Forgive me if this sounds a bit pathetic, but it takes a lot for a book to hold my attention these days. Like everyone, I’m frantic from seven ‘til eleven, and even if I do manage to catch a few minutes of downtime, sitting in a chair to read instantly makes me feel like a home counties housewife with a Mills & Boon novel. Even my traditional “guilt free” times for reading – in bed, on public transport, on the loo – are constantly threatened by that constantly threatening scourge of modern concentration: the smartphone. In order to compete with the latest cat video, Daily Mash article or even a rubbishy Buzzfeed list – not to mention my scintillating Twitter feed – that book in question has to be seriously good.
In fact, to struggle through a tome of any magnitude, I need the same feeling when I look at the book as the one I get from spying the last beer in the fridge, or the last piece of chocolate or slice of cheescake… “ooh, come on, I could have just a littlemore of that, couldn’t I?” I usually leave books I’m reading in my hallway, and if I don’t get tempted for a moment as I pass, to steal a cheeky half-minute to read a couple of paragraphs when I’m really supposed to be doing something else, there’s probably no point in bothering. Conversely, if I look at a book, sigh, and say to myself, “uh, well… I suppose I’d better crack on with that, hadn’t I…” – sorry, but off to the charity shop that book goes.
So it’s with particular pleasure that I can tell you about three absolute slam-dunk top-hole bangers of books that I’ve been lucky enough to consecutively read over the last few months. Each of them had me stopping every few pages – not to check Facebook or see if anyone had replied to my latest Guardian comment – but to gaze at the cover and marvel at how marvellous the book was, which is something I’ve been doing with all great books since I was about six years old. All three of them are labours of love, and are, in their own way, works of art, lovingly crafted and imaginatively published. And only two of them are about music. And here they are:
1. Sick On You – Andrew Matheson
You’ve read a hundred “bands trying to make it” books, but none of them is like this one. Two reasons. One is that it focuses on a rarely visited corner of British music: pre-punk, and I’m not talking about pub rock, I’m referring to the immediately post-sixties crop of anti-prog, glam-sceptic, anger-ridden, attitude-laden, year-zero noiseniks. The British New York Dolls, then. The Hollywood Brats, the group in question for whom our spiky narrator was the lead vocalist, were the classic also-rans, navigating their way past a bewildering list of stars both current (Cliff Richard, Keith Moon) and eventual (Queen) with Forrest Gump-like prescience, but zero success of their own. But it’s the second element that really lifts the book above all the other failed-careerographies you might encounter, and it is, simply, Matheson’s hilarious turn of phrase. Any examples I present will probably look a bit pants out of context but here’s a few: so boring is a house party thrown by the aforementioned Queen, we’re told that “for the first couple of minutes we think we’ve got the wrong house and instead have stumbled into a retirement party for a particularly dull Ecclesiastical Studies professor.” Describing an angry mafia-connected manager, Matheson doesn’t write “he looks a bit cross” but “the scientific instrument has yet to be invented that could measure the lack of mirth in his arrangement of stretched lips and gritted teeth.” My kind of writer. The book is stuffed with hysterical anecdotes – like all good music books, almost none of them are about the music itself – and I could be here all day trying to single the best out, but the tale of Matheson and bandmate breaking into a neighbouring disused shop to stop a perpetually ringing telephone is among the funniest I’ve heard all decade.
Sick On You. Crazy clothes, crazy book.
2. Good Night And Good Riddance – David Cavanagh
If I told you this book was an exhaustive description of 250 episodes of John Peel’s radio show spanning 35 years, you could be forgiven for thinking it sounded a bit speccy and earnest and solely of interest to hardcore Peel enthusiasts, but I can sure you it is nothing of the kind. Canavagh’s peculiar genius is that he’s woven Peel’s life events, the headline news stories of the day, the ups and downs of BBC Radio 1 and the music played on Peel’s show so deftly together that the whole thing reads like a riveting social drama. Will Peel eventually triumph over the fickle radio programmers? Will the various pop stars he’s helped make household names forget all about him? When will he be conquered by punk? Midway through the 90s when he’s asked to sit in for Jakki Brambles on her incredibly mainstream lunchtime slot, he’s lambasted by the listeners via fax (thank God Twitter didn’t exist) and snubbed by the regular daytime DJs (a particularly awkward encounter with Gary Davies). More so than any of the biographies about the man, we get to know Peel… really, really know him… his modesties, his wit, his weaknesses, his tastes, what it takes to (finally) make him angry. It’s nail-biting stuff, and a must for anyone wondering how we ended up with something as great as BBC Radio 6 Music, which often feels like one long John Peel show.
Good Night and Good Riddance. How rude.
3. The Good Immigrant – edited by Nikesh Shukla
Awesome though the above two books are, they didn’t quite provide the rollercoaster of highs and lows I’ve felt while reading this quintessentially 2016 document. Nikesh Shukla has been rightly hammering the promo for this book so it’s possible you’ve heard about it already, but let me add my own loud applause to the project: a collection of 21 essays, stories, articles and reflections by 21 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, exploring themselves, their families, their experiences, and how they perceive the attitudes towards them in the UK, both in the earlier parts of their lives and right now. Again, there might be people reading this who think that sounds, y’know, a bit worthy and unexciting, but largely due to the sheer sky-high quality of the writing, it most certainly is not. It’s a compelling and fascinating ride, often highly amusing, often heartbreaking, causing me to do no small amount of self-examination about my own views and social reflexes. Although I am probably the epitome of what my Dad used to refer to as a “bog-standard Brit”, I consider myself to be as open-minded, equal-opportunties-conscious and culturally respectful as people get (I live in Hackney, for God’s sake), but even I encountered descriptions of several bits of thinking or behaviour within the book that made me think: “Shit! I do that.” Wei Ming Kam’s article about challenging stereotypes, for example, made me ashamed of my passive assumptions that “model minority” East Asians are all “quiet and hardworking”. It had never occurred to me that, although the “third largest ethnic grouping in the UK”, it could be An Event when an East Asian is seen on British television, as Vera Chok’s essay suggests. The book is heaving with great stories and episodes that make you leap up and down with with rage or laughter, often both: Riz Ahmed’s brilliant tale of his acting auditions influencing the hassle he receives at airports, and vice versa; Varaidzo’s savagely witty “A Guide To Being Black”; Coco Khan’s charming, sad account of seduction and of local, casual racism; Daniel York Loh’s hilarious recollections of watching the mysterious masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki on telly as a kid; and Nikesh Shukla’s own story of language misuse and abuse. J. K. Rowling has called the book “important and timely” and as usual I agree with everything she says; especially in this hatred-laden year, I wish I could upload the book straight into each British human’s brain and then give everyone a day off to think about it. In the absence of this magical ability, I urge you to buy it. Today.
The Good Immigrant. Way cool book, way cool cover.