Everybody behaves badly: the true story behind Hemingway’s masterpiece The sun also rises (US: Mariner Books, 2017) eloquently delivers what its sub-title promises and more. Lesley M.M.Blume takes her title from something the Jake Barnes – the Hemingway alter ego – says in the novel, that Everyone behaves badly – given the chance.” And with a couple of honorary exceptions they really do, not least the man himself. For here we are deep in Lawrencian territory: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” as D.H.Lawrence wrote in, as it happens, his Studies in Classic American Literature, published in 1923. And for all the bad behaviour and bad faith exposed, Lesley Blume never suggests that it is anything other than a true classic in the making she’s talking about here. This book about the book is an engrossing tale, tellingly told.

Not that everyone was thrilled by The sun also rises when it came out in 1926, least of all those very thinly disguised in its pages. Maxwell Perkins, an editor at Scribners, had to fight to get the hot new novel he’d acquired past his boss at the conservative publishing firm’s board meeting:

Perkins marched into the meeting, determined to defend his acquisition as important literature, not mere profanity.
“It’s a vulgar book,” Charles Scribner Sr declared. “There are four-letter words in it that I never would permit on the page of any book that enters a gentleman’s home.” (p164)

After what was effectively a case study in early modern publishing marketing hype, which Blume makes interesting in itself, most of the reviews were extremely favourable. There were exceptions, though:

The New Masses ran a review that must have felt like a kick in the crotch to Hemingway. John Dos Passos reduced his friend’s book to “a cock-and-bull story about a whole lot of tourists getting drunk.” […] Dos Passos did concede, however, that the cock-and-bull story was well written. (p201)

Which is, on one level, a fair summary of the action, an account of a road trip – hey, a road novel – that hadn’t lived up to expectations. Not so much the cock-and-bull though, given that some involved thought Hemingway had practically written a non-fiction account – with the names changed – of an actual journey out of boho Paris down to Spain for the start of the bullfighting season. Like Donald Stewart, who …

… wasn’t particularly impressed by the book’s artistic merits. Back in California, he got a copy and found himself uneasily transported back to the Pamplona misadventure.
“It was so absolutely accurate that it seemed little more than a skilfully done travelogue,” he later recalled. “What a reporter, I said to myself.” (p208)

Thing was, Hemingway hadn’t told his friends what was coming, and with the success of the book a couple of the originals for the closely drawn lead characters had cause to date their lives as either pre- or post- the book’s publication.

Ernest Hemingway has been one of my favourite writers since I read A farewell to arms for a course many years ago. Ultimately it was the sadness that got to me then – never mind the rhythm of the pared-down prose – after that perilous journey across the lake. I’ve stuck with him in the face of all the macho celeb bullshit that comes with the image; I’d say it doesn’t pollute the writing as much as some wilfully find – it’s not that simple. True, vegetarian me has shied away from Death in the afternoon, but it’s still in the pile, and I still expect to take something from it. The first time I read The sun also rises it was called Fiesta. More booze, liaisons and bullfighting than sex and drugs and rock and roll but with the immediacy with which it’s written it felt like I was there. For what it’s worth, I also think To have and to hold is underrated as an innovatory literary thriller. These covers take me back (mind, I’m not that old – the older ones were bought second hand):

Hard to think now of Ernest Hemingway as avant-garde, but that he was. When he and his wife Hadley moved to Paris – centre of the creative universe at that point in time – they shared a fully fledged bohemian experience, living cheaply in dodgy accommodation and patronising all the right cafes and bars. Armed with letters of introduction from an established novelist friend, who he later cruelly satirised in a short novel even Hadley thought was “detestable”, Hemingway got to be mentored by Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, the intellectual heavies of the Parisian émigré literary scene. But his eyes were on a bigger prize. Touting In our time, his first mainstream collection of short stories, he predicted (wrongly as it turned out at first) …

It was going to sell well […]. Unlike the work of his other experimental contemporaries, his writing would have wide appeal. “My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows,” he assured [his first US publisher].

There was a growing buzz, though. What was necessary was a big novel. Scott Fitzgerald, a big supporter, was already successful, but it was his subject matter – the post-war Jazz Age – that distinguished Scott from the Henry James legacy, rather than a new way of writing. The sun also rises was that novel:

“People watched Hemingway and watched what Hemingway was doing and cared deeply about it, as I did, and weren’t too much impressed by Scott,” recalled Archibald MacLeish […]. “Scott doesn’t exist when you’re talking at the level of Picasso and Stravinsky.” But Hemingway was about to reach that stratum, and his peers sensed it.

In her introduction to Everybody behaves badly, Lesley Blume makes the suggestion – fodder for a hell of a modern EngLit exam question – that, “Some other novels that have earned voice-of-a-generation status – Jack Kerouac’s On the road, for example – feel dated in comparison.” Discuss! And I’m not going to argue – though I will cringe a bit at the words ‘sexy’ and naughty’ – when she sums its perennial attraction:

The sun also rises still banks on the same dual function that made it a craze the moment it was released: it remains at once a vanguard work of modernist art and also a depiction of a sexy, glamorous world rife with naughty behaviour – and little of the flawed human nature depicted in the book’s pages has changed.

