Quick, before they recede any further …

Evie Ladin & Keith TerryA dozen days ago now Evie Laden and Keith Terry at York House.  World-class Americana for a fiver less than half a mile down the road – aint life grand?  Even if the beer ran out early.  She was a clawhammer banjo player and step dancer tutored in the south Appalachian tradition and he was a jazz drummer when they met; when they moved in together they found there wasn’t a single duplicate CD in their both extensive collections.  Not that there was much evidence of jazz in this show.  Tunes old and new, of the tradition, in the tradition, and some amazing hand-clapping body-slapping rhythmic routines.  Near the end a speeded up breakdown version of Ewan MacColl’s The first time ever I saw your face which worked beautifully and has revived the song for me.  A great night, for which much and many thanks, Ken.

And the next day I turned up too late for the usual suspects but did witness and survive Barney and accompanying cajónist’s singalong rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I Scribal April 2014will survive in the closing stages of the AORTAS open mic night at The Old George.  No, really – it was great.  Glad I bothered.

Tuesday saw the launch of The Box Ticked‘s actual CD – which I might well be writing about in a separate post – at the April Scribal Gathering.  They delivered a nicely judged and hugely satisfying set of originals from the album and gave us an accomplished cover of Bowie’s Five days as a bonus.  And apparently the righteous Xanadu, previously mentioned favourably in despatches, are actually called In Xanadu, which isa slight improvement (though I still can’t get the image of Dave Dee, Dozy, Mick and Tich out of my skull).  Another varied evening’s entertainment chaired this month by that man Ken (again).

Oxford to BletchleyO to B ticketIt’s a bit specialist, is Oxford to Bletchley including Verney Junction to Banbury by Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith in the Middleton Press Country Railway Routes series (2006).  Not particularly well reproduced b&w photos (with detailed captions) of stations on one of the many routes that didn’t survive Beeching, by far the best and most interesting photo for me – though there’s a good one of Bletchley station back in the day at the end of this post – is the days-of-futures-past shot on the cover of the rather stylish diesel railcar, that was introduced with no great success on the route in 1938.  Still, good to nostalgise a bit (on tracks I never rode on) and to think this is one of the lines that might rise from the ashes again in the future.

MoranthologyI could quote endlessly from Moranthology (Ebury Press, 2012), Caitlin Moran‘s entertaining and wide-ranging collection of pieces from her Times interviews and columns.  I like her a lot.  She has me punching the air – wit and wisdom: yes! – on many topics, and her serious stuff (with a potential guffaw never far away) on, for instance, what it’s like to be poor, deserve wider currency and to be out there in the political arena:

We’re all just monkeys using sticks to get grubs out of logs, really.  However.  There is one, massive difference between being rich and being poor, and it is this: when you are poor, you feel heavy.  Heavy like your limbs are filled with water.  Perhaps it is rain water – there is a lot more rain in your life when you are poor.  Rain that can’t be escaped in a cab.  Rain that has to be stood in, until the bus comes.  [...]
But the heaviness is not really, of course, from the rain.  The heaviness comes from the sclerosis of being broke.  Because when you’re poor, nothing ever changes.

And she knows because she was brought up there.  Her notion that being taxed is a signifier of personal success – “What a seriously grown-up thing to be doing“- needs to be stated more often.  Some of the pieces here fill in some of the gaps in her memoir, How to be a woman.  Hence her passionate defence of public libraries, where she ‘home’ educated herself after primary school (and didn’t we librarians do a good job?).  Her Celebrity Watch columns are up there with Charlie Brooker’s take on all the nonsense.  Hard to shake off, too, her description of David Cameron, three months before he became prime minister, as the potential winner of a  ‘C-3PO made of ham‘ fancy dress competition: “His resemblance to a slightly camp gammon robot is extraordinary.”  Her TV criticism is usually on the ball, with a big ‘Yay’ to Sherlock and a classy demolition of Downton (easy, I know, but she does it so well), though her championing of The hour did give me pause.  But her summing up of Doctor Who certainly hits the spot:

It is, despite being about a 900 year-old man with two hearts and a space-time taxi made of wood, still one of our very best projections of how to be human.

One last quote that, I think, epitomizes her take on life beautifully.  She’s describing in retrospect the event – “having gone mad after having smoked a massive bong in front of Later … with Jools Holland“- that led to her leaving behind any mind altering substances other than alcohol:

… it’s obviously unendingly amusing that I lost my mind whilst watching Jools Holland playing boogie-woogie piano with The Beautiful South on BBC2.  If there’s anything that proves I have managed to ascend the class ladder from ‘working class’ to ‘middle class’ it is, surely, this.  Well done me.

After LiffI’ve been dunning After Liff: the new dictionary of things there should be words for (Faber, 2013), John Lloyd and Jon Canter‘s sequel to The meaning of liff 30 years on.  They get the words needed for those “perfectly common things around us that have somehow escaped having names” by “recycling the ones on signposts.”  Hence Dunning (a small village in Perthshire) is a verb, present participle, meaning “happily reading  a book in the loo.”  Which is where my copy of After Liff has lain since  it was bought as a cheap offer makeweight to get free postage when buying another book altogether, and because a friend had raved more than once – “funniest book”etc – about its predecessor.  I’m on my fourth time through now and it just gets better with each reading – more pennies dropping every time as some sort of sense emerges.  They range from the pretty obvious, from bad puns through decent cryptic crossword clues, into words that somehow sound just right and then we enter a zen or even an Ivor Cutler universe of fetching nonsense; with mild filth and not a few duds on the way too, of course.  So, not entirely at random, how about Nantwich (noun: a snack where the filling drops out, leaving an empty husk),  Stockleigh Pomeroy (noun: the manhunt that takes place after a murder, to find a neighbour willing to say the line: ‘He kept himself to himself”) or just plain Malmö (adjective: happily tired) for starters?  It’s cumulative.  I’m on the look out for the words on a signpost that will fit that sinking feeling and frustration when you get half the hazelnuts or dates in a kilo bag of Jordan’s Natural muesli falling into just the one bowl on one morning.

InfamousFinally, if Derren Brown came out onto the stage to the strains of This charming man no justification would be necessary.  And he works so hard.  Derren always asks people not to reveal what happens in the show so as not to take the element of surprise away from those who haven’t seen it yet, so I’m not going to say much about Infamous except, par for the course, we came out going not so much WTF? as How?  Vastly entertaining and good-natured.  The usual mix of the aforementioned charm, illusion,  manipulation, mental tour-de-forces, wit and demystification, with some autobiography thrown in for spice and inspiration.  Undoubtedly a force for good; so pleased he’s on our side.

