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The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw: The Robin Friday Story, Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt (Mainstream 1997)

Excellent premise, execrable execution. That’s how you could sum up this book. I thought it would be a proper biography, but it turned out to be a collection of newspaper clippings and extracts from interviews with the relatives, friends and acquaintances of Robin Friday, the legendarily skilful and anarchic footballer who dazzled fans of Reading and Cardiff City before dying of drink, drugs and debauchery at the age of 38.

And yes, that’s right: 38. If you’re not that age now, you soon will be. If you’re older, you won’t have lived half Friday’s life. Or so he would have told you. Like Kurt Cobain, he thought it was better to burn out than fade away. But if he’d used the fuel of his talent more carefully, could he have been one of the all-time greats? Possibly, but it’s much easier to look good when you’re surrounded by mediocre players. Friday looked good at Reading, then at Cardiff City, but neither Reading nor Cardiff was a big club with the best players.

Then again, the most skilful and successful players today would find it difficult to cope with the tackling and physical intimidation of Friday’s day. Hard-man defenders dished it out to Friday and he dished it right back. He never wore shin-pads and often came off the pitch bruised, battered and bleeding. Or concussed after an elbow in the head. But he could come back from a pub or night-club in the same way, because he enjoyed fighting and exercising his will to win. He liked life the way he liked his music: loud. He was a heavy-metal fan and brought the blood-and-thunder of his records to his football. That’s why he had a bad disciplinary record, as you can see sports-reporters lament again and again in the clippings. Presenting Friday’s life like that has its appeal. The book mixes pop-charts and snippets of world-news in with the reports about Friday and other cult-players, so you almost feel as though you’re back in the 1970s, following Reading’s push for promotion in the local paper or watching Cardiff try and fail to turn Friday into a star. But why couldn’t the book have had both clippings and a proper narrative?

Well, Paul McGuigan was a member of Oasis and had an image of lumpen stupidity to maintain. Write a proper book? Fook off. And he wouldn’t have wanted to put his name to a proper book that some other cunt had written. At least, that’s how I like to see it, being a dedicated Oasisophobe. But there is room to appreciate beauty and the transcendent even in the soul of a member of Oasis. Men like Paul McGuigan undoubtedly like Friday’s toughness and thuggish side, but it’s not the thugs and bullies of football who become the true legends. George Best was far too small and delicate to be a thug. It was his skill that made him a legend. His drinking and womanizing were only the icing on the cake.

Friday wasn’t at Best’s level, but he could have matched or surpassed other ’70s legends like Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington and Stan Bowles, with their silky skills and their balls of steel. And ’70s nostalgia is now a large part of what has made Friday a cult-figure. Men were men and football was football in those days. Or football was thuggery enlivened with skill.

You get some impression of the 1970s from the unrelieved stream of clippings and personal anecdotes, but this book could have been so much better. Irvine Welsh gives it the kiss of death in his banal introduction: “Yeah, perhaps not a lot of us did get the chance to see Robin Friday play, but those that did are just that wee bit more enriched as a result. And that’s what it’s all about.” No, it’s about much more than that and you get glimpses here of a might-have-been-great from a vanished culture.

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’Vile Vibes

In Plain Sight The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan DaviesIn Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, Dan Davies (Quercus 2014)

’Seventies nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Britain has reeled again and again at revelations about the sex-crimes committed by famous entertainers from that ever-more discredited decade. Gary Glitter, Jonathan King and Stuart Hall have all gone to jail. Rolf Harris will probably die there. But the biggest nonce of the lot got clean away:

Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, OBE; Knight of Malta, Knight of the Vatican, ‘Special’ Friend of Israel; Honorary Royal Marines Green Beret, Honorary Doctor of Law and Honorary Assistant Entertainment Officer at Broadmoor maximum security psychiatric hospital; miner, scrap metal merchant, inventor of the disco; racing cyclist, wrestler and marathon runner; pop Svengali, radio DJ and Top of the Pops presenter; charity fund-raiser, highly paid business consultant, hospital administrator; confidant of prime ministers and princes. (ch. 2, “Frisk Him”, pp. 18-9)

Savile got a lot done in his eighty-four years, but the public didn’t know the half of it. He was born poor and sickly in Leeds in 1926 and died in the same city in 2011, rich, famous and laden with honours. I didn’t live in the UK at the height of his fame, but I saw some episodes of his famous children’s programme Jim’ll Fix It, on which he made dreams come true for a lucky few of the many thousands of children who wrote to him every week: some “got to fly with the Red Arrows, blow up water towers or sing with The Osmonds” (ch. 2, pg. 13). I didn’t like Savile or his programme, but I always reasoned that he couldn’t be a paedo because he looked and acted so much like one.

