Saturday, April 21, 2007

Separated at Birth: Rolling down the road, best notify my next of kin


Top: L: Blackhawk #56 (September 1952), art by Reed Crandall
R: The Amazing Spider-Man #183 (August 1978), art by Ross Andru and Ernie Chan (?)
Bottom: L: Blackhawk #252 (November 1982), art by Dave Cockrum
R: Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew #16 (June 1983), art by Scott Shaw!
(Click picture to Goodyear-size)


Friday, April 20, 2007

Bully's Book Club: Trains and Buttered Toast

Bully's Book Club





I love trains, especially those steaming towards exotic locales like Chipping Camden, Bovey Tracey or Barton in the Beans—even if it's just slowly chugging around the Circle Line in an anti-clockwise direction taking me from Blackfriars to Bayswater. I love buttered toast, especially with a hot mug of sweet milky tea, or, if you want a little more filling brekkie, a nice slice of gammon and some savory cheese. I love John Betjeman, cranky Poet Laureate of Britain (1972-1984), not only for his wonderful accessible but deep poetry but for his sheer love and enthusiasm for British history, culture, and architecture—especially in his sublime TV documentary Metro-land (how much do I love Metro-land? I love Metro-land so much that when I was in the UK over Christmas I bought a copy on DVD even tho' I don't have a region 2 DVD player. Yes, I'm saving up for a region-free player as we now speak.) I love books, especially on Britain. That makes Trains and Buttered Toast: Selected Radio Talks by John Betjeman a four-layered cream bun of rich Britishy goodness. It was one of the last things I bought as a souvenir of my London Christmas trip: I hadn't seen it on all my dozens of visits in London bookshops over ten days until the very last moments, when it caught my eye on an endcap in the same Heathrow Airport Borders where I bought the Spike Milligan book. And on my flight back, in between waiting for the Doctor Who "The Christmas Invasion" episode to cycle around on the in-flight mini-telly so I could watch it for a second time, I dived into Trains and Buttered Toast and its celebration and wistful memories of England made me miss Britain even more.

Betjeman's stature as national icon and beloved preserver—sometimes successful, often unsuccessful—of the traditions, ideas, and monuments of an England gone is something I'd admired for a long time: he was in the arts news frequently during my very first extended visit to the UK towards the tale end of his lengthy tenure as Poet Laureate, and on a whim I picked up, for what a pencil mark inside the front cover tells me was 20p, a battered and turn Penguin copy of his selected poems. I'm not a huge poetry reader (Edward Lear is more my style than Nick Flynn), but time and again I'd find myself turning back to this book and (in an unusual move for book-preserver me) dog-earing pages with poems I especially loved, like "How to Get On In Society":
Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.

Are the requisites all in the toilet?
The frills round the cutlets can wait
Till the girl has replenished the cruets
And switched on the logs in the grate.

It's ever so close in the lounge dear,
But the vestibule's comfy for tea
And Howard is riding on horseback
So do come and take some with me

Now here is a fork for your pastries
And do use the couch for your feet;
I know that I wanted to ask you—
Is trifle sufficient for sweet?

Milk and then just as it comes dear?
I'm afraid the preserve's full of stones;
Beg pardon, I'm soiling the doileys
With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.
Your mileage may vary, of course. But I take comfort in poetry about tea-cakes much more than any lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'ing or Wordsworth's bloody daffodils.

Trains and Buttered Toast is a compact but extensive anthology of radio talks Betjeman gave for the BBC, both celebratory and inspirational (that's inspirational in the esthetic sense, not necessarily in the religious sense, although there's a few spiritual ones in here), but he's no gusher (probably the first time the words "gusher" and "Betjeman" have been used in the same sentence, huh?): he's frequently cranky and curmudgeonly about the culture and the people even while he celebrates them, scolding Brits for vacationing here instead of there, for flocking to this artist instead of reading this book, for surrounding the glorious gothic beauty of King's Cross Station with ugly construction work (which was present in Christmas 2006, either still or again, proving his point perfectly). The BBC (another one of my favorite institutions, despite its stubbornness in refusing to re-run The Goodies) was and still is a very different broadcasting beast than those in American then or now: a semi-occasional series of talks on whatever the heck Betjeman felt like talking about that week proved very successful mainly due to the circumstances and his times: in a country where broadcasting is often heavily regionalized, he was carried on the closest thing to absolute coast-to-coast radio: he broadcast on a mixture of all three BBC wireless networks, the Light Programme (now Radio One), the Home Service (now Radio Two) and the Third Programme (now Radio Five...er, Radio Three.) Speaking to a pre-WWII and World War audience on his obsession with Britain in miniature—his likes and dislikes in art, literature, traditions, and even whole British towns was, although it came from the Oxford-educated Betjeman, well-received across England in an age when "Britishness" became important not only as a way of thinking to preserve one's pride and sanity under the spectre of war, but a way to approach the ever-decreasing barriers between the social classes. Those barriers would never truly go away (and today seem to manifest themselves in racial and immigrant barriers, but as Hitler loomed, lower-, middle-, and upper-class took comfort in the idea of England's green and pleasant, and Betjeman writing and talks were valuable inspiration.