The Lost Generation

The book’s original working title was The lost generation, and Hemingway retained Gertrude Stein’s “You are all a lost generation” quote as an epigram. So he only really had himself to blame when it was welcomed as if its purpose had been to, in Blume’s words, “depict definitively his damaged generation”. Never mind that its eventual title on publication in the US came from the Old Testament, from Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever, the sun also riseth …”. (In the UK Jonathan Cape chickened out and went with Fiesta, losing the resonance). Blume again: “… it fit neatly with Hemingway’s belief that each generation was just as lost as any other:

“Nobody knows about the generation that follows them and certainly has no right to judge,” Hemingway insisted. “I didn’t mean the book to be a hollow or bitter satire but a damn tragedy with the earth abiding for ever as the hero.”

Like Bob Dylan, he was still protesting, spurning his voice-of-a-generation acclamation decades on. Regardless of the disclaimer (how gorgeous is the phrase ‘moving towards capitalised status, by the way?):

… the idea of being part of a “lost generation” took hold hard and fast. The epithet was quickly moving towards capitalized status. In subsequent generations, similar umbrella identities would be ascribed to each era’s under-thirty crowd: the Beat Generation, Generation X, the Millennials, and so on. But the Lost Generation was the forerunner of modern youthful angst banners, and The sun also rises was its bible. That said, no one in that demographic seemed particularly glum about being “lost”. Membership in this new club had an undeniable glamour. (p209)

[Compared with Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age] … Lost Generation decadence had nothing to do with dinner dances and eating clubs. Rather, it was all about purposeful dissipation. With Jake and Brett as their lodestars, self-fashioned Lost Generationers were spiritually obliged to defy convention, embrace hangovers as holy, and indulge in sexual adventures. The more ill-fated the better. (p210)

Hadley Hemingway nee Richardson

There was someone who played a huge part in the launching of Ernest Hemingway on the wider world, but who doesn’t appear in The sun also rises: his wife, Hadley Richardson. That’s her in the middle of the photo on the cover of Everybody behaves badly. It was her modest trust fund that had seen them through the years of striving, and quite simply, Hemingway dumped her when success came – a theme not unusual in music, sport and the arts in general. He expressed regret in his later memoir of the time in Paris, A moveable feast, and it all seems sad, disappointing. Ernest, you rat.

As she observed her circumstances that summer, it must have dawned on Hadley that Hemingway had already made the choice between her and Pauline, and that decision carried a weighty symbolism. There on the Riviera, surrounded by their new friends’ beautiful villas, with her husband’s fashionable mistress perpetually on hand, it must have become painfully clear that Hemingway had moved on. They were already in the physical world of his future – a glaringly bright, illustrious realm far away from the naive, hungry aspirations of their carpenter’s loft in Paris. Hemingway and Hadley were no longer allies defying the idle, ignorant rich while taking refuge in the joys of a warm bed, simple food, and uncomplicated love. (p183)

In the process of trying to find details of a novel I’d read and liked about Hemingway’s wives (all four of ’em) I came across an article that made me see the end of the marriage in a different light. (That novel was by Naomi Wood, and called Mrs Hemingway; I wrote about it here – an impressive piece of work). Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman had always disliked her first name, even more so after she’d been advised to read A moveable feast. We will gloss over some, ahem, controversial opinions aired here; I laughed regardless of the potential insult, because of the way she says it:

This point brings me to another problem I have with my name: I hate Hemingway. His gratingly self-conscious style – all brutalised declarative sentences – has, to my ears, the rhythm of a pub bore sounding off. More repugnant than his style is his mentality. He is the literary version of the worst of Bob Dylan, purveying that tired cliché of a man as solitary figure, necessarily selfish and the sole protagonist of his story, for whom women are either spoilt sluts or sweet saints, there to look pretty, subjugate themselves and then, eventually, be left behind so he can find another girl in another town wearing a lace dress. It’s such a boring, sophomoric view, one almost excusable in a twentysomething man, less so in a fiftysomething, and it explains why, in my experience, so many men love Hemingway (and Dylan, come to that). And why I don’t.

The thing is, she becomes reconciled to her name after reading another novel telling Hadley’s story. That novel is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I shall doubtless be reading soon. I not going to say precisely what changed Ms Freeman’s mind, except to reassure you the ex-Mrs Hemingway had a good life after the events described in Everybody behaves badly. If you’ve read this far you’ll probably fancy reading the article in full: Hadley Freeman: Me and Mrs Hemingway | Books | The Guardian

While we’re here I’m going to leave a link, too, to a fine performance from another favourite, the excellent Mary Chapin Carpenter, of her fine song Mrs Hemingway, about the Paris years. Enjoy (sorry about the ads):
Mary Chapin Carpenter : Mrs Hemingway – YouTube

I’ll leave you with this photo, just for comic effect – the newly married Hemingways, Switzerland 1922:

