Commie Roots

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Thatcher Stole My Trousers | Alexei Sayle Bloomsbury Circus £16.99

I applied to Chelsea School Art in 1984 for its reputation, location and the fact that its prospectus arrogantly contained no photographs, a brutalism I found appealing. The clincher, though, was Alexei Sayle, the angry stand-up described in an early review in the London Review of Books as a “portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with an Oliver Hardy suit.” I’d identified him as a Chelsea alumnus in a 1983 episode of BBC1 documentary series Comic Roots, in which the thirty-ish Sayle was filmed drinking in the union bar bemoaning the “three years of total nonsense” he spent at the school between 1971 and 1974.

It was thus with some solidarity that I devoured the first chapters of Sayle’s terrific second volume of memoirs (the first, 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework, mined his family’s Commie roots and left him on a foundation course in Southport). Through parental influence a card-carrying member of the carefully named Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) since short trousers, he was drawn to London by “all the rock gigs, exhibitions and plays … I didn’t actually want to go to any of them, I just wanted to live in a place where they were on.” This will ring true to anyone who has ever gravitated towards the capital. Now 63, he writes with the wisdom of someone taking stock and retrospectively hymns Chelsea as “a wonderful and humane institution” – the Soviet-sounding “painting council” declined to throw him off the degree course after he showed them a film he’d made satirising them.

A deft writer whose short stories led Clive James to compare him to Guy de Maupassant, Sayle is a genial, self-deprecating tour guide on this second voyage around himself and not as didactic or hectoring as his high-blood-pressure comic persona might suggest. On his journey from post-graduate miasma and jobs at the DHSS and in teaching via community theatre to fame and fortune during the so-called Alternative Comedy boom at the birth of the 80s, he finds time to disparage the Arts Council for its remit “to give money only to things that were unpopular”, and the Design Centre as “an Arts Council for teapots.” He thumbnails the infant Channel 4, which gave him and his comedy pals their big break in The Comic Strip Presents in 1982, as a magnet for advertisers of “wines from Bulgaria and different kinds of cheese.” And as a former beneficiary of social housing, he remains bothered by the notion that “if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were a big baby.”

Gently mocking his own granite political convictions, he praises the “high quality of snacks” as “a little known benefit of revolutionary politics,” and sees the funny side of his domineering Maoist mother Molly sending Christmas cards in the late 70s bearing the legend “Season’s Greetings from H Block” at the time of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ dirty protests.

Like all comedians’ autobiographies, once the career takes off and the hardships fade the prose slides into a list of tour anecdotes and meetings with commissioning editors. But there is insightful reportage on location in Helsinki for his first film role in thriller Gorky Park, observing “dark green trains decorated with Cyrillic script” and “beautiful Estonian prostitutes with hair the colour of butter.” His admission to a semi-religious “sense of wonder” about TV studios is also beautifully illuminated: “the images on monitors glowed brighter than the paintings of Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.”

This instalment ends circa “the first summer of the Miners’ Strike,” around the time Sayle was asked to film the edition of Comic Roots that drew at least one teenaged comedy fan to Chelsea School of Art. Thatcher stole his trousers, but he changed my life.

Kindly reprinted from the Mail On Sunday, 13 March 2016

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How to review books written by your friends: some tips

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I am a published author. I like to self-pityingly think of myself as a former published author as the publisher of my exponentially worse-selling memoirs never writes and never calls, but the writing fraternity don’t need me to add to their woes, as the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society have just produced a report that says writers’ incomes are dwindling fast and only the 1% can actually live off rearranging the English language; cue: death of novel, end of world etc. Anyway, a large proportion of book reviewers are published authors. Ergo, authors are constantly reviewing other authors. (After all, what is an author if not a reader with a typewriter?)

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It’s a minefield, and Private Eye‘s Books and Bookmen column is particularly hot on exposing elbow-patch nepotism, whether between authors locked in a critical love-in, rival publishing houses locked in internecine warfare, or simply pals giving good notices to pals. Writing is a lonely furrow, so writers tend to be sociable, and always up for a free drink at a reception or launch.

I have not reviewed that many books professionally. Both the Saturday Times and the Saturday Mail have teased me with what looked like regular book-review work in the past, and I enjoyed it while it briefly lasted (the Times even tasked me with providing the first, overnight review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, but I fear this was an administrative error). I’ve reviewed quite a few titles here. The commissioning editor of this blog obviously fancies me. But I do know this much: it’s much harder and more time consuming than reviewing, say, records or films. You have to read a book, for a start.

