Random not random 2

Further meanderings from the first Lockdown, this time with camera in hand. New routes, old routes more fully explored and appreciated.

I’d not ventured past the gate into the Old Wolverton Mill Field Balancing Lakes, just kept to the path at the edge before, but I invariably ended up including them in the itinerary for my wanderings eastward from Stony Stratford. There’s a depth to the landscaping, you can imagine being elsewhere:

Milton Keynes‘s balancing lakes are one of the city’s great assets. Engineered in anticipation of the rainwater run-off created by building a new town on previously agricultural land they are landscape gardening on a grand scale.

Here some delights found in the watery vicinities of Willen North Lake (the terrapin!), Caldecotte Lake (the cormorants) and the Flood Plain Forest Nature Reserve). Click on an image to scroll through the photos:

Westwards from Stony, through Calverton and the Wealds:

No theme with this last lot, though there are a couple of churches and I’m offering praise to the sun. Again: Click on an image to scroll through the photos:

Keep meaning to visit St Guthlac’s on the rare days it’s open. Interesting place.

Hedgehogs & other beasts

Bought a cheap night camera – a Victure – three years ago and it’s been fun. We’d knew there were hedgehogs around, had made a hole in the garden gate and been putting out food, so were curious as to how many and what – and what else – went on.

Here he comes now …

Of course we found more than hedgehogs visited regularly:

Magpies were most often the birds that finished off any leftovers, but this – female blackbird, or dare I say thrush? – is the best pic. I like its attitude.

Inevitably there were mice, but we didn’t expect slugs at the plate. On the evidence of what the Victure camera has revealed (see below) I’d say that hedgehogs eating slugs is a bit of a myth.

Not our favourite cat. Fortunately he’s not very good at actually catching the birds.

And so … bring on the main event! Click on a photo to scroll through:

Special bonus pic – the allotment fox. Spooky.

Random not random

Come the pandemic and lockdown, aided and abetted by a Christmas present FitBit, there was more than usual walking. Here some snapshots from a bottom-end (a couple of years ago) Samsung phone, some tarted up a bit. Click on an image for an annotated scroll though:

Kinks kontextualised

Most tracks on Lola [Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One] are about being ripped off, exploited, and betrayed by men – men that are unfeeling, unemotional, and only interested in the quick buck that the band can provide as pop stars. The album’s eponymous track on the other hand, describes the least judgmental and comforting person whom Ray encountered on his journey through the music industry.

If this was the only insight I appreciated from Carey Fleiner‘s The Kinks: a thoroughly English phenomenon (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) then I’d not regret having read it (believe me, I have read a lot of Kinks books). I know, I know, of course it’s obvious now, it’s right there in that versus in the album’s title, but I’d never quite seen it like that before, just thought Lola was the tacked on single. So thank you for spelling it out (she does elaborate the point) for the likes of me; I am truly grateful. It is put in its narrative context, and never mind the tale’s real life inspiration.

It needs to be said from the off that this is an academic text. Of American publisher origin. So you have to get used to ‘humor’ and its spelt ilk; particularly galling given humour is one of her main themes, but we’re bigger than that. Carey Fleiner is also American, though as Senior Lecturer in Classical and Medieval History at the University of Winchester she’s not without first-hand experience of the actual Englishness of which she writes; she’s also got a book called Doctor Who and History to her credit. [Dual nationality Brit/US actually – see Comment below, where she swears it was spelled ‘humour’ in the manuscript she sent to the publishers].

For what it’s worth, being a classicist is no bad thing when it comes to writing about popular music; Richard F. Thomas‘s Why Dylan Matters (2017), exploring the influence on his work of the poets of Ancient Greece and Rome, is the most original and engaging book about Bob Dylan I’ve spent time with in a long while (it’s the third item under discussion if you follow the link, which, as it happens, I see, starts off with more Kinks). It’s not something that intrudes too much in The Kinks, but Carey does usefully introduce what she calls the Homeric concept of nostos in the chapter headed I miss the Village Green; the past as refuge:

… the question of whether the Kinks were nostalgic, that is, longing for the past of an “England that never was” or if the Kinks are better described as seeking nostos – the search for home and the re-creation of past emotion to improve one’s current and future state.

As I say, this is an academic text, and as such adheres to the full bibliographical apparatus of such publications. It looks like Carey Fleiner was born about the time the band that was to become the Kinks were forming, while she got her PhD the year they split. With the exception of a survey she put out for Kinks fans to respond to (of which later) it is pretty much all dependent on duly cited secondary sources. This is what you get:

  • 10 pages of a useful Timeline listing major Kinks happenings against world and UK events
  • a 4 page intro which – much kudos due, she shows her class here – foregrounds the Come dancing musical of 2012 at London’s Theatre Royal, Stratford East.
  • 160 pages of actual text if you include 4 blanks (to get the next chapter started on the recto side) and 3 with a total of 10 lines between them. 13 of those pages are devoted to 6 songs (but hey! – one of those is for Father Christmas.)
  • there are 8 chapters delivering: a brief Kinks history and literature survey; the coming together of the band; the commercial background to all this; the band’s use of, um, ‘humor’; sexuality and genre (not as scary as it may sound to some); their politics in the work; the question of nostalgia; and the Kinks as others see them.
  • 32 pages of notes, some of which add more than just citing sources. For what it’s worth, I’m a big fan of the artfully used footnote, and I find having to keep going back and forth to access a note a chore.
  • 10 pages of bibliography, which cover the UK social and cultural history of the times comprehensively. Indeed, the whole book is a pretty decent primer in English cultural studies of the fifties, sixties, and seventies for those who weren’t around then,
  • 3 pages of specific further reading, along with 6 pages of reasonably appraised further listening. Oh, and a 5 page Index (hurrah).
One of my favourite pictures of the early Kinks, employed here purely to break up the text. Don’t know which pub. Note the dreaded Watney’s Red Barrell – “We are the Draught Beer Preservation Society – anticipating CAMRA.

Carey Fleiner’s The Kinks; a thoroughly English phenomenon does a pretty good job of explaining what it is to those who haven’t realised it that makes them so special, both in the general run of things and to their solid fanbase. A bit over the top here, and maybe a distant echo from Bruce Springsteen’s “I learned more from a three minute record / Than I ever learned in school”:

There are many studies on the shaping of the social and cultural contexts and the working-class experience in postwar Britain – but what takes a scholar hundreds of pages to describe, the Kinks can evoke in about three and a half minutes. (p21)

It is after her discussion of something John Cleese has said concerning his really quite revolutionary generation’s comedy that she highlights the books’ main strength, particularly for students too young to have been there:

We ourselves don’t realize how exciting this comedy was as we see it now out of context: similarly, after decades of sanitized “classic rock” “best of” lists and blanket programming in the form of I love the … the actual context of innovation is sometimes neglected. (p73)

However, while I’d happily spend time in the author’s company – there is wit, insight and erudition at play here – one cannot overlook the fact that the book is a bit of a curate’s egg. Not that I’m blaming her for it all – proof-reading, simple typos – but …

The good

Actually, given what I’ve already said, an awful lot of it. Couple of things that have stuck with me: lovely idea, to sum up Ray & Co’s relationship with early posh managers Robert and Grenville as a “cultural exchange“, and the notion of “Ray’s neurological cynicism” made me laugh, as did the last chapter’s heading of This strange effect: the Kinks as others see them, which includes discussion of her survey of Kinks fans. I liked, early on, the declaration:

One necessary caveat must be given to the reader; as the primary authors of the myth of the Kinks, Ray and Dave have woven over the years a story filled with contradiction. (p3)

… and the summing up of her intentions in the final chapter:

In other words, this chapter is a look at an overarching but as yet unaddressed theme of this book, “What have the Kinks ever done for us?” (p143)

Personally I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit more of Carey’s Classical knowledge, like the fascinating and jokey analogy she draws starting: “When Aeneas journeys to the underworld to ask advice of his father, he sees among the dead the great hero Achilles. fan boy that he is …” (p157)

The bad (nit-picking)

  • the song Top of the Pops: ” ‘Son, your records just got to number one.’ The song ends with a posh voice, followed by heavenly, celestial strains, stating, ‘And you know what that means!’ A nasally, faux Liverpudlian voice cuts in to assure the band that now they can earn some real money.” (p56) No: that’s not Scouse, it’s London Jewish; I don’t think you can call that an anti-Semitic trope, just a reflection of Tin Pan Alley at the time.
  • Member of Parliament John Profumo …No: he was a lot more than that – Secretary of State for War, no less, when the Cold War was at its height
  • John Stephenson (sic, p87) was not the innovative Carnaby Street boutique owner. That was John Stephen.

