Book review – Paul Magrs – “Hunky Dory” @paulmagrs #ReadIndies #LGBTHM21

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Another book read for for Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“ and this one is independently published by the author, after his success with his Christmas and Silver Jubilee story collections at the end of last year. As a book featuring gay central characters and a setting in Manchester’s gay quarter (featuring the transgender memorial), it also fits in to LGBTQIA+ History Month. It was impossible to resist buying it in January this year and I enjoyed it tremendously.

Paul Magrs – “Hunky Dory”

(28 January 2021 with token from Ali)

Paul is known as a fantasy or magic realist novelist, but he’s published the odd non-magical book in his time and this is one of them. I always enjoyed the realist elements in his books and so thoroughly enjoyed this one. There’s only one peculiar interlude, which you could put down to the Italian sun!

We have Dodie and her rackety mum Elena as the central characters – Elena has been an alternative, brassy figure for years and Dodie is much more reticent and plain – but she does have an inner life and of course deserves her chance at happiness. The book opens with Dodie’s dad’s sudden death and in the year that’s covered by the book she must run the cafe he founded and try to rebuild her life. Elena seems to go on as normal after some months of decline, getting involved in community activism, her creative writing MA and a little light kidnapping and bondage, as you do.

Dodies’s horizons are expanded when she meets Ian, who’s asked to set up a book and comics stall in the cafe, and Oliver from the writing course, but she also meets a wonderful eccentric novelist, Emmy, at a fantasy convention who models the acceptable way to write one of the new kinds of sci fi and fantasy, which seems to have split into extreme violence on one side and peculiar cross-species sex on the other (this issue is interrogated by other characters in other places and gives an interesting depth to the book) and essentially she reinvents her own self and takes back the power in her relationships. Ian also has his horizons broadened but still manages to hold his own, rising to the occasion and maintaining the balance with his new boyfriend. There are some wincey scenes with Elena camping it up to draw in Dodie’s new gay friend and get him on her side, but Elena’s also a great character with her gin and her ability to calm down (or foment) a public gathering.

There’s a marvellous cast of side characters, no one perfect, some a little grubby around the edges, realistic, grey and a bit flabby here and there, from stroppy cafe worker Andrea to Ian’s ex Warren with his secret side and his knitting, a naughty professor and a cuddly academic. The world of creative writing classes and (genre) publishing is gently and expertly skewered – we know Oliver is thinking of going to the bad when he abandons his “silly” book (which sounds very like Magrs’ Mars Trilogy) to go all macho and violent in his novel.

Most of the book is set in Levenshulme, with excursions into the excitement of the Canal Steet gay quarter, and is an affectionate portrait f a suburb in transition. There are kidnaps and library closure vigils, cruises and cats (I’m glad to report all the cats in the book remain OK) in a long and satisfying novel of huge warmth in which most of the characters change and grow. There’s even a shout-out to Iris Murdoch! Only one thing would have made it more-than-perfect, and that would have been an encounter with a completely tattooed man when some characters went over to Newcastle, but you can’t have everything, right …?!

A great, fun read which I will re-read and which is a great addition to Paul’s marvellous and un-genre-definable oeuvre.

Book review – Don George (ed.) “The Kindness of Strangers” #ReadIndies

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Another book from an indie publisher (Lonely Planet) today in my aim to read as many books published independently as I can this month for Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“ (I have two more to go, one finished and awaiting review (self-published) and one on the go that I might get finished in time (Unbound).  You can just see the book on my TBR, three in from the left, so it also helps with my task to read all my oldest books as soon as I can.

