Saturday, 27 September 2008

Scotland in Crisis

With the American and British financial system in near-terminal decline, threatening a potential collapse in the western economy such as we haven’t seen in generations, no corner of the British Isles is unaffected.

The Evening News in Edinburgh isn’t the only paper to have dusted off one of the all-time great headlines, but it is perhaps the only one to identify the real issue at stake – the state of play at Heart of Midlothian Football Club:
My thanks to Michelle Coomber for sending me a copy of this blatant plug for my current book.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Private View

Last night was the private view of Steve Thomas' exhibition, Big Biba and Other Stories, and a fine evening it was as well. (Apart from anything else, they seemed to be selling lots of copies of our 2006 book, Welcome to Big Biba.) My thanks and congratulations to Steve and to Donald Smith, the director of the gallery.

The show is at the Chelsea Space, John Islip Street, London (next door to Tate Britain) and continues through to 18 October. Entrance is free, and it's worth a visit.

Here's a photo of some baked beans:

And here's the great man himself:

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Dai Chavez

Having mentioned in my last entry the wonderful character Dai Chavez in John Summers’ novel The Raging Summer, I thought I’d better introduce him more formally.

So here’s a moment from his musical career. If you like this, do have a look at some of the other extracts from The Raging Summer – there’s some fabulous stuff there:

Later on, during the middle of the war, Rumni became the talk of the neighbourhood when Dai Chavez broke up the Full-Temperance and Full Gospel Seven Valleys Eisteddfod Great Tent Evangelist Mission. Just as the recitation of ‘Deffro Zion!’ (‘Awake Zion!’) was about to be rendered by the massed religious reciting congregations of Zoar, Penuel and Moriah chapels, the curtain stuck on stage.

Dai, who was there with his accordion slung over his shoulder ready to bike over to the Catholic Friday night dance, volunteered to play a few suitable tunes to the massed audience while the men worked to get the curtain unstuck. Standing on the middle of the stage in front of the curtain, with all the faces of the Full-Temperance and Gospel audience looking up at him, he struck up ‘Roll out the Barrel’.

He interpreted the frenzied signals of Lloyd Penuel from the side of the stage as encouragement and went on for another fifteen verses, whilst whitely-shocked Nonconformist ministers and their wives stood and walked out. It was not until Williams Williams Tin-Chapel finally marched on-stage and tore the accordion off him that he halted with a last squeal of notes.

‘There you are,’ Dai said afterwards. ‘You try and show willing and go out to help people but that’s all the thanks you set for it...’

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Raging Summer

I’ve been re-reading John Summers’ best novel, The Raging Summer (1972). And it’s wonderful – a book that gets better with every reading.

The setting is John’s childhood in a mining village in the South Wales valleys of the 1930s. It’s a place and a time so far removed from my own life that I can’t claim any knowledge of it, but those who did experience the world of which he wrote vouch for the truth of its depiction of time and place. And I can at least vouch for the truth of its depiction of humanity in all its everyday dreams and struggles.

Part of the genius lies in the dazzling virtuosity of the writing. It ranges from comedy to fury, from pen-portraits to anecdote, all delivered in a prose style that bears the hallmarks of the oral tradition of Welsh literature, with its repetitions and heaped adjectives that approach at times the rhythms of poetry.

In an ideal world, I’d put the whole thing online, but (a) I’m not sure about the legality at the moment, and (b) it’d take too long to scan and code it. Anyway, I very much hope we can get it republished in due course, and you’ll be able to read it all then.

For the time being, though, I’ve put a few extracts on the website I set up for John. These include: his memory of the great miner-poet Idris Davies who inspired him to write the novel in the first place; a passage about Edward VIII’s visit to the Valleys, which prompts bitter reflections on the relationship between London and Wales; a portrait of an archetypal preacher, Williams Williams Tin-Chapel, that ends with a characteristically deflating joke; and a hilarious account of how the Second World War came to town.

There’s also the beginning of the story of the Rose of Tahiti, a chapter that could stand alone as one of the greatest short stories in 20th century literature. The extract doesn’t do anything like full justice to the totality, but it’s still beautifully and brilliantly observed.

And that’s the problem, of course, with just having extracts. I’ve tried to encompass some of the sheer diversity of subject and tone, but a mere five thousand words or so simply can’t do it. The sheer joy of a character like Dai Chavez, for example, needs to be experienced in real time as he pops up throughout the book, commenting on the action like a comedy Chorus, always optimistic, never changing.

‘When I looked at Dai Chavez,’ writes John at the end of the novel, remembering a recent encounter, ‘I realized that what I was looking at was a man who, through his life, was extremely happy. He had always had little and now he had little enough and still he was happy. He probably didn’t even know how happy he was. The happiest kind of happiness.’

And, while I’m quoting from the book, this is John on the literary ambition that took him out into the world, to make his name and to change the lives of many thousands of people, including mine:

‘To write books. Just words. So that afterwards the reader would feel, yes, that it had all happened to him and to her. Then each book would no longer belong to me but belong to them too and they would, with even more than my own small determination, fight for it and protect it because it was for ever theirs now.’

He was, and remains, an inspiration.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Steve Thomas exhibition

The exhibition that's going to set London alight this autumn starts next week (it's got a fabulous catalogue as well...)

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Halfway to Paradise - first copies

One of the best bits of writing a book is when the advance copies turn up and you actually get to hold the finished product in your hand. And that’s exactly where I’m at with Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock.

The book itself is published next month, when the main shipment arrives from China, but the advance copies are with us, and they look fantastic. Harry Hammond’s photos of the great rock stars of the 1950s and early-‘60s are wonderful things and this is the best reproduction I’ve ever seen of them.

To celebrate, I’ve started the process of putting extracts from the book on my website. A further extract will appear each week over the next month and a half. To whet your appetite, here’s a photo of the very beautiful Little Richard (© V&A Images):

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Crisis? What Crisis? – The Podcast

Now available from another episode in thir fine podcast series: Tim Haigh Reads Books. And this time, he's in conversation with, er, me in a discussion of my book Crisis? What Crisis?

I’m sure it’s very good, but I wouldn’t really know. I do know, however, that it was a pleasure to record, and my thanks go to Tim, John Mindlin and all at Green-Shoot.

Crisis? What Crisis? is published by Aurum Press and can be bought online from Waterstone's.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Spanking Mary Whitehouse

I’ve been reading some of John Summers’ old articles. It’s a constant astonishment to find the number of people he interviewed: WH Auden, William Burroughs and LP Hartley are amongst those I didn’t know about, as well as Eugene O’Neill in his last ever interview.

And then there was Mary Whitehouse. John spoke to her in 1965 after Kenneth Tynan had broken a broadcasting taboo by saying the word ‘fuck’ on television, and - predictably - she wasn't best pleased.

‘Little boys’ language,’ she tutted. ‘He wants his bottom smacked.’

Well, quite. But how did she know?