Leaving Berlin

It’s a strange thing and one that’s most likely a result of the level of History taught in school during my education but great swathes of modern, post-war European history remained a mystery to me until very recently.

For entirely personal reasons I’m learning increasingly more about the history of Eastern Europe and what happened behind The Wall, as it were (on that note I sincerely recommend Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire) and am continually fascinated by what I discover.

One hole in my knowledge, though, is the period between the end of the Second World War and the formation of those two distinct countries that I grew up aware of: East Germany and West Germany. It may be down to education but then there’s also the fact that so little was allowed to be known about what happened in certain countries behind the Iron Curtain but there was, at least, an awareness of two distinct halves of Europe and, in particular, Berlin.

I’m oddly fascinated, for example, how the West managed to retain its ‘half’ of a capital city so deep in the Eastern ‘half’ of the country and the logistics therein.

There’s the fact that Berlin was on the receiving end of a very large battering from all members of the Allies in the closing stages of the war. There’s the period when it was divided in two like the rest of Germany and half fell under the GDR while the other ‘the west’. But there’s a knowledge hole that exists around that in between period; the time when a city was on its knees, its citizens still reeling from the destruction and the two opposing factions were still carving it up.

IMG_7753Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon goes a long way to both illuminating that period and creating an itch for more. It’s also one of those happy instances in Waterstones where you need another book to take advantage of the “Buy One Get One Half Price” deal and it the book you grab out of curiosity rather than having sought it out turns out to be a brilliant whim.

Set in 1949 Leaving Berlin finds writer Alex Meier returning to Berlin from America where he’d fled the Nazis in 1934. The official line is that – as a treasured author – he’s been invited to return by the Soviet authorities to help establish cultural future of the Socialist country. In fact he’s returned only to allow him to return to America. Persecuted for his communist beliefs during the McCarthy witch-hunts, he’s made a deal with the young CIA; return to East Berlin and act as their agent in order that he might return a patriot and be reunited with his son.

Except, of course, it all goes a bit tits-up for him from the off when his CIA contact is killed and he finds himself in a deadly game of espionage and counter espionage.

The dialogue, particularly, is great but the pacing and twists of the plot are fantastic.  What stands out for me, though, is how much more compelling it becomes as a result of its setting. With the war and its events still in people’s memories normality is a distant concept and so what people did during and just what they’ll do to survive after is a huge factor. Just as the lines between the city are in a state of confusion, so too the lines between who to trust. There’s a strange sense of surrealism throughout as a new normality attempts to establish itself yet is still surrounded and hindered by the physical (large swathes of the city remain piles of rubble, there’s power outages) and psychological aftermath of the war that mirrors that of Alex upon his return to such a city after living in California, out of the way of the destruction.

I’ve not read anything by Joseph Kanon before but I’ll certainly be on the lookout to do so on the basis of this. It’s also time to find what I can to plug this hole in knowledge too.

A little visit, reminding me of his presence…

Somewhere back in time when  I started this blog I mentioned that I was toying with a post on the ultimate Pearl Jam set-list.

Pearl Jam live are a wonderful thing. Gallingly, though, I’ve only seen them live once. They seem to have now joined the list of great bands that consider playing at Milton Keynes and Leeds as a UK tour – what happened to the rest of the country? – and have given up playing at Wembley Arena (where I saw them on the Binaural tour).

A year or so back I read a great piece that stated: “Pearl Jam is known as one of the best live acts in its arena-filling weight class. After only fitfully listening to new Pearl Jam albums for more than a decade, seeing the band live reignited my interest in listening to them again. Pearl Jam will remain interesting to people for as long as it is able to tour.”

I genuinely believe that there’s not many acts that can touch them live in terms of quality, consistency and pure excitement. And, while I’m unlikely to be in the audience any time soon (their 25th Anniversary trek this year is limited to US/Canadian shows) there’s still plenty of opportunity to enjoy them live thanks to the unusual decision they took back in 2000 – the same tour I caught them on – to release an “official bootleg” of every (with a couple of exceptions) show to offer fans the opportunity to get a good-quality audio of each concert for a reasonable price.

Now…. given how many shows they play a year and that it’s been going for close to 16 years… that’s a lot of shows to choose from. I’m gob-smacked at the idea that some people own the lot.

I’ve got…. a few. Physically; just the show that I attended. I can always claim I’m on a Pearl Jam album that way.

On the iPod, however… well that’s a different story.

