Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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.

BeautyWoolverhamtun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to build a girlWolvo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Atwood - Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiennes - Music roomThe music room

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

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

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

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

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

Further musical and other non-book based adventures

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

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

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

Photo filched from the MKG website.

Photo filched from MKG’s good-looking website.

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

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

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

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

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

(c) JJE (but mucked about a bit)

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

Obrigado

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

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

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

Metronomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South RidingEarly on in proceedings, Mrs Beddows, one of the bedrock heroes of Winifred Holtby‘s South Riding: an English landscape (1936) offers as an excuse for a small indulgence in the evening that she’s been “wrestling all day with fallen girls and upstanding bishops.”  Looking back from the mid-2010s it’s hard (sorry) not to see innuendo there, the sort of line that would have had them in stitches at the very music halls that characters in the novel (and, I infer, the author) are a bit sniffy about.  While not being entirely dismissive, Winifred Holtby does seem to distrust and struggle in trying, unlike her contemporary, George Orwell, to come to terms with popular culture.  Even taking into account the shifting perspectives she allows us there’s a hectoring, improving tone creeps into the writing that threatens at times – though only threatens – to take away from one’s appreciation and enjoyment of a novel that approaches greatness at others.

All things being equal I doubt I would ever have read South Riding if it hadn’t been for the Reading Group I’m in.  So hurrah for reading groups.  While we were split on the likelihood of the big romantic twist in the plot – déjà vu to that same unconvincing (or me at least) moment in the telly adaptation a few years back – everybody liked Mrs Beddows, the elder confidante of both parties:

Accustomed to take the bad with the good in this world and having wide experience of both commodities, Mrs Beddows wasted no undue sympathy. Some people, she would say, are so full of the milk of human kindness that it slops over and messes everything.

What we have here is a panoramic picture of a Yorkshire community in the mid-1930s, of decision-making public and private,  in a period of great change, seen mostly through the eyes of Sarah, the hometown gal made good returning as the progressive headmistress of the local Girls’ High School, and variously aligned local government politicians and some of the people they serve or supposedly represent.  As a portrait of the way things were, you get the feeling that that was precisely how it was.  But it’s more than just a period piece: the questions it examines – class, poverty, responsibility, sacrifice, redemption, hypocrisy, change for who? – still resonate freshly from its pages.

There’s a large cast (and thankfully – authors and editors please note – a list of Characters in order of appearance 6 pages long) with representatives drawn from a broad social spectrum.  The cynic might say all the category boxes are ticked but that’s just not fair, such is the power of Winifred Holtby‘s sympathetic imagination.  Her great strength is in the gradual (but in effect dramatic) uncovering of what makes her conflicting major players tick.  Even Snaith, the scheming capitalist bastard of the piece is given his light as a moderniser (a plan for ‘A New Jerusalem’ bringing indoor toilets to the people that he gets passed with  the help of a compromised Socialist) while his empty personal life hints of a suppressed homosexuality.  Indeed, in a novel that appeared early in the Virago imprint’s distinctive green covered mission rescuing feminist classics from out-of-print oblivion, I can only think of two characters who are given no saving graces; both are middle class women whose idea of fulfilment is their dependent marriage status, or achieving it.

So … time and place beautifully evoked, vivid characterisation and character development, a decent plot.  This is a good if old-fashioned novel – compassionate, wise and looking for a better way.  Many stories are told here, but – forgive me – I’m going to take Sarah Burton, the headmistress and central character, for granted here.  She wears it well, fights a good fight, has her doubts – a bit dated, those, actually – but sees it through.

Winifred Holtby at BrigueWhat I want to talk about is the passage towards the end of South Riding  that is so fine, so powerful and resonant, I feared it would undercut whatever happened after it – like that duet in Bizet’s opera The pearl fishers after which everything is just going through the motions, seeing the evening out – but life goes on and Holtby carries the story through to the end well enough.  The horse ride that leads to the ultimate demise (oh, sorry – spoiler alert) of Robert Carne, the sporting gentleman farmer who married the Lord’s rebellious but unstable daughter, the slow reveal of the full tragedy of how his love, passion and care for her (never mind changing economic circumstances) set him on a path to ruin is a tour de force indeed.

