‘Head of State’ by Andrew Marr

This definitely gets an “Oblique Good Read Award”.

It’s a political thriller- and a satire.

It was written by Andrew Marr, well-known in the UK as a political writer and broadcaster (and artist). As such, it has a ring of authenticity, and echoes of his drily witty, sometimes tongue-in-cheek voice.

Head of State Cover001The novel is set in the middle of a European referendum campaign. There is a crisis in the pro-Europe camp, which results in a fiendish plot. I won’t give you any spoilers; it is in many ways farcical, but none the worse for that.

There is a great cast of characters: politicians, press, broadcasters, criminals and others. Many are larger than life, and enjoyably so. The Prime Minister is “magisterial” with “louche private behaviour”. The leader of the anti-Europe faction is a dominatrix. Yes, really; but luckily I don’t think Mr Marr will win any bad sex awards. One or two real personalities appear, and there are references to Mr Marr’s own Sunday morning TV programme. It appears there are some in-jokes, such as a knighthood for one broadcaster.

A huge selling point for me is that the book is plot-driven. I read it in two days, acknowledging the satire but gripped by wanting to know the outcome. There is also some nice use of language: for example, one character is “dishevelled”, another is “shevelled”. The authentic-sounding detail of politics and political places is used well but not excessively. As it was written in 2014, it necessarily has been overtaken in certain ways by events, which does not in any way prevent it from being a thoroughly enjoyable read.


Oddball Reviews #5: ‘Tubular Bells’ by Mike Oldfield (1973)

Increasingly, people are moving away from albums and indeed away from physical recorded music formats. An album, children, was a collection of pieces of music, often with a common theme. This album, issued of course originally as a vinyl LP, was groundbreaking. (Yes, of course you know what a vinyl LP was.)

It consisted of two long pieces of music, one on each side. It was pretty much all instrumental, apart from a section of introductions of instruments by Viv Stanshall, of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band fame. Apart from that, almost all the instruments were played by Mike Oldfield, already known as an accomplished guitarist, having played with Kevin Ayers.

It’s perhaps hard to appreciate how revolutionary this album seemed at the time. The length, which was very novel to rock and pop listeners, inevitably drew comparisons with so-called “classical” music, although ‘Tubular Bells’ is more a collection of linked themes. Overdubbing, the layering of recorded parts, was familiar, perhaps most notably due to the Beatles, but the idea of one musician doing almost all the parts was very new.

I notice that I have written all that in the past tense, but of course this is recorded music, and side 2 is playing as I speak. For me, the album is beautiful. It has lovely tunes, which join seamlessly. The guitar playing is outstanding.

For those who don’t know it, the opening is on piano and (I think) glockenspiel and is in a very peculiar time signature: 15/8, or a bar of 7/8 then a bar of 8/8. Its unexpected nature sets the tone for the rest. There are some straightforward rock parts (the “Piltdown Man” section) and lyrical pastoral passages. It ends with a hornpipe. Why not?

The making of ‘Tubular Bells’ and its subsequent history, along with the history of Mike Oldfield himself, are worthy of a book. There has probably been one written.

I could myself quite happily write a long blog on the connections with my favourite bands, Gong and Soft Machine. But I won’t bore you any further; I urge you to listen to ‘Tubular Bells’ if you don’t know it, or to relisten to it if you do.

How I missed it from The Oblique Top Albums List I do not know.

‘Spare and Found Parts’ by Sarah Maria Griffin

Gosh, I thought, this is good. (Yes, I do talk like that to myself.)

Two thirds of the way through, I started to change my mind; but the final verdict is “Jolly Good (with reservations)”.

Spare and Found Parts001

This is a science fiction/ young adult novel, with a smidgen of fantasy. How do you know it’s science fiction? It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future. How do you know it’s young adult? The protagonist is a teenager (and love is involved). What’s an old bloke like me doing reading young adult books? Why, that paragon of good taste, Ms. O. included it in her latest loan batch.

Nell, the aforementioned protagonist, lives in a world which has been devastated by plague, somehow brought on by technology, The plague has killed most of the population. Most of those who are left have been damaged in some way and have prosthetic replacements. Thus Nell has a new heart; her father, who has done much of the replacement work, has a new arm.

Nell has grown to be a troubled girl since the death of her mother, and when scavenging for discarded old technology finds a mannequin’s arm, which she determines to use as the basis for a (male) android companion.

