Castlerigg model

The shadows on the on-site model replicate what’s happening with the real thing.

Was it really nearly a fortnight ago to the day we made it up to the Lake District, heart lifting again at the sight of the Kirkby Lonsdale M6 turn-off?  Checked in to where we were staying and made the ritual visit to Castlerigg Stone Circle?  Not for an actual ritual, you understand, but because it’s such a great place to be.  You can see and feel why they built it here.  And for once hardly anyone else around.  Had never quite seen it in this light before.  Is why I love the Lake District.  Things can change, the landscape shifts within a hundred paces, in the passing of a cloud.  And again on the way back.

And on the way back, as it happens, was lucky to catch this colourful little scene:


 The Lake District you say?  OK, here’s a sunset over Derwent Water, after which a decent pint of Keswick Brewing Company’s basic bitter:

Another sunset

Road to nowhere

Could this be the road that David Byrne used to sing about? One of Skiddaw’s shorter sisters.

Having learnt the lesson of previous visits – not to hammer one’s body on the first full day’s outing – we settle for an ascent of Latrigg, an outlying foothill of Skiddaw, the peak we never quite managed a previous time, when we might have been able to, because of the cloud which engulfed us.  Half-way up Latrigg, painfully mounting a stile watched by a large walking group having a rest, Andy says, We’re not what we used to be.  If we ever were, say I.  It’s a decent view from the top over the north end of Derwent Water though, with a sight too of Bassenthwaite Lake; which is – as seasoned pub quizzers will well know – the only lake in the Lake District.  And in the evening we go to the theatre, of which more later.

Next day we perambulate the peaceful Buttermere, which the guide books say is a gentle introduction to Lake District walking.  Not that we’ve ever been the hardiest of the breed, you understand, but even this is more strenuous than the amble we remember.  The view beyond the south end of the lake is deeply satisfying but pretty much impossible to get a decent photo of at the time of year and day we’ve ever managed because of either haze or drizzle.  But anyway:

Buttermere 2

For this relief, much thanks (that’s not me; the drying would have been too much bother).  I shared the thought and visualised:

Feet's relief

And so back to where we started that fine day, at The Fish Inn, where there are splendidly 8 (eight!) local real ales to choose from, 4 of them from Jennings.  I opt for Hesket Newmarket’s ruby Red Pike, because it’s named for a nearby Pike that nearly finished us on a previous visit (map-reading fail, a joint-jangling descent as darkness encroached, what a day to forget one’s blue puffers), about which – the beer – I have nothing to say.  Only a half because I’ve got to negotiate the scary Honister Pass back.

Next day – another fine day: 5 days in The Lakes, staying on the edge of Borrowdale, the wettest place in the land, and we had 2 whole minutes of the lightest drizzle; the rain gear and heavy-duty walking boots stay in the car boot for the duration.  And so to the sea, the sea, and new territory for us – the Solway Coast, heading north of Maryport.  Long empty stretches of beach to ourselves.  Jack’s Surf Bar on the edge of Allanby suggests it’s different in season, though the two old men sitting on the bench outside looked to be supping the same pints they’d always supped in days of yore, when it was just another pub.  Maryport itself yielded an enormous prawn baguette and chips in a pub with a Bob Dylan soundtrack, and walking through poetry on the promenade, an imaginative project built into the upping of the sea defences’ capabilities:

 Blown awayFrench kissesDead crabsMP Stephanie laughsJust some of the phrases selected from the work of local children writing about their town and the sea front.  Can’t resist playing fridge poetry here.  Clicking on the images will enlarge them, but reading left to right that’s Blown away; French kisses & dead soldiers (there is a Great War memorial nearby); Dead crabs stare at passing cars; Stephanie laughs.

