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Posts Tagged ‘biographies’

Hawt’ in the ActWhatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey, Wes Butters (Tomahawk Press 2010)

Lez ReddThe Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson, Louis Barfe (Atlantic Books 2012)

Fetch and CarryThe Surfrider, compiled by Jack Pollard (K.G. Murray 1963)

Bri’ on the SkyWonders of the Solar System, Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (Collins 2010) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Playing on the NervesIn A Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


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StellissimusThe Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

Eyck’s EyesVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Dealing Death at a DistanceSniper: Sniping Skills from the World’s Elite Forces, Martin J. Dougherty (Amber Books 2012)

Serious StimbulationCleaner, Kinder, Caringer: Women’s Wisdom for a Wounded World, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2013)


Keeping It GweelGweel and Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press 2011) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Ave Aves!Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (second edition), text and maps by Lars Svensson, illustrations and captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström (HarperCollins, 2009) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Flesh and FearUnderstanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training, Jemima Parry-Jones (David & Charles, 1998) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Hit and SmithSongs that Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87, Simon Goddard (Titan Books 2013) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


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Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey (1918)

I once had to take two long train journeys every weekday, travelling to and returning from my place of work. One day I took and finished a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The next day I accidentally took the novel again and, having nothing else to read, started it again. And finished it again. It proved just as enjoyable second time round, because although the story was completely familiar, I could re-enjoy the prose and the inconsequential but intricate plot.

There aren’t many authors I can re-read immediately like that. Wodehouse is one; Evelyn Waugh is another; and Lytton Strachey is a third. Eminent Victorians is a book I can read again and again, or rather the essay on “Cardinal Manning” is. I think it’s some of the best writing in modern English: 36,000 words of immaculate prose, coruscating wit and magisterially distilled erudition. It’s been easy for a long time to laugh at the Church of England, but no-one has ever fired sharper satiric darts than Strachey did almost a century ago:

When Froude succeeded in impregnating Newman with the ideas of Keble, the Oxford Movement began. The original and remarkable characteristic of these three men was that they took the Christian Religion au pied de la lettre. This had not been done in England for centuries. When they declared every Sunday that they believed in the Holy Catholic Church, they meant it. When they repeated the Athanasian Creed, they meant it. Even, when they subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles, they meant it – or at least they thought they did. Now such a state of mind was dangerous – more dangerous indeed than they at first realised.

They had started with the innocent assumption that the Christian Religion was contained in the doctrines of the Church of England; but, the more they examined this matter, the more difficult and dubious it became. The Church of England bore everywhere upon it the signs of human imperfection; it was the outcome of revolution and of compromise, of the exigencies of politicians and the caprices of princes, of the prejudices of theologians and the necessities of the State. How had it happened that this piece of patchwork had become the receptacle for the august and infinite mysteries of the Christian Faith? This was the problem with which Newman and his friends found themselves confronted.

His mockery of Catholicism, while also highly entertaining, seems to me less effective, partly because it is also less affectionate, less en famille, and more inspired by hatred and rancour. But then, as Strachey notes himself, the Church of Rome “has never had the reputation of being an institution to be trifled with.”

The other essays, on Dr Arnold, Florence Nightingale, and General Gordon, are also highly readable and entertaining, but there are signs, particularly in the last, of the carelessness and solecism that mar Strachey’s biography Queen Victoria (1921). He writes well elsewhere, but he never repeats the sustained perfection of “Cardinal Manning”. And his biography Elizabeth and Essex (1928), whose first line announces that “The English Reformation was not merely a religious event; it was also a social one”, starts as it means to go on: badly. Has ever wittier written weaker? But if Strachey disappoints so strongly there, that is a measure of the greatness he achieved in Eminent Victorians.

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Lytton Strachey: A Biography, Michael Holroyd (1967)

It’s likely that the biographer of a writer will write less well than his subject. The better the writer, the likelier this is. Strachey was very good indeed, so Holroyd’s flaws stand out a lot. Some are venal, but some aren’t excusable in a supposed littérateur. In fact, this book proves once again that an interest in literature does not necessarily go with an interest in language. In fact, you could almost imagine that they’re mutually exclusive. Michael Holroyd was born in 1935 and attended Eton, where you might suppose he received an excellent education. From passages like this, you should suppose again:

On leaving Cambridge, Lytton’s rooms were rather violently redecorated in apple-green and taken over by his younger brother, James. (Part II, Sec. 6, “Post-Graduate”, Sub-Sec. 2, “The Limbo of Unintimacy”)

There are suspended participles like that everywhere in this book, or at least everywhere I’ve looked. It’s 1,144 pages long in my Penguin edition, after all, and that’s another glaring contrast with Strachey. If brevity is the soul of wit, Strachey both wrote and lived wittily. Reading this book, I felt rather as though Holroyd was using a microscope on a soufflé. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians captures four very active and sometimes very long lives in just under 100,000 words. In the introduction, Strachey says that to “preserve a becoming brevity ― a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant ― that, surely, is the first duty of the biographer.”

