Category Archives: Book Review

Don’t You Leave Me Here

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Don’t You Leave Me Here – My Life
By Wilko Johnson
Little, Brown – £18.99

‘I want her back.’ I could not speak or even think these words without breaking down. I would break down in tears in the street and have to find some corner to hide. A song on the radio would hit me like a blow. I walked through crowded places feeling like a ghost in an unreal world, lost to everything but my sorrow. I thought of her every waking moment and of course she haunted my dreams – sometimes those lucid dreams where you know you are dreaming; then I could really be with her and hold her in my arms for precious moments before

     I waked, she fled and day brought back my night.

There are times throughout this provocative and occasionally heartbreaking book, in which Wilko Johnson writes with the most penetrating tenderness (as that depicted above from the book’s seventeenth chapter). The sort of which invariably grips the reader and just won’t let go – because we’ve all been there.

We’ve all broken down in tears on the street; somehow caught in the harrowing slipstream of no longer wanting to continue with this cruel and complex thing we endeavour to call life.

And for such a morass of fraught feeling to be so delicately and densely captured within a book, is wholly commendable; simply because it falls within such (a humanistic) place.

The sort of which, warrants appreciative applause. And respect.

As such, I cannot recommend Wilko Johnson’s Don’t You Leave Me Here – My Life, more highly. It’s real, it’s invigorating, and I should imagine the following excerpt on Glastonbury (on page 207) is excruciatingly spot-on:

”The atmosphere backstage was wretched – the food was as bad as a microwave can warm up, and I swear I waited twenty minutes for a cup of lukewarm coffee that tasted like cardboard. You couldn’t take two paces without somebody hassling you for a pass (Your papers! Your papers!). Two of the festival staff approached me. They said they wanted to deal with my complaint, since I had given the stage manager ‘an emotional mauling.’ They explained how difficult a problem security was, how the vast area of the festival site was a ‘state within a state’ (they got their own Gestapo too), and how it was necessary to do these things to keep order. I listened in disbelief as they expounded this proto-fascism. They were quite unaware of the implications of what they were saying. Did they really believe that I should abandon my civil liberties – liberties that millions had laid down their lives to secure – just for the honour of appearing at this grotesque, overpriced fairground?

Whale-saving Green fascists! I hope they all get eaten by Moby Dick.”

I very much like the fact that Wilko Johnson tells it as it very much needs to be told. Admittedly, I could’ve done with a whole lot more about his former band Doctor Feelgood – his relationship with singer Lee Brilleaux especially – but this book is what it is: tough, heartbreaking, real.

What more could you ask for?

David Marx

C.K. Williams on Whitman

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C.K. Williams on Whitman
Princeton University Press

But which of us isn’t a similar jerry-built motion machine? Which of us doesn’t sometimes feel that we’re weird pop-ups of impulses, ambitions, desires, and dreams? But we don’t live in poems, even those of us who are poets; unlike Whitman, we plunge into our poems, but then we emerge: we are the makers of our poems – Whitman’s poems made him; he existed in them in a way he existed nowhere else.

Whether Marc Chagall or Jimi Hendrix. Sylvia Plath or Tom Waits – ought not a similar persuasion be applied to most true artists who essentially live both inside of and with their art? It’s hard to think of any of these artists, including Walt Whitman, in any other way, which, to varying degrees, is exactly what this fine little pocket book addresses.

That C.K. Williams on Whitman is deeply entrenched within the parameters of (fine) poetry, most certainly helps it along its way; and is therefore, all the more readable for it. As Robert Pinsky has written: ”This is the exuberant, true book of a poet, of two poets: a personal, illuminating, and beautiful demonstration of the truest reading.”

That it most definitely is.

From such musicality as:

The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and
shouted jokes and pelts of snowball…

to such colourful and kaleidoscopic revelation as: ”Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration are like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind: pop, pop, pop. The images, the ideas, the visions, the insights, the proclamations, the stacks of brilliant verbal conjunctions, the musical inventiveness and uniqueness: one after the other, again and again, in a form that reveals them naked, unmodulated, undimmed by any apparent resort to the traditional resources of poetic artfulness.”

Phew., as a lover of poetry and the occasional analysis thereof: what more could one ask for?

