You Can Drum…


, , , ,

drumhideYou Can Drum But You Can’t Hide
Simon Wolstencroft

Simon Wolstencroft played drums with “The Mighty Fall” for eleven years and this memoir is a must read for anyone interested in the Manchester music scene, or indeed, anyone who lived in Manchester during that era.

It’s a proper trip down memory lane, as Simon mentions nightclubs and venues I’d forgotten even existed, plus the infamous Hulme Crescents, where my friends had a squat and I cast my first vote in a general election.

Simon comes across as a really good bloke – “sound as a pound”, as they say – and it’s a really entertaining read, name-dropping loads of interesting singers and musicians of the time.  Though not in a flashy way, there’s plenty of humility: he turned down a job with The Smiths, because he didn’t like Morrissey’s voice and found them too gloomy, and has admittedly been kicking himself since.

I did a double-take at this paragraph, describing his arrival at LAX on The Fall’s 1986 American tour:

While we waited for our bags, chatting to Bad Seeds guitarist Kid Congo, who had been sitting next to me on the plane, I spotted the little guy who played Tattoo from TV series Fantasy Island, walking by in his trademark white suit.

I also flew to Los Angeles at this time and the first person I saw when I got through immigration was Herve Villechaize swanning around in his little white suit. He actually got into a huge white stretch limo (the first I’d ever seen) as we were waiting for our taxi. So either Tattoo spent a lot of time hanging around LAX, or I was on the same connecting flight from Atlanta as The Fall. I guess I’ll never know.

This lacks the emotional punch of Steve Hanley’s memoir, The Big Midweek, but is highly enjoyable, even if you’re not a huge music fan.



The Big Midweek

Steve Hanley

The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall
Steve Hanley, Olivia Piekarski

I read this book avidly and managed to finish it in two days – I read it at work, I read it eating my lunch, I read it in bed and I woke up with it on my face at two o’clock this morning.

It was an immersive experience and definitely the nearest I’m ever going to get to being in a band, not being blessed musically. To be honest, this would put me right off anyway.

The Big Midweek, Steve Hanley’s memoir of life in The Fall is an “epic journey of self-flagellation”, but it’s also extremely entertaining.

If you don’t recognise Hanley’s name, he was The Fall’s bass player and longest suffering member. He played on all of my favourite albums and I remember seeing him on stage at Leeds University, looking like he wasn’t enjoying himself nearly as much as I was.

It’s brilliantly written – very funny, poignant and ultimately heartbreaking.

it might be entertaining to watch, but it’s devastating to be part of

Sadly, we all know how this book ends, but it was still really emotional to read the last sentence.

The Fallen

The Fallen: Searching for the Missing Members of The Fall
Dave Simpson

This was fine in places, but Simpson wasn’t really able to sustain my interest throughout the whole book.  I skipped sections where he compared Mark E. Smith to the maverick football manager, Brian Clough, and found his portrait of The Fall as a type of cult faintly ridiculous.

It reminded me of an extended article in the Guardian Weekend magazine section (perhaps that’s how it originated), but I thought the journalistic conceit of attempting to track down all of the ex-members of The Fall, eventually lost momentum and fell a bit flat.  Simpson says that his quest eventually took over his life, but surely that’s his job?  I was under the impression that research was a major part of being a journalist.

Fall fans try to outdo each other with their fanaticism, but I don’t lay any claims to being a super-fan. I didn’t follow them around the country or buy all of their records.  However, I find that Mark E. Smith’s death has affected me profoundly and in unexpected ways.  I’ve started listening to their music again, after a gap of many years, and it has regenerated a connection with the person I used to be in my teens and early-twenties.  It has also given me a hankering to return to Manchester, after an absence of seventeen years.  So perhaps I’ll be hitting the North some time in 2018.

I’ve started on Steve Hanley’s memoir of The Fall – The Big Midweek and I’m finding it a far more enjoyable read than The Fallen – very funny and quite self-deprecating, considering his importance to the group. (I’m biased, as I adore his bass playing, but even the ego-maniac, cult leader/football manager, Mark E Smith, acknowledged his vital contribution to The Fall’s sound).

