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Zone 1: The Guernsey Comic Book Anthology

Zone 1 coverIn 2015 the Guernsey Literary Festival expanded its programme to incorporate ‘graphic novels’ for the first time with a focus on the islands links to a revelling of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs in that form.

As part of that a workshop was held with the writer and artist who adapted Hugo’s novel, David Hine and Mark Stafford, and they inspired a group of writers and artists to put together the first comic book anthology from the island, Zone 1, which was released through Black Moor Press in mid-2017.

Prey by Mikal Dyas

Prey by Mikal Dyas

Consisting of six short stories, they vary in tone and style about as broadly as is possible without heading directly into superhero territory and are by turns darkly disturbing, interestingly poignant or just downright baffling.

Prey by Theo Leworthy and Mikal Dyas

The first story has the feel of a bad dream as we join a father and son on a hunting trip that goes wrong.

While the story is fairly simple, the artwork amplifies it into truly horrific territory and, while it never quite comes entirely into focus as a whole, it finishes in a shockingly memorable moment that feels like it wants to say something but isn’t really sure what.

Heavenly Body by Hugh Rose

Heavenly Body by Hugh Rose

Heavenly Body by Hugh Rose

One of the nicest things about this collection is that it doesn’t lean heavily on being from Guernsey with this really being the only story with a suggestion of a local link, though not dealt with in the way it often is, as it is a tale of evacuated children during the Second World War.

The artwork is simple but evocative with an oddly playful sense despite the potentially serious nature of the story. The whole thing ends on a lighthearted note to defuse the situation that does a good job of bringing a child’s sense of wonder to a potentially rather different tale.

Meek The Mighty by Kit Gilson

Meek The Mighty by Kit Gilson

Mighty Are The Meek by Colin Ferbrache and Kit Gillson

While only brief, the highlight of Mighty Are The Meek are the cartoonish goblin designs of Kit Gillson. If you follow Kit on Instagram you might be familiar with his cartoon designs and they look great here.

Unfortunately beyond this the strip feels a little too much like an unfinished sketch but the ‘to be continued…’ at the end offers the suggestion that it could grow into quite a charming, comic strip style, piece.

Fimbulwinter by Llewellyn Van Eeden

While Llewelyn Van Eeden’s tale drops us into one of the most complete settings and slickest looking art of the anthology, as a whole it feels a little too clichéd as it tells what feels like the first part of a story focussing on a fairly stereotypical Norse blacksmith and his village.

Fimbulwinter by Llewellyn Van Eeden

Fimbulwinter by Llewellyn Van Eeden

While I could see it developing nicely with a few hints of mystery, based on this the characters feel a little too stock and the art while smooth and sleek, doesn’t stand out as well as the other pieces.

Urbane Paria by Adam Gillson

While this painted story starts out in mysterious fashion with what sounds like a gruesome death it soon becomes a little lost and confused.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the artwork, while interesting and expressive in one sense, does little to help provide character or a consistent setting and the whole thing veers a little too far from the standard comic book or murder mystery conventions to properly work.

The Race For The Black Gate by Russell Wicks

The Race For The Black Gate by Russell Wicks

The Race For The Black Gate by Jonathan Dawe and Russell Wicks

Probably the most conventional tale in the collection comes with the last, though even then it throws its own spin on things.

With something of a hard-boiled, murder mystery aspect combined with a paranormal element, the basic story and the shadowy cartoon artwork combine to create the collection’s most complete feeling piece.

With enough detail revealed to draw the reader in it leaves things on a mysterious cliffhanger that I hope means there’s Zone 2 on the way to continue the tale. 


Urbane Paria by Adam Gillson

Urbane Paria by Adam Gillson

While Zone 1 is, expectedly, a mixed bag, there’s a lot to enjoy from striking visuals to intriguing stories to various attempts to subvert comic convention and, while a few may miss the mark and come off as trying a little too hard to be clever for the sake of it, there’s certainly enough to recommend to fans of comics beyond the Marvel and DC mainstream and I hope it isn’t just a one-off.

