Saturday, 20 October 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 11 - "Hard Times"

Photo of Dickens by John J. Mayall (1854)

After finishing his complex novel Bleak House in September, 1853, Charles Dickens had his usual mixed feelings of restlessness and exhaustion. He always went through these same “withdrawal symptoms” when he suddenly emerged from the intense imaginary world he had been immersed in for so long – and had to let go of a vast array of characters he had created and lived with for almost two years. Dickens wrote to a friend that he needed a long holiday “to clear (his) mind and freshen it up again.”
So in October he set off on a nine-week journey to some familiar haunts in Switzerland and Italy with two close friends – the writer Wilkie Collins and the artist Augustus Egg. He had known Egg since the late 1840s; and it was Egg who introduced him to Wilkie Collins at the beginning of 1851. Augustus Egg and Wilkie Collins participated in many of the amateur theatrical performances that Dickens had produced on tour in northern England in 1852. Collins (who would later write the notable novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone in the 1860s) became a literary fellow traveller of his eminent friend and, in some ways, usurped for a while John Forster’s position as Dickens’s closest confidant. He stayed with Dickens in Boulogne from July to September, 1853, as he was completing Bleak House. And they became his travelling companions to the continent from October to December.
When they got back to London in December, Dickens was immediately caught up in a lot of unfinished business for Household Words, his weekly magazine. And then he had to organise the traditional family theatricals at Tavistock House for Twelfth Night (the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6) – something his children always really looked forward to.  
Dickens doing a Public Reading

But his main concern became the Public Readings he had promised to give in Birmingham as a benefit for the Industrial and Literary Institute of that city. He had agreed to do three performances: A Christmas Carol on December 27 and 30, and The Cricket on the Hearth on December 28. In the past, Dickens had often read portions of his latest work-in-progress aloud to a small coterie of family and friends, but now he was going to be reading in a large hall to an audience of 1,700 people. When he began that first Reading at Birmingham’s Town Hall, he was quite nervous; but once he got into it, he soon hit his stride. He was a natural performer, after all, and thrived on this sort of theatrical situation. He quickly established a close rapport with the crowd, who were enthralled to hear this famous author deliver one of his most popular works – despite the fact that he had misjudged the time it would take him to read the unabridged story. Dickens had estimated it would take two hours; but it actually went on for three! Careful cutting solved the problem for future readings – and A Christmas Carol became his favourite read-aloud work for the many long years ahead when he would tour in Britain and America doing scores and scores of these public Readings. These first Readings in Birmingham, in front of a predominantly working-class audience, were a triumph. And Dickens became aware of his “power” to sway crowds and “imbue” them with his own beliefs. The reception he had received in Birmingham had a sympathetic effect on the way he would present the working-class labourers of Coketown in his upcoming novel.
Dickens had not wanted to be back writing a new novel so soon after the last. He was looking forward to a significant stretch of relative idleness throughout the spring and summer of 1854. But the sales of his weekly magazine, Household Words had dropped dramatically. In a move that recalled Dickens’s writing of The Old Curiosity Shop to boost the flagging sales of his previous magazine Master Humphrey’s Clock, his publishers, Bradbury and Evans, suggested that he write a new weekly serial for his current periodical. Dickens agreed. He made a special contract – signing on 28 December – to give them a story of equivalent length to five single, monthly issues of his usual novels (about 80,000 words). And he began work on the novel in late-January, 1854.
It was not going to be easy. Dickens had not produced a novel as a weekly serial for thirteen years – since the writing of Barnaby Rudge (February, 1840 - November 1841). The monthly issues he was so used to consisted of 16,000 words. Now he was held to just 4,000 words per instalment. He thought about writing the novel in sections of the usual size – and then dividing them up into four parts, to provide the weekly issues of the magazine. But he soon realised that wouldn’t work. This much smaller novel would mean he could use only a relatively tiny cast of characters and just a few simple plot lines. These requirements gave him a hard time (!): “the difficulty of the space,” he wrote, “is CRUSHING.” 

Urban life in a northern industrial town

The opening of the novel gave him some trouble. He did have a theme. He remembered having written an article for Household Words where he called for “a little more fancy among children, and a little less fact.” He planned to relate this idea specifically to the schooling of children, and to talk about it in reference to the influence of utilitarianism on contemporary thought. Dickens believed that utilitarianism was essentially a selfish philosophy, and that its values in education led to a lack of imaginative thought. As he put it in a letter to Charles Knight, utilitarianism “sees figures and averages, and nothing else.” But how to begin his story? He asked W. H. Wills, his full-time editorial assistant on Household Words to obtain a copy of the Educational Board’s series of questions used for the examination of teachers in schools. This led him to see that the educational theme he was beginning the book with – the utilitarian obsession with facts – could be extended into a critique of the manner in which the fashion for facts, figures and statistics was being used to abstract the sufferings of the urban poor: in other words, the oppressive effect of a child’s fact-based education that lacks any meaningful attention to fancy and imagination could be compared to the utilitarian notion of a completely rationalised society – which would oppress the cities’ poor and the industrialised working-class. And this interest in industrial labour led Dickens to pay closer attention to the emergence of labour unions in the mill-towns of the north.

With this in mind – just five days after he had begun setting pen to paper on his new novel – Dickens suddenly decided to make a trip north to the city of Preston, in order to investigate a current strike under way by Preston weavers in that city’s mills. He was appalled by the working conditions that many of the labourers had to endure. He was impressed by their “astonishing fortitude and perseverance, their high sense of honour.” But he reacted negatively to some of the union’s strike organisers. He didn’t think they represented the interests of the mill-workers at all – he called them “designing and turbulent spirits.” Dickens responded in a traditionally Liberal manner – if only there could be a mutual trust and regard between employers and employees, he thought, then perhaps the worst aspects of laissez-faire capitalism could be mitigated. This antagonism to a more ‘militant’ approach to labour activism led Dickens to create for his novel the disreputable character of Slackbridge, the trades-union organiser.

