My song – A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance: A Day-o in the Life of a King
My song – A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance by Harry Belafonte, out now in paperback (Canongate, £14.99)
Visit Sunny Chernobyl by Andrew Blackwell, out now in paperback (Random House Books, £12.99)
What does the name Harry Belafonte mean to you? I have to confess that before I read My Song..., the man’s tremendous autobiography, I knew very little about him, except that he was an American crooner. Which was completely ignorant of me, as it turns out, and entirely my loss.
My Song... reveals a quite extraordinary life, a lifetime of pushing barriers and breaking taboos, a
career trajectory that saw him go from the poverty-stricken slums of Harlem and Jamaica to rubbing shoulders with world leaders. The back cover hints as much. There is a glorious picture of Belafonte having a right old giggle with Martin Luther King, who it turns out was a close friend – Belafonte even choosing the suit that King was buried in.
There are blurb quotes from Tony Benn, Robert Redford and Bill Clinton. Yes, you read that correctly. Belafonte had remarkable early success as a singer – in 1956 he became the first artist in history to sell more than one million albums, his Calypso record (featuring the iconic Day-O) establishing him as the King of Calypso into the bargain.
That launched Belafonte into the public consciousness, but the singer and actor still came across prej-udice and racism at every turn, which transformed him into a fervent supporter of the American civil-rights movement, and which later saw him campaigning for Unicef, against apartheid and HIV in Africa, and even organising the American end of the Live Aid concert in the 1980s.
The opening of My Song... couldn’t be more exciting. It is 1964 and Belafonte receives a phone call from civil-rights campaigners in Mississippi, short of money and under pressure from local racists. His response is to jump in a car with best friend Sidney Poitier and a suitcase full of money and drive down, outrunning the local Ku Klux Klan into the bargain.
It’s just the first of a string of remarkable tales, as Belafonte comes into contact with and befriends the likes of Marlon Brando, John F Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Tony Bennett and Fidel Castro. Despite mixing with the great and the good for most of his life, Belafonte was haunted by the poverty of his early childhood, and years of therapy have given the man a self-analytical mindset.
The result is a perceptive and thoughtful memoir from a man who continues to campaign against injustice wherever he sees it, and who continues to be an inspiration to generations who come after him.
You would think that a book touring the world’s most polluted places would be a tad depressing, wouldn’t you? Well, a certain amount of depression and anger does result from reading Andrew Blackwell’s Visit Sunny Chernobyl, but Blackwell is such a good and amusing travel writer, such an engaging companion around the awfulness, that you’ll also come away somewhat entertained.
Whether it’s visiting the great Pacific garbage patch, Canadian oil sands mining or deforestation of the Amazon, Blackwell does a great job of researching and experiencing the environmental catastrophes, exposing hypocrisy, cynicism and corruption along the way. Fine and funny campaigning journalism.
And another thing…
A year ago James Daunt, chief executive of Waterstones, called Amazon “a ruthless devil”. So there was shock recently when Waterstones announced it was to stock Kindles and sell ebooks in its stores. Welcoming in the Trojan horse? Time will tell.
For the Kindle - and free
The Three Perils of Man by James Hogg (1822)
See if you can guess the three perils… avarice, malice, sloth? Not likely. For ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ James Hogg, boozing buddy of the man who invented tartan-tin Jockophilia, Sir Walter Scott, it was all about the three Ws: war, women and witchcraft. As another justified sinner, Ian Dury (God rest his soul), would tell you, sex and drugs and rock‘n’roll might just be the tonic. Subtitled A Borders Romance, this thriller is packed with devilish sights, supernatural temptations and narrow escapes, and is set in Aikwood Tower – a real place refurbished by ex-Liberal Party leader Sir David Steel in the 1990s. http://tinyurl.com/dy6vh64