Broadmoor: My Journey Into Hell, The Chimes and Cowboys and Indies
Memoirs of a bad mad lag, dystopian debut and record biz retrospective
Page File El Reg bookworm Mark Diston peruses the pick of publishing this week with a début novel from Anna Smaill whose musicality abounds in the post-apocalyptic tale. Back in the real world, one man apocalypse Charles Bronson tells more tales of life inside, and finally Gareth Murphy tracks the history of the music industry.
Anna Smaill is a musician who has come to novel writing via poetry. The Chimes is her début, and opens with the orphaned protagonist and narrator, Simon, travelling from Essex to a post-apocalyptic, re-imagined London where "words are not to be trusted and music holds the meaning now”.
Music serves for long distance communication and GPS, whereas memory is a bag of familiar objects carried around the neck. Simon arrives in London where the "whole city is talking in music” and falls in with a bunch of troubadour rag pickers led by one Lucien.
They live off the recycling trash that remains from before the “Allbreaking”, a time “when the weapons of discord were destroyed”. You guessed it, the apocalypse which changed the world.
There are strange anomalies in chronology: Simon’s gang retrieve pieces of a Hyundai car, and yet the musical language has not evolved beyond the baroque – they are all playing viols and lutes. Smaill’s use of a modern template confuses rather than assists her story, her London seems mostly empty and deserted until a crowd is needed to disappear into.
If China Mieville’s London is steampunk, then this is more wind baroque. The story rather founders in the Thames mud before the heroes leave town and things lively up a little.
This is a brave, if occasionally unsuccessful novel, and Anna Smaill has her own style full of musical cadences and tempi: lento, presto, piano, forte. But ultimately I got around to thinking that this would work a whole lot better as an audiobook or a 1971 double gatefold concept album type thing, which the author would seem to be fully qualified to compose herself.
At its best, The Chimes reminds me a little of the early novels of Angela Carter, though Smaill’s prose could use an injection of romanticism and Sturm Und Drang in places. JS Bach is a shoe-in as the only composer to get a mention and he dutifully appears in the text.
Her poetic style is to be commended, but tends to drag and obscure the storyline too often. In that respect, particularly during the rural intro, it reminds me a little of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – a brilliant concept and use of language that is ultimately over complex, dragging the story down and making it hard going in places.
The most successfully rendered of these type of books, such as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, use a more familiar language and take place outside specific time or place.
This is basically a novel which will appeal to other writers, lovers of language and stylistic writing. Despite all the caveats stated above, you're still better off reading this than most of what passes for English fiction these days.
But again, an abridged audiobook with bespoke soundtrack or a concept album in the manner of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway as re-imagined by Kate Bush would make this a much more interesting proposition.
This is ultimately an over-long and flawed début which nonetheless in its ambition and scope promises well for future works. But in this multimedia age Anna Smaill needs to get off her clavichord and start playing us her music, and talk less about it.
Title The Chimes
Price £14.99 (Hardback), £7.49 (eBook) on sale 12th February
More info Publication web site
Broadmoor: My Journey Into Hell
Although he's never actually killed anyone, Charlie Bronson is famed tabloid fodder, usually cited as “the most violent prisoner in the UK”, and has written seventeen books while spending nearly all of the last 40 years in one secure establishment or another.
On one level, Charlie is an old-school wideboy with an impressive pedigree: “Ruth Ellis’s sister used to do my mum’s hair”. Charlie fondly remembers the Krays, quoting Ronnie: “Madness is a gift of life, it’s how you use it that counts”.
Bronson, even with the help of his bride-to-be Lorraine Etherington, is not what you’d call a sophisticated narrator, but he knows his own mind and expresses himself clearly and forcefully, a lot of his book reads like the autobiography of Irvine Welsh’s Begbie.
Charlie shows an unreconstructed view of the world that is chilling and surreal in almost equal portions: “He garotted a paedo in the showers with a banjo string, how we cheered”. He recalls that “Jimmy Saville ran the entertainments ... He even gave me one of his cigars... But if I knew then what we all know now I would have taken the cunt hostage”.
Charlie’s attempts to cop off at the Broadmoor disco come undone when he finds his prospective squeeze has roasted her own baby. Yes, even big hardcase Charlie can get a tad squeamish at times.
