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Please, Mister Postman

Please mister postmanPlease, Mister Postman (Bantam, 2014) picks up where Alan Johnson‘s award winning childhood memoir, This boy, left off.  Aged 18, the bid for rock and roll stardom thwarted by the theft of his band’s uninsured equipment, he’s about to get married and become a step-father and father in rapid succession.  This volume of his memoirs covers the time he was employed by the Post Office, his life as a postman, his young family’s move out of London and his rise through the trade union hierarchy.  It leaves us with his election to an executive position in the Union of Communications Workers, who will henceforth pay his wages, and an unspectacular divorce as he heads off to pastures new.  It is a fascinating and moving portrayal of a life, and of a way of life, that feels a lot longer gone than it actually is.  Yes, there once were working men, autodidacts, who became active in politics and rose to the highest positions in the land.  And aren’t we suffering for the lack thereof now?  To place the period in another context, this was a time when it was felt that postmen’s livelihoods would be threatened by the fax machine.

There’s a bit of a campaign on the go right now (October 2014) for Johnson to make a return to front bench politics (he’s still a Hull MP), but other than as a very welcome charmer as poster boy and TV face in the forthcoming general election campaign I can’t see it happening, because, to all reports, he looks to be having too good a time, not least with the success of these memoirs.  Very early on in Please, Mister Postman he tells us, “There were, and remain, three great passions in my life – music, books and football“; in the case of the latter, as a lad from west London, it’s QPR.  There was “no defining moment when I became politically active”, and, “Engaging though I found union work, I would define it as an interest, something that added another dimension to my work, not as a passion“; as “a militant moderate” it’s likely an attitude he carried over to affairs of state when the time came – a useful job, not a calling, even if, back when he started speaking at his union’s annual conference: “I liked that buzz [.…] this was as close as I could get to recreating my rock-and-roll years.”  Still a teenager, he’d been writing detective stories and poetry, fruitlessly sending them off to addresses plucked from an out of date Writers & Artists Yearbook: “It seemed to me that every author I’d read about had been through the pain of rejection before achieving literary acclaim, so I saw it as a rung on the ladder to success.”  And here we are.  How long before a CD, even? (Please don’t).

It’s quite a story.  There’s his start in married life living with the in-laws, there’s what happens to sister Linda – young orphaned Alan’s saviour from This boy – and her ultimately tragic first marriage, and there’s the settling of his growing young family on a Slough LCC overspill council estate.  Then there’s his vivid memoir of the working life as a postman, leading to his South Bucks idyll on a rural ‘walk’ – working practises hard to imagine now, that he makes no attempt to excuse but has a lot of fun with – and what union and Labour Party life was like in the time of Thatcher and Militant (ie. not great – nor is the old mod who accessorised his uniform much impressed by scruffy middle class radicals).  All this in an easy conversational style most of the time, laced with a fair amount of self-deprecation:

In the British Legion with Mick and Idris on a Sunday lunchtime I’d drone on about ‘my people’ and declare that I wished to put whatever talents I possessed at the service of the working class. I blush now at this patronizing nonsense but I can’t deny that the idealistic little prick in the tank top and flares was me.

He starts his Post Office career on the early shift at Barnes, following the advice and example of a fellow ex-band buddy:

Andrew cycled to work every day from his parents’ house near White City on an old sit-up-and-beg bike his dad had given him. More often than not, riding Judy’s cutting-edge Moulton, I’d meet him on Hammersmith Bridge in the insulated hush of the early morning. We’d pull our bikes off the road, light a cigarette and lean on the balustrade watching the Thames flow beneath us. It wasn’t exactly Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge, but for us it had its own profundity.

When he and Judy get the chance of a council house of their own in Slough they go on a recce.  At the station they ask two policemen if they know they way to the Britwell Estate: “ ‘Do we know how to get to the Britwell?’ one of them said. ‘We should do, we have to go there often enough.’   But compared with the poverty and violence of the West London he was brought up in, “The Britwell seemed to me to be more Arcadian than anarchic.”  He transfers to Slough Postal District, they settle in nicely with the neighbours, slowly acquire the white goods while enjoying a varied social life when he’s not racking up the overtime.

He speaks engagingly of the camaraderie of the workplace and of particular work colleagues: “My workmates in the sorting office included more lovers of literature than I’ve ever worked among since [my italics].”  He’s turned on to Auden, Yeats, Larkin and the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy.  “In fact Slough sorting office was like a Royal Mail university, such was the erudition of the postmen alongside whom I worked.”

