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Out of towners start here: every year in early June, a band of concerned citizens in the old Buckinghamshire market town of Stony Stratford – “the jewel in the crown of Milton Keynes” – have put together StonyLive!, a programme of musical and other cultural events over and above the rich activity that persists all year round.  (To get an idea of its breadth, you might still find further details at https://www.stonylive.info/).  Now read on, for what it’s worth, for one man’s journey through StonyLive! 2019:

Prelude 1

About halfway into Corinne Lucy‘s outstanding featured guest spot at the previous Thursday’s Vaultage she opined, “It’s not all folk noir.  I can write pop songs too” – and very accomplished and uplifting A hundred roses was too.  She finished a powerful set of heartfelt originals with Chasing the centre, a song and performance so good I was thinking if I don’t get to hear anything like again this year, it will have been a good year.  I heard it again, twice, in the course of the next six days: Hey! StonyLive!  More about that song later, by which time, I’d thought of a way to describe it worthily enough (you read it here first).

Vaultage footnote: esteemed open mic ukulelist Sandy Clarke did a touching rendition of When I ruled the world, a song that I did not recognise.  My companion was embarrassed to be able to tell me it was one of Coldplay’s.  Which just goes to show something or other.

Prelude 2

Saturday and Sunday performances of the Carabosse Theatre Company’s Another round of real ale & drama shots were in the StonyLive! programme, but I saw it on the Friday, so here, on a technicality, it must be in the Prelude.

Seven short plays and considerably more real theatrical moments – whaaat? – superbly staged and acted in an intimate venue, stage and fourth wall on the long side of the rectangle.  Harrowing start in the Great War trenches, the first of a series of reverses or, depending on the pace, dramatic twists, that followed.  No, I’d never imagined what the life of the Tooth Fairy was like, but it would never have been like that.  This followed a tense two hander Harold Pinter meets Pete and Dud.

The show closed with an examination of the nature of faith disguised as a Doctor Who episode scripted by Samuel Beckett (a joyless bowler hatted cyborg battalion … but without the Doctor).  There was a lot going on throughout, all neatly compered by minimalist clown-face troubadour Billy Nomad.  Very dark, but absolutely not without humour.  Invidious to single out any of the actors, but Bravo! Artistic Director Sally Luff.

Saturday: Act One

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brackley Morris Man levitates

New Moon, a mixed “Morris fusion” with a touch of cyberpunk from Ivinghoe, Bucks, let out for the day.

Saturday and it’s bread and eggs from the market and the Day of Dance on the closed to vehicles High Street.  Not just Morris – all manner of terpsichorean delights were on show throughout the day.  Fine weather smiled upon us.

And back to see Corinne Lucy kick off – she had other places to be – a staggering line-up of almost wholly local talent; and talented is the word.  We are blessed.  An entertaining afternoon was spent until the sun’s heat got to me.  Pacing myself for the week … and feeling the lure of the football (only the Champions League Final) … I retired early.  The football was uninspiring (except Liverpool won, said this Arsenal fan) and to all reports a grand time was had in the Stables courtyard of the Bull all evening too.

Sat with a fellow Dylan enthusiast when Corinne was on.  Floated the idea that that song had an angry echo of The gates of Eden about it, but I wasn’t there yet in pinning it down.

Act 2: Classic Cars

And so to Sunday, another fine morning and the traditional (how long does it take?) Classic Cars show.  Plenty of people, plenty of cars, but it’s possible I’m getting a bit jaded.  The more modern expensive stuff has no interest for me.  No great Wows! this year and a couple of old favourites were absent – still interesting though – and nostalgia took hold.

From the top: driving practise around South Bucks in my mum’s Morris Minor, trafficators (hence the ‘Attention’ in the photo) – indicators sticking out of the side of the car – before she had the garage put in lights.  Rovers 95 and 100 (unfortunately the other way round in the photo) and sinking into the leather seats of my mate Mark’s dad’s car (it might even have been a 90) in Birkenhead, very early ’70s.  And the Austin A30.  At uni I had use of another mate’s van while he was doing his term abroad (scholastic, not prison); battery needed attention, got it, but in the process I inadvertently ruined – thigh denim disintegrated when I scratched an itch – a perfectly good pair of jeans; remember batteries, never mind battery acid, as a thing to worry about?  There’s another story too, but … no, too long a tale.

Act 3: Monday

Early evening joined the Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s Shakespeare Walkabout – excerpts from the plays, a sonnet or two, bracketed at each location with songs from the Not Two Bees, who were great fun.  Nice to be reminded, too, of Lord Buckley‘s hipster (old school) take on Mark Anthony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar:  “The bad jazz a cat blows / wails long after he’s cut out.”

Blues from the Ouse captured the previous day at Classic Cars.

And then it’s Blues from the Ouse.  Again.  Started off quietly enough with just a handful of us in the Vaults Bar but it soon filled up and a fine evening of da blues was had, Ian Anderson’s strong voice never faltering (he’s a busy man) and young cohort James Ives playing up a subtle storm.  Ian: “I played a bum note there, but … a tip I got from James: keep playing it and they’ll think you meant it.”  Audience member: “So you can teach an old dog new tricks.”  Took me by surprise when they finished with a glorious, swinging, celebratory take on Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Act 4: Tuesday

There is so much going on most nights that a choice has to be made between something not usually on offer – hey! Flanders & Swann – and being loyal to one’s confreres, or worse having to choose between two of the latter.  One of these StonyLives! I will make it to the big A Capella session in the Vaults, and doubtless drink too much and lose my voice for the rest of the week.

And so to an interesting Evening with the Bard and Friends. Which started with a worthy history lesson-come-poetic disquisition on racism and white privilege, in which a few pearls shone out, like “The two Isaacs, Newton and Gregory” (or was it the other way round? – still good).  It lightened up somewhat after that.  Donna Bond made me laugh.  Stony Bard Mitchell Taylor commendably didn’t take up too much performance time for himself (I mean that in a good way).

