10 Most Influential Albums

You have MSC to blame for this one. He did this list on Facebook and (sort of) challenged me to do it. So I have, but on WordPress. Pure self-indulgence……

These are not necessarily my favourite albums…. Although some are! They are the albums which I think have most influenced my musical taste. They are roughly in order of how they occurred to me. So……

Swing ’35- ’39 by the Quintet of the Hot Club of France

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There are probably more representative albums by the quintet. There are probably albums with better sound quality. All their work was originally recorded on 78 rpm shellac discs; I only have this on vinyl.

It starts with ‘Limehouse Blues’. They play the main tune sedately, twice. Then they’re off, ripping into some of the most brilliant solos ever, played by Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grapelli. I won’t go on; look them up, but listen to them. Jim Hodgson, our music teacher, played this to us one Christmas. I’m eternally grateful.

Master of Reality by Black Sabbath

Sorry, I can’t find a copyright free image.

I bought this purely on spec; I think I must have seen it advertised. It starts with the guitarist coughing on a huge spliff (so I have read); then there are two LP sides of definitive heavy metal riffs. It was the first time I had really heard music which was out of the ordinary; a rebellion if you like. It was my entry into what was then modern music. However, I never, ever played it loud, which probably resulted in a very different experience to most heavy metal kids. Then I sold it. I still don’t know why.

Live ’92 by The Orb

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Again, I bought this purely on speculation, along with ‘Trance Europe Express Vol 2’. It totally changed my perception of music. It introduced me to samples, drum machines, sequencers and, I suppose, ambient music.

Angel’s Egg by Gong

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There’s a theme emerging here. I bought this without hearing it after reading an article about Gong in a music magazine, on the same day as I bought ‘Swing ’35-39’. It totally changed my ears, changed the way I heard things. I suppose I first loved the fantastic musicianship: the Steve Hillage guitar solos, the Pierre Moerlen drumming, the Didier Malherbe sax playing (the first time I’d ever really got a saxophonist); then the incredible mythology and indefatigable positivity of Planet Gong; not forgetting Tim Blake’s futuristic synthesiser sounds. It started a love affair with Gong that has lasted more than 40 years.

Pick a Dub by Keith Hudson


I just picked this up at a record shop in exchange for some old albums, including ‘Master of Reality’ (exclamation mark!). Again it was utterly revolutionary for my ears, introducing me to a genre (Dub Reggae) which I had never before heard. It has to be heard on a decent sound system to appreciate the bass/ drum foundation, on top of which and around which the producer (Keith Hudson) makes his magic, dropping instruments in and out, applying deep echo, generally creating a sound world like no other. My original vinyl copy (for some strange reason attributed to the 2nd Street Dubs) was nicked but I now have it on CD.

Water Music/ Music for the Royal Fireworks by Handel, played by the London Symphony Orchestra

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This was the very first. They played it in assembly at my junior school and it has stuck with me ever since. The original LP was two suites, one on each side. I now have the complete Water Music on a CD, played by The Academy of St Martin in the Fields. It’s music that makes me feel I can deal with anything; I may go down, but I will go down to glorious sounds.

Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan

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I had heard quite a bit of Bob Dylan before this, mostly from two ‘Greatest Hits’ collections. This made me realise how creative he can be; here he produces a coherent two LP set of songs with that “wild, thin, mercury sound” and evocative lyrics. Besides, it’s got ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ on it, which totally changed how I saw love songs.

A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley

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This is again a different way of listening. It’s one of the first big minimalist pieces. It’s very melodic; the melody is repetitive, soothing and uplifting. You could meditate to it, listen to it while chilling, or just have it as a beautiful background.

The Essential John Renbourn by John Renbourn

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Magic. Lovely, skilled guitar playing; he is incapable of producing anything that is not pretty. Still underrated in my very humble opinion. This made me realise how great guitar playing does not have to involve pyrotechnics. (I just listened to this again and confirmed my opinion.) I saw him play three times and count myself very privileged.

and finally………

Bird’s Nest by Charlie Parker

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Charlie Parker, children, was a jazz alto saxophonist. I bought this in a spirit of adventure. I’ve read that Charlie Parker was a “towering personality”; a totally distinctive voice; a genius. I’m sorry to say that I JUST DON’T GET IT. I’ve tried and tried and given up. It has the same effect as opera: I can admire the skill and genius, but don’t enjoy it. I put this one in to point out that influential albums can be a negative influence as well as positive. No more bebop for me. (So why do I love the Quintet of the Hot Club of France and not this? I suppose I find it easier to follow the tune with the quintet.)