If so, then Holroyd badly neglects his first duty. There is some memorable writing here, but Holroyd isn’t directly responsible for it:

“Now and then,” recalled [Lady Ottoline] Morrell, “Lytton Strachey exquisitely stepped out with his brother James and his sister Marjorie, in a delicate and courtly minuet of his own making, his thin long legs and arms gracefully keeping perfect time to Mozart ― the vision of this exquisite dance always haunts me with its half-serious, half-mocking, yet beautiful quality.” (Part II, Sec. 11, “The Lacket”, Sub-Sec. 4, “Business as Usual”)

On one occasion the two of them [Lady Ottoline and Nijinsky] were sitting together in a tiny inner room when Lytton entered the house [at Bedford Square]. As he advanced towards the drawing-room he overheard Ottoline’s husky voice, with its infinitely modulated intonations, utter the words, “Quand vous dansez, vous n’êtes pas un homme ― vous êtes une idée. C’est ça, n’est ce pas, qui est l’Art?… Vous avez lu Platon, sans doubte?” ― The reply was a grunt. [“When you dance, you are not a man – you are an idea. It’s that, isn’t it, that makes Art?… You have read Plato, no doubt?” ― The reply was a grunt.] (“The Lacket”, Sub. Sec. 2, “Scenes from Post-Edwardian England”)

Elsewhere, Holroyd offers his readers all they ever might have wanted to know about Lytton Strachey, but many of them, like me, will not have the patience to dig through the dross to find all the concealed nuggets. That is the image suggested by the book; the relation of author and subject suggests another. The gap between their literary talent isn’t the only jarring thing: Strachey was very close to being a genius, studying both literature and mathematics at university, and Holroyd’s much weaker mind flutters around his like a moth beating on a powerful bulb, ever attracted, ever unable to reach the core of that dazzling brilliance.

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Front cover of Rock ChroniclesRock Chronicles: A Visual History of the World’s Greatest 250 Rock Acts, general editor David Roberts, foreword by Alice Cooper (2012)


Rock stars used to die of drink and drugs. Now it’s decrepitude too. Alice Cooper, who writes the foreword to this slab-like selection of sonic samurai, is in his sixties. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are about to enter their seventies. Chuck Berry is in his eighties. They haven’t died before they got old and their tunes-for-teens are now a soundtrack to senility. Rock itself will last till the arrival of the Deus ex Machina (or DeM), I reckon, which means it probably won’t see out its century. But some of the bands in this book may already have written music for that apotheosis of the anthropic: I was both surprised and pleased to find that the big names of kraut-rock are all covered, from Kraftwerk to Can by way of Einstürzende Neubaten and Popul Vuh. Also covered are those odd and eerie avant-acousticians Magma, so you can indulge your Vander-lust and see some unusual umlauts by reading about Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandoh and other monuments of Zeuhl. But I wonder whether the DeM – the electronically enhanced superhuman who will overthrow such concepts as individuality and personality – will find less unconventional bands more interesting. There might be more intellectual meat in Carcass than in Can, as it were. Or music might not interest him/Him at all.

Not that the Liverpudlian gore-metal pioneers Carcass find their way into this book, though they’re probably much better-known in the English-speaking world than some of the bands that do, like the Brazilians Legião Urbana, the Argentinians Soda Stereo, the Spaniards Héroes del Silencio, and the Russians B-2 (Би-2). I suspect that progressive, diversity-desirous worthiness was at work in some of the choices, but it’s good to have some unknowns in among the obvious and nowadays it’s easy to sample the music of a new band that sounds interesting. But the unknowns conform to the rules of rock: this music is overwhelmingly created by white males and white males have been its most successful and famous performers. Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix are big exceptions, but neither is of pure black ancestry and I don’t think blacks on their own could ever have created rock’s sonic sine qua non: the electric guitar. Or electric amplification, at least. I’m not sure the Chinese or Japanese could have either. They have the intelligence, but not necessarily the innovatory impulse. Either way, they’ve certainly taken it up enthusiastically and some Eastern bands here even play tribute to it in their names: Japan’s Loudness and Guitar Wolf, for example.

