All good children: Mark Lewisohn’s Hornsey Road

Went to see Mr Lewisohn’s cutely-named talk about Abbey Road in Northampton. If you’re familiar with his books, you know that nobody knows more than Lewisohn about The Beatles, and I went in expecting the Full Trivia: the anecdotes, rumours, related events, cardboard cutouts and hidden extra tracks.

And that’s what you get, give or take. You could characterise this show as an extra-long Ted Talk, complete with a not-too-awful PowerPoint (Cooper Black was the typeface; Avant Garde – or even a Garamond – might have been a better choice, in keeping with the Apple Records house style) which nevertheless seemed to teeter on the edge of disaster on occasion. My suspicion is that it was playing from a Windoze* PC with a spinning disk HD, and that the occasional video glitch was the disk waking up.

Lewisohn structures the approximately two-hour talk around the chronological recording of the Abbey Road tracks, many of which were already complete long before the summer-of-’69 sessions at EMI Studios. “I Want You” – without the (She’s So Heavy) addendum, which was added in August – was the first to be recorded, in February 1969, and that not even at Abbey Road, but at Trident. Shockingly, Lewisohn doesn’t share this gem:

The song was done in an overnight session on February 22, 1969, at London’s Trident Studios. With the amps turned up high, band received a noise complaint from one of the studio’s neighbors in the Soho area of the city. The take has John Lennon exclaiming, “What are they doing here at this time of night?” Then he adds: “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud. And then if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet, like it might do it the other way. OK. The loud one, last go. Last chance to be loud!”

https://www.forbes.com/sites/markbeech/2019/08/08/beatles-reveal-unheard-abbey-road-treasures-50-years-after-cover-shot/#10535b8b2e8a

Which is not me quibbling so much as acknowledging that this is the comprehensive-but-not-exhaustive version of events, the Lewisohn-lite version that (it turns out) has appeal to a more general audience as well as people who already know most of this stuff but like to hear the stories again, because the story of The Beatles’ 1969 is basically King Lear with better tunes. Paul is Lear, obvs, with the other three cast as ungrateful daughters, although Ringo is clearly Cordelia in this arrangement. All good children go to heaven.

One thing I do think Mr Lewisohn got wrong is the question of the Beatles’ esteem in the eyes of the British public. He uses evidence from the Daily Mail to suggest that Britain had fallen out of love with the Beats by 1969. Well. The Daily Fucking Mail, as it’s known around here, has always found time to add hatred of The Beatles to its poisonous drippings. Because of course it would. And as for the music press, I’m pretty sure they were predicting that the Beatles were “over” from about January 1964. Like the proverbial stopped clock, they were, eventually, right. The mainstream press of course fed the suspicion and fear of their readers: that’s their stock in trade. But the charts don’t lie.

So: a burning incense stick (George’s favourite brand), a stage set you could get in a small van, a slightly shonky PC and a borderline tasteful PowerPoint. Add to this the recordings themselves, played in edited isolated-tracks versions, so we can hear Billy Preston’s uncredited Hammond organ, or Paul’s frankly incredible vocal on “Oh! Darling” or his frankly incredible-sounding acoustic guitar elsewhere. Or George’s rather plodding bass-lines. Lewisohn foregoes commentary on the musicianship or most of the more technical aspects of the recordings, which is probably for the best.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt

The best bits for me were when he revealed the fruits of his painstaking research. John and Yoko went for a nostalgic road trip that summer and wound up interfacing an Austin Maxi with a tree somewhere in Scotland. All this is known, but what Lewisohn adds is the exhaustive tracking of the route by means of local newspaper reports along the lines of, “Yoko Ono visited the Post Office in Sodderton Chutney and bought some sweets”. Which is both hilarious and brilliant in equal measure. So there’s a map of the purported route, and later on the story of the missing bed leg, and so forth.

Another precious moment came when Lewisohn delved into the history of Mean Mr Mustard, who was the Abbey Road equivalent of Mr Kite; and Polythene Pam, who was this album’s Eleanor Rigby. Or something.