Maybe it’s because she’s American …

I can’t help thinking Carey goes somewhat over the top with the “good ol’ boy” schtick and misses a trick with Muswell Hillbillies:

… the title of the LP and its eponymous track are wordplay on their childhood neighbourhood of Muswell Hill; the lyrics and music of the track evoke imagery of country-western and blues music, and America known only through the Hollywood cinema sat side by side with living in a working-class London suburb … representative of his current life as a London good ol’ boy – it is Southern pride and individuality expressed through the rebellious channel of country-western music, adopted by a working class lad who sees no benefit in the social improvements being thrust upon him. (p31)

Pretty sure you have to take The BEVERLY HILLBILLIES more into account than country & western music, which had very little penetration in the UK beyond Jim Reeves (no, really); in those days of limited television these guys were huge:

The ugly

  • She calls the Kast Off Kinks a tribute band. Twice [p9 & p153].
  • the typos – this is not a cheap book – like: “Trad jazz itself dominated the arts school scene from 1959 to 1961, but familiarly bred contempt …” (p35)
  • the NME is spelt out as the New Music Express; ’twas always Musical
  • Other tracks such as Berkeley Mews evoke the hard life and grim economy in the 1940s …” (p23) Que?


Plenty of room here for those exam questions that give you a quote and then that word. You know … Discuss:

  • Of You really got me: “Its sound represents the rage and frustration of the working-classes …“(p54). Or it’s just a truly great NOISE.
  • The Kinks’ audiences were also caught up in the violence as frequently fights would break out among the fans who would subsequently destroy the venues in the melee.” (p4) This refers to the package tour mid-’60s, but really, how frequently? Bit of a myth?
  • “… affectionate satire directed at the middle-class … David Watts, a song based on a wealthy, flamboyant (a sixties code word for homosexual) friend of Dave’s. Fictional David Watts is envied and admired by the singer for his ability to win all the sports and win over all the girls, and the song is peppered with “fa fa fa fa’s”, a parody of affected middle- and upper-class speech (see also Roger Daltrey’s stutter in My Generation).”(p46) Now I have to say – again, admitting the possibility that I am slower on the uptake than I’d like to think – that I’d not seen those fa-fa-fa-fas in that light before, so thanks … but WTF is the Who’s My Generation doing in the same sentence?
  • Were the Kinks Mods?‘ asks a section head. No, though Pete Quaife did have a fully mod-turned out scooter and parka etc. Americans do seem to have a problem distinguishing the Mod sub-culture from Swinging London, though Carey does have decent things to say about how Mod changed notions of masculinity. But: “Popular histories of the period usually include the Kinks when describing the Mod scene. Musically, the Kinks’ early bluesy sound and ‘lazy vocals’ gave them Mod cred, both found, for example, on 1964’s I gotta move (where the guitar’s frenetic riff fails to energize the lazy vocals) and Sittin’ on my sofa. The latter track especially exemplifies Mod ennui – the Kinks can’t even summon up the energy to go to the club and pose like the rest of their peers …Not sure quite how to equate ‘mod ennui’ with their high energy drug of choice (amphetamine). Oh, and easy to forget how big a deal Mose Allison’s laid back vocals were back then. Did yer actual Mods even own sofas?
  • Punk arose from working-class fatalism and desperation, not teen boredom as some later rosy-colored filters would have it.” (p117) Discuss!
  • Fans delight in stories of Ray and Dave’s fraternal altercations that, over the years, have made Oasis look like the Brady Bunch” (p69); and two pages later: “the feud that endears them to their fans … ” Do we really?

Oh yes, the fans

Here we are offered something original. Carey Fleiner does not flinch from the irony of the adoption of the anthemic I’m not like everybody else by Kinks fans (“… it brings to mind the crowd scenes from Life of Brian where the mob agrees, “Yes, we are all individuals.”) but she gives them their due when reporting on the returns from her survey. And I can attest to the many many psychological types to be found at the annual Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention in London (feeling it, missing it greatly already this damn year (sad face emoji) (I don’t use emojis)). Nevertheless, it cannot be denied:

Most of the roughly two hundred people who answered the survey were white men from Western Europe and North America, with a majority in their sixties; most were fairly well educated with some college or higher degrees, and most held white-collar professional jobs. (p149)

And this is well said (here we go again with the 50 years on de luxe Lola reissue):

Regardless of the reasons for the Kinks’ position as underdogs, it’s a point of proprietary pride and camaraderie among their admirers; fans and critics alike want as many people as possible to know this. Considering then how many of these articles and reviews there are, especially whenever a Kinks milestone comes along … rock and roll’s best-kept secret is in serious peril of overexposure. (p151)

Finally …

Can I be said to be pissed off at the lack of my name in the annals of those who responded to Ms Fleiner’s survey. Well I did notice it, but … Nah, so it goes. Probably not as much as another David (there are lots of us about) who does make it correctly onto the list but whose surname is mis-spelt in the actual text.

It has only taken me three years to get round to reading this book. Hopefully it won’t take so long to do Mark Doyle’s – another American academic – The Kinks: songs of the semi-detached (2020)

Never a Billy or a Bill

Not sure quite why I picked on William Wordsworth‘s The Prelude or Growth of a poet’s mind: Text of 1805 (OUP 2nd ed, 1970) for a pandemic bedtime read, but that’s what I did.

Shamed myself into it is part of it . I’d bought it pristine and new and it remained unread, the spine now so faded in the sun I’ve had to use a Sharpie to give it back an identity on the shelf. So will you buy the notion of my keeping faith with the Romantic imagination?

When did I purchase it? At least a decade ago in a fit of Lake District euphoria, either after a visit to Dove Cottage, or as seems more likely, traipsing round the lad’s childhood home in Cockermouth, where, handily, the photos come over the road from:

William, meet Lillabullero. Who likes messing about in PaintShop Pro.

I’ll be honest, I struggled to make sense of it more than occasionally. You don’t (well, I don’t) do footnotes in bed and my pre-knowledge of it was scanty. I skimmed without skipping a lot of the time, though I did get into its rhythm as it progressed; I would hope to return at a slower pace some rainy day in the Lakes. He finished a version in 1805. The Prelude – not that he called it that – was mainly addressed to his buddy Samuel Coleridge, with whom he had “wanton’d in wild Poesy” writing the revolutionary Lyrical Ballads. It was basically an extended blank verse CV saying he was up to the job of producing the big one – as if he hadn’t already changed the poetic landscape for good already – a philosophical trilogy that was never realised. The Prelude was published posthumously; it had been polished up a bit, though apparently losing the youthful energy of the original 1805 text. (Bedtime reading or not, I read the intro).

Did you catch that subtitle – Growth of a Poet’s mind? From early on he reached high; I’m happy not to demur or contradict him, though our William does fancy himself, the ambition to “leave / Some monument behind me which pure hearts / Should reverence.”

There is much to savour in The Prelude and much that is easily relatable today. I’d venture it would not be amiss for it to grace the A-level curriculum, instructive to the youth. Those visionary experiences of his childhood wandering the land around Hawkshead and elsewhere later are a trip and a half, though I was surprised that the biggie, the one that clinched it for him, happened on Snowdon, the Welsh mountain. His description of student life in Cambridge can still serve as a useful primer for the aspirant fresher (though he didn’t indulge much himself). Not impressed, he spends some time considered wasted in London. Meeting Coleridge is pretty much the equivalent of Lennon meeting McCartney.

I first made acquaintance with Wordsworth in O-Level History, and duly learnt the “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive” French Revolution quote for exam essay purposes. His French adventure, his excitement at the prospect of a republic followed by his dismay at the carnage that ensued as the ultras took control remains instructive. His other French adventure, involving an affair and fatherhood (something that only became widely known many years after his death) is ducked in The Prelude and replaced with a frankly tedious friend of a friend tale of love, lust and social class. Indeed, for all the other awakenings relayed in The Prelude there is a disappointing silence in the matter of the flesh-on-flesh variety.

Despite that, as he says towards the end of his conclusion: “ … the history of a Poet’s mind / Is labour not unworthy of regard: / To thee the work will justify itself.” He was addressing Coleridge, but I’ll settle for that. To the extent that I wanted to have more to bring to it when (ok … if) I return, I turned to a Beatle biographer, even though he also wrote a book about Tottenham Hotspurs called The Glory Game. Hence:

Hunter Davies wrote William Wordsworth. (W&N, 1980; New ed Sutton, 2003) because he couldn’t find a readable whole life of the man to buy, rather than one concentrating on a particular period or that wasn’t overwhelmingly poetry driven. I appreciated it well enough and I’ll not dwell too much on the biography. I liked the way he skips a couple of centuries in characterising certain periods of Wordsworth’s life. So, ensconced in Dove Cottage (not, we learn, that they ever called it Dove Cottage), “William and Coleridge had been living this sort of embryo hippy life for the previous ten years since they had left Cambridge“:

… all this nocturnal wandering, these romantic musings, poetry readings under the trees, by the lakeside or behind rocks. It’s hard to be sure how the sixsome paired off, if they ever did … they were really all in love with each other, and all in love with themselves. As in the West Country they were living an early version of a drop-out life; young people who refused to take up the conventional middle-class occupations, moving around, staying in cheap rented premises, living off the land and off their wits (and off pieces of writing when they could manage it), getting handouts from their friends or relations, endlessly discussing and arguing about their philosophical or political views.

