Tag Archives: books

It by Stephen King

It by Stephen King book coverStephen King’s sprawling epic is one of the stories that has become ingrained in the popular culture of the last three decades. A big part of that will be down to Tim Curry staring TV adaptation and the more recent movie version, but also thanks to the sheer scale and relatability of the novel.

Even by King’s standards It is a sprawling tale that comes in three-fold fashion. Set in the town of Derry, Maine in both the late 1950s and mid 1980s it traces a group of youngsters who become a group of friends in the 50s, while also charting their reunion in the 80s and mixing in the mysterious history of the town at the same time.

In many hands this could easily be done through obvious flashback or just become an absolute muddle, but King weaves the three threads together expertly and actually plays up on the switching time frames to great effect in a few of the novels more intense passages.

This method makes it a unique exploration of the divide between childhood and adulthood and, while It certainly features it’s fair share of gruesome terror, it is this that is the crux of the story – like the best horror tales it takes a real world experience and explores it through heightened metaphor, in this case the titular beast, dubbed by the characters simply, It (seen most famously as Pennywise The Dancing Clown but having as many faces as there are people to see it).

Stephen King

Stephen King

In this way its astonishing to think any would ever try to make a film of It. Much like The Shining, King’s particular vision is so ingrained in what the written word can do and a film can’t that it’s genuinely refreshing to read, even more than 30 years since it original publication. Again like The Shining this really comes to the fore as the book heads towards its climax, but is present throughout.

Across the two main timeframes King creates a true ensemble of characters, seven in the heroic gang and a group of antagonists and side players, all of whom are brilliantly drawn and created to give them all real purpose and individuality.

In the 50s passages this grows into a real coming of age story that goes far beyond anything you’re ever likely to see in the cinema, and likely to read anywhere else, particularly in a later scene that has caused much discussion but, to my mind, is handled well enough to fit the story (even if it is a little gratuitous).

Meanwhile in the 80s all these characters are clearly explored developments of the same people and, while at first several appear possible a little too coincidentally successful and the lead being a horror writer veers towards the possibility of King echoing himself, it’s not long before they all make sense and the two time zones link up perfectly.

Added to the coming of age story, where It could represent several aspects of that process, the mysterious and evil presence in Derry grows in the adult sections to represent more grown up troubles and again King balances this, whether its visions of domestic abuse or addiction or more in a way that is never heavy-handed but laced through within the individual stories of the characters.

It original cover

Original cover

What I think really makes It stick in the mind though, beyond even just being a thrilling ride of a story, is how it marries aspects of ancient legend, folktales & fables and pulp horror, again echoing the three-fold aspect of the setting.

In doing this it feels like a story that has always been there; clowns have always had a slightly scary edge, children always play in the places adults think scary and wrong and, as children at least, we all know that something lurks just beyond what we can see, waiting to do whatever unspeakable acts it might be there to do. While as adults we have to deal with other monsters unknowable in youth but strangely echoing.

This all comes together to create one of the most compelling novels I’ve encountered that has more depth than its reputation suggests and is at once both chilling, gruesome and thought-provoking in equal measure and I think contains enough substance to have something different in each of those aspects for everyone – I am also now even more confused how they make the rest of the story into the second part of the recent film.

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Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen coverBruce Springsteen, The Boss, Born in the USA and Born To Run, the man who brought the New Jersey blue-collar ethic into the world of the New York rock scene. Certainly he is all of these things, but, in his autobiography, Born To Run, he does a great job tempering a tale of success beyond the realms of almost anyone else, with a personal story that is genuinely emotionally effecting and shows how, even in his position, there can be a darkness that could bring it all crashing down like the most perilous high wire act.

Unlike most of the other autobiographies I’ve read, that of Springsteen is something a little different as I am not as wholly immersed in his work as I have been that in that of Laura Jane Grace or Kurt Cobain, for example.

That said, and somewhat appropriately, the work of Bruce Springsteen falls into a category I’d best describe as ‘my dad’s music’, with the likes of Born in the USA soundtracking many road trips down through France in my youth, so a lot of the music is familiar to me on at least a subconscious level.