Saturday it feels like we’re in a book, following in the footsteps of historian turned sleuth Daniel Kind in Martin Edwards’ latest Lake District Mystery, to be precise.  Renovation has not dimmed the charm and fascination of the Keswick Museum & Art Gallery, which retains its Victorian chamber of curiosities ambience.  I had feared the fossilised cat would be behind glass, but no – it’s still in its trunk and you can still lift the lid.  There’s now a small room dedicated to the early rock climbers that’s a bit of an eye opener too, what with the gear (think old leather football boots), the enormous cameras, the pipe smoking.  I played a bit of Louie Louie and Please don’t let me be misunderstood on the enormous xylophone made of local stone - the rock music of its day.

Theatre by the Lake sunsetStaying in the book, in the evening went to the great little Theatre by the Lake.  Or should that be impressive.  Proper theatre with a rep of real plays and proper actors, not the corny musicals and crap comedies we seem to be stuck with in MK these days.  Could have gone to six different plays in the week  if we’d wanted (and people do, apparently) – ‘Fun, frolics, menace and mystery’ as it says on the brochure, including a Shakespeare and a Harold Pinter.  Earlier in the week, in the main theatre, we’d seen a stunning production of Liz Lochhead’s adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, sparely but imaginatively staged with some outstanding performances.  And some great music – Wim Mertens? Shoulda brought a programme – before things started and carried through into the action.  This company of actors really earn their crust – incredible energy and stamina.  And some familiar faces in Jez Butterworth’s The winterling in the small studio, which was an experience in itself.  We entered under some scaffolding that was part of the set with the small stage area in the centre with banks of seating either side.  Talk about the whites of their eyes.  I’ll let the Independent’s theatre critic do the talking: “Like Harold Pinter crossed with Guy Ritchie plus Withnail and I.”  Two splendid evenings’ entertainments with the added bonus if you arrive in good time of – this time of the year – it being The Theatre by the Lake, of the sun setting behind the mountains the other side of the lake.

Stepping out of the places visited in Martin Edwards’ book, in between the above, the discovery of the great Dog and Gun pub too late because we’d already eaten, so their famous vegetarian goulash will have to wait for next time.  And a walk along and over the bridges over the bubbling river of the old railway line, which must have been a spectacular  journey in its time.  Then a divert up the hill back via the Stone Circle again.  On which walk we did espy:

Cow and mountains

Stayed overnight in Colne coming back to the flatlands, but later for that.

The zone of interest

This is a hell of a book …

Zone of interestWhy the need so often to be defensive about Martin Amis‘s oeuvre?  I don’t get it, the negativity.  (Well, I do, but, you know, get over it.)  Because when he is good, which has been a lot more of the time than he’s been given credit for, none of his British contemporaries gets close (IMNSHO).  An ex-librarian’s conscience – other people have reserved this book – made me zip through The zone of interest (Cape, 2014) at greater speed than writing of this quality, depth and invention deserves; not that it doesn’t function well enough as page turner, anyway.

He puts himself through it, does our Mart.  So having ‘done’ Stalin and the Gulags with the brilliant biographical study Korba the Dread (2002) and the novel The house of meetings (2006), he here turns his hand to the Holocaust with a novel that is far from the conventional survivor’s tale.  In his Acknowledgments & Afterward: That which happened at the end of the book – which includes a concise survey of the available literature on the extraordinary endeavour and inexplicable why of Adolf Hitler (who is never actually named in the novel’s text) and ‘the third Germany‘ – he says he wrote it “to discharge some obligation on the level of the meso and the micro”, the administration and management of the passengers alighting at the Auschwitz terminus of that railway line.

The zone of interest is played out sequentially, with events overlapping, in what read as if the journals of three people:

  • Angelus Thomsen, philandering nephew of Martin Bormann, involved in some way with the Buhn, a factory  development for the production of materials and fuels to make Germany self-sufficient staffed by the slave labour of the fittest off the train, who sees through the National Socialist hysteria;
  • Paul Doll, Kommandant of Kat-Zet (Auschwitz, again not named in the text) who doesn’t, husband of Hannah, who scorns it, and who Thomsen falls in love with.  (With a typical Amis flourish Doll consistently uses figures where you would normally expect numbers to be spelt out, so where he means ‘speaking personally’ becomes “I for 1“.)
  • And the third voice, Szmul, a Jew who, to keep himself alive, plays an important role in the ground level welcoming workforce.