Cambridge is interesting too. I’ve already said The Prelude gives a fairly timeless picture of being up at uni, but this came as a surprise:

There is not one contemporary account of him at Cambridge by any of his fellow-students, which is surprising, considering how people usually manage to dig up and produce yellowing memories of people, once they are famous. He didn’t impress anyone sufficiently at the time for them to rush to their notebooks or diaries and jot down a few impressions. The only known reference is by an anonymous contemporary some three years later, who remembered Wordsworth as that chap who went on and on about the beauties of the Lake District.

Ah yes, the Lake District! Another thing surprised me is how much time, even after moving back there to live, they spent elsewhere, with frequent travels in Europe and throughout the UK. He was a big buddy with Walter Scott before the latter started writing novels. As Davies reports, sniping as he entertainingly does on occasion at the book trade, “One of the subjects they discussed was royalties and sales, as all good authors do when they get together ….”

He’d also travelled widely before settling down, initially welcoming the French Revolution (he had a bit of the Bastille as a souvenir) and becoming a father there (something the wider world didn’t know about until the 1920s). Indeed, the book that was to revolutionise English poetry was produced:

To earn enough money for their trip to Germany, Wordsworth and Coleridge got down to compiling a book of poems which they sold to Cottle. It was Cottle’s offer of thirty guineas for the book which was their specific reason for producing it, and for making them hurry to complete enough poems in time. The volume was Lyrical Ballads, the single most influential book of poetry in the history of English Literature. By the time it came out, in September 1798, they were already in Germany.

Initially it got terrible reviews, and most of the 500 copies were remaindered …

Davies reports a classic never-meet-your-heroes episode when the young John Keats chanced to call on Wordsworth and “found him dressed up in knee-breeches and silk stockings, all ready to go off and dine [with the local hoi polloi], Keats’s romantic image of Wordsworth as a radical spirit diminished from that moment on.” The younger generation of Romantic poets, inspired by Lyrical Ballads, became disenchanted, “upset by reports and gossipings of his growing reactionary attitudes, and , in the flesh, his rather pompous, didactic manner hadn’t helped.” These days he’d be justifiably called a sell-out; the once young radical turned staunch establishment figure who opposed the Great Reform Act of 1832; though apparently he mellowed again in old age.

Various little things: he was un-musical and had no sense of smell. Charlotte Bronte sent him some poems for comment and “he told her that marriage was a woman’s proper career: “The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind …”

I like the story of a discovery in 1977 of a batch of letters that has forced scholars to re-evaluate his – baffling to many – marriage. Not quite the shock of the discovery of his French affair (“‘Husband loves wife’ is not exactly shattering news” as Davies puts it), but what a difference a few letters can make in the shifting sands of literary biography):

They’d been bought in a bundle of old letters for £5 by a young stamp-dealer in Carlisle. He was about to burn them, since they were useless to him, when he noticed the names ‘Wordsworth’ and ‘Rydal Mount.’

William Wordsworth‘s life is in many ways still a modern one. There’s a grand soap opera can be made of it if Netflix fancies it. Hunter Davies tells it well, and this is no hagiography. He finishes it finishes with a flourish, more than a hint of what makes the enterprise so worth the while:

‘Wordsworth was nearly the price of me once,’ so Philip Larkin, the poet, said in an interview in the Observer in 1979. ‘I was driving down the M1 on a Saturday morning; they had this poetry slot on the radio, Time for Verse, It was a lovely summer morning and someone suddenly started reading the Immortality ode, and I couldn’t see for tears. And when you’re driving down the middle lane at seventy miles an hour … I don’t suppose I’d read that poem for twenty years. It’s amazing how effective it was when I was totally unprepared for it …’

A cinematic afterword or three

While I’m here a word on Julian Temple‘s film Pandaemonium (2001) about Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and their chums’ adventures in London and the Quantocks:

It captures brilliantly the excitement and energy of their collective endeavour and creativity, and sets it in the context of the scientific advances of the day that were an early part of the Romantic movement. It is, however, deeply unfair to Wordsworth. Their split, that Hunter Davies describes thus:

Like so many partnerships in history, it ended in a silly squabble, a sad spectacle which did credit to neither side. Coleridge never came back to the Lakes and was never part of the Wordsworth household again.

… that split is dovetailed in Temple’s film into dramatic episodes taking place in the West Country before they even became known as the Lake Poets, with Coleridge charismatic and Wordsworth portrayed as the tale unfolds as the bad guy, abandoning the dream for respectability (and maybe even having been a government spy all along, it is alleged). Outrageous, of course, but still a film well worth seeing. (I’m mystified as to why no DVD has been available for many years now).

And while I’m at it, a vote of thanks to Hunter Davies for his part in Here we go round the mulberry bush (1967), the movie of his novel.

Good fun, not half as bad as the poster would suggest. I can still recall the joie de vivre skipping back home after seeing it. How I wish I’d kept even the sparsest of diaries now. Ex-sixth formers doing a stint as conductors on Green Line buses in Hertfordshire the summer before going up to uni. With a just about recognisable Christopher Timothy as Spike, the randy voice of (a couple more years’) experience. And with a soundtrack from The Spencer Davis Group and Traffic:

… or why I adore Kate Atkinson.  On the occasion of – I’ll admit I’m late, but I’ll come to that later – the publication of the 5th Jackson Brodie novel Big Sky (Doubleday, 2019),  The first to feature Jackson for 9 years, so Hurrah!  Not that I didn’t appreciate the couple of celebrated, more literary prize-winners in between.  Not that the Jackson books aren’t serious – nay, dark as they come when they feel like it.  Here we go then, not necessarily in any particular order.

One: Jackson Brodie

And not that I didn’t already love Kate Atkinson before he arrived, but he really was the icing on the cake.  In Big Sky he’s running Brodie Investigations out of a seaside village in North Yorkshire and minding his 13-year old son while his actor mother (ex-partner – it’s complicated) is filming a major episode of tv crime series Collier nearby.  “He was a friend to anarchy,” is how someone assesses him.  “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen” is one of his mantras.  He’s come to the conclusion that for all that has since passed, being a policeman “was his default setting.  It was knitted into his soul, for heaven’s sake“.  Though not like other crime fiction, I wouldn’t wish to see the Brodie novels shelved anywhere else in a library.

He has a substantial back story:

By the time Jackson was thirteen his mother was already dead of cancer, his sister had been murdered and his brother had killed himself, helpfully leaving his body – hanging from a light fitting – for Jackson to find when he came home from school.  […]  Julia, Nathan’s mother, could go toe to toe with Jackson in the grief stakes – one sister murdered, one sister who killed herself, one who died of cancer. (‘Oh, and don’t forget Daddy’s sexual abuse,’ she reminded him. ‘Trumps to me I think’.)  And now all the wretchedness of their shared pasts had been distilled into this one child.

Actually, he’s not a bad lad.  Professionally life has not been a bowl of roses for his dad:

He’d fallen off a cliff, been attacked by a mad dog, almost died in a train crash, nearly drowned, been crushed in a bin lorry, blown up – his house had been anyway – and that wasn’t counting a couple of near misses when serving in the police and the Army. His life had been a litany of disasters. 

Hence, unlike an awful lot of other crime fictional leading characters:

Jackson had never really seen the point of existential angst. If you didn’t like something you changed it and if you couldn’t change it you sucked it up and soldiered on, one foot after the other. (‘Remind me not to come to you for therapy,’ Julia said.)

2:  She likes to mess with you

A veritable trickster goddess.  Big Sky starts with one page of Jackson and a young bride on the run from her wedding.  “It’s not what it looks like,” he tells an old couple who congratulate them when they stop for a breather and to take in a beauty spot sunset.  And that’s the last we hear of her until page 329.  One week earlier , the text announces, and we’re watching how a dodgy employment agency operates: an illusory city centre office created in a scruffy caravan sat in a field in the middle of nowhere; only later do we discover just how dodgy.  Then we get to meet Jackson (mixing work and pleasure) and Nathan (playing the bored teenager) at a model re-enactment of the Battle of the River Plate in a municipal park pond.

There are three major criminal investigations driving Big Sky, with some overlapping of police and perpetrators.  What appears to be a straightforward domestic murder leads to the uncovering of a sordid sex-trafficking operation, while another lesser investigation is seeking to tie up some loose ends in a historical child abuse case (Operation Villette) involving a ‘golden circle’ of local worthies.

So here we have Jackson Brodie’s long awaited return to the printed page after 9 years.  He appears on only 111 of the 353 pages.  His first involvement with any of the players in the major crime is when, out on a cliff walk with Julia’s dog, he stops a stranger (a minor character in the big one, but a suspect, among other things, in the murder) trying to throw himself off said cliff.  Then about half-way through he’s hired by someone called Crystal (I’ll leave it at that for the moment) to rescue Harry, her kidnapped step-son (ditto), who manages to get away under his own steam without help:

 The Amazon queen sat down opposite him and said, ‘I’m not paying you, you know. You’ve done fuck all.’
‘Fair enough,’ Jackson said.

He does get more involved in the explosive denouement, and the moral aftermath of the denouement’s denouement.

2.i: Red herrings & dead ends

Ah, but that would be giving the game away.  Kate Atkinson does it a lot though.  And if they are neither, she gives good going off on tangents too.