I reckon I could have written him a better ending (his kind of petered out to an awkward round of applause). But how do you even end this kind-of Ted talk? I’d have gone for the serendipitous circularity of this record. The first track recorded, “I Want You”, was bookended by the “(She’s so Heavy”) vocal tracks, the last thing The Beatles recorded together until “Free as a Bird”, and the last time Lennon and McCartney sang into the same microphone in EMI Studios.

And no, they didn’t know it was really the end.

But that cover photo? The perfect one out of six, with the other five sort of shit? Miraculous.

*©The Interwebs Flame Wars ca. 1991

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Stop pollutin’ m’ recs

There was a brief interlude, wasn’t there, when the internet seemed to be making life better. And then it took over everything and we colluded with it in destroying the high street and Ruining Politics and everything else.

I just let my Apple Music free trial lapse and I’m so happy to be away from the Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations. I’m also not on Netflix at the moment (waiting for a critical mass of 10 must-see shows to accrue), so I’m not seeing their particular algorithm’s Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations.

But I’m still stuck with the YouTubes and the Twitters and the Amazons. Amazon hits you with a triple whammy of bad recs. Its algorithm is no more sophsticated than those ads that follow you around, like when you buy wellington boots or something you get nothing but ads for wellington boots for weeks afterwards. Amazon is currently showing me tents: not because I want a tent or bought one. Just because I clicked on a tent out of curiosity, wondering if the technology had improved since the last time I went camping (spoiler: they’re still tents).

Amazon is also offering me film for a camera I don’t own; a microwave dish because I bought a… microwave dish; a big fuckoff box of blue plasters because I recently bought a big fuckoff box of blue plasters; and a bicycle light because I recently bought a bicycle light. You see the problem.

It’s even worse over on Amazon Prime, where Amazon are guilty of spamming you with the spammiest spam they can spam about the US Open tennis because Bezos foolishly overpaid for it and they really really want you to pay a bit extra to watch tennis. In addition to this, because it’s an account I share with the family, I’m always hacking through the weeds of the shit other people watch in order to find anything I might watch. And no matter how many times you don’t watch Jeremy Clarkson, there’s his hideous giant smoker’s face.

It’s a shame because Amazon does harbour some decent shows, but they seem happy to bury them under television and movie landfill rather than make it easier to discover them. I mean, I really ought to be able to click a button that says I WILL NEVER WATCH ANY SPORT EVER and they just stop showing it to me.

The pollution of your recs is real and it’s here and it’s killing us. I also get polluted recs on YouTube because it’s on the AppleTV box, but people tend to watch their crap using my account, so I get bombarded with terrible recommendations. I made the mistake about three months ago of allowing one of my kids to put on a music video, and now I get slapped in the face with bad recs on a monotonous schedule.

But it’s even worse than that, because even when you watch something you quite like, you still get only peripherally related crap fired at you like so many wet tennis balls. Watch, say, a Beatles video, and you suddenly see every fuckwit with a video camera’s take on What Makes Ringo Special or one of those godawful Reaction videos or a conspiracy theory about Paul. YouTube has basically become that scene in Aliens where they decide to nuke the planet from orbit.

The saddest aspect to all this is the way it has become impossible to discover decent books. The tide of awfulness has simply overwhelmed what used to be the core, curated, controlled-by-gatekeepers publishing world. As iniquitous as it used to seem, now that any idiot, including myself, can self-publish an ebook, it’s nearly impossible to find anything decent to read by a new writer. There, I said it. Editors are important.

It’s hard to know where we’ll end up with all this. In the meantime, stay away from my recs, lest you pollute them with your roving eyeballs. And stop looking at tents.

I’d read a million words like one of your nerds…

Fi and Jane were talking and Fi mentioned she’d read about 4 or 5 books over the summer, and Jane was impressed. At around 80,000 words per, that’s about 400,000 words, so, yes, very good.

At a rough estimate, I read just over a million words over the summer holiday. Three quarters of them were Gardner Dozois science fiction anthologies from the 80s and 90s, three of them that I’d previously not purchased. They’re a bargain on the Kindle at around €4 each.

