Quick Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron.

Thubron’s short 2011 book is an account of a trek from Nepal, through mountain passes heading north east and into Tibet. His ultimate destination is Mount Kailas, a mountain which is (according to the blurb of this book) “holy to one fifth of humanity”. The goal for pilgrims there (mainly Hindu and Bhuddist) is to circle the mountain.

I don’t think Thubron is either a Hindu or a Bhuddist, so why is he on this journey? “I am doing on account of the dead”, he writes early on. Following the death of his mother, he finds himself the last one living of his immediate family, and feels the need to go on a journey, which seems part of his way of trying to overcome (or at least come to an accommodation with) the sense of grief. Why Mount Kailas? “In the end,” he continues later in the same passage, “you come to rest at a mountain that is holy to others. The reason for this is beyond articulation. A journey is not a cure. It brings an illusion, only, of change, and becomes at best a spartan comfort.”

The book is all the better for being realtively short, I think. I found it to be at its best when he is describing the journey itself and touching on his recollections of his family. There are no very lengthy passages of autobiography in this book, however, and I think that this is something of a shame, since it is at these points that Thubron’s writing is at its most poignant and resonant. For instance, one memorable passage sees him describing going through his mother’s possessions after her death, particularly old letters. There is also a very brief passage alluding to his sister’s early death at the age of 21 which is very affecting and raw.

I would have liked more of these personal reflections threaded all the way through the book. However, I got the feeling that they petered out somewhat from about halfway in, as he neared Mount Kailas. I think that this makes the book is slightly uneven,since the personal angle gradually gives way to the more familiar travel writing template of quoting choice bits of conversation from people met along the way, as well as descriptions of the journey, picking a particular thing seen or told about, and then going into wider contextual detail that may touch on religion, folklore, politics, history and the like.

This is all very well, and have no doubt that Thubron is a master of this style of travel writing. However, it is (dare I say) a tad dry and journalistic compared to the more personal (and hence engaging) aspects of the book where he writes about his personal history and the complex inter-relationship this has with this particular flight into the unknown. Normally his precise descriptions and lightly-worn erudition would be more than enough on their own (see his book In Siberia for instance for a masterclass of this style of travel writing). It is just that in the case of To a Mountain in Tibet he gets onto a different level of insight altogether for my money, ironically by writing about personal matters closer to home, and juxtaposing these with the foreign physical and spiritual climes in which he finds himself.

However, this remains a very worthwhile book and one I would highly recommend.

 

 

 

 

Quick Review: “A Small Place in Italy” (1994) by Eric Newby

Author Eric Newby (1919- 2006) is one of the more notable twentieth english travel writers. I have long been aware of his name, but up to now I hadn’t read any of his books. When I saw a copy of A Small Place in Italy  in a charity shop I bought it to see what I made of Newby.

The first point to make is that this isn’t a travel book as such, or at least it’s not an account of a journey. Instead it’s a memoir of the Italian holiday home that Newby and his wife Wanda owned between the 1960’s and the early 1990’s.

So the book is an account of life in this farmhouse that they owned, situated in the hills in the region on the Tuscan/ Ligurian border.

‘Colourful’ Italian characters and descriptions of rural life abound. Standout passages include a description of how the Newbys sought out and bought the house in the first place; an account of how they knocked the house into shape; and Newby’s account of his walk among the Appenines.

To be honest, I found that some of the longer descriptions of rural life (such as the grape harvest) were interesting enough but went on a bit too long. Indeed, the book starts of as a roughly chronological account of how they bought and did the place up in the 60s. After the first few chapters, though, that it gets more general, and the book becomes a series of vignettes and character sketches, intended no doubt to give a general flavour of what life there was like.

But the book retains its charm. I suppose it’s worth remembering the publishing context from the early 90s. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was a massive publishing hit, and second home ownership among Britains looking for a place on the Continent was on the rise. Tuscany was also becoming something of a holiday magnet for the British middle class. So no doubt A Small Place in Italy was aimed at that general market.

However, it stands on its own merits as a book that would make a decent read for someone wanting to get away from it all, transported by a writer who is never less than excellent company. The final sale and taking leave of their Italian idyll was clearly a great wrench for the Newbys and so this book reads exactly as what it was: an attempt to remember and portray the good times and the good life,  and a good-natured labour of love.

 

Verdict: Not the place to start if you’re a Newbie ‘noob’. If you want to get a feel for why he’s considered one the best English travel writers start elsewhere. Otherwise, though, this is a charming and pleasant book.

 

Some thoughts on Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Broken Road.

plf

“Get on with it man!” (Believe it or not Patrick Leigh Fermor also enjoyed writing breaks in between smoking cigarettes and admiring the view from the terrace of his Greek home). 

 

I actually read The Broken Road a long while ago, and in best Leigh Fermor tradition I first sat on, then forgot, this draft of a review, which then turned into a mini essay.

Published (dare I say ‘in tearing haste’ to paraphrase the title of a book co-authored by Leigh Fermor) soon after his 2011 death, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s [PLF] The Broken Road rounds off a trilogy of books that form his account of a walk across the Continent, from Rotterdam to Istanbul (which he refers to as Constantinople throughout), undertaken as a young man in the 1930’s.

On reflection, it seems that the walk was the easy bit. It was writing it up years later that proved to be the almost insurmountable physical and mental effort.