3:  The brackets

As you’ve probably already realised, brackets play a big part in the narrative voice, not least in establishing Jackson’s state of mind, and how important Julia is to him, for all their being ex-items.  Brackets are employed with fun and relish:

Nathan attended a private school (mostly thanks to Julia’s fee for Collier), which was something that Jackson objected to on principle but was secretly relieved by as Nathan’s local comp was a sink school. (‘I can’t decide which you are,’ Julia said, ‘a hypocrite or just a failed ideologue.’ Had she always been so judgmental?  That used to be the job of his ex-wife, Josie. When had it become Julia’s ?) (p17)

They are an endless source of delight, not a dud among them

Teenage boys were like living sandwich boards, covered in free advertising for corporate evil. Whither individualism? Jackson wondered. (‘Oh, enough with the Anthem for Doomed Youth,’ Julia said.) (p108)

3.i: more generally, the narrative voice

There was a tremendous review of Big Sky in one of the March editions of the London Review of Books.  J. Robert Lennon gets our Kate.  I couldn’t get anywhere near nailing it like he does:

The guiding consciousness of Big Sky is a free-ranging, charmingly distractable, darkly comic narrative voice, rendered in extremely close third person. Brodie’s real job isn’t detection: it’s to be the unwitting source of that voice. Atkinson’s frequent sardonic asides and scraps of remembered dialogue always sound like Brodie – it’s almost as though everyone’s inner life is being rendered as he might imagine it to be, if he had any idea what was going on.

Here’s poor old Vince, who we met on a cliff earlier, taking the first bus to anywhere:

Running for the border, he thought, like a man in a book or a film, although he was neither, he was a man in his own life, and that life was falling apart. And there was no border to run for, unless you counted the invisible administrative one between North Yorkshire and Teesside. Vince didn’t even get that far.  (p139)

4: The cast & the cameos

Always rich.  They’re all intersect somehow, a cascading three-dimensional jigsaw of time and place.  I’ll detail here only one household.  Crystal, as previously mentioned, a major character in the drama, is a fantastic creation.  She’s a child sexual abuse survivor with a heart of gold; she has married Tommy – who has his own history that she only knows the half of – for his money and the luxury security it provides.  There’s a nice running joke of her not swearing in front of  their 3-year old daughter (“Fudging carrot“).  She’s good with Harry, her 17-year old step-son, and his little acts of kindness to his near-anorexic school friend Amy, a co-worker at the tame Transylvania World tourist attraction, are a sweet touch.  His other summer job is working backstage at the theatre, where he assists Barclay Jack, an old school dinosaur ‘comedian’ (and ‘magic circle’ suspect), ‘star’ of the summer season show, and Bunny, a wise old trooper of a drag queen.  Harry reads a lot, and, just in passing,  his A-level drama and Eng-Literature teacher is both intellectually stimulating and has had her hand on his thigh.  She also invariably appears in brackets: 

He had had a conversation with the dangerous Miss Dangerfield about fairy stories and she said they were ‘primers’ for girls so that they would know how to survive in a world of ‘male predators’. (‘Or wolves, as we might call them’)

5: Sheer chutzpah

Yup, the two women out-of-town detectives on Operation Villette [see also 6, below], go by the names of Reggie & Ronnie: aka the Kray twins.  The local DI they’re working to (also a woman):  ‘Hey up, it’s Cagney and Lacey.’  They are staying in a b’n’b (another entertainment in itself) run by the wife of another baddie; she refers to them as ‘the lezzies’ (only one of them is):

Was there some weird, as yet unfathomable link between Wendy Easton’s murder and their own Operation Villette?  So many questions. Someone had once told Reggie that there were always more questions than answers. The same someone she had seen running up the cliff last night. The same someone whose life she had once saved. What was Jackson Brodie doing here? He was a man who brought confusion in his wake. And he owed her money.

Not to mention Tatiana (another from Jackson’s past – ex-dominatrix, daughter of a Russian clown family) who Jackson uses for divorce honey-traps:

He had come across her again by chance (he presumed, but who knew?) in Leeds, where she had been working as a waitress in a cocktail bar …

6. Nods to literature

Back to J.Robert Lennon in the LRB:  “In Jackson Brodie’s world, literary characters like Jackson Brodie – divorced ex-coppers of a philosophical bent – exist, and Brodie knows it. He’s read plenty of crime fiction …”  He ponders which Agatha Christie ‘tec – Miss Marple or Poirot – he’s more like. “He liked his crime fiction to be cheerfully unrealistic, although in fact he hardly read anything any more in any genre“:

Brodie Investigations was the latest incarnation of Jackson’s erstwhile private detective agency, although he tried not to use the term ‘private detective’ – it had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending on how you looked at it). Too Chandleresque. It raised people’s expectations. (p19)

Kate Atkinson will often actually downgrade the importance of her own craft and literature in geneneral.  Here’s lovelorn Reggie:

Reggie sometimes wondered if Ronnie had ever opened a book or watched a film or play. She was a total philistine. Reggie didn’t hold it against her, in fact she rather admired it. As someone who had read and seen everything from the Iliad to Passport to Pimlico, Reggie didn’t feel that any of it had done her much good. It certainly hadn’t helped to keep Sai.

But then there’s that estimable young man, Harry:

This morning, in the welcome absence of patrons in Transylvania World, Harry was sticking his head in Cranford. He liked Cranford, it was a safe place where small events were accorded great dramatic significance. Harry thought that this was better than big things being treated as if they weren’t important.

7: Quentin Tarantino?

Oh yes.  The climax of the action in the ‘horror house’ – awful scenes indeed – nevertheless is cut with more than a touch of the Tarantino about it.  Here’s poor old Vince again, stumbling into a bad situation:

Everything fell into place. It wasn’t entertaining enough for the universe that he had lost his job and his house, or that he was under suspicion for murdering his wife, for God’s sake.  No, now he had to discover that his friends (golfing friends, it was true) were involved in something that was – what were they involved in, exactly?

His actions set off a thrilling sequence of events, not the least of which entails the reader taking a certain glee from another of the active participants concluding: “I smell of death, Andy thought. And despair. He was feeling sorry for himself.”  It’s compulsive.

8: She’s on our side

On the big things: spirit of moral law rather than earthbound letter of same.  The situation of technically guilty persons neatly un-stitched to run free.  Let’s hear it for the good (and not-so-bad) guys and gals.

‘A righteous compromise,’ Jackson said. ‘Truth is absolute, but the consequences of it aren’t.’
‘Sounds like a specious argument to me, Mr B.’
‘And yet this is where we are, Reggie. You do what you think is right.’
‘She hated him for doing this to her. And she loved him for it, too. 

Not entirely realistic police procedural here, it must be admitted, but hey! – what’s wrong with (in the end) feelgood fiction.

On the little things:and she [Crystal] ordered a mint tea. Jackson always felt slightly mistrustful of people who drank herbal tea. (Yes, he did know it was utterly irrational.)”  I drink mint tea; I don’t care.  Though I don’t think many of us will argue with our man when encountering someone who is, “… ‘something in the City’, a phrase that always baffled and irritated Jackson in equal measure.

9: Tangents all over the place

Is this a tangent or just an aside?  It’s a signature move, anyway.   They are discussing the re-enactment of the Battle of the River Plate in a municipal park lake:

‘You wait,’ Jackson said. ‘One day you’ll have kids of your own and you’ll find that you make them do all the things that you currently despise – museums, stately homes, walks in the countryside – and they in turn will hate you for it. That, my son, is how cosmic justice works.’
‘I won’t be doing
this,’ Nathan said.

10: What’s playing in Jackson’s car stereo

Mostly new to me, and more specifics than I recall from earlier Jackson books, but always interesting and worth pursuing.  At a loss as to how to reassure someone in deep shit, he’s “searching his memory for a suitable country lyric“. First up is Miranda Lambert: “ She was an absolute favourite. She was blonde and curvy and sang about drink and sex and heartbreak and nostalgia and he suspected he would be slightly nervous of her in real life.”  Here she comes now:

No, not what I was expecting either, nor one so young, but, you know, thanks Jackson.   Next Maren Morris‘s My church (it’s a car).   “He always imagined that Lori [McKenna] was someone who would understand his melancholy streak.  Wreck you, she sang. That’s what people did all the time, wasn’t it? One way or another.”  Patty Griffin‘s Be careful gets to him (“All the girls who’ve gone astray. It had the power to make him irreducibly melancholic“).  And there’s a classy Mary Chapin Carpenter (who I have heard of) namecheck.

12: Just because

I haven’t actually specified the dialogue, but any script-writing adapter wouldn’t have much to do save agonising over what to leave out.  And the one-liners, gems appearing out of the blue.  She may not have been the first to describe an affair proceeding with “bridled passion” but it worked a treat.  Couple of my favourites

‘Your book club?’ Andy didn’t know which was more startling – that Wendy Ives had been murdered or that Rhoda was in a book club.
‘First rule of book club,’ Rhoda said, ‘there is no book club. Are you going to let that toast burn as well?’

 ‘A fornicator?’
‘It’s what I call a fascinator. They’re so stupid, I hate them,’ Julia said.
‘And yet you’re wearing one?’
‘Oh well, you know, it’s not every day that your son’s half-sister gets married.’

