Blimey.  Done more this last week than since the last time on holiday.  So the intention here is for whistle stops, and given that brevity has been conspicuously absent from Lillabullero for some time now it should be good training.  Let us first bring on the books …

Scan heft front Scan heft backHeft

First thing to say about the edition of Liz Moore‘s Heft (Hutchinson, 2012) I read is: What a great cover, reflecting as it does beautifully the house in which a lot of the novel’s action takes place; and I love the steps leading up to the barcode on the back – take a bow Nathan Burton.  Click on the back cover and you’ll get some specifics, but without giving too much away – it says it’s ‘restorative’ on the cover – I’ll just add it’s a story of four lost souls, vividly told alternatively by two of them, one of whom rather annoying never spells out ‘and’, which is represented by an ampersand throughout his testimony.  The one who doesn’t make it, a particularly significant one, we only meet by hearsay and in her letters.  I zipped through Heft, engaged and moved by their various wretched situations; I don’t think the teenage boy would be out of place in a Donna Tartt novel.  It’s a really good read, the more so if you don’t think about it too hard; it suffers, this cynic would say, for all its contemporary New York locale, from a touch of that good ol’ American (modern Dickensian) sentimentality.  I read it because it was a Reading Group choice, but I liked it well enough, have no regrets for the time spent.

Darkness darknessDarkness, darkness

I’ve missed Charlie Resnick so it was good to see John Harvey had bought him back for a final fling with Darkness, darkness (Heinemann, 2014); Harvey’s other lead characters never came near Resnick’s resonance.  No longer a copper but working as a humdrum civilian investigator in the police service – “keeping the stairlift away” – he gets actively involved in a case again when a body is found in the process of a street demolition in an ex-mining village.  It’s a case going back to the dark days of the miners’ strike, a political milieu full of perils for the fiction writer which Nottinghamian Harvey treats even-handedly – and cites sources and contacts in an appendix to this end – while hiding nothing:

‘There was a lot of what we did that wasn’t right,’ Resnick said eventually.  ‘A lot we should have done differently or not done at all.  And a great deal of what happened locally, well, that was taken out of our hands. Not much of an excuse, maybe, but there it is.  But I met some good people, no mistaking that.  Either side of the picket line.’

Scargill’s tactics – how things could have been different in the Notts coalfields – get a critical airing too.  The scars of the conflict are still there as the investigation proceeds three decades on, with the women’s part in the strike an important element of the plot.  Chapters describing events concerning the murdered woman at the time of the strike cut intriguingly into the main investigation narrative.  The outcome is a long way from what might have been at the start, with the crucial intellectual breakthrough in the case down to Resnick’s passion for jazz, which also gets a familiar airing in passing throughout.

Darkness, darkness is a worthy coda to the canon.  His personal situation – ageing, wearied, crotchety, grieving, still interested – is affectionately and adeptly handled, and, fans, rest assured: he doesn’t die.

Pedant’s corner: in the ongoing query as to what editors and proof readers do for their money these days, how do you flick your headlights at someone “waiting patiently to overtake”?  And would a pro-strike miner get away with making a speech criticising the “false promises” of the NUM rather than, as it should obviously read in context, the NCB (p221 in the paperback)?

xoa-coverlores1Anais Mitchell

Saw Anais Mitchell at a stupidly un-sold-out Stables on Monday – the side seats were empty – but if anything that added to the intimacy.  Support and occasional accompanist Rachel Ries opened with a set of songs that kept the audience fully engaged, and – nice touch – was joined by her friend Anais for her last number.  Anais came out and was stunning from the outset.  She’s a decent singer, with a neat inflection, and a fine acoustic guitarist with a folksy presence that belies the power of her compositions.  She has an endearing habit of – standing with her guitar throughout – fidgeting about on her feet, (mostly softly) stamping or shuffling, the tour de force being a natural/naturalised balancing on one leg temporarily resting the other on the calf of her standing leg.  Her voice is much stronger live than heard on previous records, and the spare unaccompanied performances of songs from Hadestown and Young man in America (especially an intense Why we build the wall from the former, where opera-style, it’s sung by someone else, and the title track of the latter) really gripped emotionally; both are on Xoa, the fine new album of re-workings illustrated here.  Young man in America is a devastating, concerned song, looking into the void.  If she weren’t a song writer she’d be a writer, no question.  Wearing pretty new H&M dresses – I’m only telling you this because she told us – she and Rachel, when the latter came out again to add harmonies or piano, towering I guess a foot over Anais, were enjoying each other’s and our company.  It was a great night and, icing on the cake, for an encore, lovely touch, unplugged and un-miked they stepped in front of the monitors and gave us a thoroughly acoustic little country ditty.  Refreshing (well I’ve not seen it done before) and so satisfying.  Audience exit smiling.

MK Rose Nov 11Scribal Armistice

Tuesday was Armistice Day and we joined a small group of MK Humanists joined local worthies and other members of the public at the secular civic act of Remembrance at the MK Rose.  A bit blowy, but it was a relief it kept dry.  Not exactly massed ranks but everyone pleasantly surprised at the size of the turnout, a genuine gathering, the feeling being that this was now an established event in the civic calendar.  A feature of the ceremony, along with all the usual – the Exhortation, Last Post, Reveille, the laying of the wreaths and the Kohima Epitaph – was the reading of Day of names, an apt poem written by MK Poet Laureate Mark Niel for the occasion.

Scribal Nov 2014And the theme continued in the evening, with the November Scribal Gathering featuring a moving 20 minute reprise extract from The hell where youth and laughter go, the World War 1 commemoration in poetry put together earlier in the year by the late Scribal regular (and many other things) Dick Skellington.  Remembrance of one sort or other became something of a theme as the evening progressed with Alzheimer’s the topic of a Caz epic and touched on by others.   Couple of notable first time poets of distinction were blooded (rotten metaphor for a vegetarian, I know, but it is a rite of passage), while Mr Gurner performed a Japan classic, solo on the modern equivalent of Sparky’s Magic Piano, and Mr Frost was back in charge of proceedings (though, if memory hasn’t failed, sans chapeau.

Terror and wonderLondon libraries

And so to London for a celebration, but first Terror and wonder at the British Library.  A wide-ranging exhibition sub-titled The Gothic Imagination had me absorbed for a couple of hours or more.  Always a favourite place to visit in London, I was enticed this time by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s three parter on the telly, which for the first time seemed to make sense for me of the relation of Gothic architecture to all the horror stuff, from John Ruskin to The wickerman in easy stages.  Not so much of Ruskin and the general architecture here, but there was plenty else to take in.  Like Castle of Otranto author Walpole’s Strawberry Hill villa (hence Strawberry Hill Gothic as per Stony’s St Mary & St Giles Church) and Dr Dee’s obsidian scrying mirror that was part of Walpole’s collection.  Indeed, many things; I’ll just point at random to a goth adaptation called Jane Slayre (there were more); an aged cabinet housing a similarly aged but impressive ‘Vampire slaying kit’ (no example found older than the early ’70s);  original illustrations from Patrick Ness’s A monster calls (which Lillabullero raved about this time last year); and as part of a photographic essay of a goth weekend at Whitby, a goth football team (or is it even a goth football tournament as part of the entertainments?)  For the first time in my life the thought occurs that I might actually read Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Different kind of horror show at the 50th birthday ‘celebration’ of the iconic Swiss Cottage Library, which just happened to be the first port of call of my 40 year library career.  Missed the first introductory bit because Transport for London deemed it necessary to close Swiss Cottage station for the brief time I needed to use it so had to walk back down the Finchley Road (and nearly got run down by a honking taxi – one forgets about London traffic), but I was reassured later I’d missed nothing.  Then a rambling interview all about the building with a surviving member of Basil Spence’s architectural practice, and absolutely nothing about how it was a beacon in the library world for a decade, about the good old days of a thriving library, no recollections of how it felt to use it or work there.  Then some sort of performance art/mime performance that nodded to all the library clichés (“shhh…”) while most of us nodded off, culminating in a less than rousing ‘Happy birthday’.  Orange juice and crisps!  Good to see old colleagues, though, and even better, old friends in the pub afterwards.