So I read the 5th, 6th, and 10th Annual Collections, with stories from 1987, 1988, and 1992 respectively. Now, as any fule kno, science fiction often purports to be about the future but its really always about the present. Because when you ask what if…? you are always starting from here. In recent years, I’ve been finding science fiction to be a bit of a drag. There are too many post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian novels set five minutes from now, and it has been grim reading. To the point that I’m starting to avoid certain tropes. And this is before we get to the infestation of so-called “literary” science fiction novels, with the likes of Jeanette Winterson muscling in on the field and reinventing the wheel.

(Here’s the first sentence of the blurb to her recent Fran Kiss Stein:

In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.

Try not to get any vomit on the toilet floor.)

This is not to suggest that there weren’t grim visions of the future in 1988 or 1992. There were, and much of it even centred around climate change. Science fiction has been on the climate train since the 1970s at least, which is why it’s so infuriating when literary writers pretend they’ve come up with an original idea for their latest genre crossover Waterstones front table bait.

But here’s the thing.

There were better writers in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the 10th Annual Collection, the 1992 edition (published in 1993) is so fucking good: it’s hit after hit by all the big names. In fact, the absolute worst story in that collection was written by Arthur C. Fucking Clarke.

As a palate cleanser between these anthologies, I read a few Cadfael books, plus a Tana French, the new Becky Chambers, and Ironclads, a novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky. All of which adds up to somewhere North of a million words.

And now I’m back to reading for 10 minutes every night before falling asleep.

The waiting is the hardest part

There are three things I want from a holiday. The first and most important is a complete break from work. The other two things I want to do on holiday are to ride my bike and read my books.

We travel to my wife’s house in France for most of our holidays. During the summer, my wife likes to book at least one week as a holiday within the holiday. This might involve a week in the South of France, or on the Ile d’Yeu, or (this year) in the Alps.

Now, I can generally take or leave these weeks. I’ve written before about the tribulations of the South, and while I love the Vendée region more than any other in France, there are always things that vex me about these holidays, things that add unnecessary stress and make it difficult to relax.

Which brings us to the Alps. I was mildly curious about coming here in the summer, because it’s a part of France I’ve never been. I’ve no interest in winter sports, and to be honest I also have no interest in climbing, rambling, walking, hiking, climbing, paragliding, climbing, or any of the other outdoor activities that people do in the mountains. A person only really has space in their life for one hobby that requires shitloads of specialist equipment. In my case, it’s cycling. In a parallel universe, it might have been golf, or kayaking. And no, I do not dig cycling up Alps.

We came to Chamonix, which is something of a British colony; so much so that you can find actual Yorkshire Tea in the local Supermarket. Usually it’s the tea travesty that is Lipton’s. It’s surprising to hear so many British voices, something I’m not used to in the rarely visited Haute Saône region. But there are also people here from all around Europe: Spain, Italy, Switzerland (for some reason), Germany, Denmark, and so on.

As I noted when it was pouring with rain the other day, people love the outdoors and all you can do in it, but what they really love more than anything is shopping. And Chamonix is a paradise for shoppers, as long as the only thing those shoppers want to buy is a puffy down jacket.

So yeah: mountains. Nice photos, but my knees protest. My ankles protest. My hips protest. But the biggest source of stress, as in so many other hikes of life, is other people.

Oh my god.

Any British person on the continent has encountered the complete absence of queues in France. It’s not that there aren’t things to queue for. It’s not even that people “don’t know how” to queue. They just don’t care. If you stand waiting to board something (a train, a bus, a cable car), and endeavour to provide some personal space for the person in front of you, then someone else will see that space and move into it. Just today, waiting for the Mont Blanc Tramway, a woman brazenly strolled to the front of what would have been the queue, pretended to peruse the ice-cream shop menu, and then just happened to find herself among the first to board.

My daughter gets painfully embarrassed, but I can’t help myself. At another point today, when a sharp-elbowed woman tried to sneak in front of us, I stared her down and when she said, “I was queueing,” I replied, “Après nous,” in as rude a way as I could. I explained to Chloé, these people are being rude with their bodies and counting on the fact that we’re too polite to say anything, so I think it behooves us to say something. I may not have used behooves.

