Tuesday 31 August 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Billy Summers

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

Billy Summers

7/21: Billy Summers by Stephen King

The blurb: From legendary storyteller and No. 1 bestseller Stephen King, whose 'restless imagination is a power that cannot be contained' (The New York Times Book Review), comes a thrilling new novel about a good guy in a bad job.

Billy Summers is a man in a room with a gun. He's a killer for hire and the best in the business. But he'll do the job only if the target is a truly bad guy. And now Billy wants out. But first there is one last hit. Billy is among the best snipers in the world, a decorated Iraq war vet, a Houdini when it comes to vanishing after the job is done. So what could possibly go wrong?

How about everything.

This spectacular can't-put-it-down novel is part war story, part love letter to small town America and the people who live there, and it features one of the most compelling and surprising duos in King fiction, who set out to avenge the crimes of an extraordinarily evil man. It's about love, luck, fate, and a complex hero with one last shot at redemption.

You won't put this story down, and you won't forget Billy.

The review: one side-effect of buying e-books (which a lack of bookshelf space requires me to do these days) rather than their physical equivalent is that you have no sense of the heft of the book. King is no stranger to writing very long novels, but has turned in a few shorter efforts (Elevation, Joyland and Later being recent examples). And I thought this was going to be another, as it very quickly seemed to be coming to a conclusion, ramping up for a classic King denouement. But then I noticed, courtesy of my Kindle's progress bar, that I was only about 30% of the way through. Clearly there was much more to come.

Fortunately for all concerned, this was not a problem, as Billy Summers barrels along like the very best of King's work - I found it hard to put down, and often lost great chunks of time as I kept telling myself, "Just one more chapter."

I don't have to go into great detail about the plot - the blurb covers that nicely. What I will add is that this book, like so many in the King canon, is also about writing - our hero's cover story is that he is an aspiring novelist whose agent has procured office space for him to work on his book. Office space that just happens to overlook the courthouse steps on which Billy is to shoot a bad man. Since he has time to kill, and to maintain his cover, Billy starts to write, a work of fiction that quickly turn to autobiography. And so we have two stories here - one is the tale of a sniper-for-hire's last job, the other is his backstory. It is hard to say which is most compelling, especially when you learn that Billy's story is of abusive parents, a care home, the army, the Iraq War... and all manner of horrors.

That's an interesting phrase, actually. For whilst horror is the genre that made King the colossal global success that he is, I would say there's a strong case to be made that his best work, certainly in recent years, is not horror per se. This is a straight up-and-down suspensful thriller - there's no genre horror here. Instead, King deals in the many horrors of reality - of bad men that do unspeakable things, of killers, of unjust wars. It will slip under the radar because of its context, but Billy's account of clearing houses in Fallujah is an intense as you might imagine.

Of course, King being King, he can't help himself, in that towards the end of the book action moves to Colorado, and a location that overlooks the site of a hotel that had burnt down, and that was rumoured to be haunted. And there's a painting of some topiary animals, in which the animals appear to move... In some ways this is a nice self-referential touch, and places the book in the wider King universe, but is completely unnecessary and doesn't serve the story at all. And if it's just for Constant Readers like me to have an "a-ha" moment, well, it's too blunt for that. But this is a minor quibble.

What is a slightly bigger quibble, for this reviewer at least, is a leap of faith that King asks the reader to take shortly after the 30% mark that I mentioned earlier. It concerns the coming together of the "compelling and surprising duo" mentioned in the blurb; although King is pretty frank about the unlikelihood of what happens, and uses all the considerable storytelling tricks at his disposal to explain it, the circumstances of the coming together still didn't feel plausible to me. I can't explain more without plot spoilers, but I can say this credibility gap will cost the book a star from my review, and that's a shame because other than that I really enjoyed it, became totally engrossed and, as I've said already, found it hard to put down.

The bottom line: not one but two (maybe even three) stories coalesce in this fine suspenseful thriller, a reminder from the master that real horror lies not in vampires and boogeymen but in the evil that men do.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Sunday 29 August 2021

Sunday shorts: Lovers Town Revisited

There's a proportion of his fans that think Bill was at his best like this, rough and raw, guitar and voice, singing in his own accent. This is from Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy, one of only two Bragg albums to be certified gold for sales. Pop quiz: the other was...? (Answer, old-school magazine style, at the foot of the page...)

A. The other Billy Bragg album to be certified gold for sales is Don't Try This At Home.

Friday 27 August 2021

Twenty-one in '21: The Nanny State Made Me

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

The Nanny State Made Me

6/21: The Nanny State Made Me by Stuart Maconie

The blurb: It was the spirit of our finest hour, the backbone of our post-war greatness, and it promoted some of the boldest and most brilliant schemes this isle has ever produced: it was the Welfare State, and it made you and I. But now it's under threat, and we need to save it.

