Review of Brix Smith Start’s The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise

The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise

Brix Smith Start

London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 2017

ISBN: 978-0-571-32506-1

XII + 461 pp.

It is a slightly curious thing that Brix Smith Start writes so much and so intensely of her family life while the three names she uses are all exonymous in that they were conferred on her through adult relationships she had established. She was born Laura Elisse Salenger in Los Angeles in 1962. Her glamour, blondeness, Jewishness all seem far removed from her career with The Fall and her quite short marriage to the group’s central figure Mark E. Smith (who seems to have had a complex and possibly contradictory relationship with Germany, the Second World War and Jewish people – at one stage a second female member of the band, keyboard player Marcia Schofield, who was tall and striking and also Jewish and Brix writes of Smith’s fascination with both of them). Yet despite all the other things she has done in her life (she is only two years older than me so I hope she may have many more productive years in front of her), it is her time with The Fall that seems to be central to most readers’ interest and is certainly paced centrally in this autobiography. It is not always an easy story to read and it was not, presumably, a very easy story to tell. She concludes her acknowledgements with “This book was written in bed(s) (p.461)” and given her self-reported issues with mental health it is not difficult to imagine that tears and sighs accompanied the words as they were forced out of her memory.

There are three principal sections: before The Fall, The Fall, after The Fall (and a return). The first and final sections are enlivened by the presence of animals, who bring cheer and emotional support to Brix. It is difficult to imagine MES taking care of any kind of animal successfully but there is a cat, Frau, which she is able to look after and which urinates on the Smith microphone, perhaps in wordless feline sympathy. Other cats had been introduced by former girlfriend Kay Carroll. He seemed to have been oblivious to them but they did survive – as I have written elsewhere, the City Hobgoblin persona was not the only aspect to his character.

As the daughter of a noted West Coast psychotherapist of some sort and a mother who had been a model, worked in a brokerage and then as a researcher for CBS, when she bought a convertible Porsche for her personal use, it is clear that the young Laura had many advantages in life and a form of Californian social capital that in many cases acts as the basis of confidence and happiness. Unfortunately, Laura is troubled – her father is described as abusive on an emotional level (it is not clear to me exactly what he has done that is so bad but she is quite firm on this) and, like many people who go to secondary school in the USA, she seems to have found it difficult to establish her identity and role in society. Important features in her life include Disneyworld, music and a willingness to experiment with drugs of various sorts. Her musical tastes bring her the nickname Brix, after the Clash song The Guns of Brixton. There are some exciting interludes and some dangerous ones. She suffers physical abuse and is raped. The mental health issues might be related to this period, although it is always problematic to assign cause and effect in such cases. She speaks several times of the anorexia that she experiences as a means of trying to control at least one aspect of her body. However, she dates her relationship with bulimia to when she was four years old.

Act 2 is ushered in when she is introduced to the music of The Fall (Slags, Slates seems to have been her favourite LP, well EP) and then meets MES in a night club. She was apparently almost immediately smitten with him and soon she is moving to sunny Manchester to be his wife – to outraged protestations from various family members. She was very young when the name Smith became appended to the Brix.

After six weeks, Brix flies to the UK, knowing very little about it: “I never expected Manchester to be so grim. Glowering, Victorian red-brick buildings lined the sides of the streets. They looked like mean structures, where horrible atrocities had been committed in decades past. The sky was toxic: heavy, with ominous grey clouds. The few people I saw, as we rode in the back of the taxi from Piccadilly train station to Prestwich, seemed joyless. Nobody smiled (pp.167-8).” She goes on to observe: “I didn’t expect Mark to be so poor. Once I got past the cats and got a good look at the flat, I was shocked (p.169).” It was all a long way from the LA sunshine. Nonetheless, she does her best to brighten up the world by inserting poppy guitar riffs and upbeat backing vocals into some Fall songs and persuading MES to record music which people could actually understand the words. There is a measure of commercial success and the band briefly wears designer clothes. The creative process, though, was subject to the drink and drug-fuelled mood swings of MES and his desire to maintain a tyrannical grip over the nature and direction of the group and its music. Brix goes through the various LPs on which she worked and takes the understandable but perhaps flawed approach that the more she appears on a record, the better the record is. We now know how all of this ends: Smith behaves increasingly badly, other women are involved and he breaks up with her. Heartbreak and depression follow.