Here are Reggie and Ronnie surveying a murder scene: “There was a big patio with lots of paving that only served to make the planet’s job harder.”  The Kray twins’ exuent from the book is sheer joy.  Never mind plot spoilers, it would be a crime to just leave it lying here.  And, final thought, I doubt Kate will be doing any signing sessions in Middlesbrough.

13: Visitors to Lillabullero

Lillabullero is also thankful to Kate Atkinson for generating a lot of the traffic here, second only as far as regular hits go, to the systematic treatment given to Peter Robinson‘s Alan (variously DI, DCI etc) Banks sequence of crime novels.  We are not a busy website, but an ambiguity involving a child with a ‘birthmark the shape of Africa’ has been puzzling readers ever since the last Jackson Brodie novel, Started early, took my dog, was published back in 2011, and there’s hardly a day goes by without another visitor.  You can find my original post about it here: https://quavid.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/started-early-took-my-dog/

That post, with an almost throwaway paragraph about said birthmark, generated a few comments and theories via search engines, so I re-read it closely and collected all mentions of it and what could be gleaned from those comments, in another post which attracted more comments, making it, I submit, the definitive treatment of the problem: https://quavid.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/that-birthmark-2/

The reason it’s taken me so long to get around to Big Sky is that I read it so fast first time around to see if it picked up on that problematic birthmark.  It didn’t.  Second time around I’ve just luxuriated in it.  No loose threads this time around; Kate Atkinson has, I think, answered all the ‘But what happened to …?’ questions comprehensively.

One big disappointment:

But that’s my problem.  Also here on Lillabullero I have some pages dedicated to mentions of the Kinks in fiction, real anorak stuff for the Kinks fan community: https://quavid.wordpress.com/kinks-stuff/the-kinks-in-literature/.  How I would love to include Kate Atkinson in that noble roster.  Thought I might be in with a chance when Big sky was announced, because Big sky also happens to be the title of one of those relatively obscure little gems on the much lauded of late The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society album of 1968, which is finally getting its critical due.  Here’s another Big sky, then:



Reassessing the bookshelves as one tends to do in pandemic lockdowns, and at the same time trying to usefully fit a bigger desk in an already limited space (in the hope it will make me more … productive), mine eyes did fall upon mention of a product we could do with some of right now, displayed as it was on the back of the book on top of the haven’t read it yet and too soon for the charity shop pile,:

This was an advert on the back of a collection of articles that first saw light of day in the Clarion, a newspaper with a large working class circulation, back in 1893.  (Mine’s a 1976 reprint – the ISBN is a bit of a giveaway):

Merrie England promoted another kind of panacea with, hopefully, a bit longer sell-by date: nothing less than a home-grown socialism.  As the Manchester Guardian said (I’m quoting from the publisher’s forward) when it was still boasted its Manchester origins, “For every convert made by Das Kapital, there were a hundred made by Merrie England.”  The appeal of Robert ‘Nunquam’ Blatchford’s socialism was predicated on the basis of ethics and common sense, its inspiration coming from, in the main, William Morris – and all the better for it. I might read it one of these days.

All of which is putting off writing about …

The last book I bought in a charity shop before lockdown

Because I’m not sure where to go with poet Sean O’Brien‘s novel, Once again assembled here (Picador, 2016), a pristine hardback copy of which I picked up in a charity shop for £1 because I really rated his The beautiful librarians collection.  It reminds me in tone of another book (or film) that I just cannot put a name to, and it’s bugging me.

Let’s start with a touch of intertextuality then.  On his retirement, our narrator, Stephen Maxwell, is given a complete set of the novels of Graham Greene; “which I already possessed,” he adds.  Jaded, see, and yet he has a story to tell  A collector of Greene and the works of thriller writers Eric Ambler and Geoffrey Household when younger, he finds himself caught up in the midst of what could be one of their plots.  He also tells us “a distinction is sometimes made between Greene’s serious fiction and his ‘entertainments‘”; ‘entertainments’ maybe, but they are, he adds, unlike the John Buchan’s gung-ho ‘honour bright’ Richard Hannay adventures, still ‘sombre’, their leading characters compromised.  So here we are deep in intellectual thriller territory (good grief: Theodor Adorno gets a mention), but Once again assembled here, none-the-less, is a gripping read with a climax that has all the energy and classic twists and turns of a master of the genre.

Written from the vantage point of 2010, the Prologue of Once again assembled here kicks off with a classic (I’m sticking with ‘classic’) hook;

This is a story about a murder. I think I can safely tell it now, but it’s never possible to be quite sure, so the manuscript will go to a safe place – that is for you to deal with as you see fit. Dispose of it if you think it wisest. I will not be around to comment on what you decide.

We only learn who this is addressed to in the Epilogue, and it is an exquisite reveal, a lovely narrative touch.

The events recounted happened in 1968, though politics aside there isn’t much of a period flavour to things – an ex-girlfriend has the Zombies’ Time of the season, an older lover favours jazz singer Annie Ross (a mark of sophistication back then), someone orders a ‘brown mix’ in a pub – and given he’s only just out of uni, narrator Stephen Maxwell is a bit of a throwback (“My own preferred poets were of the Movement generation, formal and unpretentious”). 

The setting is Blake’s, a North Lincolnshire independent boys day school with a powerful sense of tradition, though by now some of the boys read Private Eye and the Combined Cadet Force is voluntary.  As it happens, Lindsay Anderson’s If has just come out at the cinema:

… having no games duties I saw the film one Wednesday afternoon at the Rexy.  The truanting boys downstairs in the stalls cheered Mick Travis and his chums as they massacred the staff and prefects from the chapel roof.  They were quieter when the staff regrouped and fought back.  ‘A bit far-fetched,’ Dent, one of the history A-level group remarked when the subject came up in class.

But it’s not the boys who are a problem.  Maxwell, an old boy from Blake’s himself, has been rescued from the clutches of public school recruitment agency Gabbitas & Thring (“offering me a choice between Hinckley and some vegetarian madhouse in Dorset“) by his old mentor and given a teaching job there after a disastrous final year at Cambridge (a Third, scandalouslysleeping with the Prof’s wife) had left him in career limbo; for good measure he has an affair with the absentee headmaster’s interesting wife too.

The plot involves a high-level cover-up of a nazi-sympathiser’s role in the Second World War, a local by-election at which a National Front equivalent has put up a candidate, a shadow school election with same, and a local plot to ruin the academic career of the school’s brightest (and Jewish) pupil.  The intrigue develops slowly but grips, and then explodes excitingly all over the pages.

Maxwell’s pre-university mates, drinking partner Smallbone (“I’m a realist.  I know myself to be idle and lustful.”), and ex-girlfriend, the drifting Shirley, who ‘absorbed books as she smoked dope‘ (“I’m a bohemian me.  I live for art.  Only I don’t do art”) make for an entertaining sideshow (though she is involved too – if a bit unconvincingly, I’d say).  “I just don’t like it when you lure me into doing the right thing,” says Smallbone, when the action hots up, Two very different bookshops also add some flavour throughout.  Once again assembled here held me throughout, if along with this nagging feeling ….

Ultimately Maxwell’s is an unfulfilled life.  Unmarried, childless, he stays at the school, teaching until retirement and then is kept on writing the second volume of its history (which he hardly anyone will read).  “I have not lived in the world,” he says, “I have lived here instead, in this specialised impossible place.”  It’s this dignified tone of regret and inevitability, a certain intellectual timbre, the swirling in tradition, that has me puzzled.  What is it reminding me of?  It can’t be Goodbye, Mr Chips, surely not Greeneland?  Maxwell even says it himself:

When sometimes I walked by the lake in the grounds at dusk and dawn the placed seemed almost supernaturally representative of its kind and class, as though perfectly fictional, its existence sustained by the novelist’s art …

Why you can trust Alison Graham

She’s spot on in the Radio Times, at least for drama (her record on comedies is less good; Mrs Brown’s Boys?).  Here she is on her take on episode 3 of The Luminaries, an adaption of a surprise Booker Prizewinner a while ago that not many people managed to read even then (BBC1: Sunday, June 28):

It’s probably best to look upon The Luminaries as a really grim, baffling version of Poldark, but set in New Zealand not Cornwall and with gold instead of copper … The production design is vivid and the whole thing is just weird.

This week we reached episode 5 (BBC1: Sunday, July 12):

Star-crossed “astral twins” Anna and Emery are finally reunited, and Emery asks Anna anxiously: “You know what I think are the two saddest words in the English language …?”  Hang on, give me a second, I know this … is it The Luminaries?”  Actually, no, the answer is “too late”.  So there you go.
As timelines clash – I have no idea what’s a flashback and what isn’t – Anna is prey to the various demands of men in this bleak, impenetrable drama.  […]
After an etiolated fever-dream sequencce, a character asks ind despair, “What’s happening?”  Search me.


