Gently does it

One of the best gadgets I’ve ever bought is my iPod Classic. Its 160Gb capacity means that I’ve been able to leave all my CDs and other music media packed up, along with my main stereo. All I need for instant music here until we move permanently is contained on the iPod which I’ve hooked up to a Panasonic mini hi-fi.

I’ve got about 150Gb of audio on the iPod which gives me plenty of choice and just lately I’ve been listening to some audiobooks.

I’ve never been too fond of audiobooks but listening to them whilst I was laid up with a cold which turned into a sort of stomach flu last month was very enjoyable and I’ve continued to listen to them.

With such a huge capacity on the iPod it’s easy to overlook things but I’ve rediscovered some Douglas Adams audiobooks I put on there a couple of years ago on a whim.

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I have all five of the Hitchhiker books, read variously by Douglas Adams, Martin Freeman and Stephen Fry. I also have both Dirk Gently books read by the author.

I first heard ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ when it was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It was OK, although I remember thinking at the time that it was a bit too clever-clever and perhaps tried too hard to be different.

However, I continued to listen to the broadcasts and after that the next two radio sequels and then the TV series. I even read the first three books.

After about 1982 I didn’t bother with Adams again until just recently, although I did buy the DVD set of the TV series and also borrowed the recent(ish) film from the library, although I found the latter to be an execrable piece of shit that should have never been made.

Being able to catch up, as it were, with Adams’ writings after the original trilogy I’m starting to really appreciate him again and a re-evaluation is now due.

From what I’ve heard of the last two Hitchhiker books (and also the two Dirk Gently novels), I reckon he got better and to me they seem to be a vast improvement over the original trilogy.

This might well be heresy to Hitchhiker fans, but his later novels seem to have benefited from concentrating more on character and plot and less on witty observations and all the fussy details when the Guide is quoted.

In short – more substance and less gimmick.

Arthur Dent becomes a far more rounded character and the passive, bumbling ingénue of the first three books develops into a far more realistic and assertive individual to whom one can relate more closely. The early Dent is a comic book character; the later one a comic novel character – a big and welcome difference.

This depth of characterisation extends to his Dirk Gently novels which were a real surprise to me. I thought they were excellent, with a wealth of references to all manner of things that piqued the intellect, plot lines which interwove in a labyrinthine way and, at times, some quite haunting descriptions of the ways in which the main characters’ minds worked.

Dirk Gently himself is an amazing invention. At times he seems to act as a deus ex machina facilitating intersecting twists and turns in the plots and subplots just when you think they can progress no further. The closest parallel I can think of is the character of Dr Who and so it was really no surprise to discover that Adams wrote the scripts for three series of the iconic TV show at around the same time that Hitchhiker got off the ground.

I’ve been reading more about the author himself and he was one of those people who was fortunate enough to be able to indulge his passions as part of his work. Interested in science, music, computers and the conservation of endangered species, Adams brought these all to bear on his work and they even became his work at times.

Adams’ life, before the phenomenon that Hitchhiker became, followed a pretty similar path to many of his peers’ – boarding school, Cambridge, BBC script writing; a bit of a cliche really. But Adams was much, much more than most of them, and, had he lived, then people like Stephen Fry might well have far fewer Twitter followers.

He was, if you like, what Stephen Fry thinks he is.    .   

Yes, Adams was a true Renaissance man for the technological late 20th century and, had he not died in 2001, would have been equally at home in the 21st.

To wrap this article up, here’s my favourite Adams quote:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

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From Kim Philby to Brian Clough

Another three books from the stash have just bitten the dust:

Tim Powers – Declare

I’ve read Powers before, but not for quite a while and my memory of that is somewhat hazy, so I came to this book without any particular expectations. I used to be a huge fan of SF and fantasy, but the genres seem to have disappeared up their own arses of late – fortunately ‘Declare’ doesn’t disappoint.

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A strange blend of 1960s Cold War spy thriller (think le Carre) and updated Dennis Wheatley occult potboiler with a very slight hint of Indiana Jones, ‘Declare’ has a very original plot. Double agent Kim Philby seems a strange figure to have as one of the main characters, but his presence is essential to the plot and, as the author explains in the afterword, the novel is an attempt to tie together many of the documented events of his life with Powers’ central premise – that Arabian djinns (genies) exist and have a great influence over human affairs. Philby’s fate and the existence of a particular ‘guardian’ djinn are entwined in the continuation of the USSR as a major communist power. Powers’ novel explores this relationship and the attempts that are made by the UK and US to bring about the collapse of communism by attacking the djinn.

