Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland: Review and Author Interview
Alice in Sunderland: an Entertainment (Jonathan Cape, 2007)
The scope of this extraordinary graphic novel, which combines an investigation of the Alice books' Sunderland roots with a meditation on the history of Sunderland in particular and England in general, makes it extremely hard to do it justice in a short review. Written and drawn by Bryan Talbot, author of the first British graphic novel (The Adventures of Luther Arkwright), this cheerfully anarchic opus does not distinguish between high and low culture: Shakespeare rubs shoulders with Sid James. Talbot cleverly interweaves past and present, playing with plot conventions to interrogate the concept of reality, and evoke the strangeness of dreams, as deftly as Carroll himself did. Alice characters pop up throughout the serendipitous narrative, sometimes given new --and entirely appropriate—Carrollian dialogue. (At one point the Mad Hatter produces a revolver and announces, with an alarming gleam in his eye, that he is going to waste Time!)
In our interview, Talbot tells me that his deep affection for the Alice books goes back to his earliest childhood: "I can't remember when I first read them, but I can't remember a time when I didn't know Tenniel's illustrations, so I guess that I used to look at the pictures before I could read. I like both stories and tend to think of them as two halves of the same thing. In fact, many of the movie versions, such as the cringingly cute Disney one, simply squash them into one. Looking Glass, though, is by far the darker of the two and is marked by a melancholy for the passing of childhood." He played with the idea of writing a book inspired by them for a long time: "For about twenty years I've been wanting to do a book dealing with Carroll and Alice, but didn't know how to approach it. It was only when I moved to Sunderland and discovered that it not only had dozens of links with Carroll, but also with Alice Liddell's family, that I saw that here was a way in. Carroll especially spent a lot of time in the city for over thirty years, and wrote parts of the Alice books, including 'Jabberwocky,' here." The book took Talbot a great deal of time to complete; he estimates it at about four or five years, though he researched it for two years before starting it.
Originally from Wigan, Talbot first came to Sunderland "about nine years ago. What amazed me was the sheer richness of the history of the place. I expected a grimy industrial town. I was initially surprised by how open and clean it was, the quality of the light in the morning and the purity of the air. I was also surprised to find that on its north coast it becomes a seaside resort with prize-winning beaches. And the port itself is delightful. What was once shipyards is now the University grounds, the National Glass Centre and an extensive sculpture walk. This goes right by St Peter's Church, built in 670 AD, the place where the Venerable Bede lived and where he conceived the English nation. At the end of my street, in the centre of the city, is a beautifully-maintained Victorian park, with a museum and palm house at the other end. I wasn't expecting these things."
Alice in Sunderland is steeped in English history, both well-known episodes and more obscure ones (such as the exodus of post-1066 English asylum seekers to what is now Turkey). Its evocation of the Norman Yoke, especially the Harrying of the North, is remarkable, especially given Talbot's own Norman heritage; in the book, he explains that he belongs to a branch of the Talbot family that eventually became working-class. The book also mentions other touchstones of English radical history, including the Peterloo Massacre. Talbot acknowledges the working-class awareness that it expresses: "I certainly grew up a working-class lad, aware of the distinctions, especially after studying English Lit at school. I was the first male on both sides of our family for several generations not to work in the pits and to go on to higher education. (Though my father only worked as a miner for a couple of years before joining the navy). Of course, we're now supposed to live in a classless society, a modern lie. Class is now based on money rather than birth." As for the book's focus on English history, Talbot was captivated by it "at an early age, growing up in Wigan with its Civil War tales, but I've never been academic or completist about it. I love the story aspect."
The book also taps a rich vein of local myth, with vigorous illustrations of legends including the Cauld Lad of Hilton, and the Lambton Worm—which, Talbot intriguingly suggests, may have inspired "Jabberwocky"—as well as of "Jabberwocky" itself, a section that pastiches Tenniel. "The Tenniel sequence was extremely time-consuming. Those pages took me the longest - one about two days to ink. That dense cross-hatching, building texture by overlaying multiple fine lines, takes forever." The most playful part of the book is undoubtedly the amusing visual deconstruction of Henry V's speech before Harfleur, an over-quoted bit of bombast sorely in need of a poke. "The framework of the book is a theatrical performance in the Sunderland Empire - an Edwardian 'palace of varieties' - so the graphic novel is a variety show, with each story told in its own style. This piece is included to celebrate the slapstick element of music-hall, drawn in the style of a sixties MAD magazine. I actually had the idea for this when I was fourteen and studying Henry V. It's very easy at that age to take the lines literally!"
