Huxley making Hay

There was a passage heard randomly on the radio – I mostly only listen doing the washing up – that made me chortle and linger; it turned out to be a dramatisation of Aldous Huxley‘s novel, Antic Hay (1923). I had no idea he had a sense of humour. Or anything, really, beyond the later stuff: Brave New World, the awful Island, and his famously – The doors of perception – taking LSD (so providing Jim Morrison and pals with a decent band name). Worth pursuing, I reckoned, and was not disappointed.

1st ed, 1923

Antic Hay starts off in classic comic novel mode with main man Theodore Gumbril Junior, B.A. (Oxon) enduring a minor public school assembly, excruciating both mentally and physically on a hard unforgiving seat. He has an idea: inflatable trousers (‘Gumbril’s Patent Small-Clothes’ to be) – their commercial potential enough, he reckons, to warrant giving up teaching and put him on a path to being his own man.

There’s an entertaining visit with Gumbril Senior back in London – an architect with grand ideas and great model making skills (whole cities, even) but a modest practice: “‘And to think,’ he said after a pause, ‘that I’ve been spending these last days designing model cottages for workmen at Bletchley.’” (Yup, sorry Bletchley; even then, well before the coming of Milton Keynes, considered cheap laugh fodder).

More entertainment – but also a broadening into satire, big ideas and social commentary – comes with a session with the Gumbril family’s tailor, Mr Bojanus – who professes, among other things, in his own way, ‘a great admirer of Lenin’ – for the purpose of constructing a prototype of the trouser.

There follows a glorious account of a boozy meal in a restaurant favoured by London’s various bohemian sets later that evening. The gang’s all here, and ‘The art school dance goes on forever’ (to quote from a Pete Brown’s Piblokto album title). It’s not not so much a period piece as one might have feared – fun and jeers, jibes, rivalries, boasts and flannel, including a heated discussion over the use of a single word in an epic poem.

As the group disperses – all male but one, and she’s hardly said, though implied, a dismissive word – enter the stunning Mrs Viveash, aka Myra, who pretty much haunts proceedings – in the flesh, mind, but still – for some of the men from now on. The love of her life was lost in the Great War. The description of the way she speaks is a nice running bitter-sweet joke – variations on “she hallooed faintly but penetratingly, from her inward death bed” and “as if every word was her last” run through the novel. Subsequently married to a rich absentee (“engaged at the moment in hunting elephants, hunting fever and carnivores among the Tikki-tikki pygmies“), she proceeds around town with a string of insignificant beaus to the frustration and sadness of those – Gumbril, the artist Lypiatt, of whom much later, the scientist Shearwater – in love with her: “Why was it people always got involved in one’s life? If only one could manage things on the principle of the railways. Parallel tracks – that was the thing.” Not for nothing is this considered a Lost Generation novel.

Ah,the aforementioned Casimir Lypiatt. It was one of the passages about him that had me laughing when I heard it on the radio. He’s older than the rest:

All these years … Time had worn the hair from his temples; the high steep forehead seemed higher than it really was. He was forty now; the turbulent young Lypiatt who had once declared that no man could do anything worth doing after he was thirty, was forty now.

Such lofty ambition, such grand canvasses and epic poems. It’s Gumbril doing the thinking here:

“Painter, poet, musician,” cried Lypiatt. “I am all three.”
Poor old Lypiatt, he was thinking. Dear old Lypiatt, even, in spite of his fantastic egotism. Such a bad painter, such a bombinating poet, such a loud emotional inproviser on the piano. And going on like this, year after year, pegging away at the same old things – always badly! And always without a penny, always living in the most hideous squalor! Magnificent and pathetic old Lypiatt.

But as things progress – Mrs Viveash’s reaction to his portrait of her (“‘You’ve made me look,’ said Mrs Viveash, ‘as though I were being blown out of shape by the wind.’ […] But Casimir was delighted by her comment. […] ‘The wind, the great wind that’s in me.’“) and his profession of love, never mind his big exhibition’s utter failure – he becomes a tragic figure, and is given a long lonely monologue that is not without its moments and insights.

Some will find Gimbril’s transformation from ‘the Mild and Melancholy Man‘ who can make no headway with women into ‘the Complete Man‘ (or, ‘the complete and Rabelesian man’ as he also puts it) via a false beard a silliness too far, but it made me laugh, and as a plot driver it does its stuff. Unknowingly he manages to seduce Rosie, the scientist Shearwater’s wife, who has her own fantasy running:

The lady and the poet, she was thinking, the grande dame and the brilliant young man of genius. She liked young men with beards, but he was not an artist, in spite of the beard, in spite of the hat. He was a writer of sorts.

That leads to a farcical pursuit of him – somewhat cruelly instigated by Gumbril’s campaign of misinformation – that Rosie makes around London, with her landing at Lypiatt’s and Mr Mercaptan’s door (sorry, literary critic, obsessed by an obscure sex eighteenth century novel that actually exists – I looked it up – by someone called Crebillon, narrated by the sofa on which stuff happens). (Ultimately, for her, it ends well.)

This post is getting out of hand (I have a backlog, for God’s sake). A lot else goes on featuring a couple of other interesting characters I’ve not mentioned so far. There’s the excruciating bit of avant-garde theatre to experience (and some jazz), physiologist Shearwater’s grueling sweat experiment, and a conversation Gimbril cannot escape from with an old buffer on a train. I’ve got to give some space, though, to the magnificent Boldero, Gumbril’s business partner, and his elaborate marketing campaign for the ‘Patent Small-Clothes’. A great comic tour de force, but at the same time … not a lot has changed:

‘Our modern flattery must be manly, straightforward, sincere, the admiration of equal to equal – all the more flattering as we aren’t equals.’ Mr Boldero laid a finger to his nose. ‘They’re dirt and we’re capitalists …’ He laughed.
[…] ‘This sort of medical and philosophical dope,’ Mr Boldero went on, ‘is always very effective, if it’s properly used. The public to whom we are making our appeal is, of course, almost absolutely ignorant of these, or, indeed, on almost all subjects.’ […]
‘Mr Gumbril, there’s nothing like a spiritual message to make things go. Combine spirituality with practicality and you’ve fairly got them. Got them, I may say, on toast.’

Antic Hay ends with Gumbril, disillusioned and disappointed, deciding to leave a tired old England – as indeed did Huxley himself in the very year the novel was published. He tells Mrs Viveash his plan: “I go to Paris first“:

‘I thought of giving myself a farewell banquet,’ Gumbril went on. ‘We’ll go round before dinner, if you’re feeling well enough, that is, and collect a few friends. Then, in a profoundest gloom, we’ll eat and drink. And, in the morning, unshaved, exhausted, and filled with disgust, I shall take the train from Victoria, feeling thankful to get out of England’.

Which sadly ends up something of an anticlimax, with he and Myra Viveash sharing salmon sandwiches and a bottle of wine in the back of a taxi criss-crossing London – via the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus, which she loves and he is tortured by – as one pal after another turns out to be otherwise engaged.

Antic Hay was published the same year as Ernest Hemingway‘s The sun also rises, the great ‘Lost Generation’ novel, much of which is set in Paris, Gimbril’s initial destination, though the former definitely has more jokes. What started out as a comic novel develops through satire into tragi-farce; I ended up caring for some of these people, and enjoyed it. It is also a novel touching on ideas that Huxley was to carry through in his later work, and a tremendous portrait of London in its time.

When the novel first came out people were shocked by its amorality and sexual content, not that the sex is exactly spelt out; seems mere hints were enough back then – in one instance I wasn’t even sure if the deed had been done (it had). Don’t you just love those American pulp covers, though? (Never mind the Romanian. There are going to be a few disappointed readers there).


One last thing. Antic Hay is the source of a couple of lines worthy of P.G.Wodehouse and certain inclusion dictionaries of quotations (though not in the one I’ve got downstairs):

… there was no getting out of that, good she had been. Not nice, not merely molto simpatica – how charmingly and effectively these foreign tags assist one in the great task of calling a spade by some other name! – but good.

