Red or Dead by David Peace – Review

Red or DeadDavid Peace

Faber and Faber (2013), 720 pages

Unknown Bookshop, €15.85

Country: England England

This is a big book about one of football’s biggest characters.  Whatever team you support Bill Shankly is a legend of the game, in the same way that Matt Busby or Brian Clough are.  Before Bill Shankly took charge of Liverpool in 1959 they were an average enough side having spent five years in the Second Division.  Liverpool had never won the FA Cup and thoughts of playing European football seemed an impossible dream.  In his 15 years in charge Shankly made Liverpool into one of Europe’s greatest clubs and laid the groundwork for even greater successes.  From also-rans Shankly transformed the club into three time League Champions, two time FA Cup winners, and UEFA Cup winners.

David Peace has set out to write the story of Bill Shankly, who Peace sees as a kind of secular saint, from the time he becomes Liverpool manager, through his shock retirement in 1974, until his death in 1981.  In some ways  Peace’s adoration of Shankly makes this book unusual, there is no attempt to dig for dirt or seek scandal where there is none.  Questions about whether Shankly let his football obsession detract from his family life or if his extreme control over players’ wages was necessary remain unexplored.  The weight of evidence in Shankly’s favour that Peace amasses (such as giving a lift to two supporters on the team bus, giving a supporter his own tie when the club shop is closed, having a stack of photos of himself to autograph for anyone who calls to his modest home) mean that any negative thoughts the reader might have are overcome by the sheer weight of evidence in Shankly’s favour.

Shankly in front of the Kop after winning the 1972/73 League Credit:

Shankly in front of the Kop after winning the 1972/73 League

Peace’s style is not to everyone’s taste.  His prose is easy to read and deliberately repetitive.  There has been an extraordinary level of research with the scores, teamsheets, and buildup to many games described in detail.  It is this almost obsessive level of detail that gives an insight into Shankly’s obsession with Liverpool.  As soon as Shankly arrives at the club he demands improvements to Anfield and the club’s training facilities.  He walks the Melwood training pitch with his backroom team and they pick up every bit of glass and brick, every weed, fill every divot, and then they turn around and do the same thing again until the pitch is perfect.  The book is split into two parts, the Red half, where Shankly manages Liverpool, and the Dead half where he tries to cope with life in retirement.

The most fascinating part of this book is how Shankly was willing to do anything to help the club when compared to the modern culture where money seems to be the main motivator for some managers and players.  The 1960s in England was an era of rapid social change but it’s easy to forget that the 1960s were closer to the 1920s then we are now to the 1960s.  Shankly had old school beliefs, a kind of Christian Socialist belief system (chapter 3, in a perhaps ironic nod to Chernyshevsky or Lenin is entitled, “What is to be Done”).  He was not too proud to pick weeds from the pitch, he believed players should be paid a fair wage for their efforts, nothing more or less, and he believed that Liverpool’s primary responsibility lay with performing honestly for their supporters.  This was a different era altogether when there were two points for a win, when the Liverpool Board refused to allow television cameras into Anfield in case attendances dropped, where there were no penalty shootouts and vital European matches were decided by the toss of a coin. The Board of Directors wielded the final say over every aspect of running the club and Shankly has to go to them numerous times begging for momey to buy players.  Shankly wanted success through fair play and hard work, “Yes, people wanted success.  Yes, people wanted victory.  But not by chance, not through luck.  The name of your father or the name of your school.  People wanted success through their effort, people wanted victory through their work.  Not the toss of a coin, the roll of a dice.  Through their effort and through their work.  Their communal effort, their communal world.” (p. 274)

The Financial Times review of Red or Dead is critical of the fact that the book barely touches on the social issues of the day.  The rise of football hooliganism and industrial disputes in England are barely described.  But that’s the point.  Shankly’s obsession is Liverpool Football Club.  Players’ demands for increased wages are dealt with because they directly affect Shankly’s management of the club.  Peace can devote pages to Shankly going about his daily routines because they show Shankly’s attention to detail, whether he’s setting the kitchen table for breakfast or picking his team for Saturday.  It was in performing every act to the best of his ability that Shankly found meaning in life and through football he found immortality, “Bill knew that was the battle.  That was the war.  The battle against age, the war against death.  The battle you could not win, the war you could never win.  But the battle you must try to fight.  Hour by hour. The war you must try to win.  Day by day. . .On his knees, Bill knew you had to try to beat death.  You had to try, you had to try.” (p. 374)  And Shankly knew about death, he retained a fear of flying after the Munich Air Disaster which his friend Matt Busby survived and he was shocked by the 1971 Ibrox Disaster.