Having very little prior knowledge of spying operations over the periods of World War II and the Cold War was no barrier to my enjoyment of the novel. In fact, it really piqued my interest and made me want to read more about the subject.

As for the supernatural element, Powers avoids the usual ‘monster’ rubbish and has the djinns forming organically from their surroundings. Their aversion to and preference for certain geometric and mineral/chemical conditions is portrayed in a highly original way.

One small minus point – Philby’s stuttering got very tedious after a while, making his words difficult to read. It may have been realistic but it really got rather annoying.

Highly recommended – well-written and offering a totally new slant on the occult thriller.

Scott G Mariani – Uprising

I’m a sucker (geddit?) for vampire stories but this one sucks, unfortunately.

I suppose that if vampires were around today and wanted to operate undercover in order to establish some sort of stable co-existence with human beings in the 21st century then an organization like the VIA (Vampire Intelligence Agency – I shit thee not) might be set up, but I personally found the concept – not to mention the TLA – laughable.

Yes, vampires can be credibly updated and turned into characters with whom the audience can sympathise (or even empathise) – and I’m not including romantic Goth crap like ‘Twilight’ and its many clones. Authors like Mick Farren, Stephen King, Jasper Kent and Charlie Huston have shown that vampires can be portrayed in an highly effective way without resorting to stereotypes or clumsy attempts to bring them into modern day life.

The characters are crudely drawn and although Mariani is attempting to take his writing out of the sub-Da Vinci Code plots that have featured in his past novels, he hasn’t improved as an author. Still, for all that, another ultimately unsatisfying but readable book for those desiring a non-taxing vampire novel. And that’s the problem – with few exceptions (Twilight!), any vampire novel is a good vampire novel…

Ian Mortimer – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

I’m also partial to a bit of history and the Medieval period is one of the more interesting aspects for me. Mortimer attempts to make you imagine what it’s actually like to live in England in the Middle Ages and covers all aspects of everyday life, from how you dealt with going to the toilet, through having an anal fistula operated on, to what would happen if you stole a chicken. It seems well-researched and it held my interest throughout.

I really liked the way he portrayed Medieval life in all its sometimes squalid glory, but tried not to judge it in terms of how much we’ve progressed today. People then did the best they could with the sometimes limited resources available. Yes, hygiene was sometimes lacking, but with no scientific theory of germs people still tried to keep themselves and their surroundings as clean as they could. Under the circumstances they seemed to do very well.

It’s one of those books that sometimes makes you want to pause and ask those around you, ‘Did you know that…?’ as the many fascinating facts emerge through the course of the book. Resist the impulse though, it’s bloody annoying…

In summary,a very laudable attempt to make history interesting, without dumbing it down. Plus it’s real history, and not some lunatic fringe attempt to pass off personal theory as documented fact – an all too common practice today with books revealing amazing and hitherto unknown revelations such as Jesus is actually buried in a secret chamber under the Sphinx and other half-baked fuckery.  

Bonus review:

The Damned United – not the David Peace book, which I must read now – but the film (BBC2 – BBC Films season) of the book; the story of Brian Clough’s 44 days as manager at Leeds United and the events leading up to and just after it. Michael Sheen was brilliant as Clough with just enough ‘Cloughisms’ and Middlesbrough accent to bring the character across, but without making him into some sort of cartoon or cheap impression.

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I found the character despicable and admirable in equal measure and it was easy to see why he polarised opinion during his life. Ultimately, however, I found myself rooting for Clough, who might have lacked ‘people skills’ but knew what he wanted and – as long as Peter Taylor was with him – knew how to get it, with everyone who went along with him ultimately winning.

Although the film mainly dealt with a trough in Clough’s career – between the twin triumphs of Derby and Notts Forest – you still saw what made him great but also what made him fallible. Essentially, it was his inability to compromise, even when he knew bloody well that what he was going to say or do wasn’t going to make life any easier for himself, let alone everybody else.

Stunning stuff with a great cast, a stand out performance from Sheen and well worth repeat viewings.

Incidentally, ‘Damned’ was followed by a documentary about Clough’s career which not only expanded on Peace’s original story, but also served as confirmation that the film was actually very fair towards Clough.

The best manager England never had?

Well, thinking about English football post-1966, the only person who actually got the job (sort of) and who might have had the charisma, skill and drive to put England back on the road to success was Terry Venables. However, Clough, if chosen after Revie, would have been able to bring far more of these qualities to bear on the job. And when you compare him to the people who actually got the job whilst he was at the height of his powers…

It’s a no-brainer – Clough should have been England manager.

But only with Taylor as his number two…