Saturday, 30 August 2008

John Summers obituary

A fine obituary to the late John Summers appears in today's Daily Telegraph. My thanks to Mr Roger Wilkes for his unfailing courtesy and professionalism in compiling this piece (and for finding such fabulous pictures).

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

John Summers website

John Summers died a week ago. In the hope that I can help to preserve his memory and promote his wonderful writing, I’ve created a website in his name:

It includes extracts from John’s books, together with a few of his interviews with the likes of Kingsley Amis and Rocky Marciano, as well as an interview with John himself from the great Welsh website The Wolfman Knew My Father. It also brings together my own reviews of John’s novels.

This is far from complete – I hope to be adding many more extracts from his work, and other people’s reviews of the books – but it is at least a start.

It is, of course, a start that I really should have made during John’s own lifetime. And I feel a little bad for not having done so. News of a death is so often accompanied by feelings of guilt, an awareness of having done those things we ought not to have done, and having left undone those things we ought to have done.

This is my attempt to make amends. And to honour the best writer I ever had the privilege of meeting, let alone of calling a friend.

Friday, 22 August 2008

John Summers

This piece was written in the immediate aftermath of hearing of John's death. It contains - I have since discovered - some factual inaccuracies, but I have refrained from changing my first response. Please also see this website for a fuller and more accurate picture of the man and his work - Alwyn W Turner, 30 August 2008.

It is with great regret and sorrow that I have to record the death of John Summers.

John was one of the finest writers of our time. Two of his novels, in particular – Edge of Violence (1969) and The Raging Summer (1972) – rank alongside the best literature written in the last fifty years. There’s a humanist passion that burns through his works, combined with a gift for description that is simply breathtaking.

I came to know John only recently, in 2003, when his attention was drawn to a review I’d written online, enthusing about one of his books. He became a substantial presence in my life, communicating regularly via phone (from a call-box, since he didn’t have a phone) and, even more often, via the post. Because John was a voluminous letter-writer; it wasn’t unusual to receive three or four letters in a day, all typed on manual typewriters that he’d buy from boot-sales and all contained in recycled envelopes.

It’s difficult to write about him at the moment, even though I feel the need to do so. I hope that I can do better justice to his memory later on, with greater reflection, but right now I want to say a few words.

He was an extraordinary man, and he had lived an extraordinary life. Running away to sea from his Welsh home at an early age, he’d worked his passage around the world before – in his late-20s – he decided to take up writing.

He became a journalist on the Daily Telegraph, and frequently insisted that it was his late arrival in Fleet Street that kept him so fiercely independent. Alongside him worked Paul Foot, to whom he was to dedicate his novel The Rag Parade (describing him as ‘a real journalist’).

In 1966 John was sent to cover the Aberfan disaster, when the criminal negligence of the National Coal Board resulted in the killing of 116 children and 28 adults. Refusing to accept the tragedy as simply a story, he became an active campaigner for the rights of the survivors and the bereaved, pursuing their case up to the high court as they tried to unlock the monies that had been received from around the world for a relief fund.

He wrote a series of articles in the Telegraph and in Queen magazine, and his first novel, Edge of Violence (retitled The Disaster for its paperback editions), was based on his experience, though for legal reasons the names were changed, so that Aberfan became Abertaf. The book launch was held at the House of Commons and was attended by many of the bereaved from the village.

The events – both the disaster itself, and the subsequent attempts by the establishment to protect its own – were a recurring theme in his letters. He saw Aberfan as symbolic of the human failings of capitalism.

The Edge of Violence was very successful, not least in the Soviet Union. John was invited to tour the country, from which came a fine volume of travel-writing, The Red and The Black. His respect for the achievements of Soviet communism was another common thread in his letters. He fell in love with Russia, a nation that he believed had a proper respect for literature.

There’s a certain irony that he should die so soon after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a writer for whom he had no time whatsoever. Nonetheless, there were points of comparison. There was a stubborn refusal to accept that this society was sufficient, an awkward determination to speak out, a horrified repudiation of herd-like consumerism.

A closer parallel, though, was name-checked in The Raging Summer, a book based on John’s own childhood in the Welsh valleys of the 1930s. Writing of his fictionalized hometown, he says: ‘There would be no Mikhail Sholokov born from here: no And Quiet Flows The Don. From a place like this there would only be something always slightly comic; no grandeur. A comical waste and a folly.’

