Friday, 25 May 2018

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

The grey-haired man whom Paul encounters during the Epilogue describes Jim Gray as Paul's "deputy", but then I guess he would. The Best Year Of Our Lives is, of course, Paul's story, which lends some explanation to this assumption.

Jim is just a little bit younger, and just a little bit smaller, than Paul, and at their age this may indeed count for something. But these slender margins of seniority should not be permitted to obscure the seminal role played by Jim in making this story work. He is at the centre of it all - his father runs the club, his girlfriend is Paul's closest competitor, his brother has an integral role to play and, perhaps most importantly, his sense of perspective more than once keeps Paul treading the straightest path.


Creating the correct dynamic between Jim and Debbie was one of my most difficult challenges during the writing of this book. Whilst Debbie's oozing charisma and cool bravado threatens to overwhelm all in her path, there always had to be a sense that Jim in some way retains dominance within the relationship. Being older and being male, he can level with Paul in a way that Debbie cannot and one is allowed to feel that to some extent at least Debbie only gets away with what Jim permits her to, for the sake of a quiet existence.

At the same time of course Jim has the added responsibility of keeping his brother Colin in his box, as the latter's more or less similar size and stature enable him to assert a degree of sibling rivalry which defies the age difference between them. Add to that his oft-expressed exasperation with Steve and emotionally Jim is fighting on every front, whilst being the cog at the epicentre of the mechanism which turns the gang sans Paul.


Beyond the genuine affection that Paul has for his closest friend, Jim provides an essential link back to the younger members of the gang without which Paul might well have felt estranged. Generally fourteen and fifteen-year-olds aspire to be seen stepping out with the bigger kids, but Paul is able to move in the preferred company of the younger ones because his sidesman, with the slightly younger girlfriend and the still younger sibling, is from his own stable.

Jim Gray is an important, essential component of the complex intersection of personalities which is the Aitston eight. I don't think the story would have retained any credibility without him - indeed I fear Paul would have been left without much kudos and looking a little, well, strange, and set adrift. At the very least, for Jim the right to wear the lumber jacket is one that has been thoroughly earned.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Crowlink, a Magical Location for School Journeys: an Appreciation by Ken Noakes - Review

I may never again review a book by another writer to which I am as personally attached as this one. Crowlink: A Magical Location For School Journeys - An Appreciation By Ken Noakes is not just a fascinating venture back to an age of innocence for those of us who as children were part of the experience. As a retrospective it serves also to remind us that that innocence was shared, in some degree, by the adults in our company back in those far off days and indeed by society itself.

At 56 pages, which includes over forty fascinating illustrations, it is in fact a booklet rather than a book. That is ample enough to do its job, which is to recount the experiences of the author as a young primary school teacher - first at Worple Road School and then at Isleworth Town School - on the annual educational trip for pupils, in their last year before splitting up and moving on to their respective secondary schools, to the rural hamlet of Crowlink, hidden in a remote valley in the Sussex Downs.

As one of the Worple Road pupils who attended this annual event, at the age of ten way back in 1972, this work was always going to hold a special interest for me (I even get a mention at one point as one of those who still has his project folder, relatively intact and in safe keeping). Ken Noakes was my class teacher that year. I thought he was quite middle-aged at the time, but he must have been in his very early twenties.


For primary school pupils at Worple Road (and presumably for those later at Isleworth Town) Crowlink was the culmination of seven years of learning and development. When you got to the fourth year of junior school, which followed on from three years at infant school, going away to Crowlink was your rite of passage. Excitedly, we all brought in our £1 a week to school (plus £1.50 insurance) to get our yellow card stamped, and once the whole £9.50 had been forfeit we were booked on the coach, and nobody was going to stop us.

So much for Crowlink, what about the book? Well the book is, as the title suggests, an appreciation of all that was wonderful about the week spent at North Barn, the Holiday Fellowship Guest House, a rather grand building surrounding a small but well-kept lawn which stood at the end of a track which, for its greater part, was accessible only on foot and via a cattle grid. Heading out from the building the track became progressively larger until it was almost a road, with vehicular access, and further down still was a pond.

The author very much has the advantage over me, because whereas I visited Crowlink only once (well twice, my father actually drove my family and I down there the week before to recce the place), he had the benefit of returning year upon year with a fresh class of youngsters to relive the adventure and exploration. And one senses from the book that the whole thing was indeed something of an adventure to him and to his fellow teachers too, almost as much as to the pupils. His task in compiling the book, of course, was to diarise the various visits and outings undertaken by the children whilst flitting between the classes and the years (and two schools), merging the best of all into one narrative whilst steering clear of repetition.


