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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Civil War - The Wars Of The Three Kingdoms 1638-1660 - Trevor Royle

A while ago, I much enjoyed reading Trevor Royle's book about the Wars Of The Roses. His work about the political upheavals which engulfed England, Scotland and Ireland in the seventeenth century is equally absorbing and rewarding. One of the strengths of Civil War is the way in which it brings together events in England, Scotland and Ireland, giving it scale and authority.
The religious intricacies leave me somewhat bewildered, but a rudimentary grasp of them is necessary to a full understanding of what occurred during those times. It is easy to make facile remarks about religion and politics; in those days, religion was inextricably inter-linked with politics, even if sometimes it was employed as a "Trojan horse" for the furtherance of other demands.
There is an illuminating, but brief exploration of the background to the conflict, and the formative years of Charles I. Did the peculiar nature of Charles' upbringing, conditioned to some degree by events in England and Scotland, have a bearing on the development of his character and the manner in which he conducted affairs later?
One aspect of the Civil War period which intrigues me greatly is the emergence, or not as the case may be, of the self-made man, of a more meritocratic order. Some of the senior figures on the Parliamentary side still relied on rarefied social connections to get into positions where they could influence events, but once there many of them made appointments on the basis of ability rather than birth. This applied to the New Model Army in particular. This new breed of man carried, in varying concentrations, idealism, fervour and commercial nous, and this proved a formidable combination both then and in later years.

Did a genuine revolution really take place, or was this just like many other "revolutions", in the sense that the population was simply exchanging one set of masters or overlords for another?  Was there any great change in the distribution of economic power and concentration of land ownership, for example?
The more radical elements, inside and outside of Parliament, were marginalised , and their ideas and demands disregarded. Also, the conservatives capitalised on the widespread desire for peace, tranquillity and order, and the attendant mistrust of grandiose and idealistic designs. People fell back on safety and certainties, which also often conveniently matched their own self-interest. Plus ca change....
Reading this book, it is noticeable how relatively infrequently "ordinary people" are mentioned, with the exception of the situation in Ireland. Power politics were being contested by competing factions of the ruling elites, and it is worth asking how much the masses benefited much in a material way, from an economic standpoint, from the upheavals and chaos. How much more "democratic" and just did England become?

Oliver Cromwell's rise to prominence is detailed, naturally, and it is worth remembering that he was not at the centre of events right from the start of the struggle. He ascended due to his own qualities, connections and tactical astuteness, and he also took advantage of favourable circumstances and the misfortunes and misdeeds of others.

As the picture unfolded, it occurred to me that Charles and the Royalists missed their opportunity, sometimes through military ineptitude, but more often because of vacillation and hesitancy, playing safe. At some stage, the initiative passed to Parliament as its key personnel began to assert themselves, and they displayed a greater sense of purpose and conviction. Parliament's times of adversity forced them to reappraise their organisation and methods. The Royalists seemed complacent by comparison.
Charles I showed intransigence, and an inability to recognise and appreciate the way in which the winds were blowing. In the early stages of the conflict it may even have been possible for some kind of compromise settlement to be effected. By the time that he made any meaningful concessions, however, he was doing so from a position of weakness, and the mood among his opponents was too militant, confident and single-minded for common ground to be reached. It still rankles to hear how often the king invoked the "divine right" and his supposed privileges and prerogative. That era was being cast away.

The author does appear to imply his unease about some of the methods employed by the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, and he also seeks to put into perspective some of the stereotypes which have built up over the centuries, notably the notion of the war as a class struggle and the portrayal of the Puritans as joyless and excessively austere. Another key point which emerges is that some key liberalizing and democratizing reforms were put on the back-burner for a century or more. The country had been more or less placed on the "right road".  The road would be a long and slow one, but at least it would be a comparatively peaceful and stable one.
The atrocities committed during the war(s) are mentioned here, of course, although the author cautions the reader to take account of the exaggerations and propagandist efforts which embellished many of the stories of excesses and abuses. He also highlights the occasions when chivalry was exhibited by the combatants.

