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Stony Stratford – the self-proclaimed ‘Jewel in the Crown of Milton Keynes’ – is a music and poetry town.  All year round.  But one week each year, in early June, it overflows with the stuff.  This is one man’s StonyLive! 2017.  Intention: attend at least something each day.  But I have to pace myself these days.  Sorry if I didn’t make it to your gig. …

In and out of the Day of Dance on the High Street on Saturday, June 3 – many varieties of tripping the light fantastic and Morris sides aplenty, including Red Cuthbert Morris, youngsters out of Bedford – the gentle art of Morris as martial art; and the more local fledgling – pirates ahoy! – Rapskallion Morris.

Bread, eggs and veg purchased at the Saturday market, it was time for  Groundhog Day – or the traditional StonyLive! opener  – and the mass singing of The night they drove Old Dixie down with the good ol’ Hole in the Head Gang in the Fox & Hounds at lunchtime – as ever, accomplished bluegrass and Hank Williams country.

Sunday morning‘s fine weather a welcome contrast to New Year’s Day’s very wet Classic Car show in the Market Square.  Shiny cars and a blue sky make for interesting photo opportunities:

Stony Stratford old Magistrate’s Court and Courthouse reflected on the bonnet of a … should have taken a bit more notice. Lambo?

I’m no car buff, so it’s aesthetics (ie. nice curves), romance and nostalgia that mostly whet my interest.  My best in show this year was an immaculate black Citroën Traction Avant, a car 20 or 30 years ahead of its time (it said in the window), produced pretty much unchanged from 1934 to 1957, front-wheel drive, low on the ground and various other things.  This one was apparently built in Slough for the South African market, and with only 16,000 miles on the clock:

With the added bonus of a sort of selfie of your host here at Lillabullero.

Monday night and a pint in the Vaults, that lasted me the stroll down the alley to their Stables bar too.  Crossroots a fair mix of genres with some decent vocals, and then a Traditional Tunes session hosted by Innocent Hare (previously mentioned in despatches).  Twenty folk musicians ranged around the tables and a feast for the ears; an Irish air had me weeping inside.  Felt a bit naked without an instrument in my hands (not their fault, I hasten to add, just me wishing I’d applied myself more over the past half century or so).  Then over the road to the back room in the Old George.  I’m no great fan of covers bands, but The Journeymen are a classy outfit with great taste – a stylish Make me smile (come up and see me) in particular.  It was here I got into the seeming habit of purchasing a pint just as the band were finishing their last number before taking a break.

Tuesday was An evening with The Bard and Friends, and an absorbing evening it proved to be.  Current Bard of Stony, Stephen Hobbs – of whom more later – had assembled a wonderfully varied line up, including two of the very best local original singer-songwriters.  MK Laureate Mark Niel’s northern alter ego Ezra Poundland kicked off proceedings with an innocent smirk, and finished with various singers’ takes  on the words of the hymn Amazing Grace.

I’m always amazed at what the trained voice can do – and without a mic – and countertenor Daniel Collins delivered Vaughan Williams’ House of life song sequence (settings of poems by Dante Gabriel Rosetti) beautifully.  My only problem is that such compositions, written for the classical voice, are not exactly the most memorably tuneful.  Unlike, say Mark Owen‘s and Naomi Rose‘s.  All on the bill excelled.  The always impressive Screaming House Madrigals brought the evening to a powerful end with more original songs of style and pizzazz.  To the poster’s description of them – “indie-folk blues” – you must add jazz and funk.  Jo Dervish is a stunning vocalist, a voice both expressive and full of rhythm.  As it happens, my favourite Naomi Rose song – the name of which escapes me – the “part of the wonderful” one – contains the line “That was good night.”  And it was.

Let it also be noted that Mahmut Dervish, the Madrigal’s guitarist and writer, this very evening, accurately predicted a hung parliament two days before the event.

Wednesday I opt for something new – that opportunity one of StonyLive!’s benefits, I’d say – a recital in York House’s Beechey Room by a musician and composer of some repute in the classical music fraternity.  Locally born keyboards player Geoffrey Allan Taylor had put together A sequence to summer: Byrd, Bach and Beyond, himself being the beyond – modern, the odd not so much dischord as, well, I’m sure you know what I mean – and an engrossing and relaxed gig it proved to be, enhanced by the varied instrument sounds available on his new Roland keyboard.  What struck me about the opening sequence of Medieval dance pieces was how similar the shimmering cascades of notes sounded to what I hear when entranced by Malian kora players; other parallels to be heard – in music I was not familiar with – ensued.

And so down to the Vaults in time to get a pint in midway through the closing number of the Bullfrogs‘ first set – a storming Copperhead Road.  Fine band in the southern rock/alt-country mode.

Worth mentioning that, as well as being in pursuit of the new, I opted not to go to Scribal Gatherings’ Billy Bragg Night fearing a certain worthiness in the face of the election.  Seems it was a blast though, and just the thought of those musicians all on stage at the same time (not that The Cock has a stage) is an entertaining one (messy as it could be, I gather).

Thursday night, all things being equal, was made for cruising the musical streets.  But all things were not equal, so I missed the positivity and good vibes of the Milton Keynes Women’s Choir, and buying a pint as sets were finishing at an attractive sounding Vaultage line-up, and the energetic jump jive of the legendary Hellzaboppin’.

Early evening Friday was the feelgood Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s Promenade Shakespeare.  But it was such a lovely evening, in the enchanted dappled light under the trees on Horsefair Green, that promenading was abandoned, and no bad thing this day.  Shoulda been more there to see a rich accomplished mix of some of the Bard’s greatest hits (and a bit from Titus Andronicus).

