Category Archives: Personal

Hear Here 1: World Voice Day

I’ve just discovered April 16th is designated World Voice Day, an initiative to celebrate the most fundamental skill humans use to communicate. Everyday our voices are used to impart information and express thoughts and emotions, so when it goes wrong it’s a big issue. So any advice we can find on how to use the voice properly, giving it care, and knowing how to rehabilitate it correctly is essential, especially if you use your voice a lot professionally, or enjoy leisure pursuits such as singing.

Being married to a university lecturer, whilst doing hospital radio and football commentating myself as a volunteer, I’m only too well aware of the ravages the family vocals can suffer. Yet I know nothing about proper voice projection, nurse through the gremlins in an amateurish way and keep my fingers crossed. I’m hoping to pick up some tips online now I’m aware of this initiative.

Thinking about the voice, I was reminded of a wonderful free exhibition that was held in the British Library from late 2017-May 2018. This audio delight celebrated 140 Years of Recorded Sound and featured numerous examples from the earliest days of audio recording. These included a 1889 Ludwig Koch recording of the family pet a shama cage bird, an indigenous tribal song (late 1800s) and  a 1911 acoustic /1927 electric recording of the same orchestral piece highlighting the development of recording techniques, and a Radio Caroline sample. You could sit in two or three record booths and listen to a large selection box of vocals through headphones. The ones I noted hearing: a ropey recording of Florence Nightingale from 1890; Suffrage of Women Christabel Pankhurst 1908; Empire Exhibition speech by George V 1924; a very faint Amelia Earhart 1932; Great 1935 Radio Luxemburg Cashmere Bouquet Trio with piano excerpts. More modern sounds I enjoyed were Tony Blackburn introducing Radio 1 in 1967 and LL Cool J from 1985.

Mediums used to enable the audio to be heard were also displayed, such as gramophones, boom boxes and mp3 players, as well as the formats used to store the audio such as tapes, records and discs, alongside some more unusual and innovative forms. I was surprised to see X-RAY FILM records used to make bootleg audio from the late 40s to early 60s in Russia, playable STAMPS from Bhutan 1972 and VOICE LETTERS from the war years. The size of the audio paraphernalia varied enormously, from a gigantic 20 inch Pathe disc weighing over 2kg used for loudness at outdoor venues, to a miniature gramophone designed for the Queen Mary dolls house, complete with a 34mm 78rpm disc with a 22 second recording of God Save The King sung by Peter Dawson. Apparently 35,000 of these tiny discs were created in 1924 as souvenirs at 6p each!

Going back to the idea of large sized gadgets guaranteeing loudness in outside venues, I was struck by the sheer scale of the Sharp GF-777 radio cassette from 1983. Weighing over 12kg and at nearly 73cm wide it certainly lived up to the description boom box, and made me think of the opening credits of the TV show “Fame” with music blasting down the streets from music systems as students danced. Colour was added to the displays with pictorial record sleeves and maybe the odd small poster too.

Another element to the exhibition was a small section dedicated to how we used to listen to the radio, for so long the main form of entertainment in households before TV was commonplace. I was interested to see old Radio Times editions and fascinated to read excerpts from Alfred Taylor’s audio log from the 1920s. You see I had an audio log myself from the mid 70s to very late 80s, for my short-wave radio listening. My husband followed this pursuit too as a child/teenager, and he still has some of his paperwork. Alas, my childhood logbook is long gone now, but I resumed the activity in adulthood. It was lovely to think that an interest in radio, the ultimate vocal medium, traversed the decades to bring Alfred, Rob and I together in shared delight.

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Off The Beaten Track 8

More Questions Than Answers

It’s been a gloomier Brexit week (24th-30th March) after MPs failed to pass any one of eight indicative amendments, meant to help find a way forward in our exit strategy from the European Union.  One thing was proved beyond doubt however, that MPs in Parliament know exactly what they don’t want, but have no idea what they do want, with regards to Brexit. I was reminded of the Johnny Nash song “There Are More Questions Than Answers” and found an unexpected cache of collective knowledge regarding this dilemma on Twitter!

By chance I came across a question well known classicist Mary Beard had put to her followers:

Ok one and all, let’s have the future exam questions that might get set on Brexit… 20/50/100 years hence. Any level from GCSE to degree! Make them smart and challenging!

One contributor Jens Wiechers put things this way-Really dark: Discuss the confluence of events that led to the 2nd Gunpowder plot, the destruction of Parliament, and the abolishment of parliamentary democracy in Britain

A disturbing yet scarily plausible scenario I thought. Many were equally thought provoking.

