So Here It Is – Dave Hill – The Autobiography of a Slade Star

Superstar of the Seventies, Dave Hill is the memorable one from the group Slade. Not the singer, but a guitarist with a unique taste in stage costume. This is his story, simply told but rich in detail, of not only his life but the life of a singular group who stood outside the mainstream by producing their own distinctive sound. This book, written in the first person by a man with a life experience not totally different from many people of his generation, is not the record of stardom and celebrity tantrums. Instead it records the struggle for financial stability through the music he loves and belonging to groups that have gelled together through some unusual circumstances.

Dave Hill was born and brought up in Wolverhampton, in a community which supported the small clubs and venues that were the setting for early musical ventures of groups which could be set up with unsophisticated equipment. At that stage there were no colleges which offered high tech. courses on musical production, and only basic musical experiences through records which were carefully selected. On a personal level, while Hill’s family were apparently supportive of his budding music career, there were some pressures from his mother’s long term illness. He is honest about the trials of identifying who could work with whom, and the influences on their first songs and indeed hit records. He also recognises the difficulty of being famous and having a following in the clubs with little actual money, despite the input of managers who seemed to have been uniformly honest. There are stories of the pressures of touring, doing small venues and the times when it looked as if Slade had peaked. Their failure to attract success in America is quite a familiar story for many musical acts, and Hill points out the differences between the different parts of the United States that  cause problems for anyone to try and influence the entire country. He tells the story of each of their hits very naturally, showing them as the result of much hard work rather than sudden inspiration. He comments on the sound which made Slade stand out, as well as his experimental approach to clothes and hair which made him the memorable member of Slade. He also tells us of his wife, Jan, and her difficulties while he was on tour, with a small daughter and in a large house but away from family support. This is essentially story of a family supporting Hill while he made records and toured with both versions of Slade. He details his health problems, but actually comes over as a really positive person, grateful for opportunities which he has made the most of through the years.

I enjoyed this book more than I imagined that I would. It is consistently written and genuinely interesting in its celebration of a life partly lived in publicity and a pre –internet celebrity. It is a smashing book, full of interest and warmth for family and friends, and reviving memories for many.

This was a different sort of book for me, but I really enjoyed reading it. It was responsible for a few misspent hours on Youtube as well…

Wedding Bells for Land Girls by Jenny Holmes – An engaging novel set in Wartime Britain

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Melodrama, varied characters, rural life and a wartime setting all make this book a great immersive read. While being presented as a book featuring a group of girls, there are some satisfying aspects of a book that is truly page turning for many readers. Land girls all working in farms and for widely differing landowners have different experiences, but all are subject to the romance and drama of living away from home, often for the first time. Exactly how much difference the setting of war in 1942 makes to emotions is as frequently with such novels, and indeed real life, made more intense. Younger men are on leave from various military forces; the urge to join up or be conscripted affects many lives. Holmes handles the frustrations, fears and drama of lives lived on the edge well, and while there are certain points at which credulity may be stretched a little, it is all controlled well and the essential characteristics of each character is consistent.

This was the first book I have read in this series, so I was grateful that there is a list of characters at the beginning of this book. It opens with a wedding, which is a useful device for introducing many of the characters and their relationships to each other. We also see them behaving in the ways which will emerge through the novel, with slightly unsure Grace marring her long term love, Bill. Brenda is a down to earth and strong character who roars around on a motorbike even when en route to a wedding, where new comer Doreen is seen as a big character always attracting attention. Joyce is shown as a concerned figure in looking after the newer girls, while being attracted to the troubled Edgar. There is some black marketing by a wholly bad character, and it is this element of the novel which seems a little too extreme in what is otherwise a well balanced narrative. The older people in the village are a little easily dismissed; I got a little confused between some of the older women as to who was acting as manager of the Land Girl’s Hostel. I did think that the relationship between Grace and her new mother in law was well described. The actual work undertaken by the Girls sounds accurately established, and there are good sketches of the large horse who undertook a lot of work when there were fewer tractors. The somewhat fierce sister was convincing, and many of the situations are at least resolved by the rather fast ending.

Overall I enjoyed this book, as it had plenty of interest and was truly difficult to put down. While one or two elements tipped over into the unlikely, the overall emotionally charged situation is well handled. The impending departure of some of the men into various military organisations and the urge to make the most of time remaining was very well realised. There is no wailing about individual plights, and I found the action kept moving really well. This is an engaging read, full of action and excellent characters, and I will be searching out the next book soon.