Note: apologies to the artists for the slightly ropey reproduction of the images but I couldn’t find any online

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Undaunted (selected poems 2014-2016) by Attila The Stockbroker

Attila The Stockbroker - UndauntedFor over thirty years Attila The Stockbroker has stood as one of the primary forces in the movement of ranting poetry. Grown from the same place as the second wave of punk in the early 1980s, the ranters were often found on the same stages as their noisier contemporaries, but, like the bands, over the years most have fallen by the wayside in one way or another.

Not so Attila. Following his fascinating and frank autobiography last year comes a new set of his poems, his eighth since 1985, suitably titled Undaunted.

Coming from the same scene that gave us the likes of Crass it’s not surprising that much of Attila’s reputation comes from his rabble rousing rebel ranting, and that is firmly in evidence here.

As up to the minute as it’s possible to be he takes on the targets you’d expect, Trump, Brexit, Farage and May in particular, in his own scathing, satirical and down to earth way.

While the titular poem, one of the books longest, is a more serious affair than many, elsewhere it is Attila’s streak of (appropriately) crass humour that makes this more than an ‘angry old leftie’ having a go with Rock ‘n’ Roll Brexit, Farageland, Theresa The Appeaser and Corbyn Supporters From Hell (a play on one of his earlier works) as highlights.

Attila The Stockbroker on stage with Barnstormer

Attila on stage with Barnstormer at Vale Earth Fair 2014

Along with these though we get another side to Attila, one that has always been there but seems more poignant as he moves on with life, poems that, in many ways, feel they really be credited to John. In these he takes a look a life, death and football in a way that is genuinely poignant.

It would be easy for his words on these subjects to become a bit cliché or over-processed like so much bad food, but his manner and style of writing and description just makes them feel real as in Candid Camera, Auntie Rose and the hugely effecting My Ninth Birthday.

Throughout all of these Attila’s politics still feature whether it’s championing the NHS or highlighting how past Conservative governments have caused tragedy for working class communities but in a less direct way, so it’s My Doctor Martens that pulls the two sides together and exists as a macrocosm of the rest of the collection.

Attila The Stockbroker

Accompanied by some excellent illustrations by Dan Woods (guitarist with Attila’s band, Barnstormer) and (I guess i should admit my involvement) a rather nice photo by yours truly taken at the Vale Earth Fair a few years back, Undaunted see Attila The Stockbroker continue to do just what he’s always done; speak his truth loud, proud and clear with an honesty, wit and humour many he ridicules could do with learning a thing or two about.

Much like his great inspiration John Cooper Clarke, Attila’s work may be best experienced read live and loud by its author but none-the-less the written versions remain hugely effective and effecting and it doesn’t seem there’s any slowing down this undaunted veteran yet.

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Pic by Jack Kerouac

Pic by Jack Kerouac book coverWhen I finished The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac I hadn’t intended on reading Pic right away, but as the short novel was included in the same book I thought why not. While I’m not entirely sure why the two are combined, other than both are at the shorter end of the novel spectrum, there is at least one level on which the two work together.

Pic was Kerouac’s last published novel, being finally published after his death, but the majority of it was written around the same time as The Subterraneans as he was constructing On The Road. It tells the story of a young boy from North Carolina called Pictorial Review Jackson, aka Pic, and his journey from his late grandfather’s shack in rural NC to New York City with his brother Slim, and onto Oakland in California.

While in many ways it follows a similar structure to On The Road, being mostly about the journey Pic and Slim take, it varies from all of Kerouac’s other novels in that the lead character is not a direct avatar of the author. It also takes Kerouac back into the territory of representing black characters, which is where the comparison to The Subterraneans lies.

Much like his portrayal of Mardou Fox there it’s hard to escape the fact that most of the characters here are somewhat simplified.

