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An album a once in a while: All the best cowboys have Chinese eyes

I first listened to The Who when I borrowed one of their anonymous ‘best of’ collections from a relative. I’ pretty sure it was this one. It’s a bit odd in having ‘Don’t let go the coat’ and ‘Sister disco’ on it, though when it came out those were newish songs. It’s also got ‘Tommy, can you hear me’, as a sort of prelude to ‘Pinball wizard’. I liked it, I kept an eye out for other similar stuff and not long after I picked up a cheap tape (this was quite a while ago) of All the best cowboys have Chinese eyes. Not really an album for the young. It’s one of Townshend’s ‘I am so messed up’ albums, the main other one being The Who By Numbers, although it’s a subtext in much of his work. Songs like ‘Slit skirts’, which begins with ‘I was just 34 years old’ and includes ‘once she woke with untamed lover’s face between her legs/now he’s cooled and stifled and it’s she who has to beg’ don’t really resonate when you’re 13. Not with me, anyway.

Scan of the cassette insert.

Cassette tape insert for ATBCHCE. Pretty minimal compared to the vinyl sleeve. Can’t really even read it.

On the other hand, ‘Uniforms’, about the need to fit in made more sense, and ‘Communication’ doesn’t make sense to anybody, 13 or 34 (‘Selbstdarstellung/Gay Talese/Ronald Rocking/Euthanasia’).

The album uses a lot of syths, though there’s plenty of guitar too.

It certainly polarises fans.

It’s often called pretentious and confusing, though really, apart from ‘Communication’ it’s not really that impenetrable (I say now, many years after first hearing it). And it’s replete with catchy tunes. It’s quite possibly his most melodic solo album, though the use of synthesisers hides that a little and dates it quite markedly.

What it’s not is a rock album. Where Empty glass rocks like a Who album (even though lyrically it would have made a strange one), this does not — it’s too poppy, though it has plenty of energetic moments, like ‘Stardom in Acton’ (the germ of White City, I’m sure) and ‘Slit skirts’. This is not a solo album designed to keep the Who fans happy. This is Pete Townshend following his muse where it leads him, which in this case is a cross between mid-life crisis and the mainstreaming of electronic instruments in the early 80s — it’s basically a new wave record by a guy from the old wave. No wonder a lot of fans who have bought all the Who albums they can and are looking for more product don’t like it!

If you’re a little more open-minded, it’s actually pretty good, though it does make me feel a little like Pete’s therapist. I should charge him each time I listen to it.

Yes, it sounds like 1981. But pop music recycles itself so often, who cares? Yes, there’s spoken word stuff and what looks like free association poetry. But risking being perceived as pretentious is something integral to a lot of really interesting art. Yes, there’s clunky autobiography and tinny synths and bubbly synths and bouncy synths. What it does not sound like is repetition, like a musician happy to stand still. In The kids are alright Townshend carries on about how it’s ‘crucial’ that pop music progress as art. And amidst the rock operas and the symphonic scores and weird experiments and two chord wonders and synthesiseritis and the boredom of The Iron Man and the tedium of the standard version of Psychoderelict (the music-only version is much better), what you don’t find is a guy who’s just trying to give you what you want. Somewhere in his autobiography he says something like ‘we could have just done Who’s next part 2′ in 1972, and then explains why that’s not adequate; yet I have no doubt that thousands of fans would have been quite happy with that. I would have, had I been around at the time. Instead he put together Quadrophenia, a giant flawed masterpiece that in many ways is less enjoyable than a retread of Who’s next might well have been. (Let’s see … ‘Pure and easy’, ‘Naked eye’, ‘Join together’, ‘Relay’, ‘Let’s see action’, ‘Baby don’t you do it’ … yes, there’s most of a solid follow up there just in the non-album singles and Who’s next rejects.)

Favourite tracks? I don’t usually skip any, though ‘Sea refuses no river’ and ‘Somebody saved me’ can get a bit … I dunno. The phrase ‘first world problems’ comes to mind.

