Monday, 21 August 2017

Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait by Victor Sebestyen (2017)

Years of communism came about because of a wig. That's the conclusion that Victor Sebestyen comes to about Lenin. The Finnish wig-maker, who inadvertently provided Lenin with his disguise, has a lot to answer for. Not that Lenin was happy with the rug, according to Sebestyen. He complained about its quality. But it was good enough to get him past Provisional Government forces at the border and go on to become the first leader in the Soviet Union. Apparently it was really touch-and-go about whether he might seize power. It was the wig what won it.

Wigless and humourless: Lenin about to be unleashed
Lenin's temper tantrum over the wig is all part of a larger temper tantrum that Sebestyen reckons Lenin had all his life. He doesn't seem to have even taken a step back after the November 1917 revolution and celebrated his victory. 

He was just always in a massive strop, apparently. And nasty - he was on the way to being a massive killer in the same way Stalin was, but died early. And a coward - as his comrades ran to a fight, he chickened out, claiming that leadership needed to be protected. All of this is according to Sebestyen. It's difficult disagree.  

Whether you agree with the humbling of Lenin's legacy or not, the constant digs got on my nerves. I like to read between the lines to make up my mind about a tyrant. Simon Sebag Montefiore is really good at this sort of thing in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

But overall, it's a fascinating look at a rather peculiar person who, against all the odds, set up the massive empire;  and which only fell apart 70 years later. If Lenin hadn't been wearing that wig, it might have all been very different. 

Friday, 19 August 2016

A Very English Scandal : Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston (2016)

I remember the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1979 and this book, though brilliant and a real page-turner, lets the reader down in one big way. First, the good stuff. It's like 'breaking news in a book'. There it is, in print: The downright allegation that Jeremy Thorpe ordered the killing of Norman Scott. 

We may have all suspected that this was the case but this book's author, John Preston, comes right out and actually says it. Brave? Certainly, on the day of Thorpe's death in 2014, journalist Tom Mangold refuses to make the claim. 

Anyway, it's spine-chilling that such a distinguished person as Thorpe did the things he did and then was protected to get away with it. So, the book's brilliant. However...



I remember the trial and I remember the massive homophobia that surrounded it. No one was protecting Jeremy Thorpe at my school. If you were called Jeremy or Norman, you were gay. People accused others of 'biting the pillow' as a derogatory insult. This saying came out during the trial, attributed to Norman Scott. It was all revolting and the book doesn't look at this rampant hate-filled stuff at all. Maybe it wasn't in the book's remit but I certainly remember it and I think it's worth a mention at least. 

The reporting of the trial, and society's response to it, held back the gay rights movement in the UK. But that said, the book's a brilliant look at how an important person could get what they wanted and how the establishment looked after its own. 

Friday, 8 July 2016

Dictator by Robert Harris (2015)

I read this book just after the EU referendum result and all of the political turmoil that followed it. At first I felt guilty that I should be so diverted from reading the newspapers and then I realised that Robert Harris’s fourth book about the Romans, and his third featuring the life of philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator and political theorist, Cicero, actually accompanied the news. 


Breathlessly told, these books are page-turners. It certainly isn’t like reading an ancient scroll in undecipherable language. I haven’t been able to put down any of the books. But this one…This I think is the best. Because there’s so much intrigue, plotting, the lust for power, the holding onto power and the need for power; despite whether it’s good for the people or not. 

Just at a time when the Empire started to decline…and before the fall. Cicero hoped for a balance of power between important people but the urge to be the main person in charge was always too much for too many leaders-in-waiting. Absolute power corrupts absolutely but it’s also very moreish. 

And I’ve concluded that, almost two thousand years later, our politicians just aren’t as good at back-biting (or indeed back-stabbing in the case of Caesar or anyone else you may care to name) as those quaestors, aediles, praetors etc  in Rome back in the day. Mind you, it was pretty easy to leave the Senate, stir the crowd into a frenzy and then terrify your enemies with some well-stationed centurions camped in the Field of Mars. These days you have to live with 24 hour news, social media and things you said in the past that can come back to haunt you. Never is there the need to more subtle. But modern politicians are no Cicero. 

As I write, the political shenanigans following Brexit have calmed down a bit. But, just as in the Rome of Cicero’s times, you feel that the population’s best interests can often be back-burned because someone, somewhere, covets the top job and will do anything to get it. I want to be Emperor! 

Cicero though, I'm sure, would have told them all how to do it so much more effectively. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

Smashed in the USSR by Caroline Walton and Ivan Petrov (2013)

I know that many people's lives have been ruined by alcohol so when I say that this is a wonderful book it's not a glorification of drinking. It's just that the book's so very interesting. It jumped out at me when I first saw the cover. It doesn't disappoint.  