He writes of casual and stoic calm during the Blitz
Then I think of a story someone told me during the Battle of Britain....She had to go and judge a Woman's Institute competition for the best-decorated table centre in a village in Kent. Bombs and aeroplanes were falling out of the sky, guns thundered and fragments of shell whizzed about. 'I am afraid we have not everybody here,' said the Head of the Institute. 'You see, several of our members had to be up all night—but we have quite a little show all the same.' And there they were: the raffia mats, the bowls of bulbs, the trailing ends of smilax writhing round mustard and pepper pots. God be praised for such dogged calm.
He writes of seaside resorts and the chalk downs, church clocks and modest post offices, lush gardens and afternoon tea, crumbling garden walls with the afternoon sun shining on the mossy stones. Take a deep breath as you read and you can smell the roasted hot potatoes and taste the warm bitter beer he sings of, hear the chirps of fussy commuters and sharp-tongued conductors, feel the soft elegance of a newly blocked silk hat or a cricket bat in your hands. Diane Ackerman, best writer on the senses? Pfui. Give me Betjeman and his osmyrrah of the senses anyday; give me twittering British songbirds and the lap of waves on stony beaches and the deep calls of church bells and that warm stale blast of air as a Tube train approaches and noontime lunches on the village green and winding white roads and Bourton-on-the-Hill and Iwerne Minster and Canons Ashby and Bag Enderby. Give me England, and give me it through the eyes of John Betjeman, and I'm happy beyond words.

As I've been pointing out all week, you can buy this book in Bully's Book Club by clicking on the picture to the right, but as the kids today might say, ZOMG! Twenty-two clams and a month-long wait for delivery? Better instead to zip over the international internet to Amazon.co.uk to pick up the British edition for about eighteen bucks (five to seven bucks shipping) and have it in a couple weeks. If you're sensibly watching your pence and pounds, the paperback edition will be out in about a month and a half for a shade under thirteen bucks. (With the money you save you can pick up this wonderful collection of his poetry, too!)

My little stuffed common sense tells me that much of what I love about Britain is from fiction: it is the England of Agatha Christie or Passage to Pimlico, the London of Michael Bond, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and P. G. Wodehouse that made me fall in love with the place, its people and its traditions. What Betjeman shows me is that that fantasy is rooted in fiction, that there were places where the vicar served marmalade sandwiches on the church lawn during fetes, where the postman's knock was a cheery thing, where trains might run to remote villages smack-dab on schedule but only once a week. I generally try not to heavily reference or quote Wikipedia ("The Dictionary You Can Scribble In"), but in researching a few things to say about Betjeman in this review I came across this gem of a sentence: "It has been astutely observed that Betjeman's poetry provides the reader with a skeleton key to a long lost past which he will instantly recognize even if he were never there." Spot-on. But not just his poetry, folks; immerse yourself in this warm and friendly book to find the Britain you always loved. Boil up the kettle, pop down the sliced bread, and get ready to settle back with a little slice of England, even if you can't make the journey.

PS: This is my six hundredth post on this blog. Thanks for reading!


Please stand by



A brief bout under the weather means I'm behind on my daily posting, but I haven't forgotten about you, folks: the final two book reviews in "Bully's Book Club Week" will be posted this weekend (Two guys in glasses! Buttered toast!). Until then, please send chicken soup.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bully's Book Club: And It's Goodnight from Him...: The Autobiography of The Two Ronnies

Bully's Book Club

I never can remember which is which.


Ghost-written celebrity biographies! Where would we, and the publishing industry, be without 'em? Nowhere, that's where! They're not...

Whoa, déjà vu, man. Let me start again.

Around the same time PBS stations in the US started running Monty Python's Flying Circus and Doctor Who, another, less high-profile, but equally important British import came to America: The Two Ronnies, the long-running comedy sketch show from ITV. Less surreal and more grounded in the British music-hall tradition than Python, less bawdy (tho' still sometimes suggestive) than The Benny Hill Show, The Two Ronnies nevertheless had an immediate and faithful cult audience here in the US until re-runs stopped around the mid-eighties. Count me among the show's immediate fans: I loved the silly and irreverent humor and the obvious gleeful energy both Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett brought to their clever and tightly-written sketches, films, and monologues. Never seen 'em? Don't remember 'em? Watch and weep with joy, oh edamacated one:



I regularly howled with laughter at sketches like this: since Morecombe and Wise, nobody pulled off face to face comedy better than Ronnie Corbett (the small one in glasses) and Ronnie Barker (the tall one in glasses). They gave inspiration and rise to such later Brit comedy duos as Smith and Jones, Fry and Laurie, and French and Saunders, and were dearly beloved in the world of British comedy. But I have to admit that I kinda forgot about them after the show stopped running in the US. When Ronnie Barker died in 2005 I took note of it and remembered vaguely that I'd laughed at his work, but without the show running regularly in the US (hey, BBC America, get on the ball and put these back on), it was hard to remember exactly what the magic was all about.