Up to the construction of the android, I found the book compelling and believable. However, at that point you have to believe that Nell just joins the parts together, with a small computing unit of some sort, and it works. It becomes sentient. This all strikes me as very implausible; rather like the unexplained space travel in ‘The Space Between the Stars’ by Anne Corlett.

However, having got over this obstacle, the realisation of the android’s character and the ending were moving and powerful. I won’t do a spoiler, but it was a very satisfying resolution.

So, to sum up, a very pleasingly detailed and plausible setting; well-developed characters; a moving and thoughtful story. Set against that, poorly explained science, but it’s still a winner, in the Oblique view.

Unfinished Books 2

Just a gentle ramble.

I have written on this before, saying “…you should not struggle to finish a book if you are not enjoying it or do not believe it’s doing you some good”. And: “…whatever your age, there are impossibly more books than you will ever be able to read. Move on.” (See Unfinished Books.)

I am however still intrigued by the reasons I have stopped reading a book, or have not started it. As I said in my last post, I gave up on ‘Les Misérables’ by Victor Hugo, after whipping through about a hundred pages. My excuse was that it was boring, with “beige” prose and a “glacial” plot. That rather gives away my preference for plot driven fiction.

Unfinished and Unstarted 2I also gave up on ‘The Accident on the A35′ by Graeme Macrae Burnet. This is a pastiche on a French detective novel, which I found too clever for its own good, wrapping up a plot I found dull in a conceit that it had been written by a dead French author. Now one of the author’s previous novels was nominated for the Booker Prize, so obviously I am missing something. I say that sincerely, without sarcasm. The Guardian says it is “accomplished and multilayered’. So what do I know?

Moving on to non-fiction, it was with some excitement that I found a copy of ‘The Ginger Line’, an account of a day’s walk round the London Overground, by Iain Sinclair. What more could I want? Railways, odd bits of London…. I started it twice. Initially I was excited by the dense thicket of prose, rather like a collaboration between William Gibson and Peter Ackroyd. I decided that I wanted to follow the route on a map, so restarted. That interrupted the narrative flow of the book. So…. well, in the end I found it all a bit tiresome. I think what finally did it for me was the mention of his walking partner planning a project in which he takes a procession to a cave in which he will stay for forty days and forty nights; a performance piece? A film?

That interesting chap and wonderful bassist (among other things) Jah Wobble has met Mr Sinclair and thought he had a “rather sneering attitude to regular people”. Hm. All I’ll say is his prose is too rich for me. However I found Mr Wobble’s autobiographical ‘Memoirs of a Geezer’ very readable and re-readable.

Unfinished and Unstarted 1All on that list is rather clever fiction. As far as non-fiction goes, looking through my bookshelves, I found ‘Samuel Pepys- The Unequalled Self’ by Clare Tomalin. It is no doubt very readable, but I am rather ashamed to say that I just couldn’t get on with it. To go back to my original criteria for persisting with a book, I was not enjoying it: I do believe it might do me good to know more about Pepys, but, as usual….. hey, life is too short. And Miss O, her friend and my sister-in-law have just given me several more books to read. Deep joy.

‘Les Misérables’

But it hasn’t got any songs.”


I’m sure that most people who have watched the current BBC TV production of ‘Les Misérables’ were perfectly aware that it was not going to have any songs, and of course that the original novel by Victor Hugo does not have any songs. Nevertheless, I find the allegation that some viewers have not enjoyed it for that reason to be very interesting. If it is true, then almost certainly they had come to the current drama by way of the very popular musical, which was premiered (in French) in 1980, was a huge theatrical success in English and was made into a hugely successful film in 2012.

There is a school of thought which regards the original source of any story as somehow better than adaptations. I have some sympathy for this when the adaptation is poor, or strays a long way from the original. However, a good adaptation can provide an entry point to the original, or at least provide a convenient way to enjoy an important story or make it better known. (After all, how many people read the ‘Iliad’ in the original Greek? And wasn’t it originally, as so often, an oral tale?)