Pic is understandably a young, not so well-educated child from the rural south but as we meet more of his family and then his brother its hard not to feel that this floats on the edge of being a somewhat racist portrayal, with the black characters constantly enthralled (and potentially in thrall) to the more mysterious, more intelligent, more wealthy, white characters.

This comes across as potentially more problematic given that it was written by a white author for a largely intellectual audience – though Kerouac always makes a point of his immigrant (French Canadian)/Native American hybrid roots and has spoken of himself in ways that make Pic somewhat more of a representation of him than may be at first obvious.

JOYCE JOHNSON AND JACK KEROUAC PHOTO BY:JEROME YULSMAN/GLOBE PHOTOS, INC

Kerouac in New York (Photo by Jerome Yulsman/Globe Photos inc)

The setting and first person viewpoint do alleviate the problems of the portrayal to a degree but it still feels slightly too stereotypical to not be need of mention, though based on his other writing I don’t think explicit racism would have been the intent.

Much like a lot of Kerouac’s work the story itself rattles along at a pace and while his use of Pic’s colloquial dialect in the first person sets it apart from his spontaneous prose, Beat, style, it shares some similarities.

This again allows something of a sense of honesty to come through from the characters as we are swept along with Pic’s somewhat naive view of the world and it’s easy to get caught up in the wonder of everything for the first bus ride out of North Carolina to the dilapidated grandeur of mid 20th century Harlem.

Unfortunately, just as it feels like the story is hitting its stride and Pic and Slim and set off to make their epic journey to ‘Californy’ something of a deus ex machina occurs and it all gets tied up neatly in less than a page. Looking into the history of the book it sounds like this was when Kerouac got inspired to write On The Road and he only returned to add this final ‘ending’ to Pic years later.

All this means that, while an easy to read and quick distraction, Pic is something of an anticlimax and feels more like a sketch than a complete novel, though if On The Road is what came at the expense of this lesser vision then it’s hard to feel too disappointed.

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The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac - The Subterraneans coverIn recent years I’ve read a number of works of the Beat Generation, and of Jack Kerouac in particular; Big Sur, The Dharma Bums and of course the centrepiece of Kerouac’s career, On The Road. Partly this exploration was out of an interest in outsider movements, partly the history of San Francisco and partly for its sheer post-war Americana.

While it shares many similarities with much of Kerouac’s, work The Subterraneans has something of a different feel.

Published following On The Road in 1958 (but written in the autumn of 1953) there is much directly similar as we meet an avatar of the author (here named Leo Percepied) in North Beach, San Francisco surrounded by the same characters (just with different pseudonyms).

However, while On The Road told many smaller stories but as a whole dealt with a broad sweep, The Subterraneans goes in-depth into a period of a few months of the author’s life, centred on a love affair with Mardou Fox (in the real world Alene Lee), one of the titular group (themselves it seems an alter-ego of the Beats), and the ups and downs of it.

Jack Kerouac in New York

Kerouac in New York

While the original events occurred in New York City the way Kerouac paints his image of North Beach and Market Street and their surroundings is utterly real and the story casually races around this town within the city at a frantic pace, charged by a mixture of new love (and/or lust) and, as it goes on, the lead character’s increasing paranoia and ever-present need to be part of a party of one kind or other.

In this even the lover herself, Mardou, is at times relegated to a broadly drawn background player in Percepied’s paranoiac whirlwind, leaving a few issues in the depiction of her race. In a way this makes the story a hard one to digest but gives it all the more sense of honesty on Kerouac’s part – something that seems to be his intent.

Stylistically Kerouac ups his spontaneous prose of On The Road even further. Written as this was in one big glut, with asides and diversions liberally sprinkled throughout, The Subterraneans paints Percepied/Kerouac in exactly the way he describes himself, as a narcissistic man (and, as with much of Kerouac’s work, the ‘man’ is crucial) with many issues.

