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2i’s in ‘librarian’

The hardback edition of Salley VickersThe librarian (Viking, 2018) is a joy to hold and behold – an imaginative period touch from the publisher.  Clothette-bound, lightly impressed lettering, gold on the leaves of the decorative vines that frame the sides of the pasted in semi-glossy colour reproduction; there are even restrained printed endpapers too.   Except … such a shame it’s the wrong period.  For we are in 1958, and Cliff Richard  is a cause for concern among worried parents (I can remember my mum unhappy, seeing him perform on telly: “Look at him! Look at the state of him!”).  And modernist dust jackets were well de rigueur by then. 

Having been a public librarian for nearly four decades it was hard to resist The librarian, and having married a Children’s Librarian, doubly so, for our heroine, Sylvia Blackwell is one of those too.  Qualified Children’s Librarians – almost an extinct species these days – were always something of a breed apart; I recall at a multi-local authority buying consortium meeting, the collective sigh or the odd chuckle whenever someone had to say, speaking to a proposal, “But my children’s Librarians …”  So, fierce crusaders, defenders of their patch and, um, special.  Back in my day – which started just over a decade later than when Salley Vickery‘s novel is set – there were plenty of them around.  London Borough of Camden in the 1970s, 13 of the 14 branches had a qualified specialist Children’s Librarian, who, in the smaller branches, also served as Deputy Branch Librarian, which is Sylvia’s position in the library in the small in decline Wiltshire market town of East Mole, a position she takes, aged 24, her second professional position.

Warning: there now follows a paragraph of library-based nit-pickery.  Because there’s always a potential problem for the reader when a novel is set in a sphere of work or play they know well.  It does tend to bring out the pedant in one – does it not? – but I managed to survive an early faux pas that if its like had been repeated could have stopped me in my tracks.  Early on Sylvia say to her boss: I think we maybe need to re-catalogue the whole library, Mr Booth“.  No, no, no: what she is talking about is either re-classifying them (doubtful) or more likely, simply re-arranging how the books are to be displayed on the shelves.  Nor is there much awareness given of East Mole Library being part of the wider Wiltshire County Library Service – the statutory authority – in its running; I doubt that a small town in that set up would still have its own Library Committee (something else that has, probably thankfully, disappeared from the local government scene), though I’ll grant its narrative value here.  (I do admire the way Kingsley Amis uses the inter-library loans service to progress developments in his That uncertain feeling (that was filmed as Only two can play).

The paperback cover. Inside the cover an illustration of an old-style library book pocket. And book card that could have done with a bit more research. Charming, nevertheless.

And having said that, I loved The librarian.  It’s a right old mash-up of a novel that hangs together beautifully.  There is:

  • suburban (Uxbridge) girl hits the rural sticks (takes up residence in a cottage on Field Row, with a whiff even, of Cold Comfort Farm
  • library staff soap opera … and intrigue
  • the boys and girls and the inspirational adult (librarian and/or teacher) vs. the bad guys (reminiscent of old-fashioned teenage literature)
  • a wise old woman to the rescue, and an interesting vicar added late to the rich and sour band of characters
  • social class tensions and nascent teenagerdom
  • the many faces of love in 1958
  • oh, yes, it’s a historical novel
  • a love of literature too
  • some decent not-haranguing-you but no disguising the library campaigning – hurrah!
  • and skipping a generation, the return to the book of a couple of the kids as grandparents – called Part Two but it’s more a touching Postscript … and a half.  I’m giving nothing away, but, as one of them says, ‘God, all the things that were going on under the surface then‘.  It’s a great ending.
  • whatever else I’ve left out

It’s a novel of charm, subtlety, and considerable emotional power.  All delivered with the tang of – for baby boomers at least – a tang of bitter-sweet nostalgia.  For a start it’s still Cliff Richard & the Drifters, and a couple of kids (the posh girl and her smitten beaux), in search of what’s happening, abscond to Soho’s 2i’s coffee bar (the excuse for my title, for what it’s worth).  The Six-Five Special (real music if you were lucky) on the telly, mohair sweaters (she doesn’t say it but so frustrating, those bobbliest of bobbled jumpers), Valentine magazine for girls … the terrors of the 11+ Exam.  And the doctor is still smoking away.

Back then, five years before the Lady Chatterley’s lover court case, libraries would have a Restricted Access section almost as a matter of course, something which continued well into the 1960s: “The Restricted Access section of the library consisted of those books which while not banned outright by the Censor were nonetheless considered unsuitable for the open stacks and for which readers had to put in a written request“.  Which of course meant “exposing your reading tastes” to the librarian.

I have a friend who systematically worked his way through the collection in Northampton Central Library, which stood him in good stead thereafter.  In East Mole The world of Susie Wong, about a Hong Kong prostitute, was among the ‘raciest’ in circulation, while a stolen copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is at the heart of a life-changing plot development.  “Blue as an Eskimo’s arse in winter, by all accounts,” says Dee, the library volunteer, while wise old Miss Crake, who has actually read it, avers “It’s not a bad book in fact. Somewhat overblown …”  While Sylvia, sick of all the ramifications, can only say, “‘I’d like to strangle Henry Miller.  With my bare hands.”

Ah, Sylvia: ‘Although Sylvia was familiar with adultery in literature, she had so far had no knowing encounter with it in life.’  That soon changes, swept of her feet by an older man, Hugh, the doctor, father of the posh girl.  They go for a walk among the industrial ruins on the edge of town.  When he sings the first verse of Ewan McColl’s Dirty old town, Sylvia ‘felt something happening to her bones‘ – a splendid phrase, I reckon.

Naturally the path of love does not run smooth.  ‘Oh, Sylvia thought, why must love be so harrowing?‘ and she wasn’t just thinking about herself; there are teenage dreams being shattered too; and the rest: ‘the ambiguous world of chance, which is a mingle of genes and character and circumstance and sometimes a rare flash of good luck…‘ as it is later described.  Chapter 27 is incredibly intense, the stuff of that crucial tea room discussion in Brief encounter, albeit with roles reversed and a few years on.  Crunch time for Hugh and Sylvia as they vigorously mull over the meanings for themselves of marriage, honesty, mutual understanding and fidelity:

He looked anguished. ‘To be fair …’
But she didn’t feel like being fair. ‘All right, I admit that I’d never heard of The Dream of bloody Gerontius before you delivered me from my slough of ignorance.’ He and his wife had ruined that special experience for good.

But, hey! – three cheers for the nation’s children’s librarians:

She was proud of her library. Her early hard work had borne fruit and the East Mole children and their parents now came regularly and eagerly to change their books. At time she experienced surges of overwhelming love for her little customers, prospecting the shelves for new finds, or sitting spread-legged on the floor, absorbed in exploring the varied kingdoms to which the books she had chosen for them had opened doors.

Although let us acknowledge, he says, nodding sagely, a bit of realism to go with the library life:

It was a dull morning. Few children came to change their books and those who did chose mostly books Sylvia disliked. By a quarter past twelve she was in a thoroughly bad temper.

Yay to that, too.  That heart-sink moment when someone asks you about David Icke’s books.

A final thought, apropos of nothing that has gone before but was new to me, appearing in the pages of this fine novel.  Thank you Salley Vincent:

Miss Crake began to pursue her earlier thought. ‘People are not consistent. That is a modern delusion. No one in the ancient world made such an absurd assumption. The Persians debated all important matters twice: once drunk and once sober.’
‘Which was did they debate first?’ Sylvia asked. She could see a benefit from taking either route.
‘That I don’t recall. It is in Herodotus, who is not reliable. So it may not in fact be true. But the idea holds good. They, or Herodotus, understood that it is a mark of superior wisdom to be able to sustain contrary views.’

I loved this book!  So much that here’s a period bonus, even though I prefer Rod Stewart’s version.  Which takes me back to the time I started working in libraries, when – I kid you not – there was not a cooler album you could walk down the street with under your arm than his An old raincoat won’t ever let you down.  But here, back to the writer and The librarian‘s lover’s inspiration (so he can’t have been all bad):

 

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As the bingo callers used to say – and maybe still do – Two Fat Ladies.  Or shall we say, the birth of rock’n’roll, Ike Turner’s Rocket 88?  That’s a 1932 Buick 8 and its more or less contemporary but closer to home Morris 8.  Always a great way – weather permitting , and it usually does – to start the New Year, the Stony Stratford Vintage Car and Motorcycle Festival.  This year’s camera focussed on the car makers’ bonnet insignia, with no shortage of witty custom jobs too; I’m pretty sure the hare on that Alvis, for example (sorry, no picture), was not exactly authentic (not that I’m complaining).

