Book review: Firelight On Dark Water

Bill Allerton, Cybermouse Books, 2015

You need a few things when writing your first novel. First, you need a story, preferably a good one (and one that hasn’t been written too often before). Next, you need the free time and motivation to actually start typing those words that have been dancing around in your head. A computer is also handy, of course.

But those only gets you so far. You also need a bit of luck. And mine was meeting Bill.

I contacted him while fishing around for publishers in the north. Despite not knowing me, and having his own books to work on (plus undoubtedly a hundred other things he could be doing), he offered to take a look at my draft. A day later, it came back with guidance suggestions and criticisms. He managed to see instantly what needed doing, and edited sections to show me how. Switch to the present tense; cut out the redundancy; add a little nuance; slow it down a touch. All excellent advice, delivered frankly and free of charge. All things I would never have spotted myself, too, no matter how many read-throughs I gave it.

More useful still was the encouragement, which came amid a wave of rejection emails. Keep going; stick with it; try this publisher; get it finished, one way or another. I did. Maybe I would have done anyway, but a firm-yet-friendly kick along the way was very welcome.

Bill’s input, already above what I could reasonably expect from a stranger, didn’t stop there. For reasons unknown (other than he’s a thoroughly decent chap), he showed me how to typeset for publication and offered to design a cover for me. He patiently talked me through each step, and once the text was with the printer, he quietly went away and made a podcast of the first chapter. Just as a favour. Like I said, a thoroughly decent chap.

I would probably have bought one of Bill’s own books anyway at that point, as a way to show my gratitude. But I was also keen to explore his writing in more detail, to see what else could be gleaned. I started with his collection of short stories, Firelight On Dark Water; there are several more to choose from.

At this point, it would be easy for this post to become a sycophantic letter of appreciation. Experienced author helps debut author, who writes gushing review in return, etc etc… log rolling, I think it’s called. So I’ll start my review by stating that I didn’t like all of the stories. One or two passed me by: I either missed or misunderstood what it was trying to say. Yet these were few and far between; overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable collection.

It’s an unusual one, too, at least when compared with the books I usually read. It’s mostly set in and around Bill’s northern home, and the themes covered – motorbike parts, ageing – are not typical literary staples. The thread that binds them all together, though, is the dialogue. Each character, however briefly they appear, is distinctive instantly in the way the author writes their words and thoughts. It’s a talent, and one he has spent years mastering to the point of excellence. It stands out especially in ‘The Big Idea’, in which he pulls off the tricky feat of a dialogue between two versions of the same people.

The mastery of dialogue is most clearly expressed in my favourite story in the collection, ‘Vayu Manush’, which tells of the travails of a collection of Indian villagers. The shift away in style is done so well that the reader is instantly transported from Sheffield suburbs and northern nooks without any jolt or even any turbulence.

One perk of knowing an author, even if only virtually, is that you can quiz them about details. I took advantage of this and asked Bill where in India he had set this charming little tale, which place during his travels there had inspired the story.

‘I’ve never been to India. That’s what your imagination is for.’

Yet more valuable advice from my northern mentor.

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Image by JAHuddleston / Pixabay

Our house

In 41 years I have lived in 16 houses. And never once given thought to the people who were there before me. At least, not until I moved into my current home in Friedenau. Because one of the former residents was Rosa Luxemburg.

To my embarrassment, possibly shame, her significance passed me by for the first year or so. I’d noted the memorial in the street outside – a modest iron structure stood amid a bed of red rose bushes – but never taken the time to wonder who the woman in the black-and-white photograph was. Only when walking home with a German friend did her importance strike home.

‘Rosa Luxemburg lived here? Wow.’

His faced conveyed awe, admiration; so much so that, once inside, I asked my German wife who she was, why she meant so much. As I listened, new connections dawned: with the square that takes her name in Berlin’s city centre; with the memorial outside the zoo, marking the point where her body was thrown into the Landwehr canal, a hundred years ago this week.

Berlin is a city where you are unable to escape history. No trip to see the clear waters and huge skies at Wannsee can pass untainted, knowing what occurred in the houses on the opposite bank. Any walk around the Museumsinsel is now spent looking for the bullet holes that pock the building walls; once they’ve been pointed out, they’re impossible to overlook.