This makes it at points rather hard to read and sometimes near impenetrable, but, while not entirely successful, it feels like a natural peak of the free-jazz style of writing that Kerouac strived for and, if not created, developed to a kind of conclusion.

William S Burroughs and Alene Lee

Alene Lee (the real Mardou Fox) with William S Burroughs

Ultimately, while not on the same level as some of his other work, The Subterraneans stands as a very real feeling document of an event many of us may have experienced, albeit one hopes not in quite such a frantic and heightened way, and is a demonstration of how the Beat style can be at once hugely evocative but incredibly challenging with it.

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Hello America by JG Ballard

Hello America by J.G. Ballard book coverIt seems that the notion of The American Dream is one that keeps cropping up in my reviews recently, most notably with La La Land and Straight Outta Compton, so it feels natural, if strangely coincidental, that I now look at a book that seems to take that dream and turn it into a kind of twisted nightmare.

While J.G. Ballard is well-known for his dystopian science fiction visions from the likes of High-Rise and Crash, Hello America was not one I was familiar with when its blurb and cover caught my eye, but from the off its clear that it bears certain resemblances to the story of Lang in the tower block.

Here our hero is Wayne, a young stowaway from a back to basics Europe of the 2100’s, who has snuck aboard a vessel sailing for an evacuated USA. It’s 100 years since North America was abandoned in the face of an energy crisis as oil ran dry and the once most powerful nation on Earth was laid to waste by climactic devastation.

Arriving in this New World wasteland Wayne and the members of the expedition head off from a derelict New York to Washington DC and beyond.

The journey and the relatively mysterious lead male protagonist are certainly familiar from High-Rise, though Wayne feels far more sympathetic than Lang and the eventual arrival of the equivalent to Royal reveals a far less sympathetic antagonist. Along with this the general sense of growing disaster as the story goes on is similar to High-Rise but on a far grander physical scale.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

What sets it apart is a sense of optimism, particularly in the first half, where Wayne’s vision of ‘The American Dream’ is infectious and really sucked me into the adventure, much as it does some of his fellow travellers, and the way Ballard paints the landscape of the ‘Great American Desert’ is masterful and hugely visual.

The first half of the book builds the tension to breaking point with what feels like a climax in the depth of the desert before Ballard throws a marvellous curve ball that almost resets things but goes on in eventually more disturbing and absurd ways as Wayne’s dream becomes a real American Nightmare – to say much more would be too much of a spoiler.

The fact that Wayne dreams of being 45th president of the USA is particularly pertinent given recent real world events, but that’s just a ‘happy’ coincidence, but there is clearly a political message at the heart of Ballard’s writing coming as this did at a time when a former film star had recently entered The White House.

Hello America original artwork

The cover of the first edition of Hello America

As well as the politics there is an ecological message which is writ large and obvious throughout though has lost none of its necessity and power since the book was released in the early 1980s and some slightly heavy-handed consumerist points add another layer.

All of this does make Hello America‘s purpose a little unfocused but it is certainly trying to say something and, generally, succeeding.

Where it doesn’t succeed quite so well is in the second half of the story that almost becomes too absurd to take seriously, though it just about holds things together as it reaches a hugely tense and surprisingly cinematic climax – I’m amazed no one has twisted this into a big budget blast-a-thon blockbuster.

This makes Hello America a book that, while easier to read than High-Rise, less physically controversial than Crash and a little unfocused, is none the less enjoyable and bridges hard sci-fi ideals with readable adventure in a very satisfying fashion.

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Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace with Dan Ozzi

Tranny Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace and Dan Ozzi book coverIn May 2012 Laura Jane Grace came out to the world as transgender via an interview in Rolling Stone magazine. At that point her band, Against Me!, had been going through a lot of transition themselves and this marked something of a watershed moment, not just for Grace herself, but for the band.

In her autobiography, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (written with Dan Ozzi) Grace explores her life and career up to this point in startling honest fashion.

