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Penguin- Chandler The Big SleepI started reading Raymond Chandler in the late green Penguin period of crime fiction publishing at the urging of a poet.  I hadn’t read any crime fiction til then.  No, he said, Chandler is a real writer.  Indeed he was.   As the man himself sang in a magazine article on his oeuvre, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Julian Symons - Bloody murderWhen I started working in libraries not long after, I was well aware that crime fiction was the most popular area of the library, so I thought I needed to know more about the genre.  As it happened, Julian Symon‘s acclaimed Bloody murder: from the detective story to the crime novel: a history (1972) had just been published and I learned a lot.  His basic position was that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were liberators, freeing detective fiction from the cosy respectability the genre had slipped into after the First World War and pointing it in the direction of ‘real’ literature – Snobbery with violence as Colin Watson had characterised the writers of that period in the title of his book about the genre and its audience a year earlier.  I let Symons guide my personal reading, and but for one exploratory expedition (couldn’t remember who’d dunnit the morning after) I left the “Golden Age” to itself.  (Raymond Williams did a fine job, in his The country and the city (1973) of systematically tracing quotes about ‘golden ages’ back to at least the Romans.)  Nevertheless, I hasten to add, it would have been professional suicide to ignore what had gone before; Agatha Christie still ruled the library shelves.

Martin Edwads - Golden ageCrime writer Martin Edwards thinks Symons got it badly wrong, and in The Golden Age of Murder: the mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story (HarperCollins, 2015) he presents a perceptive,  convincing and entertaining case.  The book is a between-the-wars history of the Detection Club, an elite, invitation-only group of writers, that started as an informal dining club in 1929, and became a formal organisation, with rules and constitution, three years later.  Its object was the promotion of their craft, the provision of mutual support, discussion of concerns and topics of interest, and the maintenance of quality detective fiction’s reputation as opposed to the mass market dross it was often bracketed with.

The guidelines for a writer’s inclusion – they had to have a track record – were quite specific, with:

it being understood that the term ‘detective novel’ does not include adventure stories or “thrillers” or stories in which the detection is not the main interest, and that it is a demerit in a detective novel if the author does not “play fair” with the reader.’

Edwards follows the private lives of his protagonists, and maps how their dilemmas were reflected and referenced in their writing.  As his sub-title suggests, these were not without their own fascinations – remember Agatha Christie’s disappearance – while also telling us much about the society of the day.  The big three were the aforementioned Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, and they:

were conservative in outlook, and their success […] caused a peculiar amnesia to afflict critical discussion of the Golden Age. Detective novelists with radical views have become the men – and women – who never were. Even the distinguished historian of the genre Julian Symons, who should have known better, thought it ‘safe to say that almost all the British writers of the Twenties and Thirties […] were unquestionably right-wing.’ In fact, the Liberal Party and centre-left were well represented among Golden Age authors, while others joined the Communist party or flirted with it […] Some mocked Nazis and Fascists in their detective novels long before it was fashionable to do so. Others wrote mysteries which debated the merits of assassinating dictators.

Martin Edwards particularly fights Dorothy L.Sayers’ critical corner:

Sayers saw Gaudy night as the pinnacle of her achievement as a novelist. Yet the conflicts lying at its heart are not those of a conventional whodunnit, but clashes between principles and personal loyalties. […] Gaudy night so powerfully reflects Sayers’ belief in equality between the sexes that the book is often called the first major feminist novel. However, Julian Symons dismissed it as a ‘woman’s novel’, and Sayers is often patronizingly accused of ‘falling in love with her hero.’ The truth is that Sayers’ unrelenting focus on female independence influenced many other women novelists …

And in a paragraph such as the one that follows, the critical social commentary that Symons ignored – even with a toff of a detective in Lord Peter Wimsey – comes as a surprise:

Long before it became fashionable to critique the consumer society, she offers a picture of a world in which people are sold a dream of health and happiness … Sayers writes with a fierce sympathy about ‘those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.’

More generally the Golden Age victims, or murderees (as Martin Amis calls them), tell their own tale:

That dependable hate figure, the selfish financier, regularly crops up as a victim in Golden Age stories. In many other books, the corpse belongs to a blackmailer who had threatened victims with exposure and disgrace – a powerful motive for murder at a time when most people yearned for respectability. With the economic slump causing much suffering, any unpleasant old miser with a host of impoverished family members was unlikely to survive long in a crime novel, and anyone who called in their solicitor to change their will was signing their own death warrant.

As can be judged from what he says about old misers, this is a far from po-faced exposition of Golden Age fiction, and Martin is well aware of the clichés involved.  As well as changing your will, “The arrival of a mysterious box of chocolates became a recurrent hazard in the lives of Golden Age characters …”

The Golden Age of Murder throws up many interesting tidbits, side issues and diversions along the way.  G.K.Chesterton, creator of the Father Brown mysteries and the Detective Club’s first Honorary President, argued in his essay, A Defence of Detective Stories

that the detective story: ‘is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life’. That reference to poetry is significant. From Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets. They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.’

One such, Cecil Day-Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, created, in his A question of proof, one Nigel Strangeways, who, after a brief stay in Oxford, in the course of which he had neglected Demosthenes in favour of Freud becomes an amateur private investigator, and, says Edwards, bears a distinct resemblance to [his friend] Auden, with one or two additional quirks such as an excessive fondness for tea drinking.”  Indeed, W.H.Auden was a great fan of Golden Age fiction.  This blog post’s title is taken from his poem Detective Story – the one with the lines about “A home, the centre where the three or four things / that happen to a man do happen“.  Tantalizingly, it was suggested that Auden provide some poems for P.D.James’s poetry writing detective, Adam Dalgleish – Auden and James were both published by Faber – but the plan was scuppered when the poet died.

The Golden Age of Murder is an absorbing read and, as many of the reviews have stated, a real labour of love.  It can only add weight to the revival of its subjects’ novels heralded by The British Library’s publication programme – its (out of copyright) Crime Classics series, that its author has had a hand in.  The writers are in no position, of course, to complain about the paperback jackets, as Agatha Christie once did to publisher Allen Lane his firm’s treatment of one of her novels, “having failed to realise that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.”  Mysterious affair at StylesNice one, Martin.

  Depending on who’s publishing in any given year, I suppose I read – give or take a finger or two – a handful of crime novels annually.  Invariably a new Ian Rankin (who I see as some sort of soulmate), Peter Robinson (more out of habit these days, given no small percentage of Lillabullero‘s traffic comes from a semi-tabulated over-view of his Banks novels), John Harvey (the best crime writer, another poet – his Resnick I’ve long rated alongside Rebus), Carl Hiaasen (if I’m lucky) and … I have a lot of affection, as it happens, for Martin EdwardsLake District Mysteries.  Maybe something old, something borrowed too.

So, in the light of The Golden Age of Murder I thought I’d give Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot a spin.  For me, along with Heartbeat, I consider Agatha Christie adaptations the bane of ITV3, which can quite often be a source of half decent crime when there’s nothing else on.  (I prefer Lewis to Morse, by the way).  I wanted to see if my view of the books had been poisoned by the stereotyped period treatments – almost designed to give credence to Julian Symons’ view of the books – given to Miss Marple and Poirot by television companies over the years.  I wanted to look for other possible interpretations.

The mysterious affair at Styles (1920) was the first book to feature Hercule Poirot, and I was pleasantly surprised by the sharpness of some of the descriptive prose.  Hastings, the narrator, is an obvious Doctor Watson figure; he’s a Great war casualty, invalided out of the army.  But no, seems I can’t just blame David Suchet.  Poirot remains, on the page, the same supercilious smarmy little creep that has me leaping for the TV remote whenever there’s a whiff of him on the box.  Sorry, mon ami.  I shall still finish the book, though, despite Hastings saying stuff like:

Dear old Dorcas!  As she stood there with her innocent face upturned to mine, I thought what a fine specimen she was of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out.

It all feels a bit like being in one of those Murder Mystery games that we have fun with on New Year’s Eves (though without the wine).   And I will certainly have a gander at at least a Dorothy L. when one falls into my paws.  But now for something completely different; it’s a crime, Jim, but not as the Golden Age knew it.