Until I switched on the telly to ITV3 in my hotel room during my December holiday in London on Christmas Day, and there was little Ronnie Corbett, a lot older but still as casual and offbeat as ever, relaxing in his familiar armchair and introducing classic episodes of The Two Ronnies for a modern audience. For three days. A three day marathon! US TV and cable networks will occasionally run all-day marathons for a popular or classic series, but to devote an entire holiday long weekend—a period where British TV viewer ship is often at its highest, especially on Christmas Day when nothing is open...well, that's a sure sign of the popularity and respect for this classic series. Even more so because it still stands up. I perched on the hotel bed and watched hour after hour of classic Ronnies shows, some I remembered vaguely but which still delighted, many others I'd never seen. So when I wandered into the post-Christmas half-price sales at Waterstones the next day I didn't blink my little button eyes twice when I spotted Ronnie Corbett's autobiography and memoir of his long friendship and working partnership with Ronnie Barker, titled after their familiar show sign-off: And It's Goodnight from Him...

Like the Billie Piper autobio, Corbett's book has some professional help: it's written "with" David Nobbs, a pretty famous name in the British comedy field himself: he created and wrote The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and authored three very funny novels based on the show (I really must dig those out of my storage boxes and read 'em again!) as well as writing sketches and scripts for not only The Two Ronnies but many big name British comedians. Corbett himself isn't a professional writer (he didn't even write much for the show itself), but he was an excellent humorist, and Nobbs has shaped And It's Goodnight into what sounds uncannily like one of Corbett's traditional show bits where he'd sit in his chair and tell a rambling but rib-tickling monologue. The voice is pitch-perfect, so much that you can imagine Corbett actually just sat down in the pub with Nobbs and told his story. (It sure would like to have picked up the book on CD of this now that I've read it. Maybe next time.)

The book's billed as an autobiography, but "An Autobiography of the Two Ronnies," not of Ronnie Corbett. Corbett's early life gets a brisk chapter and a half and then we're thrust right into the stuff we want to read about: how the two British comedians got together and started their partnership. Like the Spike Milligan book I reviewed on Monday, it's peppered with the big names that made British comedy of the time: David Frost, John Cleese, Dick Emery, Tommy Docherty, Max Wall...but where it excels is in the wonderful recapturing of what made The Two Ronnies work: those amazing sketches. This is a very funny book not only because it reprints dozens of those classic sketches and references dozens more. Visual or TV comedy on the printed page is often tough to pull off, so Corbett was smart in teaming with a proven comedy and book writer to help him translate and put into context this tricky aspect of writing a comedy book. Corbett/Nobbs sidestep the problems easily and gracefully: the sketch transcripts are integrated into discussions of the physical and historical evolution of the show, and even the non-transcripted reminiscences are fully developed so you laugh at the comedy even without reading its actual words. It's a fast read but with a good deal more history and scope than, say, the Billie Piper book, and unlike hers, it has a sad air of being a completed story as it ends with the death of Ronnie B. in 2005. In other words, I bought it for the comedy but I loved it for the friendship: a touching and cheerful story of two entertainment partners who, as far as Ronnie C. tells us and the scuttlebutt in the industry goes, never once had an argument with each other. I know I miss Ronnie B., but the sense of loss and empathy for Ronnie C. at the death of his best friend is amazingly and subtly well-drawn.

Want to buy the book? Well, unlike the previous volumes of Bully's Book Club this week, it's not available on Amazon.com. But you can (all chime in together) order it from overseas from Amazon.co.uk, where it'll set you back about twenty dollars plus five to seven bucks shipping—much less if you can find a used copy from a Marketplace seller who'll ship to America. Seriously, if you started reading this entry and said to yourself, "Self, I sure do remember The Two Ronnies. They were great but I haven't thought about them in years," then pick up this book and reacquaint yourself with the small one with glasses and the big one with glasses.

The best compliment I can give a show business bio is that I come away from this book not only with a great appreciation of The Two Ronnies but a burning desire to see their work again. I was lucky to see many episodes over three days in London, but if you're in the US now, you may not have the same chance. There's not even a current Region 1 DVD release of their work—seriously BBC, get on that right away! Thank the big guy with the glasses in the sky for YouTube however, so sit back and watch Ronnie Corbett impersonate one of the most famous British comic strip characters ever:


Now, anybody remember Dave Allen? What I wouldn't give to see his shows again...


