Thursday, 11 December 2014

My Big Ten Books of 2014

London Pub Walks: The Counting House

The North by Paul Morley (2013)
"Oddly enough, in the first few years of the twentieth century, the Hyde Seals water polo team were the best in the world, three times world champions, but that fact has not infected the psychology of the town."
A sprawling, mad, brilliant, quirky, 600-page history of the North of England. So good it made me wonder why I ever left and reminded me why I did. A poignant, personal love story about the unique people and places that ultimately fashioned Morley into the best pop wordsmith of his generation. He makes Bill Bryson look like a lightweight. (In an ironic twist, I read most of this book while so far south that the water went down the plughole the other way round.)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (2007)
“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they'll go to any length to live longer. But I don't think that's the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that.”
I did a lot of running this year - two half-marathons, a couple of ten-mile races, a 15km cross-country around Wimbledon Common and all the solitary hundreds of miles of training along the Thames. So it was fascinating to compare my mental experience with that of Murakami. His is a downbeat, uplifting philosophical whimsy that will feel as familiar as a chafed nipple to anyone who regularly laces up a pair of trainers.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
I re-read this masterpiece because both the kids were studying it at school and also because it's one of the novels Murakami talks about translating into Japanese in his running book. A timeless account of a messianic outsider shattering the shallow, double lives of the idle rich and leaving the battered survivors to pick up the pieces with faint and fragile hope. Every sentence is perfect.

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (2014)
“When the future looks back on the National Socialists, it will find them as exotic and improbable as the prehistoric meat-eaters.”
This could just have easily been called Carry On Concentration Camping. Only Amis could write a movingly comic novel about the holocaust. It's his most conventional book for years;  a three-way point of view narrative: the Jewish prisoner forced to gas his own people is the most distressing and the most unAmis; the nephew of Nazi propagandist Martin Boorman is an honourable man trapped in the wrong time and place; but the camp Kommandant Paul Doll is a classic Amis comedy monster. An impotent, raging, sadistic madman who unleashes some tortoise-smashing moments of pitch black slapstick to make the unimaginable compulsively readable.

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis (1992)
“Probably human cruelty is fixed and eternal. Only styles change.” 
I re-read this immediately after The Zone of Interest. It shares the same recurring theme of the inhuman horror of the holocaust summed up by concentration camp survivor Primo Levi: "Here There is No Why." The gimmick, you'll remember, is it's told backwards. A retired doctor in America is revealed to be a former Nazi - but the baffled narrator sees everything back-to-front. Tortured bodies are miraculously healed by Dr Tod Friendly as time goes into reverse, shattered lovers are made happy again by Friendly as the narrative backs into their first meeting. But who is this detached narrator? Perhaps the soul of Friendly himself. I still can't get it out of my head.

Words and Music by Paul Morley (2005)
"Kylie looks at me out of the side of her face. She is in profile but she is looking at me. She uses one of her eyes to defy logic. Her face is not smiling, which is quite an event."
As different to The North as the north is to the south. Kylie Minogue sets off to drive to a futuristic city she never seems to reach, pursued along the autobahns by Kraftwerk and joined in the passenger seat by a rogue's gallery of characters from pop music history. The conceit allows Morley to trace the history of modern music's outsiders and influencers, written in the style of a music svengali trying to baffle the world with erudite sleeve notes to an Art of Noise album. Dazzlingly pretentious.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)
“The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.”
I like hawks and I like the Brecklands of Norfolk, where it's set, so this was well worth a try. A woman mourning the death of her father returns to her childhood love of falconry to cope with the loss. But to enjoy this non-novel you've got to be an emotionally damaged, desperately miserable, deeply introspective self-obsessive who sees the world through the prism of an airport self-help book. I loved it. (Boom-tish.)

CAMRA's London Pub Walks by Bob Steel (2013)
"Reaching the road at the far end, bear left under the railway bridge at Turnham Green station, then across on the right, just beyond the corner, is the architectural highlight of this walk, the Tabard."
Never have 200 pages given so much pleasure to so many London drinkers. Steel details 30 tipplers' tours dotted all around the Capital listing the beers, the buildings and the booze-hound history. I've spent many happy hours this year discovering new favourites and revisiting old ones. As essential as an Oyster card.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
“What is the point of worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one's life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy."
Written twenty years before anyone had heard of Downton Abbey but now impossible to read without hearing the rich, sonorous tones of Mr Carson in your head.  It's a magnificent book - a post-war butler on a road trip to meet the only woman he nearly loved reveals a buttoned-up, emotionally-crippled, utterly wasted life of service to a British Nazi sympathiser. This is a man who carries on pouring the port with silent tears rolling down his cheeks while his father lies dying upstairs. Every page drips beautifully with dignified, inarticulated shame and frustration.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (2004)
“Love doesn't conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.” 
People have been recommending this to me for years so when The Goldfinch came out I thought I'd give it a go. It's horrible. I hated every character and everything they did. It reminded me of that nasty Alfred Hitchcock film, Rope - posh American students killing for fun and trying to get away with it. I honestly don't know why I bothered wading through the never-ending, pretentious tosh. Apparently, only 44 per cent of people who bought The Goldfinch on the Kobo e-reader reached the last of the 784 pages. I don't blame the rest.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

An Alien in the Away End

I was having a pint and a chat in Loftus Road before the Manchester City match when a fellow City fan in his late twenties strode over purposefully and said in his unmistakably modern Mancunian accent, "Just keep yer eyes open for the stewards while I 'ave a p*ss in this corner, will yer."

