In a market saturated by funny stories for children, it’s a great honour to be shortlisted for the 2017 Lollies (Laugh Out Loud awards). Thimble Monkey Superstar is my fifty-somethingth novel for juniors in a career of many ups and downs, and this nomination comes twenty-one years after Little Stupendo was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Award – also in concert with that fantastic illustrator Martin Chatterton. The central character (not the monkey!) is based on my young son who has cerebral palsy.
Those who know me for my teen thriller The Last Free Cat or adult novel 69ers (aka When Dylan Sank the Isle of Wight) might be disappointed that Thimble is not quite as radical in content, but I can assure you it is not conservative in any way either! Judge Michael Rosen has written that it would be good to see humorous books for kids taking on more political themes, but all I can say is, I have tried! First we need publishers willing to take a punt on such books.
Now that the shortlists have been drawn up, The Lollies are decided by popular vote. There’s an inbuilt advantage for those authors already well known through TV with thousands of followers on social media (David Baddiel won last year and is shortlisted again in the 9-12 category), but I know already that children love Thimble, and like all my books, Thimble Monkey Superstar is nothing if not original. You can buy it at a discount price from excellent indie publisher Firefly Press, and if you or you kids like it, please vote for it!
Thimble Monkey Superstar, my latest novel for children, can be found here.
All those who have read When Dylan Sank The Isle of Wight (formerly 69ers) will have enjoyed the adventures of prog-rock band Butterhorn, loosely based on my own outfit Peach who played around Southampton in 1972-3. I played in many bands after that, most notably new wave outfit The Cutouts who had a decent following in Nottingham in the early 80s. As my writing career took off, however, the music got sidelined, and in 1986 I played my last electric gig – or so I thought, till getting up on stage with a friend’s band at my 60th party gave me the bug again. But I had no intention of playing tired old blues songs or Stereophonics covers. I had a set of great original songs which had never seen the light of day and come hell or high water I was going to perform them. Now I’m in a fantastic trio with a 23-year-old bassist and 38-year-old drummer, both fans of great music through the ages, rehearsing in the fabulous Cardiff Arches in the city centre under the railway line. Here’s a taste of what we do (or what I did with a drum machine before it got even better with live drums!). Check our website at www.shipbuilding.wales .We’re also on Twitter and Facebook – still early days, so give us a like if you like us!
1969 was not only the year of the UK’s first great pop festival, but also David Bowie’s first great single, Space Oddity. It was still a few years till the landmark Top of the Pops appearance which announced him as the most significant figure in UK popular culture, but even without the stunning image he was to create, the hallmarks of his songwriting style were there. In all the discussion of that image, and those which followed, there has, in my view, not been enough recognition given to his supreme gift for melody. Bowie’s tunes are strikingly original and beautifully crafted: for me he’s up there with J.S.Bach. Without those tunes nothing else about him would have had a fraction of the impact. And while his cultural influence would never be as strong again as in the Ziggy Stardust era, the great tunes kept on coming, combined with a fantastic instinct for song dynamics.
I’m happy to say that my son Jordi became a Bowie fan from the age of three, requesting that video of Starman over and over again. Jordi shares his birthday also: Jan 8th is an auspicious date, being also Elvis’s birthday (not to mention Shirley Bassey and the Doors’ Robbie Krieger). Maybe it should become a national holiday.
I still have some of the first print run of 69ers (aka When Dylan Sank The Isle of Wight) and am selling these off for just £6 per copy, signed by the author. There is no other fictional record of this event, and certainly not one by a prize-winning author who saw the 1969 Isle of Wight festival both up front and backstage. But besides being the story of a 16 year old grammar school boy thrown into a challenging new world, 69ers is also a meditation on the values of that era. As in most of my fictional output, it’s both humorous and political. Check out the reviews on Amazon – none of them written by friends or relatives! – then consider whether this might make a great present to a loved one or even yourself! An ebook is also available, needless to say not signed by the author, but a little bit cheaper. Buy either the paperback or ebook here.
Stealing Dylan From Woodstock
is an account of the groundbreaking 1969 Isle of Wight festival by one of its organisers, Ray Foulk – though, frustratingly, it never is clear exactly who is writing it: the title page says “written and compiled with Caroline Foulk” (Ray’s daughter), and there are lengthy sections assessing Dylan’s output and various performances at the festival, even though Ray, by his own admission, was remarkably ignorant of the music scene at that time. There is a generous list of ackowledgements at the start of the book which suggest a few other hands may have been involved. In any case, the performances were well documented in Brian Hinton’s Message To Love
, and the appeal of Ray’s book is surely in his inside info on Dylan: how he was cajoled to play at Woodside Bay and what happened behind the scenes.
On this subject the book does not disappoint. There are countless new insights into Dylan – one that sticks in my mind is Dylan furiously tearing off stickers saying “Help Bob Dylan Sink the Isle of Wight” while on a visit to Osborne House. The great man was similarly peeved by the lack of a toilet in his backstage caravan. By and large, however, Dylan comes across as a polite and unassuming man, quite overwhelmed by the prospect of coming out of near-retirement to play to 150,000 people.
The account of the negotiations with Dylan is commendably thorough: one thing that can never be taken away from Ray Foulk and his brothers is the sheer chutzpah they displayed in aiming, and then succeeding, in booking the greatest alternative music star in the world at that time – though they were certainly aided by the naivete of youth. It didn’t bode well for 1969 that they had advertised alcohol at the 1968 IOW Festival without bothering to apply for a drinks licence.
The Foulks were also the beneficiaries of great good fortune: finding Dylan his promised villa at the very last minute: narrowly avoiding the explosion of a burger van; equally narrowly avoiding the disastrous crash of the Who’s helicopter. If there is a God, he was certainly in favour of the brave new world of pop festivals.
At times Ray is perhaps too honest. Having established his anti-establishment credentials as a teenage CND organiser and Labour Party member, Ray then openly confesses the “megalomaniac ambitions for business success” shared with older brother Ronnie, and how the pair deliberately fostered the idea that the Beatles and others might be jamming onstage with Dylan. In assessing the reaction to Dylan’s performance this false promise is conveniently forgotten.
There are one or two other revealing moments. Ray describes the filming of performances by members of the audience as ‘piracy’ (good luck with that idea in the age of mobile phones) and complains after the event that the giant dormitory marquee “seemed to be costing far more than had originally agreed, not least because it had been damaged after being used as a grandstand by scores of Bob-spotters”. I happened to be watching when half of the roof of Captain Lewis’s ‘biggest tent in Europe’ collapsed under the weight of people sitting on it. So the extra cost was hardly surprising!
This brings me to a personal gripe. While Ray can reproduce, apparently verbatim, conversations with his brothers or Dylan’s entourage, I know from previous correspondence with Caroline that he has no memory whatsoever of the man who supplied all the power and light to the 1969 festival, other than that used for the stage. There were extra costs for Ken Blake too, following Dylan’s performance: fluorescents off the fence panels that were pulled down and burnt; lights from the toilet tents which were impossible to enter after the toilets had been kicked over. What Ray did not experience was the festival as seen by the punters or the workers.
I also have a gripe about the title of the book. The Foulks did not “steal Dylan from Woodstock”, since Dylan never had any intention of playing the Woodstock festival, having decisively rejected the idea of being a political figurehead. Ray Foulk takes great issue with Rolling Stone for comparing IOW 1969 unfavourably with the great festival which preceded it and castigating Dylan over his preference. But Rolling Stone‘s viewpoint cannot just be put down to nationalistic prejudice. Woodstock was an epochal event because half its audience were under imminent threat of being sent to Vietnam. Performances like that of Country Joe were brave clarion calls of resistance. Having made his name as a voice of protest, the voice of protest, Dylan could not hack it now that the protest had become a mass movement. He chose to go to an island instead.
I’m enjoying reading Stealing Dylan From Woodstock, albeit with a critical eye, and will post a review of this shortly. Meanwhile, however, by the wonders of modern communication I have been propelled back into contact with members of my early 70s prog-rock band, Peach. I won’t say that Peach are immortalised in the first chapter of 69ers, as Butterhorn are a heavily fictionalised version of the real-life band, but the introduction to them is pretty true:
“But it was music that had united Gerry and Scott, in particular the desire to write a rock opera before they had mastered three chords. Oblivious to humiliation, they had performed their first efforts in the back bar at the Royal George on a Woolworth’s chord organ and a mandolin. What they produced was barely music, but to their minds it was exactly its lack of attention to time, tune or structure which elevated it above the commercial crap that progressive rock was destined to supercede.
Like ten thousand others, Gerry and Scott felt uniquely worthy of the world’s attention.
They did progress, however, inspired by a sense of mission which led them to mythologise every event in the band’s evolution: a chance meeting with Tim the strumming telephone engineer became Stanley’s encounter with Livingstone; a trip to Shaftesbury Road to buy amps and guitars became Moses’s expedition to the Promised Land.”
Butterhorn drummer Stan Carey is very much the villain of the piece, terrorising the band with the threat of rearranged faces, then insisting Phil Collins-style that they perform his songs and splitting the band when they won’t. I’m happy to say that Peach’s drummer Tony Webb was not quite such a villain, and indeed it turns out that he remains the band’s number one fan – after 43 years he got in touch with me from his home in Canada and we have exchanged many enthusiastic emails (and a rough recording I’ve just made of extracts from our 43-year-old rock opera). Thanks to Tony I’m also back in touch with guitarist Brian McGrath on whom the character of Tim was based:
“As foreign to pretension as Gerry was to groundedness, Tim did his best with the rock operas but was far more at home with a classic blues or a concise slice of Cream. Tim was a dry character with a ready wit, a droopy moustache and an old Austin A35 which only sporadically committed itself to forward motion, its favoured action being an up-and-down clown-car bounce till whipped and cursed back into progress like a surly mule.”
I’ve played in many bands since Peach, but never one that tried to play a prog-rock major opus to an audience consisting entirely of skinheads in the shadow of an oil refinery. I included the travails of Butterhorn to give some context to the great festival of 1969 and having so surprisingly found myself thinking about that enterprise again, am very glad I did.