Emma Donaghue - RoomRoom

Always a danger sign, that – mention of The lovely bones on a book’s cover.  She was cheating.  The narrator of that book was talking from heaven.  Jack, the narrator of Emma Donoghue‘s Room: a novel (Picador, 2010) is a five-year old boy – just.  “Today I’m five,” is its opening line.  I struggled to get over that and failed.  Sorry, this is not the language of a five-year old.  It got on my nerves, and the occasional interjection of childish words like ‘fasterer’ and ‘forgetted’ and ‘catched’ just made it worse.  OK, he’s lived with Ma, an intelligent teenager when kidnapped and imprisoned as a sex slave a couple of years before Jack was born, by a man we never meet, in the room of the title, all his life.  Just with Ma and a television set with dodgy reception, but I still can’t buy it.  This narrative stratagem does have advantages in the way the story is told – no internal monologue from Ma leaves more to our imagination, no compulsory wallowing in it – but, as I say, I never managed to transcend it.  My loss, some might say.  Quite a lot, actually, given its shortlist showing for a number of prizes and its word-of-mouth success at the time.

It’s not a bad book, obviously.  ‘Disturbing’ was the word on most of the Book Group members’ lips on the first run around the table.  Donaghue got the idea from the notorious Fritzl case in Austria a couple of years previously, and it examines the issues of socialization, survival and recovery with sensitivity, intelligence and some wit.  When they dramatically escape about half way through (oh come on, you can guess that from the chapter titles) we move into – albeit earth-bound – classic science fiction territory of the stranger in a strange land kind, with Jack struggling to understand what is real and what is television.  His mother’s harrowing re-adaptation to the real world is painful to experience, even through Jack’s eyes.  It ends … not without hope.  I’m the only male in the Book Group and I was the least keen there; interestingly, three of the women said they wouldn’t have thought there was any point in recommending it to their husbands, who I know are a lot more than John Grisham readers.  Enough.  I’m glad it’s over.  And so onto something more enjoyable.

Robert Harris - PompeiiPompeii

Given that the reader has a good idea what’s going to happen, Robert Harris does a pretty good job in Pompeii (2003) of keeping us interested in how it specifically comes to pass and how it happens to the people (some real, some not) that he has chosen to tell the story through.  No, more than interesting – rather keeping us hooked and thrilling us both with the action and the morality of those involved.  Each chapter as the big day approaches is given a latin denomination and an excerpt from volcanology textbooks, which both distances the reader and allows the parallels with contemporary politics and social power to emerge for themselves.  He skilfully keeps a lot of balls in the air and even throws in a bit of romantic desire for motivation to drive things along.

One is left in awe at what Roman civilization achieved – the aqueducts still standing, the baths, the water supply systems running for miles – but left in no doubt too about the violence, venality, slavery and corruption that accompanied the technical triumphs.  Checking something in Wikipedia I learnt that Roman Polanski nearly filmed Harris’s book, seeing parallels with Chinatown in it; it hadn’t occurred to me before, but that does make perfect sense.

Harris has fun with what they thought was happening then and what the preserved Pompeii stands for now, with thought patterns and ideas of causation then and now.  Here’s Attilius, the good guy engineer brought in at short notice to sort what they originally thought was just a small problem in the water supply, after the man on the job has disappeared, contemplating the end (of the world as he knew it) and feeling far from fine:

He strained his eyes towards Pompeii. Who was to say that the whole world was not in the process of being destroyed? That the very force that held the universe together – the logos, as the philosophers called it – was not disintegrating? He dropped to his knees and dug his hands into the sand and he knew at that moment, even as the grains squeezed through his fingers, that everything would be annihilated […]: everything would eventually be reduced to a shoal of rock and an endlessly pounding sea. None of them would leave so much as a footprint behind them; they would not even leave a memory.

But my favourite is your actual Pliny the Elder, natural philosopher, man of action, friend of emperors, who, even as naval commander as the volcanic endgame unfolds, is taking notes for another volume of his Naturalis historia:

He placed his fingertips together and frowned. It was a considerable technical challenge to describe a phenomenon for which the language had not yet been invented. After a while, the various metaphors – columns, tree trunks, fountains and the like – seemed to obscure rather than illuminate, failing to capture the sublime power of what he was witnessing. He should have brought a poet with him …

He comes to this cheery conclusion of his studies, waiting for his end on the beach where he has told the others to leave him:

Man mistook measurement for understanding. And they always had to put themselves at the centre of everything. That was their greatest conceit. The earth is becoming warmer – it must be our fault! The mountain is destroying us – we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little – a comfort to think these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded. But here was Nature, sweeping toward him – unknowable, all-conquering, indifferent – and he saw in Her fires the futility of human pretensions.

And fear not, Robert Harris finishes Pompeii with a forgivably corny piece of storytelling magic.

Stop Press

I finished reading The mysterious affair at Styles earlier today, and I have to say its conclusion – the who, how and why of the murder in the country house – is stupidly complex: one small aspect of the solution, for instance, involves one person signing another’s name in the studied handwriting of a third.  But I still enjoyed it, particularly when Poirot was just reasoning things out, rather than being Poirot with all his quirks.  As a period piece one was expecting this sort of thing:

        ‘It will be the talk of the village!  My mother was only buried on Saturday, and here you are gadding about with the fellow.’
‘Oh,’ she shrugged her shoulders, ‘if it is only village gossip that you mind!’
‘But it isn’t.  I’ve had enough of the fellow hanging about.  He’s a Polish Jew, anyway.’

But not the unexpected response:

        ‘A tinge of Jewish blood is not a bad thing.  It leavens the’ – she looked at him – ‘stolid stupidity of the ordinary Englishman.’

This is the same woman who sends the stolid Hastings, on being told “… I want to be free!” by her, off on one:

And, as she spoke, I had a sudden vision of broad spaces, virgin tracts of forests, untrodden lands – and a realization of what freedom would mean to such a nature as Mary Cavendish.  I seemed to see her for a moment as she was, a proud wild creature, as untamed by civilization as some shy bird of the hills.

Then in court, there’s the defence barrister Sir Ernest Heavyweather.  Seems the 30-year old Agatha Christie had something about her.

SL ProgCouple of times during StonyLive, Stony Stratford’s annual week of more than usual music bash, I had one of those Feeling/Like I’m almost twenty again moments.  That sense of refreshing wonder, a certain mixture of disbelief (and belief) at what you were hearing.  Discovery or rediscovery.  When you look around and the delight is palpable – all varieties of  glowing smiles and beatific grins on the faces of those around you in a small crowded room.  Take a bow, Forest of Fools and the Dave Cattermole Band.  Anyway, later for them.   Here we go, at least a week and then some after the events of StonyLive 2015 – I’ve been away in Wales – a personal chronicle of the week.

Rose & Castle

Rose & Castle

Saturday lunchtime, June 6, I wend my way, pausing briefly for the ritual purchase of this year’s raffle tickets and to take in some of the dancers on the High Street – young and old, tall and tiny, contemporary all the way back to Morris – to the Fox & Hounds, there to sup a pint to the traditional bluegrass opener, this year from the Hole in the Head Gang with their (and I quote) “annual rehearsal”.  Always an uplifting start to proceedings.

“In comes I …”

This year I’m trying to pace myself, and so it’s out on the street again to further experience this year’s wider spectrum of local dance – including Irish and Middle Eastern (the exotic Rashiqa from Wolverton) – and, of course, the Stony Stratford Mummers mumming.  As well as stalwarts Rose & Castle and Old Mother Redcaps, we had a new mixed side, New Moon Morris, from Ivinghoe, strutting their stuff.

Captain HumeSaturday night and at York House a select audience settle down to what it says on the poster on the left.  To be honest, given that there punning of ‘Leera Waye’ and Mr Simpson’s Little Consort‘s Samuel Pepys evening earlier in the year, I was expecting something filthier, but that takes nothing away from the exquisite nature of the fun and entertainment.  There were more songs and tunes from John Dowland and Thomas Ford than your actual gentleman prankster, mercenary, lech and musician, Captain Tobias Hume, one of whose songs made the case for putting love and tobacco on equal footing.

Soprano Cate McKee sang the melodies that in Dowland’s day were listed as being for ‘high voices’ with great charm (her facial expressions an object lesson in restraint – less is more – for Miranda Hart), while Phoebe Butler coaxed sweet music from a recorder I was not the only one present had not thought previously possible.  With Dawn Johnson alternating between lute and theorbo (a big bottomed lute with a giraffe’s neck) and Piers Snell bowing away on the viola da gamba (more stringed cousin to the cello) it was relatively fresh musical territory for me but I couldn’t help catching the intrinsic folk and jazz inflections that attracted guitarist John Renbourn – who ventured in these lands himself – and made him such a favourite of mine.  For a finish they attacked Monteverdi’s Zefiro Torno – his setting of a rhapsodic pastoral ode to the west wind auguring spring and the potential it brings for dalliance and romance – with such gusto that they had to pause, breathless, mid-way through.