If Carne is a man who stands for tradition, who instinctively feels and cares for the land and ‘his’ people, the modern world has a double whammy for him; there’s the new rampant capitalism and materialism, and, my concern here, its opposition in the form of the Socialist Astell, another finely nuanced character, who thinks and cares for ‘his':

Queer, thought Carne. Socialist chaps like Astell think it’s us employers who grudge the unemployed their dole; but it’s the old workers, like Castle, who are far harder on them.

Astell’s commitment and idealism is never doubted – he is no comic character, has a back story to prove it – but he’s still a bit of a prig: “The traditional humour of the poor angered Astell. He felt humour to be an inappropriate emotion.”  Of the working class at leisure he thinks, “They moved to a rhythm without reason …” but you have to sympathise with him when he observes, “You begin by thinking in terms of world revolution and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm”.  Yup, so it goes.

Three more things I feel the need to mention.  Firstly, and irrelevantly really, in the character of young Lydia, an intelligent child trapped in poverty but whose “mind ranged free through moonlit Athenian forests” reading a book atop her family’s railway carriage home I kept getting glimpses of a young Caitlin Moran.  Secondly, a reminder of how far we’ve come in the UK – in the report of the local Watch Committee’s interference with the books in the public library – that someone with power can get away with

… Aldous Huxley was “a disgusting pervert,” Virginia Woolf a “morbid degenerate” and Naomi Mitchison “not fit for a lunatic asylum.” “No. I’ve not read it all through, but I know enough,” was his favourite condemnation.

And thirdly, made an issue here most might say unfairly and rather gratuitously, here’s some of the worst writing about football I’ve ever found in any novel of quality otherwise thoroughly decent prose (unless anyone knows better):

… on the Saturday evening after the gigantic victory of the Kingsport Rovers over the West Riding Wanderers and the city was en fête. […] After that glorious contest in the mud … after that last goal shot just before the whistle blew …

Enough.  Though it doesn’t have its intellectual clout – nor a hint of a Casaubon – with its close examination of how a community works and fits together, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, is often cited in connection with South Riding.  It is certainly a major work of its time and I’d say it’s to be regretted very few novels even attempt this kind of big picture in mainstream quality fiction these days.  Of late I can only think of Philip Hensher’s ambitious try with The northern clemency and, for all its faults, J.K.Rowling’s post-Potter The casual vacancy.  It’s an abdication that has been left for crime fiction to pick up, in the work of writers like Ian Rankin.

Dark entriesSpeaking of whom …

Dark entries: a John Constantine novel (2009), a small format black and white graphic novel in DC’s Vertigo Crime series, scripted by said Ian Rankin, looked to have a lot going for it, both because of Rankin’s involvement and because it’s John Constantine, who I first encountered in an intriguing comic called Hellblazer during a lengthy post-Watchman comic binge.  It’s worth checking out Constantine’s Wikipedia entry for a fascinating over-view of the fictional career of this “working class magician, occult detective and con man” and his dry wit.  I never realised he was originally (yet another) Alan Moore creation; such is Constantine’s stature that some of the best comic book creators have leant their talents over the years to his ongoing story.

Sadly if this had been a blind reading … no, let’s re-phrase that: if I had read Dark entries without knowing of Ian Rankin‘s involvement I never would have guessed it.  And I’m afraid I was unenamoured of Werther Dell’Edera’s artwork, which had me regularly confused as to what was actually going on or to who.  Set in ‘Anytown’ (but a town with the London Transport broad horizontal line through the circle) it starts off with JC being conned into entering a big brother style reality tv house with added hauntedness.  As you’d expect, Rankin’s cynicism is to the fore in the establishing scenes.  The ‘reality’ turns out to be very different as the perceived landscape switches to one inhabited by the denizens of hell.  Don’t know about the chronology, so this might have been a fore-runner, but the reality tv horror scenario is pretty much a well established sub-genre by now, is it not?  The white bordered pages turn to black – actually rather effectively – with this revelation, but it’s just yer standard stuff of horror fantasy, which has never been my bag.  Pity, but putting Dark entries out under the Vertigo Crime logo is a bit of a misnomer.

