GoldfinchI started Donna Tartt‘s The goldfinch (2013) towards the end of June, on holiday.  There was a hardback there where we were staying and it was urged on me.  I got over half way but it was too big – 784 pages – for the suitcase so I didn’t bring it back with me.  I bought the paperback – now ‘grown’ to 864 pages – but it just lay there on the Welsh dresser gathering dust while I caught up with other stuff (a book from a library waiting list, book group, real life).  But when I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago it was like I’d never been away.  Donna Tartt is one vivid writer.  People, places and emotional spaces.  I sped through.  Fantastic book, glorious ending.  Do not hesitate.

Terrorist bombing in a New York art gallery.  13-year-old Theo Decker’s bohemian single mum is killed, he gets out with a unique painting – the Dutch Master goldfinch of the title.  He spends time with rich school buddy’s folks and meets an antique shop restorer and owner.  I’ve already left one crucial romantic thread out.  Legal stuff because of his age means he ends up with estranged father and moll on the desert fringes of a failed real estate venture on the outskirts of Vegas.  Meets up with Russian kid Boris for a couple of years of slacker delinquency.  Epic solo Greyhound bus ride back to NY with hidden dog.  Makes a go of it with the antique dealer and meets up with the tragic rich kids’ family again.  Dodgy antiques dealings, meets up with Boris again, now an international criminal.  Mechanics of the stolen art market, In Bruges sort of happenings in Amsterdam.  Back to NY eventually, surprise denouement, and aforementioned glorious soaring ending.  By that time I think he’s reached his late 20s.  Phew.  And a whole lot more.

Dickensian for sure, but without the complex sentence structure, and cut with, I think it’s fair to say, a dash of modern world Ripley mode Patricia Highsmith.  Great dialogue and, as I’ve said, incredibly vivid prose.  The description of what happens in the explosion in the art gallery is just stunning.  Here’s how vivid: there’s a passage where Theo tries to end it all (no great spoiler here, given he’s the narrator and there’s a way to go yet) with a combination of booze and drugs; while reading this I dozed off and spilt a cup of coffee in my lap.  OK, I’d woken up way too early that day.  But, trust me: she takes you there.  Dramatic and contemplative, always a page turner, but still concerned with – well, basically – the human condition, the ambiguities of morality.  Discussing events: “I think this goes more to the idea of ‘relentless irony’ than ‘divine providence’.”  Relentless irony!

FreewheelinAs regular readers here at Lillabullero will know, I’m likely to pepper you with quotes, tasters.  I usually take the odd note as I read a book, but I soon realised with one like this life was too short.  But as it happened I’d spent some time with a friend who had a black and white art print of an outtake from the photo sessions for the Freewheelin‘ cover about to go up on his wall and the fine passage that follows was on pretty much the first page I read in The goldfinch when I got back.  Jungians like to call this sort of thing synchronicity though I’ll stick with happy coincidence.  This is how Theo Decker was feeling one day as he walked the narrow streets of Greenwich Village:

… more than perfect [ ...] the kind of winter where you want to be walking down a city street with your arm around a girl like on the old record cover – because Pippa was exactly that girl, not the prettiest but the no-makeup and kind of ordinary looking girl he’d chosen to be happy with, and in fact that picture was an ideal of happiness in its way, the hike of his shoulders and the slightly embarrassed quality of her smile, that open-ended look like they might just wander off anywhere they wanted together…

Frozen shroudThe frozen shroud

Closer to home, I’ve been reading another of Martin Edwards‘ always welcome Lake District Mysteries featuring retired tv historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett, who started her police career with his father as her boss, in charge of the Cold Case Team.  A satisfying mix of the modern cozy and police procedural set in one of my favourite places, The frozen shroud (Allison & Busby, 2013), the 6th in the series, didn’t disappoint.  Two murders in the same place nearly a century apart, then another one and several plot twists, including a diversion I fell for, carry us along nicely, while the soap opera elements that are inevitable in a long running series continue to entertain.  I think Edwards does this better than any of the crime novelists I regularly read, including bigger names, but please Martin – don’t let them get together long-term.  Beware resolving the sexual tension; it has destroyed, for example, obscure tv humourous crime show (Freeview channel 61)  Castle, I’d say.

As usual
, Edwards provides some neat touches, using ex-Lakes dweller Thomas de Quincey’s On murder considered as one of the fine arts as a prop, having Hannah’s mate Terri call her cat Morrissey, Hannah’s boss issuing “a suitably bland, reassuring and mendacious news release” to counter a rumour.  I’ll give a hurrah, too, for Daniel’s visit to Keswick Museum & Art Gallery, too, with its musical stones; I hadn’t realised it had been closed for improvements and am delighted to learn it hasn’t lost its quirky old chamber of curiosities ambience.  I suppose it is inevitable, more’s the pity, that police reorganisation is now pretty much a staple of British crime fiction.  Nevertheless, I look forward to the next one with relish.

The Goldfinch: a slight return

Fabritius - Goldfinch

‘The goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius.

This is not the first time goldfinches have featured here on Lillabullero.  We’ve had plenty in our garden over the years – a ‘charm’ of goldfinches is the collective noun, and rightly so – and it’s good to know they are on the increase in the UK, one of the great recoveries.  To think they used to be caught and caged.  I was half expecting Donna Tartt to make a reference at some stage to Thomas Hardy‘s poem, A caged goldfinch, given her erudition, but no.  Not that that’s a problem.  Anyway, it’s a poem with an afterlife, a tale with a bite in its tail, that takes me back to a lecture theatre and the eccentric Englit scholar Roma Gill, when I was 18.

It refers back to a scene in one of his most miserable novels. The Mayor of Casterbridge I think.  Here’s the poem as it first when first published.  Just put ‘Hardy goldfinch’ into a search engine and more often than not it only has two verses:

Within a churchyard, on a recent grave, 
I saw a little cage 
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence, save 
Its hops from stage to stage. 

There was inquiry in its wistful eye. 
And once it tried to sing; 
Of him or her who placed it there, and why. 
No one knew anything. 

True, a woman was found drowned the day ensuing. 
And some at times averred 
The grave to be her false one's, who when wooing 
Gave her the bird.
Later editions of his poetry – issued while he was still alive, by his own hand, after someone had explained negative music hall audience feedback to him – appeared without that final verse.


For the second time this year a gig in the stables yard at The Bull in Stony survived virtually unscathed in the face of the previous day’s doom laden weather forecasts.  I have to admit partaking of 5 of the 6 beers available for the occasion meant I missed the last two bands; no stamina these days.  Particularly liked the 3 Tuns’ 1642 and Liverpool Craft’s American Red, which exploded with flavours; chickened out of Crazy Days.  Music was all good and strong too.  Palmerston‘s original country rock material impressed again,while Glass Tears‘ take on Phil Collins’ In the air tonight (no, really) never ceases to move me, and there was a lot of fun and fine voice to be had from the Vaults mob one way or another, earlier.

Palmerston strung out

Palmerston strung out

The mighty Antipoet strung things together with their usual charm and wit, and peppered the day with a few of their own classic compositions (there’s plenty of examples in YouTube); with them there’s no danger of familiarity staling the palate. (And here’s a local nod to organiser Terri; Oakham’s Scarlet Macaw may have been on tap, but Red Phoenix was on the ball ‘backstage’).