David Marx

Images Of England Through Popular Music

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Images Of England Through Popular Music –
Class,Youth and Rock’n’Roll, 1955-1976
By Keith Gildart
Palgrave Macmillan – £15.99

[…] the Sex Pistols themselves were the personification of particular aspects of Englishness that could be found in working-class radicalism, humour and populism. They shared Orwell’s view that England remained ‘a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and the silly.’

The tension of class, authenticity, stardom and recognition were a constant source of tension between Lennon and McCartney in their formative years and throughout their subsequent career.

And so it came to pass that popular music as we once knew it turned into huge, regular dollops, of mere money-spinning horse manure.

Where once upon a time England actually had exciting, rebellious, inventive artists and rock’n’roll bands (The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie among many others), we now have far too many wailing tarts with microphones of whom all rather fancy themselves as Etta James; but are in fact, pure hogwash of the first degree (the ghastly Pixie Lott of whom, surely wails at the vanguard).

In essence, the country no longer has a music industry any more.

That there are but three main record companies left in London (Universal, Sony and Warner) should come as no surprise. They all subscribe subscribe to the ideology of Satan himself, Simon Cowell – which is to say, here today, gone tomorrow, who gives a toss about what it sounds like, so long as it generates money – and they all behave in such a way that is detrimental to music as we once knew. As depicted in this very readable book by Keith Gildart.

Its eight chapters capture something of a magical, bygone period in British music, a time when artists and bands weren’t being groomed by accountants, but by musical instinct (and in some instances, intellect).

Indeed, Images Of England Through Popular Music – Class,Youth and Rock’n’Roll, 1955-1976, not only traverses the musicality of said time period, but also the degree to which class and geography played a part: ”In the post-war period, North West England in particular became closely associated with popular music and produced a multiplicity of groups and solo artists. Some performers retained particularly northern traits in terms of accent, style, humour and an identification with the broader working-class that purchased their records and danced to their rhythms (‘Coal, Cotton and Rock’n’Roll’).

In three parts (‘Teddy Boy England,’ ‘Mod England’ and Glam/Punk England’), the book as a whole casts an intrinsically ideological net, which goes some way in deciphering how and why things came about the way they did.

A good example being John Lennon’s position within all of this, as addressed in the chapter ‘Liverpool, The Beatles and Cultural Politics: ”Lennon’s ambiguous position within the class structure of Liverpool was familiar to a generation of working and lower-middle class children who experienced social mobility through eduction, but retained an affiliation to aspects of working-class structure. His rebelliousness was rooted in his negative reaction to formal schooling and the class nature of the English education system […]. The division between rock’n’roll and jazz was demarcated through class lines in Liverpool and other English towns and cities. Some writers have tended to focus on Lennon’s art school experiences as his entry point into the more esoteric elements of American rock’n’roll […]. Yet they underestimate the resilience of class and locality in the roots of English popular music. Lennon personified the complexity of class identity with his bridging of both working and middle-class cultures.”

To say the above is a mere tip of the literary dissertation that this most worthy critique of (English) youth culture has to offer, is an understatement.

The more it unfolds, the more one is compelled to both read and investigate ever further.

David Marx

Berlin Cantata

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Berlin Cantata
By Jeffrey Lewis
Haus Publishing – £12.99

We were up late that night in the inn, quietly with the lights out. Holly couldn’t sleep. Se felt, she said, like a stranger to herself. ”It started sometime in the carols. I though: listen, they singing to me with Christian love? Is this the reality Jews are blind to, that could convert a soul on the spot? I must be weak, I thought. I hear the lovely voices of children, and then.. all I could hear was a lot of my own voice, like static. Telling me to listen. All these words. The music! I wanted to live in the music. But just then I couldn’t.

Initially attracted by the book’s title, these 240 pages are a rather cyclonic read, which, to all intents and inherently jarring purposes, is intense and simultaneously intriguing.

Indeed, throughout, Berlin Cantata, Jeffrey Lewis bequeaths the reader with quite a bit to think about as well as dissect – by way of an array of heterogeneous voices. All of whom are fundamentally fraught and forthright in their own way. All of whom appear haunted by history; which partially explains their search for acute (subliminal) redemption.