Memo to aspirant Spoken Worders: the use of a staple gun to clip the pages of long pieces together is not to be recommended, especially if you’re holding a mic in the other hand.  Employing the method adopted by Sam Upton – dropping the sheet to the floor when the words thereon have been spoken – is not only practical but also conveys a certain je ne sais quoi.  I’m saying nothing about the use of mobile phones.

Mojo Mules finished the evening in great style, with vigour, skill and wit.  Another blues duo, jazz tinged this time, with, progressively, added lap steel, and then an upgraded washboard with bells on (or rather one bell, £2 on Amazon, which made his life complete, said its wielder).

[A Bill Withers moment: pretty much the same time as Manny was incorporating a Bill Withers song segment in one of his songs (was it Ain’t no sunshine?), over in the Vaults A Capella session, as later found in FaceBook, they were doing Lean on me.  For people in both venues, then, near the end of a Lovely day]

Act 5: Ode to the Siren

Event of the week for me, and I’m not the only one.  A brave and timely (see Thursday) concept wonderfully realised.  Take a bow Jill and Jonathan Taylor.

Corinne Lucy again, with her powerful, heartfelt story songs (wishing an ex- happiness, Neil Gaiman’s take on The little mermaid (she said that), Bird of paradise inspired by eighteenth century naturalist specimen collectors, among others) and then Chasing the centre again, that closing line to all three verses, “And I knew it was lying“, still echoing in my head 6 days on.  OK, here we go: imagine Alan Ginsberg’s Howl personalised – one of those best minds desperately pacing the city streets looking for signs and answers – and sung by Joni Mitchell (with an English accent).  No spoilers.

Naomi Rose, another great original songwriter and performer, mentioned previously in despatches, was on the top of her game too.  As were poets Danni and Vanessa.  All topped off by the wonderful Fay Roberts, fresh sonnets to deliver, speaking of little known feminist heroines (should that be heroes theses days?), and more.  I know, I’ve mentioned Fay’s ‘quiet power’ before, but I’m sorry, I can’t do any better.  She enchants, entrances with a vivid mix of language old, new, formal and vernacular.

Archivists note: regrettably Naomi couldn’t make it.

Act 6: More songwriters

Is there a collective noun?  Anyway, Thursday and it must be Vaultage but with something fresh this StonyLive! week.  No open mic and a strict 12 minutes, no covers, rule, with a cash prize for the best song.  Amazingly went smoothly, flushed out some newcomers to Vaultage and some decent songs.  Apples and oranges, but, you know, it worked as a show.  As one of the four judges (plus Chair in case of a draw), I have to say it gave me an insight into what hell being on a Booker Prize panel might be like.  Luckily two of our panel were in agreement from the start, otherwise discussion might have gone all night; even then, the audience were getting restless.

Worthy winner was Stony Bard Mitchell Taylor with For the benefit of, a sprightly and muscular original take on mental health issues.  Icing on the cake, his encore and a singalong of Ian Dury’s There aint half been some clever bastards. Nice to be reminded.

Friday wimp out

Not to put too fine a point on it, I wimped out.  The rigours of the judging and four consecutive nights out – unprecedented this, oh, millennium – took its toll.  Thought of just walking up and down the High Street playing Cover Band Bingo but in the end stayed in and caught up on a bit of television.  Next year, Lillabullero, you shall go to Woburn Jazz.

Saturday

Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but a traditional lunchtime pint in the Fox to the accompaniment of the Concrete Cowboys seemed somehow compulsory.  Couldn’t face Saturday night crowds but that’s irrelevant because – I know, I know – I should have gone to IOTA in York House.

Postlude: Folk on the Green

Definitely not part of StonyLive! Oh no!  As part of the permissions  needed – Horsefair Green is surrounded by houses – no pre-publicity and no leaking of the line-up beforehand.  A local festival for local people.  A fine and mostly local line-up it proved too.

Wandered down the road to buy a programme at mid-day to find the upful jangling African guitar sound of Safari Boots, rather than the usual mournful solo artiste starter, filling the air.  And so it continued, next up the excellent Innocent Hare.  The roster of acts signalled a shift back towards folk on the Green’s origins, so the accomplished kids from MK Rock School were the rockest act on show: no token gesture this, as far as age goes, either, though it did seem a little strange watching young teens ripping into Smells like teen spirit, written by Kurt Cobain when he was 23.  A hard rock Come together came together nicely too.

Follow that, the fragrant Naomi Rose, and she did, to much appreciation, finishing with the wonderful The wonderful (which, of course, isn’t on Soundcloud, but her opener, a song about Milton Keynes is: be my guest).

Then the Cock and Bull Band, who were playing (well, a couple of them) the very first Folk on the Green I ever went to, many moons ago, before we even moved here.  Full of bounce, quite why there was mass dancing to Togmor rather than they I can only put down to it only being the half-way point in proceedings.  10 acts in total, and the beats went on.  Relaxed, satisfying, weather behaved itself, a good one.

Acknowledgments

Cheers to one and all on the StonyLive! Coordinating Committee – ‘the best ever?’ I have heard suggested.  And to the Folk on the Green Committee for its refocussing of a community event to be proud of.  And the volunteers, sponsors and performers.  Thanks again.  See you next year.

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Music therapy

There was once a music shop“.  So opens Rachel Joyce‘s novel The music shop (Doubleday, 2017), and that’s where the trouble starts – I don’t believe you.  It may be 1988 with NF graffiti on the walls, but here we are really living in the land of fable.  That the shop is situated on Unity Street gives the game away, I’d say.  At The music shop‘s core is a drawn-out, convoluted operatic love story; if it were an old film you can practically hear the violins on the page (not in a good way).  And at the end, 21 years later, there’s a grand song and dance finale that cries out for the musical stage or a big screen.  Not a great novel, then.