There is no wallowing in the horror; economically, matter of factly, the day by day picture emerges.  The narrative driver churning away in the background is what turns into a love story. The crucial time period is that of the slow realisation of the failure of the disastrous Russian campaign.  We also get glimpses of the failed Communist uprising in Germany in the wake of the First World War, the rise of the Nazi project and the madness of, among other things, the Theory of the Cosmic Ice entertained at the highest level of the regime.

The zone of interest is a powerful tour de force – emotionally, stylistically and structurally.  There is a revealing distance that rises above the known, refreshes the picture, one might say – as said earlier, Hitler is never referred to by name, for example.  Amis’s joy in words is still in evidence, though, not least in the weaving in and out of German vocabulary; words, phrases or job titles (at least one of which stretches well over one line in length) appear in the text, sometimes translated sooner or later, sometimes the meaning just suggested by context (as in particularly the description of body parts in regard to of sexual desire).  We have the neologism of  “in the concentrationary universe, where the pressure of death was everywhere”), astute word selection like “the assiduity of German hatred”, the dazzling juxtaposition of “Something happened at first sight. Lightning, thunder, cloudburst, sunshine, rainbow – the meteorology of first sight” (when Thomsen first sees Hannah), and the adverb that adds when a ruptured drainpipe is “drunkenly and loutishly spewing water“.

In this meso and micro concentrationary universe you get shocking, small nuances that chill and scream out the madness of the National Socialist project.   So a middle manager suggesting, with the stats to hand, that productivity might improve in the Buhn if they treated the slave labour better, gave them just few calories more to eat, worked them a little less harder. so making them last longer, and so reducing the training needed, ends up being cited as treasonous.  And Doll complains:

In the washroom of the Officers’ Club what do I find but a copy of Der Sturmer. Now this publication has for some time been banned in the KL, and on my orders. With its disgusting and hysterical emphasis on the carnal predations of the Jewish male, Der Sturmer, I believe, has done serious anti-Semitism a great deal of harm. The people need to see charts, diagrams, statistics, the scientific evidence – and not a full-page cartoon of Shylock (as it might be) slavering over Rapunzel.

Serious anti-Semitism?

The post-war denouement, a subverted narrative, heralds a disappointment of rare eloquence.

… though not necessarily in that order.  On the other hand, it might as well be.

Sept Scribal 2014September Scribal Gathering was different.  Trepidation from some regulars about the concept of a covers night but it worked really well, jollied along by the golden larynx of Peter Ball.  Surprise at how few musicians turned up to perform but that just meant all the more poetry, which was wide-ranging and far from predictable.  Frost did Hobbs and Hobbs did Frost – a score draw.  The Zeroes – MK’s own accomplished latino punk band (Trade Description Act, anybody?) – saw out the evening in style.  Exciting and loud but you could hear every word; they finished with a great Atomic.  A fine night’s entertainment, and, like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (and duly acknowledging the hostage to fortune I’m setting up here) I rather hope a Scribal covers night can become an annual institution.

For my contribution I delved back into the first time I used to, as the mighty Antipoet put it, “hang with poets”, to late ’60s Sheffield.  So here, entirely without their permission, never mind the defunct uni literary magazine Arrows in which they first appeared, and probably for the first time ever on the interweb, are some samples of their work.  First off, a couple from Geoff Hill, who is not to be confused with the fuller-named prize-winning poet – Geoffrey Hill – who, to tell the truth, I’ve never really ‘got’.  here’s Geoff:


went to a
poetry meeting

saw some idiot
walking down
the street

a pointed hat
for god’s sake

he said it was
a megaphone
for crying out loud

The second one from Geoff goes under a title that means nothing to me.  Presumably he doesn’t mean the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Not that it matters much now, I suppose:

PRB – Careful now

I wish I’d been a plumber’s mate
said Einstein going green
It’s not so much the stars he said
as the              in between.