Photo taken from the MK Gallery website http://www.mkgallery.org/exhibitions/ where there is a lot more information.

An-My Lê

Went back for a second look at the An-My Lê exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery.  As a child she was airlifted out of Vietnam near the end of the war to settle in America.  Was really impressed with the Events ashore sequence of large colour photographs in the Long Gallery.  Her subject is war and the military but she’s not a war photographer; rather she, to quote the leaflet, “explored the myth and memory of war.”  There a some stunning compositions here – like the hospital ship in the accompanying photo, and the medics awaiting casualties – beautifully composed in both sense of the word.  There is quietness, stillness, vehicle patterns in the snow and other seemingly set pieces, but such is the subject matter there must always be the unstated implication you cannot escape, even in the missions of humanitarian aid, of potential violence, the uniforms, behind the picture.  It’s an extraordinary feeling, not so much alarming as haunting.  Thought the video installation worked too – on one wall black and white close-ups and middle shots of troops in training being instructed, filmed movie quality; on the adjoining wall at right angles, long-range, less focussed film of a landscape in which a training exercise battle is taking place, the soldiers like ants.

Further musical adventures

Hey, and Saturday the awesome energy of women dancing at a party (happy birthdays L & S) with three bands – The Outside This, The Box Ticked (Waterloo!), and the impressive Fear of Ray.  Which gives me a chance to introduce events the next day with …

… but there was no fear of Ray at this year’s Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention at Tufnell Park’s Boston Arms.  And indeed, Ray Davies did turn up briefly to wish us well and lead us through a truncated You really got me (50 years old this year, same as, I suddenly realise, Swiss Cottage Library).  Now in the past I’ve given this escapade a big write-up and it’s got flagged in the splendid Kinda Kinks unofficial website and I get more visitors here at Lillabullero in the next couple of days than I get in a month.  But  I can’t see that happening this year.

Waterlow Park 2014.  Not the usual autumn leaves pic.  Something more reflective.  Oh, and Where's Wally?

Waterlow Park 2014. Not the usual autumn leaves pic. Something more reflective. Oh, and Where’s Wally? (Click and click again to enlarge).

But first, the annual pilgrimage to Highgate’s Waterlow Park, where I spent many a pleasant hour when I first moved to London.  And down Dartmouth Park Hill to the Boston with cranes much in evidence on the London skyline.

The thing is, the Konvention used to be special.  But for the Kast Off Kinks these days it’s … well it’s not quite just another gig, because (apart, of course for Dave) they’re all there, including Deb and Shirlie, and this is hard-core Kinks fans, who come from far and wide.  Now they’re regularly gigging throughout the land, not much new is happening on stage.  Not that they do not put on a decent show, but the sound is crap.  The bass, with either Nobby or Jim playing, is – there’s probably a technical term for it, but – too fucking loud an awful lot of the time.  No, I don’t swear very much on Lillabullero.  The bass coming out of the speakers is at times serious industrial noise pollution rather than music and it drowns out Ian Gibbons’ fine keyboard tinklings when he hasn’t got said keyboard functioning as an organ – his swirling away behind certain songs was a musical highlight for me.

KOK Phil Anthony WardDave Clark (the other Dave Clark, the one who’s still alive) puts in his usual sterling performance in the Ray and Dave roles (though thankfully not fighting among himself) and the others were fine.  I dunno.  Maybe it’s the familiarity, and/or I’m getting old and jaded.  Also, there were (no bad thing in itself) backing singers – here’s photographic evidence.  I certainly saw three young Swedish women trot through the crowd onto and off the side of the stage more than once, and heard them introduced, and Deb and Shirlie were there too, but apart from the latter two’s solo spots I never heard any of their contributions.  The sound improved for the closing rock and roll sequence and the final rousing Louie, Louie was great as ever, with Ian’s percussive Hammond-setting extemporisation outstanding.

And another thing …  Oh yes, it was too crowded – uncomfortably so; to quote one of Ray’s songs, “too many people.”  To be honest I have to say that the not necessarily worthiest part of me says I preferred it when Ray Davies was an unacknowledged national treasure.  Still, you have to pay tribute to the hard work that goes into this shindig, so again, thanks OKFC.  It’s always good to greet old friends and Kink community acquaintances.  But next year can we have raffle tickets that don’t change colour under the UV lights, please?

Dodo Bones by danni

Percussionist hidden, not a 4-legged Robbyn Snow. Photo (c) Danni Antagonist

The Konvention is an afternoon gig, so I’m back in time for the excellent Dodo Bones at the Old George.  Robbyn Snow has an extraordinarily expressive voice – country-tinged soul (maybe) contralto is the best I can describe it.  Tonight as well as regular partner, guitarist Stephen Patmore – they often gig as a duo – they are more than ably accompanied by Ian, the one in the Antipoet with the double bass, and the augmented – bass drum pedal attached and one-man band cymbal on the other foot – cajon percussionist hidden in the picture.  And a fine time was had.  Their own more than decent songs were interwoven with some craftily crafted self-confessed “cheesy” covers.  So you suddenly realise it’s a countrified Let me entertain you, they’re playing, and it works beautifully – a better song than you expected.  Specific lines in a raunchy Rihanna track with lyrics approaching the status of an instruction manual is greeted with laughter; “I am so pleased you laughed at that,” says Robbyn.  Spoiler alert: they close with Hey hey we’re the Monkees.  A delightful evening.

 Actual dodo bones

Dead pass

Fire and brimstoneHey – the author previously known as Colin Bateman, who took the contemporary r and b one name route a few years back  and became Bateman, has now become the author previously known as Bateman, because he’s got the moniker his ma and da gave him back: so Colin once more.  Still good as ever though – the usual sharp characterful mix of low wit, ingenious plotting, acerbic social observation of contemporary Northern Ireland, pain, soap opera, occasional brutality, oh, and high humour.

The Dead Pass (Headline, 2014) picks up where the last Dan Starkey – Fire and Brimstone – left off.  It’s not crucial to have read the earlier novel first, though if you have you will get more out of the New Seekers sequences, and the soap opera aspects of Dan’s domestic set-up.  Dan used to be a crime reporter but is now a bespoke private investigator, albeit one who “still found it quite hard to tell anyone I was a private detective without grinning stupidly.”  He is, says Sara, “a perfect example of the punk rock generation gone to seed.”  (His punk credentials are tested by a priest at one stage: What’s the b-side of The Clash’s White riot single)*.  Sara Patterson, who has a very bad time of it in The Dead Pass, is a crime reporter who is, in finest Raymond Chandler homage,  “young enough to be my protégée, and old enough to not take me seriously. We had a flirtatious relationship. Mostly I flirted and she rolled her eyes. I couldn’t quite tell whether she enjoyed the mild suggestiveness of it or found it slightly creepy.”  The New Seekers (yes, indeed) are a fast growing Christian cult run by a strident Protestant demagogue who recognise a teenage messiah, Christine – “funny and charming and charismatic, all the things you’d generally expect of a clued-in, savvy teenage Messiah” – who is mates with grounded cool uncle-substitute Dan.  It’s a glorious set-up.