Some of the most enlightening and revealing sections of this book deal with the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Scotland and Ireland, the unrest within the Parliamentary army, the struggles between moderate and radical opinion, and the various revolts and mutinies which erupted across the territories.

I first read this book three or four years ago, and this time around I was much more interested in the political and social dimensions than in the niceties of military tactics. I see this as a good sign. The emergence of the Levellers and the Diggers I found especially intriguing, with their calls for more egalitarian laws on land ownership, and an emphasis on "natural rights". Were they the original left-libertarians?  My own views have been moving in a similar direction in recent times, and their idealism and courage inspire. They were way ahead of their time, and I am keen to learn more about them.
I found this book extremely enjoyable, informative and well-balanced. Stylishly written, with plenty of quotations from memoirs and literature of the time. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Please Please Me - The Beatles

Perhaps "Please Please Me", released by The Beatles in 1963, is not the greatest debut album in rock history, but it is an endearing work which merits close inspection, even if it is difficult to be totally dispassionate when assessing it, because of the "Beatles" factor.
One of the most well-known things about the record is that most of the tracks were recorded in one day. A mixture of Lennon-McCartney originals and cover versions, it has a touching and infectious naivete. Even so, it is daunting to think that less than five years later these same musicians were writing and recording "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Penny Lane" and "A Day In The Life".
The running order is adroitly arranged to spread out the stronger performances, and it expertly conceals the weaker material. "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist And Shout" serve as formidable bookends, and help to make the record seem better than it actually is. I sometimes think to myself that the Beatles must have been playing better songs in the clubs than a few of those which ended up appearing on the album. Was the inclusion of some "safer" fare a sign of the band's eagerness, and that of their manager, to reach as wide and mainstream an audience as possible? 

The material may be less interesting than that found, for instance, on the group's sophomore effort, but there is a real unity and cohesion here, doubtless stemming from the compressed nature of the recording session(s), and therefore having more to do with overall energy and atmosphere than musical styles as such.  In some ways the strength of the individual numbers is less important than the overall effect. It is even arguable that when this LP was put together, Lennon and McCartney had not yet got fully into their stride as songwriters, separately or in terms of collaborative efforts. They only became truly prolific, in terms of quantity as well as quality, a little while later.

The opening track, "I Saw Her Standing There", still retains all of its freshness, joyousness and exuberance over fifty years after its appearance. It encapsulates that almost intangible magic which lifted The Beatles well above the nondescript, and fulfils this role much more potently than most of their later, supposedly more "mature" output. The main ingredients are the raw but likeable vocals of McCartney and Lennon, the semi-suggestive lyrics, and Ringo Starr's idiosyncratic drum fills. As a whole the song feels like a statement of intent, although probably not intended as such at the time.

In amongst the relative filler, there are some gems. The title track possesses many of the qualities of "I Saw Her Standing There", with the once again the contrasting voices of Lennon and McCartney blending to considerable effect.

Of course, "Twist and Shout" forms a rousing climax to the set, with John Lennon's searing vocal a consequence of the rigours of the legendary one-day recording session. The other members of the band perform admirably, in the knowledge that Lennon's voice might not have been able to withstand the strain of another take had any mistakes been committed.

"There's A Place" is often cited as a prototype of the more "grown up", confessional song writing which would become much in vogue in later years, but I think that its importance in this regard has been inflated, probably because this is The Beatles we are dealing with, and not some other group which disappeared into obscurity. Other artists were also beginning to dabble with the introspective around that time, anyway.

This record feels like a group effort, although George Harrison's contribution is perhaps more subdued, and less prominent, than the others. The competitive spirit, which might always have been there, did not emerge until the band had really broken big. Did the need to make that initial breakthrough breed solidarity and humility in the ranks, or at least ensure that those things were suppressed?