I enjoyed doing this, even if you didn’t enjoy reading it. It’s interesting that I bought most without having heard the artists first.

Thanks, MSC, who said he was sure most of the list would be albums I’d heard when I was young. That’s true, apart from The Orb and John Renbourn. How sad that more than half of the main makers of these albums are dead.

There are some omissions that might seem strange; but this is, as I have said, a list of influences rather than favourites. The Beatles? They were always there. Steve Hillage and System 7? They crept into my consciousness through Gong. What about God’s house band- The Penguin Café Orchestra? God’s composer- Bach? Hawkwind? Richard Thompson? The Moody Blues? I love them, but they perhaps did not rearrange my ideas in the same way. (The Desperate Bicycles did, but that was through a single.)

I’m looking forward to reading your list…..




Re-reads and Re-rereads

Having last week discussed unfinished books, I thought I’d turn my attention to books I have re-read. I’m not even going to call them favourites, but they are books I keep coming back to time and time again.

Reads and Rerereads 2‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

I have lost count of how many time I have read this. It’s comforting- I know what’s going to happen- but I do find fresh insights every time I read it. Most recently, a little of the dialogue seemed a little stilted to me, but this is not to say I will not be reading it again and again. However, I avoid all the critical notes in my battered Penguin edition. I am not reading as an academic and they detract from my enjoyment.

Reads and Rerereads 5‘Truckers’ by Terry Pratchett

In fact, anything by Terry Pratchett; but I feel I should stick to one book. In this, aimed at children but so enjoyable for adults, a tribe of nomes (sic) are living in the spaces between humans, in the countryside and in a department store. It sounds ludicrous and fanciful, and it is, but Pratchett makes it playful, logical, and deeply insightful into our world and our condition; as he does more extensively with his Discworld books. I read this many times to children. Again, I now find some of his later work less fluent and enjoyable than when I first read it; but the invention, as ever, is always entertaining.

See also “It should have been me.”

DSCF0586‘Stolen Journey’ by Oliver Philpot

This is one few people now will have read. It is the true story of the “Wooden Horse” escape from Germany in World War 2, written by one of the three escapees. I suppose this is again a repeat read because it is comforting; I know he always escapes. It is from my grandfather’s collection and it is precious.

See also My grandfather’s books: A gentle tribute to a gentle man

Reads and Rerereads 1‘No Highway’ by Nevile Shute

Again I could pick anything by this author. He is now deeply out of fashion, but I read him again and again because he is very strong on the virtues of common men and women, triumphing because of their humanity. I wish I could persuade others to read his work; in fact I plan a future post on him, as I do with the next author….

Reads and Rerereads 3‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’ by William Gibson

I picked this book out of many I could choose by William Gibson because it has a great title. He is apparently the originator of cyberpunk. I reread his entire output every few years. His language use, plotting and invention are what keep me coming back. His novels repay rereading in that you start to understand just what is going on…..

Reads and Rerereads 4‘The Village Cricket Match’ by John Parker

This is a delightful tale of…. of the village cricket match of the title. It reminds me of watching village cricket in a village much like this one in Sussex, when I was a boy. (And I went to school with the author’s son, who was eventually the captain of Sussex. And was outstanding at all sorts of sports. And Oxbridge.)

dscn6090‘The Pickwick Papers’ by Charles Dickens

I like just about all Dickens, and this used to be my favourite. I used to read it when things were really bad. If I haven’t re-read it for some time, perhaps that’s because things haven’t been so bad.

As so often, by writing this post I found some new insights. I discovered that it was authors I reread, not individual novels, apart in the case of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Stolen Journey’. Of course, there are others, but Shute, Gibson and Pratchett are the writers I keep coming back to. (There is some non-fiction I re-read: ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ and others; but mostly I dip into it.)

And your choice is?

Unfinished Books

Recently I read about a survey of the books most commonly started but left unfinished by the British reading public. Statistically, this type of research is usually dodgy, but the results are interesting.

Of course, having written the above I conducted a search to find the list, but can’t find the one I originally read. There are several: there is a link to one here:

Unfinished Book List

I do remember that the list I originally saw featured ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Steven Hawking (I’ve read it, could have been better with a few more simple equations), the ‘Harry Potter’ series by J.K. Rowling (I’ve read them, need editing) and at the top ’50 Shades of Grey’ by somebody I can’t be bothered to check up (I haven’t read it, won’t be bothering).

