… 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.
My 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.



MK IFMK Fringe













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

Vaulted skyUnder the vaulted sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 The breathing room

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

20140719_19 Breathing room

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

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

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

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

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

Breathing election

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

Fous de Bassin

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

Single dreamerWe’re all going on a statue hunt.

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

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

Music maestro please

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

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

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

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

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

Dreamers 3

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

Dreamers 5

Double yolks framed

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to build a girlWolvo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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