This is not the first time that Talbot has concentrated on English themes: characters in his early comics had Lancashire accents, and one of his stories "began in 'The Wigan of Tomorrow.' Later, in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and its sequel, Heart of Empire, I deliberately used a lot of what Peter Ackroyd calls 'English Music,' with references to British history, William Hogarth, Shakespeare and William Blake and so on. It's part of Arkwright's appeal and makes it very different from the American comics that dominate the UK comic scene."
Throughout Alice in Sunderland, Talbot emphasises Sunderland's historical contribution to the English economy as a shipbuilding centre, and to English culture in general. When I ask him whether he thinks that Sunderland's importance has been ignored by the rest of the country, he replies that "most places are probably ignored by the rest of the country, unless something happens to bring attention to them. Sunderland's no different. The fictional Alice's Sunderland roots have definitely been wilfully ignored by most Carrollian scholars." However, he does not believe that "the North East feels particularly alienated," nor does he see much evidence in people's attitudes for a more general North-South divide. In his view, Sunderland has a lot in common with other working-class English communities, since like them it is "honest and unpretentious," although "because of Bede it can also claim to be the cradle of English consciousness. I think that's pretty unique!"
Fanciful, chaotic, humorous but also deeply serious, and with tremendous heart, Alice in Sunderland is a source of endless enjoyment, a celebration of local heritage that also reflects the light and dark aspects of England's story.--Isabel Taylor
The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor. Many thanks to Bryan Talbot for his time.
James Bond: Palliative for Post-Imperial Depression? (Review of Simon Winder's The Man Who Saved Britain)
The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond Simon Winder (Picador, 2006)
James Bond, super secret agent, just seems to go on and on. New movies appear at regular intervals, although the plots of the original novels have long been exhausted. The Royal Mail has issued a series of postage stamps to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Fleming's birth, and a James Bond exhibition is set to open in April 2008 at London's Imperial War Museum.
In his book The Man Who Saved Britain, Simon Winder tries to explain the reasons for James Bond's popularity in British and English post-war culture, particularly during the fifties and sixties. Although he tries the reader's patience with his rambling, his lengthy investigation of the cultural background to the Bond novels, and his eccentric writing style, his book contains many worthwhile insights into the post-war society that produced the Bond phenomenon, and the function it filled at the time.
Winder was born in 1963, and writes from a southern English (or London) perspective. His judgements on post-war British history are exceedingly harsh. He portrays the years after 1945 as a period of "stifling nostalgia": here was a nation repeatedly congratulating itself on its victories during the war, but British arms largely failed in the conflict, and the result was determined by American and Soviet efforts. Thus, though Winder does recognise the heroism of those who fought and suffered in the war, he has no patience for the English cultural obsession with episodes such as the London Blitz, the Battle of Britain, the war in North Africa, and so on.
Meanwhile, something that would have been unthinkable before the war was happening: the European empires, and Britain's in particular, were collapsing. In Winder's view, this had more impact than the two world wars put together, and it combined with what he diagnoses as a British economic collapse, which reduced the country to the level of "an economic leper colony" by the 1960s. His perspective on the fifties and sixties is profoundly negative; he does not see any signs of exuberance in Swinging London, the Mersey Sound, or contemporary English cinema. Equally, he depicts the Prime Ministers of those decades—the post-1950 Churchill, Macmillan, Eden, and Wilson— foolishly clinging to past glories, swept along by events, such as the Suez Crisis, that they could neither control nor understand.
All this was a recipe for national depression and, according to Winder, this mood was exacerbated by the right-wing section of the London press, which promoted conspiracy theories that often contained an undercurrent of xenophobia: we won the war and look what has happened to us, so somebody else must be responsible. The nation needed something to help it through this period of mass psychological crisis, and that something was the creation of James Bond by Ian Fleming in 1953. Winder interprets the Bond character as a cultural "palliative": readers and filmgoers were comforted by the thought of this "solitary Englishman" (Winder does not address the issue of Bond's half-Swiss, half-Scottish parentage) continually saving the world from the forces of evil. In the Bond myth, it is not the Americans or the Soviets who are really in charge, but a sort of imperialists' Robin Hood, complete with weird gadgets and a licence to kill.
