Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson (and other stuff)

I read it in a day.

Ok, it’s not the heaviest tome, and maybe it doesn’t have the smallest font.

But still.

Read it in a day. It is a lovely book.

Somebody on Twitter suggested recently that a book review should never be about the reviewer. It would somehow became less worthy and lacking in literary qualities. I get that, but I like writing my blog in such a way that it feels like I’m creating a memoir. Each tale of running adventure offering a peek through the curtains into moments of my life, I simply enjoy writing like this. When it comes to the books we read, they often hold a mirror up to our own stories. And a memoir like Anderson’s also points me back to a certain time in my life. So please forgive me the indulgence!

Besides, as author Zadie Smith puts it (in Intimations), writing is basically talking to yourself but then allowing yourself to be overheard.

Listen in if you fancy.

The founder and singer of the band Suede, Brett Anderson has always had a mysterious, almost aloof persona, especially if the music press are to be believed. Coal Black Mornings actually charts Anderson’s early life (taking us from childhood to the time when said music press started to really notice them), through adolescence as it drifted towards adulthood. I guess in today’s vernacular, Anderson and his fellow creatives and dreamers would be accused of being from the ‘metropolitan elite’. The truth is a tale of somewhat less privilege than we’d been led to believe.

I was in Bedford in those heady days of British music back in the early 90s and had the pleasure of writing for a naively ambitious music magazine, Splinter. I brought my rocking roots to the publication as others introduced me to more obscure underground music and we all had a love of finding original live acts who we could champion.

Obviously Suede were on our radar as we clung to the coat tales of the NME and Melody Maker, trying to promote the cause of bands from Bedfordshire and Northants who we reckoned could compete with this wave of guitar fuelled indie music filling the jukeboxes.

I hold my hand up to having made my impressions of Brett Anderson based around the press I consumed. But also, of course, through the extraordinary music they made. That first album still gets a regular airing in the van as I drive around South Devon doing my ‘day job’. I guess I always imagined his androgynous stage presence (a bit like how I consumed Jarvis Cocker from Pulp) to be derived from a spoiled home counties up bringing, the swagger having an arrogance to it.

In fact, Anderson’s upbringing was more like mine; straightforward with very defined household roles. This ordinariness combined with the bespoke quirks I’ve know doubt every family can boast, I recognise this only too well. The seemingly effortless poetic use of language in Coal Black Mornings paints this domestic scene so vividly and in such colour, it had me at the dinner table with the Andersons.

.. a sense that his mood could suddenly, capriciously sour and the house would be plunged into a strange, dark theatre of Pinteresque tension.

Anderson describing his father’s sometimes ominous presence.

It is hardly surprising that this book seems to only feature beautiful phrases. It is a feast of subtle yet somehow expansive descriptions of everything from clothes and their place in the author’s early life to the debris and the bric-a-brac the adventurous youth found on abandoned waste dumps.

The writing is mature and classy but certainly not daunting. There is humility and some darkly self depreciating passages. Despite this, Anderson accepts that some of lyrical creations were (and are) quite beyond anything his peers were achieving at the time. He presented us, then through his lyrics, and now in this book, with snippets of his world through his far from predictable word play. The book joins all of those dots, puts reason to the rhyme.

Claiming to be happy to avoid the “primary colours of party politics”, Anderson still manages to be wonderfully acerbic when the mood takes.

..John Major’s irrelevant, dreary, Tory world of unemployment and cut-price lager and crap boy bands.

For those of us who gave our own peers knowing looks when we first heard those extraordinary riffs on Suede’s eponymous debut, it is great to read that Anderson himself was initially in awe of Bernard Butler (Suede’s original lead guitarist). It must have been breath-taking to be in the room when songs like Animal Nitrate first riffed and rolled into existence.

The music was over-simplistic until Bernard wrote a breath-taking guitar – gnarled, twisted, winding and almost Eastern in flavour, it utterly transformed the song and turned it into a slinky, prowling beast that melted into a terrifying maelstrom of raging noise.

Anderson’s humble nod to Butler’s guitar on ‘He’s Dead’

Is the book for those who have no feeling for, or recollection of Suede? Is it for those who were either not yet born, or already middle aged in the early 90’s? Is this poignant memoir for those who are indifferent to music at all? The answer to all of these is yes, of course. At it’s simplest, Coal Black Mornings is a story, from birth to finding his calling, of an extraordinary yet believable young man.

Anderson doesn’t delve too much into the years that follow Suede’s initial impact, or the huge successes, the world tours, gold discs and high profile disintegration of relationships and departures. This keeps the story at ground level. The fears, the mistakes, the fumbling through adolescence and the atmosphere of childhood are all relatable. Except of course, unsaid but constantly present, is the knowledge that here was somebody who could achieve so much with his art.

I’ve read too many memoirs of the rich and famous where I find myself flicking pages as some overly self-important sports star or musician tells me how great and successful they are. Coal Black Mornings could not be further from those ghost written hardbacks which appear in WH Smiths in October ready for us to wrap up for our parents’ Christmas present.

It is a pocket rocket of a book. A rat-a-tat rhythm to the prose keeps the pages turning but not without savouring every word. Anderson is an artisan with words. He moulds and crafts. Sometimes phrases are so simply beautiful yet I know, as a wanna-be scribbler I’d be chuffed to create prose a tenth as good.

When I was playing a very average guitar, in Totnes band New Shapes, clinging on to the pace of songs I’d helped write, my fellow musicians delivering effortlessly perfect timing as I chased the chords around the fretboard, it was enough to see one punter tap their foot as they supped their beer and regarded us as the curiosities we probably were.

Similarly, as I talk out loud, I’m humbled if any of you are still listening.

Onwards.

Book Review – The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

Myer’s award winning work of historical fiction (collecting both The Walter Scott Prize and The Roger Deakin Award) has been on the radar for a while. Despite this, we just haven’t got around to buying it.

We do buy plenty books. Lots of books. Piles of books. We always read these books of course. But there’s no denying, we do buy a lot of books.

‘We’ being my wonderful lady wife of course. My partner in life, my soul mate, my (literal) running buddy and, naturally, the other member of our two person book club.

So why hasn’t Benjamin Myers featured before now?

Well, it has come to my attention that there are some very organised book lovers who keep meticulous lists of books they intend to read. We’re not like that. We often start these lists but then forget where. Then we start the lists again but forget what was on the first list. Better still, the one place we definitely don’t take the lists is to the book shop when we have a buying spree.

Despite The Gallows Pole regularly appearing on my list, it had never quite made it into the basket. We do get distracted when we’re buying books.

This spring we saw the error of our ways and The Gallows Pole duly arrived in a lockdown book bundle. We both devoured it in rapid succession.

And here’s why.

It is a brutal, forceful telling of the story of the Crag Valley Coiners. On the Yorkshire moors, this 18th century gang were involved in the escalation of ‘coining’. Coins of the realm were clipped and these clippings melted down before being formed into new coins.

The gang were led by their self acclaimed king, David Hartley, and his family. They oversaw the ‘coining’ operation and had a ring of protection which demanded respect from the men who followed him and were happy to use whatever means necessary to keep their highly illegal and secretive work secure.

Settle your nerves before tucking into this. I found myself wincing and occasionally having to look away from the page as Hartley and his henchmen meter out punishment for disloyalty and violence towards any outsiders who might try to puncture the inner circle. Or on one occasion, an innocent bodger who stumbled into their territory and had too much to say whilst enjoying the wares of the ale house.

The bodger fell as the fists and clogs came. A hail of them. He was stamped and kicked down into the trees. Down and out of sight into the crisp dead leaves. Absolum Butts and Brian Dempsey and Paul Taylor said nothing as they thumped and pounded and worked and grunted and clumped and punched and slugged and sweated

(a ‘bodger’ was not an unskilled tradesmen, more someone who could turn and create with wood)

The industrial revolution was coming and the families found their moorland way of life threatened by the automation of their skills, particularly weaving. These truths, alongside the constant threat of the gallows if a coiner they to be caught, drive the pace of this bitter and desperate tale.

I found I tuned in quickly to the clipped and percussive pace of the dialogue. Myers creates a mercenary streak in the coiners but the violence he portrays, the dominant force with which the Hartleys keep their gang in line, appear to be justified by the carnage which is coming the way of the moors. The exciseman, Deighton, is the government’s envoy, tasked with hunting down, and catching in the act, the coiners. The book delves into the psyche of both Deighton and Hartley as they seem as hell bent on destroying each other as they do achieving whatever their version of ‘right’ is.

The book is absolutely a page turner. Sometimes the narrative bullies you from page to page. I found, even when dosing off reading, I would rush to splash water on my face in order to come back and have just one more page.

The research appears to have been extensive, the life that the lower classes in rural England lived was hard. So why wouldn’t they have pursued their illicit skills in an attempt to protect their families’ futures from the onrushing changes of the 18th century?

By creating (David) Hartley’s fictional prison memoirs, produced sporadically throughout the story, Myer’s has produced something which resonates on a deeply personal level. These memoirs are written as they might have been spoken, full of inconsistencies and Yorkshire slang. They add welcome pauses to the frenetic pace of the novel. There are subtle moments of dark humour, such as David reflecting on how he winds up his fellow prisoners with his singing and shouting.

An so I showts out I shout Get a wash yer blacc Lancastreen bustuds becors even tho the most of them is Jórvíkshire men lyke myself its bestst way to get theyr blud and piss boilin

Like much of my reading in these strange times, the bitter divisions, societal changes and personal tragedies resonate with all that is ill in the world today. Changes come and those that resist might have their moment of standing strong or delaying the inevitable, but at the coiners’ level, society was fragile and constantly in danger breaking.

I’d normally baulk at historical fiction but was enthralled, obsessed and appalled by this and regularly found myself reading it while cooking, on the ‘phone, walking to the compost bin…….

I’d heartily recommend you let this book muscle its way into your psyche and challenge you. And I’d be interested to know if you too found the words giving you shivers worthy of the cold damp Yorkshire moors and the dark secrets they harbour.

To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair

book review

to obama: with love, joy, hate and despair

by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Remember when politics was motivated by hope and empathy? I challenge anyone, even the most hardened Republicans, to not feel a pang of loss when reading this fabulous book.

Obama received 10,000 letters a day. Having earned the reputation for corresponding personally wherever possible whilst on the campaign trail, Americans wanted to write to Barack Obama. They wanted him to know their story. They felt he would want to know. They were right.

Obama assembled a dedicated and committed team to sift this volume down to the 10 he would take home to read every single day. This team of staff and interns would settle on the 10 as the letters were categorised and sampled through the hierarchy of the mail office.

Laskas’ book contains many, many of these letters, reproduced in the form in which they arrived, and also the replies they received from Obama himself. My tired eyes took a while on some of the smaller print but it is well worth the effort.

The 10lads (letters of the day), as they became known were intended to give a flavour, a refelection of the mood of America. Ranging from simple thank you notes to heart rending pleas from desperate veterans, victims of the economic crisis that marked the early Obama years, migrants and so minorities.

I finished this book as the current incumbent is shouting at anyone daring to question his increasingly worrying moves to bypass democracy. On folding the beautiful, simple, hardback cover closed, I was too emotional to speak. The passage describing the mood in the mail room team (“team little people” as they referred to themselves) after election night 2016 is numbing and humbling.

To Obama isn’t just about the letters though. There are chapters devoted to a selection of those who received replies. A window into America through the eyes and words of the people that live there.

And then there’s the staff, the interns, people that grew up with the Obama years. The tales of having to walk away from letters, letters pinned to walls (including the President’s), letters being walked around and around the building.

An operation which deals with pushing 4 million pieces of correspondence a year is delicately crafted into a tale of people through the guile and sensitivity of Laskas.

Wonderful

As Barack Obama put it himself:

“It was a way for me to, every day, remember that what I was doing was not about me, it wasn’t about the Washington calculus … It was about the people who were out there living their lives, who were either looking for some help or angry about how I was screwing something up.”

I received this book as a gift from my wonderful wife – go and buy it for someone you love too x

No body told me it would be like this

A BOOK REVIEW – DIARY OF A BODY by DANIEL PENNAC

I’ve read a couple of translated books recently. Having elected to only review books that have given me pleasure, I’m only mentioning one of them here. Quite possibly my problem with the other one is actually, well, MY problem, and not the book’s.

So that leaves us with this, Diary Of A Body. Written as a diary over the life span of French author, Daniel Pennac, and translated into an adorable, quirky, compelling English language read by Alyson Waters.

The unusual cover, the teasing title, the little English Pen Award sticker, they all contributed to me thinking “mmmm?” as my hand tentatively slid the lightweight paperback from the shelf. (We took several books on holiday, between my wonderful wife and I, only one of us took a hearty hard back……that suitcase was slightly overweight.)

I was right to take a chance. Pennac was a French author who kept an occasional, rather quirky diary. Having been humiliated, by his own mother, in front of a mirror as a child, he set about charting his body’s sensations. Tearing a muscular – skeletal diagram from an encyclopaedia,  he pinned this ‘perfect’ physique next to the offending mirror. A quest to attain similar had begun.

Told with a light touch, but exhibiting cringe worthy honesty, the book delivers a friend. Through adolescence, all those moments we never discuss, are, erm, DISCUSSED – yes there’s not a lot left to the imagination as Pennac narrates his body being dumped into adulthood.

Pennac left instructions for his daughter, who only became aware of the diary’s existence upon the death of her father, to do with the documents as she saw fit.

That these posthumous communications are included here only adds to the homely feel of the overall prose. There are gaps (mostly due to active resistance servitude) but somehow, they feel to be correctly placed.

Into retirement, and beyond to old age, frailty and terminal illness, there can only ever be one outcome. Taken right up to his dying days, it would be a truly cold heart that didn’t openly weep (both with sadness and joy) as the last few, bleary eyed pages are softly consumed.

So, if you’re looking for a not-too-hefty, genre defying, heartfelt, cosy read and want to, like  Idid, delve a little deeper into the literary world, this could well be for you.

 

Anyway.

 

Don’t forget, I’ve got other writings over at the OTHER BLOG (when time has permitted). If anybody would like to keep in more regular touch, they can in the comments box here, via kbonfield@live.com, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and by waving to me enthusiastically in the street.

I’m always looking for opportunities to write, and have a regular column in the lovely online running magazine RUN DEEP.

Right, I’m publishing this at 7.15pm on Christmas Eve…… I’m not expecting a massive readership but to those who are reading it ‘live’…. MERRY CHRISTMAS

 

Perfume River

Autumn is about 3/4 of the way through the year. Whilst the brightest and longest days of the year may be behind us, we’re right in the middle of the BEST days.

 

2017-09-28 08.50.18
Autumn – good, init?

The best colours, the best shadows, sunrises, sunsets. Fast changing weather and the challenges of wintry conditions start showing their faces.

 

(Appallingly cliched analagy alert) A bit like my life. Whilst being young was great, the first couple of decades of adulthood were full of, you know, STUFF. So, my bright, silky skinned, jet black barnet days are long behind me.

Phew!

Because THIS, this is the life I’ve been waiting for……

Utopia. Pure and simple.

I guess one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.

Clean. Healthy. Loving. Truthful.

What on earth has this all got to do with a book review?

 

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Busy here on the injury bench, although, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with Charlie!

Well, here I am on the injury bench, Charlie for company, feeling all, er, all wordy……

 

THE LAST DOG ON EARTH by Adrian J Walker.

Yet another holiday read. The main protagonist, Reg (and his dog Linekar) have ended up living in a post-apocolyptic dystopia. Only that’s not how it feels to them.

One man’s…… oh I’ve said that.

I see, going off subject a bit here, that White Star’s Andy Palmer wrote another piece for The Guardian. Nice. Run Deep Magazine got a plug too. I’ve got a column in Run Deep. Tenuous link to fame there…..

Interesting that people I follow in the media and sporting world tend NOT to be columnists for The Daily Mail (no link inserted there, naturally).

By way of example, Kate Carter, Adharanand Finnish, Rob Deering…… and, er, Andy Palmer!

Anyway, one man’s dystopia…..

the last dog on earthSo, THE LAST DOG ON EARTH

On a the face of it, a quirky, light hearted romp, told through the voice of a foul-mouthed mutt, around a make believe world where barely anyone has survived a civil war led apocalypse.

Linekar (the dog) and Reg (his owner) have remained in London, creating their own power and scavenging for food. Living a simple, simple existence in isolation. Dependent on each other for company and the routine they both enjoy.

The sparse pattern of lights that remain on view are the only suggestion that a hint of life in the city goes on. There are barely enough (of these lights) for a football team (which is sort of the point), and we learn that gruesome deaths and a hurried exodus has accounted for nearly all of the city’s population.

Gradually, we encounter those that rule the deserted streets and others who have remained. Belief doesn’t have to be suspended too much.

The rhetoric and undercurrent of hatred which we seem to have cultivated in Britain is enough for me to join the dots from today’s realities to Walker’s imagined future. Scary.

It’s a fabulous, moody yet pacey, look at relationships, at how we interact and, yes, how our dogs become part of our personality (as well as suggesting what THEY might be thinking).

Reg and Linekar have their crude but effective existence blown apart after a mission to find fuel for their generator.

Inadvertently, and unwillingly, they become guardians to a lost child.

Their journey, their bonds, their fights and fears as they venture further out into the world now run by extremists, are all grippingly delivered.

With echoes of one of my favourite ever books, Station 11, this band of misfits grows, makes allies, encounters relics from the past (everyday life items which we don’t even notice).

The battle to avoid the ultimate test to determine whether they still have a use in the world (I’m avoiding too many spoilers) is terrifying, absorbing and quite humbling.

 

charlie angry
Charlie’s best ‘DID SOMEONE SAY SQUIRRELS!?’ face

A book which tackles extremists controlling the future, mass murder, the destruction of what we call ‘civilization’ and yet can open a chapter with the line “Squirrels are c***s” is a rare trick I reckon.

 

From this book, I look closer at the things that frighten me in the world more and more, perhaps ask myself questions, and definitely look at Charlie and wonder what HE’S thinking!

Keep on keeping people……..

After the Lord Mayor’s Show

To be honest, I’ve used the phrase ‘suspend disbelief’ quite a lot recently, mostly in relation to books.

Anyone who knew me 10 years ago or more would have certainly needed to suspend theirs if they’d been told I was going to run a 50 mile ultra marathon. Myself included!

 

IMG-20171008-WA0026.jpg
Did I mention I’d ran 50 miles?

Well, I only went and did it!

 

Which I might have mentioned…….. HERE

For some reason I’ve been devouring books of late, there’s been some real page turners, some inspirational factual volumes – Dean Karnazes’ The Road To Sparta was a good read (see this BLOG), and so was the incredible Clem Attlee biography by John Bew (again, see this BLOG).

Also whizzed through whilst we were doing SWEET F ALL in Kefalonia the other week, was Slade House by David Mitchell. Now, I’m not normally your fantasy, nor horror, fiction type of guy, but for some reason, this relatively small paperback ended up on the credit card with I dread to think how many other books on our last Waterstones binge.

 

pile of books
A trip to the book shop is like a trip to the gym for us!

I know nothing of Mitchell, nor, indeed the genre, but what a quirky, mind altering, (VERY) darkly humorous tale it is. Elements of more simple ‘scary’ stories from childhood combine with quite disturbing blackness of hidden alleys, gates and stolen souls.

 

There is a pace and cruel wit to the exploration of the characters’ personalities and how the ‘victims’ are chosen.

The villains, if indeed that is what they are, are comedic in their evil ways, and their increasingly desperate methods of enticing are almost Laurel and Hardy, whilst being as sinister as Burke and Hare. Quite a trick.

 

The house, set secretly and classically behind a tiny gate in a dark high walled alley, holds the secrets and the spirits of the past. Its occupants need to feed on the right type of soul to fuel their otherworldly existence, inevitably based around a spooky loft.

It’s full of wonderful clichés countered by twisted contradictions.

The cyclical need for sacrifice culminates with a Halloween party where the guests get more than they bargained for. Well one of them does, for the others…….. (avoiding too much spoiler there)

It might make you think twice about that enticing alley on your next run, but it will definitely up the heart rate and turn the page.

It took me out of my comfort zone, and off the sun lounger, to a bizarre, only slightly unbelievable world. And I fairly rattled through it.

I have many influences in my reading and writing, one of my favourite writers, and motivational characters is AL KENNEDY and, she has, perhaps unwittingly, done as much as anyone to encourage my writing ambitions……..

“Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.”  A.L. KENNEDY

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