Face Dances, Pt. 2
Communication (for the drums and ‘by satellite and solid state’ and because it’s called ‘Communication’ and tells us to communicate while being largely incomprehensible itself)
Stardom in Acton
Uniforms
North Country Girl
Slit Skirts

Oh, and don’t read any of Townshend’s prose. (Same goes for the back of White City). I don’t know about the CD or download, but the LP comes with this weird essay inside the cover (‘the triangle expands and explodes’ or something), and it really is a weird lump of arty-farty nonsense that the album would be better without. I suspect one reason I like this is because for years I just listened to my old tape, and that is free of the gobbage. Indeed, it has a song on it called ‘Stardom in Action’ (probably ‘corrected’ by a proofreader), so it’s hardly packaged with the care of the vinyl release.

Scan of the cassette itself.

Note track 1 on side 2; ‘Stardom in Action’. At least it’s not ‘Stardom inaction’.

Worth a spin, possibly especially if you don’t like the Who.

 

What else?

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Sorry is kind of sorry

Sorry: The wretched tale of Little Stevie Wright by Jack Marx

A review:

This is an odd book. My gut reaction to it is distaste. Marx paints both himself and Wright as untrustworthy junkies — which is most likely true — but in doing so he expends a lot of words on himself — for a biography, it’s remarkably autobiographical. Whether this reflects an inability to get much useful material out of Wright, or rampant ego on the part of the author, it’s hard to tell. Perhaps it needs to be viewed as the book plus the ‘making of’ documentary all rolled into one. In fact, that’s what it is.

image of the front cover of Sorry by Jack Marx.

Cover of Sorry by Jack Marx.

The structure consists of alternating sections, one lot following Stevie Wright through his — yes, wretched — life, the other following Marx as he deals with Stevie and Fay(e) and tries to get material for the book.

I’ll discuss them separately.

The main problem with the actual biography part is that it lacks detail and dates. It’s just not a very good biography. Are we in 1969 or 1967? Is it 1975 or 1972 or 1979? It’s impossible to tell. Only by reference to some external source — like the internet — can the reader actually get a sense of when any of this happened. There’s no context half the time, just a narrow focus on Stevie and his drug problems and the emptiness of his life. OK, that’s important — but it’s not everything.

To his credit, Marx evokes the junkie life pretty vividly. Correctly, I can’t say. There’s a core of analysis in the work that seems valid — that Wright spent his life looking for easy answers, waiting for things to go his way, and the quick fixes he indulged in along the way turned from being the means to being the end in getting through life. After the Easybeats, did he make a new path for himself in music (like Vanda and Young)? No. Did he consciously give it up and get a ‘real’ job and work at it like a grown-up, like Snowy and Dick Diamonde? No. Things sometimes fell his way — Jesus Christ Superstar, Hard Road, ‘Evie’ — and often didn’t, and he wasn’t equipped for the mundane slog.

So that half of the book is an intermittently insightful, intermittently evocative narrative that hangs in the air, without context, without grounding in time or space. Interesting, but weak.

The other half … is not that good.

We follow Marx as he stays with Wright and his woman, Fay(e). Marx feeds them money in return for promised cooperation on the book, cooperation we never actually see although near the end he refers to his tape recorder so presumably he has got something out of Wright. Marx drinks, shoots up, mistreats people and generally paints himself as someone most of us would not want to associate with. He indulges in long vignettes that have little or nothing to do with the subject. He seems keen to tell us, basically, how immersed he was in the gutter and presumably this makes his comments on Wright more credible. I don’t know. I should say I have never been a fan of the ‘presenter as star’ kind of thing. It’s like one of those nature documentaries where all we ever see is the presenter telling us how hard it is to find the animal of interest. What it amounts to is padding, making the tiny little bit of real footage go as far as possible.

This is like that. It’s like Marx realised he did not have a whole book, so he’s padded it out with his own adventures and his list of attempts to get the story — all of which are essentially the same (he gives them money, they blow it on drugs, they ask for more money).

Pretty unsatisfactory.

Lastly, it’s not clear what if any of the content was actually provided by Wright. Some is very personal, so presumably some of the book comes from actual interviews. Much of it reads like a potted version skimmed from elsewhere and then padded out by Marx’s attempts to guess what was going on inside the band or inside Wright’s head. There are no sources given, so we can only assume it’s either all from interviews or partly from interviews and partly made up, or it’s been gathered from other sources but Marx is too lazy to document them.

If this is ‘gonzo’ journalism, you can have it.

If you want to know what it’s like being a junkie trying to cadge information out of a junkie, it’s a very handy book.