This is Winder's main thesis, but he also analyses the Bond stories closely, pondering such questions as, Why are there so few Nazis in the James Bond stories, and why are the scenes of these adventures never set in Canada or Australia, and only rarely in England? He outlines the character's evolution. In the early novels, Bond is a fusspot who smokes a special brand of tobacco and is very particular about the way his eggs and alcoholic drinks are prepared, but he is also a sexist, violent, boorish person who dislikes Beatles music. Then, when he was played by Sean Connery, a Scottish former body-builder, Bond ironically became the quintessential 'cool' Englishman in the eyes of a global audience. (Connery was chosen over the objections of Fleming, who called the actor a "Glaswegian truck driver," though he himself was of partially Scottish descent). Bond was, of course, largely based on Fleming himself, a snob and a hedonist who enjoyed a lifestyle that most in shabby post-war England could only dream of. Like him, Bond visits exotic locales, gambles at casinos, and drinks at the most fashionable bars. By letting the common people in on the secrets of elite consumption patterns through his Bond character, Fleming, who was opposed to egalitarianism, unwittingly helped to usher in a new era of travel and mass consumerism for ordinary folk.
The book contains a number of entertaining digressions on a variety of topics, including English cinema, the decline of the British aircraft industry, and scuba diving. There are some delightful passages of English self-deprecatory humour: for example, Winder's account of his youthful suspicions that his Oxford tutor was a spymaster, or his reminiscences about his failed sales career in Africa, where he usually wore Bond-like clothes. He displays a quirkiness that one might expect from someone who has seen Goldfinger more than forty times.
At one level, the book is simply an enjoyable read by a London-based forty-something who has mastered confessional humorous writing. At another, its iconoclastic attacks on Empire, the cult of World War II, and the performance of the British economy and British statesmen in the post-war period make it controversial. Many historians would contend that Winder's picture of the era is too bleak, and his assessments of its political leaders too harsh.
Even if we reject the extremes of Winder's historical interpretation, however, we are still left with his main and most valuable argument: that James Bond, in both the novels and the early films, improved national morale throughout a period of decolonisation and economic stagnation. By positioning Bond as a cultural palliative, Simon Winder is able to explain a large part of the character's extraordinary popularity.--Fred Donnelly
John Betjeman's Tennis Whites and Teacakes, ed. Stephen Games
John Murray, 2007
A 'new' Betjeman is usually a pleasure, and this is no exception. The middle volume in a series including Trains and Buttered Toast and Sweet Songs of Zion, Tennis Whites and Teacakes is suffused with its author's personality: nostalgic, delicately humorous, sentimental, and with a refreshing line in humility. It includes a selection of Betjeman's essays, poetry, and journalism, arranged thematically: thus the section on 'Childhood Days' contains memories set down in different decades. The young Betjeman was an engaging character. As an infant he was convinced that his wooden train would feel offended if he threw it away, and as a small boy he was already very well-informed about ecclesiastical architecture. During his time at Oxford he squandered his academic opportunities, but made the most of the social life. A flamboyant Anglo-Catholic aesthete who always carried a teddy-bear called Algernon, he provided the inspiration for Sebastian and his bear Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited.
The book contains a number of gems. For example, there is a loving tribute to Sir Max Beerbohm on his eightieth birthday, a comical and surprisingly existentialist script for a film on the English seaside, a detailed report on the Festival of Britain (in which Betjeman comments admiringly on "a tea set made of fishbones by an old lady in Winchester"), and entertaining musings on light verse. Not all Betjeman's enthusiasms are as interesting, however: many readers will find it hard to share his passion for aristocrats, trains or High Anglicanism. Likewise, not all the material is of equal quality. Betjeman's journalism was often workmanlike and prone to attacks of schoolboyish vagueness, but his essays are often very elegant, and brilliantly evoke the distant past, such as the decadent 1890s.
Editor Stephen Games does not spare Betjeman's faults: he includes his unpleasantly insular sneer at Nikolaus Pevsner (author of The Englishness of English Art) and other learned wartime refugees who took an interest in English culture as "Herr-Professor-Doktors," and his angry mockery at the outset of the war: "we are fighting for LIBERTY to make the world fit to live in for Democracy, to keep our splendid system of Local Government going." Luckily for Betjeman, he spent much of the war as an ambassador to Ireland. (As soon as he arrived, he began starring in his own private version of I See a Dark Stranger. "A woman who is pro-Nazi and thinks she is a spy has made a pass at me and I have been through embarrassing scenes in motorcars.") The book contains several surprises, such as the conflict the young Betjeman experienced between nostalgia, and enthusiasm for the machine age (he admired Bauhaus architecture), later firmly resolved in favour of nostalgia. It reminds us that the changes we often see as unique to our own times in fact began much earlier: it is startling to read Betjeman's thirties lamentations over the disappearance of traditional village communities, the homogenising effect of high street chains, and the replacement of traditional village pubs with fake Tudor ones.