The trilogy devoted to the walk is comprised of A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and Water (1986), and the final (and in a sense ad hoc volume) The Broken Road (2013). I say ad hoc because ‘Volume Three’ as it was known during his lifetime was one of the most famous literary works in progress in the world. What you can now freely obtain from any bookshop or library was not what PLF intended should be published at all. Instead it is a draft written in the early sixties, partially corrected at great effort very late in his life, and cross referenced with one of his surviving notebooks from the 1930s.  He was never able to finish it to his satisfaction in his lifetime, despite the wishes of his many readers and, no doubt, to the equal  sadness and perhaps annoyance of his publishers. It seems its troubled gestation was a source of frustration and regret for the author too. However, while his failure to complete it was no doubt a source of anguish to him and his nearest and dearest, it seems that missed deadlines and indecision were something of a recurring theme in his writing life.

One of the most telling (and unintentionally amusing) things I found in Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF (which also appeared swiftly after his death) was the tale of how in the 1960’s he was approached by the editor of a book on World War II for an article about the war in Crete (this could have been the account of how he kidnapped the German General in command of the island, I can’t recall now). Either way, the editor of said book initially asked for an account of a few thousand words and had a set deadline. PLF agreed, but the account apparently sprawled and sprawled. The deadline loomed. The take (literally) grew in the telling.Reminders were sent. The deadline loomed and more reminders were sent.  The editor (probably literally)  tore his hair out and finally the deadline passed. The piece was never published, the editor sent one last chastening letter and PLF, I assume, never received his cheque.

Speaking frankly, one thing I think that Cooper’s biography fails to do is to give much of an isight into Leigh Fermor the writer, or to explain much about his books and how they tick.  To be fair, the evidence suggests this wasn’t her brief anyway. The biography sketches the main events of his life (except for a detailed two-chapter look at the derring-do of kidnapping the German General who was acting as governor of Crete), and the result is an easy reading but ‘lop-sided’ biography of the kind normally associated with pop stars and footballers, where the focus is firmly on events that took place earlier on in life because that’s where the ‘action’ is.  So the biography rattles along in large part because PLF lived in large part a rattlingly good life. It would have taken a writer of unique incompetence to turn what was, in several though not all respects, a ‘silk purse’ of a life into a ‘sow’s ear’ of a book.

I stress this point about the books, however, because PLF was a short time a solider but a long time a writer. If he is to survive for posterity, I’d stick my neck out and say that it’ll be because of his written work rather than for the fact that he had a ‘good war’ as the old cliche goes. So while Cooper is equal to the task of outlining his life story, she doesn’t go into too much detail about PLF the writer, how his books developed, how they work or what made the books so worthy of the following they got during his life. Crucially, I don’t think she ever really gets close to committing herself to an answer as to why this very talented and intelligent man simply could not finish the book which he called “Volume Three” (i.e. what has been published as The Broken Road), a book which I think must have been something of an Albatross around his neck.  I’m sure there is an answer to this last question, but perhaps decorum or a sense of loyalty to a man who was, after all, a close family friend, made her keep her own silence on the true nature of this. Of course there’s always the distinct possibility that she didn’t feel it right to ask, or that she tried but PLF wasn’t telling.

Anyway, at least the foreword to The Broken Road makes one thing clear, which is that he did make one last heroic effort to rework the manuscript late on in life even though the odds were well against him. The sad thing is that in my opinion he was sitting on a perfectly good book all along, and The Broken Road more than stands up to scrutiny against volume one and two. PLF undoubtedly set out to write prose that caught the eye, fired the imagination and (when read aloud or read carefully so that you could ‘hear’ it in your mind) would impress the reader both with its own brilliance but also the vividness of its imagery. When he’s in this mode he can be very effective. At other times the prose is off-puttingly purple. It’s interesting to note that in his earlier books (such as The Traveller’s Tree and A Time to Keep Silence from the 50’s) this flashy tendency is kept in check, the verbal fireworks sparking at regular intervals but normally limited to an arresting phrase here or there, or carefully kept in reserve for  set-piece descriptions of things that were especially worthy of note. Later on, his tendency to make sure almost every sentence was a finely wrought as possible would take over. A lot of the time it is to the benefit of his books, but at others I think there’s a tendency to get things out of proportion and let the prose get too elaborate to retain much control. For instance, there’s a passage in A Time of Gifts describing the Abbey of Melk which I personally find all but unreadable, and believe me I have tried several times.

All writers go about their job in slightly different ways, particularly when it comes to revising and reworking.  If I can generalise for a moment, there are some who see the process of revision as absolutely crucial, as if paring things down and choosing the right words was what enabled them to say what they really meant all along. I get the impression with PLF that things went the other way. For him, it was a process of accumulating words on the page that would allow him to get to the truth. Like Henry James, it seems that he wanted to say everything he possibly could about something as his means of  revealing the truth. This need to explore every angle, together with much agonising over finding the right word every time, must have placed a hell of a burden on him. Again, something from Cooper’s book which is very telling comes in the endpapers of the hardback edition, where she reproduces examples of some of the proofs from PLF’s work. She explains how his publisher, John Murray, would say that these proofs, with the countless revisions and additions made by PLF, explained the long gaps between his published books. If we’re looking for another simile to describe his method of composition, he seems to have been the literary equivalent of the men who used to ceaselessly paint the Forth Bridge. No sooner had one draft finished then he’d go back and have to start all over again.