Shame then, that there were so many foreign phrases left hanging about throughout. It is, to quote from one of my favourite sitcoms, ‘annoying’.

StonyLive! lives again

Twice postponed, third time lucky (if you ignore 2020 in the arithmetic, which would ruin the rhetoric), StonyLive! 2021, a slight return …
I struggled to not use that phrase once it occurred – all part of the Jimi Hendrix legacy, I guess. Other musical symbolism – diminished (a hard chord to play) and dimenuendo – were, however, rejected as belittling the splendid enterprise … and for me, in the latter case, it went out with a bang.

*Right click on the photos to get a closer look*

I ducked the traditional Saturday opener, the Concrete Cowboys Lite at the Fox because … well, I hadn’t had a lunchtime pint since, oh, the same gig in 2019 and wanted to save myself for the main event of the day. Did spectate the early evening Family Barn dance in the Market Square, with Innocent Hare leading us through the steps. I say “us” … though there were more dancing than the photo suggests. Was good to say hello to people last seen over a year ago. Highlight for the grandsons, till then unimpressed, was the lorry driver, there to take away the mobile stage, letting them up into the cab of his rig; to each their own nirvana.

And so to York House for Five Men Not Called Matt (actually six, not all men). Great stuff. Hearty shanties and drinking songs, some laughs and funds raised for the RNIB. Life, some sort of normality, was now definitely returning. Sunday afternoon, slave to my FitBit, what do I hear wafting over the fields above Calverton? Only the dulcet tones of said team informing folks at the Shoulder of Mutton of the ins and outs of an outlaw life at sea. Me crooning along with the choruses, singing to the sheep of the hard life and how It’s all part of being a pirate.

Sunday, and the return of Classic Stony, and motors ancient and modern take over the town – Market square, Cofferidge Close car park and the High Street are chocker. Big crowds, car buffs, nostalgics, loads of vehicles. Nothing I fell in love with this year, although the Mk1 Ford Cortina GT came close – that green stripe the icing on the cake – a real design original back in the day. Couple of trends I noticed – resprays in colours not even invented when the cars first hit the road (that orange Chevvy? that electric blue Hillman Imp?), and an element of jokiness creeping in.

L to R, top to bottom:

  • Bulbous 1950s Austin, definitely not fast
  • Logo from the above. I’m a big fan of the way Citroen and Renault have kept up a distinctive logo over decades, unlike this one, which remains kinda cute
  • speaks for itself
  • another bulbous Austin in the middle
  • maybe most obscure in show: an Australian Vauxhall Velox Caleche L, 1950
  • a Singer, something or other. What caught my eye was the Rootes Group insignia on the grille, a brief moment in the history of the British automobile industry. And an excuse for a musical pun …
  • the aforementioned Mk1 Cortina. Which had me searching out the Tom Robinson Band’s song about a Cortina … which had me thinking fondly back to their brief weekly residency at the Brecknock Arms, Tufnell Park … except turns out the song is called Grey Cortina and refers to a later model. (But what the hell … see the end of this post.**)

Monday, and I venture into a pub – the Fox & Hounds – for the first time since March 2020, and consume ditto first draught pint (one of the Cornish ones, Tribute I think, because the Hawkshead was off). Tasted good. What prodigious musical outfit had drawn me back into a hostelry? None other than Blues From the Ouse – Ian Anderson back in the old routine in fine voice, albeit in partnership with a late minute sub on the bar stool, no slouch himself. What it says on the tin, and a powerful take on Dylan’s Things have changed delivered with more than a hint of ire in there along with the regret. Small but appreciative crowd; conversed with a Yorkshire poet (hi, Mossman!) of a legendary Sheffield record shop.

What with one thing and another, that was it for me till Saturday; as I’ve said, it was a reduced programme, further reduced by circumstances and Covid. I ducked An Evening with the Bard & Friends out of a wariness of crowded rooms (sorry, Andy) but would probably have been all right it turns out (and see down below*). Picnicking to excerpts from Shakey from the Stony Stratford Theatre Society Saturday lunchtime a delight as ever. Much ado about Much ado.

Saturday night and the twice postponed long awaited appearance of Trevor Babajack Steger at York House, courtesy of, ahem, ‘Le Chapeau Production in association with Dangerously Retired Promotions’. First bought the tickets for the original 2021 date. Some phenomenal blueswailing from yer furiously dexterous man, so adept it would not be unreasonable to think he was relying one loops, but no. Powerful, emotional stuff wrought from guitar, stomping foot, harp and a growl. Standout was I got the devil in me (“Aint no saint / but I aint no sinner”) – Audenesque, non-bravado – delivered with with some stunning slide work with the Hawaiian lap guitar, one of the three, along with the Dobro and Diddlyesque square one featured through the evening. Good local support from Jonathan Townsend. Nice one Pat and Ken.

Without the early commitment to Babajack I would have certainly been at The Crown for an extended, relaxed (relatively speaking) evening with The – oft mentioned in despatches here at LillabulleroAntipoet, but happily it was streamed live and left up on FB for a while after. In fine form as ever, Paul Eccentric only wore that motley outfit for the first half. All the ingredients, plenty of the usual, but also new material, some from lockdown days with a hint of the pastoral, even, and a touch more Music Hall? Confident enough to make the last ‘encore’ a new one too, a paean to a wood pigeon that had taken up residence in Paul’s garden, with a chorus of “Where are you, Freddie?’

As ever, might thanks to the StonyLive! committee and all who sail in her: https://www.stonylive.info/

*An Evening with the Bard & Friends was also the launch of the Bard’s slim volume Coronaverse. Don’t know if this is in it but here’s Andy Powell©’s StonyLive! poem:

Stony Hibernation:

We’ve been sleeping
Behind our screens
We’ve been dreaming

Of StonyLives gone past
The remarkable, the magical
The memories that last

Audiences that stood with ovation
The stuff of legends
Caught in hibernation

But now we stir and breathe the rhyme
And emerge back into the light
One small step at a time

We count our blessings one by one
That we’re still here
And new legends have begun

We’re back and we survive
Fill your diaries, end your hibernation
And enjoy StonyLive!

**We did, thanks. And wrong model, but here’s Tom Robinson anyway:

Second week in August, to North Norfolk. Obligatory Norfolk photo (right click photos for a a grander scale):


Mine eyes had never seen the glory of an avocet before:

Seen loads now. Also many other birds and a delicious vegan kerala cauliflower & chick pea pasty at RSPB Titchwell Marsh. Went again later in the week for the beach; good sand for burying sons and grandsons in.


Top: not a henge – who knows? Photo taken near that obligatory boat pic at Thornham.
Left: where there was a henge – the famed 4,00 year old suddenly revealed and quickly removed and preserved by archaeologists in 1998 Seahenge, seen from the Norfolk Coast Path near Holme.
Right: a replica of Seahenge about a mile away on the edge of a Drove Orchard’s orchard (we wasted some time circumnavigating the wrong orchard). Authenticity (I wasn’t convinced but I looked it up)? Channel4’s Time Team had a hand in it.

Another bird & a bench

I’ve been seeing one locally in MK, but still a thrill to realise it was a Great White Egret (two in fact) down there on the Broad Water lake at the back of the the Holme Nature Reserve trees. The view of Broad Water is from a splendidly dedicated bench – must have been a good bloke – up on the Norfolk Coastal Path. Back another day and just swans (I know … we shouldn’t take them for granted).

