Tales from an author

Archive for the category “Music”

Once Upon a Time – An #Asperger Story

Hello I am back, with more thoughts linked to my new book.

The first chapter is a summary of my condition, adapted from a piece I wrote for this Blog a few months ago:

This is followed by a short account of my childhood, and the origin of some anxieties that remain with me, set out below:

Once upon a time, fairly long ago, but not far away, it was a foggy Winter day. To be precise, this was Monday December 14 1964, and I was born at 5.20 in the morning, the location being Aldershot Hospital, in Hampshire. I was the first child of Phillip and Jill Godsell, who had set up home in Fleet, a quiet town five miles from Aldershot. Dad was a civil servant, working at the National Gas Turbine Establishment, part of the Ministry of Defence. A Labour government had recently taken office, led by Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. The Beatles were at number one in the singles chart, with I Feel Fine – featuring feedback introduction, courtesy of a deliberate error by John Lennon.

My mother, who may be biased, has often recalled I was a lovely baby, who did not cry much. I was baptised at Christ Church, in Crookham (a village adjoining Fleet), on February 14 1965, but have since converted from the Church of England to atheism. Mum noted progress in a Baby Book, from which it appears I was a slow starter. I did not begin to crawl until the age of 11 months, and stood up for the first time five days after my first birthday. A few months later, I learned how to walk, taking the first steps without help on April 7 1966. During the Summer, mum, dad, and I went on holiday at Paignton, in Devon. I learned how to kick a football at around the time England won the 1966 World Cup, beating West Germany 4-2 in the Final, at Wembley. My parents vaguely recall that I watched the match live on television, sat with my father. I was only 19 months old (or should that be young?) at the time. Within a few years, I became aware of the enormity of England’s success in winning the competition. I was destined to publish a book entitled The World Cup, in 1990.

On February 14 1967 mum gave birth to another son, named Mark. I do not retain any memory of my brother as a baby, but have been told I was fond of him. In mum’s record, my first response to stories arrived at the age of two and a half years, which means mid-1967. Strikes me as surprisingly late, considering my subsequent fascination with stories. In the Summer of 1968, mum, dad, Mark, and I had our first holiday together, visiting a caravan site at Rockley Sands, in Dorset. Mark and I were unwell during the holiday, and my being sick in the caravan one evening is my earliest definite memory – not an ideal starting point. In 1969 our family had a caravan holiday at Selsey Bill, in West Sussex. Drives around southern England often took us along “George Carriageway”, this being my name for dual carriageway, which I thought was built by a man named George. Another favourite phrase was “cold wind”, something I would say when looking out of windows on Winter days. I have few specific memories of my early years, back in the 1960s, but recollect a happy time. I often wonder what would happen if we could only connect the past and the present.

I joined Gally Hill Infants School, in Crookham, at the start of 1970, aged five. There was an anxious start, with tears in the first few days. I felt a lot of worry at school, despite being a good learner, struggling to integrate – I remember collective lunchtimes being daunting. I was often picked upon by one of the boys, a bully who was older than me. At the same time, I was befriended by a girl in my class, named Nicola, who attempted to guard me from threats of violence. Many times in my life, I have looked upon females as protectors. I attended the school, which combined solid Victorian buildings with modern prefabricated classrooms, for two and a half years. It felt a rather gloomy place. On the brighter side, I enjoyed Friday afternoon breaks, wandering around the playground alone, looking forward to the weekend, and the comforting surroundings of home.

A few months after I began school, we had a holiday at Brean Sands, near Weston-super-Mare, in Somerset, being based in a Pontin’s camp. This was part of a series of extended family holidays. Mum, dad, Mark, and myself generally went on holiday with my mother’s parents, Ernest and Dorothy Collings, plus my mother’s sister Sally, her husband Neville, and their sons Stephen, Gary, and Martin. The visit to Brean Sands was repeated in both 1971 and 1972, following which there was a holiday at another Pontin’s site, located at Camber Sands, in East Sussex, during 1973.

In the Autumn of 1972, I moved to Crookham County Junior School, known as Sandy Lane, after a nearby road. In the first year I was unsettled by my teacher, Mrs Stark. She was a pleasant woman, but could be stern, and reduced me to tears on several occasions. Another source of anxiety was inability to tie my shoelaces, until I received patient lessons from a girl named Carol. Mrs Stark said I was the cleverest boy in her class, and remarked that I never gave up trying to achieve things. Perseverance is a quality I have retained.

My father had been a close friend of John Noakes during the 1950s, when they served in the Royal Air Force. In 1972, with my brother and I regular viewers of BBC’s Blue Peter, dad wrote to John Noakes, seeking a reunion. One day a neighbour told us that John had arrived looking for dad, while we had been out, and left his telephone number. Dad called John, and our family met up with the Noakes family at their home. We encountered Shep, the Blue Peter dog, looked after by John, but there was not any sign of sticky-back plastic. Mark expected to meet Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton, and was surprised the three Blue Peter presenters did not live together. Following this, John and his son made a return visit to us at Fleet. This was my first brush with celebrity, and I learned that John Noakes was basically an ordinary bloke, despite having found national fame. Meeting John sticks in my mind as a great childhood experience, and a story I still enjoy re-telling – here’s one I did earlier (could not resist that).