Hazard management

“Lock Out, Tag Out (LOTO) is a safety procedure used in industry and research settings to ensure that dangerous machines are properly shut off and not able to be started up again prior to the completion of maintenance or repair work.” [Wikipedia]

Somewhat at a loss as to how to approach writing about Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire‘s Left out: the inside story of Labour under Corbyn (Bodley Head, 2020), I checked if there were any other LOTO acronyms around, given there aren’t too many pages in the book that don’t sport that formulation – it stands for the Leader of the Opposition’s Office (not a perfect acronym, I know, but there you go). Despite what the sub-title says, Left out is mainly about how LOTO, embodying ‘the Project’ – to give the party back to its members, and in so doing seek to transform the British Labour Party into an instrument of socialist change – how they managed to go from the surprise high point of the 2017 election (and the consequent hung parliament) to “the most disastrous Labour campaign of any election since 1935“. I leave it to you, dear reader, to further elaborate on the metaphor.

Left out makes painful reading for democratic socialists (guilty, m’lud). They blew it, for the Project, for us all. The 2019 election campaign was a shambles; LOTO, like the country, was riven with personal and policy differences, never mind Brexit, and the great leader simply failed to provide a lead (especially on Brexit). The authors talked to an awful lot of people inside and outside the Project, and despite what some reviewers have implied, they have no axe to grind. What we get is a stylish and engrossing account of the events and personalities involved as things unfolded, delivered with some élan.

They sum up the flaws in LOTO’s approach in the two years between elections thus:

At points in the narrative, Corbyn is a felt absence.
The Project’s weaknesses and its internal divisions … all flowed directly from Corbyn’s own. Power was not something he pursued. At times it felt like he was a man living in anticipation of another lucky accident.

The Shadow Chancellor, without whom the Project would have never existed, was the opposite. For four years he worked himself ragged in the pursuit of power. He set aside his sectarianism and moderated and mellowed, or at least had the good sense to pretend to. (p359)

News to me, was that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had a big falling out over Corbyn’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge problems in his public stance on the antisemitism controversy and international affairs in the summer of 2018:

‘It was clear they were estranged,’ said one senior LOTO aide … ‘It was absolutely true that they weren’t talking,’ said another LOTO staffer. ‘They were walking past each other in the corridor and blanking each other, it was that level of not talking.’ (p124)

In the wake of all this their wives were “entrusted with making peace between the warring families. They went to the theatre together to clear the air.” Shame that we are not told what they went to see. ” It did not lead to the full reconciliation that some had hoped for. ‘Laura never, ever changed her mind about John after that, never,’ said one senior Corbyn aide.” Laura Alvarez, Corbyn’s Mexican (and third) wife, a regular reader of the partisan Canary website, is seen by many to have been a big influence on her husband, particularly in the 2019 election; “Aides noted with some concern that she regularly read the hyper-partisan Canary website“). I acknowledge there are reasons why I should not take a certain glee from what follows, but nevertheless:

Others feared that Laura Alvarez was encouraging her husband’s worst instincts in order to protect him from the pressures of campaigning. Such was the disintegration of trust within LOTO that aides nicknamed her ‘Yoko’. (p319)

Compare & discuss

A neat little cameo of the times and a Groundhog Day of a dilemma. Not that I’m saying what Boris Johnson did was a good thing, but as the leader of his party he did do something. Andrew Murray was one of JC’s policy advisers:

The day before the vote, Andrew Murray had undergone surgery after a heart attack. He was lying in his hospital bed self-administering morphine when his daughters came bearing news from Westminster. ‘The Tories have taken the whip away from Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke, and from Winston Churchill’s grandson,’ they told him. It was so implausible that Murray believed he was hallucinating. (p234)

Reshuffles of Corbyn’s lacklustre Shadow Cabinet were perennially discussed in LOTO but never carried out, thanks in no small part to his hatred of confrontation inherent in giving shadow ministers the chop. The verdict out of Monday morning’s management team was always the same. ‘Let’s do it next week. Let’s finalise it next week.’ And then, one senior aide says, ‘it would just not happen.’ (p246)


Here’s a selection – a lot of it had to do with Brexit – reflecting the vacuum at the top. Believe me, there are no balancing moments available:

  • … To LOTO it appeared that he had lost sight of his responsibilities as an emotional and existential funk set in. “He couldn’t see that he was the leader of a political party any more … it was just silence, and political mistakes.” (p124)
  • … [he became] either unwilling or, as time went on, psychologically incapable of leading. It would fall to his warring court to articulate exactly what Brexit meant to the Labour Party. (p191)
  • At his best he was Delphic, at his worst he was gnomic. It fell instead to his team to decode and debate what little he did say, in the hope that they might claim victory for their own conflicting agendas. (p198)
  • Radio silence from Corbyn had become an increasingly common feature of life in LOTO. (p256)
  • Yet there had been another characteristic failure of communication on Corbyn’s part. [X and Y] went on their way believing, as so many of those who engaged the leader in conversation did, that he had agreed with them. (p277)
  • The decision that for many of them amounted to a political death sentence was, for Corbyn, a release from the stifling, procedural drudgery his leadership had become. (p294)

