Novellas in November Wk 3: Broadening my Horizons with Epstein & Hornby

The idea of week three of #NovNov is to read novellas outside your normal purview, be it a new genre, in translation etc. Rebecca and Cathy are happy to let us interpret ‘broadening my horizons’ however we wish, so I’ve gone with a slightly different tack with two short nf books. They’re not in a new genre to me, but they’re primarily about people whom I know little about biographically or their work processes. I love to learn from nonfiction and these two short books provided plenty of education, and of course they fit in with Nonfiction November too.

A Cellarful of Noise by Brian Epstein

I’ve been a fan of the Beatles music since childhood in the 1960s, so it may be surprising to admit that I don’t know a lot about their early days. Epstein managed the Beatles from 1962 as Ringo was about to replace Pete Best as drummer, getting them their record contract, through to his death in 1967 of an overdose, aged just 32. His memoir was written in 1964 with journalist Derek Taylor, who became the Beatles’ press officer.

Epstein grew up in a Jewish family of retailers in Liverpool, and he managed the family music store ‘ North End Music Stores’ – or ‘NEMS’, as he would also call his management company. He proved adept at spotting talent, and first saw the Beatles at the Cavern Club in 1961, and sold many copies of their single ‘My Bonnie’, recorded in Germany after being asked for it in the shop. He was ready to take the step into artist management, despite having no experience. But after a stint of National Service, (he received a ‘medical discharge’) and two terms at RADA before deciding acting wasn’t for him – he wanted to direct or produce … or manage – it was clear he was made to be an entrepreneur despite his youth. He set up a meeting with The Beatles (still with Pete Best at this time) – but only three turned up…

Paul was the missing one and after half an hour of listless conversation – for it was pointless to talk any sort of terms with only three of them – I asked George to ring Paul and find out why he was late.

George returned from the phone with a half-smile which annoyed me a little and said, ‘Paul’s just got up and he’s having a bath.’ I said, ‘This is disgraceful, he’s very late,’ and George, with his slow lop-sided smile, said, ‘And very clean.’

An iconic moment indeed!

The Beatles first contract, which Epstein didn’t sign over the stamp from Jan 1962, renegotiated when Ringo replaced Best.

It’s clear that Epstein loved ‘the boys’, (even if his later percentages were high at 25% rather than the more usual 10% of the time, but he did it seems, really want to do his best by them all). He never signed the Beatles contract (reproduced in the book, and see right) having shaken hands, preferring to be taken on trust. He also managed several other Liverpool bands and artists, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas, The Fourmost, amongst them, plus Cilla Black, whom he absolutely adored.

I believe that as I have learned from the Beatles so they have picked up some good habits from me. From Gerry I have been taught something of the benefit of robust earthiness. From me he may have learned a little repose.

From Cilla Black, a beautiful lady, all of us have drawn something.

She is what she is – an untutored girl from a large, happy, working-class family in a lowly part of LIverpool. She may not curtsy by instinct, but she is warm, natural and frank and this may be far more important than protocol.

Epstein’s memoir may be buttoned up in terms of his personal life, he was quietly gay, but he does admit to the stresses and strains of management, and to being lonely. Overall, it is an affectionate portrait of how he looked after all his boys, and girl. It’s not the whole story, but he comes across as a gent, always smart and suited in the photos, older than his actual years, strongly in favour of good manners, yet enjoying the freshness of his protégés. My reprint edition from 2021 has a new introduction by Craig Brown, which is a great addition, putting him into context.

Source: Own copy. Souvenir Press paperback, 2021, 142 pages, plus plates, intro etc. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

Dickens & Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby

Hornby concentrates more on screenplays and occasional essays these days rather than novels it seems. I acquired this little book last Christmas adding it to my ongoing novellas/short NF pile. The book I read immediately before it also contrasted a beloved author with a musician icon (David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine by Nicholas Royle – to be reviewed soon for Shiny), so I’ve had a double dose of unexpected connections being made between seemingly dissimilar folk.

In Hornby’s case, the starting of linking the two came when Prince’s 1987 album Sign O’ the Times got the boxed set treatment in 2020 with 63 bonus songs. ‘Sixty-three!‘ Hornby exclaims. It spurred him on to question who else produced such a volume of work.

It was supposed to be a rhetorical question, but then I realized there was an answer: Dickens. Dickens did. Dickens worked that way.

… I yoked them together in my mind at that moment because they are two of what I shall have to describe, for want of a more exact term as My People – the people I have thought about a lot over the years, the artists who have shaped me, inspired me, made me think about my own work. I have scores of people like that, influences and role models and heroes. [He goes on to list about thirty]

As you’d expect of Hornby, his research is impeccable, and he tells the two icons’ stories with great wit and insight into the creative mind, contrasting their outpourings to his own smaller volume. Both Dickens and Prince were driven from an early age, hungry workaholic consumers as well as producers of content. They both grew up poor, but worked at their craft all hours, achieving early fame in their 20s. Critically, both performed all the time. Dickens did readings, and of course, was famous for publishing his novels in monthly installments which kept readers on tenterhooks for what would happen next. Dickens was overlapping novels too, writing the beginning of Nicholas Nickleby before he’d finished Oliver Twist; likewise Prince was so prolific he was planning four albums at a time. There was no time for honing text or perfecting the mix, their first drafts were mostly the ones that got published.

I wouldn’t want my first drafts published or filmed. Prince and Dickens were lucky in that they didn’t need to be any better that they were. If you’re capable of knocking out Purple Rain and Oliver Twist, what would be the point of delaying the process by a couple of years to make them slightly better, or focusing on one project at a time? […] There would have been less, and in this case, less is not more. We’d have lost out.

In the final sections Hornby delves deeper into their personal lives and their relationships with women which were troubled for both, before looking at their deaths, both strangely foretold and the two died at nearly the same age, just one year’s difference between Prince at 57 and Dickens at 58.

This short book was completely absorbing as well as very entertaining and the juxtaposition of these two lives totally worked for Hornby. And I loved the purple boards and fly papers in my hardback edition.

See what Rebecca thought of it too last year.

Source: Own copy. Penguin paperback, 112 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

13 thoughts on “Novellas in November Wk 3: Broadening my Horizons with Epstein & Hornby

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was fascinating, and although I’m not a huge Prince fan, I always appreciated him as a musician, so it was great to learn about him and compare.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I don’t know Prince’s music well enough beyond the hits, but I rate him as a musician, so it was a great read.

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    Two really interesting reads. And just for a bit of synchronicity, I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s riff on Dickens, Demon Copperhead, recently and then met “Prince” when he came to parkrun on Saturday!

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