Thursday, 20 December 2007

Book Review - Stories We Could Tell by Tony Parsons

When he’s not busy scribbling populist musings for his weekly column, Daily Mail right-winger Tony Parsons spends his time in the ring with Nick Hornby, battling it to be ‘king of lad-lit’. His latest testosterone fuelled man-book, ‘Stories We Could Tell’, is a semi-autobiographical account of Parson’s time working for the New Musical Express in the seventies. Back then, punk was a growing phenomenon that screamed anarchy in the face of the fraying hippy movement, prompting the NME to rapidly hire a gaggle of young talent off the back of a gunslinger ad to capitalise on the new scene. Parsons and his first wife, Judy Burchill, were both among this first round of punk critics. Whilst Parsons avoids directly penning the story of their reckless rock and roll romance, he has clearly garnered much of his material for the bread-and-butter working class Terry and his slippery, aloof girlfriend, Misty, from personal experience.

As Terry tries to keep a hold on the wayward Misty, his two best friends – also new recruits on ‘The Paper’ (as the NME is renamed) – must grapple with their own coming-of-age conundrums. Leon, a bourgeois leftie, tries valiantly to disassociate himself from his happily middle-class parents at a time when privilege was something to be ashamed of, and ends up hiding from gangs in disco halls and squatting in disused buildings. Meanwhile Ray is still long-haired and lost in a sixties hippy haze and must get a golden interview with John Lennon or face losing his job for being out of touch.

The whole story takes place over the course of one day and night: 16th August 1977, the night that Elvis Presley died. Rather conveniently this also happens to be the night that Leon’s squat gets shut down and Lennon is passing through town, which makes the plot seem rather contrived. However these converging plot elements force the narrative forwards and avoid the festering sentimentality that Parsons sometimes lapses into in his novels.

That’s the thing with Tony Parsons: all the male characters are muddled softies – the narcissistic reflected fragments of Parsons’ self confessed sentimental side – which can get a little dull, as can transparent symbolism and predictable plot lines. There is enough here to keep music lovers amused, if not only in spotting Parsons’ parodies of the big names of the NME in the seventies: Kevin White is Nick Logan incarnated whilst Parsons’ hero, Nick Kent, appears as the lovable Skip James, perpetually locked away in the mystical review room. Though clichés abound infest his writing, the result is a strangely pleasing sprint through the early days of British punk, spruced up a bit for commercial appeal.

Book Review - I'll Never Be Young Again by Daphne du Maurier

The beginning of a new year habitually brings with it some reflection on times gone by. Suddenly, the hopes and worries of the future are laid out before us will frank immediacy, and we are left peering into the past to wonder how we became the people we are at the start of 2008. What was it along the way that moulded us into the individuals that now stand on the brink of another year, and must push on into the unfolding uncertainty of the future?

Inevitably, the formative years of youth are pivotal in the making of the individual – those troubled and treasured memories of our first forays into the adult world. Many a prolific writer has tired to capture the agonies of that difficult no man’s land between childhood and adulthood, a literary genre know as bildungsroman. The intriguing thing is that no matter what era the author comes from, the same set pieces always seem to surface. It’s as though life’s little recipe for those last gasps of childhood contain certain indispensable ingredients.

Although ‘I’ll Never Be Young Again’ was published back in 1932, du Maurier’s evocation of the slow ebbing away of naivety is timeless – testament to her extraordinary storytelling ability. It was one of her first novels – she would go on to write her masterpiece, ‘Rebecca’, some six years later, which was eventually adapted for screen by Alfred Hitchcock. Neatly divided into two halves, ‘I’ll Never Be Young Again’ tells of the fumbling beginnings of a young man, Dick, as he tries to forge his identity in the shadows of his father’s fame. The first half takes him on a glorious journey through the wastes of Scandinavia, showcasing du Maurier’s talent for conjuring terrifically vast landscapes. Dick’s travels with his strange friend, Jake, are full of adventures, from their vagabond mountain treks on horseback, to gangster violence in back street bars, finally ending in shipwreck and death off the coast of France. Du Maurier has a strong masculine narrative voice that never falters throughout the novel, making her portrayal of boyhood adventures utterly convincing.

The second half of the book explores first love: an indispensable part of any bildungsroman. Dick catches sight of an orange beret in a Parisian café one day as he struggles to write his first novel, and from that moment is lost in the emotional pandemonium induced by its owner, a beautiful young musician, Hesta, which can only end in heartbreak. What surfaces from these neat plot pieces is the restless search for identity: an exploration of the formulating moments in Dick life. But du Maurier is also a mistress of suspense and a first rate storyteller, and it is Dick’s trepid adventures into emotional and physical wilderness that stay with the reader after the last page has been turned.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Album Review - Asobi Seksu: Citrus

Bilingual Brooklyn-based band forego shoegazing in favour of giddy pop psychedelia

If your knowledge of Japanese stretches no further than sushi and sudoku, here’s a new one: asobi seksu, Japanese for ‘playful sex’. Asobi Seksu is also a Brooklyn three-piece whose pretty package of heavily textured bilingual pop has been making its way around the UK tour circuit this last month. Though still relatively unknown, sophomore release ‘Citrus’ is a convincing introduction for newcomers to their psychedelic breed of shoegaze. It showcases melodic direction and newfound pop sensibilities whilst retaining a trademark white-noise euphoria, caught in orbit around Yuki Chikudate’s beguiling, breathless vocals.

Citrus is spattered with enough dizzying distortion and squalling tremolo bar manipulation to relegate it to the been-done basket beside noisy nineties albums from the likes of My Bloody Valentine, but meticulous production saves it from this fate. The fuzz of feedback and amorphous distorted guitars no longer saturate and overwhelm, instead being employed to create waves of texture and detail that push through each track.

Contrary to the tumultuous walled sound of early shoegaze that suffocated subdued vocals, Asobi Seksu keep steady focus on the winding melodies of Yuki’s piercing siren-singing. Guitars and synth drop out and pick up as appropriate around catchy if completely unintelligible refrains, often sung in Japanese.

The bubble-gum cloy of ‘Goodbye’ is pop-sensible to the point of mundane, and ‘Strings’ seems to wander aimlessly on the precarious fringes of Yuki’s vocal range, but these are mediocre exceptions. Collectively, the measured, magnificent exhilaration of the album is exemplified in ‘Thursday’, where an incessant hi-hat propels James Hanna’s mingled guitar riffs forward under the catchiest of Yuki’s melodies. A coursing bass lead and the gradually intensifying splashes of cymbals build texture through each refrain before crashing into a synth-led finale that intertwines elements to the point of ubiquity. This is what pop should sound like: propulsive, carefully pieced together pandemonium that entices and encompasses in equal measure.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Book Review - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

The gonzo genius's finest hour

It is nearly two years since Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head. Afterwards, Johnny Depp financed his funeral. It involved Thompson’s ashes being fired, alongside multicoloured fireworks, from a canon in the shape of a fist, atop a 150ft tower, to Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.

It all sounds a bit eccentric, and for anyone else it might have been, but Hunter S. Thompson is probably the only man for whom this weird, celebratory sending off seems almost understated in comparison to his oddball existence. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is his best work: a furiously fast-paced account of Thompson (under the alias Raoul Duke) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo in Vegas, commissioned by Sports Illustrated to cover a dirt track motorbike race, the Mint 400. That’s just about the whole plot right there.

What follows is two hundred pages of unstructured, drug-addled madness: some of it true to experience, large swathes fabricated or fictionalised by Thompson’s own intoxicated mind. Faithful to his own invented journalistic genre, gonzo journalism, ‘Fear and Loathing’ reads as the highly entertaining, unedited exploits of two messy maniacs, lewd and lost in the washed up wastes of ‘the high and beautiful wave’ of sixties counterculture. The seventies are portrayed as the afterparty of the ‘decade of dope’, a time when a whole hungover generation drugged themselves to delinquency to escape rather than to explore.