The Dead half of the book is painful reading at times.  Unlike most managers Shankly retired at his peak.  In his remaining years he struggles to come to terms with life outside football.  But football still remains his life, he can’t switch off, he has to be asked not to train with the players at Melwood.  Yet Shankly finds a sort of redemption in his continuing relationship with the people of Liverpool.  Unlike today’s players and managers he was not cut off from the people.  His door was always open to fans, he would play football with local children, and when the fans thanked him he would thank them for taking their time, spending their money, to support the world’s greatest football club.



Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang – Review

CixiJung Chang  張戎

Jonathan Cape (2013), 436 pages

The Gutter Bookshop, Dublin, €17

Country: China China

I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of this book at the inaugural Dublin Festival of History in Dublin Castle.  Unfortunately I didn’t realise the festival was on until most of the events were over but I won’t make the same mistake next year.  The festival ran over two weeks with talks being held in Dublin libraries and in Dublin Castle.  Tickets were free for all events which was great, especially given the high quality of speakers.  Apart from Jung Chang there were also contributions by Simon Schama, Frederick Taylor, Katharine McMahon, Mark Little, Diarmaid Ferriter, Margaret MacCurtain and Tim Pat Coogan.

The Dublin Castle Printworks venue was refurbished for Ireland’s Presidency of EU earlier in the year.  The hall holds around 500 people and was mostly full.  Jung Chang was interviewed by Caitríona Crowe about her latest book.  The stage was a good height  and there were two large screens to broadcast pictures for those further back in the hall.  Chang was resplendent in an antique blue silk Chinese dress from the Qing Dynasty period.  She is clearly taken by the independence, intelligence, and politicking of Cixi and her biography is a sympathetic look at an extraordinary woman.  I wasn’t completely sure that I would buy the book before the talk, but 90 minutes later I was certain that I wanted a copy.

Cixi was one of Emperor Xianfeng’s many concubines but, in 1856, she had the good fortune to bear the Emperor’s first son.  Following Emperor Xianfeng’s death it was expected that a Board of Regents (all male) would rule until the young Emperor reached his majority.  However Cixi and Empress Zhen had other ideas; they launched a coup to secure power for themselves, “A coup was treason . . . But they were willing to take the risk.  Not only were they determined to save their son and the dynasty, but they also rejected the prescribed life of imperial widows – essentially living out their future lives as prisoners in the harem.” (p. 42)  The coup was a success but Cixi and Zhen faced many difficulties.

Cixi is carried by eunuchs to her regular morning audience

China was facing increasing pressure from the imperial powers to open up China to Western trade.  In one of imperialism’s most shameful episodes Britain, through the Opium War (1839-42) , forced China to allow the importation of opium from British India.  China’s defeat by Britain was a sign of its military weakness.   During Cixi’s reign there would also be pressure exerted by Russia, France,  the USA, Germany, Italy, and later, Japan.  If China was to stand any chance against these forces it needed to modernise its military but also society as a whole.  Less than 1% of the population was literate, the exams for state positions were antiquated (being largely based on Chinese classics), poverty was endemic with natural disasters and famines still major problems (if Britain, the richest country in the world, couldn’t prevent a million Irish dying within its borders in the 1840s, what chance did impoverished China have?).  Similar to Mikhail Gorbachev, Cixi wanted to modernise China without destroying the underlying system.  She wanted the Manchus, who represented less than 1% of the population, to continue to rule albeit in a modified form. One of Cixi’s great talents was to surround herself with, and listen to, advisors whose primary interest was the fate of China.  Unlike many rulers of China, including the current regime, Cixi was also willing to listen to constructive criticism.  One of her most prized advisors was an Ulsterman, Robert Hart.  Hart rooted out corruption in the Chinese Customs Office which increased the income to China and he provided advice on how to successfully modernise China.