So, yes, it’s good read and a healthy bestseller.  But, briefly, I wish it didn’t make me wonder, yet again, what book editors actually do these days for their money and acknowledgments.  There’s clumsiness and/or factual slippage and/or superfluity in some of the scene setting that the book could well do without, like (my italics):

  • Sergeant Pepper was “the album that had astounded and delighted the world on its release in June.”  Tell me something new.
  • At home, the activist Tariq Ali was leading a student movement to abolish money and abandon capitalism.”  Really?

  • he has a colleague whose ”great hero was the singer Al Bowlly, who had been killed in action during the war.”  In enemy action,  in an air raid on London; if he hadn’t eschewed the offer of accommodation in High Wycombe after a gig he would have missed it.

  • Linda’s new man Chas had “once sung at the famous 2i’s coffee bar in Soho, where British institutions such as Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard had started out.”  Mention skiffle, please, and – if you must – those two, but institutions?  At least he didn’t say ‘national treasures.’

Pedant? – moi?  Anyway, absorbing book by a good man, who was responsible for one of the great Desert Islasnd Discs (though not necessarily for the choice of music).  And – respect – he didn’t have to say this, about the aftermath of a token strike, but he does:

I was at Barnes for only five more months, and in all that time nobody spoke to Ted Philpott. For all I know his isolation lasted until his retirement. I was as guilty as my workmates of inflicting this terrible punishment. I colluded in trying to break a man’s spirit and it’s something I’ve been ashamed of ever since.

Multiple universes: a personal digression

Reading Please, Mister Postman I got this strange feeling; something slightly out of kilter was going on.  It felt a bit spooked, like I was caught in a timeslip.  As if the Tardis needed recalibrating.   No other book has done this to me.  It started when Alan Johnson was explaining the working practicalities of the Xmas post in Slough, where he had moved the very day of the original Stones’ Hyde Park gig:

Entire battalions of casuals, mostly students, were recruited throughout the country. You could hardly cross a sorting-office floor anywhere in Britain without tripping over a sociology graduate from Sheffield University …

Now, that was my university, and my subject – what are the chances of those specifics? – and I did the Christmas post twice in Slough (well, some of the time in the temporary Farnham Royal temporary sub-sorting station).  One magic night I got caught up in the romanticism of meeting the mail train at midnight … but I digress.  Couple of years adrift, then.  I even wrote a poem … another tangent, but wotthehell, archy, wotthehell?:

Incident in a Christmas sorting office,1967

Getting brought down
by a card post-marked
Newton-le-Willows
When you know
she lives in
Chorlton-cum-Hardy

Staying in Sheffield the while, I note Alan and Judy naming their third child Jamie, specifically J-a-m-i-e because it was “from some awful sixties comedy.”  Now Here we go round the mulberry bush (1968) is not a great film, but awful it was not and I can distinctly remember walking back with my mate Neil full of the joys after seeing said film, because somehow its final flourish, with said Jamie jumping with the help of the pole onto the platform of a green double-decker bus as it drove away, captured our momentary optimism, a feeling of liberation even.  (And it Judy Gysin had been in it).

My political consciousness,” says Johnson, “evolved from the books I borrowed from Slough library and … ” some other things which are neither here nor there, here.  My point is that the first library job I applied for was for a post at the old Slough Library, in 1970.  I didn’t get it (in retrospect they did me a great favour) but nevertheless, we’re getting a lot closer to the timelines crossing.

I lived just outside Slough from age 12 to 18, my school was on the edge of the Britwell Estate and one of my routes cycling home was along Long Furlong Drive, where the Johnsons moved to.  The Buddy Holly glasses wearing bass player and the resident musical genius (it’s all relative) in the group I played in – as the sort of Lennon figure, well rhythm guitarist – lived in Britwell and I’m pretty sure our first public performance out of school was tucked away in a corner in the Lynchpin pub – they may have let us have a brown ale – that Alan later regularly drank in.  Only about 5 years out there then.