Loudness is one of the things that interest me about rock, though I prefer not to experience it for real. Electric amplification allowed man to bellow back at Mother Nature for the first time. In a controlled and sustained way, at least. We’ve been able to bang back with explosions for centuries, but the electric guitar was strum-for-thunder and put extreme volume under the control of single individuals. Camille Paglia compares rock-musicians to Dionysos Bromios, Dionysus the Thunderer, and it’s interesting to wonder whether other Dionysiac attributes, like androgyny, are reflected in the long hair traditionally associated with the loudest forms of rock. Or was it simple psychology? Loud music attracts attention and so does long hair, after all. But heavy metal is interesting, or attention-grabbing, not just for its volume: it’s one of the clearest examples of the way rock has evolved. As the book notes, the “earthy riffing” of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” spawned the genre in the early ’sixties. It’s gone on to mutate and morbidify in all manner of ways down the decades, but none of the metal bands here are particularly extreme, unless you want to give that label to the pretentious, po-faced, and faux-dangerous Slipknot. I don’t: I think Black Sabbath were much more interesting and original in their early days. The Sabs are one of the big names who get two pages of text and two pages of photos, which incorporate a side-column of classic album covers. The images for Paranoid (1970) and Sabotage (1975) are too small to come across as they should – which is ridiculously – but the photos of the Sabs have the c-factor in two ways: the band either look cool or make you cringe.

Covers of four Black Sabbath albums

Click for larger images

So do other big names, though some photo-sections are all cool (The Jam) or all cringe (The Scorpions). And some will make you chuckle, like Angus Young clowning in his schoolboy uniform in the entry for AC/DC. But Angus can look cool too: it’s interesting how some people photograph well and some don’t. The Californian punk-band Green Day supply one of each: the singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong has camera-charisma and the bassist Mike Dirnt doesn’t. Green Day, a three-piece, raise another interesting question: why have bands usually had four members? My theory is that the instruments and personalities in a four-piece band best match the four standard forms of human personality, which were classified in the classical world as sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholy. The labels are based on a pseudo-medical system of humours, or body fluids, but also correspond, in modern psychology, to the personality dimensions neuroticism and introversion-extraversion: sanguine people are low on neuroticism and high on extraversion; choleric are high on both; melancholic are low on extraversion and high on neuroticism; and phlegmatic are low on both. Like Green Day, Guns’n’Roses are an exception to the four-piece rule and don’t fit neatly into a tetradic personality classification. Teratic might be closer the mark for at least one Gunner. Precisely how one would classify Axl Rose’s personality remains a challenge for morbid psychiatry, but he did look good in the early days of the band, I have to admit.

Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe, who are also given two pages of text and two pages of photos, has managed to look good much longer, despite the heroin addiction and the near-death experiences. But da Crüe have another c-factor: they’re often more cartoonish than cool. Their priapic predecessors Led Zeppelin were coolest at their capillariest: when their locks were longest in their middle years. As the ’eighties began their hair shortened and their clothes became workaday, not flamboyant. Then Bonzo died before he got old, which I’ve always felt was a shame from a scientific point of view. Def Leppard pay obvious onomastic hommage to Zep and coagulate cool and cringe in their photos, though tending more to the latter. One of their photos puts the “cock” into rock and the “flourish” into phallic with no fewer than four guitars jutting skyward from the crotch. Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac finds another way to put the cock into rock, suggestively clutching at and positioning a jutting microphone in 1979. Suggestively to the phallocentric photographer and viewer, that is: Nicks didn’t deliberately perform in that kind of way, but she is one of the rare attractive women in this book. Perhaps the most attractive is the blonde guitarist Orianthi, now performing with Alice Cooper but young enough to be his grand-daughter.