The third act follows Brix and her reinvention, eventually, as a remarried woman (hence the Start part of her name) via somewhat manic episodes with punk violin star Nigel Kennedy (whose opinions of her musical ability would be interesting to read) and her fashion retail empire and then appearances with Gok Wan on the television (I remember the first time I saw the programme on an Asian Food and Lifestyle channel unexpectedly. I had no idea). There is a lot more along the way – indeed, reviewing the book for this piece, I was surprised how long and important both the first and third sections were, which is perhaps a symptom of my own bias. However, I was only interested in the book because of Brix’s life with The Fall and others with the same interest will find many fascinating details and insights here.

 

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Review of Simon Wolstonecroft’s You Can Drum but You Can’t Hide

You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide

Simon Wolstonecroft

Pontefract: Route, 2017

ISBN: 9-781901927696

280 pp.

“I’ve heard Mark likened to the late football manager Brian Clough. I discovered that Mark was an admirer and could see similarities in their man-management style. They both wanted to be very hands-on with their players and didn’t suffer fools gladly. If Mark saw potential in a ‘new signing’ and actually liked you, he would encourage you to develop your style. In my case he kept telling me to keep the beat simple and to keep drum rolls to a bare minimum (p.91).”

In various ways, this passage encapsulates the story of Simon Wolstonecroft, one of the great survivors of The Fall, whose vocalist Mark E. Smith managed to keep up a relentless change of personnel in what he considered to be his band. By keeping the beat simple and therefore not attracting too much of Smith’s attention of fuelling displeasure by appearing to seek the limelight, he lasted for a decade with the band and seems to have escaped with his mental health more or less intact. Along the way, he has been able to tour Europe, Japan, Australia, America and other places that might otherwise have been beyond the reach of the son of a GP who lacked aptitude for academic studies and a knack of getting into dodgy situations. Funky Si – that is how he would have liked to have played if he had had the choice – may be seen as a fortunate survivor.

However, there is another way he might have told his story. As a boyhood friend of both Johnny Marr and Ian Brown, he was only a drumstick’s breadth away from playing either with The Smiths or The Stone Roses, which would have been likely to lead to international superstardom and all the privileges that rank implies. Instead, he drummed for The Fall with all of the psychodrama involved with that.

“After receiving instructions from Mark over the phone from a hotel near Seattle airport, the tour manager was thrown off the bus in the middle of downtown by Steve (bassist Hanley) and Karl (percussionist Burns). He cut a sad figure as he trudged off to catch a bus back to his native Boston.

With a complete lack of management and crew, Steve was asked to take control of the tour. But it had been chaos.

Worse, the gigs were only half-full, if we were lucky (p.193).”

Given a half-serious offer from Noel Gallagher, when Oasis were also going through a period of turmoil, it is not surprising that Wolstonecroft occasionally questioned whether he had been making the right choices. He was certainly bold in his willingness to experiment with drugs, as the saying has it. There are brushes with the police and lost nights out. His marriage ends badly and he is left with very little: “Memory is a fickle thing. I’m 50 now at the time of writing and even if I had a good memory, a lot of these stories happened when I as as high as a kite (p.265).” Perhaps this is one reason why his recollections can seem a little trite and his personal philosophy occasionally veers into David Brent territory. Yet how many interesting drummers are there in the world, especially in the world of rock’n’roll? The traditional role of the drummer is to be slightly out of control, producing a terrible racket at the centre of the band that is inspired by otherwise unreleased creative energy. That is the role played in The Fall by Karl Burns, who was in and out of the band several times during his career and with whom Wolstonecroft necessarily had a somewhat ambivalent attitude. Karl Burns liked to blow things up – there is a story of a barbecue in Smith’s garden which began with an explosion because of the over-enthusiastic application of petrol and concludes with MES having some kind of seizure and having to be taken away by ambulance. Had Funky Si explored his funkiness musically more extensively would it have helped to develop his own inner self? This is not necessarily the case since Burns seems incapable of living within human society and his whereabouts have been a mystery for a number of years.