Games's editing is rather daring: by arranging Betjeman's prose into lines of verse wherever it conforms to iambic pentameter, he demonstrates how often Betjeman instinctively fell into this pattern. His inclusion of some obscure Betjeman verse is welcome; however, it is a mystery why such famous poems as 'Hunter Trials' should be anthologised here yet again, when they are so easily available in other compilations. Despite this, however, John Murray continue to do Betjeman proud with this selection. Anecdotal, (mostly) charming, and untaxing, this is the perfect bedside book. --Isabel Taylor
It sometimes takes an outsider's perspective to objectively summarise the political debates preoccupying a national community, and in this much-needed book, Northern Irishman Arthur Aughey has done just that, providing an invaluable digest of the controversies currently surrounding English nationhood. In a field crowded with going-to-the-dogs polemics, his book is both cheering and bracing, demolishing many of the negative narratives to which the English are prone, while also skewering smugness and offering many shrewd insights into English culture. Throughout, he traces the enduring English integration of the civic and the patriotic (associating institutions and the rule of law with the concept of liberty), which has fostered a pride in being 'free-born'—born into a country that gives one certain rights -rather than the identification with being 'true-born' that is characteristic of ethnic nationalism. Aughey negotiates the blurred line between seriousness and lack of seriousness in English discourse with an awareness and precision that has eluded many native commentators.
In the section on "Legends of Englishness" he provides an insightful analysis of the English idiom, which, prizing the pragmatic over the strictly rational, has fostered a network of political compromises, an emphasis on practice over principles that has made for a remarkably stable political life. Aughey is particularly clever when describing the distinctive climate of the twentieth-century left-right divide in England: Labour accepted that if things were to change, they would also have to stay the same, while the Conservatives accepted that if things were to stay the same, they would also have to change. He follows this with an examination of the traditional, positive Whig view of English history, in which England's uniquely peaceful tradition of parliamentary democracy was an example to the world, and contrasts this with the critical 'declinism' which began in the sixties and seventies and combined with post-imperial self-loathing to produce a mode of thinking that often refused to admit any positive features in Englishness and/or Britishness, and consistently found it lacking when measured against Continental cultures. Aughey views the durability of this critical legend (key to the work of Tom Nairn, author of the seminal The Break-Up of Britain, which famously argued for the development of an English nationalism to combat British decadence and elitism) as very odd.
The section on "Anxieties of Englishness" tackles the more recent debates surrounding Englishness and, in particular, England's future. Aughey examines the traditional and now increasingly popular image of the return, usually to a pre-Union and often pre-imperial Englishness, and often symbolised by the rural English landscape. He avoids branding English nostalgia as reactionary, seeing it rather as a plundering of the past for what can be adapted to the modern context: "Romantic authenticity is usually qualified by pragmatic utility and this is typical of the English idiom." When he examines articulations of English anxieties by both left and right, he discovers that certain complaints are shared: for example, that English young people in school have been taught that there is nothing in their country's history to take pride in. He examines the left's calls, following the extinction of popular socialist traditions in the last twenty years, to rediscover pre-British English radicals so as to foster an Englishness that will share most of socialism's qualities, and looks at the left's engagement with the current debate on multiculturalism. His examination of Tory discourse on Englishness shows how the party has been hamstrung by the poisonous legacy of Powell's English nationalism.
In "Locations of Englishness" Aughey provides an incisive analysis of English regionalism, outlining the often complementary relationship between English national and regional identities, both rural and urban: put simply, the English show affection for the local, and tend to see the nation reflected in it. Thus, the failure of the regional government experiment demonstrates that English nationhood is in fact alive and well and living in Kingston Bagpuise. Aughey makes the timely demand for a review of "Hard distinctions between town and country and regional and national…in order to capture for most people the mental location of England" and allow us to properly understand English localism, which he defines as "self-government at the king's command": it is regional, but also centralised. He is equally incisive on the English relationship with Europe, outlining a general English attitude towards Europe that is somewhere between Euroscepticism and Europhilia, not keen on seceding, but not keen on a United States of Europe either. (In this chapter, the different theories he describes for the cultural differences between England and Europe are particularly fascinating). In his examination of the relationship between England and the rest of the UK, Aughey looks at the English politics of resentment that has emerged in the wake of the devolutionary settlement and is expressed in Paxman's half-joking complaint about the Scottish Raj, but which often hides a good deal of sympathy for Celtic ambitions. His sketch of the West Lothian Question and its interactions with party politics is admirably concise and clear. In the last chapter, he looks at the recent emergence of a non-fascist, non-nationalistic English patriotism (often connected with football), and takes stock of its effect on the political debate. During the last few pages, his objectivity breaks down a little, as his personal investment in the Union generates more heat than light.