Election 2019

A smooth campaign? Not. And you begin to feel sorry for JC. For a start there was another problematic bus:

  • Antagonism set in early and festered until polling day. The day before the campaign got underway, Corbyn had what one aide described as a ‘tantrum’ when he learned that – unlike the bus propelling Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats across the country – his campaign wheels were powered not by an electric battery but a diesel engine … (p310) [So he didn’t use it, despite the plans in place]
  • Corbyn’s seemingly trivial objections spoke to deeper dysfunction. His detractors at Westminster often contended he had no idea what he was doing. For once, the jibe was accurate – though not for want of trying on Corbyn’s part. Strategy for the campaign he was supposed to be leading had been largely decided – or, more accurately, disagreed on – in his absence. (p310)
  • Said one aide: ‘Nine-tenths of my bloody day was spent communicating on behalf of people who wouldn’t communicate directly with each other.’ (p312)
  • Andrew Gwynne [Campaign Co-ordinator, no less], whose patience had been nearly entirely eroded by the secrecy and obfuscations of Corbyn’s inner circle, was one of Labour’s many MPs who knew nothing of [a big new policy statement] until he read the Observer early front page that Saturday night. He knew as much about the campaign he was notionally overseeing as the owner of his local newsagent. (p318)

Another man, another planet

And here, for me, we have the problem. Try any combination of right/wrong man in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time and what you don’t get is three Rs. JC is not so much a politician as a moralist, so not made for what one close aide called “the hamster wheel of leadership”. As the authors put it, “Moral certitude had always been his lodestar. It had … catapulted him to the leadership in 2015” (p356). But now it wasn’t enough. He had his own little political bubble, and he was stuck there :

That he loathed confrontation and disappointing friends is testament to the deep well of kindness that existed within Corbyn. Unable to rewrite the rules of the game as he had promised, he preferred to ignore them. When in doubt, he sought solace from from those he knew would support his judgement no matter what, be they Laura or his friends in Islington. It was understandable and human. But it was not what the Project or the Labour Party wanted or indeed needed from its leader. (p357)

And it’s not like, as you might have gleaned, he had an efficient group behind him. As if to emphasize how the Left, those of The Project, were not the power in their own patch of the land they believed they were, the authors describe in some detail the slow start and first ballot failure of their campaign for the election of a new Party leader. (Good luck Keir, you’ll need it).

A brief word on style

You have to applaud when a major chapter describing an internal dispute that had “toxified life and electrified the ugly factionalism in Corbyn’s office” concerning the controversial figure of close Corbyn ally Karie Murphy – strong character or bully? – is entitled Karie on regardless; those who know it will be singing that Beautiful South refrain in their head right now?

Here’s Seumas Milne: “Given the unease and irritation about the patrician languor with which LOTO’s most senior public schoolboy went about his work … “, while John Mann is “the PLP’s patron saint of indignation”. Don’t know what some of my younger Corbynista friends will make of JC’s “aversion to partying was such that aides feared coming into work hungover.”

A personal observation

Not exactly original, but I want to give a plug here to Bernard Crick, one of my heroes from student days. Pogrund and Maguire don’t go into ancient history and the genesis of Corbyn’s personal politics, which – I’m sorry, but – I would characterise as still showing their roots as early 1970s student politics … even though he couldn’t last two terms at North London Poly. There is a problem with the hard left, and of course the Trots, in understanding the practicalities of democratic socialism and the speed at which change is possible. Politics as the art of the possible.

Bernard Crick, the first biographer of George Orwell, spells this out in his classic In defence of politics. Five editions since 1962, though sadly out of print as I write (it was even published in a series of Forgotten Books in 2012) though there’s only one copy on Abe Books at less than a fiver as I type. Such was the dismay in certain circles that he had to add a don’t-give-up Appendix to the 2nd edition – A footnote to fellow socialists – that is still a crucial text for me that deserves wider circulation again now. Just sayin’.

For what it’s worth, other ways I was thinking of starting this piece were:

  • touching on the immediate ancestry of Corbynism, or the Project, out of Tony Benn’s less than successful Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD); their aim, to give the party back to its members, and in so doing seek to transform the British Labour Party into an instrument of socialist change; see also Thatcher landslide. Some of us had been through this movie before.
  • reflections on how a number of my younger friends were/still are Corbynistas: forgive me for simplifying, but basically because Corbyn was saying hopeful things that they’d never heard from a prominent UK politician before? Untouched by power, he had a certain integrity intact
  • a resumé of my personal history in the Labour Party: ’83 to ’97, Thatcher landslide to Blair landslide; neither a Bennite nor Blairite, I. But Corbynsceptic, for sure.

