Sunday, 24 January 2016

Napoleon The Great - Andrew Roberts - book review

I recently finished reading Andrew Roberts' monumental "Napoleon The Great", which was first published in 2014. I had read and heard great things about it.

Unlike some Napoleon-related works which tend to focus on one or other aspect of his life or rule, this one feels like an effort to write a comprehensive biography. It is put together in a very fluent, accessible and readable form and style, and it is marked by a distinct spirit and exuberance.

The author makes extensive use of quotes from correspondence and memoirs, but he stresses the unreliability of some sources, and he highlights instances where firm evidence is scanty. Where there are conflicting or contradictory versions of events, he carefully weighs the credibility or veracity of each one.

There is a good deal of comment about Napoleon's education, and his early precocity in reading and mathematics. His choice of reading matter is examined for clues to the direction of his life. As with many sections of the story, Roberts does not speculate unnecessarily, and a "less is more" approach is adopted to some elements of the story.

From early on, details are revealed which tell us that not all areas of Napoleon world-view were particularly "progressive", and it is one of the strengths of the book that we are given an honest, open and balanced portrayal of the man, his views and his actions. He had the energy, drive, ambition and brains to make some enlightened and rational changes, whereas others just theorized impotently. Also, it wasn't just what he did which was significant, but who he was.

There are lots of anecdotes about events and influences which shaped his outlook, on religion, politics, leadership and so forth. I was intrigued to read that during his early military career, he economized stringently so that he could buy books and also support his family.  A man after my own heart...

His relationship to Corsica and its politics is also afforded plenty of attention, with some emphasis on how the vagaries of the French Revolution affected the island and the status and fortunes of the wider Bonaparte family. As the tale unfolds, it is also illustrated how, in addition to his prodigious qualities, Napoleon also benefited from the Revolution on more than one level, through the principle of meritocracy, the exodus of officers, and the general administrative chaos in France at that time. When considering the latter, the apparently spasmodic nature of his early army career is well documented here.

Accounts of Napoleon's exploits in Italy and Egypt help to explain how he capitalized on circumstances, through his work ethic and man-management.  His outlook began to crystallize, and he almost imperceptibly became important and indispensable to France.

The excerpts from Napoleon's writings and correspondence are fascinating and revealing, especially those from his younger days. They are often emotional and contradictory, but if nothing else they depict an ambitious, thrusting and inquisitive young man. The "romanticism" of some of Napoleon's literary outpourings, when set against his image as a product of the Enlightenment, is another illuminating thread.

Sometimes the text mixes affairs of the state with the intricacies of Napoleon's private life. To some this might be confusing, but to me it serves to make the story more rounded, less "academic" and less onerous to read.

When working my way through "Napoleon The Great" I was struck by the author's sound and confident grasp of the issues and the realities when pivotal events arose.  This is true of his account of the 1799 coup, for example. My discomfort at Napoleon riding roughshod over constitutions and institutions was matched by my admiration at his activist energy, and awareness of what needed to be done. The vitality of Roberts' writing evokes the drama, tension and moral ambiguity of that episode.

Some of the less enlightened (by our measurements) initiatives on freedom of expression, and the centralizing zeal, may strike a discordant note, but the author seeks to place in perspective these things, by pointing out what was occurring in other countries at the time. He does point out where measures were excessive even by the standards of the early 19th century.

The descriptions of battles are kept relatively snappy, but are also informative, and not over-burdened with military and technical jargon. In all honesty, I was more enthused by the chronicling of diplomatic manoeuvres, and the implementation and impact of Napoleon's domestic programs.

Chapters which cover the 1812 campaign in Russia amply convey the horrors of those months, and they highlight the sheer magnitude of the undertaking, and of the disaster which happened. Efforts are also made to clarify what Napoleon's strategic intentions were beforehand, and to counter accusations that he was afflicted by megalomania concerning Russia.  This is all in keeping with the balanced and reasonable nature of this work.