Having said that, the actual plot of The Dead Pass is concerned with a disappearance and murder (the body thrown off the Peace Bridge) set against the background of post-Peace Settlement IRA gangsterism and convoluted politics in Derry, or Londonderry as it is alternatively called throughout, and well out of Dan’s Belfast comfort zone.  It’s fascinating stuff, involving control of a lucrative interactive internet porn business, with a side order the teenage messiah going AWOL.  There’s drunkenness, hangovers, a punk musical called ‘It makes you want to spit’ and a whole lot more going on in passing.  But the crucial thing is, it could easily stand on its own perfectly well as a first-rate crime thriller.  There are plot twists and action in abundance, but what makes Bateman special – I’ve previously called him the British Carl Hiaasen – are all these savvy bonuses.  And, for all the darkness, the fun.  Like, in the past, the murderee “had been shot three times by a loyalist death squad that had not lived up to its name.

Then there’s the sardonic nuances of the Northern Ireland situation, so:

“Okay. Is he or has he ever been part of an illegal organisation?”
“Yes, the IRA, the original version, not those … boys who call themselves the Ra these days.”
“Okay,” I said. “And nowadays? Gangster, community worker or politician?”

And how about this for a bit of scene setting?:

A little to my right was the city’s orange-hued Guildhall, where Derry Council met. It had been the venue for the pre-Jimmy Savile Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, two hundred million spent to discover the bleeding obvious. We were a crazy, mixed-up, contradictory province of a fading colonial power but still largely intent on resisting the lure of the leprechaun.

Or a lovely reworking of an old Belfast (atheist) chestnut, when Starkey, in a taxi, suggests to the driver

… that he get with the spirit of Christmas and he said it was more than a month away yet, and besides, he was a Muslim. I asked if he was a Protestant Muslim or a Catholic Muslim and he said he didn’t understand what I meant, that such a thing was impossible, and I said, there in a nutshell, was the problem with the Middle East and he said What? And I said ‘No sense of humour.’

I could go on with the pop culture references, the one-liners sprayed liberally about, but I think I’ll leave you with the teenage messiah:

They wanted her to preach in their church, which was her church, and bless them and lead them in the Promised Land.  But she wanted a Pot Noodle and to hit the road.

Oh yes, and the hardback has wonderfully big print.

*1977.  He got it right.

Poems cryA few months back, seemingly out of the blue, a friend asked what poems made me cry.  I wondered where that had come from.  I demurred, offered Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach as a poem that had moved me greatly, but not to tears.  Off the top of my head: novels – yes (A farewell to arms); music for sure (Elgar’s Cello concerto, Bob Dylan’s Dream/Lord Franklin); plenty of films (even Russell Crow’s demise in Les Mis).  But poetry, no: desolation maybe, bleakness, quiet revelation, beauty, compassion, contemplation, engagement, a glow; but I can’t recall more than the hint of a younger self-pitying sniffle (La belle dame sans merci).

That’s what some of the contributors to Poems that make grown men cry: 100 men on the words that move them (Simon & Schuster, 2014) admit too.  The publicity surrounding its publication is where my friend’s query came from.  Edited by père et fils Anthony and Ben Holden for Amnesty International, the book features 95 poems (5 were selected twice), 12 of which are written by women (2 of those from Elizabeth Bishop).  Arranged chronologically, which brings a nice touch of serendipity to the proceedings, the twentieth century accounts for 75% of the poems.  The majority of those doing the choosing are British, but there is a significant sprinkling from further afield.  About 50% of the contributors are writers of one sort or another (including 17 poets, some Booker winners), while the linked worlds of theatre and cinema provide another quarter, aided and abetted for the rest by a few polymath celebs, a handful of human rights activists and the odd architect and archbishop.  Not much pop culture spice: Nick Cave, Barry Humphries, Benjamin Zephaniah.  It’s basically a posh variant of those charity celebrity recipe books.

What of the poems, then?  On the back it claims to be “a collection unlike any other“; presumably because of all the “prominent figures” involved.  They introduce the poems, give their reasons, some mercifully shorter than others (and, to be frank, I’m not sure I wanted to be invited into the personal grief – suicides, the death of children – involved in some of the choices).  I first skimmed and, a fair amount of the time, in the best traditions of reverse snobbery, scorned it.  Philip Larkin’s jibe in verse about Frank Kermode (rhymes with ‘toad’) – “just a jetset egghead, TLS toff” – rather hits the spot here, even if Kermode posthumously (it’s a long story) chose Larkin’s Unfinished poem (or one of them).  But I did give the collection more time and consideration and, yes, there was some – undiscovered for me – not so obvious gold in them thar hills.  Not that any made me lachrymosal, mind.  Anyway, a few thoughts:

  • AudenTop of the pops is W.H.Auden, with 5 poems, and I’m not going to complain about that.  Ex-ArchB of Cantab Rowan Williams’ choice of Friday’s child gave me pause; as reasonable a profession of faith as this atheist can understand.  In my ignorance, I was surprised to discover that in a few month’s time I will have lived longer than the bearer of that iconic wrinkled old face – not so ancient after all at 1907-1973.
  • Tie second with 3 poems each: A.E.Housman, Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin.  While the first two strike me as somewhat sentimental choices (bunch of wusses – no, I jest) it’s the glow I get from that miserable old “sack of meal upon two sticks” that shocks.  So thanks to Simon Russell Beale for Larkin’s I see a girl dragged by the wrists (no – it’s a good, fun, dragging): “Damn all explanatory rhymes! / To be that girl!
  • Forbidden songstwo (count ‘em) of the best poems chosen have been featured on albums by late lamented singer-songwriter and poetry champion Jackie LevenJames A.Wright‘s A blessing is on Forbidden tales of the dying west, but you can also find his lovely accompanied recitation of it on YouTube.  Robert Bly reads Antonio Machado‘s eco-hymn The wind, one brilliant day - also his selection here – to Jackie’s music on Defending ancient springs.
  • Poems that make grown men (PTMGMC) cry follows the rule that any general anthology published in the last 20 years must include Adlestrop (Simon Winchester, émigré), and probably Dulce et decorum est (Christopher Hitchens); Benjamin Zephaniah surprises by contributing Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night, wishing his father could have been a worthy recipient of that sentiment
  • Was it them in Men behaving badly who used to mock sneeze and say “Tosser” into their hands or handkerchiefs?  I tired of some of these ‘prominent figures’ who either explained their choice at length and/or chose some of the longer works.  So take a bow: Kenneth Branagh, who is allowed to get away with a four page sermon extracted from a verse translation of a play; and also, for messing with the ‘rules’, Craig Raine, who is allowed to offer two excerpts from different Pisan cantos (by Ezra Pound, writing in prison) in reverse order and bridged by reference to another couplet therefrom quoting Chaucer.
  • Having moaned about length, I have to say one of the pieces that I was most grateful to PTMGMC for making the acquaintance of was Elizabeth Bishop‘s 6 pager, Crusoe in England, Robinson looking back, dealing with his legacy and the death of Friday from measles in England after the rescue, was the closest to a tear-jerker I found in these pages (and the lines were relatively short).
  • Another poem that made me sit up was, by contrast, one of the shortest – Randall Jarrell‘s The death of a ball turret gunner:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

  • Then there’s a strange poem by Gabriela Mistral (not her real name, I thought, and no, it’s not, but she’s a big deal – Chilean, first Nobel Prize for Literature from Latin America, and a career besides).  God wills it is not exactly a title to win my godless sympathies, but nevertheless, as a profession of love is not “Earth will turn against you / If your soul betrays my soul / A shudder of anguish / will run through the waters” (and it gets far worse over 21½ pages) emotional blackmail in spades?
  • I could go on, good and bad, but I won’t.