And so out into the June night and a quick dash down to the Vaults Bar for the storming end of the Bearcat Blues Band set, a jump of three centuries from Restoration England of the 1660s to a classic ’60s rhythm and blues quintet of some distinction in less than half a mile.  And so to bed.

The chunky Rover 90.  My mate Mark's dad used to have one of those in Birkenhead.

A chunky Rover 90. My mate Mark’s dad used to have one of those in Birkenhead.

My

A certain Je ne sais quoi.  My “Best in Show”.

Sunday we had a family celebration lunch to attend deep in the suburbs of Solihull so I only had time for a quick recce of the Classic Car Festival but even at an early hour with the fine weather the place was buzzing.  And so apparently it carried on, to the extent of almost drinking the Crown dry, much to the chagrin of Monday’s gig goers.

Scribal June Sunday 15Back in time for the Sunday Scribal Gathering at the Fox and Hounds, and wasn’t that a treat.  Forest of Fools triumphed almost from the opening bars of whatever it was that they opened with.  Loud, driven dub folk with glorious blasts of melodeon – ace players all, attacking drummer, rapid fire percussionist stage right, energetically nimble bassman at the back, rounded off stage left by man with sousaphone, with added (have I got this right, or did it just sound like?) throat singing.   Most of the audience (myself included) had little idea what to expect and the excitement, the buzz, the joy, was instant.  This was Forest of Fools CDglorious.  Then a short manifesto statement of  folk roots, name-checking Cecil Sharp, and straight into an acapella Dogger Bank.  Now while it has to be said that their rendition lacked the sheer brio and muscle of Five Men Not Called Matt‘s interpretation, in context it was more than fine enough.  And then back to the folk driven shuffle of Bar room brawl (Here’s a YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kx9-cBg9iWw.)  Later another controlled workout wherein the strains of the Mission Impossible theme was distinctly discernible among the more traditional melody lines.  And so it continued.  They took the roof off (or would have if there had not been a first floor intervening).  I even bought a CD.

Roddy et al - Andy Powell snapper

The Roddy Clenaghan Band (& sound man) – Roddy second left – upstairs at The Crown, giving a taste of The Crown’s eclectic decor. Photo (c) Andy Powell, banjo-ist of this parish.

Tom Manning.  Photo (c) Andy Powell.

Tom Manning. Photo (c) Andy Powell.

Monday, and so to The Crown, a pub with no beer (real ale anyway).  Guinness it was, then.  Apparently one of the Andys in Roddy Clenaghan‘s Band suggested, after Tom Manning‘s quality opening set, that they should be supporting him.  I’d say not so much a game of two halves as a double-A side (that’s a 45 rpm vinyl reference, younger readers).  Tom, a fine guitarist not scared of a jazz chord and in great voice, impressed with a mix of his own songs (one including a line about “the mourners at the wedding“) and some well-chosen, if you’ll excuse the expression, covers.  Finishing with an exuberant version of Love’s Alone again or from the eternal Forever changes album, which brought back to life the inner-hippy in a broad sway of the audience: “I think people are the greatest fun“.

Mournful as some of his song selections can be, there was plenty of fun to come too:  Roddy performed a short solo set, reminding me what a great writer Nanci Griffith is, and then brought on the two Andys for a set heavy with Bob Dylan songs, but who’s complaining?  They even kicked off with a twelve-string led Mr Tambourine Man) but the class showed with the selection of songs from the later canon – It’s not dark yet from Time out of mind – and a driving version of Things have changed.  “I used to care, but …”  Yeah, Bob, but you still wrote that song.  Another fine evening’s music.

(Is the dark Things have changed that well-known a Dylan song?  If not, it should be.  Originally from the soundtrack of Wonder boys, the movie  based on Michael Chabon’s novel – was Michael Douglas ever better? – the promo video, including clips from the film, is well worth a look.)

Scribal Jun Tuesday 15Tuesday I’m in The Vaults again for a pint’s worth of the A Capella Song & Ale Session and as luck has it I get over to Scribal in time for Paul Martin and friend’s footstomping set of vigorous dance tunes, Paul on mandocello (a big double stringed mandolin with sitar like harmonic drone potential)  and his mate on French pipes (not bagpipes, it was stressed, as if … there were pipes et un bag).  Enervating.  Rob Bray‘s new duo venture, The Straw Horses, for all his dapper tight grey waistcoat and trews, were singing new songs of olden days rural agri-folk (so more Thomas Hardy than Wurzels) with a hint or three of Wickerman about them.  His companion – Corinne Lucy – had one of those classic female folk voices and sported a wonderful smile.

Wednesday and it’s a decent turnout for Ken Daniels’ Alice‘s 150th birthday tribute to Lewis Carroll, Happy Birthday, Alice at York House, for what used, I guess, to be called a lantern slide show.  Fascinating collection of a wide variety of illustrators’ work over the century and a half, delivered with aplomb.  Then a walk down to The Bull for a change, humming Jefferson Airplane’s White rabbit to myself.

SL Evening bardAn Evening with the Bard & Friends featured many performers previously mentioned in despatches here at Lillabullero.  Given the luxury of fuller sets and Mark Owen and Naomi Rose duly delivered.

Vaultage SLThursday it’s back to The Vaults for another Vaultage, and a bravura performance from the Dave Cattermole Band.  With mesmeric acoustic guitar rhythm playing from the man himself, embellished by spare less-is-more lead lines on a Fender Start nodding to a wide spectrum of the instrument’s history or silky flat steel, and a hell of a cajon percussionist, they cast a spell.  Pièce de resistance was an extended spellbinding, rhythmically subtle, inventive uptempo meditation – shades of John Martyn – incorporating a hummed almost monastic song of praise which, one gradually became aware, had mutated into Stevie Winwood’s Blind Faith era song Can’t find my way home.  Magic moments in a small venue.  Feeling privileged.

Mark Owen was everywhere this week.

Mark Owen was everywhere this week.  WS himself would be proud of his ‘Breaking waves’.  Mitchell Taylor, who also did a few stints, & yr humble blogger, look on in rapt attention.  Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

Probably the first time this millennium I’ve been out five consecutive nights so Friday I hit a music and beer wall.  Feeling / like I’m definitely my age again.  Didn’t stop us catching the whole early evening Shakespeare in Stony trip though.  Choice selections from the Bear County’s Bard played out by a motley crew at various locations around Stony.  Rain on and off did not deter or (sorry) dampen spirits; indeed as King Lear‘s youngest daughter put it on FB, when the rain was at its heaviest, in the Fox & Hounds garden – which was always gonna be the most challenging stage on the journey – it seemed to supercharge the performance.  Juliet on the balcony in The Cock courtyard was outstanding too, while the Mummers, as the rude mechanicals from A midsummer night’s dream, were something else again.  Danni Antagonist had multiple roles – including being a witch in Macbeth, one of a spooky trio in the old graveyard, and Lear‘s decent daughter, Cordelia (and how many actors can make that claim in one day?).  I’d say her thespian experience is being  carried over into her poetry performancee on the evidence of a couple of days later.  Was good to be a part of the decent sized mobile audience.  Muchos kudos to Caz Tricks for putting it all together.

FringeFatigue lingering, Saturday lunchtime and it’s just a shandy for The Ozarks (another pooling of the MK bluegrass talents) for the country & bluegrass outro at The Fox, and then a stroll down to the The Bull’s yard for Part The First of the Alternative  Fringe.  The Caution Horses have some decent songs of their own but surprised (all the more dramatically so because it was unexpected) with an original treatment of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby which gained something for these ears from missing the string quartet.  Paul Eccentric emerged from behind his Caution Horse kitchen percussion kit for some solo poems, which made a nice change.  But I was still tired so … that’s all she wrote for Saturday.

FotG15Sunday afternoon I flitted in, out and around Folk on the Green, which was lucky with the weather again, but stayed rooted for the duration of the Dave Cattermole Band‘s set, the band this time augmented by a bass player.  They did it all again with Can’t find my way home.  Sublime, tasty, tasteful, no posing.  Shame they couldn’t play longer.  On my way to the Alternative Fringe, Part Two, Subsection 1, I heard someone singing something about selling his soul for rock and roll, which made me feel old.

So here we are in the Vaults again, where the assembled poets (top and bottom three on the poster) did battle to be heard with the post-Folk on the Green topers, but the poetry won out in the end (we had a volume control knob and Richard Frost knew how to use it).  More than just the poets were entertained.  Then briefly down to the Stables Stage.  Now a four-piece, Glass Tears‘ wove their enchanting mix of originals and original treatments and I lingered for a bit more but  … a little sympathy please … I was tired and was driving to West Wales on the morrow.  Exit Lillabullero with a whimper.