And this history is found everywhere. At the end of our street is a Schuttburg, one of Berlin’s rubble mountains that provide the few elevation points in this horizontal city. Outside our door, near Rosa Luxemburg’s memorial, are the Stolpersteine that silently remember two others who were taken from our house and murdered: Gertrud and Leo Friedländer.

None of these would have been in place when Rosa Luxemburg was here; nor would the swastika we found marked on the ceiling of our cellar, a painted reminder that the place you call home does not dictate your politics.

Every month or so, a tour party calls at our building, wanting to see the place where she lived. They carry that familiar look of awe and admiration that I now understand and share.

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A good introduction to Rosa Luxemburg’s life is Red Rosa.

 

 

 

Track 32. If…, The Bluetones

Return to the Last Chance Saloon, 1998

Take a moment. Imagine that the Beatles wrote ‘If…’.

It’s not a huge leap to make. The song has a laid-back, shuffling bassline not a hundred miles from ‘Come Together’, and the singalong finale is positively Hey Judian. The lyrics are also Fab Four-esque, eschewing the usual boy-loves-other stuff to explore … well, I’m not 100% sure. A discussion of prison release dates, maybe?

But think what could have happened if it had come out thirty years earlier, perhaps replacing ‘Good Day Sunshine’ on Revolver or doing us all a favour and booting ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ into touch. Today, it would be an unofficial national anthem. Kids would sing it during school assemblies; football crowds would use it to abuse referees; we would hear it regularly via the hinterland music that soundtracks our lives.

Yet I almost never hear it. Outside of dedicated Britpop shows, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it on the radio. No one I know ever hums it, no cover bands take it on. And this is an injustice, because it is the fifth-best song of the 1990s (the others being, in ascending order, ‘A Little Soul’, ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’, ‘On And On’ and ‘Spice Up Your Life’*).

Bluetones 1995So good a song is it that it can heal damaged-if-not-fully-broken hearts. I listened to the Bluetones a lot at university; partly because they were great, but there were a lot of great bands around back then. But the Bluetones were the only Britpop band that my sort-of student girlfriend deemed tolerable (sort-of my girlfriend, not sort-of a student). As a result, Return To The Last Chance Saloon got many, many repeated plays back in ’98, as I leapt to the CD player to avoid the awful alternative of it being replaced by something from the (mercifully short-lived) drum’n’bass  genre.

The relationship didn’t end that well – for me, anyway, she seemed to survive easily enough – and by association, that album should have been condemned to a lifetime at the back of the drawer, never to be played lest it tugged at still-raw wounds. But even now, even though it still carries that painful whiff of rejection, I still love it. And I love ‘If…’ most of all, because it’s soaringly, achingly brilliant.

It’s curious, then, to discover that so few people share this view. It never makes listicles for the best Britpop tracks – not this one or this one or this one. And if the combined readership of NME honestly think that ‘Kandy Pop’ by bIS is a better tune, then I have little hope left for Britain.

Incredibly, ‘If…’ doesn’t even make lists of the top ten Bluetones tracks. And the official Bluetones 1998video on YouTube has a mere 55,000 views. Respectable enough, but still only 0.003% of the total garnered for ‘Baby Shark‘. Seriously, what is wrong with people?

One thing this demonstrates is just how much competition there was back then. At times, I struggled with writing my Britpop-themed book – it’s never easy trying to pen a grubby sex scene that you know your dad is going to read – but writing about the music never caused a problem. There were so many bands, songs, gigs to choose from, so many joyful musical memories to include, that it wasn’t possible to fit them all in.

I made sure the Bluetones were included though; no question about that. (They get a live gig and the title of the final chapter, if you’ve not already read it. And if not, why not?)

This is my last chapter-based blog post and, over the course of 33 songs, I have at times wondered whether Britpop is quite as important as we Nineties aficionados think it is. Did it really, hand on heart, have a greater impact than any other musical era? I have seen thousands of people – all of them roughly 10 years older than me – pack out a field in Guildford to watch a line-up of Sinitta, Kajagoogoo and one-quarter of UB40. Trust me, they were just as excited about it as any Britpop audience I have seen. Poor fuckers.