The Girls

The Girls
Emma Cline

California. The summer of 1969. In the dying days of a floundering counter-culture a young girl is unwittingly caught up in unthinkable violence, and a decision made at this moment, on the cusp of adulthood, will shape her life….

I did not finish this novel. I read to page 160 and gave up. Normally I wouldn’t bother writing a review of a book I haven’t completed, but I wanted to balance out the mostly positive reviews floating around on the internet. This isn’t out of spite, it’s just that I wish I hadn’t wasted any of my time or money on it, and if you share my taste in literature, then you’ll know not to either.

I do try to include a little bit of contemporary fiction in my literary diet, but I’m mostly left with a nasty taste in my mouth, or a feeling of dissatisfied emptiness.  In this case, it was probably like eating candy floss and washing it down with a cup of tepid, LSD-laced Kool Aid.  About half the words used by Cline, seem to be there unnecessarily. Instead of adding a sense of the period and its atmosphere, they combine into a bizarre word-fluff, there only for padding.

Sometimes, when I’m suffering with writers block, I type a sentence into Google Translate, translate it into a few foreign languages and then back into English again.  If I’m lucky, it produces something in peculiar pidgin English to make me laugh.  That’s how this novel seems to me – badly translated into English.

Cline is also fixated with nipples and they are mentioned every few pages, usually completely at random.

She told me that she had been trying polyphasic sleep but had to quit.  “It was too weird,” she said.  Her nipples were apparent through her shirt.

When she’s not sweating and perving over glimpses of nipple, Cline’s protagonist, Evie, likes to describe unseen things too.  For example,

Neither looked at me.  The air between them criss-crossed with symbols.  Russell held my hand for a moment, his eyes avalanching over me.

Is this to add to the hippyish vibe? I’m not quite sure. Does anything ever actually happen in the novel? I assume so, but it hadn’t by half-way, and I didn’t care enough to make it to the end.



Mark E. Smith

I hope this book turns out like Mein Kampf for the Hollyoaks generation.

I’m not sure, but I think this is more of a transcript of Mark E. Smith holding forth, than an actual autobiography. That’s fine – it works.  It’s bloody hilarious, actually.

I don’t have any Mark E. Smith stories to tell.  Although I lived in Manchester for a long time, I never saw him out and about.  However, the best gig I’ve ever been to was a Fall gig in 1989 1988*.  I was completely off my head and danced non-stop.  I’ve seen them live a few times and they tend to attract male fans, who dominate the front of the stage and shout things at Mark, to make him shout back at them.  However, at my favourite gig, I managed to carve out a little space for myself near the front and perform as their unofficial go-go dancer.  I had a great time.

This is the sort of book you want to quote endlessly, because Mark was such an entertaining person, with views that are seen by the mainstream as ‘controversial’. However, although the music press liked to portray him as an irascible drunk or a fool, this book is full of wisdom.  I’d say it’s an antidote to modern life.  I now have it downloaded on my phone and I’m sure something will prompt me to refer to it from time to time.  “This is shit, Mark, isn’t it?”, I’ll say, and he’ll respond with something to make me laugh.  To make me think that I’m not alone.

*Wow. I was seventeen, even younger than I thought. Thank goodness for Fall obsessives on the web.


Ottessa Moshfegh

I don’t have a great deal to say about this book.  I enjoyed the first two hundred pages – so much so, that I read it at work while printing off invoices this morning, because I didn’t want to put it down.  However, the ‘denouement’ is hugely disappointing and quite unbelievable.  That is, unless it is a case of unreliable narration and the events described in the last sixty pages didn’t really happen.  I’m not sure.

Eileen is a very unpleasant person, who is filled with disgust and self-loathing.  In terms of ‘voice’, I thought it was a skillful rendering of her thoughts, which seemed authentic and built up a detailed picture of her character.  Eileen was raised by alcoholics and her background was so abusive, that she is basically feral.  Even at the age of twenty-four, she seems to have no idea how to look after herself and is a virtual prisoner of her deranged father, whose alcoholism has progressed to the point where he hallucinates.

