Andrew Cowan - CrustaceansDownbeat yet quietly passionate eloquence from a man of low self-esteem who is hurting bad makes for an unexpectedly riveting ride in Andrew Cowan‘s novel, Crustaceans (Hodder, 2000).  Three days before Christmas, on the occasion of his son’s sixth birthday Paul is driving through a snow-covered East Anglia to a seaside town where they and his partner had a caravan and happy times.  He’s talking to his son, Euan, though it soon becomes apparent he is not in the car.  He’s telling Euan all about meeting his mother, first as a student then following her to London, and how he came into the world, about his own unhappy childhood, about the remote father he was desperate to be a better father than, about a tragic mother he hardly knew.

Crustaceans is a heartbreaker.  Part of it is a graphic illustration of Philip Larkin‘s This be the verse (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad …” – that one), part of it is about how two people deal with grief and bereavement.  (That’s not much of a giveaway, by the way, from early on).  One is aware of the randomness and contingency that is a part of living a life, throughout.  It’s a slow build to the awful event at the heart of the driver’s pain.  The end might be optimistic, but you can’t rely on it.

Andrew Cowan is a tremendous writer, an English author who I think deserves much greater recognition.  This is a poignant, vivid, and compassionate novel, which, although presented as a first person narrative, is skillfully delivered with detachment.  There is no wastage of words in its 229 (paperback) pages.  There are many haunting passages of both introspective recall and crystal clear physical description.  The picture painted, for example, of the ultimately derelict workshop of Paul’s chain-smoking father – once a successful large form sculptor – the rusted remnants of unfinished pieces, works on both levels.  This is a book of lamenting that sings.  There are no jokes.  Euan collected shells.

Comings and goings

Busy week, week before last.  Farewell to JL, good man of amusing and amused look, of intelligent cheeky grin, mischievous without malice.  Happened at a big North London necropolis – New Southgate – where the funeral trains used to run to from Kings Cross in Victorian times.  God-free, we went in to the Invisible String Band (The half remarkable question) and came out to Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss (I’ll fly away), with contemplative birdsong and Adlestrop in between.  Remembered, as in life, whenever the Ipswich Town result comes up …

Lau-Nov-2015-A6-Tour-Flyer-1-728x1024And so, Monday evening, to The Stables for Lau, a Scottish three-piece folk and sonic exploration band featuring guitar, keyboards (and loops) and incredibly hard-working fiddle.  Booked on the rave recommendations of a couple of friends -“great live” – without having heard anything beyond a couple of doleful YouTube songs, was impressed but not entirely knocked out.

The guitarist had a beautiful Scottish singing voice that I would have liked to have heard more of, and less of the, ahem, descents into ‘sonic exploration’, or what we in older times would call ‘freak outs’.  Which, it has to be said, they did come out of beautifully, while some complex arrangements were delivered with aplomb and the songs were things of beauty.  Martin with left hand working the accordion balanced on his knees and doing all sorts of things with the right, eyes closed as if in sleep, was a sight to behold.  Didn’t realise until going to their website that the percussive workout that he opened with was accomplished with forks and spoons mounted on a board.

After some earlier mutterings about lemon cake they introduced Lal Waterson’s Midnight feast, at which Martin made more mention of lemon drizzle cake.  Can’t remember who said it – might have been himself – but acknowledgment was made of his literal mindedness.  Without missing a beat: “I believe all poetry is basically lying“.  The music was lyrical.  Unlike Mr Hobbs, was glad I went.

Scribal Nov 2015Vaultage early Nov 2015Two bards and a fine band for the November Scribal and a full set of familiar open mic-ers.  Palmerston their usual immaculate playing and harmonies on great original songs.  American influences but a music hall comic’s performance from Peter Ball with I like to drink, staggering up and down the room, sitting on tables, radio mic in hand, not missing a beat, even when helped to his feet by Stony’s slightest of frame ex-Bard.  Another performance of great charm from Morris side concertina-ist who knows how to pick ’em: obscure Lennon/McCartney (as recorded by Billy J.Kramer) and Booby Vee – I’d forgotten all about I’ll keep you satisfied, and The night has a thousand eyes respectively.  At Vaultage later in the week we whistled along to Chris Wesson’s finely crafted pop songs (only one we whistled to, actually, but … poetic license, you get the gist?) and enjoyed some fine Evs and S&G harmonies on some Pocket Full of Peanuts originals.

Die entfuhrungWednesday and it’s pain and longing – off we go to the opera.  But you can’t go wrong with Glyndebourne on Tour and Wolfgang Amadeus.  Mozart‘s Die entfuhrung aus dem Serail aka The abduction from the seraglio[Seraglio, by the way, one of those words you hardly ever find outside of cryptic crosswords].

Great orchestra, a rhythmic score, a good-looking inventive set – what you’d expect.  I’ve no great claim to judge the singing – could have done without the coloratura from the female lead, which remains my problem with opera – but it sounded fine to me, the acting and theatrical ‘business’ up to Glyndebourne’s high standard.  The singer playing the character of Blonde – hooped stockings, cartwheeling in glee at one stage – stole the show in the way that the crude mechanicals make the leads look dull in Shakespeare’s comedies; she was great.  The outcome prescient for these time: the transcendence of old hostilities, a retreat from people ownership, the power of love witnessed to bring on change.

One last thought about opera.  This was one of those where the dialogue is not sung, not delivered in recitative.  I can grant that the arias and all should be sung in the language they’re written for, but if it’s just spoken dialogue, surely a decent translation, rather than the précis translation you see on the text screen, would at the least take nothing away?

Night watchAnother book

I dunno.  Sarah WatersThe night watch (Virago, 2006), 500 pages long in the paperback edition, was short-listed for the Booker and the Orange Prizes, but if it hadn’t been a Book Group book, and the prospect of an interesting discussion, I doubt I’d have got into three figures.  But then I would have missed the best bit, which, with a bit of background thrown in, that would have made a fine novella.  I speak of Julia and Helen’s haunting, lyrical walk one night, at the start of their relationship, through the streets of Holborn and among the damaged old churches of the East End.

Because it’s mostly set in a bombed London in the Second World War, comparisons with Kate Atkinson‘s powerful Life after life were inevitable for me.  While Ursula in that is with a rescue and demolition team, Kate in this is with an ambulance unit that takes over from them at the scene.  Life after life very effectively plays around with time – a snakes and one-step-at-a-time ladders affair that gives the breadth of a variety to the outcomes in the episodes set in the rubble and the ruins – and The night watch‘s chronology is unorthodox too.  Kicking off bleakly in 1947 (the first 169 pages), it goes back to 1944 (the main action – 279 pages), and finishes by briefly revealing how all these stories started (46 pages).   One of the characters says:

‘I go to the cinema […]  Sometimes I sit through the film twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures.

Not sure it applies to the novel, though.  With a chronological structure like that, if I’d been really engaged, I’d have expected to want to go back to page one and keenly explore it again in a new light.  Didn’t happen; maybe, I’ll grant, it’s just me.

In The night watch we’re out on the margins, back then in another secret world.  Featuring two women, lesbians, linked over time by a relationship with a woman novelist, a probably homosexual young man in prison.  Also to the fore is his glamour girl sister, obsessed with, getting pregnant by, a married soldier.  With a side cast of a Christian Science medical practitioner, a protective retired prison warder (his relationship with the young man is left ambiguous – to me, anyway), a middle class jack the lad conscientious objector.  All damaged people linked one way or another, with maybe glimmers of personal hope for some at the end (ie. the end of the first section).  “We never seem to love the people we ought to,” one of the women says, from the remains of a bombed house.  The women are finely drawn, but I’m far from convinced by the episode that got the precious young man into prison, though, as I say, another world back then.