That was Savile’s bluff: as Davies puts it, he was hiding in plain sight. After his death it gradually emerged that he had committed sex-attacks on children for decades, relying on his fame, cunning and peripatetic life to keep himself out of jail. He had narrow escapes and was even interviewed by the police, but he got to the end of his life unscathed. That’s why his highly expensive grave in Scarborough bore the jeering epitaph: “It Was Good While It Lasted”. Not that the jeer was immediately apparent: Savile was buried with honour and acclaim. But Davies opens this biography by describing what happened to the grave when the toxic truth got out:

The three 18-inch thick slabs of dark granite it had taken eight months to craft and to polish and to inscribe had been taken to a yard in Leeds where the fourteen hundred letters were ground down and the black granite smashed into tiny pieces for landfill. Nothing was to be left of the headstone and nothing was to be left to mark the spot where the coffin was buried beneath the earth. It was good while it lasted. (ch. 1, “Apocalypse Now Then”, pg. 8)

The title of that first chapter, “Apocalypse Now Then”, is a good example of what you’ll find in the rest of the book: black humour and bathos. There’s also a series of impossible-to-answer questions. What made Savile tick? How did he fool so many people for so long? You could ask the same questions about Tony Blair, a criminal on a much bigger scale, but there are two big differences between Savile and Blair. Unlike Blair, Savile was highly intelligent and a self-made man. Blair got to the top by serving powerful interests; Savile got to the top under his own steam. I’d also say that while Blair is a narcissist, Savile was an exhibitionist.

Long before Savile’s death, Davies saw through the exhibitionism and glimpsed the depravity beneath. At the age of nine, he attended the recording of an episode of Jim’ll Fix It “at a television studio in Shepherd’s Bush, west London” (ch. 2, pg 13). After watching Savile’s performance as a zany, dream-fulfilling jester, he came away with an uncomfortable feeling that “there was something remote and cold and untouchable beyond the façade”. Later, he read Savile’s autobiography, As It Happens (1974), and was disturbed again:

As a child of the Seventies and Eighties, I had heard all the playground rumours about Britain’s favourite uncle; we all had. Jimmy Savile was a weirdo and possibly worse; a poofter, a necrophiliac or a child molester. [When I was an adult] Friends thought I was joking when I spoke of my ‘Jimmy Savile’ dossier and how I was going to use it to bring him down one day. (ch. 2, pg. 15)

The rumours may have been completely true. Savile was a Charlie Chester who preferred girls but also molested boys. And he spent a lot of time with corpses during his unpaid stints as a “celebrity porter” in various hospitals. Davies didn’t get to bring him down, but his uneasy fascination with Savile never went away. After he grew up and became a journalist, he conducted some lengthy interviews with his “bogeyman” for a magazine called Jack (ch. 2, pg. 17). He never got to the truth: Savile was too clever for that. But his uneasiness grew and the interviews are the basis of this book. Savile speaks at length, relishing the battle of wits with Davies and revelling, no doubt, in the thought that his words would acquire their full feral-and-fetid meaning only after his death.

I was struck by the strangeness of his language. This is how he described a narrow escape from death in a plane:

“It was all a bit of fun. You’re gonna die, you didn’t die, very good. I had plenty of time to think about it because I was up in the air when we ran out of fuel. It didn’t bother me because I’m a bit odd. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re not.” (ch. 15, “Didn’t Die, Very Good”, pg. 117)

That’s English, but it’s “a bit odd”. If you know Savile’s voice, you can hear him speaking as you read. There’s something unsettling about the words and syntax he uses, not just the tone and manner that must have gone with them. I can’t point to exactly what it is, but I wonder if his language was influenced by brain damage or some other neurological abnormality. There was certainly something very odd about Savile’s brain, whether he was born that way or suffered a brain injury later, perhaps when he was hit by a collapsing roof during his time as a coal-miner (ch. 8, “The Power of Oddness”, pp. 65-6).

He claimed that he was “concussed”, but Davies couldn’t verify any details of the accident, not even the year it happened or whether it happened at all. Savile lied and distorted constantly, so nothing is certain about long stretches of his life. But something that suggests to me that he was brain-damaged later in life is the early photo of him that opens the book. He’s standing with his family as a boy, smiling happily and candidly at the camera. He’s the least odd-looking person in the photo. In fact he doesn’t look odd at all: just an ordinary, cheerful kid, albeit a clever-looking one.