We could debate how clever or cute it is that the book’s structure follows that of a vinyl double album (Side A through to Side D, with a Hidden track at the end) and that a lot of chapter headings are song titles.  I’m not convinced.  The test of a book with music to the fore is how much it makes you want to hear what’s being cited, and, yes, The music shop did make me want to revisit some of the classical works discussed (The fours seasons, even).  Here’s the biographical context of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata:

It’s so intimate, what he’s doing, he’s practically having sex with her.’
‘Sex?’ Her face stretched wide. ‘Beethoven?’
‘Or at least good foreplay.’
Sex? Foreplay? Horrified, he heard the words that had come from his mouth.

So I’m not saying it doesn’t have its moments, nor that it doesn’t have decent musical taste (I almost cheered aloud when The new favourites of Brinsley Schwartz made an appearance in a list, though that’s another story), just that the rock stuff doesn’t sing off the page in the same way, or get much context.  Blues hardly figure at all, even though all the characters have got ’em, one way or another.

Most of the best bits of The music shop come out of the owner of the shop’s – Frank’s – back story, his life and broad early musical education at the hands of an eccentric bohemian single mum who died young.  He’d rather have had a normal childhood, but she left him with his special talent, of which more later.  His mum is really interesting; that’s a novel I’d rather have read.  Her stuff appears in italics.  She’s a card: ‘Bach was a genius,’ she said … ‘He was jazz in fucking Baroque fucking Germany.’  On Perotin and the birth of harmony: ‘In those days music was mostly plainsong. It was a bit – how could she put this? Fucking plain.’ Frank hardly swears at all.  And the game changer (not that we hear much about Mile Davies):

When Peg played Kind of Blue, Frank had no idea what hit him. It was 1959. The album had just come out, and he was 11.
As he listened, it was like doors opening …
‘This is the record that will change history,’ said Peg. […]

Frank’s special talent is that he can tell what people need to listen to.  Right at the start he persuades a man who professes to ‘only liked Chopin’ to take home an Aretha Franklin album and … Eureka!  He saves his bank manager’s marriage (and secures an overdraft extension to keep the shop going for himself) by pressing a Shalomar album on him.  Many people benefit over the years from his guru-like gift.  Looking for some sort of scoop, or at least a touch of the authentic, I asked a friend of mine who is an avid reader and a qualified music therapist what he thought of The music shop; bastard hadn’t read it (no offence).

So this is no ordinary record shop.  We’ll pass over its realistic financial viability; he’s holding out religiously against CDs, and this is twenty years before the advent of the vinyl revival.  Interesting concept, and you can see what he means but … (and anticipating Amazon’s tricks):

I see you don’t have any sections.?’
‘I put records where I think they should go. I am more interested in what it’s like when you – when you, uh, you know … […]
‘What?’ she asked.
‘When you –
listen. So if a customer asks for Rubber Soul, they usually find something else they would like as well.’

So Frank attempted to explain that Vivaldi was telling a story in the Four Seasons. It was why he kept it with his concept albums, like Ziggy Stardust, At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash, ABC’s The lexicon of love and John Coltrane’s A love supreme. Concept albums told a story over a number of tracks.

This Frank is a man with “a kind of empathy for everyone.”  As one of his fellow shopkeepers (a tattoo artist no less) says, he has “no room to accommodate the fact that someone might turn round one day and love him back“.  On the one hand inspirational, on the other, really bloody annoying (but the back story …):

So what was Frank going to do about [the event that sets the narrative off]? Frank was going to do what he always did when life got confusing, and that was absolutely nothing. If that didn’t work, he would do the next thing he always did when life was confusing, and hide.

And what of Unity Street, a half abandoned side street parade, away from the main shopping drag in a failing provincial town, suffering from planning blight, falling masonry, and a voracious developer trying to buy the stubborn survivors out.  A little community, then: “All life is here”, even after the baker had sold up – a funeral parlour, a religious gifts store, a music shop and a tattoo parlour.  Father Anthony, a retired priest (no, drink, not that) was saved by Frank introducing turning him on to jazz, calls his shop ‘Articles of Faith’.

Side D takes us 21 years on, after a catastrophe involving a sub-McGuffin of a shrink-wrap machine (for second hand vinyl?).  As I say, The music shop the stuff of musicals.  A lot of people have been heartened by the happy ending (oops).

Music, Maestro please …

Meanwhile, back in the real world, a couple of Saturdays ago (May 9) we were worshipping in the Church of the Bullfrogs at York House .  Shall I say ‘local legends’?  Why not!  Their special 25th birthday gig, no less – 1994 at the Fox and Hounds and all that.  Great evening, kicked off with a blast of hard-driving blues-powered rock from original members of the Beneficial Blues Band, out of whom which the Bullfrogs were spawned.  And when they hit the stage the canvas was broadened more than a wee bit with big colourful strokes of Southern Rock, Tex-Mex, and self-proclaimed ‘original Outlaw Country’.  A waltz even … and even if it was Green grow the rushes / Viva Mexico, there were waltzers.

Over the course of the evening we saw two drummers, three guitarists, three fiddlers from over the Bullfrog years and just the one redoubtable Ian Anderson, on bass, vocals and boundless energy. Pete Cripps deserves a special nod too for being on stage all night.  Highlights?  I’ve never heard a fiddle contributing to a Bo Diddley beat before but I have now.  The inevitable but consummate Sweet home Alabama … complete with guitar/fiddle duel.  Ian as Preacher Man, on a mission to rid the world of alcohol (there was a punch-line), never mind Everybody needs to believe in something … I believe I’ll have another beer“.  Copperhead Road got its full due (never short-changed) from band and crowd.  Towards the end there all three fiddlers triumphantly strutted the stage for another Steve Earle’s song – When Johnny come marching home – delivered at increasingly lunatic speed.  And then came The devil came to Georgia.