First weekly edition of Hard Times
Back in London, Dickens continued early work on the novel. He planned to begin publishing the serial at the beginning of April. And that’s what happened. Hard Times: For These Times, Dickens’s tenth novel, was published in weekly parts in his magazine Household Words between April 1 and August 12, 1854. After the serialisation was complete, the novel was published in book form later that year. Hard Times was – by far – Dickens’s shortest novel (about 110,000 words), barely a quarter of the size of the books that came immediately before and after. It was different to all the novels that preceded it in several other ways: it had no Preface; the story contained no scenes whatsoever set in London; there was no love interest; the book was divided into a classical tripartite structure; and there were no illustrations – Household Words was all text, no pictures. For a later edition of the book (1862), Frederick Walker provided four illustrations. The titles of each of the three sections in the novel came from a verse in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (6:7): “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap.” The three sections: Sowing, Reaping, Garnering. It was also the only novel of Dickens to devote so much attention to industrialism – although the topic did come up briefly in The Old Curiosity Shop (Little Nell’s visit to the iron foundary in Birmingham), Dombey And Son, (the environmental effects and hazards to citizens brought on by development of the railways), and Bleak House (the ironmaster, Mr. Rouncewell, and his factory up north).

Stephen Blackpool and Rachael
Hard Times is also very different in style to Dickens’s other books. Unlike the dense, figurative, and poetic language of Bleak House – its immediate predecessor – for example, this book is written in a sparse style. The style suits the different intention that Dickens has for the work; he is not trying to create imaginatively a realistic world – he is writing with a didactic purpose. Ideas, not symbols, are the focus of his enterprise. To emphasise the didactic tone, perhaps, the novel is laid out on the front page of his magazine, Household Words, in two columns of print, with no illustrations – as though it were a cross between a journalistic report and a newspaper editorial. What he is creating is not a complex, imagined world; it is a simple, moral fable. So his characters are not complicated and ambivalent; they are simple types embodying an idea – what Philip Collins calls “mouthpiece characters”. Thomas Gradgrind, for example, represents the cold logic of the utilitarian; Josiah Bounderby is the self-made man, the nouveau-riche industrialist in love with Money; and James Harthouse is the self-regarding young dilettante with no faith and no morals. The characters’ fanciful – and rather obviously ironic – names  suggests their allegorical nature: the man who wants to purvey nothing but cold, hard facts is Gradgrind; one of the teachers in his school is named Mr. M’Choakumchild; the selfish industrialist is Mr. Bounderby; and the labour militant who fails to unite the workers is called Slackbridge.

Stephen Blackpool returns home to find his dissolute, drunken wife awaiting him

Charles Dickens said that in writing Hard Times he had tried “to strike the heaviest blow in (his) power for these unfortunate creatures” working in the northern factories. The result provoked a very mixed reaction from critics. There was certainly more comment about Dickens’s attack on trade-unionism than his critique of the effect of utilitarianism on education. First, from a couple of contemporaries of Dickens: John Ruskin, writer, artist and art-critic, called Hard Times his favourite Dickens book because it explores some important social questions. Thomas Macaulay, historian, poet and Whig politician, noted that the book contained “one or two pages of exquisite pathos”, but also described it as “sullen socialism” because it didn’t display any notion of the politics of the time. The novelist George Gissing was not impressed, calling it “a book of small merit”. George Bernard Shaw pointed out that the novel was “written to make you uncomfortable”. He called it a “passionate revolt against the whole industrialised order of the modern world.” But he also found fault with its inaccurate depiction of trade unionism. Specifically, he thought the character of Slackbridge, the union orator who poisoned the workers’ attitude to the virtuous and independent Stephen Blackpool, nothing but “a mere figment of middle-class imagination". G. K. Chesterton described it as the “harshest of his stories”. He adds that in its “expression of a righteous indignation”, Dickens gets carried away – treating Gradgrind and Bounderby with a grim and somber hatred quite different from the “affectionate derision” he often used in his critique of the aristocratic tyrants of the old order. George Orwell praised Hard Times for its “generous anger”. But Sigmund Freud called it a “cruel book that left (him) as if he had been rubbed all over by a hard brush”.
For me, the book is an easy read. In line with its nature as a moral fable, the characters are presented in a rather simplistic, black-and-white fashion. The story, too, is straight-forward – with no complicated plot mechanisms. But the characteristics of this kind of story, which makes it such an easy read, therefore, also strip it of pretty much all that makes Dickens’s writing so endearing: the figurative richness of his language; the satiric, tongue-in-cheek tone; the out-right buffoonery of many of his comic characters; and the heart-warming and sentimental episodes, which help alleviate some of the works’ ugly and grotesque aspects. Hard Times really is a one-off – a unique specimen that interests the Dickens-lover precisely because it is so unlike everything else he ever produced. It stands out in contrast – as a book of his that is worthwhile to know, not for its positive attributes, but as a salutary warning of what might have been, if Dickens had lacked that fascinated, broad, comic, humane interest in the world-at-large.

Mrs. Sparsit eavesdropping on James Harthouse's attempt to seduce Louisa Bounderby

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Dickens was to start again, read through all of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. So this is the eleventh of a series.]

Next: Little Dorrit

[Resources used: "Introduction" to Hard Times by Philip Collins (1992); "Introduction" to Bleak House by G. K. Chesterton (1907); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

CD Review: Van Morrison's "Born To Sing: No Plan B"

Sometimes you get so over-exposed to an artist that your appreciation gets burned-out. When I first got together with my wife, Barbara, and we used to spar over what LP to put on the turntable, the choice we invariably made was Van Morrison. He was one musician we both really loved. We played those classic early 70s LPs of his all the time. In a span of just four years (1968-1972) he had released a string of five brilliant albums: Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, and Saint Dominic’s Preview – most of which he produced, or co-produced. An incredible run. Then his marriage fell apart, and he seemed to lose his way. There was even an unprecedented three-year gap between Veedon Fleece and A Period of Transition in the mid-70s. But he got back into the groove with Wavelength in 1978. And since then it’s been – more or less – one  album per year from him.
But, as I say, I got burned-out with him. He started to sound jaded and repetitive – seeming to go through the motions just to honour his recording contract. The 90s, particularly, saw an extended dip in form. And the Mr. Grumpy persona he cultivated really began to grate – each album featuring a song or two of him complaining about being ripped off and exploited. But I kept up with what he was doing, buying every release – couldn’t have a hole in the Morrison-section of my record library, after all! Didn’t listen to the new ones, however, as much as I used to.
It’s been the longest hiatus between albums, now, for Van: his last studio album, Keep It Simple came out in 2008 – that’s a four-year wait. So, as I slipped my copy of the new Van Morrison CD, Born To Sing, into my player, I had a sense of hopeful anticipation – as usual – but also a feeling that it could be more of the same – a competent, middling effort. Wrong! Within a couple of tracks I knew this was a really good one. There was Van singing like he meant it and the music – arrangements, production, and playing – sounded great.