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If you ever find yourself in the precarious position of having to review a book written by one of your friends, here are my tips:

  1. Declare an interest straight away.
  2. Specify the depth of the friendship, which will help us know whether or not to trust you.
  3. Go out of your way to make at least one critical judgement if you’re otherwise praising the book.
  4. If you don’t like the book, do anything in your power to get out of reviewing it.

Duly armed, I shall now review three books written by three of my friends.

ExtraOrdinaryLifeFrankDerrick81The Extra Ordinary Life Of Frank Derrick, Aged 81 by JB Morrison (Pan Macmillan, £7.99 paperback) is unique among the trio for being a novel. It is JB Morrison’s first book, but Jim Bob’s fourth. I am Jim Bob’s friend. I have known him since Sheriff Fatman, we send Christmas cards to each other, support each other in our respective careers (I recommended him for the Mark Ravenhill Barbican panto gig; he lets me hang out backstage at Carter reunion gigs) and occasionally have a coffee. We have never been to each other’s houses, but I know where he lives and he knows where I live. He has previously thanked me in the acknowledgments of his novels as I have read them in galley form and told him they were good, which they were. I love the fact that a man so renowned for his witty and clever lyrics has transferred that skill to prose. Important disclosure: he didn’t send me Frank Derrick to read, so I’m not thanked in it, and I read it when it was already a book. Maybe this JB Morrison is a bit less matey than Jim Bob. It helps to create a professional distance.

I loved the book. In Storage Stories and Driving Jarvis Ham, quite a lot happens but it is told in a sort of downbeat, matter of fact way. The same approach applies to this tale of a Sussex village octogenarian widower as he convalesces after being knocked down by a milkfloat, but – beyond the accident (“Frank had a broken toe, the one next to his big toe, the little piggy that stayed at home, which was also his prognosis: to stay at home”) – very little happens. He is assigned a carer, an intrusion he initially resists, but in the form of Kelly Christmas, turns out to be a ray of light that illuminates his life (“it felt like a whirlwind has swept through his flat”). That’s pretty much it. But what a vivid picture of old age, male pride, smalltown politics and the arse-ache of familial responsibility Jim paints. Economically, too.

On the low crime rate in the village of Fullwind: “The sound of sirens meant that somebody had left the window open and the TV up too loud during Midsomer Murders.” A new pair of glasses are “so light he might forget he was wearing them and begin a hunt round the flat to find them.” Winning £2.40 on the Lottery, Frank is “almost too embarrassed to collect it … It felt worse than not winning at all.” Jim is a quiet observer of people, and Frank Derrick is his best novel. Although I was all for the Kurt Vonnegut-style drawings in Storage Stories, and the music biz allusions in Jarvis Ham, by narrowing his focus, he’s upped the narrative ante. It’s harder to write about something extra ordinary and make it extraordinary. I can’t think of a negative thing to add, for nepotistic balance. Er, the name Albert Flowers was a bit on-the-nose for the man in charge of Villages In Bloom.

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Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen (Coronet, £18.99 hardback). Now, is Mark Ellen my friend? Well, if we bumped into each other this afternoon, we would, I suspect, hug. He’s someone I’ve known for 23 years. Before that, of course, I read his pop magazine and watched his rock TV show, then read his next two pop magazines. In 1992 he interviewed me for a job and thereafter gave me the job, at the second of those magazines, Select. Such is his voluble, non-hierarchical personality, even if he is your boss, he becomes your pal. If you’ve seen him on telly, or heard him on the radio or a Word podcast, that’s what he’s like. I was around Mark Ellen for five years of my magazine publishing career on a nine-to-five basis, feeding off his boyish enthusiasm, if that’s not too prosaic a word for whatever it is that fizzes around his veins. Freelancing for him at Word was even more like being in his and David Hepworth’s gang. I sorely miss the excuse to drop into the office and soak up Mark’s vibes, or shoot the £50-man breeze with him over a recording device. And now he’s written a book about it all.

