Saturday, 29 October 2011

Peter Cook: A Biography by Harry Thompson

You don't hear much of Peter Cook these days, and it's not just because he's dead.  His biggest TV hit Not Only...But Also was mostly wiped by the BBC.  His movies were usually awful.  His radio work mainly consisted of 3am calls to LBC in character as a lonely Norwegian fisherman.  But back in the early 60s he was the single most important comedian in the world.  This is a brilliant account of his amazing rise and tragic fall.

Like many comedians, his material was formed in childhood.  Cook had a very priviledged upbringing, though it probably didn't feel like that at the time.  He got through boarding school by making people laugh.  His impression of the boring and bizarre school butler (?) Mr Boylett became a craze among his classmates. A few years later it became a sensation among the undergraduates in Cambridge, then in London when Beyond the Fringe hit the West End.  The same thing happened when the show went to New York, and it happened again when Not Only...But Also was shown on the BBC.  But Cook didn't like to say how the character came about, in case it hurt Mr Boylett's feelings.

He was widely hailed as best and brightest of the satire boom of the early '60s, though he was never very satirical.  He just wanted to make people laugh.  All the time.  Throughout his life Cook would turn up somewhere and have everyone in stiches for hours.  You get the feeling that no medium ever captured him at his best - you just had to be there.

His compulsion to be funny was also his tragedy.  Very few people really got behind the wall of silly voices and absurd conceits.  People started to find him draining.  He became an alcoholic, apparently overnight, in the early '70s and the remaining two decades of his life make for desperately sad reading. 

He completely alienated his long suffering comedy partner Dudley Moore.  He grew estranged from his family, whom he loved dearly.  He became bloated, wore ridiculously mismatched clothes and spent much of his time with drug addled fantasist called Rainbow George.  Peter took stacks of drugs himself, but he drank more and he cried a lot as well.  Despite it all he made everyone laugh wherever he went and people loved him.  But the Peter Cook comeback never happened.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

A cracking whodunnit set in Fife, which is a lot nicer than most Scots would have you believe.

The first half is set in St Andrews in the '70s when four students who've been friends since childhood stumble across a murdered girl on their way home from a party.  With no other suspects, suspicion falls on them, leading to breakdowns, violence and more tragedy.  The second half picks up twenty five years later as the case is re-opened and someone starts targetting the four friends.

I'm not going to go into too much detail, as the joy of a good thriller is having everything laid out for you at just the right time.  And the pacing here is great.  The question of who-actually-dunnit isn't addressed until surprisingly late in the game, but the plot grips throughout.  The main focus is the relationship between the friends and how that changes when something horrible happens to them.

As well as friendship, the big themes are false assumptions and prejudice.  It comes out in the characters as well as the plot - two or three of them just don't act how you'd expect them to in a book like this.  Very refreshing.  And although it might seem unlikely, I really liked the fact that people automatically think the four friends murdered this girl when there's nothing at all to suggest they're guilty.

We like to think the world is fair and reasonable, but anyone can find themselves behind bars if they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Ask Amanda Knox or Luke Mitchell.  And if the unthinkable does happen to you, try to avoid being a Marilyn Manson fan or doing cartwheels in the police station.  When there's a dead girl knocking about, people tend to think the worst.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

1985 by Anthony Burgess

Another bonkers dystopian novel, but not a good one.

This is a sort of re-imagining of 1984, and you've got to wade through a lengthy critique of Orwell's book first.  There are some good points, a few laughs (Burgess calls A Clockwork Orange "not very good") and quite a bit of abstruse nonsense.  It means you've only about 115 pages for the novel itself.  If it had been much longer I don't think I'd have finished it.

Here's the set up - the unions are all powerful, and every line of work is a closed shop.  Constant strikes have crippled the economy and the country's in hock to the Arabs, who're plotting to turn the country into an Islamic state.

Now, this is pretty strong stuff, and seems carefully crafted to wind up Guardian readers.  And it's the most enjoyable aspect of the book.  It's both bizarre and believable, at least for the time.  Remember, this was written in the late '70s.  The Winter of Discontent was just around the corner and OPEC was holding the west to ransom.  A worrying time to be looking to the future, and I think this vision of the '80s would've seemed a lot more likely at the time than the one we got.

 The problems of the novel are pretty deep though.  The plot's very episodic and the main character moves from scene to scene making speeches about freedom.  Dramatically unsatisfying.  And some things are just plain odd.  There are violent gangs of teenage rapists, but instead of listening to Beethoven, they quote Latin and beat people up for not looking like Don Quixote (yes, this happens.)   They're supposed to be rebelling against the dumbed down, politically correct education they get at school, but it's just silly.

What's even stranger is the treatment of the main character's 13 year old daughter.  She's a slack jawed moron who watches TV constantly and tries to get her dad to fondle her.  I thought she just represented overly-sexualised, under-educated youth, but we find out pretty late on that she is actually brain damaged.  And yet she's always treated as an object of disdain and disgust.  She ends up being given over to an Arab prince as a concubine with her father's tacit consent.  It all feels very unpleasant.

Here's my recommendation:  give 1985 a miss and read 1984.  If you've read it before, why not read it again?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Don't call it a comeback, and no - I didn't retire.  I'll have you know I've been doing some hard reading over the past month!  I managed to plough through this modern epic, and left another couple of books abandoned at the side of the road.

Lanark's got a bit of a reputation as a difficult read but although I started flagging a couple of times, something great always managed to pop up in time.  It's really two novels welded together into one.  It starts in a dystopian version of Glasgow called Unthank where the sun never rises and people vanish as they turn into dragons.  It feels more like a bad dream than science fiction, and it's never completely convincing.

The book takes a turn for the better as the lead character (Lanark himself) is shown his previous life from a child to a tortured young painter.  This is the most successful part of the book, and it's strongly autobiographical.  It doesn't stop Gray painting the character Thaw as a weird, selfish, socially dysfunctional little prick.  I think there's more than a touch of self-flagellation going on here from the author.

The last part of the book picks up Lanark's story again.  I liked this better than the first fantasy section, as our hero travels back to Unthank with his beloved girlfriend (who clearly hates his guts) and accidently becomes a prominent political figure.  There's a lot of really sharp satire here - stuff I haven't seen before.  How Scotland changed from a manufacturing to a public sector economy; the transformation of Glasgow's skyline over the decades (not least the M8) and the way the elites in local government and business behave.

But the biggest target of the satire is the book itself.  Alasdair Gray himself turns up towards the end, ripping right into his own masterwork.  There's even an "index of plagiarisms" which show what ideas, scenes and dialogue he's stolen from where, even down to where he's stolen the idea for a boring fake index in a novel.  What's really interesting is when you notice many of the entries are about chapters which go beyond the end of the book, and give you clues about what happens next, even while mocking the whole stupid plot.  We've seen this kind of po-mo thing before with mixed results, but I loved it here.

Not a perfect novel by any means, but really enjoyable.  I wonder though if I got more out of it from growing up in Glasgow.  The Cathedral and the Necropolis especially loom large both in Thaw's city and Unthank.  It does feel like he's writing his hometown a valentine and poison pen letter in one.  All great cities deserve such a treatment