I’m no car buff but I do love those Citroën, like Patrick Jane drives in The Mentalist.  A fine example was on show in the Budgens car park.  The event just seems to get bigger and bigger, both the vehicles and the crowds.  Shame this promises to be the last for a while – organisers’ fatigue – but big thanks guys.  Happily June Classic Car bonanza lives on.

Impossible to not indulge in nostalgia: Hey, Andy’s dad’s first car (a Wolsey, a black one), my first car (a Hillman Imp, for what it’s worth – which, truth be told, was not much, given it broke down on its first long journey), and all the motoring memories; the weirdish looking Ford Capri – double headlights and a modest nod to America – was bigger than I remembered.

With camera in hand I’m a sucker for reflections, and freshly polished shiny motors are a gift.  Hence the photo above, two White Horses on the wheel arch of a 1950 Chevy pick-up truck.  No levees to drive to, but there is always a fair sampling of what might be called (discuss) the golden design age of the American automobile.  Now I’ve found this, looking for something else, it has to go in:

Stony’s got a brand new Bard

All hail Mitchell Taylor!  Seen here with bardic staff and the mayor of Milton Keynes.  Erstwhile musician and poet of this parish … or at least within walking distance thereof.  He competed as a poet, but the journey from busker to Bard has also taken in some fine original songs, a warm-up spot for Jeremy Corbin in Station Square a couple of years ago, not to mention ‘his’ band Taylor Smith, among other things.  He is also a gentleman of taste, not afraid of raiding the parents’ record collection, and being the only person to give me a like on FaceBook when I put up The Decemberist’s epic nine minutes of The mariner’s revenge (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Sw61oITuts if you’re interested).  His strong voice should make for an interesting year Bard-wise.

This year’s Bardic Trials were an absorbing contest from a field of four, and we certainly weren’t expecting a juggler (among his many other talents – here was a talented street entertainer)!  Nice to be treated to the unexpected, though local loyalties won out in the end.  There was a sitar recital while the votes were being counted; the player was worried about his old instrument going out of tune in the heated atmosphere, but truth to tell – and I mean this in the best possible way – we wouldn’t have noticed.  Yay micro-tones!

Hannah Chutzpah entered in a witch’s cape and opened with words that I surmise may have something to do with Harry Potter, but very soon broadened her demographic with an outline of the rules of Shithead Bingo, a game for pretty much any workplace, and her missive to a pet crematorium – Dear Pet Crematorium, no less – on the occasion of them returning the ashes of her much-loved cat along with unexpected bonus poems out of the Clinton’s Cards school of verse.  A couple of poems about her exes bit too.  An admission that she had once been sacked as a proof reader (by the OU in MK, so look at me now!) had a certain irony given how her name appeared on the poster advertising the event.

Scribal Gathering

Hard to know if stand-up Chris Norton Walker‘s repeated utterance of what a ‘weird’ audience we in Stony Stratford were is part of an act he takes everywhere, but his biggest laughs came with some of his corniest material – not that there’s any harm in that.

Andy Griffiths started off admitting he’d always had the ambition to write a James Bond movie theme, and he gave us one for the 21st century; given it was coming from a white, liberal, middle class folk singer, it was, of necessity, he said, full of guilt.  It was a sensitive, tuneful set; I particularly liked his looking back to being age 16, with the refrain, “You and me in the licorice fields / Hiding from the world“.

Open mic at January’s Scribal delivered, among other delights, the Bendy Witch, a poet of wit and great spirit it is to be hoped will return.  The Outside This collective were as strong as I’ve seen them.  “Let’s write a song about anarchy / Let’s not” sets the tone nicely, while the rousing long-running self-help epic Everything I hate in others never fails to raise a smile here at Lillabullero.  Jill Taylor gave us a Pam Ayers-stylee insight into the life of a Scribal organiser’s widow.

Vaultages

I can’t quite keep up with Vaultage now it’s gone weekly, but a post-Christmas Innocent Hare shone brightly, ranging from George Frederick Handel to Iron Maiden and stations in between, signing off with Donkey Riding.

Pat Le Chapeau – Vaultage-meister Pat Nicholson, no less – gave us 9 original songs in bursts of three, the last as a trio with the two Andys, as pictured here – including a premiere performance of at least one song written 20 years ago.

Refrazzled – a “work in progress” from an old salt and two younger chums – delivered an interesting choice of covers, including an impressive working of Nina Simone’s Feeling good punctuated with blues harp.  (Though I’d happily never have to hear Pink Floyd’s dirgeful I wish you were here covered ever again: I’d rather hear something from Piper at the gates of dawn (it still sounds fresh!) being murdered as a more fitting tribute to Syd Barrett).

Panto (Oh yes it was!)

Another year, another panto full of panto stuff and local associations (seems Robin Hood came south to thwart the Sherriff of Buckingham).  Intertextuality even – Sally’s pies back on the market from last year (if she can get them past the stage manager).  Director Caz Tricks and chums in the Stony Stratford Theatre Society delivered fun in style, the If-I-were-not-in-Robin’s-Merry-Men choreographed and round-singing slapstick (if they’re not very careful) routine was the highlight, an old chestnut but still freshly done – bravo!  Two fairies – Fairy Liquid & Fairy Nuff (a punk) – you get the picture?  Andy K. Powell as Russell Street (son of (pantomime) Dame Meryl Street) … non-Stonyites will need to know that there is a Russell Street School … in short-trousered be-capped Bash Street cum Terry Scott My brother mode …

Palmerston

… the timing of the Sunday panto performance meant a mad dash in costume for young Russell to take up a role as the AC/DC Angus McKinnon of the banjo for a Palmerston afternoon gig at Calverton’s Shoulder of Mutton pub (where they serve a lovely pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, by the way).  Five strong voices, fine musicianship – mandolin, banjo, fiddle plus the usual – great original songs from Alan Rondeau (think Mavericks, early Eagles, commercial end of Americana and a touch of music hall) and a collective sense of rhythm; they don’t need a drummer.  Great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. (Try ’em here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–fSI37B_mk).

A World Premiere even …

Another strand to 2019’s StonyWords literary fest, was a rehearsed play reading of Murder at the Chateau, a new work by a local author Joe Laredo (click on the poster to enlarge it for further details).  We were told to imagine we were watching the recording of a BBC Radio4 play (though there were costumes … and moustaches).  [Given the theme, and that the Countess and another of the main actors are also regulars at Lillabullero‘s New Year’s Eve Murder Mystery Parties it was sometimes hard not to imagine being back there as well].  Anyway, an interesting structure.  First act a series of events, but no full reveal; Second the trial – prosecution and defence cases put, witnesses grilled, crowd (us) encouraged to heckle; finally, monologues from the main characters, further revelations and what happened to them later.  Interesting.

It’s still happening …

Scribal re-gathering

 

Monsieur Hobbs at Vaultage. Original un-cropped photo © Pat Nicholson

First guest up here today is Stephen Hobbs, delivering his annual close-to-home and personal Top of the Poetry & Spoken Word Pops selection for 2018.  This was aired publicly at the culmination of the triumphal (steady on!) return of the celebrated Scribal Gathering – complete with new logo – of which more later.  The one obvious omission from this list of worthy miscreants, geniuses and institutions, many of whom have been mentioned in despatches here at Lillabullero*, is, of course, Mr Hobbs – keeper of various flames – himself.  What a word-popping trooper!  Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you, the act you’ve known for all these years, Mr Stephen – “that’s Stephen with a ‘ph'” – Hobbs and his …

Stephen Hobbs’s Top of My Poetry & Spoken Word Pops 2018

Hello Poetry & Spoken Word Pop Pickers! This is the Top of My Poetry & Spoken Word Pops for 2018.

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From 20 to 11

It’s: “The Bar Bar Black Sheep Café”, “The Boat Inn” at Stoke Bruerne, “The Sunset Lounge” at The Cannon in Newport, “The Song Loft” at Stony, “Utter Lutonia” in Luton, Lynette Hill, Dave Quayle’s “Lillabullero … Blog” *, Danni Antagonist, and Mossman!

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At Number 10!

Just squeaking in by a gnat’s gonad after 11 months of doing fuck all, it’s the godfather of the open mic scene in Stony – it’s Jonathan Taylor and SG!

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At Number 9!

It’s a proper poetry & spoken word night where open mic’ers can associate with proper published poets. No Sports TV. No Fruit Machines. They’ve been around for over 5 years and they run a couple of poetry slams a year. I’ve been runner-up three times and last year

I was equal third. Time to give up? Not a chance – one final Banzai charge in 2018. But nobody turns up to contend, so I am proclaimed The Slam Champion of 2018! Please don’t tell anyone how I really got it. Next year I get to host it, so let’s be having you! It’s Ian McEwan and the Ouse Muse over in Bedford!