Eileen works in a prison for teenage boys, and to be honest, her interest in them seems pretty creepy.  At one point she says that prison is the ideal place for her to be, because she is unable to construct any sort of normal domestic life for herself and is not good enough to work in a bank.  The novel contains so many pointers to severe abuse in Eileen’s childhood, that it’s almost as though Moshfegh assembled a character after reading a psychology text book.

The cover blurb described Eileen as a ‘taut psychological thriller’, but I didn’t find it at all thrilling.  However, it was interesting, and got me thinking about unpleasant characters in literature.  It is a far more sophisticated offering than the awful Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, although shares its emphasis on gross bodily functions and has an unlikeable female protagonist.  Some people find Jean Rhys’ heroines to be unattractive, though I find them easy to relate to and quite human.  Though I suppose some people find me quite unpleasant too!

The Vulgar Tongue

The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
Francis Grose

I love the English language. I’m sure other languages are wonderful too, but English is the only tongue I have any mastery of. Although, you could say that I don’t speak English properly: I am certainly ignorant of the rules of grammar and punctuation. However, I think that language, even the written language, should be more than just adherence to rules, or correct usage. I’m sure a computer could generate correctly worded and punctuated prose.  I love slang and swear words and idioms and proverbs, dialect and colloquialisms.

I come from the Black Country, which is an area rich in slang words – tranklements, hoss road, donnies… faggots and pays.  I haven’t been back there for many years and my daughter sometimes asks me to speak in Black Country, but I find that I have forgotten how.  I just remember one overheard phrase, shouted from one old man to another, outside Brierley Hill market: “Orlroit chap yow bin shappin’?”.  Other Midlanders call us ‘yammies’, perhaps because of the elision of the word “I” and “am” to the more convenient “yam”?

I especially miss talking to people of my Nan’s generation, whose speech was full of colloquialisms, but also strange sayings and turns of phrase, such as lines from old musical hall songs.  I don’t think there are many people of her age left to chat with now.

Anyway, this dictionary of the vulgar tongue from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a bostin’ read.  I particularly like “apple dumpling shop” and “dairy” in reference to a woman’s bosom.  I find the words inspiring – a “prigger of prancers” is far more interesting than ‘horse thief’, don’t you think?

I once wrote a poem in criminal cant – I’m sure you can find it, if you can be bothered to look.  If you don’t like it, then you can kiss my cooler, you clumpish cove.

The Grass Arena

The Grass Arena: an autobiography
John Healy

Did I enjoy this autobiography?  No, not really.  However, I’m glad that I read it, despite the fact that it is relentlessly grim.

From violent childhood, to lonely adulthood – via the gladiatorial arena of Euston Park, where winos live from one drink to the next and will slash your throat with a broken bottle for no good reason – there is little to smile about in this book.  Even Healy’s redemption through chess, his years of sobriety and success as an author are tinged with a sense of melancholy.

Healy is obviously a very damaged person and started drinking as a teenager, out of sense of social awkwardness and to numb the physical pain of a back injury.  It was also a result of the frequent violence inflicted on him by his father.

I was thinking today, how an abusive childhood becomes inscribed upon the body.  The resulting shame, anxiety and fear can manifest themselves physically as well as psychologically, in tics, poor posture and unattractive mannerisms.  People who were abused as children are also likely to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as addictions, thus significantly shortening their life expectancy. (An ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score above 6 could mean a decrease in life expectancy of twenty years, according to one study in the USA).

I don’t blame John Healy, but instead think, there but for the grace of God go I.  I first got drunk when I was eleven and drank alcohol through my teens and twenties; binge drinking myself unconscious on a regular basis.  Though, to be honest, I don’t think this counts as unusual behaviour – everyone else was doing it too.  Fortunately, despite an ACE score of 10 out of 10, I didn’t take to drinking wine, meths and surgical spirits and end up living in a hole, or going in and out of prison.

Healy has a real talent for writing and a number of passages will stay with me, such as his description of him and his wino ‘raspberry ripple’ mates drinking meths diluted with water from a toilet.