Rag & bone shopLadies, if you’ll excuse such a dated mode of address, Poems that make grown men cry is not without its merit, but if you’ve a real hankering to put an anthology of the poetical kind in the Christmas stocking of the man or men in your life, might I suggest the splendid volume pictured here on your left.  It’s been out a while now, but The rag and bone shop of the heart (Harper-Perennial, 1992) is a treasure trove not often found on the shelves of general bookstores.   The splendid title is rescued from The circus animal’s desertion, by W.B.Yeats, who does not feature at all in PTMGMC save in Auden’s majestic In memory of W.B.Yeats; in his poem the actual line is, “In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Poem that exampleTypographical rant of a footnote:  As a posh variant of those charity celebrity recipe books, it’s not so much the concept that makes me uneasy, but rather the page design that seems to follow, the clumsy way the poetry is belittled in the book’s layout.  Never mind the choice of typeface – it’s printed throughout in a Bodoni style font (flat unbracketed serifs, extreme thicks and thins) that I think is rubbish for text, have a look at this sample double page, chosen for its conciseness.  Poem title in biggest font size – fine – and smaller capitalised poet with his or her dates.  Two asterisks.  Then we get the larger capitalised selector, and their reasons for selecting that particular poem; good on Colin Firth for his brevity here (“I’m reluctant to talk across this poem“), because, as stated earlier, some of them do go on.  Then we get the actual poem, looking almost like an afterthought, especially now that the title is repeated in bold on top of the poem with no line space between the title and the first line of the poem itself.  Two asterisks.  Then brief career resumé.  Look, I know it’s for charity, but it’s a poetry anthology.  Those personal statements should come after the poem, as reflection and explanation rather than the trumpet voluntary they are as it stands, and they should be distinguished typographically in some way too; give the poem room to stand by itself first, please.  Typography matters.  Not that impressed by the book jacket either, while we’re at it.


Westward Ho!  Not wholly literally, but, at least, a weekend spent in Bristol and Cardiff.


“Fellow citizens”: This is what the British super-rich used to do with their money – Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Didn’t have the time to do all of the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery on Friday, and, to tell the truth, I can’t remember much about the paintings or the pots on the second floor, but I’d go again; Alfred the gorilla, the gypsy caravan and the dinosaurs on the first floor fare better with the memory cells, and it’s as good a colourful collection of stuffed birds as I can recall seeing.

TeasmadesWe had practical reasons to visit the Clevedon Craft Centre the next morning.  Where we did espy a small garden of dead Teasmades at Clock Repairs & More.  Click on the link for the proprietor’s entertaining take on Teasmades and his chosen life path.  Shame about the Teasmade; we had one once.  If only they could have cracked the milk problem.

Oakham treasures

And so to Oakham Treasures, just off the M5 at Porterbury, near Bristol.  This wondrous collection of old domestic and retail tat and ephemera (and some bigger stuff) from the last century is a crammed and endlessly surprising collection of memory triggers of staggering proportions.  Here’s a link to the website.  Never mind those period shops in York Castle Museum (or, indeed, more locally to Lillabullero, Milton Keynes Museum), here are aisles of shelves and counters of multi-decaded emporia – groceries, sweets, hardware, booze and fags, chemists’ stocks, cameras, shaving mugs, post boxes … I could go on.  With an accent, I guess, on the central decades of the twentieth century (though I saw my first mobile phone in one of the displays).  Filled, un-cashed in books of Green Shield stamps, anyone?  Then there’s that barn full of tractors – well over a hundred of them – and an overpowering aroma of pneumatic rubber; would you believe a folk art of decorated metal tractor seats?

Navy CutHappily Oakham Treasures is not overburdened with captions and explanations detailing time, place or significance.  Nor is there any attempt at chronological arrangement.  The material is allowed to just be there, broadly themed, so memories are organically sparked.  I’d forgotten my dad used to cut out the iconic capped and bearded sailor roundels from the Players Navy Cut cigarette packets that cost him a lung and use them creatively – just about the most artistic thing he ever did – though nothing like on the scale of the picture here.  Hard to remember just how prevalent smoking used to be.  All the men were hooked, so they had to get to the women.  So-phisticated:

CapstanGold Flake woman

 And the times, they were a’changing:

Fab Eve

Lord of the Flies

lord-of-the-fliesAnd so, on Saturday evening, to Cardiff Bay, to Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru – the Wales Millennium Centre – for Matthew Bourne‘s New Adventures dance company’s production of Lord of the Flies, from the William Golding novel.  Wow.  Even without a show the venue is impressive, even from the back outside.  We were in the Circle on Level 4, and the climb was an architectural treat in itself – beyond the atrium the lettering on the front of the building (there’s a photo below) is actually window space – while the auditorium roof is an elegant, clean, warm wonder in wood just considered on its own.

The performance was, as you’d expect from a Matthew Bourne production, a total experience.  Loud, exciting, bold, involving … just stunning.  There was so much going on among the cast, the bare permanent scaffolding set was inventively functional, there were moments of great beauty just from the lighting effects, while the cello-based music was intriguing and driving, intrinsic to the drama of the whole.

The story is basically a bunch of boys left to their own devices on a remote island (an extreme reality tv scenario if you will).  The sweet dulcet tones of the stranded boys’ choir of the opening sequence is soon forgotten as the power struggle of reason and brute charisma develops and practical survival becomes the issue.  It’s been a long time since I read the book; that will now have to change.  And though I wasn’t quite there with some of the finer points of the narrative all of the time, the gradual descent into savagery was all too understandable.  It’s not the most optimistic of works, whatever the format.

I won’t go into great detail about the project – a team of 8 professional dancers and a 20-plus volunteer ensemble of young men and boys initially recruited as their introduction to dance – but you couldn’t tell where the one group ended and the other began.  Brilliant night’s dance, brilliant night’s theatre.

Wales Millennium Centre: "In these stones horizons sing" it says, in English and Welsh.

Wales Millennium Centre: “In these stones horizons sing” it says. In English and Welsh.