This is yet another type of book that I have found recently. I am reviewing a pop star autobiography tomorrow, and I am looking at different books as picked up in Meadowhall last Friday. My new Waterstones card has finally been activated, so I was able to get a copy of Pat Barker’s “Silence of the Girls”. I also found William Boyd’s “Love is Blind” and Sarah Perry’s  “Melmoth”. Having recently embarked on “The Corset” by Laura Purcell, I have some serious reading to do!

The Case of the Murdered Major by Christopher Bush – Ludovic Travers in the Army!

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Another Ludovic Travers Mystery, this time originally published in 1941, but this time the genial amateur detective is in a far different role. This book has recently been reprinted by Dean Street Press, and marks the first of Bush’s books set in and dealing with wartime experience. Featuring life in a closed community, and giving many details of military procedure, this is a fascinating insight into the claustrophobic conditions in a prisoner of war community at the outbreak of war, but more specifically giving an acute perspective on the human interactions which precipitated a fictional murder, and the deductions which allowed it to be solved. In a way a brilliant book about a man who upset many, this is also a technically clever book of mystery and motive.

Our hero, Ludovic Travers, has become a Captain and Adjutant, or second in command, at Prisoner of War camp somewhere in Britain. Based in an old hospital, there is plenty of room to manoeuvre for the British unit of soldiers who are to guard prisoners and the eventual consignment of German sailors and others dispatched to the site. It is a place apart with fences and guards, which is an ideal setting for a murder mystery as any and all suspects have to actually be on site. Internal alibis are one thing, but the net is drawn around those who have official business in the camp at the time in question. Travers is the ideal man for the job of military administration on which such a security based role is dependent, but there is a downside in the form of the Commandant with whom he is meant to work. Major Stirrop is a quixotic, infuriating, self obsessed man, full of his own audience, full of bluster and no leader. He maddens many of his officers by his frequent changes of mind, inefficiency and unfounded accusations of insubordination. On a personal level several have motives for murder, alongside a group of prisoners intent on escape and acts of disruption. Travers has to oversee difficulties with a variable number of prisoners when counted, mysterious comings and goings and sufficiently weaponry on site to create major problems. Add in some snow and tensions with senior military figures, and Travers has his hands full. It is only when a figure from his own past arrives to take control of the investigation that hope for a solution emerges.

In many ways this is quite a specialised mystery novel, with the intelligent use of the military framework with which Bush was very familiar. All is made clear, however, and the reader would be able to solve it without any real military knowledge, largely owing to the introduction of a civilian professional detective. Superintendent George Wharton makes a welcome character as he is not limited by military regulations, which force Travers into an observation role for much of the investigation. As could be expected, there is a shortage of female characters in this nearly exclusively male setting, but there is one woman to lend further confusion. This is a most impressive work of its type and era, labelled by Curtis Evans in his informative introduction as the first in a trilogy of wartime Travers books. Definitely worth tracking down as a murder mystery with many interesting side issues, and a fascinating piece of wartime fiction in any sense.

Meanwhile our second harvest supper went well, with Northernvicar doing the washing up! (Well, it was either that or barn dance). I spent a happy few hours at Meadowhall on Friday, which is a Northernreader friendly environment, and acquired a few new hardback fiction books. Now “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker is claiming my attention – a little different from the above!

Betsy & Lilibet by Sophie Duffy – Two women, Same birth date, Different Lives

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This in some senses is the story of two women. One is possibly the best known woman in the world; Queen Elizabeth II. The other comes from a family well known only in the local area of London, Elizabeth Sarah Sunshine, Undertaker. It is such a personal, clever book which actually tells the story of the more obscure and fictional Elizabeth, looking back over decades of a life lived amongst the people of part of London. Her family, her friends and her clients make up the back drop of a woman who stayed in one place despite war, peace, happiness and sadness, and the departure of so many in all senses. This is the story of an ordinary life, but as with all seemingly ordinary lives, extraordinary things happen. In the background there are the comments of the more famous Elizabeth, always interesting, sometimes broadly relevant, always well known. I am very grateful to have received a proof copy of this book from the innovative Legend Press.