In his photos as an adult, he definitely looks odd. The photo that opens Part Four is chilling: he’s sitting alone in a camper-van, dressed in dungarees and peering out of the window at a busy street with a blank, calculating expression on his face. You can’t put your finger on exactly why the photo is chilling, but it is. It screams “Nonce!” And many people besides Dan Davies were suspicious of Savile during his decades of fame. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t one of them, but it took her a long time to give him a knighthood, because her civil servants kept saying no: “Under the headings Benefactions, we have again considered the name of Mr Jimmy Savile, whom you have of course considered on previous occasions. We have concluded that he should not be recommended.” (ch. 53, “I am the boss – it’s as simple as that”, pg. 404)

The civil servants were right, Thatcher was wrong. But she had more excuse than the police and the BBC, who both come out of this book very badly. They missed numerous opportunities to stop Savile’s crimes and the BBC tried to maintain a cover-up as long as it could. Nevertheless, Savile was indeed a master manipulator, committing sex-crimes for decades against both sexes and all ages in TV studios, schools and hospitals up and down the country. He secured powerful friends and even managed to get an important position and unsupervised access at Broadmoor, the country’s most notorious psychiatric hospital. It was through Savile that Princess Diana seems to have got access to Broadmoor too. Diana was another fascinating fake who combined ostentatious charity-work with ghoulish interests, but she wasn’t a sex-criminal or a self-made woman and she didn’t achieve a fraction of what Savile did.

So how did he get away with it and fool so many for so long? His high intelligence was undoubtedly part of it, but so was his extraordinary energy: he lived like a blue-arsed fly, never staying long in any town or city, making and raising millions of pounds for himself and for charity while recording TV and radio shows, courting or fending off the media, and running dozens of marathons. Like Thatcher, he doesn’t seem to have needed much sleep or time for recuperation.

And like Thatcher, he is very interesting from the point of view of HBD, or human bio-diversity. What were the physiological and genetic bases of his intelligence, energy, will-power and dominance? What was his precise ancestry? We should be able to answer those questions one day. Other questions about Savile may never be answered, but Dan Davies does an excellent job of capturing the black comedy, bathos and chutzpah of his strange, sordid and sinister life. If you want to be right repulsively entertained, In Plain Sight will fix it for you.

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The Plague Dogs by Richard AdamsThe Plague Dogs, Richard Adams (Penguin 1977)

Reading a book in childhood is like visiting an island. You land, you explore, you sail away. That’s when the island starts to sink. Sometimes it sinks quickly, vanishing beneath the sea, swallowed into the subconscious. I’ve completely forgotten a lot of books I read in my childhood. But sometimes a literary island sinks slowly and incompletely, leaving reefs and outcrops. A powerful story can stay with you for life.

The Plague Dogs was like that for me. It’s a long time since I last read it, but parts of it had stayed with me, never sinking into the subconscious. Things that never sank included the sounds and smells of experimental pigeons in a darkened laboratory and old Tyson’s “R.N.K. theory” about the origins of their homing instinct: “Reckon nobody knaws” (pg. 28). Other parts weren’t far underwater and I remembered them as I read, like the monkey kept isolated in a tank until it becomes catatonic. But some of it had sunk beyond recall, like the fox who meets Rowf and Snitter, the dogs of the title who have escaped from a research laboratory in the Lake District. Why did I remember the pigeons and forget the fox, when the pigeons are gone in a couple of pages and the fox – “the tod” – is there chapter after chapter, behaving and talking in a highly memorable way?

“Noo give ower,” said the creature in the dark. “Gan canny. Lez wez aall be marrers, ne need fer barneys. Stick wi’ me and we’ll aall be champion. Else ye’ll be deed seun, like Ah towld yez.” (Fit III, pg. 95)

Tod smells memorable too, particularly to a dog: Snitter and Rowf think that he has a “wild” and “exciting” smell, “a sharp, killing smell, a furtive smell, trotting, preying, slinking through the darkness” (pg. 92). Like Adams’ much more famous Watership Down (1972), this book is good at invoking the sensory world of animals and making you experience the world through their eyes, nose and ears. But Watership Down is much more famous partly because it’s a much better book. It also has an uplifting theme, not a upsetting one. It’s about animals finding new lives, not animals being tortured in the name of science.

