SEVERAL BOOKS AT BEDTIME - Alternative Top Ten (Well, Fourteen) Books of 2010

As the year draws to a close I feel it incumbent upon me to highlight some of the books I've had the pleasure to read in the last year. Alas, one of the reasons for doing this is because these didn't quite make it to full review status in 2010 as I was... er, somewhat occupied. So, to make amends here's a quick catch up with some of my favourite reads of the year...

Dominic Sandbrook expanded upon his superb history of Britain in the 1960s (Never Had it So Good and White Heat) by examining the disastrous Heath government of the early 1970s in State of Emergency - The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974 (Allen Lane). If you are old enough to recall the miners' strikes, the three day week and the power cuts that interrupted your enjoyment of Doctor Who, then this brilliant examination of the post-1960s decline of the UK, seen not just through the politics and changing social attitudes but also in the cultural zeitgeist formed from the music, films and television of the times, will rekindle some pleasant and not-so-pleasant memories.  It also, as Sandbrook has often done so in his past books, attempts to explode a number of 'myths' about the period and it is worth remembering that as the country slid into decline there was never a time before or since when the majority of people in Britain were actually better off.

What emerges is a portrait of Heath that is both sympathetic and damning and his ultimate failure to handle the oil crisis, his own overly complex incomes policies and the escalating violence in Northern Ireland goes hand in hand with the impression that no matter how hard he tried he was a man ill at ease when it came to being at one with the people of Britain. It often makes for sober reading, particularly the chapter on Ireland, and skillfully documents the beginning of the end of the so called post-war consensus that lasted from 1945 to the election of Thatcher in 1979.

Along the way, he charts Heath's time in power as one often marred by simple bad luck and examines the true legacy of the permissiveness of the 1970s with a look at the changing roles of men and women, censorship, the green movement, football hooliganism and Britain's entry into the EEC. Splendidly written and highly accessible.

If you enjoy short stories with plenty of twists and great dollops of surreal humour on top then I can highly recommend Robert Shearman's second collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (Big Finish). These are stories that scratch away at the back of your mind long after reading them and chart the power of love to survive the harshest of climates, the strangest of environments and the most heartless of relationships. He sets out to defy and redefine what love means in the 21st century.

'Roadkill', chronicling the aftermath of a dirty weekend, is by turns sinister, painful and wonderfully observed. The disappearance of 'Luxembourg' is simply the backdrop to the difficult bond between Colin and Juliet and in 'This Creeping Thing' love becomes a sado-masochistic stalker requiring exorcism in the lives of Susan and Tom. Shearman drops tiny bombs into his narratives, a mixture of little acid drops and unexpected blushes of pathos and redemption. This book and its stories will take you unawares, their power at once beguiling and terrifying, perhaps reflecting your own attitudes to love and loss in these confusing and often hostile times.

Paperboy (Bantam) by Christopher Fowler, the deserved winner of the first Green Carnation Prize, is a memoir of the writer's childhood, a journey through the places in which his own power to tell stories was formed and how a terrifyingly imaginative child managed to manoeuvre round and bloom in the unfulfilled expectations from a father of his son and the emotional battlegrounds of a strange extended family that his mother constantly fought within.

The family that didn't quite fit in probably best describes Kath, Bill, Steven and Christopher and their distinctive lifestyle in the 1960s and 1970s and Fowler chronicles Bill's domination by his mother, the Cruella de Vil-like Mrs. Fowler, his father's Heath Robinson approach to doing the house up and his mother's quiet support of his blossoming writing abilities. If you were a child of the period and the synapses of your brain were irrevocably besmirched by Doctor Who, Hammer films, super heroes, free gifts in cereal packets, war comics and the rampant desire to tell stories in vast collections of exercise books... then you are Christopher Fowler and I claim my £5. A charming, witty, nostalgia soaked chronicle that above all exposes the very influences that come to bear on a writer, both cultural and familial. His eventual triumph as a writer after an erratic, often surreal, upbringing (which seemed perfectly normal to me) brings tears to the eyes. Lovely.

Having recently dipped my toe into the arena of Doctor Who academe I feel it is only fitting to acknowledge Dr. Matt Hills and his benchmark study of the Russell T. Davies's era of the show in Triumph of a Time Lord (I.B Tauris). I am pleased to say that Hills and his book were a constant inspiration and I have happily quoted it in my own work. Here, Hills sets out to provide an accessible and thoughtful examination of the revival of the series in one of the first major works to do so. This is not a dry-as-dust treatise and is recommended to those readers who find much of the theoretical analysis of television, and Doctor Who in particular, slightly off-putting and yet still desire an engaging exchange of ideas. He doesn't go for highfalutin' terminology (none of the semiotics that The Unfolding Text tended to drown in) and very consistently, patiently and wittily unpacks the latest era of the show. Yes, there is often recourse to academic language but then this isn't a specifically mainstream book and it is achieved with some grace.