Anyway, once you notice the shitty behaviour surrounding waiting for anything, you can’t un-notice it.

And in the end, this is what drives me potty on holiday. Waiting around. We arrived at the tramway station today and had to wait two hours for a tram to take us up to the Mont Blanc glacier. Spectacular views, both on the way and when you get there, but when we got there, we were told it would be another two hours before we could get a tram down. And, to be honest, there was only about half an hour of anything worth doing up on that mountain, which included paying €4 for a can of Coke.

Anyway: hell is other people. An amazing insight, I’m sure you’ll agree.

To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

This was one of the cultural highlights of the summer for me, a new novella from Becky Chambers, who has previously published three delightful novels (none of which were particularly long) in her Wayfarers series. This one is not from the same series and comes in at about half the length of a standard novel – and at under a fiver I can’t complain.

So, why a novella? A small idea, an itch that needed to be scratched? The introduction of a new Becky Chambers universe with some light worldbuilding? Or a short story run wild?

Hard to say. Anyway, I read this in a day, and it was enjoyable but slim pickings. I’ve been thoroughly engaged by Chambers’ work and wouldn’t call her a “science fiction lightweight” as some do, but this novella, if you wanted to be harsh, could be described as four characters in search of a plot.

The set-up is straightforward, though some heavy suspension of disbelief is required. A crowdfunded space exploration programme sends several missions from Earth to explore different exoplanetary systems, all of which have the potential to harbour life. If a crowdfunded space programme is hard to believe, the strong ethics of the explorers also tests your ability to go along with it. These humans are determined to have as little impact as possible upon the ecosystems they explore. They’re explorers, not colonisers, and their code is hippocratic: first, do no harm. Rather than change their environment, they change themselves, which is a necessarily under-explored aspect of this piece.

The plot, such as it is, follows the four crew of one of the missions as they explore, in turn, four promising worlds in a solar system, all of which have – or might have – water. Comparisons to Goldilocks and the Three Bears are inevitable, given that the zone in which life might potentially exist is named after that fairy tale. Is one planet too cold, another too warm, and another just right? And what of the fourth?

The rule of four: four planets, four crew, four personalities. Are they all too perfect? Chambers’ human characters are generally so caring and considerate and tolerant that the conflict necessary to drive a plot has to come from elsewhere. It’s hard to say here whether she intends people to be sympathetic or deeply irritating. Once character comes across to me as so prickly and difficult that I cannot believe they’d be allowed on such a mission. Are the planets and the people metaphorically linked? It’s worth some thought.

Standard science fiction elements are here: a way of dealing with human lifespans and interstellar distances; a way of dealing with the perils of radiation; some hand waving about fuel and propulsion systems; more handwaving about air, food, and recycling. It’s a novella, so you shouldn’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson level detail. But there’s a lot of handwaving, and someone like KSR would dig into that a little and create some peril out f it. Which is not to say that there isn’t peril here: but it’s served as a side dish rather than the main course.

The story begins with the words “Please read this” and even tempts you to skip to the end in order to find out what “this” is all about, but I didn’t do that. They land, they explore, stuff happens, and then they face a decision, which ought to be high stakes and dramatic, but somehow feels like a cop-out.

So: not an essential Becky Chambers read; certainly an enjoyable way to pass the time while you do read it, though. I’d accept this as the introduction to a new series, but if it turns out to stand alone, it’s inessential.

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

It’s lucky, I reckon, that I recently managed to identify three Gardner Dozois anthologies from the 80s and 90s that I had not read. So I have 750,000 words of 80s/90s science fiction to look forward to instead of the dreck being produced in 2019.

Trail of Lightning, I hasten to add, is not dreck, but it is a bit bof. It bears all the hallmarks of fiction published in an era in which everyone is a writer but nobody wants to pay an editor.

