles within the text of the she certainly “works hard for the money” type, factual errors even I’ve spotted, non-sequiturs a-plenty and a tendency to go off on odd tangents, but mainly it’s the repetition that wearies.

He rattles through her whole career in the first few chapters and with a considerable amount of the book to go a clearer structure would have helped matters. He’s read Taraborrelli’s superior music biogs according to the bibliography, it is disappointing that from these he didn’t get a clearer idea of how to put together his work.

What Ramili does well, however, is to get a global perspective. He’s more obsessed about listing chart positions than I am, we get to know how Donna Summer’s work performed in many markets together with listings of weeks spent in both US and UK charts. I also like how he has got contributions from Malaysian performers about the influence of this American girl from Boston who found fame initially in Germany.

The issue that affected the performer was how much “Donna Summer” was a creation of her producers and then her record label. She was created to fit in with the hedonism of mid 70’s disco, with an aura of soft-porn chic which captured the zeitgeist of the time. This image was different to how Donna Summer wanted to be seen both in terms of her beliefs and her need not to pigeonholed as an act of a moment. Her disco days were glorious with some superb tracks, brilliantly performed but she wanted to see and she had the talent to see beyond that, sensing that disco might not last forever. When it did end in the US with that notorious record burning in a Chicago sportsfield which I’ve mentioned a number of times before (see “Turn The Beat Around” by Peter Shapiro), Donna was ready to move on and embrace rock, new wave and more mainstream pop. Over time chart positions dwindled and an alleged comment about AIDS alienated a large gay fanbase. That disco ball would never entirely go away, however, and the demand for the back catalogue of the Disco Donna Summer, like the Disco Gloria Gaynor, would keep re-appearing over the decades. In latter years Donna began once again to fully embrace this and saw a career revival and a demand for new material in the years up to her sudden and shocking death from lung cancer aged 64.

She should be seen as one of the greatest performers of her era, alongside Barbra Streisand (who she famously vocally duelled with on “No More Tears”, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Diana Ross. The fact that she does not always share a pedestal with these artists critically means she is still due for reappraisal. Ramli’s work provided a welcome opportunity for this but he doesn’t quite pull it off.

twostarsDonna Summer; The Thrill Goes On was published by Book Guild Publishing in 2012.

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The Library Book – Susan Orlean (2019) – A Real-Life Review

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Here’s a non-fiction work I highlighted as one of the books I wanted to read in 2019 in January’s “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post. Susan Orleans is a writer for New Yorker magazine and has now published five books on disparate subjects, her most celebrated to date being “The Orchid Thief” about those obsessed with the acquisition of the delicate and often very valuable flowers. Here she turns her attention to the Los Angeles Public Library service and in doing so broadens her scope to explore the worldwide importance of libraries, in the past, present and future.

Her main location is the Los Angeles Central Library which, Orlean discovers early on in her research, suffered a devastating fire in 1986 which destroyed much of the building and over a million books not to mention stacks of non-book materials such as photos and microfilm. Orlean, a keen bibliophile, was astounded that an event of such magnitude passed her by and deviates from her plan to celebrate libraries by exploring this in detail and focusing on the young man believed to have deliberately started the fire. This gives the book an element of true crime running throughout it which alongside the more sedate world of the public library works really quite well.

It’s all interspersed in the text, the current administration of the library, the history of libraries in LA with its cast of very memorable characters and this strange and disturbing case of arson which almost definitely got out of hand within a building which was basically a tinderbox. Throughout is the emphasis on how important libraries are to people, past and present and this all (especially budget-cutting politicians) should take note of. A decade or so ago people worldwide were keen to predict the total demise of libraries in the wake of the e-book but this is no longer so as across the globe things are on the up. What might surprise the British reader is how well funded the American service is compared to the UK. There are more public libraries in the USA than there are branches of McDonalds (I wonder if the same applies over here where so many have been closed due to budgetary restrictions) and there are double the number of libraries to retail bookshops. These are just two of the facts I learnt from this book.

All of this celebratory pot-pourri is introduced within short chapters by lists of relevant books titles and their Dewey references which I initially felt gimmicky from a gifted writer but actually won me over as a nice touch which gives some idea where the author is going in each section. The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work. And as I am employed within public libraries I couldn’t agree more with the author as to their continued importance in the 21st Century.

fourstars

The Library Book was published as a hardback by Atlantic Books in 2019.