So in all honesty not one of the truly great debut albums, but immensely enjoyable on its own terms and as a period piece.



Friday, 30 January 2015

Seeing The World Through Different Eyes

In recent times, I have had occasion to reflect on how people's world-view shifts over time, and how this is affected by altered circumstances and environment.
Throughout my later teenaged years, and much of the first two decades of my adult life, I very seldom questioned the economic and social systems in which I had been raised, or many of the assumptions on which they were founded. I guess that a bit of ignorance (and youthful gullibility and impressionability) was excusable in the earlier days.  Later, my outlook was I guess a form of defence mechanism.  I had a nice mundane, shallow life, and I didn't want it disturbed or spoiled by any of these new ideas, thank you very much.

So what changed?  Well, the world itself changed a bit, but the real change was in me, my circumstances and consequently my perspective. About five years ago my life underwent a major upheaval, and I stepped off the treadmill which I had boarded after leaving school at eighteen. This permitted me more time to think, to read and to analyse. I was no longer having to react impulsively or defensively to the opinions of others, but had the space to survey the landscape at my own leisure.  Also, as a result of my changed situation, I felt I had less and less of a vested interest in the status quo being maintained, and I became more attuned to the concerns of those less fortunate. The rat race encourages us to be blinkered and self-centred, despite the façade which we may habitually erect for the consumption of friends and social media.

I wonder whether my experience has been the reverse of what usually occurs with people in their adult lives?. Do people normally become more conservative as they get older, cynical and embittered by experience of the real world, and having had the idealism slowly but surely ground out of them?   I have also known plenty of people who evince "concern" for their fellow man, but ultimately the only thing which really mattered to them was whether the value of their own house and share portfolio would continue to rise. Of course, any sacrifices needed to improve the lot of humanity would have to be made by a mythical "somebody else"....

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Italian Job (1969 movie)

I have always had a mild aversion to the misty-eyed nostalgia which surrounds this movie, the original 1969 version starring Michael Caine. English people are "expected" to embrace it as a luminous symbol of everything that was "great" about the Swinging Sixties. I have never quite bought into the hype, in a similar way that I harbour a blind spot about the music of certain pop/rock groups who are meant to embody the same spirit. I have tended to regard such artefacts as nebulous and lacking in genuine incisiveness. Anyway, I recently dug out the DVD and watched the picture again, to determine whether my reservations had been misplaced.

To summarize, the story revolves around a gold robbery in Turin planned by a gang from England. The first thing which one notices in viewing "The Italian Job" is the opulence of the visuals, the scenery and the clothing, hairstyles, cars, settings and so forth. At the same time, there is an abundance of Sixties clichés, musically, visually and otherwise.
Another thing which is worth remembering is that this movie was released in 1969, and it is tempting to ask whether the stylings and approach were out of date by then, especially when set against the deeper and less frivolous work which other people were producing at that time.
Michael Caine is likeable and confidence-inspiring as always, and the supporting cast is also admirable, including fine British comedy actors such as John Le Mesurier and Irene Handl in "cameos".
In its earlier stages, the film is very fast-moving, with numerous short and snappy scenes documenting the preparatory stages. The plot has more substance and depth to it than I had remembered, even if the dialogue is occasionally implausible. Did the Noel Coward character inspire the creation of "Genial Harry Grout", from the later BBC sitcom Porridge, or is this a long-established plot device in any crime-orientated film or book?
I made reference before to the Sixties clichés, and to the notion that the film might have been somehow "dated" by the time of its release. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that darker, more insidious imagery also plays a role here, that more typical of films from the late Sixties and early Seventies. The funeral/graveyard scene is one example. This all helps to make the film more "1969" than some popular myth might suggest. It is not all Swinging London euphoria -  there are unmistakable hints of the more cynical and uncertain times ahead.
Of course, "The Italian Job" is best remembered for the sequences in the city of Turin, and for the later scenes involving the Mini Coopers and the coach. These scenes, and the stunts therein, are brilliantly executed, although they occasionally look very "choreographed". These, and the scenes surrounding the heist itself, must have been a very intricate logistical undertaking, and it must be emphasized that, in "technical" areas such as these, the movie is excellent.
This film is often described as a "caper", which I take to mean that it is not intended as pure comedy, but not intended as deep drama either. There are definitely humorous and even semi-satirical elements to it, but also more cerebral and serious touches, and these all conspire to give it an endearingly enigmatic and ambiguous character.
This correspondent has eaten some humble pie since this most recent viewing of "The Italian Job", but I still find myself unable to become truly immersed in the picture. For reasons which are difficult to explain, it just doesn't engage me emotionally or intellectually, even allowing for the fact that it is not meant to be taken too seriously. It is still great entertainment, though, and the "cliffhanger" ending was a real masterstroke....