I had a problem with some of the prose too.  There’s a lot of blushing, some of the romance strikes me as a bit close to Mills & Boon at times, and the word ‘queer’ seems to innocently, old school, be employed a fair number of times; not sure if that’s meant, and why, or not.  What I said about Andrew Cowan at the top of this piece, not wasting words.  What is one to make of:

  • He was opening the tin of ham as he spoke; turning its key over and over with his great, blunt fingers, producing a line of exposed meat like a thin pink wound. Viv saw Duncan watching; she saw him blink and look away.  [Is that meant to indicate some sort of sensuality?]
  • cameras flashing “like bombs” [Really?]
  • His nails were cut bluntly, but shone as if polished. [So what?]
  • He went to the armchair and sat down, unfastening the top two buttons of his jacket … [Surely the wrong way round?]
  • A strand or two of tobacco came loose upon Duncan’s tongue … [it’s a problem with roll-ups, true]
  • [and what exactly is meant by …] the empty yet bullying expression of people who have settled down for a night at the cinema …

I’ve got others, all jolly unfair no doubt.  Then there’s:

Julia pulled on a broken stalk. ‘ “Nature triumphant over war”,’ she said, in a wireless voice; for it was the sort of thing that people were always writing about to the radio – the new variety of wildflower they had spotted on the bomb-sites, the new species of bird, all of that – it had got terrible boring.

Now, I would have been interested in that.  Enough.







Reckless - HyndeCan’t say I understand the rationale of that photo on the dust jacket.  Would certainly be a reckless posture for me to try and then get out undamaged, or at least without pain.  Still, as Sheriff Bo Diddley used to say, You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover. Chrissie Hynde has one of the most distinctive voices in rock music.  I was going to say ‘female voices’, but no, it stands unqualified.  Tough without straining the larynx, and yet tender, spare yet tuneful and full of nuance even in recitative.  She’s written some great songs, too.

In the Prologue to Reckless: my life (Ebury Press, 2015), which takes us from childhood through to the making and release of the Pretenders‘ second album, by which time half the band who made the first remarkable album were dead, she simply states, “I regret half of this story and the other half is the sound you heard“.  This is a stark morality tale, economically yet colourfully related, with none of the poor-poor-pitiful-me about it.  There is humility, for sure, but the woman who wrote Brass in pocket is still abundantly in evidence in the writing, for which we must be grateful.

She certainly gives good zeitgeist, which is just as well because there are plenty of scenes to take in the spirit of.  But there is no grand retreat into sociologese or nostalgia; what we get are sights and sounds.  From an idyllic childhood in the leafy suburbs of Akron, Ohio, via counter-culture America and the killing ground of Kent State University, to heady days at the centre of the punk cyclone in London, with side sojourns in Mexico and Paris, it’s an engrossing story.

Akron may have been the ‘Rubber Capital of the World’, but “for all I knew every town had red brick roads and every fourth house was painted blue …” .  It was changing, though, with the coming of the all-conquering motor car and the six lane highway; no more wandering down the shops.  “When I started to realize that the days of walking were numbered, I subconsciously began to plan my getaway.”  She reads Kerouac at an impressionable age – surely the best time to read him – and wants to be a hobo.  As mammon loomed ever larger: “I was alarmed by the trend, but more alarmed by the fact that no one else seemed bothered“.

Naturally, music is of major importance to her and her mates’ lives, and they are not messing around.  She sees the Stones at age 14, there are trips to see and meet the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a tale about being the only white girls at a Jackie Wilson show.  She puts in a word for Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels to not be forgotten.

Not everyone needed to see the Rolling Stones in the mid sixties, but you could spot those who did a mile off in their modified clothes and carefully studied haircuts. For us elitists it was a chance to catch a rare glimpse of the few who shared our passion …

Reckless‘s back cover boasts this great portrait of the artist as a teenager, caught with guitar and albums in hand: that’s the Rolling Stones’ Out of our heads, and Dylan’s Bringing it all back home precariously balanced there.

CH back coverThe full text the rubric is taken from is a veritable time machine:

We were looking for adventure. We lingered long on Love Street. We had too much to dream last night. We wanted the world and we wanted it now. We were born to be wild. We were stone free. We were stoned. We didn’t think of ourselves as ‘innocent’.

We were taking up philosophies from what we could interpret of the musings of 23-year old guitar players …” she says, (though the Bhagavad Gita has stayed with her).  Then there was the question of her virginity, exquisitely put: It had to be dealt with sooner or later.  And it was getting later.”  Thankfully she doesn’t rub our noses in it, with that or the many subsequent encounters.  (The media storm about rape arose more out of interviews promoting the book, rather than the book itself).

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that I was now 21 and the drugs had worked their magic on me. I was well and truly fucked up most of the time …”  Recognising her situation – “the unwilling tenant in a badly enacted Howard the Duck rip-off: ‘Trapped in a world he never made.’ […] It was all going in the wrong direction … ” – without having any significant contacts there, she escapes to the musical Mecca of London.  

Players No6Where she quickly adapts in matters of language and manners, discovers miniature cigarettes – hey! Player’s No.6! I used to smoke them – and (jumping ahead a bit) suffers acute “cultural humiliation” when asked by Brian Eno to make a pot of tea.  Fuelled with a big Iggy Pop obsession –  there is a lovely Iggy Pop story much later on in the book – she meets the similarly obsessed (and about to be homeless) NME rock writer Nick Kent, who moves himself piecemeal into her flat.  This is not entirely bad, since through the association she gets a gig writing for NME, though ultimately, to his displeasure, she dumps him: “Well perhaps he shouldn’t have presented me with first scabies, then a virulent strain of something even worse, which had landed me in Hammersmith hospital for three days.”  Later, she sells T-shirts made with Judy Nylon, one-offs, using Magic Marker: “One design I was particularly fond of featured a portrait of Nick Kent on the front and a recipe card for how to cook a turkey on the back.”  Ouch.  Revenge for what he wrote in his memoir of the time, one suspects.

It’s this affair that occasions an interesting bit of philosophising that pretty much sums up the story arc of the book:

That’s how we can be sure we’re not animals, this refusal to abide by what we know is good for us. If an animal’s instinct tells him to avoid something he has no trouble keeping a wide berth. We, on the other hand, run in the direction of danger if it offers a thrill or satisfies a curiosity.

Much has been written about the Golden Age of the New Musical Express, and Reckless offers an entertaining and more nuanced view than most, I would venture, of “the most intelligently observed and humorous of the music papers” as she justly describes it.  “These English weren’t the same as the wasters I’d been used to. They used words like ‘quintessential’ and the occasional phrase in French. […] It hadn’t taken me long to sniff out British versions of artistic types, the con artists I gravitated towards …”  In the pub with the NME crowd, she goes off on one, and the late lamented Ian MacDonald, to whom she pays proper tribute as a ‘true visionary’, invites her to write for them: “My only qualification, had I required one, was that I was as frustrated as the rest of them – a frustrated musician (the cliché of music journalism), opinionated, hungover, illegal in the workplace, devoid of ambition …”   It didn’t take too long for her presence to be felt:

Little teenagers in the sticks like Julie Burchill lapped up my half-baked philosophical drivel and prepared their own versions of nonsensical tirades for the day when they too could make a ‘career’ out of it. I even sold the darling little Julie my typewriter …

She gets offered a job as a shop assistant by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, whose creativity impressed her, but that falls through and she’s off to Paris, making music, being in a band, hanging with cabaret artistes: “I loved it when life opens its arms like that and says, ‘Yes’.”  But then back to the States and more bad times though, again, more experience of being in a band.

London saves her.  Malcolm asks her back as Punk is springing into life.  She tries writing with Mick Jones – “It was a joy to … walk over the bridge carrying my guitar knowing I was doing it, really doing it” – and visits regularly the 11th floor Westway flat where he lives with his gran, who, “would make us beans on toast while we put our song ideas together […] I really looked forward to it, especially the beans on toast part, my favourite English dish.”  She spends time with a shy, funny, yet troubled Johnny Rotten, “wrestling with his impending fame“.  Over the next few months she has a room in Don Letts’ house; Joe Strummer takes it over when she leaves.  She spends time in Croydon with the proto-Damned, might have joined the Slits.  Things go sour, blames Johnny Thunders: “The moment smack arrived it took approximately three weeks for the whole scene to stall and grind to a halt.”  She’s mates with soul brother Lemmy in Ladbroke Grove, a cultural mix she loves.

I, meanwhile, continued to peer out from under bus shelters in the rain, guitar by my side, looking for a band like a hunter having his prey chased away by animal rights saboteurs. […] … everybody was at it. (p209/10)

(Which reminds me: if you were thinking of reading Reckless but put off by the prospect of a few animal liberation diatribes – you have nothing to fear; PETA is not even mentioned).