One wonders what Wolstonecroft will do with the rest of his life. Being a member of The Fall never did pay very well and there is evidence to suggest that MES kept more than his fair share of what was generated. A number of personal relationships seem to resemble burnt bridges, although some might be repaired in time. He ends on a cheerful note, mentioning his daughter, his new girlfriend and his ongoing interest in making music still. His attitude is positive: “Today, I’ve never been busier. I feel happier than ever and appreciate the life I have led. I’m not proud of the drug abuse and the affairs, but what has happened has happened. I’m fortunate, in some ways, to be alive, considering some of my earlier lifestyle choices (p.277).” I’m pleased to have read this book but I wonder whether its appeal might be a little limited to those have not been fans of The Fall.

 

Review of Mark E. Smith’s Renegade

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Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith

Mark E. Smith with Austin Collings

London: Penguin Books, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-141-02866-8

X + 240 pp.

“To certain people you’ve got yo be a bit poetic, or a bit aggressive. They have their image of you – and I play up to it. But it’s a protection, a screen. I can pull it out when I need it, because with some people you do need it (p.71).”

I avoided reading this book for some years, at least in part because I didn’t want to get too close to the City Hobgoblin persona that Smith was fond of portraying and, also, because I rather drifted away from The Fall and from most music for a number of years. When I returned to it, all the musicians were different and there was not the same sense of connection – no Steve Hanley? Where is Karl Burns? Craig Scanlon? Not even a Brix?

However, with the illness and death of the great man earlier this year, I realised it was time for me to get to grips with The Fall overall and not just my relationship to the group (of almost 40 years). I started with Hanley’s The Big Midweek (which is reviewed elsewhere on this site) and others will follow (I have three to hand as I write this). The front cover of Renegade is also slightly off-putting – there is Smith, stagily pouring beer from a bottle into a glass and looking rather haggard. We now know, of course, that he had been struggling with cancer for some years but it is also true that the later years marked a quite rapid decline both in his writing and also, apparently, in his behaviour: he ended up after all in prison in the USA and could have been banged up for quite some time had events fallen out differently. This episode is not fully explained here (in fact, almost nothing of a factual nature is explained satisfactorily throughout the whole book) but there is evidence from elsewhere that sheds some more light on the issue. Smith claims that he was on the verge of being shipped off to Rikers Island, perhaps never to return (despite protesting his mostly innocence) but there is no independent verification of this.

It is not just his writing that went downhill – where once his writing had been dense, difficult, infuriatingly hard to make out but always enjoyable when it could be interpreted, later it degenerated in sophistication and content, with a number of songs seemingly taking revenge on band members or past lovers. The music itself became less interesting as Smith’s stature and endurance increased in relation to newer band members (and this relationship was reinforced structurally by the judicious choice of credits when it came to being paid) and he insisted on simplicity and control of the sound. This was made evident during gigs when he would wander around the stage, turning down amplifiers and dismantling the equipment. In part, this behaviour seemed to result from questionable lifestyle choices:

“At least you know where you are with booze. You drink two bottles of whisky and wake up in the morning, you know you’ve done something wrong, you know you won’t be doing it again. But experience tells you it’ll lift soon. And with liquor, if you drink any more, you’ll be dead. You can’t move. But with E you start seeing chickens on the road – I know I was (p.178).”

I was not a fan of the interference with the music – in the early period of his career when I was listening to The Fall quite intensively (Dragnet was my first LP), the voice and the lyrics were integral parts of a much bigger whole. Smith announced that if it were just him and ‘your granny on bongos,’ then it would still be The Fall. He then set out to prove this, often by sacking musicians when on tour and leaving them stranded in remote parts of the rural areas of other countries. It would only be when he contemplated performing on an otherwise empty stage that he would be obliged to reconsider.