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bully's Book Club: Growing Pains by Billie Piper

Bully's Book Club



Ghost-written celebrity biographies! Where would we, and the publishing industry, be without 'em? Nowhere, that's where! They're not high art, but boy golly, they're as addictive as peanuts covered in peanut butter inside a larger peanut shell. Without them, where would the remainder tables of tomorrow be? But I kid the ghost-written celebrity biography. If you can suspend your disbelief over Joan Collins or Millie the Dog type-type-typing away, some of them are actually pretty entertaining. But hey, those books are for celebrities with long careers measured in dozens of dog-years. And Millie was pretty old too. (Haw!) What the heck could an autobiography by a twenty-four year old tell us?

Well, aside from the promise that maybe someday she'll be able to write another book covering years twenty-five through thirty-two, Billie Piper's Growing Pains is actually pretty entertaining. There's no great revelations here: being a teen pop star is a real rush! Going on crash diets is pretty stupid! David Tennant is dead sexy! But like Planet Earth, you can whip through this in a couple hours, set it aside or send it to the vicar's jumble sale and declare it "mostly harmless." If you're looking for an in-depth and extensive history of Billie's couple years on Doctor Who, well, you'll get a little short-shrifted: her Who career is the last quick forty pages of the book and offers no extraordinary surprises (well, maybe her bawdy pet nickname for David Tennant may cause a quick blush). The bulk of the book covers her early years, singing career and brief but dangerous decline into the fast world of drugs and drinking relatively young. Billie's guileless naiveté aside, I actually enjoyed these sections quite a bit, especially the inside story of her being groomed in the immediate post-Spice Girls world as a pop princess alongside young stars B*Witched, Take That and the ultimate gold ring: Britney Spears's popularity. I enjoy BritPop music, even the relatively fluffy and disposable bubblegum like Billie's, and it's a fairly interesting inside look at how she was shaped and guided into her career, only able to rebel and shape her own life in her late teens. I'm a big fan of the concept of "NuBritain" that rose with Tony Blair and was best exemplified by the Spice Girls (seriously, is there a more fun movie about five girls racing to their big gig in a double-decker bus than Spice World? No, there is not.) and Billie Piper was right at the middle of NuBritain. In other words: Growing Pains is no The Last Lion, but it's as fun and fast-paced an inside look at Cool Britannia as we're likely to get. At least until Rachel from S Club 7 writes commissions her autobio.

I'm a big fan of Billie Piper, and not simply for her stellar work on Doctor Who. Months before I first saw the premier of the Ninth Doctor on BBC America, that Anglophile network was running an entertaining series of updated Shakespeare plays; Billie played Hero, a role smaller than the pivotal Benedick and Beatrice roles but still absolutely vital to have a sunny and sweet actress who can also convincingly pull off an agonizingly despairing betrayal scene. She impressed me immensely, and it was only later that I put the actress and the cheerful pop singer of "Honey to the B" on my iPod together as one and the same. But really, the reason we all noticed her—and the reason she's popular enough to warrant a book contract—is the role of Rose Tyler on Doctor Who. I loved the new Who from the first night I saw it, with its quirky, action-edged Doctor, fantastic twenty-first century special effects, eloquent and entertaining dialogue, a solid script by Russell Davies that modernized the Doctor's adventures but not at the expense of its long rich legacy, and the wonderful London-centric setting. And I liked Rose Tyler, the Doctor's new companion, a lot. But it wasn't until the series's second episode where Billie Piper pulled off two scenes that, handled slightly heavier or lighter, could have been maudlin or overdone: a young girl in her late teens, looking out across space at her home planet thirty minutes before its destruction, very much missing her mom billions of years in the past, and an inquisitive and friendly girl making friends with a space station worker who's used to people ignoring her. Solid scripts, great direction, clever special effects and fantastic thrills will keep you coming back to Doctor Who week after week, but it's Billie Piper as Rose Tyler that brings heart and soul to the adventures of a 900-year-old Time Lord. No disrespect meant to the amazing Companions of the past like Sarah Jane, Tegan, Ace, Romana, and Leela, but Rose's close relationship to the Doctor is a wonder to watch: teasing, challenging, blossoming into love, at the same time she brings a depth to her layered relationships with her mother, her boyfriend, and even her dead father. I've not yet seen any episodes of the third series of Who and I'm very much looking forward to Freema Agyeman, but Billie Piper will always hold a special place in my little stuffed heart.

This is no grand high literature, folks. Billie whips through sections of her life so quickly that at times you'll be flipping back a few pages scratching your head and wondering "She's on drugs? When did that start?" There's a little too much of the rah-rah "true love will save you" sentimentality and it's somewhat shoddily and spottedly edited and proofread ("Christopher Ecclestone"?), but hey, in the end Growing Pains delivers pretty much what you want from a celebrity autobio: a breezy, fast read, a light-hearted, frothy style and an enthusiastically optimistic show business success story. You can buy it from the Amazon.com link on the right, but once again you may wind up saving a wee bit of time and money by going direct to Billie's home country and ordering it from Amazon.co.uk. It'll run you about twenty-five bucks plus five to seven dollars postage...much, much less if you can find an Amazon.co.uk Marketplace seller who's selling off their used copy. (While you're on Amazon, you could do worse than to pick up this CD too!) One person who doesn't need to order this book is Eric Gjovaag, whom I promised to lend my copy. The book's in the mail, Eric...enjoy! The rest of you...what're you waitin' for? Go put some pounds in Piper's pocket!