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At Number 8!

Still the hardest working poetry/S&M/bass&triangle combo in the country. “Pointy Fingers”, “Random words in a random order”, “Friday Night is Gimp Night down at the Fighting Cocks”, “They don’t need it”, and “Stick ‘em up a chimney” – I can’t get those words out of my head. It’s The AntiPoet!

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At Number 7!

The 8th Bardic Trials in January 2018! For the first time in its history the Trials was contested by only two contenders and the good people of Stony Stratford voted Sam Upton their 8th Bard.

We now look forward to the 9th Bardic Trials on January 18th 2019.  Are you Bard enough?  You have until the 6th January to make your Bardic application. If you don’t want to be Bard or if you are barred from becoming Bard then please come and be Audience. In addition to the Bardic candidates, we also have a superb headlining performance poet – Hannah Chutzbah – who will be your reward. Your favourite sound system (thank you JT) will be making us all sound much better, whilst Bardic helpers will be running the bar. What’s not to like? A Bardic Council production. Bardabing Bardaboom!

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At Number 6!

The Feast of Fools storytelling club in Northampton continues to provide the perfect platform for storytelling open mic’ers and it’s also a great venue where the master storytellers can be seen and heard at work. Richard York we salute you!

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At Number 5!

By her own standards this has been a very quiet year for Number 5 but Life (with a capital L) has intervened to take her away from us. Nevertheless, she remains the Godfecker of Spoken Word – it’s Vanessa Horton!

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At Number 4!

A person who continues to bring storytelling, community spirit, and youth drama to Stony Stratford in a unique and compelling way. Despite being a PhD student at Loughborough University; she continues to find the time to create and tell brilliant stories, write pantomimes, run storytelling & steampunk workshops, and Chair the Bardic Council. It’s Terrie Howey!

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At Number 3!

It’s farkin’ Shakespeare innit! He’s the dogs bollocks. For her love of Shakespeare and her ubiquitous dramatic presence around Stony Stratford – it’s Caz Tricks!

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At Number 2!

He’s always there, like the ghost at the wedding. Chemist. Mime artist. Comedian. Poet. Singer/Songwriter. Guitarist? Past Bard. Consummate starer. Shakespearean actor. Storyteller. Yellow vest activist. Phil Chippendale!

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Pat ‘the Hat’ Nicholson. Without hat.

At Number 1! The Top of My Poetry & Spoken Word Pops for 2018 is …..

Someone you all know. A person of great generosity, a person of music, a person of words. A person who embodies the very best spirit of Stony Stratford. Someone who is always there for other people. He’ll give you an open mic spot, he’ll give you a headline set, he’ll lend you his guitar, he’ll even look after your dog. Singer/Songwriter, Poet, Bard, and Vaultage Master. I salute Pat Nicholson!

©Stephen Hobbs

[Mr Nicholson was presented with a whopper of a lollipop]

* The chronicler feels obliged to record that on the night Steve said (and typed, actually) ‘TinTin’ where Lillabullero should have appeared.  For this he is forgiven.  With thanks for keeping me bubbling under.

Vaultages

And while we’re here … Pat’s Vaultage continues on a roll, hitting the spot with great variety, or with Fraser & Toots, one could say the closest it gets to the Variety Hall – witty songs of everyday dilemmas and quirks.

Normally fortnightly, for at least the tail end of the year Vaultage was invited by the Vaults Bar to go weekly.  Which I completely forgot, so sorry, Group Therapy.  Linda Watkins provided as much polished serenity as is ever likely at this gig, while Paul Martin’s 4PM, an accomplished instrumental folk quartet, played up a storm – rare sight of dancing even – the driving power of Paul’s mandocello much in evidence.  Apart from a bit of a sing-song, to a French tune not a million miles away from Ding dong merrily on high, that Christmas billing a bit of a misnomer.

Janice Miller and Ian Walker (“He’s a strapping lad,” said Mike), regular open mic-ers, were well worthy of a featured spot, which they delivered with grace, power and aplomb, voice and guitar, respectively, more than hinting of late ’60s folk.  Couple of Dylan songs and Joan Baez’s Diamonds and rust, a haunting Ride on (à la Christy Moore) and a pumped-up Blackwater side, plus a couple more – a fine set.

Long overdue: a mention in despatches from Vaultage, for Pat’s able cohort: Andy Barber, standing at the bongos, hypnotic handpan in lap, or battling with the PA – take a bow, Sir!

Scribal Gathering

But back to Scribal.  So good to greet its return, smart new logo and all – music hall playbill? – an early Christmas present.  And what a roll call for an open mic, albeit the phoenix was rising again with a few judicious invitees.

So Americana duo the Hatstand Band (double bass No.1) kicked off this festive Christmas edition with a trio of rather good murder ballads.  Poet Mossman and storyteller Lynette Hill followed.  Mick & Steve’s Christmas Jukebox opened with a pretty straight Blue Christmas, and then proceeded to murder one of my favourite – a short list – Christmas songs: the one about the cavalry.  Complete with Kazoo Orchestra; great fun.  They signed off with the Band-Aid Do they know it’s Christmas; “I’ve never heard anyone do that live”, said Antipoetaster, Paul Eccentric – say no more.  Up comes Caz with her spirited Scribal Gathering: House rules, the text of which appears in its full (or thereabouts) glory below, with her permission and for your delectation.  Then a brief touch of poetic class from Liam Farmer Malone.

The Antipoet (double bass No.2) started with a couple of new numbers, and I wish I’d taken more notes.  One about the ills if consumerism (“They don’t need it“) and one called (?) Kids today (“Stick ’em up the chimney“; their Christmas number invited F.Christmas to do one, and, asking for request, reminded us that We play for food.  There may have been a bit more.

MK Acapella, a male voice choir, amazed with their harmonies and celebrated the season with the Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick.  8th Bard of Stony Stratford, Sam Upson, in what might well have been a farewell performance in the role, regaled us with some of his Stony stuff.  Stephen Ferneyhough concertina-ed us in Music hall mode, Oom-pa-ing all the way.  Danni Antagonist performed poems from her brand new slim volume, Emotion Memory.  Phil Chippendale appeared in the guise of his new alter ego, un gilet jeaune … avec cod Français.

Walker Miller I’ve told you about in Vaultages: Buckets of rain kept falling and another powerful Black WatersideStephen Hobbs presented his Top of the PopsAnd a lollipop to Pat Nicholson.  Last up an open mic-er who was new to most of us – fresh voices always needed and welcome – a bloke whose name I missed, but with a more than decent bitter-sweet song about his dad.  It’s great to have Scribal back.  Twas like it had never been away.  I’m thankful I’ve managed to finish this before the next Scribal night at the Crown.  Not that I’m going to be doing this every time, but I hope I haven’t left anyone out.  Bravo Jonathan JT Taylor and all the elves!  Bravo!

A lot of performers dislike Open Mics because of – to be kind – the general background pub hub-bub, or indeed the blatant disrespect shown to performers by ‘audience members’ who have come to converse regardless of what else is happening.  Stony Stratford’s Scribal Gathering is a bit special in this regard, from its  conception being a creative vehicle for poets, spoken word artists, singers and musicians.  Performers can invariably be confident of getting an attentive (and generous) audience.  Especially if Ms Tricks is in the house:

Caz Tricks’s
Scribal Gathering:
House Rules

It’s all about the words
From the musos
The poets
The often absurd

It’s the voices
Their choices
Their thoughts and reflections
Their sounds
Their music
And their perceptions
The rhythm
The structure
The flow
And the feel
The stories they’re telling
The fiction
The real

It’s the sharing
The sharing of thoughts
Both sublime and ridiculous
They go on a journey
And sometimes it’s serious

There’s an etiquette
A way to play
You listen
applaud
perform and should stay
Don’t do your bit
Then split
That’s not okay
it’s really [immaculately timed comic pause] rude*

You don’t have to perform
You don’t need to show off
You can just sit and listen

However
It’s the person behind the mic I want to hear
Not the twat at the back with their wine or their beer
We take time with our rhyme
We craft it, don’t shaft it:
Shut the fuck up or go downstairs

©Caz Tricks
* Honourable exception to the Antipoet, and others, who have come a long way and/or have a double bass to consider.

The Kazoo Orchestra (hiding their kazoos), that’s Caz 2nd left (c) Jonathan JT Taylor

 

 

That time of year again (or it was, just over a fortnight ago). Flash the bus pass and we’re on our bumpy way to the station.  With some trepidation still, negotiate the ticket machine successfully, without error and with the Senior Railcard: an old dog can learn new tricks.

