Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Best Things Ever #16 Alice in Sunderland

So, there's this book, right...
...And it's a graphic novel...

Except it's not a novel: It's a potted history of the North East of England. Principally it tells the tale of the city of Sunderland's influence on the imagination of Lewis Carroll. Though that's like calling Ulysses the story of a man who goes for a walk. It digresses and it deviates into everything from a dissection of the Bayeux Tapestry to an examination of public art on display on the Sunderland waterfront; the Viking invaders and vandals at Lindisfarne to the Hartlepool Monkey, taking  in every artistic style from Hergé to Hogarth along the way. There's full comic strip interludes, an intermission and a big musical finale. Yet the thread that holds it all together, that every narrative arc coils around, is Lewis Carroll.

Bryan Talbot is one of the founding fathers of British Graphic art. A professional illustrator since the late 1960s, Talbot has had a prolific career over the years. He has illustrated everything from Neil Gaiman's Sandman to staple characters like Nemesis the Warlock and Judge Dredd for 2000ad. More recently he co-produced 'Dotter of her Father's Eye', a graphic novel with his wife. It depicts Mary Talbot's early life, growing up with her father, the Joycean scholar, James Atherton. Wound around this is the tale of the relationship between Joyce and his own daughter, Lucia. It amply demonstrates what a broad church the comic book genre has become in the 21st century. From Scott Pilgrim to Shakespeare, all of human imagination is to be found here.
Talbot though has made his name through his solo works. The pan-dimensional steam-punk romp, 'The Adventures of Luther Arkwright' is sublime and along with 'When the Wind Blows' is generally regarded as one of the first graphic novels published by a British artist. What makes him a pioneer of graphic art is his roving mind and his wide palate. 'The Tale of One Bad Rat', released in 1995, deals with homelessness and child abuse: Grandville, his ongoing detective series, centres on Detective Inspector LeBrock, an anthropomorphised Badger with a taste for meting out violent, summary justice. The third book in the series, 'Grandville Bette Noir', is due for release in December.

There's also 'Alice in Sunderland'.

I first encountered 'Alice in Sunderland' watching 'Comics Britannia', BBC Four's three part documentary on the history of the UK comic industry. I love comics. Growing up on naval estates, no Christmas stocking was complete without the Battle annual. We'd unwrap it at midnight and climb to bed to read tales of plucky Tommies fighting behind enemy lines.

There was also 'The Beano' and 'The Dandy', which I read well past the age at which I was meant to be too grown up for such childishness. Turns out I wasn't the only one.

Yet the comic that has stayed with me right into adulthood is 2000ad. There's something uncompromising and unpatronising about 2000ad. It's partly the era in which it was founded. The recession and constant threat of nuclear war cast a dark shadow over Britain in the 1970s and this is reflected in the characters that emerged over the years. In Judge Dredd I first encountered the idea of a dystopian future, long before Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four. 2000ad was a godsend for a boy with an overactive imagination and an obsession with science fiction. It led me to Jules Verne and Philip K Dick. And in time literature led me back to comics.
I was researching a short story where the heroine was meant to be ephemeral. She was originally going to be a comic book character, but I can't draw for toffee, so I made her a fictional character instead. To heighten her ephemeral nature, I wanted to have a series of illustrations to accompany the text. I decided to have a look at some graphic art and get some ideas while I worked on the story and then find an artist when I was finished.

I read some classics (2000ad collections, Alan Moore novels, Maus) and the story formed in my mind. And then Comic Britannia started, its first two parts chronicling everything I had read as a kid, The Beano, The Dandy, Commando and Battle. And in the final part was everything that I had been reading since reconnecting with the genre. The only inclusion that was new to me was Alice in Sunderland.

