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Book Reviews

Various book reviews from The Scotsman Magazine and the Review section of Scotland on Sunday – click the blue links to read the original web version of the reviews

Retromania by Simon Reynolds

IN the twilight of the 1980s, Bill Flanagan, a writer with Musician magazine, offered a refreshing and prescient prophecy when asked to navigate uncertain waters and speculate who would be making waves in the near future.

The lesson of the Reagan years, wrote Flanagan, was that “musical trends are now shaped more by delivery systems than any act”. Rather than name-checking any up-and-coming young bands as the future, he went down a different route altogether. “The next Beatles may be a technology,” he surmised.

Even he, though, would have been forgiven for scoffing if told that three decades on, two of the biggest musical events would involve the way the The Beatles’ music was being remastered, repackaged, and reissued for a new audience.

Those events – the release of a special Rock Band video game, and the acquiescence of various estate holders to allow the Fab Four’s music to appear on iTunes – warranted publicity aplenty, yet short of rudimentary sonic airbrushing, presented recordings first committed to tape nearly half a century ago.

Such offerings, according to music critic Simon Reynolds, are part of a recycling process, one which has become noticably more pronounced since the millennium, a period when “time itself seemed to become sluggish, like a river that starts to meander and form oxbow lakes”.

In Retromania, an ambitious and thoughtful analysis of “what happens when we run out of past,” Reynolds is following a well-trodden route of writers who have bemoaned popular’s music’s exhausted potential. A similar case was put forward over a decade ago by James Miller, the author of Flowers in the Dustbin, who declared that rock and roll’s evolutionary process eventually destroyed the very musical sources of its own vitality, with 1977’s punk explosion the “final act”.

Reynolds, whose previous works include Rip it Up and Start Again and Energy Flash, always has music as his focus, but blends critical theory, historical thinking, and politics into the mix, a brew rendered palatable by his rewarding essay style.

As his previous works demonstrated, his musical knowledge is expansive, and Reynolds even sticks his neck out to highlight a specific period and set of groups he believes responsible for giving impetus to the fascination with what had gone before. It began in earnest, he suggests, in the 1980s with groups such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, and Spacemen 3, before the lineage continued through the likes of Lenny Kravitz, The Black Crowes, Oasis, The White Stripes, Interpol and Goldfrapp.

Whether you judge his call to be right or wrong – personally, I would point the finger at the glam rock movement as the earliest “retro” era, while 1968’s The Beatles (commonly known as the White Album) consciously harked back to past musical styles – Reynolds makes a lucid point that the era he chose heralded the end of artists looking to “create something never heard before”. Instead, he reasons, that drive “changed into an impulse to create something very much heard before, and moreover to do it immaculately, accurate in every last detail”.

Reynolds has a keen and discerning eye for the facetious and torpid nature of modern culture’s relationship with the recent past, reserving especial scorn for the splurge of television clip shows devoted to specific decades which dominated the schedules in recent years.

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At times, however, his critical faculties give way to supercilious rants about certain musical genres, and interestingly, the way people listen to them. In Reynolds’s eyes, the now ubiquitous MP3 served to turn music into a “devalued” currency, which “flowed into people’s lives like a current or fluid [and] made music start to resemble a utility (like water or electricity) as opposed to an artistic experience whose temporality you subjected yourself to”.

While the significance the author accords to recorded music is admirable, he is all too often in danger of coming over as a vinyl bore in the pub, wondering if the jukebox selection includes dance music.

So too, he presents occasional apocryphal tales from rock lore as gospel, rehashing without question the account of how Lee Mavers, the perfectionist frontman with The La’s, refused to record with a mixing desk unless it had “original Sixties dust on it”.

A greater crime, however, is his trite views of modern technology and habits. YouTube, for instance, is chastised for the varying quality of content it provides – a curious criticism indeed, akin to condemning all music simply because you care little for the cassette – while Reynolds also condemns out of hand the “mash-up” as a “blood-sugar blast of empty carbohydrate energy”.

So too, he bemoans the youth of today, claiming that their “attachment to genres that have been around for decades” leaves him “mystified”. For all his perceptive points, this middle-aged (he is 48) angst and frustration is Reynolds’s downfall, as he endlessly insists upon the vitality of the “new” without considering what’s quite so wrong with the “old” in the first place.

Retromania is at times a compelling account of the entertainment industry’s perpetual obsolescing of pop culture, but the book is hampered throughout by the lazy assumption that music’s belle epoque has come and gone.

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Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow

IN a passionate remonstration against a craft he otherwise adores, English screenwriter and author Bruce Robinson once bemoaned how the products of his imagination would often seek to deny their creator autonomy over them.

“I’m in the business of hearing voices, and most people who hear voices are given Largactil or locked up,” he said. “The schizophrenic have no choice: they hate hearing the voices. I’m the antithesis of that: I want to hear them.”

For one of Robinson’s literary heroes, the curious yearning for delusion was no less fervent. Charles Dickens summoned living, speaking companions. Their author once remarked that he could hear every word they uttered. “Only a lunatic could do that,” responded literary critic, George Henry Lewes. “He was a seer of visions. His types established themselves in the public mind like personal experiences. Their falsity was unnoticed in their blaze of illumination.”

Dickens’ dazzling blaze has shone light on many an actor’s career in the past two centuries, not least Simon Callow’s. In his new biography, he argues that the medium of most significance to the greatest storyteller Britain has ever produced was not the novel, but the stage.