Dad represented the RAF at youth level football, with the opposition in one match being the Wolverhampton Wanderers youth team, featuring Ron Flowers. Within a few years, Flowers was a part of a Wolves team that won the Football League, and appeared in the fledgling European Cup. Flowers was also an England international, playing in the 1962 World Cup finals. My father enjoyed being an amateur player, for Bemerton Heath (in Salisbury) and Fleet Spurs. I developed into a football fanatic, and followed Manchester United, enthralled by dad’s stories of watching the “Busby Babes”, a team decimated in 1958 by the Munich air crash, which caused the deaths of eight players. Manchester United became the first English club to win the European Cup, a feat achieved in 1968, but the team, starring George Best, rapidly declined during the next few years. England were also losing their way. At the 1970 World Cup finals, played in Mexico, England were beaten 3-2 by West Germany, after extra time, in the Quarter Finals. The 1974 World Cup saw England eliminated in the qualifiers for the first time, as they lost 2-0 away to Poland, and were held to a 1-1 draw in the return match, at Wembley. I watched live television coverage of both games, played during 1973, being gripped by the drama of the World Cup. Another early football memory is mum and dad allowing me to stay up later than usual, at the age of seven, to watch the first half of the 1972 European Cup Final, live on television. When I went to bed, the match was goalless, but Ajax went on to beat Internazionale 2-0, with a pair of goals from Johan Cruyff. Subsequently a golden era for English clubs saw the trophy being taken in seven out of eight seasons, between 1977 and 1984, by Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, and Aston Villa. As an adult, I would write about this, and much more, in the book Europe United: A History of the European Cup / Champions League – published in 2005.

The Easter holiday of 1973 included a visit to Stonehenge. I remember being captivated by the aura of Stonehenge, with the ancient stones sat in quiet isolation, holding thousands of years of memory. This was a wonderful survival into the modern era of our earliest past. I felt the power of history, something which still holds my imagination. Sometimes stories develop, and expand, over a long period of time. Fully 35 years after the first visit to Stonehenge, a piece about the place would form the opening chapter of my book Legends of British History, which arrived during 2008. There will be some material from that book later in this chronicle. The trip to Stonehenge occurred during a weekend with granny and granddad, at their home in Salisbury. Mum, dad, Mark, and I frequently visited granny and granddad, and retain happy memories. There was tea-time, with lots of cakes, followed by our eating suppers of crusty bread with cheese and pickle, before retiring to beds where the sheets and blankets had been tucked in very tightly by granny. In the sitting room, a large clock ticked solidly, and chimed each hour. Displayed in a bookcase below the clock, granddad had a collection of books, mostly history and novels, some of which I read. Alice Rattue, my great grandmother, was a lively character, and I recall visits to her home in Green Croft Street, in Salisbury, the street in which she lived for most of her life. Always seeming to wear grey pleated skirts, Alice swore quite a bit as she recounted disputes with a next door neighbour. Although illiterate, Alice was able to write her name. Alice had been born in 1892, a few months after William Gladstone became Prime Minister for the fourth time, and died during the first of the two 1974 General Election campaigns. The February Election led to Labour regaining power, nearly four years after losing to the Conservatives.

I attended my first football match on February 17 1974, joining dad and friends in seeing Aldershot draw 3-3 with Southend United, in the Third Division. During May, dad took me to Wembley Stadium, and we saw England beat Northern Ireland 1-0, in the British Championship – this was exciting, although the atmosphere was not all it could have been, with the crowd far below full capacity. A few weeks later, I was thrilled by the World Cup finals, despite the absence of England. West Germany, the host nation, beat the Netherlands 2-1 in the Final. In 1975, dad, Neville, Stephen, and I went to a European Championship game, seeing England beat Cyprus 5-0, with Malcolm MacDonald (sometimes “Supermac”) scoring all five goals – four of them from headers.

Many of my happiest childhood memories stem from holidays in the sun, at Goodrington, a village adjoining Paignton. Mum’s extended family visited Goodrington in each year from 1974 to 1980. On the first of these trips we stayed in a cramped boarding house, owned by a grumpy couple, which did not live up to an enticing name, Paradise Lodge. In subsequent years we based ourselves in the comfortable Goodrington Lodge Hotel. We became friendly with the family, named White, who owned the hotel, and several other regular visitors. The hotel was a short walk from Goodrington Sands, the two parts of which are known as the “morning beach” and “afternoon beach” respectively in our family. We used to rent a beach hut at the southern end, which had soft sand, and base ourselves there in the mornings. We would move to the northern part of the beach, with compacted sand, in the afternoon – to enjoy swimming, making giant sandcastles, and playing tennis. The tide comes in fully on the “afternoon beach” so in practice it could not always have been used – but I have the recollection of many afternoons on that beach rather than the opposite. On Wednesday evenings there was a regular disco at the hotel, hosted by the manager, John White, who endeared himself to young and old alike by inadvertently introducing records by Showaddywaddy as performances from Showaddyshowaddy – seemed even more of a tongue-twister. The discos were preceded by cricket matches in the neighbouring park, with our family being joined by other guests. The games got rather competitive, from my perspective – there were arguments about the rules, plus displays of frustration with opponents and team-mates alike.