EgyptFor a few years Johnson was one of Slough’s relief postmen, covering holidays and absences on the regulars’ ‘walks’, as their routes were called, which meant he almost certainly delivered letters at one time or another to all my old school mates’ parents.  Six degrees of separation and all that, eh?  He broke his ankle playing kickabout with his son’s friends on Burnham Beeches, not far no doubt from the accompanying photo (coat from C&A, by the way), taken maybe early ’70s, by which time, I think, he must have been delivering in the area.  Early on in his political awakening he admired Jimmy Reid, specifically the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in – me too, later  – and it was the Stones’ Brown sugar got him out of the kitchen and onto the dance floor at parties.  I feel a connection, and – pathetically or not – feel the better for it.  Cheers, Alan.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Palmerston gigAnother wonderful gig at York House.  Was good to see an extended set from The mighty Antipoet away from a pub setting and hear some obscurities alongside old favourites.  They were new to some of the crowd and the usual combination of dextrous double bass, generous wit, wisdom, scorn and triangle scored mightily again. They give, and they give, and they give.  And then an extended in concert set from the mighty Palmerston, who performed to great acclaim.  Five strong voices, fine musicianship, varied instrumentalism and top rate original material.  Writing about them previously, I said they reminded me of Brinsley Schwartz, not least for the fun they were having themselves.  This time around they had me thinking The Band in places – all those voices – I kid you not.  And the swingingest Mavericks with Angelina.  Not often I buy a CD.  Now I’ve got Sun on a rainy day as an earworm I’m perfectly happy with.

 

Colne guitarWallace HartleyColne

Now where was I?  Oh, yes.  Coming back from the Lakes a while ago now, stayed over with a friend in Colne, Lancashire, in the Borough of Pendle.  Interesting town, feels like it’s built on a ridge, scarily steep roads leading off down at various intervals from either side of the main drag – population circa 19,00, over twice as big as Stony – and another music town.  That guitar in the photo is part of a floral bed which is (it says) “a tribute to The Great Bristish [sic] Rhythm & Blues Festival held in Colne every August.”  After a few ales maybe.  Close by is a bust celebrating Colne’s most famous son: Wallace Hartley – violinist and bandmaster on the RMS Titanic, who famously played on as the unsinkable ship sank.

I still think it’s a coincidence, though, that we sat through the whole of Tempest, the 14 minute ‘epic’ title track from Bob Dylan’s last album, while eating in Jim’s Acoustic Cafe & Vegetarian Restaurant … and it sounded better there – took me a while to realise what it was, intrigued by the rhythm of the vocal, not listening to the lyric – than I’ve ever heard its tedious drone in my own home.  Put it down to Jim’s more than decent sound system.  The food is great too, always interesting (from a choice of three mains a day) and really reasonably priced – I should have nicked a menu to show you.   The music a fascinating and varied mix – as well as the Dylan I remember Howlin’ Wolf, some African funk, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix – and what I didn’t recognise was always interesting;  the man has taste to match his culinary skills.  Comfortable, relaxed, ramshackle (in the best sense of the word) decor with an eclectic collection of pictures to have you out of your seat for a closer look.  Oh for anything like it locally!  Apparently ‘Jim’s’ is the small Festival venue; Jackie Leven used to play there.

I used to think of places like Blackburn and Burnley as post-industrial waste lands, but Colne seems to be doing OK, and the towns were always never far from the hilly Pendle countryside, which, though never as dramatic as The Lakes or as wild as the North Yorkshire Moors, has plenty going for it (and there is plenty of it).  You can walk into Bronte country from Colne; Yorkshire spreads further west than many would think.

BRCBuckinghamshire Railway Centre

Springing forward three weeks, spent some time at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton the weekend just passed.  Blimey, it’s changed a bit since I was there last.  Like there’s a swishy visitor centre now (went up 12 years ago, I was told) and there’s so much more to see.  Hadn’t done any research prior to the visit so it was a nice surprise to be met on entering with an example of a GWR Castle class, that most handsome and exquisitely proportioned class of express steam locomotives, resplendent in British railways colours, in the entrance hall. (Photos © Lillabullero)

Castle 5080 'Defiant'.  But what if one were in a more compliant mood?

Castle 5080 ‘Defiant’. ‘Climb aboard Defiant’ the sign says, but what if one were in a more compliant mood? (To be fair, the sign does have the loco name in inverted commas.

In deepest Buckinghamshire

In deepest Buckinghamshire

Janice

A beast of a locomotive named ‘Janice'; South African, 3’6″ gauge but still enormous.