The book starts in 1985 with Grace (then known as Thomas James Gabel) seeing Madonna on TV and the wheels are set in motion for her life both in terms of her personal development and her musical ambitions – of course stylistically, the music at least would go in somewhat of a different direction.

I won’t go into detail of her story, this would be the autobiographical equivalent of spoilers, but it follows a natural chronology starting with her life as child of a military family regularly moving from place to place and never forming solid foundations, something that comes into play as she moves into being a touring musician.

Laura Jane Grace

Laura Jane Grace

As the title of the book suggests the story has two main threads that Grace weaves together seamlessly. Each chapter loosely follows a section of her career based around an album or tour, especially once we get to the point to the point of Against Me! releasing their debut album, …Reinventing Axl Rose.

This is a fairly standard conceit and obviously makes logical sense for a musicians memoir, but, what lifts it beyond that is the combination of newly written passages and sections lifted from Grace’s extensive journals.

What this does is extraordinary as we get the view of Grace now, with not only hindsight but an almost entirely changed life, and the in the moment thoughts and views of Gabel at the time.

While the view taken rarely changes it gives the book a duality that only serves to hammer home the experiences of Grace’s dysphoria that, it is evident, were present from her early youth (certainly at least since seeing that Madonna performance).

Against Me! circa 2013

Against Me! circa 2013

These journals are fascinating as its clear Grace documented everything, really putting the reader in the moment with her at many key moments both for herself and Against Me!.

This makes for a very intense and personal experience, like we are a fly on the wall, or even closer than that. With that we share many nights with her on the bench seats of vans or bunks of tour busses, as well as the back of a police car or two, in a way I’ve never read in any other musician’s life story.

As a fan of Grace’s music I did wonder if her personal story would take preference but I’m happy to say that it doesn’t as it is clear throughout just how inextricably linked these two things are, more than comes across in many other such stories. That said the most fascinating stuff comes with her personal story and quite how she came to terms with her gender dysphoria and how she dealt with it (or didn’t) at different stages of her life.

Grace as Gabel

Grace as Gabel

It never paints transitioning or anything associated with it as a quick fix or an easy process as some flippant reporting of such has, both in relation to her and others. In this it does a great job of expressing the feelings she felt and what she went through that, as a cis-male, was one of the most valuable insights I’ve had into this.

The story of the band is one we’ve heard many times before with members falling out, life on the road extremes and just what its like to support metallers Mastodon on tour when you’re in a band playing punk rock.

But with this we get a look into the American punk scene from the late 1990s to the late 2000s. While this view is obviously that of Grace herself, it is fascinating to see the DIY end of things and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the mainstream world of pop-punk and what comes between.

This just adds fuel to Grace’s resilient fire as she faces off against former fans who now brand her and the band sellouts and how some came back round as this part of her story neared its end.

The final chapter and epilogue of the book change things up as Gabel’s journals are no more and we get pure Grace, rounding off her story in suitably open-ended but still satisfying fashion (for now) as we find out about the writing and recording of the Transgender Dysphoria Blues album and the reconstruction of Against Me! as, arguably, even more of a potent force than they ever were before and certainly a more focussed one.

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard) of Against Me!

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard)

All this makes Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout not just one of the most satisfying autobiographies but one of the most satisfying books I’ve read.

Like much of Grace’s music its fast, raw and honest while provoking thought and opening up a wider world of experience than most other does not and, given the subjects it deals with, it offers an invaluable and important insight into something not everyone will experience but everyone should be able to at least try to understand all in a very personal way.

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Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges book coverWhile I had always been generally curious about the life and work of Alan Turing the 2014 movie The Imitation Game piqued my interest and so I sought out the apparent source of that film, Andrew Hodges extensive biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma.

Like Turing, Hodges is a mathematician and that is obvious throughout the book as this is as much about Turing’s work, as it is about his life, something that as it goes on, seems very appropriate given Turing’s apparent approach to life.

