Meta-nostalgia: “The Beatles Story” by Arthur Ranson & Angus Allan (1981/2018)

This is a follow-up to my previous piece on nostalgia. Not because the world needs any more writing on The Beatles: it really doesn’t.

The book is a collection of the serialised strips which appeared in Look-In from 1981-1982. There was also a similar strip covering Elvis’ rise to fame. I remember them (vaguely) from the days when I got Look-In, though I suspect I flicked past them on the hunt for something more fun. They probably felt too much like a history lesson, something worthy.

Elvis, then, was four years dead but The Beatles had imploded more than a decade ago: before most of the readership of this strip were born. They belonged to your parents. Although much of Look-In was black and white anyway, there was no way these strips could be in colour: they were documenting history.

Ancient history. As Mark Fisher has written, the 1960s are closer to us now than they were in 1979. At the time of serialisation, the Fab Four existed only on records, cassettes and old magazines, discolouring over time. They were the past, when the past was less retrievable than it is now. Which made this an elegy of sorts, an exercise in nostalgia for an audience who could not know what nostalgia was, nor feel it anyway (at any rate, not for something your Mum and Dad listened to).

This re-publication (nicely done by Rebellion), then, is a curious thing. The story – focussing largely on their early years – is well told, and the artwork beautiful1. It deserves to stand on its own as a quirky piece of Beatles merchandise, appealing to anyone interested in the Fab Four.

What it does, though, coming from the pages of Look-In, is make readers of that magazine nostalgic about a story which was itself nostalgic. A hall of mirrors; mise-en-abyme. There are illustrations – to evoke the mood of Beatlemania – of some of the wacky Beatles merchandise of the time: ephemera within ephemera; nostalgia triggers for the Look-In reader’s parents.

Many of the panels are evidently drawn from photos, which, though stunning, can make the storytelling clunky as the writer fits expository speech into posed images2. But this creates a distillation; a poetic truth rather than a literal one:

beatles3
Paul, looking uncannily like a Walrus, moans at George.

My favourite panel is the central one below (apologies for the reproduction): a drawing of a young John Lennon. I find the white space hugely evocative: these panels look back twenty years to a precise moment in time, at which point the future of these four boys was utterly unimaginable. The area around the solitary, foregrounded Lennon (whose death would still be fresh in the memory at the time of writing) is nonetheless full of the  history to come, and full of the loss of it.

beatles4

The bulk of the story is taken up by their ascent: the Liverpool childhood, The Quarrymen, Hamburg, the Cavern Club, Brian Epstein. Once they’ve made it big, the narrative skates rapidly over what for many is their most interesting aspect: their astonishing (and astonishingly fast) musical development. But a kid’s comic strip would sink under the weight of anything much heavier than “striving young moptops”, and anyway (as noted by Rob Power in the book’s afterword) “this was not the place to talk LSD”.

An unfortunate side-effect that it shares with the Elvis story is that it implicitly imposes on its young readers a hierarchy: that These Artists Matter. Contemporary bands had their own frothy strips in Look-In: Madness and Haircut 100, for example, had weekly Hard Day’s Night-type adventures. All of which only reinforces a sour point (which conveniently ignores the cultural detonation that was punk): Elvis and The Beatles built the template for all your favourites, and there will never be anything like them again.

 

1 I loved Ranson’s artwork for Look-In: he drew many of their other strips including the fabulously eerie Sapphire & Steel, and my favourite at the time: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Someone please republish these!

2 Reminding me of Kyle MacLachlan’s in-case-it-had-escaped-you line in Oliver Stone’s The Doors: “we took drugs to expand our minds, Jim!”

 

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A China Miéville top 10

To mark the BBC adaptation Miéville’s The City & the City, here’s a quick run-down of his oeuvre so far. All opinions my own.

  1. The City & The City. If one definition of great art is that it changes the way you view the world, then this is great art. Inspector Tyador Borlú investigates a murder in Besźel and Ul Qoma, cities which share the same space but where to acknowledge the other’s existence is a crime. Along with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, this is my favourite work of 21st-century fiction.
  2. The Last Days of New Paris. Maybe not to everyone’s taste, this tale of resistance and survival in the days following a Surrealist apocalypse is a source of constant wonders. Artworks come to a weird kind of life – with all which that entails – and move with what Miéville beautifully describes as “dreamlike specificity”.
  3. Kraken. One of our cephalopods is missing. Octopi London. When a giant squid is kidnapped from the Natural History Museum, inter-cult capers ensue. His funniest book, and perfectly fits that (admittedly rare) “needing to read something light but which still melts your brain” mood. The wonderfully foul-mouthed PC Kath Collingswood is Miéville’s best supporting character.
  4. Railsea. Miéville’s second work aimed at Young Adults, this riff on Moby Dick is good fun. A great white mole is hunted in a world where stepping off a railway line means certain death.
  5. Looking for Jake. A short story collection, and patchy in places, but it contains enough gems to qualify: the modern-day Lovecraftian “Details”; “The Ball Room”, certain to put parents off taking their kids to soft-play for life; and “Reports of Certain Events in London” which I have to confess was the inspiration for one of my own stories.
  6. Three Moments of an Explosion. More short stories: more of them, and better. “Covehithe” (semi-sentient oilrigs; a comment on our oil dependency), the inverted landscapes of “Polynia” and “The Dowager of Bees” – there are certain cards you never want dealt – are among the highlights.
  7. Perdido Street Station. You were beginning to wonder, weren’t you? Epic urban fantasy, endlessly inventive, and the book that made his name. The first of his Bas-Lag trilogy but not, for me, the best of them. That would be…
  8. The Scar. The heroine of this nautical adventure, Bellis Coldwine, is arguably Miéville’s least-sympathetic protagonist, and that’s what I like about it. It takes guts for a writer to know readers are going to whine “I didn’t like the main character” and to not give a shit. The sudden appearance of the native females on the island of the Anophelii is one of the scariest things I’ve read in years.
  9. Un Lun Dun. More fun for Young Adults. With illustrations by the author, any book which features fighting trashcans – Binjas – has lots going for it. Also contains Extreme Librarians, which is always a good thing.
  10. Embassytown. This is the point at which a top ten seems a bit of a stretch. This space opera is (alongside This Census Taker, below) the only Miéville I’ve never felt tempted to re-read. Stunningly inventive linguistically, for me it all falls apart towards a rather uninspired final act.

 

At time of writing Miéville has published thirteen full-length books, so the above list is pretty inclusive. What did I leave out, and why?

  1. Iron Council. The final (so far) of his Bas-Lag novels. I’m not a Western fan, but that isn’t the reason it doesn’t make the cut. There are some great set-pieces, and astute political commentary, but it’s the flattest-feeling (and the longest-feeling) of the trilogy.
  2. King Rat. This almost made the list at the expense of either Looking for Jake or Embassytown, and on another day it might have made it. Miéville’s debut, the drum & bass motif is perhaps dated, the plotting (by his standards) conventional, but if I’d written a book this good when I was 24 (and the book I wrote when I was 24 was not good) I’d be pretty happy.
  3. This Census Taker. Or, the exact point at which an author leaves too much to the reader’s imagination. And with the “averaging gun”, it’s where Miéville lapses into self-parody. Happily this drop in form was just a blip because his follow-up was, to bring us right up to date, The Last Days of New Paris.

 

photo credit: Geraint Lewis/Writer Pictures