On the train there’s time to soak myself in 58 fine rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter courtesy of Geoff Hill (Geoff not Geoffrey) in issue 179 of classily produced poetry magazine Envoi – more info & get it from here for just 50p more (including postage) than the cost of a pint of Guinness at the venue which is our ultimate destination; I’ll just leave that hanging there for the time being.  Back in the day I’d roam the pub rock pubs of London Town with Geoff and pals – don’t let anyone tell you 1975 was musically a bad year.  The long poem in question is called Requiem for a rocker; can’t say who it was written for, but, hey, none of us are getting any younger.  This is how it begins:

Dad’s aftershave & slicked down hair in Wimpy Bar & street …
Ray Charles on the jukebox, making coffee last a week …

And a just couple more out of sequence couplets to make you want more.  Serious stuff, mind:

your Viking spirit lingered yet, fastidiously berserk
(The Doors, Sinatra, Last Quartets on Fridays after work …)

Praise-singer, guru, space cadet, historian, mystic, yob
(enough to make a chap forget you still owe him five bob)

An aubergine & egg salad sandwich and a KitKat from the Euston M&S, and take the Northern Line to Archway for a subplot’s annual pilgrimage up Highgate Hill to Waterlow Park.  When I first moved to London in 1970 my bedsit was nearby, and I visited the park often for solace or inspiration; the cemetery on that side of the road was open to all then, too, unkempt mostly save for Karl Marx’s tomb, flowers and wreaths left by comrades from afar.  But first, regrettable to report, for all the more recent pedestrianisation – it used to be on a traffic island, oft hazardous to reach – the old Archway Tavern, scene of the photo of the Kinks drinking at the bar that graces the gatefold of what I consider the band’s masterpiece – Muswell Hillbillies – is still boarded up.

Anyway, this year, for the first time, I opt to conserve energy and take the bus up Highgate Hill, which is not called a hill for nothing.  It’s a great place, the Park, an oasis of calm, sedate strolling and a smattering of simple family fun on this Sunday, a fine and varied place.  The lake – still – always takes me by surprise: what, here? (Click on the photos to get a bigger picture)

 

Lingering awhile, I wander the paths, take a look through the hedge at the cemetery, check out the kitchen garden.  Ray Davies has been known to conduct his press interviews from a park bench, or in the café of Lauderdale House, which started life as a country house over three hundred years ago – Samuel Pepys visited and Nell Gwynn lived there briefly apparently, before it got a Georgian neoclassical makeover;  it was derelict when I first came across it.  I eat my sandwich – no food allowed in the venue, even though doors open at one o’clock with a six o’clock finish, and head down Dartmouth Park Hill towards said venue.

There’s a Ray Davies song – London song, on Storyteller, his first post-Kinks album, released 20 years ago – that has the lines “But if you’re ever up on Highgate Hill on a clear day / You can see right down to Leicester Square“.  It’s a great bit of songwriting (save for an odd ‘poetic’ take on how rivers work), that deserves to be better known; there’s a link to a live performance at the end of this piece.  I don’t know about seeing Leicester Square, but the skyline has certainly changed since he wrote it – check out the cranes below.  I do know these days it’s a lot easier, with less chance of being a road traffic accident statistic, to take a photograph of the capital looking down from Dartmouth Park Hill:

And at the bottom of that hill we join a slightly restless queue.  Memo to all promoters: if it says 1 o’clock on the ticket please make it clear that means ‘doors open’ rather than the commencement of play.  The Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention is pretty much a proper gig these days (albeit one with lots of bells on) so the venue’s security staff do their best to relieve the unwary of any food and drink they may have bought with them (though Jean gets away with her artificial banana, to wave about during Apeman).  And so, after the pavement shuffle, we climb the stairs to the Tufnell Park Tavern’s Dome.

It’s a sell-out, as usual.  Given the demographic there are more chairs available than there used to be, set out concert style towards the back of the hall, but there is still a broad age-range assembled, six decades worth of fans in evidence.  A hard-core have spent the previous two evenings singing along to a loose ‘Kollektiv’ (sorry) of ‘Kinksfans’ musicians in a couple of pubs (the Clissold Arms, of Kinks fame, even, on one of them); I wish I had their stamina.  A pint of Guinness in a plastic glass costs £5, which is good value only when you compare it to £4.50 for the same of unpleasant Strongbow cider.  Having said that, the bar staff do a grand job.

The Kast Off Kinks are as good as ever.  They’ve evolved over the years into being a working band, with over 50 gigs already booked the length and breadth of 2019.  It’s a long way on from the first of this current round of Konventions, back in 1998, when they had got a set list together by phone and email, and performed without any  formal rehearsal.  It was all hugely enjoyable and a bit  – hurray! – shambolic.  That was upstairs at the aforementioned Archway Tavern, and the band didn’t even have a name.  It was a fairly low-key – almost family – affair.  There were quiet periods when talk was possible and it was a delight to actually meet up with people you’d previously only encountered on the internet – Neil Ottenstein’s good old Kinks Preservation Society Digest, once a hive of info and lively debate.  In those days, too, Ray Davies’s recognition as a ‘national treasure’ (now there’s a phrase that has been and gone so quickly from overuse) was far from established.

The Archway Tavern management in their wisdom converted that space into some sort of futuristic night club before it failed, so the Konvention had to move about a mile down the Archway Road in 2002, to the spacious function room downstairs at the Boston Arms, where fluorescent lighting played havoc when trying to identify the colour of the winning raffle tickets.  I won a small autographed photo of Ray one year; the signature has long since faded.  It was down there one year that bassman John Dalton – ‘Nobby’ – announced his retirement, to cries of Noooo….  Yeah, right.  And just as well, as it happens.

It got mighty crowded as the years progressed, so the Konvention moved round the corner and upstairs to The Dome, which boasted a raised stage and PA, but also a green room, so whereas in the years downstairs band members were given a couple of reserved tables and often mingled with the hoi polloi, that no longer happens; another change time has wrought.

One peak Kast Offs year we saw two drummers (the original Mick Avory and Bob Henrit), two bassists (the aforementioned Nobby, plus the late lamented Jim Rodford, who tragically died this year), and three keyboard players (John ‘The Baptist’ Gosling, who sadly hasn’t attended for a while now, Mark Haley, and the excellent Ian Gibbons) all contributing to the music during the afternoon, not to mention Debi and Shirlie (back-up singers from the rock theatre years).  All of whom had been in the Kinks at some time: call them a tribute band at your peril.  And then there’s the ever-present Dave Clarke (no not he of the Five), who succeeds so well in taking the place of both Ray and Dave Davies because he makes no attempt to be them.  The last few years Ray has turned up for a cameo too.  Indeed, the only Kink who has not appeared at a Konvention – apart from original bassist, the late Pete Quaife, and a keyboardist who didn’t last long – is younger brother and lead guitarist, Dave Davies; for reasons of his own.

This year, inevitably, saw fewer personnel changes on stage than any since right at the start of the Konventions.  We got 41 songs – how Olga manages to keep track while bopping at the front is a mystery – delivered in three sets, with Bob Henrit only in the drum seat for four numbers.  Favourites for me were an extended Better things (later Kinks, even), with some splendid soloing from Ian on keyboards and Dave on guitar; Ian also delivered an outstanding lengthy jazzy coda on Dead End Street.  This lot have been playing together so long that they have developed some of their own interpretations of Kinks songs, moving away from the originals.  There was a stirring and swirling See my friends, and the lyric refrain “It’s your life / and you can do what you want” from So tired has taken on a broader, triumphal declarative air in these much changed times.  The early It’s too late (from the Kinks Kontroversy album) is revealed as a classic piece of rock and roll songwriting.

John Dalton always says Shangri-La is his favourite Kinks song, and, with a significant contribution of the (only) two Oslo Horns, remains a tour-de-force here; another moving ever-present he takes the vocals on is the unjustly obscure God’s children (which is not, I hasten to add, religious).  Declared birthday song for those wanting a call-out is an emotional Misfits.  This year’s surprise number, taken from outside the Kinks canon, came from the Bruce Springsteen song book, Dave Clarke’s wedding song, no less: Tougher than the rest.

The last few years it’s been pretty much expected that Ray Davies will put in a brief appearance, saying a few words from the stage, then giving us a verse and chorus or two of the perennial You really got me.  And so it seemed again.  But after a rousing All day and all of the night from the lads … lo and behold … he reappeared, full of life and bounce, to lend his voice for the duration of now traditional Konvention’s end’ Louie Louie.  Never has it been more stirring.