Cixi sent envoys to the West to learn how best to improve China.  Cixi, understandably, retained a distrust of the foreign powers and her attitude to imperialism is perhaps best summed up by one of her envoys, Zhigang, “‘Westerners preach “love of God” and “love of man”, and they seem really to believe it.  And yet they wage wars with gunboats and cannons to conquer people by force, as well as imposing opium, a poison worse than plague, on the Chinese – all for profit. ‘ ‘It looks like the love of God is less real than the love of profit.'” (p.81)  Mutual cultural incomprehension could lead to misunderstandings and violence, especially where Christian missionaries were concerned.  In certain parts of China rumours spread that Christian missionaries kidnapped children or stole their organs.  As we’ve seen recently with fears of Roma taking children or reports of organ theft in Kosovo (a child I was sitting beside on a bus in Kosovo a few years ago assured me that children, especially homeless children, were abducted for their organs) these superstitions aren’t necessarily confined to the distant past.  Cixi successfully managed to walk the tightrope of not being seen to fawn to the West who wanted their missionaries to have free reign in China, and anti-Western forces in the country who sought to forment attacks on foreigners.

Memorial tower above Cixi’s tomb
Credit: Rolf Mueller

When Emperor Guangxu took power Cixi was forced into retirement.  Guangxu had little interest in continuing Cixi’s reforms and was suspicious of modernisation in general.  While Japan modernised its navy, China’s navy remained outdated but the Emperor did not receive this information.  His advisors were too afraid to give the disinterested Emperor’s the full picture.  Cixi’s openness had insured that she was never left in the dark.  China couldn’t compete with the Western powers but it should have tried to keep up with its increasingly belligerent neighbour.  Japan tried to provoke a war over Korea and Guangxu foolishly believed that China would defeat their far smaller neighbour.  China lost the ensuing conflict and the 1895 peace terms were crippling; China lost territory and was forced to pay a massive indemnity.  Chang argues that if Cixi had been in power that the navy would have been modernised and that Cixi wouldn’t have agreed to such crippling peace terms.  The Emperor’s failure allowed Cixi to return to power.

Cixi’s biggest mistake was her attempt to use the Boxers fight the foreign powers in 1900.  The Boxers were xenophobic, they disliked the apparent favouritism shown to Christians by the judiciary, and believed magical forces made them immune to bullets.  Riots in Shandong province resulted in German soldiers committing atrocities whilst attempting to quell the Boxers.  At first Cixi tried to suppress the Boxers too but, emboldened by successfully facing down Italian demands for territory, Cixi believed she could use the Boxers to finally restore Chinese sovereignty over all its territory.  However it soon became apparent that for all their ferocity the Boxers were an undisciplined fighting force.  China lost the war and Cixi was forced to agree terms.

Cixi managed to retain power and continue on her course of modernization.  Chang points out that previous histories of China have usually been critical of Cixi viewing her as against reform.  Chang convincingly argues that much of the bad press for Cixi was created by Wild Fox Kang and his allies.  Kang is portrayed as a power hungry backstabber who allied with Japan in the hope of making himself China’s ruler.  Chang argues that it is Kang’s unreliable depiction of Cixi that has resulted in previous inaccurate pictures being painted.  Chang has gone back to the original archives for her research in order to avoid using inaccurate secondhand sources.  Cixi managed to reform China’s economy, military, and education system.  She banned foot-binding and the most brutal forms of capital punishment.  She eventually introduced railways.  Under Cixi’s reign a relatively free press flourished and plans for the vote to be introduced by 1916 were set in motion.  Cixi’s death in 1908 and the subsequent march of Chinese history meant that the right to vote wouldn’t be introduced.


