The Extreme Centre, Rise of the Super Furry Animals and The Kind Worth Killing
Tariq Ali in fighting form and more
Page File El Reg bookworm Mark Diston looks at the latest from the literary world. Tariq Ali dons his polemicist hat in support of the disenfranchised electorate. Ric Rawlins charts the success of one of the most celebrated bands to emerge from Wales, and Peter Swanson clocks up his second crime-thriller novel.
The Extreme Centre: A Warning
Tariq Ali is an activist, journalist, historian and novelist. The subject of The Extreme Centre is the political consensus in what used to be called the “first” world; post-Reagan, post-Thatcher, post-USSR.
Ali nails his colours to the mast in fine style; there's no need to intimate there is more than a hint of rouge in them. Take The Extreme Centre’s dedicatee: “In memoriam: Hugo Chavez, the first leader of a movement that defeated the extreme centre”.
He opens with: “Democracy is in serious trouble… A sizeable percentage of the electorate has accustomed itself to not voting, a form of passive protest and a recognition that the system is pretty much corrupt”.
Too much of a pessimistic narcissist to be a man of the left, I am nonetheless always susceptible to a little revolutionary rhetoric. While he's perhaps not Mayakovsky, Tariq is a persuasive polemicist. He exclaims that the politicians “refuse to step down and talk to the people whose worlds they have destroyed.” When you take away the silken tones of his spoken voice, his written work is refreshingly angry.
Ali concentrates his arguments on the UK but there is a global geopolitical angle. He argues that since 1990, centre left and centre right parties have become identical and offer no alternatives beyond being agents of the global capitalist elite. He discusses the changes in attitudes since the 2007/8 financial crash and how nascent left wing parties have sprung up in Greece and Spain. Though the recent Syriza successes have happened since the completion of this book.
The Extreme Centre also discusses the Bolivarian movements in South America and offers their model as an example of a solution to Europe’s woes. The independence vote in Scotland is described as a landmark moment in British politics. Indeed, Ali was impressed by the level of public involvement in the debate, so very unlike a General Election.
He believes the next battleground in UK politics is the privatisation of the health service. He describes how it is already happening and gives a depressing list of UK politicians in the pay of private health companies. All in all, “not a pretty picture”.
Included are a few surprise snippets, such as the time the British government “sent Enoch Powell to the West Indies to recruit nurses for the NHS,” and a fabulous quote from Lord Ismay: “NATO was designed to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.”
Tariq Ali has been an awkward lefty for more than half a century and you have to admire him for it, as he is one of the most interesting writers of the left. Always challenging, his critique is precise, his language straightforward and his outrage is palpable.
When he namedrops Euromemorandia 2014 and their fabulous slogan “An End To Sado-Monetarism” it sounds like we could almost be in 1968 again. You have to hand it to Ali; he’s been kicking against the pricks for so long, he knows his subject like the back of his hand and goes straight for the jugular.
Even so, the author sees no sign of immediate revolution, which would seem to require a global disaster – or maybe just another financial crash, which if Greece's current economic situation suddenly deteriorates could become a very immediate threat. He nonetheless remains realistic and optimistic. The Extreme Centre is an incendiary, tragic and inspiring read.
Title The Extreme Centre: A Warning
Price £7.99 (Paperback), eBook (£7.99)
More info Publication web site
Rise of the Super Furry Animals
Ric Rawlins is a music journalist who met the Super Furry Animals during the making of their final album: Dark Days/Light Years in 2009. Rise of the Super Furry Animals charts the founding of the group and concentrates on their earliest period in the late 1990s.
The book begins by recounting the SFA’s legendary appearance in a tank at an Eisteddfod at Llandeilo, before taking us back to the band's origins.
The Super Furry Animals hail from Bethesda, a small town on the A5 just before you get to Bangor. In the 1980s there seemed fewer more depressing places on the planet. The closed-down slate mine had left a rural industrial wasteland, high unemployment and an influx of English hippies signing on and smoking themselves senseless.
Ric Rawlins describes the background and influences of the band: Welsh Nationalist parents, rave culture and CB radio, which Welsh youth found the most effective way to communicate in the valleys during pre-mobile phone days.
Super Furries founder member Gruff Rhys made his debut playing plastic drums in his big brother’s punk band: Chwd Poeth (Hot Puke). The formation of S4C, the Welsh-language TV station, along with Welsh-language radio stations, meant that there was an outlet for any band who could scrape together a decent demo in the correct language, and so there was a ready audience for the band’s early work.