And here’s that photo.  Never let it be said I don’t keep my promises.  Most of the time:

Bletchley Station in days of yore, the Oxford train awaiting the off (or having just arrived).

Bletchley Station in days of yore, the Oxford train awaiting the off (or having just arrived).

Three books

SteppenwolfI first read Hermann Hesse‘s Steppenwolf (1927; translated 1929/63) in 1969.  In an Author’s Note written in 1961 he suggests I shouldn’t have:

…of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other [...] Partly, but only partly, this may occur so frequently by reason of the fact that this book, written when I was fifty years old, and dealing, as it does with the problems of that age, often fell into the hands of very young readers.

Yeah, well – we were so much older then, we’re younger than that now.  Steppenwolf was one of those books in the ’60s, post-Beat hip.  There was even a band called themselves Steppenwolf after it, though their main claim to fame, the stodgy Born to be wild, as featured in zeitgeist movie Easy Rider, rather misses the point.  The thing then was that what happens to the protagonist at the end of the book, in the Magic Theatre, is kinda trippy – psychedelic literature from Germany between the wars no less – and it still is.  But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.  I’ve been surprised this time around by its power.

Now, I’m not going to spend too much time even trying to explain what is going on in the book; not that I’m that sure about it anyway (though don’t let that put you off).  You have the wolf and man, the dichotomy of animal flesh and human mind (and/or soul, or spirit), and there’s a critique of that dualist approach to psychology, but it’s a lot more nuanced than that.  Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, whose testimony forms most of the book, is also a loner, a lone wolf existing in the arid steppes of bourgeois society, an intellectual whose asceticism has led to his painting himself into a corner where suicide seems a logical option.  A smug, painlessly comfortable bust of Goethe, one of his heroes, contributes to his losing it at a dinner party, leading to a sequence of events that cause him to reconsider his life and priorities, key components of which are the process of learning to dance in preparation for a Grand Ball while enjoying the company of good-looking women, to embrace life and, in passing, ‘get’ jazz.  The Ball reaches its climax in the corridors in the bowels of the Magic Theatre, where each door opens to a fresh world of experience.

Behind one door, for example, he is returned to his youth and the precious moments of first love where he’d faltered and is now blissfully  allowed to act differently and change what he never gained.  Behind another he partakes of the ‘Great Automobile Hunt’ – what now reads like an epic and bloody shoot-em-up game taking in brutal roadside ambush and general mayhem.  That was one episode took me by surprise, that I had no recall of at all.  Another was the appearance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (“the most beloved and the most exalted picture that my inner life contained“) who gives Haller a hard time and then raps – yes RAPS:

Mozart laughed aloud when he saw my long face.  He turned a somersault in the air for laughter’s sake and played trills with his heels.  At the same time he shouted at me: ‘Hey, my young man, you are biting your tongue, man, with a gripe in your lung, man?  You think of your readers, those carrion feeders, and all your typesetters, those wretched abettors, and sabre-whetters.  You dragon, you make me laugh till I shake me and burst the stitches of my breeches.  O heart of a gull, with printer’s ink dull, and soul-sorrow-full.  A candle I’ll leave you, if that’ll relieve you.  Betittled, betattled, spectacled and shackled, and pitifully snagged and by the tail wagged, and shilly and shally no more shall you dally.  For the devil, I pray, will bear you away and slice you and spice you till that shall suffice you for your writings and rotten plagiarizings ill-gotten.’

When Harry complains about gallows humour Mozart tells him all humour is gallows humour.  Mozart turns on the radio – “the last victorious weapon in the war of extermination against art” says Harry – for a bit of Handel:

At once, to my indescribable astonishment and horror, the devilish metal funnel spat out, without more ado, its mixture of bronchial slime and chewed rubber; the noise that possessors of gramophones and radio sets are prevailed upon to call music.  And behind the slime and the croaking there was, sure enough, like an old master behind a layer of dirt, the noble outline of that divine music.

Mozart tells him, after explaining, among other things the penetration of radio to places the music has never reached before (and remember it’s 1920s audio he’s dealing with here):

Listen, then, you poor thing.  Listen well.  You have need of it.  And now you hear not only a Handel who, disfigured by radio, is, all the same,in this most ghastly of disguises still divine; you hear as well and you observe, most worthy sir, a most admirable symbol of all life.  When you listen to radio you are a witness of the everlasting war between idea and appearance, between time and eternity, between the human and the divine.

Between the Ideal, populated by the Immortals, and … real life, no less.  Don’t lose your awareness, but loosen up, laugh a bit about it all, is Wolfgang’s advice:  “Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.”  Harry’s trip doesn’t quite end here, but I will.  Except to mention some interesting musings of Harry’s as he gets around to loving jazz.  And to say that, You know those big lists of Great Books of the twentieth century or whatever other appropriate category? – well I reckon Hermann Hesse‘s Steppenwolf warrants a place on ‘em and, despite all those to-be-read piles and lists, I’ll probably be returning there again soon.

Makkai - The borrowerThe borrower

The cover of the large, C-format, paperback edition of Rebecca Makkai‘s ambitious novel The borrower (Heinemann, 2011) that I read was artistically rendered to take on the typical wear and tear you find on the kind of well-read library book that it seeks to praise.  I think it’s a shame that the idea hasn’t been continued with subsequent paperback editions; they lose something from it.  I only discovered this neat deception when I looked to download the image for the purposes of this blog and when I pointed it out to other members of the Book Group I’m a member of it took them by surprise too.  It was an interesting discussion, people taking different things to like about the book; some weren’t convinced by the librarian but liked the kid, and vice versa.  But I jump ahead of myself.

OK – basic plot.  Small town Children’s Library in Hannibal (not that Hannibal), Missouri.  Children’s literature is cleverly referred to or inferred throughout, not least, of course, with the book’s title.  26-year old Children’s Librarian Lucy with a Russian parents back story that kicks in as the action progresses and 10-year old voracious book-lover Ian.  Classic librarian’s dilemma: his mum complains about what he’s reading – “What Ian really needs right now are books with the breath of God in them.”  Lucy is concerned about the influence of Pastor Bob and his anti-gay Glad Heart program (Ian showing all the signs, worries his mother) pushing delicate souls towards manly pursuits.  Events transpire for them to go on a Thelma and Louise road trip, driving from Missouri to the Canadian border via Chicago.  He’s clever, strings her along on the adventure; she starts off thinking she’s saving him but is digging a deeper legal hole for herself the longer it goes on; there are lots of nice incidentals and social commentary along the way but some of what goes on doesn’t completely convince.  It all ends wonderfully, though.   Anti-climactically, beautifully, with the bonus of a deliciously executed prank leaving an open-ended coda.  I’m not sure what got us to it is up to the same mark, which is a shame – I might have faltered were it not a Book group book – but I’m certainly glad I saw it through to the end.

