Thursday, May 15, 2014

Tom Holland - Persian Fire

There are some corners of the history profession where clarity of expression seems to be a sin. Then there are others where style often over-whelms substance. Tom Holland falls nicely in the middle. His writing is clear and direct. Indeed sometimes it feels like you're reading a novel and not a history book but he doesn't get carried away. Underneath the style is solid research.

If you want a good introduction to the clash between the great Persian Empire and the Greek City States then I can't recommend another book. It works particularly neatly as a companion to Herodotus's 'Histories', which is - of course - the original attempt to tell the story of these events. As Holland explains in his preface that this was the first clash between the cultures of East and West, perhaps even the creation of those concepts. Herodotus's desire to understand the causes of this conflict was the seed from which 'History' as a subject was to grow.

The issue with history of course is at some point you need to draw a line on how far back you go looking for causes and origins. The line is sometimes arbitrary and sometimes it is a line agreed by the historical profession. Holland, wisely, goes back and outlines how the Persian Empire emerged. He then introduces us to Sparta and Athens and their rivalry (and that of the other Greek City States). All this background then helps to make sense of the actual events leading up to the great - and almost mythical - battles : Thermopylae, Salamis, Marathon, Plataea etc.

Sometimes what actually happened during those battles is hard to pin down. Accounts are sketchy, contradictory and dusted with bias and justification but Holland explains them well, trying to take a reasonable path through the difficulties and helping guide us - via endnotes - to other historical works which can put other versions of the events together. It's a great introduction to the period and - another mark of a successful history book for me - it makes you want to read more and wider on the subject.

It's always tough with books you really enjoy to put a blog together that does it justice. It's easier to write critical reviews. Especially as I can't claim to be any kind of expert on this. I'm nothing more than an enthusiastic amateur. Plus with my pretensions of writing big books on meaty subjects this kind of annoyingly well-written, researched and interesting book just depresses me. It sets a standard I'd like to aim for but which feels horribly out of my reach.

So to cut all this short. If you've seen 300 or - even worse - 300: Rise of An Empire and you want to have a vague idea of what the 'real' story was behind those events or if you just have an interest in history I'd recommend this book highly (and 'Rubicon : The Triumph and The Tragedy of The Roman Republic by the same author too). Tom Holland's a historian who writes like a novelist without skimping on the scholarship, which is harder to do than it looks. Much harder.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Singing From The Floor : A History of British Folk Clubs by JP Bean

I think this can only be described as an oral history. In some ways it reads like the transcript of a lost documentary series on the history of the British folk movement. A more in-depth Folk Britannia if you will. Or won't.

The British Folk movement seems to have come out of the politics of the 1950s - CND, The British Communist Party - in a disorganized way. The politics is important influencing people's reasons for pursuing folk as a musical outlet. This seems to have merged with the influence of folk/blues musicians from the USA and Alan Lomax school of looking for the roots/survival of traditional music.

Bean's book tells that story from its emergence, through what I'm going to call 'peak folk' in the 50s & 60s and into the more entertainment led 70s (with the emergence of people like Jasper Carrott, Billy Connelly and Mike Harding) and through what looks like decline in the 80s and 90s. In fact it is less a decline and more a shift from a club based circuit - although they still exist - to a festival based circuit.

Throughout the book Bean introduces the key individuals, the clubs and the controversies let's those who played, saw and heard the music tell their own stories and it pays off. Because what comes across is the importance of the music. There are tales of the debates between those who wanted 'purity' in the music - Peggy Seegar and Ewan McColl's rules at the Critics group being the more puritanical - and those who basically just wanted to play the music they liked. These debates seem to get people's hackles up, on one side or another, even now.

The book also has a chapter on Bob Dylan - what he bought to and took away from the British Folk Club circuit - which seems to vary on whose account you hear. There's also a chapter, 'Following in Footsteps' on the children of the first folk generation who have now gone on to have folk music careers of their own: Seth Lakeman, Eliza Carthy and others.

In fact the 'new folk' movement (or whatever we want to arbitrarily labelled it as) is where my personal experience begins. I got into Folk slightly late in life - if you exclude buying Clannad albums in my youth - so I kind of discovered the music in the reverse order to this book. I started with the descendants and influenced and then went back to discover what had influenced them. So for me this book has been a real pleasure to read. Opening my eye to people who I was obliquely aware of and making me want to listen to their music.