Please, Mister Postman

Please mister postmanPlease, Mister Postman (Bantam, 2014) picks up where Alan Johnson‘s award winning childhood memoir, This boy, left off.  Aged 18, the bid for rock and roll stardom thwarted by the theft of his band’s uninsured equipment, he’s about to get married and become a step-father and father in rapid succession.  This volume of his memoirs covers the time he was employed by the Post Office, his life as a postman, his young family’s move out of London and his rise through the trade union hierarchy.  It leaves us with his election to an executive position in the Union of Communications Workers, who will henceforth pay his wages, and an unspectacular divorce as he heads off to pastures new.  It is a fascinating and moving portrayal of a life, and of a way of life, that feels a lot longer gone than it actually is.  Yes, there once were working men, autodidacts, who became active in politics and rose to the highest positions in the land.  And aren’t we suffering for the lack thereof now?  To place the period in another context, this was a time when it was felt that postmen’s livelihoods would be threatened by the fax machine.

There’s a bit of a campaign on the go right now (October 2014) for Johnson to make a return to front bench politics (he’s still a Hull MP), but other than as a very welcome charmer as poster boy and TV face in the forthcoming general election campaign I can’t see it happening, because, to all reports, he looks to be having too good a time, not least with the success of these memoirs.  Very early on in Please, Mister Postman he tells us, “There were, and remain, three great passions in my life – music, books and football“; in the case of the latter, as a lad from west London, it’s QPR.  There was “no defining moment when I became politically active”, and, “Engaging though I found union work, I would define it as an interest, something that added another dimension to my work, not as a passion“; as “a militant moderate” it’s likely an attitude he carried over to affairs of state when the time came – a useful job, not a calling, even if, back when he started speaking at his union’s annual conference: “I liked that buzz [.…] this was as close as I could get to recreating my rock-and-roll years.”  Still a teenager, he’d been writing detective stories and poetry, fruitlessly sending them off to addresses plucked from an out of date Writers & Artists Yearbook: “It seemed to me that every author I’d read about had been through the pain of rejection before achieving literary acclaim, so I saw it as a rung on the ladder to success.”  And here we are.  How long before a CD, even? (Please don’t).

It’s quite a story.  There’s his start in married life living with the in-laws, there’s what happens to sister Linda – young orphaned Alan’s saviour from This boy – and her ultimately tragic first marriage, and there’s the settling of his growing young family on a Slough LCC overspill council estate.  Then there’s his vivid memoir of the working life as a postman, leading to his South Bucks idyll on a rural ‘walk’ – working practises hard to imagine now, that he makes no attempt to excuse but has a lot of fun with – and what union and Labour Party life was like in the time of Thatcher and Militant (ie. not great – nor is the old mod who accessorised his uniform much impressed by scruffy middle class radicals).  All this in an easy conversational style most of the time, laced with a fair amount of self-deprecation:

In the British Legion with Mick and Idris on a Sunday lunchtime I’d drone on about ‘my people’ and declare that I wished to put whatever talents I possessed at the service of the working class. I blush now at this patronizing nonsense but I can’t deny that the idealistic little prick in the tank top and flares was me.

He starts his Post Office career on the early shift at Barnes, following the advice and example of a fellow ex-band buddy:

Andrew cycled to work every day from his parents’ house near White City on an old sit-up-and-beg bike his dad had given him. More often than not, riding Judy’s cutting-edge Moulton, I’d meet him on Hammersmith Bridge in the insulated hush of the early morning. We’d pull our bikes off the road, light a cigarette and lean on the balustrade watching the Thames flow beneath us. It wasn’t exactly Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge, but for us it had its own profundity.

When he and Judy get the chance of a council house of their own in Slough they go on a recce.  At the station they ask two policemen if they know they way to the Britwell Estate: “ ‘Do we know how to get to the Britwell?’ one of them said. ‘We should do, we have to go there often enough.’   But compared with the poverty and violence of the West London he was brought up in, “The Britwell seemed to me to be more Arcadian than anarchic.”  He transfers to Slough Postal District, they settle in nicely with the neighbours, slowly acquire the white goods while enjoying a varied social life when he’s not racking up the overtime.

He speaks engagingly of the camaraderie of the workplace and of particular work colleagues: “My workmates in the sorting office included more lovers of literature than I’ve ever worked among since [my italics].”  He’s turned on to Auden, Yeats, Larkin and the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy.  “In fact Slough sorting office was like a Royal Mail university, such was the erudition of the postmen alongside whom I worked.”

So, yes, it’s good read and a healthy bestseller.  But, briefly, I wish it didn’t make me wonder, yet again, what book editors actually do these days for their money and acknowledgments.  There’s clumsiness and/or factual slippage and/or superfluity in some of the scene setting that the book could well do without, like (my italics):

  • Sergeant Pepper was “the album that had astounded and delighted the world on its release in June.”  Tell me something new.
  • At home, the activist Tariq Ali was leading a student movement to abolish money and abandon capitalism.”  Really?

  • he has a colleague whose ”great hero was the singer Al Bowlly, who had been killed in action during the war.”  In enemy action,  in an air raid on London; if he hadn’t eschewed the offer of accommodation in High Wycombe after a gig he would have missed it.

  • Linda’s new man Chas had “once sung at the famous 2i’s coffee bar in Soho, where British institutions such as Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard had started out.”  Mention skiffle, please, and – if you must – those two, but institutions?  At least he didn’t say ‘national treasures.’

Pedant? – moi?  Anyway, absorbing book by a good man, who was responsible for one of the great Desert Islasnd Discs (though not necessarily for the choice of music).  And – respect – he didn’t have to say this, about the aftermath of a token strike, but he does:

I was at Barnes for only five more months, and in all that time nobody spoke to Ted Philpott. For all I know his isolation lasted until his retirement. I was as guilty as my workmates of inflicting this terrible punishment. I colluded in trying to break a man’s spirit and it’s something I’ve been ashamed of ever since.

Multiple universes: a personal digression

Reading Please, Mister Postman I got this strange feeling; something slightly out of kilter was going on.  It felt a bit spooked, like I was caught in a timeslip.  As if the Tardis needed recalibrating.   No other book has done this to me.  It started when Alan Johnson was explaining the working practicalities of the Xmas post in Slough, where he had moved the very day of the original Stones’ Hyde Park gig:

Entire battalions of casuals, mostly students, were recruited throughout the country. You could hardly cross a sorting-office floor anywhere in Britain without tripping over a sociology graduate from Sheffield University …

Now, that was my university, and my subject – what are the chances of those specifics? – and I did the Christmas post twice in Slough (well, some of the time in the temporary Farnham Royal temporary sub-sorting station).  One magic night I got caught up in the romanticism of meeting the mail train at midnight … but I digress.  Couple of years adrift, then.  I even wrote a poem … another tangent, but wotthehell, archy, wotthehell?:

Incident in a Christmas sorting office,1967

Getting brought down
by a card post-marked
When you know
she lives in

Staying in Sheffield the while, I note Alan and Judy naming their third child Jamie, specifically J-a-m-i-e because it was “from some awful sixties comedy.”  Now Here we go round the mulberry bush (1968) is not a great film, but awful it was not and I can distinctly remember walking back with my mate Neil full of the joys after seeing said film, because somehow its final flourish, with said Jamie jumping with the help of the pole onto the platform of a green double-decker bus as it drove away, captured our momentary optimism, a feeling of liberation even.  (And it Judy Gysin had been in it).

