Review: Track Record by Darren Campbell with Trystan Bevan

Darren Campbell is one of the fastest men in the world and has won Olympic Gold. I’m probably one of the slowest men in the world and know next to nothing about athletics. The Olympics though are unmissable, especially the mens’ sprints. Campbell achieved the zenith of his success in Athens 2004 leading the British 4x100m relay team to a stunning victory against the USA. The success of Darren at the peak of world sport is all the more impressive in that he came from very humble beginnings, growing up on the Sale Racecourse estate in Manchester, a stone’s throw from Gunchester and the violent poverty of Moss Side. His mother Marva raised him as a single parent. She settled in Manchester after emigrating from home in Jamaica, part of the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants who faced a lot of difficulties settling into British society. The sacrifice Darren’s mother made was surely revealing and I think she was responsible for paving the way to his success. From enrolling him in Sale Harriers at the age of 8 to patrolling the estate streets keeping tabs on gang culture, his mother always had his back and I think he is a strong character able to make a critical junctures in his life the correct choices. He has never forgotten his roots on the streets of Manchester and although the anger can sometimes be revealing as part of a negative character trait, to succeed in the face of adversity is clearly demonstrated in the meteoric rise to success that his career path as a professional athlete took him. An early shooting of a gang mate when Darren was a young man led him to flee to pastures new and get out of dodge, moving from Manchester down to sunny Newport in South Wales, where under the tutelage of an aspiring Colin Jackson he could concentrate his focus on running.
The strength in unity of the UK athletics professionals is stark and it is no surprise that team GB achieved so much during Darren’s era. He was soon being coached by legend Linford Christie and working in the same training camp as the likes of Jamie Baulch and Christian Malcolm. The whirlwind of globetrotting around international athletics events were a bit of a blur. Taking in Budapest, Sydney, Atlanta, and obviously Athens, we are shown an insider’s view of life on the track. Aside from the glamour of the very short time in which the races actually take in the spotlight of the stadium it is quite sobering gaining an understanding into the immense preparation a professional athlete faces. Being at training in the middle of winter or running up and down sand dunes to improve endurance it is definitely hard graft.
I particularly enjoyed Darren’s recounting of the special event in Sarajevo which was to show unity with the people of the Balkans who had suffered so much during the conflict of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. I think that Darren’s poignant words about the athletes that boycotted this event and the gifts it gave him in understanding humanity show a depth of character in him that he should further. He came from nothing and he can relate to the children of the warzone who have lost everything.
To me the most interesting part of the book was post career when he moved into coaching. The list of professionals he’s worked with during that time is pretty impressive. Moving through athletics into team sports such as rugby union and football, to have been called by Cardiff Blues to mentor Jonah Lomu and then by Chelsea to oversee Andrey Shevchenko’s form improvement clearly indicate how well revered Darren’s achievements in sport have been. He keeps giving his skills to others and is obviously a positive role model to many. I hope he can continue into his retirement achieving further life goals and that his business PAS, a successful sports nutrition company can continue to open doors for him in the future. As a side note in the epilogue he discusses health issues but these should be trivial for a man who can sprint 100m in 10 seconds to overcome and I hope that he can rebuild to full health and fitness to continue with his obviously cherished family life.
A good book to read for anyone with even the faintest interest in athletics and professional sport.

Review: How to Change the World – Tales of Marx and Marxism – by Eric Hobsbawm

This is the second Hobsbawm book that I have tackled and I find him to be a detailed, erudite, intelligent author and his obvious left-leaning politics readily assist him in compiling this study of Karl Marx and his work. The first part of the book looks directly at Marx’s work, specifically his writings with Engels. I’ve read the Communist Manifesto and faced a Marxist indoctrination in the social sciences whilst reading Geography at UCL in London. I like the revolutionary aspects of Marxism and do consider most of my day to day living to be quite Marxist in its constant desire to uproot society from the bottom up with a distant Utopian goal that is a fairer and more balanced society constantly in mind.
The second half of the book looks at the history of Marxism and its context in varied global ages. The Russian Revolution and Soviet Union are obviously important although for a lot of the book we look at Marxism in European socialist and communist parties. There are two chapters on Gramsci, the Italian who I must try and investigate further. Sometimes reading the book can get a bit tiring and it is very thorough in its detail. I’m going to tackle more Hobsbawm and would recommend this to anyone who wants an entry level understanding of Marxism.