I always think the key test of a book about music - which might not actually be the objective of the writer at all - is whether it makes you want to listen to the music being discussed. And this book definitely passes that test. It also reminded me of the lost mid-80s of my youth when I loved Billy Connelly, Jasper Carrott and Mike Harding (along with Max Boyce), which I had almost entirely air-brushed from my memory.

But that is damning this book with faint praise really. It's a fascinating series of stories weaved centered around the Folk Clubs. It opens your mind up to a whole almost forgotten period of British history and the people that were involved in driving it and their motivations.

I'd recommend it not just as a oral history of a particularly kind of music but also as a history of a different time political, culturally and socially. So go buy it. Ideally from Bookmarks Bookshop or any other independent bookseller and not our uber-capitalist literature overlord A****n. It would be a fitting way to mark the book's subject matter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sunny Afternoon : Hampstead Theatre

First of all I should say that I didn't actively hate this, which I feared might be the case based on the first twenty minutes establishing The Kinks' working class credentials via the medium of having their family talk about 'going down the pub to watch the football.'

In fact football features a lot here, as either a metaphor or as historical wallpaper. We get to hear England win the World Cup whilst the cast sings 'Sunny Afternoon'. I don't know whether The Kinks actually cared about football at all. Perhaps they did. The writer certainly wants us to know that they did.

Those of you who have read my blogs previously will know that I'm usually pretty easily pleased. I try to look for the positives. Mainly because I'm aware that no one -  or no one sane - actively sets out to make something terrible. And this isn't terrible. It's just not quite right.

Part of the problem might be that we're too familiar with the story. Not necessarily of The Kinks themselves but of too many bands : ripped off by parasitical managers who try and make the boys something they don't want to be, arguments, fights and fiascoes. It could be the story of a hundred bands. However there is, struggling to get out, a slightly different story about families and friendship. It's there but it's surrounded by too much padding and too many events and experiences that might be true then but have gathered the veneer of cliche as time has passed.

I should say here that the cast isn't the problem. They do a brilliant job with the material. I'm not an expert of musicals so I'm not going to pontificate on the quality of the singing. It was fine by me. Particularly good were Ben Caplin as Eddie Kassner, Lille Flynn as Rasa, George Maguire as Dave, Adam Sopp as Mick and John Dagleish as Ray. Although with that haircut I found myself thinking that Dagleish looked less like Ray Davies and more like Peter Serefinowicz doing Paul McCartney but I digress. It isn't the cast.

And it certainly isn't the music. If you come out of this not thinking that The Kinks are a bloody great band then you have a problem. Some of the songs are performed pretty straight, almost like a Kinks tribute band, especially in the 'encore' (of which more later). Others have gone through the transmogrification of the musical. But they still work. Sometimes brilliantly. The scene where Rasa (Lille Flynn) sings 'I Go To Sleep' is wonderful for example. It's fantastic lyrics sung well. The music is great but if I wanted to see a Kinks tribute band, I'd go see a Kinks tribute concert.

But it doesn't quite lift itself as a piece to the level of the songs. Now I know this was the second preview so I'm sure there's more work that will be done. In fact I'd be interested - in an almost cold academic way - in seeing it again late in the run just to see what they've cut back or dropped. It certainly appears to need a bit more directorial control.

It's directed by Edward Hall who hasn't put a foot wrong with the limited things I've seen him direct elsewhere but this seems to need tightening and perhaps some focus on what the story they are trying to tell is here.

Perhaps it is just me. I know that during the encore - when the actors play a medley of Kinks songs almost dead straight - I was almost the only person not on their feet dancing and clapping along. That's partly because I'm aware of what an utter dick I look dancing and partly because I find actors trying to encourage me to get up on my feet brings out and almost belligerent level of grumpiness. The more you try and shame me into dancing the more I'm going to sit there looking like a bulldog chewing a wasp. If I want to get up, I'll get up. Thank you.

I may have made this out to be worse than it was. It certainly seemed to entertain most of the people around me and I suspect if you just concentrate on the songs and forget about the story it makes for a fine evening. But there's a good story in here. It's just buried under too much flab.

However as I always say: see it yourself and then decide.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Brigid Coleridge : Elgar Rooms

Firstly I should admit that my knowledge of 'Classical' Music is so shallow you probably couldn't drown an ant in it. In fact this is - I think - the first live 'Classical' Music I've seen live. So this isn't going to be an incredibly in-depth and technical review.

As I've noted elsewhere part of the reason for writing these blogs / reviews is it forces me to write something every day - or almost every day - to keep me writing.

This was part of The Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Room Classical Coffee Morning series. The Elgar Room isn't the most exciting of rooms to listen to music in because it has the vibe of the cafeteria of a medium sized company in the Berkshire area. This is especially disappointing as the Royal Albert Hall itself is rather wonderful. For your money you get to watch some music and get a cup of tea or coffee and one of the world's smallest pastries. But mocking the generosity of the Royal Albert Hall when it comes to pastries is besides the point we're here for the music, not the croissants.

Brigid Coleridge is an Australian violinist who I suspect would have got the Pre-Raphaelites busy with their paint brushes. On a less shallow note she's also currently a student at the Royal College of Music studying for an Artist Diploma.

She was supported on piano by Umberto Jacopo Laureti, who looked suitably like a piano diva, which was reassuring. In fact he reminded me a little - and forgive me for this - of Lee Curreri aka Bruno Martelli from Fame. Hey, stop judging at the back I don't have much musical hinterland to draw from here.

They played Beethoven's Sonata for piano and violin in A Major (Op. 30, No.1) and Franck's Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano.

As I said I'm something of a musical ignoramus so I can't comment on technical details but I preferred the Franck to the Beethoven. For me there was more to it. As someone once said 'All art aspires to the condition of music' and this is because the effect it has on you is almost unconscious. It can divert past conscious thought and have an impact on you that is totally unexpected. That's particular true of music without voices or in languages you don't understand.

One of the best illustrations of that is in The Shawshank Redemption : "I have no idea to this day what those two Italians ladies were singing about. Truth is I don't wanna know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away and for the briefest of moments every last man at Shawshank felt free." Which is a solid a way of explaining what music can do to you as any, even that smart quip above about all art.

The Beethoven was nice but I still had distractions running through my little head. The Franck though set me free. Yes, I suspect on a second listen it might seem too romantic or too much frippery. Yes, I'm aware that Beethoven is a genius and that - confession - I'd never heard of Franck but the Franck took me out of myself and that drab little room. I'll have to find it and listen again.

So time well-spent, especially as Brigid did nice little introductions to both pieces of music that helped put them into context.

It was a new experience for me and I did find myself wondering why do Classical Music 'fans/aficionados/audiences' not applaud between movements? And also muses on the incredible fact that a hollow wooden box, some strings and a bow with added human being can make such a fantastic range of sounds.

Anyway, I'll definitely try to get to another of these 'Classical Coffee Mornings'. It's a nice way to start a day.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Fires Were Started

Fires Were Started is a 1943 film directed and written by Humphrey Jenkins and starring real fire fighters and fire service staff. It was made under the auspices of the Crown Film Unit and might now be called a docu-drama.

It follows the lives of one group of fire fighters on a full-moon lit night during the Blitz. In many respects it feels like a typical wartime film as it sets up : a new member is added to the crew, one man's wife tells him not to go off and do something silly, there's a bit of a sing-a-long and a nice mix of classes.

But once we get to the fire itself it feels almost like a documentary and it's terrifying. What's most terrifying is watching these men go up against a huge warehouse fire with the most basic of equipment - no breathing masks for example.* It's a fantastic portrayal of the matter-of-fact danger that they faced on a daily basis and the risks they were taking.

The way the film also shows how - as the size of the fire grows - that the behind the scenes support kicks into action and more pumps arrive, including from 60 miles away from where the fire began. It's an illustration of the size of the problem and the staff involved.

As with most films of the period everyone seems to display a phlegmatic calm that might once have been described as 'typically British'. How true that was in the flames and fear of the real thing I don't know. I'm not sure I would have been so calm.