Everyone I’d ever met in my whole life was now in a band. I now had absolutely no hope that it would happen for me but I was so used to failure that, like a cart horse en route to the glue factory, I just kept going. (p214)

But every band needs songs to play and a shitty original is still better than a good cover – and I had some shitty originals. (p213)

 And lo, The Pretenders came into being.  Three young men from Hereford – musicians, not punks, not all recruited at once – give shape to the Hynde songs.  She pays special tribute to the guitarist, the late James Honeyman-Scott, “the reason you’re even reading this because without him I’m sure I would have made only the smallest splash with my talents – probably nothing very memorable“.

Pretenders 1st albumLooking for a producer they send a demo to Nick Lowe, who says, “I definitely want to get in on this Sandie Shaw song“.  Which is … their cover of The Kinks’ Stop your sobbing.  (Thanks Nick, that one has stuck – sound like her, indeed it does).  It’s a hit single but Chris Thomas completes the album.  It so happens this was a quid charity shop vinyl purchase of mine a while back that I never got round to playing.  I just had to de-fluff the needle twice in the playing, but, reminded, am impressed by its realative sophistication and classic aplomb; everyone knows Brass in pocket but I’d forgotten what a sinuous epic Private lives is.

It’s a big success, and that’s when the real trouble starts:

All the things we saw happening to other bands were now happening to us. It took us by surprise. The ‘overnight’ success; having to explain ourselves to the press where we were open to be judged, even laughed at – same as we’d so often laughed at others. And the in-band resentments: only a few months in and we were already living the clichés of the trade. (p260)

The temptation for a Dylan quote overpowers me: “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all“:

As far as rock bands went, it was all textbook stuff. But the fact that everybody in every band in history had gone through the same things didn’t make it any easier to assimilate the horror show of drug addiction. Alcohol was always in the mix too, the lethal ingredient to the dark side, ever lurking. The only reason we were still standing was that we had youth on our side. But as always, time was running out.

By the time the narrative ends her one time lover and original bassist, fired because of out of control heroin usage, and guitarist James are both dead.  Over 30 years ago, that was.  She still works with original drummer, Martin Chambers.  One of the better rock memoirs, I’d say.  Distinctive, even.

A short postscript in the matter of Ray Davies

Given in the interest of Lillabullero in Raymond Douglas Davies evidenced elsewhere on this site, I’ll parlay a few words about their troubled relationship – “Ours was a battle of wills – as recounted in Reckless.  “We’d always laugh after the facts about the absurdity of our fights, but there was nothing funny about them. […] I kept going back into the ring, so to speak. After all, he was handsome, funny as hell, smart and interesting – he was Ray Davies!”  There’s a nice story about her throwing some new shirts she’d just bought him out of the window of their New York residence in a rage, only for them to be picked up by an old tramp, who secreted them under his mac, stepping lightly away;  Ray, of course, had cast himself as a tramp in his 3-album and stage show Preservation saga.  We also get her version of the Guildford Registry Office ceremony failure, they travelling down on the train: “I was wearing a white silk suit I’d had made in Bangkok, with a skirt (so, as you see, I really was serious).”  They got separate trains back.

Closer to home

Living Archive BandAortas last Oct Sunday 2015Vaultage 29 Oct 15The Living Archive Milton Keynes‘s one-off fund-raiser at York House provided an absorbing, entertaining and, at times, very moving evening.  A multi-media presentation, with the actual recordings of those who had been interviewed – with the old North Bucks accent much in evidence – about their youth and working lives, backed up by archive photographs setting the context before the accomplished Living Archive Band performed some fine songs, many sounding as if straight out of the folk tradition, directly inspired by those reminiscences.

The programme was themed, taking in, for the first half, The impact of the railway (including Cotton and fluff, about the women in the sewing rooms at Wolverton Works), and The impact of war (including the unforgettable voice of Hawtin Munday as per the poster).  The second half looked at Local communities during the last 100 years, finishing with The night the Stones rolled into town – one of those legendary gigs, the Rolling Stones at Wilton Hall in Bletchley, 1964 – a lilting refrain about the future being here then, a poignancy enhanced by there being no attempt at employing any Stones licks.  The Living Archive is a very good thing.  Here’s a web link: http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/

Highlight of the second Aortas open mic of October at the Old George was some great fiddle from Nuala Friedman, first accompanying Naomi Rose, whose granddad’s violin it was, on songs that were new to her – such musicianship! – and then having something of a session with Dan Plews.  Earlier Ralph Coates had managed the fine rhyming of “She’s a walking disaster / but I love her pasta“.

There must have been something in the air for Halloween week’s Vaultage, even though Pat was the only one with warpaint, because it was packed for featured sets from quality local stalwarts Mark Owen and Mitchell Taylor, and we got a Dave Cattermole bonus at the end.  Oh, and Ralph Coates played standing up for the very first time and it did indeed make a difference.


Or… I probably shouldn’t do this in omnibus mode.  Anyway, this blog post is dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, though probably not entirely as you’d expect (except for Pete N. maybe).  But for now, later for Ollie.

Martin Edwards - Dungeon houseFirst, some crime fiction …

The dungeon house (Allison & Busby, 2015) is the seventh of Martin Edwards‘s never less than interesting Lake District Mysteries.  As well as the action moving west to Ravenglass and the coast, it breaks fresh ground in that retired telly and academic historian Daniel Kind, who kicked off the Mysteries sequence, stays pretty much in the background. His now temporary live-in girlfriend (that happened in the sixth book), maverickish DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of Cumbria’s cold case team, is very much to the fore, investigating the possibility of links between the disappearance – one 3 years ago, the other very recently – of two young women, and what appeared to be an open and shut multiple murder and suicide case twenty years back.  A case, indeed, in which Daniel’s late detective father, Ben Kind – Hannah had been his protegé – had been involved, and had his doubts.  So the soap opera aspects of the Mysteries – one of the real strengths of the series – take on a retrospective tinge too.

The dungeon house is populated with a rich and varied cast of characters, variously damaged by, or related to people involved in, the events of 20 years ago.  Naturally as events unfold there are plenty of twists and one major red herring, all climaxed with an unsettling and nicely executed suspenseful denouement.  Police budget cuts and administration-by-spreadsheet hover in the background – a standard feature of most British crime fiction these days – while Les Bryant, wily old detective brought back into the cold case team as a consultant, plays the part well.  There’s a swipe at the Police Federation, from the long serving local rep: “The stable needs a bloody good cleansing. You could say I’m Fed up.”

Is it just me or is a bit more humour creeping into The Lake district Mysteries?  Not laugh out loud, but with interviews conducted in “yet another Lakeland tearoom”, for instance.  This may have something to do with Hannah being more prominent in the action, more comfortable with her place in things, and re-finding her mojo:

Les Bryant poked his head around her door. ‘Going to this meeting about the new Communications Strategy?’
‘Nobody told me about it.’
He sniggered. ‘Nothing would surprise me in this place.’
‘I’m scheduled for a briefing on the Transparency Agenda, plus catch-ups with Finance and HR either side of lunch. Not to mention ten minutes ruled out for that photo shoot for the new identity cards to get us in and out of the building, and an hour’s online course about …’

So … what to do next?:

Good Hannah was duty bound to attend the various activities scheduled for her, even if the online course was one more wearisome example of ‘sheep-dip training’. Bad Hannah would suffer a severe memory lapse – why not blame deficiencies in the IT system? They were a reliable scapegoat. She could race off to Ravenglass before anyone trapped her in a corner, and started blathering away about key performance indicators.
Good Hannah never stood a chance. Her evil twin opened the door, and chased after Les.

She’s an interesting lass, capable of hyphenating ‘dream-come-true‘, developing nicely:

Hannah found herself itching to give him the benefit of the doubt. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man. This was a weakness in a detective, she knew …

I look forward to more opportunities for her to show her strengths and weaknesses, and hope poor old Daniel Kind can stay very much in the picture when Hannah moves into her bachelor pad in Kendal; he’s feeling a bit insecure.