Gotta see the seals

Blakeney Point, of course, and the sun shone. Difficult to photo with all that bobbing up and down. Most artistic photo taken on the phone turned out to be this disappointing failure to catch the actual seal colony. As the boatman said, “It’s a hard life being a seal”. Not sure how intentional the other photo was either, but proud …

Riding the rails

Apparently it hadn’t been a good week for the North Norfolk Railway. Something about no water supply at the start of the week, the Holt station master quitting and an incident at Sheringham (whatever that was). Plus covid had compromised the ambience – online booking only, so no old style cardboard tickets, no clipping the tickets on the train, staff in the old uniforms though. Still worth it for an old trainspotter.

Journey from Holt to Sheringham was behind a finely turned out old Great Eastern Railway 0-6-0 locomotive built before the First World War, a Great Eastern Railway Y14. Traveled in a compartment of a London & North Eastern Railway Quad-Art Set, built 1924 for commuter trains out of London, and designed by no less a personage than Sir Nigel Gresley – only the bloke who later designed Mallard, the world speed record holder for a steam locomotive, such was career progression in those days. The Art stands for articulated, though the woodwork was handsomely done, outside and in (you can find more at https://www.nnrailway.co.uk/). Designed to pack-’em-in, the theory was 8 people each side of a (no corridor) compartment; granted people were smaller then, but deodorants and antiperspirants hadn’t been invented yet either.

The streets of Sheringham were crowded and, to tell the truth, it did not inspire. Quick amble for a sight of that particular bit of the North Sea and the purchase of a definitive crab sandwich. Where better than Joyful West’s Shellfish Bar, traditional as they come and cash only? (Not my phot; no-one to credit). Then a quick dash back to the station for the last steam train of the day.

Locomotion was WD (War Department) 90775 (pictured above at rest after the day’s turn). 90775, now bearing the name The Royal Norfolk Regiment, had never actually worked in the UK until brought back by preservationists in the 1980s. It was one of a dozen basic 2-10-0s (which is a lot of wheels) built in the UK in the Second World War and initially sent to the Middle East, then deemed surplus to requirements in Egypt when the war was over. But Greece was desperate, and it was soon working on – to quote the NNR website – “the Istanbul express between Thessalonica and Pithion” and “the Athens to Yugoslavia International express between Thessalonica and the border”. And so back to Holt, where the photos were taken.

Miscellaneous indulgence

The giant bubbles were fun and surprisingly easy to achieve. Messages and mystic symbols were found on the old coal shed, again Thornham, near where the first photo was taken. And a layered landscape.

Not forgetting

  • three-generational family holidays 2021-style: three different kinds of milk in the fridge (and that was just the adults)
  • decent enough weather: sunniest days fittingly at the beach & on the boat; disappointingly overcast skies at night … except the night of the meteor shower, when we saw our own little ones but all saw the humdinger – Wow! That same night, a lot of owl-hooting too
  • clothes packed & not used this time: pullover, jacket, freshly rejuvenated raingear, t-shirt, posh trousers (well, chinos) …
  • what the world needs is more “Do not follow sat-nav” signs. Beware the grand sounding Ringstead Road, which is ironic given the address we were aiming for was at one end of it.
  • & many thanks to whoever was responsible for closing the A1139 Peterborough by-pass with no warning to those of us heading home on it (it was not an emergency, just ‘work’ with no workmen in sight) and the dire lack of Diversion signs to get us through the town; nice view of the cathedral, but …


Once the shops were open again I got me a new pair of walking shoes (the old ones squeaked); I’ve been a slave to the FitBit on my wrist. Favourite haunt has continued to be MK’s Floodplain Forest. Can usually rely on a Little Egret or two, and catch the konik ponies doing their rounds:

Here’s early spring view north from the Cosgrove Lock end of the in the process of being revived Buckingham Arm of the Grand Union Canal. Had never noticed the abandoned Cosgrove Hall – gutted by fire 5 years ago – before:

It’s rained a bit this year. Here’s the flood damage wrought on the path by the River Great Ouse on the Wolverton side of the Iron Trunk, and a view of the Iron Trunk from the northern side of the river:

Urban rain! Underpass at the Queen Eleanor/London Road roundabout. I hadn’t realised the illusory nature of the photo when I took it (right click to enlarge):

Nature studies (click on an image):

Meanwhile, in the garden (ditto):

And just lately, an adventure – a wedding no less (hi Pete & Tamasine!) in the splendid venue of the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, Much Hadham, in deepest Hertfordshire (https://www.henry-moore.org/visit/henry-moore-studios-gardens#). Couple of favourites from what we saw:

While we’re here, have to give a nod to the fine music throughout from the folky (with a touch of Renaissance?) duo of Vicki Swan (with her nyckelharpa – a Swedish keyed fiddle) & Johnny Dyer: http://www.swan-dyer.co.uk/

Paper of Pins was particularly moving in the circumstances:

Bashed my way through Louis MacNeice‘s Autumn Journal (Faber, 1939) and had a grand time of it; fully intend to linger longer another time. Written on the hoof from August through to December 1938, with the inevitability of war in Europe looming, the 30-year old MacNeice reflects on his life, the news, on culture with and without a capital C, and, crucially, commitment – what is an individual to do in the face of it all? (Plus a side order of dealing with a failed romance). Written throughout, as he says, “in an elastic kind of quatrain“, its 81 pages in 24 sections can still, for all that specificity, talk to us on our own personal dilemmas and troubled times; some things don’t change. And the language, the tone, is sublime, can still seem contemporary.

In all the quotes that follow the second and fourth etc lines should be indented – something I’ve unfortunately failed to get WordPress to do.

Goodbye now, Plato and Hegel,
The shop is closing down;
They don’t want any philosopher-kings in England,
There ain’t no universals in this man’s town.

Remind you of anyone? Elsewhere he talks of “the voodoo of the Orange bands / drawing an iron net through darkest Ulster“. And how about this?

So Thursday came and Oxford went to the polls
And made its coward vote and the streets resounded
To the triumphant cheers of the lost souls –
The profiteers, the dunderheads, the smarties.
And I drove back to London in the dark of the morning, the trees
Standing out in the headlights cut from cardboard,
Wondering which disease
Is worse – the Status Quo or the Mere Utopia.

As it happens ‘Mere Utopia’ strikes me as being not a bad shout at a band name, if you’re a musician with intellectual pretensions (I’m not knocking it) and looking. Synchronicity rears its head on page 60, where, within nine lines are cited the Sleeping Beauty, the Holy Ghost, Nietzsche, God, and The Shropshire Lad

… which I’d just started reading in the bath. Bath-reading is something I haven’t done much of since the incident of the overflow to nowhere except the ceiling below – my confidence in that regard is shot; but on a ridiculously hot heatwave day a lukewarm bath beckoned. There are rules: books must be old, much foxed (they just don’t absorb moisture), and dispensable (should one nod off).

Not, I hasten to add, that this was the edition I had with me (a Dover Thrift charity shop impulse buy) as I lazed. Anyway, A.E.Housman‘s A Shropshire Lad (1896) is one of those books on which the myth of a certain rural (and therefore illusory) England rests. It’s a bit of a con: he was living in London when he wrote it, and came from Worcestershire himself. It swims dangerously close to doggerel. He spent no significant time in Shropshire but it scans better; like the Kinks’ village green, it’s a ‘mindscape’ (a term I nicked from a short introduction). Then there’s verse numero VII, where the lad picks up a stone, aims “And threw it with a will” at a blackbird in a coppice because it’s fluting “Lie down, lie down, young yeoman / What use to rise and rise?” – querying why he bothers, cajoling him to laze. He’s only gone and killed the chuffing thing – I was appalled. Not that it does him much good; his ‘soul’ picks up on the song in the next verse.

We do, we do. And will continue to do so.

I’ve just started reading Martin Amis‘s 500 page opus Inside story: a novel (Cape, 2020), his ‘autobiographical novel’. The page before the title page gives Inside story: How to write. In the Preludial – oh, yes, he’s a clever bastard that Martin (not that I hold that against him) – he suggests: “Ideally I’d like Inside story to be read in fitful bursts, with plenty of skipping and postponing and doubling back – and of course frequent breaks and breathers.” So that is what I am going to do. I’ve disappointed myself in making no significant progress in reducing the ‘to be read’ pile these pandemic lockdowns and feel like giving some of the others a chance.