In contrast to these works from the 70s and 80s, The Broken Road is effectively mid-period Leigh Fermor. As stated, the majority of the book consists of a typescript produced in the early 1960’s, so it stands somewhere between the simpler prose of his earlier post-war books and the later elaborate creation of the 70’s and 80s. What unites the two kinds of writer he was is his fundamental approach: at the core of his books are narratives of journeys undertaken, places visited and people met.  But over this he overlays numerous passages that amplify and elucidate the history and culture of the lands that he travelled through. As has been mentioned many times before, PLF was a polymath, and one of the many ‘well fancy that’ gems of knowledge to be found in The Broken Road is a convincing etymology and cultural history of the english word ‘buger’.

The book doesn’t lose anything at all in my opinion for not having been finely wrought to the nth degree. There are still some interesting verbal fireworks (many readers point to the description of migrating birds in The Broken Road as a highlight). True to form there’s also a passage that I found almost unbearably overwritten and annoying (a supposed encounter in a shoreline cave with some people, which turned into a most acrobatic sounding kind of knees-up). In the main, however, the descriptions are precise, the characterisation is believable, the eye for detail is telling,  and the gift for anecdote is very entertaining.

Perhaps the real highlight for me was the diary from Leigh Fermor’s time spent on Mount Athos, where he travelled after spending a little time in his original intended journey’s end of Istanbul. The prose in the diary entries is a lot plainer, but no less vivid. I believe that this section was reworked by the older man, but he had the judgment not to drown out the written voice of his younger self. The result is a direct and vivid piece of writing which paints a clear picture of a unique place.

Finally a note on the title. Far be it for me to tell the editors they’re wrong, but I’ve never thought that The Broken Road was that fitting. The only things ‘broken’ about this book is the narrative, which through circumstance cuts off abruptly. Saving that, it’s a remarkably cohesive, charming and straightforward account of how a plucky young individual, after an uncertain school career back in England, decided to do something completely different and reinvented himself. Dare I say it but something a little less symbolic and more descriptive (a la “Between the Woods and Water”) or even a quote from a favourite poems of PLF’s might have served better (“A Time of Gifts” is taken from Louis MacNeice. Was there nothing from Byron, who PLF was reading on this final leg of his journey, that would have worked?).

At any rate, ultimately the road is not ‘broken’ but ‘vanished’. As many others have pointed out before, aside from their strength as descriptive travel books and autobiography, PLF’s trilogy is right up there along with books like Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, as wonderfully evocative books about a Europe and a rich collective culture and varied social fabric that remains in the memory but which has gone forever.

 

“Burn for You”: A review of “Story to Story: The Official Autobiography of INXS”

This isn’t a new book by any means, having first appeared in 2005. Music i listened to when I was younger wasn’t really a priority back then, but I must be mellowing, so when I saw this in a charity shop I thought I’d give it a read. It’s a good (auto)biography, long on stories, with quite a lot of laughs to bookend with the tears that come at the end, and fortunately it pulls no punches in order to show how the INXS juggernaut came to a terrible halt in November 1997.

INXS was the first band I was massively into, and also happened to be my first ever gig. In fact, one person who really, really should have known better once decided to play a round of ‘what was your first ever gig?’ in the pub once. When I mentioned that mine was INXS on the X tour in 1990 (or was it 91?) he rounded on me, generally putting me down for the fact that INXS did not make for a respectable first gig.

Cue a foul mouthed tirade from me telling him exactly why he was wrong, taking in such important points as INXS being one of the few rock bands who could actually swing, the superlative live show, and the fact that (before all of the post-1995 Paula Yates tabloid free-for-all that culminated in his untimely death) Michael Hutchence WAS cool, was THE man and had all the grace, intelligence and style to be classed as one of the greatest rock frontmen.

This book revels in stories of Hutchence’s showmanship and decadence, but it’s obvious that this was a man who a torn individual. On the one hand he was the rock god personified. On the other he was a caring person, a deep thinker, a worrier, and an all-round sensitive soul.

Particularly towards the end of his life, Hutchence found himself pigeon holed as a louche rock lothario, which for a time- wrongly but almost inevitably- saw him tabloid press target number one in Britain, especially once his ill-fated affair with Paula Yates began. With hindsight he should have moved back to Hong Kong, or to LA, or back to Australia, or just laid low in his South of France villa. But instead he stayed in London, got embroiled, bogged down and generally stuck in every kind of rut imaginable.

I’ve always thought that Hutchence’s own sad personal decline mirrored that of the band. This relatively short book is very good at tracing their career trajectory, and is revelatory in its descriptions of its beginnings as (almost literally and certainly to all intents and purposes) a band of brothers in late 70’s Sydney. After a brief hiatus in Perth while their underage drummer Jon Farriss tried (and failed) to finish High School, the band went back to Sydney. There’s a lot in this book made about the Australian live music scene that was centred on the pubs in those days (nothing like your typical english pub as it happens, but coming over rather as a cross between a german bier keller and a large live music venue).

Then enter manager Chris Murphy, a manager who clearly thought that his new charges could go all the way. He took them out of the pubs and went global, through a series of cut throat record deals and a touring schedule that would make many a lesser band split.