Stylistically apocalyptic, the work is anchored by and unequivocally connected to the notion of the American dream gone wrong. The literary tradition into which it falls is an important one: from the gorged excess of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the voracious appetite of Henry Miller, Thompson emerged with the spewed-out scribblings of the kids that could have it all, and took too much.

‘Fear and Loathing’ remains funny and fast and fucked up to just about everyone fortunate enough to read it, but underneath all the entertaining skits and piecemeal details a careful eye will see that Thompson knew the good times were over. The politically turgid decade of Nixon and Vietnam awaited those who survived the hedonism of the sixties, and emerged from the froth of the wave that finally broke.

Book Review - The Gathering by Anne Enright

Irish outsider strikes gold with grim family tragedy

Anne Enright was the outsider to win last month’s Man Booker Prize 2007, perhaps the best known of all British literary accolades. Despite this, the Irish 45 year old beat off stiff competition from authorial heavyweights such as Ian McEwan to walk away with £50,000 for her fourth novel ‘The Gathering’.

‘The Gathering’ is a funereal family occasion that reunites nine disparate Irish siblings following the suicide of their troubled brother, Liam. Veronica Hegarty, the sister closest to Liam, is psychologically and physically tormented by her loss, and seeks out the reasons for Liam’s death in the family’s dark history. And so the novel oscillates between the past and present, the real and the imagined.

Veronica imagines her grandparents meeting in 1925 in a hotel foyer, spinning stories to compensate for the lost truth, and ease her overworked mind. She returns repeatedly to the tunnel-vision of childhood memory: lilac flowers on her grandmother’s dress, seaside sandwiches in waxed paper, her eight year old brother on his knees before a squirming man, in the front room. It is Veronica’s inability to comprehend these childhood events and her obsession with reconstructing a lost past that renders her sleepless and drunk each night, some thirty years later.

Enright described ‘The Gathering’ as ‘the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie’. Whilst it is rather exquisitely bleak in places, attention to detail and Enright’s knack for good storytelling makes ‘The Gathering’ more enthralling than depressing. The Irish clichés are there: big family, relentless alcoholism, childhood abuse. But there is also clarity of tone and an underlying wit that stops the narrative from going stale. Action packed it is not, but the way Enright evokes human emotion, so precisely, really is quite astounding.

‘The Gathering’ has been a controversial prizewinner for some literary critics, distracted by sober distaste for Enright’s remarkably grim evocations of carnal desire, or disappointed, maybe, by a plot that largely takes place in the hazy realms of the narrator’s mind. But Enright’s razor-sharp eye for detail so exactly captures the essence of internal human struggle that her prose seems to crawl out from under the reader’s skin and onto the page. The result is a novel that explores the excruciating imperfections of human perception and recollection inch by inch, with unflinching honesty. The ghosts Veronica grapples with are her own, but the magnificent exploration of the universal themes of self-denial, shame, and flesh and blood love makes this an immensely satisfying read.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Found: Peace in the Middle East

All is not yet lost for Israel and Palestine: Hazel Sheffield explores past conflicts and uncertain futures in the Holy Land

At the heart of the conflict in the Middle East lies one country, torn apart half a century ago with the end of the British mandate of Palestine and the much needed creation of a homeland for Jewish people worldwide: Israel. This tiny territory, roughly the size of Wales, is in and out of the press weekly as tensions grow and subside. These days though, it’s often relegated to a brief mention in the international news: not many of us have retained interest in a such a long-running conflict, the origins of which are now almost lost in historical obscurity.

A Summer In The Holy Land
It is with these vague televised troubles in mind that I decided to spend my summer in Israel. Somewhere behind generic war-time images of exploding buildings and nameless politicians in never-ending negotiations I knew there must be real people keeping on with their lives. But I knew I’d never see all this from the comfort of my living room.

A week after I’d made that decision I was there, living in a basement apartment in the centre of Jerusalem with two friends. I stayed for a month, forging my own little life in the Holy City. I talked endlessly with strangers who soon became friends, found out as much as I could, and tried to help when I was able. The most striking part of my investigations was the way in which I was received: everyone I met had a story to tell and no one resented my curiosity. To the contrary, on many occasions people were delighted by my interest. The Palestinian owner of the framing shop next to my apartment would often stop me on my way past to talk to me about his ideas for peace. One memorable time he said, “We need people like you, people to tell our stories in Britain and abroad. We need your help to make peace here.”

In the beginning it baffled me: although I’m well travelled, I’ve never experienced a pervading sense of goodwill and peace anywhere as much as I did in Jerusalem. Everywhere I went I was greeted with a friendly “Shalom”, meaning peace. I felt safe to walk the streets alone at night, which I would never do in my hometown. I involved myself in conversation with perfect strangers, something I could rarely bring myself to do in England, being used to the very British fear-of-the-foreigner attitude. It was almost impossible for me to reconcile my experience with the horror stories I heard in the news.

One day a friendly stranger asked me what I thought of Jerusalem. “It’s magnificent,” I replied, “I’ve never experienced anything like it before.” To which he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Well, maybe that’s why everyone’s fighting over it.”

The Homeland of the Jews
At the end of the Second World War pressure increased for the creation of a Jewish State to put an end to the Diaspora (the dispersion of Jewish people across the globe). The Holocaust had been a terrifyingly brutal expression of how a race without a homeland could be abused by an adoptive nation, thus by 1948 international consensus favoured a recognised Jewish state to protect the Jews, and Israel was born.

Immediately mass Jewish immigration to Israel began, displacing the existing population. Palestinians, who once occupied all of modern Israel, emigrated or moved to the West Bank as Jews and Muslims struggled to live in harmony with one another: violence became commonplace. Since 1967 Israeli forces have occupied the West Bank for ‘security reasons’, which more often translates as an unwillingness to hand over natural resources, especially water supply. This occupation and continuing violence from both sides culminated in the construction of the separation wall in 2003, which is still being extended.

At the heart of the conflict lies one city: Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but Palestinians, too, claim East Jerusalem as their capital, although Israel currently severely limits Palestinian access to the city. Today Christians, Jews, Muslims and Armenians all live in separate quarters within the Ottoman walls of the Old City. This is also the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was crucified; the Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed ascended to heaven; and the Western (or ‘Wailing’) Wall, significant in Judaism as the only remaining wall of the Second Temple.

No wonder I could sense a certain spirituality about the place. During my time in Jerusalem I fasted for Yom Kippur as Islamic prayers washed over the city, emanating from the mosques on the first day of Ramadan. I pressed my head to the Wailing Wall and pushed prayers for peace, written on scraps of paper, into the cracks in its smooth, warm surface. I walked in the footsteps of Christ when he carried the cross. As an atheist, I’d certainly never expected to reap such spiritual benefits from my time there. The extreme energy of the place is pervasive, almost physical, certainly unavoidable, and the extent to which the Israeli government will go to maintain exclusive possession of the city is equally extreme.

Separation Barrier
The separation barrier, built in direct contravention to UN security council resolutions, means that Palestinians are now living within the walled confines of a veritable Israeli prison. It falls just to the east of Jerusalem, cutting off Palestinian access to many essential facilities belonging to them in East Jerusalem, including the three main Palestinian hospitals.

To gain access to these facilities Palestinians have to cross the barrier at an armed checkpoint just outside the city. Here, I witnessed hoards of Arab men crammed like cattle through metal turnstiles to get home after a day’s work in Jerusalem in Human Rights violations that left me open-mouthed. Papers and passports have to be presented to the army, protected inside glass booths, in order to pass through. Papers don’t guarantee access though, as the Government Security Service (GSS) routinely bars people from crossing for suspected terrorism. Those who are refused entry will not be told why, though it might mean they can’t get to their place of work or go to hospital: such is the omnipotence of the GSS.