Appropos of nothing

And just for the sake of it, here’s a supermoon pic.  Not great, I know, but I was pleased to catch some of the brown in the clouds:

Mike Kilo

1. A novel that never got written

MMK2A few years ago now, in the first flush of Dan Brown’s runaway word of mouth success with The Da Vinci code, I started researching a centuries spanning conspiracy thriller to be set in Milton Keynes.  You know, Midsummer Boulevard, ley lines, sunrise reflected in the MK Central station frontage, the CIA’s MK-Ultra (Mind Kontrolle) project of the ’50s & early ’60s – LSD in the water supply – and all that.  The files are still on my hard drive.  I’d read the kingpins of the modern genre earlier, Umberto Eco’s weighty, intellectual Foucault’s pendulum (English translation 1989) and the daddy and mother of them all, the kaleidoscopic cosmic joke that was Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy of 1975 (alphabetical, but Wilson was the main man), which took the roots of the conspiracy back to ancient Greece.  The latter contained one of the great lines of occult and/or thriller fiction: “The bastards are trying to immanentize the eschaton.”  (Look it up).  I thought it might be fun.

Illuminatus 1975Foucault's pendulum 1989I reckoned on looking for a Milton Keynes Zodiac à la Glastonbury Zodiac in the road layouts of the new city estates and fudging it one way or another.   Or, failing that, just use The Bull pub in Stony, say, or the Concrete Cows for Taurus & so on.  (Cows yes, not bulls, but close enough for this kind of thing).  I even bought a copy of Robert Graves’s impenetrable The white goddess (1948) because, like Milton Keynes, it’s big on trees, assigning as it does all sorts of sacred meanings to the oak and the ash and most of the others.  I’d been fascinated by a geometry of a little isolated grove and its two intertwined trees – since cut down – on Eaglestone, where we lived then.  (There is still also a file on my hard drive called ‘Celtic tree astrology’ which probably won’t be there much longer.)

I never really worked out anything approaching a plot.  Multinational corporations, secret government agencies, Machiavellian OU professors etc.  But there would definitely be portals into other realms or times – Alans Garner or Garfield sort of stuff – one of which is the picture at the head of this post (guesses where, anyone?)  Another was going to be the abandoned high street of medieval Woughton (illustrated below), the reasons for the abandonment of which puzzle local historians but would be suddenly revealed (the horror! the horror!) to him (or her) one night as our lost protagonist made his (or her) weary way home; either a slip in time, or there was something in the ale.  Then there’s the inauguration ceremony of the medicine wheel/stone circle at Willen Lake, that I actually attended – the old school ex-colonel Spiritualist in his Harris tweed jacket, the hippy bird wittering on about how scientists have said that, after all the equations have been done, bees really shouldn’t be able to fly.  I was even going to try and work in Jack Trevor Story somehow.
Woughton High Street

In the end what would be revealed, after much derring-do, bawdy, bad language and intellectual sophistry, was that there was no conspiracy, just that, basically, the planners and architects employed Milton Keynes Development Corporation back in the ’60s (long may they be praised) were a bunch of hippies with a sense of humour.  This is not one of the theories entertained by James Willis in his Mysterious Milton Keynes (DB Publishing, 2013).

2. Back to library school

When I was in Library School, early ’70s, when at least two of the Liverpool Poets still lived in Liverpool, certain criteria were laid down for us in the matter of the selection of non-fiction for the library:

  • does the book have an index?
  • does it have a bibliography?
  • are sources referenced and properly cited?

to which I would now add:

  • does it boast the epigram, or quote anywhere significant in the text: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” ?

Willis fails spectacularly in the first three – where you gonna go if you want to find out more? – but scores well in the latter (back of title page, opposite the contents page, bigger font than anywhere else save the title page), though that’s the one source he does provide.

3. Mysterious Milton Keynes

MMKI do hope he’s not a friend of a friend, but I care about Milton Keynes and I care about rational thought, and this is such a classic of the spurious ‘mysterious’ genre it’s hard to resist labouring that point.

Unbeknownst to thousands of commuters and residents, Milton Keynes was – in part – inspired by and planned upon, principles more famously encapsulated in a most ancient and mystical monument: Stonehenge.

Nice touch, that ‘Unbeknownst‘.  (Another nice touch, at a complete tangent, is current Bard of Stony Stratford Phil Chippendale’s notion that the Knossos complex on Crete was once a new town too, but I digress.)

Now, I have previous form in the matter of ley lines and standing stones.  There’s an OS Landranger map (159: Swansea and The Gower) covered in long pencil lines in a box somewhere in the house and when the kids were kids the reaching of a hike’s destination would oft be greeted with the pained exclamation, “Oh great.  More stones.”  I’m over it now, but I’ll grant some of this stuff can still fascinate, not that he gives any clues as to what sources are worth pursuing, if only for the fun of it. Sun and the serpent (In passing I’ll give a nod here to Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst’s account of their pursuit of the major St Michael ley line right across England, The sun and the serpent: an investigation into earth mysteries (1989) which for all its potential nonsense is both interesting and enjoyable.)

Meanwhile, back where “the very fabric of Milton Keynes is now a living homage to the mystery and esotericism of the ancients“, by the time we’ve hit page 27, and though Willis has barely dipped his toe in it,  he’s confidently bidding:

A city aligned with the midsummer sun; a city which straddles an established ley line; a city which is home to a labyrinth designed by a medieval secret society; a city riddled with standing stones and occult pyramid structures (see Part 1). Is this plethora of idiosyncrasies simply coincidence? Or are these unusual features merely the tip of an iceberg – a tantalising glimpse of a deeper, hidden layer of planning … of a conspiracy?

Ah, here come the Illuminati!  Since you ask, Yes, and No they aren’t.  To what end the Illuminati (whoever they may be) are behind MK is never explored but never mind that.  An established ley line?  A labyrinth designed by a medieval secret society?  A city riddled with standing stones: oh, among them the Spinal Tappery of the “neo-neolithic” mini-Stonehenge in the Theatre District (difficult to actually see the point of that, but no .. I’m not going there), and that – not menhir but – eccentric rock (a geological term) by the river near the bridge in Stony, that even the more comprehensive stone hunters’ websites deny is of any significance.  The list of occult pyramid structures (he reminds us about the old ’70s thing about being able to sharpen up your used razor blades by sticking ‘em in a hollow pyramid) includes the old Bletchley leisure centre.

We get over two pages (of a 100 page book) on Kubrick’s last film, Eyes wide shut, an alleged exposure of the Illuminati, in which a masked character in a ritual appears who looks a bit like the people in Philip Jackson’s Dangerous liaisons statue again in the Theatre District; not so much a nod and a wink to those in the Illuminati, I would submit, as a big nod to the history of the theatre.  And here’s the classic conspiracy theorist’s touch – the film company “refused to allow an image of the movie character to appear in this book for comparison.”

What else

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that Milton Keynes, a city built upon heathen principles (see Part 1) is a hotbed of paganism and witchcraft …”  [and] “In addition to it’s [sic] covens and independent witches, Milton Keynes is also home to number of pagan biker gangs …”

Better watch out.  We get the devil in Olney, the old police station ghost in Newport Pagnell, that town also featuring in the matter of a  strange jelly falling from the sky, various other ghosts and, in the Cryptozoology section, a photo of a stag loose in the city centre (which did actually happen).  Seems that UFOs and alien abductions have gone out of fashion; at least they’re absent from this book.