For two-thirds or so of the book it is much as you’d expect from any musician’s life story charting his career from first picking up a cheap guitar  all the way to playing shows to tens of thousands in stadia around the world.

Bruce Springsteen in 2016

Springsteen in 2016

As with many such stories for me the most interesting part is in how he first became, The Boss. Growing up in working class New Jersey, playing in various bar bands and then how he translated that into his early commercial success.

Along with that comes, of course, the story of The E Street Band. This is something a little different, as is their career, as Springsteen makes it clear throughout while they are his backing band, they are at the same time more than that. Some are given more time than others with ‘Little Steven’ Van Zandt and ‘The Big Man’ Clarence Clemons particularly featured, but all given at least their moment in the spotlight.

There are points in this, and in the discussions about Springsteen’s other work, where his style of band leading borders on a kind of egocentric arrogance but, through his descriptions at least, it always lands just on the right side of the necessary confidence for his role (though it’s clear not all his band mates have always shared this opinion and he doesn’t hide away from that).

The E Street Band

A late 1970s version The E Street Band

This is all as interesting as one would expect from such a career and as he goes through albums song by song it is a fascinating insight into the themes and thoughts that have created one of the most successful musicians and performer forms of the last 40 years and, while more light is shone on the bigger songs and records, it seems like everything is given an appropriate time and space, no matter the commercial success it received.

The other third of the book though is where Born To Run genuinely becomes something more as Springsteen focuses on his family and, as it goes on, more specifically his father and their shared mental health.

In its early stages it seems as if Springsteen senior is at once a huge presence but a massive emotional absence in young Bruce’s life and as it goes on this has clear emotional resonance on the growing musician. In the second half of the book this shifts as Springsteen explores not only his father’s mental health problems but begins to address his own.

Bruce Springsteen - Asbury Park

Springsteen in Asbury Park

This leads to what are the most interesting parts of the book as Springsteen discusses his own depression in the most frank and lyrical manner I’ve possibly ever heard or read. As well as the more factual side of his conditions he doesn’t shy away from describing the more day-to-day side and the way it makes him feel in relation to his own life, something often skipped in my experience of stories like this.

What this does is make what could have been a perfectly serviceable autobiography into something far more and, crucially, something that could be of huge importance to much of its audience who, traditionally, are the least likely to address mental health issues.

Also of course the other sign that’s it’s done it’s job is that I do now want to more consciously explore Springsteen’s back catalogue with the extra context that it seems is crucial to understanding it all and that makes much of it just as fitting in the current political situation as it was when it was written up to nearly half a century ago.

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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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Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt by John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke - Ten Years In An Open Necked ShirtWhile I generally don’t have too much bad to say about the education system I went through, there was one thing throughout my studying of English that they never quite managed to transmit – that poetry really is at its best when read aloud.

Certainly some poetry is a written medium with clever use of form, style and language to make its point, but, much like music, the stuff that really grips me is the performed sort… So enter ‘The Bard of Salford’, Dr. John Cooper Clarke.

First published in 1983, his debut printed collection Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt takes the cream of Clarke’s early work, from his days as a pioneering ‘punk poet’ and captures them in text.

While it’s clear throughout that this stuff was written to be read out loud and, even better, performed, if read with Clarke’s harsh, biting accent in mind it works just as well on the page as beat and bop meet punk and pop in a surreal satire of life in northern England in the 1960s and 70s that, in many ways, still rings true today.

Supporting punk bands in the late 1970s, as he came too early for the alternative comedy movement he no doubt helped inspire, gave Clarke’s writing a certain political position but, in reading it, it is vividly apolitical. In this it allows the reader to get an image in their mind and, at times, create a political context for it of their own, while at other times simply get lost in a flight of surreal fantasy that captures an aspect of the popular culture of the time.

John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke (circa 1982)

A couple of specific examples of this could be the triumphant Beezley Street which presents the feel of a hellish nightmare (but probably more realistic) version of (long running soap opera) Coronation Street and it’s sort of opposite Kung-Fu International, obviously capturing the early 70s kung-fu trend through Clarke’s harsh, street level filter.