Addressing Human Rights Violations
Inside the crossing points two older women can normally be found, watching the proceedings. They are from an organisation called Machsom Watch, which was founded in 2001 in response to repeated reports in the press of the Human Rights abuses of Palestinians crossing army and border police checkpoints. Since then the organisation has grown to some 400 women, most of them mature professionals, all of them Israeli, who volunteer daily at checkpoints. Their quiet but assertive presence demands accountability on the part of the security services towards the civilian state.

The day I passed through the checkpoint, the Maschomwatcher on duty told me, “One year, before we started volunteering at the checkpoint, forty Palestinian women gave birth here because they were refused entry and couldn’t get to hospital. Since we’ve been monitoring only one woman has given birth here, and that was because she left it a bit late to get to hospital!”

It might not seem like much, a bunch of grey-haired women standing around watching people pass through the gate. But in a society where the dominant discourse is military and where young soldiers with guns openly patrol the streets, the non-violent and unyielding presence of these benevolent women is a direct challenge to the moral authority of the military.

The Israeli Response
Yet Jewish Israelis remain largely supportive of the project. When I asked people within Jerusalem if they were comfortable with the limitless controls being imposed on thousands of Palestinians to ensure their own safety from Palestinian attack, the response was often that if such measures were necessary, so be it. One woman said, “If the separation barrier means I can sit in a restaurant without fear of terrorism, then I think it’s the right course of action.”

It might sound callous on her part, but who among us here at Durham would not expect the state to protect our liberties in the face of a terrorist threat? Statistics show that since the construction of the barrier terrorist bombings and actual violence has all but stopped in Jerusalem. This is reason enough for it to stay in the eyes of most Israelis.

The Future
On the 15th November, Israeli President Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with the heads of the Arab states in the US for a peace summit, the first since the enormously unproductive Camp David in 2000. It is unlikely that this summit will be any more effective - for one thing the militant Palestinian organisation that currently has control of Gaza, Hamas, hasn’t been invited.

One thing I am sure of is that any real change on the ground in Israel and Palestine isn’t going to come from politicians. It has to come from real people: from the coming together of Israelis and Palestinians in a mutual quest for peace. I’ve no doubt from talking to people within Israel and the West Bank that both sides are tired of the conflict, willing to co-operate, and bemused by the resounding militancy and destruction of the whole crisis. But there are plenty of barriers that need to be broken down before co-existence can become reality: language, religion, and the irrelevant battling of politicians remain far greater obstacles than any concrete wall.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Book Review - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Struggling rural writer hits big time with bestselling insight into the autistic mind

Given that Mark Haddon’s second novel, ‘A Spot of Bother’ has been gracing the current top ten paperback chart for several weeks now, it might seem a rather curious incident that this review is of his first piece of adult fiction, published in 2003. Narrated by the fifteen year old Christopher Boone, a mathematical genius with Asperger’s syndrome, Haddon’s first novel is a remarkable insight into the workings of an emotionally remote teenage mind, a modern must-read far superior in its ability to change the way we see the world than his latest offering, which brims with the same perceptive, cheerful wit but lacks the endearingly odd narrative that sets ‘The Curious Incident’ apart.

And it really has been set apart: an estimated 10million copies sold in 42 countries, winner of 16 different literary accolades, including the Whitbread; all this for a farmer’s son from Rutland whose first five self-confessed ‘breathtakingly bad’ novels remained unpublished whilst Haddon explored his many other talents: illustrating, children’s writing, poetry, television adaptations, but always with the sense that he had his ‘little cold face pressed to the window pane of the house of literature.’

The painstakingly literal interpretation of the adult world as invoked by Christopher in ‘The Curious Incident’ has propelled Haddon through the window of literary acclaim, all as the result of the strange image of a dog impaled on a pitchfork that popped into his head one day. It is this same dog that inspires the autistic Christopher to write a murder mystery for his school project, after he uncovers the unfortunate animal on his neighbour’s lawn one night.

Whilst endlessly humourous due to the dramatic irony of Christopher’s absolute inability to understand the illogical complexities of human emotion, Haddon credibly avoids patronising or romanticising the autistic condition. When Christopher’s father tells him his mother is dead, he records his scrabble score and notes that his dinner was spaghetti in tomato sauce: how does one sympathise with someone so incapable of feelings? Haddon paints a portrait of a familiar world, a mediocre middle-England of spaghetti hoops, cheap sweets and Coronation Street omnibuses, but in the strangest of colours. This book will simultaneously humour and consume you, but it might also make you think about things a little differently, too.

Book Review - The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Award winning Canadian fiction writer features at British Literary Festival

October saw tens of thousands of arts enthusiasts descend upon the pretty little spa-town of Cheltenham for its ten-day literary festival, where the big names of the book world featured in abundance. The lucky ticket holders had the chance to take part in discussion and debate led by key cultural celebrities, from Helen Mirren to William Hague. One acclaimed author who didn’t manage to make it to the festival in person, however, was the prolific Canadian feminist, poet, novelist and activist, Margaret Atwood. She chose instead to invent a long distance contraption entitled ‘The Long Pen’, enabling her to autograph her work from her home in Toronto via the internet, whilst wearing her ‘fuzzy slippers, and that is a big plus because there’s nothing better than comfortable shoes’, as she told one British newspaper. Quite.

This is entirely characteristic of a woman who regularly takes the world and turns it on its head in her novels, which are sometimes graphically dystopian and futuristic, and yet often also piercingly sensitive to the universal human condition. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, which won Atwood two literary prizes back in the eighties, features this absorbing ability to get to the very core of human experience, within the foreign surroundings of an imagined sci-fi world. Set in a Massachusetts university town in the aftermath of nuclear disaster and civil war, the renamed Republic of Gilead is under the control of Christian Fundamentalists, who have attempted to combat widespread sterility by reverting to old testament practice. This means that fertile young women who have sinned – unmarried mothers, divorcees, adulteresses – are assigned to the wives of the Commanders in the new regime as ‘handmaids’, in order to be impregnated and ensure the future of the human race.

Written from the perspective of one such handmaid, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is at once horrifying and beautiful, with the pervasive poetry of Atwood’s formidable talent seeping from each word that warns of what the world could become, if we don’t begin to appreciate our freedom and protect our environment. The fundamentalist politics involved are reminiscent of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, but the voice is much subtler, almost seductively reticent, and, of course, female. Feminist preoccupations permeate the narrative, yet do not diminish the impact of Atwood’s exploration of the seemingly innate human ability to destroy: ourselves, each other, the environment. These are themes of resounding relevance, relevance that has only augmented in the two decades since the novel’s publication.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Arcade Fire - Newcastle Metro Arena

Canada's finest contemporary export confront commercial bugbears on sold out arena tour

So, Arcade Fire got massive, and a reputation for being rather grumpily disaffected by commercial success. It was with thoughts of their early secretive gatherings in London churches and frontman Win Butler’s tantrums on the Jonathan Ross show earlier this year that I entered the aircraft hangar that is Newcastle Metro Arena. Imagining the venue rammed with multitudes of post-gender pubescents squawking over their latest badly-dressed NME band of preference, I silently prayed that Arcade Fire and audience alike would instead be imparting some of that communal musical warmth that the band specialises in; that same respectably glorious symphonic mayhem that catapulted Arcade Fire from astronomical yet underpromoted independent label success with ‘Funeral’ in 2005, to mainstream art-rock phenomenon with ‘Neon Bible’ in 2007.

