Tuesday, 11 September 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Alan Webb

Alan Webb is the only character I am profiling who is not a member of the eight. The reason will be immediately obvious to anybody who reads the story: the gang's enmity for Paul Adams' erstwhile mucker is the chord which binds them together during this their second rideout. He alone had been the reason for the gang's demise the first time around, of which we know only a limited amount, and he is equally the cause of its coming together for a second time – older, wiser and rapt by the most beautiful summer that living man had encountered before or since.

But there is another reason why I feel the need to grant special status to Alan Webb. When discussing The Best Year Of Our Lives with friends and acquaintances who have been kind enough to read it and offer me feedback I have been overwhelmed, if not entirely surprised, by the amount of sympathy that this character in particular has provoked. "I feel sorry for that person you bullied," said one, confusing me as author with the lead actor. "I liked Alan Webb much more than I liked Paul Adams," admitted another.


I have to confess this wasn't entirely unintentional on my part. The negative portrayal of Alan Webb throughout most of the book was only ever intended to reflect the view of him taken by the one through whose eyes the story was told. He begins the tale as Alan, is relegated to Webb before becoming Alan once again with a handshake and an awkward reminisce. But through it all he is stoical, courageous and admirably defiant in his predicament. He has to suffer, in order that the gang might thrive. He is the blood sacrifice of a halcyon adventure. That is the simple dynamic, the reader was never meant to hate him.

Alan Webb brings out the leader in Paul, the loyalty in Jim, the affection in Tina and the infant heroism in Pete. Unwittingly he is the catalyst for great things, for an explosion of love made magnificent by a common if oft exaggerated hatred. Some would see him as one of the most noble characters in the book, and I always intended it that way.

Alan doesn't leave the story in as dramatic a style as he first entered it, but he is thematic to it throughout. Wherever he is today, I wish him well and I'm sure Paul Adams would feel the same.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti - Review

Tony Visconti looked up at me as I approached the table behind which he was sitting with a welcoming expression, and what appeared at least to be a genuine willingness to engage me in conversation and an eagerness to be helpful in answering any questions I might have had for him.

This by itself was much to be admired. I had been more or less at the back of a long queue which for an hour and a half had inched laboriously forward, as one by one attendees of what had been a fascinating talk by Visconti and Woody Woodmansey about the making of the album The Man Who Sold The World patiently awaited their turn to exchange a few words, shake hands and, for the lucky (or precocious) ones, have their photographs taken with two legends from the music scene of the 1970s and beyond. By the time I appeared in his line of vision he could have been forgiven for emitting a weary sigh, blindly scribbling something illegible across the inside cover of the paperback which I had handed him and sending me on my way.

Instead, he seemed happy to talk. He obligingly signed the copy of his autobiography that I handed him, as well as the foreword to Woody's My Life With Bowie, which he had also written and, along with Woody, a copy of my own humble literary effort The Best Year Of Our Lives. I admitted to him that the concept of record production was essentially alien to me, that my engagement with music began and ended with listening to the finished product and enjoying the sound with very little knowledge of the processes involved in preparing it for the listener. He softly, and encouragingly opined that having heard the presentation I would perhaps listen to it henceforth in a more discerning way.


He was right, of course, but the presentation was only the beginning of that experience. It wasn't until I actually read the book which I had handed him to sign that I became fully cognisant of the role of the person behind the scenes who marshalled the musicians in the studio, put their various efforts together, listened to their output with a critical ear, made the technical changes and improvisations that were necessary, massaged the egos and perfected the chemistry between them. The producer is the conductor of the orchestra in private session, and yet much more besides. And as the 1970s progressed, Tony Visconti became the go-to guy for a whole bevy of very big names in the world of rock and pop, as well as some less well-known acts who were also fortunate enough to be able to draw upon his services.

In fact, the acts he has produced read like a Who's Who of the seventies and eighties (I wouldn't recognise any names from beyond those decades even if they were bigger than Elvis). The promotional spiel on the back cover includes a quote from Q magazine, viz. "Just as George Martin was the definitive '60s producer, so Tony Visconti's work with David Bowie and Marc Bolan shaped rock's landscape in the '70s." 'Nuff said.

And yet the producer when all is said and done remains the guy who works privately in the background, at least to those of us on the outside. Nobody I went to school with had posters of record producers pinned up on their bedroom walls. Reading his account I sense that there is a part of Visconti that would have liked to have been up there on the stage, enjoying the life and the adulation that came with being a guitar hero or a frontman (although he happily volunteers that he is not the latter), and indeed anyone who has watched him performing live with Holy Holy will confirm that he fits the role rather well. But, alas, his enormous talents beyond the stage condemned him to be "only" one of the very most successful music producers in the history of the medium.