User Arthur Downing asked: Was Brexit a Tory party civil war, English civil war, or British civil war?  Muriel Esposito offered this philosophy exam question: Is the duty of an elected Government to make decisions for the greater good of its country, or to execute the will of its people? Discuss

Somewhat baffling (my medieval history/old English knowledge is scant to nonexistent)

Erica Laine-Discuss the concept of vassalage as seen in the 13th century and the 21st century as seen by Jacob Rees Mogg. Compare and contrast the treaties which informed The concepts. Why was JRM nicknamed Softsword after March 2019?

So it was good to see some science references I understood.

Toby Schuster put forward for Philosophy A-Level: Examine the veracity and plausibility of the Schrodinger immigrant (the one that steals all the jobs while simultaneously raking in all the benefits)

Richard Delevan asked: “Special place in hell”. Explain whether Brexit was endothermic or exothermic. Show your work. Bonus: defend or refute Donald Tusk’s theories on same.

As I read through some of the replies, I was interested to find that many people shared my feelings that the Brexit referendum could be the catalyst that leads to the eventual breakup of the UK. This sober mood was lightened by a healthy dose of much needed hilarity as well. This thread had me chuckling as it just highlights the craziness of the whole Brexit saga, detailing the rapid descent from serious to absurd in brilliant fashion.

To what extent can the break-up of the old United Kingdom into the independent nations of England, Scotland and Wales and the unification of Ireland be said to be caused by Brexit? How does this relate to the current moves for an independent Northumbria and Wessex? Adrian Bowyer

And Cornwall? Tom Scorza

That, united with Devon, became the new South West EU nation, after the “Clotted Cream agreement” in 2021 (jam 1st/clotted cream 1st on alternate days of the week, with two Sundays guaranteed per month on each option) Marta M Gonzalez #FPHD

And how did they solve the cream or jam first backstop? Richard Thomas #FBPE

Mix and spread the result… Adrian Bowyer

Mary Beard later offered another question-How do political systems ever manage to resolve irresolvable disagreements. Athenian democracy tried ostracism (exile one of the blighters for 10 years). Would it work for us. And WHO WD IT BE?

Immediately I thought of David Cameron who got the country into this Brexit mess in the first place. I spotted his name far less times than I expected, perhaps because since leaving Downing Street he has gone into a self imposed exile anyway. Another name I didn’t see as often as I expected was Theresa May. Landed with the Brexit task after Cameron stepped down, I feel she’s done the best job she can, but her inflexibility has made things worse. The Tory “spectre” names came up a lot: Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg, Michael Gove and to spread the political fallout a little wider Nigel Farage (UKIP) and former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair got an dishonourable mention too! Blair’s name pop up perplexed me a bit as he’s been long out of government. Yet it highlights a stark reality about peoples’ political instincts which can be fickle, because regardless of the issue under discussion, old prejudices and alliances come to the fore, for better or worse.

Nostalgic Memories-The Chip Book Club

It’s World Book Day today in the UK (March 7th) an initiative set up to encourage children to read more books. Apparently vouchers are made available to help kids purchase a book at low cost. There wasn’t anything like that in my day, BUT I remember very fondly saving my tuck shop money to buy books from The Chip Club (Scholastic Books). From the late 70s to early 80s I looked forward to reading the leaflet advertising the terms offers. I made my purchase and they were delivered to the school. It was my first foray into the heady excitement of buying books. I never did buy the Chip Club diary which was much coveted, but I managed to make enough purchases to earn a Super Chip badge, which I treasure to this day.

       My treasured Super Chip badge. Image credit abmj

Somehow my Chip Book Club library managed to survive the parental cull, when my Mammy would toss out books I’d read for jumble sale collections at the door. I think I tucked them away from display, simply because I never knew the entire time I was in Cleland, what belongings of mine would be missing when I got home. To my knowledge these are my Chip Club treasures.

                       My Chip Club Library. Image credit abmj

Later on as a young teenager, I persuaded my Mammy to get a membership for The Leisure Circle, to enable me to buy science, poetry and photography books from saved lunch money. Then when I married, I enjoyed being a member of The Softback Preview and World Books clubs with my husband, which partly explains our well stocked book shelves today. The thrill of being able to buy a book has never left me.