The warehouse was replete with edgy expectancy and a pleasingly diverse demographic (everyone from weird indie-geek girl to her leather jacket-sporting granddad) when Arcade Fire – ten of them – crept onto the instrument infested stage to the televised hysteria of a screeching black evangelist, a rather apt pre-emption of the mood on the floor. Openers ‘No Cars Go’ and ‘Keep the Car Running’ were flawlessly executed; anticipation in the crowd turned to outright joy, the kind Christmas day brought when Santa existed. All eyes were on the towering stature of Butler, all 6’5’’ of him, centre stage, his Canadian troubadours gathered about and his wife, Regine Chassagne, prancing about in a lime green silk dress, arms outstretched and tambourine rattling.

Band members interchanged instruments with alarming frequency as they slipped into slow-tempo reverie mid-set, including an early EP fronted by Chassagne, ‘Sleeping in a Submarine’, and the encompassing ethereality of ‘In the Backseat’. Butler then introduced a cover of the Smiths’ ‘Still Ill’ as ‘a song that made me want to play music’. It seemed particularly relevant in the aftermath of the singer’s recent successive bouts of illness that resulted in the cancellation of Arcade Fire’s European tour last spring.

The passive awe of the crowd was entirely dispelled as the end of the set heralded a rousing host of first album favourites including ‘Neighbourhood no.3 (Power Out)’, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and the delightfully predictable encore, ‘Wake Up’, that had the standing throngs clutching at each others’ sweaty shoulders in a wordless chorus of noisy adulation.

The best part was that Arcade Fire didn’t look disillusioned by success in the slightest – to the contrary there was an overwhelming sense of reciprocated energy about the whole set. Butler propelled himself into the audience on several occasions, seemingly thriving on the staggering turn out of fans and their messily enthusiastic appreciation of the music. There was no pretence of the elitism, musical snobbery or anti-commercialism that currently dominates Arcade Fire commentary. This was ‘just a bunch of musicians from Montreal, Canada,’ as Butler put it, sharing their music with tens of thousands of fans in a sold-out arena tour, and loving it.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Book Review - Atonement by Ian McEwan

Britain's first man of fiction poses essential questions in his book that will be lost on cinemagoers this summer

You will undoubtedly have seen the film adaptation of this book splashed across billboards and bus stops around the city this summer. Released at the beginning of the month, Keira Knightley’s generic starlet pout has dominated advertising space. But those who fail to realise that this latest cinematic offering is in fact the finest achievement of one of Britain’s most prolific contemporary writers are missing a literary treat.

'Atonement' revolves around ‘Briony’s crime’: the rape of a young girl by a family friend as perceived through the eyes of the young Briony Tallis. As the sole witness, Briony’s willingness to act upon her conviction about what she saw shapes the destinies of many of McEwan’s characters and leaves her with a guilty weight of responsibility for which she spends the rest of her life atoning. The ‘crime’ takes place in the oppressive summer heat of 1935 at the summer house of the Tallises, a well-to-do upper middle class family of which Briony is the youngest offspring. A thirteen year old playwright obsessed with making the transition to adulthood, Briony is often the reader’s eyes as she bosses her reluctant subjects, a family of children taking refuge from their parents’ divorce, into acting out her latest theatrical offering.

Meanwhile, Celia, Briony’s elder sister (and the victim of Knightley’s drama school interpretation in the film), has returned to the family home after graduating from Cambridge. Listless and unsure of where her future lies, Celia’s sudden confident womanhood attracts the attention of Robbie Turner, son of the housekeeper, who the Tallises funded through a successful academic career. Their affair, witnessed by Briony, develops into a life long love story made near impossible after the fateful night of ‘Briony’s crime’.

When Robbie joins the army in the second of the three parts of the novel, 'Atonement' degenerates into a horrifyingly graphic depiction of the Second World War and hurls the characters far from the comfort of that hot interwar summer. McEwan’s powerful evocation of wartime horror are so poetically gruesome in their realism that they will render you speechless – testament to the extent of his achievement here.

The story concludes in latter day London with a twist in the plot that crashes towards the reader and casts doubt over all of McEwan’s carefully projected plot in the rest of the novel. Here McEwan addresses some important questions: does life imitate art? Can writers create their own truths? 'Atonement' is a focused study of both of these questions disguised within a blockbuster of a fictional tale, the action-packed page-turning qualities of which have obviously not been lost on the money-hungry film industry, though the intricacies of McEwan's quest for truth doubtless have.

Book Review - The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath

Pioneering stuff from America's suicide sweetheart

Ever since Silvia Plath lovingly locked her young children in a sealed bedroom and committed suicide in the gas oven just a wall away from where they slept, her life has become a story of overblown obsession for some, and scadalised intrigue for many.

Next year the hype is sure to resurface yet again as Julia Stiles plans to direct and star in the Hollywood version of 'The Bell Jar', Plath’s only novel. (She was a poet of immeasurable talent and originality for most of her short life.) And so I beg you, reader of literary integrity, to form your opinion of this pioneering female writer not on the watered-down wastes of cinematic interpretation but from the words of the woman herself.

'The Bell Jar' comes closer than seemingly possible to invoking the utter blank blackness of a woman on the edge of insanity, consumed by the apparent meaninglessness of her existence. This sounds a rather depressing subject for a novel, but Plath’s pervasive dark wit provides moments of humour, whilst her mastery of the poetic stream-of-consciousness technique will have you tumbling through the pages just as the protagonist, Ester Greenwood, tumbled through society’s conformist hoops before her breakdown.

Esther is a sharp young talent, one of twelve lucky young girls whose writing has won them an internship in the office of a New York magazine, where they are spoiled with gifts and fashion shows and parties in abundance. What should have been every girl’s dream turns into Esther’s nightmare as she becomes increasingly unable to comprehend the frivolities that suffocate her at every turn, instead becoming increasingly disconnected from physical reality.

Early potential publishers rejected 'The Bell Jar' as being ‘disappointing, juvenile and overwrought’, a definite failure to understand Plath’s extraordinary propensity for realism – for these qualities are exactly the same as the ones that Esther grapples and gushes forth with throughout the novel. This is depression in all its terrifyingly destructive glory, pushed to its most dangerous frontiers, but made universally relevant through Plath’s exploration of the struggle for post-adolescent self-definition.

Singles Reviews

The low down on October's singles releases

The King Blues
Mr Music Man
The first single from this acoustic ska/reggae trio will already be familiar to regular listeners to Radio 1’s The Lock Up. Voted ‘Best Song Of 2006’ by listeners, Mr Music Man is a mellow infusion of infectious reggae beats and cheerfully simple acoustics that has enough laid back pop appeal to take the charts by storm. This is unaffected street punk repackaged for a rapacious commercial generation: the kids will love it.

The Departure
7 Year
The Departure return with 7 Years, an intensely bland and meaningless piece of emo-trash that does away with any hope that the Northampton band might have developed or encapsulated some of the angular post-punk hinted at in the first album ready for the release of their second next year. Expect nonsensical lyrics, wet killers-esque guitar hooks and plenty of noisy dissatisfaction.

Shocking Pinks
End of the World
Nick Harte (aka Shocking Pinks) finally sees his first full release on DFA in this enveloping bundle of melancholic wonderfulness. End of the World is a little symphony of heartbroken bliss that evolves from a wobbly drum break into a tension building, colourful combination of oversaturated acoustic guitars and swirling synths. It might not chart highly, but its encompassing fragile warmth is the perfect soundtrack to a rainy student Sunday.

The Thrills
The Midnight Choir
This is doubtless a highlight of The Thrills third album, released back in July: jangling melodies and a relentless banjo riff drive this second single forward over Deasy’s fragile vocals, heralding a return to the good old days of first album cheer. A clamourous little number, The Midnight Choir might not be ground breaking, but happily raucous choruses, a woeful edge of love lost, and a slice of those characteristic harmonica harmonies will keep toes-tapping and fans smiling.