After that review, a quick note to record a book I’ve read and perhaps warn others who might be drawn to it …

Don George (ed.) – “The Kindness of Strangers”

(25 December 2019 – from Gill)

A collection of “Tales of Fate and Fortune on the Road” as the subtitle has it, and I should have paid more attention to that subtitle as some of the stories in it were less about kind strangers and more about twists of fate (not being killed by a serial killer, for example, doesn’t feel to me like the kind of random act of kindness I was expecting). While some of the stories are lovely tales of help and kindness in a really difficult situation not of the teller’s making, others seem more entitled and slightly annoying. The writers are a mix of established authors (Jan Morris! Who of course is marvellous) and others by people who sent stories in, so it was by definition a bit patchy, but I’m glad on balance that it made its way to me from my wishlist. The preface by His Holiness the Dalai Lama might have been the best bit:

Kindness and compassion are among the principal values that make our lives meaningful (p. 5)

and Morris shares that her religion is kindness. An interesting book I’m glad I read.

Camilla Sacre-Dallerup – “Dream, Believe, Succeed”

(05 October 2020 – NetGalley)

It’s the ex-Strictly dancer’s combo biography and self-help book, updated to be re-released, with an extra chapter on her fun and achievements. The stories of her early struggles and hard work and the Brendan Cole scandal are interesting enough; the self-help bits are either very obvious (she does sort of admit this when she writes, “I thought, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ – another cliche that has shaped my life”) or downright dangerous, labouring the “What’s meant for you won’t pass you by” and “Everything happens for a reason” concepts – all very well if it’s positive things or learning points, but not everything that gets you is positive or a learning experience, and certainly we can’t get anything we want just by working hard or making a mood board. While there is some good stuff on visualisation, I wouldn’t go looking to this to change your life.

Thank you to the publisher for making this available to me via NetGalley.


I’ve finished Paul Magrs’ “Hunky Dory” and am on to “Trans Britain” then have a few Shiny review books to enjoy. I also have another NetGalley book to review that I haven’t managed to fit into this month. How is your February reading going?

Book review – Susan Alice Kerby – “Miss Carter and the Ifrit” @DeanStPress #ReadIndies

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PIle of birthday booksI was lucky enough to received a couple of Dean Street Press Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books for my birthday last year (as well as this year!). I read Miss Read’s “Fresh From the Country” back in March 2020 (I’d received a review copy I read on my Kindle but had requested a print copy from my best friend for my permanent shelves) and as it’s #ReadingIndies month this month I had the ideal opportunity to pick this one off the TBR shelf. A BIG thank you to DSP for republishing this marvellous piece of escapism! (By the way, I’ve now read and reviewed three of the books from this pile. I do need to keep on with the print TBR!)

Susan Alice Kerby – “Miss Carter and the Ifrit”

(21 January 2020)

An absolutely marvellous work of fantasy rooted in reality (the kind I really prefer, c.f. Joan Aiken, Paul Magrs, etc.) which was entertaining and absorbing, light but by no means shallow, and even moving, too. The end-of-the-war setting (the book was originally published in 1045; in the book the Blitz is over and things are relatively safe, if rationed and grey) is beautifully done and very atmospheric, and who wouldn’t want a new kind of friend to suddenly appear when things seem so straitened?

Georgina Carter, a 47-year-old spinster whom live has rather passed by, inadvertently releases an Ifrit (a sort of genie) from some wood blocks she buys for  her fire, who then rather embarrassingly provides sherbert, fruits, tented ceilings and the like, while exhibiting a strong interest in men’s contemporary hats and also interfering to make our heroine’s life more comfortable in other ways.

I liked the disconnects between “Joe’s” (for that’s what she christens him, after Stalin) knowledge of the world and the modern world. He believes Georgina can work magic (the radio) and must have been dispossessed of her birthright; she has, but not in the way he thinks –

Life had just passed her by without so much even as a casual wave of the hand. (p. 20)

and she struggles to explain how a wireless and other things work, although she takes it upon herself to carefully provide Joe with an education, teaching him to read and providing books and magazines. I love the cosy life they lead with not a hint of impropriety – although that’s now how it might look from the outside and she does waver about who / how to tell.

I was very interested to find the whole plot of Diana Wynne Jones’ “Castle in the Air” included in a story that Joe tells – presumably both originating from the 1000 and One Nights. We even journey to the deserts of North Africa to visit Georgina’s old friend and possibly love interest, in scenes where she draws on her inner resolve to stand up to scary and new things with wonderful aplomb.