The Continental System, and its repercussions, are gone into in a little depth, as are Napoleon's endeavours to balance out Russia, Austria and Prussia. When defending some of the Emperor's contentious decisions or moves, the author offers sound reasoning, as with his return to Paris in 1812.

The later stages of this book I found quite moving, such as the parts where he said final goodbyes to family and friends before going into his final exile. His dignity at this time often seemed to contrast sharply with the pettiness and arrogance of his captors.

I found this to be an honest, warts-and-all telling of the tale, highlighting his failings and deficiencies as well as his positive and traits and his praiseworthy achievements. The author does not dwell unduly on some "obvious" areas which excite the popular imagination, but goes his own way.

I loved one phrase employed to describe Napoleon - "he was the Enlightenment on horseback". His lustre endures, and this biography strengthened my understanding of, and admiration for, the man.

In summary, "Napoleon The Great" is endlessly readable and absorbing, a compelling look at one of the most remarkable figures in European history.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Revolution In The Head - The Beatles' Records and The Sixties - Ian MacDonald

The Beatles and their music have probably commanded more acres of print than any other pop-culture phenomenon in human history. However, if you are just looking for one book to condense the relevance, spirit and impact of their music, then Ian MacDonald's Revolution In The Head is the one to go for.

As well as exploring how the Beatles shaped, and were shaped by, the Sixties, this work analyses, song-by-song, the group's discography.  As a consequence, an enhanced and broadened understanding of the decade and The Beatles is imparted, even if this does not claim to be a "biography" as such.

The "Introduction" sets the scene, and it is forcefully but subtly argued, offering some observations and theories about the Sixties, the special qualities of The Beatles and, for example, how the differing styles of Lennon and McCartney came about. There is a detailed and perceptive look at 1967 and the counterculture, and how these phenomena were regarded by subsequent generations. Some might find these passages heavy going, but they are essential to the overall message of the book. For me, the most noteworthy thing to emerge was the notion that The Beatles and their peers were among the first to vigorously harness social and cultural shifts which were probably already in progress even before the Sixties dawned.

The "commentary" on the Beatles is hugely entertaining, engrossing and authoritative, packed with anecdotes and astute insight. The author's knowledge and understanding give the articles a real fluency, and in citing influences for songs, he doesn't always give the "obvious" reference points, so the reader's grasp of Sixties pop will be widened. Lesser-known figures and records are brought in from the historical cold.

It is worth pointing out that the author does not pretend that everything the Beatles recorded was beyond reproach. He speaks out when he feels that something is weak and mediocre, or when a lapse in taste has occurred. Some of his opinions on certain tracks may even be uncomfortable reading for long-term fans (for example, "All You Need Is Love", "Nowhere Man", "Across The Universe"). He also highlights examples where The Beatles were following musical fashions instigated by others, and stages where others had stolen a march on them.

Having read quite a bit about The Beatles over the past couple of decades, it seems to me that it is "fashionable" to deride certain songs, or to excessively laud others. MacDonald advances cogent and carefully argued reasons for his views, aided by his trained and perceptive ears, and this challenges us to be intellectually honest, even with hitherto cherished songs, and this has to be a healthy development.

One of the real delights of Revolution In The Head is the resourcefulness with which MacDonald brings out the nuances in the music, coupled with his keen sense of when The Beatles exhibited that intangible magic which often placed them in the vanguard of things.  He goes well beyond the superficial and the elementary in explaining the and interpreting the meanings and motivations behind the music.

Also, the book is admirably compact and concise, and even though the subject matter is very ambitious in places, the words are usually proportionate. It doesn't pretend that everything was wondrous and epoch-making. It gives a summation, and moves on.  In short, this book is immensely readable and vibrant....

Through the studies of the Beatles' records, we are also able to trace the development of the members, in terms of artistic influences and social outlook. This is most clearly discernible to me in the cases of John Lennon and George Harrison. In addition, the evolution of the "pecking order" within the band is a sub-plot, often related to the waxing and waning in the relative creative vigour of Lennon and McCartney.