Cricket was a sport I followed with interest, including attendance at a few Hampshire matches. During 1974, I saw part of a County Championship game, in which Hampshire (the previous seasons champions) beat Worcestershire (who went on to win the title this year) by an innings. The trip was organised by Neville, who was a keen cricketer, playing for Droxford, a picturesque village near Hambledon, “the Cradle of Cricket”. In 1977 Fleet was the scene of a benefit game for Barry Richards, the brilliant South African batsman who played for Hampshire. An injury prevented Richards from playing that day, but I was able to get him to autograph my copy of the benefit brochure. The progress of the England team featured in excellent BBC coverage, with television pictures being complemented by Test Match Special on the wireless – the word dad used for radio.

Dad was my hero as I grew up, with his offbeat sense of humour, and enthusiasms, being a great influence. Mum was the more practical, and steady, member of the family. Mum was also, as dad often remarked, an excellent cook. My parents grew a variety of fruit and vegetables in the back garden. I had lovely moments on Summer afternoons, sat in the garden, eating blackcurrants or strawberries, and watching butterflies flit among the flowers and plants. Each year we travelled to Cheltenham, the home town of the Godsell family, for the August bank holiday weekend, staying with Yvonne, a sister of dad, her husband David, and their daughter Elaine. Dad and David took Mark, Elaine, and I on visits to Pittville Park, with another cousin, Linda. I recall boat trips, with my poor steering rendering return to the perimeter of the lake problematic. On one occasion, reaching an island, I rapidly hopped onto land, whereupon Linda tried to do likewise, but fell into shallow water, and had to wade ashore. We would also visit my dad’s parents, Christopher and Phyllis (nee Cook-Cove). It was saddening to see Christopher, my grandfather, suffer very poor health for several years, leading to his death on March 19 1976.

I made my first journey abroad at Whitsun in 1976, joining a junior school trip to France. We stayed at Dieppe, and visited other sites in Normandy, including Fecamp and Rouen. In September I became a pupil at Court Moor Secondary School, where my mother was a member of the kitchen staff. Dad continued to work at the NGTE, with his role including the testing of Concorde engines. I developed an interest in family history, which was initially to last for a couple of years. Uncle David drew up a family tree of the Godsells, which prompted me to produce an equivalent chart covering my mother’s family. Ernest and Dorothy, my grandparents, provided information, some of which we found in a Family Bible, printed way back in 1877. The genealogical notes in the Bible opened with the marriage of William Pillar and Bessie Collins, at Dawlish, in Devon, during 1883. They were the parents of Alice Pillar, who was in turn the mother of Ernest.

I played in a couple of reserve team football matches for Court Moor. In 1977 pupils and staff went to see England play the Netherlands. The Dutch masters gave a brilliant display and won 2-0, inspired by Johan Cruyff, who later described this as the best performance of his career. On another school outing to Wembley, we saw England beat Northern Ireland 1-0, in the 1978 British Championship. That years World Cup finals were held in Argentina, but England were not there, having been eliminated in the qualifiers by Italy, on goal difference. Argentina beat the Netherlands 3-1, after extra time, in a bad-tempered, and dramatic, Final – on a pitch littered by an amazing ticker-tape (actually strips of toilet roll) greeting from the home crowd. Two members of Argentina’s squad, Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, joined Tottenham Hotspur a few weeks later. In September, I saw Villa play for Tottenham, when they drew 1-1 away to Aldershot, in a testimonial match.

I attended filming of an episode of Are You Being Served? at a BBC studio in London, during November 1978. With mum having obtained dozens of tickets, a coach trip was organised, with mum, dad, Mark, and I being joined by lots of friends. It was fascinating to see how the programme was made. Prior to filming, we found ourselves in a studio corridor, alongside Wendy Richard and Penny Irving, who were dressed up as Miss Brahms and Miss Bakewell respectively. Dad exchanged hellos with Wendy and Penny. As a curious teenager, suddenly catching sight of a prominent pair of ladies from the exciting world of television, I was left in silent admiration.

Having previously gained a place in the junior school’s chess team, I represented Court Moor at that game. My place in the Court Moor team was secured by a good position in a school chess tournament in the latter part of 1978. I became rather obsessive about chess at this time, with enthusiasm turning to stress about my performance in the competition. My GP referred me to a paediatrician, who prescribed a course of Valium. I took Valium for a few weeks, did not feel any better, got worried about being on the medication, and stopped taking it. I was wrapped up in wider anxieties, about school work and my future. For some reason, which I did not really understand, I was lonely during the latter part of my time at Court Moor. Having been outgoing and popular, I became rather introverted, and was suddenly lacking in real friends. I was a bit of an oddball, who did not fit in, and suffered some bullying.