I ordered a copy online but it failed to arrive. And then we heard that Bryan Talbot was giving a talk in Manchester off the back of the BBC Four programme. We went along to watch and I was bought a copy of the book to get signed. Talbot inscribed it and drew a Mad Hatter in gold pen. A few days later I started reading.
Now, maybe it's just that it appeals to my interests and deals with an area I know so well, my brother having moved to Sunderland over fifteen years ago, but I do think that Alice in Sunderland is one of the true masterpieces of this still relatively young genre. There's Maus and Footnotes in Gaza to add to that list, both of which deal with historical atrocities in strikingly different styles. And Watchmen, which has yet to be surpassed in storyline, even twenty five years after its release. It is frequently cited on lists of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibson are both former contributors to 2000ad.

Alice in Sunderland is different though. It's lavish. If Watchmen gives good narrative then Alice in Sunderland delivers the visual feast. It drifts in style, black and white to full colour, traditional comic strip to digital photography, sometimes in frames, sometimes spilling out to encompass the entire page. It has a page drawn by the legendary Leo Baxendale, the man who created the Bash Street Kids for The Beano. There's also a comic rendering of Henry V's 'Once more unto the breach' speech, as well as digressions into fully contained tales like The Lambert Worm and Jack Crawford, The Hero of Camperdown. Even a comic strip version of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.
To try and describe the book as simply as possible, there this bloke, who is Bryan Talbot, who goes to a theatre, which is empty, to watch a performance given by a man, who is also Bryan Talbot. The entire thing is part lecture, part vaudeville performance. It centres on Sunderland and the Sunderland Empire, which is a hundred years old that evening, but sweeps out to encompass London and Scandinavia in its widening gyre. It also connects Oxford to Sunderland, for Lewis Carroll had family in the North East and apparently spent many holidays in the area. Some of its geographical features may even have inspired elements of the Alice books.

There is a third version of Talbot, the Pilgrim, who breaks out of the confines of the theatre and rows up the river Wear and travels back in time and gives guided tours of real locations in the city and environs. It's a book filled with history, packed to the rafters with maps and photographs and reproductions of John Tenniel's illustrations for the Alice novels. Lewis Carroll gave few actual descriptions of the characters that Alice encounters in Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and they owe much of their popular imaginary to John Tenniel's artwork, which was published in the original editions.
From John Tenniel, Alice in Sunderland spins out into all the other artists inspired by Alice and through all the other mediums that have attempted to capture her essence, from theatre to cartoon, Dali to Lennon, Jabberwocky to The Matrix. Yet like any good storyteller, Talbot also includes the personal. His hometown Wigan is woven into the fabric of the story with connections back through George Orwell and George Formby and Talbot's memories of his gran. And aside from Lewis Carroll, the central thread on which the story hangs is that of a regretful elder man addressing his younger self, one of a number of universal themes explored in Alice in Sunderland.

Yet because this is a book about Alice, it is also about dreams. We see the author awake in the middle of the plot, panicking about the insanity of drawing a dream. We see the action spontaneously change scene and change topic and the ghosts of long dead comic actors rise from the grave. The overall structure is more ordered than a dream. The book is often discursive but never irrelevant. It seeks only to inform as it entertains and creates an intensely personal document as it does so.
The personal is ultimately what appeals to me about Alice in Sunderland. It is a singular one-off performance. The traditional graphic novel couldn't achieve the same effect, it would be too hampered by the need to advance the storyline and conform to conventional plots. There are many graphic novels, the best amongst them, that could ultimately be boiled down to description purely by words. Not so Alice in Sunderland. It is a book and a concept that absolutely needs to be a graphic novel. It would be almost impossible to do it any other way. It takes the ephemera of the dreaming world, the ephemera of alice, of Carroll, of Cambridge, Wigan and Sunderland and creates a book like a funfair ride, one that can seem to be spinning out of control, but is always within the artist's grasp. It demonstrates how much history can be found in your own backyard and how everything in the universe ultimately connects back to everything else. If I had to take one graphic novel to a desert island, it would be Alice in Sunderland.