WhisperersBest bit for me is the last but one page, featuring a photo of Andre Wallace’s brilliant sculpture, The whisper, outside the library – a personal favourite – and a wit the book is almost entirely devoid of elsewhere.  He rather hedges his bets in the conclusion and that ‘City of secrets’ is a neat way to end it.  (I’ve messed around with the scan – the book is in black and white, and the picture quality is not great).  But the relativism of that concluding line of text is unforgivable: “Ultimately, only you can decide what to believe.”  Good grief.

4. With a little help from my friends

Good omensNot personally, you understand, but:

Note for Americans and other aliens:  Milton Keynes is a new city approximately halfway between London and Birmingham.  It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live.  Many Britons find this amusing.



MK IFMK Fringe













How does the song go?  Back to life, back to reality?  This week it feels like something is missing from Milton Keynes.  (Don’t even go there.  Oh, come on.  With the jokes I mean.).  It’s the same as happened the day after the World Cup Final – all those riches crammed into a short space of time and then suddenly there was no more football on the telly.  The comedown from IF, the Milton Keynes International Festival (and its baby sister Fringe) is this absence.  But the city has been changed again.  (And that song? – Soul II Soul.)

Vaulted skyUnder the vaulted sky

Friday.  This was not so much a performance as an experience from the moment the ushers, clad in tunics in tune with the dancers’ robes, led us into the Cathedral of Trees with swinging open-handed arm motions like branches blowing in the wind, as we were led in and out of the trees, .   There was a tremendous unity throughout.  From what I recall, the time we were there, there was only applause once, early on, and that unsure; we were being vouchsafed secrets, not being entertained.  And at the end, a silent single column procession back out down the nave through a blank-faced honour guard of all the dancers, all occupied in a their own small way in maintaining the balance of it all, not so much ignoring our presence as just not acknowledging it.  (I still feel guilty about making Nicky smile).  And then a symbolic gesture, and out of the trees and disperse.  No acclamation, no curtain call, no applause.  Just a sense of wonder.  A fantastic artistic, spiritual achievement.

It’s a big performance area, the Cathedral of Trees.  Planted to the floor plan of Norwich Cathedral, although it was laid out nearly 40 years ago some present (including some of the performers initially) had not previously known of its existence.  They do now.  Little things were made to mean a lot: the gold and silver keys hanging from the trees in the chapel, where we were first shown the contents of the small ornate boxes – grass, daisies, a gold or silver leaf; the books – old manuscripts, early natural history compendiums – hanging from the trees across the choir; the gold hands.  The musical sequence at the heart of the cathedral was spellbinding, starting with two sets of three trombonists (two tenors and a bass) calling to one another across the crossing of nave, choir and transepts.  (Poignantly reminiscent, I thought, of the lately late Charlie Haden‘s Liberation Music Orchestra’s Ballad of the fallen, that I’d recently been playing in memoriam).

The golden hand of Nicky Kenny Bernard photographed by the other hand of Nicky Kenny Bernard (c)

The golden hand of Nicky Kenny Bernard photographed by the other hand of Nicky Kenny Bernard (c). Apparently it was a bit of a bugger to get the gilt off.

Under the vaulted sky was inspired by Northamptonshire poet John Clare‘s work.  Phrases from two passages in particular are quoted in the programme, words that were fleetingly, enchantingly, whispered to us as we progressed around the outside of the cathedral.  I am (full text here) is not the happiest of poems, concerning as it does “the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems“.   Written at the end of his twenty-two year confinement in the Northampton County Asylum, and possibly his last poem, it was first published in the Annual Report of the Medical superintendent of Saint Andrew for 1864, the year in which Clare died.  It ends transcendentally though, with him in better shape than when it started:

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

Autumn (full text) from the same period of his life provides the other key lines.  Another of those details that stay with you.  The performers’ gold palms:

… liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.


 The breathing room

LibrariansSaturday afternoon was a Fringe day for us.  First Pestiferious putting on The librarians, an entertaining 20 minute show upstairs in the Central Library.   Four librarians called Sue (but all spelt differently on their name badges) went through a light-hearted set of pieces including flamingos (pink arms) over the Crime section, a Blind Date episode in the biographies (with the aid of masks) and, best of all, a Booksercise session: “Open that book …and … Read”).  More of that sort of thing would not go amiss.

20140719_19 Breathing room

You could walk into it, instant yoga breathing, hear the paper crinkle gently.

And so into the mall (aka thecentre:mk to give it its proper designer name) to see the finished work that was Anna Berry‘s extraordinary Breathing room, set up in an empty shop unit between John Lewis and Next.  Here’s the artspeak rubric, from the Fringe catalogue:

The piece reuses defunct marketing and administrative print: that which has been generated by the ‘insiders’, the commercial outlets within the shopping centre, and also the ‘outsiders’ – charities and not for profit groups who have no home within the shopping centre – as well as municipal bodies. The civic, the commercial, and the community are represented by means of their print detritus.

The artist has allowed the non-commercial to infest, colonise, and re-claim the public space, in tandem with – indistinguishable from – the commercial. In an almost organic form, they breathe in and out, breaking out of the space. It invites us to question: What is the nature of public space? What is it to own space? Is this a process we can really control? It also, on a more fundamental level, seeks to undermine our trust in the very nature of categorization.

All of which is very well, but fails to catch the sensuous experience of its breathing motion, which was both calming (though it weirded some people out; see Maya’s video of the whole living breathing room and prompted reactions to it) and great fun.  Kids loved it and it was a source of delight to loads of men and women of all ages who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a modern art gallery.  Indeed, it was a bit of a media splash (well, local TV).  So successful was it in fact that thecentre:mk asked for the installation to stay on beyond its allotted time.  Which is great because all who know Anna know just how hard she worked to get it up and running.  (And hey, a certain satisfaction for Lillabullero as patron of the arts; one of the battery chargers powering the motion was one I bought decades ago (I think it was when I drove a Lada) but never actually used – just goes to exonerate the old adage that. ‘You never know, it might come in useful one of these days’).

Breathing election

Lots of photos around of Breathing Room but not many of the bit where it meets the floor. No moral to be taken from the Labour Party local election leaflets bottom left.

Fous de Bassin

Fire in the pondSaturday evening to Willen Lake for French performance company Ilotopie‘s extravagant Water fools.  Friday night they’d had thunder and lightning but we had the weather luck with us.  Very French visual humour.  Surrealism meets Monsieur Hulot.  A lot of fire, some fireworks (including a brilliant catherine wheel), a lot of walking and driving on water.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the performance – I did, particularly the poor sod who stood on the water by the floating lamp-post with his hat on fire for pretty much the duration – but compared to the ‘Fire in the garden’ ((c) Naomi Rose ) (click to hear a great song)  of IF in Campbell Park two years ago, this just didn’t compare as an MK experience. Without the opportunityy to wander round and mingle – we were effectively politely herded into our pens – the magic of seeing a place anew and the chance of bumping into people you knew at every turn just wasn’t the same. I was probably hoping for too much.

Single dreamerWe’re all going on a statue hunt.

Monday we had a day off but that was a bit of a mistake because we missed two moveable feasts that had a lot more of the MK experience about them than Fous de Bassin.  Even though we caught up with them later in the week it was the moveable that added something.  So we missed Ray Lee‘s sound installation Chorus in the gardens behind the church at dusk on Ray Lee ChorusMonday when apparently the mingling was good.  Was good too at The Hub on Wednesday evening and it sounded fine at the railway station lunch time Tuesday.  Calming and enervating at the same time – reminded me of a Terry Riley’s A rainbow in curved air but with more variation – a mesmerising 30 minute programme of various shifting electrical tones and pulses emanating from tall tripods with rotating speakers atop (sort of peace-loving structures out of H.G.Wells’ War of the worlds) got some interesting responses from travelers emerging from the station; some eyes down strode on desperately trying not to notice, others lingered.  Every town should have one. (Not for nothing is Ray Lee’s website called Invisible Forces).