But he was wrong, because this truly is the voice of the Welsh Sholokov: it’s a magnificent book, and its account of the horrors of the Depression are the best I’ve ever read.

That, though, makes it sound like a depressing read. And it’s not. Like all his work, there’s a joy in life itself that sweeps you away. At the risk of being self-indulgent, this is from my review of The Raging Summer:

‘Beyond the “comical waste and folly” there is the essential human dignity of the struggle with avoidable adversity. There's an engagement with life. Some of the characters find strength in nationalism or socialism, but even amongst those whose politics are inchoate at best, the assertion of individuality becomes itself an act of defiance. And, this being a great work of literature, the truth is undimmed by distance: their stories are still inspiring and instructive and utterly entrancing.’

The same was true of the John I knew in the last years of his life. By the time I came into contact with him, he’d already endured the series of misfortunes that increasingly caused him difficulties, but he continued to rail against the stupidities and evil he saw in the world. His book Dylan was a fictional account of a great Welsh writer clearly based on Dylan Thomas, and inevitably I’m reminded as I write this of ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’.

He didn’t.

I learned a great deal from John. Apart from anything else, here was a man who’d been to parts of the world I shall never see, who’d met and interviewed everyone from Evelyn Waugh to Rocky Marciano, and who’d developed a beautiful, utterly distinctive prose-style:

‘Examine every word carefully that you ever read in a newspaper. Find out who owns the paper and then wash the muck off each shovelful of words dumped down on your doorstep each day. Wash off the dross of muck on them and see if the wretched journalist who was paid to write them (poor man, he probably has a wife and a mortgage he has sold himself to a newspaper for) might have managed to secrete a few little gleaming gems of knowledge through the fine sieve of his newspaper's editorial department.’

It was only five years that I knew John. But there was an intensity to the man that didn’t seem to be dependant on time or age. He could be challenging, provocative, annoying, even endearingly eccentric, but always passionate. He had an integrity that I’ve never met before.

He was a fascinating man. And a great, a truly great, writer.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Tim Haigh vs Dr Death

David Owen is one of the more fascinating figures to have inhabited British politics over the last four decades. Promoted to foreign secretary by Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan at an absurdly young age, and one of the founder-members of the SDP (before splitting that party as well), he was potentially the best leader the Tory Party never had.

He's also, of course a doctor, and his most recent book, In Sickness And In Power (Methuen), combines his twin interests in medicine and politics - an account of how ill-health impacts upon the behaviour of world leaders, and thereby influences the course of world history.

It's a fascinating subject and you can hear him discussing it with the very wonderful Tim Haigh here: Tim Haigh Reads Books.

This is the first of a new series of podcasts from It's much recommended (and not simply because I'll be turning up in a later podcast).

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Son of Wakey Wakey and the Six-Five Special

The obituaries for Sir Bill Cotton, who died last week, centred – quite rightly – on his astonishing record in television light entertainment. He was, after all, the man who brought Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies, The Generation Game and Parkinson to the BBC, shaping the look of Saturday night for a generation and more.

But, without wishing to be disrespectful to the man and his contribution to British culture, there’s also been something that’s troubling me.

According to the BBC website: ‘Cotton brought pop music show Six-Five Special to BBC television,’ a comment echoed by other obituaries. The Daily Telegraph also claimed that he was responsible for ‘the discovery of Tommy Steele’.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. But let’s not get carried away.

Just to be clear: Tommy Steele was discovered by John Kennedy, with Larry Parnes subsequently brought into the management team.

And while Cotton did work on Six-Five Special, it’s a gross distortion of history to give him the credit for the show. Because the credit belongs pretty much exclusively to the very great Jack Good. It was he who was the original producer in 1957, the man who made sure that the emphasis in this new series for teenagers was very firmly on music.

That hadn’t been the original intention at all. Good’s co-producer was to be Josephine Douglas, who had much more traditional ideas: ‘Jo wanted film excerpts on mountaineering – hobbies-for-the-youngsters kind of a programme; I wanted all music.’ His solution was elegant; he invited Douglas to present the show, along with disc jockey Pete Murray, thereby ensuring her absence from the control box.

So, although Six-Five Special did emerge as a magazine show, with sports features and with resident comedians Mike and Bernie Winters, it was the music that caught the popular imagination. Amongst those who benefited most from the programme were Tommy Steele and Lonnie Donegan, while Marty Wilde, Jim Dale and Vince Eager got their first break here.

