First let us praise Stony Stratford’s new Bard, Vanessa Horton Jonklaas, not the least among her talents being the ability to embarrass her teenage daughter with a quick burst of rap. But later for more of that.
Now let us go back in time to New Year’s Day, when fine mellow weather brought out a bumper crowd and more motors than you could shake a stick at, at the annual winter Stony Stratford Classic Car Festival. I’m not a car person (once owned a Lada) but, rain or shine, I always look forward to this. As is now traditional here at Lillabullero, a couple or three of personal favourites (Click, then click again when the page changes to get the full picture):
January Book Group book was, at over 400 pages, way too long – too much detailed description, too much agonising – and, at times, too clever and/or gross for its own good. When I say the writer was David Baddiel, some of you, at least will understand when I say that, even though I’m never going to listen to it, I was relieved to see that the reader of the audiobook edition wasn’t the author himself. The death of Eli Gold (2011) is certainly ambitious and not without its merits, though one of which is not, unfortunately, the elimination of wasted words.
Eli Gold, the world’s greatest living writer, is slowly dying in a New York hospital; in fact, other than in reminiscence, he’s in a coma for the length of the book. We get to see him through the eyes of four protagonists:
- Colette, the precocious 8-year-old daughter from his fifth and last marriage (a narrative device that invariably gets my goat)
- Harvey, the 44-year-old son from his third marriage, which ended badly with Harvey’s mum taking him to live in a feminist commune when he was a boy; he is overweight and in therapy. He ghost-writes celebrity autobiographies, and has written one novel; we are given a quote from the novel’s review on Amazon – “I just didn’t like any of the characters. Especially the hero (?) and narrator, Jake, a self-obsessed and obnoxious character who, at the end of the day, just wasn’t a very pleasant person to spend all that time with.” Yeah, right. (The question being, of course, is this authorial playfulness, or evidence of Ian Dury’s contention that, “There aint half been some clever bastards.”)
- the coldly avenging gun-wielding Mormon twin of Eli’s fourth wife, a marriage which ended in a failed joint suicide bid; given Eli’s in a coma you’d have to say there’s not much tension to be had in an assassination attempt (though it does, as it happens, lead to quite an interesting climax)
- Violet, Eli’s first wife – an English war bride, while living modestly with whom he wrote his breakthrough novel in a tiny flat in London. She’s now 89 and living in an old people’s home in London. Only sees he’s ill by chance in someone else’s paper. There’s an entertaining little sub-plot involving her condescending sister. Interesting on living in penury with a struggling writer – what’s on the page as opposed to what’s happening in the life – and the consequences of success.
- Philip Roth (wouldn’t you know it) and a charismatic Bill Clinton also have walk-on parts, and we see a fair bit of Eli’s last wife, controlling the social death process.
Even more than usual at the Book Group we expressed disbelief at the quotes chosen to advertise the book’s merits on the paperback edition cover. Agreement that it was not “Shockingly good” (The Times), disbelief from this quarter at “Better than anything Martin Amis had done in decades” (Sunday Express) (being the token male of the group, the others were, naturally, in no position to comment, but, you know, not in the same league), qualified acknowledgement of “Thoughtful and often hilariously funny meditation on ageing and fame” (The Times, again), though hilarious is definitely pushing it.
Yes, it has its moments, and I wouldn’t necessarily advise, “Don’t bother”; just be prepared to skim, and look up a few names on Google (as I had to do with Hughie Thomasson and Hester Prynne, for example). I liked the intriguing did-he-or-didn’t-he? aspect of the presence on the internet of a transcription of the police interview treating Eli as a murder suspect, after his failed part in the dual suicide bid, that so fuelled the fourth wife’s brother’s vengeance; there’s a suggestion (also teasingly queried) that, rather than being the real thing, it was Eli himself who wrote and posted it to the conspiracy theory website.
In the end a better title might have been ‘The redemption of Harvey Gold’ (you could see it coming), though I guess that would have hidden the ‘Great Man’ theme – an exploration of changing notions of both fame and masculinity – somewhat.
PS: The bitch in me was particularly tickled by this passage:
In his mind’s eye Harvey had seen her transform – in the bustle of the room, with bodies being moved out and policemen asking questions – into a classical widow, assuming the mantle of dignified grief as easily as a great actress dons Jocasta’s black. That is what she will be for the rest of her life, forever wreathed in the sad smile of memory: she will be his Yoko Ono.
