Monday 10 June 2024

Guest review by Caroline Pitcher: OLD GOD'S TIME by Sebastian Barry

 


"For me, and hopefully for Tom Kettle, redemption and love triumph in this extraordinary story."

Photo: W W Winter
For Caroline Pitcher, writing is like living lots of lives. Mariana and the Merchild, written by Caroline and illustrated by Jackie Morris, will have a new edition published by Otter-Barry books on July 4th.

Recently Graffeg have brought out new editions of Caroline's Lord of the Forest, illustrated by Jackie Morris. and The Winter Dragon, illustrated by Sophy Williams. Now Caroline is dreaming further life stories from her favourite novel, Mine.


Sebastian Barry’s most recent novel is Old God’s Time. It has stayed with me long after reading it, and I shall read it again.

What kind of novel is it? One in which currents of love, grief and heartache, whirl in the mind of retired Irish policeman,Tom Kettle. He distances himself from his past, as if holding off a great weight.

Tom has moved to a lean-to, annexed to a Victorian castle overlooking the Irish sea, with cormorants on the flourish of black rocks. He sees few people, just a couple of eccentric neighbours, one with a gun-rest on the balcony, another an anxious young woman.

There’s a knock at the door. The knocking becomes merciless. There’s a ringing of the bell. Mormons, maybe? Tom pulls his bulky form from his sun-faded wicker chair and sees through the glass door the outlines of two men, though the daylight is `losing its grip on things anyway.’

Two polite young detectives stand there. They defer to Tom, who wonders about the state of his trousers. They say they are investigating a cold case involving two priests, one murdered, one moved on. So, is this book a who-dunnit?

With a strange surge of reluctance and even dread – deep, deep down - Tom busies himself making tea and Welsh rabbit on the damp, evil grotto of his grill. (Afterwards, Detective O’Casey spends half an hour groaning in the jacks.) The wind makes its roistering way across the waters and throws buckets, water tanks, reservoirs of salty water. The detectives stay over. When they leave early, Tom misses them like his own children, and worries, Have they an umbrella?

The past and the present moment wander in and out of each other. In the far shadows of the story hover the shameful abuse of children, including that of orphan Tom and his adored wife June. The abuse suffered by children from priests is never told salaciously. It’s all the more shocking for being so spare. I had to put the book down more than once.

The impact and trauma of the past upon Tom’s beloved family, his wife, son and daughter, has been disastrous. His story flows on, a stream of consciousness, elegiac and soulful, into a whirlpool of memories and emotions. It’s scrambled, occasionally humorous, unreliable, hallucinogenic, suicidal even. Does he face up to his distant or recent past? Is he in the late stages of dementia? Does he go somewhere beyond memory? The power of the writing made me not care to stop and decide.

For me, and hopefully for Tom Kettle, redemption and love triumph in this extraordinary story.

"…could any man have crossed the channel like he had just done….The strange privilege of that. The lovely wildness of it."

Old God's Time is published by Faber.

Monday 27 May 2024

CALEDONIAN ROAD by Andrew O'Hagan, reviewed by Adèle Geras




"Gossipy, sharp, sad, upsetting, and involving. I loved it."

Adèle Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which (under the pseudonym Hope Adams) is Dangerous Women, published by Michael Joseph. She lives in Cambridge.

From the moment I first read about Caledonian Road by Andrew O’Hagan I knew it was my kind of novel, just up my street etc. If I’m honest, my street includes a great variety of novels and the only sorts of book you won’t find there are SF, fantasy, or the further shores of Literary Fiction. I have been reading for 76 years or so, and generally I’m easy to please.

My Kindle is crowded with Free Samples. As soon as I read about something appealing, I’ll download one. With Caledonian Road, I knew as soon as I opened it that this was a novel I’d like. It has a list of characters, right up front and I saw from perusing this that the panoramic view of present day life in London would take in rich and poor, crooked and honest, educated and uneducated, aristocrats, Russian oligarchs, immigrants, actors, academics … it was going to be an All Human Life is There kind book.

The links between the characters, how they mesh and interact with one another, fire up the turning engines of the plot. This is complicated without ever becoming unclear, and can be summed up in John Donne's words: No man is an island

The denizens of Caledonian Road who populate the novel are many and various, but at their heart is our hero, Campbell Flynn, an art historian and celebrity academic. His wife Elizabeth is a psychiatrist, his sister Moira is a politician.