The aim here is to describe what kind of programme Doctor Who is in the 21st century by looking at Russell T. Davies as a specific author, his so-called 'agenda' and how fan discourses and authors have shaped that 'agenda'; at the production as a result of fans turned producers; at the position of the series as 'quality' television with an emphasis on spectacle, branding and genre. Overall, he argues that Doctor Who has now become a mainstream cult and emphasises its journey from a cult programme at best tolerated by the BBC to its prominence as a flagship, multi-platform drama at the heart of the BBC's schedules. How this happened and how genre, authorship and fandom influenced a golden age for the series is something you'll be eager to find out in Hills excellent book. Do not expect an episode guide or behind the scenes type book. If you're keen on analysis then this is for you.

Paul O'Grady is something of a national treasure and his first book, At My Mother's Knee and Other Low Joints took us back to his childhood in post-war Liverpool and his early misadventures growing up, a gay teenager riddled with Catholic guilt. The Devil Rides Out: The Second Coming (Bantam) picks the story up just as his girlfriend (yes, that's right girlfriend ) announces she's pregnant with his child on the same night his father dies and his mother has a heart attack. The book chronicles his naive inability to become a father and look after baby Sharyn and mother Diane. He voices his horror in "to be honest, the baby still scared me. No, she terrified the life out of me and I looked upon my daughter, sweet little thing though she undoubtedly was, as if she were somebody else's child, nearly always coming away from a visit hating myself for harbouring what I considered unnatural emotions. After all, didn't I come from a warm, loving family? So why then couldn't I express the same love and affection for this child? Jesus, for an eighteen-year-old I was carrying a lot of guilt around."

The relationship founders and he's soon hankering for the lights of London. Before he finally settles there, O'Grady falls in and out of various jobs (clerk at a magistrate's court, accountant at an abbatoir) with one of the most striking chapters devoted to his three years as as a carer at the Children's Convalescent Home, West Kirkby. While full of mordant humour about the staff and carryings-on at the Home, O'Grady emerges as a man who passionately cares for and has an empathy with the young and disabled. It stands him in good stead for his eventual role as a peripatetic care officer working for Camden Council, living in with elderly people or dysfunctional families. It is his exploits in Camden, first as an escort, waiter and cleaner and later as a care officer that form much of the final two thirds of the book. Living in Camden, he still longs to take to the stage and when O'Grady meets the much missed Regina Fong at the Black Cap, Lily Savage's debut is not far away. We also meet the oft-talked about Vera and their adventures together are the stuff of legend and nightmares.

Once again, beautifully observed and often staggeringly funny in his honesty. A wonderful depiction of a truly alternative gay lifestyle in the early 1970s too. Unlike most showbiz memoirs, often little more than PR puff pieces, this is the real deal.

Another Green Carnation shortlisted book is Jonathan Kemp's London Triptych (Myriad) which cleverly intertwines three narratives and manages to depict the London gay scene at various time periods with their attendant mores, foibles and etiquette. Kemp clearly enjoys his recreation of 1890s London in which his character Jack Rose falls in with the bohemian life as a rent boy with other men in a male whore house. He eventually becomes associated with Oscar Wilde. In the 1950s, Kemp carries the central use of male prostitution to chronicle gay experience and history forward with the character of Colin, an artist who frustratedly attempts an affair with his male model and falls foul of the law. The final element of this triptych of characters is David, a young man who clearly reflects much of the gay male hedonism of present times as he stumbles into a whirlwind of sex, pornography and drugs.

The book succeeds because the city of London and its sheltering influence is a constant throughout the various turmoils that the three characters endure and the vicissitudes and visibility (or not) of the gay male experience. It is about how lives are shaped by the architecture that surrounds them - whether it be actual buildings and streets or the forces of law, the mutability of morality and the shifting nature of identity.

It would seem that Armistead Maupin's return to the San Francisco of his much loved 'Tales of the City' series of books with Michael Tolliver Lives rather divided his fan base back in 2007. Personally, I rather enjoyed it as a somewhat different perspective on Barbary Lane and its lot from the author. Probably as much to do with the shift from third person to first person narrative. However, with Mary Ann in Autumn (Doubleday) Maupin returns us safely to the bosom of his world and the book is a return to the form his audience has come to love. As with his previous novel, Maupin reflects on how age has affected our favourite characters and the emphasis is here placed on Mary Ann Singleton, now 57, running back to San Francisco and her friends, hurting from the breakdown of her marriage and bruised from her mistakes.

Michael and his husband Ben take her in, gradually encouraging her to connect with life again (through Facebook, naturally) as she faces illness and a long forgotten threat from her past. The book is a warm tapestry of those familiar characters and a further development of others he has introduced to the saga - Michael’s husband, Ben, Mary Ann’s estranged adoptive daughter, Shawna and Jake Greenleaf, Michael’s transgendered gardening assistant. Beautifully written, thoroughly engaging us with a fascinating perspective on growing old in an ever changing and complicated world.