So, to ‘Les Misérables’. So many people whose opinion I value (yes, that may well include you) raved about the musical that we went to see it. It was visually spectacular, but just didn’t move us. For me, a musical has to have some sort of justification for the songs. ‘Sunny Afternoon’, the Ray Davies musical about the Kinks, of course has their original songs. ‘The Greatest Showman’, the story of circus impresario P.T. Barnum, is essentially in the context of a show with music. However, despite my efforts, most musicals don’t move me: I include opera in this. The music is great, the songs can be great, but the whole concept doesn’t work for me. So it was for the musical ‘Les Misérables’.

(By the way, do people other than me still say “raved about”?)

However…… as I mentioned above (do keep up at the back there) an adaptation can provide a good entry point to an original. In this case, although the musical didn’t encourage me to read the original novel, I thought I was probably missing something, so was eager to see the six part BBC TV production.

Of course, having six hours to tell the story enables much more of the original novel to be used than the two hours 40 minutes of the film musical, especially when the characters don’t have to break into song every five minutes. The production was written by Andrew Davies, who has done some very impressive classical adaptations. In an interview, he said he had made the chronology of the original Victor Hugo novel and had removed the digressions. Without having read the original and with one episode still to go, I would say that he and the cast and others have done a fine job.

It’s a tale of redemption and obsession. It has a lot of misery in it- the clue is in the title- and one certainly gets a very good idea of the appalling condition of the poor in 19th century France. However, humanity shines through. The plot is told clearly. After the first two episodes one was in no doubt of who everybody is, and how they begin to relate to each other. I thoroughly recommend it, unless of course it has aliens landing in the final episode. (Although that might be fun.)

Andrew Davies has a reputation for “sexing up” classical texts. Mr Darcy’s wet shirt in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is often cited as an example. I’m not convinced this is fair, but then again, I don’t fancy Colin Firth. I didn’t really spot the alleged sexing up of ‘Les Misérables’.

So, having enjoyed it so much, in a spirit of adventure I started to read the original novel. It is, of course, a translation from the French; so the version I read was not really original. (In general, as I believe I may have written before, I try not to read translations, because there is so much to read in English and so little time to finish it all.)

It’s long. The Penguin Classics version is 1232 pages. That in itself wouldn’t stop me, but…. The first hundred pages is, to my mind, rather boring back story, not chronologically the beginning, just the sort of thing Andrew Davies clarified. The prose in the translation I tried (not Penguin) is what I can best describe as beige. The plot moves glacially. I am sure I am missing some literary points, but, dear readers, I have stopped.

I strongly believe that you should not struggle to finish a book if you are not enjoying it or do not believe it’s doing you some good. (See Unfinished Books.) I was not enjoying Les Misérables, I don’t find it positively life-changing and I don’t need to read it for academic purposes. You may, of course, differ, and I wouldn’t want to discourage you.

I would, however, recommend the BBC adaptation as a great introduction and a great way to enjoy the story in its own right.

That is, of course, unless those aliens land in the last episode.

Footnote 1: Interesting point for pedants? “Premiere” seems to have lost its grave accent (as in première) when it passed into English. “Les Misérables” retains its acute accent, no doubt because it is a title.

Footnote 2: Other adaptations of ‘Les Misérables’ are available.

‘Europe at Dawn’ by Dave Hutchinson

This was going to be a rave, “you must read this” review. It still is, but with an added health warning.

europe at dawn001It is the fourth and final book in the ‘Fractured Europe’ series. The setting is a near-future Europe, after an influenza epidemic. The EU has broken into its member states, but these states have further fractured. So, for example, Scotland is independent, but there are now moves for the Orkneys to be independent. City states, such as Dresden-Neustadt, are developing. There are nations, polities, duchies, sanjaks, principalities, communes and so on and so on.

To complicate matters, there is a trans-Europe railway, called The Line, which has declared its own independence as a state, with its own borders. Pushing the science-fiction boundaries further, a country called The Community is revealed, which is somehow in a mini space-time of its own but is connected to Europe. It is rather like England several decades ago.

To further complicate matters, we learn of a shadowy group called Les Coureurs des Bois, who do what the label says: they are couriers, carrying messages, parcels and even people through the new and sometimes difficult borders of the new world. (Interestingly there were once real Coureurs des Bois in Canada, who were basically fur trading agents. Go on, look it up.)