I'm no technophobe (I'm permanently plugged into the internet via one device or another), but I do prefer to experience certain things in the traditional way. I don't think I'll ever be converted to the Kindle or other e-readers. I prefer lamp lit to backlit. I enjoy the smell of paper, turning the page in anticipation of what is to come. It's almost like a ritual, a reassurance that whatever happens there are always more books to read. Much as I love technology, books needs to access the tactile senses in order to help the connection between writer and reader form. To hold a book like Alice in Sunderland, with its A4 format and its glossy, heavy pages and hardback spine, is to feel that need satiated. Talbot calls the book an entertainment, but it's more than that, it's an event, the way reading should be. Read it and then revisit sections at your leisure to tease out the details. The best books you have to read more than once. That's why they're the best, because they keep on giving.

Alice in Sunderland is book for anyone with a curious mind and a thirst for knowledge. It's like watching an entire series of QI on DVD; it's witty and informative with the occasional minor mistake (the Hartlepool Monkey is almost certainly an urban legend that came down from Scotland in ballad form). Yet I love it all the more for that. Print media may well be moribund, but graphic novels should prevail long after what's left of the medium had died out. Comic books and graphic novels aren't merely for reading, they are for collecting. And that signed first edition of Alice in Sunderland that sits on my bookcase takes pride of place.
Postscript: I wrote the short story. It is called A Woman of Conviction. I still don't have an artist. Contact me if you are an artist or know of anyone who would like to get involved.

Four More One Offs

Britten and Brulightly
On the face of it a private detective procedural, the action follows Fernandez Britten after he is hired to investigate a suicide. Britten's partner, Brulightly, is a talking teabag. Good old fashioned film noir with a damp British tint.

Footnotes in Gaza
Investigative journalist Joe Sacco presents his enquiries in comic book form. In 'Footnotes in Gaza' he sets out to investigate the massacre of 111 Palestinian refugees by Israeli forces in Rafah in 1956. As Sacco's investigation proceeds the continuing conflicts in the region are never far away. A great epic of a graphic novel at over 400 pages, every panel is drawn with passion and purpose.

Art Spiegelman turns the Germans into cats and the Jews into mice in order to document his father's experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. And yet despite the anthropomorphised characters, 'Maus' realistically treats its subject matter, showing the every day of the camp, the common place, as well as its horrific ultimate purpose. A breakthrough publication.

William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books
Long before comic books were invented, William Blake was printing and self-publishing his poems as illuminated books in Lambeth. 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell', 'Songs of Innocence', 'The First Book of Urizen' and others classic poems can only be truly appreciated when you have seen then them as Blake envisaged them, with embellishments and illustrations. 'The Complete Illuminated Books' is as exactly as it states.

We Humbly Recommend... The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

People of Earth, your attention please

If there's one thing that's been with me since the year dot, it's science fiction. While Star Wars filled my head up with spaceships and ideas of telekinetic power, it was Douglas Adams that led me to the serious questions that scientists were asking. Are asking. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is meant to be a comedy and yet wound between the one liners and the absurd astronomical notions is a profundity that often borders on the philosophical.

The Hitchhiker's Guide has manifested itself in many guises. There the TV series, which has dated horribly, but still has some nice bits, especially the animated book sequences. The original radio series however is for me the best thing audio recording ever produced. I can quote most of both series, I've listened to them that many times. There is also the computer game, a text based version also written by Adams and hugely popular. There was even a stage play of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. We don't talk about the film. We never talk about the film.

Then there's the novels. Again, I have been reading these books since I was a teenager, listened to them being read by Stephen Moore and Douglas Adams until the tapes broke. I can quote large sections of them, they hold wonder to me, like Lewis Carroll or Harry Potter do for others. But also because Douglas Adams was a master at writing lean, wonderfully constructed sentences. Like the book's opening lines:

This is the story of ‘The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book, ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. More popular than ‘The Celestial Homecare Omnibus', better selling than ‘Fifty-Three More Things To Do In Zero Gravity', and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: ‘Where God Went Wrong', ‘Some More Of God's Greatest Mistakes', and ‘Who Is This God Person Anyway?'.