Before proceeding to other matters, let us celebrate without further ado that hint of a return to normality and celebrate the Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s defiant Shakespeare on the Green production of bits of the Warwickshire Stratford’s bard, punctuated with song (The Not Two Bees) and period instrumental interludes. A grand socially distanced time was had of it for this sole surviving event of the initial (now twice postponed) StonyLive! programme. And deservedly, the sun chose to disprove the weather prophets.

Big fan of Carl Hiaasen‘s comic crime novels set in Florida. Do yourself a favour and read him. Comic, yes, but it’s righteousness – green, anti-big bucks, anti-establishment – that drives the humour, ranging as it does from scathing satire and laughaloud one-liners to often violent slapstick and all the way back again. Great characters combine with the skillful weaving of narratives that come delightfully together as the pages rapidly turn in your hands. What I would say, though, is, if you haven’t read him before, don’t start with Squeeze me (Sphere, 2020). Because the character of Donald Trump, a figure who might previously have materialised out of a Hiaasen novel (before things took a really nasty turn), known here by his secret service codename of Mastodon, is a big part of the story, along with an interesting take on Melania (or, Mockingbird); this can be a bit jarring, given the storming of the Capitol in Washington in January, happening long after the book was written. Still well good enough, though: a plague of giant pythons is one of the plot drivers. Regular readers can also look forward to the the re-appearance of Skink, one of the great inventions of twenty first century American literature; no spoiler, he had to be back.

Also to be mentioned in dispatches

One of the reasons I’ve read so few books the last year or so? The marketing strategy of the folks at the London Review of Books. Here’s what they do, a classic drug dealer’s operation: someone, let us say X, subscribes, and that person can nominate a friend, Y, to get it free for a year; at the end of that year Y is offered a dead cheap sub to continue to get it, and they can then nominate someone else, Z, to get a year’s worth for nada; another year on and Y (that’s me) is hooked enough – oh the intellectual self-kidding kudos! – to pay a full subscription (still not bad value, actually). Some issues hardly read a thing, others more, enlightening enough to …. carry on?

I did read Liz Lochhead‘s wide-ranging and accessible A choosing: selected poems (Polygon, 2011) straight through. I’ve had it for a while now, but only dipped in occasionally. Enjoyed it a lot, from her intro, sad and struck dumb by a schoolboy asking her, “See, when you wrote that poem about the bull, what were you really trying to say?” through all the experience and insight in play right through to the last poem, that kicks off: “Poets need not be garlanded.” The autobiographical – many of the pieces are – The choosing, the sort of title poem, is a haunting 1960s social realist novel in a page and a half. My rival’s house, a heartfelt mother-in-law moan, made me think of probably my favourite sitcom of them all, the splendid and addictive Everybody loves Raymond. So full of potential jifs – “Idiot!” – it’s a relief the legal team is so hot at stopping them, otherwise social media would be swamped by them to the show’s detriment. Skipping through it again now, I can see A choosing deserves a swift reprise.

I first encountered Liz’s work a while back at a seminar, one of a series designed to get public librarians to support contemporary poets and poetry. I didn’t need convincing, but it was a day out, and I was impressed as hell when the man from the Poetry Society bravely started the session by reading her sense-tingling What the Pool Said, on Midsummer’s Day – a poem as erotic as you want to make it – as a metaphor to encourage us to take the poetic plunge. (here’s a link – pirate – to the text).

And it was with my librarian’s hat on that I met Eleanor Bron, and took her down to the Reserve Stock stacks of Swiss Cottage Library to see what she could find in the older books on English myths and legends. Pretty sure there was a sketch on TV a while later that was the fruits of that visit, and it’s mentioned – the sketch, not my role in it – in The Pillow Book of Eleanor Bron, or, an actress despairs (1985 – from the time when women actors were still called that). I bought a cheap, battered old copy because Craig Brown had said nice things about it in his Beatles book (she was in Help!). It’s an entertaining, intelligent mix of very short pieces – biographical, things that interested her, doing Rep – but what stays with me are the professional insecurities you might have thought she was established enough not to worry about – employment, interpretation – she’s incredibly open about.

Before we go, a bit more of a tentative return to normality with …

IF: Milton Keynes International Festival 2021

Luke Jerram‘s awesome Gaia, turning over Middleton Hall in centre:mk (as no-one calls it). A replica of our planet 7 metres in diameter, constructed from detailed NASA imagery. The accompanying soundscape included Neil Armstrong looking back from space, telling NASA: “blue” – incredibly moving still, in context. You knew it, but when you see how big Africa is … and where’s Europe? As the world turns there’s a time when all you can see is sea, cloud or ice and Australia. I stayed a long time, and went back again later.

In between I’d spent time in Anna Berry‘s fantastic Breathing Room, the concept given this year the opposite of a slight return (it’s a new structure) from 2019’s successful takeover of a small vacant lot in Queen’s Court in the City Centre (aka centre:mk), now outside – look at the light coming through and playing on the green carpet. It moves!

Quoting now from the welcoming rubric: “a beautiful and delicate large-scale kinetic artwork that people can move through. Framed by an intriguing mechanical exterior, the tunnel-like structure invites you to travel through its gently moving interior for a unique multi-sensory, immersive experience. Tens of thousands of … cones line the tunnel and move as if the structure is breathing, powered by ingenious mechanics, creating an otherworldly experience.” Yup. Give that woman the Turner Prize! Take a bow, Anna: annaberry.co.uk

And (really) finally, back to the really local …

First showing of the Thread Thread Wine ‘Join Me: Our 2020 Events’ memorial quilt at York House as part of the socially distanced Made in Stony event. It’s an ongoing project Soraya Hussein Tate has been working on from the first Covid lockdown onwards – theme of things we’re missing. Related proceeds to MIND.

[Right click on the image to see it bigger].

First off, thank you, Dr John Cooper Clarke. For many things, but in this specific instance, for setting my mind to rest in the matter of Shredded Wheat for I was beginning to doubt myself. But no, I was not imaging it. After a bit of a shaggy dog story about his aversion to Weetabix comes the revelation:

… I’m a Shredded wheat guy, although it is only made edible by the addition of hot milk and sugar. For some reason, cold milk will not assist its swallowability. At some point the Welgar marketing department tried to introduce exciting new serving suggestions which, if the full-colour illustrations on the side panel of the box were any indication, required no milk at all. One was a fried egg on a neat row of Shredded Wheat.

I’ll pass on the hot milk, but while we’re here, I’m pretty sure I looked for images toconfirm this unlikely suggestion years ago and found nothing. Still no reproductions of the packet, but try putting ‘shredded wheat fried eggs’ into a search engine these days (I may not have been so direct back then) and all sorts of horrors appear. There’s one guy (not a Scot) who actually deep fries them. Here’s ‘guacamole egg bowl’ for your delectation. Apologies to the squeamish.

About my title: I’m quoting from the man’s Prologue to his autobiography of last year, I wanna be yours (Picador, 2020):

Poetry is my first language, so forget the static data, I’m not on trial for murder. Rather than a ponderous trudge through the turgid facts of an ill-remembered life, to fleetingly call up various events that best illustrate the flavour of my existence at any given point, this is my aim.

Fair enough, but to which I feel obliged to add a big BUT. I had not realised John Cooper Clarke’s heroin usage pre-dated the successful first studio album, Disguise in love of 1978. So we get plenty of episodes from three decades’ worth of ways and means of scoring to feed his habit in various locations. Not that he’s glorying, wallowing or overly-preachifying about it, but like the habit itself – “It’s the death of the soul” – it becomes tedious, and something of a ponderous trudge to read about. In those years he didn’t write anything after 1982’s patchy Zip-style method – on which the life-saver, the much anthologized GCSE chosen text I wanna be yours appeared – until the love of a good woman, Evie – who “had overheads and consequently her concerns were that of an intelligent, developed member of society” – was the spur to his getting clean; thank you, Evie, for this resurrection.

