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?

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We like it when our friends become successful

On Monday night, 6 Music won UK National Station Of The Year at the Sony Radio Awards. None of your rubbish, and about time, too. We’d sort of half-expected a nomination in the immediate wake of our pardon from execution in 2011, but we were overlooked in the heat of that particular moment and understandably half-wondered if we’d ever win. (If not then, when?) I say “we”, even though I have not been a permanent presenter on the network since 2007, as I am still made to feel part of the family by the nice people pictured above, and anyway, I have my own pigeonhole! I was there at the Sonys nine years ago, at the Grosvenor House Hotel, when the first Digital Terrestrial Station Of The Year award was handed out and we lost to Saga. (Not knocking Saga, but we felt robbed.) I was also there in 2010, too, when Jarvis won the Rising Star award for the station, and Adam and Joe won the Comedy award. It was fantastic to be able to bask in reflected glory around  the 6 Music table, as I am now a friend of the station, a presenter and a fan. I wished I could have been there on Monday to drink in the crowning glory of ten years on the air.

Thanks to Christine Shanks for this photo of Jim Bob, playing some tunes on his acoustic guitar, having read from his new novel Driving Jarvis Ham at its launch in the rather less glitzy surroundings of Bookseller Crow, a gloriously independent bookshop in Crystal Palace in South East London last Thursday. This was not a case of reflected glory, as it was Jim’s night, and the book – if anything even better than his first novel, Storage Stories, but wrought in a similarly dark-whimsical style with Kurt Vonnegut-channelling illustrations – is his achievement. I was there to pay homage.

Jim and I go way back to the old Carter days, and I consider myself a delicate hybrid of fan and friend; I have certainly made it my business to promote his good works ever since in whatever modest way that I can (when his School album came out in 2006, I was able to get him and his guitar onto Radio 2 when, preposterously, I was asked to fill in for Mark Radcliffe and was allowed to choose my guest; I also think I might have made the introductions that put him inside Robin Ince’s pluralist circle of trust, which led to his glorious, 23-piece-orchestra rendition of Angelstrike! at Nine Lessons and Carols in 2009, and his subsequent casting in White and Ward’s Gutted musical at Edinburgh).

So it is that Jim flatters me by caring what I think and asking me to read his books before they are published, and I flatter him back by supplying a quote (luckily, I have liked them all so far!), and then he flatters me back by printing my quotes in his press releases. For Jarvis Ham, he and his publisher have made me especially proud by putting one of my quotes on the front cover. And it’s a hardback! I wouldn’t have missed the launch for the world. It’s slightly odd when you are a friend and a fan, I concede. But I’ve been standing and watching him play, or speak, for years, and you get used to tapping a toe and joining in the warm applause – and, in the case of that gig at the Bull & Gate in September 2010, shouting out stupid drunken things like some prick of a heckler – and that’s what happened on Thursday. It was a happy occasion. I don’t get out much in the evenings, but you make exceptions when it’s important.

Last night, Michael Legge and I had our second date in less than a week when we attended What Is Love Anyway? at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. (He’d be at Jim’s launch, too. He is also a friend-fan.) This is the latest one-man show of another of my friends who is successful. I have seen every show Richard Herring has done since 2001, when, in Edinburgh, I saw Christ On A Bike: The First Coming. As I used to like to point out when he and I spoke more often than we do now, I paid to go and see that show twice, as I also saw it when it transferred to London. In the ensuing years, I stopped paying as he and I developed a friendship via 6 Music and Banter, and I guess it’s ironic that by the time of The Second Coming at Edinburgh in 2010, I was his comedy partner. As such I was a combination of friend and fan and partner, which is a heavy load to bear, I can tell you. The “partner” part sometimes enhanced the “friend” part and at other times seemed to destroy it, but even in our darkest days, I remained a fan.

This was the penultimate performance of What Is Love Anyway?, and this means I was seeing it at its most honed and perfected. I’m glad I waited, as I’m pretty certain this is his crowning achievement thus far. Of all ten of his shows that I have seen (many of them twice), this is the most mature, and the most ambitious, and most moving. It flows beautifully from one passage to the next, and the climax involving his grandmother, Alzheimer’s and glitter is one of the most expertly constructed of his long career.

I was proud to know him. It actually seems preposterous that he and I once stood and sat on the same stage at the Bloomsbury and entertained a similar audience. But we did. Of course, of the two of us, Richard is the one who’s still doing it, and improving, and honing, and perfecting. It’s his gig. Not mine. I had blagged some comp tickets last night, but aside from that luxury – a luxury based on a friendship that may have become a little more formal but survives as such – I was there as a fan.

It would seem churlish to hate it when your friends become successful. After all, you would hope they would share in your success. 6 Music is now so successful, its own presenters get into fights when they are nominated for the same awards, where once they weren’t nominated at all. Jim Bob is carving out a second career as a novelist – I met his literary agent and everything! – which he is able to blend with his career as a musician. Like Jim, Richard has to work hard for his money, and perform constantly, but he is building upon his existing career and he still spends way too much of his time in cheap hotels or driving on motorways at night, but he is also settling down, too, which is nice to see, as a friend.

(Funnily enough, I’ve just realised that I am a friend and fan of Michael’s too, which seems to be working out. But I would like to stress that most of my friends are just friends, very few of them work in the media or showbusiness, and thus none of us are fans of each other’s, we are just friends.)