One of the hazards of reviewing a book which brings back strong personal memories is of course distraction. One is instinctively given to reminiscence when reading of familiar events, which is naturally compounded by the fact that many of the names which appear throughout the book are well-known to me. For that reason I read it twice in quick succession, once for the trip along the proverbial Memory Lane and the second with the purpose in mind of trying to look at the work objectively. And my objective conclusion is that the magic of this book lies precisely in its quality as a marvellous reminisce - not just for those of us who went to Crowlink with Worple Road or Isleworth Town, but for anyone at all of a certain vintage who looks back with fondness to a simpler age bestowed with the mixed blessings of less regulation and more trust.

What I like most of all about the book from a creative point of view is the way in which three stories run coterminously yet at the same time quite distinctly. The first is the story of the South Downs and of the various local attractions and places of interest visited by the parties of school children and their teachers. The second centres on North Barn, on what it had to offer the children and the sheer buzz of being domiciled together for a whole week within its confines, free in most cases for the first time in their lives from parental authority but under the watchful and protective gaze of their teachers. And the third, and by far the most important, is about the children themselves - their emotions, their interaction with each other and with their teachers, their thirst for knowledge, their reactions to their unfamiliar surroundings, their development, their response to their first taste of (albeit well-supervised) freedom, their imaginations, their joy.


In my novel The Best Year Of Our Lives the main characters are just a little older than the Crowlink holiday children, but they will have been through some of the experiences, and felt some of the emotions, that the young pop-pickers of that lucky local generation were given the opportunity to taste. Indeed I wouldn't be entirely surprised if at least one or two of them had been there themselves. There is a faultless seam of magic which begins in contemporary reality and later sadly fades into memory, but remains unbroken nonetheless. Crowlink is still a part of me all these many years on.

Oh and did I mention that it was a well-written book? It is - spaciously laid out, generously illustrated, kind on the eye. But also it combines good ordered structure with humour and heart to make for an easy and enjoyable read. Second nature, I guess, for a school teacher!

Crowlink: A Magical Location For School Journeys - An Appreciation By Ken Noakes is available at £6.95 including postage and packing. Contact to order a copy.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

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

If Steve Turner is oafish, so his younger sister Beverley is sardonic. She may only be eleven, or twelve as the story progresses, but her innocence is only compounded by her unique and lovable wit. Loyal to Paul, proud of the gang, she is there till the last when most of the others (even Paul) have wandered at least on occasion. Only twice do we see her entirely serious - once with the self-induced, but thankfully temporary, loss of her relationship with Colin Gray, the other as the curtain descends, in Chapter 61.

As far as the aforesaid "relationship" with Colin goes, Paul himself finds he reflects on quite what that means when both parties to it are eleven. But that brings us inevitably to consider what any relationship entails. Or as Bowie might have put it - we're just older children after all.


Just how central is Beverley to the plot? In my view, very much so. The point of the gang for Paul is that it represents his last shot at childhood, and to hang on to that he needs the gang to stretch backwards, not forwards, just as far as crediblity, and credulity, will allow. As a settled couple who are by no means immature for their ages, she and Colin provide that much needed link back to earlier years without being entirely detached from the where the older ones are with their lives. They are the smallest of the bigger kids that feasibility will allow, as it were.

Beverley is too young to be scary like Debbie, or sensual like Tina, and yet she carves her own niche quite effortlessly with a wink and a smirk.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Time to Reflect

Fate has a funny way of intervening just when you’d thought you would never find the time to get that second book under way.

One of my most stubborn enthusiasms has long been working out at the gym. Not that I was ever some Herculean, muscle-bound type but rather, at the age of 56, I simply refuse to grow old any faster than is absolutely necessary. I push a fair weight for an old fellow if I must say so myself and nowhere is this more true when I’m doing legs, which have always been my particular strong point.

I say always, because that rapidly changed the Wednesday before last when my right foot inexplicably slipped off the plate just as I was in the middle of my third set of calf extensions, the resultant sudden trauma to my left leg leaving me with a ruptured Achilles tendon and the prospect of spending the next five weeks in a hospital cast boot which, most irritatingly of all, I must wear even in bed.


Many things that I had intended to do must now fall by the wayside. My expedition to Snowdon, planned for two weeks’ time, is still to go ahead but if I even go near the mountain it will be with a view to catching the passenger train up to the top, and then back again to the bottom. And whilst the need to earn a living dictates that I still find myself struggling up to London on my crutches two to three times each week, most of the other things I’d planned to do which cannot be done from a horizontal position have been shelved.

So it’s on with my second book, which I’d hoped would be on its way to the publisher by now but which is alas still in the very formative stages.

I can’t give much away, but there won’t be much to compare with The Best Year Of Our Lives. It’s of an entirely different format and genre, and much less exciting but is one which nevertheless has to be written before I can hope to progress with my new-found vocation. More on this anon.

Monday, 19 March 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Alison Summerfield

Alison has been described as "sweet", and she is, but she is not by any stretch of the imagination a shrinking violet. Yet her friendship with Debbie Stone, whose boldness is striking, coupled with the fact that she is one of the youngest members of the gang, a year Debbie's junior, inevitably creates a suggestion of such a contrast.

I decided not to "partner" Alison with any of her male counterparts, because there was no partnership to be had. Colin is with Beverley, Paul is by some distance too old, Jim is also too old and in any event goes out with Debbie, and Steve just isn't serious enough to have made for a convincing match with her. Alison is pretty, endearing and smart - she will find love, just not in this particular tale.


As the story develops and Alison and Debbie to a degree find themselves on opposite sides of the nebulous bridge between childhood and adolescence, it was inevitable that they would drift apart, not necessarily in terms of their friendship but in their interests and associations. That is why as Tina wanders inexorably into Debbie's orbit, so Alison identifies more closely with Beverley before introducing an entirely new acquaintance, Jackie, late into the story.

Alison and Jackie would have been an interesting pairing for any sequel, or indeed had the best year of their lives gone on to become two. Alas it wasn't to be, but more than one reader has pointed out to me how Alison grew on them, considerably, at the second reading. I don't wish to sound boastful, but that was precisely the intention.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Otherwise Perfect by Jenna L. Hughes - Review

Otherwise Perfect by Jenna L. Hughes, a Review by Phil Andrews, Author of The Best Year Of Our Lives

Written in diary format, this story is unusual in that the narrative flits between two friends as the chapters alternate, charting a period of their lives and the relationship that they have with one another.

It is often difficult when compiling a review to know how much of the plot to reveal. Too much and the story is spoiled, too little and the interest to the potential reader is negated.

But I will do my best. Jesse and Wes are two pals from a college in the US. Wes is in a relationship with a female student whilst Jesse is gay. The latter's parents are Christians, and in his father's case at least of that variety of Christian which regards being gay as a sin to the point of justifying his rejection not just of Jesse's lifestyle but indeed of Jesse himself. Unsurprisingly under the circumstances he and his father become estranged, so much so that in conversation Jesse addresses him by his forename, Patrick, rather than by any name which might suggest kinship let alone affection.


By the time we get to the meat of the story the already fractious relationship between father and son has been placed under a level of strain which Jesse struggles deeply to cope with, and the book revolves itself around his attempts to deal with the situation with the help of Wes and the wider circle in which both men move. This process is further complicated at times both by Jesse's emotional attachment to his best friend, and by the consequent reactions of Wes' girlfriend.

Any further detail would, I fear, lead me across the line that I have drawn between review and revelation. The special appeal of this book, for me, rests both in the untypical construction and presentation of unfolding events, allowing us the unique perspective of seeing them through two pairs of eyes, and the obvious empathy with which it deals with its subject. Reasonably the story could have ended in either of two ways, and the author teasingly retains our interest to the last by leaving it pretty much to the end before relieving us of our suspense.

Otherwise Perfect is a wonderful read, which kept me involved and immersed despite the fact that it isn't really of my niche. That in itself recommends it.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

An Evening With Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti

Mick Woody Woodmansey The Best Year Of Our Lives Phil Andrews

On Friday evening just gone I was lucky enough to have been given a ticket to see two men who, together but in their slightly different ways, played a major role in defining that decade of explosive creativity and unsurpassed musical innovation that was the 1970s.

Tony Visconti and Mick "Woody" Woodmansey worked with David Bowie on some of his earliest albums, the former as producer and (pre-Ziggy) bassist, as well as also producing much of his later material of course, the latter as drummer with The Spiders From Mars (and, alongside Visconti, with its predecessor The Hype). As I commented in my review of Woodmansey's book Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie, this early but thoroughly essential period of Bowie's long career was the closest, Tin Machine excepted, that Bowie's stage identity ever came to being submerged within that of a band. Whilst Bowie delivered a catalogue of ground-breaking and definitive material post-Spiders, such was the impression that this particular band made on the music of its time that it deserves to be considered in its own right, as a stand-alone chapter in the universal rock'n'roll story.