I detect a certain air of smugness in myself when I have read books other have struggled to finish. ‘War and Peace’ comes to mind as often being in lists like this; I have read it but have mixed feelings about it (see my blogpost on War and Peace). Dickens often occurs in these lists. I love most of his novels but gave up on ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. What else have I abandoned?


Looking on my sadly depleted shelves (see yet another post: Decluttering 3: A final one on books and two more), I firstly find unfinished non-fiction, which I start with good intentions but then plough to a halt. I thought this trend might stop when I retired, but it hasn’t. I started ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ by Nicholas Crane, then found it….. just uninspiring, despite great reviews. So I tried the identically named book by Francis Pryor. I got a bit further, but have paused in my reading of it. Perhaps it’s the subject matter. Perhaps it’s me.

20180503_142925Then there’s ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong. ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ by Dawkins is a book I have read and re-read, and find inspiring. However this one is proving hard to finish, well-written as it is.

20180503_142859Another critically acclaimed and well-written book is ‘Jerusalem’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore. (What a great name that is.) It’s fascinating. It’s packed full of vivid detail. But. But. I just can’t get going on it.

20180503_143145I have just enough scientific education and interest to tackle ‘The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen’ by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. It is very readable, but does need a bit of concentration. However, once again I have pressed the pause button and the pause is lengthening.  (I must point out that all these books are very good and I do intend to finish them. Some day.)

20180503_142838On a different note entirely is my failure to finish ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe. It’s an account of Europe in the years immediately following the end of World War 2. It’s very, very good. I have read most of it. However, I just cannot face any more. It’s such an awful indictment how people can treat others with disgusting savagery, often because they are a different nationality, religion or ethnic grouping.

In a lighter vein, I have some unstarted books in my collection, which I may never start. They are books I have inherited from my parents and in-laws. Two of them, pictured here, are a biography of the sadly missed Brian Johnston by his son Barry (one of my mother’s); and ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes (in a version “adapted for the young” by one M. Jones) which must have been my grandfather’s. The latter looks unread and will probably remain unread. I may tackle ‘Johnners’ one day.

This moves us neatly on to fiction. I find this more difficult to illustrate, as I have generally got rid of fiction books I have not finished; I tend to hang on to non-fiction in the folorn hope that “I’ll get round to it some day”. I have selected a few abandoned books from my reading log (more on that another time) with some of the comments I wrote:

‘The God of Small Things’- Arundhati Roy: Beautifully written, but I found it too distressing to finish.

‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’- Alexander McCall Smith: not a patch on ‘The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’.

‘Anima’- M. John Harrison: I didn’t really get it.

‘The Three Musketeers’- Alexander Dumas: Tiresome

‘How To Be Good’- Nick Hornby: Didn’t finish. Long interior monologues, not very entertaining.

There are more. I was hoping for a pattern to emerge here, but I can’t find one. I seem to have found books tiring, or tiresome, or dense, or too full of exquisite description. I feel that often I give books up because I have a weakness for plot; if something doesn’t move I can’t be bothered.

I always advise people not to finish a book if they are not enjoying it. I realise, however, that this might mean you miss something. Recently I read a review of a novel which described it as almost impossible to read, but advised that it would give you huge rewards if you stuck with it. I find it difficult to envisage what these rewards might be (for fiction) if it’s not enjoyable. Now into my 60s, I don’t want to waste my time on anything; but whatever your age, there are impossibly more books than you will ever be able to read. Move on.

I apologise to my regular readers who were heartbroken when a post didn’t happen last Sunday. The Muse was not inspiring me.


Theatre is magic. It breaks rules.

Sadly- for multifarious reasons- I don’t go to the theatre much these days, but I still treasure some memories of past performances. I saw a very young Kenneth Branagh in ‘Henry V’, Derek Jacobi in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, and, possibly the most memorable of all, Antony Sher playing the Fool in ‘King Lear’; as well as that excellent company ‘Cheek by Jowl’ doing ‘Macbeth’ in the Theatre Royal, Winchester, with no props, in which they created rain just by drumming with their fingertips. I could go on, but that’s enough for me to realise that my most memorable experiences were of seeing Shakespeare plays.

Theatre 2 William Shakespeare

This was all triggered off by a report that a white actress had withdrawn from the part of Maria in ‘West Side Story’, after a furore (I love that word) because the character is Latin American. There is an article here:

Sierra Boggess in ‘West Side Story’

My first thought is “fair enough”. To make a parallel, people of a certain age still wince at the memory of Laurence Olivier blacking up to play Olivier. (Look it up; I can’t find a copyright free picture.) The only production I have seen had a black actor; but he wasn’t a Moor. So how authentic do we need to get?