It was a great week’s music.  Wish I’d had a bit more stamina.  Just because I haven’t specifically mentioned anyone doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t appreciate them.  Huge thanks to the StonyLive Committee (not forgetting the entirely separate FotG people) and all generally involved.  Appreciated.

Back online after a hiatus of a week and a day off after a cowboy contractor working for BT managed to cut through a cable and then concrete and tarmac over it again, so disconnecting half our side of the street in the process of progress.  It’s been interesting, not having the opportunity to waste time with FaceBook, print off the Guardian cryptic crossword (how can anyone do it online?) and other such pursuits.  Anyway, it’s good to be back.

Ellen Altfest - The handI’ve had the exhibition guide to Ellen Altfest‘s survey exhibition at MK Gallery staring accusingly at me from a pile of stuff to be dealt with for a while now.  It’s now well over a month since I went.  I had an absorbing time there – I might well go again before it closes – but I’m at a bit of a loss what to say.  That picture on the cover – The hand (2011) – I keep seeing as a landscape (that’s my red wine stain, that semi-circle, I hasten to add).  I think that’s probably OK, given the Guardian’s short preview mentioning ‘mind-altering drugs’ – the paintings’ intensity, that is, not the artist’s life style – and the guide mentions ‘wordplay, innuendo and psychological impact‘. Anyway, 22 life-size oil paintings, 15 years, painstakingly incredible life-size detail in the realist tradition, yet, to quote the guide again, pushing ‘realism to the edge of abstraction‘; I can’t say anything meaningful about its relation to the photographic, except that it’s interesting

Ellen Altfest - Log 2001

Ellen Altfest: Log (2001). Picture taken from MK Gallery’s website at http://www.mkgallery.org/exhibitions/ellen_altfest/

The paintings are presented roughly chronologically, diminishing in canvas size if not fascination, with the subject shifting from the natural world towards intimate male body parts. If it is reasonable to expect of a gallery show that you come out – at least temporarily – with new eyes, then Ellen Altfest’s show certainly passed that test for me; my walks in the local nature reserve were refreshed by her early work like Log (2001).  I’ll say nothing further about studying my body parts anew, though, but I would venture it’s a sign of the times in a good way that her The penis (2006) did not – as far as I’m aware, anyway – give cause for any shock horror scandal in the local free sheets.

All that I am

Funder 2Funder 1Funder 3 Harper US

I recall a time when the phrase ‘Heavy, man’ actually meant something, before it was hi-jacked by certain forms of rock music, and then dealt a death-blow by Neil in The Young Ones. Anna Funder‘s All that I am: a novel (Viking, 2011) is heavy, man. I think it’s that the bravery (and ultimate betrayal) of a small group of friends is set so vividly in the context of their ordinary existence; I was living in that Bloomsbury attic with Dora, Ruth and Hans. Ruth’s deceptively light opening words of the novel set the tone: “When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.”

All that I am the latest book group book – is a fictional reconstruction of real events – not quite a faction. It tells the tale of a small group of friends exiled from Germany for their opposition to the rise of Hitler, and their continued endangered resistance from abroad. Two alternating voices do the telling: Ruth, the survivor, a feisty old woman in her 80s, reminiscing in her home, and then from her hospital bed, in Australia, where Funder, who was brought up there, knew her, about her exile in London in the 1930s; and the playwright Ernst Toller, dictating material for a new expanded edition of his autobiography, in New York, in 1939. Toller had been the reluctant President of the short-lived Communist Republic of Bavaria, at the end of the First World War, a position that was immediately rewarded with 5 years in prison; he also spent time in London with the others before crossing the Atlantic. Both narrators are in awe of the charismatic, committed and free-spirited Dora (Dora Fabian in real life).

It’s a staggeringly good novel. The historical situation is vividly spelt out – no mere box-ticking background is rolled out here: “Reality was becoming so silly, we thought, that intelligent people could no longer tell the difference between a report and a satire,” says Ruth, and her husband, Hans, a satirist, is all at sea in London. What appalls – what I never realised – is the level of appeasement maintained by the British government during Hitler’s first years in power: if these exiles were found to be politically active they risked the British – us – sending them back to Nazi Germany and certain death.

Toller I was a GermanAnna Funder takes you there, to the midst of the group, how it felt.  “Half our energy came from the cause, the other half from each other,” says Ruth.  It’s bracing.  But the human cost, particularly on Teller, the international figure: “After a time I learned to be the person they thought I was. I was needed everywhere … I knew there were two parts of me, the public man and the private being, and they would not, ever, quite fit back together.” All he can do in New York is write letters to the papers and important people. “Do you think letters can make a difference?” his secretary asks. “I pull as much power as I can from somewhere inside me, from the actor, the orator, the hope-pedlar and the charlatan. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, I do.’“  His friend Auden is not much help either: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” It’s a matter of record what Toller does but I’ll not say what here.

There is so much going on in All that I am: friendship, political commitment, philosophy, literature, perseverance, espionage, betrayal, food, the English, love, sex. It is exciting, emotional and profoundly satisfying. For all its despair … here’s Ruth, run into by a boy on roller skates in Paris: “ ‘Pardon, Madame, je suis desolée. Desolée.’ We are all desolated here.” And poor old faithful-to-his wife Toller: “Sometimes your life feels like a pile of wrong decisions.” For all that, Ruth in Oz at 80, remains life affirming.

I had hoped good things of a book kicking off with quotations from W.H.Auden and Nick Cave. That’s setting the bar high, I thought. I was not disappointed.

A brief word about the book covers. From left to right: the UK hardback tastefully saying nothing, the pathetically misleading UK paperback (was there any snow? – even so, so what? – and what sort of a pose is that anyway?), and the tasty evocative American hardback with the red flag flying on a German strasse (which is a big deal in the book).  As my sons used to say, I don’t know what to tell you.

Worcester

A day in Worcester (whisper it, an Age UK coach trip; we were not the youngest there). The weather held. A fine cathedral, the spectacular The Hive (an innovatory central library, shared with the university, and so much more), the rather special Karmic Café and a stroll by the river. Reminders too of just how awful ’60s architecture is in historic town centres.  Click and click again to enlarge the photos, all mine own).

Something there is about modern cathedral altar decorations.

Something there is about modern cathedral altar decorations.

Worc mirror

Worcester cathedral window

In the cathedral a grand memorial “Sacred to the memory to Mary [d.1794], the truly regretted wife of WILLIAM HALL Esq of the island of Jamaica …” making you wonder if here was the origins of the story of Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre. Elsewhere a poetical tribute to Bishop Nicholas Wighorn (d.1576) as “ a painful preacher” (albeit, it must be added, “of the truthe”). Every hour a voice comes over the PA reminding us that we’re in a place of quiet and prayer and inviting us to join with them by stopping what we’re doing to be still for a minute. About half the visitors do, including atheist me, and it was moving to be urged to think of … well, pretty much a full litany of “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,” with specific mention being made of the Mediterranean boat refugees. Powerful stuff, communal stillness.

Odds and sods in the cathedral yard.

Odds and sods in the cathedral yard.

Karmic Cafe Worcester

Every town should have one – see for yourself at www.thekarmiccafe.co.uk/index.php

And in the very wonderful Karmic Café – a smart but unpretentious and eminently reasonable tasty vegetarian caff (every town should have one) – a poster of a package tour I went to in the Slough Adelphi over half a century ago.

I can’t remember much about the Beatles‘ performance (I suppose Beatles posterthere was screaming) but bizarrely what has stuck was the Pacemakers’ drummer (Gerry’s brother, I seem to recall) doing that thing whereby he hits his cymbal and looks up and moves his head from left to right then down again, so as to appear to be following the arc of the cymbal’s tshhh with his eyes.  And Roy Orbison, so impressive, standing there immaculately dressed – is that bootlace tie a false memory? – with guitar and dark glasses, sounding – hitting all those high notes – just like the records.

Finally, one for the archives. Your humble blogger, part-time poet and poster boy.
Vaultage late May 2015

It’s happened again.  I’ve just finished reading a book about W.H.Auden and here he comes, walking through a New York hotel room door in the late 1930s, a character in the next Reading Group novel that’s up for discussion.  A novel chosen for us by the public library months in advance and about which none of us had an inkling.  Talk about intertextuality.  As Kurt Vonnegut once punctuated one of his novels, Hi ho.

