The best books written by people I know or have sent me one 2017 (and other partial lists)

I can’t pretend it’s been a bonanza book-reading year by the fundamental measure of pages turned and spines bent, but the books I have read, or, crucially, re-read, have been essential. That my carefully calculated Top 2 are both written by old friends of mine (one of them the subject of a book I’ve written) should not be taken into account. Stuart Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow and Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers form a stout pair and can make decent claims to historical legitimacy. Both delve into history – Stuart’s into twin-timeline British history, Billy’s further back into American history – and both present a humane view, bestowing power to the people and planting a flag for the heroic endeavours of ordinary folk, be it the empowerment of working people protesting against poverty, or the empowerment of young people to get out there and form a band in the 1950s. I couldn’t put either book down, and wished neither to end. Stuart has taken the temperature of Brexit Britain (as he took his journey, Trump was in the process of becoming electable, thus sealing humanity’s doom), while Billy allows the reader to apply the template of punk rock to the skiffle boom, and saves up a final twist that brings it all back home. (I won’t spoil it for you.)

I was sent a copy of Al Pacino: The Movies Behind the Man by its author Mark Searby, and found myself impressed by his doggedness as he set about his labour of finding at least one new first-hand account to accompany each of Pacino’s films, even the duff ones. For instance, he sheds light on the making of The Godfather via an interview with producer Gray Frederickson, Panic in Needle Park with director Jerry Schatzberg, and, well, a magician on Bobby Deerfield. I was also sent Matt Lucas’s memoir to review for the Mail on Sunday, and I gave it a good review, despite its gimmicky A-to-Z format.

As ever, I was moved to revisit old books, most notably A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, one of the bedrock Vietnam War accounts, published in 1988, inspired to go back into the jungle by Sheehan’s contribution to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s seminal The Vietnam War, shown here this year on BBC Four. I found myself captivated again by Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day (like Sheehan, he was an embedded war reporter). I have a dog-eared 1969 secondhand paperback edition – it was published in 1959 – and it’s only at this time of reading it that I noticed just how ahead of the “New Journalism” revolution Ryan was, personalising the events of D-Day and thus bringing them to life.

For those who follow Billy Bragg, an artist age does not wither, you’ll be happy to hear that I am updating his biography Still Suitable For Miners for publication in spring 2018, its fifth edition, which also happens to mark the 20th anniversary of the book’s first publication way back in 1998. I followed him to Oxford this time, and, over coffee and cakes, we covered the period 2013-17. We were both 20 years younger when we started this book.

Oh, and by the way, as if it needed saying, the New Yorker continues to fill my head with words, opinions, ellipses, poetic sentence construction and big ideas, and that’s why I don’t pick up a book as often as I’d ideally like. Since Trump started to undo America, the magazine – in particular the near-daily bulletins by John Cassidy – has become even more essential. Here’s how my favourite magazine depicted the Baby-in-Chief this year.

To end, a photo I took of myself “method”-reading Stuart’s Jarrow book: by the side of a fairly busy road, on a bench, and eating some lovely fruit loaf out of cling-film. Try it when the weather heats up again.



40 years of Radio 1

Carter R1

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.)

Carter and me 07