Geoff Lewis maintains a splendid website for the Kast Offs, full of revealing in-depth interviews of band members’ days on the road with The Kinks and much other good stuff at http://kastoffkinks.co.uk/

And so it’s home again, home again, jiggety jig.  After a nod to Bill Orton and the Official Kinks Fan Club for making it happen.  And here’s that London Song I promised:

 

 

 

No, not the Tory Brexiteers, but the police team that worked on a missing persons inquiry back in 2006 as described off-the-record by the man called upon to investigate the original handling of the case.  The case is dramatically re-opened as a murder enquiry 12 years later in In a house of lies, Ian Rankin‘s new novel (Orion, 2018), when the missing person in question turns up dead in the boot of an abandoned VW Golf found concealed in a local wood.  As it happens, the original case had been one of the last a disillusioned DI John Rebus had worked on before his retirement as a police officer, and, one way or another, he gets to tag along again.  Did Rebus really retire as a cop as long ago as 2006?  Indeed, he did.

At a certain stage late in the enquiry, Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’s protégé of old, asks him:

‘Did you at least manage to have a bit of fun, John?’
‘Fun?’
‘Playing detective again, I mean.
‘All the fun in the world, Siobhan.’  Rebus stretched out an arm. ‘It’s just one huge amusement park out there, happy families everywhere you look.’

I think Ian Rankin had fun writing this one, the twenty-second in the Rebus saga.  He’s showing his age now, of course.  ‘Still got this old thing, I see,’ observes a DC we’ve met in previous books.  ‘Are you talking to me or the car?‘ he responds.  Despite a diagnosis of COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – from which there can be no eventual escape – he’s still managing to live in his second floor tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Old Town, albeit with a 20-a-day nicotine patch habit and whisky and strong beers no longer contributing to his diet; he’s lost 20 pounds.  He’s grown a tad ruminative too: having picked up the phrase ‘a managed decline‘ at the clinic, ‘To him, it seemed to sum up his whole life since retirement, and maybe even before.

I suspect there are still at least a couple more books in him, though, through the good graces (and hefty nudges) of the now established woman in his life, pathologist Deborah Quant, who we hardly meet this time around, even if her presence is felt.  Siobhan comes to see him:

He lifted a box of tea bags. ‘Turmeric. Guess who from?’
‘A certain pathologist?’
‘She thinks I want to live forever.’ […]
They went into the living room, where a CD was playing. Rebus turned it down a notch.
‘Is that classical?’
‘Arvo P
ärt.’
‘Our pathologist friend again?’
‘Music to soothe the fevered brow.’

He’s got Brian Eno in the Saab’s antiquated sound system too, “another gift from Deborah Quant to help his ‘mindfulness’ ” – a concept about which he’s not convinced.  He uses Van Morrison’s Moondance and John Martyn’s Solid air to aid a long night session with some old case files.  And that is pretty much it for the narrative soundtrack this time around.

The main plot concerns the dead body in the car and the historical rivalry between a property developer and aspirant cultural entrepreneur (and now failing independent film maker) over ‘the palatial Poretoun House‘.  At one stage in the investigation this crucially involves them watching a movie called Zombies v Bravehearts.  Two sub-plots also bubble away nicely, sometimes spilling over into the main proceedings.  We have a pair of corrupt cops working in the Anti-Corruption Unit (‘the Chuggabugs’), who are trying to nobble Siobhan, which endeavour brings into play a sordid but ultimately redemptive family drama involving a young man pleading guilty to a killing he did not commit (the ‘happy families’ from my first Rebus quote). 

Along the way Rebus’s old sparring partner, gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty – Legitimate businessman, John. That’s what the judge said at the trial.’ / ‘Aye, and like you, I could hear the inverted commas’inevitably reappears and makes a significant contribution. In passing suggesting that Brexit will give up plenty of opportunities for ‘disaster capitalists’ like himself.  Elsewhere, bon malt viveur that he now is, he admits to being brought up on ‘cooking lager’, a phrase I’d not encountered before.

The twelve-year gap betwixt disappearance and the discovery of a dead body gives plenty of opportunities to comment on changes in policing and in the wider society.  As Malcolm Fox, almost a veteran himself in the Rebus saga these days, says: “My time in Professional Standards, Rebus was never far from a bollocking or a suspension.”  Our man worries to Siobhan that the Chuggabugs might still find something to compromise him from the original inquiry (there is, but never mind that): “‘John, every officer who ever worked with you has something on you.’ / ‘Fair point.’ Rebus tried for a look of contrition but failed“.  But here’s an old school colleague of his who also worked the case in 2006: ” ‘Seems the wrong word or look gets you accused of bullying. Wouldn’t have happened in our day, John.’ / ‘Might have been better if it had,’ Rebus said ruefully, draining his cup.”  Then again, the by-the-book head of the 2018 inquiry ends up admitting, “‘I sort of wish you were still on the force.’ / ‘Aye, me too,’ Rebus confessed.

He rues austerity and the demise of neighbourhood policing: “… and a dumped car with four flat tyres and a notice on it that said POLICE AWARE. Rebus smiled at that. Back in the day, there would have been a beat cop who would have known every face, able to put a name to each. Not these days, not outside the Oor Wullie cartoon in the Sunday Post Rebus had just bought at the shop.”  On the other hand, current more enlightened views on homosexuality – the mis-per was gay – would have meant the original inquiry could not have been so deeply flawed.  Then there’s the rise of social media; he’s saddened “… that so much these days happened online, with every keyboard warrior suddenly a ‘commentator’ or ‘pundit’ or ‘news-gatherer’. There was a lack of quality control“.  There are, as ever, major roadworks to contend with in Edinburgh.

I enjoyed In the house of lies immensely, not least for its character driven dialogue and humour.  Rebus, Siobhan and Malcolm make for an entertaining triple act (Steele is one of the Chuggabugs):

Steele’s going down for something, Shiv, trust me.’
She stared at him. ‘What do you know that I don’t?’
‘Well for one thing, I can name every Rolling Stones B-side from the 1960s.’
‘Would you put money on it, though?’ Fox asked.
Rebus started counting on his fingers. ‘ “
I want to be loved”, “Stoned”, “Little by little” …’
‘Don’t encourage him,’ Clarke said to Fox. ‘It’s just his way of ducking the question.’
‘She know me too well,’ Rebus agreed with a shrug in Fox’s direction.

Hell, I even guffawed at: “The room was stuffy and Dean had removed his jacket but kept his waistcoat on. It boasted a fob watch on a gold chain, just when Rebus thought he couldn’t dislike lawyers more than he already did.”  As I say, Rebus must be good for a couple more books yet, but I have every faith that Siobhan – what a great line “Rebus could sense her tired smile” is, by the way – is ready to take up the slack: “DCI Mark Mollison was seated behind the world’s tidiest desk” is one of hers.

Meanwhile, as someone else said of someone else, Roll on John.

Painting Shakey black

What, you say?  Spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon watching a set of excerpts from Shakespeare delivered by the Stony Stratford Theatre Society upstairs in the Temple of the local Masonic Hall?  Yes, please.  They’re such a talented band of actors and it’s such a great intimate – whites of their (and our) eyes – venue for this sort of thing.

Intimate, you say? Ginny Davies photographed in action by Andy Powell from one long side of the temple, with a chin-stroking Lillabullero in the audience on the other.

Intimate, you say?  Yup, long and thin, which means all ends and sides of the audience get an equal viewing chance, and lends a valuable variety and freshness to the simple staging; static it cannot be.

What has stayed with me was Sam Marsh’s singing Sonnet 104 (“To me, fair friend, you never can be old …“), sung faithfully to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ Paint it black.  That and Susan Whyte as a bag lady pulling along a shopping trolley (can’t remember the character, I’m afraid – bonus photo at the end here).  But it was all good.  And as broadcasters are wont to say: other playwrights are available – a little touch of John Webster and Chris Marlowe in the afternoon.  Bravo Caz!

Haulage

Couple of Vaultages of note.  Or Haulage, as the autotext on my phone tried to suggest.  The astonishing Larry Stubbings only does covers, but what audacious covers! One man, one guitar.  Highlight was a stunning rendition of Led Zep’s The immigrant song, losing nothing of its power, but he kept rapt for well over half an hour, whoo-whooing to Sympathy for the devil and (even me) singing along to AC/DC’s Highway to hell. (Now there’s a thing: Caz told me the original idea for Sonnet 104 was to set it to Sympathy, but the actor decided Paint it black worked better).