The first few books in the trilogy are the most coherent version of the story Douglas Adams was trying to tell. It became less coherent as the trilogy spilled over into four and five books, but certainly the first three are the definitive Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Science fiction is at its best when it is using the distant future to comment upon present day issues and the Hitchhiker's Guide is no exception. Planet Earth is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass and the last remaining human being, Arthur Dent, travels across the galaxy encountering bureaucrats and lunatics wherever he goes. The Hitchhiker's Guide is essentially the narrator of the story, or at least the book's chorus, frequent interrupting the plot with examples from the guidebook's pages.

The idea of a personal guidebook seemed farfetched when the Hitchhiker's Guide began its life in the late 70s and yet now with smart phones the phenomenon is almost ubiquitous. The Hitchhiker's Guide also features the Babel Fish, a fish that translates any language for you from inside your ear. There is now Babel Fish translation software freely available on the internet. Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov are credited with predicting much of future technology. As George Orwell knew, predicting the future is ultimately useless, yet Douglas Adams got so much right about the technological advancement of the last thirty years. And more than that, he helped shape its future course.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had a powerful effect on my mind when I first read it all those years ago and remains so today. Douglas Adams taught me the principal of reducio ad absurdo, of testing principles by reducing them to the level of the absurd. It's a useful skill to have. But mostly Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's Guide just make me laugh. They're very funny books and all quite short and the philosophical aspects are so subtly done that you barely even notice they're there. The prose rips off the tongue and the grand absurd ideas warm your brain like the spreading glow from a glass of brandy. Like Sherlock Holmes or P G Wodehouse, they're a treat. Read them and luxuriate.

An Introduction to Eponymism

What is Eponymism? Eponymism is a simple acknowledgment, best stated thus: The recognition that all sentient beings are unique and so everyone’s core ideology should be likewise unique.

By my mid-twenties, after much reading, study and contemplation, I had rejected all traditional political, philosophical and religious ideologies. Preconstructed ideologies I labelled them. Ideologies for which their adherents had gone through no soul searching or internal debate. Why bother to make sense of the world, I thought, why struggle to find your own course when you could simply steal from someone else and pass it off as your own? And yet this seemed ridiculous to me. There hadn’t been a true Christian since Christ, a true Muslim since Mohammed, a true Marxist since Marx (and even Marx had said ‘Je ne suis pas une Marixiste’). Still, millions of people claimed to be each of these things. It was precisely that lack of internal debate in trying to make sense of your place in the world which led to a cheapening of Christianity, Islam and Marxism. You could just act as you wished and then justify your actions by finding some vague passage in your sacred text of choice and shout ‘Blasphemy’ when anyone tried to challenge you. Any ideological system which could withstand no scrutiny, I decided, should be immediately thrown into the cultural bin.

And yet at the core of each of these ideologies, and a million others like them, was a seed of something worthy and useful. Eponymism is the process of looking at what others have come up with in the past, taking what applies to you, expanding and evolving those ideas to meet your own individual needs and discarding the rest. It is what each of us does anyway, we’re just too entrenched in our own self-delusions to admit this to ourselves. Look at Christianity. We have a Jewish Rabi, by the name of Joshua, who gathers a small band of followers around him and sets off to try and reform the Orthodox Jewish Church and rail against the Pharisees for their collusion with the Roman occupiers of Judea. After his death, his twelve disciples set out into the world to spread his message, but each of them interprets his message in his own way, overemphasising some parts, ignoring others. A following begins to gather momentum in the Roman Empire, where the gospels are first written down, the apostles taking to calling him by the Greek name, Iasus, to make him sound less Jewish and appeal to the Romans, who loved all things Greek. Four of these gospels are adopted by the Romans in the fourth century, which mollified the various competing Christian sects in the empire, but which agree on virtually nothing. The other gospels that have been subsequently rediscovered agree on even less.

So, even by the time the Romans came to adopt Christianity as their formal religion (a political move), the religion has already changed out of all recognition. And now consider those people who call themselves the Christian Right. Gentiles, with bank accounts, who go to church and believe in ‘An eye for an eye’, but are as far removed from any of the principles of Christianity as it is possible to be. What passes for Fundamentalist Christianity is in fact Orthodox Judaism, the kind that most Jewish people have rejected as irrelevant and out of touch. But they cling to it, without ever seeming to notice that most of what Jesus states in the Gospels is a direct rejection of the Old Testament mentality.