Vauxhall and we

Another crazy, crazy, crazy night out at Karaoke Circus. I’ve been slack and missed a couple of consecutive KCs in London, including the Christmas extravaganza, although I was lucky enough to be at, and a part of, the Edinburgh circus tent special in August. Anyway, having moved the circus to my half of London, boldly relocating to Vauxhall – home of the RHINO NOT FOR SALE sign – and specifically to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of the gayest bars in the world, you might call last night’s something of a rebirth. The venue was just perfect: cosy and circular, and with more gents toilets than ladies, but big enough to accommodate and in many cases seat a teeming intake of “Yay!”-shouting, homemade-cake-eating comedy nerds. And the staff were terrific, especially Paul the barman who got up and did a criminally soulful open spot of Dock Of The Bay and won! All round, a happy evening, with highlights too many to list, although I’ll chance a couple, for fear of picking favourites: Robin Ince’s Rise, which even the eminently adaptable house band of Martin, Danielle, David and Foz couldn’t breathe life into, and which Robin turned into irascible performance art (increasingly his metier); Howard Read’s Rhinestone Cowboy which involved actually vandalism; husband and wife team Margaret Cabourn-Smith and Dan Tetsell making the most of their babysitter by reimagining Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Crazy In Love; and Pappy’s bringing the house down, very much in the spirit of Karaoke Circus’s new gayness, with a costumed and then not-costumed celebration of It’s Raining Men. A pair of denim shorts was thrown.

As for my own contribution, which has had me playing the same song over and over and over and over again on my iPod for a week in order to learn it, I paid shouting tribute to Carter USM’s The Only Living Boy In New Cross (which, again, seemed apt for the new South London location). I still forgot the middle of the “Eyes down” bit, but I think pulled it back from the brink with gusto if not finesse. I believe I am right in saying this was a Karaoke Circus first: a song sung while the original singer of the song was in the room ie. Jim Bob, who was gracious in his assessment. I apologised to him from the stage, of course. There are tribute acts and there are “tribute” acts.

Thanks, as ever, to Martin and Danielle for having me. I can’t think of a more sociable family of people, which includes all of the audience. On the way home, through the tunnel under the railway line, I passed The Baron and Foz without their clown makeup on. I hardly recognised them. A poignant end to an outrageous evening. The photos are Paul Bailey’s and the full set are here.

And here’s a dodgy mobile video made by Frog Morris of my Carter turn, complete with judging by Daniel Tetsell, Jim Bob and The Baron.

And a couple more shots, these from Diamond Geyser, of Paul the barman collecting his prize, and, well, an action shot of me. The full set is here.

 

 

On the road

Hark at me. I have two gigs coming up, in London, which Londoners might fancy: this Thursday, May 20, at the Garage, Highbury & Islington, I will be supporting the mighty Jim Bob, who is combining music and words to promote his terrific first novel, Storage Stories. This should be fun – I hope the old Carter fans will be kind to me. I will be Secret Dancing and trying out more of my Edinburgh material. There will, if time, be Bird Racism, too. Tickets are £8.50 and can be purchased here.

And, on Monday, May 31, I will once again be teaming up with 6 Music’s Michael Legge for a pre-Edinburgh work-in-progress show at the Hen & Chickens, also in Highbury & Islington, over the roundabout from the Garage. (This will be more time than I have ever spent in North London in such a short period of time.) Tickets are £7: more Secret Dancing, and definitely Bird Racism, and more about Sir Walter Raleigh and manners from Michael. And, because this time we’re in the 7.30 slot – as opposed to the 9.30 slot we were in before – we intend to treat this third gig as a party. So come along, see the evolving show, and then join us for drinks in the pub downstairs, which is a very nice pub, and we can commune and laugh and toast the new government, or not. And I can sell some Collings & Herrin CDs!

40 years of Radio 1

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I hereby honour Radio 1’s 40th Anniversary with a great picture I have in my archive, taken for BBC publicity purposes (if you’re the photographer, let me know, and I’ll credit you for it – although my eyes look a bit funny), of Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine posing with two DJs after recording some humorous item or other for Collins & Maconie’s Hit Parade in 1994, after drummer Wez (right) had joined. How fresh-faced Maconie looks! How hirsute and childish I look! We have been written out of Radio 1’s long history, despite spending a number of years on the air during the Bannister Years, and co-hosting live coverage of the Brits and the Mercury Music Prize for the station during that time. (How we laugh when we remember Stuart’s off-colour remark about burning tyres when discussing “gypsy dancer” Joaquin Cortez one year.) Stuart even went on to present the Album Show for a bit after the Hit Parade had been shunted to the weekends then just shunted. (There were no hour-long slots in the new schedule, we were told.) It was a great time to pass through what used to be Egton House, just as Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley were getting their Docs under the desk, Chris Evans was in full flight, and Mark and Lard had found their evening mojo in Manchester. I feel privileged to have been there, even in a fringe capacity. We never made it to postcard status, Stuart and I, even though we won them a Sony Award. Where are we now?

(The other prompt for digging out this pic was that I interviewed the reformed Carter for the next issue of Word the other week, and it was a heartwarming experience to see Jim and Les – alright, Fruitbat – in a cafe in Crystal Palace before watching them rehearse for their comeback gigs at Brixton and Barrowlands using the original backing tapes. I don’t think any of us had changed that much. Although Brixton is totally sold out, Glasgow isn’t, and all your Carter USM/Jim Bob/Abdoujaparov needs are served here.)

Here’s me pretending to have played the drums with them, Wes-style, in their rehearsal space. (I believe this one was taken by Muir Vuidler, but correct me if I’m wrong.)

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