Lots more oddness in evidence, along with resplendent resident Metropolitan 1 – click on the photos to enlarge:

BrooklynOddnessInteresting

Metropolitan No 1BeggarsAnd as you’d expect these days, loads of social history in the museum and the lovingly restored 1890s Quainton Road station, where you’ll find this reminder that the ‘deserving poor’ are always with us.  It’s like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel if he hadn’t stopped writing novels about that time.  ‘Wayfarer’ – does that not have an adventurous dignity about it? The honest wayfarer – a folk song waiting to be written.

Castle chimneyFurther on down the line

So … between Colne and Quainton a fair few events and happenings.  Staying with the railway theme briefly, a beer promisingly named Smokestack Lightnin‘ supped in the Vaults  at the Vaultage Re-Charged, pleasant enough, but without the bite of Howlin’ Wolf’s record of the same name …  a couple of AORTAS open mics, the first where landlord Andy required of Dan, the paid piper, that he deliver an evening of happy songs, which was enough to keep at least one songsmith away, only for Andy then to go on holiday himself … the second distinguished by the usual good (musically miserable) times, Mark Owen (one half of The Last Quarter) playing solo, being introduced as The Last Eighth, and Pat’s dog farting; eyes raised approvingly at the previously unnoticed appearance at the word ‘acrimony’ in Dan Plews‘ fine rendition of The Sailor’s Rest … down the road in the bar of The Crauford Arms in Wolverton another day, Tom George, going out as The Lion & the Wolf, warned the nevertheless appreciative audience to prepare themselves for “the miserable-ist 20 minutes of your lives”; interesting songs played and sung strongly, in not ideal circumstances, which was a relief given he’s the son of an old mate – fine young man, chip off the block, even – who could remember playing in our back garden when he was 8 … and music back at the Shoulder of Mutton hopefully on a regular basis, courtesy of the Hoodwink Elixir; the ever excellent Zeroes covering Kim Wilde’s Kids in America to good effect, Second Hand Grenade funking away (Emmazing Emma getting better all the time), teenage openers Ali in the Jungle displaying accomplished musicianship for their tender years.

Was good to see John Cooper Clarke at the Stables.  He may have slowed down a bit, but he’s still got it, and good to hear new material.  Neat update of Beasley Street into Beasley Boulevard reflecting the embourgeoisement of Salford with its Media City.  Quite a phenomenon, very English I’d say, the general warmth of the affection in which JCC is held.  Not that he’s exactly cruising behind it.  His support acts would have been worth seeing on their own, hard acts to follow.  I think there’s fair chance they schooled themselves word-perfect on the man himself’s records as young teens, but they certainly proved that’s no bad thing as a starting point.  Mike Garry went out of his way to stress Johnny’s Salford, I’m Manchester, and took us down the streets the inhabitants or descendants of Beasley Street have moved to.  it was a hell of a dramatic performance – theatre, poetry, comedy.  Luke Wright, who introduced himself as ‘the token southerner’ was no slouch either; particularly strong JCC-isms in his dream woman piece (was her name Barbara?).  Discussion over the interval in certain quarters as to the shortcomings of the hair care products Luke was using, with recommendations offered.  Shall we call his barnet the sculptured bastard love child of extreme early Phil Oakey and a wind machine?

Life goes on

Went to the funeral – a real celebration of a life – of a good man.  Intro music Rage Against the Machine’s Wake up!; outro Woody Guthrie’s So long, it’s been good to know you.

Dick Apr 2013x

Dick Skellington at Scribal Gathering, April 2013. (c) Jonathan JT Taylor

HellWent to the wake of another good man who I wish I’d known longer than just the last couple of years on the poetry – the multi-faceted polymath Dick Skellington.  Much-loved scholar, poet, actor and director, raconteur, traveller and keen “agricultural” footballer (Stuart Pearce was mentioned) and team manager; I never knew about the football.  I’ve heard the word ‘curmudgeonly’ applied reverently lately too.  It was Dick who had devised The hell where youth and laughter go, a reading of a set of poems commemorating the start of the First World War, at Stony Stratford Library last week.  It kicked off with Siegfried Sassoon’s Suicide in the trenches and ended with Carol Ann Duffy’s moving Last post, and in between featured an inventive variety of verse including material taken from the Wipers Times.  I think everyone in the audience who knew Dick heard the glee, passion and gusto of Dick’s voice in the rendition, by a friend, of A.P.Herbert‘s poem about an un-loved Major General, That shit Shute:

The General inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout
‘I refuse to command a division
Which leaves its excreta about.’