And, quite apart from the content, it was Good who constructed the look of the programme. In particular, he took the revolutionary step of placing the audience between the camera and the performer, so that they could be seen dancing to the music of the live bands. And he refused to patronize his viewers by pretending that a TV programme was somehow an objective observation of an event; instead he admitted frankly that this was a constructed experience: ‘Who gives a damn if a camera comes into shot?’ he asked rhetorically.

As George Melly pointed out in the context of the look of 1960s youth culture: ‘he virtually invented the pop style.’ The influence was felt not merely in rock and roll television, but far beyond, from That Was The Week That Was onwards.

Having put the record straight a little, then, here’s a photo of the late Sir Bill Cotton, with his bandleader father Billy Cotton (© V&A Images). Taken by Harry Hammond, this picture, together with some wonderful shots of Six-Five Special, can be found in my forthcoming book, Halfway To Paradise: The Birth of British Rock.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Did You Miss Me? (Yeah!)

Hello, hello? He’s back again. The imminent release of Paul Gadd (a.k.a. Gary Glitter) from a Vietnamese jail is being greeted with all the tabloid outrage that one has come to expect from the British media.

So since the moral high-ground is getting mighty crowded, let us instead praise Gary Glitter. Let’s celebrate the magnificence of his persona and work, particularly during his glory days in the 1970s.

Because he really was quite something. I wrote a bit about him in the book, Cult Rock Posters 1972-1982, that I did with Roger Crimlis a couple of years back. And I did so on the basis that you can’t look at rock imagery in the 1970s without referring to Gary Glitter: he was key to the decade’s attitude to stardom: self-made, self-perpetuated, self-conscious.

His breakthrough came in 1972 when ‘Rock and Roll (Part 2)’ finally made the charts, several months after it had been released. But it wasn’t his first record by any means. That had come way back in 1960, under the name of Paul Raven, and he’d spent much of the intervening twelve years dreaming of what it would be like to be a star. And working out how to make the most of his moment when it arrived.

In his autobiography, Glitter explained that he’d learnt at the leather-clad knee of rock legend Vince Taylor: ‘To him, a rock and roller’s image was everything, and he believed you shouldn’t let the public see you as your real self, because you’d never appear special to them again.’

But when that first hit did come, it was hardly what Gary had expected. The a-side was supposed to be ‘Rock and Roll (Part 1)’, not the instrumental flip, to which he contributed little beyond the occasional shout of ‘Hey!’ As Glitter Band member, John Springate, once pointed out: ‘He’s probably the only singer that’s ever made it on an instrumental.’

And, despite the gimmicky name that he’d invented for the record, it didn’t sell on image at all. Because no one knew who the artist was, nor what he looked like. It grew in the discos and fairgrounds of the nation long before the broadcast media picked up on him.

So come his first appearance on Top of the Pops, he went for it big time. The first stirrings of glam rock were being felt – Marc Bolan and Slade were hitting the charts regularly by now, David Bowie was starting his Ziggy Stardust phase and the Sweet were urging their songwriters to get a bit heavier on the guitars – and Gary invented a figure that would be the ultimate incarnation (or reductio ad absurdum, depending on taste) of the new style.

In so doing, he created an alternative name for the genre – glitter pop – as well as one of the most memorable characters in rock history. Much mocked, even at the time, for being too old, too fat and too hairy to be a convincing teen star, he was nonetheless exactly that. And much more.

Because there are a couple of things that seldom get mentioned about Gary Glitter. First, the records were fantastic. His first dozen singles are all impeccable pieces of bubblegum rock and roll. Produced by Mike Leander, they were pure rhythm and riff, with the instruments crushed so heavily together that it was virtually impossible to tell quite what the ingredients were – though the inclusion of John Rossall’s trombone underpinning the sax section was a key element.

And the second thing to remember is that Gary was a phenomenal live performer. In the 1980s and ‘90s the act became more and more of a self-parodic pantomime, but his was still a masterly stage presence, always in absolute command of his audience. And in the early Glitter years, when that audience comprised screaming fans rather than nostalgics, he was unbeatable. He’d learned his craft the hard way, with years in the German clubs and with a stint as the warm-up man on Ready Steady Go, and boy did the experience pay off. Similarly his use of television as a medium for his absurd yet endearing excess was unparalleled.

He was, in short, pretty much perfect as a pop star. Entirely within the tradition of rock and roll, while at the same time being unmistakeably original.