Saturday lunchtime it’s back to the Fox & Hounds and Groundhog day again – ok, StonyLive! tradition – singing along to the Concrete Cowboys‘ theme tune, Bob Dylan’s You aint going nowhere.  Great playing – they been together for decades – bluegrass and beyond.  Walked back over the Millfield in the sun; heartening to see the Riverside Fair so well attended.

Saturday night to York House for Canals of Old England, and even those behind the bar in Victorian canal garb.  The evening started with similarly costumed folk duo Innocent Hare in the guise of music hall entertainers; it’s an interesting time line, from ballads to pop music.  The main event, I can do no better than what it says in the programme: “Songs and poetry weave together with real canal tales and history to tell the stories of the working people in the early canals and the incredible society they created.”  Indeed they did.  Outstanding.  Take a look – this was filmed at the event – for yourself:

 Sunday and it’s F*lk on the Green, which has nothing to do with StonyLive! and has, down to licensing and keeping very locals happy, become ‘the festival that dare not advertise its name or existence’.  This is all to the good, because this year, in splendid weather – blue skies and a breeze – it was pleasingly but not uncomfortably well attended in good spirits (and not much evidence of the hard stuff).  Decent programme, though these days we haven’t the stamina for a get-there-early-to- establish-your-spot and stay the distance.  Bullfrogs again, closing by testifying what they didn’t believe in; as an atheist the suspense was killing as to what was to be the positive … but it was OK: the answer was beer.  Went home for a cup of tea and managed to fall asleep, so missed more than planned, but got back in time for the ‘Latino punk’ of The Zeroes and their splendid globetrotting Milton Keynes song:  “She was a girl from Ipanema /  I was a boy from Milton Keynes …”

And so, to coin a phrase … that was the week that was (the week, as I type, as I type, before last).  Let us now salute the StonyLive! Committee (and FOG) for another auspicious year’s work.

And let us now finish with the current Bard of Stony Stratford’s traditional StonyLive! poem.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, for your explification, Mr Stephen ‘BoSS’ Hobbs:

A Poem for StonyLive! 2017

Let’s …

create encounters
of ambition – wide
vibrations to stir
everyone inside –
rejuvenators
stirring Stony’s pride.

Let’s …

challenge ourselves
on communal space –
valued festival –
escaping life’s race
revealing to all,
Stony’s friendly face.

Let’s …

cheer those who bring
our many joyful treats
values that truly sing
enabling the beats
reverberating
Stony Stratford’s streets.

Let’s …

extend a high five
to welcome another
celebrated StonyLive!

The BoSS has expressed disappointment that no-one picked up on the technical nature of his poem, which embodies a particular bee (which I tend to share) in his own – personal, steampunk – bonnet.  Still works fine, acrostics bedamned, nevertheless!

Three more books

I love the opening, and title story, of Penelope Lively‘s first collection of short stories in twenty years.  And I love the opening of the opening story:

I am the Purple Swamp Hen.  Porphyrio porphyria, if you are into taxonomy and Latin binomials.  And, let me get this clear, I am Porphyrio porphyrio porphyrio, the nominate sub-species, not to be confused with the Australian lot […] And others. No, indeed, we are talking species definition here, the enduring stuff, and thus I endure – founding father, the Mediterranean nominate.

Do eighty year-olds write like this?  Well this one does.

Wondering where all this is going? Have patience. You’ll get your story. You know me. You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii – somewhat faded, a travesty of my remarkable plumage, but nevertheless a passable portrait. You all exclaim over those frescos: the blues and greens, the precise depiction of flora and fauna. Oh, look! You cry – there are roses and ferns, oleanders, poppies, violets. […] You eye me with vague interest, and pass on. It’s just like a garden today! you cry.

That’s right.  We are being addressed by a bird on a fresco painted before 79 AD.  And it is anxious to rob us of any illusions.  Much is made in the other stories in this collection of POV – ‘point of view’.  A timeless garden scene?

      No, it isn’t. Wasn’t. […] make no mistake, the garden of Quintus Pompeius, where I passed my time, was nothing like any garden you’ve ever known.
      It hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household and associates. We simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction; far more imaginative, Homo sapiens. […] Eat out, sleep out, wash the dishes, pluck a pigeon, gossip, quarrel, wallop an old slave, fuck that pretty new one, plot, scheme, bribe, threaten. Get drunk, utter obscenities, vomit in the acanthus.
I saw it all. I heard it all.
      Let me fill you in on the general situation that autumn …

Which is what happens over the next 6 pages.  Dispassionately, wryly – the specificity of the acanthus! – we get amorous intrigue, dark deeds and a slave’s escape as Vesuvius threatens, then does its worse.  A tour de force.  The swamp hens, in the garden for decoration, flee to an ecologically appropriate marshy place, a habitat somewhat but not catastrophically threatened these days, our frescoed narrator assures us.

The other fourteen stories in The purple swamp hen (2016) are set in a later age.  From 1947 (a mother doing a Mrs Bennet – the story’s title – for her three daughters, the social sands shifting as each ‘comes of age’) to pretty much now, a couple of them with a gothic tinge.  They may seem to concern mainly middle class problems, but there’s a universality to the causes and resolutions.

How changing social mores and times affect individuals, the simple random contingencies of how couples come together (and how they turn out), the aforementioned importance of recognising others’ points of view, the dilemmas and otherwise of getting old, all are exposed in neat, forensic, sometimes staccato prose, often the sweet being in the sour.

A young home-help discovering the woman she helps was a spy, the ‘truth’ of writing and publishing a biography of someone recently deceased, a scriptwriter finding her professional skills are failing her in her own life – these are just three of the stories.  Abroad – opening line “50 years ago there were peasants in Europe” – has ’50s artists living cheaply in Europe using peasants as subject matter … until they run out of money and have to pay their debts in kind.  Lorna and Tim , the history of a marriage, has rich-from-birth Lorna left still not understanding how it failed; last devastating line – “You were rich.”  I think I shall be reading more Penelope Lively.