All of these issues are extraneous to the merits of the book, of course, although they do indicate the reasons why I cannot approach the text in an objective and non-judgmental manner. So what is the text like? Well, it contains an extraordinary series of rants, with truth proving less attractive than a good line of invective. It is quite difficult to quote examples of this because of the relentless use of expletives, which I don’t particularly mind myself but do not want to include on this site. There are chapters about football (gone to hell in a handcart), other music (pretty much all rubbish) and various relationships (nearly everyone in the world is deficient in some way and has probably done him wrong behind his back at some stage). It is all very funny and plays well, as I said at the beginning, to his City Hobgoblin persona. Some of it may even be true. It was noticeable when the obituaries and discussion of his life was in full flight how fulsome in praise his various women were (brix, Elena, his sisters) about his chivalrous manners, his kindness and gentility. He had, I suppose, many sides to his character.

 

Review of Cixin Liu’s The Wandering Earth

The Wandering Earth

Cixin Liu

London: Head of Zeus Ltd., 2017

ISBN: 9-781786-696717

447 pp.

Translated by Ken Liu, Elizabeth Hanlon, Zac Haluza, Adam Lanphier and Holger Nahm

Cixin Liu rose to prominence in the western world after publication of the translated trilogy which began with The Three Body Problem (each of which is reviewed elsewhere on this site). In those books, Liu showed his propensity to create science fiction on the very broadest of levels in terms of both time and space – in English, Stephen Baxter would be a writer often working on the same scale. Yet Liu’s vision is very bleak and he rarely permits the occasional breath of optimism that Baxter will allow from time to time. Instead, all ventures seem to lead to failure and the deaths of millions. Failure is often plucked from the jaws of a victory that a stroke of unexpected genius might just have achieved. The genius may not be named – in one of the stories in this collection of mostly earlier works, an unspecified ‘captain’ rises from the crowd to represent humanity in the endless and relentlessly unequal struggle against implacable alien enemies and the unforgiving physics of this universe. This is not a book or, indeed, an author for readers who are only satisfied by a happy ending.

Cixin Liu is partial to the examination of large-scale change in societies under conditions of  profound stress, such as the knowledge that an unstoppable death machine is approaching the Earth and will arrive to destroy it in a fixed period. He discusses societies n different forms of ‘depression’ as a result. It is tempting to consider this to be a form of Chinese characteristic that might also be present in some other East Asian states that exhibit Confucian influence. It is quite common for him to portray people behaving as part of a collective in a way that seems much less likely in  western work, which would tend to emphasise the more diverse forms of behaviour that individualism is thought to demonstrate. It is also difficult to imagine a western author describing characters who have just received an enormous trove of alien, far-future knowledge as rejoicing as this would mean Communism could be embedded in society permanently. However, this viewpoint does contribute to the critique of capitalism in its various forms that occasionally may be seen – particularly in the case of the Last Capitalist, who owns the entire world. It also means a certain lack of sensual detail, so that the deaths of millions in cosmic disasters take place without much in the way of sound and vision.

These are quite substantial pieces. There are ten stories in the 447 pages of text and most of them are composed of multiple episodes, which are used to advance the story on an often epic scale. In The Wandering Earth, for example, the title suggests it is not really a spoiler to reveal that as a result of another cosmic crisis the Earth is forcibly detached from its orbit around the Sun and sent off to seek its future as an independent body. There are various phases of the odyssey to consider and so each receives its own episode. The same structure displays the progress of an otherwise unexceptional man from a small village to becoming a spiderman (who clean the windows of large skyscrapers – presumably spiderwomen exist somewhere) and then on into space. These are stories that, in other words, depend on the ability of the intellectual content to engage the mind of the reader rather than in the characterisation or the language. This issue is exacerbated by the nature of the translation. There are five translators in all but the stories overall display a high level of consistency in terms of language that might be characterised as functional without being exciting. I cannot really think of a text written in Chinese that has been rendered into English in a dense and poetic manner and without footnotes and perhaps this is not the place to look for the first. Nevertheless, this remains a fascinating book which will please many readers of hard science fiction and those who are interested in thinking about what we might do if faced by the sudden appearance of hostile aliens wielding effortlessly superior technology.