Of course, the Easybeats were a great band, we must never forget that.

ok?

International Grant of mystery

Grant & I by Robert Forster

I’m an unusual Go-Betweens fan, if fan is the right word, precisely because fan may not be the right word. I am not rabid. I an not devoted. I just kind of like some of what they‘ve done over the years. If I was to believe the clichés in a lot of the writing about the band, that‘s not how it works. I picked up their CDs in a box. which was most excellent value, and I‘ve got a copy of Bellavista Terrace, and I’m pretty happy with that.

Anyway, Robert Forster‘s book is very easy to read. It evokes the days spent shaping the songs, and playing them, and living on not a huge amount of money.

bitmap image of the cover, showing Forster and McLennan.

Cover of Grant and I

As the title might suggest, it focuses on the relationship between Forster and Grant McLennan, it is really the story of a partnership. In places, it reads like Forster is trying figure out McLennan, a man who he knew for almost 30 years but who, we come to wonder, perhaps nobody knew. Forster tackles the subject with an and pretty analytical eye that is perhaps possible when so many years have passed.

As a rock n roll memoir, it’s pretty good, though I have not read the genre extensively. There’s no hint of a ghost writer — not surprising, given,the
quote on the back cover: ”It was our long-time predicament — Grant had too many melodies, I had too many words.“

With that title, you’d be entitled to wonder: do the other band members get the attention they deserve? And: I don’t know. This it not a biography of the band — the title tells us that — but it is the story of two men and the band they were in.

As always with these books, I would have liked to see the creative process better explored. How was a song shaped? Who brought what to it? There is a bit of that, but for me the act of creation rarely gets enough attention in books by creative people. I have sometimes wondered what makes for a song writing credit. Neither Jagger nor Richards ever told Charlie when to hit his drum, I‘m guessing. When asked about song writing credit within the Stones, Bill Wyman noted that ‘Under My Thumb’ isn’t much of a song without Brian’s marimba part. I mean, in some sense doesn’t the drummer write the drum part, the bass player the bass part? Is a song the words and the melody? The chord changes? It’s pretty clear that ‘Cattle and Cane‘ rises so high largely because of the drums. Yet …

Some bands (R.E.M., the Manics, Radiohead, Bluetones, late Clash and many more) attribute all the songs to everybody. Now, I am not a musician (clearly, I hear you say) so I guess maybe there are good reasons for bands dividing credit up how they do. Townshend brought fully formed demos with guide vocals, bass lines and drum tracks to the Who; he was clearly the songwriter.

Anyway, I did not quite get a sense of how they put a track together, though the division of credit suggests the Townshend style more than the Radiohead. I just hope it’s fair. (I believe there was some court action on that front by non-Forster/McLennan members of the group at some stage, so maybe those contributions were as substantial as, listening to the records, they seem.)

As I read I wondered at the absence of drugs — perhaps he was just being discrete — and then very late we get a mention of Hep-C and a kind of brief admission. And, much as I like the book, it does have a kind of ‘but it was all a dream’ quality — we need to reassess all that went before. When someone acted weird, or whatever, or argued, or whatever — was it really because of what the chapter suggested at that point in the book, or was is related to drug use? What pressures did that create inside the band?

I’m not that interested in drug use itself – it it was one of the more boring aspects of Keith’s Life — but in a book where personal relationships play a major role, drugs have to feature if we’re really to get a sense of the dynamics. They also have an impact creatively, good and bad. I don’t want drugs to play a major part, but I do want to know what part they played… or I would, as a reader who bought the book in order to find out more about Forster and the band, keeping in mind that Forster wrote the book, which implies a desire to tell.

All that sounds negative, but it’s really good. He evokes places economically and effectively, like a good novelist, and he’s reflective and analytical. There’s no sense of complaint when he looks at why they never became big stars, and not regret. The integrity with which he approached his music is quite apparent.

In summary: Well written, interesting, somewhat enlightening yet perhaps played just a little too close to the chest. Forster has thought hard about music and has a lot of interest to say, and on balance still a worthwhile read.

Angst.

Mnemo’s Memory

Over at http://davidversace.com/newsletter/, I got hold of a copy of Mnemo’s Memory by David Versace.

Cover of book.

Mnemo’s Memory; print-on-demand version.