As the songs are tackled in the chronological order of the commencement of their recording, we are also able to see the maturing in the songwriting, and the increasing willingness to experiment in the studio. One is also struck by how The Beatles maintained their musical standards, despite being faced with what seems to modern sensibilities to have been an absurdly hectic and gruelling schedule, often recording multiple tracks in a single day. The spur of competition in the creative process is also illustrated, both within the group itself and with their peers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps the most compelling sections of this book are those which deal with the period when Swinging London was at its height. The feverish energy and excitement of those times is palpable, and one can gain a real feel for the bubbling inventiveness, the exchange of ideas and the sunny optimism.

You possibly won't agree with everything which the author says, but the quality of the writing and the scholarship here wins the day, blending erudition with enthusiasm.  This book will enrich your understanding of the Beatles and that era, and it will also enrich your life.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Judee Sill

Over the decades, much ink and electricity has been devoted to the question of "lost talents" in many spheres of endeavour, including music. One whose claim to this status has greater validity than most is the remarkable American singer-songwriter Judee Sill.

I had known the name Judee Sill for some years, largely as a by-product of my interest in the Californian music scene of the Seventies. However, it was only about four or five years ago that I discovered her compelling music, and the extraordinary and turbulent story of her life. The music instantly spoke to me, both because of its melodic inventiveness and its unusual and challenging themes. Her blend of influences was also untypical for musicians of her time.

Judee Sill was the first artist to be signed to Asylum Records, which was also the home for artists such as Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits. She released two albums in the early Seventies, both of which displayed enormous promise and potential. However, various factors led to her disappearance from the scene, and she passed away in 1979, aged just 35.

Her music occasionally exhibits superficial similarities with her contemporaries in the singer-songwriter milieu, such as Browne and Mitchell, but such comparisons grossly over-simplify matters. The lyrics were unlike most of what was around, in their tendency to address spiritual and religious topics, and to employ these things as metaphors. The scope of  her philosophical interests and her musical eclecticism helped to render her work unique and intriguing, and made a pleasant change from the ubiquitous standard navel-gazing of the era.

Her musical legacy may be relatively small in terms of volume of "product" released, but it is far from meagre in its sweep and emotional vibrancy. Apart from the two original studio albums, an album of later demos and other unreleased material ("Dreams Come True...") surfaced in 2005, and a collection of her BBC performances is also out there. Such is the depth and immersive vigour of her work that this canon more than satisfies.

The debut record "Judee Sill" (1971) contains some impressive and likeable songs, and there is an obvious confidence in both her vocal performances and the arrangements, when considering that this is a first attempt. Standout tracks include "Crayon Angels", "The Archetypal Man", "The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown", "Jesus Was A Cross Maker", "Lady-O" (also recorded by The Turtles), "My Man On Love" and "Lopin' Along Thru The Cosmos".

Occasionally hints of the "baroque" pop of The Beach Boys and others come to the fore, but these impulses are more likely attributable to her own varied musical background. Above all, this music is more dynamic and interesting than much of the earnest and stodgy "confessional" fare being produced by "troubadours" at that time.  In approach and ethos I also sense echoes of Laura Nyro's work, namely a self-sufficiency and a distinct and mature artistic vision. If anything, Judee's music is more "compact" and restrained than Laura's, but no less inspiring.

This first release is pleasing to the ear, the vocals are soothing and sometimes ethereal and the arrangements understated.  Strings appear here and there, and some horns are audible on "Enchanted Sky Machines".  By any standards, an assured, credible and enjoyable debut.

Judee Sill spread her wings somewhat on her sophomore offering, "Heart Food" (1973). The selection of songs is more diverse and experimental, and the "folk" element in the music has arguably decreased. Again, a horses-for-courses approach to instrumentation, with violin appearing on the country-tinged opener "There's A Rugged Road", and some pedal steel guitar here and there.

