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Jon Blake shortlisted for Lollies

DBjd1lyXsAAJTZp.jpg largeIn 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!

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New Jon Blake comic novel out May 19th

Thimble Monkey Superstar, my latest novel for children, can be found here.

Got a bus pass? Time to start a band!

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!

Relive 1969 in 2016

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.

Stealing Dylan From Woodstock

Stealing-Dylan-From-WoodstockStealing 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.

Review of Ray Foulk’s book coming – but in the meantime, here’s Peach.

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.

Stealing Dylan From Woodstock – an organiser’s view of IOW 69

Stealing-Dylan-From-WoodstockAmid the euphoria of the UK’s first great rock festival, there were cynical voices who believed the organisers were just a bunch of young businessmen on the make.  Over forty years on, Ray Foulk sets the record straight with his account, selling at £22.95 and published by a leading advocate of friendly relations with Saudi Arabia.

It is important not to judge a book by its cover, but the title is a bit of a baffler: Dylan did not want to play Woodstock, nor were the two festivals in competition, at least not in the eyes of the punters.  Both were seen as important counter-cultural events, though IOW 69 was to end in massive disappointment on that score as Dylan sought to distance himself as far as possible from his radical young image.

I hope to review Ray and Caroline Foulk’s book in due course:  I’ve looked forward to reading Ray’s memoirs for five years since Caroline first mentioned the work in progress.  She was emailing to question whether my father was festival electrician in 1969 as Ray had no memory of him.

30 years a published writer – some special offers

Mantis head thanks to www.cindychinn.com

Mantis head thanks to http://www.cindychinn.com

On November 20th this year I’ll be celebrating two things: turning 60 (hooray), and 30 years as a published writer. To commemorate these historic anniversaries, I shall be offering, for one week only, the ebook of When Dylan Sank The Isle of Wight (formerly 69ers) for just 99p. To take advantage of this one-off offer, go to Amazon between Nov 20 and Nov 27.

My second offer is a completely new novel for junior-age children, Insect Day, which will be COMPLETELY FREE for five days from Nov 20, and thereafter just £1.49. This again will be an e-book available on Amazon.

With Christmas in mind, if anyone is interested in a signed copy of any of my many other publications for children, I shall make these available at the price on the book cover plus postage – just drop me a line.

Review: As The Island Slowly Sank

as the island slowly sank bookAs the Island Slowly Sank is an invaluable addition to the history of both Bob Dylan and the first Isle of Wight festivals. As author Derek Barker (editor of Dylan fanzine Isis) acknowledges, these subjects were well covered by Brian Hinton’s Message To Love, which Barker draws upon for his booklet, but there is much new material here. First-hand interviews with key figures and research based on little-known publications has filled some important gaps in our knowledge of a hugely significant period in the history of popular culture.

I certainly gained some new insights into Dylan’s motivation for playing the Isle of Wight. Having withdrawn from the spotlight to concentrate on bringing up a family, the imposition of a major festival (Woodstock) down the road from his home, cashing in on his fame, was not something to which he took kindly. There’s plenty of detail about this period, and the process by which Dylan agreed to appear in England instead – although we also learn how the IOW was not quite how Dylan had romantically imagined it.

Barker is very thorough and level-headed on a number of key issues: how much Dylan actually got paid, why the huge delay before his performance, and indeed how good that performance actually was. There are plenty of interesting details about life at his residence at Forelands Farm and even the significant absence of a toilet in his backstage caravan – a matter of huge importance to his friend Al Aronowitz, whose ability to remember the conversations of 40 years ago verbatim must surely be taken with a pinch of salt.

For a short book, As the Island Slowly Sank does attempt to cover a lot of ground, and in doing so flies off at a few tangents to give incidental information which might better have been relegated to footnotes. While almost everything in the booklet was interesting to me, it might not appeal widely beyond Dylan fans or festival veterans, but then there are plenty of them! I certainly recommend it, not just for the read but also as a stimulus to further discussion of the subject, to which I am now inspired to contribute at http://www.dylan69.com.

Forty years on, not yet gone

closure cdThose who have enjoyed 69ers will have read (in the opening chapter) a fictionalised recreation of my experiences in an early 70s progressive rock band, struggling to emulate Yes, ELP etc around the church halls and pubs of Southampton. Since that time I ran the gamut of musical styles in a variety of bands – West Coast, punk, folk/world music, new wave, pfunk, acoustic duo, playing on through heart failure and the grim struggle to survive as a writer before finally giving up the boards around the time my son was born in 2007. By then I’d probably written a hundred songs, the best of which came late on, in my forties. Apart from the Adamsdown Song and Adamsdown Sings projects, I thought my playing days were over. However, two events this year changed my mind. The first was seeing Leonard Cohen performing at 78 with more vivacity than a lot of those acts at the IOW in 1969. The second was being asked to perform at a gay wedding. I’m not known as a great fan of the institution of marriage, but I knew how much this meant to my ex, so prepared a couple of songs. When I took to the mike I was surprised to find my 3 year old and six year old had spontaneously decided to perform with me. It was a great experience. I looked again at my song catalogue and thought, bloody hell, why have I never really done anything with this stuff? I am known for being fairly good with words: I also have tunes and a weight of experience. So I really hope you, dear reader, will check out what is at my music site and if you like it spread the word. My first gig is on November 22nd and hopefully there will be many more to come, health permitting. Bookings welcome!