AudenRichard Davenport-Hines‘s fascinating biography of the poet W.H.Auden – Auden (Heinemann, 1995) – throws up many areas of interest and speculation, some of which are dealt with detail while others are left tantalizingly untouched.  What follows are just a few things that occurred to me while reading rather than any sort of reasoned evaluation.

As a humanist and atheist I can quite happily live with other people’s religious beliefs so long as they’re not ramming them down my throat.  Hell, I’m even quite partial to Bob Dylan’s trilogy of openly Christian albums. And the poetry of Wystan Hugh (as all quiz teams will know him) holds no great problems for me.  The “correct notion of worship” for him was, “that it is first and foremost a community in action, a thing done together, and only secondarily a matter of individual feeling,” an extraordinary statement given the life he led, and I’ll return to that.

But staying with Dylan for a while, I think there’s a case for seeing the early political communist fellow-traveller Auden as the pre-electric Dylan of the ’30s.  As Davenport-Hines puts it:

Auden was a meeting ground for young people: enthusiasm for his work seemed a measure of intelligence as well as an indicator of literary or socio-political seriousness. […] The cult figure for literate young people was also a bugbear for his testy elders.

And just as Dylan’s acceptance speech to the American Civil Liberties Union in 1963 upset many followers with his, “I have to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy … I saw some of myself in him” – a very Audean statement in itself – so Auden’s stepping back from the cultural front line was a significant shift:

He disliked poets being solemn about themselves or precious about their art, and his aesthetic theory against poetic pretensions to change the world, as it had developed by the 1940s, annoyed or disappointed some of his early admirers.

By 1965 he was telling a BBC interviewer, “For God’s sake, don’t ask such bloody silly questions!” (about the same time Dylan was doing much the same, as it happens) and proclaiming, “Art is small beer.  the really serious things in life are earning one’s living so as not to be a parasite, and loving one’s neighbours.”  He had a lot to say about poets and poetry, about which he was deadly serious – “You don’t understand at all,” he told his tutor at Oxford, “I mean to be a great poet”; he got a ‘bad third’ – except when he wasn’t, like in 1948:

The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow poets. The actual audience he gets consists of myopic schoolteachers, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias, and his fellow poets. This means that, in fact, he writes for his fellow poets.

He had little time for poets who were wallowing in their own misery, rather than using it stoically, as “exemplifying the human condition” (to quote RDH) – “a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness” he called it – and, RDH reports, “… agonised confessional poetry had always repelled him” to the extent that he actually heckled Anne Sexton at Ted Hughes’s first Poetry International in 1967.

Allen Ginsberg was at that one too, and one wonders what he thought about that.  Ginsberg, of course, had been the star at the International Poetry Incarnation of two years earlier, also held in the Albert Hall, that heralded the British cultural underground movement of the ’60s (and to which Hughes’s event was almost certainly a response), and you can be pretty sure Auden would not have been impressed.  The two poets had met on the idyllic Italian island of Ischia in 1957 and argued about Walt Whitman, and there – Alan Bennett or Tom Stoppard – is a play just asking to be written;  tis reported Ginsberg wept all afternoon when he told of Auden’s death in 1973.

It would be interesting to know how, living in New York, he reacted to the phenomenon of The Beats and beyond, given that in the ’40s he was bemoaning to a friend, “the unspeakable juke-boxes, the horrible Rockettes [a dance company] and the insane salads.”  He was certainly aware of the later counter-culture, and, we are told, took LSD at some point, but Davenport-Hines just leaves that one hanging there, giving us absolutely nothing about how that went, which given the non-revelatory nature of his religious commitment could have been interesting.

And here we have a fascinating … conundrum, not exactly contradiction, but something intriguing like that, in the life of arguably the most culturally significant homosexual of the twentieth century give or take an Alan Turing.  Auden died in 1973, Stonewall happened in 1969 and New York’s first Gay Pride march was in 1970, over which period Auden was still living in New York some of the year, and yet Richard Davenport-Hines’s Auden, published in 1995, makes no use of the ‘gay’ word at all and we given nothing as to how he reacted to these developments.  When his privately circulated 34 stanza erotic poem of 1948 The Platonic blow, celebrating in graphic detail male on male fellatio was published without authorisation, in Ed Sanders’ Fuck You magazine, with an Andy Warhol cover, he admitted to a friend, “in depressed moods I feel it is the only poem by me which the Hippies have read.”  The book, his life, is full of such wonderful juxtapositions.

The thing is, for all his later avowed Christianity, because of his avowed Christianity, he never stopped seeing homosexuality as a sin.  A trifling one compared with, say, avarice, but still a sin, and not one relished because it was a sin.  It’s hard not to argue that he got a lot of his poetic power from this and other denials.  For the poet, he maintained, unfulfilled wishes, unrequited love, were the best kind.  “Suffering has value,” he tells Delmore Schwartz (Lou Reed’s tutor, dedicatee of the Velvet Underground’s European son) in 1942, but only for what you can do with it.  Leavisite critics who ruled the English Department university roosts in the 1950s sidelined him as immature basically because they saw homosexuality as immature.  And yet he was lukewarm about homosexual law reform in England:

‘To begin with, they seem unaware that for over ninety-nine percent of us, it makes not the slightest difference, so far as our personal liberty is concerned, whether such a law be on the statute books or not.’ He judges that ‘the few who do get into trouble are either those with a taste for young boys – and I am surprised by how seldom they do – or those who cruise in public.’ The pragmatic strategy of Arran and his supporters was to stress the separateness and freakish otherness of homosexuality. Auden disagreed.

So, a man very much of his time but also transcending it, and out of it.  This is a fascinating biography and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of his personal life (never mind the work).  He discarded one of the poems he remains most famous for – the formidable September 1, 1939 (here’s a link to the original version), the one written in the first days of World War 2, containing the line, “We must love one another or die” – from the last authorised edition of his Collected poems.  As early as 1944 he’d excised that stanza from a new collection because the line was a lie, “for we must die anyway, whether we love or not“.  And when President Lyndon Baines Johnson misquoted it in a speech on the Vietnam war – “One cannot let one’s name be associated with shits” – he decided it had to go altogether.  “I pray to God that I shall never be memorable like that again.”  He told novelist Naomi Mitchison it was “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” and he further revised other work, particularly that from the 1930s.  Many find this depressing (I probably would if I had the studying time) but he at least did it with a twinkle in his eye:

‘I get more of the crotchety, ritualistic bachelor everyday,’ he reported … ‘God! How careless I used to be. I feel as if I am only just beginning to understand my craft. The revisions will be a gift to any anal-minded Ph.D. student.’

Music, music, music

Last week it was non-stop, went to something at least every other day, culminating with the mighty Yorkiefest (click on the images to get an enlargement).  Getting fit for StonyLive!

Beechey Room May 15 Aortas 100515 Scribal May 15 Vaultage 16 May 15The second of the Saturday Beechey Room Sessions in York House delivered another grand afternoon.  Blurred lines betwixt  performers and audience made for a relaxed community of music lovers freed from the hubbub of a pub setting, for which initiative take a bow Michèle.  The music ranged from a 1927 guitar rag to Iris Dement via Donovan and Strawberry Wine (the 17 one), sung not drunk.  Another reminder too of the extraordinary emotional power that Carole King song can have for women of a certain age (quite a span, actually, but definitely older than 17).

Aortas open mic at The Old George and, having remembered to bring the words with him, Dan Plews debuted the latest version of his evolving Northampton song, Boots and shoes, complete with cricket and John Clare’s  “vaulted sky” references.   Very good it is too.  The original songs of Fraser & amazing accordionist Liz (so many buttons!) made a nice addition to the usual talented mix.

The first post-election Scribal Gathering saw Polkabilly Circus, the latest aggregation of musicians involving the Antipoet’s Paul Eccentric, strut the stage, if by strut you can understand at least two of them sitting down most of the time.  Kicking off with Polkabilly Boy you could see where the billy in the name came from, and the last song – “this is my punk statement” – gave clue to the ‘p’, if only lyrically.  In between a rich mix of many things, including klezmer and gypsy violin.  What else?  The latest installment chronicling how rotten Stephen Hobbs’s month had been, including an apology for no matter how small a proportion of his contribution to the Labour Party went towards that fucking ‘Ed stone’.

Ralph Keats (no relation) gave some Advice to J.Arthur Prufrock from the Beatles, while Vanessa got away with dissing the whole male gender even though I’m pretty sure there were plenty present who have little interest in football.  Rob Bray said it was the first time he’d played keyboards in public and proceeded to play like Jamie Cullen.  Mark Owen was his usual excellent self; Breaking waves is such a good song – any documentary maker out there working on the Mediterranean migrant boats crisis looking for a suitable song, look no further.  Danni Antagonist wrapped up another fine evening with a poetical warning – written that evening on the spot – for the electoral victors to build a nice high fence.