Born To Sing: No Plan B is Van Morrison’s thirty-fifth studio album release.
It was recorded back on his home-turf of East Belfast, in Northern Ireland. Van, as usual, produced the album – an hour’s worth of jazzy R&B and blues – and it was released on the jazz label Blue Note back on October 2. Enda Walsh did the recording and mixing. Morrison wrote all the songs and plays piano, guitar and alto sax. With him on all the tracks is a crack, jazz-orientated sextet: Jeff Lardner on drums; Paul Moore on bass; Dave Keary on guitar; Paul Moran on Hammond B3 organ, piano, and trumpet; Alistair White on trombone; and Chris White on tenor sax and clarinet. It’s a live-from-the-floor recording – the way Morrison always produces his albums, but there is minimal overdubbing, when some of the musicians double-up on instruments.
The music on this album is centred in R&B and Blues – but the arrangements give it a prominent jazz inflection. There is lots of improvisation – everyone (except for drums) gets the opportunity to solo. Individual songs feature two or three different soloists. Some of the improvising seems spontaneous – in the middle of “Retreat and View”, for example, at the end of a verse, Van calls out, “Who’s got it?” and Alistair White jumps right in with a trombone solo. The band really swings and – regardless of the song writing and singing – the music hits an easy groove throughout.

Of course, jazz is not a new thing for Van Morrison. His very first album was a strange – and wonderful – mix of jazz accompaniment (a band of top-notch jazz session-men brought together by producer Lewis Merenstein) added to folk, blues and R&B forms. He later worked quite extensively (on thirteen different albums) with jazz and funk musician Pee Wee Ellis. He’s also collaborated a lot with Georgie Fame – a British musician coming out of the R&B/jazz scene of the 60s: they share a common interest in doing R&B with a jazz feel. He was also heavily influenced by jazz composer and song writer Mose Allison. All of these threads came together on the 1996 CD called Tell Me Something, which features songs by Mose Allison performed by Van, Georgie Fame, Ben Sidran and Allison himself. And the horn arrangements were done by Pee Wee Ellis!

So what's with the song title for Track 5 ("Close Enough to Jazz"), then; is that meant as some sort of self-deprecating irony about this album? Well ... no. The track is actually a remake of an intrumental piece - with the same title - that Morrison did for a previous CD, Too Long In Exile (1993). It probably was meant ironically back then, but now it's meaning should not be misconstrued - there's there's no need for apologia:
Close enough for jazz;
Is it Persil is it Daz?
Well it doesn't really matter,
When it's better on the inside -
And it's close enough for jazz.
Jazz it is – not the “phoney, pseudo jazz” Van complains about in his acerbic lyrics for the blues piece “Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo”.
There are two main themes to Morrison’s song writing here: his concern for the effect of materialism and greed on modern life; and his personal need to escape from the pressure and demands of a public career. The former theme is established right off the top – early in the first track he sings: “Money doesn’t make you fulfilled; money’s just to pay the bills.” But it’s not something you can run from. It’s a reality you need to face and grapple with. You need to “know the score” he points out in “End of the Rainbow”.
No gravy train that stops at your station;

Every penny has got to be earned;
Everyone now has got to be at the coalface;
Taking coals to Newcastle, you’re going to get burned.
He moves from the personal to the political – unusual for him – in the final track, “Educating Archie”, and adopts a more declamatory tone:
You’re a slave to the capitalist system,
Which is ruled by the global elite;
What happened to the individual?
What happened to the working-class white?
Educating Archie was a BBC radio comedy-programme that run through most of the 50s. Strangely – given that it was a radio series – it featured the ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews! We’re all ventriloquist’s dummies, Van may be suggesting? Or perhaps the reference to the “working-class white” means the Archie in the title is Archie Bunker – a lower-class dupe in thrall to the system?
They filled his head with so much propaganda,
Entertainment on TV and all kinds of shite.
But the best piece addressing this critique of materialism is “If In Money We Trust” - the stand-out track on the whole album. The message here is not declamatory – it is interrogative. It’s incantatory, built on phrases that repeat over and over: “If in money we trust … and you bite the dust … and it’s not enough … where’s God?” The music sets a brooding mood. The piece builds to a mesmerising climax: “Where’s God?” Van sings over and over. And then the music begins to fade away as he repeats the final phrase: “You’ve got to think it through again”. We’re soon down to soft horns, bass and bongos. And finally a bass line ends it. Brilliant!

The second theme Van explores in this collection of songs is his familiar struggle to escape the annoying demands of fame and find some sort of transcendence. In the bluesy “Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo”, he sings about the need to get away from the pettiness of people around him. He’s always been a shameless name-dropper of the poets and philosophers he’s read, and here Van refers to Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous (and often misunderstood) dictum: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (usually translated as ‘Hell is other people’). 
Sartre said that hell is other people, I believe that most of them are …

Despite the complaining, Mr.Grumpy attitude of the lyrics, this is jaunty, up-beat music. Van does some nice vocal scatting at the end and does an alto sax solo. “Retreat and View” explores an idea first expressed way back on Van’s very first solo album Astral Weeks – in the jazzy track “Beside You”: “And you wander away from your hillside retreat and view.”  The new song talks about the search for renewal and transcendence:
From my retreat and view,
Got to make my own break through,
So I can see things new,
From my retreat and view.
In “Mystic of the East” he approaches the same subject from a more specific place. You might think he’s singing about India or Nepal, but to me it sounds like he’s punning on his origins – this mystic of the east is from East Belfast, born in Hyndford Street, near to Cyprus Avenue. Working on the album back in the city of his youth must have been inspirational – especially when he got out into the countryside of County Down (located in the eastern part of Northern Island):
Mystic of the East, mystic from the streets …
Mystic with no peace, back here in the east;
I was deep in the heart of Down;
Deep in the heart.
And then in “Pagan Heart” he juxtaposes his mystical, pagan feel for the natural world (“holy wood … sun is good … the moon is rising in the evening time”) with the world of the Blues:
Got to move on to the crossroads;
Got to go to the Arcadian groves …
And the incantatory lyrics are backed by a straight blues feel. Van plays a John Lee Hooker-styled electric guitar here; and Dave Keary provides slide guitar accompaniment.
So good, then, to see in this album that Van the Man is back on top form. He is fully engaged in every aspect of the production. The arrangements and playing are top-notch. The music really swings. If you’re a Van Morrison fan, this is one you shouldn’t pass up.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 10 - "Bleak House"

Sketch of Dickens (ca. 1852) by George Richmond
There was a one-year hiatus between the completion of David Copperfield (November, 1850) and the time when Charles Dickens finally set about writing his next novel, Bleak House. Actually, he had come up with the general idea for the new story in February, 1851 – only three months after the previous book – but, in addition to the usual round of family obligations and social events that kept him so very busy, he was further distracted for most of 1851 from starting the new novel by a series of difficult and traumatic events.

The most upsetting of these events were two deaths in the family. In March, Dickens’s father, John, became dangerously ill with a urological problem – probably caused by bladder stones. An operation was done – without anaesthetic – to remove the stones. Dickens arrived on the scene soon after the horrendous procedure was completed. He described the room where his father lay to his wife, Catherine, as “a slaughter house of blood”. John Dickens rallied briefly, but then suffered a steady decline, dying on March 31. Charles was very distressed. He was up three nights in a row, spending most of the time walking around the streets of London thinking about the long and often difficult relationship he had had with his father. He behaved with great tenderness to his mother, Elizabeth, telling her that she could rely entirely on him for the future. And – yet again – he paid off all of his father’s debts. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, only two weeks later – April 14, 1851 – his daughter Dora Annie died – aged only nine months – after a brief illness. She was the ninth of the Dickens’s ten children.

Tavistock House - no longer standing

The lease on Dickens’s house at Devonshire Terrace expired in 1851. He began looking for a new place in north London – concentrating his search in the Highgate area and around Regents Park. Eventually he found a large, 18-room house – with garden – in Tavistock Square, called Tavistock House. In July he signed a fifty-year lease for the place – paying £1,500 – intending it to be his final home. It wasn’t in very good condition, so Dickens ordered a whole series of renovations, in order to fix up the house to his liking. These repairs, which he supervised closely, took several months, and Dickens decided to hold off serious work on the new novel until the late autumn, or early winter, when the changes were complete and the family was settled in.

Then, Dickens’s wife became ill with a chronic nervous condition. She suffered migraine-type headaches. Charles described her symptoms as “a tendency of blood to the head, and alarming confusion and nervousness at times.” Dickens was solicitous of Catherine’s health. He suggested a “water cure” at Malvern – a popular spa in the nineteenth-century, because of the beneficial effects noted from the water coming out of the Malvern Hills. He took her there – Malvern sits near the border of Herefordshire and Worcestershire – for an extended treatment.

Amateur theatricals produced by Dickens (1852)

Throughout the year Dickens was also deeply involved in more amateur theatricals. As before, he recruited and organised his own troupe – mostly friends and family, but he also engaged the help of a few professional actors this time to fill out the cast. He produced and directed the work, starred in it, organised scenery, costumes, props, and so on. The first production of the year was a royal command performance on May 16 – in front of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – of the comedy Not So Bad as We Seem, written by his friend Edward Bulwer Lytton. The Queen was amused: “All acted on the whole well,” she wrote in her diary, “Dickens, the celebrated author, admirably …”. The proceeds from these performances were donated to the Guild of Literature and Art, a charity established by Dickens, John Forster and Bulwer Lytton to assist writers in financial difficulties. Later in the year, Dickens took his troupe around the country for half-a-dozen, or so, more performances. These performances included a production of a new farce written by Dickens and playwright Mark Lemon called Mr. Nightingale’s Diary.
Finally, in mid-November of 1851, Dickens and Family were established in the new house in Tavistock Square, and Dickens began work on Bleak House immediately. He told his publisher, Evans, that he would have the first monthly issue of a new novel ready for publication by March. The study Dickens set up was in a large room next to the dining room. The two rooms were separated by sliding doors. When he was busy writing, he would open the doors and walk up and down the two rooms – the entire length of the house. He had the opening chapters finished in December.

Manuscript page from Chapter 46
Once he started serious work on Bleak House, Dickens – as usual – became completely absorbed in its imaginary world. He cut back dramatically on his social engagements, deciding that two public dinners per month were his limit. He was in his study now for four hours a day writing the book, from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon. Once the publication of the book got started, Dickens stayed just one month ahead of each instalment. He set himself the goal of finishing each month’s issue by the twentieth day of the month. That gave him about a week to go through and correct the proofs. He was so firmly set in his writing habits, now, that he could deal with a change of accommodation easily, and still meet his daily quota of words. He had no other choice, really; he had to adapt himself and work quickly, because family obligations had him moving about a lot, and business demands often disrupted his daily writing regimen. During the writing of Bleak House, Dickens was moving between London, Folkestone, Dover and, now, even Boulogne in France. But he kept writing. And once he was into his groove, he did not seem to agonise over its contents. There are very few mentions about the process of writing of the novel in his correspondence, which is unusual for him.

New colour for the monthly wrappers
Bleak House, Dickens’s ninth novel, was published by Bradbury & Evans in the usual monthly instalments between March, 1852 and September, 1853. Each issue consisted normally of three chapters – some of them contained four – and cost a shilling. The twentieth, and final, instalment was the usual double issue, priced at two shillings. Each magazine issue of Bleak House came with bluish-green wrappers, instead of the familiar bright green; and this would become the new routine, until Our Mutual Friend, when the publishers returned to the bright-green wrappers. Following the usual lay-out format, the monthly instalments had 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’). One of the interesting features of the illustrations that Phiz did for this novel, was an innovative technique he introduced to heighten the sombre mood of the story. For many of the engravings used to illustrate scenes set in the London slums, he created so-called “dark plates” – he machine-ruled the entire engraving plate with very thin parallel lines. The effect was to create a darker tone – a clever and appropriate technique for this brooding story.

Phiz's new technique
Despite the often grim story and sombre mood of the new book – his friend and confidant, John Forster called it “too real to be pleasant” – Bleak House, surprisingly, turned out to be much more successful than its sunny and entertaining predecessor, David Copperfield. The previous book had sold just over 20,000 copies per month. The new novel was selling between 34,000 and 43,000 copies for each issue. Go figure! In total, Dickens was to receive about £11,000 for his latest creation.

Over the next five years (1852-1857), Charles Dickens would write three novels focused on the social life of England. Critics noted a move away from an open-hearted humour towards a more bitter tone – humour there was, still, but it had a much darker tone, focused often on the base and detestable. The personal themes of David Copperfield – to do with love and loss – were abandoned for a more sweeping satire on society as a whole. Dickens was responding to an emerging sense in his culture that there was a dark force at work oppressing society, an “external necessity” pressing in on people at all levels of the social hierarchy. As Mr. Gridley, the “man from Shropshire” – who has been ruined by the corruptions and delays of the Chancery Court – exclaims in despair, “The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system.”
As always, Dickens’s book deals with topical concerns: specifically, the worst aspects of the English legal system, and the physical sickness of London (caused by its slum dwellings, festering sewage, and toxic water); but, generally, the sense that the whole of society was undermined by a corrupt and unresponsive system of government. The deformations and grotesqueries of individuals reflect the warped condition of society-at-large – the System.

The central issue pushing the plot of Bleak House is a long-standing case of litigation – Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce – making its unending way through the courts of Chancery. It involves a testator who made several, contradictory wills. At that time, the Court of Chancery in London, was a court of equity designed to mitigate the rigours of common law – allowing judges the leeway to apply justice in accordance with natural law. The court was under the nominal control of the Lord Chancellor. The extended backlog of cases was legendary. In the spring and summer of 1851 – when Dickens was pondering the theme and plot of his new book – there were reports in The Times newspaper about the incredible delays which were happening regularly with suits in Chancery. The delays were believed to be caused by corruption of the entire system – and that was Dickens’s own view. As he puts it tartly in Bleak House: “The one great principle of English law is to make business for itself.” Some critics thought the portrayal of the Chancery court in his book was too harsh and exaggerated, but Dickens had personal experience to draw on: he had worked as a law clerk in his youth, and, more recently, he had been a litigant himself in Chancery, seeking to enforce the copyrights that existed on his earlier books. 

(L-R) Harold Skimpole, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Esther Summerson, John Jarndyce and Ada Clare

Bleak House marks a new beginning in Dickens’s literary output. He was never one to stand still and repeat his successes; he would build upon what he had learned from the writing of his previous novels, and then look for new ways to advance his art. In Bleak House, Dickens sought to meld the introverted psychology of David Copperfield with the social analysis and satire of Dombey and Son. He achieved this primarily through the innovative technique of alternating between two narrative points-of-view in telling his story: there is the familiar, omniscient third-person narrator; but there is also the ardent, humble, first-person perspective provided by Esther Summerson. The omniscient narrator tells the story in the present tense. Esther is narrating about events long past – we learn near the end of the book that she is looking back from a seven-year distance at most of the events she is describing. These very different voices balance the narrative evenly: 34 chapters for the omniscient narrator, and 33 for Esther. This was a really daring strategy for Dickens to use, because he usually had difficulty creating interesting and compelling female characters. They either veer towards the irritating or grotesque (Sairey Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit, for example), or they bore us as mere colourless embodiments of Dickens’s notion of the feminine ideal – compliant, self-abnegating and long-suffering (Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield). And there certainly are tendencies in Esther’s point-of-view towards the bland and predictable. It is inevitable, given that she is a typical model of the “good” character that Dickens usually favoured – full of the Christian virtues of forgiveness, gentleness and passivity. Nice but not very dramatic. But Dickens seems aware of the danger, and he does show growth and development in her response to life – often surprising us, for example, with her astute and critical judgments of characters and situations (especially so, given her narrow and cloistered experience of life). Nonetheless, many readers were still annoyed by Esther’s always-cheerful, self-denying tone – Charlotte Bronte, for example, creator of a much more real narrative voice in Jane Eyre,  found Esther an overly-meek and cloying figure.
In his Introduction to the 1907 Everyman’s Library edition of the novel, G. K. Chesterton observes that Bleak House “is not certainly Charles Dickens’s best book; but perhaps it’s his best novel.” He argues that the author was now a mature writer and this latest novel of his was the best he had ever constructed. Critics often found fault with the construction of Dickens’s books – usually forgetting, perhaps, that they were published in monthly instalments, rather than completed as a whole and then revised and edited before publication. “Of all his books,” Chesterton adds, “it should most please the modern aesthetic critic.” An astute comment – if you peruse the reading lists of university courses on Victorian literature, you will come to the conclusion that Chesterton’s assessment seems the consensus view in today’s academic circles. The leap forward from David Copperfield, Chesterton argues, is towards art – towards a new concern for the style and method of story-telling. Most of Dickens’s previous novels had been rambling, picaresque tales. Bleak House did not share this character of being a string of incidents; it was a cycle of incidents circling around a few symbolic places: Chesney Wold in Lincolnshire, Bleak House in London, and a cluster of residences located near the courts of Chancery.

Frontispiece and Title page from the first edition of Bleak House (1853)

Bleak House has sometimes been referred to as the first of Dickens’s “London Trilogy, three complex and sprawling novels of Dickens’s late period – the other two being Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend. Each, in its way, addresses the seamier side of early and mid-Victorian London – the decrepit and filthy slum housing, the awful sanitation (leading to epidemics of disease), and the inadequacies of the legal system. Each book has its dominant symbol. In Our Mutual Friend it’s the dust-heap (garbage pile); in Little Dorrit it’s the prison; and in Bleak House it is the fog – introduced on the book’s very first page as a permeating condition of the entire capital. When you read the description, you realise Dickens is really talking about smog – but the concept had not been invented yet. But fog is just a symbol of the city’s malaise. The pollution is more serious than that – serving as a breeding ground for epidemics of diseases like smallpox. Characters in the novel get sick; some are paralysed; some are sterile; many are wounded and defaced – physically and emotionally. There are survivors – like Esther, who barely recovers from her brush with smallpox, but many of the characters are left dead or damaged.
Bleak House is a complex novel. The narrative, as we’ve seen, is split between two very different perspectives. The language is dense, allusive and poetic – full of sentence fragments, symbols and strange allusions. It’s not an easy book to read. Dickens’s third-person narrator is not the usual, breezy stand-in for the author himself; he is a more aloof figure than usual. There is a large crowd of minor characters populating the book; and as we move through the story, it’s often tricky keeping track of all its strands and the various relations amongst them. Who knows whom? And who knows who has done what to whom? It’s especially difficult separating the various levels of secret knowledge amongst those characters centred on Chancery Lane. It also takes a long time for the story to gain any momentum – the first hundred pages or so drift by and you wonder where the story might be going. To me, this was definitely a new style for Dickens: much less obvious and didactic, much more muted and restrained.

a first edition of Bleak House (1853)

But there are some familiar narrative strategies at work here. The “turning idea” of the novel is the real identity of one of its central figures – Esther Summerson. This mystery drives the plot forward and pulls together many of the strands involving so many of the minor characters. In this sense, Bleak House is a mystery story, and Dickens brings into its midst Mr. Inspector Bucket (modelled on his friend Chief Inspector Field), a clever but down-to-earth, tenacious police officer. In doing so, he was writing one of the first ‘detective stories’. Near the climax of the mystery he sets up three probable suspects as the perpetrator of a murder. And does a good job telegraphing guilt towards the wrong person.
Despite Dickens’s focus on the inadequacies and corruption of the system, he also shows, as usual, how moral failings affect individual lives. In Martin Chuzzlewit it was selfishness that underlay the problems of the Chuzzlewit clan. In Dombey and Son it was pride that brought down the Dombey family. And here, in Bleak House, it is irresponsibility and neglect that taint many of its character’s lives. Harold Skimpole, for example, is an alarmingly irresponsible and fickle figure. His carefree attitude to the money he spends – but does not have – is presented in a rather light and humorous fashion early on. But as he continues to sponge off other people, and blithely justifies himself to the very people he is exploiting, he quickly turns into a loathsome character. Strangely, Skimpole was based on one of Dickens’s own literary friends – Leigh Hunt – whom he had known for over ten years. Hunt’s friends and family recognised the source of the Skimpole character very early in the run of the book and asked Dickens to tone down the harshness of the portrait. Dickens refused – he had a superlative characterisation in hand, and had already established it in his book; he could not abandon it now. In fact, the portrait became even more pointed and overdrawn. One of the hazards, I guess of befriending a famous writer!

Jo ("Toughey"), the crossing sweeper

And a prime example of the many neglected characters in Bleak House is Jo (“Toughey”), the crossing sweeper. He is a homeless orphan boy. When we first meet him in the novel, he is a squatter in the dilapidated ruins of the slum houses in Tom-all-Alone’s. His menial job is to clear a narrow passage through the mud and manure, so ladies and gentlemen could cross the London streets. Jo is an ignorant and solitary character. There is nobody to care for him, until he falls ill with smallpox. And then Esther takes him home to Bleak House – and almost dies because of her compassion. But that’s not the end of Jo’s travails. As with other oppressed children in previous novels – little Paul Dombey, and little Nell – the sentimental Victorian readership took him to their hearts: he became the most popular character in the book.

In the previous book, David Copperfield, Dickens had portrayed several interesting female characters. In Bleak House there are a couple of his standard “perfect” feminine types. But he also pens a couple on nasty portraits of female do-gooders. There is the self-righteous Mrs. Jellyby, a “telescopic philanthropist” – another of the irresponsible figures – who neglects her family completely to dirt and disorder, in order to pursue her charitable work for some obscure African tribe. What her abandoned family think, but never utter, is that charity ought to begin at home. And then there is the self-satisfied and arrogant Mrs. Pardiggle, who inflicts her “good works” (really nothing more than moralising) on the poor and drags along her resentful and rebellious children.

Caddy Jellyby confronts Esther about her despair

But then in the figure of Caroline Jellyby (Caddy), Mrs. Jellyby’s eldest daughter, Dickens creates a wonderfully sympathetic portrait of a desperate young woman – yearning for a meaningful life, but with little apparent prospects. Again, it’s the compassionate Esther who takes this forlorn and abandoned creature and provides her with hope and friendship. And with Richard Carstone (one of the Jarndyce wards), Dickens gives a sympathetic portrayal of an irresponsible young man, who is caught in the web of the Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce law suit – amassing a load of personal debt in the expectation of inheriting a small fortune, once the litigation comes to its eventual conclusion. It does, but it is then revealed that £60,000 has been eaten up by the many long years of legal fees.

Bleak House received an ambivalent reception. It sold really well. But critical voices began to murmur their disapproval. The Spectator found Bleak House “dull and wearisome”. The Illustrated London News asked its readers: “What do you think of Bleak House?” It was recognised as something quite different from the author whom people thought they had pinned down. His friend and confidant, the literary critic John Forster, thought it lacked the freedom and freshness of his usual work. Perhaps it did, but from another perspective one might argue that Dickens was taking a more careful and “artistic” (stylish) approach to his prose. Modern critics admire the book – many of them, as we have seen, consider it his very best novel. But they also see it as the beginning of a “dark period” in his attitude and art.
For me, Bleak House was an interesting but dense read. It lacks the exuberance and high comedy of many of Dickens’s more enjoyable books. The grim setting and sombre story establish an appropriately “bleak” mood. And the characters are at the service of the story, rather than stand-alone figures created for sheer fun and frivolity. It is a compelling book, once you get into the heart of the story, but it doesn’t have the same excitement and momentum of previous books to drive the reader forward. Perhaps I need to come back later and read it again – its more restrained virtues may yet be revealed.

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 
These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Dickens was to start again, read through all of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. So this is the tenth of a series.]

Next: Hard Times

[Resources used: "Introduction" to Bleak House by Barbara Hardy (1991); "Introduction" to Bleak House by G. K. Chesterton (1907); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Book Review: "Waging Heavy Peace" by Neil Young

Cover of Neil Young's memoir

Neil Young, one of the greatest folk and rock songwriters of the last 45 years, has now discovered – late in his career – the pleasure of writing prose. “This is a great way to live,” he says about the process of getting reminiscences about his life down on paper. “I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash,” he adds, tongue firmly in cheek – “and doesn’t know what to do next.” It might sound cynical, I suppose, to the naïve reader unable to read between the lines; but the comment is designed precisely to undercut the kind of criticism that might come from those who misconstrue his motives.

Books about rock bands and pop singers, of course, have been flooding the market for fifty-odd years. The majority of them have been hack-jobs – potted histories written by journalists and authors of questionable ability and integrity, who simply mine old newspaper and magazine articles, and offer a mélange of cliché, punditry, and purple prose. Then there are books about the stars by people who were close to them through marriage or family relationship. These are generally ghost-written – and built on extended taped interviews. I’ve read more than my fair share of these. Many are predictably humdrum efforts – but you read them anyway, looking to glean any new tidbit about your favourite artists: A Twist of Lennon (1980), for example, by John’s first wife Cynthia; or Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me (2008), by Patti Boyd.

Another familiar genre is the memoir written (usually ghost-written) by the rock star himself, or herself. Most of these focus primarily on the rock band-lifestyle – replete with tales of debauchery, alcoholism and drug addiction. The more interesting ones include revealing stories about how they navigated their way around music industry sharks, and provide insightful commentary on their music and the culture out of which it sprang. The most memorable of this type that I’ve read – off the top of my head – include those by Eric Burdon (I Used To be An Animal But I’m All Right Now, 1986), Eric Clapton (Clapton: The Autobiography, 2008)), and, of course, Keith Richards (Life, 2010)

Then there are the few autobiographies that are in a class of their own, because their authors – whilst rock stars – really know how to write. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One (2005), in that regard, is a standout. It’s a mesmerising read. Patti Smith has written brilliantly about her life and friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids (2010). And Pete Townshend has a memoir called Who I Am just released (October 9) that should be a great read – he’s shown himself in the past to be a talented writer of both fiction and non-fiction.

Neil Young's memoir, Making Heavy Peace, was released in late September, 2012

Motives for writing a memoir are as varied as the individuals who undertake them. Dylan’s book began as a set of extensive liner notes. Neil Young began his because of a broken toe: “It was the catalyst to get me started,” he says. He couldn’t get about for a while, so he opened up his laptop and started to write. It was a good way to take it easy for a while: “Creative work and writing are relaxing to me,” he explains. Without a set structure or final goal in mind, he proceeds in a random, organic fashion – using a dictum about the writing process that he remembers from his father Scott Young, a successful journalist and author, who told him once: “Just write every day, and you’ll be surprised what comes out.” Which is exactly what he does. When he began writing songs back in his mid-60s, Winnipeg days (with The Squires), Neil adopted the inspired-by-the-muse approach: “I learned to be ready to write when an idea came into my head … I learned to drop everything else and pay attention to the song I was hearing.”  He discovers now, however, that amassing sufficient material for a book-length piece of prose is a more demanding enterprise, requiring a more disciplined method.

Young began writing this book in early 2011. He had recently given up smoking “weed”, because of his doctor’s advice. He decided to give up drinking alcohol as well: “I had never stopped both simultaneously and I thought it might be nice to get to know myself again. I am now the straightest I’ve ever been since I was eighteen.” The straightening out process, though, seems to have interrupted the flow of his song writing. Near the end of the book he points out that he hasn’t written a song for six months – but he has churned out 90,000 words for the book. “I have written this whole damn book straight,” he says. He has done it all alone, and he marvels that “there seems to be no end to the information flowing through me.” Not only that, however; he declares that he will eventually get to fiction: “That is where I am going.” 

 The basic structure for Waging Heavy Peace is to alternate between sections dealing with Neil’s current life – revealing quickly the main obsessions that drive his activities day-to-day – and reminiscences about the past. His “journeys through the past” deal primarily with family, former bands, and long-time friends and colleagues who have worked with him on many of his pet-projects. These journeys of the mind are not arranged chronologically; Young flits forwards and backwards, as the whim takes him, often returning over and over to the same people (his father Scott Young, for example, and his favourite producer and soul-mate David Briggs) and the same bands (The Squires in Fort William; The Mynah Birds in Toronto; and Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y, and Crazy Horse in southern California).

CSN&Y (l-to-r): Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, David Crosby & Neil Young - backstage in Denver, 1974

Neil Young has not had an easy life, despite the fame and fortune he has enjoyed as a 60s rock-icon. He and his family have gone through a series of serious medical problems. Two of Neil’s sons were born with cerebral palsy – Zeke, his oldest (mother was actress Carrie Snodgrass), and Ben (mother is Pegi Young). His daughter Amber (Pegi’s also the mother) has epilepsy. Neil, himself, has had a long series of health issues: he had a bout with polio at the age of six; suffered regular epileptic seizures in his early days in Los Angeles in the late-60s; lived with a back problem that required him to wear a brace – relieved  eventually through surgery; and, more recently, almost died from the complications following surgery for a brain aneurysm – two days later he collapsed on a New York street and almost bled to death when a femoral artery ruptured.

His childhood was disrupted by his parents’ separation in the late 50s. His mother, Rassy, moved to Winnipeg with Neil. His brother Bob stayed in Toronto with his father Scott. Neil referred obliquely to that situation in his song “Crime in the City” (from the Freedom album):

“Now I come from a family that has a broken home;
Sometimes I talk to Daddy on the telephone;
When he says that he loves me, I know that he does;
But I wish I could see him; I wish I knew where he was.”

His mother always supported Neil’s growing interest in music and performing. But his father took a while to recognize his son’s unique abilities. Despite their rather aloof relationship, Neil loved his father and never held a grudge about his philandering ways, which led to the family-breakup. When Neil Young bought his Broken Arrow Ranch in La Honda, California in 1970, he also hired its previous caretaker, Louis Avila, to work for him. Young later wrote the song “Old Man” about Avila. Scott thought the song was written about him. Neil never disabused him of that notion: “… songs are for whoever receives them,” he explains.

Neil and father Scott at the Riverboat in 1969.
Scott later wrote about his relationship with Neil in his book Neil and Me (1984).

Neil Young, of course, is a wealthy man. He uses his money to pursue his many hobbies and obsessions. “I am a material guy”, he confesses. And when he finishes a major project - like an album, or a tour, or a film – he will indulge himself in a special purchase. Often it will be a car. “I am a collector,” he admits: “I collect everything – cars, trains, manuscripts, photographs, tape recordings, records, memories, and clothes.” He likes old cars, large cars – a ’53 Pontiac hearse, here; a ’49 blue Cadillac convertible, there. He built a warehouse on his ranch to hold all his cars. He calls it Feelgood’s Garage; and it has its own mechanic to fix and to service his prized automobiles.