It is to the band’s immense credit that instead of being burned out by such a heavy workload in the 80’s, they actually thrived on it, so much so that they became one of the great live rock acts to date. It helped that their recorded output steadily grew in quality, and by the time they began working with producer Chris Thomas on 1985’s Listen Like Thieves they were poised for greatness. As the book makes clear, this was a band who were left of the mainstream so as to be considered cool, yet mainstream enough so as to have potential mass appeal.

That potential was fulfilled and greatness came, of course, with the mighty Kick from 1987.  For a while they wore the mantle of “The Biggest Band in the World”. After touring their backsides off for a couple of years and being all over MTV, INXS took a well-earned break.

Again, with benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to see to that Kick and the subsequent status it brought them was the pinnacle of their career. It rounded off an incredible decade of great music and sheer hard work.  It was the end of the beginning, but instead of (ahem) kicking on from that, it was also the beginning of the end.

I remember as a fan liking bits of the follow up disc X, but never loving it like I loved (and still love) Kick. As Murphy is quoted as saying in the book, X was not enough of a departure from Kick. He suspected the band had grown somewhat safe and complacent and the alarm bells were ringing in his head for the first time. Hutchence, it was clear even at the time, had taken his eye somewhat off the ball. Still a compelling performer, he was by the early 90’s a tabloid staple, having first rather surprisingly taken up with Kylie Minougue, and then completely understandably having ditched her for Helena Christensen. This was a bloke who had earned his slice of the high life but was perhaps letting that take the place of the music that had got him there in the first place.

Of course grunge in the US and a general return to a more earthy and traditional rock approach in the UK put paid to a lot of the bands who’d made it in the 80’s. INXS could have adapted but a couple of odd career choices followed. Firstly they didn’t tour the album Welcome to Wherever You Are. This isn’t a bad record at all but by this stage I was losing interest. So did a lot of fans in the US according to the book, since the record company wouldn’t promote it like they had previous releases, and the band weren’t going to tour, so that put paid to its chances over there. I remember hearing the lead single Heaven Sent and thinking it was a good rocker, but stuff like Baby Don’t Cry (although I don’t mind it now) struck my teenaged self as being simplistic and overblown. Had they come up with something that wasn’t merely ‘Need You Tonight Part II’, but harnessed the originality and arresting qualities of their best music I’d have stayed loyal. But they didn’t, and so I didn’t.

Things then got odd given all that had gone before and it seems like the band entered a period of uncertainty that they couldn’t quite get out of, and which in the end amounted to a slow decline. For a band who had sold out Wembley stadium barely two years earlier, 1993’s “Get Out of the House” tour, a ‘back to the clubs’  jaunt around smaller venues, sent out odd signals. The band said they wanted to reconnect with their fans in the kind of venues they’d started out in. But of course by deliberately avoiding the kind of arenas they had grown into (and to be fair could make feel like a small, intimate club through sheer force of performance and personality) it partially sent out the signal that the band wasn’t as big as it once was. And they admit as much in the book, Andrew Farriss seeming to imply that it was something of a mistake.

The album Full Moon, Dirty Hearts followed soon after to mixed reviews that erred on the negative. The book is very revealing about the recording of this disc on the island of Capri. While it sounds idyllic in theory, the band were there out of season and the journey to the island recording studio was anything but easy. To make matters worse, the stormy weather outside was mirrored inside the studio by the erratic and often violent behaviour of the band’s erstwhile easy-going and charming front man.

Beginning with the serious head injury suffered in Copenhagen after he was assaulted by a taxi driver (leading among other things to a bruised brain and an almost total loss of the sense of taste and smell) the book goes into the necessary but not voyeuristic detail about the changes in Michael Hutchence in the years leading up to his death. To add to his serious head injury, there was to come the Geldof-Yates-Hutchence love triangle, complicated by a well-publicised custody battle over the Geldof-Yates children.

As the book also makes clear, it wasn’t just Hutchence who was having personal problems by the mid-nineties, and it seems that a combination of personal problems, managerial difficulties and so-so but not stellar musical product were dogging them up to and including November 1997.

Interestingly, the book goes into great detail about the critical backlash against the band in their native Australia. That fateful month saw them back in Sydney rehearsing for a tour of smaller venues in Oz. It was a sort of ‘back to basics’ (i.e. not the biggest venues) tour all over again. This time however, they hadn’t chosen to play those venues: they were more in keeping with the band’s profile. Chris Murphy is clear in the book that the burden of having to play smaller venues (some of which hadn’t sold out) could have exacerbated whatever demons were plaguing Hutchence at the time. Certainly it’s clear that whatever factors drove him to take his own life, an enforced absence from Yates and his daughter Tiger was probably one of them.

Murphy remains adamant that INXS shouldn’t have touched the Australian circuit with a bargepole, not until the year 2000 at least, by which time al animosity would have subsided and they could have come back with a bang. It makes great sense as a strategy, but of course we’ll never know.

By 1997 I no longer listened to INXS’s music. But the news of Hutchence’s sudden death in November of that year still came as a shock to me as it did to so many. Without wishing to overdramatise how I felt at the time, it was like hearing of the death of a friend I hadn’t seen for some years.