Throughout things move from bleak to hilarious, often within a verse or stanza, let alone from poem to poem, but all come with a feeling of something that could only have emerged when it did – with The Goons and Spike Milligan clearly as much of an influence as Ginsberg or Kerouac, or Rotten, Vanian, et al.

Along with Clarke’s words the book features some great illustrations by Steve Maguire that work in a similar way to Ralph Steadman’s work with Hunter S. Thompson, though in a less brutally graphic way, but they too capture the mix of surrealism with intense social realism that is a hall-mark of the collection as a whole.

Unlike later punk poets (a trend that really took off in the 1980s) John Cooper Clarke is not a posturing and ranting presence, though he no doubt inspired those and they have their place in the form, but a remote observer. In reading his words you get the feeling he’s been there and done that but this is the view of it from the outside, through those ever-present dark glasses, and in that he timelessly captures life in a way any other media or style couldn’t quite manage.

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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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A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom

A Stray Cat Struts by Slim Jim PhantomWhen I look at musical biographies I’ve read in the past, from Laura Jane Grace to Tony Iommi to Ginger Wildheart to Frank Turner amongst others, it’s fairly obvious that most have focussed on frontmen or band leaders.

This seems to be a fairly standard trend so, coming to the autobiography of Slim Jim Phantom, most famously the drummer from The Stray Cats, I expected something a bit different, and that’s just what I got.

From the start Phantom makes it clear that his book won’t be a mudslinging ‘needless to say I got the last laugh’ type affair but a look at the positives that his life as a rockabilly musician of note has brought him.

That isn’t to say that it’s all saccharine sweet though as he and his various band members go through their share of problems but, for the most part, Slim Jim finds the good in all the situations, one way or another.

With this approach he makes it clear early on that he won’t engage with the potential fallout of the split of The Stray Cats, so when that comes it’s not a surprise (though later he sheds a little light on the relationships between himself and fellow Cats, Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker).

The Stray Cats

The Stray Cats

Up to the split of that band the book moves in, largely, chronological order tracing Phantom’s life from Massapequa, Long Island, New York to London where the Cats first found fame, through meetings and tours with The Rolling Stones and the kind of encounters and happenings that are genuinely amazing to hear given the speed with which they occur following the trio’s arrival in the UK.

In this we begin to meet some of Slim Jim’s ‘true pals’ who become a major feature of many of the stories and many are household names from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. While this could easily feel like name dropping par excellence, it actually comes across as if our humble narrator is as surprised by many of these encounters and friendships as we might be, including his marriage in the mid-1980s to Britt Ekland!

As the book goes on the stories focus more on specific subjects so there are chapters on Lemmy, ‘The Killer’ Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison and other rock ‘n’ roll heroes as well as Phantom’s endeavours in film acting, nightclub ownership and life on and around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

Through all of these what makes the book so engaging is the manner in which Phantom writes. It’s as if he is telling you these stories one-to-one, and his enthusiasm for his music and extraordinary comes through strongly in every passage regardless of what he’s recounting.

As the book goes on he becomes more reflective as his hard partying days subside to watching game shows while on the phone with Harry Dean Stanton, spending time with his, evidently equally rock ‘n’ roll, son TJ and later charity mountaineering trips to Kilimanjaro and Everest.

Rockabilly music is never far away though and it’s clear this remains what makes his heart beat and its worth having YouTube handy to look up some of the Stray Cats performances he mentions just to revel in the same things he is.

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

What I think this accessibility and enthusiasm stems from is something he highlights and I’ve noticed in my own life that, in a majority of cases, drummers are the members of the band most happy to let down the facade of rock ‘n’ roll life, connect with others and generally are more open and sharing.

Using this Slim Jim lets us into his world in a far less self-conscious way than many other musicians making for a fascinating and easy read that may have a few rough edges tidied but feels honest and true in the way that the best things in rock ‘n’ roll should be.

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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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