There was a question and answer session at the end of the talk and Jung Chang responded to a question which had crossed my mind, could any similarities be drawn between the final years of the Qing Dynasty and the current Chinese rulers?  Chang replied that she did indeed similarities between the two regimes.  If Cixi had lived it’s possible that a constitutional monarchy of some sort could have been retained and China’s path might have avoided the road to communism.

The question for the current Communist Party leadership is whether they are leading reforms or are merely responding to people’s demands for changes.  If the Communist Party cannot keep up with the demands of its population then it will either be forced out of power or else try to hold onto power by increasingly repressive measures.  Increasingly it’s the rural poor who are defying communist rule as they see the corruption of local leaders whilst healthcare,  education, and a clean environment are inaccessible.  It will be interesting to see if China’s next fifty years are as turbulent as those leading up to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.


Orchid Blue by Eoin McNamee – Review

Orchid Blue pb, Eoin McNameeEoin McNamee

Faber and Faber (2010), 298 pages

Irish Cancer Society Shop, Dun Laoghaire, €1.50

Country: Ireland Ireland All

The words “miscarriage of justice” have a certain sound to Irish ears.  They conjure images of The Guilford Four and The Birmingham Six.  Confessions beaten out of innocent men in the cold cells of south of England police stations.  They represent a double injustice, innocent men’s lives stolen from them while the guilty do not answer for their crimes.  I recently watched West of Memphis, the astonishing documentary about The West Memphis Three.  Three young men who don’t fit in are slowly ground down by the workings of the police and the legal system.  There is always pressure on the police to secure a conviction especially when a murder has been committed.  Society wants to feel safe again, to see that justice has been done.  But sometimes the police and the prosecutors prize putting someone on trial, gaining a conviction, over taking the time to find the real guilty party or even leaving the case unsolved.

Orchid Blue is a sequel, of sorts, to Eoin McNamee’s Booker Prize nominated  The Blue TangoThe Blue Tango detailed the murder of Patrica Curran, the daughter of Northern Irish High Court judge Lancelot Curran.  The plot of The Blue Tango followed the conviction of Iain Hay Gordon for Patricia’s murder.  Gordon spent 7 years in a mental asylum for the crime but his conviction was quashed in 2001.  The behaviour of the Curran family suggests that Patrica’s mother had a part to play in the murder and that Judge Curran might have been involved in covering up details about the case.  Orchid Blue follows the details surrounding the murder of Pearl Gamble after a dance near Newry in 1961.  Robert McGladdery is the prime suspect and he will be tried and convicted for capital murder with Lancelot Curran as the judge.   McGladdery will be the last person hanged in Ireland (I’m not giving anything away here as the blurb on the back of the book gives these details!). Pearl Gamble is 19, the same age as Patricia Curran when she died, but Judge Curran doesn’t see any conflict of interest in judging a case so similar to his daughter’s.  There is political pressure for a hanging and Curran knows that a guilty vaerdict will improve his chances of being selected for the Privy Council of Northern Ireland.


Robert McGladdery

McNamee’s style is terse, the prose clipped and functional.  He expertly maps the geography of the places he describes, his sentences  like contours on a map.  There are two languages in his novels, the language of everyday discourse and another hidden language.  This second language is spoken behind closed doors, in police stations, and amongst the political elites.  There is a hypocracy at play in the province, certain things, whilst not approved of will be tolerated once they’re not advertised in public.  Judge Curran and his election agent, Ferguson, know how to play this game.  Patricia’s Curran’s murder isn’t spoken of, nor is Judge Curran’s wife’s incarceration in a mental asylum, except when her situation poses a threat to the established order.    McGladdery doesn’t know how to play this game.  On his return from London he dresses in more flamboyant clothing than is usual.  He takes up bodybuilding.  He is noticed, people think he has moved above his station.  Similarly the investigating detective, Eddie McCrink, has returned from London.  He pokes into the Curran case, as the case progesses he isn’t convinced of McGladdery’s guilt.  There is a sense of the man being made to fit the crime rather than the evidence fitting the man.