We know that the arrangement with the lovely Ifrit can’t be permanent, and there’s a lovely and poignant act of selfless love – rewarded – near the end. It’s very well done and, if I can say it, plausible and believable – there’s a great moment where a visit to  her nephew is made able to be put down to overindulging in the drink due to Georgina forgetting the socks she was bringing him! It’s a kind book, too, with Miss Carter’s friendship with Margaret carefully repaired and woven back together after she grasps the wrong end of the stick.

Like “O, The Brave Music,” a book I wish I’d discovered years ago so I could be re-reading it now, and one I’m very glad has been republished.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Clock Winder” #AnneTyler2021

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And we’re back to the Anne Tylers I Do Not Remember. However, I am heartily enjoying my chronological journey through her novels, and to be fair, I probably haven’t read this one since 1995. This is a copy reissued by Vintage and I would have bought it from Waterstone’s in Birmingham City Centre (still there), I would imagine. It was before I started my reading journal (in London) so no previous review to dig out at all.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “The Clock Winder”

(13 May 1995)

We have finally (pretty well) moved to Baltimore, where all (?) of Tyler’s remaining novels were to be set, although there are still scenes in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Mrs Emerson, an elderly (? – is she? Her eldest son is in his 30s near the end  of the book, which finishes in 1970) recent widow who likes to keep herself forever young, high-heeled and pink and gold, for her distant many children, sacks her handyman on a whim and hires Elizabeth, who is passing through vaguely and helps her move some garden furniture. Elizabeth resists attempts to make her into an indoors maid and finds that, here at least, she’s good at something, calm and practical, and resolves to stay until she (inevitably) messes something up.

Elizabeth gets sucked into the Emerson family, which apparently thrives on drama, but really only the kind of Anne Tyler, relatively quiet, drama, and draws close to two of the sons, creating a rivalry which can only cause harm. We have all the usual fine detail, a big, scruffy house becoming one of the characters, again. Then the inevitable happens, something goes badly wrong, everyone convenes at the house (I did have trouble keeping the three sisters straight in my head) and Elizabeth returns to her religious family and drifts into a new job. It’s worth noting all the fine details of dealing with an invalid – here, two valid invalids, unlike the one in “The Tin Can Tree” but finely drawn.

Will Elizabeth return when Mrs Emerson falls ill? The children vie to cajole and control her back – will she stay sucked into their orbit? It’s a big family like in “If Morning Ever Comes” and, like that family, lacking a father – I’m not sure if that will be a theme through the books as the other two novels have the usual complement of parents.

I love Elizabeth’s eccentricity, carefully observed and celebrated for her difference, and the portrayal of Matthew in particular hardening into a man too set in  his ways typical of Tyler’s novels. Like his “weird” brother Andrew,

He liked things the way they were. Change of any kind he carefully avoided. (p. 200)

The section in letters is really nicely done and I liked the shifts in location after the claustrophobic small-town life of the last two novels.

Another shocking event occurs which is so creepy in the set-up – in fact in someone else’s hands this could be an incredibly creepy book full stop. We hop through time to the present, where Peter, the youngest son, might have finally come into himself thanks to another, very different, outsider woman, Andrew is somehow no longer weird, perhaps cured by using one of the items he collected for so long, and Mrs Emerson, pink and gold, still presides.


Do let me know if you’ve read along, joined me for this one or any others at any time, or come to this later and have thoughts on it. All comments welcome at whatever time, no pressure! Do visit the project page to see how it’s all going!

 

Book review – Danny MacAskill – “At the Edge: Riding for my Life” @danny_macaskill

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Another sports, or rather extreme sports, biography that held my interest even though I can’t even ride a bicycle! Danny MacAskill is quite amazing, and I recommend looking at his YouTube channel, here – he does quite astounding things on a bike and the making-of videos are fascinating. Very inventive and creative and a good few of them showcase beautiful surroundings in Scotland and elsewhere.