As well as the human story The borrower champions the importance of books, reading and libraries in people’s lives.  And it also sweetly plays with the novel form and the way libraries are organised.  ‘If a Book Lacked an Epilogue, Ian Would Frequently Offer His Own’ is the chapter head of the epilogue and on the last page she acknowledges some people’s reading habits with “Here are some hopeful last words for the peekers-ahead … who couldn’t help but read the last sentences first.”  Near the end Lucy ponders:

How do I catalogue it all? What sticker do I put on the spine? Ian once suggested that in addition to the mystery stickers and the sci-fi and the animal ones, there should be specials tickers for books with happy endings, books with sad endings […] But what warning would I affix to the marvellous and perplexing tale of Ian Drake? A little blue sticker with a question mark, maybe. Crossed fingers. A penny in a fountain.

This is an intriguing and loving book.  She believes “that books can save you” and the book is its own testimony.  Amen to that.  But can the pedant forgive the poetic licensee?  “Before this all began,” she says – in italics – in the Prologue (“Ian Was Never Happy Unless There Was a Prologue“) that

… one day I’d arrange my books by main character, down through the alphabet. I realize now where I’d be: Hull, snug between Huck and Humbert, But really I should file it under Drake, for Ian, for the boy I stole …

That’s actually Huck Finn, ma’am.  Oh, all right.

Careful use of complimentsThe careful use of compliments

The careful use of compliments (2007) is the fourth out of – so far – nine books in the prolific Alexander McCall Smith‘s Isabel Dalhousie sequence of (sort of) crime novels.  I wanted to get a taste because I’ve just ‘discovered’ W.H.Auden and McCall Smith has recently published a book on him, the reviews of which mentioned Isabel’s fond habit of quoting him.

I like her, and, though they inhabit very different Edinburghs, I suspect Ian Rankin’s John Rebus would come round to her refined feistiness once he’d got past her house door number being in Roman numerals and use of words like agape, which I had to look up.  (To be fair, that was part of an internal monologue – unconditional love, by the way, from the Greek but appropriated by Christian theologians).  As the editor of a small academic journal – crucially for the ongoing dialogue with herself and others it’s the Review of Applied Ethics – and with no financial worries due to inherited wealth, she can afford the indulgences of pondering life’s little dilemmas and nuances philosophically.  This can be mostly charming though occasionally tedious, but satisfying enough to make me think I’ll start the sequence at the beginning.

There’s not much of a crime in The careful use of compliments.  What there is concerns the authenticity of a painting by a Scottish artist, which does develop into a neat plot involving a visit to Jura, which itself allows some thinking about of George Orwell writing 1984 there.  Indeed, a lot of the time there is more suspense involved in whether Isabel will succeed in re-building her relationship with her niece after she’s fallen in love and had a baby with one of said niece’s romantic rejects but it’s these little nuances – she still resents it – entice you in.

Anyway, Isabel rues the fact that there are no public statues of dentists, who should be honoured because they tackle and relieve pain head on – she’s that kind of gal.   So, when the academic who has led the putsch against her editorship says he’s coming to Edinburgh to discuss the changeover, she wonders whether to meet him at the station, and her reasoning process is pure Auden:

Her natural goodness dictated that she should offer to be there; but her humanity, which, after all, was not restricted to kindness and sympathy – qualities of humanity surely can be bad, because that is what humanity is like – that same humanity now prompted her to be unhelpful.

Her overcoming of his challenge for the control of the journal is both appalling from one point of view but delightful from another (hers and ours!).  The theory and practise of moral philosophy is nicely toyed with nicely, and she’s good company:

… that was the trouble with most people, when it came down to it; there were very few who enjoyed flights of fantasy, and to have that sort of mind – one which appreciated dry wit and understood the absurd – left one in a shrinking minority.

Without giving anything away, the book concludes, “There is a sea of love.”  And why not, once in a while?



Every now and again I go on a PaintShop Pro posterize binge.  This is a streamlined LMS Princess Coronation class loco cresting Shap.  The original b&w photo is in the NRM collection.

Every now and again I go on a PaintShop Pro posterize binge. This is a streamlined LMS Princess Coronation class loco cresting Shap. The original b&w photo is in the NRM collection.

Princess BrideThe Princess Bride

The princess bride has been on the to read list for a while now.  With established cult status, both the novel and the movie make regular appearances on various ‘best of’ lists, so it was  a bit of luck it was last month’s Book Group selection; I was looking forward to it.  I’ve both read the book and watched the film now, and while I didn’t have a bad time of it – hell, the others at Book Group pretty much hated it, so I was very much appearing for the defence in that court – I have to report a certain disappointment.  The book was too long and the movie was too short; much as I enjoyed it, and it certainly has merits of its own – not to mention a cameo appearance from Peter Cook and a modest Mark Knopfler soundtrack – the movie made me appreciate parts of the book more in retrospect.  The Cliffs of Insanity were climbed too fast and my imagination did a better job of the Fire Swamp, while the giant Fezzik’s charming appetite for rhyme is hardy indulged in at all.

OK, full title, for those familiar with the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, is The Princess Bride: S.Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure. The ‘good parts’ version abridged by William Goldman;  it still has the power to fool people.  The actual author is a William Goldman, novelist and Hollywood screen writer, responsible for, among many other films, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.  He shares many features with the fictionalised author writing the whichever highly entertaining framing introductions you get depending on the edition of the book you’re reading (and who also wrote BC&TSD).  Some members of the Book Group thought these introductions (and the subsequent editorial interjections, many explaining the ‘excisions’, in the actual text) were the best bits, but really you have to take it as a whole.  It made me laugh from time to time and I admire the conceit.

The band of brigands who get turned into a freakish Three Musketeers as the story unfolds. all with a vivid backstory in the book only sketched upon in the film: the brains, the criminal Sicilian Vizzini who is outwitted by the man in black who replaces him; the Spanish fencing master Inigo Montoya and the rhyming giant - Turkish wrestler Fezzik.

The band of brigands who get turned into a freakish Three Musketeers as the story unfolds, all with a back story in the book only touched upon in the film: the brains, the criminal Sicilian, Vizzini, who is outwitted and replaced by the man in black; the Spanish fencing master Inigo Montoya; and Turkish wrestler Fezzik, whose need for motivating rhymes is again only briefly assayed in the film.  Yet visually it’s the film’s masterstroke.