We’d jump the tube, George leading the way with his one eye (lost the other in a fight over a bottle of wine. Maybe that’s why he only drank jake now); Ernie next with only one hand (lost the other with gangrene). Me hobbling along behind with my fucked-up head and body. We’d cut the jake with pisshole water.

I’m not sure what happened to Healy in later life, although I think there was a documentary made about him recently.  I hope he has eventually known some happiness, whether through chess or writing, but I sense he never really became comfortable enough in himself to overcome his early tribulations and develop any deep relationships.  At the end of The Grass Arena, he is disappointed that his attraction to a middle class woman never goes anywhere, due to his inability to shake off the survival instincts which have become part of his personality:

[T]he Countess and her world were totally beyond my reach. It wasn’t just the money and education, more the personality and feelings. Mine were hyped up and geared to attacking and warding off threats, so even the most innocent question worried or startled me.

The trouble is, once you have spent years honing your survival mechanisms, it’s difficult to persuade yourself that you no longer need them.


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Gail Honeyman

I read this novel, wondering if its author had ever met me.  Mind you, I think that whenever I read something where the main protagonist is socially inept or is on the autistic spectrum.  Eleanor Oliphant is certainly an unusual character, and if you read this book, wondering if anyone with such a deficit of interpersonal skills could really manage to get through life, then I can assure that they do.  To me, social interactions just seems like navigating a minefield – something I do as quickly as possible and only if I have no choice in the matter.  My daughter tells me that all you have to do is ‘act the part’ and I think that’s the problem for people like me and Eleanor Oliphant; with us, what you see is what you get.  Call me Ruth Ronseal.

Anyway, this novel seems deserving of its debut novel accolade.  If it was a record, then I’d describe it as easy listening.  I read it in a day, because I was genuinely interested in Eleanor’s story and felt some investment in a positive outcome for her.  It’s laugh out loud funny in places, although occasionally somewhat implausible.

I certainly enjoyed it more than Jojo Moyes’ writing and it reminded me of a less literary Behind the Scenes at the Museum.  I’ve recommended it to my daughter and would say that if you enjoyed The Rosie Project, then you would probably appreciate this entertaining novel too.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Prawn Cracker
Will Self

When I was eighteen I harboured ambitions to become a sculptor.  In spite of my lack of talent in that area, I was taking all of the necessary steps to become one: gaining an ‘A’ Level in Art, studying Fine Art at college… but I still had nagging doubts regarding my aptitude.  It didn’t help that my tutor had already labelled me “The Stan Laurel of the Sculpture World” due to my natural clumsiness and tendency to burst into tears, when my creations inevitably collapsed in a heap.  Anyway, what eventually put paid to the idea, was a trip to the Rodin Museum in Paris.  Such was Rodin’s incredible talent, I decided that attempting to follow in his footsteps was a complete waste of time.  Hence, I’m now an invoice clerk.

The reason I’m sharing this tale of woe, is that if I was eighteen and had my heart set on becoming a journalist, then reading Will Self’s collection of food journalism would completely put me off the idea.  Really, why bother?  There’s probably no chance that you could write anything as remotely entertaining and erudite.  I don’t think Will Self has ever written a boring sentence.

That’s just me, though.  I’m a bit negative.  I was trying to think of a metaphor for my life and decided that I was treading water, attempting not to drown, but doing so with the fake smile of a synchronised swimmer plastered on my face.  I find synchronised swimmers creepy by the way, there’s something weird about doing things in formation, North Korean style, while wearing loads of make-up – like a troop of communist Esther Williams.

The reason I was reading the Unbearable Lightness of Being a Prawn Cracker, was that it was the early hours of New Year’s Day and I was hungry, but too lazy to get out of bed.  I was flicking through Kindle and decided to click on the lovely cerise pink Penguin icon, which reminded me of a packet of Walkers’ prawn cocktail crisps.

My brother briefly worked in a Chinese restaurant as a teenager and seemed a little traumatised by the experience.  I’m not sure why, but I remember he was upset that the deep fried seaweed is no such thing – it’s just shredded cabbage, it has never even seen the ocean.

Happy New Year.