BR StandardNow for Oliver Cromwell …

That’s him on the cover (of a recent charity shop purchase), that’s him in the sunlight, clean.  As a republican I love it that the last express Pacific steam locomotive retained in service by British Railways was Britannia class 70013, Oliver Cromwell.  Shame he ultimately made such a mess of the English Revolution and bequeathed us the problem of Ulster, but hey, even though he eventually neutered them, the Putney Debates of 1647 could be said to be the start of modern democratic politics in action, and for twenty years the English were citizens, not subjects.  I’d like to favour the idea of some kind of conspiracy theory among subversive railway workers that made sure it was Oliver who lasted longest …

The naming of express steam locomotives in the middle of the first half of the twentieth century was a very establishment affair, ideological in its celebration of traditional hierarchies.  Worst offenders were the Great Western (GWR) and the London Midland & Scottish (LMS) Railways.  The GWR’s crack express locomotives, the Kings, celebrated the monarchy, and stuck to its semantic guns by – although steam locos are still often referred to as ‘she’ – ignoring (because unladylike?) any Queens that happened to get in the way.  Working back from George V, the sequence went from the teenage Edward VII to William IV, missing Vicky, and further down the line from Edward VI to James I, missing Liz I.  They even subbed poor old King Stephen (who was as far back as it went), bringing on Edward VIII to keep up with the times, and didn’t reverse it even though he was never crowned.  Other classes on God’s Wonderful Railway celebrated the homes of the aristocracy with the Castle and Hall classes, and lesser country houses down to the Manors.

With the Kings taken, for their express Coronation Class locos the LMS had to resort to Princesses and Duchesses and a couple of Queens (but only the wives of kings), though to be fair the rest of the class was named after cities.  Their Jubilee class saluted among other things, the far-flung reaches of the British Empire (eg Bechuanaland).  Somehow, with the odd exception, Dukes seem to have missed out.  The LMS were also big on the military.  The Southern Railway’s Schools Class was limited to – naturally – what we in the UK euphemistically call Public Schools (ie. fee-paying and private).  Interstingly, the less patrician LNER mainly used birds of a certain stature (like Mallard, the world speed steam loco speed record holder), successful racehorses and football teams.

So it was left to the post-war British Railways Standard Classes, specifically the Britannia express locos, to fly the flag for a wider cultural heritage (writers like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens & Co) and, as we have seen, ‘God’s Englishman’, Oliver Cromwell.  Was it a coincidence that this principle was established under the same socialist Attlee government that set up the National Health Service?  The Standard Classes, intended by the newly nationalised British Railways to fill the motive power gap left over from the Second World War, were probably a mistake – they should have gone straight for diesel or electrics, like the rest of the developed world – but at least many of the Britannias reflected a pride more fitting to a democratic nation than kowtowing to the aristocracy.  Rant over.

Midford - Derek Cross

With the high-sided tender – Derek Cross at Midford.

BR Standard Steam Locomotives (Ian Allen, 1983), Brian Stephenson‘s anthology selected from the annals of Locomotives Illustrated magazine, is a decent enough collection of photos of all said classes of locomotives in a wide variety of working situations.  Over the years I have come to appreciate this group of locos – that as a trainspotter I always saw as a clumsy appendage to the individualities of the glory days of the old regional companies – as a worthy practical and handsome summation of British locomotive design and manufacture.  The book kept me (to quote myself: “I’ll admit I trainspotted / In the boys time allotted” though I’ve never owned an anorak) interested enough on that level – it never leaves you – and it was thankfully devoid of the more arcane grin or cringe inducing notes that can often accompany the photos in such publications.  Indeed, I am thankful for its demonstrating to me the aesthetic advantages of the larger capacity, higher-sided BR1D tenders, as opposed to the angular cut away BR1As.  You can see the difference in the two photos I have filched (scanned, treated a bit in PSP) and included here.

Nr Penmaemawr - Kenneth Field

Near Penmaenmawr – Kenneth Field

No, my problem with British railway photography in general is that it’s big on railways but not great at Photography with a capital P – the American O.Winston Link (just put him into Google images) is the benchmark here.  Some of this is down to the equipment that was available to enthusiasts in the most atmospheric of railway eras – colour only readily available only right at the end of steam – and some down to vision.  Not fair to bring this up, really, in this instance, because the standard 45° shots of engines – albeit taken from a variety of heights – that constitute the majority of photos here are what this volume is all about.  But the inclusion of Kenneth Field’s lovely composition (only a half plate in the book unfortunately, because its sharpness doesn’t bear enlarging) gives us a bigger picture of the railway in a social as well the conventional landscape, life’s rich tapestry.

John Hegley - Family packJohn Hegley had a platform ticket

Poet and comedian John Hegley was a trainspotter too:

is the happy shunter hunter
any more insane
than the lot who’ve not got jotters
who spot the spotty spotters
with disdain?
we’re looking forward to our crusty rolls
we’ve got platform tickets
and platform souls

Another charity bookshop purchase, His combined volume of early work, The family pack (Methuen, 1996), has been my bath-time reading of late.  [Bath-time reading rules: has to be an old desiccated paperback (new books steam makes the pages swell); never a library book].  Of course I’d been aware of him – tv and radio spots, the odd poem in the press and anthologies – and always thought I’d check him out further one of these days.  And he’s not the only person I’m aware of with a passion for Luton and its football team.  Reading him in bulk, on the page, imagining the distinctive voice, the quality is more variable than I expected, but when he’s good he’s great.  Have to say I liked The brother-in-law and other animals, his first, originally self-published collection of 1986, best – just the titles, never mind the actual poems: His heart’s in the wrong place, it should be in the glove department just defeating ditto in the dustbin; a different kind of muse.  Can I come down now Dad? (1991) wrings humour from an unhappy childhood among many other things, but I was flagging by These were your father’s (1994).  Never mind second album syndrome, the third book includes a plodding and inconsequential 32 page playlet called A tale of two tenting that for me makes Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (you remember – folk singer Candice-Marie) sound like Shakespeare.  It won’t stop me picking up and opening any of John’s later books if they happen to fall into my path, though.

Has anyone ever encapsulated upward social mobility better in two lines than Hegley in his Luton?:

I remember Luton
as I’m swallowing my crout’n

Of dulcimers, the Italian campaign and other musical adventures

Roddy at the Crown Stony Stratford’s magical musical square mile.

The Roddy Clenaghan Band ended their immaculately chosen and beautifully performed and sung set of songs – from Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle among others – with a driving version of Things have changed, the song Bob Dylan has been opening with at the Albert Hall on the current installment of his never-ending tour.  Andy Knight gave the accordion his grandfather bought in Italy, coming back from the war, an outing on one number, while Andy Fenton’s pedal steel was a delight.

Vaultage late Oct 15

Yes, it’s the wrong poster but Jimtom Say – he in the poster – is who I’m talking about, and Pat posters retrospectively.

Scribal Oct 2015Don’t think anyone had tried the active loop tape technique there before that Jimtom Say put it to good use at mid-month Vaultage.  Guitar still in hand he recited poetry over the resulting backing, while his songs, robustly individual, were equally absorbing.  Something different.  Meanwhile, earlier in the week Scribal Gathering had seen a plethora of poets outnumbering the music either side of the as ever entertaining Rrants takeover.

Beechey Room Sessions 4

Archivist note: unfortunately Paul Bell was unable to attend.

BeecheyRS Pat

Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

End of a busy week and so to the relaxed delights of another fine Beechey Room Session at York House on a Saturday afternoon.  Not that energy was not embraced in the performance.  Paul Martin (that’s him with his mandocello in the photo) also brought along a dulcimer, the first, I suspect that I’ve ever heard in the flesh – a captivating sound, made me think I’ll dig out that Richard & Mimi Farina album again.  Original canal songs from Phil Underwood and I can’t for the life of me remember what Michelle did (but it was all very fine).

Come the late ’90s and, as a family, we put away childish things, there were three common cultural denominators (notice I did not say lowest) that we – a couple of baby boomers and two teenage boys – shared:

  • There was competition for the latest Fortean Times that landed at the doormat each month, though we were coming at it from different directions.  I always maintained that the magazine’s credo was a basic scepticism – hey, it can rain frogs, and as that soliloquary man said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophyincluding the phenomenon of the rubbish that some people can believe and actively espouse – whereas the lads were True Believers in UFOs and conspiracy theories (probably just to piss us off).  They were Muldur to our Scully.
  • Actually, better make that four: The X-FilesSuspense, wit, and – more than anything else – charisma.
  • There was the genius of The Simpsons, pretty much from the start, never mind the late ’90s, whether the kids got half the nuances or not.
  • And then there was R.E.M.