On the right here is the bookmark I was using while reading The purple swamp hen.  Quite apt in itself in that the stories take place in the decades portrayed, and the revolutionary paperback imprint Penguin was launched just a couple of years after its author was born.  As it happens, there’s a character in the very next book I read who collects Penguins: “I got a couple of Graham Greenes,” said Clean Head with satisfaction. The three-and-six editions. With the full colour Paul Hogarth art.”” Clean Head is a shaven-headed African-caribbean taxi driver, whose name I suspect derives from the jazz and blues singer Eddie Cleanhead Vincent in whose band a young John Coltrane once played, but I digress.   Now while the specific editions mentioned are not actually represented on the bookmark – that would be too perfect – I have a weakness for these little synchronicities, and it’s close enough for me.  And it is precisely the charm of these specific details that has me hooked on The Vinyl Detective.

The invention of a ’60s rock group for novelistic purposes is quite a hard act for a writer to pull off, and Andrew Cartmel doesn’t do badly at all in the The Vinyl Detective: The run out groove (Titan, 2017), the second in a series featuring said VD, a man with no name, whose business is finding rare vinyl but whose innocent jokey business card usage of the word ‘detective’ gets taken literally by others and hence into various scrapes.  Unlike the globetrotting first book in the series, this one stays in the UK.

Valerian is both the band’s name – out of the ’60s Canterbury scene – and the name its charismatic vocalist (“an English Janis Joplin“) went by.  The band broke up with her unexplained suicide, and mystery has always surrounded what happened to her young child.  It has been surmised (myths ahoy!) that the run-off groove – you know, like on Sergeant Pepper – that the run-off groove of the band’s last single – only briefly released and quickly withdrawn after her death and hence extremely rare – might offer solutions to what happened.  A relative from the US and a journalist are looking for a copy of that single … and we’re off on a plot taking all sorts of twists and turns involving a variety of ’60s survivors, and including, not least, an acid trip in a burning house and some gravedigging.  Entertainingly absurd, of course, but all done racingly well, and coming to a satisfactory and heart-warming conclusion.   The writing is smart, the series characters – a good quirky team, including the two cats – full of charm.  It would make a great tv series, properly casted, à la Beiderbecke Tapes.

I’m a sucker for the incidentals, the details – a sort of obnoxious knowingness – which may be lost on many potential readers but ring bells for me.  Like: “They might have a copy of the Artwoods’ first album, the original Decca issue, with the Mod cover.” Tinkler’s voice had softened rhapsodically.”  Or: “It’s a Garrard 301,” said Tinkler. “It’s built like a Russian T-34 tank”” – vinyl rules, obviously.  There’s even a Clean Head disquisition on the re-badging of DAF cars with variomatic transmissions as Volvos – the factuality of which I do not doubt – which while to me gibberish, still entertains in context.  I just about remember Lita Roza, or at least That doggie in the window:

I went to put some music on, to lighten the mood. I chose a Decca ten inch of Lita Roza. It was one of her true jazz recordings. She was singing here with the Tony Kinsey Quartet, including the mighty Joe Harriott on sax. The Colonel turned and listened for a minute and said, “Didn’t this girl sing ‘(How much is that) Doggie in the window’?” “She did indeed,” I said, “but not on this record, thank god.”

Guitarist Eric Make Loud – Eric McCloud to his mum – is a great creation:

Erik Make Loud strode towards us, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “My involvement with her was that I had to use the toilet on the band bus after she did and breathe the stink of her shit. I breathed the stink of her shit for four years in that band. Four years in a career that has spanned fifty years.” he actually said ‘spanned’. “I’ve played with dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians. But all anybody wants to talk about is Valerian.  It was all over a lifetime ago, but all anyone wants to talk about is Valerian.”  We’d hit a sore spot all right.

They get around him by zooming in on his playing with Frank Zappa.  But it’s that “he actually said ‘spanned'” is the kitemark of quality.  I look forward to the next volume, which apparently moves into the world of classical music.

Last month‘s Book Group book was Patrick Ness‘s A monster calls, which for me was a re-read.  The Book Group copy was the plain text edition of 2012, as opposed to the stunning prize-winning 2011 illustrated one shown here, and for me it had lost none of its power, nevertheless.  Others in the group were less willing to overlook its origin as ‘teenage fiction’ and were less spellbound by its spellbinding blend of horror, fantasy, Jungian symbolism, compassion and a young teenager’s off-handedness.

Conor’s mum is dying, his dad elsewhere, his grandma is a nightmare ( “… the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation“) and he has withdrawn into himself at school when his situation became known.  A tree, a Green Man’s representative of a tree, walks up and starts telling him stories (You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?“) and leaving berries on his bedroom floor.  The resolution of all this, his pain at home, at school, the moral of the tale – I’m not saying – is beautifully done; it had me lachrymose and beaming. 

What I picked up on this time was the tone of the prose, Conor’s surface refusal to descend into melodramatics:

      The monster looked at him quizzically. How strange, it said. The words you say tell me you are scared of the berries, but your actions seem to suggest otherwise.
“You’re as old as the land and you’ve never heard of sarcasm?” Conor asked.
Oh, I have heard of it, the monster said, putting its huge branch hands on its hips. But people usually know better than to speak it to me.

How effective the italicisation of the yew tree’s voice is!  As is the defense of story: Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might awake?”  And, finally, how about this as a summation of young boy’s misery?:

Some bread in the toaster, some cereal in a bowl, some juice in a glass, and he was ready to go, sitting down at the little table in the kitchen to eat. His mum had her own bread and cereal which she bought at a health food shop in town and which Conor thankfully didn’t have to share. It tasted as unhappy as it looked.