My political consciousness,” says Johnson, “evolved from the books I borrowed from Slough library and … ” some other things which are neither here nor there, here.  My point is that the first library job I applied for was for a post at the old Slough Library, in 1970.  I didn’t get it (in retrospect they did me a great favour) but nevertheless, we’re getting a lot closer to the timelines crossing.

I lived just outside Slough from age 12 to 18, my school was on the edge of the Britwell Estate and one of my routes cycling home was along Long Furlong Drive, where the Johnsons moved to.  The Buddy Holly glasses wearing bass player and the resident musical genius (it’s all relative) in the group I played in – as the sort of Lennon figure, well rhythm guitarist – lived in Britwell and I’m pretty sure our first public performance out of school was tucked away in a corner in the Lynchpin pub – they may have let us have a brown ale – that Alan later regularly drank in.  Only about 5 years out there then.

EgyptFor a few years Johnson was one of Slough’s relief postmen, covering holidays and absences on the regulars’ ‘walks’, as their routes were called, which meant he almost certainly delivered letters at one time or another to all my old school mates’ parents.  Six degrees of separation and all that, eh?  He broke his ankle playing kickabout with his son’s friends on Burnham Beeches, not far no doubt from the accompanying photo (coat from C&A, by the way), taken maybe early ’70s, by which time, I think, he must have been delivering in the area.  Early on in his political awakening he admired Jimmy Reid, specifically the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in – me too, later  – and it was the Stones’ Brown sugar got him out of the kitchen and onto the dance floor at parties.  I feel a connection, and – pathetically or not – feel the better for it.  Cheers, Alan.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Palmerston gigAnother wonderful gig at York House.  Was good to see an extended set from The mighty Antipoet away from a pub setting and hear some obscurities alongside old favourites.  They were new to some of the crowd and the usual combination of dextrous double bass, generous wit, wisdom, scorn and triangle scored mightily again. They give, and they give, and they give.  And then an extended in concert set from the mighty Palmerston, who performed to great acclaim.  Five strong voices, fine musicianship, varied instrumentalism and top rate original material.  Writing about them previously, I said they reminded me of Brinsley Schwartz, not least for the fun they were having themselves.  This time around they had me thinking The Band in places – all those voices – I kid you not.  And the swingingest Mavericks with Angelina.  Not often I buy a CD.  Now I’ve got Sun on a rainy day as an earworm I’m perfectly happy with.


Colne guitarWallace HartleyColne

Now where was I?  Oh, yes.  Coming back from the Lakes a while ago now, stayed over with a friend in Colne, Lancashire, in the Borough of Pendle.  Interesting town, feels like it’s built on a ridge, scarily steep roads leading off down at various intervals from either side of the main drag – population circa 19,00, over twice as big as Stony – and another music town.  That guitar in the photo is part of a floral bed which is (it says) “a tribute to The Great Bristish [sic] Rhythm & Blues Festival held in Colne every August.”  After a few ales maybe.  Close by is a bust celebrating Colne’s most famous son: Wallace Hartley – violinist and bandmaster on the RMS Titanic, who famously played on as the unsinkable ship sank.

I still think it’s a coincidence, though, that we sat through the whole of Tempest, the 14 minute ‘epic’ title track from Bob Dylan’s last album, while eating in Jim’s Acoustic Cafe & Vegetarian Restaurant … and it sounded better there – took me a while to realise what it was, intrigued by the rhythm of the vocal, not listening to the lyric – than I’ve ever heard its tedious drone in my own home.  Put it down to Jim’s more than decent sound system.  The food is great too, always interesting (from a choice of three mains a day) and really reasonably priced – I should have nicked a menu to show you.   The music a fascinating and varied mix – as well as the Dylan I remember Howlin’ Wolf, some African funk, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix – and what I didn’t recognise was always interesting;  the man has taste to match his culinary skills.  Comfortable, relaxed, ramshackle (in the best sense of the word) decor with an eclectic collection of pictures to have you out of your seat for a closer look.  Oh for anything like it locally!  Apparently ‘Jim’s’ is the small Festival venue; Jackie Leven used to play there.

I used to think of places like Blackburn and Burnley as post-industrial waste lands, but Colne seems to be doing OK, and the towns were always never far from the hilly Pendle countryside, which, though never as dramatic as The Lakes or as wild as the North Yorkshire Moors, has plenty going for it (and there is plenty of it).  You can walk into Bronte country from Colne; Yorkshire spreads further west than many would think.

BRCBuckinghamshire Railway Centre

Springing forward three weeks, spent some time at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton the weekend just passed.  Blimey, it’s changed a bit since I was there last.  Like there’s a swishy visitor centre now (went up 12 years ago, I was told) and there’s so much more to see.  Hadn’t done any research prior to the visit so it was a nice surprise to be met on entering with an example of a GWR Castle class, that most handsome and exquisitely proportioned class of express steam locomotives, resplendent in British railways colours, in the entrance hall. (Photos © Lillabullero)

Castle 5080 'Defiant'.  But what if one were in a more compliant mood?

Castle 5080 ‘Defiant’. ‘Climb aboard Defiant’ the sign says, but what if one were in a more compliant mood? (To be fair, the sign does have the loco name in inverted commas.

In deepest Buckinghamshire

In deepest Buckinghamshire


A beast of a locomotive named ‘Janice'; South African, 3’6″ gauge but still enormous.

Lots more oddness in evidence, along with resplendent resident Metropolitan 1 – click on the photos to enlarge:


Metropolitan No 1BeggarsAnd as you’d expect these days, loads of social history in the museum and the lovingly restored 1890s Quainton Road station, where you’ll find this reminder that the ‘deserving poor’ are always with us.  It’s like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel if he hadn’t stopped writing novels about that time.  ‘Wayfarer’ – does that not have an adventurous dignity about it? The honest wayfarer – a folk song waiting to be written.

Castle chimneyFurther on down the line

So … between Colne and Quainton a fair few events and happenings.  Staying with the railway theme briefly, a beer promisingly named Smokestack Lightnin‘ supped in the Vaults  at the Vaultage Re-Charged, pleasant enough, but without the bite of Howlin’ Wolf’s record of the same name …  a couple of AORTAS open mics, the first where landlord Andy required of Dan, the paid piper, that he deliver an evening of happy songs, which was enough to keep at least one songsmith away, only for Andy then to go on holiday himself … the second distinguished by the usual good (musically miserable) times, Mark Owen (one half of The Last Quarter) playing solo, being introduced as The Last Eighth, and Pat’s dog farting; eyes raised approvingly at the previously unnoticed appearance at the word ‘acrimony’ in Dan Plews‘ fine rendition of The Sailor’s Rest … down the road in the bar of The Crauford Arms in Wolverton another day, Tom George, going out as The Lion & the Wolf, warned the nevertheless appreciative audience to prepare themselves for “the miserable-ist 20 minutes of your lives”; interesting songs played and sung strongly, in not ideal circumstances, which was a relief given he’s the son of an old mate – fine young man, chip off the block, even – who could remember playing in our back garden when he was 8 … and music back at the Shoulder of Mutton hopefully on a regular basis, courtesy of the Hoodwink Elixir; the ever excellent Zeroes covering Kim Wilde’s Kids in America to good effect, Second Hand Grenade funking away (Emmazing Emma getting better all the time), teenage openers Ali in the Jungle displaying accomplished musicianship for their tender years.

