Category: Books

1966 – The Year The Decade Exploded by Jon Savage (Faber & Faber, 2015)

1966“It’s pretty obvious that contemporary music reflects contemporary life. And vice versa” wrote Tony Hall in Record Mirror in 1966. What is taken for granted now needed to be spelled out then.

Nevertheless, there are still precious few writers who able to contextualize music as expertly as Jon Savage.

When writing about Punk in 2004’s ‘England’s Dreaming’, Savage was able to draw directly from his own experiences but, as he was just 13 years old in the Summer of 1966, he is not able to rely solely on first-hand knowledge for this book. The 55 pages of source references illustrate the substantial research that lies behind this authoritative and illuminating study.

I was just 8 years old in that year so I remember even less than he does but I do recall the impact of some TV shows (e.g. Batman, The Monkees, Time Tunnel etc.) and music like The Beatles, the Motown acts and Dusty Springfield. But as far as historical events go, only England winning the soccer world cup sticks in the memory.

Most articles about the sixties paint a superficial and idealised portrait of swinging London, sexual liberation and the birth of the Woodstock generation. Savage goes deeper and reveals the darker aspects of this era and shows that it has definite parallels with the world we inhabit today.

Far from being a time of hedonism and freedom, this was a year lived under the shadow of the atom bomb and the cold war. In addition, the black civil rights movement, growing opposition to the Vietnam war, the demand for women’s liberation and the struggle for gay rights were just some of the causes that led to politicization of the youth both in America and in the UK. Add LSD to this heady cocktail and it’s easy to understand why this year was so musically explosive and accounts for how “1966 began in pop and ended with rock”. Continue reading



AMORTALITY by Catherine Mayer (Vermilion, 2011)

“What a drag it is getting old”.

Mick Jagger wrote these words when he was still in his early 20s. It’s a line from ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, the first track on The Rolling Stones’ 1966 album Aftermath.

Far from being the usual affirmation of the ‘sex,drugs and Rock’n’Roll’ lifestyle, this atypical Stones song addresses the plight of stressed housewives who turn to prescribed drugs to calm their nerves. Jagger adopts a mockney accent in an attempt to convince us of his sincerity but it all sounds very mannered and false.

If Jagger still finds aging a drag he hides it fairly well. Now in his mid-70s he’s still performing concerts and impregnating young women with abandon. He is living proof of what Catherine Mayer calls ‘amortals’; those who refuse to ‘act their age’ and live as if it were impossible to die.

With improved healthcare, it’s not just the  wealthy who are living longer with plenty of energy left to burn. Mayer observes that “there is no such thing as age appropriate behavior anymore” and refers to the growth of this ageless living as a “grey tsunami”. Fast approaching 60 and having run my first full marathon last year, I feel that I’m an active member of this tidal wave of ‘amortals’ but found the book disappointing.

It was conceived as “a guide to an uncharted phenomenon” and in the opening chapters the author is at pains to reassure us that it is not intended as a polemic. However, by the end, she gives up any pretense of objectivity when she challenges institutionalized ageism, stating : “I hope readers will take from this book inspiration to push for change, on a personal level and as consumers and voters”. So much for not being polemical! Continue reading

Explaining mansplaining

rebecca_solnitThe term ‘mansplaining’ was inspired, though not directly used, by Rebecca Solnit in her marvellous 2008 essay ‘Men Explain Things To Me’.

The word succinctly encapsulates men’s uncanny ability to display what Solnit calls “the confidence of the totally ignorant”.

With barbed wit, she notes how “explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge”.

As she knows to her cost, these kinds of power games are nothing new and represent a pattern of patronizing behavior that, at least until recently, women have learned to put up with.

The #TimesUp and #MeToo initiatives stemming from the outing of Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuses represent a potential sea change in gender attitudes. Now, not a day goes by without fresh accusations and the squalid details of the Larry Nassar case is a further illustration of the can of worms that has been opened. Continue reading


The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (Picador, 2016).

lonelycity“When you have no-one, no-one can hurt you”. The bleak lyrics by Will Oldham from ‘You Will Miss Me When I Burn’ by Palace Brothers are hardly life affirming. Olivia Laing takes a more positive line from Dennis Wilson’s ‘Thoughts of You’ in which the Beach Boy sings how “Loneliness is a very special place”.

However, I doubt that many people equate loneliness with specialness. Most of the time it’s a condition that generates feelings of shame, self loathing and depression. The invisible cloak we wear is a burden rather than a protection.

The ‘adventures’ of Olivia Laing’s compassionate and insightful book nevertheless show how being alone can be, and has been,  the stimulus to greater self knowledge and the impetus towards personal creativity. Continue reading


ASK ME ASK ME ASK ME by Patrick Potter (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2017)

ask meI have no idea how this little gem of a book got to be stocked at the shop of Bologna’s Museum of Modern Art but I’m grateful for some employee’s initiative and vision.

Its subtitle is ‘Random questions for awesome conversations’ and that, together with some lively graphics, is exactly what you get.

The content recognizes the sad truism that the human race is rapidly losing the art of conversation. It promotes the notion that asking and answering questions is a step towards reviving this vital social skill.

The zombie-like addiction to screens of all shapes and sizes means that we risk forgetting the pleasures and perils of ‘real’ human interaction. Left unchecked, this will leave us increasingly technologically connected and physically isolated. Continue reading

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