Yet a lot of what Joshua/Jesus is reported to have said is good and useful and not a bad template for how to live a virtuous life. If only the vast majority of those that called themselves Christians didn’t avoid his actual teachings like the plague (leprosy would be a better simile I suppose). From this arises the need to defend with terminal intensity the thing that you believe in but don’t follow. The charge of blasphemy, at least with reference to Christianity, is bizarre, given Christ’s stated beliefs on forgiveness and turning the other cheek. I love that passage in the Gospels: “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Cry, ‘Blasphemy’ and you only condemn yourself ("Hey buddy, we're Christians, we don't like what you said." "Then forgive me").

Rejecting all other ideologies in favour of my own, led me to the realisation that I could cherry pick from each of these ideologies. I could be all of them and yet none of them. It is a great release to be freed of the inertia of living up to other people’s expectations. History, I came to realise, begins at conception, and I had to figure things out for myself. I remember reading the introduction to the Penguin edition of Ulysses and first coming across the words of William Blake that have come to mean so much to me: 

‘I must Create a System, or be enslaved by another man’s, I will not Reason & Compare, my business is to Create’. 

Which is ironic, given Blake’s own lifelong religious fervour, but this is the advantage of Eponymism: Take what you need, what applies to you, and discard the rest (although I admire much in Blake, he is the atheist's religious nut of choice). The other great quote that speaks to this system of cultural plunder is from a true Eponymist, Henry Miller:

"I believe that today more than ever a book should be sought after even if it has only one great page in it: we must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and soul."

The Eponymist rejects nothing, everything is allowed, so long as it can be justified. Even the greatest monsters in history can have something to say, if it allows us to arm ourselves against their like for the future. Moreover, the rejection of any preconstructed ideology means that no section of humanity is necessarily excluded. Race, nation, religion, all become irrelevant, the Eponymist moves through other cultures as easily as a knife through butter, melting the immediate vicinity and carrying it away with him for his own purposes.

And I really do mean him, because here’s the nub of the matter. Eponymism is my ideology, it is unique to me. Even to call yourself an Eponymist is to fail to understand its one fundamental law, which is why I also call it Brian’s law, after the Monty Python film: "You're all individuals." "Yes, we're all individuals." "I'm not."  And while I honestly believe that a rejection of wholesale adherence to any belief system is the only chance of living a satisfying life, give it a name of your own (Jeffism or The Tao or Me or something). Search for answers from within, because every religious leader, philosopher, scientist and politician who has ever existed has no better idea of what’s going on than you do. Moreover, the older a system is, the more irrelevant it is. Look at the theory of gravity. Formulated by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687, superseded by Einstein in 1915. 

It is my belief (and it is just that, a belief, so judge for yourself how valid this is), that the purpose of humanity is to each find our own way, to generate random possibilities in order to move forward. Exactly the way that evolution works, but writ large across humanity. The ones that best fit, that find a happy medium between the majority, find prevalence and advance us to our next natural plateau. And then we start the process of diversification once again, separating, dividing and expanding.

Throughout history, great cultural and industrial advances have come about only when some new idea or theory arrives to blow away the old stagnant ways of looking at the world and great leaps forward are achieved as a result. From quantum mechanics to impressionism, the printing press to the internet, evolution to chaos theory, great force of intellect and personality achieved these things, and so much more, in opposition to the entrenched views of the time. With its terminal insistence on placing the Earth at the centre of the universe, the Catholic Church held Europe in a state of arrested development for a thousand years. Only with Copernicus and Galileo did the evidence become so overwhelming that the west could finally work out the mechanics of the solar system and through Newton move towards the industrial age. Dogma causes inertia, but it is no match for the power of the individual intellect. To remain part of the mouldering mass is to become so irrelevant that not even your own decedents will remember your name. I couldn't name one of my 16 great-great-grandparents and yet I can name the gay 15th century Italian artist that painted the Mona Lisa.