Music Hall encounters & whatever the collective noun for songwriters is …

Sand dance

Photo (c) Ken ‘Danny Boy’ Daniels but mucked about a bit by Lillabullero

Friday night and we have monologues, melodrama and a sand dance as just some of the ingredients that went to make up Stony Music Hall 2! at York House.  Throw in Swannders & Flan, Pat as the Stony nightingale, and some clog from the same couple of Stony Steppers – out of the folky streets and onto the stage, an early staple of the Halls – with the irrepressible Bubbles closing proceedings and a fine frolicsome and fun night was had by all.  Bubbles chose songs that were directly relevant, or were popular at the time, to the First World War and it was a strange feeling to be singing along to “Come on along / Come on along / and join Lord Kitchener’s army” to the Lord Kitchener featured on 'British Army War Song Album' of WWI, 1914-18 (colour litho)tune of Alexander’s Ragtime BandPack up your troubles morphed into It’s a long way to Tipperary (or vice versa).  The deliciously delivered Spotted dick song is a perfect example of the sort of thing that made the South Riding progressives so uneasy:

We’re having a bit tonight, tonight, we’re having a bit tonight.
Me mother says I must be quick to get me bit o’ spotted dick.
I loves me roly-poly. It fills me with delight.
I haven’t had any since Christmas, but we’re having a bit tonight.

Boom, boom.  All ending with an ensemble Daisy, Daisy.  Another fine evening’s entertainment, not forgetting the Great Oakley brewery’s Welland Mild and our impressive, ineluctable, ixistential impresario – thanks Ken.

Sunday night the fruits of the latest AORTAS Songwriting Workshop (Association for Oral Traditions and AortasSongwriting, no less, if you’re wondering) are delivered to market at the Old George.  And a fine and varied night of infectious music and fellowship it was too.  It would be invidious to single out specific performers on the night.  They obviously had a grand time in what must have been difficult circumstances – an enforced last-minute change of workshop venue – though judging from his FB post, by the end of the night Dan must have felt a long distance away from the earlier desperation; Dan and confrères dared and won.  Mr Plews’ Death wore a gaberdine raincoat is my current earworm and no bad thing for that.  (You can also find his lovely Hearts and books at that link too, booklovers).

There’s a poem I do called The lamb’s last gambol that contains two of what I think are my finest lines:

Yes, I’ll admit I trainspotted
in the boys’ time allotted

These lines are followed by another two that usually get some sort of reaction:

British Railways then,
What a crazy scene!

Main line diesel locomotivesThis could certainly be considered as an example of at least one of William Empson‘s Seven types of ambiguity because you’ve obviously got the beatnik jive going on (it’s the way I tell it) but when you consider the Modernisation Plan of 1955 that I was trainspotting in the wake of – some of my slightly earlier contemporaries were in denial about the evil diesel locomotive, but it was an added attraction for progressives like me – it really was crazy.  Or as John Vaughan puts it in The rise and fall of British Railways main line diesel locomotives (Haynes, 2011), what was going on was “an appalling waste of taxpayers’ money” and “a truly national scandal.”  But it sure gave us an interesting time with the variety it briefly brought about.  Having slagged off the Modernisation Plan he then nostalgises that “the halcyon days have gone forever,” but that is par for the railway enthusiast’s sentimentalist course.  He also moans about, I kid you not (page 11), the “present obsession with ‘global warming’ “ (and probably voted UKIP).