In the basement of their lovely house is a sitting tenant, Mrs Voyles. Her name is very close to Vile, and she’s a very important character too.

Campbell becomes involved with a student called Milo and a whole landscape of hellish possibilities opens up before us and we explore very many of these, our jaws quite often dropping in horror or amazement.

I’m not going to give away any more of the plot. It’s brilliantly worked out. It’s exciting, and sad and sometimes very funny and you will be swept along.

The book has had almost universal acclaim from the critics, but I did have lunch recently with someone who was complaining that she didn’t like the characters. She has, however, not given up reading the book. I never mind about likeability. If a character is interesting and comes alive on the page, that’s all I need, and there are lots of fascinating creatures skewered in these pages.

“Could you believe in an art historian who wrote for Vogue and knew about perfume?” said my doubting friend. I certainly could and did and absolutely loved the perfume /fashion references. They’ll surely turn this novel into a series of some kind for TV so I urge you to get to it before that happens. If you’re a Kindle lover, I’d say this was a terrific book to take on holiday. But it’s long and the hardback will use up a lot of suitcase space, so read it at home. But do read it … it’s gossipy, sharp, sad, upsetting, and involving. I loved it. Also, it’s most beautifully written. O’Hagan describes someone as “narrowing their face for a selfie.” We all know precisely what he means. Dazzling stuff.

Caledonian Road is published by Faber & Faber.  

Monday 13 May 2024

Guest review by Graeme Fife: EVEREST 1953 by Mick Conefrey

 


"The final climb itself, a gripping story, loses none of its thrill"

Graeme Fife
is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. His novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin, tells the story of Charlotte Corday. His latest publication, Memory's Ransom, is published by Conrad Press.

British rock climbers pioneered the craze for Alpine exploration in the early nineteenth century, followed by nationals of those countries which might have laid a more immediate claim to proprietorship of the great alpine peaks in their country. Perhaps it may be put down to a Victorian thrust for exploration and conquest riding the crest of imperial expansion. The often incomprehensible obsession with ice and adversity – the polar expeditions – ensued. They formed a part, we may say, of the similar preoccupation with heroic failure which began with the Charge of the Light Brigade, the spilling of blood on foreign sand, a calamity puffed by Sir Henry Newbolt’s jingoist doggerel, Invictus, and finally belittled by the heroic triumph of the Battle of Britain. The fascination of ice perhaps began with Cabot’s search for the North-West Passage and underpins the drive to ‘conquer’ Everest – named for a Surveyor General of India; local names were rejected because of native hesitation about allowing foreigners entry. The Tibetan name, Qomolangma, means Holy Mother, and it must be clarified, mountains are never conquered; they may be climbed but remain a challenge forthwith.

Edward Whymper laid the benchmark. An English illustrator, born in 1861, he was sent to the Pennine Alps to make drawings and, fascinated by the daunting sight of the Matterhorn ‘peak of the Meadows’ near Zermatt, a mighty wind-whipped, partly snowbound pyramid of rock, a giant of those mountains, he determined to climb it. At 5.30 am on 13th July 1865, he and four other Britons with two Zermatt guides set off from Chamonix, bivouacked overnight and, at dawn next day began their assault. At 1.40 pm, Whymper and another climber ‘skipped up the final slope’ to the summit. (The word had not yet been debased as a verb – Americans again.) Descending, one man, roped to three others, slipped: fatally, all fell.

The triumph is reckoned by some to mark the end of the Golden Age of Alpine first assaults. Whymper is honoured with a statue in Chamonix.

In the 1920s, the outstanding climber George Mallory led three expeditions on Everest, the first two times eschewing oxygen - considered infra dig, albeit they happily used stimulants and other drugs. Two failures preceded their final attempt in 1924 when the climbers did use oxygen to combat the debilitating effect of perilously thin air. Mallory and his companion may have reached the top; nobody knows. but both men died and Mallory’s body was not found until 1999. He is alleged to have answered the question ‘Why try to climb it?’ with ‘Because it’s there.’

From that final effort, somehow, the British thought of Everest as ‘their’mountain and Edmund Hillary, a bee-keeper from New Zealand, exceptional Himalyan climber, took part in several exploratory expeditions mounted by British teams from the 1930s on.

