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Hardback book reviews - June 2023

Enjoy reading? Not sure what book to pick up next? Simon Evans reviews the latest hardbacks. 

Bob_Stanley_Bee_Gees_Children_of_the_world_front_coverThe Bee Gees: Children of the World, by Bob Stanley

When he’s not making sublime retro-pop with his band, Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley has become an astute chronicler of pop and pre-pop history with his books Yeah Yeah Yeah And Let’s Do It. With this new book he devotes his attention to one artist, the Bee Gees, the only band to have scored hits in five different decades yet who have retained an aura of naffness, of “meaningless words sung in very high voices” as one particularly cruel parody once put it.

Bob admits he has always had a fascination with the band, enticed not by the disco classics of the late Seventies, Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever – wonderful as they are – but rather the decidedly odd records they produced in the late Sixties and early Seventies, encapsulated in two Best Of albums that adorned many a Seventies record collection.

Bob writes: “To my mind, the Bee Gees were up there with the Beach Boys, and knocking on the Beatles’ back door. They were inventive, shape-shifting writers of death-haunted melodies, with voices that sounded like no one else. They were deeply odd, and quite wonderful.” Amen to that.

Early records like First of May, Melody Fair and Kilburn Towers, with their keening melodies and air of melancholy, are utterly unique, and quite wonderful, They also remind us that, above all else, the Gibb brothers were great songwriters, and it sometimes comes as a surprise to learn that the Gibbs were responsible for Islands in the Stream, To Love Somebody, Grease and Chain Reaction, not to mention More than a Woman, Words and Tragedy – all either written by the brothers Gibb or originally Bee Gees records.

Bob does an excellent job, not just in telling the Bee Gees’ story, from their roots in Manchester and the Isle of Man and a childhood growing up in Australia, but also in detailing the highs – global superstars post Saturday Night Fever – and lows, playing cabaret down the bill at Batley Variety Club in the mid Seventies. He also brilliantly conveys just what makes the Bee Gees music so special. Read this book and you may well fall in love with them all over again.

Published by Nine Eight Books Price £22 Pages 352 ISBN 9781788705417


Didn't_you_use_to_be_Chris_Mullin_diaries_2010-2022_front coverDidn’t You Use to be Chris Mullin?, by Chris Mullin

During his time as a Labour MP, from 1987 to 2010, Chris Mullin acquired a reputation for his doggedness and attention to detail, and that he never became more than “a flea bite on the body politic”, was at least in part, a consequence of his determination to ask awkward questions of those in authority.

Those qualities had already come to the fore in Mullin’s long, and ultimately successful, campaign to overturn the convictions of the Birmingham Six, something he revisits in this fourth volume of his diaries. Running from 2010 to 2022 they find Mullin relishing a new life away from Parliament, and are more candid than the three earlier volumes, when he was still climbing Westminster’s greasy pole. (Too candid perhaps – a little judicious editing would not have gone amiss in parts).

Mullin casts a wry eye over everything from the fall of New Labour and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn (who he appears to have something of a soft spot for, recognizing a fellow maverick perhaps) to the death of the Queen last year. Cutting but never cruel, and refreshingly un-partisan in his observations, Mullin’s outsider-looking-in perspective provides a fascinating commentary on a turbulent period in our history.

Published by Biteback Price £25 Pages 576 ISBN 9781785907913


Rob_Burley_Why_is_this_lying_bastard_lying_to_me_front_coverWhy is this lying ******* lying to me, by Rob Burley

Few are as qualified to pronounce on the state of political broadcast journalism as Rob Burley, whose long career has included stints on Newsnight, The Andrew Marr Show and Politics Live, which he devised and launched.

Rob currently plays a leading role at Sky News, working closely with the channel’s political editor Beth Rigby, where his insights, if this book is anything to go by, must be invaluable.

It’s essentially a history of politics on television, with special emphasis on that singular art, the political interview. Rob suggests its greatest practitioners were Brian Walden and Andrew Neil, although the former’s reputation was dented substantially by revelations, confirmed in this book, that he helped draught a Conservative election broadcast for Margaret Thatcher in 1983 while still working as the host of Weekend World. Indeed, the relationship between Walden and Thatcher is one of the most fascinating sections of the book; mostly one of mutual admiration, it ended suddenly and brutally after an encounter on Weekend World, a year before the Iron Lady was deposed.