Ruso in hot water

I suppose I should thank Covid indirectly for my finally getting round to read Ruth Downie‘s Memento mori: a crime novel of the Roman Empire (2018), the 8th in the splendid Gaius Petreius Ruso sequence of novels. Given the context, shame about the title. These ingenious tales of a Roman medicus-cum-reluctant detective and Tilla, his native North British wife, have at their heart one of the great double acts in contemporary crime and any other fiction. I’m a big fan – as you’ll see if you put her into that little search box top right – she’s such an enjoyable, intelligent read. But between library laxity and a publisher’s cock-up I had to purchase Memento mori for myself, to read on the iPad Kindle app, a medium I’m not that keen on. I’d tried a few times and not got very far, what with all the ‘real’ books available to me.

So when I had to take my partner for an evening hospital appointment and because of the Covid restrictions in place had to hang around waiting for her in the half-light of a semi-deserted hospital car park, the Kindle text had its moment to shine. I made enough progress that there was no turning back, even though I’d found myself a bit less entranced than of yore. This could well have been down to the medium; I don’t care what you say, it’s different. But what I will say is – Yes, please do read Ruso and Tilla’s tales, but don’t start with Memento mori (start at the beginning, of course, with Medicus). Though I was, I must say – hurrah! – back in cheerleader mode well before it concluded. Among her many strengths as a writer, Ruth Downie really does do physical jeopardy superbly.

Aquae Sulis – Bath to us – AD 143. Ruso’s best buddy’s wife has been murdered; he, Valens, is the top suspect, and not without good reason as it turns out (no – not necessarily a spoiler). That’s all you need to know plot-wise, really. What is involved here is property development and the tourist industry in the context of the coming together of the two cultures (aka the nuanced Romanisation of Britannia) as Romans seek to expand further their bath-building on the ancient sacred healing spa. Its Celtic deity, one Sulis, is these days known to Romano-Brits as Sulis Minerva.

One of the delights of this series is the culture (and gender) clash, and the increasing accommodation reached between a rational medical man (“Given the gods’ lively reputations for seduction, betrayal, and murder, Ruso had never understood why honouring them involved such a lot of tedious recitation and meandering around“) and Tilla, who “had an unhealthy fascination with anything that combined the religious, the optimistic, and the slightly mad. The last thing he wanted to do was encourage her.” Here she’s paying her respects:

When [her hands] were as clean as she could manage, she raised them to the skies and spoke a soft prayer to Sulis Minerva and to the native goddess of the earth and god of the harvest and then one to Christos as well, because Christos had more cheerful things to say about the next world than any of the other gods seemed to offer.

This lovely gentle sardonic tone is another characteristic of Ruth Downie‘s fluid prose. Here’s the Poirot moment (oh yes, have I said Memento mori is a decent whodunnit into the bargain?):

Glancing sideways, he saw his own wife gazing at him in something alarmingly close to admiration, as if he were about to perform a miracle in front of them and make everything clear at last.
Except he wasn’t.

Here’s the shopping mall: “The soft lamplight that displayed astrologers and scribes and jewellers and a late-opening shoe mender was attracting customers and moths.” Ruth used to live in Wolverton, part of Milton Keynes, so a moment to savour (with a double whammy to conclude):

“This is a very strange town,” she told him. “Neena went shopping and she says there are lots of bars and places to buy souvenirs and jewellery but it is very hard to find anywhere to buy a cabbage.”
Silence. Then, “What did she want a cabbage for?”
So he was listening. “You know what I mean.”

I said at the start of this piece that I had a bit of a unexpected struggle initially with Memento mori. As well as the digital medium I think there might have been a couple of other factors, and I feared series fatigue. First there’s the Midsomer/Marple syndrome at play – if you’re a friend or relative of Ruso you’d better watch your back, because it seems you’re well in line to be a potential victim or suspect. Second, I’ve always liked the way contemporary parallels to the action are sneaked in (like the cabbage episode above), but personally found the property development aspect too obvious – maybe my problem. But then there’s this:

“You may have realised I’m a local man, sir. It’s not a Roman name, Kunaris. I’m a full citizen of Rome and you might think I’m well established in the town, but it’s always a bit … well, perhaps your wife could explain it better than I can.
Ruso did not need his wife to explain it. “You never feel fully accepted by either side,” he said. “You always feel people are expecting you to prove your loyalty.”

Long may Tilla and Ruso’s friends and relatives be troubled by circumstance.

Here’s a link to Ruth’s website: Ruth Downie | Crime Novels of the Roman Empire

Tis that time of the year again, and sixth time around for Mr Stephen Hobbs‘s Top of the Poetry & Spoken Word Pops roundup for Stony Stratford and environs.

Normally the ceremony takes place at the Xmas Scribal Gathering Christmas bash (mince pies provided), but 2020 being 2020, this year it was done online, initially as part of the live event which fell foul to technical gremlins and actually froze at the moment Steve was about to say who No2 was (though we had plenty of clues there) … and leaving us high and dry as to the the reveal of the winner of this year’s giant lollipop; now there was a pregnant pause. Luckily JT decided to re-run the recorded parts of the show – there’s a link at the end of this post – and ‘ere is the text of Monsieur ‘Obbs’s presentation (which fills from 8.37 to 15.03 on the full show)
Over to you, Steve:

Hello Pop Pickers! What a crazy year it’s been. This is my Top of the Poetry & Spoken Word Pops for Covid-2020.