Of course open mics can be very hit and miss, but when you’ve got something like Vaultage picking up a head of steam, very interesting things can happen.  Hence Kevin, who lives in Turkey, but was spending a few days in Newport Pagnell, coming along and delivering a sinuous jazz tinged Sunshine of your love that gave the song room to breathe and for my money easily trumped the original.  Another turn-up for the books: two Crowded House songs in one night – such melody!  Good Time Jazz, experienced and accomplished musicians all, did what is says on the tin: Summertime,  Bye Bye Blackbird, Oh when the Saints and more from the repertoire done justice to.  Great to hear a saxophone for a change.

Tombland

I’ve been looking forward to the latest “bit of Shardlake” (“I like a bit of Shardlake” © an esteemed nephew of mine) but I’m sorry to say I’m giving the one that’s finally arrived – the first since 2014 – I’m giving it a miss until a period of as yet unscheduled enforced convalescence crops up in my life.  For why?  Because C.J.Sansom‘s new addition to the canon, Tombland (Mantle, 2018) is – in shape and weight – a brick, 801 pages long and then some, with a historical essay, Re-imagining Ketts’ rebellion, and bibliographical apparatus, bringing the total to 866.  And the to-be-read pile is high.

Here are the people introduced on just the opening page of Tombland:

  • I (Matthew Shardlake)
  • messenger from Master Parry
  • Master Perry, Lady Elizabeth’s comptroller
  • Lady Elizabeth
  • Catherine Parr
  • The old king (Henry VIII)
  • Lord Protector Somerset
  • Lady Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter
  • Young King Edward
  • Holy Roman Emperor Charles, Mary’s cousin
  • Thomas Seymour (the Protector’s brother), married to CP

All this, for all 866 pages, without hint of a Dramatis Personae for future reference.  Hell, I need a Dramatis Personae to keep up these days.  

And to finish, here, as promised, the STTS, doing Shakespeare. Photo © Andy Powell

 

 

Someone at Book Group suggested that the October selection, Gail Honeyman‘s highly successful debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine (HarperCollins, 2017) might be a Marmite book, though nobody actually hated it.  A couple of people I’m usually simpatico with – in and out of the Book Group – hold it in high regard, but I was the second luke-warmest there in its praises.  “There’s a decent novel hiding in there,” I said.  “And we found it,” came back Judy and Maire, not missing a beat.  Cue laughter.  Fair enough.  In my defence I’d just read Sally Rooney‘s mightily absorbing Normal people, but in the reading of Eleanor I never quite forgot that I was (I hesitate to put the qualifier just in here) reading a book.

Eleanor narrates.  At 30 she is friendless, keeps her head down, gets by at work by being efficient.  Gets through the weekend with vodka, on her own.  A survivor of a dysfunctional family with an added major trauma and an abusive relationship a decade before.  There’s a slow reveal of what happened when she was 10:

Go on,’ I said. There’s very little in life that I couldn’t imagine, or brace myself for. Nothing could be worse than what I’ve already experienced – that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s a literal statement of fact. I suppose it’s actually a sense of strength, in a strange way.  

There is a further revelation as to just how serious her mental condition is as things unfold.  The book gives a chilling picture of loneliness, of just about managing to stay afloat, rendered with some humour, which is acknowledged as a coping mechanism.  But at the book’s narrative heart is the recognition of how much difference small acts of kindness can make:

I smiled at her. Twice in one day, to be the recipient of thanks and warm regard! I would never have suspected that small deeds could elicit such genuine, generous responses. I felt a little glow inside – not a blaze, more like a small, steady candle.

My problem is that, to that end, her dilemma seems over-determined.  Nor did I find the voice a consistent one.  Apparently she has a Classics degree, but you wouldn’t have known it without it being baldly stated.  At times she sounds like Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory in her interface with the social world; going to a birthday party that is a step on the narrative way, her companion, new boy at work IT nerd Raymond, says, “It’s shite going to things like this on your own, isn’t it?’ / “‘Is it?’ I said, interested. ‘I don’t have a control situation to compare it with.’  She even comes out with “The horror, Raymond.  The horror” at the, ahem, grindcore gig they attend for reasons of … her mad fantasy.  (I mean, I have no idea what grindcore is either: have you, dear reader?)

It’s a decent enough little story, change stemming from a random event.  A man collapses in the street, they go to his help and get involved with his family.  She has a real crisis and good old (young) Raymond saves the day.  Counselling ensues (“‘I prefer Miss Oliphant …’ She wasn’t my friend, she was someone who was being paid to interact with me.”) with a fascinating unfolding of the real history of her tragic childhood, with one big revelatory twist.  A history which I have to say I nevertheless found a bit over the top.  To the extent that I actually feared – spurred on by previous exposure to a not unusual crime fiction plot twist – it was even worse (that she had done something bad).  And I would have liked to have known more about her mother, who, to be honest, seemed really quite interesting.

There are some admirable passages on the way to Eleanor’s healing.  (What? Surely that doesn’t need a spoiler alert).  She and Raymond attend a funeral, where she is appalled as the congregation, family and friends of the deceased, who we know is a good man, mumble their way through the hymns, which she finds disrespectful:

Raymond and I were making more noise than the next four pews put together, and I was glad of it. The words were incredibly sad, and, for an atheist like me, entirely without hope or comfort, but still; it was our duty to sing them to the best of our ability, and to sing proudly in honour of Sammy.

And there’s the extraordinary – and unexpected – internal monologue, which, though I’m not sure it fits, is a fine piece of writing (pages 259-260 in the paperback).  Regaining consciousness after the consumption of much vodka and many pills, she contemplates the kitchen table under which she finds her (literally) naked self:

How many kitchens has this table been in, before it found its way to me?

        I imagine a hierarchy of happiness; first purchased in the 1970s, a couple who would sit here, dining on meals cooked from brand-new recipe books, eating and drinking from wedding china like proper grown-ups.  [It’s passed on to a cousin, serves time for various tenants in rented accommodation, then taken in a house clearance  …]  It languishes in a warehouse, spiders spinning silk inside its unfashionable rounded corners, bluebottles laying eggs in the rough splinters.  It’s given to another charity.  They give it to me, unloved, unwanted, irreparably damaged. Also the table.

Despite the cheery conclusion of the above, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine takes its place in the pantheon of the phenomenon known as Up Lit, “novels of kindness and compassion”, which according to a recent Guardian article, “we’re all reading”.  I’m not a fan, especially with Rachel Joyce‘s The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry being touted as one of the founding examples of the genre.  which, frankly, just got on my nerves.

When I said at the Book Meeting that my idea of real Up Lit was Ken Kesey‘s One flew over the cuckoo’s nest (1962) I was forcibly reminded by my companions that Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson in the movie) is given a lobotomy.  But, I said, The others get to live a fresh life, including, magnificently, narrator Chief Broom who had “been away a long time.”

⊕⊗⊕⊗⊕⊗⊕⊗⊕⊗⊕⊗

Some Ancient History …

… more a comment on the tardiness of this chronicler than they who I am chronicling, though , at York House, C.P.Lee had a tale to tell of a musical education picked up in folk clubs in the early mid-’60s while in pursuit of a sixth former he fancied.

The artist prepares. If I had a decent phone you could see all his props.

It was weeks ago now, but a fun evening well worthy of late mention.  This was more a palace of varieties rather than a one-man-show.  A founder member of punk and rock satirists Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias (you have to be of a certain age to see the full genius of just the band’s name), Chris Lee – musician, author, academic, Dylanologist – battered ukulele or gitbox to hand (when not holding the pirate glove puppet, briefly playing shoe harmonica or reading from his memoirs) revisited his musical journey with humour, perspective, enthusiasm, and a couple of bad jokes.

We were treated to unorthodox renditions of some Albertos classics, including a couple from Snuff Rock.  These versions would veer off in mid-tune (we were given adequate warning) into “in the style of” The Incredible String Band, or in another instance, traditional Irish folk; both worked beyond simple comic mimicry.  Then there was, um, Lou Reed’s Anadin.  The Dylan song played straight and to great effect was the far from obvious Absolutely Sweet Marie from Blonde on Blonde.

One thing intrigued, on a personal level.  That first visit to a folk club with a bar, he asked for “a brown ale”.   Cue me, about the same under-age, same time, in the Ricky Tick Club, Windsor … ordering “a brown ale”.  Why?  Weird zeitgeist thing?  And all the cool kids were drinking lager and lime.