Augustus

How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable – and yet who, out of animal energy and accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power?”

It’s a problem, right?  In  this instance – John Williams‘ brilliant historical novel Augustus (1973) – they’re talking about Mark Anthony.  I am so in awe of this novel that I feel the need to escape from hyperbole by slipping into anecdotage.

One of those significant moments of advance in one’s intellectual life: an A-level essay on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which I kick off with a quote from Dylan’s recently released Maggie’s Farm – “Well I’ve tried my best / to be just like I am / But every body wants me / to be just like them.”  Turns out in the end he was a bit of a tosser “who did not even perform his own suicide well …

It is often suggested that life in Ancient Greece and Rome – events, ideas, dilemmas that I have skipped over – have in essence anticipated pretty much everything that has gone down since.  It seems a reasonable notion, and one I’m a lot more likely to explore after reading Augustus.

It’s an incredible story.  When he was 19, Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s nephew, JC’s recently adopted son and successor, was off on a Greek island doing student stuff with his mates (and being educated).  No long after, in 44 BC,  JC was famously assassinated, and Octavius – like Brazilian footballers he took to being known as Augustus a bit later, as Emperor and, um, god – hastened back to a Rome that was in chaos, with civil war in prospect.  No-one expected him to pick up the reins, but he did.  When he was 19.  Diversionary tactic 2: cue my mate Naomi Rose’s song Nineteen because now it’s there it won’t go away:

By the time Augustus died he had left an economically prosperous Roman Empire at peace within itself and secure within its extensive borders – the era that is known as the Pax Romana.  But not without huge personal cost.  The story is told in a patchwork of lletters, memos and memoirs, petitions and poems, senatorial proceedings, reports, military orders, and journal notes – chronologically, but with the dates of the sources jumping backwards and forwards, providing a commentary on events. 

As the book progresses more and more space is given to the journal of Augustus’s daughter, Julia, whom he loves, but who has been callously, strategically, used over the years, and is sentenced to a lonely exile by him, for treason.  She has been on a hell of a journey.  Ordered by her father, “I returned to Rome in the consulship of Tiberius Claudius Nero … Who had been a goddess returned to Rome a mere woman, and in bitterness.”  Furthermore “I was not to be free. One year and four months after the death of Marcus Agrippa [an old, gay, mate of his] my father betrothed me to Tiberius Claudius Nero. He was the only one of my husbands whom I ever hated.”  Her fate: “So I am once again to be the brood sow for the pleasure of Rome.”  Hers is a tale that could easily stand as an outstanding work of its own.  She achieves a certain liberation, experiences sensual pleasure and ultimately reaches a peace in her situation:

Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? “Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe it has,” he said. “We both must believe it has.”

The books ends with an astonishing 36 pages, as a lonely dying Augustus, voyaging out at sea, looks back over his life in a sequence of letters to the only surviving friend of his youth, a scholar.  It is one of the most powerful sustained passages I have read in a long time.  It’s fiction, of course, so one doesn’t know, but … well, try this:

Thus I did not determine to change the world out of an easy idealism and selfish righteousness that are invariably the harbingers of failure, nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced; wealth beyond one’s comfort has always seemed to me the most boring of possessions, and power beyond its usefulness has seemed the most contemptible. It was destiny that seized me that afternoon at Apollonia nearly 60 years ago, and I chose not to avoid its embrace.

Compared to Alexander the Great, he opines that Alexander had it lucky, dying so young, “else he would have come to know that if to conquer the world is a small thing, to rule it is even less.”
“… I have never wished to conquer the world, and I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.”

He puts in a good word for the poets, whose company was often held against him:

Of the many services that Maecenas performed for me, the most important seems to me now to be this: He allowed me to know the poets to whom he gave his friendship. They were among the most remarkable men I have ever known …

I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted …

Horace once told me that laws were powerless against the private passions of the human heart, and only he who has no power over it, such as the poet or the philosopher, may persuade the human spirit to virtue.

Great book.  Capital G.

Razor Girl

And now for something completely different.  I love reading Carl Hiaasen, just gulp his books down.  What it says on the cover.  He specialises in outlandish, yet I thought the actions of the woman of the title of his latest book were too much, even for the Florida of his oeuvre.  And then I read the disclaimer to Razor Girl (Sphere, 2016):

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. However, true events in South Florida provided the lurid material for certain strands of this novel, beginning with the opening scene. The author also wishes he’d dreamed up the part about the giant Gambian pouched rats, but he didn’t. Those suckers are real.

There’s a lovely rhythm to his writing that just pulls you along.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

That ‘He nearly made it’, if you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen, is no harbinger of doom for Coolman, but rather an invitation to the reading treat in store.  He keeps a handful of narratives going and works seamlessly to intertwine them with calamitous and desperate irony.

There‘s the central character, Yancey, a disgraced detective who now, busted to public hygiene inspector, works the roach patrol in local restaurants, is anxious to get his old job back.  So he involves himself in what starts as a mistaken kidnapping which introduces into the plot a top-rated scripted fake reality TV show called Bayou Brethren about a hillbilly family business breeding speciality chickens for fly-fishing flies.  Enter a psychopathic fan of the show who has bought into its conceit – including unofficial dodgy right-wing rants on YouTube –  wholesale. Then there’s the out-of-his-depth guy running an eco-destructive con providing sand to hotel beaches who owes money to the mafia, who ends up mid-chase electrocuting himself trying to recharge a stolen Tesla.  Not to mention the tangled love lives and Yancey’s real estate problem of how to get rid of potential next-door neighbours threatening to build big and destroy his view. Among other things.