McNamee is strong in eliciting the private emotions of his characters.  The reader can sympathise with several points of view.  McNamee is cleary not convinced of McGladdery’s guilt and suggests that McGladdery’s friend, Will Copeland or the unknown driver of a car seen near the crime scene could be responsible for the crime.  The novel is set up with a series of couples and their relationships; McGladdrey and Copeland, McCrink and his lover Margaret, Pearl and her (female) friend Ronnie, Curran and Ferguson.  All of the relationships are dysfunctional in some way as jealousy and power struggles make true love and respect difficult, if not impossible.  Likewise the state’s relationship to the individual is dysfunctional.  The workings of power are opaque.  Johnston, one of the prosecuting policemen,  dresses impecibly in his full dress uniform in court but denies putting a gun to McGladdrey’s head to force him to go to the police station.  The image on the surface is used to hide the dark workings beneath.  As in miscarriage of justice cases the state knows that its evidence won’t be questioned, especially where the accused is a working-class troublemaker.

Unlike The Blue Tango there are weaknesses in Orchid Blue.  The Curran case was a clear miscarriage of justice, this is less clear in the Pearl Gamble murder.  McNamee presents a convincing argument that political considerations insured McGladdrey’s execution, that Judge Curran directed the jury in a way that made an acquittal unlikely, and that McGladdery (being born out of wedlock to a poor mother) made a fall guy for whom few tears would be shed.  The evidence is entirely circumstantial and the witness evidence doesn’t completely tally.  Today it is far less likely that McGladdrey would have been found guilty unless there was forensic evidence to tie him to the body and impossible for him to be executed.  However there is no compelling piece of evidence to suggest that McGladdery definitely didn’t commit the murder.  The movements between the past and the present, such as when the author is looking up microfiche files of old newspapers, jar and seem unncessary.  If McNamee is trying to convey his belief that the McGladdrey case is a miscarriage of justice that has analogues in the present, he doesn’t entirely succeed.  McNamee dismisses McGladdrey’s supposed last minute confession to the crime and believes it was composed by the police.  Maybe McGladdrey is completely innocent and the state has succeeded in it’s aim of making this reader believe that he could be guilty.  Politics in Northern Ireland can be a dirty murderous business and the shocking revelations about the Force Research Unit and, more recently the Military Reaction Force, have shown that the Northern Irish state has been willing to sacrafice innocent life for it’s twisted interpretation of the greater good.  In this case I’m not fully convinced by McNamee’s counter-argument against the state.


Below is a slideshow about the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast where McGladdery was executed.  There were a total of 16 executions in the prison.  The gaol closed in 1996 and is now open to visitors.

The Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky – Review

Atlas of Remote Islands

Judith Schalansky

Particular Books (2010, first published as Atlas der abgelegenen Insein, 2009), 144 pages

Foyles, £25

Awards: Winner of The German Arts Foundation Prize for the Most Beautiful Book of the Year

Country: Germany Germany

This book is subtitled, “Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will” and this descibes the relationship most readers will have to the book’s contents.  I’m fairly well travelled but have never visited any of the islands and have only heard of ten of the fifty.  Schalansky’s book has the look and feel of an old  cartographical tome created for exploration.  The MVB Sirenne font and the 115 gsm paper enhance the feel of an old book rediscovered.  The maps are beautifully drawn and, like all good maps, allow the imagination to wander amongst the towns, mountains, and forests they encapsulate.  Schalansky implores, “Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day.  There is no more poetic book in the world.” (p. 23)  It’s hard to disagree when you open an atlas as rich as this one.