I’d pretty much given up on the post-Golden Age NME by the time they’d become the critic’s cult band, so the first I heard of R.E.M. was on a mix-tape of new music made for me by one of the Young Turks at work (I’d done him one of ‘old’ music).  From starting as a Saturday assistant in a small London branch library, and, single-handedly reducing the age profile of the libraries football and cricket teams significantly, he rose through the ranks and, these days, I gather he’s something in the City of London Corporation, but never mind that.  (I see now how he actually looked a bit like the young Michael Stipe).  The countryish jangle that is Don’t go back to Rockville was the track, and it stood out as embracing all the classic virtues and none of the vices that Punk had critiqued.  It still sounds singalong great today.  At the time I took Rockville to have symbolic status – signifying the boring excesses of the pre-Punk mid ’70s music industry.  Turns out it’s a real place and the band were advising, nay, pleading with a friend not to give up and go back home, one of the few directly autobiographical songs in their oeuvre.  But I jump ahead of myself.

2006_02_arts_stipeOver the years, one way or another, in an unsystematic fashion, we acquired a lot of R.E.M. CDs, without knowing too much about them, the place of specific albums in their story etc.  It wasn’t, strangely enough, until the less than overwhelmingly well received Up (1998), that I’d borrowed from the library and was utterly entranced by, that I actually bought an album anywhere near its release date.  Its successor, the superb Reveal (2001), was the soundtrack of our this year’s week in the Lake District and it has only recently dawned on me just how high the band stand in my music pantheon, and yet how little I actually knew about them at all.  What I did know, from watching a performance on telly, was that shaven-headed singer Michael Stipe in his live pomp was interesting enough to compellingly get away with that ridiculous blue eye/wraparound head superhero make-up.

Part liesThe title of an early band biography – Talk about the passion – taken from one of their early songs, sums up their work well.  Aside from the obvious musical qualities, what sets them apart is a powerful combination of intensity and oblique detachment, an immediacy of engagement obscured by often surreal lyric flourishes, even when it’s possible to decipher them.  Tempted by the charity shop price I bought Part lies part heart part truth part garbage 1982-2011 – the 2-DC chronologically curated career retrospective – new for a fiver, hard to resist even though I already had many of the songs.  Never mind that deliberate smokescreen of an album title (no smoke without fire?) and the simple graphics on the cover, here is richness indeed.  No slouches, of course, to begin with – only Gardening at night, that could be many another bands’ finest hour – but the growth in their confidence, competence and power as that first CD unfolds is astonishing.

Jovanovic StipeREM Inside outIf one was looking for clarity Craig Rosen‘s R.E.M. inside out: the stories behind every song (Carlton, 2005) could be said to be disappointing, were it not for the band’s unique power to be located in the spaces of meaning in between, if precise meaning there be, or in sly undercurrents.  Pretentious, moi?  While Stipe can be quoted as saying, “People need to realise that there’s potential for a great deal of nonsense involved … That’s a crucial element in pop songs” the seriousness of the band’s project cannot be doubted.

Rosen’s competent cut-and-paste job, a decent piece of work overall, is good in showing how the band worked up its material, the musicians presenting Stipe with a template needing melodic input and, crucially, a lyric and vocal.  Stipe is the one who makes the difference, more than just as frontman.  Here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite entries concerning the glorious, um, exultation that is the song The one I love, one I’d wondered about (what is it that does go “out to” its subject?) but never really given much hard thought to:

Despite a lyric that appeared to be clear and simple, Stipe once again had a trump card up his sleeve, and naturally many once again missed the point. Following the dedication in the song, Stipe dismisses the one he loves as “a simple prop” to occupy his time. “It’s that old cynical voice roaring up again,” he said.

“It’s a brutal kind of song, and I don’t know if a lot of people pick up on that,” he told Steve Pond in Rolling Stone. “But I’ve always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point, I don’t know. That song just came up from somewhere and I recognised it as being real violent and awful. But it wasn’t directed at any one person. I would never, ever write a song like that. Even if there is one person in the world thinking this song is about me, I could never sing it or put it out.”

The misinterpretation of the song, which was performed regularly on the 1986 Pageantry tour, stunned Stipe, who recalled performing the song in concert. “Last night I sang it and this couple two rows back looked at each other lovingly and held hands,” he said to Bill Flanagan in Musician. “I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ “

What does it say about me that I had no idea Orange crush on Green was ‘about’ the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, where Stipe’s father served, or that Crush with eyeliner on Monster was about the New York Dolls.  Was I alone in this?  Does it matter given they intrigue so and sound so good, even in ignorance?  Elusiveness is one of the strengths, I’d say, of the R.E.M. package.

I knew serial popular music biographer Rob Janovic‘s work from his decent mostly cut-and-paste job on The Kinks (God save The Kinks, 2013) so I was expecting to be able to fill in a few gaps in my knowledge with his Michael Stipe: the biography (Portrait, 2006) and – proving how little I knew – I got a lot more than that.  He paints a portrait of a decent man who, for all his success, while playing a media game, has stayed true to his art and conscience, escaping the temptations if not the limitations of celebrity.  I had no idea just how big a deal R.E.M. were globally at the height of their popularity (early ’90s, Out of time and Automatic for the people), with the surprising achievement of both critical – because they never compromised their seriousness – and commercial acclaim.  Not forgetting the political and environmental campaigning.

One thing that immediately struck me was, as it happens, the parallels between Michael Stipe and The Kinks’ Ray Davies (a big interest here on Lillabullero, in case you haven’t noticed), in what sets them apart from their contemporaries:

  • Stipe’s continued allegiance to Athens, Georgia, where R.E.M. started , and to his family cf. Ray Davies and North London and Muswell Hill, and the Davies clan.  (Jovanovic’s description of that local Athens scene is superbly done)
  • that both, although they never finished their formal courses, have continued to pursue the interests that engaged them in Art College beyond the confines of a career in rock; Stipe mainly with photography, video and film, and Davies agin with film, and theatre.  (I’d hope for a memoir from Stipe in the future, that would be at least as unorthodox as Ray’s X-Ray.)
  • it’s the song not the singer; although some of Davies’s work has subsequently proved to have specific reference points, both – Stipe is adamant about this – have had occasion to emphasize that they write from inside a character of the song’s invention.  Neither write direct love songs.
  • I don’t write autobiographically, and I never have, but there’s something in there, as an observer, as a voyeur, taking in the world around me, breathing it in and really observing, which is what I do best.’ – who?  Stipe.
  • Stipe’s lyrics, like Davies’s, drop cultural references all over the place.  If time was infinite I’d contemplate doing what I’ve already done here at Lillabullero for Davies and the Kinks, logging and expanding on the people, real and imaginary, listed in their songs.

Michael Stipe is a fascinating man.  Though to all intents and purposes he’s a rock star – and R.E.M. undoubtedly a great rock band – he’ll try not own up to it as any big deal.  When he sings “Hey, kids, rock and roll” in the song Drive (on Automatic for the people) it’s no unambiguous affirmation (though, it is a nod to David Essex), and he invariably sees himself as a popular music entertainer:

‘It was always embarrassing to me that when I was in a room with either Clinton of Gore, or for that matter the Dalai Lama, they’ve got better things to do than hanging around with pop stars,’ said Stipe. ‘But I’ve got something they want, or something that can help them with their mission.’

Here he sums up why R.E.M. were so good:

‘If I can just turn off my thinking brain long enough to allow that unconscious voice to do all the work, then I wind up with the 55 minutes of music that comprise a new record. It’s OK for them to be nonsensical. You tell me what Bob Dylan is singing about. I don’t know. Some of the best songs in the world don’t make any linear sense whatsoever. Perhaps the best songs don’t. So it doesn’t have to have a narrative or follow a train of thought that makes any sense at all. It just has to be good and make you feel something when you hear it.’

And here’s a neat presentation of the problems that can bring:

‘It seems like I’m being chased by an ever-growing contingent of over-30 rock writers who want to delve into my psyche and try to pull out all these philosophical breaking points for this century,’ said Stipe at the time [the Reckoning album; he was 24]. ‘To my mind, if there’s anything to what I’m writing, if it goes beyond nonsense and piecemeal phrases, it’s exactly what they felt when they were my age and maybe never wrote it down or had any way to vent, to get it out. I just have this medium, a band, and I’m able to get it out.’