Vaultage …

… at the Vaults in Stony on a Thursday night continues on a roll.  Bravo Mr Nicholson.  You never know what might happen these days.  So successful of late that it’s gone weekly.  Though being a creature of habit, last week I forgot.  Chronicling …

Adrian Stranik, ex-of the Silver Brazilians, was everything it says on his poster (those without superhuman eyesight may have to click on the posters to read them). Some outstanding songs of his own and an interesting set of covers.  Having worked where the offices overlooked said boulevard – hardly a day without a police car parked outside – I can affirm that vis-à-vis his song Probably North 10th Street, it probably was.  Another nice local touch was a heisting from Johnny Cash for Woodhill Prison Blues.  What else?  Cliff Richard’s Dynamite with a Dick Dale guitar break; the original One night of sin (as opposed to Elvis’s bowdlerising ‘with you’ substitution); a spectacular piece of rhyming to ‘mujahideen’.

The blueswailing Jet Lagged Jeff, a proud Canadian from Newport Pagnell, played the blues, raising spirits, occasioning a tapping of the toes and some broad grins from me.  Ever since about 1968, or the first Canned Heat album, there have been long-haired bearded white men doing this sort of things in bars across the lands; I salute you, good sirs.

Taylor Smith were Taylor Smith and in good voice, which is no bad thing.  Only note I’ve got is “horseradish”: was that too an outstanding piece of in-song rhyming?  Probably the best cajon player I’ve encountered.  With bonus appearances from Sian Magill and Billy Nomad, no less.

Roddy Clenaghan gave us as, as is his wont (he said it), “Songs that make people cry” –  though to say I didn’t see any tears is not to be taken as a criticism.  That gorgeous song Time after time nearly got to me though; rather splendidly not one you’d expect to hear in the company of, say, Hickory wind, for example.  Andy Fenton’s lap steel as fluid as ever.  Closing the evening, Duncan, sans Dobro and Robert Johnson suit had us all singing along to Ernie (The fastest milkman in the west) and Minnie the Moocher.  The Vaultage Varieties!

Quick mention of folk duo Miller & Walker, who have graced the open mic at most of these.  Accomplished ’60s folk guitar and vocals, with a repertoire spiced up with the odd later cover (took me ages to recognise Landslide – not necessarily a bad thing).

 

 

 

November 22 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the first release of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, my third favourite Kinks album, though the critical consensus these days seems to be that this is Ray Davies‘s masterpiece.  (Muswell hillbillies and Arthur, if you’re asking.)  It was released in the same fortnight in 1968 as the Beatles’ White Album and the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s banquet, so it never really stood much chance of getting onto people’s turntables back then; I myself didn’t discover it until the early ’70s.  It has aged well and I still love it.  Naturally, this year, as is the custom these days, it is celebrated by the release of a £100+ box set with vinyl etc, remastered again (was that Special Deluxe Edition really issued fourteen years ago? OK … ) and with a new song, Time, from a couple of years later, released meaninglessly as a trailer ‘single’ a few weeks earlier.  Truth be told, Time makes me cringe in its tweeness and passivity; it should have stayed on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, as a tribute to this fine album, I am now going to try and clear the backlog of five books here at Lillabullero with reference to it, or at least as close as I can get.

The age of innocence

Edith Wharton‘s The age of innocence (1920) was September’s Reading Group book and it was only to keep faith with the Group that I persisted.  But once I got that it was actually a historical novel, and a narrative emerged, I rather warmed to it.

The age of innocence is a novel that documents a crucial period of social change in America.  It shares, I’d say – in its own way – the philosophy of The Village Green Preservation Society‘s “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you” – no simple exercise in nostalgia – even if the balance here is a bit skewed.  Because, bloody hell, the exponents of those old ways – early 1870s ‘Old New York’ aristocracy – sure are tedious and stiflingly convention-bound.  Edith Wharton skillfully fleshes out an anthropological analysis of the tribes, with an eye to tracing, as one of the characters does, “each new crack in the surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables“.

The man in the middle is Newland Archer, who conventionally marries but is in love with another.  Head or heart, duty or desire?  ‘Society’ wins (a narratively strategic pregnancy helps the decision).  Interestingly the overwhelmingly female Reading Group saw a strength and guile in wife Mary that I’d skipped over.  I found it odd that it’s a woman writer who gives it to Newland, who she has put at the heart of the book, to say (wild oats had been sown), “ ‘Women ought to be free – as free as we are’ “; though in the saying of which, she slyly adds, he’s “making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

The final passages of the novel have Newland looking back over his marriage after his wife’s death – three children, all grown, making their own way – and thinking on balance it had been worth it, sticking with what was respectably expected of him (despite “the taste of the usual” being “like cinders in his mouth“), but acknowledging some aspects of change.  Given the chance of meeting up again with his heart’s desire in Paris, he chickens out at the last minute, preferring the keep the memory shiningly alive.  Given that only moments previously he had been sitting the Louvre, and “Suddenly, before an effulgent Titian, he found himself saying: ‘But I’m only fifty-seven …’ ” this refusal at the last hurdle came as both a huge disappointment to the romantic in me … and, I guess, a recognition that physically, age 57, a century ago, was so much older then.

Edith Wharton has a delicious way with nuance; much pleasure is to be had from it.  Bohemia is acknowledged: “Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which composed Mrs. Archer’s world lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and “people who wrote’ ” – not the only appearance of that ‘people who wrote’ – never mind Old New York’s incomprehension of the “eccentricities of a husband of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women” (plus ca change?).  The prospect of a genuine American culture (opera was big in Old New York society) is celebrated with:

“It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus should have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?”

Then there are the people.  Here’s Newland: “If he had probed the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did)…”; one of the women in social action: “Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible in her …“; and Newland’s poor unmarried sister, “who still looked so exactly as she used to in her elderly youth …“.  Could Dickens have bettered the matriarch?:

The immense accretion of flesh that had descended upon her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

Why Dylan matters

You could say John F. Harvey‘s Why Dylan matters (William Collins, 2017) is here under false pretences as far as making dubious connections with the Village Green Preservation Society go.  Bob Dylan is obviously a contemporary of Ray Davies, though 1968 was the only year in the decade since he set out in 1962 that he didn’t release a record, but he did use the Kinks’ Party line and Sunny afternoon on his celebrated Theme Time Radio Hour programmes.  Davies himself has said (in his X-Ray: the unauthorised autobiography), “I had always distrusted Bob Dylan as a songwriter, in the same way at college I had distrusted Pablo Picasso as a painter.”  Callow youth mellowed though, and “The only thing I had against him was that he had changed his name – but then I guess that was his privilege“.  However, Lillabullero has a backlog to clear and it’s staying in here.  They both admire Hank Williams.

Why Dylan matters is the most original Dylan book I have read in a long time, and I have read a few, and then some.  Richard F.Thomas moved to the US from New Zealand in 1974 to pursue an academic career:

For the past 40 years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets.

He had a Eureka! moment when he was listening to Lonesome day blues on the Love and theft album of 2001 and, “I heard Virgil, loud and clear in the tenth verse“.

Dylan’s songs have been part of my song memory since my mid-teens, but it would be decades before they became more fully aligned in my mind with the Greek and Roman poets I was beginning to read back then. And it was chiefly in the twenty-first century that Dylan started to reference, borrow from, and “creatively reuse” their work in his own songs.

Since 2004 Thomas has been running a seminar programme for freshmen at Harvard.  This book is a distillation of that course, looking at Bob Dylan’s songwriting and recordings from the folk period through to the Sinatra covers phase.  It’s a revelation.  He goes back afresh to the Hibbing High School Yearbook of 1959.  Where most haven’t looked further than the prophetic ‘Little Richard’ aspiration, he finds Dylan was an active member of Latin Club, which he joined in 1956, and takes it from there, putting a unique spin on proceedings.

Fully aware of the irony of the Desolation Row citation, he riffs to great effect on T.S.Eliot – “fighting in the captain’s tower” – and his take on plagiarism from an essay in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism of 1920: “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”  And, among other things touched on in Why Dylan matters, his Nobel Prize ‘speech’ makes a whole lot more sense now.

This is … a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities.

It is also a book which made me succumb and buy Triplicate, the 3 CD addition to the previous two albums of Frank Sinatra ‘covers’, which Thomas contextualises.  I swore I would never buy Triplicate after the first two, but it proves to be a plaintive and genuine collection, relaxed, regretful, and restful.

Normal people

I liked Sally Rooney‘s Normal people (Faber, 2018) so much I read it again.  I’ve seen it described as a Romeo and Juliet type romance, but there aren’t any clans as such.

Kinks connection: Connell Waldron is David Watts personified: “Lead the school team to victory / And take my exams and pass the lot.”  It’s a song from Something else by The Kinks, the album that preceded Village Green Preservation Society.  “And all the girls in the neighbourhood / Try to go out with David Watts“.  The neighbourhood is a small town in the west of Ireland.  Whereas Marianne Sheldon “exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her.”