Becoming Beyonce – J. Randy Taraborrelli (2015) – A Real Life Review

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J. Randy Taraborrelli is a real guilty pleasure of mine. His biographies seem meticulously researched and are very thorough. There is often a slight tension between his fan worship of his subjects and his need to get as much scandal as he can on them and this tension I enjoy. He tells a story well and I’ve yet to read anything by him which has been approved by his subject- his work tends to be “unauthorised”. He is best known for really changing the public perception of Diana Ross from Motown sweetheart to the Ultimate Diva in his “Call Her Miss Ross” (1989), my favourite of his books although I have enjoyed others on Madonna and Michael Jackson and have a so-far unread one on Elizabeth Taylor on my bookshelves. He also has an interest in powerful American families such as The Kennedys and The Hiltons. The family aspect is also very strong in this book as in the process of “becoming Beyoncé”, the Knowles family were extremely involved.

His works generally focus on larger-than-life characters, those who were no strangers to scandal thus producing a lot of copy Taraborrelli could pore over but here there has to be a slightly different emphasis, as scandal on Beyonce Knowles herself is decidedly limited. What we have instead is the just as fascinating question of how a little girl who participated in talent contests and pageant shows became one of the most celebrated and influential women on the planet. Well, the answer to that, you may be disappointed to know is through sheer determination and hard work. Going from a child in an all- girl musical review, to unsuccessful singing act Girls’ Tyme (which brought family members and investors close to bankruptcy), to stardom with Destiny’s Child, a solo career, marriage to one of the most successful all-time rappers, Jay-Z, to motherhood were all achieved by extraordinary single-minded dedication which meant that there has been really little life outside of the business in her attainment of her goals.

Subtitling this “The Untold Story” might get readers searching for juicy titbits but the perennially image conscious and brand aware Beyonce has rarely ever let her guard down long enough for scandal to occur. Her father, however, is a different matter and Mathew Knowles certainly comes under the microscope. As single-minded as his daughter in pursuance of fame, he gave up a profitable job and sunk a small fortune into drilling the group of young girls, shedding those along the way who couldn’t toe the line, there were extra-marital dalliances and the central event in the book comes from 2009 when Beyonce blows the whole thing apart by having her father audited for potential mismanagement of funds. Another incident which generated much media attention was the extraordinary situation in a lift where her sister attacked Beyonce’s husband behind closed doors and all parties emerged as if nothing had happened. Beyonce’s role in this was strangely detached which stimulated much speculation as to what was going on, the incident suggesting a metaphor for public image versus personal life but under analysis there’s not very much that can be actually deducted from this.

There seems little doubt that the development of a public image has caused difficulties for Beyonce’s own identity. This led to a creation of a dauntless confident alter-ego Sasha Fierce to hide the insecurities. Beyonce’s songs feature “independent women” and “survivors” and even though father Mathew was seen to be positioned at the centre of her existence the book gives attention to a group of very strong women who allowed Beyonce to become Beyonce, including early managers and her mother, Tina and sister Solange.

Compared to some of Taraborrelli’s subjects this is a much more low-key affair but I really enjoyed it. It’s impossible not to be swept up by such professional self-belief, determination and on-stage charisma.

fourstars

Becoming Beyonce was published in 2015. I read the Pan paperback edition. Yes I know there should be an acute accent on Beyonce’s name, but the keyboard is not co-operating with that!

The Five- Hallie Rubenhold (2019) – A Real Life Review

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I like this author.  A previous work of hers “The Covent Garden Ladies” (2006) a study of Victorian prostitution ended up in my Top 5 Books Of The Year when I read it in 2011.  I very much applaud what she has set out to achieve with this new meticulously researched work but I would give her earlier publication the edge.

 “The Five” attempts to redress a wrong which has existed for 130 years- the public perception of the five women believed to have been killed by “Jack The Ripper”.  From the early press reports, to the way the case was handled, to the coroners’ reports and the development of the whole macabre industry which has built up around the perpetrator these women have been misrepresented.  They have become very much the foils to The Ripper’s dastardly crimes, their whole lives tainted by the sordidness of their demise.  They have been labelled “prostitutes” with an implication that they may have invited or deserved their fate.  Their individuality and humanity has been forgotten in the telling of a lurid tale.