Review: Prison Writing of Latin America by Joey Whitfield

Joey is a teacher of mine at MLANG in Cardiff University. This is his first book. It explores prison writing in Latin America and looks at abolitionism of the penal system and draws on some really rather delicate themes that expose the dark brutality of prisons in a developing continent where sometimes human rights can be totally thrown out of the window. There is a schism in the penal code between political prisoners and criminals and Joey looks at how these two groups affect each other’s progress through the system. Often it is the poorest and racially discriminated against that suffer the worst fates in the prison system. Poor, indigenous women victims of Reagan’s War on Drugs when Latin American governments need to satisfy captivity quotas in order to get their dollar funding are the ones which are locked away as they are easy targets for a corrupt police force. The first chapter looks at political writing within the prison system. I was totally blown away by the imprisoned Costa Rican author José León Sánchez. This man was a true victim of the system and was wrongly given a life imprisonment term on the barren prison island colony of San Lucas, condemned to carrying a ball and chain around with him whilst manacled all day. In the face of adversity, Sánchez became literate and his work ‘La isla de los hombres solos’ catapulted him into national and international fame, his original work confounding all the critics. Chapter 2 of Whitfield is very dark and difficult to read. It explores homosexual love in the prison system, from rape through to desperate displays of machisimo. The men turn to each other in a way of confronting the system. This chapter looks mainly at imprisoned Cubans. Chapter 3 is brutal in the way it describes the prison massacres of Senderoso Luminosa captives who fight wars with the Peruvian authorities from behind the door, all in defence of their leftist communist ideologies. Some of the worst prison massacres in history occurred in Peru during the 1980s at the peak of the Senedero resistance guerrilla war with the state. Chapter 4 is about the War on Drugs where the Reagan administration turns its Southern hemisphere politics away from leftist insurgents and criminalises the narcotics industry, creating a new criminal class. Comando Vermelho (Red Command) is Brasil are a drug-trafficking criminal gang that originate in prisons and go on to seize control of the urban favelas in Brasil and based on resitance tactics and influence from political prisoners their command structure do a lot for prisoner rights within South America. There are interesting references to the decadent tourist industry in La Paz where the Bolivian prison system has been opened up by a UK prisoner’s book (Marching Powder) which glamourises the capitalist excesses of the jail there.
I found Whitfield’s book to be neat and compact, well-researched, with clear translations from the author when excerpts of Spanish or Portuguese texts were required. There is a shock element to the book and it is hard to imagine what life is really like for these prisoners. Through literature they have discovered a means of dealing with their suffering and I think that one of the main points that Joey makes is that this prison literature is important if we wish to develop more progressive ideas about how to deal with this marginalised element of society. There is sympathy there but also we see excesses of the banality of evil that lurks in these bins of society and this is often mirrored in real life in the criminal enterprises that originally give birth to the prison.

Review: Even Silence has an End – My six years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle – by Ingrid Betancourt