The             in between!  I said
falling headlong from my bike -
Ignore what I said & just mind your head
said the sage & then do what you like.

I picked up my velocipede
for my wheels were fast getting blunt
and I pulled my third way of thinking
and fitted it on the front.

(I secretly suspected my saddlebag
but not liking to think it showed)
I got back on my bike & did what I like
existentially down the road.

Here’s one of John Brown‘s shorter pieces:


Yesterday the police penetrated my inner sanctum
They found traces of Thursday all over the room
One of them bought me a strawberry milk shake
I am not sure yet what the charges will be
in the meantime
Do nothing till you hear from me.

The quartet of Anti-poems from Pete Roche got a mixed reception, especially the fourth one, the one I consider the best, in as much as the mostly younger members of the audience didn’t seem to know much about the French Revolution.  Anyway, here they are, in their entirety, again:


I.  Now remember, men, cried Harold
rallying his forces,
keep an eye out for
Norman arrows.

II.  On the other hand,
said Esau,
licking his lips,
It was an extremely tasty
mess of pottage
and a fairly crummy

III.  So I said to Newton,
See here, Isaac, I said,
You don’t seem to appreciate
the gravity of the situation.
Just a minute, he said, let me
write that down.

IV.  If I told Marat once,
I told him a hundred times
not to leave
his bathroom door

And finally, another short one, this time from Neil Spencer.  The new library overlooked a lake if you sat in the right seat.  Younger readers may like to know that in olden days ‘bread’ was a street synonym for money.  If someone said, ‘I’m clean out of bread, man,’ it meant the sayer did not have the wherewithal to purchase a loaf.  This poem displays one of William Empson’s Seven types of ambiguity:

Library poem

On the lake there’s a duck
who doesn’t give a fuck.
I feel at least
I have some affinity with this beast.
His main concern is bread -
mine too.  And my head
is beginning to feel like a beak.

I also did a couple of poems from a National Union of Railwaymen sponsored volume of poetry (oh yes!) by Joe Smythe – The people’s road – that I’ll be returning to in another post when the time comes.

Later that same week

 10609573_1569574763266157_8340443137440789755_nCock & Bull 12And so to the twelfth Cock & Bull Beer Festival in York House.   And another splendid selection of ales to imbibe in good company.  Wasn’t expecting to come away singing the praises of two dark beers, but Banks & Taylor’s Plum Mild did indeed have a plum aroma and all sorts of flavours on the palate – like an interesting Mackeson, while Nethergate’s Umbel Magna – “a 1750’s porter containing coriander in the 20th century” it says here – was interesting and a lot stronger at 5%; I chickened out of the 6% Nelson’s Blood.  At the hoppier end, where I usually linger, nothing threatened to challenge and old favourite, retained from previous fests, Great Oakley’s Tiffield Thunderbolt.

Some decent word- and tune-smithery too in the bill put together by The Hoodwink Elixir in the performance room.  Headliner Ash Dickinson – introducing himself as “the Axl Rose of [something or other (I didn't catch the full version)]” – closed the night with a storming set.  If you want a taste try this link (click on the underlining) for his 3-minute distillation of the original Star Wars movie (which I think I might have seen once on telly a few years ago, but you only need the vaguest of ideas to pick up on it).  Great performance poetry from a very funny man who gives twisted motor-mouthery a good name.  Nor can there be a more homely workout on the ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ riff.  Here’s a link to his website.

And on the Sunday

10689790_742737892472277_2337618451845514934_nA good crowd and some fine music at the AORTAS open mic at The Old George, distinguished this time around by a rare outing for a diminished (in number, if not invention) Sucettes and an energetic solo set from Mark Owen as well as the usual excellences. (I know, how can I possibly take Naomi Rose for granted?).  Heated discussion with Mr Hobbs as to how many Abba songs were worth a single Beatles one; not helped as far as Mark and I were concerned by his plucking Hey Jude out of the air as an example.  Apples and oranges, but still, how can you deny the merits of Dancing queen or Fernando.  Something I never dreamed I would be saying thirty years ago.