In this timely and provocative book, Stuart Maconie tells Britain’s Welfare State story through his own history of growing up as a northern working class boy. What was so bad about properly funded hospitals, decent working conditions and affordable houses? And what was so wrong about student grants, free eye tests and council houses? And where did it all go so wrong? Stuart looks toward Britain’s future, making an emotional case for believing in more than profit and loss; and championing a just, fairer society.

The review: that this book is variously subtitled "In search of a better Britain" and "A Story of Britain and How to Save it" should give you an idea of what it's about. Maconie has taken a good look at modern life in this sceptred isle and decided that it is, in many ways, rubbish, especially compared with how it once was. And here's a heads-up: if you read that last line and immediately think, yes, that's right, then you're probably going to enjoy this book. Equally, if you immediately think, gah, what nonsense, well, this book might change your mind... but probably won't. For whilst it does make a case, does bang the drum for how things could be, it is more a love letter to a Britain recently deceased.

When I was at primary school, we used to watch TV once a week on a big old wooden set that was bolted to the trolley it was wheeled in on. Sometimes there would be a clock on-screen before the programme started, and we'd count down to the start as the second hand swung round; one channel's clock had little circle markers on its face, instead of a second hand, and some boys would pretend to shoot them as they disappeared. But I digress. One such schools programme was entitled How We Used To Live, which centred on late-Victorian families and gave us a primary-friendly dose of modern history in the process. It sticks in the mind, even now. And the reason I mention it here is that Maconie's book is, in many ways, a How We Used To Live for the period of 1945-1979, painting a pleasingly honest (and honestly pleasing) account of the post-war birth of the welfare state, its growth, its benefits and its glories... before coming to the end, or at least the beginning of the end, when a shopkeeper's daughter from Grantham arrived at No. 10 and changed everything.

The book is divided into themed chapters, each looking at an aspect of the nanny state: health, education, public transport, libraries, broadcasting, you get the idea. In each case, Maconie takes a look at how good things got, and how they got there. Inevitably, there is also an examination of how, when and why things went wrong. And, in most cases, there are examples of the silos of the nanny state that are still good despite the seeming best efforts of those in power to ruin them forever: the healthcare practice that is still run as if by a healthcare authority, the bus service that is still in public ownership, the BBC. That these are presented as examples of how it is still possible to do things the right way is uplifting... but they also serve as a warning of what is still there to be lost.

I guess the other interesting aspect of the positives that Maconie tries so hard to leave each chapter with is that they serve as something of a manifesto; shining a light on the best of how public services can still be, domestically and overseas, illuminates how they perhaps should be across the board.

There are some nuggets from this book that will stay with me for a long time: how European state-owned utility companies are running aspects of UK water provision, the profits from which then fund French and German water infrastructure improvements rather than the UK's, is one; the difference in how Norway handled, and spent, the money from its own North Sea oil boom is another. But The Nanny State Made Me isn't a textbook, nor is it really a call to arms - it is more a paean for a world that is probably gone, but lingers on in living memory. The recollections this book prompts - of doctor's surgeries, dusty libraries, the Eleven Plus, of school buses, university grants, British Rail - will probably resonate with you, as they did with me, certainly if you're old enough to remember wooden TV sets being wheeled into classrooms on trolleys. But over and above the nostalgia is an illustration of how things could still be different, better even... and a timely reminder that not all progress is positive.

The bottom line: very readable, very honest and unashamedly nailing Maconie's colours to the mast in appreciation of the welfare state, the book manages to avoid mawkish nostalgia whilst still reflecting on what Britain used to do well for its people, and offers hints at how it could still be done if there was only the will.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Blue Friday: All I Want

Such Small Hands featuring Melanie's day-job boss, David...

Sunday 22 August 2021

Sunday shorts: Why Don't We Do It In The Road?

Their (in)famous retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi wasn't just about spiritualism, you know. Apparently, whilst on that trip, McCartney saw some monkeys going at it in the road, oblivious to the world passing by them. Hence, this song. Apparently.

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Paul, the magpie

Paul Weller has always worn his influences proudly, a collection of badges that would adorn any parka or scooter. And he's never been afraid to borrow heavily from them either. Witness the descending guitar intro to The Changingman, for example, and then have a listen to 10538 Overture by ELO (themselves riffing on late-period Beatles, but that's for another post). How about the opening notes of Bullrush? Not a million miles away from Tin Soldier, is it, by Weller's ultimate touchstone, The Small Faces. And as for Start's Taxman-lite bassline, well, that probably wasn't all Bruce's own work, that's all I'm saying.

There are countless other examples, no doubt. When it comes to music the man is a fan, a historian, a curator, an aficionado ... and a magpie. Not just sonically either - sometimes, a turn of phrase must catch his ear. I've often wondered if the title from his piano-led ballad You Do Something To Me was plucked from this otherwise-unheralded early Kinks offering, a non-album B-side from 1964 that didn't even chart (just before they hit the big time with their next single...)

Anyway, you can bet that Paul heard this, and squirrelled it away in his music-fan's memory, maybe thinking, "Hmm, that's a good line." Or maybe it's subconscious? Either way, here's the very different source material.