Held at the producer's own Visconti Studio on the grounds of Kingston University in South-West London (or Surrey for the traditionalists), this ninety-minute event focussed on two aspects of the work in which both men have collaborated, the album The Man Who Sold The World - released in the US towards the end of 1970 and in the UK in April 1971 - and the supergroup Holy Holy in which they both perform Bowie's music to impressively large audiences today. Visconti of course has been involved in more than just his work with Bowie, having produced material for T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Morrissey, U2 - but even amongst that esteemed company his association with Bowie stands aloof.

The Man Who Sold The World David Bowie The Best Year Of Our Lives Phil AndrewsI ventured into the studio while most of the audience were still enjoying a beer or a glass of wine in the foyer (I'd brought my car, alas) and was chuffed to discover that I had been allocated a seat directly behind the front row. Before me was an unelaborate black settee and a large screen, a little to the right of which I could faintly see Visconti and Woodmansey, amid a small gathering of their closest, through a tinted window. Although predominantly (and reassuringly) the larger number amongst the audience were from roughly my own age group, it was noticeable that there was a not insignificant sprinkling of younger people too.

And then, when the time arrived, they came on, settling down on the settee as Leah, the young lady who facilitated the event, took up her place on an adjacent chair and ensured that the microphones were in position for the ensuing presentation. Leah introduced a slightly unusual adaptation of Memory Of A Free Festival which featured some intriguingly assertive instrumentation which didn't appear on the version that eventually made it onto Space Oddity.


Probably the longest part of the evening took us on a fascinating voyage through the various stages and processes which went into the production of this iconic album, which in places was so diagnostic and analytical that it left me feeling that I had never actually listened to it, despite my having heard it so many thousands of times. It is a mark of quality in any art medium that hitherto undiscovered nuances suggest themselves with every new visitation, no matter how broadly familiar one is with the overall work.

In its time The Man Who Sold The World represented an interesting foray into the realm of hard rock after the relatively folksy and ever-so-slightly psychedelic approach of its predecessor. By his own account this was very much in Woodmansey's comfort zone, and yet Bowie returned to his softer, folkish approach for his next work Hunky Dory, before drawing upon both influences for the band's concept album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, which very successfully fused the two. Perhaps surprisingly, Bowie and the band never toured The Man Who Sold The World. In retrospect it would have been interesting to know how it, and they, would have been received had they done so.


The second part of the presentation was concerned with Holy Holy, the supergroup which dedicates itself to keeping the early work alive and which, alongside Visconti and Woodmansey, is fronted by Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 and has featured such names as Marc Almond (Soft Cell), Gary Kemp and Steve Norman (Spandau Ballet), Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and Clem Burke (Blondie).

Having seen Holy Holy live, playing before packed houses, I know not just how relevant, but how important, their work is. Performing the classics from Bowie's early-seventies albums (and pretty much every track on every album is a classic), this impressive array of seasoned and dedicated musicians, in the midst of them two men who were seminal in the creation of those classics, ensure the music and the spirit that it invoked will never be allowed to die even though the man who was at the centre of it all sadly has.

Mick Woody Woodmansey Phil Andrews Tony Visconti Holy Holy The Best Year Of Our Lives Interestingly, and significantly, the common misconception that Holy Holy was formed in the aftermath of and as a reaction to Bowie's untimely passing is precisely that. Not only was the group launched some time before that unhappy day, but the man himself actually saw them perform, albeit via video, and was impressed by what he saw and heard. During the last days of his life he is known to have reflected upon how things might have turned out had the Spiders remained together. He certainly wasn't the only one.

Putting the music to one side for a moment, if such a thing were possible given their unique role and place in the history of rock music, Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey are an enjoyable, natural double act which is very easy to watch and to become immersed in. Visconti is modest, occasionally self-deprecating - and funny. Woodmansey is very Yorkshire, seldom modest - and hilarious. Between them they create an atmosphere and an ambience which I am sure would be enjoyed even by an audience which had no knowledge of their immense contribution to music.


After the talk I joined a very long queue, autobiographies of both men in hand, for a book signing. It was well worth the wait just to shake the hands of and exchange a few words with both, to thank them for the memories and for the work which they continue to do. They were both kind enough to sign not only their own books, but also a copy of my own novel The Best Year Of Our Lives, which of course has a 1970s theme and references Bowie and his music quite frequently. They even agreed to pose for a photo with me with their books, between which I, admittedly quite cheekily, inserted my own - as if there was any equivalence!

Well, if you don't ask…