‘Europe at Dawn’ and its predecessors are essentially spy novels, with politics and science fiction mixed in. There are many vivid characters, including Rudi, who is a chef who is somehow also a Coureur, Ben/Benno, a refugee stranded on a Mediterranean island (which itself declares independence as the Aegean Republic), Alice, a cultural worker at the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn, who somehow becomes a Coureur but maybe isn’t- oh, Benno is also a Coureur but maybe isn’t- you get the picture. It’s complicated. I can’t begin to précis the plot.

There is the health warning. I loved it, but it’s all so confusing I’m not sure how much I want to recommend it. It would probably be best to read the sequence, starting with ‘Europe in Autumn’ in order; I think I will have to re-read all of them again and make one of my charts of characters to get a grip on it. And do you know what, I think I will. It’s the only way I will understand how this finishes the series.

I love a good complicated plot. As with William Gibson novels, you don’t have to completely grasp this story to enjoy it. With hindsight, I now see how it reminds me of Gibson in its multiple viewpoints and plot threads, and its story arcs across books. If you like Gibson, if you like near-future science-fiction: give it a try. Blame me if you hate it.

(Note: you will see from the rather second-rate image that I read it on a Kindle. This is not a bad idea if you want to keep track of the characters and places.)

Soft Machine at the 1865, Southampton (22nd November 2018)

Soft Machine 1865 22nd November

This gig was originally scheduled for  Talking Heads, where we first saw the Soft Machine (see Soft Machine at Talking Heads ) back in 2016. How can it be more than two years already? Sadly, that lovely venue has now closed, and all the bands now play at the 1865. It’s under the same management, I believe, but the 1865 has previously had less character. However, for this gig there have been tables and chairs put in, so there is a much more pleasant atmosphere.

On this occasion we took- with some trepidation- my oldest friend, MSC, who is more of an Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young man.

Soft Machine now comprise John Etheridge, a superb and versatile guitarist who I first saw play with Stephane Grapelli; Theo Travis, a great sax player who played with Gong for quite a while, and has recently played with David Gilmour; then Roy Babbington on bass and John Marshall on drums, both now in their 70s.

In their 70s? You wouldn’t know it, given the verve and indeed attack with which they play.

The band have a new album out, ‘Hidden Details’, and open with the title track and another, before a long introduction to everybody from John Etheridge. There follows another new one, with some remarkably free jazz blowing, which I feel leaves MSC a little uneasy. My apologies; I haven’t played the new CD yet, leaving it as a treat to myself, so can’t necessarily name all the tracks.

They play two sets, with a wide range from the 1970s up to 2018. It’s lovely to hear the older pieces given complete reworkings, principally with the keyboards of Mike Ratledge and Karl Jenkins replaced by sax and flute. Stand out older tracks are the Ratledge compositions ‘The Man Who Waved at Trains” and “Gesolreut”, as well as the lovely Jenkins piece “The Tale of Taliesin”. Modern pieces range from the heavy to the delicate, including “Fourteen Hour Dream” and “Life on Bridges”.

The oldest piece is “Out-Bloody-Rageous” from the “Third” album, a huge favourite of mine, updated with respect and care.

It’s all played with wonderful musicianship, great and relevant improvisation, and huge enjoyment. This is the sort of gig where the musicians get up on stage from the audience, John Etheridge carrying his guitars on, and chat during the interval. It’s the sort of gig where they are watching what the others are doing and even smiling.

They finish with a four part medley: a Theo Travis piece about Pluto (really), “Tarebos”, a Mike Ratledge riff, a great and powerful John Marshall drum solo and finally “Hazard Profile Part 1”, another huge favourite, with an awesome riff and lovely soloing.

There is an inevitable encore, after John Etheridge has told us that we’ve made “a bunch of happy men very old”: it’s “Chloe and the Pirates”, a beautiful track from the album “Sixth”.

I’m sorry to say that that, my friends, was the last gig of this tour, which has ranged from Japan to America, Canada and Europe. It was lovely for me that they finished in Southampton. If you ever get a chance, and you appreciate great musicianship, go and see them. I don’t think the album will disappoint, if it’s anything like the gig.

Note 1: MSC did enjoy it, which made me very happy.

Note 2: The support act were “Silas and Saskia”. Saskia has a good voice. Silas makes interesting techno noises. However, the two don’t seem to us to complement each other. They needed a better sound mix which made the vocals clearer. (And they did play glissando guitar, Gong folks.)

Note 3: The photo is courtesy of Mr Mark Cole.