"The Kiss" is one of her best remembered compositions, although I personally prefer the live renditions which she performed at the BBC to this album version. Either way, it is a stirring and absorbing song, addressing weighty philosophical and mystical questions in a most poetic and diverting way.  Not a "pop song" as such, but "The Kiss" does contain some great "hooks".

Other notable songs on "Heart Food" are "Down Where The Valleys Are Low", with its infectious and sprightly melodies, and "Soldier Of The Heart", which possesses a confident and endearing vocal, and which swings noticeably.

"The Phoenix" is another quietly impressive number, its words seemingly examining a restless personal quest for contentment and equilibrium. The penultimate track, "The Donor" is unquestionably the most ambitious track on this record, clocking in at over eight minutes. A mood piece in some ways, and that word "baroque" must rear its head again. To me, it feels ascetic and measured rather than grandiose.

Despite the message being spread through the internet,and through the efforts of fans, my feeling is that Judee Sill has not quite reached the influence of certain other cult singer-songwriters, but it could still happen. Perhaps her music was too esoteric and ambitious to attain mainstream commercial success, but that in no way diminishes its value. She deserves to be recognized as an original and important talent, whose work still sounds fresh, vibrant and distinctive.

Listen to Judee Sill's music.  You'll be glad that you made the effort.

Friday, 1 January 2016

The Lost Generation - David Tremayne

As part of my current campaign of re-reading books, I went back to David Tremayne's "The Lost Generation", his 2006 study of the lives of three British racing drivers (Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce) who died tragically young during the 1970s.

This book has rightly been the subject of considerable acclaim, and it is even one which can be recommended to the non-motorsport fan, such is the poignancy of its stories and the richness of the author's writing, knowledge and understanding.  The beauty of the photographic content also makes it visually appealing. Both the text and the pictures help to evoke the era, as well as the human qualities of the subjects.

It is tempting to say that those were "simpler times", but it is perhaps more accurate to say that they were more heterogeneous, and less regimented. Corporate conformity was but a cloud on a largely unseen horizon.

This book relates a story of hopes dashed, potential unfulfilled and hearts broken. At the same time it beautifully articulates the attributes and characters of the three young men, as well as many of their associates and contemporaries. As much as it is a portrait of Roger, Tony and Tom, it is also a compelling snapshot of an epoch.

For me, one of the strengths of "The Lost Generation" is the care taken by Tremayne to obtain input and contributions from a wide variety of sources, ensuring many perspectives and angles. The structure of the book, which could have been a tricky task to accomplish, helps to make the story flow quite seamlessly.

The chapters dealing with the drivers' rise through the racing ranks remind us of the highly competitive, but informal, environment which prevailed in those days. The depth of the research also means that misconceptions can be corrected. In this reading, for example, Tony Brise's progress through the junior formulae is less meteoric and easy than can sometimes seem the case. There is some interesting speculation as to how his occasional struggles may have shaped his outlook.

Don't expect a dry, exhaustive chronological or statistical account of the races. The focus is really on how they progressed, and on an examination of their personality traits and abilities.  Negatives are not glossed over, and things are balanced but respectful. Heavy use of contemporary press reports and interviews augments the authenticity and scope appreciably.  All of this contributes to a sense that things are being chronicled in a rounded and representative manner.

An impressive dimension of the book is the care taken to analyse the evolution of driving styles, this being especially pointed in the case of Tom Pryce, who was sometimes forced to temper his exuberant approach when faced with cold motor racing logic.  Also, we are given an insight into what changes, if any, were discernible in the three men as they climbed the ladder.

The chapters which address the deaths of the three drivers are moving, powerful but sensitively done. Equally, the author does not shy away from highlighting thorny issues.

Some of the passages, particularly those which look at the personal and family lives of the subjects, are heartbreaking.  There is some persuasive analysis about "what might have been", and how the three compared with others who survived and prospered in the sport.

"The Lost Generation" is an absorbing, honest and superbly realized work.