Hiaasen is basically a moralist, appalled at what big money has done and is doing to Florida.  Razor Girl displays less of the eco-warrior than usual – and it’s hard not to rue the non-appearance of Skink, the ragged one-eyed wild man ex-governor of Florida who’s gone native in the Keys, who features in some of his other books, but Hiaasen is still rooting – relatively speaking – for the good guys, albeit with many degrees of grey on the way.  The mafia guy is appalled to discover that the beach con man has been using a fake Helper Dog jacket on any old mutt to milk the privileges that one brings.

Carl Hiaasen is a master of dialogue and pushing the action along.  And he can be very very funny.

The reader on the 6.27

Weird, touching on desolation, yet charming, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s The reader on the 6.27 (Mantle, 2015), translated by Ros Schwartz), is one of those shortish books that seem to only ever appear in translation.

Guylain Vignolles has not had it easy with a name that, subjected to spoonerist manipulation, gets him called ‘Ugly Puppet’.  He has a soul-crushing job in a factory pulping books.  He rescues random pages that escape the machine and recites them out loud next day to commuters on the train to work.  Some even look forward to it.  At work there’s a bossy boss and a jealous assistant.  There’s a sub-plot that takes in his reading for an hour, by invitation, at an old people’s home.

A while ago there had been an accident at work and a friend had lost a leg to the grinding machine; he, the friend, had traced how the pulp produced that day had been used, and was buying up copies of the cook book printed on that paper; he’s buying copies up.  Guylain helps him by pursuing second-hand copies at weekends, looking to help his friend get some sort of closure from a full set on his bookshelves.

One day on the train home Guylain finds a USB stick and discovers thereon a quirky document written by a woman working as a concierge in a public toilet in a shopping centre.  Enchanted, it is from this he now reads to his fellow commuters, and makes it his mission to find the writer.  And in the end, a drawn out love story.  Weird, charming, and highly recommended.

Scribal Gathering

You’d think the energy, industry and invention that went into The Antipoet would be enough for most mortals, but no, Paul Eccentric (“the mouthy half of … the beatrantin’ rhythm’n’views act” as estimable host Jonathan JT Taylor described him in the events page for the evening on FB) is an accomplished solo spoken word performer and, after a change of jacket, seated vocalist with the entertaining Polkabililly Circus,  who variously rocked, folked, emoted and mixed it up as you’d expect from their name. (Not to mention his other side projects:  http://pauleccentric.co.uk/ ).  Another fine way to spend an evening with Scribal: other poets and musicians were standing.

Archivists please note: JMD was unable to attend.

YorkieFest 2017

Best for me at YorkieFest this year, the fifth no less, were tucked away in the middle of the day.  Innocent Hare‘s repertoire draws masterfully from a number of folk traditions and the trio – a family affair – ebulliently led by Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, went down a storm with the modest collection of souls in attendance at that time.  The ever immaculate harmonies and musicality of The Straw Horses followed, and in retrospect it was a mistake on my part to try to eat a vegetarian crepe (from La Crepe Franglais) – delicious though it was, it required concentration with that plastic fork – while they were on.  The continent-wide African guitar work from Safari Boots impressed. 

Special mention should also be made for my introduction to the sport and art of Tea Duelling from The Order of the Teapot, aka the local Steampunks.  It involves biscuit dunking, judgment skills and a lot of nerve.  Shame a few more didn’t come given all Pat Nicholson (one half of Growing Old Disgracefully, or GOD) and others’ hard work, but glad to say, money was made for the charities supported.

Chloe gave me a sticker to stick on an instrument to spread the word. I guess this my instrument. And I’ll stick it on the notebook I carry.

Calling this piece A memorable Merchant I get to feel like an old sweat of a drama critic, as if I’d seen a few productions of Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice, which is not the case.  But there are moments from the Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s production of the play that stick in my mind over a fortnight after the experience – I’m not the first to call it that – and my memory’s not what it used to be.

The venue – upstairs in the actual Temple of the local Masons’ Lodge (No 1639) (and the stairs were steep and not wide) – is about the size of a thin tennis court, with audience seating two rows either side.  It made for an intimate setting that demanded something special for the enterprise to succeed.  Which it certainly did; there were times when I forgot some of the actors were friends.  Invidious to single out individuals – this was a tremendous ensemble performance – but Bill Handley’s Shylock (bottom right, below) was an absolute stunner, scary in its intensity.

Official photographer Paul hands’ cast shots

As I said, this is a play I’d not seen before, probably down to my shying away from its character’s expressed anti-Semitism.  Which was certainly not shirked here (I was shocked), though precisely because of this Shylock’s ‘If you prick us’ plea was powerful indeed.  “For me,” writes director Caz Tricks in the programme notes, “Shylock is not a bad person but he makes a very bad decision which he then won’t back down from” – locked into his own logic and circumstance, very much a trait of our times too.

It was a modern dress production shaded by a few timeless-cum-period costume hints that pushed us back in time, aided and abetted by the venue’s dark wood fixtures and fittings, in particular the Lord High Poobah’s ornate throne at one end, and a long thin black and white chequered carpet down the centre – a rectangular chess game?  The court scene was electric.  The comedy coda – the Shakespearean unmaskings of disguised identities, the happy ending – brought much relief.

Stony Stratford Theatre Society is, again quoting Caz from the programme, “a mix of professional and amateur actors.  Amateur stems from Latin, amare ‘to love’ and this company loves what we do.”  You could feel they love.   A friend who goes to the Warwickshire Bard’s Stratford a bit said – honest! – it was much better than some she’d seen there.  A triumph.  Bravo Caz Tricks!  Bravo the lot of you!