But nobody took any notice
No one was prepared to refute,
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared to the presence of Shute.

And certain responsible critics
Made haste to reply to his words
Observing that his staff advisors
Consisted entirely of turds.

For shit may be shot at odd corners
And paper supplied there to suit,
But a shit would be shot without mourners
If somebody shot that shit Shute.

The Carabosse Theatre Company dedicated their run of their adaptation of Gormenghast at the Chrysalis Theatre to Dick, and there were tributes too at the October Scribal Gathering, where, with much characteristic shuffling of paper, some of his poems were given another outing.

GormenghastThat Carabosse adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy into nearly 3 hours of full-on theatre was simply stunning.  To say it was ambitious – it was – is in no way to imply they were over-reaching themselves.  The set and atmospherics were  stunning; 4 immaculately dressed and lighted acting areas – 2 up, 2 down – constructed using scaffolding, plus the fore-stage, more than enhanced by some brilliant projection work.  Fantastic costumes, great cast, some wonderful individual performances (dual in the case of the twins) – a tremendous theatrical experience.  Never managed to get into the books, but that didn’t matter one bit here – total absorption.  Bravo!

And somewhere in there the longest (if not the nearest) sighting of a kingfisher resting on a branch, flying away, returning, resting some more.  Always special.  From the older bird hide on the edge of Stony Nature Reserve.

Shoulder HoodwinkScribal Oct 2014

Bristish - to prove it was there.

Bristish – to prove it was there.

Under a railway bridge on an old railway walk, somewhere in Derbyshire

Under a railway bridge on an old railway walk, somewhere in Derbyshire

I got two poetry anthologies running, and they’re both – one way or another – going my way.  Well now, last time I counted, Railway rhymes has got 88 poems, looks more to yesterday; Train songs has a dozen more, rocks with a swagger, rolls with a sway.  The collections share 18 poems spanning 150 years.

Train songsRailway rhymesThe smaller formatted Railway rhymes, edited by Peter Ashley (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2007) has a distinctly British focus – 10 pieces from John Betjeman (no bad thing in itself), six Hardys, and three Larkins – and is organised in 5 sections, at first historical, mapping the coming of the railways with Navigating and Engineering, then becoming atemporal with Waiting, Travelling and Musing.

The handsome Train songs, chosen and introduced by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson (Faber, 2013), crosses the Atlantic more frequently, recognises the mythic power of a handful of song lyrics – including Robert Johnson, no less, and Tom Waits – and reserves more seats for contemporary writers.  It too is arranged in 5 sections: Prospects, Stations, Underground, Travellers and Night.  Note that Travelling in Railway Rhymes, as opposed to Train songsTravellers; it’s a subtle difference, but when push comes to shove (railway buffs might say that should be pull) I’d say the former has more of a focus on railways (not that the railway enthusiast will linger long on the majority of its pages), the latter on poetry.

Belying my title, some of the best poetry in both comes from stopped, stationary or absent trains; the actual railway interest often, like the station and trains in Brief Encounter, the stage and necessary scene-setting rather than the focus of the action.  It’s mostly about the inner journey.  Railway enthusiasts – ok, trainspotters and modellers – will, however, find some succour in R.P Lister’s fun, name-checking Nostalgia, featured in Railway Rhymes, with its 3 whole pages of the likes of:

You loved them too: those locos motley gay
That once seemed permanent as their own way? -
The Midland ‘lake’, the Caledonia blue;
The Brighton ‘Stroudleys’ in their umber blue.

In the thoughtful introduction to Train Songs the editors, poets and professors both, put it well, with some nice word play:

Readers will not be surprised to learn that there is no shortage of poems about trains and railways.  The age of steam in particular lends itself as readily to poetry as do love, death and the natural world, because the railway train participates in all of them. [...]  So it would not be difficult to assemble a railway anthology along what seem like familiar lines, stoked by nostalgia and comfortably uncoupled from the insistent realities of politics, economics and war.  That is not what we wanted to do [...]

and it seems to me they succeed with the selection they have made from “the multitude of journeys poets have taken” while not forsaking “poems that, rightly or wrongly, passengers expect to find along the permanent way“.  Hence the aforementioned, mostly rich, core of the 18 duplications (links underlined where I could find them):