Was good to see John Cooper Clarke at the Stables.  He may have slowed down a bit, but he’s still got it, and good to hear new material.  Neat update of Beasley Street into Beasley Boulevard reflecting the embourgeoisement of Salford with its Media City.  Quite a phenomenon, very English I’d say, the general warmth of the affection in which JCC is held.  Not that he’s exactly cruising behind it.  His support acts would have been worth seeing on their own, hard acts to follow.  I think there’s fair chance they schooled themselves word-perfect on the man himself’s records as young teens, but they certainly proved that’s no bad thing as a starting point.  Mike Garry went out of his way to stress Johnny’s Salford, I’m Manchester, and took us down the streets the inhabitants or descendants of Beasley Street have moved to.  it was a hell of a dramatic performance – theatre, poetry, comedy.  Luke Wright, who introduced himself as ‘the token southerner’ was no slouch either; particularly strong JCC-isms in his dream woman piece (was her name Barbara?).  Discussion over the interval in certain quarters as to the shortcomings of the hair care products Luke was using, with recommendations offered.  Shall we call his barnet the sculptured bastard love child of extreme early Phil Oakey and a wind machine?

Life goes on

Went to the funeral – a real celebration of a life – of a good man.  Intro music Rage Against the Machine’s Wake up!; outro Woody Guthrie’s So long, it’s been good to know you.

Dick Apr 2013x

Dick Skellington at Scribal Gathering, April 2013. (c) Jonathan JT Taylor

HellWent to the wake of another good man who I wish I’d known longer than just the last couple of years on the poetry – the multi-faceted polymath Dick Skellington.  Much-loved scholar, poet, actor and director, raconteur, traveller and keen “agricultural” footballer (Stuart Pearce was mentioned) and team manager; I never knew about the football.  I’ve heard the word ‘curmudgeonly’ applied reverently lately too.  It was Dick who had devised The hell where youth and laughter go, a reading of a set of poems commemorating the start of the First World War, at Stony Stratford Library last week.  It kicked off with Siegfried Sassoon’s Suicide in the trenches and ended with Carol Ann Duffy’s moving Last post, and in between featured an inventive variety of verse including material taken from the Wipers Times.  I think everyone in the audience who knew Dick heard the glee, passion and gusto of Dick’s voice in the rendition, by a friend, of A.P.Herbert‘s poem about an un-loved Major General, That shit Shute:

The General inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout
‘I refuse to command a division
Which leaves its excreta about.’

But nobody took any notice
No one was prepared to refute,
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared to the presence of Shute.

And certain responsible critics
Made haste to reply to his words
Observing that his staff advisors
Consisted entirely of turds.

For shit may be shot at odd corners
And paper supplied there to suit,
But a shit would be shot without mourners
If somebody shot that shit Shute.

The Carabosse Theatre Company dedicated their run of their adaptation of Gormenghast at the Chrysalis Theatre to Dick, and there were tributes too at the October Scribal Gathering, where, with much characteristic shuffling of paper, some of his poems were given another outing.

GormenghastThat Carabosse adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy into nearly 3 hours of full-on theatre was simply stunning.  To say it was ambitious – it was – is in no way to imply they were over-reaching themselves.  The set and atmospherics were  stunning; 4 immaculately dressed and lighted acting areas – 2 up, 2 down – constructed using scaffolding, plus the fore-stage, more than enhanced by some brilliant projection work.  Fantastic costumes, great cast, some wonderful individual performances (dual in the case of the twins) – a tremendous theatrical experience.  Never managed to get into the books, but that didn’t matter one bit here – total absorption.  Bravo!

And somewhere in there the longest (if not the nearest) sighting of a kingfisher resting on a branch, flying away, returning, resting some more.  Always special.  From the older bird hide on the edge of Stony Nature Reserve.

Shoulder HoodwinkScribal Oct 2014

Bristish - to prove it was there.

Bristish – to prove it was there.

Under a railway bridge on an old railway walk, somewhere in Derbyshire

Under a railway bridge on an old railway walk, somewhere in Derbyshire

I got two poetry anthologies running, and they’re both – one way or another – going my way.  Well now, last time I counted, Railway rhymes has got 88 poems, looks more to yesterday; Train songs has a dozen more, rocks with a swagger, rolls with a sway.  The collections share 18 poems spanning 150 years.

Train songsRailway rhymesThe smaller formatted Railway rhymes, edited by Peter Ashley (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2007) has a distinctly British focus – 10 pieces from John Betjeman (no bad thing in itself), six Hardys, and three Larkins – and is organised in 5 sections, at first historical, mapping the coming of the railways with Navigating and Engineering, then becoming atemporal with Waiting, Travelling and Musing.

The handsome Train songs, chosen and introduced by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson (Faber, 2013), crosses the Atlantic more frequently, recognises the mythic power of a handful of song lyrics – including Robert Johnson, no less, and Tom Waits – and reserves more seats for contemporary writers.  It too is arranged in 5 sections: Prospects, Stations, Underground, Travellers and Night.  Note that Travelling in Railway Rhymes, as opposed to Train songsTravellers; it’s a subtle difference, but when push comes to shove (railway buffs might say that should be pull) I’d say the former has more of a focus on railways (not that the railway enthusiast will linger long on the majority of its pages), the latter on poetry.

Belying my title, some of the best poetry in both comes from stopped, stationary or absent trains; the actual railway interest often, like the station and trains in Brief Encounter, the stage and necessary scene-setting rather than the focus of the action.  It’s mostly about the inner journey.  Railway enthusiasts – ok, trainspotters and modellers – will, however, find some succour in R.P Lister’s fun, name-checking Nostalgia, featured in Railway Rhymes, with its 3 whole pages of the likes of:

You loved them too: those locos motley gay
That once seemed permanent as their own way? -
The Midland ‘lake’, the Caledonia blue;
The Brighton ‘Stroudleys’ in their umber blue.

In the thoughtful introduction to Train Songs the editors, poets and professors both, put it well, with some nice word play:

Readers will not be surprised to learn that there is no shortage of poems about trains and railways.  The age of steam in particular lends itself as readily to poetry as do love, death and the natural world, because the railway train participates in all of them. […]  So it would not be difficult to assemble a railway anthology along what seem like familiar lines, stoked by nostalgia and comfortably uncoupled from the insistent realities of politics, economics and war.  That is not what we wanted to do […]

and it seems to me they succeed with the selection they have made from “the multitude of journeys poets have taken” while not forsaking “poems that, rightly or wrongly, passengers expect to find along the permanent way“.  Hence the aforementioned, mostly rich, core of the 18 duplications (links underlined where I could find them):

  • interestingly Seamus Heaney’s The railway children (kids playing above a railway cutting) kicks off Train Songs but appears 4th from last in Railway Rhymes
  • JB at StP

    John Betjeman by Martin Jennings at St Pancras Station

    I dare say the anti-HS2 campaigners have already been gleefully quoting from William Wordsworth’s On the projected Kendal to Windermere Railway (he was against it – ironic given that the revived steam trains on the Windermere end are now a heritage attraction in their own right) but they should be aware that he wrote it in 1844, by which time this was grumpy old man Wordsworth, as O’Brien and Paterson put it, “who wrote sonnets in favour of capital punishment, rather than the one who knew the experience of bliss.”

