Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Off topic

Regular readers know this blog is primarily about music. Well, music and film. And, sometimes, politics. Oh, and budgerigars. But I'm taking a diversion today into treacherously deep waters: the novels of Henry Williamson.

Who, you might ask? Well, you can look him up on Wikipedia or visit the Henry Williamson society, but in short, he was a twentieth-century writer who wrote popular tracts on nature and the English countryside. He's probably best remembered today for his story Tarka the Otter, a book that has remained in print since its first publication in 1927.

This being Pickled Bologna, of course, we're more interested in the books Williamson wrote that have long been out of print. The man was prodigious in his output, completing over 50 books in his lifetime (A relative piker in comparison to his fellow south Londoner, Edgar Wallace, I admit. Incidentally, both he and Wallace lived within walking distance of the gorgeous Hilly Fields in Lewisham--if you've never visited, go! And don't forget to tell Nick Nicely the news!), but the crown jewels of his career were the fifteen volumes constituting a series entitled A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.

I went through a World War I history phase a year or two back, and at some point stumbled across a reference to the Chronicle. Intrigued and impressed with the weightiness of it all (fifteen full length novels! Now that's entertainment!), I determined to dip my toe into the waters. I tracked down a copy of The Power of the Dead, the 11th volume of the Chronicle, read it, and was instantly hooked--even though I read it out of sequence, which is something I'm generally loath to do.

With an able assist from my parents, I've since managed to acquire an additional seven volumes, have read the first three, and am currently deep into the fourth, How Dear Is Life. The novels are autobiographical, and are renowned for their depictions of the horrors of World War I, but offer rewards far afield from gritty depictions of the battlefield (which don't become a factor until volume 4 anyway). Set in the southernmost suburbs of London, at a time when they were still rural and quite distinct from the Big Smoke itself, the novels relate the story of the Maddison family, with the focus on Philip Maddison, a young man who comes of age during the nineteen-teens. Maddison is, of course, Williamson himself, and the author adeptly recreates the wonders of his childhood and the discomforts of his adolescence and young adulthood, whilst suffusing the books with vivid details of the physical world in which his characters exist.

Imagine, if you will, Thomas Hardy co-writing a book with Charles Dickens, with Hardy toning down Dickens penchant for caricature, whilst still allowing for the richness of character detail we associate with the former boot-blacker. Replace the dark city-scapes and threatening remotes of Copperfield and Twist with the verdant countryside of Return of the Native, squint, and you've almost got A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.

Though Williamson was a member of the British Union of Fascists in the late 1930s, the Chronicle--written in the 1950s and '60s--actually reflect his pre-Mosleyite socialist roots. Williamson was clearly at odds with his family's old-fashioned Tory politics, and the books display his apparent sympathy for the working-classes and the women's suffrage movement. To read these books now is to relive the final passing of the Victorian era. The Chronicle remains a vital document detailing the arrival of a more hopeful and progressive time, though I'm sure as the series progresses further into its heart of darkness--the trenches of the Western Front--that the brightness and promise of Philip Maddison's life will be dimmed by the harsh taint of reality.

Unfortunately, none of these books are currently in print--but if you have the wherewithal and patience to search for them in used bookstores or at a non-Amazon online site such as Abebooks, you will be richly rewarded. A blurb on the back of How Dear Is Life (my copy cost five shillings when published in paperback by Panther Books in 1963) says the Chronicle is 'one of the few truly great achievements in twentieth-century fiction', and considerations of advertising hyperbole aside, I have to agree.

One final aside: these books would adapt easily to television. There's a hell of a mini-series in here if the BBC were willing to make the investment.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Velvet Not So Underground

I'm sure you're familiar with the lazy old 'only a hundred people listened to The Velvet Underground in 1966, but each of them formed an important punk-era band' maxim. There's a nugget of truth in there--heck, a generous, plus-size nugget--but I'm here today to tell you that the Velvets were, despite their reputation as no-hope musical terrorists, also influential during their lifetime. They obviously didn't burrow their way into pop culture consciousness for another ten-plus years, but someone other than Jonathan Richman was listening to them in their heyday...and here's the proof.