And for me the island of Watership Down never sank beneath the waves, because I’ve never stopped re-reading it. It’s a strange, haunting and beautiful book, with more seasons and fewer humans in it than The Plague Dogs. It has more landscapes too. The Plague Dogs takes place from Friday 15th October to Saturday 27th November in the bleak landscape of the Lake District: hills, stones, tarns and occasional trees, as described by Adams and drawn by Alfred Wainwright. The drawings are usually better than the text, because they aren’t experimental or extravagant. Adams has one big experiment in Watership Down and it works: the invention of Lapine, the rabbit-language. Like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and R’lyeh, Adams’ Thayli and Hlao-roo are anti-anthropocentric, loosening the mind’s hold on the familiar, making us think from a new perspective.

He doesn’t invent a new language for this book, but Snitter the fox-terrier is like Fiver the under-sized rabbit in Watership Down. They’re both visionaries, but Snitter’s visions are wilder and less believable, because he’s had brain-surgery at the laboratory from which he and Rowf have escaped. The laboratory, a “former fell farm on the east side of Coniston Water”, is called “Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental”, or “A.R.S.E”, for short. That kind of crude satire doesn’t go well with high-flown passages like this one, describing the food fed in individual packages to the dogs being experimented on at the laboratory:

It were, as Sir Thomas Browne says, an excellent quaere to consider, privatim et seriatim, what drugs, what charms, what conjuration and what mighty magic these packages contained. They were indeed miracles of rare device. One included, infused with the liver and offal, stimulants able to banish sleep, or to cause the consumer to perform, on the morrow, prodigies of endurance – to fight, to fast, to tear himself, to drink up eisel [vinegar], eat a crocodile. Others contained paralytics which suspended colour perception, hearing, taste, smell; analgesics destroying the ability to feel pain, so that the subject stood wagging his tail while a hot iron was drawn along his ribs; hallucinogens able to fill the eye of the beholder with more devils than vast hell can contain, to transform the strong to weaklings, the resolute to cowards, to plunge the intelligent and alert head over ears into idiocy. (“Fit I”, pg. 17)

Passages like that remind me of what Housman says about Swinburne’s attitude to literature: “he dragged this subject into the midst of all other subjects, and covered earth and sky and man with the dust of the library”. Adams knows a lot about literature, but doesn’t always know how to wear his knowledge lightly. He tries to imitate Dickens too: he crowds the book with characters, many of them supposed to be grotesque, like Digby Driver, an amoral crusading journalist, and Bernard Bugwash, the M.P. for Lakeland Central. But few of them come to life: he doesn’t have Dickens’ vivificative powers.

One human who does come partly to life – Geoffrey Westcott, a bank-clerk from Windermere – ends up being eaten by Rowf and Snitter. That’s something else I’d forgotten. Perhaps it wasn’t memorable because Rowf and Snitter don’t truly come to life themselves. Not for me, at least, but then I didn’t like dogs much when I was young and like them even less now. That’s part of why it’s taken me so long to re-read this book. It’s powerful in patches, despite the occasional silliness and longueurs, and although in some ways it made me think less of Adams as an author, in another way it made me think more. Watership Down was the first book I read by him and I got the impression there that he didn’t think much of dogs. This is from a story about how El-ahrairah, the rabbits’ legendary prince of thieves, tricks a dog called Rowsby Woof:

“I am the Fairy Wogdog, messenger of the great dog-spirit of the East, Queen Dripslobber. Far, far in the East her palace lies. Ah, Rowsby Woof, if only you could see her mighty state, the wonders of her kingdom! The carrion that lies far and wide upon the sands! The manure, Rowsby Woof! The open sewers! Oh, how you would jump for joy and run nosing about!” […]

“Oh, Fairy Wogdog!” cried Rowsby Woof. “What joy it will be to grovel and abase myself before the Queen! How humbly I shall roll upon the ground! How utterly I shall make myself her slave! What menial cringing will be mine! I will show myself a true dog!” (ch. 41, “The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog”)

Rowsby Woof is “the most objectionable, malicious, disgusting brute that ever licked a man’s hand”, and he’s rightly deceived by El-ahrairah’s lies about Queen Dripslobber and her two “noble attendants, the fairies Postwiddle and Sniffbottom”. But Adams isn’t expressing his own disdain for dogs: he’s expressing the disdain of rabbits in the story. I realized that when I read The Plague Dogs. It doesn’t satirize dogs, it sympathizes with them. Unfortunately, I’m still with the rabbits. I don’t like dogs and I don’t think this book is half as good as Watership Down. But its flaws make it interesting and it captures something of the Lake District and something of England in a vanished era, the 1970s. And if you like dogs, you’ll probably like it more than me, because there is a happy ending.

