Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Debbie Stone

Debbie is Paul's only realistic challenger for the leadership of the gang. Although younger than himself, Jim and Tina the power of her personality and the extent of her self-belief lead her inevitably to test Paul's resolve, and to probe his weaknesses. And despite the fact that he wins on those occasions when they do go head to head, he never quite manages to put her back in her box.

I worked hard on developing the contrast between Debbie and her best friend Alison, because they are not entirely opposites. Alison is not altogether retiring, simply less outward than her slightly older friend. The challenge throughout The Best Year Of Our Lives was to make them the same, but to such a varying degree that they were at the same time different.

ANOTHER LEADER

Debbie is Jim's girlfriend, and though unlike Paul and Tina they are unambiguously joined I felt the need to overshadow them as the senior "item" within the group by the implied, almost-relationship of their respective elders. And yet when Debbie and Tina get together, it is the former who if anyone is in charge.

In a story which centres around the ego of one individual it is not easy to create and develop another leader, someone who is subordinate to the lead character yet at the same time so obviously free-spirited and instinctively dominant. Only by her being two years his junior could I manage to perfect the hierarchical balance.

I think that casting Debbie was my most challenging assignment, aside of course from Paul himself. The fact that my daughter captured her to a tee with her cover artwork before she had even read the book tells me, I think, that I managed to pitch her as I had intended.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Unjustly Accused by Susan L. Stewart - Review



Unconnected though it pretty much is from the theme or genre of my own work, I undertook to review Unjustly Accused for the benefit of a fellow author, and I'm really glad that I did.

This isn't the type of book that I would read ordinarily, but once I had got going I found myself impatient to learn what was going to happen next, and I was somewhat reluctant to put it down. Which, I guess, is the measure of a good story which is well written and presented.

Beyond a brief introductory piece by the author, Unjustly Accused is a story narrated in the first person by Corey, the lead character, who is one of two friends from the United States who visit the Dominican Republic for a break and end up undergoing an adventure of a kind they hadn't bargained for, being banged up for a crime of which they were entirely innocent and facing the daunting prospect of a trial which could result in them spending three years or more languishing in a seedy Central American jail.

SERIOUS SHORTCOMINGS

As if this wasn't bad enough, their anxiety is made worse by the very serious shortcomings of the Dominican legal system. After having eventually been told of the allegations made against them they might have had cause to hope that the apparent inability of the prosecution to agree on where they had been arrested, by whom, and why would lead to a less than robust case against them when the time came for them to appear in court. Sadly their initial optimism took no heed of the possibility that their translator might not be able to speak or understand proper English, or of the fact that their lawyers might actually want them to remain locked up in order that they may extract more money from them.

All the time that this is happening Corey is having to constantly mitigate the words and actions of his un-streetwise friend Jeff who continually threatens to land them in even deeper trouble with his loose talk and general lack of nous. Unsurprisingly his moods swing as a result between depression, resilience and a grim resignation to his unfortunate predicament.

ONGOING DEMANDS

Quite aside from the injustice of their arrest and incarceration, the two friends have to deal with the ongoing demands upon them to pay their way inside, as it would seem that in the Dominican prison system there is paid-for time and another kind of time which one is compelled to do if one is unable to pay, which doesn't sound too appealing to say the least.

I enjoyed this book very much, it retained my interest throughout and always left me eager to take in one more chapter before resting it down. As a UK reader I felt like I could hear the American twang in Corey's voice as it called out from some of the terminology used and the attitude that it displayed. I'll not spoil the story by revealing its ending, but I will say that it had me captivated to the last.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Colin Gray

Colin is the younger of two brothers within the gang. In actual fact he has another brother, Jason, who is three years his junior and who makes a brief appearance early into the story, but he is too young to have been a part of the experience and thus doesn't really feature.

But Colin is not just one of the founder members of the gang. He is quite central to the story if one looks at the gang as a fishing net, with its interwoven cords, rather than as a spider's web with all threads leading to and from the epicentre. In The Best Year Of Our Lives Colin is a boyfriend to Beverley and a brother to Jim, with whom he is fiercely competitive for Paul's respect, and indeed for the respect of others.

He is one of the four members of the eight who begin the story as first-years at their respective primary schools, but he is tall and strong and looks older than his eleven years. He lacks Jim's maturity but they are close enough to be competitive.

Loyalty is Colin's watchword - to Paul, to the eight, and in a sometimes less than obvious way to his big brother also. Most of all he is loyal to Beverley, which at their tender ages is no small achievement. Paul at one point in the story finds himself reflecting upon what might make two kids of their tender vintage an item as opposed to just friends, but whatever it is Colin and Beverley have it and retain it (more or less) throughout.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Steve Turner

Steve is to some extent a stand-alone character in The Best Year Of Our Lives. He is the comedian of the gang, alternately funny and child-like. He is protective towards his sister Beverley, takes abuse from Jim which is uttered at times in jest and at others in frustration, yet has a serious and intelligent side as is evident from his conversation when he is alone with Paul.