The fire crew know they can't save the building they're standing around but they are trying to save the ship nearby with its valuable cargo of weapons and ammunition soon to be sent off to help the troops. A war can't be won if all is lost here. It's emphasized at the end as we see the ship setting off from the docks and off to deliver its cargo, cross-cut with the funeral of a fire fighter. Here, it seems to be saying, we are all in it together. When that phrase actually meant something.

Having a cast of non-professional actors never particularly feels stilted. It reminded me most of The Bells Go Down, which also came out in 1943, but which is an out-and-out drama. The cast includes Tommy Trinder and William Hartnell. It has similar themes - that I remember as its been a while since I saw it - but obviously feels more like a film than a documentary.

If you've never seen it I'd recommend it. It's only 80 minutes long but it feels like a genuine slice of wartime life. Perhaps watch it with The Bells Go Down to contrast their two approaches. Jennings is definitely aiming for a more documentary feel and the fire scenes definitely feel like you're watching a documentary rather than a drama.

*There's a fantastic of its time moment where the water pressure drops on the hose that one group of fire fighters are using on the roof and whilst they wait one of the firemen lights up a cigarette.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Eastern Approaches - Fitzroy Maclean [A Review: Of Sorts]

Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches is a fascinating book written by a man who must have been rather interesting to know. The sort of man that since the end of major conflict and empire would now be limited to exploration of the world's wilder regions.

I will firstly digress a little to castigate whoever it was at Penguin that decided to package up this 2009 edition as if the book were a Chris Ryan SASfest. This book is so much better and deeper than that it deserves to be treated with a little more respect.

Yes, this is a book about World War Two and yes, the SAS feature in it, including David Stirling himself. But that's only one third of the book. It's like Penguin felt they had to have as obvious a cover as possible but I suspect if you bought this book with that expectation you might be a little disappointed. Particularly as the first third focuses on Maclean's time in the Soviet Union as a Foreign Office bod from 1937-39 and the travels he undertook whilst there to the central Asian republics.

In fact the first third is a fascinating travelogue which makes you want to visit some of the places mentioned - Samarkand, Tashkent, Alma Ata and others - but which also makes you wonder how different they are 70+ years later. How much of the traditional areas survive now? These places are all in the forgotten or unknown parts of the former Soviet Union. The places that we only generally know because England get drawn against them in World Cup or European Championship qualifiers. Even at the time Maclean was writing he already noted the impinging architecture of modern Soviet Russia on some of these places. But at least this book makes you want to go and see. There's an element of the thriller about this section as Maclean tries to visit places that he's not really supposed to go and visit. There are a number of obvious NKVD goons trailing him, sometimes to their own disappointment.

This first third also contains a rather brilliant chapter* on the 1938 Show Trials in Moscow, which combines narrative power with some fascinating analysis. For that chapter alone I'd recommend this book as it gives you a real taste of the atmosphere of Moscow at the time and the trial itself as well as giving interesting portraits of those on trial and those doing the trying. It's interesting to see Vishinky at work for example before he ends up as the Chief Russian Judge at the Nuremberg Trails.

That section ends when war breaks out. Maclean is keen to serve but the Foreign Office aren't keen to let him go. So he discovers that if he stands as an MP he can resign from the Foreign Office. This he does - being elected MP for Lancaster in a 1941 by-election - before joining the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. From there he goes to North Africa when the second section of the book begins and keen to be involved he joins the SAS. This part again is well-told. There's a phlegmatic air about the whole thing with Maclean playing down his own courage often. This isn't a man you feel is keen to steal the limelight from others. Included in this section is his role in the kidnapping of General Zahedi, commander of the Persian forces in the Isfahan area who the British fear is being 'tapped up' by the Nazi's.

The final section is his time in Yugoslavia - or Jugoslavia as it is in the book - where from 1943 he served as liaison officer to Tito's partisans. He was originally dropped in there to judge whether Tito was worthy of support as the British felt that that General Mihailović and his Chetniks were failing to persecute the Germans with sufficient vigor. It was Maclean's reports that led to Allied support switching to Tito and his Partisans, despite their communism. Maclean's book makes it pretty clear that Churchill was more bothered about who could do the most damage to the Germans than who had the right political connections.

Yugoslavia is one of the areas of World War Two where my knowledge is a little scant so I found this whole section fascinating and Tito is a figure about whom I know little too. Maclean seems to get on well with Tito and his men, which might be surprising considering his background and experiences, but like Churchill he was focused on helping defeat the Germans. It certainly seems you can see the seeds of Tito's independence from the Soviet Union here, although the book ends with Maclean worried about what might happen post-victory.

Sir Fitzroy Maclean died in 1996 and you wonder what he would have made of the implosion of post-Tito, post-Communist Yugoslavia.

Eastern Approaches is well-written, interesting and tense it tells a story that might - in other hands - have become rather melodramatic. Maclean's war was a fascinating and tense one. There's no flinching from what war means in this book but there's a realistic matter-of-factedness about the whole thing that comes from a man who was really there. It has a certain understated power that fictional writers of war might do well to copy.

It makes me want to find out more about the war in Yugoslavia, about Maclean himself and perhaps best of all it makes me want to see what the places he saw now look like. If you can do that in a book then you've succeeded.


*Chapter VII, Winter In Moscow

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Vikings : Life & Legend - Some Thoughts etc.

I went to the British Museum this morning for a scoot around their new Vikings exhibition. What follows are some thoughts. They're the thoughts of a non-expert so if I make mistakes of historical phraseology and context then I'm terribly sorry.

Firstly I enjoyed it. It starts off rather slowly putting the Vikings into their context, showing how they interacted with the people's around them and how they lived. Since I was a school boy there's been a gradual retreat from the old school view of the Vikings as stone-cold killers towards a more nuanced view that they were as much about trade and settlement as they were raping and pillaging, although sometimes the line between the two is more blurred than it might seem to us in the 21st century.

This seems to be a similar approach to a lot of Dark Ages Europe. We seem to appreciate the complexities and interconnectedness of the races and places than we once did and certainly the degree of technical excellence involved in the production of some of the exhibits does imply a certain level of sophistication that perhaps we once failed to note.

Certainly you get the impression that the wealthy Dark Ages warrior would have looked pretty damn cool. In fact you might go as far as to say there ain't no bling like Dark Ages bling: silver and gold neck rings, broaches (particularly the enormous pennanular broaches), belt buckles, helmets and carrying weapons that had been exquisitely crafted and beautiful 'pimped'. These were not men afraid to display their wealth and power or to shower their own followers with similarly impressive gifts. Sometimes you think of the past in black and white, grey and brown but I suspect the actuality - certainly for the wealthy - was much more colourful and shiny.

The Vikings themselves are a ghost that haunts the British psyche as if they're imbedded in the race memory of all us Celts and Anglo-Saxons. In fact on the East Coast of England in particular you don't have to dig to deeply to find Viking roots: in place names and dialects. They certainly exercise a fascination on us in a way that their Norman descendants don't.

The second part of the exhibition revolves around the remains and 'reconstruction' of the Roskilde 6 ship and by Odin it's an impressive looking thing. I found myself thinking: 'bloody hell, that's big'. After a while I then started thinking: 'It might be big but it's supposed to have a crew of a hundred! A hundred!! Where did they all fit? How did they survive long sea voyages in that thing all cooped up together.'

It's worth going to the exhibition just for that but in displays around it are material covering the Vikings military and weapons and their belief systems. This was all the most interesting stuff for me. I'm afraid I'm still a sucker for the old-school Viking warrior stuff. However much I try and pretend otherwise. Fact of the day was found in that section, apparently Harald Hardrada's armour was called 'Emma'. Does anyone know why?

Oh and I liked the little line of cups and drinking vessels along the walls of the corridor as you walked to the ship. I particularly liked this quote: "It is not good as it's said to be good, the ale of the sons of men; for the more a man drinks, the less he knows his own intentions." Which comes from an anonymous 13th century Scandinavian.

 I would recommend a visit if you can fit one in. There's some interesting material on display and information to learn and it's excellent to see them attempt to contextualise the Vikings so that we get a picture of what their world was like and how they fitted into it.

I shall end this with my favourite quote, which is from The Book of Precious Records by Ibn Rusta (903-913) : "When a son is born, the father throws down a naked sword before him and says: 'I leave you no inheritance. All you possess is what you can gain with this sword.'"  Which, if true of course, is an interesting insight into how the Vikings saw themselves.