Railway literature is a strange beast mostly sold on the back of the photographs.  I’m still a bit of a sucker for plenty of them.  There are lots of here, many as tedious as they can often be.  The standard 45° on or flat side diesel locomotive portrait (which is usually, to confuse matters, landscape in orientation) is a bit of a bore and of interest only to the enthusiast unless taken from low down in interesting light conditions which add a bit of drama.  The ‘classic’ era on display here came a bit too early for decent cheap colour photography so colour pictures of the early attractive variants of British Railways green liveries are few and far between anywhere, as opposed to the nothing corporate blue that was later adopted before privatisation, like that on the cover.  (In passing I’ll just say for what it’s worth that I think it a shame that Bring Back British Rail, the campaign to re-nationalise the railways (which I support) have adopted that ‘swinging’ late era ‘modern’ two-way arrow logo design.)

20084

(c) John Vaughan but here shamelessly scanned intending nothing but praise.

To his credit some of the most interesting and best photos in the book are the author’s own.  By which I mean, in contradiction really to the book’s intentions, those which are not reliant on a full locomotive shot for their power or charm, informal photos full of contrast, of casual railway scenes, or of trains in a landscape.

The tale the book tells is a fascinating one if you are that way inclined – the late adoption of diesel technology in the UK and the earliest prototypes, though the text is mostly of specialist interest only: horse-power, engine design, weight, bogies, a detailed history of modifications and where they hung out and all that.  Some of it still made sense to me but it is hard not to be tipped over into the easy mockery that is the usual to be aimed at hardcore railway enthusiasts.  But really they bring it on themselves.  Consider the increasingly ecstatic language taken from three different photo captions: “Note the lovely gantry of semaphore signals …“; and “a wonderful semaphore oasis”; “Thirteen lower quadrant semaphore signals may be unlucky for some but for the railway enthusiast they are a sheer delight”  [my emphases].  That’s semaphore signals for you.  You could say it’s all relative.  But, oh delicious, delightful and de-loverly, you could not make this photo caption, describing what was basically a windowless carriage on motorised wheels, up:

Defining a ‘diesel locomotive’, especially a ‘main line’ example, is not necessarily straightforward. In pure dictionary terms a locomotive is ‘endowed with power and capable of moving under its own power from place to place, an engine which draws trains along a railway.’ This lovely old diesel parcels car would not pass the enthusiasts’ perception of a locomotive, but when caught on film near Iver, Buckinghamshire, in 1979 it was certainly ‘drawing a train’! This delightful parcels working is seen on the down slow lines heading towards Reading. The unit and the two wooden-bodied four-wheeled ex-Southern railway (SR) utility vans would soon become a thing of the past, being vacuum-braked and restricted to 60 mph.

Enough.  It’s mostly harmless.

10000 prototype

I have to admit I reckon these, the first UK post-war prototypes, are handsome beasts. From an official British Railways publicity photo that appears in Vaughan’s book.

One last thing before we de-train.  What I was saying about railway photography and the best being railway scenes.  Here’s one I took a few years ago on the preserved Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway in the Lake District that I was quite pleased with.  A Birmingham RCW Class 26 diesel, D5301, restored in original green livery, and crucially, without the statutory yellow warning panel – health and safety gone mad – that destroyed the looks of many a diesel locomotive soon after their widespread introduction.

Lakes D5301 2005

(c) Lillabullero

 

Tanya Kingham

Tanya taking one of those significant pauses in an aria while Pat films her for posterity. At what it says on the t-shirt.