The Swiss mounted their own attempts – all dependent on permission from the Nepalese government - and, in 1952, came very close, even as the organisation of another British expedition team proceeded, headed by Colonel John Hunt, a first-rate mountaineer. Nepalese Sherpas were routinely called upon to act as guides, porters and support climbers; one, Tensing Norgay, an exceptional mountaineer, climbed with the Swiss and, warming to their amiable attitude, found the more militaristic hauteur of the British far from conducive. Luckily, Hunt was no martinet but that rare species among miltary men, a fine, sympathetic leader with none of that egotism characteristic of so many British officers. Tensing’s inclusion in the 1953 team was fortuitous. Not only did he prove himself a priceless asset as a climber but he bonded closely with the highly experienced Hillary, another ‘outsider’ like him, to form an indelible partnership.

The politics, tensions, rivalries, accommodations of assembling the team, martialling the complicated manner of approach, preparation and final assault – who was to be chosen? – are skilfully narrated, without bias, even the drama of getting the news to London for Coronation Day in 1953, itself a mini epic; all described with meticulous detail and understanding. The final climb itself, a gripping story, loses none of its thrill, the outcome being known.

As to the shabby behaviour and misreporting of clamouring newshounds after the climb, this forms a sorry footnote to a wonderful exploit, rightly celebrated as a British triumph, albeit the two men who stood on the top of the world had citizenship by right of inclusion as men of the colonial governance. No matter. Their achievement does not wait on partisan claim. They did something none else had ever done; their bravery and fortitude are for all humanity. If their success inevitably overshadows the work of their companions, without that superlative support they might have failed.

Everest 1953 is published by Oneworld.

 More reviews by Graeme:

A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham


The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey


One Day by David Nicholls

Monday 29 April 2024

ENGLISH PASTORAL by James Rebanks and THE FARMER'S WIFE by Helen Rebanks, reviewed by Linda Newbery

 


"He and his family had tended to see environmentalists as 'bonkers', impractical opposers of farming realities, but now he made the connection between the decline of once-common birds such as lapwings and the prevalence of modern farming methods."

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review and was a Costa prizewinner for her young adult novel Set in Stone. Her recent publication This Book is Cruelty Free - Animals and Us looks at our daily choices - what we eat, wear, buy, use, waste and throw away - and how we can choose better for animals and the environment.

James and Helen Rebanks, husband and wife, have each written about the experiences that led them to the small mixed farm close to Ullswater, formerly managed by James's grandfather, where they now live with their four children. James's 2020 book, English Pastoral - an inheritance, which details his conversion to the nature-friendly farming they now practise, deservedly won the Wainwright Prize and was the Sunday Times Nature Book of the Year; Helen has followed with The Farmer's Wife - my life in days. James's book had been on my pile for some time, so when The Farmer's Wife was a reading group choice, I read both.

James's book invites comparison with Isabella Tree's Wilding, and he acknowledges the influence of her project with Charlie Burrell at the Knepp Castle estate in Sussex. As a young man he travelled to Australia, where he saw very different large-scale land management; swayed by the drive to modernise and increase food production, he began to see his grandfather's ways as antiquated. Gradually, though, he saw that this race to higher productivity drastically harms nature while doing farmers no good, either - pushing small farmers off their land and lowering food prices so that producers have to strive harder and harder to make any profit. 

Reading Rachel Carson's Silent Springwhile living on his father's rented farm, was a catalyst for James. He and his family had tended to see environmentalists as 'bonkers', impractical opposers of farming realities, but now he made the connection between the decline of once-common birds such as lapwings and the prevalence of modern farming methods. Mowing grass meadows for silage, rather than later in the summer for hay, deals death to curlew chicks and other ground-nesting birds; removing hedgerows takes away valuable habitat, shelter and food; endless application of fertilisers exhausts the soil, and spraying pesticides causes the wide-ranging losses of which Rachel Carson warned. "This was business-school thinking applied to the land, with issues of ethics and nature shunted off to the margins of consciousness." 

He set himself the task of farming in a way that was not only nature-friendly but that would restore much of what had been lost. He sought the help of specialists, notably Lucy Butler of Eden Rivers Trust who showed him and his father that allowing streams to meander and form pools and wetlands would amply benefit wildlife and flood prevention (as described in Wildings, too). "I've come to realise that we need a small army of naturalists to help us play our part in the restoration of the countryside. There is more to understand about the ecology of a farm than any farmer can reasonably be expected to know." 

