How to review books written by your friends: some tips

ExtraOrdinaryLifeFrankDerrick81RockStarsStoleMEMemoirsOASGDQ

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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Hugo Dixon 1964-2010

I was sad to learn that Hugo Dixon died last week, aged just 46, after what seems to have been a reasonably short and unexpected illness. He was a ubiquitous figure in my life in the 1990s, particularly, when I worked at Q magazine, where he was one of its best-loved and most reliable photographers. I was in contact with him last summer when I approached him about a photograph I know he had of me with Blur, taken in Paris for Q in 1994, one of many happy trips we went on at the time. It was during that email correspondence that Hugo informed me that the picture agency he’d been with had gone “tits up.” As a writer and commissioning editor at music magazines, I worked with tons of photographers. As a breed, they tended to be voluble, confident and larger-than-life personalities – you couldn’t really be a shrinking violet and encourage major rock stars to pose for your camera, or indeed engage in tricky diplomatic negotiations with PRs and managers in order to secure the access and time you needed with their major rock star. Hugo was certainly one of the good guys – he went out there and brought the pictures back, and was never one to moan about the often tiresome and unglamorous nature of the sort of job he’d be sent on.

There were always photographers (or “smudgers” as we’d disparagingly call those with inflated egos) who’d get the glamour jobs, the studio work, the cover shots … and Hugo was not one of them. He was the guy you’d send out if you needed on-the-road shots, pictures taken on the hoof or, what became his stock in trade, black and white portraits for Who The Hell … ? He, along with Chris Taylor and Ken Sharp, was as close to an official Q photographer as they came during that era, always pressed into jovial service for awards ceremonies and staff photos. You’re welcome to go and have a look at Hugo’s portfolio, although it is, for me, tinged with sadness now that he’s gone. You’ll see some classic shots from Q’s glory years in the 90s – the one of Michael Hutchence pointing that became a cover shot; Kurt Cobain; Bernard Manning – as well as more formal portraits of showbiz stars and comedians he did for Radio Times after he fell out of favour with subsequent editorial regimes at Q. (This is the lot of the freelance. You have to roll with the punches.) Hugo’s big love outside of music was cars, and I know he also did a lot of work for motoring magazines, which he must have loved. There was a spell with FHM, too, but hey, you’ve got to eat. And Hugo did eat, and enjoyed a pint. He was a big lad, rugby-sized, full of life and laughter and inappropriate comments, and we used to love the fact that, as a petrolhead, he used a tiny orange Fiat to drive into Central London, for ease of parking: it was almost like a suit of armour that fitted snugly around him and had wheels.

I have to admit, when I became features editor of Q, and then editor, I engineered it so that Hugo would accompany me on sporadic writing jobs I did. He came with me to Colchester, to the offices of EMI and to the studios of Later to capture the “actuality” shots of my first Blur cover story in 1994, while the more glamorous Andy Earl got to do the studio cover shots, although you wouldn’t hear Hugo complain. I think in many ways he preferred the free-form fun of the actuality gigs. When I went to Paris on the Eurostar to present a Q award to Blur around that time, I was quick to call Hugo up to do the honours. Again, not a massive job, but fun to do, and that was often enough for Hugo.

Since he died – I can’t quite believe this, yet – I have been in touch with his wife of many years, Jane, and actually discovered a bit more about what he’s been doing these past few years. This is not an official obituary so I won’t go into any more biographical detail, but I wanted to remember Hugo publicly, as he was a fantastic bloke, and one of the key figures in my happier memories of Q. My family will remember him too as he took my wedding photos, too. Who else?

I understood that it was when you reached your sixties that people around you started dying. It turns out it’s your forties. Robert Sandall, whom I also knew well from my Q years, also died this year. It seems so cruel and unlikely that I will bump into neither he nor Hugo again.

UPDATE: The Guardian have printed the obituary of Hugo which I wrote today (December 4), and it takes up almost a full page, which is no less than he deserve. It’s here.