Help I'm a prisoner in a perspex bike shedAt the end of the previous week Andy had noticed an interesting group of statues assembled in the station forecourt.  These were Les Rêveurs (The dreamers), the creation of the French design studio Lucie Lom.  We knew the intention was for them (the statues) to move around the city over the week but I was disappointed to find they’d all left the station.  Apparently there’d been a lot in the gardens where Chorus played on monday.  Anyway, we wandered up the hill to the shopping centre, saw one outside the Civic Offices and stumbled across a trio trapped in the unused bicycle sheds over from Lloyds Bank.  We didn’t see any more that day, but we had a treat in store come Sunday (you’ll see it later).  Again, a fantastic idea, these travellers, popping up here and there over the city .  ‘Are they real or is it all a dream?’ the festival brochure asks.  Not quite.  Not quite with us, disturbing even, certainly out of time, and yet – now they’re gone – I miss them, look back on them with affection, fellow strugglers, fellow stragglers.

Music maestro please

Loads more I could have seen.  Had great fun with Les Clöchards in the Spiegeltent.  They impressed with their accomplished if odd musicianship and well rehearsed stagecraft.  Old elementary philicordia organ, melodica and stylophone all featured and I’ve never seen a Dobro guitar played like that before; oh, and an acoustic bass and homemade drum set.  The band has a quite possibly fictional but consistent bio about being a long running failing rock and roll band from Corsica, and maintain the fiction of having written 253 songs; the joke is that they are actually a covers band;  a friend even queried their accents.  But there are cover bands and there are cover bands.  Les Clöchards‘ speciality lies in playing about with musical genres.  They kick off with AC/DC’s It’s a long way to the top and yet the crunching power chords are played on the philicordia and it’s almost an Americana exploration with Telstar organ of a basically nonsense song; and it still rocks, their movement is an object lesson in dumb stadiosity; as is the long coda.  What else?  Like a virgin done as a slow Otis Redding soul ballad; a reggae Ace of spades worked beautifully; a brilliant stuck record trick.  A musician friend was impressed by what they did with the chord progression (shades of prog rock even) in Build me up buttercup but that song for me will always be beyond the pale.  More than fun, I reckon.  Here’s a link to their website; there’s plenty on YouTube – go for the black and white ones first.  Un clöchard in French, by the way, is basically a tramp.  Incidentally, in seeking to get behind the facade on Google I discover that the French translation of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma bums is Les clochards céleste.

Impressive show from Seth Lakeman in the Spiegeltent on Friday.  Nicely paced as he alternated between guitar and whatever else with strings to pluck and shuffled band members on and off stage song by song – anything from solo to the full group.  He was in fine voice – stronger and richer than on the early album I was most familiar with – the playing energetic and committed.  It was a career-spanning collection of songs and they looked to be enjoying themselves.  We certainly were.  The Tolpuddle Martyrs song grabbed my attention over and above, but some of the best moments came when this handsome man was aided and abetted by the gorgeous Lisbee Stainton on vocals – not so much the harmonies (though, no complaints) as with the counterpoint, which leant another dimension to the material.  And yes, the time is right for the folk canon to make space for soldiers’ tales from the Second World War.  That D-Day song – not his – was a telling moment.  Couple of fine work-outs as “encore”.  Obviously a lot of people enjoy the ritual of the timetabled “encore” – we knew how long the show was for so it was pretty obvious – but I wish they wouldn’t do that (I mean everyone who does that); at least Les Clöchards approached it ironically.  Great show nevertheless.

And then time for a leisurely dash across town to catch the splendid Southpaw Dance Company‘s production retelling the Faust legend in front of the Xscape building (casino and all).  40 minute’s spectacular modern dance moves and music from 1920s Charleston through to street dance, the fire effects, period speakeasy set and costumes all working well as he sold his soul.  I’d guess there were twice as many there for the Saturday night show as word of mouth spread.  Was good to hear Dave Brubeck’s Take Five loud, too.

Brass bandWe caught the Jaipur Kawa Brass Band up close at Festival Centre and then at the World Picnic in Campbell Park.  Ragas to rags.  Indian music meets a New Orleans revivalist marching band.  And that trumpeter could blow.  Great fun and good vibes.  Always good to see a child encountering live music.

So that was that.  Just like it said in the publicity: Amazing Days.  And three friends have said their favourite event of IF was one of the things we didn’t see.  Roll on 2016.  Not that …

Dreamers 3

On the way home we bumped into – that’s a lie – we were told they were there – Les Rêveurs meeting up again, on the other side of the path to The Beacon belvedere, on their way home.  Slipping away.  An awesome sight.  Who were they?  Left bank philosophers, between the wars poets, working men, yer dad?  Each with a guarded tale to tell.  Sweet dreams.

Dreamers 5

Double yolks framed

As it happens I have also just read, one after the other, two novels in which much of the action takes place in Wolverhampton, a place I’ve never been to in real life, nor, as far as I can recall, fictionally.


Raphael Selbourne‘s Beauty (Tindall Street Press, 2009) is a car crash of urban clichés just waiting to happen.  And as such it held a certain fascination.  If it hadn’t been a Book Group book I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing it through.  Indeed, I took against it on the very first page when I encountered the word ‘nostril’.  Beauty, a – ahem – beautiful innocent young Bangladeshi girl stuck in all the traditional traps of an immigrant family (and then some) is going through her early morning toilette.  She “cleaned her nostrils, face and ears three times.”  Now, as a reader I favour vernacular rhythms, language that flows – Mark Twain is my hero – so apart from reading it just now, when was the last time you came across the formulation ‘nostril’ for nose?  I rest my case.  The stilted prose never actually gets much better than this.  Why three times?  We are not told why specifically.  (Because it’s in the Hadith, where it says Satan resides in yer nose overnight).  Nor are we given any explanation of the ritual Islamic phrases Beauty says to herself throughout.  Not that we’re given much help with the Wolverhampton accent coming from the mouth of ex-con chav trying to turn his life around by breeding Staffordshire bull terriers Mark either;  I’ve worked out that ‘ay’ actually translates as ‘aint’.

Who else?  Cynical under-achieving porn-using white middle class loser Peter, on the run from white neurotic London pseudo-intellectual (says Peter) smart set girlfriend Kate and – the most rounded of the characters, I thought – white working class patriarch fat Bob.  Plus a full supporting cast including the family meanies (I don’t doubt it), birds down the pub, teeth-kissing African Caribbeans (Selbourne is big on teeth-kissing) and the off-stage presence of yer inner city inhabitants and tensions including – Iranians (?), Pakistanis, Sikhs, Hindus and … Kosovans (?).

Here’s the problem.  At one time Peter (who just happens to be about the same age as the writer) had

[...] thought he’d do something creative. He’d even sat down to write, but had soon realised he was unable to follow Goethe’s imperative that a writer should turn his attention to the real world and try to express it; to write one must have something to say. All that Peter had laboured to produce had been a list of grievances born of his despair at the dumbing-down and coarsening of the arts. How many acclaimed novels had he flung into the corner of the room, enraged, when he reached the inevitable ‘he was sat’ and ‘they were stood’? And what was the moral purpose of these novels?

