Andrew Ford reviews 'One Two Three Four: The Beatles in time' by Craig Brown

Chapter 148 of Craig Brown’s engrossing book is speculative fiction. Gerry and the Pacemakers are ‘the most successful pop group of the twentieth century’, their 1963 recording of ‘How Do You Do It?’, which the Beatles turned down, having launched their career. ‘To this day,’ Brown writes, ‘they remain the only artists to have achieved the number one slot with each of their first three singles.’ The last bit is almost true: they held that record for two decades.

Brown’s fantasy, in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo become Gerry, Fred, Les, and Arthur, makes us wonder how much luck was involved in the Beatles’ achievement. Undoubtedly there was some, but it was the quality and variety of the Beatles’ original music that lay behind their still unparalleled fame. When Gerry and the Pacemakers began to record their own songs, they ceased having those number ones.

It is only because of the music that Brown’s book exists, but there is curiously little about it in One Two Three Four, and when musical matters are touched on, one senses authorial fudging. There is also the odd howler. David Mason played a brightly piercing piccolo trumpet on ‘Penny Lane’, not, as Brown insists, the flugelhorn that he’d played in the première of Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony some eight years before. Still, mention of Mason’s classical credentials provides some context, and that, above all, is what this book offers: hundreds of bits of context.

Much of it comes from the sifting and synthesis of existing sources. Besides the official books, including The Beatles Anthology (approved by the Beatles themselves), Mark Lewisohn’s several histories, and classics such as Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ records and the sixties (1994), there are myriad volumes by people in the Beatles’ lives. These include two memoirs of John by his first wife, Cynthia, another by his sister Julia, and a fourth by his father’s second wife, Pauline. There’s the original drummer Pete Best’s autobiography, and a biography of Jimmie Nicol, who deputised for Ringo when he had his tonsils out; there’s John, Paul, George, Ringo and Me by the Beatles’ press officer Tony Barrow, and The Cutting Edge by their hairdresser Leslie Cavendish. Brown admits that ‘virtually everyone who ever worked in any capacity for the Beatles seems to have put pen to paper’.

The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport, 1964 (photograph via United Press International/Wikimedia Commons)The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport, 1964 (photograph via United Press International/Wikimedia Commons)

If half this book’s words are direct or indirect quotations, it is their ordering and juxtaposition that bring insights. Conflicting views are presented and weighed, often silently. Opinions emerge without seeming to have been stated by the author. Brown evidently has no time for Yoko Ono and little for Lennon, post-Yoko. She is talentless; together they’re spoilt children. Alexis Mardas – ‘Magic Alex’ – is ‘perhaps the most fraudulent of all the Beatles’ hangers-on’. Having threatened to sue the New York Times for calling him a charlatan, Mardas settles, on the condition the paper make it clear that ‘charlatan’ doesn’t imply ‘conman’. In fact he was both, and he cost the Beatles around $8 million in today’s money, though they were too stoned to notice. It was Alex who poisoned the group’s relationship with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, portrayed here as bewildered and hurt by the Beatles’ sudden desertion.

Sometimes Brown even contextualises the context for clarity. When Judy Garland shows up unexpectedly at one of Brian Epstein’s dinner parties, the Beatles manager having forgotten he’d invited her, the chapter ends: ‘At this moment, Judy Garland has a little under five years left to live and Brian Epstein exactly three years, two weeks.’

In addition to reading books Brown has also been on Beatles tours in Liverpool, standing in suburban kitchens and bedrooms, being reprimanded by the guides (characters from Little Britain) for taking notes or recording their ‘private’ commentaries. He soon tires of this: ‘“John, Paul and George all had their hair cut here,” says Stevie T proudly. I think of asking him why Ringo never did, but the question evaporates in my mouth.’

The book’s 150 chapters include dozens of incidental characters, most touchingly Eric Clague, the off-duty policeman who ran over Lennon’s mother, Julia. When the Beatles became famous, he read in a newspaper that John’s mum had been killed by a car in Menlove Avenue and realised he’d been its driver. By then, he was a postman whose rounds included Paul’s home. Every day, he delivered sacks of Beatles fan mail to the address.

‘The Beatles shone so brightly,’ Brown comments, ‘that any one caught in their beam, no matter how briefly, became part of their myth.’ The remark is made in relation to the video of ‘Hey Jude’, in which the group were joined by a crowd of fans. We meet the young man who ends up playing Ringo’s tambourine and the young woman in the yellow dress (whose boss thought she was home sick that day). But who is the ‘old geezer’ with the carnations behind his ears? No one knows. He’s ‘the British equivalent of the umbrella man in Dealey Plaza,’ Brown suggests.

It was eleven weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination that the Beatles made their conquest of the United States, watched on The Ed Sullivan Show by a fourteen-year-old Billy Joel, thirteen-year-old Tom Petty, twelve-year-old Chrissie Hynde, and seventy-three million others. The viewing figures (second only to the aftermath of the assassination) are an indication of the scale of the Beatles’ fame. Another is that, six months later, before their second US tour, they were invited by Lyndon Johnson to be photographed laying a wreath on Kennedy’s grave. They politely declined.

When it ended, the Beatles were still in their twenties. Brown’s final chapter is a fast rewind from Brian Epstein’s autopsy to where the book began, Epstein walking down the Cavern steps and into history.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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