Versace is an engaging writer, never short of an idea or a humorous aside. The two outstanding pieces here are ‘The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat’, which I first encountered in Aurealis, and the title story, which was new to me and shows off his penchant for steampunk, complete with smoked glass lenses, chuffing dirigibles and clockwork men. Both make full use of his ability to turn a nice metaphor and to create a fantasy world of which the story seems a real inhabitant, rather than a world that seems to exist just so the story can work.

Lengthy stories alternate with flash fiction — it works well. It’s almost impossible not to read the short one after the long one.

He’s distributing the ebook for nada, nix, nuttin’ over at his website; do yourself a favour.

Indie.

Try to forget The Sky Remembers

The Sky Remembers

by

Dan Brennan

NEL 1978

155 pages

This is quite possibly the worst book I have ever managed to finish. Doing so was an effort of will, undertaken for reasons that are not clear to me but may involve my desire to write this review.

Colour scan of the cover, front and back.

Cover of The Sky Remembers by Brennan; this is the best bit of the book.

The story is simple enough. A cocky fighter pilot, a real leader of men, has had the stuffing knocked out of him by a near death experience. He’s recuperating, he’s lost his bottle, but it’s the darkest days of the Battle of Britain and he’s needed in the air.

He battles through his overwhelming doubt and his many losses and proceeds to return to the fight.

It could be all right. But the prose…

extract 1

It’s relentless. It goes on like some kind of incantation. Here’s a bit more:

extract 2

And on it goes. It reminds me of Beckett’s The Unnameable, but not in a good way. It’s 155 pages but a well-written 50 could have made this an evocative little piece. Instead, the author flings words at the reader in a desperate attempt to convince and evoke. Why say something once when you can say it three times?

The longest 155 pages I have ever read.

Book bashing.

Hurin — heavy going

Children of Hurin

J R R Tolkien

I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in my early teens and enjoyed them well enough. I read The Silmarillion a few years later, and actually quite liked it, in a funny way. I mean, if approached as a novel it is not really adequate; but then by modern standards many long narratives are not really novels in the sense of being a story of evolution of character, or at least a character with a problem to solve. As pseudomythology, The Silmarillion is an interesting exercise. Creation myth, evil coming into the world, fate and doom, etc. I quite liked Melkor/Morgoth as a mythological figure. Driven to take part in creation but limited to a subservient role by the deity, he decided he needed his own world to rule. And though in the end defeated, his influence could never be eradicated. As he poured his spite and lies into the world, he became less, more limited, more worthy of scorn himself. Turning the world dark cost him his own substance yet meant that the world could never be free of his shadow. It’s a neat idea, well implemented.

So in that great battle of mere Men and Elves against the he who had been the right hand of the creator, there were, the prefatory material tels us, three key tales that Tolkien wanted to flesh out. This is the one that he came closest to finishing and thus the one tht allowed itself to be shaped into a coherent volume without the need for new text. And because Tolkien is a name to conjure with, and to sell many book, here we have Children of Hurin.

It is really the tragedy of Turin, son of Hurin. Powerful, impetuous, he fights and flees and fights and flees and where’er he goes Morgoth’s hordes follow and wreak destruction, such that Turin is like a plague, bringing disaster upon whoever helps him.

It’s all very high and mighty and mythic. But it is also more like a ‘normal’ story than The Silmarillion — it’s more like a novel. And weirdly that (for me) makes it less successful than The Silmarillion (caveat — I was young when I read the latter, and perhaps less critical). It makes no sense to judge The Silmarillion as a novel, but Hurin is a novel, yet the plot is like a Greek myth, the hero more like Beowulf, and the result is a weird clashing. Turin is so stupid! He is this great fighter who eggs on his supporters to fight Morgoth and so brings them destruction, and then he utterly fails to learn anything from this. In a myth, that might work, when everything is seen from a distance, like chess pieces viewed from above. But in a novel we expect at least  some kind of  sense from our actors, so his behaviour just fails to ring true and so undermines the whole story; we have grandeur, but no sense. “Who is carrying the idiot ball this week?” 