The writing is patchy: sometimes it is pithy and precise, and sometimes it seems to have been dashed off hurriedly. As a result, it is sometimes unclear whether Aughey is commenting on a source or giving his own opinion. However, such ambiguity is to be expected, given the difficulty of synthesising such a mass of literature into one short book. The need to be concise does not allow Aughey much scope for artfulness, but a number of amusing quips are scattered throughout the book: "when it comes to defining English identity one useful rule of thumb has been; what you see is what you don't get."
This book provides a generally excellent introduction to the complicated issues surrounding English nationhood and national identity today. If you only have time to read one book on the English Question, this is the one. --Isabel Taylor
Roger Ebbatson's An Imaginary England: Nation, Landscape and Literature, 1840-1920
An Imaginary England: Nation, Landscape and Literature, 1840-1920 Roger Ebbatson (Ashgate, 2005)
Elephants should not become ballet dancers, and someone steeped in empiricism is probably less than ideally equipped to review a work of postmodern literary criticism. With that caveat in place, this review of Roger Ebbatson's An Imaginary England can proceed. Heavily influenced by Continental and post-colonial theory, Ebbatson's elegantly-written book uses various theoretical templates to examine (and re-examine) a range of well-known and more obscure texts by authors including Tennyson, Hardy, Edward Thomas, and D. H. Lawrence.
Ebbatson's great strength, apart from his angelic style, is his profound historical awareness. He describes the contemporary background to each text, demonstrating, for example, how public ambivalence towards the Boer War is reflected in Hardy's poetry of the period, and investigating the influence of the Great Agricultural Depression on the novel The Dewy Morn, by the ecstatic nature writer Richard Jefferies. Though his historical analyses sometimes become a little fanciful, the approach generally works well, and he never assumes the reader's historical knowledge.
The stand-out chapter focusses on the work of Charles Tennyson Turner, Tennyson's younger brother, who wrote bewitching nature poetry ("The lonely garden echoes to my feet"). Here Ebbatson largely eschews the theoretical approach and reveals himself as a master of technical analysis, skilfully dissecting the play of sound and sense in Tennyson Turner's poems. His judgements in this chapter are concise and pithy: "what distinguishes Tennyson Turner is his fidelity to nature, his verbal felicity, the disciplined emotionalism of his handling of the sonnet, and the indefinable sense of mystery in his relation with the universe."
Other chapters vary in successfulness. The application of Heideggerian theory to The Dewy Morn works surprisingly well, but the interpretations of Tennyson's English Idylls and Enoch Arden through the lens of gender and Marxist theory quickly become perplexing. Likewise, Ebbatson's discussion of a little-known magazine story co-written by Hardy and Florence Henniker, an obscure Victorian female writer, is also bedevilled by too much gender theory. His chapter on Hardy's Boer War poetry is much more enlightening, as is his examination of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's adventure story Poison Island. Ebbatson connects the tale's expression of an Edwardian Englishness to contemporary imperialism and to Quiller-Couch's own conflicted cultural identity as a Cornishman. He provides a fascinating sketch of Quiller-Couch's establishment of English literature as an academic discipline at Cambridge during the First World War, arguing that it was a response to wartime loss of cultural confidence.
In his dissection of Rupert Brooke's preoccupation with Englishness, Ebbatson discusses Brooke's involvement with the Dymock poets, a small coterie of pastoral, and self-consciously English, Georgian poets who are now undeservedly obscure. Unlike many other commentators on Brooke's work, Ebbatson is sensitive to "Brooke's fundamentally conflicted sense of Englishness and his affiliations with modernism." He convincingly claims Brooke as a modernist within the Georgian fold, brilliantly and eerily analysing The Old Vicarage,Grantchester against the background of Brooke's time in Berlin, where he was exposed to avant-garde movements, and his premonitions of the Great War.