Take it away Phil….

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

[Here it should be explained that traditionally Mr Hobbs is assisted in his presentation by Phil ‘Powerpoint’ Chippendale vocalising the countdown riff (no – not that Countdown) familiar to viewers, nay – pop-pickers – of the original BBC Top of the Pops, itself a bastardisation of Led Zeps’ Whole lotta love riff. Sometimes the audience would join in. For the video Phil was filmed in a number of locations, outdoors and in. (Filmed by Phillip, edited by Jonathan Taylor). Here are some stills; I have not included the shower scene. Consider this a health warning (link at the bottom)]

From 20 down to 11


Zoom Logo

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, and Zoom.

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 10!

Three guys who are endlessly creative when it comes to word play. Opinionated, gobby, but always original. It’s the three Pauls: Paul Eccentric, Paul Rainey, and Paul Moss (aka Mossman). [You can find samples of their work – with the Eccentric one as his half of the esteemed Antipoet – in the video of the Scribal Xmas bash, linked to at the end of all this.]

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 9!

They were about to celebrate their 5th birthday but coronavirus put paid to that. But storytellers need to perform, and through the good services of Mistress Zoom (Terrie Howey) they have maintained their monthly events. It’s Richard York and the Storytelling at the Feast of Fools team in Northampton!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 8!

On the 3rd of July this year we lost a fearless musical performer, a keen storyteller, and a wonderful friend. When our world returns we will still expect to hear her say “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done” and do that nervous laugh. It’s Sandy Clarke!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 7!

At a time when doing nothing was a very real possibility these people have refused to keep quiet. They’ve added their skill and talents to some crazy ideas. I would like to thank: the Bards of Stony Stratford!

Bardabing Bardaboom! Danni Antagonist, Phil Chippendale, Pat Nicholson, Vanessa Feck Horton, Sam Upton, Mitchell Taylor, and Andy Powell! [You can find more info, and see their Lockdown poems project at THE BARD OF STONY STRATFORD – Home (weebly.com)]

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 6!

When you’re the new kid on the block in the world of storytelling clubs and you have a good first year, coronavirus restrictions are the last thing you need. And then you lose one of your founding members – Sandy Clarke. Do you accept the inevitable and give up? Do you hell! From Tales Tattled &Told it’s Lynette Hill!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 5!

A regular Scribal performer, a talented poet, and the Bardic godfather of Buckingham. It’s the very first Bard of Buckingham Dean Jones!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 4!

Pandemic? What pandemic? This open mic lives on in YouTubeLand providing a unique platform for music and the spoken word. It’s The Vaulthead himself, Pat Nicholson!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 3!

He’s risen from the dead (again), plucked the stake from his heart and looked about in defiance. Our very own Dracula of the Stony Stratford open mic scene – it’s Jonathan Taylor and the Scribal Gathering elves!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 2!

When he came to his reward the wicked coronavirus tore his gig diary to shreds, but he was not downhearted. Through real and virtual gigs he has been a true hero of the Bardic tradition. He has cast aside the devil’s banjo and embraced poetry. He’s even got a poetry book coming out! Who would have thought that – probably not even him! It’s the 10th Bard of Stony Stratford Andy Powell! [Andy also features in the full Scribal Xmas bash video, to which there is a link at the end of this post.]

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 1

and my Top of the Poetry & Spoken Word Pops for Covid-2020:

Someone who’s consistently facilitated the performances of other people. In this the Year of Covid-19 the storytellers of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire have been dragged into the brave new world of Zoom. Instead of being furloughed, we’ve all been cajoled into using Zoom to achieve things we would not have thought possible. Youth drama continues, the Panto was written in a day, and signed copies of “Buckinghamshire Folk Tales” are on sale in Odell’s – the perfect Christmas gift! The PhD thesis has been submitted, the Bardic Council is relevant and you will even see poetry on the otherwise empty notice boards of Stony Stratford. And the storytelling – wow! [website: Red Phonenix Storytelling – Home (redphoenixstory.com)]

Stony has a fine tradition of producing community stalwarts – fill in the names. Ladies and Gentlemen here’s another – it’s Terrie Howey! And it gives me great pleasure to present her with this giant lollipop!

[Present lollipop]

Thank you and goodnight. Thanks again Phil – Da da da da dan dan dan

And here’s …

… that link I promised to the vid of the Second Coming of the virtual Scribal Xmas shindig

Steve’s presentation runs from 8.37 to 15.03.

Happy Christmas and a much better New Year for you all from Lillabullero.

Rebus reads Reacher

When challenged by Siobhan Clarke – “Didn’t take you for a Reacher fan” John Rebus comes back with,I sometimes need a break from all the philosophy and ancient languages.” Siobhan, meanwhile, is reading Karin Slaughter. Strikes me that these days Ian Rankin is having a lot of fun with his characters, and without any damage being done to his usual strengths.