Rock Stars Stole My Life!, presented and penned like a sidebar in Smash Hits, it actually reads like Mark’s half of a spirited conversation (and his was never as little as a half). It’s exclamatory, endearingly vague, citation-free and all over the place. It begins “somewhere over Greenland” on Rihanna’s Boeing 777, where the elder statesman of pop journalism is among a more youthful press corps and, in less than a page, ticking off the first of his print-trade neologisms: “I wander down the aisle to see if I can scare up some more booze.” Mark really does use the phrase “scare up.” So in love with the intricacies and left-turns of our old pal the English language is he, such daft verbal ticks become lifejackets as he bobs about in the ocean of nonsense that is pop and the pop industry. Herein, he turns his life – well, his professional life, he’s not big on the old private life, beyond fond passing mentions of his wife Clare – into a 40-chapter Hoary Old Rock Anecdote.

Each tale is turned on the lathe of froth with a flourish and a curlicue throughout – to say they are “embellished” suggests they are untrue, but it’s not that. Mark cannot use a grey, functional sentence. It is not in his bones. Henceforth, whether he’s recounting early festival safaris “sleeping in fertilizer sacks”, his first, faltering steps at the NME, or the full flowering at Smash Hits and the subsequent executive-level eyries at EMAP, we get “records of every stripe”, copy that comes in “screeds”, the video boom that comes in “warm trade winds”, machinery that “cranks into action”, Toyah being “of no audible talent”, the Beatles being “cheese-scented”, the Q Awards negotiated over “long months of fragile protocol”, and “m’learned friends” are mentioned more than once. His style bounces across the facts like a beach ball. It’s difficult to take your eye off it. And the getting there is half the fun.

Though Mark’s writing is decorative, it’s actually as economical as Jim Bob’s. We can see the elder rock journalists in the Knebworth press paddock when he describes them as “roguish characters in leather jackets … forking smoked salmon off paper plates.” When he notes that new partner-in-speechmarks Tom Hibbert was a fan of Big Star, all we need know is that they were “thin, lackadaisical men from Tennessee who played chiming melodies with a mournful cadence and a doomed, romantic sheen.” (It was always a great injustice to the rest of us that Mark declined to review records for the magazines he ran.) He is generous, namechecking other talents as he goes, showering humble compatriots like Hepworth, Andrew Harrison and Paul DuNoyer with bubbly approbation, and never less than effacing about himself. (When he becomes “editor-in-chief” he calls the title “embarrassingly grand-sounding.”)

More than a passing interest in music and magazines is a prerequisite but that’s obvious. If you happen to have lived quite a lot of the book, as I have, it will sing to you. Not least when, just prior to he and Dave jumping the good ship EMAP to go it alone, we learn that the company’s “upper corridors” are suddenly stalked by “highly paid strategists hell-bent on evolution.” What was once the “greatest place to work imaginable”, had become “infiltrated by wiry creeps in designer shirts.” I remember it well. To declare an interest, I get my sole namecheck on page 319, when the Word podcast is hymned and he enthuses that I am “still besotted with Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine.” Which is where we came in.

MemoirsOASGDQ Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentlemen by Lord Tarquin (Sonic Cathedral, paperback). Last night, I attended the launch of this tiny but rather beautiful edition because its author, David Quantick, is my friend and since he moved out of London I haven’t seen him very much. Sonic Cathedral is celebrating its tenth year as an independent label specialising in Shoegazing music by producing its first ever book, the collected columns of “Lord Tarquin”, originally published in the NME between October 1991 and February 1992, Shoegazing’s peak. They appeared in the “humour” section, Thrills, edited by Stuart Maconie, with me looking over his shoulder as our desks adjoined and he, too, was my friend. I’ve known Quantick since 1988, when I first walked into the NME. He, Maconie and I formed a comedy triple-act at the turn of the century and took our show (about music journalism), Lloyd Cole Knew My Father, to the Edinburgh Fringe, and onto Radio 2. Quantick had always appeared on our Radio 1 shows, and we had a certain, arch chemistry. (We even had a few huffs during the tense making of the Radio 2 series, which proved how much we liked each other.) For a long while, we were all three represented by the same agent.