This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it” is how the original 1973 introduction to the ‘book’ opens, setting it in the context of Goldman’s entirely fictional family life, how his father read it to him when he was sick, but also containing film industry anecdotage anticipating his much-lauded memoir Adventures in the screen trade (1983).  The edition I read was the 25th anniversary edition of 1999, which opens “It’s still my favourite book in all the world. And more than ever I wish I’d written it.” and tells – presumably factually – how the 1987 film came about, in particular the casting and tutoring in role of the rhyming giant of an actual oversized pro wrestler.  There’s an appendix too, concerning a sequel which isn’t exactly crucial to the enterprise, though it has some fine stuff about the copyright holders in Florin, where the adventure is set – “Florin, as you may know, is the root vegetable capital of Europe” – wanting to get in on the post-film action.   There has subsequently been a 30th anniversary edition but I can’t say if anything else has been added.

There’s a definite touch of Mark Twain about The princess bride, the undercutting of the traditional themes and characters of both the high adventure and fairy tale genres, the text littered with the odd strategic out-of-place word or phrase. Here’s the outcome of a deadly game of wits between Vizzini and the man in black:

You only think I guessed wrong! That’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

There’s an anticipatory  touch of the Monty Pythons in there too, and I’d guess it was an influence on the whole Shrek phenomenon.  Like Twain’s work of similar ilk it can also be found in both adult and children’s sections of public libraries and I’m told children love the movie; I could easily watch it again.  I’ve hardly scratched the surface here, haven’t mentioned princess Buttercup, her one true love or the Dread Pirate Roberts (which turns out to be an honorary position) and much else.  More than once a moral is drawn, well away from the conventions of the genres.  In one of the editorial interjections Goldman’s fictional wife tells him:

“Life isn’t fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie. Life is not fair and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.

Caitlin MoranHow to be a woman

Fairness is one of the many themes taken up by Caitlin Moran in her splendidly reasonable and boisterous How to be a woman (Ebury Press, 2011).  Like the media’s treatment of women, what even prominent women, have to put up with just because they’re women.  She has some delicious things to say about princesses (and extra-regal ones like WAGs too) as role models.  How to be a woman is combined memoir, musings and rant.  I knew little about Caitlin Moran apart from she got enthusiastic reviews from blokes in a couple of the rock music glossies; I’d given up the inkies – where she got her first job, aged 16, on the MM – long before, and never looked at The Times (especially after the website went down the pay-route).  Easy to see why those reviews were so good; here was her generation’s Julie Burchill but with a big difference – a fierce autodidact intelligence, for sure, but without the obnoxiousness.  I don’t think it’s cheating to give you her conclusion, belaying the book’s title, that:

All through those stumbling, mortifying, amazing years, I thought that I wanted to be was a woman.  [...]  Finding some way of mastering all the arcane arts of being a female, until I was some witchery paragon of all the things that confused and defeated me at the outset, in my bed, in Wolverhampton, at the age of 13.  A princess.  A goddess.  A muse.
But as the years went on, I realised that what I really wanted to be, all told, is a human.  Just a productive, honest, courteously treated human.  One of ‘The Guys’.  But with really amazing hair.

It’s an engaging and highly amusing journey, from The worst birthday ever (the book’s Prologue - aged 13, in a big crowded working class family home in Wolverhampton, soon to discover The female eunuch) through puberty, work and play, love and marriage, motherhood and more work.  It’s a nicely nuanced egalitarian feminism, enthusiastically proclaimed and defined but free of stridency.  If I’d stopped to make notes of quotes it would have taken me three times as long to read, but here’s one typical cracker: “Women who, in a sexist world, pander to sexism to make their fortune are Vichy France with tits.”  Caitlin’s self-deluding affair with a self-deluded failing musician is a lovely example of what can happen on the way.  The chapter Why you should have children is directly followed by one titled Why you shouldn’t have children, and the chapter Abortion is healthily positive and unrepentant.  Her verdict on cosmetic surgical Intervention (such a neat chapter title) is just to accept mortality; and a lot more flows from that.  (In passing, she may even have me exploring Lady Gaga’s music if I remember.)

Caitlin Moran shares with Kurt Vonnegut the view that a major step on the path to a better world is for people to just be more polite, seeing political correctness as a cack-handed attempt on the way.  If I had daughters of a certain age I’d be happy for them to read this book; sons too.

coronationscot-dillcartroughs-1939 posterisedcoronationscot-train posterizedMore Princesses

Days of future past:  the stream-lining was removed  from William Stanier’s top of the line express locomotives because of its inefficiency in overall running.  I’ve always thought it regrettable that many great steam engines were named after dodgy monarchs or their aristocratic chums, relations and residences.  The London Midland & Scottish and the Great Western Railway were the worst.  Early members of the Princess Coronation class of locos illustrated were named after queens, princesses and duchesses.  We had to wait until the nationalised British Railways for Oliver Cromwell to get a look in.

AORTAS at the Old George & Scribal

Another fine evening of music at the Sunday AORTAS open mic at the Old George where – pleading forgiveness for sidelining their (I dare to presume) republican sympathies but nodding to the spurious thematic consistency dumped on this post – two princesses of the MK singer-songwriting community granted us five new songs between them.  Two from Naomi Rose, one subtly celebrating the Fire Garden in Campbell Park that was a highlight of the International Festival in MK a couple of years ago; and three – count ‘em – from Nicky & Mark’s The Last Quarter.  John Meed, back from Cambridge for the night, added more variety.  And The Last Quarter did it again opening Tuesday’s Scribal; not with three more new songs, that is, but with the aforementioned songs, now slightly older and wearing well.

Scribal Mar 2014The Broadway TwistersScribal Gathering 2.0 hit the ground running with a bang.  Ably compered by storyteller Theresa Kelleher, there were a couple of new poets too, c/o the Poetree Alliance just down the road, and fine short sets from The Box Ticked and the badly named Xanadu, a young dramatic folk-blues guitar, soul vocals duo, who made an impact.  Featured act The Broadway Twisters – their normal schtick “Hattori Hanzo-grade Rockabilly”. Quiffs optional! – excelled with a two-man acoustic set of what they called “beat poetic trashabilly“.  Though they steered clear of the classics on the night they more than lived up to the promise of their Facebook rubric : “Along with hi-octane 50’s classics and a few ‘off the beaten track’ toons The Broadway Twisters’ incendiary brand of noir-country trash-R&R is evolving into something unique – think Allen Ginsberg meets Link Ray.”  When someone rather unfairly objected on FB, “Well I like Link Wray – Ginsberg was a whiney little bitch tho,” guitar man, writer and strong vocalist Adrian Stranik came back with, “Okay then, Rimbaud meets Lux Interior?” -  you get the picture?  Stand up rockabilly bass – courtesy of Billy J.Mann – is an experience in itself.  All this and Probably North 10th Street, a song about a knocking shop – you have to know MK to fully appreciate the title.  Great band!