There’s probably a dozen or so. Some purchased legitimately and others… in the truer nature of Bootlegs. And each one of them is different and worth having in their own right. See, the thing is I got given the amazing PJ20 book one year – along with the DVD and soundtrack – and there’s mention of so many great shows that it’s impossible not to at least check some of the more significant ones out. Like the 2003 show in Uniondale when the band were heckled for their performance of Bushleaguer:

Which pisses Vedder off so much it’s apparent in the cover of The Clash’s Know Your Rights that follows.

I also have the trio of shows they played at the Tweeter Center in Boston that same year where they used the opportunity to play every song they’d played on the tour to at that point over the course of the three shows; 82 originals and 12 covers with only one repeat….

But to get to the original point; I’ve been hunting for that recording that, to me, represents the ultimate set list.

Back in 2012 (pre-Lightning Bolt), Eddie Vedder let a fan club contest winner choose the setlist for a show.  Now the set that Brian Farias – for it was he – chose was pretty good. He even managed to get Vedder to play Bugs for only the second time. But it’s a big challenge, really… how to find the right balance.

I, for example, would want to hear a lot of deeper cuts. But then, looking back at the quote up top of this ramble, how would that play at a show when not all in attendance know every Pearl Jam song. So you do have to mix in the ‘hits’ as it were and – while I don’t always listen to it – Better Man always gets the crowd going and becomes something else live than on record.

Then there’s the case that Pearl Jam don’t do Greatest Hits tours and are usually touring in support of a new album. So what of the newer songs make the grade and still manage to keep the crowd going. In all honesty I wouldn’t really pluck a show from the Backspacer tour because I don’t really feel a lot of tracks from that album worked in that context.

Lightning Bolt, however, was a much stronger effort and there was a lot of stuff I was itching to hear live. Factor in the fact that the band were in great shape and playing better than ever, there’s a lot of gems to be found in the Lightning Bolt tour bootlegs.

So I think I’ve now been able to find the ‘perfect’ set list / bootleg. Well, sort of. Because there’s two.

Worchester, MA, October 15th 2013 is a 32 song strong set that packs in Leash (not as ferocious as I’d love to hear it played but I’ve yet to find a recording that does play it quite as strong as it could be and this one has a great story that precedes it), Red Mosquito and Man of the Hour along with newer cuts like Swallowed Hole and Infallible along with the tour-set-list regulars Mind Your Manners and Sirens. The energy picks up after a quieter start and there’s a great performance of Nothing As It Seems, Fatal gets a play in the first Encore and Crazy Mary makes an appearance. Oh, and Last Kiss.

(I love the moment at about 1:35 where someone realises it’s Leash and gives a joyous yelp)

Set: Release, Long Road, Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, Lightning Bolt, Mind Your Manners, Hail, Hail, Sirens, Even Flow, Nothing As it Seems, Swallowed Whole, Red Mosquito, Whipping, Corduroy, Infallible, Got Some, Save You, Leash, Let The Records Play,
Do The Evolution, Better Man.

Encore 1: Man Of The Hour, Yellow Moon, Fatal, Just Breathe, Spin The Black Circle, Unthought Known, Porch.

Encore 2: Last Kiss, Crazy Mary, Alive, Sonic Reducer, Indifference.

Meanwhile the tour closer at the Key Arena in Seattle on December 3rd finds the band in an even stronger form, the energy is high and they’re playing to a home-crowd. So tracks like Let Me Sleep, In My Tree and Pilate get pulled out, there’s better banter, Breath, State of Love and Trust, a story from Ed of how he was nearly lost at sea, Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns, Pendulum opens and Mike McCready playing Van Halen’s Eruption into Yellow Ledbetter brings the show to a close after 37 songs.

Turns out there’s a video of the whole show ‘out there’ which I’ll leave here as long as it lasts:

Set: Pendulum, Nothingman, Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, Interstellar Overdrive, Corduroy, Lightning Bolt, Mind Your Manners, Given To Fly, Pilate, Garden, Getaway, Even Flow, Sirens, In My Tree, Do The Evolution, Unthought Known, Black, Let The Records Play
Spin The Black Circle, Lukin, Better Man.

Encore 1: After Hours, Let Me Sleep,Future Days, Daughter, Chloe Dancer, Crown Of Thorns, Breath, State Of Love And Trust, Porch.

Encore 2: Supersonic, Got Some, Rearviewmirror, Alive, Kick Out The Jams, Eruption, Yellow Ledbetter.

So yeah; I think, between those two it’s as close to a perfect set-list / show recording as you’ll get. A good mix of the deeper cuts, the crowd pleasures, strong new material and plenty of Vedder’s stories and not a heckle in ear-shot.

Although I’ve not yet heard the show with No Code played in full or…..