Not forgetting a book

If it wasn’t for the Book Group I would hardly have looked at Roma Tearne‘s Bone china (Harper, 2008) because it’s just not my kind of book.  But I gave it a go because of the Group.  I should have given it up when it is revealed jealous sister Myrtle used magic to do bad things to her sister’s family and no-one says it’s just a coincidence when bad things do indeed happen.  Karma gets a few un-ironic mentions too.  But I have to admit I was just about curious enough to see how things transpired and in the end I got so far I thought I might as well finish it.  It was easy enough to read.

Bone china is the tale of the decline and dispersal of three generations of a once privileged Tamil family in the wake of Ceylon becoming independent Sri Lanka.  As such I learnt something about that country’s history, but as a novel it’s all over the place.  The title comes from a family heirloom that makes it over to Brixton when three brothers (generation 2 – a drudge, a wannabe poet who turns into a drudge, a communist) all make their ways to the UK in the ’60s (they drink Guinness), where Anna-Meeka (generation 3) eventually achieves something, makes some sort of sense of it all, by composing a piece of classical music.  As a family chronicle of troubled times, of civil unrest, of emigration, it ticks all the thematic boxes – Romeo & Juliet episodes, betrayed optimism, being in the wrong place at the wrong time in a riot, all sorts of injustice, family tensions, the half-caste narrative card is played – it’s all a bit melodramatic, precious and, at times, creakingly laboured.  That Meeka as teenage rebel appears to be untouched by the Beatles and popular culture at school, while adopting the local English patois that so pisses off her parents, seems unlikely.  The author has some fun (at least I hope it’s fun) at middle son’s youthful poetic ambitions and younger son’s political engagement in the UK, while the women are the strongest characters – matriarch Grace, who stays in Sri Lanka, and Meeka’s mum in particular – but the grief of tragic concert pianist Alicia just seems to go pathologically on forever.  It’s all very sad.  As I said, it’s not my kind of book at the best of times, so I’ll leave it at that.  Jasper – the talking mynah bird in Sri Lanka – is my favourite, though he too comes to a wretched end.

Dr Who

Liking Capaldi a lot, but that’s almost a side issue.  I think I’m falling in love with Gemma Coleman.

Abattoir blues

Abattoir bluesIt was a bold statement of promise and intent when the producers chose to open each episode of the first series of Peaky Blinders – a brutal many-layered gangster epic rivetingly set in Birmingham (the UK one)  just after the Great War – with something as powerful as Nick Cave‘s Red right hand (Here’s one YouTube link to the song, with a hint of the show’s atmospherics).  It meant the show had an awful lot to live up to; and deliver it did.

This is not the first time Peter Robinson has used a song title for one of his books, but in choosing Nick Cave‘s – that man again – Abattoir blues for this, the 22nd in the sequence (Hodder, 2014), he has considerably upped the ante.  (Here’s a YouTube link to a stunning live version from Later … with the added bonus of some of Cave’s interesting dance moves).  Cave was dealing in metaphor but in the latest DCI Banks novel, vegetarian Annie Cabot literally has to do the rounds of the North Yorkshire abattoirs at a crucial stage in the investigation into large-scale organised rural crime.  Even so, though he’s no Nick Cave, I think Peter Robinson has just about pulled it off – it gets pretty grim – so I’m not going to complain about that.

While there’s no denying that Banks is still an engaging character, nor that Robinson continues to be a master at building and driving a crime narrative forward to a conclusion – no little things! – a few things do give me pause.  There are thrills still to be had for sure as the case unfolds, and the climax of this one certainly breaks new ground.  (These cops never learn though, do they?  Going in on their own, not waiting for back-up.  Exciting, nevertheless, but where would crime fiction – especially on tv – be without it?)  And Abattoir blues boasts the usual strong supporting cast, good guys and gals and bad, too.