And there you have it: An Introduction to Eponymism. If you wish to know more you only have to read everything else that I have written and will write in the future. Eponymism is as DNA to me, encoded  into my very existence, seeping through everything that I do. You could read everything I have written and I would be very grateful if you did, because in spite of my individual beliefs I am no different to anyone else. I'm still insecure, seeking the approval of others. Just try not to become angry or paranoid if we disagree at places, you won't agree with everything I or anyone else has to say. Take comfort in your divergence. Take what you need and throw the rest away. 

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Eponymous 6

Eponymous 6

Eponymism and The Eponymist came about because I used to think that if I ever had a band I’d call them Eponymous. Our first record would of course be self-titled, with subsequent releases called things like ‘Ditto’, ‘See Above’, ‘As Previous’. Silly, pretentious Sixth-Former. And while these days I’m a little more sophisticated, I’m still as pretentious as ever and I retain the name on my blog as a warning to others of the obstacles that might lie ahead.

Anyway, I love a good eponymous album. Artists and record companies choose to release them for a variety of reasons, from the establishing of brand to the desire for a clean state to sheer bloody laziness. So here, for entirely arbitrary reasons, are six eponymous albums that bring me joy.

Rodrigo y Gabriella

I was on the phone one day outside Fopp in Manchester when I heard this kick ass Flamenco version of Metallica’s ‘Orion’. I went back inside, walked up to a member of staff and all but demanded he tell me who was on the stereo. He gave me a look and said, “This is Rodrigo y Gabriella.” as if I was the last person on Earth to have heard.

While the Metallica and Led Zeppelin covers hook you in, these are merely a gateway to the rest of the album. It’s incredible how much of a racket two people can generate using nothing but a couple of Spanish guitars, an energy they more than manage to match live. A vibrant album, rhythmic and pounding, whenever I need a kick start to the day instead of espresso I plug straight into ‘Rodrigo y Gabriella’.


Of all the albums to come out of the Bristol scene in the late 90s, Portishead's second album most closely approximates the sound that triphop seemed to be trying to achieve. Darkly it broods, a great haunted house of an album, full of long shadows and creaking floorboards and discord lurking around every corner. Yet like any good ghost story, its effect is spellbinding and finds its perfect complement in Massive Attack's Mezzanine, that other totem of triphop. Largely neglected, like the middle child that it is: for me their best.


Unlike triphop, Britpop seemed to pass from fashion to fad in the blink of an eye. While Pulp and Blur kept perhaps their best albums until after the cliché had calcified, Elastica's eponymous debut represented the strongest release that Britpop had to offer. More akin to the spirit of punk, 'Elastica' strains at the edges with tight, two minute tracks, its sixteen songs galloping to a conclusion in a little under forty minutes. And as it careers along, the influence of the Clash, the Slits, even early Chumbawamba (Jimi Hendix and Thin Lizzy) ooze out of every chord. A brilliant beginning, but sadly Britpop's best and brightest burned out far sooner than they ought. Still, it's one classic album more than most bands ever achieve.

Bob Dylan

As an evangelical Bobcat, Dylan's first album is something of a curiosity to me. Recorded in 1961 when he was just 20, 'Bob Dylan is a entirely different beast to its 1963 follow up, 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan'. While the latter showcases Dylan's emerging genius with some of his greatest compositions, his debut is an album consisting largely of folk standards he had rarely played before, the arrangements mainly purloined from other musicians he knew from playing in and around Greenwich Village. Only two of the thirteen tracks are written by Dylan. Talkin' New York is ok, but it is Song to Woody, his eulogy to Woody Guthrie, that is the album's stand out track and a warning of the creative explosion that was about to go off in Bob's head. Dylan immediately rejected the album as mistake, but everyone has to start somewhere. Not his best, but certainly not his worst (see 1979-1988), and I still know every damm word.