To revisit Quantick’s wryly wicked words in stout pamphlet form, exquisitely designed and illustrated by Marc Jones, was a tonic on the train home from last night’s launch at the Heavenly Social, wherein a solo-strumming, flat-capped Mark Gardner of Ride, and three quarters of Lush (host Miki, DJ Phil, guest Emma, all looking hale) provided the royalty. (Andy Bell also turned up, but after I’d left.) The “Lord Tarquin” conceit was then, and remains, that the Shoegazing scene was populated by poshos. It wasn’t, strictly, but it felt that way, with its Thames Valley epicentre and its languidly studenty sound (and one or two actual well-heeled members). Blur, Lush, Chapterhouse, Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, Revolver, even Chicane, all were dragged into Quantick’s world of privilege, boarding, “double deten” and “botheration” at Shoey House school. Tossed off at the time, they may have been, but these short-form lampoons are rich with imaginative language. It is very much in the sculpted spirit of one Mark Ellen.

“Just popped back from a round of fives in the Lower Quad with Russell from Moose! Top-hole shuffle! Russell was ten up on a double shubunkin when he dropped the bally spinnaker! The cream buns are on him next time we pop into Mrs Shoggins’ tea shop in the village!” And so it goes. We might all toss something off as funny and daft as the memoirs of Lord Tarquin. That there is a label specialsing in Shoegazing music at all – never mind that members of the bands affectionately pilloried in a music paper 22 years ago are happy to grace the launch of said satire – simply proves my 20 Year Rule. It’s one that only people who’ve lived for 40 years or more can appreciate: that everything comes round again after 20 years; all you have to do is wait it out, and not fall out with anybody or die in the interim.

Not available in all good bookshops (whatever they are), Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentleman is available to purchase here and, before that, from Sonic Cathedral’s stall at the Independent Label Market in London on Saturday (12 July).

Now, fun over, back to reading the introduction of Thomas Piketty’s Capital. I have never met Thomas Piketty and he is no friend of mine, so my review of this book will be pure and unsullied by soppiness and nostalgia when I review in about … a year and half’s time?

Valentine’s Day isn’t over

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Forgive the reveille on my own horn, but today is Publication Day, and that’s not something I’ve been able to say, in truth, since July 2008, when the third part of my trilogy of memoirs, That’s Me In The Corner, was published in “B-format” paperback. (B-format is when your book isn’t important enough to come out in hardback, so instead comes out as a large-size paperback first, and then in a cheaper, more manageable size a year later. This never made much sense to me, but it does give you the chance to have the cover redesigned, which we did with That’s Me In The Corner, not that it had any impact whatsoever on sales.) Today, the first book I ever wrote is re-published, and re-printed, in a new edition: Still Suitable For Miners, the official biography of Billy Bragg.

This is what it looked like when it was first published, in 1998, with a portrait by my old pal, the late Hugo Dixon on the cover (from the session he took for Q). I’m not sure I can convey how proud I was when I first laid my hands on a copy of this “A-format” or “trade” paperback.

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And this is what it looked like when it came out in “B-format” paperback, the “revised and updated” 2007 third edition, in fact, with a photo by Steve Double in more austere black and white. (It’s funny. I’m sitting in the British Library right now with a copy of the third edition on my desk next to me, as I was due to be interviewed by a student about Red Wedge, so I was refreshing my memory about the era. I wonder if anyone has ever ordered it up in this very reading room?)

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The brand new cover, at the top, has been designed by Marc Woodhouse at Chemical X, with the pugnacious photo from Billy’s Fight Songs albums. Here are some grabs from a little film the now generously-bearded Billy and I made, with director Jack Lilley behind the camera, at Billy’s house in January, where we discuss the origins of the book in our jumpers.

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When this film is posted somewhere, I’ll put a link to it. But in precis, this is how the book came to be written:

In 1997, two important events conflated: I gave up my day job, and Billy Bragg turned 40. I’d been in a series of full-time desk jobs in music magazine publishing since 1990 – NME, Select, Q – and my first taste of professional TV scriptwriting had given me the courage to go freelance. And old inkies cohort, Ian Gittins, had just left Melody Maker to take up a post at Virgin Books, where he was charged with commissioning some official music biographies. He asked me if there was anyone I had a burning desire to write a book about. There was only one, really. I’d met Billy in 1991 when I first interviewed him for the NME, and we’d it hit off (I’d been a fan since the early days). I interviewed him again at Q, this time writing a career piece, punctuated by what I’d noticed were the “epiphanies” in his life. The big four-oh had convinced him to allow his life to be turned into a book, and in his wisdom he decided I was the man for the job (mostly, it turned out, because I was never po-faced about his work, and he was desperate to avoid a po-faced account).