The foundation of the band is dated to the time Gruff Rhys met Huw Bunford whilst travelling on the roof of a train whilst trying to escape piss artists within. After being thrown off, the two found they had a lot in common during the long walk home.
The band came together quite quickly and were signed by Alan McGee’s Creation Records. McGee enthuses: “They were the last really great signing. There are only a few bands you could make a film of and SFA are one, because their story is so fucking bonkers”.
Indeed, SFA were one of the last bands of the pre-internet age to enjoy record company largesse and go to town with military vehicles, massive inflatables and the making of a video in the Colombian jungle.
Ric Rawlins describes the formative years of the band well, The bunch of young loons developing their craft and spreading their wings is a compelling yarn and the “band as a gang” mode works well enough. Yet, try as he might, Rawlins cannot bring his characters to life. There is little depth in them and while this works well enough with passers-through – such as Rhys Ifans and Howard Marks – too often the members of the band are grey and interchangeable.
Rise of the Super Furry Animals does, however, give a good outline of the ethos and individuality of the band: “Our whole point as a band almost was to bring our friends and contemporaries with us on this strange journey”.
Rawlins’ book tails off quickly soon after reaching the millennium, although the band's musical output shows little sign of decline. Alan McGee is right, the SFA story is bonkers, but Ric Rawlins doesn’t tell it terribly well.
With the Howard Marks farewell tour planned for later this year, it wouldn’t surprise me if a Super Furry reprise may be on the cards. This is really one for fans only, until someone closer to, or actually in the band, tells their story better.
Title Rise of the Super Furry Animals
Publisher The Friday Project
Price £9.99 (Paperback), eBook (£5.49)
More info Publication web site
The Kind Worth Killing
The Kind Worth Killing is Peter Swanson’s second novel, following The Girl with a Clock for a Heart. It is the tale of a pair of femmes fatales; college rivals in love who are fated to meet later in life in murderous circumstances.
The books opens with a chance meeting at Heathrow between Ted Severson, an aggrieved husband who meets a mysterious young woman. She persuades him to kill his cheating wife. Ted’s verdict on his marriage betrays a little of Peter Swanson’s literary style: “We were our own strained cliche… but it worked for us.”
With the exception of a UK flashback, most of the novel takes place in New England. What ensues is a cast of wafer-thin characters royally betraying, fucking and murdering on a whim.
There are two femmes fatales. Miranda, the überbitch who is only in it for the gain has a heart of stone: “I started sleeping with Matthew Ford who made Eric look positively middle class”. She also seems to suffer from a strange designer angst: “I felt oppressed by their tackiness”. The other dubious female lead is Lily, who is more your delicate, poetic variety of psycho. But the quiet ones, so they say, are always the worst.
We are also introduced to Brad Duggett, an amorous handyman who is a puppet in the hands of our perpettes. Do characters called Brad exist outside dire melodrama and the fringes of the Australian cricket team?* And of course, there is Detective Kimble, a mere tool who writes limericks about his suspects that are bad enough to bring Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz to mind.
Wooden prose is interspersed with informative news reports: “They were a beautiful young couple. They looked like people you would see on television.”
Yeah, weekday afternoons, Channel 5, the Alzheimer’s shift.
“I did mention to Brad Duggett that I was going down to Florida for a long weekend. He must have thought I was telling him because I wanted… Oh my God!”
The starlets are overacting in the manner of straight-to-DVD movies. Thence follows some flashbacks, these girls have history…
A paedo takes a swan dive, a dodgy chicken korma does for a philandering boyfriend. There has to be a showdown, there can only be one victor. Yet even in this putrid ocean of dross, I managed to alight on a prosaic pearl. This from poetic psycho Lily’s father: “I can feel my balls going into hiding, now I know I’m coming home.”
However, Detective Kimble is seemingly on loan from a cartoon: “I loved Nancy Drew too, why do you think I became a detective?”
Peter Swanson leaves us totally in suspenders. Will the yuppie development uncover a deadly secret? Or will Kimble’s dirty poems unleash a wave of carnage in Massachusetts..? The ambiguous ending just screams out, “sequel”.
The Kind Worth Killing is pretty bad by just about any standard, and is best put out of its misery. Is it a text worth reading? Well, even the kind not worth exhuming would struggle to find satisfaction in this book. ®
Title The Kind Worth Killing
Publisher Faber and Faber
Price £14.99 (Hardback), eBook (£6.99)
More info Publication web site
* Vulture Central's backroom gremlins once worked for someone with the real-life name Brad. He was an SME executive who ordered espresso for the office coffee machine, which the workforce used to make standard mugs of builder's coffee. Nobody ever twigged why the entire office practically downed tools by 4pm.