Returning to slow, traditional ways has its cost, and for years James took outside employment to support his family. "I'm not sure I'm much good at being a farmer," he writes. "It is overwhelming. I can't get everything done, let alone done well ... Often I get things wrong. The farm makes almost no money, and whatever money it does make, it devours." He readily acknowledges how much he owes to his wife Helen, and to women in general, who do much of the work that keeps a farm and family functioning.

Over to Helen's own book for more of this, with an emphasis on food; she prides herself on providing her family with wholesome, nourishing meals and includes recipes, many of them traditional, in her memoir. There's a lot (too much) about combining the demands of farm admin and domestic tasks with the care of small children: detailed episodes about looking in the fridge for something to cook, tidying toys and negotiating a supermarket with toddlers in tow soon become tedious. But a section on the 'Beast from the East' vividly describes the urgency of caring for animals and keeping the family warm and fed in an isolated, snowbound building, without electricity. When the worst is over and they venture down snow-banked lanes to the main road three miles away, the traffic is flowing freely, making their ordeal seem part of a different world. 

The Farmer's Wife goes back and forth in time, from childhood, through the couple's residence in Oxford while James was studying history there, Helen trying various ways of making a career for herself after finishing an art degree, and renovating a house. Far from giving an idyllic picture of farming life she is frank about rifts and tensions between James and herself at tough times, and writes of the devastation to both their families at the time of the foot-and-mouth pandemic. From Oxford, Helen "could only watch and listen to it all unfold from afar. After a couple of weeks she (her mother) told me the news we'd all feared: there was a contaminated farm nearby, and all our sheep and newborn lambs had to be slaughtered. Dad was busy helping sheep give birth, knowing that they were all destined to be culled and burned or buried soon ... Men that you'd never normally see showing emotion were now filmed with red blotchy faces, trying to hold back the tears for the BBC." In Oxford, "people around me seemed oblivious to it all."

Both authors have much to say about how dissociated most people have become from the food they buy and eat, and the importance of understanding the connections between our choices, farming and the natural world. "We need to be highly suspicious of food that seems too cheap to be true," Helen writes, "because somewhere a field, an animal, a farmer or a worker is paying the price for that." But neither pursues the connections between animal agriculture, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. Although James has much to say about the industrialisation of agriculture he only briefly suggests that eating less meat would reduce the environmental impact of food. Helen is disparaging about plant-based eating and seems proud of her children when they argue with a teacher about the school's introduction of Meat Free Monday. One paragraph particularly annoyed me: 

"The worst farming on earth is acres and acres of wheat, soy and maize grown by ploughing, which creates whole landscapes devoid of nature. These crops are wholly dependent upon synthetic chemicals - pesticides, herbicides and fossil-fuelled fertilisers that are disastrous for the soil, rivers, oceans, insects and birds. Eating 'plant-based' products supports these systems." (My emphasis). 
 
I felt like throwing the book across the floor at that point. Helen Rebanks must surely know, even if her editors don't, that most arable crops are grown to feed farmed animals, not humans directly. Not everyone who wants to eat meat has access to pasture-fed local produce; most meat bought and consumed in the UK is reared in intensive systems and fed on precisely the kind of crops she deplores. Reducing meat consumption is the best and only way to reduce the need for arable farming on such a vast and unsustainable scale. It's exasperating to see such a staggering piece of misinformation in a book designed for popular appeal, where many readers won't question its logic.
 
Because of this and other irritations I found English Pastoral by far the more rewarding of the two books, with its lyrical glimpses of landscape, weather and wildlife. "In the biggest darkest pool, clouds of minnows, little trout, swirl around erratically, their bodies scratching scribbles on the skin of the water"; "at dawn and dusk the valley bottom feels a little primeval, with the cattle and roe deer often grazing in a sea of mist"; "the air is heavy with mint, trampled by sheep feet".

One question that goes unanswered is how either James or Helen can possibly find time for writing and all that goes with publication, amidst the constant, pressing demands of farm and family. But both conclude their books with quiet contentment and appreciation of the life they have made. 

James: "The modern world worships the idea of the self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in a little life on the land. In a noisy age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly may be a virtue." 

Helen: "Caring roles in our society are all too often invisible, ignored in the crazy 'look at me' world we live in ... Learning that the word 'mundane' has its roots in the Latin word 'mundanus', of the world, made me see everything through a different lens. To me, caring for my family is, and always has been, the most important work in the world."