In May 1979 a General Election was won by the Conservative Party, with Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister. I wrote about this grim event in the book A History of the Conservative Party, published a decade later (1989). I felt the outgoing Labour government, in which Jim Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson as Prime Minister (during 1976), performed fairly well. The Labour government’s position unravelled during the “Winter of Discontent”, as the effects of industrial disputes were exacerbated by severe weather through the Winter of 1978-79. Long afterwards I can still recall (picture this) myself walking home from the centre of Fleet, on a cold day in February 1979, with lots of snow on the ground. I had just bought Blondie’s Parallel Lines LP, this being the start of a record collection, which grew rapidly in the next few years. Besides Blondie (fronted by Debbie Harry, an adorable illusion), my initial favourite artists included Elvis Costello (lyricist of genius), and the Sex Pistols (leaders of Britain’s punk rock movement). In August 1979, I bought Because the Night by Patti Smith, a passionate love song that had been a major hit on its release the previous year. I also purchased discs by Buddy Holly, tragically killed in an air crash back in 1959, at the age of just 22. With a great admiration for the Beatles, I became interested in John Lennon’s solo records. The senseless murder of Lennon, in 1980, left millions of people around the world with feelings of immense sadness.

I acquired several records by Bruce Springsteen during 1980, starting with the Born to Run single. Next I bought Bruce’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, a remarkable album, released two years earlier, portraying a life in which struggle is combined with optimism. On May 30 1981, an excited 16 year old attended a concert by Bruce and the E Street Band, at Wembley Arena, which lasted nearly three hours. The highlight was Because the Night, a song Bruce recorded for Darkness on the Edge of Town, but decided not to use. A tape of the song had been passed to Patti Smith, working on Easter – an album with an alluring cover picture of Patti – at the same studio complex as Bruce. The intermediary was Jimmy Iovine, multi-tasking (or multi-tracking) as engineer on Bruce’s album and producer of Patti’s record. With Bruce’s approval, Patti penned changes to the lyrics. Bruce performed Because the Night in concert with his set of words, but had not released his version as a record. I learned from Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, a biography by Dave Marsh, that a legendary track, The Promise, intended for the Darkness album, had also been omitted, and wondered when I might get to hear the song.

Our family had a seventh successive Summer holiday at Goodrington in 1980. Some members wanted a change, but the only problem I could see (or feel) was some hard potatoes, served at dinner in the hotel restaurant. Walking through the reception of the Goodrington Lodge one evening, I overheard John White on the telephone, complaining to the supplier that the potatoes would not go soft when boiled, which meant residents were not eating them. John had raised this with a delivery man, who said the hotelier was going soft in the head.

Nostalgia in the form of Vinyl LPs


The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in vinyl records, as opposed to Compact Discs. I do not have enough technical music knowledge to comment on the relative sound quality produced by the two formats, beyond a belief in the idea that music can sound warmer on vinyl, compared to a clinical sound from a CD. I was recently reunited with a lot of my old vinyl LPs, which I had put in storage, and have been enjoying listening to them, with a sense of nostalgia.

I bought my first LP in 1979, as a teenager, and continued to acquire music in this format until 1992, at which point I upgraded from a record player to a CD player. I abruptly stopped buying records, and within a few years most record companies seemed to abandon vinyl. We were told that CDs were better, due to clearer sound and durability, as they did not scratch, jump, or hiss. I liked the idea of durability, and the convenience of playing a typical 35 to 45 minute album without having to get up and turn the record over half way through – indeed the capacity of CDs could provide over an hour of uninterrupted music. Another advantage of CDs was the facility to skip an unfavoured song, and go straight to the start of the next track, without fiddling with the stylus on a record player. On the other hand, CDs came in small packaging which lacked the impact of the covers for 12 inch records. LPs and their sleeves are better to hold look at, and hold. I wonder why CDs do not get sold in LP-sized packaging – presumably it is cheaper for record companies to distribute, and shops to sell, music in small packages.

Recent listening to old LPs has prompted me to produce a list (I like lists) of 10 old favourites.

The Beatles – Revolver (1966)

For some reason I did not acquire this one until 1984, five years after I first became a fan of the Beatles. Over the years, my mind has hopped in assessing the relative merits of Revolver, Sgt Pepper, and Abbey Road, but Revolver has generally been my favourite Beatles album. Indeed it is the only record I have felt inspired to review on Amazon – perhaps I should do more reviews. In the piece, posted in 2012, among other things, he said he said: “I cannot give the Revolver album anything other than five stars. It is acclaimed (by the experts?) as perhaps the Beatles second-best album, behind Sgt Pepper. The overall quality of songs is better on Revolver, with great variety, building into a showcase of the brilliance of the Beatles. Besides Paul’s majestic Eleanor Rigby, and the novelty of Ringo singing Yellow Submarine, there is an amazing trio from John – I’m Only Sleeping, She Said She Said, and Tomorrow Never Knows. George offers a couple of great songs in Taxman and I Want to Tell You. The studio experimentation of Sgt Pepper began a few months earlier in the Revolver sessions. The flaw is the brevity of Revolver, at just under 35 minutes. This may have been standard for the time, but Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, released the previous year, clocked in at 51 minutes”. Four years after the review, I should add that a notable part of the appeal of Revolver is the way in which it displays an eclectic mix of styles, but also has a unity, powered the guitar and drums sound common to the uptempo numbers, and dreamy lyrics, that flow from Eleanor Rigby to Tomorrow Never Knows. The album title is a clever reflection of the way in which records revolve. There is also the original cover, with the psychedelic collage by Klaus Voorman on the front, and a photo of the band on the back – both in stark black and white. Revolver still sounds, and feels, modern – 50 years after it was recorded.

