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.