MK Calling 2017

I don’t go ‘up city’ much anymore.  The usual trigger is the need to replenish the caddy with Whittard’s loose leaf English Breakfast Tea – the only way to start the day.  The absurdity of the idea of ordering such a traditional luxury online is too much to contemplate – it just would not taste the same.  I used to try and combine this essential purchase with a visit to Milton Keynes Gallery.  As explained in the gallery’s press release below, however, this has not been possible for some time now, but at present there is a temporary respite:
This spring, MK Gallery showcases new and exciting work by over 70 emerging and established artists in MK Calling 2017. This exhibition will celebrate and champion the breadth of creativity in and around Milton Keynes and includes a wide range of art forms …
Over the last few months, the Gallery has been examined by architects and builders through digging, drilling and other physical interventions to test the foundations, structure and services in anticipation of its major expansion. For this exhibition, the basic access and health and safety have been temporarily restored to enable the building to be opened up for one last time before construction begins. With the exhibition designed to make the most of the makeshift quality of the building, artists and visitors will have exclusive behind the scenes access to the entire ground floor, including the old workshop, loading bay, shop and other improvised areas.
It made for a fascinating stroll, with, as suggested, all sorts of decent pictures, thoughts and things on show.  I liked Marion Piper’s In Side – “chalk on existing painted wall” – in the loading bay, with the attribution and explication sellotaped to the floor:

 

Anna Berry‘s intriguing Atomize (more details can be found here on her website, from which the full installation photo is lifted: http://www.annaberry.co.uk/3-2/installation-pieces/atomize/) had a particular resonance for me (as well as Anna being a friend) – those MK postcards were on sale where I used to work, I’ve sold and sent a few in my time.  The more detailed photos below are mine (click to enlarge).  Which and/or what exactly are ‘the spaces in between’?

On the way out Clive Doherty’s Percy the hungover robot made me laugh, though coming full circle, the video loop of an overflowing cup of tea (sorry, I’ll give the attribution when I have it) made me shudder:

Wow!

What, you say The April Scribal Gathering featuring a UK National Slam Poetry Champion followed by Scribal Gathering hosting  The mighty Antipoet‘s album launch the very next night?  Yes, how spiffing indeedie!

A great night of entertainment and nobody died …” was how support act Robin das Boot-Illischuss (familiar rock tunes with amended lyrics – the eye of the tiger transmuted into a camel’s hoof) described the evening on his FaceBook page, continuing:  “a pleasant surprise considering the audience demographic.”  Ouch.

You’d have to say that compared with the exuberant launch of The Bards of Bugger All last year, this was a more sedate (probably soberer – I was), less raucous affair, but come on, we’re still talking about The Antipoet here.

The evening kicked off with ebullient compère Chris Norton Walker; you could extend the meaning of that adjective by way of how it sounds to include his physique, which was, after all, the source of a chunk of his material.  He too was a bit puzzled by the Stony audience.  I’d tell you his best joke – about a particular nickname – but that would be a bit of a spoiler alert, would it not?

First surprise was the inclusion of some filmed sketches – to give the lads a bit of a breather between numbers, they said (what was that about the demographic?) – in The Antipoet‘s presentation of We play for food .  For the evening they were joined on drums by the CD’s producer Marc Gordon.  The sketches are also on the CD, listed in red on the back cover, providing (ahem) comedic context and depth to the social, professional and philosophical dilemmas explored in the new material.  Which is characterised by energetic bouts of introspection, self-doubt and explication.  Sort of.

OK, for those unfortunate souls unaware of the phenomenon that is The Antipoet, in their own words … Paul Eccentric and Ian Newman are “artists of a sensitive disposition“.  The pair of them (geddit?):

  • Antipoetry is “a poetic movement that merely assumes the formal rules and intentions of mainstream poetry. We’re beat poets; I [Ian] slap the bass and he [Paul] does the talking.” (to quote from Gizza gig?)
  • We are a peripatetic beaty poeting pair with a musical comedy flair /Patent pending genre bending / in offending bondage wear” (Patent pending)
  • advice is given more than once: “You need to make your mind up / what it is you’re trying to be / cos you’re not quite poets, musicians or stand up comedy.”  (Patent pending)
  • Leading to the query whether: “It is never too late to rethink a mis-chosen career.”  Nah, it’s too late to stop now (as they used to say in the ’60s).  And they are poets; poetry needs them.
  • Misunderstandings can occur: “I’m not sure what they were expecting / but it probably wasn’t this /two middle-aged blokes in fancy dress / I think we might have been mis-booked again.” (An awkward moment)

The title track Of We play for food may be a cry of pain, but it’s an infectiously good one: “There’s not a lot of money in performance poetry / That’s why we poets are the paupers of the art world hegemony / But on the plus side we don’t earn enough to pay VAT.”  There are limits though: “Don’t try and palm us of with crisps and hummus dips / cos that’s just rude / that’s not food / that’s just fuckin’ rude.”  On the other hand, poetry slams (“competitive arts“) are unflatteringly examined in Slammin‘.  In the nursery delightfully murders The wheels on the bus: “The poet at the front goes whinge, whinge, whinge …”

The hard driving Pointy dancing is the track that will almost certainly take its place in the ‘greatest hits’ repertoire.  “Finger jabbing prancing” – a worrying phenomena at wedding receptions and other celebrations – is nostalgically explored and deplored: When did jogging round a handbag / get aggressive and alarming?”  Various scenarios are visited: “The vicar’s in the corner / she’s [nice touch] pigging out on cake”, which contagion leads to the situation where “now she’s gesticulating from the pew with pious unreserve” (it scans better when they say it).  Of course, when set against such rhythmic backing, rants like these can become infectious and dangerously counter-productive; indeed, when a friend of the artistes donned the gimp mask usually worn by Paul later in the evening for the rendition of Gimp night down at the fighting cocks, this was precisely the nature of dance adopted.