Ingrid Betancourt was one of the most high profile political prisoners in the world during her captivity in the Colombian Jungle at the hands of the FARC-EP, Colombia’s left wing communist guerrillas. A brutal civil war has raged for the best part of 60 years in this Southern hemisphere country. The rural FARC occupy the West of the country and fight against a government that is propped up by US military aid and this Cold War-esque struggle has raged for decades. Most of the information we gather in the international press regarding the conflict tends to be heavily biased and actually obtaining real information about the FARC and their ideologies is very difficult and suppressed. This book, is a rarity, in that it offers an insight into the Guerrilla aspect of the struggle. It does this perhaps inadvertently and perhaps against the intentions of the author who perhaps expects the reader to be overly sympathetic to what was indeed for her a terrible ordeal and a life changing one.
Betancourt was born into a political family and was a member of Colombia’s elite. She is a dual national and it is her French nationality that really projected her plight to the international world. The French government were very active in campaigning for her release.
The manner in which Betancourt was captured by the FARC, I feel, needs to be questioned more thoroughly. To me it seems as though due to the scanty provision of security by the government as she conducted politics in or on the fringes of the FARC held sone, I think that perhaps the forces that be within the government might have deliberately pawned her as a political captive. It just didn’t add up how easily she was initially kidnapped and the government were certainly somewhat responsible.
She was taken off to the jungle and for the next 6 years spent her life on the move darting between various military camps, evading capture from the authorities and evading death from the ongoing violent conflict between the insurgent guerrillas and government armed forces. One of the highlights of the book to me was the way in which we learn about the ways of the FARC. From day-to-day activities to the political organisation of the armed units. to relationships with their leaders and the discourse between authorities and the way in which the captives had access to international and national media via radios. The vocabulary of the FARC is explored and a word which rang in my ears and that we hear a lot of is ‘chontos’ which are the makeshift jungle lavatories. To me the captivity seemed like a bit of an adventure. On the whole, within the camps Betancourt had relative freedom and was allowed such luxuries as a dictionary and to regularly listen to messages from her family on the radio. Life was harsh and the camps were very disciplined. It was made clear to our protagonist that she would die if necessary from a bullet at any stage, in particular if she resisted her orders when marching between camps. AT various points her captivity became more intense and she was rather inhumanely treated like a prisoner – I felt sorry hearing about when some of her privileges were removed but underpinning the whole period of her captivity were the FARC’s precautions in maintaining her as a high profile hostage without letting down their military guard. Hostages are an unpleasant but consistent feature of war throughout history. IT may be brutal as the taking of hostages is often just down to bad luck and they are innocents but equally they can be powerful bargaining tools particularly in the nature of this conflict where the FARC were primarily a weaker military force and they needed to make critical decisions and tough ones in order to withstand the onslaught from government backed forces supported very heavily by hi-tech US aid. The leadership of FARC availed themselves to Betancourt and I think she was very respected for her integrity by these senior military figures. The ending of the story is a happy one for Betancourt as the FARC inadvertently let down their guard and allow for her to be rescued. She is reunited with her family although her father has passed away during her time as a hostage. I think that she may have very strong elements of Stockholm syndrome and it would be interesting to hear her long term views on the whole situation and the political aspects of the Colombian Civil War. I think that her use as a hostage had its merits as it may have ultimately sped up the conclusion and end of the overall conflict as the FARC have now on the whole laid down their weapons and we are almost at the point of a genuine lasting peace. The book is a wonderfully told tale and it provokes a lot of thought and is a very worthy read, whatever your expectations are in approaching it.