Neil in his LincVolt - it's a '59 Lincoln Continental
One of Young’s pet-projects, which he discusses over and over again in this book is the LincVolt. His plan is to take a ’59 Lincoln Continental and turn it into a highly fuel-efficient vehicle running on various forms of clean energy – natural gas, electricity, ethanol. He loves the old cars. With the ’59 Lincoln – 5,000 pounds in weight, 20-feet long – he aims to come up with an engine design and fuel source that will provide 100 miles to the gallon. Eco-friendly luxury! He might even win a prize!

Neil playing 'Old Black' - a '52 Gibson Les Paul. Keep on rockin', man!

Another enterprise that Neil Young has been involved with for many years is developing a mass-market, high-fidelity source of digital sound. His original name for the product was PureTone; but he discovered, long after the fact, that the name was already taken. The new brand-name is Pono. And once the system is up and running, he plans to install it some of his old cars.

Young has always been dissatisfied with digital sound. When CDs were first introduced, he points out, they were delivering only 15% of the frequency response of the original master recording. His ultimate goal is to give kids the chance to hear recorded music with the same audio quality as the music he was listening to in the heyday of analogue sound – by playing and recording the music with non-digitized equipment, via analogue mixing boards, and heard through high-quality speakers. For Neil, it’s not a project, it’s not an enterprise - it's a mission. “Sound is very complex,” he says at one point, “I will not rest until the impact has been made.”

This insistence on traditional quality and high technical standards runs through everything that Neil Young does. He doesn’t use in-ear phones whilst performing, for example – “they are way too sterile and clinical for me; I have to hear the speakers, and the amps, and the hall sound.” And his last album, Americana, was recorded and mastered with analogue equipment onto high-quality tape, before being transferred at the last stage to a digital format. 'Old Black', his '52 Gibson Les Paul, never sounded so good.

Most fans will buy this book for a few main reasons: to get background on Neil Young's life and career; to get a sense of what he’s like as a person; and to learn more about the music they know and love – how it was created and recorded. He delivers on most of these fronts. We read about his early days growing up with both parents in Omeeme, Ontario – in the Kawartha Lakes region:

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind
I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.

We learn about his life with mother Rassy in Winnipeg, after she separated from Neil’s father, Scott. There’s a lot about his early experiences touring with his first band, The Squires. And some background on his early attempt to break into the Toronto music scene as a solo performer and then with a band called The Mynah Birds. Eventually, he moves to southern California, hooks up with Stephen Stills – first in the great folk-rock band Buffalo Springfield, and then in the rock supergroup CSN&Y (along with David Crosby from The Byrds and Graham Nash from The Hollies). Very soon after hitting the big time as a solo performer in the very early 70s, he moves north of L.A. and buys a large, ranch property (he dubs it Broken Arrow Ranch) near Redwood City, south of San Francisco.

There’s a lot about the music – especially The Squires, Buffalo Springfield and Crazy Horse. He writes over and over about his special friendship with his producer David Briggs. And his relationship with Ben Keith, the pedal steel player he met during the recording of the country-inflected Harvest LP – in a band dubbed The Stray Gators. Young talks about his approach to music as “following the muse”. He says he loves new beginnings and feels he has to shake things up regularly to keep his work fresh. Otherwise he gets tired of his musical self. He has an instinctive feel for his music: “there is a completely different part of my brain used for music, and it feels like I am massaging my soul when I make music.” And he explains how his long-term performing relationship with Crazy Horse is very important to him. He acknowledges that they may not be a great band technically, but there is a special place they get to when they play together: “the Horse and the muse are very good friends,” he concludes.

You read through the book and things jump out at you. Buffalo Springfield broke up because their bass player, Bruce Palmer, got busted. Neil says he was the special catalyst in the group – without him, they were dead. He describes Stephen Stills as a musical genius. It’s well-known that they had a rocky relationship, but he really tips his hat to the man here. He says that Crosby and Nash did not appreciate Stills’ contributions the way that he did. Their electric guitar interplay in live concert was legendary. Listen to “Southern Man” on the CSN&Y album 4 Way Street, for example, to get a taste of their special chemistry. He spent a month preparing himself for a recent Farm Aid Benefit Concert. He’s an album guy: “I still call it an album,” he explains, “because that is what I make. I don’t make CDs or iTunes tracks. I make albums.” [Right on, Neil!]. And when the Massey Hall show from 1971 was recorded by David Briggs, his producer, Briggs tried to persuade Neil to release it as an album: “it’s better than Harvest,” he said. Neil demured; but many years later, when he listened back to those live recordings, during his preparation of the first Archives release, he realised that Briggs, as usual, was right.

There’s lots of intriguing stuff in this book that will delight the Neil Young fan. There are some great photos, but none in colour or on high-quality paper. They appear throughout the book – mostly at the beginning of new sections.  I do find fault with the structure of the book, however; it’s evident that there has been very little editing. The organic growth of the project is appealing at first – as Young alternates between the present day (focused on his current obsessions) and memories of the past. The account of his current interests gets repetitive. And there is no apparent logic to the way he delves into the past – he jumps back and forth, and keeps coming back to the same topics over and over. Despite Neil’s apparent attitude, this book would have been even better with some careful editing.

Neil Young and Patti Smith

You quickly get the sense that Young is a generous and likeable man. He surrounds himself with a large retinue of people to help him with his many hobbies and projects. He revels in his friends and musical associates. He gives thanks and praise to a whole host of key people that he’s known and loved: family, former-girlfriends and ex-wives, band-mates, film-makers, auto-mechanics. Although he still has several key ambitions that keep him looking forward and planning for the future, it’s clear that this book has also had him looking back at his life: “these days,” he admits, “it’s all about closure of this and that for me.”

For Neil Young fans this is a delightful book. You’ll enjoy following him on his “journeys into the past”. You’ll learn a lot. And you’ll appreciate spending time wallowing in the reminiscences of a great Canadian hero. Keep on rockin’, Neil. Long may you run.