Interestingly, Robinson fudges any resolution of the inevitable retirement-of-main-character dilemma that must come to any long-running crime series and which did feature strongly in the previous book.  I’m not sure he knows where he’s going to take Banks next.  The new girlfriend, again from the previous novel, is ongoing but absent working in Australia.  The solitude he used to crave threatens to turn into loneliness, a problem also for at least two of the three women on his team (there is a bloke but he’s fairly peripheral apart from a running joke about him looking like Harry Potter).  Melancholia is reflected also in the more than usual references back to earlier times, cases and loves.  Not that I’m saying this is necessarily a bad thing.

But I’m beginning to think that Robinson is losing his way with Annie Cabot, even if it is suggested – there is one particularly alive passage of dialogue between her and Banks – she’s getting her mojo back after the traumas of the book before the previous one.  I think he’s wasting her background – grew up in a hippy artist’s commune – and for all her rebelling against it, there should be more of that coming out in her now.  She should be more interesting culturally than she is here – trashy magazines, indeed.  Granted Robinson is up against the interest her character in the tv series has generated independently.  An awful lot of the traffic here at Lillabullero comes because of the increasingly systematic treatment given to the DCI Banks sequence of novels.  (Click on the underlined words for a link).  And a lot of that comes about because of Annie on the telly – a great performance from Andrea Lowe, by the way – where the whole chronology has been changed.  I’ve had a query from someone asking, “What happened to Annie’s baby?” – and I can’t remember what happened in the relevant book (if at all).  If anyone can, please let me know.  I suspect Robinson has had the same enquiries.  Or is it just coincidence that near the end of the book she’s helping get the drinks in, in the Queens Arms, and Bobby Vee’s Take good care of my baby starts playing; otherwise, the babe is not mentioned in Abattoir blues.

Other continuities: moderate drinking, more leftish politics, still plenty of music (including joking about prog rock and U2) and Banks is still reading Patrick Hamilton.  More CSI and police procedural, less the maverick.  More physical description of the landscape than of late as well.  (More details and listings can be found on the aforesaid detailed breakdown.)

And Robinson is still no great prose stylist and I found too many longeurs – padding – creeping in, though I’ll admit the attention I bring to his novels these days may be getting the better of me in the entertainment stakes.  Even the opening sentence worried me.  Isn’t “the hangar looming ahead of him” better than “Terry Gilchrist came out of the woods opposite the large hangar, which loomed ahead of him like a storage area for crashed alien spaceships in New Mexico,” never mind the appositeness of ‘opposite’.  Do we really need a short disquisition on the economic difficulties of rural pubs, or the problem with vague alibis, and how many more women can have “shapely figures“?  One that really jarred: when a woman reacts to being addressed as ‘My dear’, she gives the guilty party “a daggers-drawn look at the sexist endearment“; does it need to be spelt out, do we really need that ‘sexist’?  And one despairs at “Rumour had it she had more shoes than Imelda Marcos.”

I’m not saying never mind, but I am still looking forward to the next book.




GatheringIf it hadn’t been for the Book Group I wouldn’t have read Anne Enright‘s The gathering (2007).  But that is one of the good things that spring from being in a book group.  The gathering comes from a time when I would blithely boast that I was ‘allergic to Booker prize winners.’  Style over substance, obviously, on my part,  brought on by the experience of a couple of naff books, no doubt; but I still think, as a rhetorical flourish, it has a nice ring to it.  That, and the false impression given at the time that The gathering was – well it is, but it’s so much more – was depressing, an unremitting journey through misery, and who needs that?  It’s not a big book – 272 pages in the Vintage paperback edition – but in skimming back through it before the Book Group meeting I was reminded (I’d read it quickly, well before the meeting) just how much there was to it, as it to’s and fro’s and surmises over events in the life of three generations of an Irish family in the twentieth century.  Devastating as it is, I’m going to buy myself a copy and read it again soon; for me The gathering is one of those.

