Wednesday 26 August 2015

Viv Albertine With Ian Rankin: Words and Music Memoirs of a Punk Rocker

The Edinburgh International Book Festival always comes at the wrong time of year for me as it starts as the schools go back and I have to put on my teacher’s hat again.

I still make a point of making sure I get the programme early so that I can choose one outstanding event. In recent years I’ve been privileged to see Willy Vlautin, Katie Kitamura and Megan Abbott for example, so you can see I pick rather well and have impeccable taste.

This year, Ian Rankin has had the honour of being a guest selector and he’s chosen a cracking bunch of people to talk to. When I saw he’d chosen Viv Albertine among those names, I was on the phone buying my tickets. Having been to the event on Sunday evening with a very good friend of mine, I can tell you I wasn’t at all disappointed by my choice.

Ian Rankin does a brilliant job in conversation. I’ve seen him a few times in this role and have been really impressed by his manner. Unlike many in the facilitator role he clearly feels he has nothing to prove. He knows his subject material and he applies insightful and open questions at the right moment to keep things flowing. He gives his guests the opportunity to talk and elaborate without constant interruption and that’s a big bonus in my eyes. It’s a big skill that he has and is one that is too often under-rated in my eyes.

Given this was a music event this was also right up Mr Rankin’s street. Not only does he know his history, he’s lived it. Great, then, to hear some of his own anecdotes thrown into the mix in a very light-handed way and adding colour to the evening.

 And Viv Albertine.

What to say?

The first thing I’m going to mention is the very last thing that I expect I’m supposed to say, namely that she was utterly stunning. Not just the way she looked, but the impact she had when walking on. Her book is entitled Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys (US). It’s also called Clothes, Music, Boys if you want the Tesco-friendly cover.
She began with a reading from the book. It was an engaging and funny account of her first gig with The Slits on the Clash’s White Riot tour, chosen especially as it took place in Edinburgh. What images came forth in that burst of words. It screamed punk rock and energy and possibility.

The thing is Viv Albertine was in an all-girl band at a time when that just didn’t happen. She and her tribe were so wild-looking that there had to be negotiations with the hotel to make them honour their booking and then only on the condition that the girls didn’t leave their rooms and stayed out of sight. Don Letts had to call ahead to all the rest of the hotels booked to make sure that they knew exactly who and what was heading their way.

Viv was around at the time of an explosion. She had little stories about Mick Jones, Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Thunders and Vivienne Westwood that made my hair curl (check out my picture – that’s some feat). These people carry the status of being legends, so it was great to hear her talk about them in such a natural way. Best of all, they didn’t become her story. She wasn’t great to listen to because of who she knew but because she has a hugely creative spirit and happens to have known a lot of amazing folk along the way.

There was some talk about the famous album cover and a rather lovely quip – ‘It was saying to the boys, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’- fantastic.

A lot of the focus was upon the roles and expectations of women back in the mid-seventies and since then. It’s incredible to reflect upon that and to see how many things have changed. To my mind, it’s important to revisit and remember such times and there’s unlikely to be a more rewarding way of doing so than by taking a read of her book. It’s not that I agreed with all of the statements made about then or now, but I admired the sense of personal perspective that was offered and it gave me a lot to think about.

Side Two of the conversation moved on to explore the world post-Slits. It’s been an interesting journey.

There was another reading. It started about sex and ended up with cancer. As she finished, instead of the usual applause there was silence. It spoke volumes about the power and the frankness of her description.  

We touched upon aerobics teaching and film-making and then moved on to a mention of her picking up her guitar again as she turned fifty. She knew she didn’t intend to take it up seriously, but she did know that if she played she knew something would happen. A creative energy within her would be unlocked and she would set off on another journey of making and shaking. More writing was mentioned. A book. A novel perhaps. Hopefully all will soon be revealed.

That unlocking of energy is something I understand. There are many catalysts out there and I reckon it’s our responsibility to go out, find and experience them. What an important reminder of something fundamental to life and the creative process that stems from living it. That alone was worth the price of entry.