Anyway, in the opening chapters of I wanna be yours, John Cooper Clarke, takes us on a highly entertaining tour of his extended family while painting a veritable ‘all our yesterdays’ of a background to his youth. I find it interesting that the two poets most readily associated with Punk either side of the Atlantic were actually boomers: JCC was born January 25, 1949, while Patti Smith was December 30, 1946. “At twenty seven,” he says, “I was too old to be a punk, really. As it turns out, I was one of the few who didn’t lie about my age.” Adding, with typical mordant humour, “You find out how old people actually are when they die.”

You want cultural markers? How about a neighbour and drinking partner of his dad’s who was a professional musician, the “resident pianist on the popular radio programme Have a go, starring Wilfred Pickles and his wife Mabel.” (Yes, I really do remember that programme.) Later JCC’s financial jeopardy was held at bay by a private ‘let’s not involve the insurers’ deal after a motorbike accident, when “The driver offered up a couple of grand, which at the time was twice the top prize on ITV’s popular quiz show Double Your Money.” And when Pam Ayres wins Opportunity Knocks and his mates complain: “My irritation, however, was tempered by the engaging personality, and her continued success on the show was a great inspiration. Now I could point to Pam Ayres as an example of a poet making a living. How could I kvetch? She wrote from her life, I wrote from mine. At last here was a successful contemporary.” Didn’t realise he was interested in football, disappointingly, a ManU fan to boot, though in mitigation it must be said he was a regular at Old Trafford with his dad in the late 1950s.

A pre-Beatles early adolescence , then, when “everybody had a comb. Quiff adjustment was necessary, possibly every ten minutes. I blame Edd ‘Kookie’ Byrnes.” And you would be right. I too would be guilty as charged. The ‘hip’ young co-star in the (to us) wildly exotic private eye show 77 Sunset Strip had a lot to answer for.

Then the young teenage JCC was a mod, no sorry: a Modernist:

The Modernist ethos was exclusive, judgemental, and wrong. Virtues almost entirely absent today. It appealed to a snobbish part of our identity that defied easy definition. And yet, we would never have dreamed of calling ourselves Mods … Give anything a name and very quickly its more obvious elements will be plundered by the plebs.

As such he declares “loyalty to the 38 gram 3-button suit“, because, “Whatever your build, whatever your age, whatever your social situation, the three-button suit will make the best of any man.” A shame, then, much to my continuing chagrin, that the tyranny of the 2-button suit has reigned for practically a decade unchallenged in the off-the-peg marketplace. Capitalism, we are told, is all about choice; tell that to the fashion industry.

For someone who left school at 15 to profess, as he does on page one, “All my life, all I ever wanted to be was to be a professional poet …” was (and is) a mighty claim, but you can see where it comes from. Like his mum, “a lifelong card-carrying library member and a great reader of books“, he was a dedicated library user. And a broad consumer of the whole spectrum of comics. Mad magazine was important, too (obviously), and, like Bob Dylan and, indeed, your humble scribe, it was Classics Illustrated that lit the literary blue touch paper:

Before the entrance of Uncle Dennis and his collection of pulp fiction, I had acquainted myself with the cream of European and New World letters courtesy of … Classics Illustrated, an improving comic book imprint from America ‘Featuring stories by the world’s greatest authors’, with great covers and illustrations in very diverse graphic styles. […] Even though I’d only read the sixty-four page comic-versions, it didn’t matter: they gave you a flavour of the original tone, and the final frame carried the Classics Illustrated line of intent, ‘We strongly urge you to read the original.’

And then there was that English teacher, take a bow John Malone, “a rugged outdoors type … [not] one of those ‘down with the kids’ teachers you get today; there was none of that spooky nonsense.Palgrave’s Golden Treasury was the text, and he and the young Cooper Clarke had “a soft spot for the Romantics … Wordsworth’s daffodil number, natch.” The big lesson he learned from Mr Malone was, “The main consideration is what a poem sounds like. If it doesn’t sound any good, it’s because it isn’t any good,” a creed he has righteously lived by. The ‘exquisite poetry of the young Cassius Clay‘ was another big influence.

“Somehow Mr Malone’s classes became a feverish hothouse of literary endeavour … It wasn’t just me and the rest of the nerds either …
From that day to this, poetry has kept me from hanging around on street corners.

As to the school itself, a secondary modern “It had all the facilities one would expect of a school: qualified teachers, blackboards, forty children per class. It was a tough school. Put it this way – we had our own coroner!” A joke he also deployed to great effect in his wonderfully sparky Desert Island Discs appearance, which – though the music may come a s a bit of a surprise – really is worth a listen: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000701x

I’ll take a short break here to acknowledge the luck involved in one’s passage through school as far as inspirational teachers go. And give a nod to John Pearce, head of English at BGS in the mid-1960s (and beyond): my friends and I have much to be grateful for.

He left school at 15, “already determined that somehow I was going to be a professional poet.” He was in a band with mates that achieved little (not that that matters). There had been no paper round for him earlier, a bookie’s runner he (his father had “often had a financial interest in the outcome of various equestrian events”). He quickly failed as a motor mechanic (and certainly never told them he was a poet), but completed a printing apprenticeship where modernist he favoured non-serif typefaces and developed a nice sideline providing the Belle Vue Aces’ motorcycle racers with business cards, employing his “newly acquired revolutionary Bauhaus take on typographic self-hype.”

Somewhere in there, too, is a marriage to Christine and a spell in the realms of Plymouth hippydom; he worked as a fire-watcher in the naval docks. As in his poetry, JCC’s scorn is a thing of wonder, particularly here: “It was as if they’d all watched the wrong bit of Easy Rider“. Christine had introduced him to Van Morrison’s Astral weeks and Beefheart’s Safe as milk, for which he was thankful. But short of money – he’d already sold his ‘good 3-button suit’:

… some of Christine’s vinyl had to go. I knew she would never agree to it, but it wasn’t up for discussion: while she was out, I gathered up all her Incredible String Band and Roy Harper albums and took them down to the shop where I’d sold my suit. I flogged the lot, killing two birds with one stone: we had money and I had rid myself of the stereo torture I’d had to endure on a daily basis. I don’t think Christine ever forgave me for that. [Sorry, Pat]

Back in Manchester, his performing poetry in local pubs and clubs – nay, anywhere – and working at Bernard Manning’s club before ‘punk’ fame is a familiar tale for those who know his work, and have read the interviews, but it’s good to hear it again in some detail. Interstingly, he was never a great fan of the musical enhancements Martin Hannett gave him on the records. (Just thinking about it I am taken back to a flat in Tufnell Park and me and David G reciting along: “Fuck me, a monster from outer space”. A poem, as JCC says, he couldn’t get away with now, with the line previous to the one just cited) .

I wanna be yours covers a lot of ground. As with most autobiographies, it’s the early days, how it all came about, the discoveries on the way up, the surprises when you get there, that hold the interest. Given the addiction years, later it’s not so engrossing, with depressing interludes, but hey, this is Johnny Cooper Clarke and tours and things were still happening. The clean – and writing again – years, after meeting Evie – get only 30 pages out of 470; they almost approach standard show biz fare. Nice corny Epilogue: Sunday Night at the Palladdium too, though, where he – “a half-arsed grafter with a rich vocabulary” – contemplates the big deal it was for the family on TV back in his youth:

Well tonight it’s the venue for a star-studded evening of poetry and who’s the headliner? Yes, the bargain basement Baudelaire himself, Dr John Cooper Clarke.