English Pastoral: an inheritance is published by Allen Lane

The Farmer's Wife: my life in days is published by Faber

Read Linda's review of Wilding by Isabella Tree


and of Sixty Harvests Left by Philip Lymbery


Monday 15 April 2024

Guest review by Susan Elkin: NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro

 


" ... Of course, she (Kathy) is terrified but Ishiguro’s drawing of her character is a masterclass in understatement, repression and denial."

Susan Elkin
taught English in secondary schools for 36 years, latterly developing a parallel career as a writer. Since 1990 she has written over 5000 articles for newspapers and magazines, English text books, how-to books for teachers, a book about careers in theatre and latterly three volumes of memoir: Please Miss We’re Boys (2019), The Alzheimer’s Diaries (2022) and All Booked Up (2024). She lives in South London.


I read Never Let Me Go casually when it was published in 2005. Then it got taken up by several examination boards as a GCSE set text and I was commissioned by Hodder to write a study guilde – which meant a lot of very careful analytical thinking. I’ve written five of these on different titles and it’s certainly an effective way of honing very attentive reading skills – like teaching without the students.

Never Let Me Go presents a world, more or less like our own, except that there is a parallel breeding programme of clones whose organs are gradually harvested when they reach maturity. There’s a complex, albeit patchy, system for making it as humane as it can be which often, rereading again now after 11 years, reminds me of animal welfare concerns in real life: hideous things go on but meat eaters simply don’t want to think about that. In the same way, people on the periphery of Never Let Me Go need kidneys, livers and hearts for transplant but choose not to think too hard about the source.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H and although her attention to detail is punctilious, she is the most unreliable of narrators. She is coming to the end of an unusually long eleven year stint as a “carer” and looking back at Hailsham, the beloved institution, now closed, where she and her friends Ruth and Tommy were brought up. Soon she will have to start her “donations” – chilling choice of euphemism. There is nothing voluntary about this. She faces a series of four organ-harvesting operations which will end in death. Of course, she’s terrified but Ishiguro’s drawing of her character is a masterclass in understatement, repression and denial.

We never meet the organ beneficiaries or see the surgery in action. The author isn’t interested in that sort of detail. He doesn’t dwell on science and specifics either. We simply see Ruth and Tommy and others in “recovery” (another sinister euphemism) centres where there is always an officially appointed carer. Instead the novel focuses on relationships and personalities and, crucially, explores whether or not you are fully human if you are cloned and unable to reproduce. Do you have a soul because if you don’t then does that make you expendable? There’s a lot of emphasis on creative art at the enlightened Hailsham to prove that you do – but what’s the point if you’re only being bred to die?

Well, there have been other novels about organ harvesting: Spares by Michael Marshall Smith (1996), Under the Skin by Michael Faber (2000) and, in a sense, My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, (2004) for example. So why did Ishiguro choose to visit this topic? My contention is that organ removal isn’t the main thrust of the novel. The donation programme is merely the setting.

Never Let Me Go is actually a compelling, but searingly bleak, novel about the death which awaits us all: a parable about mortality. As children “we’re told but not told” as Miss Lucy says in the novel. We know about death – vaguely. Then, as we grow up, most of us choose not to think about it much. And we bolster our denial with euphemisms.

All religions offer some sort of explanation of death in order to enable their believers to face the future without fear or despair. Unbelievers have to face knowing that their lives will “complete” (yet another Never Let Me Go euphemism) possibly after being “all hooked up” and with “drugs, pain and exhaustion”. In the novel the rumours about the possibility of deferral represent a religion of hope – which is eventually dispelled by Miss Emily. “Your life must now run the course which has been set for it” she tells Kathy and Tommy. And that, of course, is true for all of us.

Never Let Me Go, pubished by Faber, was adapted as a film in 2010 with Carey Mulligan as Kathy. Inevitably it lost most of the subtlety of this fine novel.


Susan Elkin’s Study and Revise for GCSE: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was published by Hodder Education in 2016.

Monday 1 April 2024

Guest review by Ann Turnbull: THE SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR by John Clare

 


"I love this book, which takes the reader into the heart of rural life nearly two hundred years ago."