I love telling people this: I researched the book, over six dedicated months from the end of 1997, by sifting through plastic bags full of cuttings. I had a computer, but not a modem, and no email address. All of the interviews I conducted were in person, or over the phone, or, in the case of Neil Kinnock, by fax between London and Brussels. That’s how analogue Still Suitable For Miners was. Billy was more than generous with his time, and his petrol money (we drove to Barking and all around the Essex of his youth, and to Oundle where he recorded his first music with Riff Raff), and I ended up with hours of first-hand testimony. I also flew over to Dublin, where he and Wilco were finishing the career-changing Mermaid Avenue sessions. In order to access the message boards on his brand new website, I had to sit at his then-assistant Tiny’s kitchen table and log onto her PC.

It would be true to call it a labour of love, in that I loved doing every minute of it, and my publishing advance was modest, as befits a first-time author, but the fact that I’ve been able to update it with a brand new chapter three times, in 2001, 2007 and 2013, makes it less a job, more a way of life. This gives me the excuse to spend some time down in Dorset with Billy and his partner Juliet, who became real friends during the writing of the book.

I have never stopped admiring Billy for his principles and his drive, and his honesty. Though the book is authorised, and fact-checked by Billy and Juliet each time it is reprinted, it is still the book I wished to write, and I remain grateful that the subject of the book never tried to edit it, or rewrite his own history. That said, if you’re looking for scandal, you’ve come to the wrong place. The one truth that works against Billy, but for him at the same time, is that he’s no man of mystery. He really is the Ronseal rock star. What you see is what you get. If you go to a Billy Bragg gig, especially in a far-flung place, you’ll know that the meet-and-greet is often as long as the concert. He likes to engage personally, as much as politically.

I once pitched the idea of a definitive Billy Bragg story to Mojo magazine, and was turned down flat by the then-editor, who reasoned that there was nothing the magazine’s readers didn’t already know about Billy. It’s true, he’ll never be the subject of one of those Reputations-style documentaries, exposing the “real Billy Bragg” behind the public image. But that’s why he’s such a constant in an ever-changing world.

To be Billy Bragg’s Boswell is no bad outcome as I hit my 25th patchwork year in the media, I must admit. It may not make me rich, but it makes me very proud. And to have my first book out now as an eBook feels like an important enough milestone to provide a link to my publisher’s website, which at least offers alternative download routes as well as the contentious Amazon. (Billy provides one-click links to Amazon, among others, on his website through industrial necessity – an ideological anomaly he’s happy to debate with you via the official forums including Twitter, which is really him on the other end, by the way.) For all your Billy Bragg needs, this is his HQ, with everything about his forthcoming new album Tooth & Nail – out on March 18, and among his best, I’d say. The new chapter covers this, his previous album Mr Love & Justice, his 50th birthday, the Jail Guitar Doors initiative, the current Tory government and the 2010 general election, plus honest accounts of the death of his Mum and the graduation of his son, Jack, to aspiring musician.

If you wish to buy the print copy, you can of course do so direct from Bragg Central and, as the old song goes, “cut out the middle man”!

Oh, and if you spotted the reference in the headline to this blog entry, you probably don’t need any more encouragement from me.

Marine biography

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At last. I can review one of the best books I read last year. The reason I didn’t review it when I read it is that it’s published this year, and there’s no advantage to showing off that you’ve read a book before it is available in the shops. It is published now, in fact, in fancy hardback. Tracey Thorn very kindly sent me an advance copy of her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen and I devoured it quickly. (Sorry, The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke, you had to be put to one side.) If you lived through any of the pop years covered in this book, but especially the early ones in the 80s, it will ring a bell, and possibly warm your cockles. It will almost certainly provide a cue for a song. (I found myself mainlining my old EBTG albums while reading it.)

Tracey, whom I’ve only ever met twice in the flesh, was kind enough to include me in her publisher’s advance-reading list as we’d corresponded as far back, I think, as 2007, when she was first researching her own life in pop. She wanted to know if I had a copy of the NME in which I’d interviewed Everything But The Girl in 1990. Sadly, I didn’t. (My NME archive is patchy, at best – I only kept the issues for which I’d written the cover stories after a scorched-earth loft clearout, although I ended up re-purchasing some from eBay, to replenish my self-vandalised collection.)

