Perhaps it was an unconscious reaction on my part to escaping from 30 years of scholarly servitude, or perhaps it was laziness pure and simple, but I’m almost ashamed to admit didn’t read more than a couple of books in 2018. Of course, my lack of literary engagement was the cause of a nagging sense of deep disappointment at my errant refusal to better myself with books, so once Santa had been and the pile of unread volumes on the nightstand had grown alarmingly, I decided it was time to do something about it. Hence, 2019 has been nominated the Year of Reading Voraciously and here are my reviews of everything I’ve gazed upon since the Feast of Stephen.
Ronnie Drew: Ronnie – The first of my Christmas gifts from Ben, this rather reminds me of John Peel’s Margrove of the Marshes, in the sense that it falls between the stools of biography and autobiography. Back in early 2008, Ronnie Drew was six months into writing his biography when he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. Up to that point, he’d produced two lengthy, laconic chapters about his early life; warm, witty and insightful material that made it clear that he was an engaging writer as well as a great singer and storyteller. With the encouragement of his wife Deirdre and his family, he continued to think about the book and conducted a number of interviews to keep things ticking over, supposedly until he was well enough to resume work on it. But sadly, much as he wanted to, Ronnie did not get to finish his story. However, his daughter and son, Cliodhna and Phelim, put together Ronnie's work on his memoir along with his other writings, interviews, a wealth of photographs and other material from the family archive, and contributions from close friends, to create a book that is a compelling portrait of, and a fitting and loving tribute to 'the king of Ireland'.
Self-effacement was Ronnie's default position and the real sadness of this book is that it only contains 74 pages of his putative autobiography, as it is immediately apparent that as a writer, Ronnie had a real 'voice'. He conjures up nostalgic but unsentimental images of the Fifties in Ireland and these passages are rendered even more vivid by his eye for detail and his careful use and life-long respect for the syntax of the English language.
Depictions of his coming of age in the Fifties, which takes him from Ireland to England to Spain and home again, is never less than warm, witty and often hilarious. When he hits lyrical passages and relaxes, the writer in him spins a beguiling yarn, where the images literally jump out of the page. Ronnie recounts how his low self-esteem was a legacy from the Christian Brothers, masterful psychologists who specialised in ritual humiliation. There are moments when uncertainty infects Ronnie's prose and just when you would like more detail, he infuriatingly hurries on, as though he feels he might be detaining you with his boring nonsense.
Before the coda of final quotes in the book, there are 30 glorious pages containing passages from the scripts of various shows Ronnie performed over the years. Once again, the meticulous use of language and the intellectual rigour that Ronnie brought to his performances highlights his erudition across the arts in general and about the art of showmanship in particular. The short essays by Ronnie's friends, Michael Kane, BP Fallon, Niall Toibin and Mike Hanrahan, all illuminate Ronnie in different ways and the leavening of quotes and stories from and about Ronnie, are unfailingly entertaining and revealing. All in all; a cracking read.
Brian Glanville: World Football Handbook 1970/71 - When Brian Glanville left Charterhouse aged 17 in 1949, he reluctantly became an articled clerk after it was made apparent to him that football journalism was no career for a gentleman. All that was to change later that summer when he walked into the offices of the Italian Corriere dello Sport in Rome, cutting short his vocation and grasping his lifelong vocation. The newspaper made him their English correspondent, even though he couldn't speak a word of Italian. A similar sense of confused bafflement that Glanville endured must assail contemporary readers who, with the notable exception of the erudite and elegant George Culkin who alone carries a torch for football writing rather than journalism since Paddy Barclay retired, are served up endless screeds of banal, emotive doggerel pretending to be perceptive analysis by the egotists in the Fourth Estate.
This particular style of reference work, a kind of Rothmans Yearbook without the statistics, has been rendered utterly superfluous by the internet, but it is worth considering for the force of Glanville’s strident voice and forthright opinions. Spades are called spades from front to back, in the kind of tired patrician’s narrative voice that puts one in mind of Gore Vidal on the terraces of White Hart Lane and the touchline at Hackney Marshes. Writing the year after Brazil’s triumph at the Mexico World Cup, Glanville expresses a love for Ajax and Celtic’s attacking play as well as, unsurprisingly, venerating Italian defensive strategies, but he does in it a way that places him closer to Machiavelli than Ian Murtagh. A charming anachronism that was a joy to read.