 Through the sifting of contemporary reports, including the patchy coroners’ transcripts, newspapers and journals and the census returns which all provided a deluge of contradictory evidence Hallie Rubenhold has explored each of the five women in turn and tracked their lives to the point where they ended up, completely out of luck, in the Spitalfields area in 1888. 

 The most horrific thing which runs throughout is how the lives of the Victorian working classes were so on edge, one change of circumstance and a downward spiral was begun from which there was no escape.  This was especially true for women where the miseries of lost loves, dead children, loss of reputation etc. could lead to turning to drink and from then on there was little hope.  And, despite the odd bright moments in most of their lives this is what happened to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.

 The author has certainly achieved her aim in giving them a different place in The Ripper story and used the evidence well to bring them back to life.  The nature of the type of evidence she is using after 130 years of them being treated differently means that looking back after finishing the work I felt that individually they blurred into one another.  The author might not have found their voices individually but certainly as a group I very much felt their presence.  Little is actually known about the last victim Mary Jane Kelly, who lived her life enigmatically as many who became lost in Victorian London chose to do.  This is where non-fiction can let us down, lack of information leads to more generic non-specific writing thus affecting the narrative flow which a novelist would enjoy in bringing their work to conclusion.  I think this was why I wilted a little as a reader towards the end.

The character who is kept very firmly in the shadows throughout is Jack The Ripper himself, moving in only in the last few lines of each section.  I understand and applaud this but I don’t know as much about The Ripper Cases as the author assumes I do and by keeping the perpetrator so far in the background I feel I need to know more about what actually happened and how it was dealt with and to do this I’m likely to have to read one of the works Rubenhold is challenging.  But when I do I know I will have this author’s new perspective in mind and will not forget that these women existed and lived a valuable life before perishing in the London streets.

fourstars

 

The Five was published in hardback by Doubleday in February 2019.  It has this week been longlisted for the non-fiction dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association.

Funny Way To Be A Hero – John Fisher (2013) – A Real Life Review

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I think we readers can always appreciate a book which has become lifeblood for its author. Although this writer and television producer has gone on to write other works, which have largely spun off from this title this will always be his special project and his feelings for this work and the individuals who provided the reason for the work are only too apparent.

It was first published in 1973 as a record of Fisher’s heroes from the world of comedy and variety, the latter still then playing a part of the entertainment industry of the day, but nowhere near as prevalent as it had been in decades past. This is the 40th anniversary edition of the book, which has been reworked and added to with lucid and involving afterthoughts at the end of most chapters. The big difference here is that 40 years on most of the artists accorded their own chapter had died and since publication of this edition six years ago they have all departed, the last survivor being Ken Dodd who left us last year. Of those mentioned in passing I think only a couple of the young pretenders Jimmy Tarbuck and Roy Hudd remain. This makes this work an even more important historical record of what are fast becoming lost days than it was on first publication.

Over 32 chapters Fisher shines the spotlight on those individuals who shone brightest from the Victorian performer Dan Leno (now best known as a title character in a Peter Ackroyd novel and its 2016 film adaptation) to the comedy stars of the 60’s and 70’s who attracted huge television audiences. This book is weighty and is a quality production through and through full of sumptuous photos, often over a whole page and many of which come from the author’s personal collection.

fisher2Dan Leno

The earliest performers will nowadays mean little to the reader (although it is interesting to note the source of some of the catchphrases still in modern parlance). If there is a central character than that is perhaps Max Miller, a comic I know by reputation only. The performers seem to fall naturally into a pre and post Miller division. Comedy is very much of its time. I wonder if anyone today would find Arthur Askey laugh-out-loud funny, some of the artists here remained at or near the top until their (often premature) deaths, some found themselves having to diversify somewhat (eg: Max Wall into serious acting, Max Bygraves into singing and quiz shows) and others found their stars waning (eg: Benny Hill) as tastes changed.

fisher3

Fisher is very good at including personal anecdotes of a lifetime both of admiring many of these performers on the stage and working alongside them in TV production. His first contact with a celebrity was aged 11 in 1956 when he won a competition to meet Norman Wisdom during the interval of “Aladdin” at the London Palladium. This was the encounter which set the seal on Fisher’s future interests. Wisdom was charming and relaxed. How easily it could have gone the other way with an 11 year old descending during the valuable interval minutes for a performer on what was the first night of the run! Many stars both past and present would not have been as accommodating!

fisher4Norman Wisdom

The focus is on comic performers from variety rather than comic actors so no Carry On Gang (apart from Frankie Howerd and “Carry On Teacher” star Ted Ray), no Alastair Sim  etc, although he certainly does not ignore film performers, in fact some of these took their stage characters to become some of the top domestic stars of their day, credited with keeping the British film industry afloat- so take a bow Will Hay, George Formby, Gracie Fields and Norman Wisdom.