The Envy Corps
Iowa four-piece The Envy Corps return to the UK with Rhinemaidens from their debut album, due for release in January 2008. The single is an uncomplicated friendly number comprising of a chattering guitar and a keyboard that seems to have time-warped straight out of the eighties. Reminiscent of early Primal Scream, this is an inoffensive piece of summery pop – nothing new, but eighties nostalgia has its charm.

Hundred Reasons
No Way Back
If you like your pop-punk to come the other side of the Atlantic you’ll love this. Power chords and heavy guitar riffs feature in abundance under jarring American vocals in No Way Back; which can be download free on iTunes from the 16th October. Lyrically juvenile and limitingly formulaic in their approach to songwriting, Hundred Reasons seem to be getting something right: the track comes from their fourth (fourth!) studio album, due out this month.

Richard Hawley
Richard Hawley of Pulp/Longpigs fame offers us another slice of his 1950s rock-a-billy pie with this upbeat little skiffly number that maps out the faultlines between loneliness and love. With so many bands churning out reinvented rubbish, this undeniably dated but perfectly put together dancehall throwback may just have you crooning along in your bedroom. If not, give it to your mum. She’ll love it.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Book Review - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J K Rowling

Potter conquers world and more in the final dose of Rowling's magical formula

It would seem criminal to let the Potter era entirely pass without mention in WhatPeterborough’s books section. Potter-mania is now inescapable after ten years of hype over Rowling’s wizarding world, this summer seeing the culmination of the carefully constructed super-plot that has spanned seven books and over 4000 pages, earning Rowling an estimated half a billion pound fortune. The final instalment is mammoth in size (are children of primary school age really expected to manage a book of such epic proportions?) and dark in character, but this should come as no surprise: the Potter series, by Rowling’s own admission, is preoccupied with death, beginning with the death of Harry’s parents, and ultimately revolving around the battle to destroy the evil Voldemort.

'The Deathly Hallows' follows Harry and friends in their final struggle against Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters, who have taken over the muggle and wizarding worlds in their quest for pureblood supremacy. Mudbloods a-plenty find themselves shipped off to concentration camps, families are ripped apart, and resistance can only be in secret until Harry can unravel the complicated mission left to him by Dumbledore and, of course, save the world. Both worlds.

Unsurprisingly considering her astronomical success, Rowling’s ability as a writer has been increasingly questioned in the decade since Potter first arrived on our bookshelves. Anthony Holden of the Observer asserted of The Prisoner of Azkaban: ‘essentially patronising, very conservative, highly derivative, dispiritingly nostalgic for a bygone Britain’. He has a point. However no critic can deny Rowling the credit she deserves for persuading millions of children to put down their Playstations and read a bible-sized series of books in this most fickle digital age. Despite the bland adverbs and repetitive cliches that saturate these novels, the generation that has grown up with Potter are unlikely to feel that same literary fervour for anything new for a long time to come.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Book Review - For Tibet, With Love by Isabel Losada

Life-changing comedy that starts in the home

If you’re looking for inspiration during these rather depressingly wet summer months, look no further. The perfect antidote to the bad weather, 'A Beginner’s Guide…' is a cheering piece of non-fiction, exploring the possibility that each of us, as individuals, have the ability to make positive changes on a global scale.

Losada becomes obsessed with the injustice of the Chinese invasion of Tibet since 1950 and this is the focus of her philanthropic crusade. The book documents her discovery of the problem through to sponsored skydives and the unfurling of a huge pro-Tibet photo of the Dalai Lama on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar square, which raised the profile of her campaign on an international scale and resulted in Losada meeting the Dalai Lama.

Losada’s conversational and down-to-earth style makes the political issue at hand second to her argent passion for making a difference, which makes this an incredibly positive read without ever straying from the seriousness of the Tibetan’s plight for independence. You’ll find yourself transported to Tibet and back through colourful descriptions of people and places as she reaches out to the reader as a conspirator and friend.

Extreme sensitivity when conveying the experiences of innocent Tibetan torture victims at the hands of their Chinese captors makes it difficult not to feel personally affected by the problems of that forgotten territory. Ultimately where Losada succeeds is in making each of us feel just a little bit responsible for, and indeed very capable of, making a difference.

And what better way to pass a rainy afternoon than with a good-humoured book that could result in you changing the world?

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Restaurant Review - Avellinos, Peterborough

Local restaurant brings you mouth-watering italian cuisine just like mama intended

Just a hair’s breadth from the very centre of town, this gem of a local restaurant has developed an outstanding reputation in the few years since its establishment. Avellinos began near Spalding in 2001 but relocated here, to Peterborough, in 2004 when chefs and owners Mick and Pep Guarnaccia decided to bring their unique Italian family recipes to the city. And we’re lucky that they did: Avellinos offers all the pleasures of decadent and stylish dining but with the added bonus of home grown Italian recipes, without the conveyor-belt pushiness or exclusive generic pizza/pasta combo of your average Italian restaurant.

Mick and his brother learned to cook from childhood, with Italian parents that gave them their taste and talent for good food early on. They used this knowledge and years of experience in the pizza industry to create a menu of impeccable variety that will suit all tastes. Starters range from Antipasti, a delectable platter of fine Italian meats and cheeses, to the beautifully presented and impossibly delicious Funghi Ripieni, a trio of flat mushrooms filled with melted goats cheese and parmesan. If you don’t manage it for starters, don’t miss the Polpette for the main course, large mouth-watering meatballs made to mama Guarnaccia’s own recipe.

You’ll find all the Italian favourites at Avellinos, from bolognese and carbonara to a whole range of traditional and more inventive pizzas, wood fired for that exquisite smoky aroma. But beyond this you’ll also find a choice selection of meat and fish dishes that the Guarnaccia brothers are particularly proud of. There’s succulent steak with chips and salad and delicate tender chicken strips in a creamy white wine sauce, not to mention a mouth-watering array of fish dishes. I couldn’t resist Involtini di Prosciutto con Gambretti, the tiger prawns wrapped in parma ham served with Neapolitan sauce. The prawns were presented on a bed of delicious risotto that perfectly complimented the tomato accompaniment. The food looks incredibly professional and yet manages to retain that home-made aroma that makes Avellinos quite so special.

Locally sourced food and a comprehensive wine list, not to mention a homely and yet endlessly stylish interior, make this the perfect place for both special occasions with all your friends and quiet dinners with a loved one. Now serving a lunch-time menu for just £4.95, Avellinos is open to offer their unique blend of Italian cuisine for midday business and pleasure, too. With food this good, you might want to book in advance!

Book Review - The Third Brother by Nick McDonell

Boy-genius fails to live up to hype with second novel

Nick McDonell is only twenty-three. It is perhaps because he is so young that his first novel, 'Twelve', received such acclaim after it was published in 2002, when McDonell was only seventeen. In fact 'Twelve' became something of a cult bestseller, seeming to embody life amongst the over-privileged, drugs-ridden classes: a life we might presume the author to be familiar with, himself coming from an affluent background and studying at Harvard. 'Twelve' was a punchy, disparate novel, split into snappy vignettes that gave it vitality, readability and universal appeal, with a subject matter that encompassed and epitomised the indulgent, well-educated youth culture of a generation.

McDonell may have hoped to capitalise on that early success by reproducing his youthful stylistic snappiness in this, his second novel published in 2005, titled 'The Third Brother'. In it Mike, our white Harvard protagonist, finds himself in Hong Kong working as an intern for a successful magazine belonging to a friend of his father called Analect. He is then sent to Bangkok under the guise of writing a drug-related story about backpacking culture, but with the unwritten mission of finding Christopher Dorr, a man who, alongside Analect and Mike’s own father, formed somewhat of a Harvard triumvirate in his own youth. This trio was blown apart by adultery and lies, from which the friends never recovered, and it is this same conspiratorial tragedy that seems to hang like an indistinct shadow over the prevailing gloom of Mike’s unfolding destiny.

The plot skips like a scratched record between past and present in chapters sometimes no longer than a few paragraphs, giving a fragmented picture of Mike’s development through childhood and his present existence in Bangkok. However, much in the same way that a scratched record fails to impress with formulated, uninterrupted ideas, the detached elements of the book never really seem to pull together to give a clear sense of direction or completion, leaving plot elements hanging, almost unfinished.

This is incredibly frustrating considering that McDonell shows himself to be capable of evocative, if underdeveloped, genius on several occasions in 'The Third Brother', not least in his beautifully filmic description of 9/11 and the unfolding events of that fateful day in New York. This is a strange, self-conscious novel, that fails to convince. But read 'Twelve', and don’t disregard the author on the weaknesses of the eternally difficult second novel - instead look forward to the iconic work that McDonell is undoubtedly yet to produce.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Book Review - High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Laugh-out-loud midlife crisis hilarity for boys and girls alike

First published in 1996, 'High Fidelity' is now a million-copy bestseller, a Hollywood film starring John Cusack, and perhaps lesser known as one of those frank, honest novels that will occupy a place amongst the much-loved-easy-reads of the 90s, perhaps forever. It follows the story of pop-musically obsessed Rob Fleming, the owner of a record store in his thirties, who has just broken up with his long term girlfriend Laura and is in the midst of a sort of mid-life reassessment of his attitude towards women, and his inability to ‘settle-down’.

Unsurprisingly for a man who measures everything in his life by writing ‘top-five lists’, this reassessment takes the form of his ‘Top Five Most Memorable Break-ups’, on which Laura does not appear (a mark, perhaps, of Rob’s inability to come to terms with another failed relationship). By describing these break-ups one by one, Rob tells us of his past misery with women, whilst reminding us of his present struggle through colourful and heart-wrenchingly familiar descriptive renditions of his life at the record store and his interactions with his two desperately sad best friends and employees, Dick and Barry.

In the hands of lesser writers, such a plot could easily have dissolved into unreadable psycho-babbling trash about the condition of the nineties’ ‘new-man’, and yet Hornby has managed to avoid this fate entirely. What emerges from the ashes of Rob Fleming’s past relationships is a witty, insightful comment on a man stuck in a post-adolescent obsession with his favourite records, entirely confused as to the nature of the opposite sex.

Hornby’s ability to create archetypes dominates: you will undoubtedly know someone just like Rob Fleming. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, at other times touching, and always starkly insightful, Hornby’s first novel cannot fail to entertain even the most reluctant of readers.

Book Review - The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

High-quality conceptual thriller to hit the box-office bigtime

I can already see the celluloid blockbuster that will come of this novel reflected on the specs of so many moviegoers, as they sit anesthetised by the dark warm cultural voids of their local commercial cinema. Hall has woven a plot so bogged down by his precious concepts that it begs the sticky-sweet simplification of a Hollywood director with a garish fake tan and a silver-grey beard: just the kind of pop-culturally tuned-in kind-of-guy, in fact, who would jump at the chance to change the protagonist from Eric to ‘Erica’ and cast Nicole Kidman with all her middle-aged pouting appeal in the main role. And this is no whimsical metaphor, in fact, the actress herself is rumoured to have personally contacted Hall to suggest such a move upon finishing reading his book. While Hall purports to be ‘firefighting my own excitement’ in the growing furore surrounding his debut release, literature lovers might find 'The Raw Shark Texts' a little too written-for-screen, as though the author saw his novel as just another rung on the pop culture ladder to a moneymaking nirvana where film is king.

Despite this, 'The Raw Shark Texts' is a remarkable achievement. It manages to be at once wide-eyed Alice-in-wonderland simple and sci-fi Matrix complicated, intertwining layers of inventive storytelling with poignant realism that make it both incredibly marketable (as Hall’s publishing house are doubtless aware) and also an excellent read. The story centres around Eric Sanderson, who finds himself gasping for air on the floor of his bedroom one morning, with no recollection of who he is. He finds a note from ‘The First Eric Sanderson’ instructing him to contact his psychotherapist, Dr Randle, from whom he learns that he is suffering from recurrent amnesia known as ‘dissociative fugue’ after the trauma of losing his girlfriend, Clio, in a tragic scuba diving accident in Greece. However Eric is soon confronted with another reason for his memory loss as a incessant series of letters from the First Eric Sanderson persuades him that he is, in fact, the victim of a conceptual shark called the ‘Ludovician’, which feeds off memory. The Ludovician has detected Eric’s scent through his communication flow and will follow him, consuming his entire identity, if Eric is not prepared to fight it.

And so we are plunged into the depths of a watery conceptual world where Eric and his sickeningly kookily-named cat, Ian, will join the beautiful Scout on the run from the shark, as they attempt its destruction by pitting it against a multiplying communication machine by the name of Mycroft Ward (Microsoft Word, perhaps?). Hall pushes his conceptual world to the absolute limit, using startlingly original hieroglyphical devices and an imagination surprisingly childlike in its readiness to succumb to Walt Disney magic to fill out a story that, in its essence, is about the horrors of losing the person you love most. 'The Raw Shark Texts' is, like the central character, sometimes inches from losing the plot. But the clattering thud with which the novel returns to reality at the end makes this arrogant surrealism forgivable in a way that will bring tears to your eyes. If you love big, confident books, this is a must-read. Or if, like the author, you are plagued with cinematic preoccupations, you could always choose to wait for the inevitable film.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Book Review - The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Friendly philosophy fall-out from Eastern European revolution

Not so much a novel as the Kundera’s seamlessly spliced together philosophical musings, The Unbearable Lightness of Being makes affected people gush that this book can change your life. It can’t. But it will make you think, and think hard. If you liked last month’s Alain de Botton then read this next: Kundera is one of de Botton’s forebears in style and substance, a man influenced by the likes of Rousseau and Nietzsche, and imbued with the electric realities of the revolutionary times in which he wrote. The Unbearable Lightness is both passionate and reserved, alive and yet removed. Published in 1984 in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia where Kundera was born (though the book is more French than Czech in style), it is a diametric work that contrasts bright and dark, lightness and heaviness, the head and the heart. It will leave you floating somewhere between these poles, all the richer for having read it.

The plot is functional for this philosophical purpose and Kundera’s characters never fully develop enough psychological depth to give them personal warmth, but despite this one of the most common responses to The Unbearable Lightness is that readers identify with the four main protagonists. Tomas is perhaps the most outstanding of the quartet. A successful Czech surgeon and rampant womaniser, Tomas falls foul of the communist regime through his misunderstood political articles, and is reduced to washing windows. He boasts hundreds of mistresses, but clinically separates these sexual misadventures from his honest love of his wife, the downtrodden Tereza. Tereza only fully comprehends the extent of Tomas’s adultery when she identifies the strange odour emanating from his hair as the smell of other women’s genitalia. The plot attaches itself to one mistress, Sabina, and follows her to Paris, and through her relationship with another married man, Franz. These, then, are the most substantial storylines of Kundera’s work.

But the characters are merely marionettes to play out sequences that Kundera can apply his ideas to, each carefully prepared with philosophical paintwork that is more significant than the puppet itself. The significance of this modern classic, then, rests on Kundera’s understanding of the human condition as fragile and ephemeral; a lightness of being that weighs each of us down with the passing profanity of our existence. If this seems a little convoluted, don’t worry. Kundera’s brilliance is in his ability to make the most intricate of philosophies not only relevant, but also manageable. Read this book. You might not understand it all, but you’ll certainly be better off for having tried.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Album Review - Editors

British rock quartet emerge from the shadows with second album An End Has A Start

Editors return to the musical limelight this June with the release of their second album, An End Has A Start. This much anticipated follow-up to The Back Room sees the band emerging from the shade of understated post punk promise to capture their encompassing live sound on tape for the first time. Whilst in An End Has A Start overproduction sometimes impinges on the distended interwoven sounds that gave the first album such appeal, Editors’ still retain enough of that musical cacophony and lyrical melodrama to keep fans of the first album engaged, although maybe only just.

An End Has A Start is typically a lot darker than its predecessor, showing obvious preoccupations with death and the power of redemption alongside a newer commercial confidence derived from the hectic touring of the last two years. First single and album opener ‘Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors’ allows Smith’s almost operatic vocals to surface above cleanly produced instrumentation, giving the lyrics a melodious intensity more distinguished than previously in 'The Back Room'. Raucous, pounding romantic punk interjections keep the musical appeal of the first album alive, but are somewhat diminished with power piano chords and the addition of a choir at the end of the track, giving the finished sound elements of overwrought punk-pop reminiscent of lesser bands and their stadium filling anthems.

Generic pop sensibilities are in evidence throughout the album, especially in the romping piano of ‘The Racing Rats’. Whilst there is still something of the new romanticism of Joy Division evident in the visceral appeal of ‘Push Your Head Towards the Air’ and ‘The Weight of the World’, there is also the sense that Editors have been unable to recapture the suffocating rawness that made The Back Room so exhaustingly satisfying. Garett ‘Jacknife’ Lee has accomplished quite a feat in wrapping the enormous live Editors’ sound up quite so succinctly in this album, but the fused layers of sound previously so characteristic of the band are pulled apart to achieve this, and the result is something a little more clinical and commercial that may leave you disappointed.

Where once Editors pushed their post-punk with a bit of a shadow in ‘Munich’, ‘All Sparks’ and ‘Bullets’ making way for deserved comparisons with New York’s Interpol, much of their new album sees the band bypassing the shade, proceeding directly to ringing guitars and the incessant downbeat crash-cymbal-bashing of every band trying to sound ‘big’. This is undoubtedly a ‘big’ sound for Editors, but you might miss those shadowy subtleties that made that first album quite so exciting.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Book Review - A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

Global controversy over critically acclaimed, drug fuelled memoirs

A veritable fracas of controversy surrounds these remarkable ‘memoirs’. In them, James Frey recounts his time at a drug treatment centre at the tender age of twenty three, fighting a decade of alcoholism and three years as a crack addict. There is a love interest forbidden within the confines of the centre in the pale skinny Lilly, a fellow crack addict and prostitute since childhood. There are father figures reminiscent of gangster movies in the organised crime leader, Leonard, and equally in the black alcoholic judge, Miles, who are both patients themselves. James’ parents are affluent, loving, well to do. His counsellors are wry, sympathetic and intelligent. In short, A Million Little Pieces is packed with stereotypes and extremes.

This is part of the reason that it became such an instant success upon publication in 2003. Oprah Winfrey selected it for her monthly bookclub: surely the benchmark for an American bestseller. chose it as their favourite book of 2003. It appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for 44 weeks. And then, in 2006, the enormity of Frey’s success turned on him when the investigative website, Smoking Gun, revealed that large parts of these ‘memoirs’ were in fact fabricated. Frey refuted the claims, conned his publishers, and perhaps worst of all for the adoring American public, fooled Oprah live on television. From all-American hero, Frey became the repudiated criminal that he rather ironically professes to be in his book.

This was apparently a Very Big Deal for a lot of fans and a lot of Americans. Personally, I absolutely couldn’t care less. A Million Little Pieces is audacious, glitzy, offensive and addictive. Frey is inventive in style and substance, doing away with speech marks, reflecting compulsion in his mastery of the stream of consciousness technique and erratic train of thought that drip, unedited and unpunctuated, from every page. Through this unique ability to manipulate language Frey manages to convey with uncommon perfection the torments of addiction and the consuming obsessions of a ravaged mind. This is Hunter S. Thompson’s drugs-fuelled arrogance reborn for the eighties, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, whether Oprah likes it or not.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Small Steps in the Right Direction

Ever looked at the state of the world and felt powerless to make a difference? Here's how...

It was one of those typically overcast April days outside Café Limon on Bridge Street, and I was warding off the cold with coffee and a book in quiet company and even quieter thought. Being predisposed to a Saturday watching the world go by in my hometown, I’ve come to observe that Bridge Street is one of the most entertaining and fascinating places to witness life in our city in all its many forms. This particular weekend happened to play host to the continental market, filling the town centre with spices and flowers and children with sweeties and general genial hubbub.

Peterborough was alive with everything that makes it so unique. Here we are, a microcosm of British life: we are multi-faith, multi-racial; we come from all over the world and from just down the road, we grew up here, went to school here, we live here because it is our home. We are cautious about the way our city is changing, yet ready to be enlightened. We are on the sidelines of Europe and we peer into its colourful depths every now and again, when the pricey travelling circus of the continental market comes to town screaming: ‘Peterborough, look! This is Europe, and for one week only you are part of it!’

That weekend and every other time I really open my eyes and look about me I am struck by the muddled, miraculous diversity of this place where we live. Peterborough is essentially, and still feels like, a small city, and yet we rank amongst some of the biggest cities in the country when it comes to the diverse nationalities that live here and the huge range of cultures and religions that bring such vibrancy to our hometown.

So much negativity has come to be associated with that overused word: diversity. We’re all different, especially here in Peterborough, and for some innate human reason differences seem to become barriers, and barriers become hostilities, and hostilities become conflicts. It happens in our city every day. It happens on our televisions more than that. And we switch the box off and ignore the latest about the crises in the Middle-East and we turn away from kid who gets picked on at school for the colour of his skin because it seems easier than doing something. And anyway, what can we do?

There was someone else sitting outside Café Limon that day who’d been thinking about that question for a lot longer than I had. We met by chance: he sat to my left absorbed in foreign scribblings that appeared to me like some sort of code. I tried to suppress my intrusive and sadly instinctive curiosity; I failed. I asked him about his ‘code’. It wasn’t a code: it was Hebrew. I reddened, professed ignorance and apologised for my questions, but my embarrassment barely had time to surface before it was brushed aside with the man’s open smile and outstretched hand. Dan Bevan, 25, born and raised here in Peterborough.

Our following conversation and later meetings and musings revealed that Dan and his partner Jodie Turner are unafraid of that ominous question, ‘what can we do?’ Together, through much hard work and self-driven determination, they have founded a non-violent, non-religious, not-for-profit organisation called ‘Small Steps’. This summer, Jodie and Dan and their like-minded friends at Small Steps embark on a rather remarkable overland journey through Europe to the Middle East, where they will live for two months in Israel.

Their journey is not about crashing about in strange places to gawp at foreignness before disappearing home to show their friends how well travelled they are with the aid of a tan and a digital camera. It is about questions, questions like ‘what can we do?’ But mostly it is about the very thing that the name of the project suggests: taking small steps towards a better world.

Dan is no stranger to the Middle East: he spent a year and a half living in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem learning first hand about the Israeli conflict. For most of us the Middle Eastern crisis barely registers anymore, being inundated as we are with 24-hour news coverage that somehow detracts from the overall horror of the situation there. We see individual events, terrorist bombings, bloodshed on the streets, fear ingrained into strange faces, but we have lost the ability to look at this conflict for what it is: ordinary people living in terror their whole lives for reasons that seemed important fifty years ago. The reasons get lost in history and the terror becomes inherent in communities: the conflict continues.

Dan and Jodie and their friends understand the enormity of the problems there and recognise that they alone cannot bring peace to Israel and Palestine. However they also understand that we, as human beings and as part of the global community that bears witness to these atrocities every day, cannot continue to sit back and do nothing. We must hold ourselves accountable.

Dan speaks for me and, I’m sure, many of you when he says, "I don’t like the fact that the world’s a mess. And I don’t know what I can do about it, I really don’t. But I know I want to do something, I know I don’t want to go through life being satisfied with having a house, lots of money, a good job… I want to make a difference." I’d normally cringe at the clichéd gap-year jargon implicit in ‘making a difference’, but Dan was earnest and humble, and for once the phrase seemed appropriate as he went on, "I want to make a difference, but not for some sort of legacy, so I can say, ‘well, I’ve done that’, just because what else is there to do?"

With this in mind, Small Steps is based around a set of unique and flexible goals. It is about learning on a personal level and on a global level: about helping each individual to place himself within the world and to gain an understanding of peace that they can hopefully share with those they meet. Non-violence is central to this and Dan is optimistic about the possibilities for social change through non-violent means: "One of the biggest problems in the Middle East is that people tend to polarise themselves as either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. We’re going to go there and try and understand both sides, and not make any decisions, because it’s not our place to do so. We want to understand people living in the conflict, and then to take that and look at ourselves and ask ‘what can I do?' And I expect what people will probably find is that they can be kind to their neighbour, walk down the street in Peterborough and smile at someone, be friendly towards random people in coffee shops. We can do all of these small things, and eventually they all count towards having a more peaceful world."

The decision to go to Israel despite the dangers associated with the area was an obvious one for Dan and Jodie. They explain, "Nowhere else is it so clear how far from our paths we have strayed. Israel is a land where people have forgotten to listen to others. The conflicts and the struggles of the people and the land are the same conflicts that lie within each of us, and we hope that by making changes to our own lives we can begin to create social change."

Practically, this translates as working with peace-keeping organizations, visiting Kibbutzim (socialist agricultural communities), spending time with the Bedouin and supporting their plight with the help of organization such as Bustan, and learning about numerous different faiths through contact with ordinary people. Israel is the birthplace of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but it also the homeland of Druze, Black Hebrews, Sufis, Kabbalists and many other smaller denominations. Dan and Jodie hope that spending time with these communities will provide spiritual enrichment and understanding for all of those involved, which in turn will contribute to the overarching goal of non-violent means of creating social change.

Although spending time in Israel is clearly the most important part of the project, the journey there is also in the process of careful planning. The group plans to travel cheaply overland, often hitchhiking. The ability to trust the benevolence of strangers is a central part of the ideologies behind Small Steps and hitchhiking seems a good place to start. It will take around six weeks to get there, departing on 1st August, and will include visits to the Sangatte, to learn about the condition of immigrants waiting to enter the UK; Berlin, to explore divisions that are still evident from the Second World War; and Auschwitz, to remember the horrors of the Holocaust.

Dan also stresses that Small Steps welcomes everyone – from families to the elderly – with likeminded ideals. So far word of mouth and website publicity have generated a huge amount of interest, with people from all over the world expressing enthusiasm and support for the project. Some of those interested will begin the journey with Dan and Jodie on the 1st August, whilst some plan to fly out to meet their friends from Small Steps in Israel, or en route. In every instance, it becomes clear that Small Steps is as much about the individual as it is the global community or even the organization itself: anyone who feels that they want to take part is welcome, no matter how much or how little time they are able to commit to the project.

Dan told me that Peterborough has a lot in common with the Middle East. It seems far-fetched at first, but it doesn’t take long to understand where he’s coming from. Both are fraught with cultural divisions, both have problems relating to the sheer number of multi-racial communities and religions living in one place. Whilst the Middle East may be an extreme example of the problems resulting from diverse peoples in small spaces, these same conflicts and struggles are evident on our streets and even in our homes. And these conflicts and struggles must be addressed in the same way: through listening with compassion, through a willingness to understand. These are small steps that all of us can take.

If you would like to help, log on to to contact Dan or Jodie and find out more.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Book Review - Fresh by Mark McNay

Clean cut tragedy fresh from the streets of Glasgow

A native Scot, Mark McNay graduated from a creative writing course with distinction in 2003, after a failed electrical engineering course and fifteen years of doing odd jobs. Last month his debut novel, Fresh, won the Arts Foundation New Fiction Award 2007, and he has since won another Arts Foundation award to buy him time to work on his next novel.

Fresh follows a day in the life of Sean O’Grady, a diligent family man, as he attempts to find a grand of money entrusted to him by his violent elder brother Archie, on the day of Archie’s release from prison. McNay’s simple prose slides effortlessly between the unfolding events of Sean’s working day in a chicken factory, and flashbacks to the O’Gradys in childhood, nurturing a growing notion of the relationship between the brothers and a sense of the rising panic experienced by Sean as he struggles to reassemble the money he owes. The very classical contrast between Sean as the innately ‘good’ brother, and Archie, who is described as harbouring horrific and sometimes very graphic malice, is complicated by Sean’s distorted sense of morality, which contributes to the likeable realism of this character and the overall effectiveness of the plot.

McNay brings together unpretentious language, short sentences and an uncomplicated plot to very effectively convey Sean’s gentle humanity, his honest love for his family, and his somewhat inexorable downfall at the hands of his brother. The sometimes painfully beautiful simplicity of the narrative lends itself to both heart-warming humour and understated, gut-wrenching horror, whilst still retaining an attention for detail that renders Sean’s environment acutely imaginable.

It is perhaps this same uncluttered style that makes Fresh a rather put-downable novel. Not overtly comic at any point, it lacks a certain wit that results in quite a dark rendition of life on the poverty line in wintry Scotland. The precision of rolling a cigarette is described countless times: a repeated device used to express the mundanity of life without money or aspiration, an idea that is also expressed through Sean’s frequent retreat into his daydreams. Better described as ‘gritty’ than ‘fresh’, McNay’s first novel is a Shakespearean tragedy that seeps from the labouring pores of one of Glasgow’s most oppressed districts.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Book Review - Essays in Love by Alain de Botton

Generic self-help or insightful genius? You decide...

De Botton is one of those annoyingly clever people whose propensity for accurate, insightful thought will make your teeth ache. He is multi-lingual (of Swiss origin), he is remarkably intelligent (having received a double starred first from Cambridge in 1991) and he is ridiculously successful (with five books to his name by the time he turned thirty). But, please, don’t let this put you off. He is also one of the few writers of our time interested in blowing the dust from the stuffy philosophical literature that most of us will never touch, and transforming philosophy into something relevant, helpful, and (dare I say it) fashionable.

'Essays in Love', published in 1993, is de Botton’s first novel. It attracted relatively little recognition in its early days, becoming popular only after the release of the internationally acclaimed 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' (1997). Despite this, it is a good read and an excellent place to start with de Botton and his popular philosophy. It follows the course of a relationship from meeting to heartbreak, with all the niceties and tribulations of love in between. Chapters are short and divided further into concise numbered paragraphs that each relate to one of de Botton’s profundities. And there are plenty of them. Though at times the subject matter is in danger of seeming trite, de Botton writes with an eloquent simplicity and clear sense of direction, making his story consistently engaging. He is insightful and he does at times display an astonishing ability to express the intricacies of romance that leave most of us lost for words, and this saves the story from becoming romantically mundane or intellectually unmanageable, although it will undoubtedly leave those with a better-than-average philosophical intelligence tearing at their hair.

The blurb on the back says that 'Essays in Love', 'will appeal to anyone who has ever been in love’. It all sounds a bit generic, and sometimes it is. But there is something to be said for a man who successfully pulverises centuries of philosophical thought into a snappy modern love story and then sells millions and millions of copies of it in twenty different languages. I’m not quite sure what that something is, but it’s definitely worth a look.