A few years ago I saw INXS playing at a smallish venue near me on the tour they did with Canadian JD Fortune, one of the numerous replacements for Hutchence they’ve used over the years. They were great. They still rocked. They swung like the old days. Jon Farris and Gary Garry Beers proved that they are one of the greatest rhythm sections in rock n’roll. Tim Farriss kept it funky. Kirk Pengilly added musical flourishes on lead guitar and sax. And good old Andrew Farriss kept it tight at the back. I sang along to every bloody word that night, words I hadn’t thought of or brought to mind since I was a kid, and I lost my voice from screaming just as I did that first time I saw them. It was a great gig, and Fortune did his very, very best which by most standards was very good indeed. But then again the standard he was up against was the one set by Michael Hutchence. My God, it would have been greater if only Michael were there.

It’s only recently that I’ve taken an interest in their music again.  The other day I even got round to listening to his posthumously released solo album for the first time. I found most of it very difficult to listen to. Not because of the music, which I like, but because of the lyrics.  For all his faults, he was a great performer and on balance the book makes a convincing case for saying that he was a decent man who got terribly, terribly trapped. What I think he needed was a damned good rest. The great sadness is that that rest took the wrong form.

It seems to be the accepted trajectory for rock bands these days, but for all the pretence about making new albums and trying to remain a developing creative force, there comes a point where the general public lose interest and only want to hear the Greatest Hits. It happened with the Stones years ago. It’s already happened with U2. Oasis have a lucrative career as their own tribute act waiting for them, if only they can bury the hatchet and get it together.

INXS could have had this kind of career. It’s moot whether they could have really reinvented themselves after the Elgantly Wasted album, but even if they hadn’t, if they’d have followed Murphy’s advice and laid low for a few more years, they could have been conquering heroes once their style had come back into vogue (their recent chart successes in Australia that coincided with a major TV mini drama show there’s some merit in this argument).  The irony is that Michael showed plenty of signs that he could have had an interesting career and developed in his own right, however.

So in a parallel universe somewhere, Michael Hutchence has just completed his twelfth feature film and his band INXS are gearing up for one of their periodic reunion tours. Rumour has it that he is penning songs for a third solo album, and there is even talk of the band filling the ‘legends’ slot on the Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury, a performance which will rekindle the INXS spark in the UK once again just like it did in Oz last year.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, things are as they are. But at least we’ve got some great music. And there are also many of us with such great memories of the band and our friend Michael.

It’s most fitting at this point to quote Kirk Pengilly, who provides the final words in the book: “All that he [Michael] really wanted in the end was to know that we mattered. He wanted to know that we’d served a purpose. He wanted to know that we’d given people memories.”

In this, they succeeded wonderfully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Review: Renegade, The Autobiography of Mark E Smith

Renegade, published several years ago now, is the autobiography of Mark E Smith, lead singer and leader of The Fall. It is a very funny book.

Imagine you are in a pub and listen in on an amusing and quirky bloke who essentially rants about various things while letting you know bits of his life story into the bargain.

Such people are legion, but not all are as perceptive as Smith and barely any of them are fine musicians and writers like him.

Others may think the book amounts to little more than the insufferable and inconsequential dronings of a ranting Manc, but when all’s said and done it’s harmless fun (unless you happen to be one of the legion of jettisoned Fall members to have received a P45 over the years).

Cheaper than a round of drinks and a lot more satisfying.

And here for good measure is the man in action and giving a quick toot on the kazoo and spinning a yarn.

 

A review of “Dreaming of Jupiter” by Ted Simon.

Summary: 25 years after he first set off around the world on a bike, Ted Simon goes off at the age of 70 to do it all again, this time on a BMW. But the result is still a Triumph. 

Dreaming of Jupiter is a must read for anyone who has read Jupiter’s Travels (I reviewed it here), Ted Simon’s classic account of how he spent 4 years going around the world on a motorbike in the mid-1970s. In large part this later book takes its prompts from the earlier one by trying to answer the essential question: just how much has the world changed in the intervening time?

This time around Simon had family ties to bear in mind, so instead of 4 years, this second journey took a ‘mere’ 2 and half. That’s still no mean feat at any stage of life, but at 70 that’s still noteworthy.

The main difference between this book and its predecessor is that it has a far brisker and more businesslike tone to it. It’s inevitable that if you’re going somewhere again for a second time, then you’re going to want to find out what’s remained the same, whether your memories still bear any resemblance to the reality, and whether any of the people you met first time around are still where you encountered them first time around and still  remember you. The desire to answer questions like these give the book a sort of spine and plenty of ‘drive’ as it were.

While the narrative never becomes unbalanced by the inevitable jaded views in the face of irrevocable and inevitable change, there are points where Simon readily admits that his disappointment overwhelmed him. In Phuket in Thailand, for example, his memories of the paradise it was in the 70’s jarred terribly with the sight of the crowded and commercialised resort it has become. Bureaucracy is another complaint he has compared to the relatively straightforward nature of crossing borders back in the 70s (although this was never that simple in all cases if the original book is anything to go by). Sitting in an Indian customs office trying to arrange for his bike to be airfreighted to Turkey, Simon admits to wanting the journey over right there and then, so ground down was he by the endless form filling and buck passing.