I’d been a card-carrying fan of Everything But The Girl – and Tracey’s first band the Marine Girls – since the early 80s and Pillows & Prayers. Their first album, Eden, and their second, Love Not Money, got me through my first years of college, and their fourth, Idlewild, is one of the albums that marks my post-graduation year and the first days of living on my own in a studio flat. (I will always regard Eden as one of my “homesickness” albums. I taped it off my first next-door neighbour at the halls of residence on arrival for the first time in London, and its jazzy melancholy was a perfect fit for the way I felt, as well as a tub of emotional balm.)

So, when I got to meet and interview Ben and Tracey in 1990, when the disarmingly slick, LA-recorded The Language Of Life came out, it was one of those big-tick moments: all my years of fandom could be pressed into professional, journalistic service. I’d love to say I met them at their house – the first journalists to interview them got to go to their student flat in Hull! – but alas, it took place at somebody else’s smart mews house in West London, as I recall. (A dastardly trick used to this day by celebrities on Come Dine With Me.) Tracey remembers the interview, perhaps too well, in her book.

Andrew Collins came to interview us for the NME, and he too focused on the fact that the best aspects of the album were our songs, and more specifically the caustic lyrics to a couple of them … We were lucky to get off as lightly as this with the NME, to be fair. By now the acid-house revolution, and the Madchester scene it had given rise to, was no marginalised alternative fad, but dominated both the rock press and the charts. Andrew Collins had turned up for that interview wearing baggy dungarees and a smiley badge, and I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, the game’s up if this how they dress at the NME now.’

In the interests of New Yorker-style fact-checking, I must stress that Tracey confirmed with me the possibility that I might have been wearing dungarees. I’m afraid it’s all too likely, smitten as I was by the Stone Roses style. I’m prepared to concede the smiley badge, which I suspect may have been affixed to this “scallydelic” top. (Here modelled by a lake in Hultsfred, Sweden, circa 1990, with Tim Burgess.)

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Now, as you can sense, I have a personal connection to the Tracey Thorn story. We’re of a similar vintage. We were in higher education at roughly the same time. (There’s a couple of years in it, which is how come she was already in a band making albums that helped me through my exams, as it were, in her immediate post-graduation years.) And that’s the beauty of the book. She simply tells her own story, and allows the observations made from the vantage point of the end of her forties to contextualise what she was going through at the time. When she first forms the band with Ben, she remember asking herself many speculatively melodramatic questions about their relationship, and concludes, from the distance of almost 30 years, “I didn’t really have the answers to any of these questions, and I’m not even sure I asked them.”

Bedsit Disco Queen is not raw with confession and emotion, which suits the private person Tracey has always been, but it is at all times honest. Her first memory of seeing Ben at Hull University is “blurred” (“What was he wearing? Levi’s probably? A white shirt?”); her early brush with leftwing politics is driven by interviews with other bands, like Gang of Four and Delta 5, who “introduced me to concepts and political theories which I was too young and inexperienced to comprehend fully – nonetheless, I agreed with every word”); and when she and Ben move to the country in 1989 to escape the rat race, she speaks of “a time-wasting fury of DIY mania” and confesses, “It took us about half an hour to discover we weren’t cut out for country life.”

Nobody is expecting self-aggrandising myth-making from a Tracey Thorn autobiography. After all, her songwriting has always been painfully honest and plain-speaking – and the full song lyrics seem especially suited to the chapters they now open: “I’m getting too used to this way of life” … “Now you’re feeling hopeless, now you’re looking older” … “Sure, I’d love a wild life, but every wild man needs a mother or a wife.” But this is not to say her rise-and-plateau-and-rise through fame and fortune is not without profound truths (that Massive Attack are locked into “playground relationships”, for instance), or, frankly, rollickingly entertaining insights. It ends on a hilariously random moment involving some younger female pop icons, for instance, which I won’t spoil.

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In yesterday’s Guardian interview, Decca Aitkenhead observed, “In another life Thorn would have been a brilliant columnist” (which rather unfairly precludes the possibility that she could become one now), and this is no truer in the book than when she ruefully reflects upon the advice given to contestants on The X-Factor by Lady Gaga after performing “inside a giant ten-foot bathtub” wearing “a tight, reflective leather cat costume” – “Be yourself.” From this spark, Tracey reflects upon the disconnect between authenticity and the pop industry, and her own struggles with truth and artifice.