Why do novels and films about made-up musicians, or indeed creative artists of any medium, not stand a chance?  Because you could not make up a 15-year-old Stipe, living with his parents in Athens, Georgia, reading about all this interesting stuff happening in New York, and then he gets his hands on Patti Smith‘s Horses on the day of it release.  So he gets home from doing a pin-money late shift, and …

… sat in the living room, in the dark, with the headphones on. […] I had these crappy headphones on, and I sat up all night listening to Patti Smith and eating this bowl of cherries going, “Oh shit”, “Holy fuck”, and then I was sick. I was very impressionable, very gullible. I heard Horses and it gave me, you know, I had this secret and I was afraid to tell anyone about it. I didn’t think anybody would accept it. It gave me incredible strength and I knew immediately that that’s what I wanted to do.’

And 20 years later he’s tagging along photo-documenting backstage with his mate Patti Smith for the ten dates she’s only the support act for Bob Dylan; she’s there at Dylan’s personal invitation, her live performance comeback after her husband’s death.  Stipe publishes Two times intro: on the road with Patti Smith and next year she’s accompanying him on E-Bow the letter on the New adventures in hi-fi.

Plenty of miles to go from there, but I’ll sign off now with just a few random observations:

  • Stipe risked the wrath of the grammar nazis by omitting the apostrophe for the Lifes rich pageant album in 1986 because no great rock album ever had an apostrophe in its title.  [Now there’s a challenge.]
  • KrazyKat7Further proof of his cultural astuteness: while I’m no fan of tattoos, I am impressed that he’s had one done featuring George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoon, an American newspaper strip of genius that ran for nearly 30 years from 1916.  (Do yourself a favour: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krazy_Kat; there’s a huge archive at http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/browse/results?title=1)
  • For some years in the ’90s I was a member of a pretty good quiz team.  We went out with a different team name each season, one of the best being The Bleeding Gums Murphy Appreciation Society (and here we are back with The Simpsons again).  One of the encounters from those enjoyable evenings that has stuck in my mind, is of talking, after the match had finished, with a young man from the opposing team, who was saying he’d seen R.E.M. at a small club gig in Dunstable – must have been when they were recording Fables with Joe Boyd – and chatted with them afterwards.  There is local nuance to be relished in there – Dunstable is seen as basically just a traffic jam waiting to happen any time on the A5 –  but I do so wish that I could say that.
  • One of my favourite moments – the beautiful noise and the timing – in all of music is Peter Buck’s rapid guitar chord intervention What’s the frequency, Kenneth? on Monster, that first appears 42 seconds in, and at various stages subsequently throughout.  Great track and a rather wonderfully odd official video.
  • And, going backwards in time, here’s the young Michael Stipe with hair.  Toodle pip!
    Michael Stipe when youngStipe 1

SolitudeSolitude pbkWhat with borrowing from the public library and buying a used paperback I think I’ve failed with Gabriel García Márquez‘s celebrated One hundred years of solitude (1967, translated 1970) three times in two decades.  Supposedly his masterpiece, I just could not get with the flow, nor, despite all the plaudits, ultimately care enough about it for my copy to survive the charity shop cull when we last moved.

Love in the time of choleraSo you can imagine my delight when his Love in the time of cholera (1985; translated 1988) was September’s Book Group book.  And lo, I struggled.  Sure, it is written/translated with great charm and wit.  But the initial set-up – suicide of an old chess player and child portrait photographer, and the comic death of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, his esteemed friend and chess opponent – seems to lead nowhere. 

Then there‘s the formalised romance of Florentino Ariza, a young man and Fermina Daza, a 15-year-old girl conducted by dead letter drops.  Spurned at the last minute (nicely done actually) his love for her doesn’t stop a subsequently successful sometimes unsavoury career as a “tireless falconer“, but that unrequited love remains secretly undiminished.  They don’t see one another again for ages.  Meanwhile she marries the distinguished, rich, sophisticated doctor and stuff happens – his previous medical triumph, trips to Europe, children, a temporary estrangement, lots more, not forgetting Florentino’s rise to head up a river shipping company – and then the Doc dies.  Florentino goes to the funeral and it all starts slowly up again.  No spoilers as to the outcome of this second wooing in old age.

It’s all so bloody annoying.  Oi, Márquez, I muttered frequently, Just get on with it.  Lengthy paragraphs of cloying description, a timeline drifting around artificially structured situations, a lack of focus, flowery language and indulgent strained strangeness, revelations un-necessarily held back (with nothing really added), repetition, digressions leading nowhere, a series of shaggy dog stories …

I only persevered because I knew that a couple of women in the Book Group who I’d been sympatico with about previous books thought highly of it and I wanted evidence; not that it didn’t have an enormous reputation anyway.  So, what do you know? –  as the book moved towards its twilight climax, I got involved, was even, in the end, enthralled.  And many of the aspects of the book that had annoyed me so began to take shape in my mind as both a tasty picture of a Latin American community on the continental edge of the Caribbean at the turn of the last century, and, importantly, a mapping, a wise and wondrous journey through all the varieties – romantic, spiritual, physical, distorted, damaging – of relations between men and women and … (Lord above!) … love.  That the paragraphs got shorter and that there was a lot more dialogue on the closing luxury river cruise (complete with ecological observations) might have helped too.  Great way to finish a book is all I’m gonna give away … so this is magic realism!

So yes, from being driven round the bend I have been moved to thinking, in the light of the whole reading experience, that I’ll give it a re-read, soak myself in its sights, sounds, aromas and nuances again one of these days, if the to-be-read piles (never mind the lists) ever diminish.

I’ll throw in a few appetizers, some delicious touches, gleaned even then from the pages of annoyance, to tempt the wary.  Our three main characters are not fooled by the surface of things:

  • Dr. Urbino’s career in medicine: “From youthful enthusiasm he had moved to a position that he himself defined as fatalistic humanism.”
  • the progress of the chess player’s photographic career: “from the time he took his first picture of a child startled by the magnesium flash

  • Dr. Urbino is instrumental in a theatre being built: “opera fever infected the most surprising elements in the city […] But it never reached the extremes Dr. Urbino had hoped for, which was to see Italianizers and Wagnerians confronting each other with sticks and canes during the intermissions.

  • Florentino: “No one described him better than he did when someone accused him of being rich.
            “No, not rich,” he said. “I am a poor man with money, which is not the same thing.

  • Although they maintained a formal correspondence concerning their children and other household matters, almost two years went by before either one could find a way back that was not mined with pride.”  Mined with pride – the spellchecker has just asked me to explain myself!

  • little flourishes like “her astonished breasts” or his hand perspiring ice”.  Then there’s “the sour smell of old age” …  “It was the smell of human fermentation.”  Less viscerally, Marquez is good on the process of growing old.

  • Oh, and Joseph Conrad gets a second degree walk-on part.

Musical adventures


Sorry I nicked yer picture; would love to give it a credit.

Another charity gig at Stony’s York House delivered the musical goods.  Pat Allati presented a Musical Fusion, involving her blue-haired self giving her very own folk vocal stylings an outing, and introduced a whiz at the keyboards playing the compositions of Judith Perera and improvising on some jazz pieces from masters of the genre – take a bow the dextrous Geoff Eales, who in passing explained Thelonius Monk’s unorthodox approach to the piano as his being “the thinking person’s Les Dawson”.  Good as he was, it was Perera Junior, bashful contemporary classical guitarist Don Perera who stole the show with a dazzling performance drawing on a varied international repertoire (and taking in Classical gas).  I was mesmerised by the busy fingers of his right hand, never mind what was going on on the fretboard, but the beauty of the music meant much more than technical expertise was to be heard here.  You could speak a little slower, though, Don.  The evening was accompanied by a pint of the Towcester Mill Brewery’s very interesting Black Fire dark ale.

Sarah Malleson: reflections © DQ

Dan Plews’s last AORTAS Sunday open mic of the month at the Old George was a bumper bundle of an evening with a lot of the usual suspects.  So we had four singer songwriters, 3 poets (hi Vanessa and Sam), and two duos taking the stage, but only one Sarah Malleson, who brought her uilleann pipes – aka Irish bagpipes – with her.  And then played them.  What a lovely tuneful noise, and great fun when Dan joined her on guitar.  Another more than decent night.



I only ask because I think it’s a good question, one of the best.  In the Great British Grammar School of life both Tony Broadbent and I are Class of ’66, while Jeremy Corbyn will have left his alma mater a year later.  So we are very much of a generation, and Jeremy: my, how knackered you must be feeling after the last couple of months.  I wish you all the luck you deserve in the years to come, which is, I hasten to add, removing all hint of ambiguity, quite a lot, but you’ll probably need some that you don’t as well (I remember the ’80s and your Trot mates).