A song for the dark times (Orion, 2020) starts with Siobhan helping Rebus, his books and records, move into the ground floor flat of his Edinburgh tenement building when it becomes vacant, his COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) being the reason for this:

He was standing in front of a row of brand-new bookcases, bought at IKEA the previous weekend. That trip – and the clash of wills during the shelves’ assembly – had put more strain on the friendship between Rebus and Clarke than any operation they’d worked on during their joint time in CID.

First thing he does when she’s gone is to check the hifi (vinyl, of course, never abandoned) and ponder the all important first record in his new home:

When he peered at the spines of his LPs, he saw that they weren’t in anything like the order as upstairs. Not that there had been any real sense of cataloguing – it was more that he’d known pretty much where he’d find whatever he wanted to hear. Instead of the Stones, he decided on Van Morrison.
‘Aye, you’ll do,’ he said to himself.

Fair enough. Doesn’t say which album, though with Van a lot of the time it would be hard to tell. A bit later Malcom Fox (for it is he) is rummaging through a box of 45s in the new flat – he’s there with Siobhan, who’s been stuck with looking after Brillo, Rebus’s dog, because Rebus has been called away up north after an urgent call from Samantha, his daughter (his aged Saab just makes it):

‘Archaeology, most of these,’ he said when Clarke found him.
‘John says he wants it put on his gravestone: “He listened to the B-sides.”

Good man. There’s a nice line in banter, particularly between these two, given he got the job at the Police Scotland’s Crime Campus at Gartcosh that they both applied for, but also generally throughout. Here’s Siobhan again:

‘What can I do for you, Christine?’
‘We’ve just had the most colossal break in the case.’
‘Very funny.’
‘Time was you might have fallen for that.’

So what’s occurring in this crime novel? Three things: Rebus goes north because Keith, daughter Samantha’s partner has disappeared (and is later found murdered) and she’s a suspect; in Edinburgh Siobhan (in a relationship with a superior, but not intimidated) is investigating the murder of a rich Arabian student with a James Bond fetish; and Malcolm, there because of potential Saudi involvement, is also dragged into a side issue with a blackmail attempt on the Assistant Chief Constable’s errant husband. As you’d expect, as things develop, one way or another all three cases intersect with either (and/or both) a nightclub owned by ageing Edinburgh gangster Big Ger’ Cafferty’ (“A large part of his income was clean these days and he wanted to keep it that way …”) and the financial interests of a local laird living in Strathy Castle, near the camp – “The building was the full bagpipe-baronial, with turrets and a plethora of crowstep gables” – in league with an ex-politician turned property developer. Familiar territory for Rankin and Rebus then (though this time it’s actually Malcolm who’s treading a thin line with Big Ger’, to Siobhan’s horror) and the handling is as smooth – all the jagged twists and turns – as ever. Prime Rankin, no less, and a joy to read.

Except … Keith’s murder – he has an interest in local history – is a real whodunnit revolving around another mysterious death back in the post-war 1940s, which took place in a wartime internment camp for non-Brit aliens – the fictional Camp 1033. A touch of Agatha Christie in the night here. The photos below feature Cultybraggan, another such camp, that now functions as a tourist attraction, which is what Keith was aiming for, albeit with objections from the local lord and a nearby hippy (or “Jim Jones Brigadoon cult” as Rebus describes it – commune . The background material here is fascinating.

The title?

There was just the one CD in the car – a compilation Siobhan had burned for him. She’s written the words ‘Songs for Dark Times’ on the disc in black felt pen. He’d asked her to explain the title.
‘Some to make you think,’ she’s said, ‘some to calm you down or get you dancing.’
‘Okay, nodding your head then.’

Pretty good, actually: Brian Eno minimalism, Leonard Cohen singing of love and loss (there’s a joke later, when he puts it on in the pub where he’s staying), something that “might be funk beamed down from the 1970s“, Black Sabbath with Changes (“Nice touch, Siobhan …”), The Clash, Jethro Tull … “The perfect time for the CD to decide he merited John Martyn’s I’d rather be the devil” … Average White Band: Pick up the pieces (“He hoped that was what they were doing“) … I could go on.

As I said at the beginning, Ian Rankin is having fun and in top form. And that Siobhan is no slouch. Long may they run. Malcom: “I don’t drink and I don’t smoke – what else am I going to do, to paraphrase Culture Club?”
“Adam and the Ants”,’ she corrected him.

Not that I’d know, I hasten to add

I’d say this is worth 10 minutes of your time. By some mysterious shift in time he’s still in the upstairs flat, but never mind that. Rebus – “Government says I’m high risk” – ponders the progress of the years – “At school you were either Beatles or The Stones. Now you’re allowed to be both. People are allowed to like whatever they like” – and what he’s missing. The actor Brian Cox narrates:

John Rebus: The Lockdown Blues | Scenes For Survival – YouTube

Never mind about that R-number (I mean, I do, a lot, but we have a rhetorical device hard at work here) … the R-number I worry about is my growing ratio of books read to books acquired. You’d think with a pandemic lockdown we might be making some progress with the TBR pile (to-be-read); disappointingly this has not happened:

Sorry about only a few spines, but space and balance are an issue.