Orange you glad you can read a Penguin?

Piqued by Penguins proceeding from my previous post? Here's some Penguins in my collection, books which bring not only delight and entertainment to a bullish reader but also brilliant and bright flashes of orange to any self-respective bookshelf. In other word, these are a few of my favorite Penguins:


I've said before, I'll say again: I believe P. G. Wodehouse is the finest writer in English literature of the twentieth century. Even if you scoff and scold at my admittedly bull-headed opinion, you can't deny that his books are among the most fun! They're fun to add to my large Wodehouse collection, too, especially since so many of them are in Penguin editions!


One of the prides of my Wodehouse collection is this Penguin paperback reprint of The Inimitable Jeeves: a title that was among one of the first Wodehouses I ever read and bought. I still have that edition with its faded orange spine and delightful Ionicus cover illustration, but when I saw this older Penguin in the classic all-typography format in a used bookstore (now sadly closed) in Gloucester Road in London, I just had to have it. The Inimitable Jeeves is top of the top: it features one of the finest comics stories of literature, "The Great Sermon Handicap."

Graham Greene has learned the first lesson in not being seen: not to stand up.
More London bookshopping, but slightly more recent: I survey a tray of assorted used Penguins of differing vintage at the Waterloo Bridge Book Fair on the South Bank of the Thames. Irony alert: the whole purpose of me going to this open air book stall was to look for Penguin editions of Graham Greene, and I didn't find one. Until I later examined my photo more carefully...and realized there had been one right at my hooftips, in the lower right hand corner. If it'd been a real Penguin it'a bit me.

Tiny Penguins just my size
For the sixtieth anniversary of the firm, Penguin issued "The Penguin 60s": a large collection of slim, tiny paperbacks featuring a short story or two or a brief excerpt from a book to commemorate and celebrate their long history and range of authors and titles. These all cost 60 pence (99 cents in the US) which, to a bull who is very careful with his dimes, was very good value for money. I didn't collect the whole set (I never did get the Grant Naylor Red Dwarf one!), and several other series in this format were published over the following few years. The perfect stocking stuffer or gift for your friends who have short attention spans.

Oroboros.
Penguins about Penguins are the best Penguins at all! I've already written in-depth in my last post about the delightful Penguin Special, but I also recommend Penguin by Design, a colorful picture history of Penguin's unparalleled book designs and groundbreaking advances in typography: a beautiful and informative book. We as comic book fans swear allegiance to DC or Make Mine Marvel, but in the world of trade books, it's seldom that you can express a love and admiration for a publishing company rather than simply its authors. Penguin is one of those grand firms that always made me want to work in publishing. Thank you, Allen Lane, for being an inspiration to this little stuffed bull!



Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bully's Book Club: Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane

Bully's Book Club



For somebody like me who loves books, there is nothing quite as delight-on-delight satisfying as a book about books: the Double-Stuf Oreo of publishing. I was chuffed as a chicken to come home from my Christmas London holiday with Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane by Jeremy Lewis under my arm:—a big, detailed but brisk history of Penguin Books (and its founder Allen Lane): those little orange pocket paperbacks that changed the history of publishing forever when they were introduced in England in 1935. Like the BBC and the London Underground, Penguins are a quintessentially English innovation that as much defined the society of pre- and especially post-War Britain as they did the book trade.

It's not big secret to regular Bully-readers that when I'm not readin' comics or playin' hopscotch or doin' jigsaw puzzles or pettin' my kittycat, I run up and down the halls at a Certain Biggish New York Publishing Company and do my best to sell our books to the outside world so you can all read 'em. Suspend the conventional wisdom that I am six-and-a-half years old when I tell you I've been working in the publishing world for more years than you've had hot dinners (this month, at least), and after a while in the trenches of being a book rep on the road and in the busy busy offices you sometimes feel like you know most everything there is about the world of publishing. Well, think again, Buster! Or should I say, Bully, because not only was this the most entertaining book I brought home from my London sojourn, it's also the most educational. I learned more about my chosen career in the several days of "can't put it down" devouring of Penguin Special than I have in...well, let's not say how many years.