Danny MacAskill – “At the Edge: Riding for my Life”

(November 2019 – from the author/collaborator)

With help putting the book together from the very able Matt Allen, MacAskill explains his life through his cycling exploits, from early years tearing around the small town on the Isle of Skye he grew up in (and having a great time in the adventure playground he set up in his back garden – yes, he addresses what his mum thinks of all of this!) to his first viral video and the amazing productions he stars in today.

A modest man, you sense he’d be happy just riding around, and in fact as he gets busier and more famous, he finds he needs to carve out that time to do just that still, which is quite endearing. He’s honest about the psychological effects of his (many) injuries and the work he’s had to put in to recover from them – he also makes careful addresses to the reader from time to time about the need to be careful, and lists his injuries in a special contents page at the beginning – and also about his the fear which – surely naturally! – dogs him, not always on the hardest tricks, explaining how he psychs himself up for them.

The biking world seems very close and supportive, and he’s genuinely thrilled to meet the heroes of the videos he watches as a young man. He develops his bikes alongside the manufacturer, but there’s not too much technical detail (there is a glossary of riding terms to help with that aspect) and gives a good impression on just how hard he and his team work to achieve the films they make – he’s also generous in thanking people for their help and inspiration. There are funny and touching moments, for example when he agrees to complete a film his hero Martyn Ashton was making when he sustained a life-changing injury … but doing the different style also involves leg-shaving and the donning of Lycra …

We get little bits of scripts recording the action and MacAskill’s little diagrams, plus a load of excellent photos including multiple-exposure shots, as well as chapters on how he plans his films and on the music he uses. A great read.

Book review – Diana Pullein-Thompson – “I Wanted a Pony” #ReadIndies

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A book I bought myself from the lovely Jane Badger Books – Jane republishes classic horse and pony books that have gone out of print, doing lots of research on the original texts, covers and illustrations – a very apt candidate for Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“! You can find Jane’s books here and a lovely interview I did with her for Shiny New Books here. Although I’m still reading books acquired in 2019, this was a lovely one to pick off the TBR shelf and I fairly galloped (sorry!) through it!

Diana Pullein-Thompson -“I Wanted a Pony”

(15 January 2020)

A classic pony story but a very down-to-earth one, which I really appreciated. There is grumpiness and a distinct lack of miracles, although we do have the standard pony novel aspects of absent parents and a way to get hold of a pony of one’s own …

Augusta, desperate for a pony like the ones the fancy cousins she has to live with will occasionally let her ride, has to work hard to improve her riding, previously learned on a recalcitrant Shetland with a far more fun-seeming friend, teaching the small pony tricks and bouncing around. She has to work hard to save up to buy a pony at an auction and then to work out what on Earth is wrong with him: she also looks after her own pony, unlike her cousins, who outsource all the work to their stable hand. There’s a lot of bad temper and bickering and sitting on her own with a book: Augusta gets on better with the servants than she does with her family, and I like that about her.

In this matter-of-fact novel, girl and pony do not end up at Olympia but at the local show, and that’s something else I liked about it: a lot more relatable than some books, although of course we have a young teen wandering the lanes on her own quite a lot!

There’s a publishing history in the back, a bio of Diana Pullein-Thompson and an explanation of show-jumping faults, plus the original text and illustrations.

Book review – Caleb Azumah Nelson – “Open Water” #OpenWaterBook #NetGalley @PenguinUKBooks

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This NetGalley read ended up being a sort of companion to Kenya Hunt’s “Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood“, as it happened to highlight the Black male experience of modern life in London where Hunt’s book concentrated on women’s experience. Two young people meet in South-East London and embark upon the arc of a relationship: it’s an experimental book and written in a different style but worth persevering with.