The Atlas of Remote Islands opens with an essay entitled, “”Paradise may be an Island.  So is Hell.”  Schalansky recounts her childhood in East Germany, an island of sorts, where movement beyond its borders is restricted (and which, ironically, used a wall to make West Berlin and island in a sea of East German communism).  Maps and borders are not natural constructs.  They serve a purpose, often a political one.  Even an island, with it’s own natural coastal border can be divided as Ireland and Hispaniola are.  It’s hard not to recall Brian Friel‘s play Translations where an attempt to interweave language, love, and colonial mapmaking have deadly consequences.  Likewise Schalansky doesn’t attempt to romanticise her islands, “Mapmaking follows on the heels of discovery; and a new place is born with a new name.  This foreign land is both occupied and possessed, and the act of conquering is is repeated in the map.  Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real.  Every map is the result and exercise of colonial violence.” (p. 21)  Some islands are now deserted (such as disease-stricken St. Kilda), others inhabitants are forcibly removed in the name of colonial militarism (the inhabitants of Diego Garcia), an island is haunted by contemporary child abuse (the horrific case on The Pitcairn Islands).  Schalansky’s prose is beautifully direct.  She focusses on one aspect of the island’s history (although a timeline and number of inhabitants for each island give a glimpse of past events) and leaves the reader desperately curious for more.  Not all the stories are sad ones.  There are tales of Christmas Island crabs, the chance to join a team if 10 people on Raoul Island, and the remarkable story of  man speaking the lost language of Rapa Iti.

Atlas of Remote Islands 2

With every page turn you can feel the gentle sway of your boat in harbour, smell the sea and hear distant birdsong,  as you’re about to step ashore onto a mysterious island.  Schalansky states that,  “It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrum orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world.” (p. 23)  Schalansky has certainly accomplished her aim of transporting cartography to literature.


Francis Bacon – Ireland’s Greatest Artist


Francis Bacon’s triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), has become the world’s most expensive work of art, selling for $142.4 million.  The pre-sale estimate was $85 million with Bacon’s previous record sale being $86.3 million.  But what does this mean, apart from somebody having large amounts of cash to spend on art and Christie’s Auctioneers making a fortune in commission?  Can any piece of art be worth $142 million?  Is the purchaser a true art fan or are they buying art purely as an investment, or as an extreme form of consumer fetishism?

Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909, his family moved to London during World War I (his domineering father was a Boer War veteran and was appointed to the War Office) and then back to Ireland in time for the violence of the Irish Civil War.  As a child Bacon was apparently subjected to regular whippings on his father’s orders.  Bacon’s childhood experience of violence  probably influenced his depiction of the frailty of the human body in his later paintings.  Not surprisingly his father didn’t take to kindly to Bacon’s nascent homosexuality and he kicked Bacon out of the family home in 1926.  Bacon then moved to London and it was here that he began his career as an artist.


Bacon’s style is highly original.  If you see a Bacon painting the chances are you’ll know immediately it’s one of his.  The backgrounds often lack details and are filled with blocks of colour.  The people are twisted, distorted, blurred, and barely recognisable as humans.  But the viewer does manage to identify the humanity in these distorted figures.  The human body is vital to existance but prevents the true expression of human desires and emotions.  It is this constant tension, between the physical, and the mental, this almost tortuous tension, that lies at the heart of Bacon’s work.

Bacon often used the triptych form for his painting.  The triptych is a classic Christian form (often with Christ on the centre panel) which could be displayed above altars.  Perhaps the most famous triptych is Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1590-1610, suitably on display in the Prado in Madrid, the city of Bacon’s death) which has a distinct moral, if humourous, purpose.  Bacon’s triptych’s don’t seem to offer any hope of salvation.  The figures are trapped by the body and the body is trapped by the frame.  Undoubtedly part of the attraction of Three Studies of Lucien Freud is the subject matter.  Lucian Freud is arguably the greatest English artist of the last century (although if Bacon is Irish then Freud could also be described as German as he lived there until he was 10).  Freud, like Bacon, lived a lifestyle filled with art, sex, and

What would Bacon have thought of his piece selling for such an astronomical price?  Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews in London is on permanent display in The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.  Bacon’s heir, John Edwards, left the studio the museum as they don’t charge an admission fee.  Apparently a London museum was in negotiations to acquire the studio but it couldn’t guarantee free admission.  The studio is a wonder, a dingy mass of canvas, paint, brushes, empty champagne boxes, books, photos, and magazines.  There are also some Bacon paintings (some incomplete) and it’s fantastic to be able to get so close to them and see the colours and textures as they were menat to be seen.  Whilst financial freedom is important to an artist it didn’t seem to change Bacon much, he stayed in 7 Reece Mews for over 30 years and was with John Edwards for over 20 years.Credit:

Some of the comments on The Guardian article about the auction rightly display a certain anger that $142 million can be spent on some canvas and paint.  Some complain that the money would be better spent on the Phillipines disaster.  And they are right.  But, unfortunately, it’s unlikely the buyer will be making such a massive donation to a humanitarian cause.  However spending $142 million on art is far better than spending it on fighter jets, chemical weapons, or the $225 million it cost to produce a Hollywood flop like The Lone Ranger.  Paintings were created to be sold as is all forms of art.  If art wasn’t sold there would be far less of it around.  Admittedly auction house like Christie’s have a dubious reputation but they can’t be blamed for a piece selling for a ridiculous price.  If you want to own a piece of Bacon art to bring to the beach this summer you could do worse than this

Related Links

The Guardian, Francis Bacon paintings of Lucian Freud sell for record $142.4m

Gadfly Online: Slaughterhouse Earth: The Crucifixion of Francis Bacon by John W. Whithead

Culture In Development: Christie’s Auction House Selling Stolen Merchandise by Delhi Times

Bacon by Luigi Fiacci, Taschen, 2003

7 Reece Mews Francis Bacon’s Studio by John Edwards & Perry Ogden, Thames & Hudson, 2001

The Estate of Francis Bacon

Autobiography by Morrissey – Review


Penguin Classics (2013), 480 pages

The Gutter Bookshop, €11.20

Country: England  England

The fact that Morrissey’s book has been published by Penguin Classics has garnered almost as many column inches as the content of the book itself.  Who says a book can’t be judged by its cover?  Any reviews I’ve seen so far have taken the  whole “only living writer to be published by Penguin Classics” thing very seriously.  Personally I suspect there is a hint of irony attached Penguin using the Classics imprint.  And of course all the extra publicity that the book has gained as a result is a brilliantly clever piece of marketing.  Autobiography is also, “Copyright ©Whores in Retirement, 2011″ which implies a certain playfulness to the venture.  Penguin Classics are only published in paperback format so it’s arguably more of a populist than elitist move.

The book was a present from my father when he was in The Gutter Bookshop at a book launch.  My father doesn’t know much about The Smiths or Morrissey but has a sneaking admiration for Morrissey’s vivid attacks on the indolence  of the British royal family and the general revelry surrounding the Queen’s Jubilee.  I was a bit young for The Smiths’ heyday but I do remember a few of the older kids wandering around with Morrissey quiffs.  In my early teens I wasn’t convinced by Morrissey’s voice but I soon realised my mistake and a couple of decades later I’m happy to have all of The Smiths’ records in my collection.

Morrissey’s book starts, suitbaly enough, at the beginning.  Like many English musicians (the rest of the Smiths, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, penguinKate Bush, John Lydon, Boy George, Liam and Noel Gallagher) Steven Patrick Morrissey is of Irish descent (see also Morrissey connecting with distant cousin Robbie Keane).  Morrissey’s family life is generally happy, if somewaht chaotic, although he never seems to be able to please his uber-masculine father.  It’s in the school system that Morrissey experiences the worst excesses of establishment Britain.  He finds a system designed not to encourage learning and creativity but to stifle it, sometimes with brutal violence.  Morrissey’s own creativity and more ambiguous sexuality mark him out in schools run by abusive loners who gain sadistic pleasure in humiliating and physically abusing children.  Morrissey’s childhood sense of injustice, loneliness, and despair seems to have haunted him at different stages of his adult life too.

The language throughout is lyrically poetic with wordplay and neat little flourishes abounding.  I’ve read some reviews complaining about the lack of chapters or the book being too long.  How many people out there don’t know how to use a bookmark!?  I don’t have to stop reading at the end of a chapter, and if I’m caught short on the bookmark front I occasionally fold the top corner of the page into a little equilateral triangle or really stretch my braincells and give my short term memory a workout by remembering the page I finished on.   Autobiography isn’t an excessively long book and prose has a lovely momentum too it that perfectly evokes a feeling for life in 1960s Manchester.