Two things: we were stood three paces from the entrance to the gents; and I didn't want to be standing in pool of urine behind me while I finished my beer.

So I blocked the path of the caught-short lad and said with a smile, "Hold on a minute, we're better than that. Don't go in the corner. It'll stink and make a right mess. The gents is right there. Do us all a favour."

There was a bit of a to-and-fro while the worse-for-wear bloke weighed up his options. Then he said, "What are you doing at this game anyway? You're not from Manchester. How d'you get tickets for the match?"

"I certainly am from Manchester," I huffed.

"Well you don't sound like it. Whereabouts?"

"I'm from Chorlton. And I've been going to City matches home and away since before you were born," I said, sounding exactly like the distinguished grey-haired gentleman that I am.

"You're not from Chorlton. I don't know how people like you get tickets."

This hilarious banter continued for a while before we tapped our plastic pint glasses together affably and he headed to the officially designated latrine.

Now, I haven't lived in Manchester for twenty years and doubtless my accent has had the edges knocked off it by decades of London. But If you asked me to say, "A cup of coffee and a bath bun, please" - you could probably tell that I grew up north of Cheshire.

But what is true is that I sound nothing like the youngish Mancunians who now follow City around the country. They have all adopted the comedy Manchester accent invented Definitely Maybe by Oasis in the mid-90s:

"Y'aright, ow's it goin? A'need some time in the sun-shee-ine. For f**k's sake, Citeh - get a grip. Yaa Yaa, you lazy c*nt - moove, moove. Navas!  Navas! You're sh*te, mate. Shake Mansour went t'Spain in a Lambergeeni, he brought us back a manager, Manuel Pellegreeni! London's a sh*thole, I wanna go hoe-m."

And I've left out most of the expletives in case my mum's reading.

When I went to school in Chorlton and Moss Side in the 70s and 80s, nobody I knew spoke like that. Not my mum and dad, my aunties and uncles, my schoolmates - nobody. There were rumours that voices had more of a twang in nearby Wythenshawe or way out east in Gorton, but my grandad was from neighbouring Drolysden - which is about a mile from the Etihad Stadium - and he sounded nothing like it. He sounded like a Mancunian northerner like the rest of us.

So what changed? The cult of Madchester music, the Hacienda, Shaun Ryder effing away on TFI Friday, Terry Christian on The Word, The Stone Roses at Spike Island, Oasis becoming the biggest band in the world, the Gallaghers becoming the loudest City fans in the world, Paul Abbott's Shameless on Channel 4 - they all very publicly amplified and exaggerated the way most Mancunians speak and it seeped through the city like the endless rain.

So much so that I sound like an alien in the away end. I'm taking my passport with me from now on.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Review of Morrissey at The O2, London, November 29, 2014

It was great to see him again.  His voice is as clear, urgent and mellifluous as ever. He looks good for 55, even with his shirt off briefly at the end. And a Morrissey show in London is always an exciting event.

But nope - Morrissey is not an arena man.

When you think arenas, you think Taylor Swift, Take That and One Direction. You think big stages, pyrotechnics, dancing girls and acrobats.

When you think Morrissey, you think stage invasions by spectacle wearers at Derby Assembly Rooms. You think small halls, intimacy and caustic asides. Maybe a carpet of red gladioli for those of us lucky enough to see the classic Smiths gigs.

But there he was at the old Millennium Dome, dressed in white like a baggy ghost from Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), telling us one word at a time how privileged he was to be there, laughing theatrically at our disease-ridden chickens, showing us videos of matadors being mauled and pigs being slaughtered for food. He'd even insisted that meat was off the menu in the posh boxes and hospitality areas.

Just in front of him, a dozen polo-shirted bouncers patrolled a six-foot wide security moat separating Morrissey from the thousands of apostles who'd come to touch as well as see. They routinely did their job until the encore, when disciple after disciple managed to storm the barricade and reach up for a grateful Mozzer touch as they were bundled away.

Morrissey went out of his way to kneel and low-five every one of these pilgrims to North Greenwich. He seemed as touched as usual that they'd risked so much pain for so little gain.

So why did he choose a venue where the vast majority of his tactile public were so ludicrously far away from him? Instead of a huge one-off, why not a few shows in a more intimate place, like Shepherd's Bush Empire or the Roundhouse, where Johnny Marr makes so much hay and arguably plays the better Smiths songs?

Frankly, Mr Shankly, maybe it's all about the money, which we know is infamously important to Morrissey, but there are brighter sides to life and I should know because I've seen them (but not very often).

"Remember me," he urged, "but don't remember my fate," he added cryptically, perhaps alluding to the recent stories of cancer scares, perhaps not. This is the man who rhymes T-bone steak with prostate, remember.

There was also time for some songs. The blistering opening of The Queen is Dead, complete with a photo-shopped big-screen monarch giving us both fingers, and a joyous Suedehead, giving way to the more lightweight, Hispanic TexMex of the recently-issued and instantly-deleted new album.

The pre-encore show ended with the bride being kicked down the aisle and the Texan drummer kicking his skins all over the stage. They were patiently set up again before the Big Finish - a triumphant, jumpalong Every Day is Like Sunday, instantly transporting us back nearly thirty years to rainy seaside days in Hastings or wherever.

It would be more triumphant still if Morrissey and Marr's constantly on-the-move tour buses found themselves in the same car park one night.

Sing me to sleep and dream on.