Thursday’s Vaultage was a bit of a bear-pit, drinkers and talkers unremitting most of the time, though Breaking waves broke through – into my skull at least – again.  Was this the first Vaultage without a Dylan cover?  Pat Nicholson made the mistake of introducing his song Liberty as “This is my Brain in the jar” – another regular’s old chestnut – only for certain members of the audience to start singing that song’s chorus over the guitar intro to Pat’s song before he had a chance to get started.  Liberty hi-jacked – or is the phrase mashed up? – Pat happily sang along.  Great fun.

Yorkiefest 2015And so we come to the mighty YorkieFest and its glorious fourth annual incarnation.  Personal favourites only otherwise I’ll be here all day, but a splendid musical roster – great work from the aforementioned Pat Nicholson (not forgetting Derek Gibbons doing loads of other stuff).  The day kicked off with a refreshing change – Navaras (the name – it says here – signifies the 9 essences and colours of Indian music) playing songs from the Bollywood canon.  Keyboards man had a few jazz chops to bring to the party.  The never-failing AntiPoet brought new material: The bards of bugger all and We’re not worthy.  Oh yes they are.  Five Men Not Called Matt – usually six, actually – today 4 men and a woman, so still rousing but a little sweeter.

OmniVibes (aka Paul Jackson) was something else.  Just the one man, beatnik beard, pork pie hatted, and his sitar.  He started off with an immaculate raga, pausing only briefly to pick up a steel bottleneck slide and synch into a couple of equally spellbinding slow blues, only to finish with a foot-stomping Seven nation army, still making full use of the sitar’s sonic potentialities.  Then apologising because he was feeling a bit under the weather as he’s over-celebrated his birthday the previous night.  I just don’t understand how people can carry on boozing and bantering away while something like that is going down, but they do.  Second Hand Grenade played that funky music, and Palmerston finished everything off harmoniously, delivering quality original material – country rock as good a label as most – with elan, gusto, subtlety and wit.  Both bands had people who seldom dance up prancing, while a celebrated tea drinker was seen with a glass of red in her hand.  Splendid day’s music.  And Towcester Mill Brewery’s Rubio was a tasty tipple to accompany it all.  Bravo Pat, Derek & co.         

OmniVibe in full flow.  Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.

OmniVibes in full flow. Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.

 

Floating Boats

OMR

We were there on a three-line whip from one of the Old Mother Redcaps folk dance team, to partake of the delights of the May Day celebration down by the canal in Campbell Park, put on by the Milton Keynes Parks Trust. We overhear a man saying to his partner, “Better than Midge Ure at The Stables?”  Says she, “A load of women having a good time, laughing and dancing?  What could be better than that?”  His only response: “Whatever floats your boat.”  [Click on them and then click again to upsize the photos, © DRQ].

Manx Folk Dance Society in MK

Old Mother Redcaps, local dancers out of Stony Stratford in the Manx tradition, were hosting members of The Manx Folk Dance Society, over from the Isle of Man, or Ellan Vannin as some might say.  (Land of my great great great-grandfather for what it’s worth.)  A mixed troupe, it was all very gentle and polite, courtly even at times.  Near the end they had a mash-up of home and away:

OMR MFDS mash up

And then there came Hemlock Morris, a mixed alternative morris side out of Bedford.  A darker side, as they say on their website.  Shades of goth, sporting Suffragette colours against the black.  Faces daubed, wielding sticks of varying size, accompanied a dog.

Hemlock04

Not the most violent of sticks sides I’ve seen, but bearers of great joie de vivre.  How the traditionalists must hate them.  Tough.

Hemlock 02

All this, and earlier, the, as ever, rather splendid Concrete Cowboys made some new friends:

CC1

Also mentioned in despatches

Aortas 260415Vaultage 30042015Scribal blankAt Aortas Dan Plews would have debuted a new song celebrating the Northampton’s footwear industry heritage if he hadn’t left the words at home.  That he was cajoled into playing Wonderwall was an entirely unrelated incident.  Breaking news: Naomi Rose too played a cover – the wonderfully obscure Ingrid Bergman (Words Woody Guthrie, music Billy Bragg – you remember).  Ralph Keats, with the confidence gained from a world tour of Swansea behind him, was everywhere.

As was Mark Owen, but it was at Vaultage that his See the dancing bears – on the night of the party leaders’ Question Time on telly – instilled itself as a not unwelcome earworm for the next few days until it got replaced by “Sailing over the Dogger Bank to Great Grimsby;” but I jump ahead of myself.  Mitchell Taylor surprised with a version of The last of the steam-powered trains – one of my favourite Kinks songs.  A nod to hosts Lois – Readjust a fine song written around such an unmusical word – and Pat.

Sunday Scribal started off metaphorically all a bit Scribal fought the drunks and … but against all the expectations of poetic metre … the music and poetry won.  Nicely held together by Terri and Steve (Richard sitting this one out, unfit, on the subs’ bench) Mark was both warm-up and featured artist (even though the poster never got made) with what is now an excellent political trilogy, satirical, thoughtful and angry; Getting away with it just keeps getting better.  Poet Danni Antagonist was on fire, but what made this Scribal memorable was an unaccompanied Tim Hague venturing solo into choppier waters than I would guess he’s used to.  Bet he’s never been whooped at before like that.  Tables were thumped, empty glasses vibrated across tables, and I daresay there were a few there who’d never joined in with a shanty before.  I speak of the aforementioned Dogger Bank.  Google has failed me in identifying ‘a proper jub-er-ju’ (it gets ‘triggered’ in the chorus), never mind a fake or improper one.

[For the record, Lillabullero seems to have fallen into a chronicling role in the matter of various musical delights in the town of Stony Stratford, but I’ve never mentioned the great Sunday lunchtime sessions in the Vaults – the longest continuously running folk session in the land it is claimed – and there’s a reason for that.  It’s one of those things that should and shouldn’t be taken for granted, and I am not worthy.  It’s a sit-down performer’s thing and all I can contribute in the circumstances is to enhance the bar takings standing at the back with a beer glass in hand drinking in the fine music and good vibes.]

Can’t finish without mentioning a book …

WH-Auden-001I’ve been reading an absorbing biography of W.H.Auden that has revealed much (to me, anyway) – like, he was a speed freak for over three decades, and, even as a teenager at Oxford (before teenagers were invented) he was telling people, “I mean to be a great poet” – and I’ll probably be writing more about the book another time.

A friend recently expressed surprise on discovering that he was older than Nigel Farage.  OK.  The number one hit song in the pop charts the week Nigel Farage was born was Can’t buy me love by the Beatles.  Yes, he’s only 51.  What happens?  At a tangent, I have only recently discovered that I have survived on the planet longer than W.H.Auden, despite all those iconic shots of him looking well ancient.  1907-1973.  Benzedrine, booze, cigarettes: the Christian life – it’s a fascinating story.  [Added May 10: So I get to page 330 and then the writer (Richard Davenport-Hines) tells me, “Auden had apparently been suffering since early manhood from Touraine-Solente-Gole syndrome in which the skin of the forehead, face, scalp, hands and feet becomes thick and furrowed …” Still, the drink and drugs can’t have helped.  Nevertheless, thanks R D-H.]

And not just in the pound-shops and bus stations.  Been nostalgising about a time when we usually had a Dylan quote to hand.  Couple of novels I’m glad to have read lately, set 90 years apart.  Both involve action of a kind in France, but operate mainly in England’s green and pleasant.

Worthless menWorthless men

Andrew Cowan‘s Worthless men (Sceptre, 2013) is an impressive work of other-worldly provincial realism.  Imagine a dark cross between James Joyce’s Ulysses (but with a narrative stream without too many tributaries) and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in the daytime.  It’s a diminished market day in a town that might be Norwich – the novel grew out of an oral history project there – and all the action (with added active memories, giving their back stories) takes place over the period from dawn to dusk as seen through the eyes (though not as first person narrative) of five people.  Except one of these, the main man by page count – Walter Barley, a young private, ‘missing in action’ – is hovering around, seemingly unseen, almost spectre-like.  It’s 1916 and there’s a troop train due as the day ends, carrying local lads back from the front in France,  and, mostly, though, the wounded bound for the temporary hospital set up in the grounds of the local industrialist’s big house on the edge of town.  Also family home to Walter’s traumatised and convalescent ex-commanding officer, and he’s no poet (though he is allowed the Catch-22 of, “A desire to return to the war would be the surest evidence they need that I am mentally unstable and not entitled to go“).