Theatre 1   Abbas Miras Sharifzadeh as Othello (no idea when)

For the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in 2016, the Royal Shakespeare Company put on ‘Shakespeare Live’. It featured a skit in which Paapa Essiedu, playing Hamlet at the time, was interrupted by various actors who thought they could do the “To be or not to be” speech better. It was hilarious- but I was stunned by how at the end, after all the fun, he did the soliloquy brilliantly and movingly. See the clip here (without his last bit):

To be or not to be?

But hang on- wasn’t Hamlet a Dane, presumably blonde, not black British? No, Shakespeare’s actors were all British, weren’t they? But black? Should white parts be played by white actors? Confused yet? What about Shylock? Shouldn’t he be played by a Jew? Hang on, Antony Sher is a Jew, and he famously played Shylock, so was that alright? Oh dear. To widen the discussion (because I have seen such a small amount of theatre in recent years) a recent, rather good BBC TV production of the Trojan Wars (‘Troy: Fall of City’) featured a superbly acted Achilles, who was black. Hey, wasn’t Achilles a Greek? Were there any black Greeks? I wouldn’t have missed his performance for the sake of ethnic authenticity. (Of course, since writing that, I have found that the whole issue of Achilles is far more complicated and contentious. See this link: No, the BBC is not ‘blackwashing’ Troy: Fall of a City )

Perhaps ethnicity doesn’t matter in the case of Shakespeare, because perhaps Shakespeare is a special case, being timeless and universal. So what about gender?

It’s always a shock to remember that Shakespeare’s female roles were always played by men in his day, especially as so often some of his comedy seems to depend on role reversal: so Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’ was a male actor playing a woman who dresses as a man and has a woman fall in love with him/ her. ‘Cheek by Jowl’ did do some Shakespeare with all male casts in recent times. I wonder if there was a fuss about that.

Recently there have been several instances of women playing the “big” Shakespeare male roles, and, indeed the new director of The Globe, Michelle Terry, says that her productions will be gender-blind, race-blind and disability-blind. She herself will play Hamlet.

Again, disability is tricky; Sher played Richard III as a hunchback on crutches amazingly, apparently, and he is not disabled. I saw the Graeae, a theatre group of deaf and disabled actors, perform Frankenstein quite astonishingly many years ago. There were however protests against Eddie Redmayne, able-bodied, portraying Steven Hawking, who was confined to very limited movement with MND.

So what are the options for theatre casting? Should directors cast only strictly according to the correct race, gender and level of disability of a part as written? That would be very tricky in our diverse society, especially for Shakespeare, which would be largely the preserve of white men. Or should they be gender-blind, race-blind and disability-blind? I rather like that, despite it overturning my traditional ideas of theatre- or perhaps because it would.

I do however wonder if there is another, hidden, point of view, which says casting can be fluid as long as it doesn’t favour white, able-bodied males. I imagine this argument would run: “There are too many white male actors, because there are too many white male roles. Therefore actors of other races and genders- as well as disabled actors- should take some of those white male roles to redress the balance. Other roles should only be taken by actors whose race, gender of disability fits the role as written.”

I’m not sure that’s appropriate; but of course I speak as a white, able-bodied male. I think on the whole I would go for the gender/ race/ disability neutral approach.

Mrs Oblique and I have discussed this at length. I leave the last words to her. Take them as you will.

“Theatre is magic. It breaks rules.”

Shakespeare Chandos portrait by John Taylor – Official gallery link, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=544297

“Are You OK?”

Really totally inconsequential.

There must be something about me. I love wandering round bookshops- and record shops, although few now exist. In either, I seem to be a target for assistants who ask me: “Are you OK?” or “Can I help you?”

Firstly; yes, of course, you are right. They are genuinely trying to help. It’s their job. There is not a hidden agenda. They do not suspect me of shoplifting.

Secondly; yes, of course, I always reply politely. And yet, and yet…..

If you look back at the first proper sentence, you will see that I like wandering round bookshops. It’s one of life’s great pleasures. It’s best when I have an excuse. My family all know that a book token is an infallibly pleasing gift. I spend it, in my thoughts, many times over.

Being interrupted in my happy daze doesn’t make me cross, or irritated. I even, as you can guess, feel a little guilty at my slight resentment. However, it does detract from my bookshop experience.