These remain isolated moments, though. As with his account of the first journey, Simon concentrates on the stand-out experiences that he had along the way, and these seem to have been overwhelmingly good. Above all there are a number of very warm and heartening descriptions of meeting up again with people he’d met the first time around, a good number of whom it seems were inspired by their meeting with this inspirational stranger on a motorbike.

There are of course also plenty of new people he meets along the way second time around, many of whom enter the picture when Simon is in need of help. Modern BMW’s are no more immune than their 70’s Triumph counterparts to the hammering that the varied roads of the world can dish out, and there are the familiar accounts of difficulties with the bike and the terrain. For good measure Simon also managed to break bones on two separate occasions on his second trip.

To re-enforce the notion of perhaps the most significant way the world has changed politically in the intervening decades, as recurring motif towards the end of the book sees Simon describe watching the TV at some of the places he stops towards the end of the trip, watching CNN chart the build up to the second Bush/ Blair driven invasion of Iraq.

The final chapter and the epilogue of this book is well worth pondering in detail, in order to get the thoughts and reflections of this well-travelled, urbane and wise man. In Simon’;s case, travel undoubtedly seems to have broadened the mind, but it has narrowed his focus as to what ails the mankind and the planet. Overall he seems to be saying that as a race we seem to lurch from one disaster to another and seem collectively determined to reach the final end which is our own (and the planet’s) oblivion.

But- and it remains a very big but- he retains faith in the goodness and essential helpfulness of people, as shown in the many good and kind people he has met on both journeys around the world.

On a lighter note, I can confirm that this book is every bit as dangerous as Jupiter’s Travels, in that it will make you want to go out and get a motorbike licence if you haven;’t got one already, just in case you ever get chance to travel in Jupiter’s tyre tracks.

Ted Simon’s Triumph. A Review of “Jupiter’s Travels” by Ted Simon

Jupiter’s Travels, about Ted Simon’s round the world motorbike journey over four years in the early-mid 70’s, is a justly famous and widely-read book.

As Simon has discovered over the years (documented in, among other places, the opening pages of his follow up book from the early 2000’s, Dreaming of Jupiter) the original book not only proved to be very popular among armchair travellers, but also inspired scores of people to get out of the house, get on their bikes and see the world for themselves. I count myself through circumstances as very much in the former armchair category at present, but who knows? I’m still younger than Simon was when he made his first journey (he was in the his early 40’s) and I’ve always fancied owning a Triumph. The idea of seeing more of the world has always appealed. Mind you, I bet the wife and kids would have a lot to say about it if I suddenly upped sticks and took four years to go around the world like Simon did.

Sponsored by the Sunday Times and with no dependents to keep him at home, Simon set off from England in an uncertain frame of mind, unsure as to whether he was doing the right thing or was just plain mad. These moments of doubt and self questioning are beautifully captured in the book’s opening, along with the more practical parts, which are no less interesting,  about how he learned to ride a motorbike (he was a total novice rider when the idea for the journey occurred to him) and from there started gathering the equipment together for his marathon trek.

His journey through Europe and down through Italy is dealt with in relatively few pages, and it’s when he hits Africa that the prose starts to flow and the vista well and truly opens up. I have read Jupiter’s Travels twice before, and every time I have been utterly captivated by Simon’s descriptions of his passage through that Continent. This is a great book overall, but for me I think it reaches its peak early on. Of particular interest are his descriptions of trying to negotiate roads which aren’t really roads at all, and at times seem like they’d struggle to deserve the description of dirt track. It’s at times like these I got the clearest sense of what a stupendous undertaking this journey (and all others like this) was and is. It really was Simon and his Triumph Tiger out on their own, against the world. If either of them failed then, at certain times in certain places such as out in the desert, it really would have been the end of both of them.

Say what you like about the supposed shortcomings of British workmanship, but that stalwart Triumph is one of the stars of this book. Simon’s relationship with it is clearly one based on respect, although as is to be expected the book is peppered with scenes in garages or stuck on the roadside while various running repairs or even full-scale overhauls are performed. But the bike not only survived but served with distinction, and currently resides in the Coventry Transport Museum (see here for more info).

A curious thing has happened every time I have read this book. After the wonderful sense of freedom and momentum built up when reading of his successful crossing of Africa, the tone changes the moment after crossing the Atlantic that Simon lands in Fortaleza, Brazil. It’s not that the writing flags, but because of the almost total contrast with what has gone before, the narrative does hit a sticky patch of sorts for the simple reason that it was while in Brazil (then under military rule) that Simon was held for a time in police custody. He describes his sense at the time of how much like touch-and-go it seemed as to whether he’d ever be released or not. In the end he made it out, to enjoy a spell of r and r in Rio which is described in detail, after which his way though the rest of Brazil and Argentina is glossed over somewhat. The narrative then goes on to focus in detail on his journey back up the central and eastern parts of South America through the Andes, much of which he made in the company of two Frenchmen who had their own four-wheeled transport.

Central America and then the USA follow, where Simon made a long stop at a kind of commune in Northern California. Once in Australia we get some of the most interesting and perceptive descriptions of people. Simon makes no bones of the fact that he arrived Down Under with a head full of preconceptions and stereotypes about the kind of folk he’d find there, but these are largely dispelled by the interesting assortment of people he encountered, and there are some keenly observed character sketches of the truckers among whom he spent an enforced spell while waiting for the floodwaters of swollen rivers to subside while heading up the East Coast.

