28 December 2015

All Steak, No Sizzle

The Man Who Recorded the World
by John Szwed

As a musician and music lover with a strongly developed sense of history, I have great respect for the late Alan Lomax and his work as a musicologist. This one man studied, recorded and preserved an improbably large share of the extant corpus of American folk music. The influence of his recordings and writings on the development of popular music in the late twentieth century is matched by no-one else, not even Bob Dylan. Without Lomax, Dylan might never have existed. More broadly still, black American music might have had a harder struggle and possibly even failed to find a mass white audience without his efforts, which means the great musical explosion that resulted from this cultural conjunction couldn’t have happened without him either. The world owes Alan Lomax an incommensurable artistic debt.

I was excited when I picked up this book. The little I knew about Lomax – his shoestring travels across America with a recording machine in the trunk of his car, his risky encounters with redneck cops, prison wardens and the suspicious poor, his adoption of the blues singer Leadbelly, his tireless championship of black causes, his troubles with Senator McCarthy and the FBI, his purist rejection of artists like Dylan who put the material he had discovered and preserved to their own artistic uses – made it plain that he had been a thoroughly fascinating character, the sort of man about whom it would be impossible to write a dull book. This, after all, was the fellow who ended up rolling in the dirt with Albert Grossman at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 after Grossman caught him and Pete Seeger trying to take an axe to a power cable while Dylan and his band were on stage. How could a book about a man like that be boring?

Oh, easy. Just leave it to John Szwed. An associate of Lomax during the great man’s later years, his attitude towards his subject is adoringly, obsessively hagiographic. In this plodding, barely readable book, the arc of Lomax’s life-story is lost to view under a leaden mass of irrelevant detail. It seems that Szwed was determined to capture every move and gesture made by his subject, to describe and comment upon every essay, article, letter, postcard or shopping-list that Lomax ever wrote, regardless of its relative importance or thematic value. This suffocating mass of fact completely obscures what is really important in Lomax’s story. One of the most important traits of a biographer or historian is selectivity. Szwed appears quite incapable of it.

He is also incapable of admitting any serious faults in his hero, despite the evidence – given to us here in as much tedious detail as everything else – that Lomax was manipulative, selfish and self-serving, and tended to exploit and betray the women in his life. The author finds excuses for it all. Lomax was academically and politically quarrelsome – but in this book it’s always the other guy’s fault. Szwed does not even scruple to slap on a coat or two of whitewash if the occasion demands it. Having abandoned sequential reading about three-fifths of the way through the book, I skipped forward to see what the author had to say about the Newport incident and found that he barely mentions it, and then only to dismiss it as ‘apocryphal’. This is simply untrue; several eyewitnesses have gone down in print with their descriptions of the incident and there is no doubt that it happened.

This dreary, misleading book has only one redeeming quality: the obsessive depth of its scholarship with respect to matters concerning its subject. Perhaps one day a real historian or biographer will find it useful as a map to the territory and produce a really good biography of Alan Lomax. There’s no doubt that one is needed. This isn’t it.

17 December 2015

Home Never Looked So Good

The New Granta Book of Travel
Edited by Liz Jobey

This was a considerable disappointment. I enjoy superior travel writing, by which I mean the work of authors like Sir Richard Burton, Robert Byron, Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban. The last three are collected here, and Raban also contributes an introduction. Seeing their names on the contents page were, for me, part of the incentive for picking up this anthology.

Which turns out to be, largely, a collection of pieces by Oxbridge alumni about their travels in some of the world’s nastier places. Disaster and woe are pervasive: there are accounts here of a devastating flood on the Mississippi (Raban), the way of life of an Iraqi insurgent (Wendell Steavenson), the 2004 Asian tsunami as experienced in Sri Lanka (John Bornemon), and life under the gun in Kashmir (Basharat Peer). Even when external circumstances are not as overtly threatening as these, the quantum of misery in most of the pieces is high.

Thus we are privy to the anxieties and feelings of dislocation suffered by a newly arrived Ugandan refugee in England (Albino Ochero-Okello), the trials of a homosexual in a primitive tribal culture (Pierre Clastres), the collapse of the Bengal jute industry (Ian Jack), and the mutual exploitation of locals and foreign tourists at Thai holiday resorts (Decca Aitkenhead). Paul Theroux contributes a short, shameful confession of a similar kind, and W.G. Sebald writes of his compulsive, neurotic and possibly metafictional travels round Europe. Redmond O’Hanlon fails to find the Congo Dinosaur but worries about picking up AIDS instead. Rory Stewart gives us Pakistan as a failed state in thrall to a failed religion. I kept the tsunami story for last, because I am Sri Lankan, and found it a thorough disappointment — dull, culturally blinkered and poorly observed.

Essentially, this is a book of travel writing featuring places nobody in their right mind would ever want to visit. I suppose the editor was trying to be edgy and original, or something, but surely one of the great pleasures of travel writing is that of sharing an accomplished author’s experience of a place one dreams of visiting. There’s barely a smidgen of that here. Most of the non-awful locations visited are in the British Isles. Of the exceptions to this rule, Bruce Chatwin’s contribution is just a notebook excerpt, while James Buchan’s portrait of a small Iowa town is sapless and full of boring statistics.

There were three pieces I liked. O’Hanlon’s contribution, depressing as it was, was nevertheless meaty and full of human and natural interest; I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but I greatly admired it. Colin Thubron’s memoir of a journey through Siberia was also excellent. The best essay in the book for me was the least pretentiously written: Decca Aitkenhead’s ‘Lovely Girls, Very Cheap’, which offers a devastatingly accurate account of sex and drugs tourism in Thailand. It kept me reading and nodding my head all the way to the end. This woman is a brilliant, empathetic observer.

Apart from these three fine pieces, though, this anthology is rubbish. Its character is perfectly distilled in one of the shorter essays, Andrew O’Hagen’s description of a voyage down the Clyde in a sewage scow in the company of a group of gluttonous old-age pensioners. This particular piece can stand as a metaphor for the whole book.

16 December 2015

Be My Enemy
by Ian McDonald

I loved the first book in this series, Planesrunner. I loved this one too, because it kept me hooked all the way through and left me bereft and disappointed when I turned the last page.

Yes, the basic conceit and the plot are a bit too close to those of Iain M. Banks’s Transition for comfort — down to the mantis-like sexiness of the Chief Villainess — but the concept of a chase across parallel timelines in different universes is big enough to accommodate both novels and a few dozen others as well. McDonald’s narrative and imaginative powers are strong enough that the comparison with Banks, one of the best writers who ever took up science fiction, does not shame him.

Unfortunately, there is a great big hole in the plot of this sequel, which rather spoils the fun. I won’t reveal it here, except to say it concerns electromagnetic pulses, or EMPs. It’s not a scientific booboo. It’s a storytelling booboo — a very bad one, which seriously spoils an otherwise great read.

Less devastatingly, but rather annoyingly, I found Mr McDonald, whose intelligence I have always heretofore admired, talking utter rubbish in places here. At one point our juvenile hero, Everett Singh, ‘discovers’ that you can’t be afraid on your own because ‘fear needs an audience’. Really? I can’t count the times I’ve been afraid and alone. Another time, Everett says that ‘guns don’t make people feel powerful’. Try telling that to the sick losers who take their revenge against society through mass shootings.

A brilliant read all the same, and a superbly poised transition-point ending.
Can’t wait for Everness #3.
by Ian McDonald

I found this great juvenile while looking in the library for more books by Ian McDonald, whose The Dervish House I recently finished and thoroughly enjoyed.

This book isn’t a complex interweaving of plot-lines and cultures like The Dervish House, although there is some of the latter. It’s a ‘straightforward’ tale about a mentally gifted but otherwise normal adolescent boy who follows his kidnapped physicist father into a parallel universe — the book takes Hugh Everett’s ‘many worlds’ hypothesis of quantum mechanics as fact — in order to rescue him. It features a fabulous airship piloted by a teenage girl runaway with snow-white hair, a sexy evil villainess and a device that allows them, as well as various other props and characters, to jump from one universe to another.

Although written for young people, I found the book compelling and convincing as an adult reader. The scientific speculation is credible and so is the psychology, the characters are vivid and easy to identify with, the level of tension and excitement is perfectly maintained and the whole thing is thoroughly believable. It also drew me right in.

Congratulations to Mr McDonald on a modest but perfectly realized achievement. Now to find the other books in the series.