And before we go, tra-la …

A quick musical report, Lillabullero having fallen weeks behind in giving a nod to performances worthy of a mention in despatches.  Sad to say there was the first time in living memory I’ve got up at a ceilidh.  Managed two out of four in this musical equivalent of circuit training; would have been more if I’d taken me inhaler (and more by two than young Michael, whose excuse was having fallen down the stairs earlier in the day).  Happy birthday Isabel.  Happily caught the ever improving Last Quarter twice in a week.  First at May 14 ScribalYorkieFest 2014the May Scribal Gathering where we also had an extended greatest hits set from wordster and wit Stephen Hobbs, this year’s Stony Bard Phil Chippendale bardolating, and the saucy Sucettes with a couple of tunes.  And then more from the Quarter at AORTAS’s Sunday at the Old George where ItwasTMHobbsA too, and we were graced with new songs from the fragrant Naomi Rose including one with the killer punch line “a piece of the wonderful” … which was wonderful.  In between those two gigs came the all-dayer last Saturday of the worthy YorkieFest bash at York House.  A veritable all-sorts upstairs and down.  Same as last year, the experience of a trained soprano in a low-ceilinged room was awesome (word reclamation time); shame so few were there so early in the day to hear Tanya Kingham.  Someone complained they heard three different versions of Hotel California during the day downstairs, but the covers band that really hit the spot was Second Hand Grenade whose funk and soul attack injected some energy in the afternoon, including getting away with two Stevie Wonder numbers without a keyboard in sight; played that funky music, white boys and great voiced gal.  Upstairs the poets and the purveyors of original song ruled.  Rousing, lively country tinged stuff from the massed ranks of anotherRichard Frost in a dress of The Antipoets’ involvements, The Caution Horses.  But I had to miss the end of The Antpoet strutting their usual brilliant stuff (and their other fine affiliates, Dodo Bones) for the Cup Final, which this year proved to be worth the sacrifice.  Finally.  So pleased for Arsene Wenger; and what can you say about Aaron Ramsey except poetry in motion (that Charlie George heritage celebration a rhyme of its own).  And back to York House for a lovely bitter sweet set from Glass Tears, nicely augmented by percussionist for all seasons Stu’s bongo-ing in the background.  Glass Tears always throw in some interesting – not covers, but crucially – interpretations of songs worth interpreting (though they didn’t do it on the night, Phil Collins’ In the air tonight will never sound the same for me again).  And so Richard Frost brought proceedings upstairs to a close poetizing in a skirt.

Mystery manSunday_Philosophy_Club

The opening titles of two eccentric crime fiction series that I’d started reading in mid-series; not that they need to be read in sequence, but it can be satisfying if you do.

Apart from being more or less contemporary, inhabiting territory on the fringes of the mainstream genre, being set in the UK but not in England and the fact that I’ve just read them one after the other, there’s not a lot they have in common.  The humour of Alexander McCall Smith‘s The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004) is whimsical – there are no actual meetings of the Sunday Philosophical Club in the book, for example – while the author previously known as Colin Bateman‘s Mystery Man (2009) trades in sharp wit and deadpan belly laughs.  One has the greatest respect for a poet – Auden, or WHA as he’s affectionately referred to  – while the other doesn’t have much time any of ‘em: “… they’re supposed to be a randy bunch, aren’t they? And they’ve so much time on their hands. Poems, I mean, you can knock them out in an hour.”  These are traits that carry through both series.  Here’s probably the one passage you might have trouble placing, concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary (thought I’d better spell that out):

She was intrigued to see devout Catholics cross themselves at the mention of the BVM – and she liked the acronym BVM itself, which made Mary sound so reassuringly modern and competent, like a CEO or an ICBM, or even a BMW.

That’s actually Isabel Dalhousie, Alexander McCall Smith‘s heroine, who is mostly full of propriety but laced with a redeeming quirkiness and a moral imagination that drives the inquisitiveness that makes her – she gets involved in things – an accidental amateur sleuth.  Bateman‘s anti-hero is the owner of the fictional No Alibis crime bookshop – a man with no name – who operates as a private investigator as a sideline, almost a hobby.  Mystery Man tells how this came about (the private investigator next door stopped answering his door and returning phone calls; why becomes part of the plot).