Like many teenagers the confusion and pain of puberty is eased by the discovery of music.  This is arguably the most joyous section of the book as Morrissey discovers his own musical heroes and his abilities to sing and write lyrics.  Crucially music offers the glimmering possibility from the drudgery of daily life.

Morrissey devotes about fifty pages to Smith’s drummer Mike Joyce’s court case against him and Johnny Marr.  Morrissey is still extremely bitter about his losing of the case and he directs most of his bile at Judge John Weeks.  To Morrissey Judge Weeks is another example of ignorant Establishment Britain failing to listen to the evidence and judge fairly.  Morrissey is particuarly angry at the judge labelling him as, “devious, truculent, and unreliable”.  Morrissey certainly presents a convincing case and, not surprisingly,  Joyce doesn’t come out well in Morrissey’s account.  Perhaps, however, if Morrissey had ignored this whole section it would have been the greatest revenge.  After all Morrissey is the only ex-Smith who has had what could described as a successful musical career.  Johnny Marr is a case of what could have been whist Joyce and Rourke sank to the session musician level after The Smiths.  Yet Morrissey is clearly still angry about The Smiths splitting up after all those years.  Maybe Morrissey reckons for all the brilliance of his solo career there was something special about The Smiths that could never be recaptured.  There is no chance of a Smiths reunion, the subject is only ever raised by the other three Smiths members who have so much more to gain.  Morrissey is still a major draw, he doesn’t need the money now, and more crucially, he has a stronger sense of integrity than your average plastic pop product.

The last section of Autobiography tries to capture the atmosphere of the world of Morrissey as he tours around Europe and the USA.  Whilst interesting it lacks the lyrical flow of the first half of the book.  Morrissey cleary relishes the role as an elder statesman of music and, although insecure about his legacy, seems increasingly willing to accept the adulation of his fans.  This adulation seems to act almost as a replacement for a platonic relationship.  Morrissey’s sexuality, like most people’s, isn’t a simple affair.  The irony of his less than ultrastraight personality acting as a magnet for girls in his teenage years isn’t lost on Morrissey (and is skillfully used by The New York Dolls ).  He describes his more important relationships with men and women but, possibly partly to protect the privacy of those dearest to him, doesn’t go into intimate details.

The quality of writing puts Autobiography above the average music tome.  I’ve never read a Morrissey or Smiths biography before so I’m not sure how much of the content is new to diehard fans.  Being the cultural icon that Morrissey is Autobiography will have a readership beyond his core audience and for an admirer of quality music that can only be a good thing.


Related Links

The Latest Picture Show: Pondering a Film Adaptation of Morrissey’s Biography

Global Model Village by Slinkachu


Boxtree (2012), 124 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €1.00

Country: England  England

I only bought this book when I saw a stack of them in Chapters selling for a euro apiece.  I’d never heard of Slinkachu before but I’m glad I saw his stack of books.  Slinkachu’s method is, on the face of it, simple.  There is one photo showing what appears to be a standard scene but the facing photo is a zoomed-in view of part of the first scene.  The viewer is then confronted with a minature human scene.Global model village SlinkachuIt could be argued that Slinkachu’s social commentaries and his method is too simplistic.  However I think the brilliance of Slinkachu’s work is the simplistic originality of the images he creates.  The juxtaposition of the full size image and the macro image highlights how desensitised we have become to the smaller details in a world populated by empty flashing images.  In Global Model Village all of the photos are taken in the urban environment.  Slinkachu plays with the notion of alienation, sometimes chosen, sometimes enforced, in the modern urban world.   The scenes are cleverly altered depending on whether the scene is in the Western, Islamic, or Asian worlds.  Similar to Banksy, Slinkachu highlights that the illusory freedoms offered by modern technology can potentially enable greater state surveillance and control.

slinkachu_boys-own-adventures-1_1000Once you zoom into the scenes the univeralsity of the human experience and human fragility becomes apparent.  Slinkachu makes the reader realise that viewed from space we’re no larger than the tiny figures he has so delicately created.