When reading The Iliad, an adjustment modern readers have to make is that the players do emphatically not rise and fall based on their own strengths as people. They rise and fall based on who is favoured by the gods, which can make the plot seem arbitrary and lacking in internal motivation. It is a fundamental split from what we have come to expect in our fiction since probably the 18th century at least. Hurin needs to be read in a similar way, at least that’s what I found; I had to make a conscious effort to not expect what I usually expect from a novel. (What do I implicitly expect? A person has a problem, external or internal, and makes attempts to solve it/overcome it/avoid it. These attempts at least seem reasonable to the reader or seem like the kinds of things the protagonist would actually do given their character. A skillful writer can make the protagonist very different from the reader and yet still reasonable to the reader. ) 

Turin never becomes enough of a character for me to see his actions as reasonable in his terms, yet behaves irrationally in my terms. I think that’s why the book ultimately was unsatisfactory. The book is interesting if Tolkien’s world is interesting. It is not at all bereft of grandeur and striking images, notably the battle with Glaurung. Worth a read for the fan of fantasy, but it must be recognised that it is closer in tone to The Silmarillion than to The Lord of the Rings.

 

Enough.

Dirty Work indeed (an album a ‘week’ #18, I think)

Dirty Work is not a highly regarded Stones album. In fact, it often comes at the very bottom of rankings of Stones albums. Not entirely unfairly.

On the other hand, it does have its (perhaps quirky) fans – for one, eminent music writer, Robert Christgau. And, I would submit, he’s right. Now, big caveat; a considerable fraction of the interest the album accrues only counts if you are a Stones fan. Considered purely on its musical merits (as of course it should be), it is clearly nowhere near the top of the Stones‘ list of achievements. What is interesting, and what Christgau puts his finger on, is that it is the last album the Stones did before they became a nostalgia act — and I say that as someone who saw them on the Voodoo Lounge tour and really likes Blue & Lonesome. Steel Wheels, the next record, was a conscious regrouping and consolidation, partly no doubt brought on by the poor commercial and critical reception Dirty Work got (at least by Stones standards). The Stones needed a success if they were to remain a going concern. Steel Wheels clearly evolved out of Dirty Work, but it has an air of calculation that is pronounced, even by the standards of the Stones, a band known for calculation and cynicism. (Which is not to say Steel Wheels does not have its own charms.) Dirty Work, by contrast, has an air of anger and desperation, which is about as genuine a reflection of where they were at as the Stones ever committed to vinyl — and where they were at was pretty damned messy. The film clip to ‘One hit (to the body)’ shows Jagger and Richards kicking and glaring at each other. The songs have titles like ‘One hit (to the body)’, ‘Fight’, ‘Had it with you’ and ‘Dirty work’. Even the artwork is nasty.

<img class="wp-image-3822 size-large" src="https://darrengoossens.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/dwcover.jpeg?w=519" alt="Cassette inlay card from Dirty Work. Pretty dirty itself.” width=”519″ height=”173″ /> Cassette inlay card from Dirty Work. Pretty dirty itself.

So all this is fascinating if you’re into the band. The lyrics of ‘Hold back’, a churning, booming rock number lacking great riffs or a great tune, read exactly like Jagger justifying his studio excursions outside the band (his She’s the Boss came out a year or two before Dirty Work, and Primitive Cool about as much later). ‘If you don’t take chances you won’t make advances’ he yells. ‘Grab opportunity while you’re alive … it’s do or dare … trust your gut reaction.’ It’s Jagger explaining why he went outside the band. ‘Fight’ begins ‘Gonna pulp you to a mass of bruises‘ then gets even angrier. ‘Had it with you’ sounds like Keith complaining back at Mick, who’s always ‘shouting out instructions‘, while on ‘Dirty work’ (the song), Mick points out that for a large fraction of the 70s Keith was a passenger while Mick kept the show on the road (‘Living high sitting in the sun, sit on your ass till your work is done…’).