I said earlier that it was ‘good to hear’ the story of his rise again, because it’s almost impossible to read I wanna be yours without a saggering Mancunian accent. No bad thing, but as Stewart Lee wrote, analyzing one of his own jokes recently in the Observer (May 16), about the joke being funny on a third level, ” because it includes a rhythmically and musically satisfying plosive obscenity, in this case the word “fucking” … and swearing is innately amusing if deployed correctly”. Deployed too much, John, on the pages of a book, it starts to grate …

I started with food, I’ll end with food. In the notorious Brixton years – a squalid drug den shared with Nico, she of the first Velvet Underground album (who eats Rowntrees jelly by the cube) – “when it came to sensible food my go-to meal of choice was a can of plum tomatoes on toast.” It needs to be said that he denies sharing in the squalidity, here. And you’re thinking, ‘straight from the can … ?’ But no:

I’m happy to share my recipe for the first time. I’d cut a couple of really thick slices of Hovis (for me, the only acceptable brown bread) and toast them. Then, in lieu of butter, I’d apply a vinaigrette made with lemon juice, olive oil, and mustard, and maybe the odd crush of garlic. Meanwhile, I’d warm the tomatoes over a medium heat. I’d then pour them onto the Hovis doorsteps, add salt and pepper to taste, and a final drizzle of olive oil.

Might even give it a go.

Bear with me. On the letters page of the latest London Review of Books (cover date May 20, 2021), Galen Strawson praises a poem by Michael Hoffman that appeared in a previous issue, but picks him up on the specific attribution of a ‘coo’ referred to in the poem to a wood pigeon; apparently, apparently by the sound and syllable of it, a collared dove deserved the credit:

The coo situation, as far as I know, is this. Feral pigeons or rock doves do two coos. Collared doves do three … Wood pigeons do five, with a clipped sixth on the last call in a series …
The wood pigeons in Virginia Woolf’s The years were Welsh, and said: ‘Take two coos, Taffy, Take two coos, Taffy, Tak …’ This for some reason has haunted me.

There’s a wood pigeon in my locality that frankly I wish would change his tune – its monotony is tedious – though from the above it would seem they has no say in the matter. The thing is, I hear its coo as, “The whole world’s watching” – no less than the chant taken up by the anti-war demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago as the police laid into them with billy clubs and tear gas.

So I can’t say that I’d forgotten what had happened then, but watching Aaron Sorokin’s award-winning movie, The trial of the Chicago 7, stirred a lot of memories of the time, and I was reminded forcibly of the mendacious bloody-mindedness of the Nixon administration’s reaction to the various countercultural forces of the late-1960s – that they saw as threatening their narrow idea of the American way – all flavours of which were represented in the group chosen for prosecution on a bunch of trumped-up politically motivated charges.

It’s a great film, well worth seeing: prepared to be appalled, but also to be at times amused. However, director/writer Aaron Sorkin has messed around with the chronology of events to great dramatic effect. The film shows Fred Hampton, of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, supporting Seale until police killed him in his home, in his bed, on December 4, 1969. The film also shows Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, being gagged in court the day after Hampton was killed. In fact he had been gagged on October 29, and was granted a separate trial on technical legal grounds on November 6; so the original Chicago 8 became the rhetorically superior Chicago 7 a month before Hampton’s murder. Matthew Dessemat, in Slate, says Sorkin “plays pretty freely with characters and events to ensure his clockwork screenplay hits exactly the right beats in exactly the right order.” And it sure does get the spirit of the times.

For shame, I had pretty much forgotten about Fred Hampton, the young, capable and charismatic chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who, as a rising star in the wider opposition movement, was seen by the authorities as a real problem. I say ‘for shame’, because it was a very fine piece of reportage, by American novelist Richard SternThe books in Fred Hampton’s apartment – that, newly qualified as a librarian, I adopted as my unofficial mission statement, an inspiration, as to what I was there to do. Stern’s report is a graphic description of the notion of the public library’s potential as the people’s university. Here’s how he starts:

A few days after the lethal predawn police raid on the Chicago apartment of the young Black Panthers, I went down with other perturbed, inquisitive history sniffers and shrine makers to see what was what.

from the book of the same name – US: Dutton, 1973; UK: Hamish Hamilton, 1974

Stern describes the apartment (there are plenty of photos on the internet of the mattress that, in Stern’s words, bore the horrible relief map of Hampton’s blood”, but I’ve spared you that) :

An ugly, characterless, nameless place, the rapidly assembled nest of people who would not be here long, people who did not sink their passions into furniture.

Characterless, to me, except for one thing: a few books scattered here and there in the apartment, some open, as if reading had been interrupted and were to be resumed the next day.

To a bookish man the books changed almost everything …

You can find the full text of The books in Fred Hampton’s apartment on a page of its own, here. It has more chance of being found by others on its own. It’s not long; it still moves me.

Talking of Bobby Seale …

Thinking again about Bobby Seale I recalled a passage from his Seize the time: the story of the Black Panther Party (US: Random House, 1970; UK: Arrow, 1970), and – lo and behold! – I found it. The full text is up on the internet at: https://libcom.org/files/STT.pdf

The book derives from tape recordings made by Bobby Seale in the early autumn of 1968 and the autumn and winter of 1969-70, during some of which time he was in jail. All this was, of course, decades before the age of Black Lives Matter – a depressing thought. In this passage he, Huey P. Newton (“Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party, the baddest motherfucker ever to set foot in history” as the book’s opening rubric says), and others are putting together a newspaper, ” because there were so many lies about the Black Panther Party, and the Black Panther Party in Sacramento. Lies by the regular mass media – television and radio and the newspapers – those who thought the Panthers were just a bunch of jive, just a bunch of crazy people with guns. Many and many an Uncle Tom and our backward brainwashed black men had a misconception about the whole thing, when you get down to it.”

What follows is edited down from the chapter HUEY DIGS BOB DYLAN (starting p105 out of 234 (not sure which edition, though). What it was like to read these words in 1970 for a vaguely radicalised young white man fresh out university! So, here’s to Bobby Dylan turning 80! And regardless of what happened subsequently to the Black Panthers this piece is still worth its weight in gold.

Huey digs Dylan

While we were laying that paper out, in the background we could hear a record, and the song was named “Ballad of a Thin Man” by Bob Dylan. Now the melody was in my mind. I actually heard it, I could hear the melody to this record. I could hear the sound and the beat to it. But I really didn’t hear the words. This record played after we stayed up laying out the paper. And it played the next night after we stayed up laying out the paper. I think it was around the third afternoon that the record was playing. We played that record over and over and over. Lots of brothers stayed right over there with a lot of shotguns for security. It was a righteous security in those days. There wasn’t any bullshit.

Huey P. Newton made me recognize the lyrics. Not only the lyrics of the record, but what the lyrics meant in the record. What the lyrics meant in the history of racism that has perpetuated itself in this world. Huey would say: “Listen, listen – man, do you hear what he is saying? ” Huey had such insight into how racism existed, how racism had perpetuated itself. He had such a way of putting forth in very clear words what he related directly to those symbolic things or words that were coming out from Bobby Dylan. The point about the geek is very important because this is where Huey hung me.

I remember that the song got to the point where he was talking about this cat handing in his ticket and he walked up to the geek, and the geek handed him a bone. Well, this didn’t relate to me, so I said: “Huey, look, wait a minute, man.” I said, “What you talking about a geek? What is a geek? What the hell is a geek?” And Huey explains it. He says, “A geek is usually a circus performer. Maybe he was an experienced trapeze artist who was injured. He’s been in the circus all his life and he knows nothing else but circus work. But he can’t be a trapeze artist anymore because he’s been injured very badly, but he still needs to live, he needs to exist, he needs pay. So the circus feels very sorry for him and they give him a job. They give him the cruddiest kind of job because he’s not really good for anything else. They put him into a cage, then people pay a quarter to come in to see him. They put live chickens into the cage and the geek eats the chickens up while they’re still alive . . . the bones, the feathers, all. And of course he has a salary, because the audience pays a quarter to see him. He does this because he has to. He doesn’t like eating raw meat, or feathers, but he does it to survive. But these people who are coming in to see him are coming in for entertainment, so they are the real freaks. And the geek knows this, so during his performance, he eats the raw chicken and he hands one of the members of the audience a bone, because he realizes that they are the real freaks because they get enjoyment by watching what he’s doing because he has to. So that’s what a geek and a freak is. Is that clear?