It’s a bleak, disturbing and compassionate set of interwoven stories of civilians and soldiery, a skillfully drawn and detailed picture of the way people lived, and the changes the war wrought.  It is beautifully, quietly, written.  There are a lot of what are basically lists – shops, people, occupations, animals – in the description, the sort of thing that usually has me skipping paragraphs, but such is the sustained tone of the writing that they become compellingly vivid; artists like Brueghel the Elder or Stanley Spencer – his biblical Cookham paintings – spring to mind.

That title, Worthless men, we are told in the Acknowledgments, is taken from a specific usage in the title of a non-fiction book looking at the use of the death penalty in the Great War, and the undercurrent of eugenics thinking that fuelled its application.  The notion of war ‘cleansing’ the gene pool is discussed by one of the characters in the novel – a pharmacist enthusiastically selling ‘contra-conceptives’ (sic) to those he considers below him to the same end – but dismissed by another as “almost certainly dysgenic in the degree to which it sacrificed the cream of the race, even as it effected a cull of the worthless.”  Such chilling period detail is integral throughout; relations between the social classes, between men and women within that context, and the changing role of women are un-showily handled to great effect.  There is symbolism – cattle are being slaughtered, there is a deluge as the day draws on, but, corny as that may sound, it works.  The deluge itself potentially sets up a sentimental bravery narrative that just doesn’t happen, and we are not told what happens to the man and woman (both with their own stories) in the rowing boat on the lake.  The climax of a meeting at the train station is a surprise.  Worthless men is a book that haunts, in the best possible sense.  Dead or alive – is there a definitive answer? – Walter is worthy of your company.

Other people's moneyOther people’s money

The bit of France in Justin Cartwright‘s Other people’s money (Bloomsbury, 2011) is a luxury villa on the Med, though the region’s lost its charm since the Russian oligarchs moved in.  Other people’s money tells the tale of the eleventh generation of a respected traditional English banking dynasty, brought down by “the fucking Gaussian bell curve” an economics professor got a Nobel prize for:

In his heart he knew that the Gaussian bell curve was nonsense and he knew that credit swaps and diced mortgages were chimeras, but he did nothing about it because everybody said that there were huge amounts of money to be made. But how? These derivatives related to no assets, to no worth, to no human endeavour. They turned out to be imaginary. It’s almost beyond belief that a huge industry was in thrall to fables.

And that’s the head of the bank’s inner thoughts as he struggles, kind of honourably but short-term criminally, to save something for their clients.  Not the least of the novel’s moral core is the tyranny and psychological damage a successful dynasty wreaks on its heirs.  He never really wanted to be a banker (how he got stuck with it is a story in itself) … and, without giving too much away, in the end he gets his escape.

Other people’s money is shaping up to be a very good old-fashioned upper middle of the road novel – dying patriarch, fiscal calamity, family fallout, corruption in high places – and then we meet Artair McLeod, aging idealistic theatrical fighting the good fight for Celtic culture down in Cornwall, who adds a nother dimension, and becomes a lot more than just the comic relief artsy fantasist.  As well as producing children’s plays for a living, he’s working on his magnum opus, a film script drawing on the works of the Irish novelist Flann O’Brien (as it happens, a writer who has given me much pleasure in the past), in particular his very funny experimental novel  At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) with its double mantra of:

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.
There are beginnings and there are ends, and there are also many ways of telling the same story.
[And:] People talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be true stories; events take place one way and we recount them the other.

Part of this obsession is that an author’s characters can take over a work, have a life of their own.  It doesn’t actually happen, and this O’Brien fuelled intervention is much more playful than po-faced postmodernism, but Cartwright serves up a rich (and rich) cast characters, the main players given their say, and though the ending is contingent (and unexpected) it could have gone any way, which is the point, I guess.

When Artair’s regular stipend fails to arrive – a footnote of a casualty to the bank’s crisis, a regular pay-off from his ex-wife, now long married to the dying patriarch  – an old school editor of a local paper, whose Fleet Street career had been spiked by the Robert Maxwell scandal, gets a whiff of something big and pursues it with rookie journalist and blogger Melissa, fresh out of uni with a joint Philosophy/Sociology degree the content from which still amusingly (for us) peppers her world view.  His scoop is scuppered by an outrageous corporate move, but it all plays a part in the ongoing saga. This is a depressingly believable and entertaining zeitgeist satire, and the fun in the telling cannot dispel the anger inherent in the book’s title.  There’s a lovely little twist at the end too.

I zipped through Other people’s moneyJustin Cartwright’s prose flows beautifully; he writes with a good eye and has a neat turn of phrase.  Indeed, I feel the need to share some of his goodies.  So when the old man, Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, is in a posh London hospital for tests, Cartwright acknowledges “… the front steps where nurses in their dress uniform sometimes assemble to wave goodbye to recovered members of the royal family”, and there’s the Portuguese cook whose “English, like her cooking, is low in calories.”  Meanwhile there’s the faithful Estelle, the old man’s lovelorn lifelong secretary, who “arrives with piles of paper, enveloped in by her old-lady microclimate,” while elsewhere Artair is complaining, “Until your cheque arrived, I had been living on pasties. I am not complaining, but the life of a serious artist is not easy.”

And then there’s Melissa, now a successful journo in London, and her valediction for her old boss:

        Melissa remembers Mr Tredizzick’s speech, which mentioned Tom Paine and the rights of man: ‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.’ Poor Mr Tredizzick. He was fighting a different battle for a different England, an England that no longer exists – if it ever had. Nobody now thinks about reaping the blessings of freedom; instead they hope to win the Lottery or become celebrities.
There are, anyway, different kinds of freedom. (Isaiah Berlin, philosophy, module 12.)

I shall probably be re-visiting At Swim-Two-Birds sometime soon.

Words and music

Aortas AmericaScribal Apr 2015Vaultage aprSunday, Tuesday, Thursday – Aortas at the Old George, Scribal, Vaultage – it becomes a bit of a blur.  It’s all good.  The Aortas pic actually celebrates the previous shindig but you get the gist.  Congrats to Pat for getting his photo-record up so soon (though the tell the truth he hasn’t got much else to do, so I’m not getting at Dan).  At Vaultage someone new blessed with the name Tim Buckley (no relation) impressed with a hatefully funny divorce song and an anthem in praise of Cuba.  Including the featured poet there were remarkably 18 performers in the course of the evening, including at least 3 previously featured artists in the open mic.  Someone called Eric did Misty with an electric banjo.

Leanne Moden - LiaisonsLeanne Moden , ex-Poet Laureate of the Fens, was a delight.  Diminutive in stature but huge in presence and a charm not without the odd barb, she wove spells both sacred and profane.  For the former her incantatory Brixton 2013 was an act of communion, private validation – her and her mate Clare at a gig – as glorious testament to the importance of music in our lives.  Then there was the passionate defence of her unweeded lady garden that is Shaving grace.  And many other joys.  Here’s a link to her blog: http://tenyearstime.blogspot.co.uk/p/about.html ; click on the media tag for a view of her in performance.  She has a slim volume (which includes other gems like the wonderfully titled Kubla Khan’s Bar and Grill) published by Stewed Rhubarb.  I can’t abide rhubarb in any shape or form but I do like the cut of their jib – “fuelled by ginger wine and late nights” – with a cute invitation to ‘befriend’ them on FaceBook.

We are starlings*

What WHA can do for youLet us start with the positive, a fantastic little book, a lovely little book.  A joy to read the prolific Alexander McCall Smith‘s What Auden can do for you (Princeton UP, 2013), which looks and feels good too, as one would expect from an American university press publication.  Were I not into Auden already (albeit as a late adopter) I’m pretty sure I would be so moved after reading this brief account of the man and his work, which also lets us in to how McCall Smith, the writer prince of gracious, decent living, first got acquainted and drawn in.

A selection from the chapter headings practically tells the tale: Love illuminates again; Choice and quest; The poet as voyager; Politics and sex; A vision of agape; And then there is nature.  To save you looking agape up (as would I), McCall Smith describes it as “that disinterested love of others that has played so important a part in traditional Christian teaching,” while Wikipedia has it as “selfless, charitable, non-erotic (brotherly) love, spiritual love, love of the soul“, though there are more specific Christian meanings.  He invokes it thus:

I then experienced a feeling of extraordinary calm, of something that must have been joy.  It was fleeting, lasting only a minute or two, but it was unmistakable.  […]  … we know that for a short time we have seen something about the world that we do not normally see.  I suddenly understood that I loved the people present in that small enclosure.  I had come from Edinburgh feeling that the evening would be a chore, and now I stood on the grass and realised how grudging, how churlish that attitude had been.
“A summer night,” I said to myself.