So, great material for the Stones’ group therapy sessions, but what about the tracks themselves? Well, the lyrics having an agenda does help propel the songs, but it is true that the tunes and riffs are weak. ‘One hit’ brings in Jimmy Page to provide the solo (what does that tell us about Ronnie?) and works well as a a latter day Stones rocker. Indeed, its rather a blueprint for Stones rockers ever since. We get ‘Harlem shuffle’ and ‘Too rude’ — 2 covers in 10 tracks; no Stones studio effort had two covers since the much longer Exile … well, I must confess I like ‘em (only one of ’em’s rock’n’roll). ‘Shuffle’ drives along nicely and doesn’t outstay its welcome, and ‘Too rude’ offers a nice change from the growling, thudding rock songs around it — it’s a growling, thudding reggae number. ‘Fight’ is competent. ‘Dirty work’ is ok, but makes a song out of fewer musical ideas than the Stones used to throw away in an outro. ‘Had it with you’ is the same, but the honking guitars, tighter song structure and Charlie’s drumming drive it nicely. On a good album it would be a little, pleasant diversion. On this one, it’s one of the better songs (if only for the focussed lyrics and concision).

The album highlight, for me, is ‘Sleep tonight’, Keith’s closing ballad. Piano-based, lyrically ambivalent but generous, it’s one of those songs that seem to get labelled ‘deep album cuts‘. Keith’s ‘All about you’ (off Emotional Rescue) and ‘How can I stop’ (Bridges to Babylon) are high points on those records. They bring a bit of heart and a change of pace. Even on a strong album, one that does not get dismissed out of hand, ‘Sleep tonight’ would be in the top couple of tracks. Here, it is probably the outstanding composition (as distinct from bunch of riffs) on the record. Maybe it’s for Anita Pallenberg, I don’t know; but it’s a lovely track. I like ‘One hit’ and ‘Sleep tonight’ better than anything on Undercover, the preceding album, and I find myself listening to this record more often than Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge, both far more commercially and critically successful works.

Amidst the desperation and anger and threats, there’s a glimpse of something real and human that all too often the Stones, especially Jagger with his cliché-ridden lyrics, fail to approach.

Plus, it ends with a little of Ian Stewart’s boogie woogie piano. I like that too. Next I’m gonna get Boogie 4 Stu.

Ends.

The Balloon Factory — a travel book

The Balloon Factory by Alexander Frater

The cover says ‘the story of the men who built Britain’s first flying machines’ but what it really is is ‘The story of the author’s journey to go to places related to the men who built Britain’s first flying machines’. There is a lot of the author in this book. Now, if you like the author to take centre stage and tell us about his own flying lessons and about how he went to Africa (or whatever) and the interesting chap he had lunch with while researching this book, then that suits fine. It’s a bit like those nature documentaries where we mostly see the presenter talking about their efforts to find the animal, rather than the animal itself.

Cover of <i>The Balloon Factory</i> by Alexander Frater.

Cover of The Balloon Factory by Alexander Frater.

The book contains some stuff about Sam Cody, De Havilland and Sir George Cayley, and J. W. Dunne who made strange but effective aeroplanes and An Experiment with Time. It is written with great fluency and charm, and does indeed contain some interesting information. Perhaps because written by a travel writer, it does not spend too much time on the technical aspects but tells the human stories of its protagonists, and they are an interesting bunch. On the other hand, it is far from comprehensive — there were many significant figures (the Short brothers, for example) who get very little attention. The author has been captured by a couple of personalities, mainly Cody who seems to occupy fully half the book, and so the picture is skewed and highly personal.

Despite the title, there is very little in it on balloons. Just FYI.

Conclusion: If you like a congenial host getting between you and the material and telling you his story as well as the story of his subject, this is a very pleasant read. If you prefer a book to focus on the subject rather than the teller, this may not suit. It is not a bad book, but it may not be what you expect.

 

What you expect.

Monitor

The battle between the Monitor and the Virginia appears with monotonous regularity in books about ships, particularly fighting ships. It was the first battle between iron ships, the first involving a ship with a turret, the first involving ships that did not rely on sail, nor even have masts as backup to the engines.

Cover of <i>Monitor</i>, the book about the boat.

Cover of Monitor, the book about the boat.

One thing this book brings home is how small it was. No great fleet action like Jutland or Lepanto or Trafalgar — it was really just a skirmish, though one with great repercussions.

deKay does a nice job of bringing these repercussions to light. They were strategic, technological and even geopolitical.