“Then to put it on the broader level, what Dylan is putting across is middle-class people or upper-class people who sometimes take a Sunday afternoon off and put their whole family into limousine, and they go down to the black ghettoes to watch the prostitutes and watch the decaying community. They do this for pleasure, or for Sunday afternoon entertainment. Of course the people are there and they don’t want to be there. The prostitutes are there because they’re trying to live, trying to exist, and they need money. So then that makes the middleclass and upper-class people, who are down there because they get pleasure out of it, freaks.

“And this goes into the one-eyed midget. What is the one-eyed midget? He screams and howls at Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones doesn’t know what’s happening. Then the one-eyed midget says, give me some juice or go home. And this again is very symbolic of people who are disadvantaged. They’re patronizing Mr Jones, the middle-class people. You know, they’re not interested in them coming down for entertainment. But if they’ll pay them for a trick, then they’ll tolerate them, or else they’ll drive them out of the ghettoes. This song is hell. You’ve got to understand that this song is saying a hell of a lot about society.”

The white society and the middle-class society are surprised to see that black people will pimp chicks on the block. They come down that way because they looked at black people as freaks. They thought black people were in a big freak bag. They thought they had niggers all figured out. But black people were not even niggers. Black people were not backward and apathetic.

Huey says that whites looked at blacks as geeks, as freaks. But what is so symbolic about it is that when the revolution starts, they’ll call us geeks because we eat raw meat. But the geek turns round and hands Mr. Jones a naked bone and says, “How do you like being a freak?” And Mr. Jones says, “Oh my God, what the hell’s going on?” And Bobby Dylan says, you don’t know what’s happening, do you, Mr. Jones? And to hand him the naked bone was too much – was really too much.


Cassius Clay would brag. People misunderstood the bragging. All Cassius Clay was saying was that he was defying all this omnipotent, racist bullshit by stepping forward and saying, “I’m the greatest! I can’t be hit.” He beat on his chest, and when he said that, the white racist omnipotent administrator who had a hold on the string had to ask himself, “Well, if he’s a man then what the hell am I?” And that’s what Bobby Dylan meant by the geek handing Mr. Jones the naked bone and saying: “How do you like being a freak?” And that’s the whole meaning of the question. If he’s a man, if he’s not a freak, and he tells Mr. Jones he’s a freak, then Mr. Jones has to ask, “Am I that?” That’s symbolic of saying that if he’s a man, what am I?

This song Bobby Dylan was singing became a very big part of that whole publishing operation of the Black Panther paper. And in the background, while we were putting this paper out, this record came up and I guess a number of papers were published, and many times we would play that record. Brother Stokely Carmichael also liked that record. This record became so related to us, even to the brothers who had held down most of the security for the set.

The brothers had some big earphones over at Beverly’s house that would sit on your ears and had a kind of direct stereo atmosphere and when you got loaded it was something else! These brothers would get halfway high, loaded on something, and they would sit down and play this record over and over and over, especially after they began to hear Huey P. Newton interpret that record. They’d be trying to relate an understanding about what was going on, because old Bobby did society a big favour when he made that particular sound. If there’s any more he made that I don’t understand, I’ll just ask Huey P. Newton to interpret them for us and maybe we can get a hell of a lot more out of brother Bobby Dylan, because old Bobby, he did a good job on that set.

Happy Birthday, Bob!

When you write about a guy’s books for over a decade it’s hard not to repeat yourself, but with Peter Robinson‘s 27th Alan Banks crime novel, Not dark yet (Hodder, 2021), we get to the conclusion of The Zelda Trilogy, the end of a sequence of novels that started with Careless love and continued with Many rivers to cross, both of which had left us with cliffhanger endings as to what was happening with Zelda next. It was like watching a big TV series finale, and just as frustrating. Not dark yet leaves us with a different set of questions.

Okay, briefly: Zelda (not her real name) is a really interesting character, the partner of the father of Banks’s colleague, ex-lover and friend, Annie Cabot, Ray, a successful artist. If it weren’t for the circumstances, Banks would fancy her. She has a hell of a past – sex trafficked from a Moldovan orphanage, where she developed a love of classic English literature, rising to high class Parisian whore with powerful secrets enabling her to escape her vicious pimp (well kill, actually) to England, where she met Ray. Ray, has an interesting past of his own (Cornish hippy artist commune), but we won’t go into that; I’m sorry we won’t be seeing any more of him (sorry, bit of a spoiler, I guess, but I want to express my regret).

Not dark yet starts with Zelda in Moldova:

What the hell was she doing here, running away from the good life she had found, despite all the odds, and from a good man, who was more than she deserved, seeking God only knew what. Revenge? Atonement? Reconciliation? (p5)

As it turns out, all of the above. Back in the Yorkshire Dales DI Annie Cabot and DC Gerry Masterson are beavering away at the visceral Conor Blaydon & factotum murders at one of those rich dodgy developer / criminal contacts / handful of celebs parties. Banks is occupied with the aftermath in London of the antics of Zelda and the Albanian OCG. As per the Robinson modus operandi, it looks like the two investigations could well be linked. But there’s a video of a violent rape at the party that sends Annie and Gerry off on a round Britain trip (well, Durdle Door, York and more) and a plot line revolving around an adoption twenty years ago. In a nice touch, although certain characters are part of both investigations, the Blaydon murder is found to have been personal – almost an old fashioned whodunnit. (For what it’s worth, I am tired of the East European crime gang takeover of a lot of crime fiction).

Meanwhile, Zelda, back up north, is forcefully abducted, and Banks not long after, all leading to a violent and exciting climax of that part of the tale. This is where Peter Robinson excels, in his handling of physical jeopardy. His skillful juggling of plot lines is undiminished, and the investigative dialogue has been sharpened (has he been watching television?). Never far away, either, is the moral concern, the eternal debate between justice and the law’s letter; in the twenty-seventh novel in this fine sequence, Alan Banks’s behaviour has never been more compromised.

Of course, Not dark yet – the title nods to Time out of mind, Dylan’s cheery ‘comeback’ album of 1997 – comes with Robinson’s customary soundtrack, active listening and background both. As usual, all over the place, though with a little less jazz (maybe because he can’t annoy Annie so much, as he spends so little time with her in this one).

Naturally he doesn’t shy away from obscurities, though I have to admit I thought he was making it up – having a laugh – with Jan Dukes de Gray, with their Sorcerers, Mice and rats in the loft and Strange terrain albums.

Seemingly not. According to Wikipedia, a short-lived English psychedelic/progressive folk and progressive rock band that was primarily active in the early 1970s. Despite a relatively meager total output and a lukewarm contemporary reception in terms of sales, the band has attracted a cult following…” (Banks only has the last two, Old hippy Ray Cabot has the lot.) Methinks I’ll not be rushing to check them out.

Whereas the previous two books that make up the Zelda Trilogy left us with, as said before, cliffhangers leaves us with a conundrum. Not really a spoiler, honest, but right at the end, Banks is on leave in Croatia, guided there via Paris by what he’s read in Zelda’s notebook, the notebook that he had taken from a crime scene and withheld from evidence. Zelda has just admitted she killed four people:

‘Are you going to arrest me?’
Banks looked at her for a long time, then shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. I’ve had enough of all that. More than enough.’

What are we to make of that? Where do we go from here?

Peter Robinson is not top of my crime novelist tree, but the systematic treatment I’ve been giving to each novel here on Lillabullero, detailing musical and literary references, alcohol consumed, Banks’s love life etc. is probably the most visited part of the whole website, so I’m committed to him.  Here’s the link:  Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks Mysteries.