  • no-one in their right minds could leave out Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun weddings
  • and of course Edward Thomas’s fine Adlestrop (1917) has to be there; it’s practically compulsory for any anthology of English poetry published in the last thirty years (and good for it, say I).  [Footnote: I had a mini-crisis the day before yesterday when Adlestrop was featured in a local poetry reading orchestrated around World War 1 themes – I hadn’t realised Thomas had died at the battle of Arras in 1917 – and it was pronounced with the ‘a’ as in ‘paddle’ rather than ‘pay’, as I’d always heard it in my head, and I thought the reader had got it wrong.  Adventures in YouTube – Richard Burton, Geoffrey Palmer, and, crucially, Robert Hardy at a reading in the village – rather disturbingly prove I’ve had it wrong all this time.]
  • two John Betjemans are shared: Pershore Junction – the melancholic regret of words never said at the station – and Thoughts on a train, which sees him journeying in gentle entertaining lech mode (“No doubt she is somebody’s mistress / With that Greta Garbo hair“).
  • obviously: Auden’s magnificent Night Mail; Robert Louis Stevenson’s From a railway carriage; Eliot’s Shimbleshanks: the [bleeding] railway cat; McGonagall’s classic The Tay Bridge Disaster; Wilfred Owen’s sombre The send-off;
  • less obviously Thomas Hardy’s The missed train (Railway Rhymes offers much better Hardy options, I’d say)
  • of the moderns, it was a nice surprise to find Tony Harrison’s bracingly downbeat Changing at York, a shame that Simon Armitage’s The metaphor now standing at Platform 8 doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its wonderful title (still good it’s there, though), but I’m not convinced by Alan Brownjohn’s The train, which was new to me
  • Walter de la Mare’s The railway junction, another one new to me, is an interesting railway variation on the line less travelled
  • it’s only the two remaining shared poems that actually give you a physical sense of the powerful attraction and allure that trains, the steam train in particular, bring – in themselves, or in the landscape.  Stephen Spender’s The express in the former case (“After the first powerful plain manifesto / The black statement of pistons, without more fuss / But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station“) and in the latter – hey, guess who? – Emily Dickinson’s delightful I like to see it lap the miles (“I like to see it lap the miles / And lick the valleys up“).

Both collections have their strengths and complement each other nicely.  Train songs has yielded new names and work that excites me.  Peter Didsbury’s The Guitar is full of captivating imagery (“The train courses over / the frets of the guitar / but it is going backwards, towards the hole in the middle. / Coleridge is sitting at a window / with his back towards the engine.“)  and Robert Crawford’s The railway library tracks literary mileposts (” … racing through its chapters / In a slipcase of steam until your destination / Broke off the story. Rochester met Jane Eyre / At Falkirk High“).  Ian Duhig’s Jericho Shandy records a never dull 4-page surreal literary and sub-cultural reverie when “Returning from the anniversary / event for Sterne at Bradford Library, / a theft of signal wire maroons his train” and “the engine idles in iambics“; the title of the poem is a nod to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (one of Lillabullero‘s favourite books).

Mystery_Train_single_coverTrain Songs‘ other great plus is the decision to include Americans in its remit, so we get William Carlos Williams’ bustling Overture to a dance of locomotives and Walt Whitman’s magnificent To a locomotive in winter among others.  An actual train song included – Junior Parker’s classic Mystery train, one of Elvis Presley’s greatest early Sun Records performances – raises an interesting question, in that the copyrighted lyrics maintain the opening line as “Train arrived“, as opposed to the “Train I ride” that most everyone sings (or  hears), though ‘arrived’ makes much more sense narratively.

On the other hand, where Railway Rhymes really scores is in its opening Navigating section, a fascinating set of anonymous, or rather unattributed, verse and popular ballads concerning the first railway age.  At times doggerel, for sure, but nevertheless illuminating pop culture artefacts of their time displaying the wonder and fears of the general populace as the railways grew (and the navvies hit town of a Saturday night).  Some sort of introduction – original sources, dates – would have been useful here.  There’s the amazement that what makes the kettle lid rattle can be the power that drives the locomotives and an acute awareness that with the coming of the railway – also the dot.com boom of its time, hence Thackeray’s The speculators included here – everything is changed.  So we get The railway whistle, or, The blessings of hot-water travelling, and The Cockney’s trip to Brummagem, with its “When the swell mob comes down, we must look out for squalls / Or they’ll bolt with the organ from out the Town Hall“; some things paranoic never change.  Then there’s The wonderful effects of the Leicester Rail Road, the dialect Johnny Green’s trip fro’ Owdhum to see The Manchester Railway and a few more, none of them exactly nostalgic for the superceded stage coaches and coaching inns.

After the social history, Railway Rhymes settles down into almost an English pastorale – “Unmitigated England” as Betjeman puts in his Great Central Railway poem.  The longer poems are variously interspersed with some short squibs, three Edward Lear limericks and numerous examples of the humour of one ‘Tiresias’, the author of Notes from overground (1984), a book of commuter jottings I took great joy in when I was commuting.   We get samples from Adlewhat? – his cracks at Adlestrop – and his bawdy Loose coupling sequence of short poems.  Try Adlewhat? 3:

Haycocks and meadowsweet?  I wouldn’t know.
I never looked outside the train,
Just drank canned beer from a plastic cup
Until the damned thing started again.

The people's roadNeither book contains anything, from what I can fathom, from a real railway poet.  Joe Smythe was a railway guard, living and working in Manchester, when the NUR – his union, the then National Union of Railwaymen, now a part of the RMT – commissioned The people’s road as their contribution to the Great Railway Exposition of 1980, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool/Manchester Railway.  It’s a lively collection, with poems ranging over the whole period and touching on the lives of all manner of railway workers. Its class perspective, while never hectoring, adds another dimension to the poetry of the railway.  Variously witty, acerbic and thoughtful in mood, its language is vivid, fanciful, vernacular.  Because the poems appear to have no presence on the internet and seem to have disappeared without trace, here are a couple in their entirety for your delectation (with an apology for the language in the second one if you want it, even if I think it makes a valid point):

Class by Joe Smythe

She was the Inspector’s daughter,
I was the Porter’s son,
For years we paused in passing,
Now she’s dead and gone.

Paused and never spoke yet
Unspoken love was there,
She was the Inspector’s daughter,
I was the Porter’s heir.

Her eyes I well remember
Looked longingly at me,
A girl as young and beautiful,
Brave as a memory.

She married the Station Master
Twenty years or more,
Married and gone forever,
For ever gone, the whore.

A small philosophy by Joe Smythe

The guard is a man who sits in a van,
The van at the back of the train. The driver
up front thinks the guard is a cunt, the guard
thinks the driver’s the same. I wonder
who wrote those verses. I’ve seen them
everywhere. Lavatory walls, mess rooms,
engine bulkheads, from Carnforth to Crewe.
Llandudno to Leeds, that’s my patch,
and everywhere, this little bitterness;
which might parade a larger truth,
travels the roads like a mocking eye.
There is no brotherhood in it, this
most memorable of rail graffiti.
I wish I hadn’t wished I’d written it.

And I leave you with this little gem from the pen of the mighty Jeff Mallett.  For a while now his Frazz has been my favourite regularly produced comic strip, appearing daily on the splendid Go Comics website at http://www.gocomics.com/frazz/.  Enjoy.

Frazz by Jef Mallett 20140928 Go comics


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