The Antipoet – the latest publicity shot

Other delights on the CD include a couple of classic Music Hall numbers (see – in another age they would not have had such a definition problem) in Mrs Worthington and the fiercely egalitarian Flesh’n blood; in Miss Adventure they exquisitely describe the selfie phenomenon as being  “to validate [one’s] place in this online peer review forum of the human race“, while pointing out that more people die of selfie accidents than shark attacks.

The evening’s entertainment was rounded off with a quick sprint through some of the combo’s  crowd favourites.  Oh to be a virgin where exposure to The Antipoet is concerned, though it has to be said the ritual audience chanting of Tights not stockings does rather lose the number’s edge without the explanation of it being the strangulated thoughts of a middle-aged lecher who is trying to be good.  Those introductory rubrics are worth being there.

There’s another track – You should’ve been there! – on We play for food that regrets a current performance compared to a previous word-perfect on the beat one.  Nah, I’m not having it.  Part of the charm is the anarchic energy and commitment they bring to every gig I’ve seen (which is quite a few).  They are endlessly inventive moralists, a combo full of rhythm, joy and wit, delivering good-natured and/or righteous scorn and loads of big fun.  In a rational world they’d have their own telly programme.  For more info: http://www.theantipoet.co.uk/ or http://pauleccentric.co.uk/the-antipoet/

Bonus paragraph: there are bonus tracks on the CD – three live performances of older stuff including the rather atypical but wondrous 1420 MHz, about one man’s search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (from which the title of this review is taken), and … The scariest day of the year (unreleasable Christmas single) which is worth the price of entry on its own.

April Scribal

Now, here’s a thing.  Both the featured artists at the April Scribal Gathering made reference to JCBs in their respective sets, Sam Deed in his buoyant take on Nizlopi’s The JCB song, and Pete the Temp in a context I can’t recall.

A fine performer, Pete kicked off his set with his compelling and inspirational Keep it lit, a sort of punk and more specific take on Bob Dylan’s Chimes of freedom’s “For every hung-up person / in the whole wide universe” and further inspired and entertained with a lengthy Remember that you’re going to die.  In between fun was taken.

Sam is not just remarkable for his youth (16) but is an accomplished singer and guitarist by any token, acknowledging the influence of people I’ve never heard of.  Another good, varied and well-attended evening, enhanced by the rare sighting and performing at Scribal of the good ship Naomi Rose.

 

There were times when reading Barney Norris‘s Five rivers met on a wooded plain (Doubleday/Transworld, 2016) when it felt like I’d wandered into the pages of one of those self-help personal growth tomes.  This is a young man’s novel.  Ambitious, over-written and striving too hard – death and the meaning of life and all that.

The paperback blurb writer does him no favours:  “One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment five lives collide…”  Except they don’t, really. 

The actual crash (spoiler alert) is delivered as a slow reveal, so the reader is inevitably wondering when this flamin’ crash is actually going to happen.  We are at least a third of the way into the book – sorry, my copy’s gone back to the library so I can’t be exact – before the crash happens, and even further before we know who’s taken to hospital.  Of the five people the book features, only two are actually involved in the crash, two are observers who don’t linger at the scene, and the fifth has observed the observers. 

So we actually have five people (Hey, five rivers!).  All are undergoing some sort of crisis in their lives, and we get the full context of that.  They range from teenage schoolboy up, roughly representing decades,  all speaking in the first person.   Their lives, or their families’ lives, have more or less obliquely touched one another; they have been in the same place at the same time once or twice.  Not collided.  Which is, chasing the epigraph, a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch that introduces the text, the self-proclaiming and highly creditable point of the book:

 That is the secret meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.

That is the closing sentence of the opening chapter, which unfortunately is immediately proceeded by “there exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral.”  The quiet city is Salisbury, the chapter’s title is The burning arrow of the spire.  Rather good, that.  But the chapter is a load of psycho-geographical babble, linking the settlements in “the green south of Wiltshire” over time from Woodhenge through Stonehenge (“We know they heard the song“) to Old Sarum and the building of the Cathedral to the modern-day city.  Which might just have worked in verse form. Even the book’s greatest defenders at Book Group – nay, champions even! – were not averse to my use of the word pretentious here.

The book has its moments, the way their stories entwine is nicely done, and Barney Norris obviously cares.  While I wasn’t wholly convinced by any of the five, I ended up wanting to know what happened to each of them to the extent of bewailing please, author, get on with it as I read, especially in the case of the lonely soldier’s wife, stuck out in a suburb.  As it happens, Norris, whose primary artistic focus has been theatre, uses her to make a convincing case for local theatre as both an effective personal and ongoing community therapy.

Here’s the problem.  Barney can write, but at the moment he can’t help but Write with a capital W; given his theatrical background I think it’s fair to say he slips into being a Writ-or too easily.  At our Book Group meeting, for instance, one woman, whose judgment I respect highly, surprised me by quoting this passage as being particularly impressive:

The mind is like a flood plain. The slightest rainfall can leave it awash with old stories that seep into your newer terrors and swell them, drown you under the long-forgotten feelings as your life rushes over you.

As it happens, that was a quote I’d found jarring, particularly coming from the mouth of a gauche 16-year old schoolboy.  She said she’d once known a 16-year old capable of stringing that together.  So what did I know?  (That’s rhetorical to myself, by the way, not an indication of her demeanour).  There were other passages, but I’ll pick on this one; he finds some solace in a service in the cathedral (where else?):

The miracle of a ritual. I felt my shoulders begin to ease. I thought to myself, I don’t want to believe in this. But when you run a story through your neural pathways like a line of beads through your hands, it stands to reason you unblock them, and your own life flows through afterwards, rushing out of the oxbow lakes of the plans you didn’t see through to their conclusion, the phrases that wouldn’t come till long after it was too late to use them. A hymn, nothing more than a tune and a string of words someone had invented, was somehow making things better.

