Bookmarks: yet another Fab Four tome, this time with a ticket to rile
A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews
Some good news for these dark times: Craig Brown’s biography One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Fourth Estate) is out this week, and by all accounts is a great, cheerful beast that provides a kaleidoscopic overview of the life and times of the group – and, as all the reviews have happily informed us, you don’t even have to like their music to enjoy the book.
And, as Brown points out, there were many who didn’t think much of the Beatles. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, described their music as “vapid … twanging nonsense”. The conservative commentator William F Buckley jnr claimed they were “not merely awful” but “appallingly unmusical” and “dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art”. Newsweek, similarly tin-eared, declared: “Musically, they are a near disaster ... [and their lyrics] a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.”
And there was plenty of bile reserved for Fab Four fans as well. Noel Coward described them as a “mass masturbation orgy” of “squealing young maniacs”. The intellectual Paul Johnson, writing in the New Statesman, took issue with their “huge faces, bloated with cheap confectionery and smeared with chain-store make-up” and said they were “a bottomless chasm of vacuity” adding that “the boys and girls who will be the real leaders and creators of society tomorrow never go near a pop concert. They are, to put it simply, too busy.”
Brown loves all this reactionary fuming and fogeyism, and lays it on thick here – which is why his Beatles book is quite unlike any other. And there are a lot of those. In his glowing London Sunday Times review of One Two Three Four, historian Dominic Sandbrook notes that the British Library Catalogue lists some 732 titles. Brown’s book, Sandbrook writes, lacks the minutiae of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth trilogy All These Years (Little Brown). The first volume, Tune In, ran to 960-odd pages, and almost double that for an expanded Kindle edition, and only takes the story to 1962. (There’s no word yet when the second and third volumes will appear.)
Brown also eschews the sort of scholarly musical analysis that made Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties (Vintage) such an indispensable work. But, as Brown explained in an interview with the Observer, he finds “exhaustive biographies, which is most of them, boring. They recount details of no interest. My system is cut those boring bits out. Dogged chronology is untrue to life, too. If you’re thinking about your life, past present and future all merge together, so I try to reflect that.”
Brown had been researching a book on the Thames, he said, when he mentioned to his publisher that he was thinking of a Beatles book along the lines of his 2017 best-seller, Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Fourth Estate). “He e-mailed me the next day to ask if I’d be able to get it out by 10 April 2020 because that’s the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ break-up. So I shelved the Thames one to do this.”
The Guardian published extracts from One Two Three Four on Saturday and, if they offer any indication of what the rest of the book is like, we can be grateful that we must wait for the river book. One anecdote I particularly enjoyed was Ringo Starr’s somewhat dry response to reports that an antisemitic group in Canada had threatened to assassinate him. “The one major fault,” he said, “is that I’m not Jewish.”
Incidentally, Brown, who has been writing Private Eye’s diaries for 31 years now, was asked if it was difficult to satirise leaders like Donald Trump and whether the world was getting beyond parody. “If you were living through the reign of Henry VIII or Hitler’s rise to power,” he said, “you might be justified in saying that, but I’m not sure it’s true now. There’s a rather good recent book by Andrew Gimson [Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump (Vintage)] … and it shows that some [US leaders] have been Trump’s equal in their revoltingness and absurdity.”
ME TOO, ME TOO…
Speaking of being tone deaf, Woody Allen’s controversial Apropos of Nothing: Autobiography (Arcade Publishing) is now out, and the reviews have not been kind. Writing in the Observer on this “protracted attempt at exculpation”, columnist Catherine Bennett tore into it and suggested that the director’s reputation may not survive the fallout from the book.
“Barely three weeks since [publishers] Hachette cancelled Woody Allen’s memoir, the book has been published elsewhere, and confirms that Stephen King, among many others, was right to worry about its suppression. The only person who stood to benefit from the silencing of Woody Allen was Woody Allen.”
For Allen, Bennett argued, it appeared that the world had not moved on from the free love and patriarchy of the 1960s, when men like him “could stroll on the Kings Road and pick up the most adorable birds in their miniskirts”. The director’s other “instructive synonyms” for women included “delectable bohemian little kumquats”, “little amuse-bouche”, “willowy lingerie models”, “cute little bluestockings”, “stacked miracles”, “dynamite blondes”.
If Allen had intended to depict himself as a “blameless creative and doting father, wronged by a scheming ex-partner, he seems only marginally less determined that readers marvel that he enjoyed what he describes as ‘romantic adventures’ with countless lovely, often strikingly younger women. Some are lucky enough to be distinguished by name – Mariel Hemingway, [Mia] Farrow, ‘the three Keaton sisters’. Others can be generically dealt with: ‘I have had brief dalliances with centrefolds.’”
The older women, or those that he dislikes, are accordingly frigid, mad, ugly or too keen on sex: one of his ex-wives, he writes, “never met a mattress she didn’t like and had a cottontail’s libido”.
Over at the New York Times, Dwight Garner revealed that as he progressed further into Apropos of Nothing he found that Allen’s “heavy breathing” reminded him “a lot of our current president”. Garner took the unusual step of indicating to his readers that volunteering to review the book, in the present moral climate, was an undertaking not without some consequence, especially as he would be revealing, at the outset, his antipathy towards Allen. “I told my wife and daughter my plan,” he writes, “and they stared at me as if I’d announced my intention to find the nearest functioning salad bar and lick the sneeze guard. This isn’t going to be a verdict piece on Allen’s morality. There have been a lot of verdict pieces. But so we’re on the same page, I’ll tell you where I stood before my editor e-mailed me a PDF of Apropos of Nothing.
“I believe Allen’s sexual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime partner Mia Farrow, which began when Previn was 21, was obviously the perverse act of a man whose brain salts are dangerously out of balance. He was nearly pushed out the door of American culture, only to sneak back in through a window. There’s queasy-making evidence of his sexual pursuit of other teenage girls. If these acts make you want to scrub his movies permanently from your Netflix queue, scrub.
He writes that there’s an upside to being a pariah: no one bothers him much these days. He’s easy with being reviled by so many and can live with it because he doesn’t read what people say about him.
“The accusation that in 1992 he molested his adopted daughter, the seven-year-old Dylan Farrow, is a charge of another magnitude. I believe that the less you’ve read about this case, the easier it is to render judgment on it.”
Allen’s problem, Garner believes, stems from the fact that, like many of his contemporaries, he is a 20th-century man in a 21st-century world. “His friends should have warned him that Apropos of Nothing is incredibly, unbelievably tone deaf on the subject of women. This tone deafness starts before the book has even properly begun. On the dedication page, he writes: ‘For Soon-Yi, the best. I had her eating out of my hand and then I noticed my arm was missing.’ I had to rub my eyes with my freshly sanitised fingers and read that second sentence again.”
Allen has now been married to Soon-Yi for more than 20 years. He writes that there’s an upside to being a pariah: no one bothers him much these days. He’s easy with being reviled by so many and can live with it because he doesn’t read what people say about him. Near the end of what Garner describes as a “sometimes appealing, occasionally funny, sad and somewhat tawdry book”, Allen writes: “I’m 84; my life is almost half over. At my age, I’m playing with house money. Not believing in a hereafter, I really can’t see any practical difference if people remember me as a film director or a paedophile or at all. All that I ask is my ashes be scattered close to a pharmacy.”
This column has already commented on the recent spike in sales of “epidemic-themed” books. Albert Camus’s The Plague is perhaps the best known, and Penguin have had to rush into reprint when stocks of their Modern Classics edition ran out. There are many others – Stephen King’s The Stand and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain spring to mind immediately.
The genre has been with us for almost 300 years, and harks back to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, first published in 1722. Based on his uncle’s experience of the 1665-55 London plague, Dafoe’s novel had it all, according to the Guardian’s Marina Hyde, from a 2020 Covid-19 perspective: “Ye olde panicke buying, ye olde refusal to self-isolate – ‘they did not take the least care or make any scruple of infecting others’ – ye olde wittering and twittering of conspiracy theories.” Dafoe’s protagonist stockpiles cheese and malt to brew his own beer. His hopes that the plague will unite a divided England however come to nothing.
Perhaps one of the most timely new books to add to this growing pile is Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop (Profile). The author is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and his book breaks down the mathematical modelling of contagions. If Kucharski’s book has a hero, it is Ronald Ross, the British doctor who won the 1902 Nobel prize for his discovery that mosquitoes spread malaria. Ross had pioneered the use of biological and social processes in the modelling of epidemics. This was crucial. Where other researchers had looked backwards, detailing how epidemics had unfolded over time, Ross was able to look forwards, to predict the course of outbreaks, and suggest interventions. His ideas formed the basis of modern disease modelling, and are one of the strategies employed by governments in the fight against Covid-19.
But there are other characters in The Rules of Contagion that provide much food for thought, and it is interesting that many scientists who had studied the transmissibility of “happenings” should take their work to wholly disparate fields. Marine ecologist George Sugihara, for example, moved from studying fish populations to building predictive models for the Deutsche Bank. Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin moved from public healthcare in Africa to crime reduction in Chicago. Kucharski was the other way round: he moved from working at an investment bank to studying dengue fever and the Zika virus in the Pacific.
Not everyone, then, has the same attitude to outbreaks, Kucharski writes. “My wife works in advertising; while my research aims to stop disease transmission, she wants ideas and messages to spread. Although these outlooks seem very different, it’s increasingly possible to measure and compare contagion across industries, using ideas from one area of life to help us understand another.”
And so financial crises are similar to sexually transmitted infections, ideas that were used to eradicate smallpox are helping to stop gun violence, methods that stop transmission can keep it going.
Interestingly, the science is also being used to halt the spread of fake news. Scientists and health workers dealing with the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo needed to establish trust in the communities where they worked, and it was crucial that sound information was reinforced while dismissing the swirling rumours. With Covid-19, we are now seeing how one pandemic can feed off another, as the misinformation, whether malicious or not, spreads like wildfire; a wittering and twittering of conspiracy theories.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“She hath got a trick to handle his prick/But never lays hands on his sceptre.” (Of Nell Gwyn) – Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II by Linda Porter (Picador)