I don’t think there is anyone out there who would credibly claim that Bros were better than Blur, or that Five Star can hold a candle to Pulp. The point is, every generation likes to think that they produced the best music.

Only mine, though – the Britpop generation – is right.

Top three Bluetones tracks (other than ‘If…’):

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* This is a joke. Number 1 is of course ‘Flying Without Wings’.

 

Track 31. Come Back To What You Know, Embrace

The Good Will Out, 1998

I’m nearly there. Nearly at the end.

Thirty-one tracks written, and just one more to go after this. The finishing line is in sight.

And I’m tired. Very, very tired.*

The idea behind this blog was to write regularly about music, to demonstrate to book publishers that I work constantly at my craft, hone away, engage with my audience and that they should offer me a contract.

Didn’t work.

Instead, it became a way to promote my self-published Britpop book to fans of the bands therein. And it’s worked to that end; sales are ticking along nicely (thanks, everyone).

But there’s only so many ways to approach an article about 20-plus-year-old songs, only so many angles to take. Eventually you’ll hit a wall.

This track is my wall.

EmbraceI like ‘Come Back To What You Know’ but only because it has a nice tune. I have nothing deeper to share; no clever intuition about what the lyrics mean, no insights about how it shaped the musical landscape.

The band? Let’s try the band themselves. Well, they came quite late to the Britpop party of course, arriving on the scene just as­– no no, I did that one with Travis a couple of weeks ago.

I like Embrace. Everyone likes Embrace (but we did that with Saint Etienne last week). The problem is, I have nothing to say about Embrace. I never listen to Embrace.

Let me think …

My ex-housemate Gordon was a fan, and played The Good Will Out more often than was strictly necessary when it came out. But I’ve already dragged him in for Ether and the Super Furries. It’s not fair to whore him out once more. Besides, does anyone care what my ex-housemate listened to two decades ago? Does anyone care what I listened to back then? Or now?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s only so much to be said about Britpop.

This next statement may be considered blasphemous in certain quarters, but … was it all that special? Do the many naysayers have a point when they say that it was all hype and little substance, that those of us who look back through Union Jack-tinted spectacles are fooling ourselves about its ongoing relevance?

Take Oasis, for example. Great tunes, shite lyrics. Go on, try reading the words to ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. Read them, don’t listen to them, the melody distracts you.

It’s gibberish. A soup of unrelated nouns, verbs and adjectives. Even when they’re not spouting incoherent nonsense, they’re singing rubbish. So they’re free to do whatever they choose, are they? They can sing the blues if they want?

Great. So can anyone. There are no laws against it, and it hardly demonstrates cutting-edge rebellion. But Liam, here’s the thing: you’re not singing the blues, you’re singing rock and roll. So you’re not even exercising your proclaimed free will.

Next.

Oh, Elastica. Seriously, what’s all the fuss about? They only squeezed out two albums, the Wire smash-and-grab raid and the other one that no one remembers. Robson and Jerome managed two albums in far less time, and both of theirs went to number one.

And then there’s Pulp.

Everyone loves Pulp, right? Of course they do, with all those clever word plays and knowing lyrics about the working classes and seedy council estate sex and being northern. But it’s not as it they were the first to get excited about that. Different Class was basically ‘Coronation Street: The Musical’.

Let’s be clear: Britpop was largely great because we, the fans, were young back then. To anyone born between 1973 and 1978, it formed the soundtrack to the years when we could drink without fear of the hangover, a time when every night out held the vague possibility of sex. We might think it’s special, that it crosses generational divides with its enduring brilliance but, to this day, I have yet to meet anyone more than five years younger than me who likes, cares about or ever thinks of Britpop.

I still love it, though, despite its flaws. It was still the greatest music the UK has ever produced.

Except maybe the Sixties.

But it takes me back to my youth. And I like that. After all, what’s wrong with a little nostalgia?

Top three Embrace tracks (not straying very far from the curve here, admittedly):

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* This may also have something to do with two under-threes in the house. Definitely more than twice the work of one.