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Physical Graffiti - Led Zeppelin

When people are asked what Led Zeppelin's finest album was, I suspect that most people plump for Led Zeppelin II or the "untitled" fourth album.  My preference is for either the 1969 debut (my review here) or the 1975 double-album Physical Graffiti.
This is not my favourite because of the famous "marquee" tracks, which can become tarnished by familiarity anyway. No, Physical Graffiti appeals to me because of its sprawling and diverse character, epitomised particularly by Disc 2 of the CD (sides 3 and 4 on the original vinyl?).  This feel and character may have come about partly because of the timespan of the recording sessions;some of the material dates from as far back as 1970.
This record also still has the very agreeable mixture of blues and folk-inflected material, the last time that this would occur with Zeppelin, before the more "synthetic" and contemporary feel of the last two original studio albums.  The set may have the reputation with most people of being something of a monolith, but to me it is full of subtlety, variety and surprises.  It has been remarked that Robert Plant's voice is not at its strongest on some of the numbers recorded in 1974, but in a curious way this only adds to the album's appeal.
The first two sides of the original vinyl LP are more what would be termed straight-ahead Zeppelin music, with the remaining space occupied by more experimental and quirky creations. The album starts strongly with the feisty and uncomplicated "Custard Pie", underpinned by a gutsy riff and the always welcome sound of John Paul Jones' keyboards, in this instance the clavinet. Beginning a trend which would span the entire record, John Bonham's drums sound mighty.
The standard is capably maintained by "The Rover", and then by "In My Time Of Dying", a bluesy epic on which Page and Bonham once again excel in their respective departments.  Keyboards once again enrich the recipe on the driving and infectious "Trampled Underfoot". 
"Disc 1", as it were, is rounded off by "Kashmir". Now this is commonly referred to as a "classic", but I must admit that these days I find it a bit ponderous and even flat.  Familiarity may have led to my weariness about the song. To me it just lacks vitality and energy, and this opinion is accentuated by some of the material surrounding it here.
"Disc 2" is a veritable box of delights, kicking off with "In The Light", yet another song embellished by keyboards, in this case the "exotic" introduction, and what sounds like electric piano later on. Some nice sounding guitar solos also enliven proceedings.
It is now that the album becomes most intriguing.  Following the acoustic gem "Bron-Y-Aur", we come to the reflective "Down by The Seaside", in some respects a most "un-Zeppelin" track, even featuring some country-esque tinges, but fitting in perfectly comfortably here.
"Ten Years Gone" is a most powerful yet musically sophisticated number, with lovely layered and delicate guitar parts, an atmosphere of light and shade, unexpected twists and turns and poignant lyrics. Of all the longer "epic" songs contained on Physical Graffiti, this one has definitely stood the test of time.
Next up is the very likeable and rootsy "Night Flight", one of the most downright enjoyable items in the whole Led Zeppelin catalogue. Yet again the variety and texture imbued by keyboards is a contributory factor in the experience, in this case the organ. Significantly, it sounds like the guys had a whale of a time recording this song.
Eventually the record is rounded off with two more strong songs. "Black Country Woman" in many ways harks back to the informal and semi-humorous flavour of Led Zeppelin III, and is in my opinion one of the more underrated of their acoustic numbers. Another track which evokes the sense of what fun it must have been to be a member of Led Zeppelin.
The closer is "Sick Again", seemingly a slightly jaded commentary on the rock music scene or life on the road. A strong song, but it seems to me that it might have worked better live than on this version. The backing track sounds quite fuzzy and indistinct; maybe that was intentional, but one is left with the feeling that the song could have sounded better.
Physical Graffiti was the personal favourite of at least one of the musicians in the group, and I can see why. This is the culmination of all the various strands of "Zeppelin music" which had flourished since the late 1960s, polished in some areas, but also with some of the spontaneity and rough edges intentionally left in. A real summation of the band's strengths and idiosyncrasies.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Oxford History of Medieval Europe

