Sat, Aug 11, 2012, 01:00

When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie and Four Minutes That Shook the World

By Dylan Jones, Preface Publishing, £20

According to Dylan Jones, for people of a certain age and disposition, David Bowie’s appearance on Top of the Pops on July 6th, 1972, singing Starman, was “a tectonic shift in pop culture”.

Of course, if you’re of a different age and disposition, a book such as this – and what it posits – will be meaningless, but if you’ve ever been profoundly touched by a work of art, pop cultural or otherwise, and know what it can do to radically alter your worldview, then you’ll have an idea of what Dylan Jones is attempting to convey. This, and the fact that the book is beautifully produced (and that its cover bears one of the most striking portrait shots of Bowie ever taken, by Masayoshi Sukita) is the good news.

The not-so good news is that Jones has decided to “memoirise” the “four minutes that shook the world”. So as well as cogently documenting and contextualising Bowie’s ambition for world domination, we are also on the receiving end of the author’s often condescending, sniffy writing on his suburban life and his move from small, south-coast Deal (which smelled like “brine, wafting across the town like cheap cologne”), located 80 miles from London, to the heady heights of an admittedly impressive journalistic career editing the likes of The Face, Arena and GQ magazines.

The other, perhaps crucial flaw here is that the core narrative of the cultural significance of Bowie’s TOTP appearance is stretched to snapping point by repetitive exposition, unnecessary social commentary, and Jones’s unwieldy attempts to construct a Nick Hornby-esque trawl through his back pages. If there was ever a 30,000-plus-word book that would have read better as a 5,000-word magazine article, this is it.

Such imbalance, however, is righted towards the end of When Ziggy Played Guitar, when Jones efficiently ties up some loose ends and correctly concludes thus: “It’s often said that David Bowie encouraged people to be different; he didn’t, he simply allowed them to think they were.” Tony Clayton-Lea

Flann O’Brien: Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn

Dalkey Archive, $11.95

Myles Away from Dublin

Lilliput Press, €11.99

Both these collections feature the work of Brian O’Nolan and both have been reissued on an upsurge of interest in the writer following last year’s centenary celebrations. That, unfortunately, is where comparisons between them end.

Further Cuttings takes up where its celebrated predecessor, The Best of Myles, left off. It features a selection of his Irish Times columns from 1947 to 1957. And although that’s twice as long a period as the debut collection had to choose from, this wisely is a slimmer volume.

The literary fireworks of Myles na gCopaleen’s war years were unsustainable, even for a genius. From the mid-1940s onwards, Cruiskeen Lawn gradually atrophied into something more conventional. Yet, as these selections show, it was still regularly brilliant.

Some of the earlier creations, including the steam-engine fanatic, are by now missing in action. The hilarious court reports continue, however. So do the miscellaneous exchanges, collected here under the heading ‘Monologues and Dialogues’.

It’s questionable, in fact, whether O’Nolan could write proper dialogue. His forte, probably, was the interrupted monologue, in which a straight man provides mere punctuation for somebody else’s stream of consciousness.

Thus the sketch wherein Myles eavesdrops on a barfly taking a call from a friend on a public-house telephone and expounding candidly on a range of topics before urgently – but only as an afterthought – checking the caller’s identity. Not, as Myles adds, that the caller’s identity made any difference.

Speaking of punctuation, the pseudonymous author of these columns had permanently dropped his eclipsis. To the chagrin of Irish grammar enthusiasts, he was now simply Myles na Gopaleen, one theory behind the name change being that he was hoping for a wider, international readership.

If so, the columns collected in Myles Away From Dublin are even more a travesty. They were written, between 1960 and 1966, for the Carlow-based Nationalist and Leinster Times newspaper, hence the catchy title.

But this was not Myles in any real sense. The pseudonym originally used for the exercise was George Knowall, a name that failed to disguise his heavy reliance on Encylopaedia Britannica for the subjects he reflected on, not very humorously.

This was a period during which O’Nolan’s health, never mind his comic powers, was failing. Even so, he was in the midst of a long-awaited comeback that saw the publication of two new novels. So the apparent loss of ambition marked by the Knowall venture is all the more sad.

Or maybe, belatedly, he was conserving energy for the books. Certainly there is a sense of perverse discipline about these columns. Myles fans reading them will hope for occasional flights of comic brilliance, but in vain. Again and again, Myles Away From Dublin taxis out to the runway with a promising topic and then refuses to take off. Frank McNally

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