Publishing in pre-War Britain was a lot different. In those days, publishing was (as it still is, sorta) big business, but with books having a lot less competition for entertainment attention and a good deal more prestige in society: the goings-on of literary gurus and big-name publishers were regular fodder for the daily newspapers. Aside from Judith Regan, has that happened much in modern times? (A: It has not.) But it was a world in which books were more luxuries than necessities: priced at shillings rather than pence. Paperbacks existed, but poorly designed and printed, pricey, and—hampered by publishers fearing lost sales of their more expensive hardcover editions—they featured subjects often more scholarly than popular. Allen Lane (born into a publishing company family that ran the prestigious legacy firm The Bodley Head) didn't create the paperback, but he made it a product of his time: he came up with the concept of the accesible and affordable sixpenny paperback, a book line that could appeal to all classes and economic backgrounds without sacrificing design standards, legibility, or entertainment potential. Sounds like a sure thing, right?

Easier said than done. Derided by naysayers and rival publishers, the immense risk Lane took in introduce a line of exceptionally inexpensive pocket-sized paperbacks might have been a massive bust, but instead created a boom in the industry that (eventually) all publishers would race to copy. Jeffrey Lewis has some wonderful anecdotes of how the venture nearly failed before being saved by Woolworth's shops, who ordered enough of the first batch of Penguins to save the firm—and who sold enough to make them the smash hit they became.

The most amazing thing about this orange-spined success story is how it likely could not have happened in any other stretch of history: Penguin Books were a "perfect storm" that caught the zeitgeist and capitalized on the twentieth century's massive sweeping changes in culture and society: a growing middle class following The Great War, the movement towards inexpensive and value-for-money entertainment during the lean years of the Blitz, the need to disseminate political and social warnings about Hitler and socialism to a large populace, the slow but distinct dissolve of the barriers between the upper, middle, and lower classes during the Second World War where different social levels huddled in air raid shelters or went off to the front lines together, the post-War period quest for self-improvement and a thirst for knowledge to bring about the Golden Albion promised by politicians: all of these were perfect fuel for a paperback novel or non-fiction book; all of these contributed to the expansion of Penguin into art, childrens', history, philosophy and world literature lines that still are regarded with awe and respect even in this age of mass publishing.

It's also a tale of a Golden Age past and done with: with little competition for entertainment to the masses aside from the all-popular wireless BBC programmes, reading commanded a larger percentage of consumer attention and spending than it does today. Lewis describes one of Lane's ultra-successful publishing events called "The Millions": Penguin reissued ten classic works by major authors at a time, in print runs of 100,000 each. Shaw, Waugh, D. H. Lawrence, Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon, among others, all got their own "Millions" promotion. Let me repeat that reprint figure, okay: One. Hundred. Thousand. Each. Keep in mind these were not ten new books but reprints of long-available Penguin paperbacks. Nowadays most reissues of paperbacks can have difficulty topping 5,000 in a print run, and you seldom want to risk overwhelming booksellers or consumers by bringing out more than a handful or reissues by one author at a time, so was Lane's plan successful? Bloody yes:
[Lane's] pleasure was still greater when, on the day of publication, the manager of W. H. Smith's in Baker Street rang to say that a seemingly interminable queue building up outside his shop did not consist of stranded commuters but eager buyers of Bernard Shaw. The Million sold out in six weeks.
Good gravy. That was a different, different world indeed.

There's wonderful characters from British modern history and the book world in here: Bernard Shaw and Agatha Christie were especial close friends of the firm and of Allen Lane, as well as delicious literary gossip that makes for fun "ah ha" moments: upset with what he felt was pedestrian treatment from his publisher The Bodley Head, Oscar Wilde named a dull butler character in The Importance of Being Earnest after Allen Lane's uncle John Lane. The details are incisive and the history is in-depth, all based on personal and company papers opened specially for this book, as well as interviews with remaining surviving early Penguin personnel. There's some wonderful sweeping bits in here about the looming presence of the American publishing juggernaut that would eventually threaten Penguin and change their long-running typography-only covers into paperbacks with artwork on the cover (loathed by Lane; he called American firm Pocket Books "Porno Books" for their lurid covers).