Although the same age as Debbie, he shuns the maturity which she craves so impatiently, finding his element in involuntary noises and ditties about flatulence. When the gang rides out to confront its adversaries he is not in his comfort zone, but he is loyal where others waver and is prepared to play his part.

It wouldn't have seemed right to have partnered Steve off at any point during this story. That would doubtless come later to him, once he had calmed down and drifted by reluctant default into adulthood. For the best year he would be Steve, the entertainer, aficionado of the invisible trombone, faithful to the very last chapter.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Beautiful Handmade Themed Products from Love Bees



I was very pleasantly surprised when my old mate Tim Pyle turned up unannounced on my doorstep this evening, considering that he lives these days in some remote Arthurian backwater out Wales way.

As it happens he was delivering my daughter's late Christmas present on his way back from Griffin Park (the home of Brentford Football Club, at least for the time being), a beautiful Love Bees necklace lovingly crafted by his better half.

I bought a few items from Love Bees just before Christmas and they were all quite stunning, really beautiful pieces all hand-made and featuring the trademark bee painted in striking colours and set over heart pendants, trinket boxes, brooches and more besides - and very reasonably priced too.

I can't recommend these enough, take a look at the Love Bees Facebook Page or on Etsy and see for yourself.

Please give them a "Like" while you're at it and support an old Isleworth boy and his Brentford-supporting clan.

And what connection does all this have to my novel The Best Year Of Our Lives, which after all is what this blog is about? Only Tim knows that, but be assured it has one.

Friday, 29 December 2017

8 Contemporary Movies that Celebrated the Pop Culture of the 1970s



Seeing your favourite artist or band on film is these days simply a matter of logging into YouTube or something similar and typing your choice into the search bar, but it wasn't always so. Time was, one was compelled to wait patiently in eager anticipation of their next appearance on Top Of The Tops. Unless, of course, your pop act of preference had made a film, in which case it was off to the local cinema - to the seat with the clearest view and hooked to the silver screen, as it were.

The theme-line wasn't always the same, but a recurrent thread was the use of artists and bands in narrative roles. The outcome inevitably was that even when the familiar star was cast in the role of another, it was difficult for us to look beyond the musical celebrity that we had gone along to see.

Which didn't matter much. It wasn't Shakespearean art after all, just a rare opportunity for us to see our musical idols in an unusual and different role, and in a different environment to that in which we were accustomed to seeing them.

Here is a list of some of the biggest pop movies of that unique and wonderful decade:

1. Elvis On Tour

The King of Rock made a lot of films - some of them memorable, some less so - but this one, released in November 1972, was to be his last.

A musical documentary, it followed him as he embarks upon a 15-city tour of the United States, bringing together some valuable footage of that momentous series of events. However it did also include such disparate features as a 1956 appearance on a television variety show, interviews with fans as well as with the man himself, and pre-tour rehearsals.

2. Born to Boogie

This one was a concert film, released in December 1972. It was directed by Ringo Starr and featured T. Rex, Elton John and Starr himself. As well as extensive concert footage from the Wembley Empire Pool it included recording studio scenes and also some rather striking vignettes such as a quaint clip filmed at John Lennon's estate. This film was a must for glam rock fans wanting to see some of their idols performing together to a real live audience.

3. That Will Be The Day

Ringo Starr again, albeit this time only with an acting part. When this was released in April 1973 David Essex was an emerging star on the UK music scene, and his rise to pop fame coincided (or not, as the case may be) with his appearance in not one but two cult movies which every with-it teenager wanted to watch (my mum took me to the second one, although I told all my mates at school that I'd gone with an imaginary girlfriend).

Set around the turn of the 1960s, Essex plays dead-end-jobber Jim MacLaine who gets by with a little help from his more worldly pal Mike (Starr) before having his head turned by the allure of being a rock'n'roll star. Keith Moon and Billy Fury also feature.

4. Stardust

The sequel to That Will Be The Day sees Jim MacLaine fast forward a decade to the beginning of the 1970s, and this time Essex is leading his band The Stray Cats to superstardom. With Adam Faith now playing Mike, who is his manager, the film tracks his rise to the top and his inevitable descent into drug-ridden wreck overwhelmed by his own success and ego.

Marty Wilde, Keith Moon, Dave Edmunds and Paul Nicholas are all included in the cast, as well as Larry Hagman of Dallas fame.

5. Slade in Flame

The clue is in the name, and whilst the story is about an imaginary band called Flame staffed by imaginary band members Stoker, Paul, Barry and Charlie they look, sound, and play very much like Slade, one of the very biggest and most popular of the 1970s glam rock outfits.