The two Elizabeths are linked by the same date of birth. One is born royal but never expected to become a Queen, the other is born in a respectable home, but not expected to live. Thus a recurring phrase in the novel is “Keep Baby with Mother”, as the tiny baby and her exhausted mother struggle to survive. Survive she does, and Betsy Sunshine grows, goes to school and makes a friend. This is all described in a detailed way, as she vies with her challenging sister, Margie. As war and the Blitz comes to London, death becomes even more a family business, as even the young Betsy is drawn into the daily job of seeking out and preparing the bodies of the victims of bombs. Grim details emerge of not only ruined buildings familiar from the photographs, but also the sounds and smells of the reality of pulling bodies out of buildings and reconstructing them as far as possible. The physical toughness of her father is described and the shortages of materials makes even the burial of the dead trying, in this vivid description of life at the time. Still life goes on, as the small jealousies of young romances survive and the other Elizabeth appears briefly in the crazy celebrations of peace. Interspersed with so many memories is the ongoing story of a woman in her nineties, living in a care home, contrasting sharply with the rarefied royal lifestyle of ­­another woman whose thoughts can only be guessed at by the sensible Betsy Sunshine.

This is a lovely book, full of real insight into a life of surprising insight from a woman who has frequently stared at death in the face of others. No detail of life is hidden, as Betsy relives her motives for helping others, her hurt at the behaviour of loved ones, her sadness at loss. It is also funny, basic and rewarding as Betsy’s robust sense of humour and love of her family and friends always surfaces even when the circumstances seen grim. There are touching moments as the now elderly Betsy deals with her relatives, as they reveal secrets and fail to shock.  Despite some of the subject matter, or maybe because of it, this is a funny and genuinely amusing book.I greatly enjoyed this story of a long life, well lived, a woman of our time with all the humour of a talented storyteller.

Life is still busy here at the Vicarage, with University sessions and other things beckoning. As always, so many books, so little time!

Pieces of Me by Natalie Hart – A moving novel of People and Place

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“At night he treads the streets of Baghdad”. This is a book of the pain of loss in many ways. It is also about memories that run concurrently with current events. It is about the parts of oneself that contribute to life, the memories, good and bad, which can and ought to be built up in a picture of self. This is a book of an international relationship with many happy memories and aspects, yet also with longing for places and people far away. It is a novel only possible in the age of the internet as characters find out what is going on, as well as communicate with each other. This is a modern book in some ways, with international concerns, but also a book of old emotional truths.

Emma works in the International zone in Baghdad as an administrator alongside American armed forces personnel. While she has her friend Anna, she like the other expats live life to a routine supposed to maintain their safety. Emma’s job is especially emotionally demanding as she interviews those who feel themselves in danger and are seeking urgent sanctuary in the U.S. She meets Adam, and we are told of their romance built on a desire to arrange the exit of certain individuals. Not that we are told in a linear narrative; we learn of Adam and Emma’s marriage and new life in Colorado as she describes her concern at the Army Unit’s imminent deployment back to Iraq. Being British, she feels lonely and without purpose when Adam departs, and she finds friendship with refugees from several countries. She will need all her resources to cope with events and emotions when trying circumstances come, and she must discover how to put the pieces together for herself.

This is a novel which achieve memory and current events and emotions simultaneously, with cleverly dropped hints about what happened and what might emerge. Emma is a real person telling her story and the stories of those around her powerfully and honestly. The writing flows beautifully, and I was drawn into two worlds; of Colorado and the reality of military families, as the constant draw of Iraq dominates despite fear and danger. This is a novel of both people and place, as real characters are seen in the two settings of America and Iraq. It shows how old griefs and regrets can shape our present and future, even if they are based many thousands of miles away. Real danger is presented in a far from glamorous way, when incoming bombs cause a familiar yet terrifying reaction. It is a novel of powerful imagination on several levels, as the writer imagines a whole world in many places, as well as Emma imagining possible events on the basis of her experience. Emma, Anna, Kate and other women become real as several men struggle, fathers, husbands and lovers emerge as less able to survive. I found this an incredibly powerful and timely novel, with much to admire in its portrayal of people, place and memory.

In other news, one Harvest Supper successfully negotiated with only minor sound problems; archive film of farming was more exciting than it sounds, honestly! Harvest festival services also successful, with a really fascinating talk from Jules about a school in Burkina Faso that he has set up. He pointed out that he insists on girls coming to school, as he believes that if you educate a woman you educate a family. He got some donations! Meanwhile, Bookworms today is discussing “Nine Tailors” by Dorothy L. Sayers. Bell ringing for beginners?

Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens – A novel of two women

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“Two women, two love stories, two centuries apart”. This is a book which sets out to do a lot. There is a large amount of autobiography here which is interesting, but it is sold on the sections concerning the Victorian author, Elizabeth Gaskell. Stevens attempts to run the story of her own life and studies with a fictional story concerning an author about which much is known. There are a few books which attempt to blend a famous author’s life or best known work with the story of the modern writer’s attempts to learn about them, but this is not the best of them. It is a valiant attempt to put some of the story of this lesser known author in a new context, and as such should be applauded, as Gaskell’s works include some excellent novels of individual women’s situation in the fast changing world of the Industrial Revolution. As such it may well inspire some to sample more of Gaskell’s work beyond the popular “Cranford”, which would be an excellent achievement.

The book opens with a picture of Elizabeth Gaskell in 1855, as she responds to the sermons that her Unitarian Minister husband preaches, of which she is not a huge fan. Stevens addresses Gaskell as “You” throughout the sections, which is an interesting technique to simultaneously draw her to the reader’s attention, and to approach the writer via her feelings and actions. This section goes on to relate how Gaskell had begun and developed her flourishing career as a writer, which led her to fame and meeting many interesting people, including Charlotte Bronte. When she discovers that Charlotte has died, she embarks on a biography of the writer which she anticipates will cause trouble; she wrote to her publisher “Do you mind the law of libel?” Partly to escape the publicity, she journeys to Rome, where she meets the younger but fascinating Charles Eliot Norton. She falls in love, with him, with Rome, with her escape from Manchester, and many of the sections in the book deals with her feelings on her return and resumption of life. There is a strange section featuring the Barrett Brownings. The Gaskell narrative is interspersed with Stevens’ own story of an international romance, which features her internet links with the man, and her struggles with her Phd studies. There are some varied pictures of a writing group in Paris and a health crisis, which overlaps with Gaskell in a different way.

I found much to interest me in this book, having a particular involvement with Gaskell studies, but I found the changes of focus less than engaging. There are almost two excellent books here, but I found the format a little disappointing. I found the fictional construction of Gaskell’s feelings fascinating, and generally fitting in with her existing writing in many letters. This is a good book, championing as it does Gaskell in a timely way. I did enjoy this book, found it engaging and readable, and would recommend it as a good introduction to Gaskell written in a unique way.

I particularly enjoyed this book because I have just finished a project with Elizabeth Gaskell house in Manchester. This book was being launched there a few days after my most recent visit. It certainly sheds an interesting light on Gaskell.

Meanwhile we are entering high Harvest Festival season hereabouts. Suppers, barn dances and other delights. Just a little sorting out of pie options to go…

A Vera Brittain Booklist

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Books

 

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain

 

Letters from a Lost Generation, First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends, edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge

 

Because You Died – Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, Vera Brittain, edited and introduced by Mark Bostridge

 

Vera Brittain and the First World War – The Story of Testament of Youth, Mark Bostridge

 

Vera Brittain – A Life, Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge

 

One Voice – Pacifist Writings from the Second World War,  Vera Brittain

 

Born 1925, Vera Brittain – a novel 

 

Honourable Estate, Vera Brittain – a novel

 

England’s Hour, Vera Brittain – an autobiography 1939-1941

 

Testament of Experience, Vera Brittain  – the sequel to Testament of Youth

 

Account Rendered, Vera Brittain – a novel

 

Testament of a Generation – The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop

 

Chronicle of Youth, Great War Diary 1913-1917, Vera Brittain, edited by Alan Bishop

 

The Cambridge Companion to War Writing, edited by Kate

McLoughin

 

Not forgotten, Neil Oliver

 

Great War Fashion, Lucy Adlington

 

Fighting on the Home Front, the Legacy of Women in World War One, Kate Adie

 

This is a different sort of post for me; it is a list of books that I used for my recent talk on Vera Brittain and the First World War. This was a woman who did so much more than I had the space and time to cover in my talk, as a feminist and a pacifist during the Second World War. If you are interested in Vera, the book to read is definitely  Testament of Youth. Not an easy read, or a cheerful one, but a real book of determination to survive and flourish despite loss and other challenges.