1-909OK, blogger‘s etiquette.  Tony Broadbent is an old mate – we were in one another’s first beat combo at school – and he sent me an e-copy of The one after 9:09: a mystery with a backbeat (Plain Sight Press, 2015) gratis.  I get an acknowledgment in the acknowledgments and the Persuaders, the band Spike, the lead character in the book plays in, was the name of our group.  The impact the Beatles had on us was huge; this book is a labour of love.  Cliché time: I remember hearing Love me do under the bed sheets on Radio Luxemburg (208 metres medium wave) and feeling a tingle,  thinking – I was a big Everly Brothers fan at the time – hey, these guys are English and this is the real thing.  Tony, as he admits in his afterword to The one after Goldie and the Gingerbreads gig9:09, reverted for a while to using Paul, the first name on his birth certificate, and started speaking with a scouse accent.  Musical differences subsequently arose and Tony graduated to a band that reached the heights of supporting Goldie & the Gingerbreads – Can’t you hear my heartbeat? – at the local Ricky Tick Club.

The mystery in the sub-title concerns the story related in Beatles-manager-to-be Brian Epstein’s autobiography A cellarful of noise about how he was first alerted to the Beatles existence by one Raymond Jones coming into the record department of his family’s furniture store and asking for My bonnie, the record they made in Germany with singer Tony Sheridan.  Tony Broadbent has been working on this novel for a decade and when he started it, it was widely thought that this Jones feller was a fiction.  The surmise of The one after 9:09 is that Raymond Jones got his historically significant namecheck in A cellarful of noise because of services rendered in other circumstances in the Beatles and Brian’s rise to world domination, and the novel, among many other happenings along the way, gives one fictional explanation of what might have occurred.  Subsequently a perfectly real (and more mundane – no offence intended), a reasonable actual Raymond Jones has been found (see The Beatles Bible) but that should in no way take away from the invention of Tony Broadbent‘s weaving of what is real and what is not in the early Beatles/Epstein tale.

So, 1961, Beatles established as Liverpool’s top group, excess in Hamburg, Pete Best on drums, groups a-plenty, Teddy Boy gangs, promoters’ fierce rivalries, Brian Epstein’s paranoid homosexual misadventures, his ‘bigger than Elvis’ vision, the fight to manage ‘the boys’, the struggle to get a recording contract, enter George Martin, enter Ringo.  All pretty much as reported in the sources Tony Broadbent extensively acknowledges.  It’s weird: early on Tony pitches a fixer called Terry McCann straight into action, which I thought was an unfortunate coincidence – Minder and all that.  So I check him out and first mention in the search engine is him attending Cilla Black’s funeral; and he’s not the only one prominent in the story was there.  (Fortunately, keeping the corn at bay, Cilla does not appear in the book.)

51pqM27dAhLIf you want a lively dramatised potted history up to the recording of Please, please me, and how it all felt, then The one after 9:09 is not a bad place to start.  Into all this enter invented teenager Raymond ‘Spike’ Jones – ‘Spike’ from Milligan in The Goons – art school drop-out (same place as Lennon), sometime muscle, admin assistant (bill sticker et al), private eye’s camouflage stand-in at The Cavern (looking out for Epstein), bass guitarist, friend of the Beatles, general man on the scene, and romantic seeker and finder of true love with his judy (not her name).  The several narratives are delivered patchwork as events enticingly unfold, split-screen fashion.  The coffee bars, the pubs, the clubs, the backstreets of Liverpool the backdrop to the action with scousisms and period vernacular aplenty, and lines and phrases from Beatles lyrics worked, with a nod and a wink, into the prose – the actual One after 9:09 quote is a beaut.  Some of the Beatles’ wit could have come out of Hard day’s night, and though some of the fuller passages of dialogue – spelling out dilemmas and options – are a bit strained, I think Lennon’s character, his edginess, is particularly well done.  Raymond Chandler’s advice to writers hitting a plot wall – have a man enter the room with a gun in his hand – might be at play with the appearance of a gang of tooled up red bandana’d Teds more than once.

I’m not going to say it’s a great book – I think Tony’s Creeping narratives, crime thrillers set in post-war and ’50s London, featuring cat burglar Jethro, The Smoke and its successors, are more satisfying conventional genre novels – but it’s an intriguing and entertaining one, the mix of fact and fiction a fascinating exercise.  There were times when reading I forgot it was written by an old mate.  It had me eagerly reading on – even when I knew the score as far as the Beatles story went, tension even in those first meetings with George Martin.  That One after 9:09 is a labour of love, gratitude and affection is evident throughout.

A specific afterthought, one that keeps cropping up generally in all sorts of contexts lately: what if homosexuality had not been illegal when Brian Epstein was a young man?  How might popular music history then have been changed?


As should be obvious from the above I am interested in music.  I am also a big fan of charts and infographics.  So if a picture paints a thousand words and infographics is meant to be a way of displaying information clearly then how come I got so little from Infographic guide to music, as compiled by Graham Betts (Hachette, 2014)?  There are many reasons, not all of which apply to every page:

  • as someone who worked on a student magazine under the influence of Oz magazine I know only too well the problem of reading text (coloured or not) printed on colour; though occasionally decent examples of geometric art emerge, clarification of the issues they are not.
  • even where it’s just about readable and you can make sense of what’s there on the page, a simple list would have been more efficient and much less of an effort to read eg.  It’s your funeral (popular songs chosen for funerals – depressingly Frank Sinatra’s My way)
  • I could care less eg. Radiohead songs by genre; The 360 degrees of Jay-Z (hey, an incomprehensible pie-chart!)

I was going to say at least I got a certain sizeist satisfaction from The height of pop success when it said that the average height of The Beatles was only 5’8″, but on checking who was the short arse I discover that that’s not right.  With Lennon and McCartney at 5’11” and George at 5’10” not even Ringo coming in at 5’6″ can bring them down to that.  Another couple of small saving graces: an analysis of opera endings, Is it over when the fat lady sings? – no, it isn’t; the wit of selecting (of which there was not enough) as a topic What’s on ZZ Top’s mind? (women and/or sex 46%), even if it was actually a list with a pop art illustration.  A random pick-up at the library; at least it adds to their issue statistics.

11949477_10153176884968525_4198881650354426198_nOut and about

Back after its summer break Scribal Gathering picked up where it had left off and hit the eclectic ground running in a half redecorated upstairs at The Crown.  Featured musical ensemble The Outside This (outside the Box?) with the unusual line-up of guitar, drums and three female vocalists (one with added violin for lilt and lyricism) entertained with an energetic and varied set of catchy original material.   They deliver what must be more demanding arrangements than they end up sounding.  Intriguing, and getting better all the time.  Elsewhere a distinct touch of the Brecht/Weil’s from Mitchell Taylor with his jaunty (and now vindicated at least for now) hymn to Jezza, Leaders, and Sian Magill’s ditty, complete with controlled angry rapid recitation, about a friend being made redundant.  Prize for what is Scribal’s loudest spontaneous singalong must surely go to experienced but Scribal first timer, musician to the Brackley Morris, Stephen Ferneyhough, accompanying himself on Anglo-German concertina, with a delightful rendition of the KinksDedicated follower of fashion.  Oh, yes he is: a perfect match.  Some may even call it folk music.

Shakespeare at WestburyGreat little show of snippets from Shakespeare, part of the open weekend at Westbury Arts Centre, a fine old 17th century farm building with extensions in the attractive setting of Shenley Wood, in Milton Keynes.  Should have taken my camera, just for the splendid old wooden doors, never mind the sculptures in the grounds (including a couple of rusted and artistically arranged Austin mini-Metros).  We were treated to extracts from five (or was it six) of the Bard’s comedies (they all tend to jumble up in the memory) on the theme of revenge, delivered in unorthodox style by (it says here) “local Westbury ACprofessional and amateur actors” though you couldn’t really see the join.  Should it be surprising that the Bard’s sharp comic dialogue came over, in one instance, so well as an exchange of text messages?  Beautifully done.  Most inventive of all was that Shylock speech from The Merchant of Venice – “If you prick us do we not bleed?” –  delivered as a slow and meditative monologue by a woman artist who spent plenty of time setting herself up and making herself comfortable in order to sketch us, the audience, before thinking out loud in between further bouts of sketching; tremendously effective.  The joshing of Falstaff in The merry wives of Windsor was another piece that has stayed with me.  Thanks too, to the artists who opened their studios to us.

