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by Duncan Edwards

9 Aug 2007


John Peel: Margrave of the Marshesby John Peel, Sheila RavenscroftChicago Review PressJune 2007, 432 pages, $19.95

John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes
by John Peel, Sheila Ravenscroft
Chicago Review Press
June 2007, 432 pages, $19.95

A portrait of the life of John Peel, not only the best radio DJ ever, but arguably the most important cultural figure in Britain in the last 50 years. Margrave Of The Marshes is a love story, or several: the love between John and his wife Sheila and their kids, for Liverpool FC, between John and music, and for John from his very fortunate listeners. 

No one needs have heard John Peel on the radio, or even be a huge music fan to appreciate this beautiful book. It contains enough intimate tales from John’s childhood and schooling to entertain and shock. His reference to the smoking of blotting paper at boarding school with the accompanying talk of the effects of different colors, brilliantly skewers drug-culture and pokes fun at himself. Included are refreshingly ordinary examples of his shyness and insecurity to which many people can relate, and there are hundreds of amusing asides and plenty of magnificent anecdotes. The book is a vivid joyful celebration of a life well lived, though tinged with sorrow that a terrific marriage is interrupted by his passing.

Another strength lies in the fact that Margrave of the Marshes is far from a litany of My Life With Various Rock Stars. For sure there are some low-key tales of a few musicians that will delight: John and Marc Bolan feeding their rabid addiction to Scaletrix, phone calls with Captain Beefheart about keeping chickens, messages from Bowie before he hit it big, but name-dropping was never John’s style. Instead, he spends more time talking about the people who wrote to him over the years, (like the disturbed person who simply would not accept that he did not share an apartment with Stevie Wonder and Lou Reed), or telling of characters he met during his National Service or while living near the White Rock Lake area of Dallas, than focusing on Mark E.Smith or the Undertones. Whilst the writing has a keen edge with a tone that is mostly gentle, enthusiastic, warm and dry, a sense emerges that the very few people of whom he speaks badly probably deserved worse.

John’s time in America could stand alone as reason to read this book. His interaction with JFK is both startling and a sad depiction of a bygone age of innocent connection. His comments on the attitudes of the time and of his adventures in cars, bowling alleys, and bars have a magical quality. Elsewhere, we can chuckle at photographs showing John trying to be Gene Vincent, and at his school reports, including remarks from the astute R.H.J. Brooke who also taught Michael Palin. Brooke appears to have been instrumental in giving the young Peel a lot of lasting confidence, though he wrote: “It’s possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays ...”

The love between John and Sheila (for decades the woman referred to on-air and off as The Pig) is conveyed in many ways, from little notes and gestures, to her detailed understanding of his emotions. He was a great man and it’s not hard to conclude that she is a great woman. Their bond may be best summed up by John’s reaction when called by his daughter to learn of Sheila’s brain hemorrhage: “Do you realise that if your mum goes, I go too?” he blurted. “I don’t want to go on living without her.” Some aspects of John’s relationship with his children illustrate his vulnerability, particularly being convinced that the young Danda hated him, and fear of the infant Thomas. Nevertheless, the descriptions of him broadcasting from their house, always mockingly referred to as Peel Acres, and family photographs show a relaxed unity. The picture of Tom, in his “The Mighty Wah” t-shirt is interesting. Often John would announce some track and claim it was “a big favorite in our house” or “one of the Pig’s favorites”. It sounded true, and the overlap between music and family life is laid bare, not least with the picture of the White Stripes playing in the house. Sheila leaves us in no doubt that John was the emotional fellow his on-air tone drollery could never disguise. Sheila writes “I don’t think he ever shed quite so many tears as when the children left home” and John’s words when the youngest left for college should strike a chord with every father: “I felt as low as I can remember feeling in all my life as Floss disappeared down the lane.”