Helena Bassil-Morozow's Tim Burton - The Monster and the Crowd (Routledge) was another essential text I had by my side as I was writing my own book. Why? Simply because Steven Moffat had suggested in an interview that his own era would likely be his 'Tim Burton' to RTD's 'Superman' inspired reign. Morozow's book is described as a 'post-Jungian analysis' but please don't let that put you off. It is a thoroughly accessible interpretation of Burton's oeuvre and examines a number of mythic themes that dominate his films.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of Burton and his remakes of Alice in Wonderland and Planet of the Apes are probably amongst my least favourite of his films. For me, the personal perspective of Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands are the best examples of what he has to offer. If you are interested in the power of myth, fairy tale and how archetypes are filtered into his work then Morozow's fascinating book is an insightful read and periodically delves into Burton's own creative processes. She explores a number of themes about the monstrous, the childlike and the hero's role in society and discusses one of his major cinematic themes - the thin line between genius and madness. And she makes no excuses for Planet of the Apes.

When is a Doctor Who book not a Doctor Who book? When it's written by the wonderful Michael Moorcock. Doctor Who - The Coming of the Terraphiles (BBC/Ebury) arrived with much expectation heaped upon it. Science fiction legend Michael Moorcock penning a Who book? What could be more exciting? Well, it is through and through a Moorcock book. Whether it can specifically be described as a Doctor Who book is another thing. It is slightly disappointing in that the Doctor and Amy are very much background characters to a grander, more eccentric saga and, where other writers have more than succeeded in capturing the personalities and physical ticks of Smith and Gillan in their fiction, Moorcock's incarnation of them is somewhat blander. Arguably, it could be any Doctor or companion meandering through the story.

However, as an exercise in world, or should that be universe, building this surpasses many other Doctor Who books. It is a densely detailed, baroque, very idiosyncratic vision. Perhaps one slightly startling to begin with but once you get the measure of his imagination then his major characters come alive. As Doctor Who is itself an icon of British imagination then it comes as no surprise that Moorcock exploits the Britishness and eccentricity of the series, coming up with characters and narrative that depict a universe where the sun simply never went down on Empire but actually twisted it out of shape into a bizarre pan-galactic theme park where British sports like cricket and darts merge into one and are played by exaggerations of Robin Hood, W.G. Grace and feature versions of his own fictional characters such as Captain Cornelius. If you like your Who in Douglas Adams mode with a dash of Wodehouse, E.F. Benson, Mervyn Peake, Wilde and Verne then this is definitely for you.

And last but not least is the latest in the BFI's ongoing series of TV Classics books. Stephen Lacey's volume on Cathy Come Home (BFI) is very welcome. Many of the books in the series are essential purchases and I would heartily recommend the volumes on Edge of Darkness, Queer as Folk, Our Friends in the North and Doctor Who. All are brief but fascinating analyses of said dramas and Cathy Come Home is no exception to the high standard and quality these books often aspire to. Lacey examines in great detail how director Ken Loach, producer Tony Garnett and writer Jeremy Sandford collaborated on this landmark drama-documentary and shaped a televisual form that continues to this day.

He provides an in-depth examination of the dramatic form itself and how Loach and Garnett constructed the narratives of the play while also demonstrating that drama could be made entirely outside of the studio system at the BBC. He also contextualises this edition of The Wednesday Play within the drama producing history and hierarchy of the BBC of the early 1960s as well as the political and social background to the themes of the play. The book is thoroughly illustrated with many stills from the production and is a perfect introduction to a television milestone.

Honourable mentions to...

The Fry Chronicles - Stephen Fry (Penguin)
A disappointing follow up to the excellent Moab is My Washpot, this second volume of autobiography tends to be repetitive and bloated. Although it is warm and funny, he doesn't cover as much ground as Washpot either in self-analysis, theme or time and place. The man slowly disappears behind his own erudition and celebrity. It often comes across as apology too for the sheer ostentation of the lifestyle he led during the 1980s when the money came rolling in from his success with Me and My Girl.

Blue Box Boy - Matthew Waterhouse (Hirst)
Perhaps one of the most interesting Doctor Who memoirs of late, Waterhouse charts his time on the series using the rather distancing device of making himself a separate character in the memoir rather than using a first person view. The behind the scenes material he provides is often quite revealing and brutally honest.

Hell's Belles - Paul Magrs (Headline)
The continuing adventures of Brenda and Effie are a constant delight. The added thrill is the return of Karla Sorenson, the star of his book To The Devil-A Diva!, arriving to film a remake of Get Thee Inside Me Satan in Whitby. Again, Magrs is a master of subverting and playing with the Gothic conventions in these wonderful comic mysteries.

The Spiv and the Architect: Unruly Life in Postwar London - Richard Hornsey (University of Minnesota Press)
A breathtaking view of queer lives lived during the urban restructuring of the capital during the late 1940s and 1950s. Hornsey pulls together a vast array of cultural references - everything from Francis Bacon, the Festival of Britain, Ealing comedies and Joe Orton - to explore how this planning, including the power of the law and media, changed and shifted the lives of gay men in this period.



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One Response to “SEVERAL BOOKS AT BEDTIME - Alternative Top Ten (Well, Fourteen) Books of 2010”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Frank! :)

    Helena B-M

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