Ivan Petrov was a homeless person in the Soviet Union when homelessness was a crime. And he carried on an itinerant lifestyle for years and years. It was only when he claimed asylum in the UK that the writer Caroline Walton found him and got him to tell his story. 

In the Soviet Union, you often didn't have many choices in life. And the 'choice' of becoming what Ivan calls a 'vagabond' was a particularly bold one. But it was also two fingers up to the state, in a manner of speaking. Because the lifestyle meant not playing by the rules; not being the model Soviet family man. OK, it also meant getting beaten up by police and spending much of your life in various camps, prisons and other institutions where drunk people ended up. 

But Ivan and friends get to be rude to guards and police in a way that the hard-working population would never have got away with. That's because the homeless people really had nothing to lose. For those that drank anything that could possibly have alcohol in it, from perfumes to furniture polish, there's not far to fall. If you urinated up against a statue of Lenin, there was one of two consequences. If you were drunk, it meant a night in the cells. If it was politically inspired, you faced an altogether more sinister future.

The book gives you an insight into a world that has rarely been reported. It's about the underbelly of Soviet history, with Ivan meandering all over the USSR for decades from the 1960s. Yet Ivan suggests that it was in the government's interest to keep people on the cusp of committing minor crimes. "If someone then turns round and complains about the system, who's going to listen to him if his hands are already dirty?"

But it's the remarkable characters, who Ivan meets throughout the book, that are so memorable. How about this from someone Ivan meets in a market with the fantastic name of Sedoy the Poet of All Russia. He shouts this ditty to passing shoppers:


"Through Stavropol, unrecognised,
I wander as a shadow.
And I practise onanism
On International Women's Day."

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Three Degrees by Paul Rees (2014)


I've just watched Swansea's fifth goal in the FA Cup against Tranmere yesterday. It was 'four on four' as the Welsh side swept forward. The four players for Swansea were all black and no one noticed apart from me. Because I've just finished a book about a time when, if a black player took to the pitch, they were made to feel like the whole world hated them. 

Time for some honesty. How aware was I personally of racism in the 1970s? I remember refusing to make monkey noises when black players were on the pitch, and hating it when a sizeable minority around me did. But I also feel ashamed that I didn't challenge a friend when he referred to 'Rilla Regis'. See below for more on Cyrille Regis. I hated Vince Hilaire; not because he was black but because he played for Crystal Palace. I hated all Crystal Palace players. (Yes - I used to support Brighton - here's the evidence if you really want to know). 

But my main thought on reading The Three Degrees is that, as a white kid growing up with no black friends in rural Sussex, I wasn't really aware about the racism. However, at the time, black players were becoming more and more commonplace on football pitches all around the country. There was a revolution going on under my nose in about 1978 and 1979 and I didn't even notice. But, looking back, it was an important time.

All of which makes the book such an interesting read. So: there was an emerging group of black players on the scene, but Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunnigham and Brendan Batson were part of a unit; they all played for West Bromwich Albion. And became famous for it. They even met the motown singers with the name they adopted. (Brendan Batson apparently hated this photo-call. He's gone on to be one of the game's top administrators. He thought this was flippant, but I certainly remember it fondly.)




But for me, it's all summed up in the goal that Regis scored on 30 December 1978 at Old Trafford (See here at 1'35" in). Cunningham started the move and it's one of the two goals that, for me sum up the excitement of football in the 70s. (The other was Liam Brady's swirler against Spurs). 

The challenge to racists was that Cunningham and Regis especially weren't just black players in the same team; they fed off each other. Cunningham was the play-maker; Regis the ruthless scorer. They were brilliant together; not because they were black, but because they were simply brilliant.

The book is nicely set against the Winter of Discontent in 1978-1979, the growth of bands like UB40 and the Beat in the West Midlands, and the general levels of racism in the UK at the time. So I heard the chants but I also saw black players acting as pioneers, holding their tongues against all that provocation - and doing their thing on the pitch. I'm sure I had a grudging respect for Vince Hilaire. I hated Palace but I hated Hilaire being taunted for being black. 


The fascinating part about the book for me is the idea that all three West Brom players felt that they didn't go far enough. At a time when racism was rife - Regis got a silver bullet in the post warning him not to play for England - you may have thought that just playing and securing their status as the Three Degrees would be enough. But Cunningham wowed them at Real Madrid before succumbing to injury. And he went into a downward spiral afterwards. Regis now says he should have left West Brom earlier than he did. 


The three had massively high expectations. And what expectations. Towards the end of their careers, both Regis and Cunningham picked up FA Cup final winners' medals. Yet you feel that wasn't enough for them.

I think it's been healthy for me to take a good hard look at how I reacted to the hideous racism that was all around me 35 and 36 years ago. The Brighton side had no black players. But black players were represented more and more in opposition sides that I saw and I feel lucky that I witnessed such changes to football and to society, even though I didn't realise it at the time.