So here we are.  To be fair, Selbourne plays a fair game of rock, paper, scissors in the moral philosophy stakes, as his characters wrestle with notions of family and duty, freedom and responsibility, community and society, modernity and tradition.  The passages in an old peoples’ home, where Beauty works in her bid for freedom, where the English have dumped their elders, are some of the book’s most affecting, while those set in the Job Centre are the wittiest and ring true enough.  But Mark and Peter seeing their liberation in Beauty’s, and other episodes of self-help babble, reek of happenings in fictional space rather than the real world.  Mark undergoes remarkable changes in the space of a few days, and here, for example, Peter is speaking:

Leaving aside his designs on her for a moment, would she understand the implications for herself, that she was in control of her destiny, that she could break free of the shackles of a religious mindset that would only enslave her to a paralysing fatalism?

In the end – in a philosophical sleight of hand that even the book’s supporters at Book Group weren’t convinced about – Beauty comes to a surprising conclusion as to where she wants to be.  But in getting there we have been treated to the revelation of heroism from a previously unexpected corner, while Peter’s comeuppance is neatly done with a nice irony involving search engine histories.  For all I’ve said, I can’t deny the narrative drive, even if I did start this off mentioning car crashes.

How to build a girlWolvo

Caitlin Moran‘s Wolverhampton starts out at least a decade and a half earlier, in 1990, in How to build a girl: a novel (Ebury press, 2014).  It’s a rite of passage, coming of age romance about a teenager leaving home and seeking to become a legend of a rock journalist.  “This is a novel and it is all fictitious” she pleads in duplicate between title page and chapter 1.  Yea right, but you can see the joins.

I love her writing, its (aforementioned) vernacular rhythms endlessly quotable.  This is Johanna Morrigan’s testimony and she says it herself at a certain stage: this is “The Bell Jar written by Adrian Mole.”

How to build a girl is full of witty literary and pop culture references, and like Mole, she can deal in incongruities for big laughs.  Just a few samples:

  • At a family gathering just after Johanna has dyed her hair and become a goth: “I bet the hair dye’s sodded your grouting,” Aunty Sue says, flicking ash into the sink.
  • Her dad was once in a band: ” “I’ve spent twenty years waiting for someone to come along and get me a record deal,” he says, getting HP Sauce out of the bottle with a knife.
  • I give Tony my very best ‘dominatrix look’ – seeing my reflection in his eyes, I see it looks less ‘Venus in furs,’ and more ‘Mrs McCluskey from Grange Hill when Gonch has set off the fire alarms again’ …

  • An early sexual encounter with Big Al’s penis: “I feel like a snake-handler on Blue Peter […] The last time I saw something like this, it was at dead Fat Nanna’s house, across the bottom of the front door, with two buttons for eyes.” (She is very funny writing about sex).

She’s great on being a certain kind of teenager too:

  • what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and co-ordinates, to tell you where you’re going.
  • I am collaging myself, here, on my wall.

  • I enjoy the feeling that deciding who I am is work. I now have a career …and so she briefly becomes a goth.  “Fake it ’til you make it,is the mantra.  I am Chick Turpin. I am Madame Ant.”

  • On the first time she heard the Stone Roses: “… feeling excited, for the first time, to come from a battered industrial town.

And she’s great, too, on the rock press and its cynicism.  Her nom-de-plume: Dolly Wilde.  I should have grown out of this fascination by now (I’ve certainly grown out of a lot of the music) but it still fascinates:

  • Advice from the established rock journos when reviewing a gig: “talking at the back is the right thing to do.”  Learning,It’s exhausting being cynical.”

  • The leading intellectual on the mag says something “in a way that’s so post-post-post ironic it actually stops being communication.”


the editorial meetings at Disc & Music Echo (the real Disc ceased publication in 1975) are comic tour de forces.

The Wolverhampton passages that touch on what it is like growing up poor are as fresh as ever despite, the theme’s not infrequent occurrence in  Moranthology , the anthology of Caitlin Moran‘s journalism, and her actual earlier memoir, How to be a woman.  Part of the narrative crisis of How to be a girl is a weekend spent at her boyfriend’s affluent parents’ house in the company of, well here they are:

They call out their names – ‘Emilia! Will! Frances! Christian!’ Names that do not have to bear heavy weights, or be written on benefit application forms – pleading. Names that will always be just a joyous signature on a birthday card, or cheque – and never called out, in a room of anxious people.

So here’s to the girl who used togo … down to the library, and spend the afternoon there, with all my authors, hanging.”  Whose Dadda gave her the sage advice, as she embarked on her career,Whenever you need to win a situation – talk about jazz, Johanna. It confuses people.” (How much am I smitten? – she can call him Dadda all she wants.)  The girl who can say, at one point in her evolution,  Hot tramp! I love me so.”  Yay.  She makes me feel so young.  Intelligent and hugely enjoyable.  And right now, Sod the Booker Prize.


Atwood - Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake

I knew I’d seen it somewhere else recently when I mentioned frogs using drainpipes as echo chambers in my last post, but I’ve only just realised it was in one of the books I did scant justice to here on Lillabullero before going away for a couple of weeks.  In Margaret Atwood‘s Oryx and Crake (2003), old nerd-mate at school Crake is explaining to narrator Jimmy how wasteful and destructive courtship behaviour and notions of romantic love are both to society and the individuals involved.  Jimmy says – to paraphrase – but what about art and poetry? John Donne, Byron and all that – isn’t that worth something?  And Crake tells him about mating rituals in the frog community, where size of male croak equates with his desirability among the lady frogs and the canny male hangs out where his croak croaks loudest: So that’s what art is, for the artist,” said Crake. “An empty drainpipe. An amplifier. A stab at getting laid.

Along with Atwood‘s customary intelligence, sly wit and feel for people, the specific strength of Oryx and Crake is the slow reveal of the nature of a catastrophe unfolding 25 years previously, leaving Jimmy, aka Snowman, quite possibly the last homo sapiens left alive.  All this set in the adventure narrative of his own struggle for survival and his reluctant stewardship of the Crakers (I’m getting to them).  It’s a variation on the mad scientist theme, nuanced by the (also) slow reveal of the changing nature of the friendship of three young people who as adults have significant roles in what plays out.  Basically, the reductionist scientist Crake has given up on homo sapiens’ chances of surviving, let alone solving, the planet’s big problems.  His solution is to create, via a cynically engineered plague (a sub-plot of its own) and genetic manipulation, the kind of society logically envisaged in the John Lennon song, Imagine – a song that has always troubled me if I try to think about it for more than about 30 seconds.  In his Paradice Project, what Crake had really been up to, hidden safely in the deepest core of the drug company RejoovenEsense’s Compound (the compounds – closed elite company communities – are another story) was something way beyond a Wells-ian two-nations super-capitalism:

What had been altered was nothing less than the ancient primate brain. Gone were its destructive features, the features responsible for the world’s current illnesses. For instance racism – or as they referred to it in Paradice, pseudospeciation – had been eliminated in the model group, merely by switching the bonding mechanism: the Paradice people simply did not register skin colour. Hierarchy could not exist among them, because they lacked the neural complexes that would have created it. Since they were neither hunters nor agriculturalists hungry for land, there was no territoriality; the king-of-the-castle hard-wiring that had plagued humanity had, in them, been unwired. [...] Their sexuality was not a constant torment to them, not a cloud of turbulent hormones; they came into heat at regular intervals, as did most mammals other than man.