Ann Turnbull
has been writing stories for young people of all ages since 1974. Her most recent book is In That Time of Secrets, a young adult novel about the persecution of Catholics in 1605, set in the Black Country. Find out more at www.annturnbull.com

The Shepherd's Calendar 
was first published in 1827 and has been in print ever since.

John Clare knew village life intimately from his own experience as an agricultural worker in a village near Peterborough in north Cambridgeshire. This book consists of one long poem that takes the reader through a year in the life of country people - beginning with January:

      Withering and keen the winter comes
      While comfort flyes to close shut rooms
      And sees the snow in feathers pass
      Winnowing by the window glass...


It's very easy and pleasurable to read. Here, for instance, is the shepherd with his dog:

      The shepherd too in great coat wrapt
      And straw bands round his stockings lapt
      Wi' plodding dog that sheltering steals
      To shun the wind behind his heels...


And here, the linnets that

      ... flurt their wings and wet their feathers
      To cool them in the blazing weathers
      Dashing the water o'er their heads
      Then hie them to some cooling shed,
      Where dark wood glooms about the plain
      To pick their feathers smooth again.


I love this book, which takes the reader into the heart of rural life nearly two hundred years ago.


The edition shown of The Shepherd's Calendar is published by Carcanet.

Monday 18 March 2024

Guest round-up by Paul Dowswell: HIGH TIMES AND LOW CULTURE, a random selection of rock biographies



"Writers Review usually concerns itself with the classier end of the literary spectrum but on this occasion I’m going to stride manfully into the murky world of the Rock biography ..." 

Paul Dowswell
writes historical fiction and is a frequent visitor to schools, both home and abroad, where he talks about his books and takes creative writing classes. His novels Eleven Eleven and Sektion 20 won the Historical Association Young Quills Award and Ausländer won the Hamelin Associazione Culturale Book Prize and the Trinity Schools Book Award. Recently he has become increasingly concerned about how deranged he looks in Zoom calls.

Writers Review usually concerns itself with the classier end of the literary spectrum but on this occasion I’m going to stride manfully into the murky world of the Rock biography. And not just any rock biography – this last month a friend passed on a random wodge of them when he was having a clear out and it’s these I’ll be writing about as well as mentioning some others by way of comparison. This latest batch have been of variable quality, but good or bad it’s still been fascinating to read them.

 

Undoubtedly, some rock biogs are terrible. Radio presenter Danny Baker once dismissed David Bowie’s ex-wife Angie’s account of their life together, Backstage Passes, by saying you could open any page and read out any sentence and it would be dreadful. I did just that and came up with ‘Trying to have a relationship with a coke freak is like trying to eat an aircraft carrier.’ But notwithstanding, some rock biogs can be hands-down magnificent. Bob Geldof’s post Live-Aid effort Is that it? brilliantly portrays his early life in the cold-water chill of post-war Ireland and remains interesting when fame kicks in. John Cooper Clarke’s biog I wanna be yours offers the reader a magical picture of childhood in post-war Manchester and only goes off the rails once he becomes famous and, simultaneously, a heroin addict. Here, his unhappy tales of chasing his next fix become dull and repetitive.
 

But for now, let’s get back to this month’s batch:

Rick Wakeman's music isn’t my thing but he seems like a genial soul so I've always warmed to him when I’ve seen him on the telly. His book generously credits his ghost writer – something that is not always the case in projects like these - and he quickly establishes his everybloke persona with chapter openers like ‘I love cars. I’ve had a few in my time…’. Alas, I found Grumpy Old Rock Star (Preface, 2009) hard work. On the printed page he comes over like a sozzled but harmless 'I'm mad, me' pub bore who might corner you at the bar. And, good God, his anecdotes are INTERMINABLE. His hearty pub-speak style does grate, and no cliché goes unused. Radio station switchboards ‘light up like a Christmas tree’ when swearing occurs on air, and Rick is living his life ‘on God’s green earth.’ Within are tales of Barry the Perv, Herr Schmitt and Tony ‘Greasy Wop’ Fernandez. Come on, Rick. It’s the 21st Century, not the ‘Hop off you Frogs’ 1980s.
 

Keith Emerson’s Pictures of an Exhibitionist (John Blake Publishing, 2004) is handicapped by the prog keyboard star’s clunky writing style. The book doesn’t credit a ghost writer but you would have thought his editor would have something to say about sentences like ‘From his casual shrug, could I be forgiven my suspicions that a game of deception was being played?’ It’s also rich in muso talk such as ‘By coincidence, Carl’s drum pattern happened to fit a left-handed ostinato figure I was working on…’ But before you know it he’s undermining his role as Prog’s own music professor by regaling us with tales of Emerson, Lake and Palmer sharing a roadside German prostitute.