And just as Robert Browning had his Last Duchess, here’s my last Princess:

Monday, March 3.  Not the usual way to start a week.  More’s the shame.  This post takes it for granted that:  i). The Stables in MK is a great little venue, and ii). you have a fair idea of what Ray Davies has achieved down all the days, and furthermore – iii). a few other things.

The Rails' album out in May - bit of a genre shot? It's on pink label Island.

The Rails’ album out in May – bit of a genre shot? It’s on pink label Island.

Neat lively and lyrical short support set from The RailsThe Rails are James Walbourne (“a teenage prodigy” it says here on their Facebook page, though he’s older than that now) and Kami Thompson (yes, a relation).  In as much as Fairport Convention were the British The Band – not that that is meant to diminish their achievement in any way -  I’d venture by the same token The Rails are shaping up to become the British Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in the near future.  James has the guitar chops in abundance and he contributed greatly to the main show when called upon, which was, lucky for us, a lot of the time.

Americana UK editionRay came on, initially with just regular guitar accompanist Bill Shanley; both were stationed well back from the front of the stage.  He told us tonight was “an experiment”.  The evening still involved more music than anything else, of course, but, as per earlier Storyteller/X-Ray tours, it was punctuated with a number of recitations from his new book Americana: The Kinks, the road and the perfect riff (reviewed earlier here on Lillabullero) and this time around, to add further spice, some rough-cut ‘home’ videos illustrating various aspects of the book, during which they left the stage (and a few members of the audience went to the toilet).  There were some new songs – hurrah! – the lyrics, or at least fragments thereof, had first been seen tantalizingly in the pages of Americana; there were some lesser known songs from his and The Kinks‘ back catalogue; and a fair sprinkling of the usual crowd favourites, mostly at the start and end, some given the by now traditional singalong treatment.

It was a great evening.  Fears that Ray’s voice was on its way out were soon allayed and he was in comfortable good form with the banter, mentioning Arsenal a couple of times.  I thought the format worked well.  Never mind that the idea of the ‘experiment’ was probably designed on an artistic level, to set up a few theatrical ‘moments’, given that Ray Davies is 70 this year I’d say he deserves a chance to recharge his batteries during proceedings, to preserve the voice, and while anecdotage from the queue in the toilets revealed a little disquiet from the odd attendee moaning about the videos (they might have been better off at a Kast Off Kinks gig), I found them absorbing, though I’d have to grant that is more likely the case more for fans of a certain ilk carrying a fair bit of pre-knowledge.

What struck me after the event was the realisation of just how much of an ensemble performance the outstanding moments were, with James Walbourne there on stage with Ray and the ever-present Bill.  An exquisite ensemble with the added bonus of including writer Ray Davies on lead vocals – always in charge, of course – but in the actual performance functioning as one of the trio, enjoying himself immensely and in awe of the instrumental prowess going on either side of him.  Quite literally no backing band this, lined up as they were across the stage, though their back-up vocals added another dimension when called upon.  Not that Ray Davies is a slouch as a guitarist himself, but the three-pronged acoustic attack, when in place, was a thing of many-shaded wonder to behold: exciting, inventive, powerful, beautiful.

Bill Shanley‘s jazzy embellishments have been a delightful part of Ray’s subtle reshaping of his old songs for a while now, but the addition of the folkier Walbourne to this show gave us a perfect British take on the music known vaguely as Americana. The workouts on Dead End Street and The Getaway were outstanding.  Who needs bass and drums?  Seriously: if you can be a part of music-making this good, why would you want to go back to being in a rock and roll band?  I see absolutely no musical point in a Kinks reformation in this 50th anniversary year of You really got me - if there’s any validity it can only be as a one-off symbolic gesture.  Even if that record still sounds as fresh now – despite its use in a hundred adverts – as it did then back then.

Just a few other random afterthoughts:
Strange that of the Kinks albums with the most relevance to the theme – the English Americana of the ’50s & ’60s mind – the great Muswell Hillbillies – they only played Twentieth Century Man (with updated date line) and nothing from the Arista albums, from Sleepwalker on, with which The Kinks conquered the States, and which take up a fair amount of time in the book.  But I look forward to Ray’s next album, intrigued whether he uses the arrangements on display here.  I’ve heard that beat before (or whatever the official title is) sounds particularly potent.  One of the video sequences reminded me what an under-rated song – though there are many of those in Ray’s canon – the actual song Storyteller is.

I’ll sign off with a random picture of Ray Davies from the cover of France’s premier popular music magazine, just for the sake of it.  When the forehead wasn’t quite such a feature:
Rock&Folk cover

Bleeding edgeWhere to begin?  OK, here’ll do, character talking ’bout a website a suspicious outfit called hashlingers has designed for them:

“Oh, don’t tell me, tag soup, right, lame-ass banners all over the place random as the stall walls in a high-school toilet? All jammed together? Finding anything, after a while it hurts your eyes? Pop ups! Don’t get me started. ‘window open,’ most pernicious piece of Javascript ever written, pop-ups are the l’il goombas of Web design, need to be stomped down to where they came from, boring duty but somebody’s got to.”

It’s that “most pernicious piece of Javascript ever written” that is pure Pynchon.  That I had to look up ‘goombas’ is a part of it too.  Turns out they are “a fictional species of sentient mushrooms from Nintendo’s Mario franchise.”  I do not resent this, that I had to look that up.  I didn’t have to look it up, could’ve survived without it, but I’m glad I did, added value.  The thing about reading Thomas Pynchon is, he’s fun.  Sure he’s got this huge reputation, wrote a monster of a novel called Gravity’s rainbow back in the ’70s that had serious critical kudos heaped all over it, such that practically every review of every book he’s written since has said “it’s no Gravity’s rainbow” cos it’s not as somehow serious or profound.  But the thing is, difficult though it was at times, formidable in scope and prospect as it was, Gravity’s rainbow was a lot of fun too.  And he’s on our side.