In fact, as there would never be anything for these people to inherit, there would be no family trees, no marriages, and no divorces. They were perfectly adjusted to their habitat, so they would never have to create houses or tools or weapons, or, for that matter, clothing. They would have no need to invent any harmful symbolisms, such as kingdoms, icons, gods, or money. Best of all, they recycled their own excrement. By means of a brilliant slice, incorporating genetic material from …

“Excuse me,” said Jimmy. “But a lot of this stuff isn’t what the average parent is looking for in a baby. Didn’t you get a bit carried away?”

But, but, but.  “The whole world is now one vast uncontrolled experiment – the way it always was, Crake would have said – and the doctrine of unintended consequences is in full spate.”  However,

Crake hadn’t been able to eliminate dreams. We’re hard-wired for dreams, he’d said. He couldn’t get rid of the singing either. We’re hard-wired for singing. Singing and dreams were entwined.

And Jimmy/Snowman may be about to witness the birth of religion.  The Crakers are desperate to know what has happened to Oryx, their teacher (another story, again) and he knows all too well but can’t tell them.  Their speculation “… was like some demented theology debate in the windier corners of chat-room limbo.”  And while he has been away on the journey that the story is constructed around, they have built a facsimile of him from a tin lid and a mop:

Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake’s view. Next they’d be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings, and then slavery and war.

Oryx and Crake is not only a fine novel, it’s an intellectual tour de force that is both compassionate and thrilling.  And Margaret Atwood must have had a lot of fun on the way in its writing.  I look forward to finding the time to fit in the succeeding volumes of the MaddAddam trilogy.

Fiennes - Music roomThe music room

The other book that deserved more attention was William Fiennes‘ memoir of his youth and his damaged elder brother, The music room (2009), which managed with ease to disarm my inner  class warrior. His experiences of his family and growing up in a castle, prep school, public school, Oxbridge are related in vivid, quietly evocative and yet unassuming, spare prose.  This was how it was:

I didn’t question the world as I found it; our wide moat and gatehouse tower, the medieval chapel above the kitchen, the huge uninhabited rooms to the west and the parade of strangers that passed through them each year; the way our house was divided into two parts, one private, the other open to public view. I didn’t question my brother’s seizures or the frightening and unpredictable swings of his mood from gentleness and warmth to opposition and violence – these too were just facts I grew up among, how things were.

Add into this there being film and tv costume drama crews in regular attendance as his parents strove to do what they saw as their duty of stewardship towards their abode, along with various other enterprising ventures.  The surrounding countryside, beyond the moat, is his playground and the dedicated domestic staff are effectively part of a supportive family.  So there’s an innocent wondrousness to Fiennes’ experience that his modest sensitivity and observation allows the reader to share; he never lauds it.  His recollection of his astonishment at the warmth and convenience of normal houses when he visits school friends is delightfully done.

Richard, his elder brother by 11 years, was an epileptic, whose condition had resulted in brain damage:  while his IQ was close to normal “… free will wasn’t granted to him as it was to others.”  He doesn’t know his own strength, one of the less serious consequences of which is that he invariably tightens jar lids beyond the ability of anyone else to easily unscrew them.  On the surface an eccentric, with his suit, waistcoat, bow-tie and pipe smoking he adapts words, so ‘downput‘ is what he calls his “special melancholy.”  His mood swings in the football season rely heavily on how Leeds United have fared.  What makes this particularly poignant – not mentioned in the book – is that we are talking here of the thuggish bunch of cheats of the Don Revie era Leeds.

Throughout all this we are also granted short interludes detailing significant episodes the historical development of scientific knowledge of the brain from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the moving away from notions of seizures as sinister possession to recognition of the part electricity plays in the way the brain works and later discoveries mapping its functions.  Some of the reading group disliked this structure, found it intrusive but for me it added another dimension of poignancy to what is a moving and extraordinary piece of writing.  A lovely book, indeed.

Further musical and other non-book based adventures

DTBThis was something special.  All three acts used backing tapes, loops and active sampling.  Dear John was duly love-lorn in finest doo-wop fashion, his backing group consisting of three pretty sharp suits, actually, lain over chairs, the picture completed with pork-pie and similar hats and some cool shades; it’s a good joke, though it was a bit loud.  Mrs Pilgrimm sat down unassumingly at her amplified cello and proceeded to spin dramatic swirling magic with said instrument while working effects from various foot pedals and singing simply and unaffectedly songs from the folk tradition; I recall Reynardine in particular.  She finished with a cheerful rhythmic pizzicato piece.  Looked about 20 but I’m told she’s probably double that.  Quite a prelude to the main man.  Elsewhere one has seen David Thomas Broughton described as the missing link between Nick Drake and Tommy Cooper.  I’d also throw some Les Dawson at the guitar too, but mainly a major digital upgrade of John Martyn‘s work with loop tapes and then some.  Oh, and some Ivor Cutler.  Broughton has a beautiful voice (probably  more than one, actually) and is an accomplished acoustic guitarist.  What he does when you throw all the above elements together in a pretty much uninterrupted performance of songs, music, poker-faced jokery and noise – oscillating signals and feedback are part of the canvas too – is remarkable.  Crescendos of multiple layers of guitar and voice and noise are suddenly stilled (at the push of a foot pedal) and we’re straight into another exquisite piece of guitar picking and a new song.  It is an extraordinary experience.  Never mind all the comedy business with the mic stand,  did I say it was incredibly moving?  Yup, that too. (Thanks MF, for the recommendation).

Scribal July 2014July’s Scribal was another goodie.  Vanessa’s 50th birthday poetry dare was highly enjoyable, especially the one about her handbag.  Palmerston, the featured band, were highly accomplished and great fun.  Infectious in a good way.  Who needs drummers?  Some of the songs are so good you wonder who did the originals, except they are originals.  Country rock, with all five of them potential vocalists and enjoying one another’s company, I was taken back to the days of some of my favourite pub rock gigs – Brinsley Schwarz no less.  Last number, I swear they were channeling The Mavericks.  Steve Hobbs did what started as a jokey advice piece on doing spoken word at open mic gigs that morphed into something else when it slowly became apparent he was using his speech at his father’s funeral as his example.  Thoughtful, moving, unsettling and effective.

Icarus by Hendrick Goltzius 1588What else?  Cadences, the new show at MK Gallery, features 40 pieces, most of them – hurrah! – paintings, engravings, or drawings mounted on the walls.  On loan from a Dutch art gallery, the works range from a few Old Masters to a big Bridget Riley (Breathe – not one of her more interesting, I’d venture) and M.C.Escher’s birds, and a few, like the neat Kandinsky, sharing themes of (it says here) “flight, falling, destruction and gravity“; so not a few Icaruses.  ‘Cadence’ also references the fall in the human voice at the end of a non-questioning sentence (or at up until the heinous influence of Australian teen soaps changed that given a bit) or the ending of a piece of music.

Photo filched from the MKG website.

Photo filched from MKG’s good-looking website.

As an exhibition it felt good standing in the centre of the long and middle galleries though individually the pieces did a little less for me.  Despite what I’ve previously said about the walls I think two of my favourite pieces were the ceramics in the display cases in the photo on the left – Chris van der Hoef Tea setChris van der Hoef’s geometrical tea set (from 1926! – illustrated left) and Dick Lion’s more recent Metropolis.  That big lettering thing – this is not a put-down, I quite like it – resembling the final round of BBC4’s fiendish Only connect quiz but with the vowels left in, is from Christopher Wool (1990).