Caleb Azumah Nelson – “Open Water”

(06 November 2020 – from NetGalley)

There’s been a lot of talk about this long novella/short novel featuring two young Black people in London and sometimes Dublin – they are very young, one a student, one just out of university, younger than I was when I lived in London and having very different experiences, including those showing up their lack of privilege – especially the male narrator’s.

It’s evocative and poetic, very immediate, once you get past the second person singular, mostly present tense narrative voice, which does keep knocking you out of absorption in the book at the beginning. You might also spent a bit of time wondering how they could see both Piccadilly and Leicester square from one bar (the narrative does jump with little warning, so it might be two bars) or how they got a Tube to South London from Embankment. But it is absorbing and mixed in with the Millennial story of creative work and service gigs, ubers to parties all over the city (although obviously that seems weird at the moment), housing issues and class (both characters have slightly oddly been to high-class private schools, one of only a few Black students but this making for an interesting bonding experience early on), you’re brought up short by its uncompromising portrayal of what it’s like to be a Black man in London, basically only seen as a Black body, stopped and searched, witness to violence, scarred and scared. Some of the writing on this aspect is so subtle you sort of skate over it then have to work out what has just happened (a parallel experience to being a White body moving in an urban space, you presume), some more direct (but nothing you won’t be able to cope with).

There are some lovely passages using clever metaphors: on falling in love and thus making yourself vulnerable you get

You’re scared of this moment, which feels like when you wandered onto the beach to photograph lightning in the middle of a storm, volatile and gorgeous, unpredictable strands falling haphazard from the sky. You didn’t know what you would capture and you knew it was a risk, but it was something you had to do.

The falling in love might be the least interesting bits for you, too – there is much more to the book, walks through the “ordinary” streets seen through someone’s eyes who is very different from you, such a vital thing to do from time to time – often, in fact – and scenes in clubs and barbershops showing a powerful Black joy (something other books reviewed here have mentioned is so necessary as well as narratives of trauma):

You know you can be free here. Where also can you guarantee Black people gather? this is ritual shrine, ecstatic recital.

There’s a lot for you to find packed into this short, dense work. A powerful description of one type of Black masculinity; maybe one hiding beneath other portrayals of masculinty.

Thank you to Penguin UK / Viking publishing for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. The book was published on 04 February 2021.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “A Slipping-Down Life” #AnneTyler2021

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Book number three in my Reading Anne Tyler in 2021 project is here already! If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

I am convinced that my first copy of this book came free on the front of a magazine but I can’t find a note of that one in my reading journal index: I know that I bought the copy I read this week in the UK on 20 July 2002 and read it in October that year. Interestingly, having poked around in my index, I see that I read many of her books in the late 90s, so I wonder what chance I have of remembering them! I’m enjoying coming to all of these like new books, though, and at least I am still enjoying her work!

Anne Tyler – “A Slipping-Down Life”

(20 July 2002)

We’re still in North Carolina and in a small town, maybe a little bigger than the one in “The Tin Can Tree” and certainly living more centrally at first. I remembered that this was about a small-town rock star and the girls who carves his name onto herself, but I’d assumed the slipping-down life is hers and it turns out to be his. I’d also forgotten all the detail and other characters.

I really like how Tyler picks up ordinary characters, angular and bony or, here, awkward, pudgy and unfocused – until she has to be – with constantly slipping straps and waistbands which I’m sure she carries on with in later works. I also like the side characters – especially here unashamedly fat and colourful Violet, who likes to organise things and is a good friend to Evie (the good friend). I also liked Clotelia, Evie and her father’s housekeeper, who is nicely and affectionately observed – at one point thanks to her own boyfriend, she starts to define herself as Black and grow out her hair into an Afro, but she’s her own person and sticks with the family when told to leave her job. She’s also awkward and, unlike her mother, who’s a professional mourner, doesn’t provide a warm hug when things go wrong, and I like that about her.