Exhibit A: The Baskerville Hounds, a Cleveland, Ohio band who released their single Hold Me b/w Here I Come Miami on the Avco Embassy label in 1968. Produced by one James M. Testa (surely not the same James M. Testa who contributed liner notes to Screeching Weasel's 1996 LP Weasel Mania??), the single peaked at number 88 on the pop charts--and that was it for The Baskerville Hounds, who never had another sniff at the big time.Hold Me is a P.J. Proby song, executed nicely by the Hounds in a big, brash, garage-pop style that probably sounded dated to Cream and Hendrix-addled hipsters in 1968. There's a rather nice, Reedesque solo on it courtesy guitarist Lawrence Meese, but it's the B-side where the real magic happens (or the Velvets influence becomes glaringly obvious, take your pick). As Here I Come Miami begins, it sounds like it's going to be a rather routine Route 66 rip-off, but at the end of the first verse the distinctive guitar riff from There She Goes Again puts in an appearance--and then reappears a further five times before the end of the song. If the Hounds hadn't stolen this riff, I wouldn't have noticed the guitar solo on the A-side, but it's obvious that someone close to the band had listened to The Velvet Underground and Nico LP more than few times. I strongly recommend you track down a copy of the single (thus cleverly distracting you from searching for the Hounds 1967 Dot LP, which I want. Hands off!): there's probably one on Ebay right now, though it probably doesn't come with this incredibly cool if incredibly ugly picture sleeve.

Exhibit B: Harumi, a supposedly Japanese band (or person, I'm not exactly sure) who released a double LP on Verve Forecast in 1968. I say supposedly because, group photo of several Asian gentlemen in traditional Japanese garb aside, the album is sung in American-accented English and was recorded in New York by Tom Wilson...the same Tom Wilson who also produced White Light/White Heat in 1968. Whoever Harumi is or was, the album is really quite good, with the first disc comprised of shorter, poppier tracks and the second disc devoted to two long 'experimental' suites. Disc 2, side 2 is the one we're interested in today, though: entitled Samurai Memories, it's a nineteen-minute dead ringer for WL/WH's The Gift, with mumbled spoken word passages accompanied by an insistent beat propelled by percussion and trumpet. Did Harumi hear the second Velvets album on their own time, or did Wilson introduce them to it in the studio? We'll probably never know, but hear it they most certainly did. There's a bootleg reissue of the Harumi LP available on a label whose name I won't mention, but stick to the original gatefold vinyl and you won't be disappointed.

There are probably more Velvets influenced tracks from the 1966-70 period out there. If you know of any, please share them with me--and if I run across more, I'll be sure to mention them here.

Monday, January 4, 2010


The United States currently claims that the governments of Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria all sponsor and support terrorism. Whatever that is.

Here's something I just read.

From pages 311-313 of The Hidden Hand: Britain, America, and Cold War Secret Intelligence, by Richard J. Aldrich, Overlook Press 2002:

Matters reached a crisis point on 11 April 1955, toward the end of the First Taiwan Straits Crisis. Against the background of growing artillery barrages between Taiwan and mainland China, Taiwan's secret service arranged the bombing of an Air India airliner, The Kashmir Princess, carrying Chinese communist journalists to the neutralist Bandung Conference of Asian leaders in Indonesia. The bomb was planted when the plane refueled at Hong Kong and the plane exploded and plunged into the sea as it approached the Indonesian coast. All passengers and crew were killed...they [the Chinese government] asserted the device was a small time bomb supplied by the United States.

Beijing insisted that the raids provided evidence that [head saboteur] Chou Chu had received his training in explosives from Taiwan and had 'escaped...under cover and aid of the United States'.

How true were Beijing's accusations? Files declassified in 1999 show that the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was told in October 1955 that the Hong Kong Special Branch was in no doubt that evidence it had procured independently proved that Chou Chu had indeed been recruited by Taiwan's Secret Service. After the crash he had boasted of his actions to four separate witnesses...

Just something to keep in mind next time some patsy tries to set fire to his shoe or his underpants--and your government tells you to step up for a virtual strip search.

I'm turning into a regular Samuel Pepys, aren't I? Just don't call me Alex Jones...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Best Thing I Listened to in 2010

Okay, so I'm cheating a bit, but how did I live without this album for the last several decades?

I think it's probably the cover: the divine Miss Evie Sands looks like she's cycling her way over to the hay wain for a bit of clog dancing and some Steeleye Span karaoke. As it turns out, this Brooklyn-born lass was actually on the way to the sessions for this album, which features the original and stunning version of Any Way That You Want Me and another dozen bonzer tracks. There's a particularly meretricious cover of Take Me For a Little While and a bunch of other great blue-eyed country soul, all brilliantly arranged and brightly produced by the legendary Chip Taylor and the not so legendary Al Gorgoni, who on the basis of this work alone deserves to be elevated to Godlike Genius status. And now to track down Evie's earlier ABC and Blue Cat can still order the Rev-Ola Records reissue of Any Way That You Want Me from the label at

There'll be a longer musical post along in a week or a bit, but I couldn't let this disc go unmentioned.

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I am a semi-aquatic marine mammal who enjoys eating fish and krill, as well as taking long underwater swims