Rob despairs of the grandstanding that goes on today, on the part of both politicians and journalists – of which, it has to be said, his colleague Beth Rigby has been as guilty as anyone on occasion – and bemoans the lack of rigour that is often all too apparent in the age of social media and 24-hour-news. He also looks back fondly to a time when politicians were people of substance and relished encounters with forensically prepared inquisitors. How we could do with some of them now.

Published by Mudlark Price £16.99 Pages 432 ISBN 9780008542481


A_life_in_cricket_and_in_the_mind_Mike_Brearley_Turning_over_the_PebblesTurning Over the Pebbles, by Mike Brearley

Although he came late to Test cricket, playing his first match for England in 1976 at the age of 34, Mike Brearley quickly became one of the all-time great international captains. Parachuted into the England captaincy in the wake of the Packer affair, he piloted the England team through a difficult period in its history and would go on to lift the coveted Ashes three times, including the memorable 1981 series that is seared into the memory of cricket lovers everywhere thanks to Ian Botham’s remarkable exploits.

Man-managing a team that included in its ranks such disparate mavericks as Botham, Geoff Boycott and Bob Willis was just one of Brearley’s feats as captain, and opting for a post-cricket career in psychoanalysis must have seemed like a vicarage tea party in comparison.

In this enjoyable memoir he looks back over a career that, aside from cricket and psychoanalysis, also included a spell as a philosophy lecturer. Needless to say, with its digressions into Ludwig Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy and the psychology of Shakespeare’s King Lear, this is not your conventional cricket memoir, but then Brearley was never a conventional cricketer.

His early life is charmingly and movingly rendered, while joining the dots between the different threads of his career and many interests is all part of the fun. And yes, there is plenty of cricket too, although there are more generous portions to be found in Brearley’s other books Spirit of Cricket, On Cricket and classic The Art of Captaincy.

Published by Constable Price £22 Pages 277 ISBN 9781408715963


Mark_Billingham_Last_Dance_front_cover.The Last Dance, by Mark Billingham

From the author of the excellent Tom Thorne crime novels comes a new Blackpool-set series featuring another similarly down-at-heel detective, DS Declan Miller. Recently widowed, DS Miller spends his time looking after his pet rats, ballroom dancing and talking to his dead wife; that’s when he’s not firing off wisecracks to all and sundry, including his long-suffering new work partner, promiscuous, thrash-metal loving DS Sara Xiu, who, to her credit resolutely never gets the joke. There’s more humour here than in the Tom Thorne books, and it is occasionally over-egged, but the plotting is as deft as ever, involving the killing of two men in adjacent hotel rooms, while the mystery surrounding the death of Miller’s wife, also a copper, sets things up nicely for future novels.

Published by Sphere Price £22 Pages 397 ISBN 9781408717127



Nick_Drake_the_life_front_coverNick Drake: The Life, by Richard Morton Jack

Until his discovery by the Britpop generation in the Nineties, the singer-songwriter Nick Drake’s work had largely gone unnoticed and unloved. Now the three remarkable albums Drake produced during his short life are common currency and his music seems to be everywhere.

Now comes this hefty biography, endorsed by Nick’s sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, who also contributes a foreword. Written with her approval (often the kiss of death for a biography, but not, thankfully, in this case) the book is bulging with new insights and revelations about Nick’s early life, the depression that blighted his later years and stunted his creative muse, and his death in 1974 at the age of just 26, around which speculation has constantly swirled.

In his final report, one of Drake’s masters at Marlborough College public school said of the young man, “everyone has liked him, though few have really known him”. That reserve, which developed into a crippling shyness and something much darker as Drake entered his late teens and early twenties, would come to blight his life (schizophrenia was diagnosed at one point).

Nick rarely performed live, especially as his illness started to take hold, which did little to help his albums find an audience, and personal relationships became increasingly difficult.

The last 100 pages of the book are especially difficult – by the end of Nick’s life he had almost completely withdrawn from the world, living back home in Tanworth-in-Arden with his devoted parents and spending hours shut away in his room where his frustrations sometimes exploded into a blind rage.

It’s remarkable that someone who died at such a tender age and recorded just three albums in their lifetime should be the subject of such a weighty biography but, in truth, it doesn’t feel a page too long.

Nick may have been essentially unknowable but Richard Morton Jack makes an admirable attempt at understanding what made him tick, and the picture he paints is certainly a more rounded and complete one than in the Patrick Humphries biography back in the Nineties.

This biography really is the last word on an artist whose music has become both timeless and ageless.

Published by John Murray Price £30 Pages 576 ISBN 9781529308082 

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