Tony Visconti's autobiography chronicles the career of a man who made some of the best music of my time happen - the logistics, the obstacles to be surmounted, the relationships and the dynamics of bringing fragile egos together to create soundtracks which would define the lives of millions. Having read his book I feel that at last I understand some of the processes which come together in the studio when a brand new sound is created for the edification of the record-buying public (as was). It seems those vinyls didn't just happen after all. They were not, as my one and only attempt at recording a single was, manufactured on the spot in a tiny booth on the concourse at Waterloo station. A lot of thinking, a lot of hard work, sometimes a lot of conflict and not a little angst, went into them before they reached us. Having read, and listened to, Tony Visconti I know that now.

What he also gives us in his memoir, and what is equally valuable to old collectors like myself (though in my case not conspicuously funky-thighed), is a fascinating insight into his working relationships with two of the men who for me provided the cultural backdrop for the 1970s. Visconti is tactful yet informative in equal measure when he describes some of the difficulties he encountered in his dealings with Bolan and contrasts them with the smoother working relationship that he enjoyed with Bowie, who famously would allow and even encourage those around him to express themselves and then absorb their ideas and contributions into a cohesive whole, of which he would then take ownership. It is a mark of the genius of the latter that he mastered this art, and that he believed sufficiently in himself not to feel threatened by the creativity of his many high-profile collaborators.


I'm glad I bought this book, and I am more glad still that I managed to get the opportunity to speak a few words with a great man who made so much happen in that formative, unique and special period of my life. I played the records - I never heard his voice nor for some time even his name, but I heard his work and it defined a beautiful era with precision and perfection. I would have loved to have chatted with him for much longer - for hours and hours in fact - but I doubt very much whether the feeling was mutual. It was a long queue, and a long night, so I will just say thank you for the music.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

A Message from Crowlink!

Following on from my recollections of my childhood school holiday in Crowlink, in the South Downs, I have received the following message from a local who is campaigning against a planning application which looks like it would have a severely detrimental impact on the amenity of this beautiful and historical site. I reproduce it in full below - please feel free to lend your support by adding your name to the list or filing an objection if you feel inspired so to do. It's quite lengthy, so please bear with it:

"I hope you do not mind me writing to you but I know you have a particular love for Crowlink and as a result wanted to alert you to a planning application that has been made to the South Downs National Park to allow a two-wheel access track to be built across a field in Crowlink in order to serve a property that is being marketed online as an 'Events venue for hire.



"Many of us feel it is wrong that the private interests of an individual's expanding commercial business should be prioritised over the unique qualities of this landscape. Thousands of people come every year to experience the peace and tranquility of breathtakingly uninterrupted views. As you know, it is an iconic part of the country and should be kept as a jewel in the crown of the South Downs National Park.

"Crowlink was bought in 1926 by a group of visionary people who could see developments starting to swamp Sussex's coast. (You can read their inspiring story here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-12909970). The land was then gifted to the National Trust by the Society of Sussex Downsmen, with three protective covenants: that the property accessed across the field should not be used for business; that there should be no excavation of the field; and that no nuisance should be caused to the users of the field.

"The first covenant has been violated by the current owner over a period of several years. But if permission is given, both the second and the third would be broken too. Not only would it involve excavation of the field to lay the materials, but the additional traffic it would attract in the long run, travelling at increased speeds, would endanger livestock (the field is a calving one), wildlife, as well as of course the general public.

"The visual impact of a formalised hard surface would be enormous. The application's own Land Visual Assessment admits there would be a negative effect. Even if local materials were used, it would alter the landscape permanently. No similar tracks exist in Crowlink and this is one of the things that makes it so special.


"The full ecological impact of this track has not been properly investigated, including the potential presence in the area of threatened species. Chalk downlands are surprisingly rare (http://learning.southdowns.gov.uk/wildlife-habitats/south-downs-habitats/chalk-downland/) and provide an incredibly rich habitat. The application's request to remove an ash tree is significant because it is not a diseased tree, and in accordance with current conservation advice it is important that these trees remain in situ to protect the future of this important British species. There is also a recommendation to fell six other trees, but no suggestion of any contribution to balance the damage done with further restoration or creation of habitats.

"For anyone who does not wish to register on the South Downs National Park comment site, they can simply email a comment to planning@southdowns.gov.uk stating the application number SDNP/18/03970/FUL and name and address. This should then get out up online automatically. For many people that is an easier way of doing it."

"Most importantly of all, the application is misleading in that it fails to mention the commercial aspect to the property that this track would serve. The applicant states that this is a residential private dwelling. Rather than react to this claim myself, you can see a series of images posted by me on the SDNP site on August 20th that will allow you to draw your own conclusions. Though much of the evidence of the business aspect of Crowlink Corner, also called Crowlink Retreat, has been removed from the internet since objections relating to it were made to the planning committee, plenty of images remain showing advertising for corporate events, as well as the venue's availability for weddings, retreats, cooking classes, and other workshops. I do not know whether the contract with WDC for Commercial Waste collection still exists or indeed what is the current status of a Food Hygiene Rating that seems to have been applied for after the planning application was lodged.

"Obviously you will want to look at the details yourself and make up your own mind on the issue. In the spirit of trying to save you some time though, I would direct you to the following objections that I believe lay the arguments out especially well:

  • East Dean Residents' Association (August 17th)
  • East Dean and Friston Parish Council (Katrina Larkin August 24th)
  • South Downs Society (August 20th)
  • Charles Peck (August 22nd and August 13th)
  • Ann Price (August 20th)
  • Cynthia Cousens (August 24th)
  • Christopher Wells (August 24th)
  • Jonathan Vernon-Hunt (August 23rd)
  • Mark Wigglesworth (August 9th)


    "None of us in the hamlet want this to become personal (I have never actually met the applicant) and I believe the many objections have made it very clear that the campaign is based on a love for Crowlink, what it means to so many people, and what it stands for in both Britain's past and its future. We hope that the South Downs National Park can be reminded that its self-stated goals are to 'conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area'; that development proposals will be permitted only where they 'conserve and enhance the landscape'; and that conservation will be prioritised 'over economic development when these are in conflict'. On that basis it would have to reject this proposal.

    "The East Dean and Friston Parish Council unanimously voted not to support this application, and as you can see objections have also been made by the South Downs Society and the East Dean Residents' Association. But there are many who feel so strongly about this that we are reluctant to just keep our fingers crossed that the SDNP have the time to investigate all the facts. If you had the time to make a comment on the SDNP site that would be fantastic."

    Monday, 27 August 2018

    The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Tina Wilson

    It is probably not a question that would spring immediately to the mind of the casual reader, but one of the biggest challenges I had to face when creating and developing the dynamic of the gang of eight was to what extent it functioned as a net and not as a spider's web.

    Let me put that another way. With Paul as the focal character, at the centre of everything that takes place, the story is inevitably structured in such a way that without him there would a gaping hole at the centre, and nothing would make very much sense. Like a spider's web, in which every strand leads inevitably to the spider in the middle and the whole thing is constructed around it with the spider being the only rationale for the web's existence.


    A piece of netting, on tbe other hand, comprises a series of interlocking strands with none conspicuously more important than any other. Cut a strand or two away and a net becomes a damaged net, but remains a net all the same. With a stitch or two it can be repaired, and can continue to do its work as it did before.

    If this all sounds a bit hypothetical, consider the relationships between the various members of the gang – for the early part of the book at least. Choose any member of the gang and he or she is connected more closely to certain other members than to others, whether by blood or by affection. Jim is Debbie's boyfriend, Paul's best friend and Colin's brother. Colin's girlfriend is Beverley, whose brother is Steve, while Debbie's closest friend is Alison. Only when we get to Tina do we depart from this general rule.


    Unlike the others Tina is introduced into The Best Year Of Our Lives as Paul's enemy, and by association Jim's too. With no peacemaker to heal the rift, one is left to assume that its duration had been considerable. Only with the break-up between Paul and his erstwhile pal Alan Webb is the ground laid for a reconciliation with Tina.

    With no sibling in the gang, no best friend and no partner Tina is ostensibly the outsider, but as her relationship with Paul becomes tentatively closer that fact is not always obvious. The reader is invited to anticipate the day when Tina and Paul will draw inexorably nearer but fate can be unkind, and the cult of self certainly no less so.

    Tina was a difficult character for me to get entirely right. I'm not sure I managed to do so. But far from being the outsider she for me was actually much closer to being the spider than a mere link in the net. She was ever there in Paul's thoughts; in his calculations and his aspirations, in his ideas and his dreams. None of it would have happened without her.

    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 kennoakes77@yahoo.co.uk 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.