For anyone who dislikes the prog-rock behemoths (as 1970s rock critics invariably described ELP) there’s plenty here to fuel their prejudice. ‘I’ve got this image of us creating a vast "sheet of sound" that defies conventional structures,’ writes Emerson. ‘There doesn’t appear to be one set time signature or a key structure but the total effect played by the three of us could be very prolific.’ Whimper fearfully and pray for the arrival of punk.
 

Lemmy’s White Line Fever (Simon and Schuster, 2002) is unexpectedly fascinating and he can certainly tell a tale. The Hawkwind and Motörhead bassist, who once said when asked for the secret of his success ‘Just keep going, like Attila the Hun’, is true to his word. Equipped with an iron constitution and an iron will, he burned through 40 years of Motörhead line-ups and died with his boots on a few short years after publication. You suspect, like The Alien, he had acid for blood. Despite his fearsome mien and even more fearsome consumption of amphetamine sulphate, he comes across as quite an old-fashioned and learned sort of chap. He even confesses that his greatest line in describing Motörhead to the world, ‘If we moved in next door your lawn would die,’ was actually nicked from American rock band The MC5. Unlike Rick Wakeman, Lemmy keeps his anecdotes short and to the point and is never less than entertaining. One former manager he describes as ‘a very interesting man… from an anthropological point of view. A complete ******* lunatic.’

Ginger Baker’s Hellraiser (John Blake, 2010) leaves you wondering how he lived so long. His parents’ generation would have called him a tearaway and he was undoubtedly mad, bad and dangerous to know. But among the tales of a decades-long smack habit, multiple infidelities and trying to set fellow band members hair on fire, you can’t help noticing that his daughter Nettie has done a really good job on the ghost writing. 

And to finish, two biogs written by a band accomplice and a journalist respectively, rather than the musicians and their ghost writers. Richard Cole’s Stairway to Heaven (Pocket Books, 1997) and Stephen Davis’s Hammer of the Gods (Pan Books, 2005), both about Led Zeppelin.

The band’s oft told tale reads like a Greek tragedy and by way of comparison, I’d say the best account of them all is undoubtedly Barney Hoskyns’s Trampled Underfoot, where artfully chosen and often quite contractionary quotes illuminate this cautionary tale. (Jimmy Page claims his drug use never affected his playing. The rest of the world disagree.) As a rule of thumb you can tell how crappy a Led Zeppelin biog writer is by the ease and frequency in which they resort to aerial metaphors to describe the ‘flight’ and ‘crash landing’ of the Leds. Hoskyns doesn’t do this and his is a sad and sorry tale which also leaves you in awe of their extraordinary talents and multi-faceted music.

So, what of these two aforementioned accounts? Richard Cole, who was the band’s road manager throughout their 12-year existence, tells a weary tale, from the stale, obvious title onwards. His is a book of paint-peelingly sordid revelations, made even more distasteful by Cole’s corrosive misogyny. If you have pearls, prepare to clutch them. It’s like eavesdropping on the Russian Mafia drunkenly guffawing about how badly they treat the local prostitutes. On one occasion, for example, Cole persuades a gaggle of thirteen and fourteen year old girls to join the group on their private plane at Los Angeles airport. When the plane unexpectedly takes off for New York, the girls become distressed when they realise how much trouble they’re going to get into with their parents, who they probably told they were going to a sleepover with school friends. What larks.


 Stephen Davis’s Hammer of the Gods is also a hair-raising expose of rock piggishness both within the group and their piratical road crew. Herein lurk tales of underage groupies, medieval brutality and Olympic-standard drug use.

But let's not end on such a negative note. Like Hoskyns, Davis loves the Leds. He even sings the praises of their underwhelming In Through the Out Door album, the last they made before their fearsome drummer, John ‘The Beast’ Bonham drank himself to death (48 vodkas, apparently…). Davis is an educated, erudite guide, quoting Primo Levi and snippets of Anglo-Saxon literature and while Cole’s book is a sordid swank along a very seedy avenue, Davis clearly revers his subjects, and finishes his book with a vivid and moving pilgrimage to John Bonham’s grave.