It’s a fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic landscape about five minutes from now, after the Big Water and the collapse of so-called civilisation. We’re on what might otherwise be a Southwestern Navajo reservation, and myths and monsters have come to life. It’s an appealing idea, but let down by the execution. Our protagonist is Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter and anti-hero (I guess) who is given some kind of vaguely expressed job to complete by a Trickster character and then seems to bounce around, pinball-like, until it’s time for the end. All of the twists and turns are telegraphed long in advance, and the Big Revelation is so obvious that you have to conclude that our Maggie is a bit thick.

There are lots of unfamiliar words herein with no clue as to how they’re pronounced or what they mean. This is probably a deliberate alienation technique, but a glossary in the back wouldn’t have hurt, would it? Worst of all, the Kindle couldn’t render a number of the words properly – even though I switched to the Publisher Font, which I was pleased to find embedded.

It’s all set up for the next in the series (The Sixth World), which has soured me on this first book even further because I won’t be bothering. This keeps happening! I cannot emphasise enough how refreshing it would be to pick up a book in this genre that doesn’t come with half a million words of sequels. I am not averse at all to the urban fantasy genre. My favourite book is Tim Powers’ Declare, and much as I would lap up a sequel to that, it stands alone. There’s such an enormous difference between a writer who gives a book an ending and then, maybe, later comes up with further ideas, and one who leaves everything up in the air like an episode of TV.

All this said, a lot of other people have really liked this, so I’m probably just too grumpy for my own good.

Turning off the streaming tap

So, as previously noted, I (re)signed up for a 3-month trial of Apple Music. I was thwarted in my reasons for doing this but kept the trial going because the kid is on a rockandroll roadtrip and probably making use of it. But!

It makes me sad.

I’ve also revisited Spotify, taking them up on a 30-day trial of the Pro level, mainly so I could spam a friend with playlists, but Spotify is even worse.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that I’m predisposed to hate all the algorithmic recommendations. Apple Music’s recs, far from being insanely great, are insanely insane. And Spotify’s are equally offensive. What really bugs me about Spotify though is how badly it works. If I’m building a playlist and want to (+) a song to it from, for example, an album listing, it keeps bouncing me away from the listing so that I have to tap the screen THREE FUCKING TIMES to get back to where I was.

…And other user-hostile behaviours, such as finishing a playlist and then immediately starting to play random shit without so much as a by-your-leave.

But that makes me angry rather than sad, and the source of the sadness is somewhere else.

Always sensitive to my own moods, I went through several stages of grief with this free trial. For the first week or so, I was adding stuff to sample, things I’d normally skank from YouTube or steer clear of. The new McCartney album, for example. I’d normally not muster much interest, but I gave it a listen. Quite good, I thought, for a Paul McCartney album. But as Greil Marcus (?) once said of Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, it’s good in the way that, say, Elton John is good, and when you’re Paul McCartney/Bob Dylan, that’s simply not good enough. So you give it a listen, and you think, litotically, not bad. And then you think, but will I ever listen to any of it ever again? And you think, no. No I won’t.

So then I stopped adding things, because it made me sad and I was wasting my time, and I felt reluctant to play any of the stuff I had added, because it felt artificial somehow, like I’d been placed in a simulation of my life in which I had access to things I was only vaguely interested in but that all the things I really loved were behind some kind of glass wall, tantalisingly close but unavailable.

It was as if I was thinking, well I’ve got this trial, see, so I’m obligated to ignore you, all my hard-won musical friends, and hang around with these mere acquaintances, just because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

As if the music collection I’d painstakingly built up over 40+ years had less value than this free stuff that was streaming like diarrhoea from the arse of a corporation that presumed, using maths, to know better than me what I would like.

Because music should be famine, not feast. Having taste means filtering out all the mediocrity to find the good stuff, not sticking a hose in your mouth and turning on the tap.

So then I stopped playing most of what Apple Music was offering and went back to my own owned and downloaded music. Because the reality is that over the month or so I’ve been on the trial there have been precisely three songs that have appeared that I intend to download/buy when I cancel the trial.

This isn’t just my problem. This is everyone’s problem. I genuinely fear we’re doing something horrible to ourselves with this always-on, everything-available culture. We’re already closely resembling those infantilised fat people living on out in space in the Pixar movie Wall•E. The hosepipe is streaming into our gaping maw and we really should fumble for the tap and turn it off.