Obviously the reader is going to seek out their own favourites. One who certainly predated me but who could silence the near-riot atmosphere of Saturday morning pictures when I was really quite young much better than the more contemporary Children’s Film Foundation offerings was Arthur Lucan, better known as Old Mother Riley. As a young child I was equally thrilled and scared to death of Jimmy Edward’s headmaster character in the TV revival of “Whacko!” In real life he was a man whose struggles with his sexuality led his brother to say after his death in 1988 aged 68 “It all got on top of him at the end.” Later on, my comedy heroes became Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies and I defy anyone who was around at the time to read the chapters on both Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper without hearing the voices and laughing out loud throughout. (Why do I find Cooper’s “Glass, bottle! Bottle, glass!” still so funny?) I’ve actually discovered I have another book by John Fisher on my shelves, unread, his biography of Cooper, so when I get round to it I will certainly have a treat in store with this full-length expansion of the chapter here.

fisher5Tommy Cooper

It’s worth noting that the world of comedy and variety at this time was very male-centric and this is certainly represented here with only Rochdale’s Gracie Fields getting her own chapter. There is another section which groups together women who rose to as near the top as they could get in a difficult profession and here I found another real favourite, Hylda Baker, probably the Queen of the Catch phrase.

fisher6Hylda Baker

Thank you Mr Fisher for this real blast of nostalgia I found lurking on the public library shelves. It brought back the excitement of knowing there was a new Morecambe & Wise, Benny Hill or Two Ronnies show on TV that night and it also taught me a lot about those I dimly remembered or knew just as names from previous generations of comic fun.

fourstars

This edition of “Funny Way To Be A Hero” was published in 2013 by Preface.

The Child That Books Built – Francis Spufford (2002) – A Real Life Review

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Francis Spufford has featured on my “Must Read” list since his debut novel, the historical “Golden Hill” took a Costa Award in 2016.  For some reason I still haven’t got around to it, although I am convinced I’d enjoy it very much indeed.  On the New Non-Fiction shelf at the library I discovered this with its by-line of “What would you find if you went back and re-read your favourite books from childhood?” Still slightly reeling from the sheer joy of Lucy Mangan’s trawl through the books in her past in “Bookworm” I thought this couldn’t be delayed until I got round to Spufford’s novel.  I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to read it.

I wasn’t that far through it when I realised it didn’t feel as up to date as I was expecting a book sat on the New Non-Fiction shelf to be.  After a little research (turning to the front of the book) I discovered that this was first published by Faber back in 2002 with 2018 being the date this paperback edition (made to look like “Golden Hill”) arrived.  So the image I had in my head of both Spufford and Mangan revisiting their childhood concurrently was a bit out of synch as he did this sixteen years ago.  Then I sensed a whiff of a cash-in.  This has obviously been republished because of the success of “Golden Hill” and probably “Bookworm” too.

The back cover is a tad misleading.  It had led me to think we would be in Mangan territory but with a slighter older male perspective.  It is considerably more complex than this.  Spufford is revisiting his childhood to see how his reading choices impacted upon him and how it formed him developmentally.  He is much more interested in the person rather than the books.  They are important for their impression they left giving it a stronger psychological basis and feel which basically I enjoyed much less than Mangan’s “joy of reading” approach.

Spufford did use books to escape (family ill-health mainly) but seems to have read with a fury which at times I felt a little unsettling and that I was being intrusive.  He was, despite being virtually the same age, a very different child from me anyway.  The first book he read alone, aged 6, confined to home because of mumps was “The Hobbit” a book I grappled with probably five years later (which looking back I still feel was too young).  From here we get the stages of his development through Narnia (which he, like most children of our generation was obsessed by, although for me it was largely just “The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe”).  Naturally, we did have many books in common and I was pleased to recall “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr which has largely edged back into the mists of history but had a lasting effect on both of us (ie: it was terrifying!).  Spufford exhausted much of what children’s literature had to offer before finding Sci-Fi which filled that transition period (never really did it for me) to Ian Fleming (whilst at boarding school) and perhaps inevitably on to porn at the end of his teenage years.