After Australia comes the far east, and the centrepiece of this section of Jupiter’s Travels are his travels in India, again a time of fateful encounters and much spiritual rumination about his own nature, and the nature of his journey. One thing that struck me when I first read this book more than ten years ago, and which still strikes me when I read it, is that it could be some time yet before the journey he made overland from Pakistan back into Turkey can be made so relatively safely again. Of course there are ways and means even today, but in some ways the World was a more certain place back then.

Packed full of insight, colourful characters, a sense of wonder at the vastness of the world and a general joie de vivre, I highly recommend Jupiter’s Travels. You don’t have to be a member of the Triumph Owners’ Club or a long distance motorbiker to enjoy it, but be warned: reading the book could well turn you into either one or the other, and possibly both.

 

David Jones: The Overlooked War Poet?

This year being the anniversary of World War One’s outbreak, there is of course no end of books, exhibitions, television and radio programmes and the like devoted to it.

Inevitably people’s minds are also focussed more at the moment on those writers who wrote about the War. I suppose, being cynical about it, that the anniversary represents something of a commercial opportunity for a lot of publishers to release or re-release editions of Great War poetry or the many memoirs written by survivors.

Less cynically, I like to think that the reading public would have gravitated back to the works that came out the War anyway, since so many of them are part of the cultural landscape. Generations of Britons have studied poetry by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in school. Books like  Goodbye to All That or All Quiet on the Western Front have also been widely read since publication and remain not only popular but classics of their kind.

However, there is one writer who took the War as the theme for one of his great long works, but who remains somewhat off radar as far as the general public is concerned, and is one mainly for the scholars. His name is David Jones. Jones was actually both a talented writer and artist. Born in 1895, a Londoner of mixed Welsh-English descent, he served on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918 in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His first major literary work to be published was In Parenthesis in 1937. It drew directly on his experiences as a soldier on the Front. Published by Faber and Faber, TS Eliot acknowledged it as a major work, and wrote an introduction to it. Hailed upon publication, it remains highly rated today and remains the work for which Jones is most well known.

It was followed by The Anathemata, another long poem, in 1952.

Jones probably isn’t more widely known because, to be frank about it, both of these poems on which his reputation rests are both very long, and quite difficult. I am currently reading The Anathemata, and while there are passages in it of great beauty, and phrases that leap out at me and strike a chord, more often than not I console myself with TS Eliot’s phrase (which always springs to mind when I encounter verse that defies me to make sense of it) that “a poem can communicate before it is understood.”

In Parenthesis  is less of a challenge in comparison to the later work, but remains a challenge nonetheless. Though his work is rooted in myth, religion and the ancient past, as a writer he is every inch the modernist, having much in common with poets like Eliot, Pound and Bunting. He is an experimenter, and challenges the reader. That said, although Jones weaves in all manner of historical, mythical and religious allusions into the text, it is most definitely about the War and his experience of War. There is, therefore, plenty to help the reader orientate him or herself when reading the poem. 

I’m in danger of making the work sound more inaccessible than it actually is. While not every single line might connect with its audience first time (and some may not at all), there are passages in the poem of great power. Jones’s visual art naturally informed his written work, and results in vivid images and passages that are easy to picture in the mind’s eye.

Here is a link to a Guardian Books podcast, where Robin  Robertson reads from the final part of Jones’s poem. https://audioboo.fm/boos/1276875-guardian-books-poetry-podcast-robin-robertson-reads-david-jones#t=2m14s

Recordings also exist of Jones in later life reading from the poem in a very evocative voice that is part drawl, part growl. If I find a link I’ll add it to a future post.

 

 

 

 

Fear and Self-Loathing in Holland Park: A review of “Enter a Fox” by Simon Gray.

“I’m quite used to giving various degrees of displeasure as I go through life, in my prime I was capable of dishing it out deliberately, nowadays it’s accidental, but perhaps i give off an atmosphere of long-accumulated, infantile resentments, thus having the same appeal, say, as a cheese at once over-ripe and immature. Anyway, it’s my contention […] that people are likely to respond unfavourably to me before they even know me (after they know me it’s not necessarily a different story by the way), in fact virtually on sight […]”

 

Quite an admission, that, but it comes early on (page 18) in Enter a Fox, Simon Gray’s journal-cum-memoir which ostensibly tries to sketch out the unfortunate history of his play The Late Middle-Classes to find a berth in the West End, despite solid reviews and being a solid production. However, like Gray’s other books of memoirs, it takes in far, far more than its purported subject and is really a day-to-day account of the slings and arrows that Gray has to contend with during the course of a given day, together with his musings on a myriad of other subjects.

Gray will continue to remain known as a playwright, but in the last decade of his life (he died in 2008) he became equally well known for his diary-memoirs published under the banner title of The Smoking Diaries.  Prior to these books he published an equally funny memoir of two productions of his play The Common Pursuit (I reviewed them here), and Fat Chance, a tell-all account of his ill-fated mid-90’s play Cell Mates, a production that was famously and fatally holed below the waterline when Stephen Fry did an infamous runner to Belgium (as you do…) a mere three days into the play’s West End run.