I know he’s got himself into some difficulties over the last decade, but let’s not pretend to be too shocked about this. Anyone who’s ever glanced at the history of rock should be able to rattle off the names of at least a dozen major stars who’ve had a penchant for under-aged sex; it does kinda go with the territory. Even if he were guilty of the offences for which he was sentenced in Vietnam (and I didn’t see the evidence, so I’m in no position to know), it doesn’t change the fact that he was one of the great showmen of rock and roll.

Remember him this way.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The London Olympics

As the Olympics get under way in Beijing (or Pekin, as some of us still think of it), one’s mind naturally turns to the London Olympics.

Not the 2012 Games, obviously. The prospect of that nonsense is so horrible that all one do is avert one’s eyes and whistle loudly.

Nor even the Austerity Olympics of 1948.

No, I was thinking of the 1988 Games. Not that London actually staged the event. Nor indeed did we even bid for them. But we did think about it.

In 1979 the GLC, then under the control of the Conservative administration led by Horace Cutler, put out a consultative document in an attempt to spark a debate over whether it was worth going for the Games.

Two options were put forward. The first was the budget version, with a refurbishment of Wembley Stadium, the erection of a temporary athletes’ village and the utilization of existing venues for the minor sports. The second was a more ambitious scheme with a new stadium and permanent village to be built in Docklands.

The costs, including in both cases a major investment in the traffic infrastructure, were £545 million for the cheap option and £1.2 billion for the up-market version.

Obviously those figures don’t mean much nearly thirty years on. So I went to the Bank of England inflation calculator, and it turns out that the more expensive scheme would cost a shade under £4.5 billion at today’s prices.

That’s less than half the current estimate for the 2012 Games. Maybe I’m being naïve, or maybe they were being naïve in 1979, but what the hell’s happened to the Olympics that it’s so bloated?

Mind you, the one thing they were at least honest about back then: they admitted that the Games would make a loss, estimated at being around £220 million. We’ll be lucky to get away with that in 2012.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Crisis and Discontent

The title of my book, Crisis? What Crisis?, comes from one of the most celebrated political misquotes of the 1970s (kind of a modern equivalent of ‘Let them eat cake’) as expressed in a Sun headline on 11 January 1979.

The context was the coldest January in Britain since 1963, and a strike by the drivers of oil tankers and lorries. The resultant fuel shortage was raising the forecourt price of petrol by up to 400%, panic buying was creating food shortages, and there were reports that two million workers could be laid off if the situation continued.

Meanwhile Jim Callaghan, the Labour prime minister, was out of the country on a six-day summit meeting on the agreeably warm Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

When he flew back, he told the reporters gathered to greet him that things weren’t as bad as they made out: ‘I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos,’ he said in the reassuring, emollient tones that had served him so well over the years.

And the Sun summed up his comments in that famous headline: Crisis? What Crisis?

He hadn’t actually said that, hadn’t even used the word ‘crisis’, but the expression attached itself to him instantly and came to symbolize the Labour government’s apparent dislocation from reality. And the main reason that it stuck was that it was already in common usage.

The phrase came originally from the 1973 film of Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Day of the Jackal (though not from the book). By the winter of that year, during the oil crisis that helped bring down the Conservative government of Edward Heath, it was being used as a headline in the Daily Mail. It even turned up in the Sun itself in 1974, trailing a television programme in which David Dimbleby looked at American portrayals of contemporary Britain. And in 1975 the progressive-pop band Supertramp released a hit album with the title.

In short, the words were already in the air, waiting to be given the killer application.

The other great cliché of January 1979 was ‘the winter of discontent’. And again it wasn’t a new coinage for British politics in the ‘70s. A headline in London’s Evening Standard in February 1974 read: The Winter of Our Discontent. That was during the three-day week that Heath had called in response to industrial action by the miners.

In both cases, then, the phrases ‘crisis? what crisis?’ and ‘the winter of discontent’ were originally employed to refer to a Conservative administration, but went on to become primarily associated with a Labour government. As I point out in the book:

‘Thus did 1978-79 adopt the linguistic imagery – and eclipse the memory – of 1973-74, so that the Labour Party became associated with all the ills of 1970s Britain, as though the pre-Thatcher Tories had never really existed, or rather as though they had been closet socialists all along. In future years the phrase “the winter of discontent” would frequently prompt confused memories of the three-day week, alongside the genuine events of the Callaghan era.’