His focus is very much on development.  Good old Jean Piaget is referenced often (taking me back to my Theory of Education days) and Spufford opts to see these developments in physical terms (forest, island, town, hole).  I didn’t follow all of his arguments, in fact it did often remind me of what he pinpoints as one of the memorable stages of learning to function as an independent reader when you pick out what you can as you go along to get the general gist.  (Spufford perceptively says we do this in early years and then again when we discover classic novels.  Well, I found myself doing this quite often here!)

Where this is strongest is when he lets the books take centre stage.  There’s a good section on Laura Ingalls Wilder where I felt totally involved, for example.  I would have liked a list of the books he revisited to really get those nostalgic juices flowing.  I think I’m being largely niggly because this book wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be and so there was an underlying disappointment throughout.  At one point I was concerned that it might put me off reading “Golden Hill” but I think, having now finished this, that desire is still intact.

threestars

The Child That Books Built was published by Faber & Faber in 2002.  I read the 2018 paperback version.

This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay (2017)- a Real Life Review

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adamkay

….And it very probably will. This book certainly had me squirming (Top Tip: it’s not the best book to read during your lunch break!).  I haven’t read anything before with so much bodily fluids sloshing around (Top Tip 2: you might not want to read this it if you are pregnant).  Adam Kay has written one of the best-selling non-fiction paperbacks of the year and at long last it seems to be dawning on people what being an NHS doctor in a hospital is actually like.

Kay wrote diaries which span over six years (2004-10) from the very first day of his appointment as a House Officer, enthusiastic but terrified, to an incident which eventually led him to hanging up his stethoscope as a Senior Registrar.  It is an extraordinary and ultimately chilling catalogue.  Since giving up the medical profession Kay has turned to comedy and it was obviously his ability to pick out the funny side of his work that kept him (more or less) sane.  Long hours, patient demands, inserted foreign objects, inexplicable IT systems, patient misunderstandings, long hours, fractious home lives caused by long hours, medical misunderstanding, oh, did I mention the long hours are all present here.  Kay’s decision to focus on obstetrics and gynaecology provides many fraught moments, quite a lot of those body fluids, and will make for difficult reading at times for the squeamish.

But apart from this his account serves as a testament to just how bloody marvellous people who choose to work in the NHS are.  In recent years (and remember Kay left 7 or 8 years ago, I don’t things have got any better) the government has seen fit to try and squeeze the NHS into a corset of implausible targets, an over-emphasis on accountability, uninformed choice and poor funding so that it is only through the sheer dedication of its workers that it survives.

The expectations of people to continually deliver their best in life and death situations after incredibly long shifts and with little back-up support or care for them as individuals can only bring about stress, trauma, an exodus out of the service and in alarming statistics suicide in order to escape the never ending responsibility in an increasing litigious society.

Anyone who starts to have a flicker of hesitancy when they hear a government minister or certain sections of the press claim a medic’s life is a cushy one should be forced to read this book.  And did I mention it is also very funny….

fourstars

This Is Going To Hurt was published in the UK by Picador in 2017

 

Alastair Sim – Mark Simpson (2008) – A Real Life Review

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Alastair

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this biography of one of Britain’s most loved film stars of the 1950s is that there’s really not an awful lot to know about him. Mark Simpson portrays him as an intensely private man who shunned anything to do with the celebrity trappings of showbiz, spurning all autograph hunters and rarely giving interviews. Nowadays, it would not be possible to become a household name and demand (and get) such privacy but Alastair Sim’s world was a very different place.

Born in Edinburgh in 1900 the young Sim was a keen public speaker and became a teacher of elocution, eventually lecturing at the university. He gave this up to set up his own drama school and ended up coming to London performing verse plays and hoping to become a West End director but instead finding more stage and then film work. Part of his reticence towards publicity, Simpson suggests, might have something to do with his wife, who was 14 years younger than him and who he met when she was a young looking 12 and he a very mature looking 26. There was no evidence of impropriety between the two but the budding actor would have been very aware as to how this would have looked to outsiders, and particularly, sections of the press. In fact, Alastair and Naomi Sim were fairly inseparable until the end of his life.