She covers the big issues with candour, such as motherhood (admitting that, aged 25, she became broody over her sister’s little boy, but ruled it out at the time due to being “a singer in a pop group”), and Ben’s near-fatal illness (she poignantly remembers sitting by his bedside in hospital “doing jigsaw puzzles and reading PG Wodehouse”), but leaves out anything that might cheapen or coarsen the picture she wishes to carefully and diplomatically paint. (I innocently asked her about the absence of a particular player in email correspondence and she privately gave a perfectly decent and thoughtful reason for leaving them out.)

And my favourite passage of all is one about Twitter. Tracey has built a life-affirming community of souls around her on the social networking site, and, if anything, has raised her own profile by accident. (The Guardian piece was astutely headlined The Accidental Pop Star.) She wishes she could go back in a time machine to her and Ben’s lowest ebb, in 1987 – Idlewild, a harsh verdict from the record label, wrangles over the first single, career stalemate, boredom, self-doubt, anxiety – and “invent Twitter.”

I won’t quote it in full, as you should buy the book and read it in context, but it’s the most persuasive argument I’ve yet read for the positive effects of the sometimes maligned Twitter. She thinks, at that time, it would have been her “salvation,” imagining coming out of a depressing meeting at WEA and getting it off her chest by Tweeting about it. “You would have all Tweeted back with supportive comments, witty put-downs and descriptions of similar experiences in your own workplace,” she retro-fantasises. Back in 1987, of course, there was no direct way of communicating with fans, or like-minded souls, without a telephone or a stamp. You, too, will wish that you could go back in a time machine and invent Twitter for the 1987 Tracey Thorn.

I won’t put a link to the high-street-destroying Amazon, in the usual kneejerk fashion. You can find Bedsit Disco Queen your own way. Maybe you could order it via a local bookshop, or find one online, without using Amazon as a third party, and do it in the spirit of Cherry Red, who launched Tracey and Ben’s career. But this is her publisher’s website.

Twenty Twelve: Books

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It’s a fair cop. I haven’t read many books this year. The blame for this we can lay squarely at the door of the New Yorker, which continues to hog my reading time. In fact, how I managed to read anything else this year remains a mystery. Word magazine commissioned me to review a couple of novels – prequels to Trainspotting and The Godfather, by Irvine Welsh and Ed Falco, respectively, neither of which was up to much – and I fear that without Kate Mossman slinging a paperback my way, 2013 may see even less in my book pile. (I did promise not to buy any new books in 2012 until I’d finished reading all of my unread books, and I broke that resolution three times.)

The 9/11 Wars Jason Burke (Allen Lane) This came out in hardback in 2010, but I used a voucher to buy it in early 2011, and I confess I’m still reading it, but after Burke’s definitive Al-Qaeda, I knew I’d love it, and I do.
Pity The Billionaire Thomas Franks (Harvill Secker)
Driving Jarvis Ham Jim Bob (The Friday Project)
The History of the NME Pat Long (Portico)
How Soon is Now?: The Madmen and Mavericks who made Independent Music 1975-2005 Richard King (Faber)
Keynes: Return of The Master Robert Skidelsky (Penguin) This came out in 2010, and I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s a great primer for the economist whose name has been most quoted since the crash, sometimes in vain, sometimes not.
The Road to Serfdom Friedrich Hayek (Routledge) And this came out in 1944, but I was moved to pick up a lovely old secondhand copy in order to try to understand right-wing thinkers. (Hayek is named as often as Friedman and Rand by free marketeers.) It’s hard going, and again, I can’t say I’ve finished it yet, but I’m afraid right-wing thinkers are still alien to me.
The Great Unwashed Gary and Warren Pleece (Escape Books)

That’s nine books. Must try harder. Well, I would try harder, but that would involve cancelling my subscription to the New Yorker. It’s not as if I’ve been playing computer games instead of reading. And I must mention the redesigned BFI Film Classics, which came out in August, and the BFI very kindly sent me. They now look as good as they read.

Microsoft Word - BFI and CR winner annoucement.doc

My favourite book of 2013, so far:
Bedsit Disco Queen Tracey Thorn (Virago) I’ll write about this honest, evocative memoir in February, when it’s actually published.