Charlie’s struggle against the system is interspersed with documents from his prison record outlining his rooftop protests, although parts of his tale sound far-fetched. For instance, his instant access to an à la carte menu will not ring true to many who have been in secure establishments – bureaucracy simply doesn’t move that fast.
But the great thing about this book is that it presents its protagonist and the establishment in a warts-and-all style that is compelling and engaging. Charlie Bronson’s struggle against authority and imprisonment brings Henri Charrière’s Papillon to mind: the regime is less harsh, but the prospects for ultimate escape diminished.
I have not read any of Charlie Bronson’s other writing, though the couple of poems included here within Broadmoor are of the kind you can find in Inside Time most months. I doubt whether Charlie could tell any other story than his own, but the same indomitable spirit that has ensured his survival is apparent in his writing. Indeed, he discovers what is apparent to all prison scribes: “Simple little things began to become gigantic to me."
The highs and lows are beautifully captured from the ecstasy of the prison roof protest under a rainbow to the inevitable solitary confinement: “I was a vicious little fucker and Block B was the best thing for a nasty little cunt like me”.
As Charlie says: “All I really know is how to survive” and most poignantly and ironically: “Who wants to end up like a budgie in a cage? Not me."
This is quite simply the best prison memoir I have read for some time.
Title Broadmoor, My Journey Into Hell
Publisher John Blake Publishing
Price £17.99 (Hardback), £9.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site
Cowboys and Indies
Gareth Murphy is a freelance writer and researcher for journals and think tanks. Cowboys and Indies is a history of the music industry from the inception of recorded sound up until the present day. Cowboys and Indies is a book of two halves. The history of the music business since the advent of rock’n’roll has been well covered by industry insiders and outsiders, but the early years of recorded sound are less well known.
From almost the first moment that Edouard-Leon Scott De Martinville recorded his own voice onto soot covered glass or paper, the scions of the music industry have been betraying and stitching each other up as a matter of course.
The early history of recorded music was initially a search for a medium that would last more than a couple of plays, and so in the first of the format wars the lateral disc managed to oust the wax cylinder.
The manufacturers of gramophones naturally became the first to produce records to play on their machines, which were often sold at a loss, later recouped by record sales. There followed a phase of ruinous court battles for patents which were only completed once the threat of radio started to send panic through the litigants.
The book then outlines the advent of jazz, the rise of which coincided with two catastrophic recessions, post WW1 and after the October 1929 crash.
Gareth Murphy was born in London, but seems more familiar with the US than the UK music scene, as no other nation gets a look in, for instance, the development of magnetic tape as a recording medium by Fritz Pfleumer in Germany is completely ignored.
The post WW2 scene is described from the anodyne stars of the time such as Bing, Frankie and The Andrews Sisters who shifted multiple units to the strange birth of rock’n’roll: “Memphis is built along a cultural fault line exactly where the redneck and Afro-American continental plates interlocked”.
Cue Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 ... Sam Phillips ... Elvis...
The problem with the second half of this book is that the story has been told many times, by better writers who were closer to the action. Despite some enlightening interviewees such as Jac Holzman of Elektra records, stories of greedy men constantly fucking each other over makes boring reading.
When we move on to the British Invasion, Gareth uses poetry to overcome his own remoteness from events: “Andrew Loog Oldham stood glowing as though all of London were smiling back at him”.
At other times his ignorance is palpable: “John Lydon, a peculiar streetwise intellectual who understood that Britain’s so-called working class had long since turned into a welfare class” and the early 1980s: “A deeper sociological dimension driving demand for moody records that captured the desolation of Britain’s post-industrial decline”.
This kind of lazy revisionism may impress the sludge that dwells in think tanks, but for those of us who were around at the time, it just reads like utter tosh. Gareth Murphy’s book which started with such promise, ultimately descends into farce.
Though some of his interviewees seem similarly clueless, like the guy from Island Records who recalls that the demise of the original Wailers came from "putting too much ganja up their noses”.
I recommend borrowing this book and putting it down around the disappearance of Glenn Miller. For tales of the modern industry, you are better going direct to the sources such as Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles from the same publisher or the Glyn Johns biography Sound Man I reviewed a few weeks ago. The last sixty years of the music biz has been done much better elsewhere. ®
Title Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry
Publisher Serpent's Tail
Price £14.99 (Paperback), £9.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site