Released in January 1975, the film charts the rise and fall of a talented rock outfit against a background of contractual sharp practice, back room politics and more than a touch of menace. As a project it was, in Slade's own words, "a sort of behind-the-scenes, nitty-gritty look at the rock'n'roll business".

6. Tommy

Also launched in 1975, this uncompromising musical (or "rock opera" if you prefer) was the film version of the album of the same name which had been released six years earlier. Boasting an obscenely impressive cast of talent from both the acting and the music worlds, it features the music of The Who from start to finish without cessation as it charts the upbringing of a boy rendered deaf, dumb and blind by the horror of seeing his father murdered by his mother's lover (the late and devilishly talented hell-raiser Oliver Reed).

In a story so oft-told that it is well-known even to those who have never seen it, Tommy (Roger Daltrey) defies his disability to become the greatest pinball player in the world, in the process defeating Elton John who stands enormous and terrifying in the biggest pair of boots ever worn. But it all goes horribly wrong...

7. The Man Who Fell To Earth

Okay, this 1976 film should not be on this list as its only connection to music is that it stars David Bowie who, despite it being his film d├ębut, completely owns it from start to finish to the point where one could quite easily deduce that it was written for the sole purpose of placing yet another of his talents into the shop window of the world.

However, precisely because Bowie's stamp looms so large over it I have included it as one of the cult rock films of the '70s. The story is of an extraterrestrial (played by Bowie, natch) who crash lands on Earth whilst scouring the universe for water to ship back to this drought-wracked planet. Whilst here he partakes in earthly pastimes with varying degrees of enthusiasm but is also subjected to inhuman experiments by the natives as they attempt to understand who he is and what his purpose is among the natives.

Bowie's character, Thomas Jerome Newton, could quite easily pass for the Thin White Duke, or vice versa, blurring eerily the distinction between Bowie and the characters he plays not only on stage, but now also on the set.

8. The Kids Are Alright

This is a straightforward yet all the same compelling "rockumentary" about perennial supergroup The Who. Although released in May 1979 (for the Cannes Film Festival - it went on general release a month later) it gathers together live performances, interviews and promotional films from almost a decade and a half, between 1964 and 1978.

By the time it was released the band, and the world, had sadly lost the legendary drummer Keith Moon, and when it was promoted with some live performances he had been replaced by Kenney Jones, formerly of The Faces.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Why Does the 1970s Get Painted as Such a Bad Decade?

by Dominic Sandbrook


Of all post-war decades, the 1970s has undoubtedly had the worst press, but the truth is that most ordinary families in 1970s Britain were better off than ever.

The 1950s are symbolised by the television and the washing machine, which transformed the lives of so many families. We misremember the 1960s as the decade of the Mini, which was actually invented in 1959, the mini-skirt, which surprisingly few women actually wore, and the Pill, which most women never took. We remember the 1980s as the decade of gigantic hair, shoulder-pads, the Filofax and the home computer.

But in the popular imagination the 1970s are the poor relations, to be lampooned and despised - the
era of Edward Heath, the decade of the donkey jacket, the age of the Austin Allegro. When they flash up on our screens, we see lurid wallpaper, silly hairstyles and burly men warming their hands around braziers. Who would ever want to commemorate all that?

In many ways this habit of giving decades different historical personalities is a bit of a gimmick, a quirk of the calendar, that distorts the way we remember the recent past. Look at any photograph from the mid-1970s, and you can often see people wearing clothes that would have been at the cutting edge of fashion in 1958. Footage of picket-line confrontations often shows strikers wearing suits and ties, as though dressing for a family wedding. The teenagers dancing on Top of the Pops are usually wearing yesterday's fashions, topped off with a pair of National Health glasses. Even the burly policemen standing protectively around Margaret Thatcher as she walked into Downing Street in May 1979, with their luxuriant moustaches and thick sideburns, looked as though they had been transported 10 years forward in time.

A GRAIN OF TRUTH

But like so many stereotypes, the cliches of the grim 1970s have more than a grain of truth. These were desperately difficult years for Britain, both politically and economically. In many ways they marked a reckoning for a country that had been too complacent for too long, basking in the sunshine of post-war affluence, and indifferent to the fact that our foreign competitors had not only caught up with us - they were leaving us behind. In 1970, the self-made builder's son Edward Heath came to power promising a "quiet revolution" that would turn around the fortunes of Great Britain plc. Sailor Ted, however, soon ran aground, his ship scuppered by the lethal combination of an energy crisis, a financial crash and a second miners' strike in two years. And though Labour's Harold Wilson got the country back to work, it came at the price of inflation at almost 30% and a humiliating bailout from the IMF.