In Memorium

So long Sandy, it was great to know you.  So sad to never again hear her sing  a Bessie Smith blues accompanying herself on ukulele as if they were made for one another; special is the word.  Lillabullero‘s lifetime musical highlights will always include singing along to her Highway to Hell – of course it worked.  Incredibly wide repertoire – “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” a familiar intro, first heard to a Justin Timberlake song – but always asking for suggestions of more songs she could do.  She liked mine of the Kinks’ obscure masterpiece God’s children enough to do it immaculately one week at Vaultage; gratifying, especially when others hearing it for the first time told her what a great song it was.  Again, special.  Lovely person, gone far too soon.  Damn.

Tomorrow never knew

If I had the requisite graphic skills you would see a montage of Monteverdi performing with, oh, the Mississippi Sheiks or their like.

As a mission statement for a musical ensemble you might think “a mountain wedding between Claudio Monteverdi and a jug band” was an interesting proposition.  In fact, it is Glenn Gould’s – the eccentric Canadian classical pianist celebrated for his ground-breaking 1955 recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations –  it is his scornful dismissal of Strawberry Fields Forever, a recording considered by many many as one of the outstanding achievements of the Beatles’ career.  This and many other things I learned from Craig Brown‘s One Two Three Four: the Beatles in time (Fourth Estate, 2020).

One Two Three Four is not just another straightforward Beatles history, of which there have been many; that in time in the sub-title is intended to establish that.  Brown openly acknowledges all the books that have gone before, giving prominence in his chatty listing of sources to Mark Lewisohn’s ‘indispensable’ The Beatles: All these years (all 960 pages of just volume 1) and Ian MacDonald’s ‘masterful’ and ‘ever-thrilling’ Revolution in the head, so he’s got his priorities right.  Of the literature in general he says, “Many good books have been written about the Beatles: in fact, the general standard is much higher in terms of style and honesty than those dealing with my last subject, the royal family.”  Aye, therein lies the rub.

That last book, Ma’am darling: 99 glimpses of Princess Margaret (I talked about it here) was a delight, its serendipic approach – factual, satirical, analytical, drawing on all sorts contemporary accounts with occasionally romps into fantasy – worked a treat.  With the Beatles as subject matter less effectively so.  Maybe because of my biographical investment in them over the years; not that I’m that knowledgeable.  The only Beatle books I’ve read have been the original Hunter Davies bio of 1968, the aforesaid Ian MacDonald masterpiece, and a lengthy interview John Lennon did with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner.  Keeping it down to 99 glimpses (there are 150 in One Two Three Four) might have sharpened it up a bit too.

They were – Ringo aside – grammar school boys, who played up the Scouse accents when fame hit.  Working class hero Just William-reading Lennon was the posh one; his childhood home overlooked a golf course.  “… the thing about the Beatles was that we were pretty well educated and not truckers [like Elvis].  Paul could have gone to university,” John said in one of his last interviews.  That’s one of the alternative history games Craig Brown plays, makes charts for even: if McCartney had not failed his Latin O-level, taken a year early; going back further, if the Germans had not bombed Liverpool one particular night would his mum and dad have ever been more than friends?  Much less successful is a scenario where the newly signed Beatles accept George Martin’s suggestion they record How do you do it? for their first single.  One he doesn’t try: what if Lennon hadn’t met Yoko Ono?  Of which more later.

Another riff Brown takes from Ma’am Darling is the impossibility of definitive biography when you take on the accepted myths: just how badly did a drunk Lennon beat up Bob Wooller at Paul’s 21st birthday party?  What did actually happened when John and Brian Epstein went on that holiday together in Spain, a comment about which (exactly what comment?) set that fight off?  What exactly did happen (and how) when John met Paul?  And ditto John and Yoko.  He uses all the contradictory published sources out there support his impossibility thesis, though he is able to reach a conclusion on who set the wheels in motion for the exit of original drummer Pete Best (short answer: George lobbied for it musically).

Second time I saw the Beatles at the Slough Adelphi, show biz package tour programme cover, November 5 1963. Within a couple of months or so they’d conquered America.

He’s good on Pete Best.  Brian Epstein was only 27 himself when the Beatles made him earn his money by sacking the handsome Pete Best, a very big deal locally and something they all managed to be shifty about in interviews for years.  As part of his research – pretty much the only research not done from a book or screen – Craig Brown went to Liverpool in the week of an International Beatles Festival:

I arrived at Pete Best’s old house in Hayman’s Green on the evening of day four of the annual Beatles week. The basement recreated the old Casbah Club. A very basementy basement, dank, dark and sweaty, it was bursting to the seams with men in their seventies who looked like Bernie Sanders or Bernard Manning. Most wore Beatles T-shirts.

Flyers near the entrance advertised The Magical Beatles Museum, run by Pete’s half-brother Roag … Its collection includes Pete’s Premier drum kit.  History in the museum stops at June 1962; it is as though Ringo had never lived.

Brown visits the National Trust owned houses that John and Paul grew up in, and is somewhat underwhelmed (“rules and regulations stricter than those for the Sistine Chapel“).  [My mate Neil, no slouch himself in these matters, upbrades me for “endorsing Brown’s nasty comments about the NT guides to Paul and John’s houses without actually having done the tour yourself. Why? I can tell you that they were the very nicest people you could hope to get” not sure I am, but it’s worth saying] Because it’s Beatles Week there are queues of guided Beatles tours at most locations, and he gleefully reports on the one-up-man-ship and accusations of charlatanry among the guides.  In the end it is a sign outside the Sefton Park Hotel boasting its previous life as the ‘Family home of Stuart Sutcliffe 1961-1970’ – in fact he’d died in early 1962 and had only ever spent a few nights there when visiting back from Hamburg – that reduces him to cliché:

With the benefit of hindsight, it might have been less time-consuming to place plaques on the handful of buildings in Liverpool with no Beatles associations.

He’s good on Aunt Mimi, who raised John, and who, he places in the Wodehouse-ian and Just William category of formidable Aunts.  I don’t know why, but I was surprised, found it heartening, how close John stayed to her (‘perhaps,’ Brown suggests, ‘because she was the only person on the planet who could see through his nonsense‘), right up to a two-hour conversation with her the night before he was killed.  “He comes to see me as often as he can,” she told Hunter Davies in 1968.  “He sat up on the roof for four days in the summer [in the Dorset house he’d bought for her].  I ran up and down getting drinks for him‘; that would have been in his heavy LSD phase, of course – I never realised quite how much he took regularly at one stage.  She didn’t take to Yoko – “Who’s the poison dwarf, John” though it’s not clear when she said that.  When, not long after his death, she was asked if she’d talked him about the bagism and bed-in peace campaign adventures, said:

‘I certainly did. I just found him, telephoned him, and said, “That’s enough! Thank you! We’ve had enough! Keep that lot for the music hall!” She giggles. “And that was the end of it.”

As a  contributor to Private Eye for three decades you wouldn’t have to guess Craig Brown is no great fan of Yoko Ono.  He (hurray!) reprints one of Private Eye’s regular cod news items of the time featuring Spiggy Topes & the Turds. Not that he preaches, just flatly presents her privileged history and art practise prior to meeting John, and reporting the varied accounts of that and what followed (she stalked him).  According to a framed letter from her hanging in Aunt Mimi’s old house, when there he had been “a quiet, sensitive introvert who was always dreaming“; to be fair, it was Yoko who bought and donated the house to the National Trust.

Brown actually attributes the end of the bed-ins for peace to the aftermath of a bad tempered radio interview the pair did with American journalist Gloria Emerson, who had begun her career in journalism as a foreign correspondent in Saigon in the 1950s, and was to return there later, an interview that he quotes at length from, ‘notable because Emerson was clearly no establishment reactionary‘.  Whereas David Frost on television had taken them at face value, she was relentless, ‘like an adult confronted by unrepentant children‘.  “Mr  and Mrs Lennon, we’re boring each other, so I’ll go away” is quite a sign-off.

More from that November 1963 package tour programme.  Click on the picture to get to it enlarged.

I could go on, and … I will.  What One Two Three Four brings home to you is how young they were, how quickly everything happened, how quickly everything changed, the enormity of what happened, and how soon it was all over, as well as how huge the legacy (and the silliness it has engendered, out of all proportion in, say, auction houses on both sides of the Atlantic).  And how utterly ridiculous the early Apple enterprise was. 

Author pic from the rear flyleaf

Our author was only eleven-and-a-half when the White Album, the album that made all the difference to the growing lad, came out; ten for Sgt Pepper.  That didn’t stop the family embracing the Beatles phenomenon earlier:

For Christmas 1964, when I was seven, my brothers and I were given Beatles wigs by our parents. At that time, a factory in Bethnal Green was manufacturing 30,000 Beatles wigs a week …
That same year, Santa also put a Beatles Magnetic Hair Game in my Christmas stocking. It turned out that it wasn’t really a game at all, in that it had no rules or even instructions. It simply consisted of four outlines of the Beatles heads, a magnet, and hundreds of little black iron filings. […] Fifty-five years later, in the spring of 2019, I noticed the very same Beatles Magnetic Hair game, in good condition, advertised for £1,250.