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Front cover of In the Seventies by Barry MilesIn the Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture, Barry Miles (Serpent’s Tail 2011)

This book needs an ad break. Barry Miles didn’t have adventures: he made ventures. And pretty dull ones. Which is disappointing, when you consider that Serpent’s Tail have previously published counter-cultural colossi like Stewart Home (Thighway to Mel: Six Years, Eleven Months and Eighteen Days as a Terrified, Traumatized and Tearful Toy-Boy Tonguing the Tepid and Toxic Tvotzke of Top Social Conservative Melanie Phillips), radical researchers like Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (Doubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music(k) of Simon and Garfunkel, 1965-2010) and visceral visionaries like David M. Mitchell (A Sustainable Future: Fourth Annual Report to the Welsh Parliament on Renewable Energy Resources). But Miles isn’t a key/core component of any of those communities, i.e., he’s not a counter-cultural colossus, a radical researcher or a visceral visionary. Serpent’s Tail have been a bit dishonest too. The Clash are prominent on the front cover and are named first as “Legends of the Decade” on the back cover. But they don’t get a lot of space inside and Barry Miles doesn’t make them look very good:

I saw them a lot, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, the Roxy in Covent Garden, in recording studios and rehearsal rooms. They never seemed to have any money. I was struck by the fact that after they played three sell-out nights at the Rainbow Theatre, I saw Bernie Rhodes pull away in a car with personalized number plates reading CLA5H, while Mick Jones was waiting for a bus outside. … Joe [Strummer] certainly went along with the posing and pouting – none of the other punk bands came anywhere near the Clash in terms of [where’s an Ex-term-in-ator! when you need one?] adopting classic rock ’n’ roll poses as soon as a photographer removed their lens cap, and the music rags were happy to print the pictures of the Clash looking moody in front of burnt-out buildings, in front of bare brick walls, the Clash in camouflage fatigues in Northern Ireland, the Clash posing in the same way that all of the pop groups of the sixties posed, in fact. Never a smile; they were masters of the moody profile, particularly Paul Simonon, who became a real pin-up in punk circles.

It paid off eventually, of course, and they went on to become one of the most successful bands of the era, a seventies equivalent of the Rolling Stones, until Joe took Bernie’s advice and sacked Mick Jones. With the only musically talented member of the band gone, the Clash degenerated into a parody of its old self and folded. (ch. 15, “1976: Punk”, pp. 229-30)

That The Clash ever degenerated is news to me. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. Miles does say good things about The Damned and The Ramones – “I particularly liked the Damned because they injected humour into punk, something sadly lacking with bands like the Clash” (pg. 232) – but they get less space than The Clash, unfortunately. So do Paul McCartney and Patti Smith, also “Legends” on the back cover. Little space for Patti Smith is fine by me. None at all would have been even better. As for Ian Dury: he’s on the back cover but doesn’t seem to appear at all in the book. He’s not in the index and I didn’t come across him as I read. I could easily have missed him, because I skipped a lot, but it looks as though Serpent’s Tail promised something and didn’t deliver. In Ian Dury’s case, I’m not complaining.

However, I’m definitely dubious about this bit, where Miles describes a robbery he suffered while living in New York:

Inevitably, given where we lived, it was not long before we were robbed. One day we came back from the A&P supermarket at 8:30 in the evening, walked up the stairs to apartment 4C and, just as I was fiddling with the key, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked round to see the stubby barrel of a handgun held by a large black man. His partner was holding Ann [Buchanan, Miles’ girlfriend] against the wall at knifepoint. (ch. 4, “1970: Chelsea Days, pg. 61)

That was disturbing to read. I mean, is the so-called race of a so-called criminal ever relevant? And why does Miles have to say that he was “very scared” that “they might rape Ann”? That’s pandering to a vicious stereotype about blacks. Okay, it’s an accurate stereotype, but what does accuracy matter? Just because blacks commit a heck of a lot of violent crime doesn’t mean people should say that they do. If we stopped saying it long enough, perhaps they’d stop doing it for a bit. Or stop enjoying it so much. It seems unlikely, but it’s worth a try, surely. They’re driven to it by racism and injustice anyway. What else could it be?

But the black robber doesn’t get a lot of space either. No, Miles writes most about working as a kind of secretary-cum-archivist for Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. This is where the dullness really kicks in. Or nods off. I don’t like the writing of Ginsberg or Burroughs and their eccentric behaviour and lives – sorry, lifestyles – don’t do anything for me either. But if you’d like to hear about Allen’s long phone-calls to New York from the countryside and about how Bill’s flat in London got cold in the evenings because that’s when the storage-heaters stopped working, go ahead and make your own day.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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