I follow a different team but can respect the clear evidence of John and Sheila’s devotion to Liverpool FC: the middle names given to the children, getting married in red, the framed photograph of Bill Shankly and even a Kenny Dalgliesh pillow-case in the house. The depiction of their thoughts and deeds on and after the sad tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough are extremely moving. Maybe best of all is the whole family praying for John to intervene during the 2005 European Champions League Final and subsequently pouring champagne onto his grave when the Pool came back from a 0-3 deficit to claim the trophy! These, and other examples, strip away any idea that the famous should be considered fundamentally different from the rest of us. Peel has a measure of fame, yet his refusal to embrace celebrity was maintained with such natural aplomb that he never lost his accessibility. So, (although he would have heartily disapproved of my team) now I don’t feel so daft for naming my son Ryan and (after the name Erika was rejected) giving my daughter the initials EC.

That John’s love of music was an all-consuming obsession is an understatement. Excusing himself when friends were over for dinner so he could go and listen to something, music always on in the house, in the car, summers at festivals, rare family holidays punctuated by trips to record stores, thousands of demo tapes endlessly pored over and sometimes sadly discarded without being heard (presumably when the sheer weight threatened the foundation of Peel Acres, or when access to external doors became blocked). As with the notes for forthcoming volumes of his autobiography we are left with a sad feeling that there is so much now that we will never get to hear.

The surprising origin of the Peel Sessions is mentioned and like other more shocking episodes in Margrave of the Marshes I won’t spoil it by mentioning them here. Some of John’s favorite stories reappear in the book, not least concerning the Radio One Roadshow and the Bay City Rollers. I take issue with his dates concerning the Buxton Pop Festival, but the telling of the story is the thing, not exactly when it occurred. It’s fair to assume that John’s favorite record was the next undiscovered gem for which he endlessly searched. That he had access to the airwaves for so long is something for which millions of people will always be grateful. If only we could have cloned him.

A lot of words have been written about John Peel since he died in 2004, grand statements about his importance in bringing fresh music to several generations, tributes from artists giving him credit for their careers, heartfelt messages of thanks from listeners. All the words I’ve read seem to come, not out of a manufactured hysteria, but from a deep and genuine sense of the loss of somebody whose contribution to a broad section of cultural life was really appreciated. In Margrave of fhe Marshes John’s wife, Sheila, talks about how the public response has helped his grieving family, how respectful and real it has seemed, and how much it has meant to them.

Amongst many quotes is one from Harold Pinter:
“I pay tribute to John Peel. It is to John Peel that I pay tribute. The guy that kicked shit. And not only did he kick shit, but he kicked it right back up the arsehole, where it fucking belonged ... and he made sure it fucking stayed there.”

That he always did it with a self-effacing charm and a down-to-earth wit makes it all the more impressive. John Peel, is quite simply, irreplaceable

More of the reviewer’s thoughts on the late, great, John Peel can be seen here:

 

by Chris Barsanti

7 Aug 2007


“Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?” It’s hard to imagine this scenario of Gaia-istic empathy actually happening, but it is nonetheless an interesting question, particularly when one considers the source. Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is a doomsday scenario but a more thoughtful kind; one that’s focused not so much on how the human race vacates Earth—deadly plague, the Rapture, sudden discovery of interstellar flight and innumerable inhabitable planets within easy range—but on what happens afterward. What does the planet do without humans around doing all of that building, eating, breathing, and polluting that we’re known for? How fast does the kudzu grow back over all those chain stores? Would the planet actually be able to repair itself in any decent amount of time or has the devastation been too serious? Does the earth retreat to a serene garden like in the Talking Heads’ “Flowers” (“There was a shopping mall, now it’s all covered with flowers”)?

by Sean G. Murphy

29 Jun 2007


Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.  Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.

Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts.

by PopMatters Staff

26 Jun 2007


Love Kills: A Britt Montero Novel by Edna Buchanan
Simon & Schuster ($25)

BUCHANAN FINDS THE RIGHT BLEND THIS TIME

Taken separately, Edna Buchanan’s two series about Miami reporter Britt Montero and the city’s Cold Case Squad haven’t lived up to their potential. The last five Britt novels lacked the vitality of her earlier outings; the Cold Case Squad has been the epitome of missed opportunities, stalled by ineffectual tension and character development.