Another Christmas, and one of the most telling in time moments of the book.  It comes as a shock to learn that only five days separated the births of John Lennon (9 October 1940) and the younger Cliff Richard (14 October 1940).  Cliff had briefly been the ‘bad boy’ of UK rock – “Is this boy too sexy for television,” asked the Daily Sketch.  (I can remember my mother going apoplectic at a gyrating performance of his on the telly.)  His career was, though still up and running, pretty much side-lined by the Beatles, something he found hard to hide his resentment at in interviews ever since.  While Cliff was busy coming second in the Eurovision Song Contest with Congratulations, the Beatles were in Rishikesh with the Maharishi writing the White Album.  And in one of the great footnotes, Brown recalls a boyhood outing thus:

I myself greatly enjoyed enjoyed Cliff Richard’s performance as Buttons in Cinderella at the London Palladium in 1966, with Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd as the Ugly Sisters, Tudor Davies as Dandini, and Jack Douglas as Baron Hardup. The Brokers’ Men were played by the Shadows. The speciality act was a baby elephant called ‘The Adorable Tonya’. During this same period, the Beatles were recording Strawberry fields and Penny Lane.

Enough.  Let us leave Brown’s depiction of the Maharishi, John claiming to an embarrassed Paul that the unlistenable Revolution #9 was the future of music, and the fascinating genesis of I am the Walrus (a reaction to John learning they were studying Beatles songs in his old school).   Let us also leave the fun to be had with ‘doctrinal differences’ leading to ‘schisms among Beatles historians’ and the lengths fans have gone to in really examining the Abbey Lane album cover (never mind barefoot Paul), and much else besides.

One Two Three Four is, in total, 642 pages long.  Most of the time it is entertaining, informative and insightful – in time.  It is too long; there are hiatuses.  Thankfully there is no sign of the utterly redundant discographies a lot of music biographies feel beholden to waste paper with, though with all that was going on I could have done with an index; with so many interesting people appearing or being quoted in the never quite chronological text – what was it Kenneth Williams dismissively wrote in his diary? – it could handily save a bit of time for … people like me, I guess.

The final section of One Two Three Four is a reverse sequence of snapshots from the life of Brian Epstein, starting with the Inquest into his death from an accidental overdose, the private funeral, the Beatles getting the news in Bangor (John: ‘I thought, “We’ve had it now‘”) all the way back through the on/off relationship with a destructive homosexual partner, the group giving up touring, conquering the US, Beatlemania in the UK, getting the record deal, and finally, his going to see what all the fuss is about this group at the Cavern, and George Harrison saying, “Hello there.  What brings Mr Epstein here?”  Which is how the book begins.  It’s beautifully done, an incredibly sad backward journey through the joy shared by so many and in which the man played a significant – nay, crucial – part.

Again, from the programme of the Adelphi show, November 5 1963. Tell the truth, I wish I could remember more about it.

Within the last week, Bob Dylan, the Beatles’ contemporary and a big influence, has released Rough and ready ways, his 39th studio album.  It’s an album, of new material that came as something of a surprise, that has been received with great critical acclaim and with much joy here at Lillabullero.  He’s still got it, and there’s a twinkle in his eye.  The album also includes Murder most foul, a lengthy meditation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22 1963, 17 days after I saw the Beatles package show at the Slough Adelphi.  There’s a line in Murder most foul – opening line, second verse, the aftermath:

Hush little children, you’ll understand,
the Beatles are coming,
they’re gonna hold your hand

Also, with pace the Black Lives Matter protests and the overdue examination of the worthiness of some statues in public places in the UK remaining in situ, and by extension the question of renaming of theatres, parks and streets with connections to those profiting from the slave trade, it seems Penny Lane in Liverpool, through its possible connection with a certain Mr Penny, has been put forward by some for consideration.  Surely, surely, surely, Penny Lane being one half, along with Strawberry Fields Forever, of the greatest double-A side 45″ disc of all time more than compensates for anything that went before?

The Beatles in time

The uniform edition paperback I read.

Espedair Street (1987 & still in print) has weathered well.  Given the novel’s subject matter – the life, loves and fortunes of successful fictional Scottish rock band Frozen Gold‘s principal songwriter and bassist, Daniel Weir aka ‘Weird’ (who has always hated the band’s name) – and it’s by Iain Banks (I loved The Crow Road, book and TV), I’m surprised both by how long it’s taken me to get round to reading it, and how old it is.

Our man Dan is not in a good place when the novel starts.  Actually, physically, residence- wise, he’s in a very interesting place, but later for that.  He’s reached the grand old age of 31.  First person narrative, so no spoiler warnings necessary when it starts:

Two days ago I decided to kill myself. I would walk and hitch and sail away from this dark city to the bright spaces of the wet west coast … […] Last night I changed my mind and decided to stay alive. Everything that follows is … just to try and explain.

Dan, out of Ferguslie, very much Glasgow’s wrong side of the tracks, starts writing songs and goes looking for a band and finds Frozen Gold, a promising bunch of sixth-formers.  He’s over the moon when they just get to record with a name label, but they’re looking at 5 album deals, which sets up a situation for Banks to play with: “That’s middle class thinking. […] They can keep drink in the house without having to drink it all.”

Crucially, for authenticity’s sake, when is this all happening? “The Sex Pistols were still in captivity“.

We hit the industry at a good time. We peaked in the UK in ‘78, the same year the greatest number of records were sold, and by then we were big in the States too […]  I guess I would go along with the idea we were a sort of half-step towards punk … we had a foot in more camps than we had feet to put them in. We were the band that made your brain think and your foot tap at the same time. […] We had – dare I say it – class.

First edition hardback

It all happens very quickly, too quickly for Dan, who is disappointed.  He was expecting the grind of small clubs, John Peel sessions, transit vans breaking down in the middle of the night, but no: “Sure, I always thought we’d be accused of selling out, that was only natural … but I thought we’d have the chance to be sold in, first.” That Iain Banks has a way with words, has he not?  Yes, Dan is a bit of a philosopher: “I never did work out who took the energy from whom, who was really exploited, who was, if you like, on top. Sure they paid, so that act might be called prostitution, but, like a lot of bands, we actually lost out on some tours. [How times change!] Playing live …”  But that becomes a job:

Perhaps, I remember thinking, we’ve hit that point in a tour when you’ve lost the initial impetus of enthusiasm, have yet to work up the momentum of routine, and cannot yet tap the energy of knowing it will all be over soon. Happens that way sometimes, I told myself.

They go through all the standard rock band moves, and then some: “We took it seriously, in our own ways. We worked at being Rock Stars …  It was a way of life, like a religion, like becoming a totally different person.”  Of course it all falls apart.  Sex and drugs and rock and roll.  Guitarist Davey falls victim to an overambitious stage set which collapses and “promptly electrocuted” him: “Lasted … maybe two seconds, maybe five. Seemed like about three hours, but you could probably find some ghoulish bastard with a bootleg tape who could give you it down to the nearest tenth of a second.”  Vocalist Christine, gone solo, is murdered by a fundamentalist fan.  Financially secure, Dan retires from the music scene completely.

“I think I hoped to find myself in my fantasies, to see the shape of who I really was in the pattern of my realised dreams, and when it all happened, and I did, I just wasn’t very impressed with what I found there.”  He comes to the conclusion that “some caterpillars were only ever worms with an identity crisis.”

The latest puzzling paperback cover

So I became a hermit crab instead, and look at the big shell I found!”  Which is where the book begins, in St Jute’s, the fictional (more’s the shame) gothic church copy – a blasphemous revenge folly of the wealthy Ambrose Wykes, for his exclusion from the real St Jude’s congregation, late nineteenth century Glasgow.  We are some years into Dan’s seemingly anonymous life (“Thank God for changing hairstyles“), joined as he is on occasion, by drinking companions McCann, an old-style Glasgow socialist, and Wee Tommy, a teenage pill-head, and the periodic paid companionship of Blythswood Betty,  St Jutes is also storage for vast quantities of East European goods, including much vodka, payment in kind given the absence of any meaningful available currency, from a Frozen Gold tour a while ago.  It’s a spellbinding creation, resident pigeon and all.

All this is delivered by Iain Banks with great style, much fun and seemingly insight into the rock world.  There are a couple of superb extended tours de force, some great writing.  There is one of the best, if not the best fight scenes I can recall reading anywhere when Dan and McCann, out on a spectacular bender, end up in a posh night club where it all kicks off (served up with a surprise, telling, coda).  And then there’s Dan’s episode at Davey’s ridiculous mansion, Davey – a qualified pirate, with his own plane and a professional flight simulator – takes Dan, both of them completely out of it after a mindbending orgy of drugs and alcohol, on the three bridge challenge and dan can never quite work out whether those bridges they are flying under are real or not.  it is brilliantly done.

Tell you a secret: Iain Banks has actually written a love story.  With the exception of Wasp Factory, I suspect the man was all heart.