John Berger Gthomas-pynchon-V-1964-Bantam-mass-marketBrief tangent:  Pynchon’s hugely enjoyable first novel – with one foot in the Beat generation – before Gravity’s rainbow, was simply called V.  I’ve had this theory from the off that he wanted to call its successor simply G but was beaten to the punch by John Berger’s Booker winning novel appropriating said initial.  John Berger’s G (1972) is celebrated these days more for his winner’s speech slagging off the sponsor for its past and present colonial sins, though I seem to recall reading it and being impressed (not that I can remember much more about it).

Bleeding edge (Cape, 2013) opens in New York, spring 2001, and pretty much stays there for the duration.  It deals with the growth of the internet, the first dot.com bubble, late capitalism and 9.11, and entertains without espousing conspiracy theories – paranoia is ever one of Pynchon’s basic narrative drivers – about the latter.  It has been called a technothriller though Wikipedia gives it ‘postmodern detective’ status but parenting, friendship and the chaos of personal lives in the modern city are very much in the frame throughout – there are people here you really want things to work out for OK.  Bleeding edge deals in ‘meatspace‘ and “all forms of reality in which the basic unit is the pixel”.  What in other of his books have been trips into shamanism, mysticism even, is here represented as the Deep Web of cyberspace – William Gibson territory: “It’s only code …” is a saving mantra.

Our heroine – yup – is Maxine, mum and head of Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em, a detective agency specializing in fraud investigations – in a certain demand because she’s debarred from the professional organisation.  We’re taken through her pursuit of a well dodgy and mysterious industry leader, which involves various security and counter-intelligence organisations and free agents.  Without giving too much away – it’s a Pynchon trait – things remain more or less unresolved.  In the middle of this 9.11 happens, and what really impresses is the low-key way in which it’s dealt with – no grand statements, purple prose or disaster movie scenarios, none of the main characters are directly involved; there’s just the hush afterwards and the practical private consequences:

They gaze at each other for a while, down here on the barroom floor of history, feeling sucker punched, no clear way to get up and on with a day which is suddenly full of holes – family, friends, friends of friends, phone numbers on the Rolodex, just not there anymore … the bleak feeling, some mornings that the country itself may not be there anymore, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else …

The book starts with Maxine taking her kids to school and it ends with them in the late autumn telling her they’re OK to go on their own and she, knowing this, is not quite ready for it.  I think I’ll leave it at that.  Tremendously lively book to come from a 76 year old.  The rhythms of his vernacular prose and sparkling dialogue still there in abundance, his predilection to just ‘go off on one’ excitingly intact, a vivid and varied populace of entertaining characters set in play.  Tremendous invigorating book, period.

Just a few snippets to give a taste, whet the appetite if you’re unsure whether to take the plunge:

  • in the matter of ‘duck stamps’: “… having wandered with the years into the seductive wetlands of philatelic zealotry, this by-now-shameless completist must have them all” (p14)
  • Scanning Justin and Lucas for spiritual malware, Maxine, whose acquaintance with geekspace, since the tech boom, had grown extensive though nowhere near complete, discovered that even by the relaxed definitions of the time, the partners checked out as legit, maybe even innocent. It could’ve been California, where the real nerds are supposed to come from, while all you ever see on this coast is people in suits monitoring what works and what doesn’t and trying to copy the last hot idea. (p78)
  • Lester Traipse is square-rimmed and compact, uses some drugstore brand of hair gel, talks like Kermit the Frog. The big surprise is his wing-man tonight. Last seen stepping out […] into what Montreal calls “feeble snow” and the rest of the world a raging blizzard, Felix Boingueaux tonight is sporting a strange do, which is either a triple-digit power haircut, carefully designed to lull observers into false complacency with their own appearance till it’s too late, or else he cut it himself and fucked up. (p150)
  • No, I mean late capitalism is a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of, meanwhile getting the suckers to believe it’s all gonna go on forever.” (p163)
  • Maxine rewinds, ejects, and, returning to realworld television programming, begins idly to channel surf. A form of meditating. (p180)
  • as per usual, Pynchon’s joyously dropping popular culture references all over the place:
    “So Maxine, is there an issue here?”
                  “You mean,” switching to loyal sidekick, “as in ‘Bird dog’ by the Everly Brothers, well, as far as I know, Conkling is nobody’s quail at the moment, and besides you only poach husbands, isn’t that right, Heidi.”

I could go on but I think I’ll finish with Horst, Maxine’s husband’s obsession with bio-movies and one of the characters using the word ‘footnotes‘ as an active verb.

Now all I’ve got to do to complete the Pynchon set is read that thousand pages plus Against the day

Scattered concentration

Lillabullero has been suffering from an attack of ‘procrasturbation’ (© Danni Antagonist) of late.  I’ve given Danni the copyright here because although there are entries for the word in Urban Dictionary going back to 2003 she uses it with a witty moral dimension in her splendid Empty threats, the title poem of her slim volume published by the Allographic Press.  We are not talking puerile, literal or juvenile here, people.  And while a sudden fascination with the sport of curling may be a factor – linger on, those pale blue eyes – it’s just, well, who knows where the time goes?  And while Empty threats remains on ‘the pile’ mostly unread I shall get around to it one of these days because I know it will be worth it cos I’ve seen some of those pomes in the flesh, so to speak.

Chris Garrick with Pete Oxley - of the Spin Trio - at another time, another place.

Chris Garrick with Pete Oxley – of the Spin Trio – at another time, another place.

Music, Maestro – thanks

So it is now over fortnight since I saw virtuoso violinist Chris Garrick in Oxford, at a great little jazz club called The Spin.  Down an alley off the High Street, upstairs in The Wheatsheaf pub; life would be so much sweeter if every urb had a club like this – world-class musicians for a tenner and decent beer at a normal price.  Chris, resplendent in a Pacman@Abbey Road t-shirt, made his way through the capacity crowd – it’s that kind of venue – to join The Spin Trio, the very handy house band, on stage.  He then proceeded to wow said audience with his dexterity, artistry, invention and wit, warming up with a couple of Stefan Grapelli plays the American songbook looseners before launching into a slow lyrical rendition of Ray Charles’ You don’t own me and joyous extended takes on Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t she lovely and You are the sunshine of my life.  The first set ended triumphantly with some stunning pass-the-baton extemporisation on a stirring Abdullah Ibrahim tune.  After that the second half was, to tell the truth, a bit of an anticlimax though One note samba sticks in the mind and the riff-driven encore was the rockiest workout of the night.  Thanks, Paul.