Review: Happy Mondays – Excess All Areas – by Simon Spence

Happy Mondays

This is the third Simon Spence book that I have read. He is a very talented music journalist from Manchester with a taste for documenting, wild, stylish cultural movements that have emerged from the Madchester craziness. Excess All Areas covers perhaps the most successful and innovative band to have ridden the early acid house craze that swept the nation in the mate 1980s. With the charismatic Shaun Ryder heading up the band, a true hedonist, a notorious substance abuser, it was always difficult for the true Happy Mondays to translate through the myriad web of journalists who tried to document them. Ryder, much to the annoyance of most of the musical backdrop of the band, Paul Ryder (Bass), Gary Whelan (Drums), Paul Davis (keyboard), Mark Day (Guitar), Mark ‘Bez’ Berry (dancer), got into a habit of blagging the press and feeding them over the top exaggerations of the band’s history and exploits. In hindsight, this was pure marketing genius and led to much of the mystery and notoriety that paved the way for success. However, it sifting all the bullshit, has made the writing of this book that much more difficult for Simon Spence. The early days of a relatively privileged middle class upbringing contrasts with the bunch of Manchester council estate ‘scallies’ they tried to portray themselves as. Sure there was petty crime and shopflifting etc. but nothing serious, although perhaps the addition of Bez to the group was actually verging on real true life crime as he obviously was up to the neck in it as a youngster and quite obviously expanded his mini empire quite a lot under the guise of being part of the band…. Manchester Giants, Factory Records and Tony Wilson picked up the band and signed them which paved their way to success following the ilk of luminaries Joy Division and New Order and allowing them direct access to one of the UK’s most influential music venues, the Haçienda. It all happened at just the right time for this band, as the cultural rebellion against failed Thatcherism took hold of the UK’s disillusioned youth masses and expressed itself in the ‘Acid House’ movement. Ecstasy-fuelled, fashion shifts, mass movement and gathering of people in raves, parties and festivals, vast increase in polydrug clubbing and mainstream ending of anti-drug taboos. A lot of this movement was driven by DJs and the Mondays’ uniqueness was that they became one of the first genuine rock/dance crossover groups, who embraced the lifestyle and tried their best to incorporate the new music technology into traditional guitar-based rock. They were definitely pioneers in this sense and for me their link up with Spectrum’s Paul Oakenfold and his studio partner Steve Osbourne, was absolutely critical. Early days there was a struggle for financial success and Factory mismanagement of funds and artistic decadence led to much poverty. Heavy use of narcotics: cocaine, crack, heroin and ecstasy, was where a lot of the cash ended up. Bez and Shaun often boasted of being ecstasy dealers and there presence in the Hacienda’s E corner was much felt. The struggles of professional music led to relationship breakdowns and the loneliness of single life manifested in some serious drug addictions, mainly Shaun’s heroin addiction. This was all brutal and eyeopening to read. You always felt a little sorry for the band and as you read want to really have been giving them all a big cuddle, but maybe that’s just the ‘E’ talking…. Success eventually came with four critically acclaimed studio albums. They threatened a US breakthrough but never managed to follow the likes of Depeche Mode in emulating this, often short, late bands sets and excessive tour partying contributed to this failure. However, in the UK they were a huge band and record sales were good. The music press looked after them very well. Melody Maker, NME et al supporting most of the early stuff and shooting them on many front covers. At one stage, after Princess Diana, Shaun Ryder was the second most publicised celebrity in the UK. The legendary Barbados crack cocaine binge / studio session is covered although I wanted to hear a more complete tale of the actual detailed goings on of this debacle. Ultimately the band fell apart due to the multitudinous variety of industry pressures. However, the positive note is that they continued to rock on and as I write this my tickets have just arrived for their Nov 29th gig on their latest Greatest hits tour, where they will be doing an event at my Student Union at Cardiff University. Can’t wait for that, nor to get to grips with Simon Spence’s next offering.

Review: Altered State – The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House – by Matthew Collin

altered state

I’ve already read a Matthew Collin book – This is Serbia Calling – so I was chuffed when I stumbled upon this work, a history of UK dance music culture. As a DJ and Promoter for 24 years I’m quite aware of a lot of the history of dance music in the UK. This book, however, filled in many of the gaps, and was a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening read. The well known story of how acid house culture came to the UK via Ibiza’s Summer of Love where Nicky Holloway, Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold and Trevor Fung experienced the delight’s of Alfredo weaving magic on the White Isle and brought back their ideas to the London clubscene, is a familiar tale, often recited religiously in club culture publications like Mixmag. The author gives a comprehensive account of the beginnings and it was great to hear the true story and what bliss these guys must have experienced. Shoom, Spectrum and the Milk Bar launched successfully and the early adopters were soon welcoming new ‘Acid Teds’ and a hippy revival based on lush house electronica began to hit the mainstream. The book looks at London and Manchester in detail as well as exploring some of the less likelier destinations of UK club culture like Blackburn and later the countryside free party and rave movement. The study of the fracture of dance music into its various sub-genres and the movement of people that followed each branch provides much analysis and we see Warehouse parties, techno anarchists, drum and bass division and later the emergence of new genres like speed garage, grime and dubstep. The book focuses a lot on the role of narcotics in this new ascendant youth culture. The critical importance of ecstasy (MDMA) to the whole movement which eventually led to a massive increase and normalisation of drug culture across the country, with polydrug use becoming popular and clubbers and ravers exploring acid (LSD), cocaine, heroin, ketamine, amphetamines and the various different types of cannabis. It’s amazing how much anti dance music propaganda was spread by the media. Governments were scared and there was a great deal of legislation set up to counter the whole movement. Enlightened masses were a danger to the establishment and the whole culture was seen as an alternative political situation. The long-running battles between promoters, DJs and the UK Police was interesting and it was noted by Police fighting the organisers of parties that these people ran their operations like military units and were very effective at getting their events into successful fruition. I don’t think I’ve read a better and more comprehensive book on the history of dance music in the UK, and whereas the initial boom period may now be over, dance music is certainly in the mainstream day to day lives of the UK to this day and will be for a long time into the future. I think that it is important and inspiring to learn about the history of the greatest mass cultural movement, in my opinion, that emerged in the twentieth century.