And the reason I’m prompted to write this blog-entry is that I just came across a page on the BBC website that includes these words:

‘Mrs Thatcher came to power during an especially creative period for UK music in the early aftermath of the punk rock movement which had experienced its first stirrings three years earlier.
‘Set against a backdrop of a three-day week and the winter of discontent, homegrown protest music began to flourish like never before, giving a voice to a young disenfranchised audience.’

You see what I mean? The three-day week was in January-February 1974; its imposition was an act of desperation by a Tory cabinet that included Margaret Thatcher. Nothing to do with what is meant here by the winter of discontent, which occurred five years later under Jim Callaghan.

But it all gets mixed up together. And it shouldn’t, you know, it really shouldn’t.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Neue Deutsche Welle

Back in 1980 I was living in Herford, West Germany. Our local rock venue was a former cinema named the Scala, which in the 1960s had put on gigs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Who and the Cream.

The tradition continued, and I saw some great performances, mostly by visiting acts like UB40, Basement Five, Dillinger &c. The Cure were particularly fine – Robert Smith gave me some dexys before the show, and so many encores were demanded that they had to repeat songs they’d already played, since they’d run out of material.

But the gig I remember best was a mini-festival of six Neue Deutsche Welle bands.

For those who missed out on it, the NDW was a fabulous moment in rock history (starting around 1980), when German musicians embraced the spirit of punk and transformed it into something really quite special.

Part of the joy of the movement was that it covered such a phenomenal range of music. Unlike the earlier British incarnation of punk, there was no set of rules to which the bands were expected to adhere, no new orthodoxy. The result was a wide diversity of attitude and sounds, embracing not only new wave, but also electronica, scratchy funk, cabaret, ska and dub.

Very little of this travelled overseas. In Britain X-Mal Deutschland were accepted as part of goth, while the music press celebrated the austere industrialists in Einsturzende Neubauten, die Krupps and DAF. Curiously, though, the most authentic representative of NDW was Trio’s hit Da Da Da, which reached #2 in 1982. Not a record that was ever taken very seriously, of course (despite being covered by the mighty Elastica), but then, that was the point.

You see, it wasn’t all Teutonic grimness round these parts. What Britain missed was the humour and the playfulness.

To put it in context…

There was a charged political atmosphere at the time. The Red Army Faction had been defeated, and the election of Ronald Reagan as American president – which led to the rebirth of CND in Britain – was felt even more keenly in a country that was largely occupied by the US Army and that was touted as the frontline of World War III. When politicians blithely talked about battlefield nuclear weapons, Germany was the battlefield they had in mind.

Consequently NDW included a strong vein of left-wing sloganeering (Alternativ by the Front, Heil Reagan by Blitz), but it also saw a kind of rebirth of Dada, perhaps with the Residents as midwife. Groups like Reifenstahl, der Plan and Wirtschaftswunder gleefully mixed up nursery rhymes, out-of-tune horns and exaggerated vocal mannerisms, mocking the absurdity of the modern world. The very lack of overt politics felt like a political statement in itself.

It didn’t last, of course. Record companies, confronted with an upsurge of new talent, co-opted and compromised in time-honoured fashion and by 1984 were giving us the likes of Nena and Peter Schilling. All very well in their own right, but a bit like getting Toyah as a substitute for Johnny Rotten.

The band who really should have made it were Ideal, fronted by the movement’s sex symbol, the unfortunately named Annette Humpe. Essentially a straightforward new wave group, they had great tunes and even greater charm. They were briefly signed to Virgin in the UK, and were brought over for a showcase gig at the Venue in Victoria, London to promote their English-language single ‘Sex in the Desert’. It didn’t work. My brother and I were down the front, dancing with perhaps two dozen German tourists, but we were separated by acres of empty space from the handful of Virgin executives at the bar. I don’t think the press bothered to come.

Anyway, to return to that 1980 NDW gig in Herford. There were two stand-out bands. Toto Lotto shouted a lot and had an atonal sax honking away as they dismembered the Ramones’ Oh Oh, I Love Her So. And P1/E offered slightly disturbing little electronic love songs that were steeped in the history of pop music – like a cross between Kraftwerk and Suicide.

I bought singles by both bands that night, and got my copy of 49 Second Romance by P1/E signed by Alexander Hacke. Here he is revisiting the song many years later and adding in quotes from some other stuff that’s probably a bit more familiar: