Category Archives: Review

Grateful Dead – the illustrated trip (Dorling, £19.99)

This huge book – 480 large format full colour book weighs in at around 3kg and contains everything you need to know about the Grateful Dead (a quite well-known North American popular music combo of the psychedelic era).

When I was very young I wanted to be like the Dead – take lots of drugs, live in a sort of communal family, play in a rock’r'roll band and sleep with many women, all of whom would have long straight hair. Maybe even wear a bandana. Fortunately I grew up, but do still like the music of the Dead and their artwork so found my way to this book “Celebrating 50 Years Dead”.

The book tells you everything you need to know about those fifty years, the comings and goings of members, the spin-off groups and is full of tremendous photographs. But after ten minutes of reading mini-reports of every gig every played and inserts such as “The Band & Co barnstormed across Europe aboard two buses: The Bozo bus and the Bolo bus. As Willy Legate described the vehicles in his liner notes to Europe ’72, ‘The subtle differences in character and import and atmosphere between the two omnibuses was so profoundly hidden and enigmatic that you could never understand it.’ In fact the Bolo/Bozo factionalism was rather pronounced. The Bozo bus was the party wagon, equipped with gag-shop masks and props… The Bolo bus was mostly occupied by the crew and those (like Phil Lesh) who preferred to catch as many Z’s as possible between shows…” it felt like time to catch a few Z’s myself. Besides, tie-died makes anyone look a dick.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Tender Spot: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye (Bloodaxe, £12)

Expanded from her 2008 Selected Poems, this comprehensive volume of Naomi Shihab Nye’s sharply intelligent and clearly expressed poetry includes a wealth of material from her 2011 collection Transfer as well as fifteen new poems.

Nye was born in Missouri but remains deeply connected to Palestine through her father, the journalist Aziz Shihab, to whom the volume is dedicated. His memory, his influence and his humanitarianism provide a constant thread. In the gently ironic ‘My Father and the Fig Tree’, she recalls how “In the evenings he sat by our beds / weaving folktales like vivid little scarves. / They always involved a fig tree” before ruminating on the various homes her father occupied, never quite getting around to planting said tree until  “There, in the middle of Dallas, Texas, / a tree with the largest, fattest, / sweetest figs in the world”.

In ‘Blood’ and ‘Knowing’, a profound sense of Shihab’s moral and cultural identity comes to the fore, while the achingly poignant ‘For Aziz, Who Loved Jerusalem’ weaves history, religion and the specificity of loss into its tightly constructed lines: “Three religions buried inside a city’s walls. / Some kiss the walls. / Some walk beside them, emptied of belief. // My father dies with two languages / tucked inside his head. / Now we will never learn Arabic.”

Through these pieces, Nye demonstrates a remarkable kinship and sympathy for a ravaged land and its much oppressed people. Yet her work never declaims itself from a soap box. Hope, rather than hatred, is the currency of her art; this is most effectively articulated in the prose poem ‘Gate A-4’ in which the melting pot of a departure lounge is the scene for a coming together that transcends skin colour, language or background.

Having said that, Nye’s post-9/11 poetry is defined by, if not a combative stance, then certainly one of challenge against cultural and racial prejudice. In a socio-political, media-defined climate in which Arabs were cast as some kind of all-purpose enemy, Nye’s poetry provided a quiet but emphatic no, an act of resistance in the name of multi-culturalism. The opening lines of ‘Jerusalem’ spell it out clearly: “I am not interested in / who suffered the most. / I am interested in / people getting over it.” Nye re-establishes a truer picture of cultural characteristics in ‘The Sweet Arab, the Generous Arab’, while using satire to challenge American neo-liberal attitudes in ‘He Said EYE-RACK’ and ‘Letters My Prez is Not Sending’.

There is also moral outrage, at the sheer waste of children’s lives, in ‘For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15’, in which she rounds on the mealy-mouthed terminology of news reports (“There is no stray bullet, sirs. / No bullet like a worried cat / crouching under a bush, / no half-hairless puppy bullet / dodging midnight streets … // So don’t gentle it, please”), and ‘Landmine Kills 10 Girls Collecting Firewood’ (“They hadn’t lived long enough / to figure out what was going on”), Nye eulogises the victim, mourns the loss and tries, in the face of the most awful tragedy, to focus on the good. This is what makes her work so immediate, affecting and important.

Neil Fulwood

Talking to the Dead by Gordon Hodgeon (Smokestack, £4.99)

If anyone mentions writer’s block, I’d be minded to recommend Talking to the Dead by Gordon Hodgeon (Smokestack, £4.99), just to say, come on, get on with it… Because Gordon, once healthy, writes his poems one letter at a time. He cannot speak, he can only breathe with a ventilator. He writes his poems and communicates with the outside world by blinking at a computer screen. This really is writing at the furthest edge of human endurance.  At least the wonderful historian Tony Judt, who was also incapable of moving, dictated his last essays, having memorised the text during the long nights. Gordon can only blink and his condition has deteriorated since his last, ironically-titled collection Still Life.

Inevitably, Gordon mines his condition for material. The fly that lands on his scalp appears more than once, the second time the poem being in the voice of the fly which ‘taste[s] your sweaty pores/harvest the flakes of skin’ feeling though that his ‘…days diminish, / the rusting leaves spell autumn, / the end of our dominion.’ But ‘We shall return, always, / the world requires us. / We shall assist you, save you, / we shall see you through.’

Perhaps equally inevitably, Gordon mines the past – he has time to think and remember, the time that is lost to us in our more hurried lives. There’s George, the author’s parental grandfather, remembered, and Fred, from the generation when ‘There was your weekly flutter on the Pools. / You sat by the wireless Saturday tea time / checking the results, a win, a draw, a loss… Your winnings fifteen quid over some thirty years. ‘  and then there’s Percy Stott , left behind when Gordon ‘…was the only one to scrape a pass’ in the ‘Mid-fifties, sons of Lancashire, Leigh Grammar’ with poor Percy the targets of schoolboy ‘bloodsport’.

Gordon can no longer speak, but his poems do.

Ross Bradshaw

Making Plans for Nigel by Harry Paterson (Five Leaves, £7.99)

making-plans-for-nigelMeet Nigel (Farage, that is … just in case the slightly satirical Martin Rowson cover art didn’t tip you off): he’s head honcho of a political party enamoured of the tub-thumping xenophobic John Bull rhetoric so beloved of the BNP, EDL and Britain First … only he’d like you to believe that UKIP is libertarian. Farage is a privately educated millionaire ex-banker who used to be a Tory fund-raiser and is on the record as describing himself as the only politician in Britain keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive … only he’d like you to think of him as a beer-quaffing friend to the working class. His party’s ranks are tumescent with racists, misogynists, homophobes and the downright stupid (“what happens when renewable energy runs out”, anyone?) … only he’d like you to rationalise their rampant bigotry as the laughable gaffes of a few eccentrics who somehow slipped through the screening process.

Another title for Harry Paterson’s new book might have been Making Sense of Nigel. There are massive contradictions between Farage’s public persona and his background; likewise between his undoubted appeal to a largely underprivileged demographic and the entitled elitist attitudes espoused by the phalanx of ex-Tories, be they embarrassments (Neil Hamilton) or defectors (Douglas Carswell), who fill key UKIP positions. Just as there are massive inconsistencies in the grab-bag of pre-election promises that constitute the “mission statement” on UKIP’s website. As Paterson points out on more than one occasion, with less than a month and half until the general election, UKIP has yet to publish anything resembling a manifesto.

Subject Farage and UKIP to any degree of scrutiny and they’re almost beyond satire. But, as Paterson notes in the opening chapter, Farage is merely employing Boris Johnson’s deliberately bumptious self-deprecation routine, albeit on a far more populist level. Buffoonish as Johnson is, he still looks and sounds upper class; Farage tempers his version with a regular-bloke-down-the-pub immediacy. And while many of his generals are pitifully stupid (Godfrey Bloom and Julia Gasper in particular demonstrate a committed disinclination to cerebral activity), Farage himself is no fool and Paterson rightly warns that it would be disingenuous to underestimate him. However thin his chances of actually gaining Number Ten may be, there can be no doubt that Farage has almost single-handedly reshaped the contemporary political landscape; and with both mainstream parties attempting to “out-Farage Farage” instead of challenging the UKIP mindset, the dangers are self-evident.

Harry Paterson’s last book for Five Leaves, Look Back in Anger: the Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire, took a scalpel to three decades of lies and distortion surrounding what was arguably the most important socio-political act of resistance in post-war British history. In Making Plans for Nigel, that same scalpel cuts clean and true through spin, confusion and media hyperbole. Paterson lays bare all that is rotten in the house of UKIP (and there is plenty of rot), as well as firing a broadside against the ineffectuality of Ed Miliband’s Labour. Chances of Ed reading this book and having a “road to Damascus” epiphany? Probably slim to none, but one can hope. In just a few weeks we go to the polls. Making Plans for Nigel could not be any more timely.

Neil Fulwood

 

Poems by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod (Little, Brown, £12.99)

Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeodOf all the writers taken from us in the last few years, it’s Iain Banks whose loss I feel most deeply. That loss was compounded on buying Poems, selected and edited by Ken MacLeod and including a sampling of his own work (as per Banks’s instruction). That was when it hit me: this was the last time I’d get to buy a new book by Iain Banks.

Allow me to contextualise: Banks was one of a very few authors whose new book I had to buy on the day of publication; if this dictated a trip out in inclement weather, an early skive from work or a utilities bill ignored for a couple of weeks, then so be it. My fervour extended to signed copies. When Banks’s publicity tour for The Steep Approach to Garbadale didn’t bring him anywhere near Nottingham, I had no annual leave remaining to cover a 600-mile round-trip to Plymouth and my car was off the road following an accident. Undaunted, I hired a car, booked a Travelodge and threw a two-day sickie.

Banks is remembered primarily as a novelist – a writer of both contemporary fiction and, as Iain M Banks, sci-fi. His poetry, as MacLeod acknowledges upfront in the introduction, has been limited to a single piece in a poetry magazine, two poems incorporated into his novel Use of Weapons, and a few lines of verse infusing The Crow Road and Song of Stone.

Poems, then, charts unexpected territory. Unexpected, but not unrecognisable. The best of the poems gathered here – ‘Extract Solenoid’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘Exponential’, ‘Caucasian Spiritual’ – embody the expansive imagination and spiralling wordplay that characterise his highest achievements as a prose writer; the latter in particular could almost be a dry run for ‘Scratch’, the mind-bendingly experimental short story that closes his collection The State of the Art.

The 45 pages of MacLeod’s poetry accounts for less than a third of the book yet comprises much of its most effective work. MacLeod takes a more traditional approach and is often at his best when he keys into other voices: ‘After Burns: 11 September 2002’ homages both Burns and W.H. Auden in the service of an absolutely contemporary aesthetic, ‘Scots Poet, Not’ is redolent of W.N. Herbert’s loquacious wit, and ‘A Fertile Sea’ (dedicated to Banks) is a sinewy answer-back to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.


A comparison is worth making: MacLeod’s poetry spans thirty years, Banks’s less than a decade – from 1973 to 1981. It’s as if, for Banks, the form were a proving ground, an experimentation with language, and once he’d set off on the path that would lead to the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984, it was prose all the way.

I did a stupidly sentimental thing on buying Poems: I posted a photograph of the cover on Facebook with the legend “the swansong”. But it isn’t. Banks’s novel The Quarry, published just after his death, was his true swansong. Poems falls halfway between juvenilia and a glimpse down a path not taken; what’s beyond doubt, though, is that it represents the first great firework blast of Banks’s brilliant and incessant creativity.

 Neil Fulwood

The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis (Sandstone, £8.99)

Spice Box LettersThe Nottingham writer Eve Makis’ first book, Eat, Drink and Be Married, drew on her family background as a Greek Cypriot living above her parents’ fish and chip shop in West Bridgford. This, and her next two books were aimed at a mass market – light fiction, with some humour, published by a mass-market publisher. In The Spice Box Letters Eve challenged herself to write a more complicated novel for the first time set in a world she knew nothing about. Several years on, several false starts and rewrites later we have her novel set in Armenia in 1915 and in more recent times among the Armenian diaspora in Cyprus, a community she barely knew existed before embarking on this novel.

Why 1915? This was the year of the massacre and expulsion of Armenians from Turkey in which perhaps a million people died, some from murder and others on long death marches into the Syrian desert. The Cypriot community stemmed from some of those who survived. Eve’s story starts in 1915, just as the massacres begin before moving quickly to England in 1985 where the daughter and grandchild of a recently deceased Armenian immigrant come across some of her letters, written in a script in her first language, in a script her family cannot read. You know immediately that the two incidents are related – the rest of the novel weaves together the back stories of one family, including that of Gabriel Arakelian, a curmudgeon who tries to hang on to the Armenian world he lost. Yet how do you hang on in the face of “the evil of assimilation, the curse of intermarriage, the biggest threat to our traditions, our language, our nation.” Others say “Let the young do as they please. Why should they be tied down, become victims of our past.? The answer is “Because we as a people nearly ceased to exist.”

This issue – one faced by any migrant community, including Eve’s own, is at the heart of the novel. But it is a novel, not a history book. Having said that, we learn a lot about Armenian cookery. Eve remarked at the book launch that she visited villages in Eastern Turkey that had barely changed in a hundred years and researched what herbs and spices were in use at the time to ensure authenticity.

Ross Bradshaw

Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou (Sceptre, £9.99)

Scarp“Scarp” is an overlooked area on the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire border, comprising parts of outer London that people might just have heard of but never go there save, in places like Bushey, to be buried. Papadimitriou wanders the fields and streets of the area, sleeps out, eats cheese sandwiches, examines the flowers of the area, reads up on local history and then imagines the full, personal stories of participants of events.

These events include car crashes, a murder of one vagrant by another and, from time to time, the story of his own wasted youth as a petty arsonist and his childhood bullied by a tyrant father. This is, I suppose, psychogeography and there on the back of the book are favourable quotes from Will Self and Iain Sinclair. Papadimitriou rambles through the landscape and through history – in one long sequence an immortal rook visits incidents and people over several centuries, reporting their stories in the first person. His tales are not always so fantastic, but, finally, I give up at the appendix. It’s not the cheariest of books – the final chapter starts “I stood bare-headed in the churchyard at Little Berkhamstead and watched the raindrops bounce off Reginald Maudling’s gravestone and drop into the soaked earth beneath. I longed to follow them.”… “That day the whole of Hertfordshire had seemed a shimmering blinding plain of wheat. I’d ended up spending the night exhausted and dehydrated by the side of a disused farm track off Bragbury Lane, near Stevenage, where, so the story goes, the Virgin Mary is said to walk every Lady’s Day. Waking the next morning exhausted and broke, I’d been overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness.” Hmm.

Yet the author’s parambulations do tell us a lot about the countryside, particularly the broken lands at the end of town lanes where the countryside begins – or used to begin before it was swamped by things like the private Moor Park golf course whose Doric archways “represented everything I resented about privilege and wealth” and even walking on the course “is to slip into what feels like enemy territory.” Papadimitriou’s book is like Jonathan Meades for the maudlin.

Ross Bradshaw

Lingo: a language spotter’s guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren (Profile, £12.99)

lingoBooks on popular linguistics flood out, not least from the David (and now Ben) Crystal factory.  Lingo by a Dutch writer, looked as if it promised something more substantial within the genre, and got good reviews on publication at the end of last year, but did not quite hit the mark for me.

Yes there is lots of interest, yes there are lots about some of the minority languages of Europe (sixty of which are covered) but ultimately the book failed by being just too, well, popular, and for having an annoying, jokey,  over-familiar text: “There once was a green and fertile land – let’s call it Kleinstein – where a prosperous and civilised people flourished under the benign leadership of a price whose name was as unassuming as his people: John. … What was striking about the Kleinsteiners was their knowledge of languages…” in his introduction to Luxembourgish.

The sixty languages are spread over short chapters, each with bit of history, an anecdote and, again annoyingly, a note at the end of words in those language which comprise a whole concept in English, which have no direct translation.

Lingo - a nicely designed book – was published as an “affordable hardback” in time for Christmas. It makes a nice present. It’s designed to live forever in people’s loos and to be the source of many “did you know that…?” comments after use. If such limitations are accepted, it is a good book, but anyone looking for an overview of European languages should look elsewhere. On the other hand, did you know that some people in Jersey, Guernsey and even Sark speak individual dialects of Norman French? See pages 57-62.

Ross Bradshaw

Doctor Who and the Communist: Malcolm Hulke and his career in television by Michael Herbert (Five Leaves, £4)

Reviewed by Mat Coward in the new Doctor Who Magazine and reprinted by permission

The Communist Party of Great Britain was never a huge organisation. At its absolute peak, it had 60,000 members and two MPs. But for three or four decades following World War Two it was remarkably influential, in industry, in science, and not least in culture. It was Communists, after all, who invented the Notting Hill Carnival, the folk song revival – and, it turns out, the Sea Devils.

Sometime Communist, and lifelong Leftie, Malcolm “Mac” Hulke wrote two serials for the Second Doctor, and six for the Third. Before creating the notoriously ill-named Silurians, he was responsible, along with his script editor, and one-time lodger, Terrance Dicks, for that extraordinarily adult epic, ‘The War Games’ (1969). It’s probably remembered today chiefly for being the last story to star Patrick Troughton, and the first to name the Time Lords. Those of us who watched it as children usually remember it as “the one that went on for ten weeks, and had no monsters in it.”

But, with its contempt for authority, its anti-militarism, its message that wickedness can be beaten by solidarity, ‘War Games’ is also a perfect example of Hulke’s unapologetically political approach to fiction. ‘Doctor Who’ was “a very political show,” he once said, because it was about “relationships between groups of people.” Even when one group are reptiles, “they’re still a group of people.”

Just as radical in its intentions, and arguably Who fandom’s founding document, was Hulke and Dicks’ 1972 paperback The Making of Doctor Who, the revolutionary book that first transformed passive viewers into active fans, able to watch our favourite programme from backstage, as it were, as well as on the screen.

Surprisingly little is known about Hulke’s life outside television, at least until John Williams’s eagerly anticipated biography appears. Meanwhile, this slim but fascinating pamphlet, written by a professional historian and true fan, serves as a delightful introduction to Mac – the man who did so much to pave the way for a primetime show in which a Silurian enjoying an inter-species gay marriage seems like the most normal thing on Earth.

Fire Songs by David Harsent (Faber & Faber)

firesongs (2)‘ … this is a compelling, not a depressing, read. Fire Songs teems with images and ideas that manage to be both richly detailed and vividly musical, from ‘the sopping bud’ of a dead Christ’s heart to an alliterative ‘scorch on corn and kale’. The wide‐ranging word‐choice is consistently surprising and beautiful: ‘the raised arm /of the dreamscape silhouette. The tierce that hunts /from high‐rise city blocks in a slipstream of dead air.’ Full‐rhyme and end‐rhyme play a greater part than they have hitherto: as the virtuoso rooms/reams/ rhymes of ‘Effaced’ close in, they let us hear Dorothy Wordsworth’s entrapment by William.’ (Fiona Sampson, The Independent)

‘Creating verse which garners critical attention is one thing – it feels as though a cynical box‐ticking exercise sometimes permeates contemporary poetry – but crafting verse which affects a deeply primordial, human reaction – whether it be subtle unease or caustic fear – is something entirely different, something more skilled and much more worthwhile, and this is Harsent’s success. Fire is his chosen symbol, the paradoxical emblem of fear, salvation, destruction and regeneration. Harsent does not claim it as his own, he renders it as a universal, eternal signifier which haunts our nightmares, underpins our relationships and possesses civilisation‐ending power: ‘The bed/time story is fire, the fairy‐tale is fire, the promise of light/to a dying man is really a promise of fire. What’s left to be said?’ (Ralf Webb, Ambit)

ISBN 9780571316076
Hardback, 80 pages
£12.99 (£11.00 during March 2015)

Fire Songs  is available to buy in the shop, by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email (bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk) with free p&p for UK orders.
(Overseas orders welcome, please email for delivery estimate)
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Five Leaves Poetry Book of the Month is in association with Stanza poetry reading group. Every month we feature a poetry book chosen by Nottingham Stanza.