Again I have to display my ignorance (sarcasm?) and question the point of much video art, and the space it takes up.  The whole of the Cube gallery is given over to showing Catherine Yass‘s Flight (2002).  Shot from a remote-controlled helicopter flying over and around and up and down urban buildings it apparently gives a “sense of dizzying disorientation“; but then so did playing around with the horizontal and vertical holds on old televisions.  Having said that, I shall probably return for the showing of her new commissioned work, Piano falling (from July 19):

Piano Falling is a new film commissioned by MK Gallery. It shows a grand piano being launched off the top of a 27 story building in East London as it falls and crashes dramatically on the ground. Called Balfron Tower, this classic Modernist tower block was designed by the celebrated architect Erno Goldfinger in 1963. The destruction of musical instruments, and pianos in particular, has a long tradition in art history, as an iconoclastic, ‘anti-bourgeois’ gesture. In this instance, the crash and scatter of the piano as it falls will create an unpredictable composition of sound and image. The idea of recording sound during the fall was inspired by Aeolian harps named after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind – whose strings are played by the wind. As it flies through the air, this dark, three-legged object assumes an enigmatic, metaphorical character, echoed in the dragons and angels that fall out of the sky elsewhere in the exhibition.

Looks fun.  Meanwhile in a black video box with headphones attached we have Bruce Nauman‘s Violin film #1 (Playing the violin as fast as I can) (1967/8) in which, “the production of sound is subjected to certain actions that contradict its status as music and performance“; or … roll of drums … the sound and vision are well out of sync.

(c) Jessica Jane Eyre (but mucked about a bit)

(c) JJE (but mucked about a bit)

Nothing out of sync about Naomi “19” Rose‘s usual quality performance at the bijou music venue that is Newport Pagnell’s Rose & Crown pub on Friday.  “Sad songs sung with a smile”, I said, and MG suggested that would make a good album title.  Naomi was actually the support for the multinational Nothing Concrete, who played a wide-ranging mostly good-time set.  Not often you see a line up of cello (second cellist of the week!), mandolin, full size double bass, that box-thing percussion and a self-professed ex-professional busker on lead vocals.


Spent a couple of weeks in the Algarve.  Liked what I saw of Portugal.  Got back a week ago.  Stayed in Alvor, what was once a small fishing village and is now a small but not overwhelming tourist town.  Had a great time – brilliant beaches, vino verde, et al – but never mind that.  Here, in no particular order, are a few things that struck me (click on the pictures, and click again to enlarge):

  • Teresa Paulino - The plane watchersOn the main roundabout in or out of Faro Airport this wonderful set of figures by sculptor Teresa Sofia Paulino.  It’s called Os Observadores, or The plane watchers.  Nice idea, beautifully executed.  (Not sure calling it ‘The plane spotters’ really does it justice, Val.)  Didn’t have a chance to take a photograph myself but it would have been hard to do justice to them all in one shot; the image used here is the cover photo of the sculptor’s Facebook page.  Her website (click here) has a homepage of exquisite simplicity (at time of writing, of course).
  • FishermanAnother intriguing work was João Cutileiro‘s Homenagem ao Pescador, or Homage to the (well endowed) fisherman, in the harbour area at Alvor.  No, we couldn’t work out what the head was all about either, but it’s a striking piece.  This was close to a restaurante called O Navegador (The Navigator – see, I’m practically bi-lingual already on the page) where I had a taste of the Algarvian Trilogy – a tart made using figs, almonds and carob – and had the most flavoursome boiled potato I can recall, ever; I do not have the words.  Divine is not one you would normally use in conjunction with boiled potatoes, but it wasn’t just me, either.  On the subject of eating out, as a piscatorian with a paranoia of fish bones, let us hail the monkfish.  Had a fine time in the Adega d’Alvor restaurante – brilliant welcome and friendly service, lovely food (monkfish again) – only let down by them having run out of the Algarvian Trilogy.
  • The statues and tile work in Monchique are worth a nod here too.  Someone has cared, the town has lots of nice touches.Monchique mural
  • Alvor Praia dos Três IrmãosGot to mention all the textures and colours, the naturally sculpted cliffs, all those varying strata, the reds in the sunshine.  Seems once an A level Geography student always an A Level Geography student; I’m not ungrateful.  The photo is from but a small part of the spectacular structures at Praia dos Três Irmãos, or Three Brothers Beach, the Three Brothers being the survivors of a promontory, like The Needles on the Isle of Wight but more colourful.  Good swimming water for those up for a sea dip I am assured.Boardwalk
  • The western side of the Rio Alvor estuary has been generously graced with a European Community funded boardwalk over the tidal shallows and vegetation down to the beach; money well spent, I’d say.  Mies van der Rohe (“God is in the details”) would be pleased with the rusted  structures that occur – satisfyingly to my eye – at intervals and junctions along the boardwalk’s length.
  • Iberian barcodesThe local supermarket was part of the Pingo Dolce chain; hard not to succomb to calling it Pingu.  In translation ‘Sweet Price’ doesn’t have the same ring to it, removes an element of mystery, suggests less than the tremendous bread and fish counters.  Leaving the bird life for a while yet, I will venture that while the Iberian Magpie is a slimmer, more graceful and nuanced creature than we are used to back in the UK, the same cannot be said for the Iberian Bar Code.  As it happened one of our happy band had packed a DVD of Fellini’s 1960 black and white movie La Dolce Vita, which some might call synchronicity, others coincidence.  Whichever way, ‘dolce’ losses something in translation.  As it happened I kept nodding off (I was tired – we were sampling our own sweet life) for its duration and missed the – I’m told – iconic fountains of Rome scene altogether.  Film seemed to go on for a long time but the bits I saw mean I may return.
  • Ilha ecologicaA different model of household waste recycling: no house by house collections.  Instead we have the Ilha Ecologica, spread at frequent intervals around the town.  Under the pods – specific to bottles, cardboard, plastic and metal – are removable tanks that are replaced by empty ones every day.  Bottles descend into a cavernous echo chamber; the clatter of a single bottle is an experience, the depositing of a party-load spectacular (and possibly fatal with a hangover).  Hard not to refer to them as Illogical Islands (though they seem to work well enough) the Ilha Ecologica would appear to be an absolute gift to crime fiction.
  • FrogAnd speaking of echo chambers, the local marsh frogs, hanging around by the pipes taking the occasional streams under the back lanes make a remarkable noise of a summer evening.
  • Didn’t see a lot of the World Cup, and, Portugal’s matches aside, what was available to us in the villa was fairly random, so I missed England’s last two matches altogether, which was probably a bonus.  With commentary in Portuguese it was refreshing not having to – with the odd honourable exception – put up with the usual witterings that I returned to for the quarter finals in the UK.  What sort of a life has Rio Ferdinand had that so much of what he sees happening on the pitch is “unbelievable”?   My knowledge of the Portuguese language was essentially nil as far as the spoken word went so it was football all the way.  When Portugal were knocked out at the group stage all the shops were suddenly promoting Brazil tat.  At least Portugal won a game.  I find it hard to remember an English player displaying any of the real football passion seen in this World Cup from the likes of the USA (as opposed to John Terry being ‘patriotic’ aka thuggish) since that Beckham performance against Greece back whenever.
  • FrameMarshall amp framedMarshall amp situ 2Abandoned buildings off the beaten track intrigued and provided interest both as supporting frames for the local flora and platforms for some unlikely graffiti.  That’s a life-size Marshall amp and the poem on the other side of the same cottage reads, “Her eyes pierce the void / Cr??? (cross?) deep dreams of chaos / He whispers Meerkat” and it’s signed Meerkat.  Google gives up no source.  There’s a story there – a band not getting it together in the country?
  • SwallowSwallows had chosen to build a nest on top of the villa’s patio floodlight.  They work so hard.  It was decided to not use the light for the duration (so no midnight swimming in the pool) and there was definite feeding but no fledging before we left.  Would love to know how it turned out.  As a result of all that and plentiful other swallow activity  and some undeniable swifts at the airport I’m hazarding a boast that I can now tell the difference.  Lots of other bird interest.  The aforementioned Iberian magpies, black winged stilts, a flamboyance of flamingos, the storks nesting on turrets and chimney pots in Silves, a good look at some resplendent bee eaters (kingfishers of the air in their iridescence) and, hey! – a fleeting glance (for some of us) of a hoopoe.
  • Oh wotthehell, here’s a photo of a beach:Fishing
  • The ladyPedestrian crossingSo I leave you with an image of the Lady who graced (or was it haunted) the villa hall.  And another survival from a back road in Monchique.  Never mind Abbey Road, I need to get a bowler hat.