Both are from one-parent households, but Connell’s mum cleans for Marianne’s soul-less bitch of a mother in the big house, where she lives with an arsehole of an elder brother; Marianne is known to have had mental problems.  They’re compatico intellectually, the sharpest of their year, and they start sleeping together, but it’s a secret (he doesn’t want his mates to know).  They are not ‘a couple’, and continue to not be one for a lot of Normal lives, which follows their relationships, separations and personal crises through university – Trinity College, Dublin, where she‘s in her element socially and he isn’t – and post-grad.  Other parallel reversals in their fortunes follow as things progress.

The book has eighteen sections, or episodes, covering four years: the first is entitled January 2011, and is followed by Three weeks later (February 2011) and so on to February 2015.  The largest gap is seven months, the smallest 5 minutes.  It’s brilliantly handled, the personal focus being swapped between them.  Immediacy is achieved by the stark use of the present tense, whereby the smallest detail reverberates, while within that the narrative falls back into an explanatory but still right there past tense making sense of their misunderstandings, absences, difficulties and misdeeds.  There’s a lot of dialogue which, as in her previous novel, is executed without the help of speech marks; it works.  The prose delivers clarity, crystal moments; manages to be forensic and it sings:

  • Early in their relationship: “Connell, as usual, did not speak or even look at her. She watched him across classrooms as he conjugated verbs, chewing on the end of his pen.”
  • After another quarrel she gets out the car on a garage forecourt: “A crow on the forecourt picks at a discarded crisp packet.” [talk about seeing through his eyes!]
  • Marianne is taking a sip of coffee when he says this, and she seems to pause for a moment with the cup at her lips. He can’t tell how he identifies this pause as distinct from the natural motion of her drinking, but he sees it.”
  • Her boyfriend at in Dublin: “Jamie’s dad was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis – not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.” [!!]
  • ” … her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitely small mistake.”
  • Connell, depressed, goes to see a student counsellor: “Now he looks up at Yvonne, the person assigned by the university to listen to his problems for money.” [But she helps]

Sally Rooney is only 27 and has already published two astonishingly accomplished novels.  There’s a passage two fifths of the way in which captures the young person’s absolute fantasy of the marriage of intellect and sex hoped for at university happening (“he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters“) and, futile though it is, one cannot help but speculate how much of herself is in which characters.  There is also a discussion of the futility of author readings, questioning the literary industry function, of books being merely “status symbols“, which nevertheless is the occasion that lifts Connell out of his doldrums.

I have seldom cared so much about two people in a novel, nor wanted so much for them not to be unhappy.  It’s left hanging, of course, but there are grounds for hope.

Body & Soul

It was a nice surprise to see a new John Harvey novel sitting on the shelves in the local library – I’d thought he’d given up –  and Body & soul (Heinemann, 2018) has not been a disappointment.

Kinks connections are minimal: the murdered man is an artist who has a studio in the Old Piano Factory in Kentish Town, just down the road from the Boston pub in Tufnell Park, where the Official Kinks Fan Club has its annual Konvention; John Harvey has an entry in the Kinks in literature page here at Lillabullero for a brief allusion to Waterloo Sunset in In a true light, the first of his post-Resnick novels.

I was fond of Charlie Resnick, who lasted for ten finely crafted novels, but his successors never quite hit the spot for me.  Body & soul is the fourth and last in the series featuring ex-Detective Frank Elder, and it again calls into play his daughter, Katherine, who had such an awful time of it in the first, Flesh and blood.  (There was a time when it was highly dangerous to be a fictional detective’s daughter – as both Banks and Rebus can concur).  Here’s Elder’s back story; Harvey, who also publishes poetry, is good on character:

Faced with probable disciplinary action and his wife’s flaunting infidelity, a teenage daughter he no longer seemed to recognise, never mind understand, Elder had done the sensible adult thing. Thrown his toys out the pram. Handed in his resignation and … hastened himself as far away as he could without leaving the country entirely.

Body & soul is a police procedural that roams the land: Kentish Town, trendy Hackney, Cornwell, Nottingham, somewhere on the north-east coast; the trains run smoothly.  There are two narratives at play with Katherine as the link.  The art milieu of the murdered man is nicely done (“Art, Elder said as if it were an infection, it gets bloody everywhere.”), and the solution to his murder comes late in the investigation after a few red herrings and the dead man’s first wife has returned from holiday.  The detective leading the case is an interesting woman, a lesbian, with a wry unconventional partner for a copper, who suffers the usual slings of the copper’s wife:

When she had first been stationed at Holmes Road as a young detective constable, about the best you could have hoped for would have been instant coffee from a greasy spoon. Now there were three chain outlets and four independent coffee shops within easy walking distance. The high street was otherwise dominated by charity shops and estate agents. Maybe that was how the world was now divided: those who’d happily fork out close to three pounds for a flat white and those who could not. The yin and yang of capitalism, as Rachel liked to put it.

At the climax of the second narrative strand, we are in deep police procedural territory, an area most don’t reach:

Bastard,’ the lead officer said quietly and shook his head. Already he was thinking about the debrief with the Chief Superintendent, the written reports his team would have to make, the photographs, the video, the inevitable investigation by the IPCC. And for what?

Transcription

More than once in Kate Atkinson‘s Transcription someone says, or mutters, “This England“.  And despite the fact that ” Countryside’ was more of a concept for Juliet than a reality“, one of those Englands is that addressed in The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.  The lyric of the title song has the line “God save little shops, china cups and virginity“, and a purloined Sèvres porcelain cup plays a minor part in showing us that our heroine is not without taint.  But by 1950, Juliet Armstrong is working in BBC Schools, where they are recording a programme called Singing Together:

Singing Together, Juliet thought. Schools seemed to be fixated on an Old England of sea shanties and ballads and folk songs. And maidens, lots of maidens. […] They were reinventing England, or perhaps inventing it. […]

      ‘This England – is it worth fighting for?’ [a.n.other asking] It depended on whose side you were on, she supposed.

And so, my love affair with Kate Atkinson continues.  Things were getting a bit shaky early on – the bastard child of Victoria Wood and Graham Greene? – but for me it all suddenly kicked into gear when we return to 1950 – page 177 in the hardback, to be exact.  And near the end (p315 of 327) I’m metaphorically punching the air in jubilation, when at the bottom of the page, in the course of an interrogation, Juliet is warned: “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong“.  I love the games she plays.

Transcription is a spy novel with bells on, deadly serious, but also a lot of fun, with the usual entertaining collection of characters as supporting cast.  We start briefly with a (what proves to be fatal) road accident in London, in 1981; Juliet back in England for the first time in thirty years.  1950 and she’s not having much fun at the BBC, but suddenly reminded, haunted by what she did in the war.  1940 and she’s a spy, part of an MI5 sting operation scuppering a potential enemy Fifth Column; something bad had happened too.  Back in 1950 we find she still provides the odd overnight safe house venue for the security service.  We see what had been on her conscience back in 1940 again, and then, back in 1950 and … HUGE TWIST (for me, anyway).

Well I certainly didn’t see it coming.  Though, looking back, there’s a whacking great clue right there on the opening page.  Never mind the flamingo on the cover.  I shall read Transcription again some time soon – I always do with Kate – and doubtless I shall discover a couple more.  There are some useful pages at the back of the book where she talks about her research and sources.

Along the way, the Atkinson signature quirks and tangents.  Juliet will often momentarily drift off in a conversation with a “Rhymes with …”  to herself.  “Reader, I didn’t marry him,” she reports; not the first time that one’s been used, I’m sure, but it still gets me every time.  She struggles with the men in the ‘office’: “A girl could die of old age, following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir,’ she said.”  Being briefed for an undercover appearance at a posh pro-Nazi soirée, “Juliet felt rather ashamed, as her mind had been on what dress to wear this evening rather than bottomless pits of evil.”

Juliet has an eye for a simile, too: “She had fierce eyebrows and seemed mournfully Russian, sighing in the tragic way of a woman whose cherry orchard had been chopped down …“, while in describing a struggle, “She was made of steel. It was like dealing with Rasputin, not a middle-aged woman from Wolverhampton“; called Dolly.

She gets to discussing existentialism at work one day:

‘We have all walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Do you despair, Miss Armstrong?’
Hardly ever. Occasionally. Quite often. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘And anyway, if everything is pointless, then so is despair, isn’t it?’

Meanwhile (sorry about the ad) …

 

 

 

 

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