Espedair Street – named for a street in Paisley – is a worthy inhabitant the sparsely inhabited Rock Novel Hall of Fame.  How can fiction compete with a character as absurd as, say, Mick Jagger?   (Wouldn’t you like to see Charles Dickens emerge from a time machine and give that one a try, though?)  Some have given it a more than decent go.  Ladies and gentleman, may I present to you, Lillabullero’s very own …


Rock Novel Hall of Fame

It’s not a crowded field.  How to define?  The writing rocks, a certain energy.  In for definite are:


Don DeLillo‘s Great Jones Street (1973) has the chutzpah to call its narrator Bucky Wunderlick – think Dylan, Jim Morrison, anticipating Bowie – and more than gets away with it.  A recluse from fame’s pressures, holed up in an unfurnished NY apartment, rumoured dead, life gets even more sinister for Bucky.  Appears in pretty much everyone’s list; if it doesn’t. don’t trust that list.  Roddy Doyle‘s The Commitments (1987) energetically tells the story of a soul band coming together in Dublin; you’ve doubtless seen the faultless transformation into a movie.  Jennifer Egan‘s A visit from the Goon Squad (2010) is a riveting stylistically various slow reveal concerning an aging punk rocker now record exec and his young assistant and how they, without either knowing the other, got to be where they are.  Nice running joke about retired rock stars in pursuit of ever more obscure world musics.

Big maybes (when/if I read them) (which I probably will) are:

Joseph O’Connor‘s The thrill of it all (2014) tells the tale of Ships in the night, a band whose origins go back to Luton Polytechnic.  Given my wife’s exulting in his writing when she was reading Shadowplay, his novel about Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker, and that Patti Smith appears in it, has to be a contender.  Doug Johnstone‘s The Ossians (2008, rev.ed. 2009) has the Scottish band of its title touring the Highlands.  Johnstone has played in bands himself, and The Ossians was praised by Ian Rankin, a man who knows his music.  David Mitchell‘s – he of Cloud Atlas fame – Utopia Avenue (2020), published in July, tells the tale of Utopia United, a band emerging from the London psychedelic scene of 1967.  Has to be interesting, given his publicity has him saying: “Can a novel made of words … explore the wordless mysteries of music, and music’s impact on people and the world? How?” Utopia Avenue is, he says, my rather hefty stab at an answer” to thh eternal question, “Is it possible to dance about architecture after all? ” Has to be worth a try.  I suspect I need say no more about Julian Cope‘s One Three One (2014) than give its sub-title: a time-shifting gnostic hooligan road novel.  Gave it a road test once, but I wasn’t in the mood; however, it is Julian Cope so has to be worth another try.,

Significant absences are:

Salman Rushdie‘s The ground beneath her feet (1999) retells the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with rock music in the place of the lyre.  Makes it into at least one other list I’ve seen, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it.  Some sort of U2 connection too.  Bit cruel to include, but Pete Townshend‘s The age of anxiety (2020) got one of the worst reviews I’ve ever seen in Private Eye, and they can be brutal.

And an honourable mention goes to:

Thom KeyesAll night stand (1967) is beat group era pulp fiction – that cover – delivered with great energy and aplomb.  the visit to the pirate radio ship in the North Sea strikes me as probably authentic.  Money from the film rights financed a noted rock and roll pad in Kensington – Syd Barrett was heavily involved – and though the film was never made, Ray Davies had been asked to provide a theme tune, which he duly did, though – not bad by any means – it stayed obscure until recently.

Ian McMillan appears as a character – not just as ‘I’ – in eleven of the poems in his To fold the Evening Star; new and selected poems (Carcanet, 2016).  In Ah’ve soiled ma breeks! (not one of his better titles) he has a ‘passing artisan in a car‘ shouting, “Your poems are shite!”  I wouldn’t go that far.  No, that’s a cheap rhetorical flourish, though what I will say is I was hoping to be engaged more than happened some of the time, and I was pleased to find I got more out of a second reading.  I like the idea of Ian McMillan, and I’m happy for him to regularly appear in the media as the go-to-Yorkshire-lad; far more satisfying than bleeding Parkie.  Please Ian, promise never to do life insurance ads for broadcast on afternoon tv.

To fold the Evening Star consists of McMillan’s first book for heavyweight poetry specialist publisher Carcanet, Dad, the donkey’s on fire (1994) in its entirety (itself harvesting stuff from earlier slim volumes), with selections from later books and a dozen pages of new and/or unpublished poems, of which To fold the evening star is one.

First poem to grab me was Ted Hughes is Elvis Presley.  “I didn’t die / that hot August night / I faked it” is how it starts. I thought, yeah, makes sense.  Two blokes who burst sensationally upon their respective scenes – Elvis with Heartbreak Hotel & Hound dog in the UK (1955), Ted with The hawk in the rain (1957) – both with a great shocks of black hair.

Elvis, looking to escape fame, jumps a tramp steamer to England, knifes Ted in a dark alley and becomes him (“like momma used to say / the loaf became Jesus“), two-in-one:

At my poetry readings I sneer and rock my hips
I stride the moors
in a white satin jump suit, bloated as the full moon

Anyway, you can read it for yourself (and indeed hear Ian recite it and give his explanation of the poem’s genesis) at https://poetryarchive.org/poem/ted-hughes-elvis-presley/ . I thought it was good enough for me to be surprised I hadn’t stumbled across it before (since 1994), even if the last verse strikes me as poor, kinda stupid, and indeed meaningless.  My wise old mate Neil said, Yea, okay, but he’s wasted it: “He could have had the two getting drunk in the afterlife, with El singing something from The Birthday Letters.  It would have had to be a Love Me Tender type croon … with El doing the half taking he did on Lonesome Tonight.”  Which would have been brilliant if Ted Hughes‘s celebrated collection of poems concerning Sylvia Plath hadn’t been published until 1998.  Revised edition?  Could be a possibility.

Born 1956, Ian McMillan’s early stuff inevitably show he’s read the Liverpool Poets at an impressionable age – including, given the odd dada-esque flourish Spike Hughes – but he makes no secret where his heart lies: “Barnsley is the filter I see everything through as he says in the Intro to The Mexico Poems.  A lot of what’s here will probably sound better performed, not least the Stories from Dad, the donkey’s on fire.  No surprise that there are 14 poems that at least touch upon pit closures, including the clever Pit closure as art.  In Playing chess with Uncle Charlie, a lovely piece of dialect humour celebrating the quiet surrealism of ordinary life but also reporting a distressing incident:  “He’d substituted a Park Drive for a pawn.”  [Back in my smoking days in Sheffield, the northern equivalent of Players No.6].

He’s aware of his public persona too, of its dangers, but happy to include his craft in the end product; “that Ian McMillan“, as I’ve said, appears in 11 poems.  “Always, for me, the struggle / Between populism and / Linguistically interesting work” as he says in It’s the 4th of July.  I like this, from An old map, from Jazz Peas: “What is literature?  They ask.  It is this.  Biro click.  Biro click.”  Essential engineering works opens:
Let me tell you some things / about this poem. This poem happens / on a train stopped in the midlands.”  I could quote you plenty more that’d make you smile.

He gives good title, does that Ian McMillan.  Even if what comes next doesn’t quite live up to it, it still stands as an achievement. Here are some particular favourites of mine:

  • Jesus died from eating curtains
  • Modernism: the umbrella girl forgets what she’s talking about
  • Burst pipe with ‘A level’ notes [this is good fun; I recently bought a charity shop copy of some Robert Browning poems; My last Duchess had annotations just like these all over it]
  • A discussion on Modern poetry with example; Postman Pat’s suicide note
  • Sonny Boy Williamson is trying to cook a rabbit in a kettle [nicely absurd with a kicker blues couplet of I tried to cook a rabbit in a kettle / but the kettle caught fire]
  • My caravan’s got a Bontempi organ in it
  • In a West Yorkshire bus queue, several mature art students discuss excitedly the earthquake of April 2nd 1990
  • Me and Dave and Thelonius Monk waiting for the 14 bus

The title poem of To fold the Evening Star is the very last in the book, page 238, in the New & Uncollected Poems section.  Full title To fold the Evening Star, January 1965, it’s a lovely childhood memory.  No hint is given if it’s brand new, or what.  Never mind.  That title sets you up beautifully for John Donne‘s Song – “Go and catch a falling star / Get with child a mandrake root“, but the Evening Star here is a local provincial newspaper.  If you are of a certain frame on mind, you are now yearning to hear John Renbourn‘s gorgeous setting of the Donne poem, from his first album, way back in 1965:

As someone who worked in public libraries for forty years I was a sucker for Why we need libraries, which  broadens out from describing how the local library of his youth moved into more modern premises up the hill to considering the effects of local government cutbacks:

Everyman I will go with thee and be thy
guide except on Saturday afternoons and

sometimes all day Mondays and sometimes
certain days for the need of money to pay

the people who open the doors to let the books

Nicely put, that.  I’m proud to have been one of  “the people who open the doors to let the books out.”  A certain satisfaction, too, in discovering that the copy of To fold the Evening Star that I borrowed from my local library had actually been acquired as a result of an ongoing standing order that I had set up with The Poetry Book Society while I was still “letting the books out”.  Well worth it!  I’m glad Ian McMillan was sitting there on the library shelves.  I may have seemed lukewarm in places, but there is still much to enjoy here.

In looking to see if there might be a YouTube of Ian McMillan performing Ted Hughes is Elvis Presley I came across a treat I’d forgotten all about, which I’m happy to share with you all.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mojo Nixon’s Elvis is everywhere.  It’s true.  You’re welcome.


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