  • interestingly Seamus Heaney’s The railway children (kids playing above a railway cutting) kicks off Train Songs but appears 4th from last in Railway Rhymes
  • JB at StP

    John Betjeman by Martin Jennings at St Pancras Station

    I dare say the anti-HS2 campaigners have already been gleefully quoting from William Wordsworth’s On the projected Kendal to Windermere Railway (he was against it – ironic given that the revived steam trains on the Windermere end are now a heritage attraction in their own right) but they should be aware that he wrote it in 1844, by which time this was grumpy old man Wordsworth, as O’Brien and Paterson put it, “who wrote sonnets in favour of capital punishment, rather than the one who knew the experience of bliss.”

  • no-one in their right minds could leave out Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun weddings
  • and of course Edward Thomas’s fine Adlestrop (1917) has to be there; it’s practically compulsory for any anthology of English poetry published in the last thirty years (and good for it, say I).  [Footnote: I had a mini-crisis the day before yesterday when Adlestrop was featured in a local poetry reading orchestrated around World War 1 themes - I hadn't realised Thomas had died at the battle of Arras in 1917 - and it was pronounced with the 'a' as in 'paddle' rather than 'pay', as I'd always heard it in my head, and I thought the reader had got it wrong.  Adventures in YouTube - Richard Burton, Geoffrey Palmer, and, crucially, Robert Hardy at a reading in the village - rather disturbingly prove I've had it wrong all this time.]
  • two John Betjemans are shared: Pershore Junction – the melancholic regret of words never said at the station – and Thoughts on a train, which sees him journeying in gentle entertaining lech mode (“No doubt she is somebody’s mistress / With that Greta Garbo hair“).
  • obviously: Auden’s magnificent Night Mail; Robert Louis Stevenson’s From a railway carriage; Eliot’s Shimbleshanks: the [bleeding] railway cat; McGonagall’s classic The Tay Bridge Disaster; Wilfred Owen’s sombre The send-off;
  • less obviously Thomas Hardy’s The missed train (Railway Rhymes offers much better Hardy options, I’d say)
  • of the moderns, it was a nice surprise to find Tony Harrison’s bracingly downbeat Changing at York, a shame that Simon Armitage’s The metaphor now standing at Platform 8 doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its wonderful title (still good it’s there, though), but I’m not convinced by Alan Brownjohn’s The train, which was new to me
  • Walter de la Mare’s The railway junction, another one new to me, is an interesting railway variation on the line less travelled
  • it’s only the two remaining shared poems that actually give you a physical sense of the powerful attraction and allure that trains, the steam train in particular, bring – in themselves, or in the landscape.  Stephen Spender’s The express in the former case (“After the first powerful plain manifesto / The black statement of pistons, without more fuss / But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station“) and in the latter – hey, guess who? – Emily Dickinson’s delightful I like to see it lap the miles (“I like to see it lap the miles / And lick the valleys up“).

Both collections have their strengths and complement each other nicely.  Train songs has yielded new names and work that excites me.  Peter Didsbury’s The Guitar is full of captivating imagery (“The train courses over / the frets of the guitar / but it is going backwards, towards the hole in the middle. / Coleridge is sitting at a window / with his back towards the engine.“)  and Robert Crawford’s The railway library tracks literary mileposts (” … racing through its chapters / In a slipcase of steam until your destination / Broke off the story. Rochester met Jane Eyre / At Falkirk High“).  Ian Duhig’s Jericho Shandy records a never dull 4-page surreal literary and sub-cultural reverie when “Returning from the anniversary / event for Sterne at Bradford Library, / a theft of signal wire maroons his train” and “the engine idles in iambics“; the title of the poem is a nod to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (one of Lillabullero‘s favourite books).

Mystery_Train_single_coverTrain Songs‘ other great plus is the decision to include Americans in its remit, so we get William Carlos Williams’ bustling Overture to a dance of locomotives and Walt Whitman’s magnificent To a locomotive in winter among others.  An actual train song included – Junior Parker’s classic Mystery train, one of Elvis Presley’s greatest early Sun Records performances – raises an interesting question, in that the copyrighted lyrics maintain the opening line as “Train arrived“, as opposed to the “Train I ride” that most everyone sings (or  hears), though ‘arrived’ makes much more sense narratively.