Vicarious Road Trip

Lake Meredith, near Fritch, Texas
Lake Meredith, near Fritch, Texas

Back in my 20s, when I had my first, badly paid, job, I would indulge often in fantasy road trips. One of my favourite reading genres was the drive-across/around-America journal, from Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie to William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways via Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and of course, variously, Kerouac. North America wasn’t my only fantasy. I also pored over the maps and pages of Slow Boats to China and dreamed of booking a ticket on the Orient Express.

In 1983, I did embark on a European road trip, taking the 24-hour ferry to Spain and then motorcycling (as pillion) up from Santander to Rotterdam. It was around 2000km (1200 miles), and it taught me a few things about myself. First of all, my dreams of sea voyages and slow travel were shattered by the immediate sea sickness I experienced on the ferry. Not only could I not sleep in the cabin we’d booked, but I was barely able to stand upright. I spent the crossing horizontal on the deck of the ship. The second thing was that I (specifically my bowels) really don’t like roughing it, so wild camping was most definitely out of my life.

I did eventually meet America, in the summer of 1992, when I spent some weeks at the University of Illinois as part of my first degree. And it was there I learned a few more things about myself that crushed my travel fantasies for good. The first was that I got startlingly homesick, hated being away from my Common European Home. The homesickness had its roots in a hatred of the local food and the hopelessly parochial American media, as well as the dysfunctional relationships within my small group of Nottingham University students. Then there was the humidity, the mosquitoes, and have I mentioned how awful the food was?

The greatest blow was my own inability to have money in sufficient quantity to finance even the most basic road trip. Even if I could stand the food and the weather, even if I didn’t mind roughing it, I couldn’t afford it. Even with an “unlimited” visa stamped in my passport, I was screwed.

And so I flew home. Give me a European street with a European tram and a European bicycle, thank you please.

My oldest daughter is off to Copenhagen in September, to start an MA, and I envy her that excitement and couldn’t be prouder of all she’s achieved so far. Meanwhile, my youngest, 18, is currently in a small state park in middle of the New Mexico desert, on the road trip of a lifetime with a friend she met last year in Germany.

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I’d have suggested that my introverted youngest, who is so similar to me she might be a clone, would suffer homesickness, just like her dear old dad. But no. A month on her own in Germany last year, and she seemed to transform into a funny and confident, sociable and sophisticated world traveller.

So she started planning her US road trip, which concerned me. I was afraid it would be too expensive, too dangerous, that she wouldn’t be able to deal with being so far from home, or that the car would overheat in the desert, that she would end up crushed and disappointed when the trip didn’t happen. I suggested the Amtrak option, something involving less driving, more staring out of train windows. Meanwhile, she got up on weekends at 5 a.m. for the best of two years, and saved half of everything she earned. In the end, she not only had the money for the plane tickets, but was able to book accommodation and have gas money too.

Cadillac Ranch, near Amarillo, Texas
Cadillac Ranch, near Amarillo, Texas

A week later, and she’s already in her third time zone, and has sent back extraordinary photographs from an itinerary chosen as much as possible to fit her own nerdy agenda: locations inspired by Bob Dylan, The Band or Bruce Springsteen, or civil war battles, or books (Big Sur, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee). It’s all the more incredible when you consider that many of her school contemporaries were looking forward to a hedonistic week in Spanish nightclubs and bars.

On the subject of extraordinary photographs: she has a Nikon film camera with her, but the pictures we’re getting back are being taken on an iPhone 7. And what a brilliant bloody camera it is. It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that. I’m uploading the pictures to my Flickr account, so I can vicariously take the credit for this vicarious road trip.

Loco Motion

Copenhagen: better than here

There have been a few airport trips this week, relating to the kids and their near-future plans. Most of my long-distance driving over the past few years has taken place (a) in the middle of the night; and (b) in France, but this week I’ve seen Britain’s drivers raw in tooth and claw. French drivers have their own issues, but British drivers are awful in unique ways. I blame the class system.

I’m old enough to remember the days before the M25 was a thing, when the North Circular was London’s main péripherique, and when we still called Heathrow London Airport and nobody was used to the idea that Gatwick was also a London Airport. The M25 was an orbital designed by vested interests, and was built with a rat in its foundations. To be effective, this round-London route should only have junctions with other major motorways: nine of them, plus the two ends that meet at the Dartford crossing. But because it was built with 31 junctions, it has always been used by local traffic. Furthermore, because there were so many fucking junctions, as with any ring-road, a process of in-filling took place, with warehouses and shopping centres, and other businesses locating themselves conveniently close and adding to the traffic.

The perceived wisdom is that it has never had enough capacity. Built with 3 lanes per carriageway, it now has 4 for most of its length, and in places there are 5 and even six. Of course, every time the 4 drops down to 3, there’s a pinch point, a bottleneck, and the traffic grinds to a halt. The Highways Agency spent billions installing so-called “smart motorway” technology, and introduced variable speed limits, which are of course largely ignored and stop-start concertina traffic is the norm.

It’s grim down South.

Much of this travesty was carved into areas of outstanding natural beauty, but how people endure living down there, I don’t know. It’s a choking Ballardian dystopia of stress, aggression, and recklessness. It’s no better in the towns just off the motorway than it is on the actual road. And of course, it’s much worse in the summer because there is always more traffic on the road in summer, and more roadworks, and more accidents, and more bombed-out drivers with matchsticks holding their eyes open. Even the road surface of the Southern M25 is a nightmare: slabs of concrete with expansion joints, and a flubber of rubber on the corrugated road that continually feels as if you’ve got a flat tyre.

When the going is clear, Gatwick is just 1 hour and 45 minutes from where I live. On Monday I managed the total journey in about 4 hours, which was not too bad*, adding just half an hour of sitting in slow-moving traffic. On the Thursday leg, however, there were accidents everywhere and the there-and-back journey took 5 hours and 30 minutes. This adds up two two extra hours sitting in a low gear, breathing diesel particulates and observing the terrible behaviour of other road users.

At one point, the driver of a red van got road rage as I pulled into his lane (because the lane I’d been in was becoming an exit); he angrily pursued me, moved into the lane outside me and then drove parallel to me, hoping I suppose to scream through two layers of glass into my face. All the while, he’s more focused on the perceived slight of someone getting in front of him than he was on his own safety and that of others around him. Me? I just pulled in front of him again: he was so intent on intimidating me that he left another gap in front.

Another driver, a woman in a red BMW, got bent out of shape at one point when two lanes were filtering into one. There’s a clear protocol here: merge in turn. Only she didn’t want to, and further down the road, almost pulled recklessly into oncoming traffic because she wanted to take a short cut (?) to the roundabout ahead. Steam, presumably, coming out of her ears. Male, female, van, car, motorbike: people are driving around like maniacs and it’s not safe out there. I mean, do motorcyclists think we see them in our mirrors as they flash between lanes of traffic? You can’t be looking in your side mirror all the time, for fucksake. 

Saw a woman just tonight, driving a car coming towards me and tapping away at the screen of her phone whilst also barely controlling her steering wheel. Hope the kids in the nearby school feel safe.

But in all of this, quite the most bizarre and irrational habit is what happens when there isn’t standing traffic. When the traffic flows, or starts to, some people still just sit in the same lane. Traditionally, this is the middle lane. When the lane count rises to five, however, the lane they’re hogging is the fourth one, and there are often three more or less empty lanes on their inside. So of course then people start overtaking on these inside lanes, which is dangerous but understandable. A moment’s inattention, and everybody is sitting in a jam again.

My oldest daughter was in Copenhagen: a capital city where you see children, where there are ramps for bikes in the underground stations, where there is as much space given to pedestrians and cyclists as there is to cars: sounds like paradise.