The book has its funny moments, especially early on when Drumstrings Casey unenthusiastically does a radio interview with an equally unenthusiastic DJ. But it’s also poignant, of course, with Tyler catching tiny shifts in relationships and drawing them finely:

He never apologised. For several days he treated her very gently, helping her with the dishes and listening with extreme, watchful stillness whenever she spoke to him. It was the most he could do, Evie figured. (p. 131)

So the boy lets fate decide his life but takes an interest in home-making (and I loved the details of how they set up home, more of Tyler’s absorbing domestic details) and it’s Evie who claims her own agency, getting a job at the library, doing “Something out of character. Definite. Not covered by insurance” (p. 27) and finally …

Evie felt something pulled out of her that he had drawn, like a hard deep string, but she squared her corners as if she were a stash of library cards. (p. 152)

Like in “Tin Can Tree” and its three households, Evie has created her own family around her; like in “If Morning Ever Comes” we see one decision that changes everything and a hasty wedding, but this time view the aftermath, too. It’s a small book but a beautifully drawn and affecting one, as we watch a young woman find a meaning in life and creating something out of not very much.


Do let me know if you’ve read along, joined me for this one or any others at any time, or come to this later and have thoughts on it. All comments welcome at whatever time, no pressure! Do visit the project page to see how it’s all going!

 

Book review – Kenya Hunt – “Girl” #Girl #NetGalley

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Kenya Hunt is Fashion Director of Grazia UK and has worked in the magazine publishing industry for many years, including being Deputy Editor of ELLE UK. In this book she presents essays by herself but also with contributions by Candice Carty-Williams, Jessica Horn, Ebele Okobi, Funmi Fetto and Freddie Harrel.

Kenya Hunt – “Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood”

(03 November 2020 – from NetGalley)

This book of essays, including slightly randomly inserted ones by other people, sharing the authors’ direct lived experiences, Kenya herself a Black woman who was raised in the US but moved to the UK to take on a different challenge and to a large extent protect her family. The essays range over various topics, from settling into British life and finding a circle of friends to healthcare, entertainment and religion.

Some topics familiar to me from my other reading of Black writers came up here again, building a tipping point of information that people should pay attention to: the importance of the film Black Panther to the Black community; everyday microaggressions; the expectation that she will somehow stand for ALL Americans / Black Americans / Black women / Black American women; issues around hair and societal expectations of it; the innovative power of Black Twitter and the differences between British and American racism; and cultural appropriation, here of the hashtag #Blackgirlmagic, which got separated from its initiators by big business. It’s important to hear these points from different voices and viewpoints to make sure it sinks in.

She makes an important point about activism which I’ve also seen elsewhere and which we also need to remember: the value of activism likes in actually being active. This takes many forms here, but a large part is mentoring, and she shares stories of her own mentors and mentees:

Woke is at it s most powerful, and valuable, when it is lived and not performed.

Kenya and her guest essayists raise an important point I hadn’t realised that when a Black person is murdered in the US, a whole system of support and protest swings into action; here in the UK the organisation is not so much there. I’m guessing the smaller Black / BAME community as a percentage of the population might be the issue here: she doesn’t specify, but it was interesting. Other new points included the value of interacting with London taxi drivers because:

how often do we really engage outside of our bubbles of chosen friends and content?

The piece on the Black Church in the US was new to me and very enlightening, and her exploration of women’s healthcare provision in the US and UK through the lens of her reproductive history compelling and shocking.

Of the guest articles, I most enjoyed Candice Carty-Williams’ piece, “On Queenie”, a great exploration of identity and the author’s life outside writing.

A good and provocative collection in which everyone will find something new.

Thank you to HQ Publishing for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review

Book review – Madness – “Before We Was We”

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I received a copy of this book back in November 2019 and I’ve been itching to pick it up but allowed it to make its way to the top of the TBR before I did. I have to say right here and now that it’s one of the best music books I’ve read – and I’ve read a fair few – entertaining and unputdownable and telling the really rather sweet (amongst all the admitted petty criminality) story of seven North London lads who came together to become a long-lasting band, and are still playing the first three songs they recorded today. I will also say here that I was fortunate enough to be the transcriber* for this project, something I thoroughly enjoyed.