A summer night is a poem that Auden wrote in 1933, the generation of which McCall Smith goes on to talk about in some detail; this is typical of McCall Smith’s approach.  He is thankful for the illumination.  His final chapter is Auden as a guide to living.  More an aid to living, really, but here’s the penultimate paragraph:

On his [Auden’s] memorial in Westminster Abbey are inscribed the words In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.  I remember when I first read that these lines had been chosen for that memorial, I was not sure I understood why.  Now I understand.

Book of lost thingsThose words encapsulate one of the basic tenets of ‘happiness’ self-help texts.  Richard Wiseman, for instance, in his 59 seconds: think a little change a lot (2009), one of the more grounded examples of the species, cites the results of scientific experiments to justify their efficacy beyond folk wisdom.

Another guide to life in book form is offered in John Connolly‘s The book of lost things (2006).  This is one of those novels that reveal that they are the story of how the novel itself came to be written.  Though it is not a children’s book – and author Connolly avers this in the 150 pages of appendices after the novel has finished – it reads like one, in that everything is painstakingly spelt out in simple, unspectacular prose.  Anyway, the ‘author’ gets to be a famous writer, and children travel to meet him:

… he would talk to them of stories and books, and explain to them how stories wanted to be told and books wanted to be read, and how everything that they ever needed to know about life and the land of which he wrote, or about any land or realm that they could imagine, was contained in books.

Everything they ever needed to know?  Even as an ex-librarian for whom the flame still burns I’d say that’s pushing it a bit.  Which is a shame, because that riff about stories wanting to be told is nicely set up early on, with the old books on the shelves in young David’s new room:

David was aware of a change in the room as soon as he began to fill the empty spaces on the shelves, the newer books looking and sounding uneasy beside these other works from the past.  Their appearance was intimidating, and they spoke to David in dusty, rumbling tones.  the older books were bound in calfskin and leather …

Grimm’s Fairy Tales prominent, as read to him by his dead mother.  Promising Neil Gaiman territory, one hopes.  The situation is that his father re-marries, which is bad enough, and then a baby comes along.  Not happy.  It’s the 1940s, father is working somewhere that might, interestingly, be Bletchley Park, though that strand is just allowed to fade away.  German bomber crashes on his secret garden and he’s catapulted into quest mode in a land of heavily mucked about fairy stories and folk tales.  The thing is, you know he’s going to reconcile to his new family situation, so the value of the book is down to how well the mucking about with traditional myths and stories is done.  Nothing wrong with the concept, but in practice here it is relentless and repetitive.  There’s a lot of routine slaughtering, some unexceptional trickery and we end with a not unusual bit of wisdom (ie. be careful what you wish for).

There is one episode that promises humour to leaven the ongoing slog – Snow White as bloated capitalist slave-driver and the Dwarves as ineffectual class warriors complaining of David’s size-ism – but it’s a leaden, arch failure.  Shame.  There’s a certain profundity – not least in the dire realism he sometimes imparts to our young hero – in the character of The Crooked Man, the ultimate bad guy who has been messing with David all along (that’s him on the cover) but there’s a confusion with him that’s never really resolved.  Especially when he is finally overcome.  There has to be more to the Trickster archetype than being a con-man, surely?  The book of lost things lost me very early on, and I only laboured to the end out of loyalty to Judy, in the Book Group, who I knew had finished it.  We were in the minority.  With Book Groups you win some, you lose some.

******************************************************************

Simic Charles Simic was new to me when I was given his Looking for trouble: selected early and more recent poems (Faber, 1997) as a present a few years ago.  Two questions immediately arise: the presence or not of Elvis Presley (did you not hear that echo?) in a book with a title like that (ans: not directly); and what happened in between – pomp or circumstance?  Seems, in the latter case, that unlike Waiting for the sun – The Doors’ mid-career nadir –  he was winning prizes.

I’ve only just got round to spending significant time with it (sorry) and it’s been good to make the acquaintance.  The puff on the back cover claims “there is no poet quite like him, and the attempt to fix labels always ends in frustration.”  I’d say he’s all over the place … in the best possible sense of the term.  The majority of the poems in Looking for trouble do not trouble you to turn the page.  He’s concise but kaleidoscopic, capturing moments and glimpses, or, broadening the canvas, doing what good urban photographers do.  He has a comic eye, but, quoting again from the back cover, Seamus Heaney puts it far better than I could: “His metamorphoses and mise-en-scène are always subject to the g-factor of human suffering.”  You find the word surrealistic often applied to Simic’s work, but, Heaney says, that misses “a specific gravity in his imagination that manages to avoid the surrealist penalty of weightlessness.”  How about that? – a poet even when he does lit-crit!  He concludes: “The magic dance is being kept up to keep calamity at bay.”

Born 1938 in what is now Serbia, he had experienced living under Nazi occupation and displacement before his family emigrated to the US in the early ’50s; the ghost of Europe is still there, but he’s an American poet.  I can’t say I get everything here, but that’s par for the course.  By far the longest piece – 12 pages, but most of it short two liners with a lot of spaces in between – seems to be among other things, about the challenge of the blank page.  I particularly liked Bestiary for the fingers of my right hand even before I’d read it.  Just a couple of openings to tempt you:

Club Midnight
Are you the sole owner of a seedy nightclub?
Are you its sole customer, sole bartender,
Sole waiter prowling around the empty tables?[…]

Dostoyevsky, Fu Manchu and Miss Emily Dickinson show up in that one.  Then there’s

The street ventriloquist
The bearded old man on the corner,
The one drinking out of a brown paper bag,
The one who declares himself
The world’s greatest ventriloquist,
We are all his puppets, he says
When he chooses to say anything.

Music Maestro, please
Vmarch AortasVaultage AprEarly

CC1 Steve Barnes PSP

Concrete Cowboys at York House. Photo (c) Steve Barnes from FB event page, posterized in PSP.

Quick before they’re gone.  Two Vaultages, an Aortas and another York House extravaganza in the shape of StonyBreakdown!3 since the last blog.  And I can even shoehorn the Living Archive’s film compilation MK through the lens into this section too if I try hard enough.

Fortnightly open mic The Vaultage has developed nicely into a fine night out.  Good job Pat and Lois.  The fragrant Naomi Rose (that’s her on the first Vaultage poster) introduced Starlings*, a fab new song, at Aortas.  Commemorating, among other things, the recent glorious local murmuration, it sounded as good as I’d remembered it at the most recent Vaultage, which was also graced with a two-man reprise of material from the recent S.S.Shanty from the fine voices of Tim Hague and Andy Powell.  The latter also featuring some avant-garde banjo with The Concrete Cowboys at the aforementioned StonyBreakdown.  Love that band, even though no sight or sound of You aint going nowhere (usually announced as their theme song), my favourite singalong this side of Sunny afternoon.  Other fine sets from Valerie Vale & Her Aylesbury Aylevators, and the Band of Brothers, with a committed solo spot from The Lost Jockey (a cool Magritte reference, art lovers).  Back at Aortas, guitaricide committed on Dylan’s With God on our side (for once I wish that hadn’t rhymed), but also a nice reminder of what a lovely song Paul Simon’s America is.  MC Dan Plews’s own songs as immaculate as ever.

MK through the lensAnd so to Roger Kitchen’s MK through the lens, screened at Stony’s Scala film club, a compilation of material ranging from amateur footage on pre-MK whackiness in Wolverton to professionally shot newsreel, documentary and DevCorp propaganda films – Hey, the Red Balloon ad! – in preparation for Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday next year.  We’ve come a long way.  Some fascinating clips of new estates emerging out of the mud like something out of a science fiction film.  Corny maybe, but having the Tom Robinson Band’s 2-4-6-8 Motorway as soundtrack to the construction of the M1 hit the spot nicely.  And shame film was so expensive back then, or we might have had more of the last journey – steam hauled! – of Newport Nobby (some of the track is now a Redway).  Intriguing footage, too, of a local ’80s band (forgotten the name) making a video – availing themselves of the original bulkier featured central marble seating – in the shopping centre.  Hi Caz!  Interesting hair.
Caz

 *The title of this week’s blog is a line from Naomi’s Starlings.  I’m wondering if that’s a nod and a wink to that Joni Mitchell song about us being Stardust. Which we are. Or as Carl Sagan put it, and which I’m more comfortable with, star stuff.

 

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