*It was still horrible, but everything is relative

The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn

My reaction to the news of this book, back in 2013 when it was first published in hardback, was probably not uncommon: does the world really need another book about The Beatles? I had read so many, from the Hunter Davies authorised biography that was published before they even broke up to the lush hagiography of the Anthology doorstopper. And so I noted this and ignored it, thinking both that I knew it all and that my interest in the subject had been saturated long ago. Furthermore, I was convinced that of all the things about The Beatles, the stuff about them before they were famous was the least interesting. This book only takes us to the end of 1962, and I didn’t think I’d want to know any more about this period.

But Lewisohn’s forthcoming stage show about Abbey Road prompted me to look – and think – again. And now I don’t have to have yet another huge tome creaking on the already overloaded bookshelf, now I can just whack it on the Kindle, I decided to give it a read.

It will not come as a shock to anyone who has read this that I was wrong: the world definitely needed this book about The Beatles. When you read, in other biographies, They grew up in Liverpool; or, Ringo came from one of the rougher parts of town; or, Paul and John met at a church fete, John was impressed that Paul could play “Twenty Flight Rock” – when you read lines like that, you have no idea how much more you could know, not just in terms of trivia, but in terms of a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation of just what The Beatles achieved. As David Hepworth is fond of saying, The Beatles are underrated. And when you read this book, you understand just how profoundly true that is.

I mean, the old line that gets trotted out, that record companies turned them down, saying, “Guitar groups are over”: that’s just something we’ve accepted all these years. But ask yourself: what guitar groups? There were the Shadows, and, um? Look at the pop chart for the end of December 1961, the week before the Beatles’ recording test at Decca. Here is a list: Danny Williams; Frankie Vaughan; Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen; Sandy Nelson; Pat Boone; Acker Bilk; Russ Conway; Bobby Vee; Petula Clark; Neil Sedaka.

Sure, there were no guitar groups, but not because they were “over”: because they had never been. There were solo artists, instrumental groups, even vocal groups, but there were no bands. There were no artists who both played instruments and sang. With harmonies. Who wrote their own songs. Decca turning The Beatles down was akin to the robot in Westworld, programmed to say, “It doesn’t look like anything to me.” It was because The Beatles were so new, so different, perhaps, that the people at Decca couldn’t even see what they were. They were hors categorie.

And so this book. I’m 56, and I’ve been listening to the Beatles almost all my life. One of my earliest memories is of running home from primary school with the guitar riff from “I Feel Fine” running through my head: my first involuntary musical imagery, my first earworm. My favourite Beatles record is still Beatles for Sale, because that was the one that was already in the house when I was growing up. And the first record I ever bought with my own money was The Beatles 1967–1970. What I’m trying to say is, I peaked early with The Beatles. By the time I was 18, I’d listened to so much, from the dodgy Star Club December 1962 recordings onwards, that I was positively steeped in Beatle lore. My clothes stank of The Beatles, like a 40-a-day smoker. And then, just as I turned 18, Lennon was killed, and I dived deeper.

I know the story like you know the story of King Arthur or Robin Hood. It’s part of the founding mythos of these islands, as fundamental to us as Plymouth Rock is to the USA, only with fewer genocides. So it would be impossible for Mark Lewisohn to make me read this book as if I didn’t already know the story, to read it as if it really was touch and go, that they might not make it, that the peril was real.

But I did.

To read this is to be immersed in 1950s Liverpool, Hamburg in the early 60s, to feel the precarious weight of every single event. But Pete’s not a very good drummer: what are they going to do? George Martin really isn’t very impressed and doesn’t like “Love Me Do”: is that it, then? Have they missed their chance?

I can pay no greater compliment to this book than to say – as I read the climactic chapter, the account of the recording of their second single, in their third session (with Ringo) at Abbey Road (and as my daughter played Blonde on Blonde in the room behind me: a marvel that came along less than 4 years later) – as I got to the line I knew was coming, when George Martin flicked the switch on the talkback microphone and said,

‘Gentlemen, you’ve just made your first number 1 record.’

Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In (p. 808). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.

that tears sprang spontaneously into my eyes.

So now I join the legions of George RR Martin fans in demanding the immediate publication of the next volume. Will it ever appear? Has he lost the plot? Will he die before it’s finished? What is he doing organising a stage show when he has a bloody book to write? Etc.