The Middle Ages are commonly seen as a misunderstood, forbidding and bewildering period in human history, often the subject of heated debate between differing schools of thought. One book which offers a modicum of clarity amid the confusion and fog is The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, edited by George Holmes.

To make it more digestible, the book is divided into chapters corresponding to three segments of time, and these periods are then further sub-divided on the basis of what occurred in Southern and Northern Europe within those years. Each chapter is written by a different historian.

The early part of this history tends to focus on the differences between the eastern and western sectors of the Mediterranean, and the two "empires" which dominated it. Of course, the incursions of the barbarians are very much to the fore, but it is pointed out that these arrivals were not always violent in nature, and that tactics of "inducement", or playing one party off against another, sometimes paid off. A fraught and precarious juggling act it must have been, though. I was impressed by the passages which explored the barbarians, and their power structures, customs and so forth.

This period, like most of the Middle Ages, can be fiendishly confusing, because of the numerous overlapping jurisdictions and the proliferation of pacts and deals, but the authors do a reasonable job of cutting through the morass of detail. One is left with an acute impression of the volatility of fortune, as the factions fought for power, influence and survival. 

There are some intriguing sections dealing with the waxing and waning of cities, towns and urban and commercial life generally. Often references are made to archaeological finds to support theories and conclusions.

Of course, the Byzantine Empire is a central part of the story, and this is an aspect which fascinates me. Byzantium is something of an enigma to many, I suspect, but it also has a mystique and an allure. An area which is definitely on my agenda for additional study. Here, we get a vivid idea of how the empire constantly adapted, and managed to weather most of the changes, challenges and upheavals which came its way.

From the early medieval stages in particular, one can arrive at the conclusion that things were much more exciting in the Mediterranean than they were further north. This may be true, but I wonder how much the true picture has been distorted by the disparity in the quantity (and quality) of available documented records? There is recurring emphasis on the uneven nature of events and changes, with much cautioning against subscribing to the over-simplistic assessments which are so often served up.

It is noted once or twice that whilst all the glittering and "glamorous" political manoeuvrings and advances in commerce and culture were happening, the vast majority of the population of Europe was enduring a fairly miserable and oppressed existence. The "headline" events and pastimes were the preserve of small, privileged elites. The one-upmanship and jostling between and amongst those elites was often at the expense of the downtrodden and the disenfranchised. The latter could only look on in bemusement, unable to predict with any certainty whether they would be ruled by comparatively enlightened masters, or by despots.

In lamenting the apparent degeneration or decay of some elements of culture and civilization, do we need to bear in mind that communications were almost non-existent, that word of progress and enlightenment did not spread, and that science and knowledge were still mistrusted in some quarters? The world was not yet assuming any kind of philosophical or ethical homogeneity.