One of the great things about the novel as a literary form is that it can take you to new places (and I don’t mean exotic locations).  Veronica is, on the surface, a comfortably off wife and mother of two girls.  One of 12 children – a matter of resentment in itself – it falls to her to pick up the bureaucratic pieces of identification and getting back to Ireland for the funeral, the body of her brother Liam, the troubled and troubling alcoholic black sheep of the family, the sibling she was closest to, from Brighton, where he has walked one day, pockets laden with stones, into the sea.  The gathering of the title is Liam’s wake, and a fine family affair that turns out to be.  Veronica’s grief, her need to understand what happened – going back to abuse in her grand-parents’ generation – and her own implied situation, lead her into what is effectively a breakdown, an intense objectivity and paralysis of will.  Think Doris Lessing at her bleakest, but delivered with the pen of a poet and a sense of humour.

So what we have here is not so much literature-as-therapy for the author – though it feels like it – but a novel cast as therapy, the narrator’s (her character’s) charting of her way out of the pit she has found herself in.  And because of the intelligence at play, the desolation is illuminated with an acuity of observation that is tinged with a remote, saving wit.  It’s a bracing experience, a beautifully written tour de force, that also explores the validity of memory as an act of imagination,  received family history and the nature of causation in a life’s path.  Hence, early on: “Just like that.  With a sweep of his arm, Charlie has changed the maths of it – of his future and of my past.”

It’s very Irish – not least in the business of familyto say which takes away nothing.  To move from a semi-rural Ireland, which felt timeless, to the squalid London squat of the early ’70s where Liam was living; to move from an Ireland so often seen on page and screen to somewhere I recognised as real, somewhere I had been and witnessed (just visiting, you understand) was shocking.  Suddenly it all gets very vivid, very real.  Veronica, just up at uni, looking for a summer job, stayed only briefly:

waiting for some distant gear to catch and move my life along. I believe , now, that I could have been lost. Just then – not that I am, these days, in any way found, but I think if my life had stalled there, I would have been lost in a more disastrous way.

But Liam was already lost.  How and why are a crucial strand of the novel.  Only a few years earlier they had been close:

I was sixteen and I knew nothing at all about sex. Isn’t that strange? Whatever I knew of the mechanics of it was not available to me, somehow. I did not know how these things went. It seems that the years of my adolescence were years of increasing innocence, because by sixteen I was completely passionate and completely pure. We would all become poets, I thought, we would love mightily, and Liam, in his anger, would change the world.

In Brighton, after choosing a casket, she walks the prom and then:

I look at my hands on the railings, and they are old, and my child-battered body, that I was proud of, in a way, for the new people that came out of it, just feeding the grave, just feeding the grave! I want to shout it at these strangers, as they pass. I want to call for an end to procreation with a sandwich board and a megaphone …

Back in Ireland, after the funeral, she exiles herself in their own home from her husband, whom she attests she loves, for weeks, lives nocturnally, driving to old destinations, or just for the sake of it:

And, yes, sometimes I look at my nice walls and, like Liam, I say, ‘Pull the whole thing down.’ Especially after my nice bottle of nice Riesling. As if the world was built on a lie and that lie was very secret and very dirty.

There is a saving, surprise, development.  She can look back at herself at the funeral:

There I am, sitting on a church bench in my own meat: paid, used, loved, and very lonely.

Now there’s a phrase to linger over: “in my own meat.”  Here’s another, that Veronica imagines into thoughts of Lambert Nugent, the bad guy at the heart of the piece, towards the end of the 1920s: “He looks at his small table – the broken brakes of the Bullnose Morris, beautiful as a picture of apples in the moonlight.”  Anne Enright is an extraordinary writer.

HattersAnd now for something completely different ...