People pay obscene amounts of money and travel miles to see matchstick musicians (or rather their projected images) perform.  This was a great night full of energy, passion and skill.  You could see the whites of their eyes (and they ours) and the beer was £3.50 a pint.  As I walked home a fine half-moon looking for all the world like a sugared lemon jelly fruit slice shone down on me.

Scribal & Vaultage

At May’s Scribal performance poet Kezzabelle, ‘Mistress of Mischief’ and Fairy of life (apologising for not showering us with glitter since she found out it was not sustainable or biodegradable), was fun, serious (long saving-the-planet piece), and back again with her Retro-Afro-Muff.   From the floor Inappropriate Graham from Rugby, fitted 3-piece suit and all, was suitably inappropriate, while the Bendy Witch’s secularist anthem God and cheese got a worthy reprise.  This year Scribal has been quirkily graced with  … what shall we call them? …  short short stories? long epigrams? gnomic vignettes? … from the mind of graphic artist Paul Rainey (pen name P.Brainey).  This month’s piece about the anti-Earth always opposite Earth in its orbit round the Sun threw up all sorts of unlikely delights, including the ex-JD and radio personality TLD’s response to allegations made against him.

Vaultages coming and going so fast … Woolford Scott a singer-songwriter I’d not mind seeing more of (“You can be my Julie Andrews / I’ll be your Dick van Dyke”); Corinne Lucy solo a singer and writer of exquisite power.  It can be touch and go in the Vaults some nights with a general pub hub-bub from the bar, but Corinne had ’em listening.  Blues from the Ouse and it’s that man again – the aforementioned Ian Anderson and talented young guitarist James Ives playing da blues; Ives had also shone earlier in his other duo.  Sandy Clarke braved a Status Quo trilogy one week … on ukulele.  Last week there were two ukes at the same time.

Milton Keynes Gallery 

And lo, Milton Keynes Gallery did re-open bigger and better a couple of months ago.  Yay MK!  Could only manage a swift dash through in the opening week and was suitably impressed (there’ll be plenty of time…), and finally managed a more relaxed stroll through of opening show The lie of the land a couple of days before it closed.  There was text on the wall in the first get-a-flavour gallery that I wish I’d copied one way or another, referencing the many layered meanings of that word ‘lie’ not forgetting fabrication.  I feel the need to cite Neil Young’s After the Goldrush and “I was thinking about what a friend had said / I was hoping it was a …[sorry for the earworm] ).  Anyway, the Press Release gives a pretty good idea of the depth and variety of it all:

Through a playful and provocative display The Lie of the Land charts how British landscape was radically transformed by changes in free time and leisure activities since hunting and shooting, the recreations of the aristocracy, were enjoyed on the rolling hills of their private estates. In part, tracing a line between Capability Brown’s aristocratic gardens at Stowe and the social, urban experiment at neighbouring Milton Keynes, the exhibition teases out the aspirations that underpin our built environments.

The Lie of the Land examines the modernisation of leisure propelled by industrialisation, a theme developed from Canaletto’s painting of the fashionable public entertainment venue, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Victorian era, with its social reforms aiming to improve urban living conditions, is represented by the Parks Movement. Alongside works by early science fiction writer Jane Loudon and the founder of the Garden City Movement Ebenezer Howard, the exhibition also includes the first-ever lawnmower, John Ruskin’s rock collection and influential horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening boots …

There’s more at www.mkgallery.org/whats-on/the-lie-of-the-land/ (it’ll still be there somewhere after the event) including a list of the many artists displayed.  The new era has got off to a good start.

The long wall in the Wolfson Gallery was a stunner, a fascinating collection of conventional paintings hung on a backdrop of William Morris Strawberry thief design wallpaper.

On the other side of the gallery a series of photos documenting goalposts painted on a variety of walls and locations in northern industrial towns caught my interest.  And there was much more, contextualised in The lie of the land by the company they were keeping.

Couple of favourites: to the right of the long one on the wall (Carel Weights’ The Dogs, 1956 – hello Dad), Mabel Frances Layng’s post-Great War Mars and Venus (c1918); and John Walker Tucker’s optimistic Hiking (1936) before the next one:

 

 

 

 

 

Only The Loney

Andrew Michael Hurley‘s The Loney was strongly urged on me by a friend who, to be frank, has a bit of a mixed record.  Nor is the gothic novel a genre I’ve spent much time in, but The Loney (Tartarus Press, 2014; John Murray, 2015) has stayed with me a while now.

Even as a relative stranger to the genre, I can see it has classic potential.  Third paragraph in and bad weather has caused chaos across England and caused our narrator, in North London, to miss a therapy session:

Then, latterly, the news about the sudden landslide on Coldbarrow, and the baby they’d found tumbled down with the old house at the foot of the cliffs.

Coldbarrow. There was a name I hadn’t heard for a long time. Not for thirty years. No one I knew mentioned it any more and I’d tried very hard to forget it myself. But I suppose I always knew that what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden forever, no matter how much I wanted it to.

1973, and an odd little group – a mini-cult drawn from the Catholic congregation of St Judes in the East End of London – are off on their customary pilgrimage to a settlement on the bleak north Lancashire coast:

If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney – that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest.”

The object of the exercise is to pay their respects at a remote shrine to St Anne, specifically to pray for the cure of Hanny, a mute, who it is presumed is intellectually dumb too; our narrator, his brother, age 12, is 4 years younger, an avid reader of Commando magazine, and acts as his minder.  Our redeemer fails again, but are we down-hearted? No, but.  Father Bernard: “… you said that Wilfred seemed to change after you came here the last time?”  Well …. something happened.

1973’s journey had been the precursor to a final, eventful, trip made three years later with the late Father Wilfred’s easy-going successor, Father Bernard in the driver’s seat.  Something deeply disturbing – and well scary for the reader – happens to the brothers (I’m giving nothing specific away) but subsequently Hanny, Andrew, now a happily married pastor, has written a bestselling memoir, My second life with God.  He has no exact recall of the events at the Loney, save for a vague feeling of guilt.  Meanwhile, at the time of writing, our narrator is a loner ploughing a solitary trough working in a museum, and is in counselling; “If they think I’m fastidious or reclusive then they’d be right, I am. And so where do we go from there? You’ve worked me out. Have a prize.”

As far as the 1973 charabanc’s passengers goes, though, Father Bernard regards him, the narrator, as the sanest of the group, calling him ‘Tonto’.  They have gained a younger couple to their groupuscule, too, who, actually, would rather have gone to Walsingham for their spiritual jaunt.  This examination of small group social psychology is a particularly interesting aspect of The Loney; it reminded me of Alison Lurie’s brilliantly observed, but out-of-print novel, Imaginary friends (1967), no bad thing at all.

How weird are they?  Well, driving through a ‘bad’ part of London with Father Wilfred, “It was a safari park of degradation.  What a world without God looked like.”  How weird is where they’re going?  The house’s previous occupant had been a taxidermist who died, and it’s never been fully cleared, for starters.  And the locals?  Think low-life Wicker Man territory?  Just for starters, they get a disturbing visit from a mummers troupe:

The Face Eggers had always frightened me as a child, grotesque as Punch and Judy puppets. Natives of some savage tribe as painted by the children of missionaries. […]
The stink of booze drifted from them as they sang old songs in bass voices; songs that didn’t have the predictable, homely rise and fall of the hymns we’d been singing all week, but which tumbled through strange minor keys and moved across intervals that sounded like they might have once charmed the Devil to the surface of the world.

As well as the highly tuned gothic climax, jeopardy and general atmospheric weirdness, there is excitement to be had for the reader with the brothers encountering quicksands (where those Chinese cockle pickers perished), all not so much leavened – rather setting up a grounding of normality – by gentle humour and the odd period reference.  Upstairs in the Moorings, the dilapidated house where they stay, there is “… a long corridor lined with empty coat hooks on which a smell of damp gaberdine hung“; also there, “Mr Belderboss chuckled as he looked at the ancient radio sitting on the sideboard – the sort of dark, wooden thing that would still be broadcasting Churchill’s speeches if we were to turn it on.”  There’s a photo of the deceased taxidermist: “He wore bottle-end glasses and slicked his hair back over his head. He looked a little like Charles Hawtrey, I thought. Or Himmler.”  Back home, just before something astonishing come to pass, we are simply vouchsafed, “I was revising Hamlet for an exam the following day“; nothing more is made of this, which I’d say was a touch of class.

The adults are worried by what they see as Father Bernard’s take on affairs and theology: “Matt Munro. My one and only vice, Mrs Smith, I can assure you. I’ve had long consultations with the Lord about it, but I think he’s given me up as a lost cause,” he tries to reassure them.  More specifically: ” ‘Look,’ said Father Bernard. ‘It seems to me that you need to be in a dialogue with God, not putting out your hands for a caning. Take some time, talk to Him, pray for guidance, not punishment. God will answer you, Reg.’ ”  An interesting consideration of the notion of faith comes into play, touching specifically on why Father Bernard had been chosen by the church hierarchy to replace the austere Wilfred.

At the end of the book, the brothers meet up in the post-storm present, to discuss what happened, what will happen next.  And lo, the spectre of the unreliable narrator arises – a strong spectre, maybe: “Like Father Bernard said, there are only versions of the truth. And it’s the strong, the better strategists who manage them.”  The Loney is a book that has stayed with me a while now.

That’s entertainment

As can be seen from the number of posters on view here, productivity has not been a watchword here at Lillabullero; I’m four books behind too.  The little I can remember about Scribal – don’t you just hate those people taking notes at gigs – is Dominic the Poet striding about and owning the room, finishing in style with a long piece originally written for children about dragons, or a dragon, and mothers.  Neat, off-hand, but very funny way of telling us the was a gay vegan (no, really) and never laboured it (was gonna say, didn’t milk it, but I know better than that).

Ukuleles have made their presence felt in Stony Stratford of late, one an 8 string – G and C octaves – that gave it a mandolin-ish presence (sorry, didn’t catch the name) – the other played in the hands of Sandy Clark, who I’ve now seen do one trio of (I think originals) conventional ukulele ditties, another of jazz-blues torch songs (great voice, too).  Oh yes and a splendid ’60s journey from Canned Heat to Joni Mitchell via Dusty Springfield; Son of a preacher man!  On ukulele.

I have to report one of the Vaultage evenings, Ralph suggested we were attending a Saga session; I won’t say which specific one that was, but looking at the posters … no matter: the now weekly Vaultage sessions that Pat Le Chapeau (aka ‘the hat’ Nicholson) has been running have seen some consistently fine performances from a variety of featured acts, and usually a high standard of open mic performers.

The last one was all love and flutes (well two of them).  Pat sans hat did a love song, Rob Bray chipped in, admitting he was So in love, and we were all singing along to John Howarth’s Share the love.  The bounce of African guitar stylings and one of the aforesaid flutes.

Vestigial functions

My title is drawn from Ben Aaronovitch‘s The rivers of London (Gollancz, 2011).  A vestigial function is not a bad description of how Lillabullero (this humble blog) quite often feels about itself.  Anyway, it’s how the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has always thought, reasonably enough, given the rise of science, about the special section of the Economic & Specialist Crimes Unit that Peter Grant, official apprentice wizard, serves in.

The rivers of London is a magic realism police procedural with a violent macabre streak.  It is the first of a series of books that now boasts seven titles, and if its successors continue to maintain this energy level I shall be impressed.  If you can put the episodes of video game gore to one side (faces viscerally falling off) it is great fun and, rich as it is in the psychogeography and history of London, highly educational too.

Peter Grant is a mixed race Londoner, son of an English jazz musician who once played with Tubby Hayes (such detail is important), a functioning drug addict with a “finely tuned ability to sabotage his own career“; his mum is a high-end office cleaner, with all the perks that can provide, originally from Sierra Leone.  Their council flat makes for a welcome port in the eventual storm, an affectionate interlude rich in family back story.

Peter’s first task, fully fledged PC, fresh from completing his probationary years, and relieved not to have been posted to the Case Progressions Unit, is to help in trying to stop a turf war breaking out between the street crews of the river gods: Mother (aka Mama) Thames (“the goddess of the river”, actually Nigerian), who rules the tidal section, and the Old Man of the River, Father Thames, who’s a bit old school fairground, hanging out at the source.  He liaises through various water sprites, guardians of the Thames’s tributaries.  At one stage Mama mentions his father:

You know my father?’
‘No,’ she said, and gave me a knowing smile. ‘Only in the sense that all the musicians of London belong to me, especially the jazz and bluesmen. It’s a river thing.’
‘Are you on speaking terms with the Mississippi, then?’ I asked. My father always swore that jazz, like the blues, was born in the muddy waters of the Mississippi. My mother swore that it came from the bottle, like all the devil’s best work.

It’s Peter’s boss who smooths the waters with Father Thames:

My contribution to the conversation was cursory at best,’ said Nightingale. ‘A great deal of it was technical, groundwater overdrafts, aquifer delay circles and aggregate catchment-area coefficients. Apparently all these will affect how much water goes down the river this summer.’
‘If I was to go back two hundred years and have that same conversation,’ I said, ‘what would the Old Man have talked about then?’
‘What flowers were blooming,’ said Nightingale. ‘What kind of winter we’d had – the flight of birds on a spring morning.’
‘Would it have been the same Old Man?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Nightingale. ‘It was the same Old Man in 1914, I can tell you that for certain.’

I know – this is probably too late a text, but hey, it breaks up my text.

Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose in Covent Garden, culminating in murderous mayhem spreading out from – get this – a Royal Opera House performance.  This is the culmination of a series of violent episodes, revealed (with the help of the memories of a couple of well-preserved theatre-going river sprites), as the actions of a revenant, one Henry Pyke, “a vampire ghost bent on revenge who was acting out the traditional story of Punch and Judy using real people as puppets“.  Pyke goes back a long way, a theatrical failure and maybe wrongfully accused murderer, fuelled by injustice, and now intent on acting out a particular eighteenth century Punch & Judy text.  In passing we get some fascinating background on Punchinello as “the spirit of riot and rebellion.”

The ghost of Pyke gets its energy from the anger of modern London.  There’s a tour de force five-page passage set in a multiplex cinema foyer, as a well-dressed, middle-aged woman with four girls age 9 to 11 in tow, tries to buy tickets to see a film, including cashing in some vouchers.  With the frustrations of a first, long slow-moving queue and a then an obtuse ticket seller, she loses it completely:

‘I just wanted to go to the pictures,’ she said. ‘When I was young you just went to the local Odeon and said ‘a ticket please’, and you gave them money and they gave you a ticket. When did it become so complicated? When did these disgusting nachos arrive? I mean, what the fuck is a nacho anyway?’ One of the girls giggled nervously at the profanity.

The rivers of London is a fast-paced treasure trove of wit, observation and (among many other things) architectural commentary.  Suspension of disbelief is obviously compulsory (Isaac Newton also wrote a Principia Artes Magicus), though some of the straight police procedure stuff seems knowledgeable.  A couple of one-liners to leave with you: No way,” [says Beverley, a river nymph] “You’re not getting me up past Teddington Lock. I’m strictly tidal ...”  Meanwhile, on the streets of London, “clusters of young people from all over Europe exercised their time-honoured right to block the pavement from one side to another.”

A musical interlude

A grand night’s shantying at York House a couple of weekend’s ago.  Ably supported by the 6 men and 1 woman of 5 men not called Matt, the 4 men of Kimber’s Men made it sound like like there were more of them than a quartet – the value of a spectacularly resonant bass anchor sees to that.  Hailing from landlocked Halifax, West Yorkshire, “the centre of the shanty universe” – Hull an hour and a half’s drive to the east, Liverpool ditto west, plus other cardinal points of the compass – they entertained us, made us laugh, and moved us, and a sparing tactical use of guitars on a couple of songs gave a bit of variety to proceedings.  A rousing, joyful evening, but something special happened to the audience during Don’t take the heroes, concerning the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981.  All 11 singers hit the stage for a final encore of Shenandoah; one had not realised there were quite so many verses.

Before I go to sleep

Have to say it, and it’s true.  I read a lot of the early part of S.J.Watson‘s Before I go to sleep (2011) in bed, before I went to sleep.  Not a good tactic a lot of the time, though it’s a habit – one tends to forget, and have to recap – but given the nature of the inevitably repetitive nature of Before I go to sleep‘s narrative, not so bad.  After a traumatic assault 20 years previously, 47-year-old Christine Lucas has literally has no memory of herself: “What are we if not an accumulation of our memories?”  She can function on a practical level, but when she wakes up she has to be reminded who she is, who the man she is living with, the whole lot.  She sees a younger woman in the mirror.  There have been documented cases in the scientific literature.

Christine has a new therapist, who, seeing hints of something returning, tries a new tactic: her keeping a secret journal, which she has to read every morning to keep herself up to speed and not lose any fleeting real memories she might have gained.  (As it grows, of course, she must surely have to find more and more time to read, a problem which is not addressed in the narrative).

It’s a page-turner all right, as she approaches an inkling of what happened to get her like this, and then events take over – who to trust, a red herring, revelations and, in the end, edge of the seat stuff.  The trouble is, as Judy said at Reading Group, the book is marketed as a thriller so the fascination with her dilemma – that of living without an identity – is subsumed in the expectation of something really bad happening.  One’s reading is being engineered.