John Hegley: These Were Your Father’s – Like a kind of real-life John Shuttleworth wedded to iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, John Hegley has been the Poet Laureate of Four Eyed Nerds for more than 35 years. I first became aware of him in summer 1984 with the debut release of his first band; Living in a Mobile Home by The Popticians. Strangely, I found no need to engage with his subsequent work that I found trite, mannered and trying just that bit too hard to be consciously whacky; the literary equivalent of the natural born loser searching vainly for sympathy shags. Picking up this slim volume from a charity table at work, I wasn’t surprised to come across page upon page dedicated to musings on: his father, Luton, Jesus, spectacles, dogs, potatoes, love and his failure to find it. There is an intriguing series of poems about a surreal camping holiday that veers away from the self-conscious attempts to get a laugh from every line, but it wouldn’t be enough to encourage me to read any more of his winsome tripe.
Simon Hughes: And God Created Cricket - We’re only a couple of months away from the start of the cricket season, thank goodness. Consequently what we once called broadsheet papers will soon be stuffed with opinion pieces lamenting the decline of cricket. At the moment the complaint is about the introduction of the 100 ball fiasco. Such an article may well be run under a headline such as “Why isn’t cricket fun any more?” or “A menace to English cricket”, which as Simon Hughes has discovered, were headlines that ran in the in the summer of 1930. And the object of their ire? Donald Bradman.
This is the point about cricket, as characterised by Hughes: today’s disaster is the future’s heroics. Hughes’s romp through 400 years of cricketing history is full of such moments when the game, and consequently wider society as a whole, was reckoned to be going to hell in a hand cart. The introduction of professionalism, the incorporation of overseas players into the English system, the advent of the one-day rules, venal administrators flirting with Sky TV: all of them were seen at the time as indicative of cricket losing its way. Hughes is a spirited and entertaining, if occasionally consciously provocative, guide through the vicissitudes of God’s own sport: 400 years of peaks, troughs and manifestly unjust umpiring decisions.
The former Middlesex and Durham seamer’s theories about the game’s development are inevitably coloured by his own experience..When he talks about those he played with or against, his prose shines. He is brilliant on Geoff Boycott, surprisingly harsh on Ian Botham (he calls his captaincy “narrow-minded and intolerant”) and hilarious on Phil Tufnell. Hughes has travelled widely. As a broadcaster and entrepreneur, he has engaged with the game well beyond the boundary rope. He has been employed to try to arrest its slide in the West Indies and brought in to exploit its phenomenal growth in the Indian subcontinent. Wherever he goes, he is greeted by the same old refrain: the game isn’t what it used to be. Looking back on the summer of 2009 when he wrote this book, following the packed houses of the ICC Twenty20 World Cup and the heaving stands of the Ashes, we might conclude that it isn’t what it used to be: in retrospect it may appear miles better. This would be the ultimate historical irony that Hughes might address in his next book.
Patti Smith; Just Kids - When I was 12 I fell in love with Patti Smith’s music. Over 40 years later, Piss Factory, My Generation, Gloria, Dancing Barefoot and many others remain as vital and compelling as they were when I heard them in the first flush of my pubescent lust. Consequently, I was delighted to receive this volume as my second Christmas present from Ben.
Patti Smith was 20 years old when she fell in love with Rimbaud. By the time she read Illuminations, the poet had been dead for over 70 years but that did not seem to matter. "My unrequited love for him was as real to me as anything I had experienced." Much of the first half of Just Kids is dominated by Rimbaud and countless mentions of the other important men in Smith's life, most of whom shared the principal attributes of being French, dead and terribly artistic. Baudelaire, Cocteau and Genet all merit frequent references. After giving up a child for adoption she buys a one-way ticket to New York and disappears into an ocean of artistic pretension. Fortunately both Smith and the book are saved from imploding with self-satisfaction by a chance encounter with a green-eyed boy called Robert Mapplethorpe. In Mapplethorpe, Smith finds her spiritual twin, a man as obsessed with artistic creation as she is. For the next 12 years, against the vivid backdrop of 1970s New York, Mapplethorpe and Smith would live together, support each other and share jointly in their burgeoning success as artists; Mapplethorpe as a photographer, Smith as a poet turned singer.