It's educational, too. Whether or not you're in the business of publishing, you'll learn a heck of a lot about the trade and how it works—or more accurately, worked, though Lane's hard-earned and strictly-adhered-to lessons in the book trade are still of value to publishers today (who sometimes ignore history at their own peril):
[Lane] went on to say that word of mouth was the most effective way to make a bestseller, and that books should only be advertised if they were being talked about...Lane would always regard expensive publicity as a waste of good money.
Jeremy Lewis writes with a wonderful tongue-in-cheek style, breezy and fast-paced, often with tart dry humor tucked in the middle of a seemingly-innocuous sentence:
An ex-marine, [Lane's butler] Knight lived in nearby Praed Street: he made tea in the morning, ran the all-important bath, cooked breakfast and an evening meal specializing in steak and kidney pies, did the housework and claimed, misleadingly, to be teetotal.
or
Adprint favored a firm in the Sudetenland, hardly the most suitable venue in 1938.
or
[A] party was held in the garden behind Pevsner's office in Gower Street in July 1949 to celebrate the fiftieth King Penguin: some penguins were brought in from the Zoo, one of which lost control and savaged a guest.
Do I recommend Penguin Special? Heck yeah, with bells on. Two hooves up. It's the most entertaining book I've read this year (and I read a bucketload) and it's likely to stay with me as a wonderful and colorful portrait of the publishing world. (You can buy it from Amazon.com using the link on the right, or order it direct from England using Amazon.co.uk: the UK edition'll run you about thirteen buckets plus five to seven dollars shipping, but you may get it a little faster than waiting for Amazon.com to find or import a copy for you.) If you're not working in the book world you'll enjoy it as a business success story, solid British history filled with colorful characters...but if you spend your days writing, or selling books, or publishing 'em...well, this book is about as close as you'll get to somebody throwing a party for your way of life and helping you to see it in a new light and appreciation for its history. After many years of being a publishers' sales rep, I was especially taken by this delightful portrait of an early working Allen Lane:
He enjoyed the cameraderie of the trade, the drinks and the gossip; like all the best publishers, he had a good memory for books published by rival firms as well as by The Bodley Head, and, without necessarily reading more than a page or two, had a shrewd sense of what books would, or would not, suit particular shops and buyers. His convivality, his readiness to combine business with pleasure, and his dashing good looks made him a popular figure in the trade; he thought most bookshops dreary and offputting, but his understanding of and liking for booksellers themselves—not always shared by the grander or more literary type of publisher, uneasy in the company of tradesmen—was to serve him well in the years ahead....Thirty years on, writing to thank an old colleague who had written to congratulate him on his knighthood, Lane looked back with a certain nostalgia. 'It is a far cry', he wrote, 'from the days when you and I traipsed the city streets trying to sell a few books, but I not sure that wasn't the about the happiest period of my life.'
When I am an old and grey and shaggy bull who's put in my full time at the firm and I'm ready to retire to my green fields, I can only wish for such an epitaph: he loved books. He loved publishing books. He loved selling books. And in the end, who wouldn't?


If you're interested in reading more about Spike Milligan...


(Click photo to Harry Secombe-size)


For those of you who expressed an interest in Spike Milligan and reading more about or by him...well, you got plenty books to choose from. Most aren't published in the US (try Amazon.co.uk). But most of all I recommend picking up a CD or cassette of The Goon Show so you can hear The Great Man at work. (Heck, you can even probably find files on P2P trading sites.) The Goon Show is an acquired taste, but I can't imagine life without Spike.


I can't have been the first to realize this, but...

52 ends in a few weeks. Its final issue will hit the stores on May Second.

5/2/07.

Five.

Two.



Monday, April 16, 2007

Bully's Book Club: Spike & Co.

Bully's Book Club


Hi hi hi, everybody! Welcome to Bully's Book Club! It's book review week here at the old bull-og, all day, every day. Which may bore some of you, but, hey, getcher own blog, complainey-guys! I'm not even talkin' comic book books—these are books with lotta words and only a few pictures, so they take a little longer to get through. And they're all about things British and English, so if you're not an Anglophile, your mileage (or kilometreage) may vary. But stick around! If you're not careful you may just learn somethin'.

Sitting on my "to read" shelf along with a bajillion Ian Rankin books and that Jonathan Lethem novel I keep meanin' to get to are most of the books I brought back from my British Christmas holiday, where I spent lots of time and pounds in lovely London bookshops. One of my favorites (or should that be "favourites"?) was actually a last-minute purchase at the extensive and bustling Heathrow Airport International Departures shopping centre, which includes a fairly densely-stocked Borders (formerly the Books Etc. chain), chock-full of all your last-minute gift and airplane reading needs. One of the quirky things I like best about buying books at Heathrow is the British publishing "airport exclusives," which are paperback editions of current just-released hardcovers: slightly lighter books perfect for airplane carrying at only slightly reduced prices. It was in Borders as I counted my last pocketful of chunky Queen-embossed pound coins that I finally picked up a book I'd been eyeing my whole vacation, a biography of my favorite comedian of 'em all, the brilliant and bristly Spike Milligan: Graham McCann's Spike & Co.: Inside the House of Fun with Milligan, Sykes, Galton & Simpson.

If you don't know Spike Milligan, why, my goodness, your life is poorer for it. He's best known as the writing and performing genius behind the brilliant and groundbreaking 1950s BBC radio comedy programme The Goon Show (which skyrocketed the careers of Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe): a silly, surreal, frantic, frenzied half-hour of anarchy punctuated by harmonica and jazz quartet musical numbers. The Goon Show is rightly considered as the first major modern cornerstone of post-war British comedy: without The Goon Show we wouldn't have gotten Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Young Ones, or stand-ups like Billy Connolly or Eddie Izzard...at least not quite in the form we roar with laughter at today. Aside from The Goon Show, Spike's done many other amazing radio, TV, book and film projects with varying levels of commercial and critical success. I've read many, many biographies and autobiographies of Spike. I highly recommend his multi-book War Memoirs (here's a one-volume compilation, but I recommend the single volumes starting here), which start fairly silly (but wonderfully fun) but by the later books have turned wistful, detailed, and in some places, terrifyingly shaking memories of life on the front lines of Italy and Africa in World War II that contributed to Spike's nervous breakdown and later emotional problems. I've read histories of The Goon Show and biographies of Secombe and Sellers and timelines of British comedy, but I've got to admit that even for being a very intense and fevered little stuffed Milligan fan, I wasn't really aware of another great contribution of Spike to the history of British comedy: his co-formation of one of the great writer's collectives of English entertainment, Associated London Scripts.