Review: The Life and Lines of Brandon Block by Matt Trollope

brandon block

I was a DJ myself back in the 1990s and although I never played alongside Brandon Block, I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times. Once, on his father’s birthday in a London bar/club, I had just got out of one of my early mental health hospital stints and I think Brandon was in recovery…. I asked him for some advice and told him about my experiences and he gave me some real pointers about how to deal with my situation, probably moreso than any other professional who works in this industry has given me. Read this book and you read a tale of horror. People believe that DJing is glamorous and fun, but just get stuck into Brandon’s revealing, heartfelt story, and you will immediately see the pain and suffering that comes your way in the murky world of dance music performance. After all the early breaks, once the scene got into full swing and Brandon Block had established a growing reputation, he was pretty soon stuck into an ounce a day cocaine habit. He’s a personality DJ in house music, meaning not that he chats and laughs while playing – his sets are pure banging party rocking professionally done same as may other at the top of their game. Brandon likes to party too much and his notoriety led him well astray. I loved hearing how he began the whole Space Terrace and his fame in Ibiza alongside Alex P is pretty much unrivalled out Ibiza way. The whole Flying and Charlie Chester story was really interesting even if it broke apart slightly. He seems a down to earth good guy, a victim of his own success. Some of the mental health battles after drug addiction took its toll really hit the nail on the head for me. A lot of the venues and clubs were very familiar as indeed many of the characters. The clubscene fraternity is only but a village, even in its global stretches that it reaches nowadays. The 3 gigs a night blasting around the motorways and hitting lines of coke at every red light when the traffic stopped. All seemed absolutely necessary to continue to deliver the acid house that this Big Name DJ believed in. In latter years Mr Block did his fair share of charity work, feeding back into drug rehabilitation centres as a qualified counsellor. He is lucky to be alive and this tale is something that anyone aspiring to enter life as a professional DJ should be reading. Good luck with the rest of your long life, Mr. Brandon Block. Looking forward to Part 2.

