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The People’s Songs

4 Aug


The image above is of the book by Stuart Maconie, published in June by Ebury Books (and, incidentally, the print versions in hardback and paperback are cheaper than the e-version at the time of writing). The People’s Songs is not simply a book though, it’s also the title of an ambitious, year-long BBC-led multi-media project with its own web presence (see, audience engagement strategy and extended programming (50 hour-long episodes) on the UK’s most popular national radio station (BBC Radio2)

The idea is a brilliant one, which probably only the BBC could pull off: a social history of Britain over the past 70-odd years told through its popular music, starting with We’ll Meet Again at  the end of World War 2 and extending to the present day. Even the title echoes, whether deliberately or accidentally, an earlier BBC flagship oral history initiative (The People’s War).

In each chapter of the book, Stuart Maconie takes a song (not necessarily a good song, not always the highest-selling song but a popular – even junky in some cases – song) and writes about the conditions – whether social, economic and political that made it a favourite at the time. The actual song may or may not feature heavily. So, for instance, Robert Wyatt’s version of Costello’s Shipbuilding is the way into an essay on the Falklands war; the Strawbs’s Part of the Union introduces musings on Britain in the early seventies while Dizzee Rascal’s  Bonkers brings things up to 2012.  The songs are by British (rather than North American) artists although clearly the American influence is evident throughout and the choice is sufficiently elastic to include Australian and Jamaican artists (Kylie Minogue and Millie Small). These two chapters are among the best in the book – leading to essays on the manufactured pop act (in the case of Kylie) and on early West Indian immigration (in the case of Millie).

Stuart Maconie is a good choice to front these programmes (and write this book) – he has a music journalist and broadcaster’s breadth of awareness of the songs and youth cultures but is also more widely read, curious and informed. It also helps that his perspective and musical taste overlaps my own more often than not! There are times though when you wish he’d had a tougher editor to redline the occasional repetitive cliche and trim his fondness for lists but overall, he’s an engaging, cheerful, guide. I’ve found his previous books Cider with Roadies and Pies and Prejudice) ideal light readingfor long train journeys and on this outing, his writing ismore thoughtful.

The format is such that it’s as easy to flit back-and-forth through the book as it is to read it sequentially – and while my method was to check out my own favourites first, it was some of the other chapters which proved more interesting because of their very unfamiliarity!

The fiftieth song – and the end of the series – remains to be written as it will be left to the radio audience to decide – so do check it out and get involved.


Book review – Buck

25 Jul

I think I need to set up an extra page – or a new site to accommodate posts on books’n’plays!

This post is about a book shortly to be published (August 20th). I’ve had a pre-publication copy – so the quid pro quo is that I review it. No problem because I really enjoyed reading it – and putting my thoughts together.

It is the mark of good writing when an author can transport readers into another place and make them curious about the unfamiliar.

In his memoir Buck, (to be published next month by Spiegel and Grau) M.K. Asante managed to transport a fifty-something, middle class, white Englishman to the streets of North Philadelphia in the 1990s as experienced by a smart but disaffected young black man.

The journey was not always comfortable but was undoubtedly worthwhile.

Firstly the reader has to tune in to the vocabulary and rhythms of the street talk of the time and place and then get accustomed to the aggression, misogyny and criminality that too often is associated with it.

Malo Asante was born in Zimbabwe to American parents – which even in Philadelphia must have made him slightly exotic. In addition he was born into his community’s cultural intelligentsia with his father a high-profile academic and his mother a dancer/choreographer. Today he is following in their footsteps but this memoir recalls a period when his life appears to have come close to going off the rails.

Part of the tale is the fracturing of his family unit due to the breakdown of his parents’ relationship, the mental ill-health of his sister and depression of his mother and a revered elder brother who did not have his younger sibling’s luck and wound up in an Arizona jail at 17 for having sex with a minor.

M.K Asante certainly doesn’t glamourise the ghetto (indeed his descriptions of crack addicts are enough to make you wince) though he certainly uses it to powerful literary effect. It is hard to imagine how someone with the intelligence and sensitivity his writing displays could really have come so close to screwing up his life. Nevertheless, it is the description of how he fell into a downward spiral involving guns, drugs and casual nihilism that grips the reader. The passages in which his girlfriend tries to suggest that another, better, life is possible are very powerful.

I am in no position to know whether the account is sensationalist but the writing does show a sense of authenticity – of what was perceived by those present.

Mr Asante describes, eloquently, his dissatisfaction with the failings of the (private) school to which his parents sent him at the start of his memoir. He is also sharp in the critique of the Philadelphia (public) school system in which he found himself after his parents split up. And then, in a very American way, describes how, a (private) ‘alternative school’ helped him turn things around and find his calling as a writer.

This part of the memoir is where he started to lose a little of my sympathy. While displaying compassion and empathy with others less fortunate, I was left wondering how much Mr Asante’s problems were those of a latter-day black Holden Caulfield – the wobbles of a fairly privileged adolescent.

But before I seem churlish, it’s worth putting on record that this book deserves a wide readership, capturing something of the feelings of a clever but confused and unhappy adolescent who seems to have grown to be a talented and successful adult.

Theatre Interlude: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

7 Jul

Curious Prog  Scan

I spent yesterday in London and saw the matinee performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. This play, adapted by Simon Stephens from the 2003 award-winning novel of the same name by Mark Haddon, started life at the National Theatre and then transferred to the commercial West End stage.

The production, like the book, is centred the world as experienced by Christopher Boone, a fifteen year-old boy with learning difficulties associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. The part of Christopher is played by Luke Treadaway in an outstanding performance and the production utilises an amazingly inventive set design and creative lighting and sound to tell the story.  The central performance is so dominant that it rather overshadows fine performances by other actors, especially Sean Gleeson as Christopher’s father,  Holly Aird as his mother and Niamh Cusack as his teacher.

For all its inventiveness though, the transfer of the book to the stage took away some of the novel’s richness for me. This was probably inevitable since conveying in any depth how and why Christopher thinks as he does would be an enormous dramatic challenge – the book’s attempt to do this is simply more successful. In addition, by focusing the play so much on the character of Christopher (who is, of course, self-centred and finds others a puzzle) , something is lost of the the complex motives and  struggles of his parents and the way their relationship fractures because of the way his behaviour drains and impacts on them.  I was left feeling that the adaptation resulted in the audience rooting so much for Christopher that it diminished the love and stoicism (however flawed) of his parents.  This is understated in the play compared to the book.

Tickets to the production I watched are now almost impossible to get (especially after it won no fewer than seven of this year’s Olivier Awards). It was pure dumb luck that led me to book the day before nominations were announced! If you’re in London though, I’d recommend queueing for returns – and even if you’re not in London, the book is worth reading or re-reading.

Off topic – theatre interlude

4 May

Off topic - theatre

Very enjoyable matinee performance of Shakespeare’ s As You Like It by the RSC Stratford at today – lead players were Pippa Nixon as Rosalind/Gannymede; Alex Waldmann as Orlando and Joanna Horton as Celia. Cliff Burnett played Duke Senior in a very ‘Bill Nighy-like’  rock’n’roll fashion! Original music by Laura Marling no less!  And unless I was very much mistaken, Dave Pegg, bass player of Fairport Convention was sitting opposite in the audience.