Adrian Mole Discrepancies

Sue Townsend began her Mole writing in 1982 with the final book published in 2009.  I’ve read all the Adrian Mole books in order of publication, and it seems obvious they were never meant to be read in this manner, as the story line discrepancies are infuriating.  Reading a Townsend interview printed at the end of my last two books she said “once published, I never read my own work”. Believe me you can tell, because at times Sue talked about characters like she never knew their back story at all. Somehow I don’t think the Harry Potter generation from 1997 onwards would tolerate such a seemingly sloppy attitude toward the main characters story.

The first discrepancy I noticed was in characters ages. Adrian’s Secret Diary begins on New Year’s Day 1981 and on April 2nd he turned 14, making his birth year 1967. In the third book Adrian loses a year, seems to regain it again in later narratives, only to celebrate his 40th birthday in 2008! Yet an Adrian Mole CV printed at the back of the last book states he was born in 1967. The Mole boys’ age references are even worse. In “The Cappuccino Years” which spans from April 97 to May 98, William started nursery aged three in 97 (birthday July 1st) and Glenn celebrated becoming a teenager the following year on April 18th. So there are definitely 9 ¼ years between them, but in October 2002 at the start of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” the difference is eight years. Glenn is 17 (correct) and turns 18 the following April as a serving soldier in Kuwait. William is said to be 9 when really he was eight and this strand continues In “The Lost Diaries” where the narrative frankly gets totally lost, with William aged 7 and Glenn 13? William is simultaneously described as a seven year old being drilled for SAT exams, with prevailing references to nursery school participation, yet at five he would have been between these educational reference points.  Glenn meanwhile celebrated becoming 14 in January 2000 when he should actually have turned 15 that April instead?

“The Lost Diaries” wasn’t written as a novel originally, but appeared in The Guardian newspaper as a series of weekly articles known as the Diary of a Provincial Man, between December 1999 and November 2001.  This time period usefully filled some of the gap between the “Cappuccino” & “Weapons” narratives. However, it sticks out like a sore thumb with story plots that are full of contradiction, especially regarding Adrian and Pandora’s parents. Adrian’s mum Pauline falls in love with Pandora’s dad Ivan after the election of 1997 in” The Cappuccino Years”. This results in the even more unlikely get together of George Mole and Tania Braithwaite. Each new couple intend to marry. Sadly in “The Weapons of Mass Destruction” Ivan is said to have drowned on honeymoon, and the second anniversary of his death is mourned on Oct 2nd 2002. So it was with surprise I read the “Lost Diaries” to find Ivan married Pauline on 27th Nov 1999, returned hale and hearty from honeymoon, and worked from home for about a year before suffering a mental breakdown. With his wife Pauline’s knowledge, Ivan returned to Tania’s palatial and less chaotic home to recuperate. Tania’s husband George suffered a back injury putting up a pagoda in the garden and was hospitalised,  only to  succumb to numerous hospital borne infections as well, so is out of the way. Pauline suffers the indignity of jail time for hitting a policeman trying to remove her Beckham nativity scene, and on her release is said to be distraught to find that Ivan is back living with Tania! After fifteen months in the hospital George Mole is discharged on July 2nd 2001, goes on holiday with Pauline and remarries her on August 18th. Their son Adrian had wondered when they went on holiday if their respective partners knew about it. So there is no mention of divorce between Ivan/Pauline and Tania/George and Ivan is most definitely alive at this point. Another story thread that has been altered in the “Lost” book regards Grandma Sugden who is mentioned as having died over twenty years ago. This would have meant she wasn’t around by about 1980, yet throughout Adrian’s teenage years he writes about Grandma Sugden and family celebrating Christmas several times in the Mole household.

The “Cappuccino” book was published in 1999 and “Weapons” in 2004 long before the 2008 “Lost Diaries”, so the dialogue was established. The latter narrative had virtually no co-relation to the others at all, and it’s obvious it was written in a different way. The fact that September 11th 2001 has no distinct diary entry in the “Lost” tome, but is referred to later on speaks volumes. I suspect in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the USA, the Guardian’s Provincial articles were less likely to be published. However, the Sept 11th omission is cunningly dealt with by the suggestion that Adrian’s diary was confiscated by the security forces in late 2001. Could the daily diary entry have been removed?