 

 

Review of Andy Weir’s Artemis

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Artemis

Andy Weir

New York, NY: Crown, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-525-57266-4

307 pp.

Andy Weir shot to fame as the result of his first book, The Martian, which became a best-seller as well as a prominent feature film. That book told the story of an unfortunate astronaut stranded on Mars when his colleagues were oblige to leave without him. The astronaut possesses reservoirs of scientific and technological knowledge and the ability to put this into useful practice through dexterity and clever innovation. The majority of the books as the man himself and his usually time-aspected rush to solve what appear to be impossibly difficult problems.

In Artemis, Weir attempts, not always successfully, to open the action to a small cast of characters, who revolve around the central character Jasmine or Jazz. Jazz is the daughter of a Saudi Arabian welder who has migrated to the eponymous city that is located on the moon. Artemis has reached the level of a modest-sized town, governed by a mayor and a man who is effectively the sheriff. Since it is very difficult to produce much in the way of consumer goods on the Moon, the citizens of Artemis are going to be reliant on imports from the Earth for the foreseeable future while being dependent on the tourism industry. It is clear from this that there is going to be a great deal of inequality in a society such as this and the signs of inequality will be evident in the possession of space and the items that be used to fill it. Jazz, of course, has very little space for herself and has also accumulated some unfortunate debts. Her answer to this predicament is to organize a modest but potentially lucrative smuggling ring. Alas, she is successful enough to reach the attention of people who can see a bigger picture and insert her into a scam which then drives the rest of the plot.

What is both the best and one of the worst things in the book is the relentless obsession with the science and engineering of living on the moon. No sentence is too short that three facts cannot be shoehorned into it and no conversation so inconsequential that it cannot be used as the vehicle for important technological knowledge:

“We reached the shelter hatch and I knocked on the small, round window. A face appeared – a man with watering eyes and ash-covered face. Most likely the foreman, who would have entered the shelter last. He gave me a thumbs-up and I returned the gesture (p.30).”

Not everyone will enjoy this style especially when it is combined with Jazz’s endless gag cracking (rather like Spiderman, whom one can imagine the author following) and the grotesquely simplistic characterisation of the remaining cast. To be honest, I am glad that I do not oblige myself to give a book marks out of ten on this site because I would have had to give quite a low one here – the dialogue is dreadful, the plot is ludicrous, the characters are irritatingly superficial and Jazz herself is the least credible female character I can remember encountering (and there have been quite a few unbelievable women in science fiction). However, the underlying nature of the book, which is an extended tour of how it would be possible to build and live in a moonbase, remains fascinating. The book would be better as a piece of fiction if it could have just involved an impersonal Jazz making a tour of Artemis while interacting with a computer but I imagine the publisher would not have been keen on such a thing. Instead, we are obliged to go along with the concept that technical competence is really the only characteristic that matters in valuing an individual and it is the principal means by which relationships may be maintained, damaged or repaired. Well, readers familiar with The Martian should know what to expect and would have no one to blame but themselves.

It will be interesting to see how, if at all, Weir develops his career from here. We have had Mars and the Moon so what will be next? A spaceship? A submarine marooned on the floor of the ocean? An asteroid? Perhaps he might be better advised to form a writing partnership (perhaps with a ghost writer – it has been known) as a means of combining the undoubted technical fireworks he has with a mode of fiction it is possible to enjoy in its own right.

Review of Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships

The Time Ships
Stephen Baxter
London: HarperVoyager, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-00-813454-9
499 pp.

The prolific science fiction writer Stephen Baxter has become known not just for his own, numerous creations but, also, for his work in recreating classics of British work. He recently had published an updated version of The War of the Worlds and this, presumably, prompted the reissue of The Time Ships, which first appeared in 1995.