Sometimes it makes me want to reply honestly: “No, I’m not OK”, then tell them about my problems. Or, when asked if they can help, say “I doubt it” and explain why. That, of course, would be rude. So I don’t.

(Mind you, wouldn’t it be good if you could tell all your problems to those assistants, in all sorts of stores, who have “Happy to Help” badges? They might get a shock or two.)

Perhaps I am just the sort of customer who looks as if he is not OK, or is in need of help. That’s strange, as bookshops are some of the places in which I feel very safe.

Perhaps I should strike up a book related conversation. That would be nice.

Anyway, bookshop assistants, if you see a tall, bald, bespectacled 61-year old man wandering round, looking lost: it’s me. I’m not lost. I’m happy. Please leave me to wander (unless you really want to discuss William Gibson’s later novels, or good retellings of Greek myths, or whatever I am into at the moment). But thanks for the thought.

Are You OK

(Oh, if you are interested, I bought the two books in the picture today, and felt very relaxed after my wander.)

Post-Publication Footnote: See also “Are you alright?” , which I had totally forgotten writing.

Káva Café, Todmorden

At first sight, Todmorden looks unprepossessing, especially on a grey, damp, misty day. However, a visit to Káva Café cheered us up hugely and made us appreciate the attractive nature of the town.

Oh dear, this is beginning to sound like one of those dreadful advertising reviews. But it’s true.

Káva is a real café, not a chain. It looks the part, with fairy lights and birds, as you can see in the photo. When we went, it was deservedly busy, as other folk obviously needed cheering up too. It has really good coffee, served on a little tray with a glass of water, something we have only experienced before in Croatia. It has an interesting, rather Middle Eastern and vegetarian menu, with meze, soup, salads, huevos rancheros, koofteh, mousaka….. You get the picture. We only had cake. I say only, but they were delicious: coffee, chocolate fudge and chocolate and orange.

Opening times are on the website; it also does interesting looking evening meals.

Link to Káva Café

The staff are extremely welcoming and hospitable, very willing to help. The toilets are clean (very important). It has the indefinable feel of a friendly place.

Todmorden is interesting: it has a canal, a viaduct, shops over the river and obviously a thriving life. If only we lived nearer Káva Café.

In Praise of Postcards

Three or four years ago, we were on holiday with friends. There was some surprise that we went looking for postcards. It seems that these are going out of fashion….

(Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know what a postcard is. For the benefit of future generations, it’s a small piece of card with a photograph of a holiday destination on one side and a space for an address and a message on the other. You sent it through the post. This is a picture postcard, as opposed to an ordinary postcard, which doesn’t have a picture. Got it? Any queries on a postcard please….)

I like both sending and receiving postcards. So, it seems, do some others. On our kitchen cupboards (where else do you put them?) there is an admittedly small selection from last year. Here they are:

In Praise of Postcards 1

If you squint carefully, you can see that the destinations they represent range from Bognor Regis to Australia. What you can’t see is that there are only seven senders, all very close to us. I really appreciate that they all took the time to think of us; they selected a postcard, thought of a suitable message, remembered to pack our address, found the appropriate stamps and posted it.

More than that, it’s a real object that has made its way from foreign or other parts to generally dull Hampshire. I can well understand that it is much easier to take a photo on your phone and put it online for all your friends. I’ve done it and do it myself. However, it’s wonderful it is to get something physical, which gets displayed, talked about and remembered, not scrolled past and forgotten. To be sure, you reach more people through social media; but sending postcards means you have thought of each recipient individually and specially.

Yes, I do like sending them too. I actually enjoy the process of selection; is that suitable for Aunty Flo? I like thinking of an amusing or interesting few words. I like putting them in the postbox, when I can find one. We have been known to bring them home, rather defeating the point.

Eventually, of course, most of the postcards end up in the bin. I was fascinated to find that my mother had, however, kept many, including ones I had sent her.

In Praise of Postcards 2

Going further back, I have a collection of postcards sent by my grandfather, who I never met, to his mother and family. He was in Persia, now Iran, in the first decade of the last century, a time of great upheaval. One of his postcards, which I won’t show here, has the photograph of a hanging. The text tells how the criminal took twenty minutes to die. Different times? Or perhaps not…

In Praise of Postcards 3

In Praise of Postcards 4Thank you to the people who keep on sending us postcards. They are much appreciated. I leave you with the first of this year’s cards. Many thanks to MSC.