Naturally, the Vikings get a mention in this history. I would have liked more about them and their exploits, even taking into account the format of this book. What coverage there is seeks to present a balanced view of their motives and their record, and gives a genuinely Europe-wide perspective on the effects of their arrival and settlements.

There is some admirable analysis of societal structures and hierarchies. This got me thinking. Back then, real freedom and social mobility were restricted to but a few, and those in the "lower" strata possessed few of the tools to attempt a remedy.  These days, with better education and modern communications, do the masses accept their lot too readily, or are they correct in recognizing that it will always be thus? Much mention of huge swathes of land (and attendant privileges) being handed out to certain "special interests".  Some would opine that after that the genie was out of the bottle, and that the root of many an ill was planted.

For the most part, I found the Italian peninsula, and the areas directly adjacent to it, to constitute the most fascinating arena here. Many factions collided there, and struggled for pre-eminence,or cobbled together compromises. The developments in that part of the world also offered a glimpse into the future - merchants, "republics", original thinking, more secular culture.

There is a relatively short, but highly readable, examination of the whole city-state phenomenon, its vitality, its deficiencies and its implications. However imperfect and tenuous they were, this was another foretaste of how much of wider Europe was destined to develop. Rightly or wrongly, I perceived that the authors were seeking to imply that the city-states were not as "progressive" as some commentators might have made out. Towards the end, there is a look at cultural and intellectual trends in the later Middle Ages.

This book has prompted me to consider reading more extensively on topics as diverse as Charlemagne, Byzantium and the Italian city-states. Overall, it is an entertaining, well-pitched and illuminating overview of a vast and intricate picture.


Friday, 16 January 2015

Led Zeppelin - the debut album

My music habits tend to go in "cycles", and I will get away from listening to certain bands or artists for a period of time before organically, naturally almost, returning to their work. In recent days it has been the turn of Led Zeppelin to receive my renewed attention.  Their debut album, released in 1969, still shines like a beacon due to its primal energy and its powerful immediacy. It is probably my favourite Led Zeppelin record, along with the 1975 double-album Physical Graffiti.

This release has probably endured better than most of the group's other efforts, and I think this is because of its exuberantly "live" feel.  There is a freshness, almost a naivete, about it, possibly a consequence of this being their first disc. The music exudes a rawness born of the newness of the combination, as if they hadn't yet had the time or the opportunity to over-complicate matters or burden themselves with various pressures. The sound itself possesses a clarity and a vitality which they never again quite replicated.

Of the individual musicians, all shine, but Robert Plant excels, and producer Jimmy Page admirably captures the vocalist's qualities. Some of the songs do suit his singing style - "How Many More Times" and "Dazed And Confused" spring to mind. Indeed his voice rarely sounded so dynamic and strong again with Zeppelin.  John Bonham's prodigious ability is also a prominent feature, and the fact that these two newcomers to "the big time" perform with such assurance and confidence is a major factor in making Led Zeppelin such a convincing work. The studio and musical know-how of Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones is also crucial, of course.

The predominant styles which dominate the album are blues, folk and folk-rock. The blues-rock element is a continuation of the direction in which The Yardbirds had been heading.  The folk/acoustic side would be a feature of the Zeppelin sound until the mid-1970s, a fact often overlooked by the band's detractors. Page and Plant's interest in folk music, and the American West Coast sound, combined with the general musical eclecticism of the band as a whole, would ensure the diversity of the track listings.

There is a pleasing and effective mixture of epic longer songs and shorter snappier numbers ("Good Times Bad Times", "Communication Breakdown", "Your Time Is Gonna Come"). The latter's vibrant organ-based introduction is one of the highlights of the entire set. The group's musical heritage is illustrated by as much by the inclusion of "Black Mountain Side" as it is by the presence of the two blues covers, "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Baby".

Led Zeppelin's musical output would grow more "sophisticated" and "polished", but rarely would it match the spontaneity and elan which is to be found in abundance on this, their first album.