On the other hand, where Railway Rhymes really scores is in its opening Navigating section, a fascinating set of anonymous, or rather unattributed, verse and popular ballads concerning the first railway age.  At times doggerel, for sure, but nevertheless illuminating pop culture artefacts of their time displaying the wonder and fears of the general populace as the railways grew (and the navvies hit town of a Saturday night).  Some sort of introduction – original sources, dates – would have been useful here.  There’s the amazement that what makes the kettle lid rattle can be the power that drives the locomotives and an acute awareness that with the coming of the railway – also the dot.com boom of its time, hence Thackeray’s The speculators included here – everything is changed.  So we get The railway whistle, or, The blessings of hot-water travelling, and The Cockney’s trip to Brummagem, with its “When the swell mob comes down, we must look out for squalls / Or they’ll bolt with the organ from out the Town Hall“; some things paranoic never change.  Then there’s The wonderful effects of the Leicester Rail Road, the dialect Johnny Green’s trip fro’ Owdhum to see The Manchester Railway and a few more, none of them exactly nostalgic for the superceded stage coaches and coaching inns.

After the social history, Railway Rhymes settles down into almost an English pastorale – “Unmitigated England” as Betjeman puts in his Great Central Railway poem.  The longer poems are variously interspersed with some short squibs, three Edward Lear limericks and numerous examples of the humour of one ‘Tiresias’, the author of Notes from overground (1984), a book of commuter jottings I took great joy in when I was commuting.   We get samples from Adlewhat? – his cracks at Adlestrop – and his bawdy Loose coupling sequence of short poems.  Try Adlewhat? 3:

Haycocks and meadowsweet?  I wouldn’t know.
I never looked outside the train,
Just drank canned beer from a plastic cup
Until the damned thing started again.

The people's roadNeither book contains anything, from what I can fathom, from a real railway poet.  Joe Smythe was a railway guard, living and working in Manchester, when the NUR – his union, the then National Union of Railwaymen, now a part of the RMT – commissioned The people’s road as their contribution to the Great Railway Exposition of 1980, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool/Manchester Railway.  It’s a lively collection, with poems ranging over the whole period and touching on the lives of all manner of railway workers. Its class perspective, while never hectoring, adds another dimension to the poetry of the railway.  Variously witty, acerbic and thoughtful in mood, its language is vivid, fanciful, vernacular.  Because the poems appear to have no presence on the internet and seem to have disappeared without trace, here are a couple in their entirety for your delectation (with an apology for the language in the second one if you want it, even if I think it makes a valid point):

Class by Joe Smythe

She was the Inspector’s daughter,
I was the Porter’s son,
For years we paused in passing,
Now she’s dead and gone.

Paused and never spoke yet
Unspoken love was there,
She was the Inspector’s daughter,
I was the Porter’s heir.

Her eyes I well remember
Looked longingly at me,
A girl as young and beautiful,
Brave as a memory.

She married the Station Master
Twenty years or more,
Married and gone forever,
For ever gone, the whore.

A small philosophy by Joe Smythe

The guard is a man who sits in a van,
The van at the back of the train. The driver
up front thinks the guard is a cunt, the guard
thinks the driver’s the same. I wonder
who wrote those verses. I’ve seen them
everywhere. Lavatory walls, mess rooms,
engine bulkheads, from Carnforth to Crewe.
Llandudno to Leeds, that’s my patch,
and everywhere, this little bitterness;
which might parade a larger truth,
travels the roads like a mocking eye.
There is no brotherhood in it, this
most memorable of rail graffiti.
I wish I hadn’t wished I’d written it.

And I leave you with this little gem from the pen of the mighty Jeff Mallett.  For a while now his Frazz has been my favourite regularly produced comic strip, appearing daily on the splendid Go Comics website at http://www.gocomics.com/frazz/.  Enjoy.

Frazz by Jef Mallett 20140928 Go comics

Castlerigg

Castlerigg model

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

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

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

Cows

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

Another sunset

Road to nowhere

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

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

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

Buttermere 2

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

Feet's relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cow and mountains

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

The zone of interest

This is a hell of a book …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serious anti-Semitism?

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

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

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

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

friday

went to a
poetry meeting

afterwards
saw some idiot
walking down
the street

wearing
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:

Violation

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:

Anti-poems

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
birthright.

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
unlocked.

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

Library poem

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

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

Later that same week

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

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

And on the Sunday

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

Not forgetting a book

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

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

Dr Who

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

 

 

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