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

The Velvet Underground were managed at one point by Andy Warhol, who (supposedly) produced their debut album, and (definitely) contributed the front cover banana design. The Velvets sold few records during their creative peak, but have built a legendary reputation, as innovators who influenced countless other artists. The band. led originally by Lou Reed and John Cale, went through several changes of line-up, with the mysterious Nico (a German actress turned singer) being a guest vocalist on their debut album. By the time of their fifth and final studio album, Squeeze – released in 1973 – none of the original Velvet Underground remained in the band. The debut album contains some of their greatest songs, including I’m Waiting for the Man, Heroin, Femme Fatale, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and Venus in Furs. I believe in the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, a concept introduced by Andy Warhol. As an alternative, fleeting moments of recognition may occur across several years. I modelled the front cover design of my book Fifteen Minutes of Fame on the cover of the Velvets’ LP, without breaching copyright – using a public domain banana, designed by Telrunya, inspired by Warhol. Fame has not come my way, in case any readers think that is where we are leading. It was more like fifteen seconds of fantasy. The number of books I have sold so far is only a tiny fraction of the amount of records sold by the Velvet Underground, whose seminal banana album leapt to number 171 in the USA’s LP chart during 1967. The album originally only had Andy Warhol’s name as the only wording on the front cover – the title of the album started to appear after it was released on CD in 1986. I have a 1987 pressing of the LP, without the album title on the sleeve.

Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

One of the most famous albums ever made, and among the biggest sellers – worldwide sales have been estimated at 45,000,000 – this made it to the list just ahead of Wish You Were Here and The Wall. Back in the days when late I started buying albums, there were quite a lot of imports from the USA and Canada for sale. I recollect hearing that record shops would bring these in as cheaper alternatives to British pressings, although the quality of the vinyl was slightly inferior. I remember acquiring a Canadian version of The Dark Side of the Moon, which was virtually the same as the British version, from an independent record seller with a stall at a market in Basingstoke. Besides the striking design on the gatefold cover, there were big posters inside. In the space of 43 minutes, Pink Floyd tell a story that moves from birth to death, via a lot of experiences, including the fear of madness – prompted by the mental breakdown of former band member Syd Barrett. There is also a quite a bit of people talking to themselves. For me the highlights of the album are two long songs, Time plus Us and Them.

Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (1975)

How many times has the question been asked, which is the best Dylan album, Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde? For a long time I thought the answer was Highway 61, but then I discovered Blood on the Tracks. A decade on from his supposed peak, Dylan released the greatest record of his career. Blood on the Tracks is a thematic collection of songs about failed relationships, thwarted love, and disillusion (with an allusion to Watergate on Idiot Wind?). Tangled up in Blue plus Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts are extended narratives about flawed, but engaging, characters. The unfocussed photo of Dylan on the front cover adds to the mystique. I guess that the picture on the back cover represents fractured relationships. The album was recorded in 1974, and released the following year – with the copyright date showing as 1974 on the cover. The inner sleeve is plain blood red paper.

Patti Smith – Horses (1975)

One of the most famous rock debut albums, in which Patti Smith takes us to a land where poetry merges with the spirit of punk rock. Having discovered Patti’s music a few years after the release, I bought the album in 1980, at Paignton in Devon, during a family holiday. Opening with a radical re-working of Van Morrison’s Gloria, Patti weaves tales of lesbianism, alien abduction, love and death, with references to Arthur Rimbaud plus Jimi Hendrix. The record was produced by John Cale. The front cover has a black and white photo of Smith, sporting an androgynous look, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe. The top right-hand corner of the picture has a triangle of light, deliberately captured by the photographer, but since lost in CD packaging. In 1996, fully 21 years after the release of Horses, I saw Patti Smith give a concert, in London, during which she performed three songs from the album – Free Money, Redondo Beach, and Gloria.

Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

Bruce is my favourite artist, and this is the first of his albums that I bought, back in 1980. I still remember the shopping trip to Croydon, along with my brother, and three of our cousins, after research in the Yellow Pages informed us of the names and locations of the town’s several record shops. I bought the Bruce record at the town’s Virgin shop, and listened to it on an almost daily basis for several weeks. As an uncertain teenager, I drew comfort and inspiration from the album’s story of a life in which struggle is combined with optimism. Thirty six years later, it is still my favourite album. The lyrics are amazingly evocative, bringing a direct sense of the lives of the characters Bruce writes about. Extensive cross-referencing of key words across the 10 songs gives the album a great unity. This is reinforced by the musical backing, which sounds very similar throughout the album. Bruce spent an enormous amount of time in the final selection from dozens of songs recorded during the sessions. This coincided with a lot of thought about the sequencing of the album. He was influenced by what his manager and producer, Jon Landau, called the four corners approach – with the strongest four songs being used as the first and last tracks one the two sides of the record. The pressing of the LP that I own says it was made in Holland – I think CBS meant the Netherlands says Mr Pedantic. Besides the timing of each track appearing on the label, there is a second figure, showing the length of the instrumental introductions. I have not seen this on any other record – and presume it was for the benefit of radio stations, where DJs might talk over the start of a song.