Of course the now most famous section of Turing’s life and work is dealt with extensively as he spent the Second World War working at Bletchley Park on various form of code breaking.

Most famously the Enigma but various other things besides, including working on the foundation of what has become the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and USA, albeit in a technical rather than diplomatic capacity – throughout we get the impression diplomacy wasn’t one his strong points.

Beyond this Hodges goes into quite some detail on his work in the field of pure mathematics and logic before and after the war, his involvement in the first computers, and more work on fields combining mathematics with biology.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

I will be the first to admit much of the detail of this went somewhat over my head, but my ignorance only served to demonstrate quite how impressive the work Turing was undertaking was.

There is much here for those willing to delve deeper or with a deeper knowledge of the subjects discussed, though Hodges does a good job of at least making it vaguely understandable to the layman.

The other side of Turing’s life is dealt with in similar detail from an upper middle class upbringing, his experiences at public school, to his romantic life and the problems this lead to later in his life.

All of this dealt with in something of a logical fashion and, while that may say something about the author, I was left with the impression that it said much about the subject and his view of the world as well. Towards the book’s climax this is expanded upon greatly as his homosexuality is explored around the subject of his surprisingly low-key trial and punishment for his activities (for which he has since been posthumously pardoned).

Along with the war-time work and post war work on computers this is the most interesting section of the book, as it explores the notion of homosexuality in a wider context of the period and the genuinely devastating (and hugely scary) effects it had on many men, not just Turing, though it seems he treated the whole thing in a rather matter of fact way.

Alan Turing in his youth

Turing in his youth

In this he was probably not alone but is something of a high-profile pioneer as, throughout the book, from his early relationship with school friend Christopher to his more problematic later encounters he is clearly unapologetic about his sexuality and astonishingly open about it considering the fact it was illegal at the time.

While he never seemed to explicitly ‘campaign’ for gay rights (I had the sense such an idea wouldn’t have occurred to him) by his very actions his entire life seemed to push the boundaries of society’s view, whether it had an expressed effect during his lifetime or not.

The story of course culminates with Turing’s death by suicide in 1954 and, unlike the film, makes him out to be the same unconventional genius he always was right to the end.

Hodges never paints him as a direct victim of his situation in society, suggesting his suicide was a very conscious decision, potentially based on a collection of factors in his life which are explored in fascinating detail, particularly with regard as to why homosexuals were suddenly so clamped down upon in the early and mid-1950s compared to the periods before and after, although there are some fairly laboured 1984 comparisons here.

Alan Turing memorial

Turing memorial statue in Manchester

Throughout, its fair to say the book is a heavy piece to read thanks to the detail but it never feels unnecessary as it becomes clear Turing lead an astonishingly complex life thanks largely to his position within society combined with his mathematical and scientific expertise and Hodges does an astonishing job of painting this in a way that, now I’ve read The Enigma, I can’t help but feel The Imitation Game almost entirely missed.

And in a nice post script moment it’s pleasing to know that despite what the book says a memorial to Turing does now exist near both Manchester University (where he worked in his final years) and the city’s ‘gay village’ which seems the perfect location as well as being something of an understated kind of memorial that suits the man described in this work.

Hodges has also set up a website including updates on the biography and other information at turing.org.uk

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High-Rise by JG Ballard

High-Rise by JG BallardBy reputation, and having seen David Cronenberg’s interpretation of Crash many years ago, the work of JG Ballard had always hovered around the edges of my cultural consciousness.

It wasn’t until seeing Ben Wheatley’s cinematic adaptation of High-Rise though that my interest was really piqued so I picked up a copy of the source novel and delved into a world only hinted at in Wheatley’s rather fine film.

Charting the story of three residents of the titular high-rise apartment block over the course of three months the opening sentence, concerning recent arrival Dr Laing tucking into the leg of a dog cooked on a primitive fire on his balcony, hints at what’s to come before we go back to see what led to this apparently unusual happening.