Strategic: The Confederate states needed access to weapons and materiel from Europe, and the Virginia‘s job was to break the blockade set up by the North. Hampton Roads was a vital nexus for bringing cargo from the Atlantic to inland waterways, and it was here that Virginia sallied out and caused pandemonium amongst the wooden ships. Though she was slow and hard to control, she was also impervious to their shots and could stand off and pound the Union ships into pieces. Had the Monitor not been flanged together in about 3 months and thrown into battle against the _Virginia_ almost as soon as completed, the civil was could have looked very different. Had the Confederates gained mastery of the east coast the marked superiority of the North in terms of industrial capacity would have been at least partially mitigated by better access to imports. Further, it is supposed that had the South been able to maintain this kind of sovereignty over its borders, which would promote interchange with Europe, it might have been granted diplomatic recognition by more potential trading partners. So the book pitches the one-on-one battle as a kind of ‘for want of a nail’ situation. Of course, it’s natural for an author to point out the significance of their topic — they’ve bothered to write about it after all — but there is some substance to this. Had the South been closer in stature to the North, the likelihood of a genuine fissioning of the USA would have to have been greater. We shall never know. Most likely, the war would have gone on even longer, caused even more suffering, and had the same outcome.

Technological: At a stroke, Monitor ushered in a new age in warship design. Though it low freeboard and raft-like construction limited it to coastal waters, it’s general concept — an iron hulled ship, powered by steam, dispensing with sail altogether and armed with turreted guns — was to dominate naval thinking until the rise of the aircraft carrier during WWII. Previous ironclads had looked like modified sailing ships, still arranging their guns in broadsides and still carrying a full complement of sails. Monitor must have looked like something from another world. Just as the Dreadnought reset the benchmarks in 1905, the Monitor forced a reappraisal of what made for a power navy. What value was a hundred ships of the line if a handful of ironclads could pick them off at leisure? So influential was the design of the Monitor that it leant it’s name to a style of ship. Shipyards around the world started building ‘monitors’, and would continue to turn them out for fifty years to come.

Geopolitical: It could be argued that the Monitor is the first significant example of the USA gaining technical, military leadership over Europe. It can be thought of as the very beginning of the process that led the USA to gain military and technological leadership during the 20th century. Ericsson, the man behind the Monitor, was a migrant who had been unable to sell his design in Europe. The strength of the US coming from its inclusiveness is a very modern idea, and the Monitor is an early and potent example.

Anyway, the book follows the politics and the military sides of the story. How the ship got built, how the battles were fought, and what it all meant. I would have liked more technical details — we do not even get a table summarising the capacities of the two combatants. Some more diagrams, perhaps cutaway, and clearer illustrations of how the two ships were laid out and so on, would have buttressed the work nicely and made it more rounded in its coverage. As it is, it is a nice little read.

 

Monitor.

Quite a big deal

The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne.

This book does a very readable job of looking at the influence of Napoleon. The famous battles — Austerlitz, Trafalgar, Wagram and all — are mentioned but not discussed in detail. They provide context, they chart the rise and fall of his empire, but they are not the focus of the book. In many ways Bonaparte reminds more of Alexander the Great than other modern conquerors. His time in charge was brief, he founded no long-lasting, united empire. Yet his influence was enormous and did persist. His was an epoch when the work of centuries seemed to happen in years. Much of what the revolution started was finished (or at least advanced far enough to make turning back impossible) by the dictator. From the metric system to reorganisation of schools and the redesigning of Paris itself.

Paris. In many ways this is a book of two stars. Paris and Napoleon, for in this book France and Paris are synonymous. We get the occasional sentence pointing out how desperate things were in the provinces, but we never visit there. That is the only real weakness of the book (aside from some odd editing — there is considerable repetition that might have been excised). Yes, it takes us away from the political histories that focus on battles and borders and the struggle for leadership, but only as far as the salons and streets of Paris. How did Paris react to the rise and fall of Bonaparte? What monuments did he build there? How were the Prussians and the English received after the fall(s)? It’s all here — if it happened in Paris.

The book does cover the age of Napoleon in Paris. His influence on the rest of the continent is alluded to (he is credited with releasing the ‘genie of German nationalism’, thus triggering the events of the next 130 years, events that would end in another conquering dictator whose efforts ended in ignominy). Hitler is explicitly compared with Napoleon, and reasonably enough comes off poorly, since Napoleon does not seem to have engaged in genocide, slavery or rampant anti-Semitism. He did run a police state, though, and was rather keen on monumental architecture.

The book is a quick, easy read. It does a nice job of outlining the times and the man’s role in them.

Solid.