The gatherings in Daniel Gray‘s quirky travelogue, Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: travels through England’s football provinces (Bloomsbury, 2013) are, you might have guessed by now, the crowds at football matches.  After 10 years in Scottish exile and approaching the dreaded 30, this Yorkshireman was missing the England he remembered, or at least was nostalgic for what he thought of as England, and wanted to see if it was still there.  Some of the time it feels like a nostalgia for a nostalgia, but it’s still a valid concept to journey, in 2011 and 2012, the length and breadth of the land, to spend time in the towns and go to a home match of teams at top or bottom of all 5 leagues in 1981, the year he was born.

He wisely ducks top of the old Division 1 because he not interested in the moneybags and international brands of the perpetual Premiership frontrunners, rather he wants to celebrate parochialism, to test the weather in  towns where people can still identify with their team, whose lives might still be in some way defined by said association, a means of drawing communities together.  Places where – and here comes a wonderful neologism – “Sky and the Hornbyfication of football never really happened” …

One of the subjective tools of judgment I bring to a book I’m reading is whether or not I’d fancy sharing a pint or two with its writer.  Reading Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters it feels like I already have.  Discursive, witty, sentimental, observant, Daniel Gray is an entertaining companion.  While not, it has to be said, averse to the odd cliché – DNA, ‘beloved’ – when he’s in pain you feel it too.  So when he excuses some fresh gem with, “This may seem like needlessly parochial information born of petulance, and to an extent it is” I’m happy for him.  Those at a match watching a particularly tedious sequence of head tennis in midfield are described as behaving like, “a tennis crowd only with more use of the word shite.”  In  Ipswich’s Christchurch Mansion: “The scent is overwhelmingly evocative – fusty books, thick varnish and Worcester sauce. Perhaps the shop is burning Olde English-scented joss sticks.”  At Chester, “The match has become like background music so, before Leyton paranoia or Vicarage Road existentialism set in, I tune my radar to two men arguing about socks.”

Before and after the match he wanders the streets of the towns giving us a glimpse of things seen and heard, while usefully imparting a fair amount of local social history – I never knew Luton Town Hall was burnt down in the course of a riot protesting the treatment of returning (and non-returning) soldiers’ families in 1919, for example – and establishing the club’s context.  When it comes to the actual football he establishes a nice generalising distance by studiously avoiding naming players and staff involved in the game (hey! that’s Nick Powell, I spot), though he does acknowledge club legends and, best of all, giving local heroes their due.  Sheffield is the biggest place on his schedule and I’ll happily go along with poetry, Pulp, Chartism and the Chip Butty Song; the football history and the match are a bonus.  We learn that, “More Benedictine is sold in Burnley Miners Club than anywhere else on earth” – another take of what he calls as ‘War Memorial England’ with varying warmth, the taste picked up by the East Lancashire Regiment in the Great War.  Gray’s travels range from Carlisle to Newquay, from Chester ( a club owned by its fans) and Crewe to Ipswich.  Hinckley United, by the way, are The Knitters.

On the whole, despite being disheartened at times by “part of a New England that depresses me: angry, intolerant England” and the vitriol and lack of humour (particularly towards referees) in parts of the crowd – a vicious Elton John song adopted at Luton particularly gets to him – he remains optimistic: the England he misses is more or less there, he says, and trad community football values and the match day experience still have the potential for unity.  If the ‘genius’ of English football is that “It breeds belonging in an uncertain world,” then maybe this would be even more the case – Gray leaves it unsaid – if some decent footballers were to emerge from within the Muslim community pretty soon.  Whether those left cold by the idea 22 men kicking a ball about on will be persuaded remains open to question; but then they are unlikely to read it anyway.  In his defence I would submit the way it felt very recently to be alive in Milton Keynes on this particular morning after:

MK Dons 4

A final gathering worthy of mention, though it’s been a while now but not to be overlooked – Hellzaboppin’ at the White Horse in Stony a week last Saturday.  Live jump jive with a little dash of soul on the side (Ray Charles’ Busted), to make the notion of heaven an irrelevance.  Lazy rhetoric I know, but what can you do?

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.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 153 other followers

%d bloggers like this: