Reviews by Dan Richards and Jamie Colvin
Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice, 1967-75
By Richard Thompson
(272pp, Faber, £20.00, hb)
Richard Thompson – celebrated singer-songwriter, folk mensch, guitar hero – has written a beautiful memoir to sit alongside and illuminate his finest work on record. A writer of short stories in song, doomed romantic vignettes, and Boy’s Own biker adventures set to guitar by turns bluesy, elegiac, eastern-influenced, boogie-rocking, morris-reeling, knees-up music hall, short, sharp, ear-wormish pop, extended angular solos – but always with memorable tunes at their heart. As with Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, it’s perhaps no surprise that such a celebrated observer of human nature as Thompson can turn his pen to prose with great effect. The same wry humour that colours “I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight” runs through Beeswing — a sharp eye for human nature and folly, including his own. The book resonates with the gentle, restless tales of a man who freely admits he prefers not to look back.
Perhaps aware of what his audience wants, the memoir is structured as a kind of greatest hits. Key songs are touched on and their making unpacked – even when, in the case of some much-loved numbers, the original meaning remains obscure to the writer. “To play a song like ‘Meet on the Ledge,’ written fifty years ago on my bed in my tiny room in Brent, for reasons I cannot remember, with a world view that was understandably naïve, is curious,” he reflects. “I am and I am not the same person. I have to forgive the author of the song for being youthful, but I salute some of his insights into life, which seem hard-won.”
He’s wonderfully frank and clear-sighted about friends and collaborators loved and lost – making music with Sandy Denny, Nick Drake and Linda Thompson; jamming with Jimi Hendrix – and equally candid about tragedy he’s experienced. This includes the 1969 motorway crash that killed Jeannie Franklyn, Thompson’s new girlfriend, and the breakdown of his relationship with Linda and his children. “The wounds are still healing” he writes towards the book’s close.
If one comes away from the book just as boggled by how the greatest English guitarist of his generation does what he does, perhaps that’s for the best. One shouldn’t know too much about magic. The fact Thompson is still so obviously in touch with his muse, that his music remains as vital and questing as ever, speaks for itself – he’s still on a journey of discovery. DR
By Jack Grimwood
(544 pp, Michael Joseph, £16.99, hb)
Jack Grimwood has written a quite brilliant thriller chock-full of everything one could hope for in a WWII adventure. Set during the dark days of summer 1940 with Britain apparently doomed and the inexorable Nazis making final preparations for invasion, the Duke of Windsor sulks and stews in Portugal. Meanwhile our hero, Somme-scarred safe-cracker Bill O’Hagan wakes up in a pitch-black Glasgow prison cell. He will shortly be made an offer he can’t refuse.
Grimwood weaves fact and fiction together to form a fantastic Fleming, Ludlum, Buchan-eering hybrid. There are walk-on parts for the great and god-awful of British Special Ops and Nazi high command alike. The Channel Islands are the stepping stone and stage for shoot-outs, quislings, submarines, double-crossing, and perhaps the highest stakes heist in Europe’s history. Britain’s fate hangs by a thread.
Grimwood clearly had great fun writing Island Reich and it’s to his credit that this potent, fast-paced story of conspiracy and suspense zips from London to Washington DC, Berlin, Lisbon, Paris and Madrid, but is so steeped in precise research and period detail that any factual liberties fly past unnoticed. Catnip for fans of Len Deighton, Grimwood has written a rollicking, sexy page-turner.
By CJ Carey
(400pp, Quercus, £14.99, hb)
Hot on the heels of Island Reich’s alternative history comes Widowland by CJ Carey. Thirteen years have passed since the Grand Alliance between Great Britain and Germany. Edward VIII (yep, him again) is King. “Yet, in practice, all power is vested in Alfred Rosenberg, Britain’s Protector.”
Rose Ransom is one of an elite caste of women in Rosenberg’s brave new world – a society in which older women are banished and ostracised. Working at the Ministry of Culture, her job is “to correct the views of the past” by rewriting literature: “No female protagonist should be overly intelligent, dominant or subversive, no woman should be rewarded for challenging a man, and no narrative should undermine in any way the Protector’s views of the natural relationship between the sexes.”
But incidents of outrageous insurgency have begun to spread across the country in the form of graffiti daubed on public buildings – graffiti made up from lines from forbidden works, subversive words from the voices of women. Suspicion has fallen on Widowland, the rundown slums where childless women over fifty have been banished. These women are known to be mutinous, for they have nothing to lose.
Orwellian and gripping with a brilliantly realised feminist anti-hero the novel is by turns shocking, inciting and thrilling. When Rose is tasked with infiltrating Widowland, finding and liquidating the source of the mutiny before The Leader arrives for the Coronation of King Edward and Queen Wallis, the book reaches an astonishing climax. DR
Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies
By The Secret Barrister
In the age of fake news, it’s no surprise that there is fake law. We are fed lies about the justice system in the UK through tabloids, social media and even right-wing US commentators.
This country’s democratic system revolves around the separation of three powers: executive (civil service and PM), judiciary (Courts) and legislative (Parliament). Keeping them separate can be difficult, the Secret Barrister points out, in the age of social media where the public are judge, jury and executioner. The problem is few of us know anything about the law, let alone our rights. A junior criminal barrister by day, this is the Secret Barrister’s second book since their 2018 bestseller, just launched in paperback. Its forensic study of recent well-known cases reveals how our understanding has been corrupted by social media.
For example, there’s the case of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) successfully applying for a court order to take Charlie Gard, an infant born with rare MDDS syndrome, off the ventilator that was keeping him alive, in the belief he had a very low quality of life. His parents, who wanted to try an experimental treatment, appealed the Court’s decision.
The media screamed “State puts infant to death”. Nigel Farage tweeted that the UK Medical establishment had taken away the family’s rights. Ted Cruz, the US Senator, took the opportunity to highlight the dangers of state healthcare. The Secret Barrister explains how they misled the public: after considering the new “experimental” treatment, GOSH applied for the Court to decide because they weren’t absolutely sure what Charlie’s best interests were – the child’s interests being the heart of the case. The Court held to their original decision, citing Charlie’s very low quality of life.
It is this dangerous misleading of a gullible public that keeps the Secret Barrister awake at night. It’s clear most of us have absolutely no idea what our rights are. Schools don’t teach law – which is an enormous gap in the syllabus. This book is a good place to begin your legal education.