Track 30. The Day We Caught The Train, Ocean Colour Scene

Moseley Shoals, 1996

Ocean Colour Scene don’t get the acclaim they deserve. They were up there with the best of the Nineties, and Moseley Shoals was a definitive album from that decade. Yet they are rarely mentioned as one of the big five; Stephen Cradock is nowhere to be found on the cover of I Was Britpopped, or on the posters for Star Shaped. Like cheetahs on a safari, they must stare at their exalted rivals and wonder: what did we do wrong?

Well, there’s the name for a start. Three words? A bit greedy, lads. You can write BlurOasisSuedePulp with the same number of characters (if we include the spaces). And to be truly Britpop, they needed to make it big a little earlier than 1996 (their eponymous 1992 debut failing to make much of a mark, despite its qualities).

But I can’t help thinking they lost a bit of muso credibility due to some of the company they kept. Their most recognisable tune, ‘The Riverboat Song’ holds a strong claim to having the best riff of the decade; it’s certainly the most distinctive. But its use on TFI Friday meant it swiftly became too familiar – and too easily associated with Chris Evans, rather than them.

Having harnessed the Britpop beast for his own nefarious purposes, Evans set about casting his eye across the landscape, a Ginger Sauron looking for the next band to force to do his bidding. What said bands may have gained in PRS cheques, they lost in respect and affection among hardcore music fans (as opposed to the pissed-up buffoons that audienced his shows). And whatever he might think, Chris Evans was never, ever cool. He tried too hard and wanted it too much for that cap to fit.

See also Guy Ritchie. There is little doubt that ‘Hundred Mile High City’ is the perfect kick-off music for a fast-paced action film. But the question is which film. ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ is a fine, if flawed, film; ‘Snatch’ too. But from those high points onwards, Ritchie has sent a procession of turds floating down the Thames to his make-believe capital of comedy gangsters and laboured rhyming slang. When hearing the frantic excitement of that track’s intro, I don’t think of Ocean Colour Scene so much as fighting gypsies and fat Greek fixers and poker games; of Mockney accents so thick even Damon would steer clear; of Vinnie Jones displaying the nuanced versatility of a brick. And still outperforming Sting.

OCS 1996 v2But like many a young lad who got in with the wrong crowd, OCS had a softer, more sensitive side. And it’s here that much of their finest work can be found. The song title I borrowed for my book is the most famous of these gentler tracks, but delve into the albums and there are plenty more to enjoy. ‘Lining Your Pockets’ and ‘The Downstream’ stand out on Moseley Shoals, while ‘Big Star’ on Marchin’ Already is a touching, haunting tune, something a hundred miles away from the thrash of their noisy opener.

It’s more than possible that they couldn’t care less, of course. They have fame, massive global sales, a devoted following, and no doubt a steady stream of royalties, plus they continue to tour twenty years on to exuberant sell-out crowds. I doubt very much if Chris Evans or Guy Ritchie worry that much what I think about them either. Neither seems to be doing too badly.

But a legacy is important if you’re an artist. At what point does Robert de Niro’s shocking performances outnumber his Oscar-winning roles? Has Irvine Welsh now fully undermined the genius of Trainspotting, stretching his heroin addicts beyond their natural breaking point?

It can cost us consumers as well, if we’re too quick to judge. Those who reject UB40 as a dismal cod reggae outfit doing karaoke Neil Diamond covers (i.e. most people) will never get to hear the brilliance of their debut album, Signing Off. And non-Britpop-loving types who dismiss Ocean Colour Scene as just another all-male guitar-led rock band are missing out as well. With touches of blues and rock, soul and thunder, they were – are – so much more than that.

Top three OCS tracks:

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Track 29. He’s On The Phone, Saint Etienne

Tiger Bay, 1994

Life as a music fan can be tiring. There are bands you have to constantly defend an affection for, given how they cleaver opinion. Take U2; I have spent many hours arguing that Bono’s wankier moments are more than offset by any track from The Unforgettable Fire. Likewise the Levellers, a teenage favourite of mine who can make otherwise reasonable people froth like a rabid dog on a hot day.