Baxter has produced a sequel to the Wells original which, it is hardly a spoiler to reveal, ends with our time travelling protagonist having to abandon his beloved but quite feckless Weena to the sinister and brutish Morlocks and their (Miltonesque) underground engines. The time traveller subsequently escaped a close shave with those creatures by escaping to the far future, where he witnessed what appears to be the onset of the end of the world or, at least, of the end of humanity before returning to his own time and relating the tale to the nameless Writer. Now, the Traveller prepares to return to the future, so to speak, with a view to rescuing Weena and finding some way of living happily ever after with her in some way. However, as the back cover blurb reveals, his first intervention in the chromosphere has rather upset things and a whole new series of timelines has been introduced The Traveller has the opportunity to travel unimaginable distances in time and to witness the different and mostly unfortunate ways in which his actions have changed humanity and the other creatures encountered along the way.

Baxter does a good job of portraying the Traveller as a stiff upper lip type of chap who would do sterling work in the administration of the Empire. The world is described through his perspective and, so, it appears as a potentially dangerous place which could, nevertheless, be wrestled into submission and put to productive use with a dose of elbow grease:

“… But I knew … that my 1891, that cosy world of Richmond Hill, was lost in the fractured Multiplicity.
Well: if I could not go home, I decided, I would go on: I would follow this road of Changing, until it could take me no further! (p.349)”

It would be a little unkind to observe that there is a gap between perception and reality such as this in nearly all of Baxter’s work – his characterisation has improved over the years and has become functional, although it is hard to imagine future PhD candidates will be probing the psychological makeup and development of his characters.

The class system is deftly deployed in the spirit of the original to display the true nature of society in its various guises and the Traveller’s inherent confidence in dealing with it in the many ages of the world he has the chance to visit.
Since the Traveller was to a significant extent responsible for the new universe of divided timelines and, perhaps more importantly, because through possession of his time machine he retains agency in seeking to affect the external universe, he is kept at the heart of events by the central figures of various eras who might, one might suspect, have reason rather to resent his continued presence. Just like Wells and his ambivalent attitude towards Britain’s place and behaviour in the world, Baxter, through the Traveller, exhibits little doubt that Britain nevertheless has the central role to play in the disposition of global events. It is interesting to compare this belief with those attitudes of the others who comes to us through the prism of the Traveller’s eyes. This is all quite nicely and subtly done.

I cannot help but think that Wells would be somewhat appalled by the world today – mendacity, spiteful divisiveness, the idiocy of Brexit, all of the contemporary phenomena that destroy the sense of solidarity on which he would (class system notwithstanding) have based society. What would he make of this book? Presumably he would have been disappointed that, a century later, it would still be necessary to write it. To write about time travel in the way that he did was to call for changes to the future that he foresaw (among the Eloi and the Morlocks, which one was the bourgeoisie? An argument could be made either way). Since then, the course has been set errantly and now it might be said that we appear to be heading to hell in a handcart. Baxter, characteristically, deploys his big picture technology to address this problem using concepts not available to Wells. The approach is satisfying and the result a worthy tribute to the great man.

Peer Reviewing 2017

Peer Reviewing

Eight times for the Journal of Economics, Management and Trade

Fifteen times for the African Journal of Business and Management

Issues in Business Management and Economics

Three times for the African Journal of Marketing Management

Two times for Asian Journal of Economics, Business and Accounting

Three times for ICBMR (conference in Indonesia)

Asian Journal of Advances in Agricultural Research

Ten times for Asian Journal of Agricultural Extension, Economics & Sociology

Asian Education and Development Studies

Archives of Current Research International

Twenty times for ICMC 2017

Six times for Acta Universitatis Danubius Oeconomica

Journal of Agriculture and Ecology Research International

Current Journal of Applied and Science and Technology

Two times Journal of Economics and International Finance

International Journal of Livestock Production

Five times for African Journal of Agricultural Research

European Journal of Family Business

Journal of Contemporary Asia

Advances in Research

Fifteen papers for ICMC Young Scholars award.

International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance

Two times for Pertanika

Seven times for Journal of Perspectives on Development Policy in the Greater Mekong Region

Three papers for the 2018 AIB conference