There’s ghosts in the towers, smearing honey on the lawns


To say I love music would be an understatement. I’d bring up that Nietzsche quote but it’s been overused. I also love good fiction and the impossible quest to get my fill of both means storage is becoming an increasing problem. But the two very rarely mix well. There are precious few strong novels about music. It could well be because the reality would be considered too unbelievable as fiction (have you read Keith Richards’ Life?) and capturing the magic and power in making music without coming across heavy on the cliché can be tricky. For every Almost Famous and Great Jones Street there’s a Young Person’s Guide To Becoming A Rock Star.

However; The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas can now be added to that short list of great books about music.

Taking us back to Kilmarnock in the early 80’s, David F Ross presents the story of The Miraculous Vespas, a band formed and driven by their manager, Max Mojo, who – via some hard graft, a great song and couple of crucial run-ins with Boy George (though it’s still hard to believe there was a time when he wasn’t simply another ‘celebrity DJ’/talent-show judge with a highly questionable head tattoo) – manage to crack the top of the charts with their song It’s A Miracle (Thank You), taking us along for their ride to the almost-top.

However, this is more than a bitingly funny account of a young band’s quest for immortality –  there’s also the gang-war that’s running alongside as local gangs work to pull a fast-one over a big Glasgow crime family and come away clean. As every bit as compelling as the fortunes of The Miraculous Vespas, the McLarty storyline is a gripping and, at times, brutally violent and thrilling slab of gangster rivalry that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Bob Hoskins film (here I’m talking The Long Good Friday rather than the one with the cartoon rabbit).

Told with the occasional retrospective interjection from a modern-day Max Mojo, The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is an absolute belter of a book that’s populated by an amazing array of characters. There’s a couple of familiar faces from The Last Days of Disco including Fat Franny Duncan (of whom this installment paints a softer image and, surprisingly, has one of the novel’s most genuinely touching scenes) but you’re never given to think there’s too many characters as Ross balances the story expertly amongst the cast as their roles, the rise of the Vespas and the McLarty saga come together into a brilliantly thought out and well executed – not to mention bloody funny – conclusion.

Chief amongst these new characters is the aforementioned Max Mojo. A heady blend of hair dye, a passion for music, lithium compounds and a dermination to live the Malcolm McLaren quote, that sits on the books jacket, that Rock ‘n’ Roll is “… that question of trying to be immortal”. If only he could get control of the voice in his head. Mojo is one of the most original and brilliant characters I’ve seen in fiction for some time and has probably given me more laughs than many.

Much like his first book, The Last Days of Disco, David F Ross paints a fond picture of this time despite the obvious shafting the region (where didn’t?) was taking under Thatcher. Times are tough – especially for the crooks – yet there’s an optimism shot through this time and you can’t help but shake the feeling that – for some – that fabled ship may just be about to come in. Ross does a great job of painting a truly encompassing picture of the era – the impending Miner’s Strike, the end of the Falklands Conflict and racism all help set the scene – while his use of regional dialect places the reader firmly in place as well as making for some of the funniest insults and dialougue I’ve read.

If I had a quid for every time this book sent me to Spotify to play a track I’d have… well, I’d probably have about £20 but the fact is that with references to tracks by Orange Juice, The Clash, Big Star and, of course, Paul Weller, The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas has got one of the best soundtracks you’ll find in fiction .

Social commentary, gang war, relationship ups and downs, interband relationships, Spinal Tap moments, humour and heartbreak and the power of music; it’s all here. There’s a lot going on in this book and David F Ross, an author to watch, injects it all with an genuine passion for music, an  unquestionable talent as both a writer and storyteller and, above all, a wicked sense of humour; The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is uproariously funny. So many times I had to stop as I was laughing so hard I was turning into the annoying commuter in Mr Bean. Just the prologue, the creation of Max Mojo if you will, had me in stitches ( “…hands absolutely bastart achin’ fae they nails”). And as for the assumption that Hairy was Hairy Doug’s first name and the consequences for his partner…. well. If this book doesn’t make you laugh then, frankly, there’s something wrong with you.

David F Ross’ The Disco Days trilogy is due to be wrapped up with The Man Who Loved Islands. I for one can’t wait to get my hands on that.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and getting me onto the Blogtour, check out the other stops, and get hold of The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas as soon as you can.

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With every mistake we must surely be learning

Variety is the spice of life. What constitutes a great book will vary from person to person. We all have different tastes (to this day some people still try to tell me The Da Vinci Code isn’t just something to keep at hand for when you run out of toilet roll) and some only every read within a genre. Recommending someone read The Master and Margarita won’t work if they’re only ever ‘reading’ Jojo Moyers….