It’s easy to find yourself on the other side, too. I have never understood the fuss about the Smiths, who seem to be an overhyped, light-touch jangle fest of overt northerness. And Nirvana? I really don’t get it at all. A lot of fuss for four good songs, one of them nicked from Bowie.

Just occasionally, though, we all meet up in that happy place where everyone sings the same tune. Kylie, for instance. Everyone loves Kylie. For her Kylieness more than her music, but even so, she’s a national treasure we’ve stolen from the Aussies. Likewise, I think we can all agree that Longpigs were absurdly awesome. And that Menswear were shite.

I’d like to think we all concur on Saint Etienne’s brilliance, too. Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like them? If so, I’d be interested to know why – there’s simply no axe to be ground. The songs are chirpy and tuneful, yet different enough from both chart-focused pop nonsense or Britpop’s guitar standards to be interesting. There are far too many melodies to park them in the dance music camp. And they have a real curiosity value as well: who else would opt for a cover of never-knowns Candlewick Green so early in their career?

Their covers are one of the things that make them so special. It would be sacrilegious to suggest they improved Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, but by completely revamping it, they turned it into something so utterly, wonderfully different that it’s possible to like it (almost) as much as the original.

And displaying a welcome touch of deference, they left ‘Heart Of Gold’ alone, respecting the fact that some things are not to be touched.

Top three Saint Etienne tracks:

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Track 28. Tied To The 90s, Travis

Good Feeling, 1997

It was all beginning to unravel by the time Travis showed up.

Just before Travis released their debut album in 1997, Be Here Now had blown Britpop’s foundations away, and not in a good way. Two years later, when they presented The Man Who to us, they did so amid the ruins of the empire, crows picking at the bodies of those who had failed to escape in time, as the rest of us peeked around the corner of the millennium to see what might be heading our way.

Did Travis know what was happening? The gentle Britpop-mocking lyrics of ‘Slide Show’ suggest they quite possibly did. Indeed their songs would have nestled snugly in among the slower, wittier side of Britpop. Instead, they were late to the party, pottering in cheerily with two four-packs of lager just as everyone else was thinking only of sleep and getting a kebab to try and suppress the vomit from rising.

So late, in fact, that many associate them more readily with what followed the morning after: Stereophonics, Coldplay, Starsailor and Keane.*

Toploader too. The musical equivalent of coming around to find a gatecrasher has shat in your parent’s bed and smashed up your CD collection. I’d have taken the complete meltdown of western civilisation promised by the Millennium Bug if it had spared us ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’.

Yet to mark Travis as guilty by association with Britpop’s mediocre followers would be to overlook the excellence of their earliest works. The Man Who is familiar to millions, its big singles having squatted in our radios for much of 1999, even though the best tracks are the previously mentioned ‘Slide Show’ and little-played ‘The Fear’.

TravisBut it’s Good Feeling where the real gems lie. ‘Happy’ is a joyous little burst of cheerfulness, ‘Tied To The 90s’ managed to pre-empt what a lot of us would soon be feeling, while ‘U16 Girls’ marks another notch in rock’s proud catalogue of songs about paedophilic near-misses (see also Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Johnny Burnette, Neil Sedaka, even the sacred Beatles. A worryingly popular theme for pop music, to be honest).

Where do we place Travis, then? Exalt them a worthy encore to Britpop, the methadone to soothe us through the post-addiction struggle? Or charge them with the softening of our rock, their over-sensitive whines about driftwood and why it’s always raining seeping into the fissures of the nation and drowning out the music of northern council estates and London’s grimier quarters, making us ask ourselves repeatedly why life is so unfair and I don’t like your opinion and now we’re all no-platforming snowflakes who cannot abide listening to any views we don’t like.

Are Travis responsible for this soft-centred, self-obsessed, entitled, obese and over-indulged nation we’ve become? Did they really read Britpop’s last rites, and close the curtain on this country’s finest five years of music? It’s a undoubtedly a harsh accusation.

But still better than being held responsible for Toploader.

Top three Travis tracks

* Note: I have seen both Coldplay and Keane live and they were both excellent. And I like ‘Everybody’s Changing’ as long as I don’t hear it too often. Viva La Vida too. But some of their later albums are truly horrific, so the charges stand.

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