Review: Mister Good Times by Norman Jay MBE

mister good times

I was lucky enough to be a warm up DJ for Norman Jay back in the 1990s in The Cross Nightclub, London and I think I was billed on a couple of other events with him. He was a great DJ, I remember him once, in Ministry of Sound, having a full glass of drink topple on the bar decks where he was spinning from the above balcony and Norman, lightning quick just kept the music rolling and not even a skip of the needle. The book is divided up into several unique sections. The first part covers Norman’s Good Times sound system at Notting Hill Carnival which is for what he has been most famous. The whole logistics of such an event is well detailed enough for the professional DJ to thoroughly enjoy and learn from and to any reader the whole politics and excitement and logistics of such a fun event must be enlightening. The book covers Norman’s childhood, whereby he was brought up in Ladbroke Grove, West London to Windrush Caribbean immigrant parents, both of whom seemed very hardworking and supportive and keen to give their family the best start to life. The book discusses a lot about how being a black DJ was defined during the early years of the deck revolution. For me, a highlight was Norman’s journey to New York, where he learnt the best of what would be culturally exported from the USA to British streets. Norman Jay’s love for Tottenham Hotspur football club is covered in detail and during the excitement of terraces and the emergence of the hooligan years it is great reading of times past and the fun and frolics of being a serious football fan. For me, as a Liverpool fan it was truly disturbing to read about racism at Anfield back in the 1970s. Growing up in the John Barnes era of Liverpool, for me I always felt that we were a progressive club when it came to racism which is still a fight in the beautiful game to this very day. I really wanted for the book to keep running once it hit the years of house music. The warehouse parties with Judge Jules thrown across London were particularly interesting, the funniest moment in the tale, when the Met Police tried robbing all the takings from the promoters and Judge Jules and Norman hid under raincoats, pretending they were drunk. The chapter on big time club DJing moved too quickly for me. I really by this stage of the book wanted it to continue for at least double the length it was. It’s the best book I’ve read from a DJ to date and is testament to the Queen’s recognition of Norman Jay as our culture’s first recipient of the MBE. It inspired me to crack on in my chosen career and I can truly relate to a lot of the wisdom and knowledge contained therein. A Must read for anyone with an interest in DJing and Nightclub culture.

Review: Soldier Spy by Tom Marcus

Soldier SpyI initially bought the second book in this series, I Spy, but on learning that this volume preceded it I thought it apt to try this one out first. It’s not a huge book and is very accessible. The autobiographical account of a soldier from the streets, recognised for his unique skills and recruited to the frontline of British domestic terrorist services as an MI5 agent. Tom specialises in urban warfare of the 21st century. Surveillance and counter-surveillance operations are detailed. Sometimes an overuse, I felt, of the Alpha-Bravo codes that gets a bit confusing to a non-specialist, these operations span a variety of different cases across the UK, in MI5’s daily battles to preserve national security. We go from standard fighting Islamic terror cells, to murky traditional cold war -esque battles with traditionalist Russian agents, trying to steal military technologies on a vast scale from UK businesses. Tom isn’t frightened to mix it up, smashing hell out of a copper as part of his cover in an IRA pub in Scotland makes interesting reading. In the background of his flat out work where often he doesn’t even get to piss or eat, this brave young soldier tries to switch off at the end of the day and is a family man, on the pittance wages MI5 pays their employees he is left with the typical British task of every day workers of paying off mounting debts and grappling with mortgage etc. Eventually, the book sadly crumbles away with Marcus’ post traumatic stress difficulties getting the better of him ultimately ending in a medical discharge from the service. I feel it is MI5’s loss and not his really and hope he makes some nice dollar off producing decent readable material for years to come.

Review: Viva La Revolución by Eric Hobsbawm

viva la revolucion

This is my first venture into respected leftist author, Eric Hobsbawm’s work. The book was compiled after the author’s death in 2012 and is a collection of his writings on Latin America after he spent over forty years passionately exploring the continent. The essays have a deep focus on the poor masses of the populations, the peasants, the guerrillas, the indigenous natives. Latin America is at a crossroads between Third World poverty and Western modernity. A mainly homogenous tongue (ie. Spanish) unites the continent and the erosion of old colonial privileged elites has led to the people gaining much power at the bottom rungs of society. there are detailed chapters on Castro’s Cuban revolution, the fallout of ‘La Violencia’ and ensuing FARC civil war conflict in Colombia, and the progress of pure democratic socialism in Allende’s Chile. Hobsbawm can microanalyse peasant conditions in remote Peruvian altiplano villages yet never loses track of the underlying general political picture. The burdens of colonialism and unfair international political relationships are often seen as a root cause for lack of development. The author always maintains an optimism for the disaffected masses who he protects with intellectual rigour, even if in many cases the reality of the actual situations and future prospects are often futile. This book will form a great reference tool for my university essays on Hispanic Studies and I hope that I can continue to explore Eric Hobsbawm’s other wide range of literary material.