Simpson is keen to play down any salacious suggestion from his subject. Sim was also a strong mentor to the young George Cole, with Cole living with the family and regularly working with Alastair. Simpson airs the rumours that fluttered around this but doesn’t dig too far or feels that there was anything behind it. Anyone looking for scandal isn’t going to find it here.

alastair2Alastair Sim & George Cole from “St Trinians”

Most of us will know Sim from a run of films in the 1950s which have been regularly shown on television ever since. From this it’s possible to think he was on screen more than he actually was. He was actually more prolific  in long-forgotten films from the pre-war years which were being churned out to fulfil quotas for British films in British cinemas. Such were the lasting popularity of his work in his golden years that I realised I had seen virtually all of them, despite them being from before I was born. “St. Trinian’s”, “The Happiest Days Of Your Life,” “Scrooge”, “London Belongs To Me”, “School For Scoundrels” all allowed Sim to play Sim (even in a dress as headmistress Miss Fritton) and this is just what the British public and I loved. In that sense he is very much the male counterpart of another great British eccentric, also famed for playing variations of herself, Margaret Rutherford, and when the two are paired together it is an absolute joy.

Alastair4Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim

I did feel that Simpson’s biography is a little under-stated but sources are inevitably limited for a man who was said to be “uninterviewable”. I’m actually glad that there wasn’t scandal. I wanted my admiration for this unique actor not to be tainted in any way. He was a complex, aloof man whose dogged obstinacy got in the way of his career and yet was one of the great warm-hearted eccentric characters of mid-twentieth century British cinema.

threestars

Alastair Sim was published by The History Press in 2008.

The Mitford Girls – Mary S. Lovell (2001) – A Real Life Review

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Mary S. Lovell’s sixth publication reads like a labour of love.  Her subjects are a biographer’s dream.  She must have been inundated with material for this thoroughly researched work.  The big decision must have been just what to include and what to leave out as the Mitford sisters have generated so much print over the decades.

 It would be a big enough job for a biographer to focus on one of the sisters but Lovell here tackles all six, not entirely forgetting brother Tom, the third of the seven children.  Read any account of British history of the period and at least one Mitford is likely to appear, even if on the sidelines, particularly anything which examines the upper classes of the first half of the twentieth century.  In fiction too, their influence can be felt as inspiration for characters in many novels as well as directly influencing English Literature through Nancy’s highly regarded novels published from the mid 1930s to early 1960s.

 I didn’t know a huge amount about them and was never sure who was who. (I haven’t read any of Nancy’s novels but intend to).  Six attractive high society girls (their father was Baron Redesdale) who between them spanned the whole range of political beliefs.  Nancy (1904-73) became a novelist known for her autobiographically based novels and waspish humour; Pamela (1907-94) was the most sedate of the bunch who lived a more rural-based life; Diana (1910- 2003) who became one of the country’s most notorious women when she fell in love with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists; Unity (1914-48) who arose stronger feelings in the popular press through her friendship with Hitler; Jessica (1917-96) who, at the other end of the spectrum, became a radical Communist and Deborah (1920-2014) who became the Duchess of Devonshire and regenerated Chatsworth House.

mitfordsThe Mitford Sisters

 Admittedly, it does take a while to get the girls sorted out one from another in their younger days but things become certainly clarified in the years leading up to World War II.  It is extraordinary that these six girls came from the same privileged family.  Lovell’s approach is largely non-judgemental which can seem a little odd but is probably the best way to deal with six such disparate characters.  In fact there are seven as we must count their mother Sydney (1840-1963) who manages to keep things together but must have been driven mad by the unpredictable antics of her daughters.

 It has been 17 years since this book’s publication and now none of the sisters are  with us (Diana and Deborah were both alive in 2001) maybe a new updated edition would make this work seem complete.  Since writing this the author has focused upon another major family of the period and relatives of the Mitfords- “The Churchills” (2011).  Her latest work (2017) focuses on the high society who frolicked at Cannes in 1920-60.

 Reading this fascinating biography has given me a taste for the fiction of this period – I must read Nancy Mitford and work my way once again through Evelyn Waugh at the very least.  This, however, is a tale of a family which is stranger than fiction and Mary S. Lovell does a great job at bringing these women to life.

fourstars

 The Mitford Girls was published by Abacus in 2001.