But…. every now and then that rare thing will come along – a book that is so unarguably great that you find yourself telling everyone they should read it regardless of their usual choice of paperback writer. Jihadi; A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov is just such a book.

IMG_7211The main thrust of the story is set in the fictional Islamic Republic and it’s capital Islamic City – such fictionalised generalisation of geographical particulars allows Toropov a much freer hand in painting scenarios and characters that are so worryingly real that you’re left with the impression that they may well have happened without running the risk of naysayer nitpicking over such trivialities of actual place/date/official-versions-of that would have hindered his craft had he set it in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. Thelonious Liddell is an American intelligence operative captured, tortured and imprisoned by local authorities after a mission gone wrong in Islamic City. Fatima A is the young interpreter sent, initially, to assist in translation as he’s interrogated and, later, question Thelonious directly.

Jihadi: A Love Story is Liddell’s confession / memoir as written during his final months on paper smuggled to him in his cell at The Beige Motel –  a Federal Prison in Virginia. We know it doesn’t end well for Liddell but how he got to the point we find him as Ali Liddell is a hell of a story. It’s the story of how he went from senior agent to suspected terrorist, the story of Fatima and her family (how I wish I’d never learnt of flechettes), the actions of US Marine Mike Mazzoni, of the complex local information supply to the Directorate from shadowy sources, the weight of the past, marital and mental breakdowns, the rise of a new fundamentalist sect and how it all, piece by glorious piece, comes together in a gripping and though-provoking novel. All with a little help from the White Album and notations from R.L Firestone, the agent responsible for Liddell’s interrogation – one of the biggest questions the reader must face is who to believe, though as events unfold one version becomes increasingly unhinged while the other strives for clarity.

This is a book which raises some big questions. Questions about faith and love and, on a more pertinent and timely issue; questions on the West’s foreign policy and habits of wading into countries and cultures without any real awareness or consideration.

There’s also the question that Jihadi asks as to where the lines of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ lie given the actions of each – for all the accusations that Liddell is a ‘terrorist’ and has been ‘radicalised’, the only action he commits to have earned such treatment is so minimal in comparison to that of the supposed ‘heroes’ as to wonder where the distinction can be drawn, if it can – and that’s without considering Fatima’s supposed act of terrorism.  Living is easy with eyes closed, both sides are capable of atrocities yet we make the assumption that when we’re told by ‘the Directorate’ that Side A is Good and Side B is ‘Terrorism’ it’s correct because they say so. This book asks us to open our eyes and consider things from a different perspective. There’s no side-taking, finger-pointing or blame-allotting, the tone of the narrative is purely neutral, all sides have their arguments shown, allowing – in the case of Mazzoni vs Fatima – the reader to make their own mind up. Granted Firestone’s annotations argue that Liddell references events that he was not present for and cannot possibly know about so his word cannot be trusted… but, then again, Liddell is a senior agent; it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch for him to find information and piece events together for himself after the fact.

Some of those events are not for the faint at heart. The ridiculous “War on Terror” is just that – a war and one with very human consequences and casualties. Unfortunately many of those casualties are innocent civilians and characters in whom Toporov has breathed life to such an extent as to remove any possibility of not being affected by their fates. The fact that the tone is neutral and detached emotionally  means that some of the more harrowing and violent scenes hit just that much harder – it’s your own emotional responses you’re projecting onto the text, not the characters’ and all the more affecting accordingly. Many was the time that I had to put the book down and take a breath, hug my son and reflect with gratitude for the safety in which we live. There’s simply no way to read this and, if you weren’t already, not wonder just where we’re going as a species when we’re capable of such treatment of one another.

The nonlinear narrative is in keeping with the premise of these pages being from a memoir and keeps the pace ripping along and while those annotations may seem intrusive at first they soon present yet another compelling sub-plot. Toporov is able to sew in many more characters and plot arcs than a standard, linear narrative might allow for, and move between them so as to offer multiple view points and keep the reader hooked as they each near their boiling point, their moments arise and they intersperse.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been gripped so completely by such a multi-faceted novel and I simply cannot recommend Jihadi: A Love Story enough. I’ve seen references to Homeland and yes, there are echoes of such tight covert intelligence plots here, there are echoes of le Carré and even Vonnegut. But they’re only echoes, the loudest voice here is that of Toporov; a compelling new author with a style of his own delivering an exhilaratingly fresh, important and powerful novel so very much of its time.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for sending me this novel and to check out the other stops on the Blog Tour – there have been some great interviews and insights along the way -and grab a copy of Jihadi: A Love Story sharpish.

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