How UK Political Turmoil Influenced My Reading

A snap UK general election was called by Prime Minister Theresa May on April 18th 2017, giving less than two months until the polls on June 8th.  Completely fed up with the awful state of British politics, I’d already sought solace/reassurance from my book reading. I’ve come to realise just how much the state of affairs in the country, has directly influenced the type of books I’ve read in the last two years.

During the 80s I adored the British comedy satire Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister TV series, and had the complete works on my bookcase for years, though had never read them. I started “The Complete Yes Minister” at the end of February 2017 inspired by the awful state of British politics today. I was strangely comforted by incidents mirroring events now, and knowing we had got through those tough times and survived. I’m able in my late forties to see through the facade of the face of politics. As a result I found the dialogue even funnier, because it seemed to reflect what I was thinking about government in general today.  I finished Yes Minister just before the election was called, and as the campaigning intensified I read “The Complete Yes Prime Minister”. It was startling to find Jim Hacker had been elevated from Minister to Prime Minister in EXACTLY the same way as Theresa May. No public vote but by party manoeuvres, and like May the fictional PM spoke of having the country’s mandate to govern! I found it fascinating that a TV show from thirty years before, reflected precisely what had happened in the Conservative Party with regard to Theresa May. And at times the scenarios within my book gave uncanny explanations of arguments going on now. You couldn’t help see through the facade of political speak which was very refreshing, and I found my reading material much better than the ghastly party electioneering of the day. I finished it four days before the polls opened. Between these two books I read an original text copy of H G Wells “War of the Worlds”, mainly because I’d seen a staged musical of it and heard a radio play version as well. It was interesting to realise the artistic license used in both. But the irony of the book title and the undoubted artistic license of election promises made, were not lost on me either.

The day after the election I embarked on reading the complete Chronicles of Narnia, finding the idea of inhabiting a fictional land far better than listening about the real one I was in. Take what you want from that statement. I distinctly remember starting The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as a kid but don’t recall finishing it, the others I had never attempted. So I decided to fill a gap in my childhood reading knowledge, and from 9th June to 30th October 2017 I enjoyed the adventures found in Aslan’s land of Narnia. As I read the seven books of C S Lewis I also studied Michael Ward’s “The Narnia Code C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens”. A very absorbing book that helped me understand the symbolism and dynamics within the stories in a much deeper way. I rounded off my childhood fictional reading with Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” another book I’d started but never finished as a child.

Since December 2017 I’ve enjoyed some adult fiction from authors Barbara Wilson, Maeve Binchy, Santa Montefiore, and Matt Haig. I’ve also re-read a childhood purchase of Wilson Rawls “Hunters of Cherokee Country” originally titled “Where The Red Fern Grows” an American classic I believe. But the rumbles of news from the United States especially with regard to President Trump’s policies, has focused my eye on the American book purchases on our bookshelves. As a devoted fan of the TV drama The West Wing with a fascination for the Kennedy era, its little wonder there is a distinct political slant to the American section. For several months of 2018 I immersed myself in “Happy Times” by Lee Radziwill; “Thanks For The Memories Mr President by Helen Thomas; “Say Goodbye To America” by Matthew Smith; The Kennedy White House Family Life & Pictures 1961-63” by Carl Sferrazza Anthony and “George & Laura Portrait of An American Marriage” by Christopher Andersen. All offered an interesting take regarding the business of US government and its effect on people, seen from the viewpoint of a family member (Radziwill sister of Jackie Kennedy), the press core (Helen Thomas), historical researchers and a biographer (Christopher Andersen).

In late October I returned to a very British subject matter, the diaries of Adrian Mole! Over three months I’ve followed Adrian from age 13 ¾ to 40, through teenage angst to treatment for prostate cancer, broken marriages, fatherhood, employment/lack of it and insolvency. Once again I’ve read about tough economic times and been reminded that the nation/people somehow managed to survive them. In this dark crazy turbulent world, it’s good to be reminded of that. The books act like a social commentary of the UK since 1981 which in itself is fascinating and deserves a blog of its own.

 

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A Lifetime’s Love of Neil Diamond

Neil Diamond celebrates his 78th birthday today (24th January 2019) and I first heard his gorgeous vocals aged four. It was instant love at first listen when my Dad brought home a double 33rpm album of Neil’s called “Diamonds”. A Google search has informed me this album was released in 1974 in the Netherlands, which fits in with my merchant seaman Dad bringing it back whilst on leave, and my feeling Diamond’s music has been virtually ever present in my life. Until I was an adult, this album was my only exposure to Neil’s music other than seeing his film The Jazz Singer on TV.

                                  Diamonds Album Cover

But what an album “Diamonds” is, from that first fun happy sounding song “Cracklin’ Rosie” to the last gut wrenching heartbreaker “Morningside”. Between these came every style of music genre, from the rock inspired “Cherry Cherry”, the storytelling ballad about “Mr Bojangles”, the country sounding “Kentucky Woman”, spiritual “Holly Holy” and the beautiful emotive love song “Play Me”. I may have been very young, but I recognised the lyrical genius of Neil Diamond immediately. His music, words and delivery evoked in me just about every emotion possible. I could be singing and dancing one minute, playing hard rock air guitar the next, listening attentively mesmerised by the poetic quality of his lyrics, and breaking my heart sobbing uncontrollably to finish.  “Diamonds” was an emotional rollercoaster.

It wasn’t until I was at university and met the man who became my husband that I found another Neil devotee. Looking at Rob’s music collection I knew he had good taste when I spotted Abba, at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to admit being a fan of theirs. Spotting several Neil Diamond albums that were all new to me, I realised Rob was a keeper. Although we both loved Neil’s music, neither of us had seen him in concert. So we shared the experience together, going to our first show in 1999 followed by several more, until the final one in 2017 celebrating Neil’s 50th anniversary.

That first concert showcased “The Movie Album: As Time Goes By” and I was enthralled listening and seeing Neil perform. His rendition of “Unchained Melody” (a favourite of mine from The Righteous Brothers) was the best I’d ever heard sung, as it’s not always easy to make out the words. I told Neil the same thing in a note I wrote in my hotel the next morning, using the stationary in the room. I posted it to the venue and thought nothing more about it. A few months later I was surprised to receive a thank you card from Neil, which I have to this day.

                                        Neil Notecard

For posterity my Neil Diamond Concert Portfolio details 7 concerts spanning 18 years:

First Ever Show:  Wembley Arena London Tuesday March 9th 1999 at 8pm

  1. Earls Court London Saturday 27th July 2002 8pm
  2. Ipswich Football Stadium Thursday 26th May 2005 8pm
  3. NIA Birmingham Tuesday 10th June 2008 8pm (Home Before Dark tour)
  4. LG Arena (formerly NEC) Birmingham Tuesday 28th June 2011 8pm
  5. Genting Arena (formerly LG Arena) Birmingham Saturday 11th July 2015 8pm (no Rob)
  6. Manchester Arena (formerly MEN Arena) Sunday 1st October 2017 (50th Anniversary tour)

What I’ve always admired about Neil is that he performs his concerts solo without reliance on warm up acts. Diamond certainly has enough in his repertoire to perform several shows without repeating songs. It’s incredibly gruelling on the artist though, and I’ve been mindful these last few years that Neil and other singers I enjoy (Sydney Devine & Dolly Parton) are all on the wrong side of 70 now. Each of them give their all on stage, and I’ve increasingly thought “will this be the last concert”.

Watching Diamond’s 2017 show there were two or three fleeting moments when I thought Neil’s age maybe catching up with him. Strangely at the same moment an old work colleague’s name popped into my head for the first time in years. Her mother had Parkinson’s disease and she had been to a Billy Graham meeting in Glasgow, where I was singing in the choir. Within minutes of Graham coming to the stage, my colleague’s mum muttered “he has Parkinson’s same as me”. My colleague laughingly said “mum sees it everywhere now, the tell-tale signs, which she then described”. It wasn’t until many years later it was revealed Billy Graham had been diagnosed with the condition. Therefore Neil’s announcement of his retirement from touring, after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease somehow didn’t shock me the way it should have. Remembering that wonderful final concert, and those odd feelings, I realised I’d had a weird kind of premonition. Every fan only wants Neil to be healthy and happy and his well-being is of paramount importance, so although the 50th anniversary tour ended prematurely his disappointed fans understood.

Neil Diamond’s anniversary show in Manchester was one of the first big events at the re-opened Arena following a terrorist attack.  Neil performed five songs I’d never heard before, so huge is Diamond’s back catalogue of work. I had to turn to Google again, to discover the song titles and which album they came from. One song in particular, Neil dedicated to the memory of those killed in the MEN bombing after the Ariana Grande concert of May 22nd 2017. The song “Dry Your Eyes” from the 1976 “Beautiful Noise” album was very emotional to hear, the lyrics sounding as if they had been written especially for that night. When Neil announced that he would be making a donation to the victims’ fund (I think it was the evenings merchandise revenue), it seemed the entire audience rose to their feet and applauded for a long time. Then almost total silence in that vast arena as Neil sang that emotive song. It’s a part of the evening I’ll never forget.

Neil’s setlist for my final concert was: In My Lifetime-In My Lifetime compilation; Cherry, Cherry; You Got To Me; Solitary Man; Love on the Rocks; September Morn; Play Me; Song Sung Blue; Beautiful Noise; Jungletime-Beautiful Noise album; Dry Your Eyes- Beautiful Noise album; He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother; Forever In Blue Jeans; You Don’t Bring Me Flowers; Red Red Wine; I’m A Believer; Brooklyn Roads; Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon; Be; Lonely Looking Sky; Skybird; Jazz Time-September Morn album; Crunchy Granola Suite; Done Too SoonTap Root Manuscript album; Holly Holy; I Am…I Said. Encore: Sweet Caroline; Cracklin’ Rosie; Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show.

The show was a celebration of Neil’s musicality and lyricism, the songs at times distinctly spiritual or poetic in nature. I relate to his music because it touches me deep within and puts into words everyone’s need for expression. Neil’s voice is that soothing balm in times of strife, a source of advice and inspiration and that friend who vocalises your inner thoughts with complete understanding.

To the boy who walked on “Brooklyn Roads” with his imaginary friend “Shilo”,  who grew to be a “Solitary Man” writing “Beautiful Noise” knowing to “Leave A Little Room For God”, my message is “I’m A Believer” and always will be full of “Delirious Love” “If You Know What I Mean”.  Happy Birthday Neil Diamond you are a real gem of a guy, it’s been a delight knowing your music.

                                              Concert Tops