Turn The Beat Around – Peter Shapiro (2005) – A Real Life Review

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beataround

There’s a lot to take in whilst reading American journalist Shapiro’s first book subtitled “The Secret History Of Disco”. I’ve read it before back when it was first published and I’m familiar with the author’s other works “The Rough Guide To Soul and R&B” (2006) and “Soul: 100 Essential CDs” (2000) the latter being a work I consult often and a probable inspiration for my own 100 Essential CD section of the blog.

I saw this book stood looking fairly unloved on the shelves of one of the Isle Of Wight’s larger libraries. It hadn’t been stamped out for three years and yet had survived every unpopular book cull so someone must have been looking out for it. I realised I couldn’t remember anything about it, which for a book which deals in subjects I’m interested in I found surprising. In fact, this and the 1999 publication “Saturday Night Forever: The Story Of Disco” by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen are very much the standard texts for this whole period of music history. (The excellent “Disco Files” by Vince Aletti provides very much a contemporary record rather than an analysis of the genre). Jones is British and Kantonen Finnish so American Shapiro’s view has a different slant.

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It is highly appropriate that this book focuses on New York as it is from the clubs of the Big Apple where the disco scene exploded and with which it is most associated through Studio 54 and “Saturday Night Fever”. It was from this bankrupt city, dangerous and corrupt, that people began to gather in sizeable numbers to seek some kind of communal uplift. Shapiro states it was from the rotten apple of New York City that disco music emerged. I’ve trodden on similar ground recently with Edmund White’s “City Boy” and it may have been that which led me back to this book. White was living in New York in this period and visited some of the clubs, although his interests lay more in cruising than the sounds from the speakers. Disco was music for the dispossessed. Black, gay and Latin sounds fused together to make some of the most uplifting music of all time and Shapiro is thorough in picking out its key moments.

He’s strong on the pre-history taking his story back to late 1930’s Hamburg, Germany where the Swing Kids were defying Nazi discipline to meet and dance to DJ chosen sounds wearing fashion and seeking out music that would enrage the authorities. It was Motown who provided the blueprint sound of disco in 72/73 with the Temptations’ “Law Of The Land” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks making Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson the first disco producers. The 4/4 steady beat and hi-hat rhythms came later in 1973 courtesy of a man who would play on so many disco classics, drummer Earl Young, who first kickstarted this new rhythm pattern on Harold Melvin & Bluenotes’ “The Love I Lost”.

Where I find Shapiro disconcerting is that it is not always clear where his enthusiasms lie. Jones and Kantonen seem to be much more fans and some of the music they profess to like best can be that which Shapiro pours most vitriol on. He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters. He is more likely to bring out negative aspects in highlighting the steps in the music’s demise than to celebrate its high spots and that to me seems unfortunate.

This may have something to do with the difference in the American and Jones’ and Kantonen’s European perspective. In the US disco famously died. Its last hours was at a Chicago baseball stadium where latent racism and homophobia exploded in a staged destruction of hundreds of disco records which ended up in a near riot. From then on disco music disappeared from radio airwaves and US pop charts. Shapiro puts this down to the continued commercialism of the scene with artists from other music worlds and earlier eras jumping on the disco bandwagon. (I have a soft spot for the Ethel Merman Disco Album and whereas Shapiro would gasp in horror at Andy Williams’ almost breathtaking reworking of his “Love Story (Where Do I Begin)” it is a huge favourite of Jones and Kantonen). America also got fed up with what disco was doing to its country with conservatism and family values back on the ascendent. Shapiro, not one to beat around the bush states;

“With its mincing campness, airbrushed superficiality, limp rhythms, flaccid guitars, fey strings and over-produced sterility, disco seemed emblematic of America’s dwindling power; the high falsettos of disco stars like the Bee Gees and Sylvester sounding the death knell for the virility of the American male.”

And with macho rock radio losing audiences there had to be a fight back. The big difference here is that in Europe we were quite happy with virility’s death knell and Disco never went away and from this we’ve largely repackaged  back to the US Electronic Dance Music which is one of the most prevelant musical styles today. Shapiro does acknowledge this.

Despite the author’s thoroughness of research, music lists and detailed bibliography I prefer the more celebratory tone of “Saturday Night Forever” as it feels closer to what this music, which I first heard as an impressionable teenager, means to me.

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Turn The Beat Around was published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2005.