But in Love Kills, the Miami author melds her two series into a novel full of vitality with sophisticated plotting, expert tensions and characters who leap off the page. A former police reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize, Buchanan delivers a vivid tale in her 13th novel. She weaves several plot threads in Love Kills for a story that is ultimately about violence against women and the high cost of love. Despite a few stumbles and rare bits of clunky description, including a chaotic ending, Buchanan delivers one of her best novels, full of twists and surprises and a view of Miami that is fresh and energetic.

Grieving over her fiance’s death, Britt is on a leave of absence from the newspaper, escaping to a Caribbean island to remember him and ponder her future. She and her best friend, a newspaper photographer, find a disposable camera on the beach that turns out to contain the honeymoon photos of a couple missing at sea.

Back in Miami, Britt is on the minds of the Cold Case Squad members: She was the last to interview Spencer York, a kidnapper for divorced fathers whose body has just been found after several years.

It was assumed that Spencer, who had no compunctions about harming mothers while abducting their children, had just skipped bond shortly after Britt’s interview—her first big story. Now the detectives know he was killed shortly after talking to her and the detectives hope Britt will remember every detail of their interview.

When Marsh Holt, the bridegroom in the photographs, shows up, Britt is pulled into his sad tale of grief and loss. But Marsh has another side to him, as well as a long list of wives who never lived past their honeymoons.

Buchanan keeps the two stories parallel, alternating between Britt’s reporting and the new developments in her private life, and the detectives’ investigation. Both stories are equally compelling and Buchanan doesn’t resort to cheap gimmicks in showcasing the two investigations. The resolutions to both are well-conceived surprises.

Love Kills falters when Buchanan violates a time-honored rule of writers and journalists—by telling, not showing. A character’s monotonous litany about what’s wrong with Miami pales next to Buchanan’s skillful way of illustrating the changing face of the Magic City and its residents: small apartment buildings being sold to developers, traffic jams, exploding garbage trucks and bizarre thefts. “You can leave Miami, but Miami never leaves you,” sums up Britt’s—and Buchanan’s—affection for the city, and that’s the heart of Love Kills.

—Oline H. Cogdill (South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT))

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
Spiegel & Grau/Random House ($24.95)

DIGGING INTO MYSTERY AROUND ISAAC NEWTON

As strictly a knee-jerk reaction, Isaac Newton wouldn’t seem the likely choice around which to wrap a mystery. But real people and icons are now all the rage. While Ghostwalk lacks the nonstop action of The Da Vinci Code or Steve Berry’s novels, it more than makes up in its intelligent, literary approach to the modern gothic.

Alternating between 17th century and contemporary Cambridge, Rebecca Stout masterfully delivers an intricate plot that is supported by a book within the novel. At the heart of Ghostwalk are the suspicious deaths that happened around Cambridge’s Trinity College during the 17th century and were connected somehow to Isaac Newton. But Stott, a science historian in England, gives equal weight to the murder of a contemporary academian that may be related to a group of radical animal rights activists.

Ghostwalk drips with the atmosphere of Cambridge—from the plague-ridden 17th century where the city must have “seemed like a vision from Revelations” to its current incarnation as “a city of keys and locked doors and private secret inner courtyards.” The pace is deliberate, but never dull.

The intrigue begins when Cambridge historian Elizabeth Vogelsang is found, drowned in the river near her farmhouse. She had been working on a controversial biography of Newton that dealt with his infatuation with alchemy and the supernatural.

Elizabeth’s son, Cameron, asks his former lover Lydia Brooke to finish the book. Lydia respected Elizabeth and they maintained a close friendship long after she and Cameron broke up. Living in Elizabeth’s home, Lydia soon finds this “ghostwalk” to the 17th century comes with flickering lights that dance across the walls, missing papers and an odd assortment of people, one of whom may even be a ghost.

Stott keeps the gothic tones high, while not neglecting the mystery elements or the contemporary story that pulls Ghostwalk together. Only the inevitable romance seems clunky and out of place.

The author, whose last work was a biography of Charles Darwin, has supported Ghostwalk with meticulous research, footnotes, timelines, an extract from Newton’s works and a suggested reading list. That’s all well and good and adds to the feeling of authenticity. But most important, Stott knows how to tell a good story.