For instance, Holly Anholt: ”Everything was stacked high as if you were getting something wholesale, empty suitcases, pairs of shoes, Zyklon B cans, hair. Now there would be a punishment, a just retribution, to have to spend your life counting up every single hair, and if you make one mistake, if you miss one hair, you have to start over. I thought such things. I was alone. And this too: if work can’t make you free, what can? Only God’s grace? Only love? Only luck? (‘Journey’).

There is so much psychologically gruesome information packed into the above few lines, it’s hard knowing where to begin, where to start assimilating. Let alone come to terms with.

It is this veritable coming to terms with which keeps the reader going, yet somewhat vexed. Curious, yet simultaneously perplexed – in an altogether good way might I add.

As the author of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger, Lee Smith, has since said: ”Jeffrey Lewis has written a stunning novel, as deep and intriguing as the city itself. The varied cast of characters tell their own stories as they wind their tortured and tortuous way through the dark past toward some kind of understanding, if not atonement.”

David Marx

Governance and Politics Of The Netherlands

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Governance and Politics Of The Netherlands
By Rudy B. Andeweg & Galen A. Irwin
Palgrave Macmillan – £32.99

Tomorrow, March 15th, The Netherlands will go to the polls and decide upon the election of all 150 members of it’s House of Representatives. And given recent events, it looks set to be an all out, feisty affair.

With the incumbent Prime Minister, Mark Rutte (of the VDD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) having formed a coalition government with the PvdA (the Labour Party) back in 2012, tomorrow’s election will obviously be marred, if not fundamentally influenced by two people: Geert Wilders – the country’s answer to Donald Trump of the PVV (Party for Freedom), and Turkey’s rather misguided, utterly vile President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who really ought to know better than to equate Holland with Nazism.

That said, Erdogan’s vitriolic rhetoric is not only a sad sign of the (inflammatory) times, it will undoubtedly do much to influence the outcome of the election – probably/unfortunately in Wilders favour. All of which is an exceedingly far cry from almost all of what is both coherently and concisely written throughout the eleven chapters of Governance and Politics Of The Netherlands by By Rudy B. Andeweg & Galen A. Irwin.

For instance, one need only read as far as page twelve to ascertain that The Netherlands is no longer the country it once was: ”[…] the golden age established traditions of openness and tolerance in the Netherlands. In 1661, the Leiden manufacturer and political scientist Pieter de la Court wrote ‘that our manufactures, fisheries, commerce and navigation, with those who live from them, cannot be preserved here without a continual immigration of foreign inhabitants – much less increased or improved’ (quoted in Israel, 1995, p.624).”

Hmm, absolutely no longer is such the case any more, which, given the altogether disturbing events which recently took place in Rotterdam, is surely understandable. This is especially so when one considers Turkey also has further referendum rallies planned in both Germany and Austria (again, neither of which are particularly welcome).
So far as an intrinsically crystal-clear understanding of Dutch governance and politics is concerned, this book sheds more than cohesive light on a nation, normally associated with that of political calm; particularly when aligned with an ethos of cooperation and compromise on the part of citizens and politicians on the key issues for parliamentary debate.

With immigration on the rise, these 287 pages (excluding Preface, Further Reading, Bibliography and Index) do much to substantiate how and why the Dutch electorate has become ever more unpredictable.

Written by two professors at the country’s respected Leiden University, Governance and Politics Of The Netherlands makes for a most informative, interesting and altogether timely read. That said, following the outcome of tomorrow’s Dutch election, it remains to be seen if it’ll need updating – almost immediately.

David Marx

Ethics In The Real World

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Ethics In The Real World
82 Brief Essay on Things That Matter
By Peter Singer
Princeton University Press – £19.95

No man is liberated from fear who dare not see his place in the world as it is; no man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until has has allowed himself to see his own littleness.

Such humble thinking wouldn’t go a miss in the White House right now, not to mention the Turkish Parliament and an array of other so called high places of high-octane power.

It does after all seem that when certain movers and shakers, hipsters and shirkers – be they politicians, financial investors or perhaps worse, City mortgage advisers – reach the penultimate threshold of no longer having to worry about the next pay cheque, they automatically feel compelled to relinquish all and every shred of decency they may have once had.

A quality which may well perhaps, (partially) explain why they are the people they invariably are: usually highly motivated and focused, yet simultaneously dull and exceedingly unpleasant.