Big thanks to V & P, ta to A, R & J.
Not forgetting other A, of course.
And Jess: how can I throw it
if you won’t let go of the ball?


Atwood - Oryx and CrakeSometimes a word just comes at you from  unrelated directions.  Jimmy, aka Snowman, maybe the last of old model homo sapiens still alive in Margaret Atwood‘s brilliant trilogy opener Oryx and Crake (2013), keeps getting flashes of words he used to know and that, in pre-catastrophe times, had a use.  Feel the despair:

Rag ends of language are floating in his head: mephitic, metronome, mastitis, metatarsal, maudlin.
        “I used to be erudite,” he says out loud. “Erudite.” A hopeless word. What are all those things he once thought he knew, and where have they gone?

Fiennes - Music roomA metronome features in one of the many mesmeric (and erudite) passages in William Fiennes sad, beautiful and enlightening memoir The music room (2009).  Feel the magic of a very unusual childhood:

The metronome fascinated me; I couldn’t keep my hands off it. Mum told me it wasn’t a top and left it out of reach on top of the piano, but it wasn’t hard to clamber from chair to keyboard and bring myself eye-level with it. I turned the key at the side to wind the clockwork, unhitched the wand from the plastic clasp and set it rocking from side to side like a hypnotist’s finger, a loud tock marking each extremity. If you pushed the sliding weight down to the bottom, the metronome went berserk, wagging as fast as it could; if you slid the weight to the tip of the scale, the wand swung through lugubrious arcs, sombre grandfather-clock beats echoing in the stone vaults. Suddenly it seemed the time you set by the metronome was actual time, and that your life passed more slowly or quickly as you slid the weight up and down the scale, the music room a world that turned at whatever speed you judged appropriate. The tuning fork and metronome granted supernatural powers. The day’s pitch and time-keeping were in my hands.

May return for more on these two fine books at another time – they certainly deserve it.

Toumani and SidikiA metronome would have been no use at all to Toumani and Sidiki Diabate as they wove their spell over an entranced Stables audience last Thursday, serving up both contemplation and excitement seemingly simultaneously, very much in control of their own pitch and time-keeping.  I’ve always found the sound of the kora enticing, the notes coming at you like the flow of clear crystal waters, but beyond the traditional sounds here were unexpected Celtic harp moments, folk cadences and changes, and the close exchanges and rhythmic interplay of a seasoned jazz quartet (though there were only two of them; playing with only thumb and one finger albeit with both hands).  Interesting the chosen instrument stands, with père Toumani opting for old style dark wood upright compared with fils Sidiki’s space age laminated sculpture.  Longest queue I’ve seen to buy a CD after a show anywhere, and I was in it; prettier, doesn’t have the intensity of the live show but still good to have.

mk_smith154What will stay with me from Melanie Smith‘s exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery, that I caught in only its last week, is the green light suffusing the entrance and the long gallery.  The stuff in the vitrines – Mexico city bric-a-brac is probably too unkind a description – and the collages, orange (toilet seats etc bought in the market) and green (natural), in the long gallery had a certain interest but to tell the truth I’ve never really ‘got’ video art in a gallery setting and Spiral City in particular – not exactly sharp black and white shot from a helicopter above Mexico City – did nothing for me.  Fordlandia had a lot of images of an overgrown industrial failure filmed lingeringly and what I thought was just strung together but according to the catalogue “provides a critical reflection.”  I would have preferred photos on the wall.  That went on so long I couldn’t be bothered to wait for Xilitia, the one that might have pleased me more, featuring surrealist collector Edward James’s subtropical rainforest garden.  A miss in my book, I’m afraid.

And so to StonyLive!  Stony’s week-long extravaganza of musical events over and above the usual, a significant choice of what to see to be made most days.  Again the resolve to partake of something every day, though this year that was reduced one night to walking up and down the High Street and not fancying any of the music escaping from the pubs.  Moral: next year commit to the stuff you wouldn’t normally see, even if it does mean paying for the pleasure.  Highlights:

  • StonyLive Alternative Fringe 2014The Box Ticked opening a fine set at the Alternative Fringe event in the Bull courtyard with Rocking all over the world and closing with how Steve imagined The Clash would have done Abba’s Waterloo.  Quick dash up to the Fox for the annual dose of the Concrete Cowboys.   And back for more delights – not least the first time I’ve seen The Screaming House Madrigals for a while, a full set from Naomi Rose and some poetry – that I’ve not really got the time to mention.  Lucky with the weather for that one – dire forecasts but the sun came out just in time.
  • KGVWSun again for the Classic Cars on Sunday.  My favourite this time around the immaculate green Karmann Ghia treatment of the VW Beetle pictured here.  Love the way the reflection makes it look like there’s a grille.
  • Monday and a lively and varied a cappella session in the Vaults.  Oh what a beautiful morning was unexpected among the traditional stuff and at the line “I was lying in a burned out basement” in Neil Young’s After the gold rush Andrew said in passing, “Story of my life.”
  • June Scribal 2014Tuesday and it was Scribal Gathering’s bad luck for the June show to coincide with StonyLive and a lot of other stuff.  Showed loyalty and as it turned out a big crowd from the start for an evening with a difference.  As it turned out Caz didn’t compère – lost her voice.  For the second time in 4 days Second Hand Grenade had ‘em dancing in the aisles.  Who’da thunk it – Jackson 5’s I want you back a showstopper.
  • Wednesday and a bit of the old Morris – saw a few of them on Sunday too – dancing and clogging in the garden of the Fox, that is.
  • Bard & friendsThursday and The Bard and friends downstairs at the Crown.  The memory of Bard Phil Chippendale‘s dance of the excited methane molecule will stay with me for a while – given an extended set he was brilliant.  Left field science based comedy.  Not seen Brian Damage and Krystall before but will again I’m sure – hilarious.  Another comic died a death but poetry saved the day.
  • Saturday and it’s back in the Fox at lunchtime for more bluegrass.  What The Hole in the Head Gang  (with a Cowboy or three in tow) described as their annual rehearsal.  A Goodnight Irene in the middle of the day.  And in the evening the mighty fine Bearcats Blues Band were what it said on the tin; was that a Magic Sam number that opened the second set.  Home to watch the footie; be nice if that Balotelli was playing in an Arsenal shirt next season.


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