Reading this wasn't just nostalgia. It was nostalgia with attitude.
It's as that trio - the Three Degrees - that Regis, Cunningham and Batston will be remembered, paving the way for those four Swansea players that did such damage yesterday. And the site of Cyrille Regis reeling away after smashing that ball above United's Gary Bailey in December 1978 is something that I'll cherish for ever.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Mark Ellen: Rock stars stole my life! (2014)


Mark Ellen: Rock stars stole my life!
1985. Live Aid day. 13 July. I’m ripping open my envelope and then ripping up the cheque, to rewrite it, because Bob Geldof’s just convinced me to send in a bigger donation, following that video set to the music of the Cars. A vivid memory. 

But one of the presenters that day was the lovely Mark Ellen. I knew him better from his time on Whistle Test with Andy Kershaw; and their relentlessly positive, familiar, cozy approach. They offered me zany fare; for instance, Udo Lindenberg, singing the bizarre “Germans”. And Mark Ellen commented on the Cold War geopolitical nature of the song's fallout. It was 1985, after all. 

The coziness continues in the book. This, from his teenage years:

"We had no tents or even sleeping-bags so the four of us slept both nights on mounds of straw under a plastic sheet in a great warm nest of fur and smoke and tangled hair, like puppies in a basket". 

I had the same experience just reading this book which is, let's face it, for blokes. Well, let's really face it; it was written for me. 


Mark Ellen wasn't in my consciousness after 1985, but I was keen to buy this book after I heard him talking about it on the Six Music Radcliffe and Maconie show. That was last summer (2013) and when he announced it was out in May 2014, I know it would be a long wait, but worth it. 


And then I saw him. August 2013 at a gig. I only spoke to Mark quickly to say that I was buying his book after hearing him on the radio. I forgot to thank him for Udo Lindenberg...


He was at the show with David Hepworth, another Whistle Test presenter and fellow music magazine veteran. These people are icons from when I was in my early 20's and, on the TV, there was only really Top of the Pops or Whistle Test. 

And then the Tube. Mark Ellen is positive about the Tube and explains how the BBC took it on, including moving Whistle Test to a more prime-time slot. I recently read about the same period in time in his co-host, Andy Kershaw's book. Andy's a lot less generous about the Tube and Jools Holland in particular. Mark Ellen's completely non-offensive and his book was just as a joy to read as Andy Kershaw's, but for different reasons. Butter v bitter. 

I also like him because he doesn't fall for that Morrisey viewpoint that music started in 1977 with punk. His eclectic collection makes him very interesting. At Mojo: "We didn't subscribe to the Stalinist notion that punk rock was year zero". 

I didn't want it to end. And he spends a page talking about his experiences with my hero, Vivian Stanshall. I'll memorise that bit. But was the book really written for me alone? I'd like to think so. But there were always those two billion people that (one estimate at the time suggested) watched Live Aid. 

Friday, 23 May 2014

Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny by Michael Broers (2014)

Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny by Michael Broers (2014)



"Are we retreating from Moscow Mon General?"

"No. We're advancing on Paris Mon Plonker".

I love that joke but unfortunately, the Russian campaign doesn't feature in this book. It only goes up until 1804. Broers is yet to write part two. But I still chuckle at that old caption about Napoleon as his army struggles through the snow. 

I also love reading big, complicated biographies of world leaders that say things like this: "To be 'for' or 'against' in Napoleonic France was a shifting, evolving process, and the closer his contemporaries were to him the more complex were the meanings of 'for' and 'against'."

BBC History magazine's front cover this month reads: "D Day: Tragedy or Triumph?" Naughty. They should know that history is more complicated than that. And, although this book is heavy (really heavy) I sometimes love to get lost in something that doesn't boil a complicated issue down to an either/or headline.

The most fascinating line in the book draws Napoleon away from other tyrants one can think of, such as Mao, Hitler and Stalin: "He had a remarkable ability to delegate the right problem to the right men and to heed them, when he needed to hold himself in check. He never surrounded himself with sycophants". The secret to his early success, perhaps.

However, and maybe this is because the book was getting close to its page count of 527 pages, Michael Broers doesn't go on to do a similar analysis of why Napoleon suddenly started to ignore his own advice in his ill-fated naval strategy that led to the disaster (for the French) of calling off an invasion of Britain, along with Trafalgar neutralising the French fleet. 

However, I'm nit-picking. There's other fascinating stuff; for instance, the Civil Code made everyone equal in law; his army reforms made soldiers aspire to join the Imperial Guard - this helped make the army a more efficient unit; and whether he was racist or not in his policy over the West Indies. 

A good read, if at times a bit bogged down in confusing detail. And not a "Not tonight Josephine" in sight.