Walter-Tull-Flattened-239x300Oh, and I put in a stint at the latest Cock & Bull Beer Festival at York House, Friday Night.  Reminded me a bit of being on the enquiry desk at the Central Library – great fun once you’d worked out which way the beer was going to come out at (some down, some sideways).  Didn’t drink much either side of the bar, but I will mention the delicious aroma of elderflower that greets the drinker from Buntingford‘s Sun Star (and very nicely floral it tasted too), and the vibrant ruby delight of the Magpie brewery’s Angry bird (oh yes).  Great Oakley scored well as usual in my book, with their Welland Valley (practically a mild, hurrah!) and Walter Tull, their tribute to a great man and no longer forgotten local hero, the first black outfield professional footballer (Northampton Town and Spurs), the first black British army officer, who died leading his men out of the trenches in the Great War.


20150815-KFK-unplugged-posterClissoldNo, it’s all good …

Standout performance for me at Kinks Night at The Clissold Arms “unplugged” session was a storming Twentieth century man.  When Geoff nailed the bit where the organ sweeps in two young men next to me – mid-20s? I’m not good at this – punched the air and cheered.  (Take a bow, Geoff Lewis).  I’d been talking to them earlier – favourite album Muswell Hillbillies (so men of taste) – and they got no kicks from modern groups at all.  With audience participation expected, these young lads knew all the words, on some songs better than the performers.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon, the way the musical generation boundary lines have faded.  At the annual Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention in November – a shindig graced on stage by a full cast of the Kast Off Kinks, with sometimes brief appearances from Ray Davies (though never Dave) – attendees’ ages range from teens to late seventies at least.

The Clissold Arms in Muswell Hill is where the Davies brothers had their first public performance, in late 1960, over the road from where they lived.  It now houses a room dedicated to The Kinks and their works.  The Kinksfan Kollektiv‘s Clissold sessions had their origins in an evening before the Konvention singalong and grew in scope from that to almost a military operation.  This summer special, outside the usual season, came about because of the vacation arrangements of Jim Smart, over from Hawaii, one of the original movers and performers of the fan sessions.  Was a good evening, heartening to talk to someone you’ve only previously known over the internet (hi Jim).  But … London prices: £4.40 a pint!

Cloud atlasCloud Atlas

Book Group book for August was David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas (2004).  I’d read it when it first came out and been impressed enough to give it a re-read.  I wasn’t the only one in the group, this time around, to subvert the subversion of the novel’s original unorthodox format.  It consists of six novellas, all relating to one another by various gestures, arranged like an onion with its layers, as if you were boring through to the earth’s core and then out again on the other side.

The initial nineteenth century diary of an eventful Pacific voyage cuts off suddenly and we’re into an epistolary account of an entertaining scoundrel of an English composer on the run in Belgium in the 1930s, wherein a purloined first (and only) edition copy of that diary figures in one of his personal fundraising schemes.  We move from there to a stylish fictional thriller novel set in post-Three Mile Island America, which breaks off at a genuine cliffhanger, into a very funny comic novel concerning an English publisher, whose experience publishing true crime has him on the run too, set in the present.  Then we move into the future, for a future archive interview concerning the development of artificial intelligence in cyborgs until we hit the core of the book, another kind of science fiction, a (not too difficult) dialect record of life when hi-tech civilisation has collapsed, into which an anthropologist from a surviving remnant of civilisation is allowed to stay for study purposes.  And then we are out the other side, in reverse order, with more links between them floated as the narratives develop, and the eighteenth century diary entries constitute the final part of Cloud Atlas.

But, as I say, this time I ignored the splits in the individual narratives and read each one straight through.  And the links between them became more obvious.  All are fascinating in their own right; he takes you into the working mind of a composer of music, for instance.  And it’s a lot funnier than I remembered and – definite shades of Thomas Pynchon – still just as seriously prescient a decade later.  Beautifully written too, an impressive fluidity of style.  It’s a meditation on human nature, really.  What drives us, makes us great, is what is also likely to be our undoing: “human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too“.  Simple yes, but ultimately there is hope.  Near the end, our voyager comes out of his shattering experience, vowing, “A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson will inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living.”  So over to us.  I thought the notion of a ‘cloud atlas’ was very Yoko Ono, and it turns out Mitchell got it from an actual piece of music composed by her first husband.

Vaultage late Aug 2015Music closer to home

No August open mic hiatus for Vaultage nights in the Vaults, which Pat and Lois have established as a more than dependable full music night out these past few months.  Featured act at the last Vaultage were VHS Pirates,  who describe themselves on FaceBook as, “a new uplifting exciting band from Northampton who play a mix of frenetic Folk Ska with a sensitive sprinkle of 80’s pop.”  Not to mention the unlikely sight of a banjoist supplying the rhythm on the up beat, the owner of one of two fine voices, a subtle keyboardist (the sprinkle) and original material of wit and no little invention.

Meanwhile, over at Aortas in the Old George a sparsity of performers on Sunday gave the bonus of what turned into featured sets from Dan Plews, Naomi Rose, an angry Mark Owen (his driven Getting away with it, a take on the Rebekah Brooks saga, given fresh venom with the news earlier in the day she was getting her job back), and comic verse from the poet Hobbs.  Would have happily paid to see that.  Earlier in the month stand-in host Pete Morton had led what turned out to be a decent night with his own songs and some well-chosen covers, in an evening also notable for an older couple leaving the pub muttering ‘Shouldn’t be allowed’ at Naomi’s most miserable song, Permanent blue.


Keelertornero: Heads of assembly at MKG

MK Calling 2015

This summer‘s exhibition at MK Gallery featured selections from an Open Call for work from local artists, amateur, student and professional.  I went along with someone whose default position on a lot of contemporary art is disparagement, but she stayed the course well enough.  It’s a varied and interesting exhibition.  My favourite piece was Head-of-Assembly-KEELERTORNERO-2014-Vinyl-records1Chin Keeler and Emma Tornero’s Heads of assembly (2014), hanging from the ceiling of the Cube Gallery.  You have to be there: these are heads made from moulding vinyl records over mannequins’ heads, with the labels still in place.  The programme notes suggest the artists deal, among other things, with ‘unkempt fantasy‘.  Here’s an individual head, image filched from the internet (probably their website); click and click again for an enlargement.

Crossword clues I have loved

Can’t do cryptic crosswords but can appreciate a bad pun when you hear or see it?  Then you’re in with a shout.  Some favourites of old from the Guardian – an occasional series here at Lillabullero – with the compilers credited.  Zen punnery & thinking out(or well in)side the box.  (Crosswords are printable for free from the Guardian website.)

  • From Rufus: Space for army manoeuvres (5,4)
  • From Paul: One’s days are numbered (8)
  • From Pasquale: Call at table, suggesting preference for sirloin or T-bone? (2,5)
  • Paul again: Most adventurous combination of underclothes (7)
  • A favourite of mine, from Paul: Bad quality expensive jewellery? That’s clumsy (8)
  • More from Rufus: No beer left? That’s the limit! (6,3)
  • Arachne spinning: She’s over-groomed (8)
  • From Picaroon: Celebs ill-equipped for dinner parties (8)
  • From Chifonie: Space traveller posed on vessel (6)
  • One more time from Rufus: A loaded statement (8)

Solutions under this picture of some frogs ©moi:


  • Rufus: Space for army manoeuvres (5,4) Elbow room [arm-y]
  • Paul: One’s days are numbered (8) Calendar
  • Pasquale: Call at table, suggesting preference for sirloin or T-bone? (2,5) No trump [not rump][a bid in the game of bridge][a US election slogan?]
  • Paul: Most adventurous combination of underclothes (7) Bravest [Bra vest]
  • Paul: Bad quality expensive jewellery? That’s clumsy (8) Bumbling [Bum bling]
  • Rufus: No beer left? That’s the limit! (6,3) Bitter end
  • Arachne: She’s over-groomed (8) Bigamist [women can’t do it too?]
  • Picaroon: Celebs ill-equipped for dinner parties (8) Notables [No tables]
  • Chifonie: Space traveller posed on vessel (6) Saturn [Sat on urn]
  • Rufus: A loaded statement (8) Bulletin [Bullet in]



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