Perhaps it’s experiences like the latter that convinced Gray that the Gods really did have the dice loaded against him. But neither could it have helped his lot in life that his “aggressive” drinking habit (champagne by day, before getting starred on the Glenfiddich by night) proved to be near fatal. There is, then, a general air of despondency and of a lack of confidence that hangs over Gray as self-depicted in these books. However, it’s to his credit that he uses himself as the raw material for his set pieces and jokes throughout. The resultant tone is always generally painful  (in a comedy of embarrassment sense) but rarely if ever self-pitying. In fact I generally tend to find in these books that where the emotion is at its rawest it is genuinely touching and poignant.

I won’t try to summarise the book’s contents because really it consists of the day-to-day doings of an academic type of Englishman getting on in years. He gets out of breath a lot, smokes a lot, writes about his pets a lot, writes about friends (most notably Harold Pinter who directed many of his plays) and family and dwells humorously (for us) and painfully (for him) at far too much length on the slights (perceived and real) that are dealt out to him by others every once in a while. And he also writes insightfully about his art and craft of being a playwright, and of the unpredictable business of getting them staged.

If this appeals,  then do try reading the Smoking Diaries, but don’t overlook Enter a Fox, a small gem of a book where Gray found his unusual and engaging voice as a memoirist.

 

 

 

 

Book review: Communion by Whitley Strieber.

Communionalien

A typical ‘grey’ as depicted on the cover of Striber’s Communion: Fact, fiction or figment of the imagination?

 

First an admission: I don’t really have an interest in the whole alien question much beyond what most people (I’m supposing) would think, which are thoughts along the lines of ‘are we alone in the universe?’. And for what it’s worth, my own views on the matter are that a) I don’t know and b) if there were aliens it wouldn’t surprise me if they gave Earth a wide berth given the odd behaviour of so many of us earthlings.

Far more interesting to me is the (perhaps) associated phenomenon of UFOs, the emphasis being firmly on the ‘U’ in UFO. I once heard the Chief of Air Traffic Control in the UK interviewed on the radio about incursions of Russian military air traffic into UK air space.  At the end of his interview the presenter half jokingly turned to the topic of what proportion of craft in UK air space in any given month could not properly be identified. The Chief’s answer was, I think I recall rightly, some 5% of it.

Cue surprise from a presenter who had, it seemed, struck gold but who had run out of time to pursue this fascinating avenue.

Of course the Chief’s answer did not imply that we were being visited by inhabitants of another planet/ dimension/ whatever in their craft. But it did lift the lid on what might be flying around up there, whether it be military or secret service craft, unidentifiable civilian craft, spy drones, space debris, little green men and the like.

So anyway I have a vague interest in this stuff because I try to keep an open mind on all things, but wouldn’t say it’s a topic that engages my full attention.

However, having heard Whitley Strieber on a podcast interview some while ago, I finally decided to read on of his books. Communion dates from 1986 and remains something of a cause celebre for the author. Up until that point, Striber was mainly known for his thriller and horror novels.  However, Communion is a memoir of a set of his experiences which began in late 1986 when he was abducted by ‘visitors’. By visitors he means ‘Greys’.

At this point it gets tricky. Greys, of course, are by now firmly part of the modern culture, and they’re widely assumed to be those responsible for the majority of cases of alien abduction. Are the Greys real? Does abduction really occur?  Strieber says they are real, and the book is his account of being abducted. However, he is at pains in the book to point out that he doesn’t know really who they are or where they’re from, hence his use of the term ‘visitors’ rather than ‘aliens’, with its extra-terrestrial connotations.

The book gets off to a blistering start by telling you exactly what happened from his own perspective. Whether you end up believing him or not, this account of his being taken and what happened when he was in the visitor’s craft is really well done. Strieber the novelist is in control at this point in the book, and it shows in the level of detail and pacing. This is not the kind of thing you want to read by yourself late at night and the already dark nature of the material is given a stronger flavour by the fact that this is published as a memoir and not as fiction.

That said, while it reads extremely well, you still either believe him or you don’t. To stress the point that it was real to him, he includes as an appendix the findings of a lie detector test that he took. Even with this as evidence, if you are a sceptic about the UFO and abduction phenomenon, you may not come away from this book having changed your mind. In fact, Strieber’s experiences as described are so extreme that you may find it just too outlandish.

Clearly at the time of writing he was in torment and definitely confused about the real explanation for what happened, and so large chunks of this book are given over to attempts to explain who the visitors may be and what they may want. However, because Strieber won’t commit himself to one explanation this leads him into several layers of explanation. For example, he could have committed himself and said that he thought these were aliens from another galaxy, but he didn’t. I understand why he did this, but ultimately it makes for some rather wooly theoretical passages where he explores all the various possible origins and explanations.

All in all this is a very worthwhile book, but don’t come to it looking for any concrete answers. There’s plenty of insight, but then again you have to take a leap of faith and believe him in what he says for this to be of much value to you.

As for me, I rate it pretty high as a tale, less so as a work of science/ psychology, but it’s still worth dipping into nonetheless if you get the chance. I suppose what prevents me from dismissing it as all a figment of a troubled imagination is the fact that he published the story at all. He’s said on many occasions since that going public with his abduction story caused him a lot of aggravation. If the book is fiction masquerading as fact, then why publish and bring a lot of notoriety and ridicule down on himself?

Like the strange 5% of unidentified things floating round in UK air space, the answer perhaps is up in the air.