La Haines

Luke Haines: genius. I like writing that because, having met him on a number of occasions, I’m pretty sure he’d hate being called a genius, while secretly thinking, Yes, I am one. He is one. I’m talking about Luke Haines the musician, essentially, whose output from the Auteurs through to Luke Haines, via Black Box Recorder and Baader Meinhof, has been prolific to the point of masochism over the past couple of decades, and inspired not by record company imperatives as much as by an apparently bottomless well of ideas and tunes. But I am here to write about Luke Haines the writer. Luke Haines the author. Luke Haines the chronicler. Luke Haines: historian.

Post Everything is the sequel to his first memoir, Bad Vibes, which I recommend to anyone who thinks they remember Britpop. Not the way Haines remembers it, you don’t, and he was there, in the thick of it – a no doubt uncomfortable participant in the famous Union Jack issue of Select in 1993, photographed in grainy black and white in a deckchair, as I recall, but a player nonetheless.  Scabrous, cynical, self-aware to the point of self-laceration and yet utterly arrogant and invertedly self-aggrandising, albeit viewed through blood-tinted spectacles, Post Everything picks up the story just before Black Box Recorder have a hit, and takes the story up to about 2005, just after the plug has been pulled on Haines’ NT-funded musical about Nicholas van Whatsisface, Property.

The book, out in paperback on July 7 (with its cover sweetly illustrated by someone called Siân, whom we hope is his wife Siân), is bloated with bons mots, acute skewerings (“the Colonel Kurtz of the Curly Wurly Memorial Club, the Shoko Asahara of the Spangles Appreciation Society” – he’s talking about my close personal showbiz friend Stuart Maconie) and sly observations (that John Humphrys so despises “Pop Music” he feels the need to add a question mark to both words when using the phrase on the Today programme: “Pop? Music?”). You will rattle through it, as Haines and co-conspirators seem to constantly defy the falling masonry of an imploding record industry, picking up “demo money” while being shown the door, and having hits when all around are losing their heads.

In among all the bleating and pissing and moaning, Haines actually proves an astute observer of what’s going down, detailing the “digital recording genocide” of the ProTools revolution in the 90s with a clear head and no agenda (“by the early 20th century, every cell-of-one-man band can afford a ProTools set-up … the holy legacy of punk rock? Not quite, sunshine, not quite”). While other writers are driven by the tyranny of balance, or the politics of growth, Haines cuts through the shit. He errs on the side of grumpy, but when your author is falling in love, getting married and having a baby, you know that there beats a soppy heart within, and if anything, it makes you admire his jaundiced stance all the more.

Dropped by a succession of labels both cool and uncool, and hounded out of musical theatre by a succession of “Grahams”, Haines has reason to complain about his lot. But, frankly, he never courted fame, and when it flirts with him, it’s with the same barely disguised disdain as Bono, dragged to meet the author by Danny Goffey of Supergrass, of all people. What a wonderful world.

It all ends a bit abruptly, and there are a couple of “fantasy” sequences involving a cat that might have hit the cutting-room floor and been replaced by proper chapters about stuff that actually happened, but maybe Haines is flexing his fingers to become a novelist. I prefer him as a documentarian. His songs have always been fat with non-fiction, bulging with true stories and post-encyclopaedic knowledge, and his prose flies when it is similarly stoked. Post Everything is worth your while. Although if you haven’t read Bad Vibes, get that first.

Three-for-two offer

I have just read three novels back to back, all out in paperback in June or early July. These are they. I really don’t normally read novels, but I am reviewing them for the next issue of Word magazine, and it was a pleasing novelty to gulp down so much fiction in one go. I won’t pre-empt the review, but I had to excise this opening paragraph, so I thought I’d post it here, as I quite liked it. But a preamble is a luxury, and I had to get to the books much quicker.

It’s often said that everybody has a novel in them. I’m sure this is hypothetically true. But the difference between becoming a novelist and remaining a would-be novelist lies in the ability to extract the inevitable half-thoughts and brief story flashes, bring them to the surface and assemble them into something that actually reads for at least 40,000 words. (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have been nerdy enough to specify a word-count for books – in case you’re interested, if it’s under 7,499 words, it’s a short story; between 7,500 and 17,499 a novelette; and between 17,500 and 39,999 a novella.) Oh, and then you have to get it published.

I actually mainly liked the information from the SFWA. Who knew? (I have never written a novel. I think it might very well be too hard.)