A Seat At The Table / Withdrawn Traces – Book reviews

Amy Raphael, A Seat At The Table. Interviews with Women on the Frontline of Music (Virago)

Sarah Hawys Roberts & Leon Noakes, Withdrawn Traces. Searching for the Truth About Richey Manic (Virgin Books)

These are two very different books (writes Andy Wood). Amy Raphael’s book is a collection of interviews with female musicians, writers, producers and presenters in which the contributor’s words shine through without intervening voices. In the other, although the authors have access to Richey Edwards archives, his voice sometimes disappears amongst the other competing voices, those of the authors, interviewees and former friends and acquaintances.

Both books are, at times, disturbing reads. When Amy Raphael published her first collection of interviews with female musicians and performers, the groundbreaking Never Mind The Bollocks. Women Rewrite Rock in 1995, women were somehow still seen as a bit of a novelty in the music world. Even the more allegedly open-minded independent scene had its fair share of unreconstructed attitudes and it wasn’t uncommon for artists to be asked (by pre-dominantly male journalists) ‘What’s it like being a woman in rock / pop?’

Almost quarter of a century later the musical landscape has changed almost beyond all recognition but the experience of women trying to forge a path in music, and in the arts in general, still seems to find them bumping up against barriers such as the expectation of what a ‘female’ artist should be or do, a continually operating quota system – ‘Oh but we already have a female artist on the roster’ or just plain old sexism. Throw into the mix the vicious bile of anonymous internet trolls – the interview with CHVRCHES Lauren Mayberry is particularly good on this – and it becomes plain that the world hasn’t moved on that far.

However, this is a fascinating and inspiring read, with a wide array of interviewees, from well established artists such as Tracey Thorne, Alison Moyet and Natalie Merchant featuring along with newer talents such as Nadine Shah, Poppy Ajudha and Kate Tempest. And while some of the experiences may be similar across all these interviews, each person has a very individual and compelling story to tell as discuss formative influences, experiences and the creative process in a variety of ways.

Amy Raphael sets her stall out in her wonderful introduction then bows out, letting her interviewees speak in their own words without authorial interjections and this works really well with each person telling of their story and experiences in their own unmediated words. I really recommend this important and timely book. Even if you haven’t heard of all the people interviewed in A Seat At The Table, and I certainly hadn’t, you will probably be inspired to dig more deeply. A very timely and enjoyable book.

Withdrawn Traces is probably of less interest to the general reader but is a fascinating, if, at times densely packed, retelling of the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers Richey Edwards in 1995. It’s a story that many people are at least vaguely familiar with and there have been many theories around Edwards vanishing in February 1995 without any hard evidence, confirmed sightings or conclusion to the sad tale.

Withdrawn Traces authors certainly aren’t short on theories of their own but explore this through their unprecedented access to Richey Edwards personal journals and archives and the support of his sister, Rachel Edwards. These give massive insight into the mind and possible motivations of Edwards to vanish but also illuminate the story of the Manic Street Preachers early years to good effect. There is a vast array of sources and interviewees consulted and quoted which are fascinating but no definitive answer is given as to what happened to Edwards after leaving the Embassy Hotel on 1 February 1995.

What the book is clearer on is the flaws in the subsequent search for Edwards and the inconsistencies in how the police and agencies dealt with missing persons at the time. Rachel Edwards campaigning led to changes in the way such events are dealt with but it appears it was too late in the case of her brother.

The other members of the Manic Street Preachers are less featured in this account and come in for some criticism at how they were perceived to have excluded Rachel Edwards and her family from the band’s inner-circle and failed to share the findings of a Private Investigator employed by the band to look into Edwards disappearance with the family. Rachel Edwards contributions to the book make for a very personal and moving account and really brings home vividly the effects of Richey Edwards disappearance and the lack of answers on the Edwards family over the years.

Ultimately Withdrawn Traces is a difficult read but informative and well written book, part biography, part search and while the authors are unable to provide a definitive answer as to what became of the book’s protagonist, they do pose some very difficult questions and uncomfortable facts.