Blondie – Parallel Lines (1978)

Long afterwards I can still recall walking home from the centre of Fleet, my hometown, on a cold day in early 1979, with lots of snow on the ground. I had just bought Blondie’s Parallel Lines LP, this being the start of a record collection, which grew rapidly in the next few years. I was attracted to the album by the hit singles, Hanging on the Telephone, Picture This, and Heart of Glass – the latter of which was at number one when I bought the album.  Sunday Girl soon followed as a single, and was another number one. Blondie were fronted by Debbie Harry, singer and adorable illusion, who was joined by five blokes. The black and white lines on the cover design were mirrored on the inner sleeve, which contained lyrics, and a poem. Then there was a second inner sleeve, which was plain white. I remember that whenever I put the record away, this had to be done in a certain order. The label of side 1 of the record would show through the transparent part of the inner sleeve. This side 1 would then be aligned with the side lyrics on the inner sleeve. I did not realise I had OCD until many years later, but here was a clue from a 14 year old. Ever since then, I have been meticulous about putting the record into the inner sleeve of any LP in the right order, and then following suit when inserting the inner sleeve into the outer sleeve. There was also a clear method of ordering of LPs in a record rack, alphabetically by artist, and then chronologically within artist by release date. I used to say I would be able to find a particular album in the dark during a power cut, even although I would not be able to play it. Strangely I have not got around to organising CDs logically – perhaps I just do not feel so much affection for them.

Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982)

For many years, Elvis Costello – lyricist of genius – was among my favourite artists, and I bought all of his albums through to the mid-1990s, following which I kind of lost track of things as he increasingly moved into various genres besides rock. For me Imperial Bedroom is Elvis’ finest work, as a consistently strong collection of songs about difficult personal relationships. The cover features a painting inspired by Picasso. The inner sleeve features most of the lyrics, rather awkwardly set out without any gaps between the songs. A few of the words are printed on the label for side two of the record, and can be matched up with the rest of the lyrics by moving the disc to align them in a gap in the inner sleeve. I do not know why the record company did that – or whether my explanation of the strange format makes enough sense. An earlier album by Elvis was entitled Almost Blue but the song of that name did not appear until the Imperial Bedroom LP. Then the song Imperial Bedroom was absent from the album of that name, was released as a B side of a single, and later as a bonus track on a CD reissue of the album. I could not recall where I bought Imperial Bedroom, but a sticker inside the cover says it was Woolworth – I bought a lot of records at Woolworth in Fleet in my youth. In the compilation of this list, Imperial Bedroom narrowly edges out Spike, an album including several songs that I saw Elvis perform at the Albert Hall shortly after its release in 1989.

Pretenders – The Singles (1987)

Over the years I have bought many greatest hits / best of albums, and this one remains among the most notable. Having followed the Pretenders from the early days of their career, I already owned most of the songs on this album when it was released, but it still seemed a worthwhile purchase. Here are the 15 singles released by the Pretenders between 1979 and 1986, plus the guest appearance by their singer, Chrissie Hynde, on a version of I Got You Babe by UB40. At 57 minutes long, it is a collection of depth. The Pretenders consistently released great singles, with Brass in Pocket being their biggest hit, but my favourites are the haunting Kid and the enigmatic Hymn to Her. The packaging of the LP is simple, but attractive, with the black and white blocks logo of the band featuring on the cover, inner sleeve, and record label.

Lou Reed – New York (1989)

After many suggestions, across the 1970s and 1980s, that Lou Reed might have a new album to rank alongside the brilliance of his work with the Velvet Underground, this finally happened in the last year of the latter decade. New York is a celebration of Reed’s home city, and a lament for the way in which its people had suffered the effects of the Reagan presidency. The album includes the brilliant ecological protest The Last Great American Whale, plus the rawness of Romeo Had Juliette and Dirty Blvd. The latter is one of two songs on the album to include the original phrase Statue of bigotry. A few months after the album was released, I saw Lou give a show at the London Palladium (a venue that looks better on television than it really is). He started by playing most of the songs from New York, before going back to earlier material, including Rock and Roll plus Sweet Jane, from the Velvet Underground days, and Walk on the Wild Side. Reed, who died in 2013, was a great role model, with the gift of self-parody (too often under-rated). The back cover of the New York album had a note from Reed, advising “It’s meant to be listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) listening, as though it were a book or a movie”. I have listened to the album many times, and think it will soon be time to spin this again.


The Beatles in Wonderland

A couple of years ago, I wrote An Enchanted Garden, a short story transferring the opening of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) into a contemporary adult tale. My story included many references to lyrics by the Beatles, with the modern-day Alice listening to their music on her Ipod, as events began in the garden of Strawberry Fields Forever, a National Trust home located in my imagination. Recent work, expanding the story into a novel, set me thinking about the way in which the Beatles were influenced by Carroll’s two Alice books, with the original being followed by Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There (1871).

Beatles Paperback Writer


My starting point was a thought that four songs by the Beatles showed clear influences from Alice.

1 I Am the Walrus (1967) draws upon Carroll’s tale of the Walrus and the Carpenter. The eggman could be Humpty Dumpty, although John Lennon recalled a strange practice enjoyed by Eric Burden involving eggs.

2 The Long and Winding Road (1969) has the lyric “the wild and windy night has left a pool of tears”, echoing the Pool of Tears episode in Alice.

3 Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (1967) tells the tale of a girl in a surreal land. In contrast to speculation that the song was influenced by LSD, Lennon explained that the title came from a painting that his son, Julian, brought home from nursery school. When Lennon expanded the contents of the picture into a song, he added elements from Carroll, explaining “It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg and it turns into Humpty Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep and the next minute they are rowing in a rowing boat somewhere and I was visualising that”. This is the Wool and Water episode of Looking Glass. The song also includes “newspaper taxis” plus “a train in a station with plasticine porters with looking glass ties”. This follows the Looking-Glass Insects chapter, where Alice goes on a train journey, sharing a carriage with a man dressed as a newspaper, a goat, and….a beetle. Lennon’s Lucy would be mentioned again, in I Am the Walrus, recorded a few months later.

4 Cry Baby Cry (1968) draws on the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, but there are elements from the Pig and Pepper chapter in Alice, with a duchess and a crying baby. The song has the Duchess of Kirkaldy arriving late for tea, suggesting the Tea Party in Alice. John’s Cry Baby Cry ends with the Can You Take Me Back fragment from Paul McCartney, and it couId be that this expresses a wish to move from Wonderland back to reality. Conversely Paul might hope to move away from reality, and back into a nursery rhyme tale?

Three of these four songs (the exception being Paul’s The Long and Winding Road) were predominantly written by John Lennon.

In the old days, I would have pursued this line of thought through books about the Beatles. Nowadays a look around the Internet, following the lines suggested by Google, makes the search for information a lot quicker. One of the best pieces I found was John in Wonderland by Edgar O Cruz, who suggests songs that were – or may have been – influenced by Carroll, which are in turn added to my list:

5 Do You Want to Know a Secret (1963) was inspired by the Wishing Well song in the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which seems to me a bit out of place here, lacking a direct flow from Carroll. As far as I can tell, the Alice books only include the word secret once, in the Queen Alice chapter of Through the Looking Glass.

6 I’ll Get You (1963) is another song that Cruz only links to Carroll in general terms. On the other hand, McCartney made a direct connection in later years, saying “To me and John, though I can’t really speak for him, words like ‘imagine’ and ‘picture’ were from Lewis Carroll.  This idea of asking your listener to imagine, ‘Come with me if you will…’, ‘Enter please into my…’, ‘Picture yourself in a boat…’ It drew you in.  It was a good little trick, that.  Both of us loved Lewis Carroll and the Alice books and were fascinated by his surreal world so this was a nice song to write”.

7 Yellow Submarine (1966) does not have any direct lyrical origin in Carroll, but the song evokes a fantasy land for children. The song would in turn feature in an animated Beatles film of the same title, released in 1968. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was another song featured in the film.

8 Strawberry Fields Forever (1967) has lyrics in which Cruz hears an echo of Carroll. He says “The theme of loss in Strawberry Fields Forever is similar to the book’s ‘going down’ device” as Alice slips through the Rabbit Hole. The Beatles’ lyric “It doesn’t matter much to me” follows “It didn’t much matter which way she put it” in Alice.

9 Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite (1967) is a song in the tradition of Carroll’s poems. Lennon copied the lyrics from an 1843 poster advertising a circus – having bought this from an antique shop when the Beatles were filming a promotional film for Strawberry Fields Forever.

10 Magical Mystery Tour (1967) is the title song of a Beatles fantasy film, which was influenced by Carroll, and featured I Am the Walrus.

11 Glass Onion (1968) is a surreal story, which includes references to five previous songs by the Beatles, two of which we have already encountered here – Fixing a Hole, Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am the Walrus, Fool on the Hill, and Lady Madonna.

12 Helter Skelter (1968) features the lyric “Will you, won’t you want me to make you” which Paul appears to have adapted from The Lobster Quadrille’s “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?”. I also think that the “I’m coming down fast” part of the song could echo Alice falling down the Rabbit Hole.

13 Across the Universe (1968) includes the phrase “pool of sorrows”, suggested by the “pool of tears” cried by Alice, which would feature a year later in The Long and Winding Road.

Further searching brought suggestions of other songs, in a piece on a Blog called Of Buckley and the Beatles. The White Queen’s repetitive use of the word “better” in the Looking Glass book may have influenced Paul in two songs:

14 Getting Better (1967) from the Sgt Pepper album.

15 Hey Jude (1968) the song that Paul wrote for John’s son Julian.

There is one song missing from my original thoughts, and the suggestions above, that clearly develops the theme.

16 Come Together (1969) includes reference to “walrus gumboot”. I had overlooked this, until being reminded by the Wikipedia page for I Am the Walrus that there is a Walrus reference in a Beatles song after Glass Onion.

Next I thought of another song with a lyric that might derive from Carroll, and found a possible link

17 Nowhere Man (1965) is about somebody “making all his nowhere plans for nobody”. There is a character called Nobody in the Lion and the Unicorn episode of the second Alice novel. Nowhere Man was later used in the Yellow Submarine film.

This is turn led to my considering The Fool on the Hill, another tale of a loner, and somebody I imagined as akin to the Mad Hatter in Alice. A Google search led to Alice Through the Magnifying Glass: the Psychedelic Journey of Carroll’s Creations, on a Blog called George’s Journal. The man who wrote this piece suggests echoes of Carroll in various songs and films. In terms of the Beatles, George sees the cinematic Yellow Submarine as significant. George also refers to songs which “could all be said to be lyrically and stylistically Carroll-esque”, which I in turn add to this list, with some additional comments:

18 Penny Lane (1967) presenting a surreal version of English life, was recorded during the Sgt Pepper sessions, and released as a Double A side single with Strawberry Fields Forever.

19 Fool on the Hill (1967) fits for the reason set out above, and featured in the Magical Mystery Tour film.

20 Happiness is a Warm Gun (1968) is one I am not sure about in the Carroll context. Indeed I have trouble thinking about this song in any context, given that Lennon was shot dead 12 years after it was released.

21 Piggies (1968) was one I had thought about, given the number of animals that appear in the Alice books, including the pig baby.

22 Octopus’s Garden (1969) could fit as a song about a place somewhere near the beach in the first Alice book. It also serves as a sequel to Yellow Submarine, an earlier song sung by Ringo.

23 Mean Mr Mustard (1969) is another one at a tangent, apart from it featuring Her Majesty the Queen, possibly related to a monarch in Wonderland.

24 Polythene Pam (1969) could just about fit as the sequel to Mean Mr Mustard, within the Abbey Road Medley, while being one of the many titles by the Beatles to feature a female name – two years on from Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.

I was surprised that the number of songs reached two dozen, but there were still more occurring to me, and I found that somebody had already suggested one of them.

25 Within You Without You (1967) is mentioned in the book Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture by Will Brooker (2004). Brooker suggests similarities between the sitar soundtrack by Ravi Shankar to a BBC television  production of Alice, broadcast at the end of 1966, and Within You Without You, a song by George Harrison, who learnt Indian music from Shankar, recorded a few weeks later. I think that the song’s philosophical lyrics echo the cryptic phrases of the caterpillar in Alice.

 With my mind expanded – by knowledge and not narcotics – the mental journey took me to five other songs, which I think were influenced by Carroll:

26 Tomorrow Never Knows (1966) has lyrics that Lennon drew from a book about psychedelic meditation, but the opening “turn off you mind, relax and float downstream” may also owe something to the Alice in a boat image subsequently used in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

27 It’s All Too Much (1967) is one of the great neglected Beatles songs, recorded just after work was completed on Sgt Pepper, but not released until the Yellow Submarine album arrived in 1969, the year after the relevant film. George Harrison goes on a LSD trip, singing about “floating down the stream of time”, birthday cake, and getting “home for tea”. It could be that he is joining Alice at a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

28 Dear Prudence (1968) is a song about Prudence, sister of the actress Mia Farrow, both of whom the Beatles met while meditating in India. The lyrics feature “a little child” and “a daisy chain”, suggesting Alice with her sister at the start of the first book.

29 Golden Slumbers (1969) features lyrics that Paul borrowed from a lullaby of the same title, written by Thomas Dekker in around 1600. There may, however, be an echo of the “golden afternoon” and “dream-child” in the poem that precedes the narrative of the first Alice book. Paul’s song also has a similar musical and lyrical feel to his Alice-inspired The Long and Winding Road.

It’s getting very near the end, and we move to the grand finale. I should also highlight a SPOILER ALERT for anybody who has not read the Alice books.

30 A Day in the Life (1967) is my favourite Beatles song. Despite much searching, I cannot find anybody directly linking this to the Alice books, which means that the remainder of this paragraph can be proclaimed as “It’s my own invention”. Lennon and McCartney’s amazing climax to the Sgt Pepper album extends the dream atmosphere of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Indeed Paul’s verse has a character who “noticed I was late”, just like the White Rabbit, and “went into a dream” which is the very basis of the two novels. When Lennon sings in A Day in the Life that “I read the news today” he echoes the “newspaper taxis” earlier in the album, and the “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” may have expanded from the one hole leading to Wonderland.

Having started with the idea that four songs by the Beatles were directly influenced by Carroll and the Alice novels, a journey through Wonderland has led, admittedly with a few tangents, to a massive 30 tracks to consider – enough to match the wonderful diversity of the White Album.


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