Cooper supplies another c-factor: the creepy one. I’ve never liked the look of him or felt comfortable about enjoying his music. Phil Collins has always made my flesh crawl too and Elton John is so revolting that I can’t even bring myself to look at his photos or read his biography, though I assume that, beside the creepiness, he supplies a fifth c-factor: the camp one, as evident in the photo-sections for Queen and Prince. Then there’s the cack-factor, as evident in the Scorpions, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and the über-egregious Iron Maiden, whose cover-art has always been more interesting than their music, though not much less adolescent. Finally, there’s the Cro-Magnon-factor: shumble forward moronic muso-Mancas Oasis. They have stiff competition from Guns’n’Roses, the Clash, and Springsteen, but I think they’re the band I hate most in this book: Liam Gallagher is Axl Rose minus the stage-presence and beauty (and Axl was beautiful, almost ethereally so, in his youth). But one photo of the Gallaghers unconsciously chimping it up for the camera does raise the question of rock genetics. What are the genetic patterns in this book? The Beatles and the Smiths look very Irish too, though in a much more positive way, and their music was obviously much more intelligent and attractive. But are Celtic genes over-represented there and elsewhere? I’d suggest they are, but how much do they contribute to musicianship and how much to the desire to perform? After all, Oasis definitely have the latter, but don’t appear to have much of the former.

The Cro-Magnon Factor: Noel and Liam Gallagher

The Cro-Magnon Factor: Noel and Liam Gallagher

I’ve also read that, beside the Cro-Magnon looks, cloddish music, and cretinous behaviour, Oasis are responsible for the curse of compression: the recording technique that reduces the difference between loud and soft sounds to give music more punch in noisy settings. If so, it would be entirely fitting: compression reduces the light and shade in music and makes it less subtle. Musically speaking, you’re painting in broader strokes with a brighter, less varied palette, as though Leonardo had created the Mona Lisa with a roller-brush and house-paint. Nice one, Cro-Mancs! Their rivals Blur, who get two pages of text but no photo-section, used to insult them with epithets like Oasis Quo and Status Quoasis, but I think that insults Status Quo rather than Oasis. I’d much rather listen to Status Quo than Oasis or Blur, but I wouldn’t like to attend one of their gigs. They don’t get a photo-section, but like Kiss, who do, I know that they like massed rows of amps and play it very loud. I prefer imagining high volume to experiencing it, because I value my hearing and don’t like insulting any of my senses with artificial stimulants. Rock-in-the-raw counts as one of those and has sometimes bellowed back too loudly and too long at Mother Nature, becoming part of modernity’s tendency to tyrannize the world with technology. Just as street-lighting drowns the stars and modern agriculture destroys subtle flavours, amplified music often drowns beautiful natural sounds or its own subtleties. Most of the bands here don’t sink to the level of dance music or rap, which has a silent-c-factor, but they haven’t always added to the beauty of the world rather than its brutality.

Or its boorishness. But those who inflict loud music on others sometimes pay the price for it. Human beings aren’t adapted to very high volume and a lot of the pale males in this book must suffer from tinnitus. Which is another interesting phenomenon: rock can be music that goes on giving, even when the recipient doesn’t want it to. Attend a Motörhead gig and your ears may remember it, or regret it, for the rest of your life. Motörhead get two pages of text but no photos and, although it’s not mentioned here, have used one of the most interesting titles I’ve ever come across: “Everything Louder than Everything Else”. It’s actually a line from Deep Purple’s Jon Lord and is a reminder than language is more interesting than music, though perhaps not more fundamental to human nature. The two may have a common origin, though music obviously evolves more easily: you can also find it, in one form or another, among birds, fish and insects. But those groups don’t have the symbolic powers of human beings: this book is all about sounds and their creators, but you can experience it in complete silence. In short, it evokes musical memories through words and pictures, all the way from AC/DC and Aerosmith to Frank Zappa and Z.Z. Top, a three-piece who are famous for their beards, of course. Except for Frank Beard, the drummer, who is clean-shaven. And when Gilette offered Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill “a million dollars each to shave their beards for a commercial”, they turned the offer down. “We’re too ugly,” Gibbons said. The humour in this book doesn’t just come from the photos, but there are too many bands and some of them have existed too long for the text to provide detailed history or analysis. But if you like rock and want to see lots of cool, clownish, cringe-worthy, camp, crap, Cro-Magnon and creepy rock’n’rollers, it’s worth a long look. Or even two or three. But looking and listening aren’t all rock invites us to do. I wish some of the information here was easier to extract: I’d like to have a database of names, ages, and origins for some statistical analysis. There are patterns to be found in rock before the DeM drops in and humanity drops out.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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