The bare necessities

Impossible to say those words these days without that bloody tune bouncing – oh, come on: Jungle Book, the movie – unbidden into one’s head. Personally I have to thank Dodo Bones and Stephen Ferneyhough, for that. Of all the jolly songs you could have picked to play … (how I miss beer-assisted live music). (Apologies for the earworm).

Here’s what Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s packs for the journey he takes near the end of Amor TowlesA gentleman in Moscow (2017):

… the Count dug to the bottom of his old trunk in order to retrieve the rucksack that he had used in 1918 on his trek from Paris to Idlehour. As on that journey, this time he would travel only with the bare necessities. That is, three changes of clothing, a toothbrush and toothpaste, Anna Karenina, Mishka’s project, and, finally, the bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape that he intended to drink on the fourteenth of June 1963 – ten years after his old friend’s death.

Helluva rucksack, then, unless he means underwear. And socks. But look, hey, a big book! The man has his priorities. On page 100 of the paperback of A gentleman in Moscow Towles gives us a two-page footnote starting, “Among readers of European fiction, the character names in Russian novels are notorious for their difficulty” and expanding on the difficulties involved before reassuring us we won’t have to bother remembering the name of a character he has just introduced, a musician agreeing a meeting with the Count that doesn’t happen because of his and his tutor’s sorry soviet tale, only to tease in the final sentence of the footnote that perhaps we should. He has fun, does Towles, throughout – all the chapter titles begin either with an indefinite article or words beginning with the letter ‘A’ for starters – even as bad things are happening to good people. But I get ahead of myself.

A gentleman in Moscow became something of a word-of-mouth hit last year. It was urged on me from two different directions, and in a Zoom meet with old school buddies at least half of us half dozen had read (hi, Paul) or were about to read it. It was a surprise, then, to find a publication date as far back as 2017. Something to do with the pandemic and lockdown, then? As a quote from the Count has it on the back cover of the paperback: “By the smallest of one’s actions, one can restore some sense of order to the world”. I’ll not waste adjectives and judgement here, just mostly agree with what it says on that paperback front cover: yes, it sparks joy and display great charm, intelligence and insight; dunno about it being ‘utterly mesmerising’ (it has its languors, can be bit repetitive) but it does have claims to be, as it says on the back ‘a comic masterpiece’ (even though it’s the Daily Express saying it), and it is certainly ‘abundant in humour, history and humanity’ (unlike a lot else in the Sunday Telegraph, but there you go).

On the one hand it’s a fantasia revolving around the importance of little things, on the other it’s reminiscent of Stephen Poliakoff’s television epics – faded grandeur, the maintenance of dignity – with no hectoring but a constant backdop of Soviet Russian extremes reflected in individual characters’ stories; Stalin gets no name-check till very near the end. It can be a bit Disneyfied (as we used to say) – that ‘charm’ the critics quote invokes – but I appreciated its quiet morality – all the more powerful for it – reflecting the invariably inevitable consequences following successful revolutionary movements, and enjoyed it well enough on the whole, especially the building adrenalin rush towards the end … that I just didn’t see coming at all (despite the clues – why was he trapped in the Italians’ wardrobe? – you’ll have to read it)..

Russian gentleman aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, born 1890, is officially “a former person”, condemned to house arrest in a small room on the sixth floor of Moscow’s once prestigious Metropol Hotel, where previously he’d had a suite. He takes on the job of head waiter in the restaurant. He has escaped the firing squad because of a long poem – Where is it now? – attributed to him back in 1913, a call to action that still impresses “those within the senior ranks of the Party who count you among the heroes of the pre-revolutionary cause“. After some lines from that poem, A gentleman in Moscow is prefaced with the court transcript, (in Courier font – what fun! – no, really) of his droll 1922 appearance (as “a man so obviously without purpose“, as the prosecutor puts it) in the dock:

How do you spend your time then?
Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole. […]
And you write poetry?
I have been known to fence with a quill. […]
… this long poem of 1913: Where is it now?
It has been attributed to me. […]
… many considered it a call to action. Would you agree with this assessment?
All poetry is a call to action. […]
Why did you come back? [from Paris]
I missed the climate. […]

How to resist, eh?

He’s there in the Metropol for the next 32 years, until just after the death of Stalin. In that time the hotel briefly functions as something of an administrative centre for the revolutionary government (“tireless typers of directives”), until the Kremlin (the building) has been suitably refurbished for that task, and comes back to something of its old life as the Kremlin (the government) admits its need to take up a more regular place in the wider international diplomatic community – or as Towles puts it early on: “Across the way was a table occupied by two stragglers who picked at their food while they awaited an era of diplomacy.” There is delicious comedy to be had when Osip, a Soviet diplomat, comes to him to be educated in the culture of the West in order to do his job better; they end up watching movies.

In the hotel he is dedicated to keeping up what standards of old is possible in the hotel’s Boyarsky restaurant alongside brothers in arms chef Emile and maître d’ Andrey. Even as a vegetarian I could savour the tastes and fragrances of one year’s description of the preparation of the triumvirate’s conspiratorial annual attempt a bouillabaisse with whatever was available. The Mishka mentioned in my opening quotation, is an unlikely childhood friend, a proletarian poet who gets gulagged over the inclusion of one of Chekhov’s letters in an anthology he is charged with curating.

His existence is enhanced over the years by liaisons with Anna, a “willowy” actress who goes in and out of favour professionally (remember that “willowy” if you read it, to help clear things up at the end). But his life is given purpose and fun by his friendships with two young girls.

He first meets Nina, aged 9, early on, the daughter of the hotel manager. She is keen to learn all there is to know about princesses from the Count. They have fun and games observing proceeding with the aid of her access to her dad’s pass key. Her enthusiasm shifts as a young woman to the collectivization of peasant farms which takes her way out of town: “and then [she] walked across the square in the general direction of historical necessity”. The Count is worried – “It’s just that to hear Nina talk of her upcoming journey, she is so passionate, so self-assured, and perhaps so single-minded, that she seems almost humourless” and It does not end well; she has to leave her young daughter Sofia in the Count’s – at first temporary – care. He becomes her dad, they have fun, and she becomes a concert pianist. And I think that’s as far as I’ll go with the plot. A fine book, and I’ll freely admit I wasn’t expecting the exhilaration (and that twist) at its end.

Meanwhile …

As if Culture Wars were anything new, here’s woke, 1920s Russian style …

A complaint was filed with Teodorov, the Commissar of Food, claiming that the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. That it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators.” (p142pbk) … so all the labels are removed from the contents of the Metropol’s cellar

The Count’s proletarian poet friend, Mishka, is talking to a statue of Gorky in the Square about “… the establishment of Socialist Realism as the sole artistic style of the entire Russian people ..”

‘And what had been the fallout of that?’ Mishka demanded of the statue.
All but ruined. Bulgakov hadn’t written a word in years. Akhamatova had put down her pen. Mandelstam, having already served his sentence, had apparently been arrested again. And Mayakovsky? Oh, Mayakovsky …
Mishka pulled at the hairs of his beard.
Back in ‘22, how boldly he had predicted to Sasha that these four would come together to forge a new poetry for Russia. Improbably, perhaps. But in the end, that is exactly what they had done. They had created the poetry of silence. (p269)

The Count is called upon to educate career diplomat Osip in the ways Western culture, knowing the enemy. Despite Osip concluding that “Hollywood is the single most dangerous force in the history of class struggle”:

When Fyodor Astaire danced with Gingyr Rogers, his fingers would open wide and flutter about his waist while his feet shuffled back and forth on the carpet. And when Bela Lugosi emerged from the shadows, Osip leapt from his seat and nearly fell on the floor. Then, as the credits rolled, he would shake his head with an expression of moral disappointment.
“Shameful,” he would say.

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