Led Zeppelin

In the 1970's the eponymous album was very much in vogue. From that one decade alone I could chose half a dozen albums. Yet my roots are with heavy metal and heavy metal's roots lie with Led Zeppelin's tectonic debut. It's perhaps a little hard to imagine nowadays, when metal has become mainstream and fashionable, what effect 'Led Zeppelin' had when it was first released. 'Good Times, Bad Times', 'Dazed and Confused' and 'Communication Breakdown' must have sounded like communiqué's from another planet, like the premier of Beethoven's 'Eroica' or the opening snare shot of 'Like a Rolling Stone'. Forty years on and it sounds like a blues album when compared with the thousand and one bands that Led Zeppelin spawned, along with Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Yet few of the imitators can even approach 'Led Zeppelin' and it's sequels for sheer unadulterated class.

The Good, The Bad and The Queen

Ok, so  this one is a bit of a cheat, as the band claimed to have no name. Yet iTunes lists the album as The Good, The Bad and The Queen - The Good, The Bad and The Queen, so let's go with it.

The Good, The Bad and The Queen represent that rarest of musical entities, the one album band. Comprised of Damon Albarn, former Clash bassist, Paul Simonon, former Verve guitarist, Simon Tong, and Nigerian drummer, Tony Allen, The Good, The Bad and The Queen's only album was released in 2007. Zeitgeist is a much overused word and yet the album does perfectly capture the mood and atmosphere in Britain at that moment in time. The spectre of Iraq is never far away and the approaching recession hangs like a bank of brooding grey cloud on the horizon. "Friday night in the kingdom of doom", from 'Kingdom of Doom', is such a perfect opening line that I nicked it and used as the opening line to a short story. And while the later Blur albums are brilliant and The Gorillaz ok, for me this is the best thing that Damon Albarn has yet done.

We Humbly Recommend... The Winter of Our Discontent

John Steinbeck knew how to tell a story. Moreover, he knew how to blend the mythical and the moral into those stories. His books are a searing commentary on American life in the first half of the twentieth century and on the human condition as a whole. ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘East of Eden’ are rightly regarded as classics. Dig deeper into his lesser known novels and you’ll find plenty of other gems. ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ is one of the best.

‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ centers on Ethan Hawley, a grocery clerk who has fallen on hard times and now works in the store he once owned. He is slated for his lack of ambition, but battles to maintain his integrity against the corrupting influence of small town American life. But the dam cannot hold. Ethan reports his Italian boss to the Immigration Service, getting him deported in the process, and is sucked into the same mire as those around him.

It’s a return to fall-of-man motif explored in ‘East of Eden’, but ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ is far more a comment on the degradation of contemporary society that Steinbeck had witnessed during the previous decades. Indeed, the novel is set in Long Island, where the novelist lived for a number of years. It’s one of his least harrowing, but most accessible books, and the last one he ever completed. The social commentary is there for all to see, but it reads more like a novel than the documentary feel of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ or ‘In Dubious Battle’. And as with all his greatest novels, there’s the trademark ending. John Steinbeck knew better than most how to end a novel.

The surrealist painter Magritte said he always gave his paintings abstract titles in order to lend an extra layer of mystery to the composition. With Steinbeck too, his titles add dimension and were almost always chosen from the classics. By choosing the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Steinbeck could have been using the phrase in same inaccurate way that it is used in politics (the winter of discontent is the end of discontent, the death of discontent, not the depths of it). However, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. With those words is begun a play about unravelling morality, political conspiracy and spiralling violence. ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ is hardly ‘The Godfather’, but it does remind us that whether it be shopping your boss to Immigration or shopping your brother to the king, it only takes one petty act to begin the downward spiral. It is a novel that in recent years has become relevant all over again.

We Humbly Recommend... Orwell's Non-Fiction

George Orwell was one of the most significant writers of the 20th century. Partly it's the man, partly the era that he lived through. Of Orwell's novels, most are fair, one or two extraordinary, Animal Farm's re-enactment of the major stages of any revolutionary uprising being his best. For high grade Orwell though, you have to turn to his non-fiction.