Ah, ‘oxbow lakes’, an abiding memory of school geography.  But ‘neural pathways’ even now?

We were all agreed that his next novel, if he so chooses to continue in this sphere now all this has been got out of his system, is highly likely to be a very good one.

 

Out and about

And so, early in March, to Linford Wood, in Milton Keynes, while the trees are still bare:

Sad to say the wood sculptures are not what they once were – the grand old bearded philosopher and the big gorilla are long-lost to the elements – but it’s still a worthwhile wander, eyes primed for the crafted creatures; the bluebells will be out again soon and there’s a decent chance of seeing a jay.  Here’s one of the survivors:

2011

2017

Meanwhile, back indoors …

Engrossing evening of a dialogue outside ‘the bubble’ with Milton Keynes Humanists guest speaker Salah Al-Ansari, Senior Researcher with the Quilliam Foundation, an academic theologian and a practising imam.  Salah is one of the leading lights of the liberal wing of his faith – what is becoming known as Reform Islam – which recognises the Koran as a sacred text but significantly also regards it very much as an historical document – pretty much as the Christian Bible is seen by most these days.

A wide-ranging, open-ended conversation ensued, which was both enlightening and entertaining.  Salah kicked off the discussion with the view that we should be talking about Islams in the plural.  Interesting to learn that when he was studying to become an imam in an Egyptian university, his professor was a woman.  It was agreed that secularism does not imply atheism.  Positive change, albeit slow and not so often visible, is happening among the Islamic communities.  An ex-Muslim atheist in the audience added spice.  There is more about Salah at www.quilliaminternational.com/about/staff/salah-al-ansari/ and from there, if you are not familiar with them, it is well worth exploring the work of the anti-extremist (from all sides) Quilliam Foundation further.

Because it was there

I have piles of books I intend to read but I often take an impulse book out from the local library for no other reason than because it’s there.  The library I mean.  Use it or lose it!  Hence the next book, that happened to catch my eye.

I’ve always looked upon the American artist Edward Hopper as the painter’s equivalent of a one hit wonder – you know, the haunting Nighthawks, all the lonely people in that late night cafe.  Ivo Kranzfelder‘s Edward Hopper 1882-1967: Vision of reality (Taschen, 1995/2006) has disabused me of this but, to continue the metaphor, I still wouldn’t want more than a single disc ‘Best of’, and vinyl at that.  A bit samey, and I’m not convinced by the (please don’t take this the wrong way) proportions and posture of some of his women (like the one on the book’s cover, actually).

It’s a handsomely produced volume, with some stunning black and white photos by Hans Namuth of the man himself, not least those taken in places he painted.  Frankly, sometimes I struggle with writing about painters and what they were trying to do, and a chapter head like The secularization of experience doesn’t help.  Apparently he didn’t say much about it himself, but what did strike me was that 1942’s Nighthawks, and a number of his other more well-known paintings, were being done at precisely the same time as Abstract Expressionism (not that I’ve got much against …) was evolving and taking hold of American art in New York.  So good for him for sticking to his guns to the end.

Anyway, not to in any way get things out of proportion, I have to claim it was a bit of a trauma – after all the landscapes, townscapes, buildings, room interiors, urban scenes and absorbed individuals, all the mustards and terracotta, muted browns, dull turquoise, beiges, greys and olive greens – to turn over from page 105 and suddenly be all at sea; as it happens one of these was the first painting he ever sold.  Normal service was quickly restored.

What it says on the poster

Staying in the library, I learned a bit and was mightily entertained by this FoSSL (Friends of Stony Stratford Library) presentation. The turbo-driven opening chords of musical director Paul Martin on the mandola suggested we were in for a treat and so it proved.  Shakespeare – a musical celebration, curated by Vicki Shakeshaft, was a fascinating and nicely paced mix of music, songs (take a bow soloist Simon Woodhead), readings and contextual history with a colourful morris dance duo thrown in for good measure.  And all, if my powers of recall are functioning properly, without resort to “If music be the food of love …”  Came as a surprise to me that “Who is Sylvia / What is she” was the Bard’s (from Two gentlemen of Verona – if asked I’d have said music hall), and my English teacher never told me that Hamlet’s advice to the players was a rant and that “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them” was a gripe at Shakespeare’s company’s erstwhile clown, Will Kemp, who once morris danced from London to Norwich.

Further musical adventures

No poster for the early March Vaultage, but it was a good ‘un.  Folkish duo Phil Riley & Neil Mercer – guitar and mandolin – did a great set of their own material with a singalong of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the free world somewhere in the middle, finishing with a thrilling Russian folk dance-based tune.  Oi!  The March Aortas – nice and varied – deserves a mention too.

First Scribal I’ve managed this year  – Out! Damn virus! – was another good one too.  Stephen Ferneyhough kicked off with a musical history of the Brackley Morris with one of those squeeze box things – I can never remember which is which.  A storming set from featured singer Bella Collins – great voice and material (folk, blues and beyond), skilled emphatic guitar, foot stomping on the floor.  Own songs and a couple of covers – Jimmy Reed’s Shame, shame, shame morphing into Prince’s Kiss and back again!  Stephen Hobbs is wearing his bardship well, as if there was any chance he wouldn’t.  Mark ‘Slowhand’ Owen’s dazzling fretwork on one of his songs had a couple of us fearing for our own fingers just thinking about it.

And finally … best book review ever (click on the picture if you can’t read what’s between the cat’s legs):

 

 

 

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