In comparison with the mode of writing for which he is most famous, Dickens’ output for the footlights was sterile and uninspired, yet he was in thrall to its world, once claiming to have visited the theatre every day for three years. Not yet 20, he wrote to the manager of Covent Garden Theatre asking if he might tread its boards. Illness and an offer of employment as a reporter with The Mirror Of Parliament prevented Dickens from accepting his audition, but his letter hinted at what was to come.

In it, he affirmed his “strong perception of character and oddity, and a natural power of reproducing in my own person what I observed in others”. This, believes Callow, was Dickens’ essence. His very imagination, he reasons, was theatrical both in terms of plot devices and construction of character.

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The book captures with colour and verve Dickens’ boundless energy and restless pursuit of new experiences. He saw the world as his stage, argues Callow, “a ‘universal director’ controlling destinies, pulling the strings, releasing energies, arranging outcomes”.

However, in attempting to consolidate his theory, Callow’s brush strokes are too broad, such as when he describes London as Dickens’ theatre. Were we ever in doubt? Later, he adds simply: “Literature was his wife, the theatre his mistress.”

The universality and empathy of Dickens’ masterpieces are often held up as examples of his theatricality, as are his workaholic tendencies. They are impulsive associations which would benefit from greater exploration, and scarce mention is given to Dickens’ creative process, of how those voices came to him, already fully formed.

Indeed, it is left to Dickens’ confidant and biographer, John Forster, to provide the most meaningful exposition of Callow’s premise: “What he desired to express he became.” His unfettered devotion to Dickens means that Callow’s biography is underpinned by a frustrating central critical theory, but as a grand and effusive love letter to a thespian’s muse, it is an entertaining read.

One might expect The Dickens Dictionary to be a dry affair, given its loose concept as a reference book, penned by Victorian fiction scholar John Sutherland. Yet his miscellany is a joy, celebrating the “infinite variety and downright oddness” of Dickens’ world.

An A-Z (Amuthement through to Zoo Horrors) companion piece to the author’s canon, it includes ruminations on cannibalism and sausages. Each entry is furnished with a bracing mini-essay, which frequently provide insights into Dickens and the world he lived in.

Sutherland offers a snapshot of what is quintessentially Dickensian, and at a time of year when the shelves of bookshops are groaning under the weight of new tomes devoted to the great man, he provides a welcome lightness of touch.

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Celtic – A Biography in Nine Lives by Kevin McCarra

AS A lifelong supporter of the club, and one of Scotland’s most respected football journalists, Kevin McCarra’s biography of Celtic fuses the frustrated ardour of a fan to the perceptiveness with which he plies his trade.

A selective chronology of the institution in Glasgow’s east end, it charts the 124 years which have passed between the meeting chaired by John Glass which brought Celtic into existence through to the stewardship of Neil Lennon, the current manager.

McCarra, a former Scotland on Sunday football correspondent who now writes for The Guardian, devotes thoughtful chapters to nine seminal figures in the club’s history, including Jimmy McGrory, Jock Stein, Jim ‘Flax’ Flaherty, and Billy McNeill, and his thorough research is complemented by revealing interviews with the likes of Henrik Larsson, Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan.

The club’s tentative years are dealt with masterfully by McCarra, who offers up a rounded, sociological account. The archives, however, are also plundered for colour from seasons and players gone by, such as the wayward Tommy McInally, a striker who played under Willie Maley in the 1920s. Blessed with a cutting humour but also a drink problem and appetite for trouble, he was skewered with the nickname of the Glaxo Baby, a reference to the chubby infant in a contemporary advertising campaign.

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A chapter is given over to Bob Kelly, part of a family dynasty which had some role in the club from its formation up until 1994, and the author acutely summarises the impact he and his relatives had on Celtic.

Kelly was, for example, a man who deserved credit for realising that even football paled into insignificance at times. In 1968, when Celtic were planning a European Cup tie with Ferencvaros of Hungary, troops from the Soviet Union and its allies invaded Czechoslovakia. Kelly sent a telegram to Uefa insisting the competition could not go ahead, arguably the first sports administrator to take heed of wider, darker machinations on the world stage.

Even so, he was known to tinker eccentrically in the team’s affairs and ordered the transfer of notable players. “When a family owns a football club,” McCarra sagely observes, “it can be hard to tell whether they are its guardians or its jailers.”

In addressing the club’s recent history, his insights are just as illuminating and apposite. At one point, he offers the wonderful description of Fergus McCann, Celtic’s owner for a five-year spell in the late 1990s, as someone “permanently different”.

It was the interminably obstinate wee man with the bunnet who riled supporters by wresting control of Celtic from the Kellys and turning the club into a profitable entity. In hindsight, however, he is seen by a growing contingent as the architect of Celtic’s modern success. “McCann was the right answer to Celtic’s problems,” McCarra writes, “but it was an exhausting one.”

The author is at his best when encapsulating the very identity of the club, and acknowledging the conflicting factors which have made it such an iconic Scottish institution. He points out, for example, that while accusations that Celtic had historically discriminated against Protestants are ill-founded, the club and its followers have nonetheless proved guilty of adopting a persecution complex.

“Celtic have been known to wallow in their supposed position as underdog and to attribute their failures to an anti-Catholic conspiracy,” he explains. “There have been injustices, but victimhood serves as a useful excuse as well.”

At times, McCarra makes assertions which might be applied by any football fan following the peaks and troughs of their club’s varying fortunes, describing Celtic as “a tale of adventure, success, failure, exasperation, and hope that will never cease to unfold”.

The entire Celtic experience, he writes, is “far more likely to be colourful, captivating, and entrancingly erratic,” with a “volatility that has no equivalent at Rangers”. In light of recent developments in Govan, McCarra and his editors might wish to excise that last phrase, but his argument remains no less compelling.

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