—Oline H. Cogdill (South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT))

by Jonathon B. Walter

24 Jun 2007


The Age of Wire and String: Stories
By Ben Marcus
Knopf
October 2005, 144 pages

Heaven: Area of final containment. It is modeled after the first house. It may be hooked and slid and shifted. The bottom may be sawed through.”
—Ben Marcus, “The Age of Wire and String”

That’s probably as good a definition of heaven as has ever been written by any theologian, and yet the book it comes from might be one of the strangest and most baffling pieces of experimental fiction ever published in the United States. Calling this thing “fiction” is actually being kind; Ben Marcus’s collection of alien yet strangely logical how-to articles and wild definitions stretches the definition of literature itself. The terms “how-to articles” and “definitions” might be awkward and ungainly, and in fact barely scratch the surface of what Marcus is trying to accomplish, but they’ll have to do because nobody else seems to have any idea what to call this idiosyncratic, confusing and just plain odd piece of fiction. Even the publishers themselves seem split; the back cover proclaims it “a collection of stories” while the front cover, conversely, states it is “a novel”.

What it resembles most is a kind of nihilistic Boy Scout handbook from another planet, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic Earth, where words no longer mean quite what they meant before. Marcus holds to the basic rules of grammar and syntax, sure (and thank God for that), but replaces certain nouns and verbs with different ones in specific places so that the reader is forever this close to understanding what’s being said—but not quite. The final effect of this over 140 pages is genuinely weird and unsettling; the word “dreamlike” is tossed around like confetti in book reviews, but this might be the first book I’ve ever read where a description of the prose might actually warrant its use.

The book’s various pieces are split into sections with titles like “GOD”, “FOOD”, and “HOUSE”, with a “TERMS” section at the end of each in which the various strange objects (and people) used as nouns in that particular section are defined just as strangely. The author even defines himself (three different ways), stating that the “Ben Marcus” is a “false map, scroll, caul, or parchment” or “the garment that is too heavy to allow movement” or “figure from which the antiperson is derived; or, simply, the antiperson.” Some short pieces, like “Leg of Brother Who Died Early”, have been suggested by some to be autobiographical, but that seems to be a rather desperate clutching for meaning seeing that the book’s elliptical, unknowable language makes it impossible to assume anything at all.

To get more concrete, reading The Age of Wire and String is comparable to listening to a bearded psychotic complete with grocery cart and incomprehensible Xeroxed handouts rant and rave on a public street corner. In both cases, there’s clearly some kind of logic to what’s being said (it’s not just random words), but damned if anyone but the person speaking can understand it. A sample: “When children sleep on these points of lawn, the funeral of air passes just above their heads in a crosswind with the body. Funerals generally are staged in pollinated wind frames, so that the air can shoot to the east off of the children’s breath, dying elsewhere along the way, allowing fresh, living air to swoop in on the blast-back to attack the house ...” And the book generally goes on like that, at varying levels of comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, until it just…stops. There is no character development, no plot (and therefore no resolution), no situation, no theme, no real setting.

Only one section of the book courts, however obliquely, with a plot—“The Weather Killer”, which may in fact be its greatest moment, a disturbing collection of anecdotes (“The morning sun was loud, and they ran into the open and gouged at their ears with wire. He collected oil from broken drums and led them in prayer. A rag was found hooked on a tree branch. Men could no longer urinate and their hips blackened”) that completely dispenses with the “handbook” language and uses simple third-person prose. While it is impossible to comprehend exactly what happens in “The Weather Killer” (the setting and characters, if any, remain oblique) the general feeling created is one of utter terror, destruction and pointless violence. To completely alter the meaning of words and still maintain a sense of impending doom is a real literary achievement. The obvious precursor to this kind of writing is Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons (which gave us the infamous “Out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle”) went down similar avenues of pure linguistic musicality; but Marcus’s attempt may even outdo hers in its uncanny ability to generate a feeling, a mood, using nothing but the beautiful and jarring sounds created by one word placed after another.

 

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