The three residents; Laing, representing the middle floors of the tower, Wilder, from the lower floors and Royal, architect and owner of the penthouse apartment, not only represent elements of traditional British societal class but also stand for sides of a more abstract personality embodied within and by the tower block.

The literal story charts the decline of life in the high-rise from wild parties to inter-floor arguments to a kind of tribal warfare climaxing in a total breakdown of the norms of society in particularly brutal fashion.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

Here Ballard treads a line of explicitness in particularly impressive fashion. What we ‘see’ through the eyes of the three leads is certainly horrific, yet more is merely suggested building an astonishing picture of decline both externally and internally for the characters and those they encounter with virtually no taboo left un-suggested.

What adds to all this is how, for much of the novel, we are never quite sure if what we are told is actually happening or if it is some kind of mass delusion or even merely the delusion of just Laing, Wilder and Royal.

The fourth main character in the novel is the high-rise itself. Depicted by Ballard as a decaying beast with whims and moods as infrequent as those of its residents, it has the feel of a monster exerting some kind of hypnotic effect on those within while, in a vaguely symbiotic manner, being effected by them in return. Though we are left unsure whether it was the high-rise or the residents who are responsible for the process.

High Rise

The High-Rise as seen in the film version

Beyond the literal story there is another level to things as, like all the best sci-fi (and despite the apparently contemporary setting it is definitely science fiction) High-Rise offers a message about the real world through its own twisted mirror.

While its message at the time was, arguably, a forewarning of Thatcherite Britain, it is just as relevant now when looking at the increasingly segregated society we could be heading towards in a ‘Brexit’ world where a horrific post-cultural creation like Donald Trump is in the running to be president of the USA.

In a less specific sense it looks at society as a whole and how, beneath the thin veneer we call civilisation and maintain through a kind unspoken mutual agreement, humans are just as, if not more, territorial and animalistic as any other species.

Royal and Wilder as seen in the film adaptation

Royal and Wilder as seen in the film adaptation

Ballard leaves us with the impression that no matter what we do mankind is destined to repeat this process time and again, stopping just short of suggesting a sense of mutually assured destruction, though such isn’t that big a leap to take following what is presented here.

As a novel then it is a gripping, tense, experience building in brutality, depravity and bleakness before a surprisingly subdued conclusion but as a wider allegory it still speaks volumes even forty years after its original publication and goes beyond even Wheatley’s famed excesses in both content and message.

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The First Third by Neal Cassady

The First Third by Neal CassadyNeal Cassady; off page progenitor of Beat, Dean Moriarty or Cody Pomeray to Kerouac’s Sal Paradise et al, inspirer (and more) of Ginsberg and Howl, godfather of psychedelic counterculture and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test… or so legend would have it, but could all that possibly be the truth?

In The First Third, Cassady himself sets out his story in his words, or at least some of it, and proves, as you might expect, that it is both truth and a kind of fiction.

Published by City Lights, the original home of the Beat Generation, the book combines a partial autobiography with collected other autobiographical moments, poems and letters that go some way to show the man behind the myth, while backing it up at the same time.

Cassady’s story is one that could only have existed in its time, trapped between the expansionist, pioneering American Dream of the 1800s and the post war malaise that became the Great Depression. The main chunk of The First Third explores Cassady’s youth, following a fascinating if at times fractured exploration of his heritage as the offspring of two families who emigrated to the US as part of that mid-1800s boom.

Neal Cassady

Neal Cassady

His story, while one with a hint of typically romanticised nostalgia for childhood, is about as dysfunctional as they come; skipping between homes, ‘homes’, lodging houses and parents, mostly around Denver, Colorado, along with trips that would prefigure the story that would make he and his alter-ego Moriarty so famous.