After the event my friend and I went to the signing tent for a while. I had nothing to sign and didn’t fancy queuing. What I did want was to keep the evening with me for a little longer.  

I never did see The Slits play live, but at least on this occasion I can say I was there.

Totally brilliant.  

Tuesday 25 August 2015


Several years on from reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo I found The Girl Who Played With Fire (US) on the shelves of the home we rented for our holiday.

If memory serves, that first book really bamboozled me. I couldn’t believe that a novel told with such frequent (and long) tangents and huge slices of back-story and explanation could have been as entertaining as it was.

In many ways, I feel the same about the sequel. Blomkvist and Salander are now estranged. Salander has cut off all contact with him and escaped to travel the world.

Much of the opening section focuses upon her time in Grenada. She’s hooked on mathematics problems and is curious about a strange couple who are staying in her hotel. It’s an engaging start, but doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the book. 

Things solidify when she returns to Sweden and hooks up with ex-girlfriend Miriam Wu.

Millennium has taken on a new project courtesy of a free-lance journalist. His article and book are going to blow the lid off the sex-trade and will uncover the exploitation of prostitutes by many of the pillars of polite society.

The prospect of the revelations stirs a hornets’ nest (something tells me this might also happen in the third book) and a lot of mess hits a lot of fans.

Salander finds herself as the main suspect in a terrible crime and the only people who want to protect her are ex-employer Armanski, a retired boxer and Blomkvist.

In spite of the repetitive reflection and those huge chunks of unnecessary material, it’s nail-biting stuff. I reckon it works so well because it’s important to me that Blomkvist and Salander remain safe no matter what. It’s impossible not to root for them, even when belief in their abilities and personalities is stretched a very long way.

Unlike with the first book, I was a little dissatisfied with the ending. Whereas book one felt self-contained, this one seemed totally aimed at luring the reading to book three. That hook may well work for me, too, but might just take me several years to get around to completing the trilogy. Who knows? I might even get to read The Girl In The Spider’s Web before I retire, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll buy myself a copy – it will be a matter of staying in the right place on my hols.

Fire is seriously addictive. It’s also nourishing, fast-paced, flabby and occasionally irritatingly implausible.

Saturday 22 August 2015


‘He’d cut His throat with the knife. He’d nearly chopped off His hand with the meat cleaver. He couldn’t object, so I lit a Silk Cut.’

The opening to Morvern Callar (US) is very strong. Every action and thought is noted. Each character has a special name. The buzz and the vividness almost creates the illusion that she’s speaking in a different language, like she’s just read A Clockwork Orange and is taking bites from it. Her boyfriend, He/Him/His, has killed himself in their flat and Callar reacts by doing nothing about it. She opens her Christmas presents, smokes a lot of Silk Cut and goes off to work in her local supermarket. There’s a hint that what follows will be something profound. A tale of disconnection and alienation in the age of the rave. Given the powerful reviews, I suspect that the profundity is there, it’s just that I didn’t really grasp it. Perhaps it was a little too cold and raw in places for my taste.

There are wild encounters and travels as Callar takes a journey that seems to be part nihilism and part self-destruct. She’s on the road. She lives a life-and-a-half. Her interactions with the people she meets and her surroundings are interesting and her life is packed full of experiences. What a cracking woman she is.

I found sections really engrossing and beautifully written and I think that the book has many parts that make the book worthwhile taking on. For me, however, I felt that the whole was less than those parts. Then again, I might just be an old man who’s  arrived to the part about twenty years too late. 

Wednesday 19 August 2015


Last week I sat down to watch the movie A Walk Among The Tombstones with my wife and my dad. My wife didn’t manage to stay long – the level of violence that is suggested is high and so her early departure didn’t surprise me. My dad fell asleep for a while, but that’s got nothing to do with the quality of the film. I managed to stay for the duration and enjoyed my time with Liam Neeson et al. Overall, I’d say that it’s a pretty solid film. Neeson does a great job as Scudder and if you like action and detectives, this should work for you. Above all, I was reminded of how good a book Tombstones is. The Scudder series is really excellent and it wasn’t really a surprise to me that the film didn’t quite do the plotline justice.