Tuesday 17 August 2021

Everything has to change

Sorry (not sorry) to have to keep banging on about this kind of stuff, especially when I suspect I am preaching to the converted already... but everything about our way of life is going to have to change, if our children and grandchildren are going to have any kind of life.

If the video from the BBC embedded below doesn't work, here's a link to the story as well: BBC News - Images show decline of California's 'life source'

Monday 16 August 2021

Monday long song: I Am The Resurrection

Forget the nonsense spewing out of Ian Brown lately, and instead remember him and his bandmates like this.

For me, this song will always evoke the jukebox in The Cherry Tree pub, where The Man Of Cheese and I would go pound halves and take it in turns to choose songs. On the jukebox in question, all songs by The Smiths and Morrissey had been scrubbed out in black marker, because the landlord was not a fan - an early example of cancel culture, perhaps? Anyway, I would usually put this song on as my last choice, partly because it is bloody great (especially from the 3:40 mark onwards) but also because, at 8:12 on the jukebox version, it was good value for money too.

Sunday 15 August 2021

Sunday shorts: Love You More

Wakey wakey! Play loud!

Blimey, the charts must have been good in 1978, these brilliant 109 seconds only got to number 34.

Friday 13 August 2021

Blue Friday: Blue Flashing Light

The hidden bonus track on their bajillion-selling second album The Man Who, this is an angry, painful and ultimately fatal tale of domestic abuse from Travis. You know, lovely, friendly, safe, why-does-it-always-rain-on-me Travis. Don't believe me? Here's the second verse as an example.

Call me a name and I'll hit you again.
You're a slut, you're a bitch, you're a whore.
Talk to your daddy in that tone of voice,
There's a belt hanging over the door.
So you run to your room
And you hide in your room,
Thinking how you could settle the score...

It doesn't end well. Here's the song.

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Music Assembly: Night on Bald Mountain

Night on Bald Mountain was a 1867 tone poem, whatever that is, by 19th Century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. I like the idea that, somewhere out there, another composer labours unsuccessfully under the name of Boastful Mussorgsky, but let's not get sidetracked. Mussorgsky's work was not a success, and was never performed publicly during his lifetime... which makes what happened next more surprising. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov re-arranged Bald Mountain in 1886, five years after Mussorgsky's death, and it is that arrangement that subsequently became very successful. Fast-forward 54 years and the Rimsky-Korsakov mix was soundtracking the scary bits in Disney's Fantasia.

And you might think that was where I first knowlingly heard today's piece, but you'd be wrong. Instead, I have Maxell and Pete Murphy of Bauhaus fame to thank to introducing me to Night on Bald Mountain (RK remix).

Here it is in context...

...and in full (albeit in two parts), courtesy of the House of Mouse.

Monday 9 August 2021

Monday long song: Bewitched

It's Monday morning. What better reason do you need to drop 6+ minutes of 2010-era Wedding Present in your ears. This is a live radio session recording too; I spoil you, I know.

Sunday 8 August 2021

Saturday 7 August 2021

Don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind (and rain) blows

The New Amusements clan is off on its holidays soon. I've just checked Dark Sky for the forecast at our destination, and it shows a pretty clean sweep of umbrella icons for the duration of our stay. So there's only one song to play in response, isn't there, and it's this, another long-term occupant of my YouTube Watch Later list.

Rain were an guitar band from Liverpool in the late 80s and early 90s. If they'd come along a couple of years later, in the wake of Oasis, let's say, they might have been huge. As it is they, like neighbouring band The Real People, never really got out of second gear. Their debut album, A Taste of Rain, garnered mild controversy for its arresting cover (which was like this but without the carefully placed sticker), but at least also gave rise to a couple of singles, Lemonstone Desired, and this, A Taste of Rain.

Wednesday 4 August 2021

Music Assembly: An Ending (Ascent)

An Ending (Ascent) was written by the ambient musician's ambient musician, Brian Eno, recorded by him, his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois, and released in 1983. It was part of the Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks album that accompanied a narration-free homage to NASA's lunar programme Apollo (later retitled For All Mankind). Now I didn't see that documentary, nor did I buy the album. My first exposure to the track probably came in Danny Boyle's genre-reinventing masterwork 28 Days Later, though it has also been used in Traffic and Drive. Having said all that, I think the usage that made me file away a mental note to blog this tune when the right series came along was probably Clarkson-era Top Gear. Regardless, whenever and wherever I first heard it, this remains a piece of sublime beauty.

Here it is in a couple of contexts...

...and in full.

Tuesday 3 August 2021

Later never comes...

If I spot something interesting on YouTube but don't have the time to watch it properly, I usually add it to my "Watch Later" list and think, yeah, I'll get back to that.

My "Watch Later" list currently has 119 videos in it, so it's clearly time to start trimming that down... in other words, let's park the same videos here instead, and we can all watch them properly, right?

In a two-for-one deal, here's Pete Townshend and Paul Weller rehearsing for a duet, and then the live performance that followed, each video interesting for its own reasons.