That said, there is plenty of fascination to be had from Christine’s existential insecurity and the seemingly real glimpses of memories returning, especially after contact is made with Claire, her closest friend from university, Claire.  Add into the mix that Christine discovers she’s a published novelist.  Within two pages we are, it might not be too far-fetched to say, in Philip K. Dick territory:

[p103 pbk] I know that the book I am writing – my second, I realise with pride – may be dangerous, as well as necessary. It is not fiction. It may reveal things best left undiscovered. Secrets that ought not to see the light of day.
But still my pen moves across the page.

[p105] I felt solid ground begin to slip away. Maybe everything I had written was a lie. I am a novelist, after all, I thought. Or I used to be.
The futility of my logic hit me. I used to write fiction, therefore my assertion that I had been a novelist might be one of those fictions. In which case I had not written fiction. My head spun.

The ending is left nicely ambiguous as to how much genuine memory has been recovered as opposed to supplied, how much she will wake up with on the morrow and the next day.  But when we compare memories, two buddies and I, from university, disparities, never wilful, persist.  Couple of Christine’s, sparks to her further seeking, strike me as being ‘real’ enough, though.  Like this one where her mate Claire has set up a meet with her future husband:

‘So where’s this guy, then?’ I say, but she, doesn’t hear me. I feel the buzz of the alcohol and the weed and begin to dance.  The room is full of people, dressed mostly in black.  Fucking art students, I think.

Briefly, a chronicling catch up:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just goes to show how lax Lillabullero has been, due to events and among other things … Channel4 adding the truly great Cheers to their early morning menu of Frasier (even though I have the box set) and Everybody loves Raymond and the morning has practically gone.  Discipline is required.

Highlights only, then, casting no negative aspersions (and memory fades).  Click on the images for further details.  Hard to resist a woman with a dobro and a big hat playing driving Americana (Jasmine Burns at Scribal), while new Bard Mitchell Taylor skillfully mixed poetry and song in his set.  Tim B has a powerful voice, while Crossroots, with their new lead vocalist have a great encore in Hava Nagila.  Open mic-er Chloe at Vaultage deserves mention: if I’d closed my eyes during her I’d rather go blind I could have sworn Bonnie Raitt (probably three times her age) was in the house.

Johnny Fluffypunk at Scribal (photo © Jonathan Taylor) was an experience.  This “sustainable nihilist” covers a lot of bases, playing homage to the rarely used word that is ‘micturate’ along the way.  With a delivery that could have carried all sorts of nonsense never mind the quality stuff on show and still scored … I wish I’d taken more notes.

To call Kenneth J Nash homely doesn’t recognise the depth  of his sweet and sour songs.  Lovely relaxed voice too, I seem to recall.

Reasons, along with soupçons of procrastination and lassitude have led to Lillabullero slipping into hiatus mode of late.  Sometimes I feel like a de-railed locomotive.  This whistle-stop tour of books read in the last few months is an attempt to get things back on track.  The failed metaphor of a bus replacement service is best forgotten, but hopefully normal service will be resumed soonish.  In the meantime, 3 things each about the books.

B1 class 61162 comes a cropper at Woodhead on a Sheffield to Manchester express, July 23 1951. [Ben Brooksbank / Woodhead: a railway mishap / CC BY-SA 2.0]

The Observations

As it happens, the new-fangled (well, 1863) railway plays a significant part in Jane Harris‘s absorbing The Observations (Faber, 2006):

I. The narrative voice is an absolute delight.  Bessy (not her real name) falls into the job of ‘in and out girl’ at Castle Haivers (not a real castle) mid-way betwixt Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Rescued from exploitation by an admiring client, who took her in, treated her right, and taught her to read and write, she had been thrown on the streets when he died. The missus of the house furthers her education by teaching her punctuation:

To tell the gobs honest truth I did not give a first-light fart for full stops and all the rest. I thought my page looked fine while her page looked like it was covered in goat droppings with all the wee dots and spots on it.

She doesn’t get as far as apostrophes, doesn’t spell out numbers (“a huge shuddering breath that was ½ sigh and ½ yawn“) and uses Scots’ vernacular that Ian Rankin makes a habit of only employing at the rate of one word a book.  She is by turns sardonic, knowing, humble, curious, insightful, and scabrously dismissive.  

II.  The title comes from the Missus’s – the lady of the house, she hates Bessy calling her that – misguided contribution to nineteenth century country house scientific endeavour, Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time, which involves putting Bessy and her predecessors through bizarre trials for the purposes of science.  Their emotional bonding 9 or not) is a powerful narrative driver.  Bessy’s observations mount up to a sort of mini-Middlemarch.

III. Along with all the drama and excitement there are at least two great comic set pieces, both to do with the social ambitions of the man of the house: a dinner party with a neighbouring MP Duncan Pollack and his Reverend brother (‘the Old Bollix‘), and the unveiling of the municipal water fountain that was meant to be his coup de grace as to getting himself elected.

IV.  I know, I said three things, but I liked this book so much.  The Gothic elements of the tale pack a punch too.

Washington Black

I.  It’s a real olfactory experience, is Esi Edugyan‘s Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail, 2018).  Lots of weather and skies too, a vivid sense of place and living things.  Just as a globe-trotting Jules Verne adventure story it’s a compelling trip: Barbados, Nova Scotia, the Arctic, Amsterdam, the Morocco desert, the scientific ferment of mid-nineteenth century London.

II.  It’s a lot more than that though.  Early 1830s and 11-year old George Washington Black is plucked from his wretched slave plantation existence because he’s just the right weight as ballast for the Cloud Cutter, an abolitionist aeronaut’s experimental craft.  His drawing skills soon mean he becomes a valued member of the team (of two).  Many good, bad and ugly things happen to him subsequently, not necessarily in that order.

III.  Washington Black is a profound piece of social history.  It covers a lot of moral ground with power, and in more than the matter of race relations.  Early on in his ballooning days, Washington reflects: “It had happened so gradually, but these months with Titch had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind … I had even begun thinking I’d been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth’s bounty.”  Near the end he tells Titch:

“You took me on because I was helpful in your political cause. Because I could aid in your experiments. Beyond that I was of no use to you, and so you abandoned me.” I struggled to get my breath. “I was nothing to you. You never saw me as equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.”
Even as I spoke these words, I could hear what a false picture they painted, and also how they were painfully true.

Soundtrack: Nina Simone’s I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.

Dadland

I. Keggie Carew‘s beautifully written Dadland (Chatto, 2016; Vintage pbk, 2017) took me by surprise, unaccustomed as I am with the literature of war.  Keggie’s dad is Tom Carew, aka “the mad Irishman”, aka “the Lawrence of Burma”, from his distinguished and unorthodox guerilla days behind the lines in France, as one of the legendary ‘Jedburghs’, and later in Asia with the SOE in the Second World War.  What she uncovers, looking to get a picture of her dad’s life before she was born, is thrilling reading, and revelatory.  Now his mind is going, though, and he’s living with her; she takes him to what might be the last big ‘Jedburgh’ reunion:

From the outside we might seem like a Darby & Joan Club, charity volunteers or an Antiques Roadshow do. No outward sign that I am in a room of firebrands, mettlesome kittle cattle, mischief makers and mavericks.  […]  They’re a lawless rackety bunch, and I am beginning, quite quickly, to get an idea of what the SOE recruiters were looking for. Even now in their eighties, they mutter irreverently and heckle during the welcome speeches.

II.  But the war is only part of it.  This is also a book about family, and the author’s growing up.  Tom Carew married three times, first to a childhood sweetheart on his immediate return from France, but he was a positively changed man after the war.  His second wife, mother of Keggie (born 1958) and her three sibling (affectionately referred to as ‘mum’), married a war hero who proved to be pretty hopeless in peace time; hers is a complicated and distressing tale, dispassionately yet lovingly told.  His controlling third wife, who saw him thriving again as a ninja self-help guru for redundant executives, is referred to throughout simply as ‘Stepmother’; the acidity is positively enervating:

So when Charlene [an employee of Dad’s] announced her engagement to a friend of [Keggie’s brother] Nicky’s, it was accepted Stepmother would be organising the event and Dad would be paying for it. Only a bloody great bells-and-whistles wedding at St James-in-fucking-Piccadilly, with Rolls Royces plural, and my poor sister head-bridesmaid dressed up as an apricot blancmange.

III.  Also mentioned in despatches:  In Burma he’s big mates with Aung San, leader of a anti-imperialist nationalist rebel group, much to the disgust of the high ups in the old pre-Japanese invasion colonial administration; Aung San only happens to be the father of the once much-fabled Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.  It was also while in Burma that he got to know Bill Colby, future head of the CIA, who has a walk-in part in Keggie’s own story.  Another friend, met in Trieste, is author Patricia Highsmith; the suggestion is that Tom Carew – or bits of him – find their way into the character of Tom Ripley.  From her youth, Keggie fondly remembers enjoying The Zombies’ Time of the season.

Picture bonus: Turn over page 215 in the paperback edition and there are suddenly two stunning full-page no margins black and white photos of ‘the Mad Irishman’ gone native in the Burmese jungle.  He’s reporting to two military high-ups, and he’s sporting a beard, unkempt longish hair and with knowing, amused smile, looking like he’s a time traveller from a decade or three later.  It’s a real book design coup, the shock of the now.  The photos come from restricted-access archive film in the Imperial War Museum: “I have been told I am not allowed to photograph the monitor, but as soon as I am left alone, I do.”  I loved this book.

Middle England

I.  Probably the most conventional novel I’ve read in a while, Jonathan Coe‘s Middle England (Viking, 2018) picks up on the fortunes of students who were at Birmingham’s King William’s Grammar School in the 1970s, a bunch introduced in The Rotters’ Club, his novel of 2001 (which I haven’t read).  Covering the years 2010 through 2018, culminating in the Brexit Referendum and its aftermath, it’s an astute and readable enough state of the nation novel, a sort of down market Anthony Powell, Dance to the music of time, I guess (not that I’ve read any of them, either).  Some of the characters are more engaging than others; some of the humour is a bit heavy-handed; naturally, ironies abound, with some neat twists of fate.

II.  There are a couple of tours de force.  Coe goes on a tour of his characters while they’re watching the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, phoning one another or just trying to get others in their households interested.  And then the string of celebrity deaths – Victoria Wood, Prince – sets off some briefly disjointed phone calls whereby assumptions of what has triggered the call are askew.  There is a moving passage where an ex-British Leyland shop steward with dementia cannot understand when taken, having asked, to see the old Longbridge works: a landscape of retail parks and waste ground.  On the other hand there is a dis-spiritingly long description of a modern mega-Garden Centre with all the bells on that may be an eye-opener if you’ve never encountered one before.

III.  Culture Wars:  A husband, an engineer, tells his wife, an academic, she has ‘No idea’:

‘No idea about what?’
‘About how angry it makes us feel, this air of moral superiority you lot project all the time -‘
Sophie interrupted him. ‘I’m sorry, but who are th
ese people? Who’s “us”. Who’s “you lot”?

As well as suffering from a classic mother-in-law (‘He was quite right, you know.  […] He was the only one brave enough to say it‘ – guess who?  Remember, we are in the Midlands) it is Sophie who has to suffers a social justice warrior called Coriander (an extreme denizen of ‘you lot’ land), and has to ask of her Head of Department, ‘How can you have a huge microaggression?’  Many other characters are available in a wide range of political, social and cultural hues.

Soundtrack: Benjamin, the novelist, makes great play of Shirley Collins’ recording of Adieu to Old England.  I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never been really comfortable with her voice, so here’s the Albion Band version instead.

I’ve still got three more books to go, but for the time being, I’m just going to say, I’ll be back.  Laters for them.  I promised music:

 

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):

 

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 …

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