Adrian’s half siblings Brett Slater and Rosie Mole are born in August and November of 1982. In” The Lost Diaries” Brett’s age of nineteen is actually correct, and Adrian enquires if his father has had any contact with Brett. Yet in “The Cappuccino Years” Adrian finds out that a young teenage Brett has met George several times at Tania’s home. In “The Wilderness Years” Adrian refers to his sister as Rosemary, stating he refuses to bastardise her name to Rosie, despite the fact she was actually given the name Rosie Germaine Mole. Mind you Townsend has form here, as Adrian’s middle initial A is supposed to be Albert after his paternal grandfather, but in “Growing Pains” it becomes Arnold and in “Weapons” it is Arthur. Adrian’s friend Nigel usually has the surname Hetherington but in the “Small Amphibians” text, he is referred to as Nigel Partridge.

With regard to Adrian’s son William, I got the feeling Townsend just wanted to forget the character completely. This was confirmed with an interview narrative from the author printed at the end of the final books. Sue said she regretted Adrian getting married, having William and ending up a single parent. It restricted Adrian as a character, so she packed William off to his mother Jo-Jo in Nigeria and literally forgot him. The narrative in the books from that moment read EXACTLY that way, William out of sight and totally out of mind, for both the author and consequently her main character Adrian. This left an unpleasant taste in my mouth in a similar way to Adrian’s two NEVER changing characteristics.

Throughout the entire Mole series of books Adrian displays pure unbridled jealousy toward anyone with academic success or writing prowess. He rages at Barry Kent becoming a successful writer, is condescending at a writing group member’s poetry success, seethes at hearing Kent’s mother (a toilet cleaner) has gained two degrees, and is baffled & infuriated when Pandora hires Mrs Kent and later Nigel as Parliamentary assistants, when it should be him in such a position. Adrian has difficulty in relationships where his partner has a degree/superior career track record, and almost chokes admitting his own mother wrote the Adrian Mole cookery book. For all the years of diligent writing, Adrian really isn’t that good a wordsmith but remains convinced of his own genius, whilst rubbishing everyone else’s efforts. These disagreeable attributes remain a constant throughout Adrian’s life which is possibly a good thing, when you consider the numerous other details that undergo change without warning or explanation.

Adrian Mole: The Social Commentator

Sue Townsend published her Adrian Mole diary series between 1982 and 2009, and reading them is like being reminded of various aspects of social change within UK society.  The differences are stark in many ways and I thought it would be interesting to document some of them here.

We first met Adrian Mole through his Secret Diary which he began aged 13 ¾ on New Year’s Day 1981. The usual angst of teenage acne, wanting a girlfriend, problems at school, his baby-boomer embarrassing parents are all there. He lives in an owner occupied house in a Leicestershire cul-de-sac, with one TV and one landline-phone. There are only three TV channels, no personal computers (they are only just beginning to appear on the market) and no internet. Adrian joins the library to improve his intellect. His Grandma still cooks a fabulous “proper Sunday roast dinner”, her grandson lamenting about existing on convenience readymade foods at home (boil in the bag, roast dinner trays thrown in the oven and instant desserts like Angel Delight). In the final book The Prostrate Years, Adrian ruefully shakes his head at the delicious Christmas dinner his wife Daisy produces, mainly thanks to multiple “Auntie Bessie” products and the microwave! You can detect the news headline “decline of cooking ability in Britain” through the Mole eating habits. The irony being in “The Cappuccino Years” Adrian becomes a minor celebrity TV chef with a cable TV show “Offally Good” despite the fact he can’t cook!

In a way, this episode mirrors the sad fact that thanks to reality TV shows in Britain; just about anyone with their 15 minutes of fame is now considered a celebrity, regardless of a lack of talent or ability in any area. The fascination with celebrity is emphasised when Adrian’s mum creates a nativity scene in her front garden comprising of Posh, Becks and their baby Brooklyn (Spice Girl Victoria and her footballer husband David Beckham). There is also a celebrity name drop from Pandora Braithwaite MP (in Weapons of Mass Destruction) when she discusses her autobiography “as I said to Bill Clinton my sex life is full of light and shade-we all need Monica’s and Hilary’s in our lives”. At least with the Beckhams’ and Clinton I knew who they were and what they were famous for. But then I found myself reading “you’ll know where you were Glenn when this happened” and wondering what it meant. Then I realised that it was a reference to reality show “Big Brother” evictions, and suddenly understanding how this type of TV content has somehow become part of everyday language and life. Just like “The Jeremy Kyle Show” where a person’s “dirty laundry” is aired to the general public. As Adrian’s mum discovered however, when she went on this particular TV show to solve her daughter’s paternity, Pauline’s fame took a poisonous turn when the studio audience turned against her.

Both of Adrian’s parents over the years have multiple affairs upsetting the stability of the family dynamic. But at the start of our journey with Mole, all his peers seem to come from a two parent household, even Barry Kent the school bully who lives in a “sink-hole” council estate. By the final book divorce is far more common-place as is single parenthood, emphasised by Sharon Bott who has several children all with different fathers. Her eldest, Glenn is Adrian’s son.

In the early books Adrian becomes involved with helping a pensioner called Bert Baxter, through a school volunteer initiative. As the years go by Bert is given constant help and support from both Adrian’s and his girlfriend Pandora’s parents. That sense of community help I’m familiar with, my mammy frequently helped out elderly neighbours and my Granny during the 70s and early 80s. But I feel that it would be highly unlikely to happen much, if at all, these days. One thing the books do seem to mirror is the known fact of today, that grown-up children often can’t afford to leave their parents’ home, or if they do, they usually return because of failed relationships or financial hardship. Adrian “flies the nest” reluctantly when his mother rents out his room to students to get more money. Yet time after time he ends up back at his parents when things go wrong.

Adrian mentions with reasonable regularity big news events over the decades. Historic moments in British history are acknowledged: royal weddings (Charles & Diana, Andrew & Sarah); Prince William’s birth; various conflicts-Falklands, Gulf War 1, War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan; Channel 4 and Breakfast TV starting; Mad Cow Disease (CJD), 2001 Anthrax scare. Other events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism and the banking crisis/credit crunch/financial markets crash are all alluded to. Economic times of boom and bust are littered throughout the books, with redundancy in the Thatcherite 80s, after the financial downturn, and from closure of businesses through lack of custom, all affecting different Mole generations. Tania Braithwaite’s wealth buying a pagoda and Koi carp for her garden pond, whilst Adrian loses his cash-in-hand pittance wage from a London eatery that turns into an oxygen-bar, starkly highlights the wealth divide of the country. And that divide is still alive and kicking today.

During the boom years I remember the influx of post offering seemingly endless means of credit, sent by companies with little concern in how people could make repayments. I got them and was a housewife with no direct income of my own?  At the same time, many old industrial buildings around the country were turned into executive minimalist apartments, and sold for a fortune. So I wasn’t at all surprised to read about Mole earning a modest wage and succumbing to these unscrupulous offers, buying a flat way beyond his means, and literally ending up bankrupt. The characters naivety which is evident throughout the years is incredibly annoying, because in that sense Adrian never seems to grow up.

Elements of racism and male chauvinism are referred to in a gentle but obvious way, always subtly lying under the surface waiting to come out. Adrian’s thoughts about women/wife roles etc are meant to be funny, and I did laugh at the audacity of the thought being vocalised at all, they were so bad! The occasional racist remarks I sadly recognised as attitudes from my childhood that are still evident today. Peer pressure at school remains a problem, and is highlighted through Adrian’s sons Glenn and William NEEDING to have the right trainers, mobile phones and Pokémon cards. The rule of no photos or video of school productions is fully enforced by the final book, heralding the dominance of a world filled with social media and pushy parents. Civil partnerships give Adrian’s friend Nigel the chance to marry his partner Lance. Another friend Mohammed suffers because of public unease following Sept 11th when he is abruptly taken into custody, only to be later released without charge. Adrian organises a “Free Mohammed” rally and is subsequently arrested under the Blunkett anti-terrorist bill, explaining “The Lost Diaries” tome.

The arrival of hospital superbug infections is touched upon, alongside the difficulty in getting doctor appointments. When the pub and post office close in the village Adrian lives in, the heart of the community is ripped out. Alas, these trends continue unabated ten years after the final book was published. And unfortunately the worst aspect of all from the 2004 “Weapons of Mass Destruction” book fills our 24 hour news channels almost completely today. The division of public opinion regarding the War on Terror was palpable in Townsend’s narrative. Today that divisive political issue is Brexit with parliament members fighting over everything, and citizens literally at each other’s throats whenever the subject is brought up. It does nothing to conjure up a sense of a cohesive society working toward a goal for the common good. Instead I can’t shake off the memory of the miners’ strike in the 80s, where communities/families were literally torn apart by divided opinion. The seismic fracture caused by Brexit is alarmingly stretched throughout the British Isles. With the shambolic opposition/government decision makers we have today, I’m not sure if the country will ever fully recover.

 

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.

 

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