Treasures in MKDB4

Treasures in MK

Strange scenes inside Milton Keynes Gallery.  “MK Gallery as you’ve never seen it before” say the ads they’ve put in the local free papers for the Treasures in MK exhibition and the cynic might well say – ignoring all the usual cheap cracks about MK – indeed.  For there were more visitors in there when I went than I’ve seen other than at an opening, and – maybe there’s a connection – there were loads of pictures hung on the walls, nearly two hundred works no less, spanning at least four centuries.  Oh, and the small matter of a gleaming white Aston Martin DB4  in the centre of the Long Gallery.  Now I’m not a car buff (I once drove a Lada) but I was in awe of its sheer classic beauty – for my money nothing can touch it aesthetically since.  And in the middle of the Cube Gallery five stuffed pelicans. 

The show is put together from private collections in the environs of MK and a fine and varied one it is.  “As such,” it says in the guide, “the exhibition is a collection of collections; it is also an exhibition about collecting.”  Though it does no harm to see it as just a bunch of pictures hung on the walls, a feast for the eyes.

Tom Chadwick - The proverbsMy faves were an unclutterd pen and ink Matisse (Etude de femme, 1942) and one of the bigger oil paintings, Tom Chadwick‘s Stanley Spencer-ish The proverbs (1939), which could be said to look back to Brueghel and forward to Grayson Perry.  There is work by Warhol, Picasso, a Louis Wain cat, a big David Bowie self-portrait (just a step up from Bob Dylan’s Self portrait self-portrait).  Leon Bakst, Dürer, Tom Gainsborough, Millais – the gang’s all here.  I mention Marmaduke Cradock’s seventeenth century hunting scene purely because of his splendid name.  Maggie Hambling’s Wave roaring roars sat near Peter Blake’s holidaying On the beach.  Hogarth, Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, Edward Lear and many more are here among the (literal) ‘unknowns’.  Oh, and four plaster sculpture Beatle heads from 1964, two of which are recognisable (sorry, David Wynne).

Scribal Feb 2014

Future popular music historians will mistakenly cite this as Funk & Disorderly’s first ever gig even though they only featured on the poster.

More Music! Poetry! Beer!

February’s Scribal Gathering 4th birthday bash was a blast.  Taking my lead from Arnold Bennett, who called his novel Anna of the Five Towns because it sounded better than acknowledging that there are actually six in the Potteries, I shall say it was a Three Bard Night, hoping to evoke a poptastic resonance with a band of similar name’s cover of that Randy Newman song, even though there were four Bards in attendance.  So, mostly the usual suspects in fine form plus a singer led – Susan Hill (no relation) – jazz trio, which made a change.  There was a welcome return for a solo spot from David Goo who sang and strummed angularly of “a postmodern kind of love” and proclaimed in song his disbelief in the myth of atheism (a double bluff I’m hoping).  Less dextrous on guitar than last time, though to no detriment, he manages to deliver highly literate lyrics distinctly and make his voice function as a funky rhythm instrument at the same time.

Other highlights included a double-hander from MC Richard Frost and Ian Freemantle, a melding of the former’s symbolic detailing of life under an oppressive economic and social regime and Ian’s rhythmic chronicle of the people’s resistance from Wat Tyler on, delivered at first dramatically from opposite ends of the narrow room but each moving through the crowd towards each other as it progressed.  Probably better than I’ve made it sound.   Stephen Hobbs entertained mightily with a versified Scribal history and a plea for aforesaid Frost not to walk away.  The Antipoet closed proceedings with the usual energetic and joyous commitment, bravado and wit.  There was cake.  And Scribal lives!

KD’s C&B BF logo

Hoodwink ElixirHoodwink Elixir, the new spoken word only Frost venture, hosted by invitation an open mic that surprisingly produced a roomful of poets and storytellers with an audience in a back room on the first night of the 11th Cock and Bull Beer Festival, and a fine evening that turned out to be, with new faces and voices much in evidence.  Someone called Sam (sorry, didn’t catch anything else) did a neat poem called H.G.Wells wishing he had a time machine and how he’s apply it to the highs and lows of his own life.  Great Oakley ruled again as far as my taste buds went with the wonderfully hoppy Tiffield Thunderbolt – poetry in liquid motion.  And the dark That old chestnut from Frog Island had an intriguing double hit of taste and aftertaste.

StonyWords logoRound 8 of the Literary Quiz that is a traditional part of the annual StonyWords Festival (10 years old this year) was a poetry round.  It ended up being the lowest scoring round, averaging just one correct answer out of 10 among the teams in contention, and even the runaway winners only got 4 right.  Now some of us like to think that Stony is a poetry town, so we were a bit taken aback.  A wise and experienced quiz setter once vouchsafed to me that the secret of a reasonable quiz is that it should be pitched so that for each 5 questions, everyone in a room should be pretty much able to get 2, a fair number another 2, and the winners will be the ones that get the 5th every now and again.  Entertainment and edification were the intention – did we fail?  See how you do.  Answers are at the end of this post.

Round 8: This be the verse

  1. Who said, in 1936, speaking to a branch of the WEA: Really, to appreciate archdeacons, you must know some barmaids, and vice versa. The same applies to poetry.
  2. Which American poet said, If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
  3. Which Liverpool poet was responsible for:
    This morning / being rather young and foolish
    I borrowed a machine gun my father
    had left hidden since the war, went out,
    and eliminated a number of small enemies.
    Since then I have not returned home.
  4. Which contemporary of John Keats dismissed his work as “piss-a-bed poetry” ?
  5. Name either the accuser or the war poet he’s talking about: He is all blood, dirt and sucked sugar stick.
  6. Who moaned that Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me?
  7. Whose words are these?:
    Love set you going like a fat gold watch
    the midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
    Took its place among the elements
  8. Who declaimed Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.
  9. Who’s poem suggested: Get stewed: Books are a load of crap.
  10. What was Nelson Mandela’s favourite poem?

Now the main prize for the winning team in the Literary Quiz, along with the sweeteners – some kind donations of the odd bottle and a couple of comestibles, along with a few books on their way to the charity shop – is that you get to set next year’s quiz.  Aiming for an honourable second last year we blew it – pride would not let me forget my extensive knowledge of chick-lit from a previous lifetime, or rather employ – and were … if this is the right word … triumphant.  Which is why the scratch team of Richard, Mike, Tim – Cheers – & me set it this year.  Still, it looked like people had a decent time of it (a few even said so to our faces), and we quite enjoyed ourselves, so here’s looking forward to competing again next year.