A tramp at home, a plongeur abroad  

Actually, Down and Out in Paris and London, is both fact and fiction. Orwell claimed that every event in the book actually happened to him at one time or another, though not necessarily in the same order. The Paris sections generally took place after the London ones.

The book recounts Orwell's experiences of living on the poverty line in Paris and later as a tramp on the streets of London. He'd come from a lower-upper-middle class family, educated at Eton and recently returned from serving in the Burmese police force. In Burma he'd witnessed and recorded the indignities suffered under British rule (explored in depth in The Road to Wigan Pier). He dressed as a tramp upon his return to England and went out to get amongst the poorest and assess their situation. He slept in kips, he slept in missionary huts, he even tried to get himself arrested one night. Orwell wrote and published a plethora of articles on his experiences, as well as forming the latter part of Down and Out in Paris and London.

It's a book of two halves which could almost be called Down in Paris and Out in London. The first half finds Orwell reduced in circumstances after being robbed and spending every waking hour washing dishes at a high class Parsian hotel. When he can take no more, he returns to England and his troubles really begin. It's a fictional account of a number disjointed events in the writer's life, but Down and Out in Paris and London  has all of Orwell's character traits, his curiosity and his humanity; his searching mind and ability to frame the questions that society need address to itself. It has its flaws, but an important work of anthropology and serves as a bridge to the works that followed. 

Mining the north

The Road to Wigan Pier, like Down and Out in Paris and London, is a book of two halves. The first half depicts Orwell's experiences travelling around the industrial towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the 1930s, investigating the conditions of the poor. The second half is written in essay form. It examines class consciousness and is Orwell's passionate defence of socialism. It contains the famous words, 'The working classes smell'.

Which is what the middle class were taught, we are told, and Orwell takes his own strata of society to task for their snobbish attitudes to those lower down the food chain. However, as with all his writings, it as much what The Road to Wigan Pier tells us about an important epoch in history that matters. Thirties politics was dynamic, unlike today, with widely divergent opinions fighting for supremacy, occasionally even fighting side by side. The road to Wigan Pier led George Orwell all the way to Catalonia to sign up against the fascists. These days he'd be labelled an insurgent.

The Road to Wigan Pier isn't patronising or pompous, it merely sets out Orwell's observations and his opinions and asks that they be added to the aggregate of intellectual thought on the subject. That it is done with such forthrightness is all the better. And yet like so many books written against the backdrop of the great depression, The Road to Wigan Pier speaks to the modern world with new relevance. It reminds us how far Britain has come.


For me George Orwell's most accomplished work is Homage to Catalonia. It was 1936. Even then many in Europe saw war between Germany and Great Britain as inevitable. Civil war erupted in Spain between the Nationalist fascists and the Republican co-operative of anarchists, socialists and communists. Men scurried from the continent to join the action, writers like Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee and Hemingway arrived in Spain to lend their support. George Orwell headed for Barcelona and joined the POUM militia.
Homage to Catalonia  is Orwell's memoir of life on the Aragon Front, the lice, the cold, the boredom. It also records the street fighting that broke out in Barcelona in 1937. The Republican coalition was tearing itself apart and as Orwell took leave in the city, fighting broke out between the Communists and the other leftist factions that they were trying to ban and repress. Orwell returned to the front but was shot in the throat. It ended his war and with perfect timing. The POUM had been declared illegal and its members were being rounded up under orders from Moscow. He left Spain the day the warrant was issued for his arrest.

Homage to Catalonia is Orwell's most accomplished work because it shows political disintegration in action. The egalitarian feel upon arrival in Barcelona, the seeming parity between all trades and classes, all of that disperses in such a short space of time. There is a marked changed in atmosphere in the city when he returns and it all soon boils over. He concludes that Stalin would rather lose to Spain to the fascists than have to share it with the anarchist syndicates. Absolute rule or noting. It's a salutary lesson for our time. The biggest enemy is often the one that supposed to have your back.