That set up a bastard of an ear-worm that I couldn’t place, so had to look that up too. It’s the Barenaked Ladies, they of Big Bang Theory‘s rather wonderful theme tune. Their song Be my Yoko Ono. Which, from the evidence of the official video, would seem to have her approval.
Words, music, apples
First Vaultage of the year saw Narius doing his sophisticated seated guitar strut and the Essex Folk Federation of Fraggle Fletcher (aka EFFOFF), an accomplished thrash folk punk duo from Essex of great energy and wit, singing the praises of tea and lager and name-checking Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine (now there’s a name I’ve not conjured with for a couple of decades). Fraggle (or partner) toted a furiously strummed miniature guitar that was definitely not a ukulele. Great fun. (That’s me, with beard, top left on the poster.)
Scribal Gathering, moving round the corner and down the road apiece, returned to the Cock, the more spacious venue it had graced a few years ago. Who better to draw the crowds in for the January gig than Forest of Fools, who, if you’ll excuse the expression for a folk accordion and percussion driven musical enterprise, rocked the joint. It’s a unique sound, with a double percussive and bass attack (conventional bass plus sousaphone making some extraordinary noises). Superb musicianship and, a rare thing indeed in the realms of Scribal, dancing was partaken of. The dapper Poeterry was immaculately Poeterry, though mystifying one or two it must be said.
Was too tired to stay for the Bard’s Last Stand, but what a grand job he – Pat Nicholson – has done in that capacity, and, with Lois, in consolidating Vaultage as a place to be. Was interesting to hear Taylor Smith – Mitchell Taylor, fellow guitarist and vocalist Smith1 and cajonist Smith2 – playing Mitchell Taylor’s songs, only previously heard solo in this parish; great singalong cover of The Beautiful South’s Rotterdam too.
We wassailed the apple trees and the back of York House (great photo courtesy of Andy Powell). The bearded one seeming to burn up is my son Pete; that’s silver-haired me bottom left, the back of his mum in the middle:
And so to the Bardic Trials, held at York House for a change, and a good one it turned out to be. As far as I’m concerned seating arranged around a bunch of round tables is the best. What a great evening. The place was buzzing from the first round with the five contestants’ opening bids all getting rousing receptions. This was after a double act intro from Terrie Howey (aka Red Phoenix) and Danni Antagonist echoing Eurovision. In the end it was down to singer songwriter Mitchell Taylor and Vanessa Horton Jonklass. I’ve not seen Mitchell perform better, and I’ve seen him a a few times, his distinctive songs and delivery winning many friends. Thanks Mitchell, for the ear-worm “Listen to Sandanista” (which I’ve never done) – I’ve had cheerier. But prolific poet Vanessa was a popular winner, even without calling on her ode to chocolate. Displaying loads of wit and commitment, she’ll be a fine Bard. And as if the Trials themselves weren’t enough, the experience of powerful guest storyteller Usifu Jalloh – originally from Sierra Leone, in full colourful African garb, banging on a big long drum, storytelling barely scratches the surface – was sensational, held us entranced, had us laughing and hugely energised, taking us first on a trip round Africa, then across to Europe, ending up with a call to unity in Milton Keynes. Wow. What a night. Great job Terrie & the Bardic Council. (Here’s a link to Usifu Jalloh‘s website: http://www.usifujalloh.com/.)
A night of relative calm the following evening with ex-Bard Danni Antagonist in Stony Stratford Library, for a show of (it says here) “wry poetry and musings on life, love and the weather, and to celebrate the launch of” … the as yet incomplete and so so far phantom … “second collection “Like Diamonds and poison”. Given her fine first collection, and one of the poems featured on the night, was called Empty threats … as the I Ching says, “No blame”. Danni was more than ably supported by guest singer/songwriter Mark Owen in thoughtful mode. With some neat collaborations of the pair of them, and a story from Red Phoenix, an engaging evening full of charm.
Friday night A Pointless Quiz at (and for) York House. Pointless not so much “We asked a hundred people” as in the mind of the irrepressible Ken Daniels. I managed to disastrously confuse Clint Eastwood with Lee Marvin, Two mules for Sister Sarah with Cat Ballou. Due to this and also trying to be too clever, The Lost Marbles could only manage a disappointing mid-table performance.