Perhaps fittingly, the decade ended with another prime minister being humiliated by the unions in the Winter of Discontent, though this time the victim was the veteran Labour bruiser Jim Callaghan. Perhaps never before had the political establishment seemed so impotent and irrelevant - little wonder, then, that for the first time in years, emigrants actually outnumbered immigrants. Image caption Space hoppers became the toy of choice for many children in the early 1970s. Even Callaghan himself seemed to have little faith in his native land. "Our place in the world is shrinking: our economic comparisons grow worse, long-term political influence depends on economic strength - and that is running out," he told his colleagues in November 1974. "If I were a young man, I should emigrate."

And yet the strange thing about the 1970s is that although many people vividly remember the power cuts, strikes and shocking headlines, they often have surprisingly affectionate personal memories of the decade that taste forgot. It has become a cliche to look back through rose-tinted glasses at the world of Bagpuss, space hoppers and Curly Wurlies - all of which, I should admit, dominate my memories of the decade, because I was born in 1974. But in a funny way, those things actually work very well as symbols of the decade, because what they represent is the reality of everyday affluence.

The fact that so many children had space hoppers, ludicrous as it may seem, is testament to the fact that even working-class families now had a solid disposable income and could afford toys for their younger members. Even Star Wars, which first went on general release in Britain in early 1978, would never have become such a phenomenon had not so many children had the pocket money for all those Palitoy figures.

BETTER OFF THAN EVER

The truth is that behind all those terrible economic and political headlines, most ordinary families in 1970s Britain were better off than ever. While people shook their heads sorrowfully over the breakfast table, digesting the news of some new IRA bombing or absurdly petty British Leyland strike, their surroundings often told a rather more optimistic story. The lurid furnishings of their new suburban homes, the swanky hostess trolley in the kitchen, the bottles of Blue Nun and Black Tower cooling in the fridge, the brand new colour television in the lounge, the turmeric-coloured Rover SD1 in the drive, even their teenage children's painfully tight flared trousers - all of those things, which are so easy to satirise today, reflected the realities of a brave new world, forged in the crucible of mass abundance. And although we often think of the 1970s as the end of something - the tired, miserable hangover after the long party of the Swinging Sixties - it makes much more sense to see them as the beginning of a new chapter in the story of modern Britain. For most ordinary people, after all, the 1970s brought new experiences that their parents and grandparents could barely have imagined.

The most obvious example is the package holiday abroad, which 30 years earlier would have seemed like something from science fiction. In 1971, British tourists took some four million holidays abroad - which then seemed an awful lot. But by 1973 that figure had jumped to nine million and by 1981 it was more than 13 million. For even relatively poor, working-class families, holidays no longer meant Blackpool and Bognor but Malta and Majorca. And "abroad", once regarded with such suspicion, now meant two weeks of sun, sea, sand and sangria.

The boom in foreign holidays was only one example of a nation broadening its horizons. Yes, the TV schedules were still full of casual sexism and astonishing racism, while teenage boys who wore make-up in emulation of Marc Bolan and David Bowie often risked a vigorous kicking. But from professional working women to long-haired footballers, from pornography in the corner shop to computers in the office, the cultural texture of British life probably changed more quickly between 1970 and 1980 than during any other post-war decade. As late as 1971, women were banned from going into Wimpy Bars on their own, after midnight, on the grounds that the only women out on their own at that hour must be prostitutes. Yet only eight years after that rule was lifted, Margaret Thatcher was walking into Downing Street as Britain's first woman Prime Minister. There could hardly be a better symbol of change.

RADICALLY TRANSFORMED

Of course Mrs Thatcher's election victory is often seen as the decisive watershed in our recent history - the moment when everything was radically transformed, for good or ill. But Mrs Thatcher won in 1979 not just because she offered something different, but because she understood how much Britain had changed already. As a working woman distrusted by the traditionalists, she was a fitting representative of the changes that had remade Britain in the previous 10 years. She appealed to a new spirit of self-interested materialism - the same spirit that the Yorkshire miners' leader, Arthur Scargill, of all people, had captured as early as 1970, when he told an interviewer: "You only get as much as you are prepared to go out and take."

And she appealed to a new ethic of populist individualism - the same ethos of permanent self-reinvention that David Bowie had captured, when as the androgynous Ziggy Stardust, he told Britain's teenagers that "one isn't totally what one has been conditioned to think one is".

Thatcher, Scargill and Bowie. You could hardly imagine three stranger bedfellows - the grocer's daughter from Grantham, the Marxist miner from Barnsley, the gender-bending rock star from Bromley. But in their different ways, they captured the complicated, contrary spirit of a decade that was richer, more interesting and a lot more important than most of us realise.

Reproduced with acknowledgments to BBC News Magazine.