If you're a fan of or follow British comedy you'll likely know the other three names mentioned in the book's subtitle: Eric Sykes. Ray Galton. Alan Simpson. And Johnny Speight, who joined them shortly after. The four of them together are as important as The Beatles or even The Fantastic Four to the modern British entertainment industry. Sykes was one of the first big-name comedy writers who built up the careers of entertainers like Frankie Howerd before embarking on his own, years-before-Seinfeld, successful television acting career. Galton and Simpson created Steptoe and Son (later remade in America into Sanford and Son), the pioneering sitcom that brought social and familial problems to the flickering telly screen. Speight took that groundwork to the next level by creating Till Death Us Do Part, the inspiration for the American All in the Family, which addressed such concepts as racism, politics, feminism, and toilets for the first time to a popular audience. Just as post-War British art changed that world forever, the work being done by Associated London Scripts, by these men and the others in the collective, took a fledging medium and gave it a brave new social conscience at the same time as providing deep bellylaughs.

As I said, I'm a major Milligan fan, but I actually enjoyed the sections of the book on the other ALS members even more than the Spike chapters. I knew little or sketchy details about Sykes, Galton, Simpson and Speight, and it's a wonderful introduction to the dramatic way entertainment was changed and evolved through the fifties, sixties, and seventies. The organization of the book is clever and organic: McGann starts by walking us through the London office door of ALS as it would have been in its heyday, then chapter by chapter visits different "offices" to paint vivid and detailed pictures of these comedy geniuses one by one. McGann then returns in later chapters to follow up the men with their work: extensive sections on the major shows and writing springing from their frenzied big brains. There's a lot of other big names in here as well from the British comedy and entertainment worlds, working for or with ALS: bug-eyed genius Marty Feldman was a member for a while, as was Terry Nation, inventor of the Daleks. The Beatles and Brian Epstein, Michael Caine, British comedy icons The Two Ronnies, Tommy Handley, Kenneth Horne, Frank Muir and Dennis Norden, Hattie Jacques—they're in here too. If you know 'em, you'll enjoy seeing this little-covered sides of their entertainment careers. If you don't, this is a wonderful introduction to the workings of how genius comedy and entertainment got made. Above all, it's an amazingly entertaining and funny book, chock-full of excerpts from some of the great radio and television shows they had a hand in, plus McCann's light and lively tongue-in-cheek writing style gave me plenty of chuckles. I of course highly recommend this book if you're a Spike or Britcom fan, but even if you aren't read it for a better understanding of writers at work, hampered by social and political pressures but still producing amazing innovation.

Because of its very British focus, of course, it wasn't published over in the USA, and you're prob'bly not gonna find Spike & Co. at your local bookstore. If you're lucky enough to frequent a shop that stocks a good selection of British imports (like New York City's wonderful Shakespeare and Co.), they may be able to order it for you. In this day and age of the worldwide internetmajig, of course, those of you with DIY tendencies can click on the link at the right and order it from ever-eager Amazon.com. At the price and time for delivery Amazon.com is currently listing, however, you might actually be better going straight to London—virtual London, that is—by clicking on this Amazon.co.uk link and ordering it direct from England. Current exchange rates are a little less than two bucks per pound, so expect it to run you about twenty-six bucks and change plus five to seven bucks international postage. But you'll get it a lot faster; usually within a week to ten days a chunky brown cardboard parcel straight from Amazon.co.uk's Slough warehouse will land on your doorstep with a resounding thump and you'll be buried in the world of Spike and Company by teatime.

I chose this book to review not merely because it's been sitting on my bookshelf since I've come back from London waiting for me to write a few dozen words about it, but I specifically chose today to write about it because April 16 is Spike Milligan's birthday. He passed away in 2002, but he would have been 89 today. Curiously or karmically, it's also my mom's birthday today, and she's thankfully still with us. Spike taught me the value of laughter, as well as the joy of whimsy, anarchy, rhyme, silliness and surrealism. By no coincidence at all, my mom taught me the same lessons. Happy birthday to both Spike and Ma Bull, and needle nardle noo to all of you too. Vivat Milligna!


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Ten of a Kind: This Comic Is No Longer Mint





















(More Ten of a Kind here.)