In a round-a-bout kind of way, this (partially) accounts for Ethics In The Real World – 82 Brief Essay on Things That Matter being the book it is: real and inspired, provocative, yet relentlessly well thought through and honestly considered. Qualities which ought hardly be surprising, as Peter Singer has often been described as the world’s most influential philosopher, which these 330 pages (excluding Introduction, Acknowledgements and Index) do much to clarify.

One can literally open any page of this most wonderful book, and be wholeheartedly reached by way of unarguable truth – with even the very idea of philosophy itself, already being scrutinized in the book’s Introduction: ”There is a view in some philosophical circles that anything that can be understood by people who have not studied philosophy is not profound enough to be worth saying. To the contrary, I suspect that whatever cannot be said clearly is probably not being thought clearly either.”

And the shedding of light on philosophy doesn’t end there.

The chapter ‘Philosophy On Top,’ actually concludes with the optimistic note: ”More surprising, and possibly even more significant than the benefits of doing philosophy for general reasoning abilities, is the way in which taking a philosophy course can change a person’s life. I know from my own experience that taking a course in philosophy can lead students to turn vegan, pursue careers that enable them to give half their income to effective charities, and even donate a kidney to a stranger. How many other disciplines can say that?”

Indeed, how many other disciplines can say that?

There again, As Singer openly admits: ”Given the practical importance […] as a good utilitarian I ought to aim to write for the broadest possible audience, and not merely for a narrow band of committed utilitarians.”

Broken into eleven prime parts (Big Questions, Animals, Beyond the Ethic of the Sanctity of Life, Bioethics and Public Health, Sex and Gender, Doing Good, Happiness, Politics, Global Governance, Science and Technology, and finally, Living, Playing, Working), these 82 essays traverse all that is fundamentally important in one’s life.

As such, this book ought to be considered as something of a prime humanistic template for (the intrinsic motivation of) one’s everyday behaviour.

David Marx

Germaine de Stael

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Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait
By Biancamaria Fontana
Princeton University Press – £24. 95

          It is a cult, but one yawns in church.

What I particularly like about Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait, is the fine fact that it addresses the very nitty-gritty, head-on, a mere few pages into what is clearly, a most well-researched thesis. There’s no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

To be sure, some might readily argue that Germaine de Stael’s idiosyncratic independence of mind was a reaction to the fractious events taking place in France at the time. As Richard Bourke, author of Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke states, this book is ”a captivating portrait of a fascinating figure caught up in the whirlwind of events.”

Quite possibly best known (today) as a novelist and literary critic, lest it be said it was Stael’s political outspokenness that perhaps best captures her all-round milieu within the parameters of the French Revolution.

The banker’s daughter who became one of Europe’s best-connected intellectuals, Stael was an exceptionally talented woman who achieved a degree of public influence to which not even her ”wealth and privilege would normally have entitled her.” Indeed, when the lives of so many around her were destroyed, she succeeded in carving out a unique path for herself, thereby ensuring her views and thoughts were heard – initially by powerful men within her immediate vicinity, and later by the European public at large.

All of which the Professor of the History of Political Ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Biancamaria Fontana, has instinctively captured. That her previous books include Montaigne’s Politics, Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society, such instinctive writing ought hardly come as a surprise.

Each of Germaine de Stael’s nine chapters (as well as Introduction and Conclusion) are written with a knowledge that nigh borders on the very dissection of the subject’s ideological belief(s).

A most pertinent example of this being Stael’s mode of necessary compassion within the general gambit of revolution, which Fontana captures perfectly in chapter six (‘Condemned to Celebrity’): ”In a revolutionary crisis it is claimed over and over again that compassion is a childish sentiment, opposed to those actions that are necessary to the general interest, and that it must be set aside, with all effeminate emotions, unworthy of men or state or chiefs of parties; it is on the contrary during a revolution that pity must become a rule of conduct. Where justice is well established, one can do without mercy; but a revolution, whatever its aim, suspends social order, and it is then necessary to go back to the source of all laws, in a moment in which legal power means nothing.”

Again, no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

In the words of Ruth Scurr (author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution): ”An important and original book about a prominent female intellectual who took the measure of the French Revolution in both theoretical and practical terms. Fontana argues convincingly that Stael’s political ideas have been overlooked or underrated in previous treatments of her life and work.”

David Marx