Although Mapplethorpe later came out, his relationship with Smith remained intimately cocooned from the outside world. As the title suggests, their lasting friendship was defined more than anything by its innocence and purity. The relationship with Mapplethorpe infuses her writing with necessary human warmth. The knowing references become less frequent and she concentrates instead on crafting a moving and delicately handled dual memoir, a love letter to the man who became her real-life Rimbaud. Living in a succession of squalid New York apartments, spending what little money they had on art supplies and surviving on day-old doughnuts and lettuce soup, both Mapplethorpe and Smith took their first tentative steps towards becoming the artists they so desired to be. Mapplethorpe, always the more focused and ambitious of the two, started to make collages by ripping photographs from male pornographic magazines. To save money, Smith suggested he take his own pictures and a star was accidentally born. Some of the early portraits are reproduced here, Smith's gaunt elegance and dense-eyed gaze staring out of the pages in black and white. It was Mapplethorpe who took the iconic shot of Smith for the cover of Horses.
Although both Smith and Mapplethorpe eventually went their separate ways, as she got married and had two children while he embarked on a long-term relationship with the collector Sam Wagstaff, their spiritual closeness remained. When Mapplethorpe was dying of Aids in 1989, he poignantly comments that they never had a family, Smith responds: "Our work was our children." And it is true that in many ways, Just Kids is a compassionate portrait of an unconventional marriage; an intimacy forged through a shared artistic vision. In both the tenderness of her expression and the beauty of her prose, there is no doubt that Patti Smith has given us a fitting memorial to her lost love and to the art they created together. Sadly though, Mapplethorpe comes across as an unbearable egotist and self-obsessed narcissist.
David Keenan: For The Good Times – Two years ago David Keenan’s debut novel, This Is Memorial Device, the story of a fictional post punk band from Airdrie, took my breath away with its subject matter and vision. With his second novel, Keenan has trumped that with the incredible story of an unrepentant IRA volunteer reminiscing about his 1970s and early 1980s Active Service salad days, where the armed struggle was accompanied with a soundtrack of Perry Como and Frank Sinatra.
Sammy’s memories pivot on his friendship with a fellow republican, Tommy, whose father helps them make their name among paramilitary high-ups when he tips them off about a hidden stash of weapons from Libya. Any sense that Keenan is glamorising the bloodshed rubs up against the relentless pratfalls complicating Sammy’s operations, as all too often events change direction, or get catastrophically out of hand. Retrieving that arms cache entails ending up waist-deep in raw sewage; one early-morning assassination has to be passed off as stag-do shenanigans when a homeless man buttonholes Sammy just as he’s trying to dump the victim’s body in a bin. At one point, his commander says, “Stop acting like fucking clowns... see if the IRA could dispense with Irishmen altogether, we’d be one fuck of a formidable fighting unit.”
Needing to lie low, a visit to Glasgow proves eye-opening, not least when the pair find themselves invited to an orgy with a gang of Orangemen and their amorous Loyalist ladies of the night. There’s so much going on in this incredible novel, from dream sequences to segments recasting the action as a superhero adventure, it proves alarmingly easy to forget what we’re actually reading: the unrepentant testimony of a Republican soldier who dedicated his life to the cause of Irish self-determination. This is a brave and brilliant book.
Irvine Welsh: Dead Men’s Trousers – Being charitable, only one of Welsh’s dozen or more novels, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, has truly stunk from first page to last. Some of the Trainspotting spin-offs have been better than others; the Begbie vehicle The Blade Artist was a surprisingly taut and intense triumph, in the way that Ray Lennox reappearing in Crime was a gear shift from his role in Filth, though A Decent Ride only became vaguely memorable once the focus shifted away from Juice Terry the Caledonian mini cab Robin Askwith. With Dead Men’s Trousers, Welsh has achieved the unthinkable; he has combined dull prose with characters we no longer care about. Specifically Renton has become dull and Spud no longer anything other than a marginalised figure of pity rather than sympathy. The complexity surrounding Begbie’s new found karmic state and Sick Boy’s lifelong, inveterate shithousery do still charm the reader. Sadly, the overall feeling one has is that Welsh needed to write a book that included reference to Hibs winning the Scottish Cup in 2016 and everything else is incidentally. David Gray’s majestic header laid plenty of ghosts that May afternoon, allowing the Hibees to leave the past behind them. Perhaps Welsh could take a leaf from that book and spare us any further diminution of the effect the Leith boys once had on us.