During my holiday, I read a Scudder that was new to me called The Night And The Music (US). This one, a little like the film above, is something of a tangent from the main body of novels. It’s a collection of stories about the detective where he retells incidents from his past. They’re told in a fairly gentle style, as if been told over a drink in a bar somewhere after hours. It’s almost conversational and that works very well in terms of grabbing the attention. What you don’t really get is the meaty plot or the tension of a novel. In place of that, however, is a collection of rather playful and almost old-fashioned mysteries.

My own favourite was entitled The Merciful Angel Of Death. Scudder is hired by a nursing home to investigate a mystery visitor who has a knack of being the final companion of many of the dying. What I think this piece illustrates, apart from the high level of writing, is the general dexterity of Lawrence Block’s mind. He finds interesting plotlines in the strangest places. Other pieces involve the collection of counterfeit clothing from around the vendors of New York, a suicide and the murder of an old and very generous bag-lady.

For fans of Scudder, this is a really nice accompanying piece to have. It may not carry quite the weight of the novels, but it adds another dimension to the man. To those who haven’t been there yet, try these on for size. I reckon you’ll really enjoy them and if you do, I’d suggest diving right in with The Sins Of The Fathers (US) (you’ll thank me later, you really will).

Friday 14 August 2015


‘Naomi was lying on the bed with a bullet hole between her eyes. The pillow under her head was very red.’

I enjoyed my first venture into the 87th Precinct a while ago, but felt there were too many voices for my liking.

Eight Black Horses (US) was my second visit. I knew from the opening line (‘The lady was extraordinarily naked’) that I was going to love this one. What made this book so much more of a pleasure was that there was only one main thread to follow, the curious fascination of The Deaf Man with the detectives of the 87th and especially one Steven Louis Carella.

The book starts with a woman’s body being found dumped in a local park. That is followed by a series of images sent to the department by The Deaf Man. It’s clear the criminal is up to something, it’s just that no one in the force can work out what.

There’s a huge amount to savour here. The angle of the arch-enemy versus the cops works really well because The Deaf Man is such a fantastic creation, mixing a sense of mischief with the mentality of a mastermind and a ruthless cold streak. It’s also a joy to get to know the detectives a little better, especially when their focus is so concentrated. There are some great scenes, many fantastic one-liners and there’s a mass of humour that contributes to the general tone. I also got a buzz from the images included with the text, a simple pleasure on each occasion one appeared.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one and may have finally discovered why McBain has such an excellent reputation. I’ve already lined up a couple more 87th Precinct reads and one of them has another run in with The Deaf Man. I’m really looking forward to those. 

Tuesday 11 August 2015


“Banks was built like a VW Bug set on its rear end.”

A feast of stories here. Crime may be the thing they have in common, but those crimes are presented in diverse forms. There’s some revenge, reactions to infidelity, a little double and some triple-crossing along the way. The inhabitants include deranged characters, alcoholics, drug-crazed delusionists and a few cold-blooded reptiles who never miss a trick. The combinations allow for a subtle social commentary and an acknowledgement that much of what occurs is a directly or indirectly related to disadvantage.

Occasionally there are slivers of hope, but they tend to be hidden within the cluttered minds of those who live within these pages.

There’s plenty to enjoy for the fan of the short story and, if you dig lines like this:

“The Mexican said: ‘What you want?’ He spit on the sidewalk in front of him like a border he dared us to cross.”

then you should definitely give Crooked Roads (US) a try. It's currently FREE to boot!

Monday 3 August 2015


“He suddenly braked in front of a camping supplies shop advertising its January sale with the slogan NOW IS THE WINTER OF OUR DISCOUNT TENTS.”