Cassady’s style of writing comes in the form of a kind of precursor to the ‘spontaneous prose’ he inspired from Kerouac and, while clearly falling into the Beat aesthetic, has a naivety to it that suits the tales of his childhood adventures and make this section of the book fly by.

The second half of The First Third is more of a mixed bag dipping in and out of tales from Cassady’s teenage and adult life that, as they go on, become increasingly concerned with a seeming obsession with sex and bragging about his sexual conquests. Here his naïve style becomes at odds to the content and often feels repetitive ably demonstrating that an addict talking about his addictions (it seems not only sex but drugs, alcohol and anything else that comes along) are certainly far from the most interesting of subjects.

Ginsberg and Cassady

Ginsberg and Cassady

This continues in the books final section containing a series of letters to Jack Kerouac and then Ken Kesey that bring us up to 1965, three years before Cassady’s death, which at least give the whole a kind of vaguely rounded complete autobiography feel.

In amongst this mixed bag of the books second half is its highlight, a short prose-poem Leaving L.A. by Train at Night, High… Subject wise, it’s all in the title, but Cassady paints a vivid picture from a late 1940s perspective, now lost to the sprawling metropolis the city has become, but with hints and suggestions that even now bring it back to life.

In all, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sums it up in his 1981 Editor’s Note when he describes The First Third as being written in ‘homespun, primitive prose’, but this seems to capture the spirit of the writer and his truly unique story from potential drop out bum to cult icon and hero of a new kind of American Dream that has also since been lost to history and nostalgia leaving in its wake some great literary art.

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Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir by Terry Gilliam

Gilliamesque book coverOf all the men who made up Monty Python the one who certainly most struck me as most interesting was Terry Gilliam. Known for his work on the animations that linked their sketches (along with often being ‘the other one’ in the sketches) he has gone on to be a revered filmmaker in his own right, including making one of my all time favourites, Brazil, but he is one of the few people in the public eye and in his 70s of whom you hear little beyond his work.

Well after reading Gilliamesque, his autobiography, it’s clear why as he remains, in his own way, a very down to earth soul.

The main gist of the book is exactly what you’d expect, charting Gilliam’s life from his youth in Minnesota and California through formative experiences at university (surprisingly on a religious scholarship) and onto his work for various publications before achieving wider notoriety with the Pythons and beyond.

As with the best memoirs it is very easy to fall into reading this in Gilliam’s own voice and it sheds a lot of light on his life while never straying into any kind of sensationalism or slagging that, given his relationship with Hollywood over the years, one imagines could precipitate.

Terry GilliamDivided loosely into the stages of his life revolving around his career it offers insights on all sides of thing while leaving enough mystery to maintain one of the things that makes Gilliam’s work so appealing – quite how all of this fantastic imagery and spirit is contained within one person.

So we get nice stories about the interplay of the Pythons, what it was like meeting and working with Hunter S. Thompson and how it feels having a film literally washed away from you on the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and figuratively on The Brothers Grimm and we get glimpses into his personal life and astonishingly active mental condition.

While Gilliam’s story is fascinating and engaging what makes this book quite so special is its presentation. At a ‘coffee table’ kind of size it is itself a Gilliamesque work of art, from the almost Joker like repeated ‘Me Me Me…’ around the sides to the new and archive artwork on nearly every page this is as much a visual story as a written one.

Along with the words this charts his life from early drawings and sketches to the airbrush work for magazines that led into the cut and paste animation style of Monty Python and on into the exquisite, eccentric, design work of his films from Jabberwocky and Time Bandits up to The Zero Theorem.

Terry Gilliam

Gilliam in 1970

While most of the subjects only have short parts (there’s a lot to fit in) it means the book flies along but is none the less engaging and interesting and in combination with the artwork makes it a must for any fan of Gilliam’s work or, really, anyone with an interest in his artistic style. The fact it also charts a life that could only have happened in the second half of the twentieth century just adds an extra layer and, at times, gives it a tone a kin to the work of the Beat writers of the 1950s.

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