Madness – “Before We Was We”

(November 2019 – from the author)

So, here then are the ragamuffin early days of Madness, 1970-1979. Strap yourself in. No arms outside the car, please. They’re taking you for a ride and they don’t call them the Nutty Boys for nothing. (p. xi)

It’s all in their own words, apart from the Foreword by Dave Robinson of Stiff Records and the Prologue by Tom Doyle; Tom is credited with a “with Tom Doyle” on the title page, so all is as it should be there, and he did an absolutely sterling job of stitching those blocks of words together to make a coherent whole. It was my job (shared with permission) to transcribe* the many hours of interviews Tom did with the seven members of the group, and I’m really proud of how the book shows my contribution to capturing the individual voices of the interviewees – important in any ghosted or otherwise supported book, and vitally important in a multiple autobiography. It’s something I enjoy doing, pride myself in and am known for, but it’s lovely to see it sitting there on the page, too.

The book is funny, charming and moving. I didn’t really have an opinion either way on Madness at the start of the project but came to love the warmth of their relationships as a band and their honesty, good humour and generosity, and I think the non-fan as well as the fan could get a lot out of this book, as it showcases a London in 1970-79 that just doesn’t exist any more – bomb sites and youth clubs, music venues, some long-lost, kids running around all day and night … It doesn’t romanticise it, either: crimes are shown for what they are and there’s a point at which each band member realises things are going too far and they’d better reel themselves back in, shared trajectories moving towards each other.

We see the band members spotting each other at school, knowing each other’s friends and brothers, moving to whistling for them outside their windows or starting to form bands with shifting pools of members until they eventually coalesce into Madness. We see the same experiences and events from different perspectives, just as if they were sitting chatting about them, and there’s so much humour as they compare their lives: Here’s Mike:

I was always interested in drawing … from my mum, i suppose. Lee’s dad was a burglar, so he was interested in burgling. My mum was an aspiring artist, so I was into art. (p. 32)

But it’s moving, too. Mike and Chris find out, 40 years after the fact, and seem genuinely surprised, that Lee was touched by them visiting him at remand school in their mid-teens. There are amazing links that could have been near-misses, for example when Cathal stops to mock Suggs’ new coat – “it’s a bird’s one!” and casually drops into the conversation that he’s playing bass in a band called The Invaders …

The theme of the book could be this, said by Suggs near the end as they’re getting more serious about their music:

You had two choices – the criminal activity and all that, or maybe being a bit more creative. (p. 136)

In reality, the book has a lot to say about class, education and chances: the only opportunities to break out of the world of petty criminality and a gig economy similar to today’s employment in a lot of ways (except most people probably don’t nick their painter’s bucket and overalls from Woolies on the day they start work!) were through creative activities.

They address the unpleasant racist followers, keen on their look and not understanding the reggae-based nature of their music and love of Black music in general, and the youthful mistakes some of them made back then trying to explain that. There’s a huge amount of affection for The Specials, who they toured with just before going to America (their experiences there are hilarious), which is where the book ends, as their audience shifts to being younger and more female with the release of My Girl.

As well as the excellent introduction and foreword there are loads of pictures, black and white plates, crowdsourced endpapers and a set of photo booth poses commented on by the band members. Lovely for the fan, collector, music fan or person interested in social history.


* What’s transcribing? I’m sent the audio file of the interview and load it into my transcription management software. Like the old audio typists’ pedals, this allows me to play, rewind and fast forward the tape using the F keys at the top of my keyboard. I type out the transcription to the requirements of my client (do they need me to note the time by every question or every 5 or 10 minutes, do they want their questions in full, do they want the interviewee completely verbatim with all ums and ers or tidied up a bit) and annotate any parts I can’t make out or am unsure of, check spellings and names as I go along so it’s as easy for them to use as it can be and send it back in a Word document. The client then uses the text I’ve produced from their interview as the basis for the text of the book.

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