Ebbatson goes on to analyse the nature poetry of Edward Thomas, another Dymock figure, who was inspired partly by the English folk music revival and partly by his friendship with the American poet Robert Frost. Figuring Thomas as a 'nomad,' Ebbatson beautifully delineates the poet's complex and uneasy relationship with Englishness, in which he rebelled against the imperial patriotism then on offer: "At certain moments…Thomas glimpses 'that England, that swan's nest, that island which a man's heart was not too big to love utterly,' but….'what with Great Britain, the British Empire, Britons, Britishers, and the English-speaking world, the choice offered to whomsoever would be patriotic is embarrassing.'" Ebbatson makes the acute observation that walking, for Thomas, was a subversive activity, since using public footpaths re-appropriates enclosed land for common use. However, by focussing too heavily on the idea of Thomas as a 'nomad,' he misses the feeling of being rooted in a landscape that also comes through in many of the poems, and conflicts with the feeling of unease.
The book concludes with a comparison of two different drafts of D. H. Lawrence's short story "England, My England," one written in 1915 and the other in 1921. Ebbatson examines the story's commentary on the Edwardian folk revival and contemporary preoccupations with Englishness, and shows how Lawrence revised it to respond to the First World War and the onset of modernism, capturing the break between realism and expressionism, peace and mass slaughter. In his Afterword he quotes Lawrence's remark that "One England blots out another," which, he believes, could be an epigraph for this entire study. Ebbatson views the Great War as a cataclysmic event for Englishness and, in particular, for the location of Englishness in landscape ("In the trenches of Flanders the possibility of dwelling is obliterated"). This seems overstated: while it may be true that the war irreversibly shifted "the grounds and definitions of Englishness" for cultural leaders, in popular culture the English pastoral idiom continued to buzz on peacefully after the war.
Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties
Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties Ian MacDonald (Pimlico, 2005)
One of the best books ever published on the Beatles, Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head quickly attained classic status when it was published in 1994. This second revised edition amply demonstrates why. Not just about the Beatles, the book also investigates the way the Sixties Zeitgeist was filtered through English sensibilities, and the general Western transition to a post-Christian mindset.
MacDonald brings a wealth of cultural and musicological knowledge to his analysis of the Beatles' recordings, dissecting them in a way that truly does allow us to listen to them as if for the first time, and with some of the excitement of revelation that they originally inspired. The cross-references between song entries give us a comprehensive overview of the Beatles' music, while the Current Affairs/Culture chronology shows which major novels, films, plays, and news stories were concurrent with each of their album releases, allowing us to visualise the music's place in the contemporary landscape.
The book is particularly interesting on the ingredients and characteristics of the Sixties youthquake in England. MacDonald shows how it was shaped by the free-wheeling art school scene (linked to the Continental avant-garde), and intriguingly suggests that the subsequent taming of the art schools sapped English youth culture of much of its creativity. He examines the foreign influences on English pop, including Black American music—the Beatles copied their singing style from Tamla Motown records—and, in the psychedelic phase, Indian music. At the same time, he demonstrates its debt to homegrown influences, including folk music and, of course, the music-hall tradition (pastiched in When I'm Sixty-Four, which he memorably compares to "a comic brass fob-watch suspended from a floral waistcoat"), and sensitively analyses the expressions of Liverpudlian and Northern identity in the Beatles' work. They emerge from his account as innovative magpies, borrowing ideas from other groups and cultures and mixing them into a heady new brew.
The distinctiveness of English culture is a major theme of the book. MacDonald identifies the English aversion to earnestness and love of "an imaginative contrivance" as a major cultural difference between England and America, and contrasts the idiosyncratically un-revolutionary atmosphere in Sixties England with the contemporary turbulence in America and Europe. When he analyses English psychedelic rock, he unerringly pinpoints the nostalgia for lost childhood that inspired it, remarking that Strawberry Fields Forever "effectively inaugurated the English pop-pastoral mood, explored in the late Sixties by groups like The Pink Floyd, Traffic, Family, and Fairport Convention….The true subject of English psychedelia was neither love nor drugs, but nostalgia for the innocent vision of the child."
Although they capture the features that made the Beatles' music ground-breaking (and the brilliance of Martin's arrangements), MacDonald's commentaries are sometimes too technical for readers without a formal musical training. Occasionally his love of a cleverly-turned phrase leads him into unpleasant flippancy, but such lapses are rare, and are more than made up for by his superb style and gnomic sense of humour. MacDonald never indulges his subjects' faults, bringing an astringent moral sense to bear on the Beatles in particular, and the Sixties in general.