Bardic Trials 2014StonyWords 10

StonyWords 10 had much to offer over the fortnight that it ran, and I would have partaken of more – there was a lot more than I mention here, sorry bout that – if it hadn’t been for one of those pesky here today/gone tomorrow/back again the next colds that persisted in its ebb and flow over the whole period.  So I missed all the fun and nail-biting excitement of the Bardic Trials – an unexpected nine candidates, whittled down to two over the evening, with rank outsider Phil Chippendale crowned (by one vote) in the final reckoning, his piece de resistance This fruit is your fruit (after Woody Guthrie) winning the day (and it’s a natural if that mooted community orchard gets going in his time).

FOSSL (The Friends of Stony Stratford Library) put on a sell-out presentation (for the second time) of the five-handed (hi Andy!) The Great Ouse: the life of the river from source to sea, which made good use of the library’s new FOSSL financed data projector and screen to help describe the history of those living in the Ouse Valley (the river that locally has picturesquely broken its banks again – by design these days – as I type), quoting extensively from regional writers, well and not so well-known.  A guitar accompanied Powte’s complaint , an anti-reclamation protest ballad bemoaning – “For they will make each muddy lake / for Essex calves a pasture” – was the icing on the cake.

S.S.Shanty 2

5 Men rendered by the pen of Clayton Moore

A bit early in the year to be saying it, but if I don’t go to as good a gig as S.S.Shanty 2 at York House for the rest of the year I won’t necessarily be disappointed.  (Where does the time go? – it’s a fortnight since, but never late than never, eh?)  Five men not called Matt – on this occasion reduced to just five (I’m only reporting what was said) – set things off with a bang and finished the evening with nothing like a whimper, displaying great attack all night.  Shanties and sea songs to be more exact, so in between we had a stirring set from the Steppers Band and it was Roddy Clenaghan‘s turn to raise a tear (gets me every time) with a fine Lord Franklin*.  The tale of Black Bart’ was triumphantly told by a piratical Red Phoenix somewhere in there too.  All washed down by three of Great Oakley fine ales.  A grand night – nice one, Ken.

Shelley’s reputation somewhat shafted

Treacherous likenessInteresting presentation at the library from author Lynn Shepherd about the genesis of her historical literary crime novel A treacherous likeness (Corsair, 2013); interesting enough for said book now to be on ‘the pile’.  She’s created in Charles Maddox an intriguing character, a detective who promises to wander the roads and highways of Victorian literature for some time; he’s done Dickens, next stop Bram Stoker.  Sweet to be reminded of William Godwin, that great champion of anarchy and free love, who couldn’t walk it like he talked it when it came to his daughter Mary, Shelley’s second wife.  This was a darker shade of poet, a rottener ride for the Romantics than I’d hoped.  We shall see; I look forward to a tangled tale.

Uncommon arrangements

Uncommon arrangementsA century on from the Romantics and with Katie Roiphe‘s Uncommon arrangements: seven marriages in Literary London 1910-1939 (Virago, 3008) we’re looking at another try at re-writing the marriage rules in a time of great change.  Now the Bloomsbury Group is not my favourite bunch of bohemians – have you seen what that Virginia Woolf said about James Joyce’s Ulysses? – and it was interesting that the sub-group who made the best bash at coming to a workable accommodation of coupling and un-coupling that was fulfilling and stayed friendly were not the writers, but the artists: Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant and chums.

Katie Roiph doesn’t really find any pattern or come to any conclusions, save that it remains plus ça change, plus la même chose: “Marriage is perpetually interesting.  it is the novel that most of us are living in.”  And it is precisely because it’s a truism that you can never really know what is going on in other people’s relationships that the book is ultimately somewhat disappointing, a skimming.  Her main sources were extant love letters and diaries, which she calls as “another kind of art“.

For all that H.G Wells’ literary purpose was to invent for a generation ‘new ways of living’ ” he was a bit of a bastard and I was disappointed to find  him taking such pride in his tennis court mansion; his relationship with Rebecca West an interesting case study of a dual creative career relationship.  Nor was he the only one of whom it can be said the mostly non-judgmental Roiphe wonders, “Was all of their free thinking simply a highly articulated cover for consummate selfishness?”

This might be the nudge that finally gets me reading Katherine Mansfield though I can’t say the same for Elizabeth von Arnim.  If Ottoline Morrell was D.H.Lawrence’s nodel for Lady C then it’s surprising Roiphe doesn’t give his marriage a chapter to compare and contrast with the tamer others.  No surprise but somehow reassuring to know that it was the Sunday Express that played a leading role in the banning of Radclyffe Hall’s up til then quite well received Well of loneliness: “I would rather give a healthy boy or girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel” it editorialised.  While Vera Brittain writing to Winifred Holtby that “a night of physical love was not worth giving up one published article” frankly deflated me.

That Roiphe is American sometimes creeps in – annoyingly she talks of ‘brownstones’ in Bloomsbury, for instance – and my reading group was split on how involving the book was.  I got more from her intro and outro than the specific case studies.  “They wanted to think their way through the problem of marriage, to impose a new form on the mess of experience“; what she only implies is that we did it all over again in the ’60s with the difference now that the children of a union are far more a focus of care in any change of circumstance than they were back then.  But now, she wonders, not necessarily condemning, “that so many of us do spend our youths glutted with freedom” are we any better off?  I liked her end drift into the intangible: “Like novelists, we are always inventing even in the course of drinking coffee over breakfast, we are living in the fictions we create, like the air in the room.”  Or as another sage has it, “And everybody’s in movies, doesn’t matter who you are.

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for …

This was the poetry round / These be the answers

  1. It was W.H.Auden who said, in 1936, speaking to a branch of the WEA: Really, to appreciate archdeacons, you must know some barmaids, and vice versa. The same applies to poetry. 
  2. Emily Dickinson said: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
  3. Which Liverpool poet was responsible for:
    This morning / being rather young and foolish
    I borrowed a machine
    Brian Patten Little Johnny’s confession
  4. Which contemporary of John Keats dismissed his work as “piss-a-bed poetry” ? Lord Byron
  5. Name either the accuser or the war poet he’s talking about: He is all blood, dirt and sucked sugar stick.
    W. B. Yeats said it about Wilfred Owen
  6. Who moaned that Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me? Sigmund Freud
  7. Whose words are these?:
    Love set you going like a fat gold watch
    he midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
    Took its place among the elements
    Sylvia Plath: Morning song (didn’t all educated women of a certain age read her?)
  8. Who declaimed, Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes. Walt Whitman
  9. Who’s poem once suggested: Get stewed: Books are a load of crap.  It was a character from A study of reading habits by Philip Larkin who did so suggest.
  10. What was Nelson Mandela’s favourite poem?
    Invictus by William Ernest Henley
    (“I am the master of my fate / The captain of my soul”)

*Saddest song ever?


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