Guns Of Brixton (US) fizzes along from the start when the gangster Half-Pint Harry has his brains blown out in a London lock-up. Of course, this isn’t good for Harry and it leaves his killer in a difficult position, especially given the Half-Pint’s importance. What follows is a genuine caper where an assorted bunch of characters go about their New Year celebrations in a variety of rather interesting ways.
Take Kenny and Big Jim as an example. They’re dressing up as women and heading off to rob a big jewellery shop. The assistant greets them as they enter:

“Morning ladies,” he beamed. Then he saw the Glock and his jaw dropped so much that you could have scraped the carpet fluff from his bottom lip.

This situation encapsulates a lot about the story. We have the cross-dressing thugs, the threat of violence and the hard-boiled humour that runs through the piece like words through a stick of rock.

To me, Brazill unashamedly brings together a broad range of cultural strands that I was bombarded with through the seventies and eighties. The style reflects so many aspects of my TV viewing – the Carry On jokes, Galton and Simpson, the caricatures of the villain and the common, the pub and the cafe, Michael Caine and The Sweeney, the slang and the banter and the pantomime.  These elements come together into the melting pot and form a delicious stew of criminal adventure. None of the style and mood would be of value if it weren’t for the author’s ability to craft a strong story where the adventure and action always hold the attention, the observations are sharp and the characters create small nuclear explosions as they collide with each other.

Guns Of Brixton has a very British flavour to it. I imagine that as it travels across the Atlantic it might make a few waves along the way but for those of you in the US who relish a good tale, this is a book that should be bought and wrestled with.

Sunday 2 August 2015


The next sequence of reviews is likely to seem a little odd. While I was away in France, I decided to put my kindle away and read only work from the bookshelves of the house we rented. This proved to be a hit-and-miss idea and I rejected a good twenty books from their openings and the rest from dodgy titles and dreadful covers.  
Essentially, it means I read a number of books that I wouldn’t normally have chosen. It proved to be a pretty good experience and I’m glad I gave it a try. If nothing else, I realised just how many books I don’t like, something that’s never really occurred to me before.
What drew me to my first selection were the author and the amazing cover. Even with these to recommend it, I still entered Chuck Palahniuk’s Non-Fiction (US) with mixed feelings. True stories and journalistic pieces are things I often struggle to focus upon, especially in a magazine or newspaper format. If they’re of particular interest, I’ll usually hang in there, but even then they’re not something I really enjoy.  

The introduction to Non-Fiction is excellent and did a lot to get me in the mood. Among other things, it’s a really interesting look at writers and writing which offers some real insight. Then came the first piece, Testy Festy in the People Together section. I almost gave up at that point. This collection of observations and quotes from a wild sex festival didn’t really work for me. In some ways it felt like a test – get through this and you’ll be OK. To my mind it’s the least interesting piece in the collection and is an odd choice for an opener.

I’m glad I stuck with it in spite of this early experience. What followed were a series of really fascinating and often moving glimpses into closed worlds – castle building, demolition derby teams, screenplay conventions, wrestlers, body-builders, spiritualists and sub-mariners. The style of the pieces is interesting. They might seem to be collections of random facts thrown onto the page, but as the montages are layered and built they come together to offer revealing and moving images. Sometimes there are strings of quotes, at others there is poetic description. The author throws in personal tangents and offers a range of angles of reflection.

These personal asides continue into the section entitled Portraits. I was only aware of a few of the characters in the spotlight, but that didn’t matter. The pieces were intimate glimpses into the subjects’ lives and most of them hit the spot.

The final section rounds things off nicely as it brings to the fore the man who’s taken us on the previous journeys. There’s some overlap in the material, but rather than spoil things this generally brings a sense of rhythm to the collection. There’s also a lot of humour here and a rather touching openness from the author.

By the end, I realised that I’d mostly been gripped by the work as I might have been by a good novel. The world seemed more expansive than it had when I began and I liked the author even more by the end than I did at the start.

I don’t think you need to be a Chuck fan or a Fight Club fanatic to love this, you just have to be interested in people.

For me, with only a couple of exceptions, an unexpected hit.