The Sunday Philosophy Club gives us Isabel’s back story – how she was drawn to philosophy and became the editor of the Review of applied ethics, and the nature of her single status – a significant but failed relationship with one of her lecturers that lasted a lot longer than uni.  What surprised me is that her niece, Cat, in this opening book in the series, has already dumped beau Jamie, who is to grow in significance as the novel sequence unfolds.  The tone is set from the start, whereas Mystery Man‘s main man in his opening episode is a bit of a scattergun – if still utterly Batemanesque – experiment.  All the later characteristics are there – the hypochondria, the Twix and diet coke diet, crime fiction bookshop survival, morbid fear of the countryside, und so weiter – but it’s more finely honed in the later books.  His liaison with girlfriend/reluctantly acknowledged partner-in-crimefighting is gleefully introduced here.

Isabel lives in an Edinburgh that is not Ian Rankin’s Rebus’s turf:

Edinburgh, it was said, was built on hypocrisy. It was the city of Hume, the home of the Scottish Enlightenment, but then what had happened? Petty Calvinism had flourished in the nineteenth century and the light had gone elsewhere … And Edinburgh had become synonymous with respectability, and with doing things in the way in which they had always been done. Respectability was such an effort, though, and there were bars and clubs where people might go …

not that she would go to them too often (if at all), while the bookseller-with-no name abides in what we can still just about call post-Troubles Belfast:

This city has changed so much. It used to be divided, now it’s divided into quarters. War zone to gentrification. T.B.Sheets to continental quilts.

And in that T.B.Sheets reference – it has to be a nod to Belfast Boy Van Morrison, even if his song of that title is set in Ladbroke Grove – we see another major difference between the two.  Isabel Dalhousie does not play no rock and roll; some of the serious composers she cites could be fictional for all I know.  Indeed she – and presumably McCall Smith – are a bit sniffy about moral decline and the ’60s and ’70s altogether.  Bateman, on the other hand, pulls off an Agatha Christie-style unmasking of the murderer, by way of a PowerPoint presentation to the assembled interested parties with a soundtrack that includes Talking Heads’ Psychokiller and Elvis Costello’s Watching the detectives.

I’m happy in both their companies, depending on mood.  Isabel’s exploits are entertainingly accompanied by a pretty much stream of consciousness (with no hint of the sub-conscious) of a cultured moral philosopher (and the ethics of pretty much everything) cut with the crossword she’s doing and concerned quality soap opera.  She’s as decent a human being and inventive a sleuth as McCall Smith‘s other great creation – Precious Ramotswe, owner of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – with an intellectual but broad cultural varnish.  Among some of the people who get a mention in The Sunday Philosophy Club are: the aforementioned Auden, Wilhelm Reich, Max and Morris (the very first comic book characters), philosophers Hume and Kant (she’s not a great fan), Jekyll & Hyde, Oor Wullie and his friends Soapy Soutar and Fat Boab (from a Scottish children’s comic), painters Hockney, Hopper and Jack Vettriano, Stanley Spencer, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol (she’s not keen on those last two), and writers Graham Greene, Solzhenitsyn, Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt.   I had fun, but don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Bateman‘s proprietor of No Alibis is relentless in other ways, “… come hell or high water. And with my luck, it would be both.”  The publisher who sets the big case he’s working on in Mystery Man rolling is a publisher, “a producer of decaffeinated coffee table books masquerading as a beleaguered champion of culture.”  In due reverence to the crime genre that earns his keep, he assigns a title to each extra-curricular problem he works on.   The origins of ‘The case of the Dancing Jews’ are back in The Holocaust and it’s quite a story, but really, with both authors, the crime plotting is almost incidental to the fun, the joy in reading, to be had.

[I'm finding it impossible not to quote a piece of graffiti from Mystery Man, one of series of potentially slanderous slogans dotted around Belfast, a minor case that is solved early on in the book but which somehow weaves its way back into the whole shebang.  Well it made me laugh: "Rev. Derek Coates does not believe in transubstantiation."]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 143 other followers

%d bloggers like this: