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.