In my defence, the Japanese have a word for this, dating back to their late nineteenth-century Meiji era: tsundoku. And this is not a bad thing. No, practising tsundoku is a humility driver, reminding you how much more there is to know. (Take that, tidiness guru Marie Kondo with your, “Ideally, keep less that 30 books”.)

Obviously – spot the John Lydon autobiography, which also gives an indication of how far back we are going? – there will be books here that I have forgotten about completely (or wish I could) and will inevitably be a mystery to me. Anyway, here are two that I have read recently:


This Penguin edition also contains John Sutherland’s illuminating essay, ‘Why does the Count come to England?‘ Short answer: he’s looking for an upgrade and relaunch.

I read Bram Stoker‘s Dracula (1897) as a talking book. Only it was me doing the talking – bedtime reading for a spouse recovering from a cataract operation; neither of us got nightmares (it may have been the way I told it). Two things about the experience that annoyed (and, of course, they are still there, if less so, in conventional reading mode): there are many – pause for breath, clear throat – long, long paragraphs, and Stoker has Van Helsing speaking with an accent, or rather his speech is peppered with stilted generic foreign phrasing (not, from what I can see, an attempt at humour) such as to require a double-take to pick up the meaning. Given the mode of narrative delivery – mostly diary and journal entries, none of them Van Helsing’s own save for one, his speech is delivered as reportage – one wonders why Stoker bothered.

Those provisos aside, so glad to have finally got round to reading it. For those who have not I cannot stress enough: it is nothing like – so much better, deeper, enriching – than those Hammer movies. (I tried watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), supposedly closer to the book – it was on the telly – not long after finishing the book, and only lasted 15 minutes: found it impossible to countenance the Count’s stupid period hair, to be honest.) No, the book’s the thing.

Dracula First Edition 1897

There is so much more going on once Jonathan Harker’s business trip to Transylvania, a lot of which is recognisable from the Hammer films, though the three really scary shape-shifting female bats that tempt and plague him were a surprise. Such is the way the tale is told – a slow reveal – that with my cultural baggage in tow it was impossible not to shout, “Come on, Jonathan, he’s a friggin’ vampire”. For all that one has brought ready-made from the films, the unease is still palpable in the text; Dracula dictating three letters to Jonathan to be sent back to England covering his – Dracula’s – back when Jonathan fails to return, is a chiller.

Meanwhile, back in England, we are plunged into the realms of romantic fiction. Lucy Westernra, 19, is corresponding with Mina, Harker’s fiancee, herself increasingly worried about his failure to return, about how she, Lucy, got three separate proposals of marriage in one day. It is these three suitors – Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming to be, aka Art), the successful suitor), Dr John Seward (aka Jack, psychiatrist in charge of a lunatic asylum, and Quincey P. Morris, a brave, laconic, rich, American (no, really) – who team up, under the subsequent leadership of the continent-hopping Abraham Van Helsing, Seward’s old mentor, to fight the good fight and save the world.

Save the world, you say? Listen to Van Helsing:

‘… he was in life a most wonderful man. Soldier, statesman and alchemist – which latter was the highest development of the science-knowledge of his time. He had a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse. […] He is experimenting, and doing it well; and if it had not been that we have crossed his path – he may be yet if we fail – the father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life.’

Not that I’m making any claims on Stoker’s part, but it wouldn’t take much of a cryptic crossword setter to tease a führer out of furtherer. For, as Paul Weller might sing in later circumstances, “This is the modern world”: the action takes place late nineteenth century, train timetables, blood transfusions, shorthand typewriters, and phonographs. The Count wants more than a piece of it for himself and a prospective Undead army. Oh, and the good guys come armed, courtesy of Quincey, with Winchester rifles and a Bowie knife..

Once out of Transylvania the action, relayed in diary and journal entries, letters and newspaper articles, is played out in Whitby, Exeter, London and Essex, on boats on the North Sea, and on trains and coaches in various parts of Europe en route back to Transylvania. The vivid scenes in Whitby – the terrible storm driving Dracula’s ship ashore, the spooky graveyard encounters (yes, I may well have, unbeknowing, sat on one of those benches) – are finely portrayed, thrilling and chilling. Van Helsing makes some state of the art speeches about the boundaries of science and faith (‘Then you want me not to let some previous conviction injure the receptivity of my mind with regard to some strange matter. Do I read your lesson right?”); never mind he’s selling his vampire thesis, in situ it convinces. What happens to R.M.Renfeld, a poor bloke locked up in Seward’s asylum, next door, as it happens to Dracula’s chosen London abode, feeling the presence, is truly shocking. And then there’s poor Lucy. But enough of the narrative detail.

Far more than the other differences from Dracula’s traditional tropes (he can exist in daytime, he’s just weakened, for starters), what really surprised me is the vivid portrayal of the human beings engaged in this crusade, their relationships, emotions, loyalty and bravery. I was not expecting to be moved, but moved I was even by melodrama, at one of the brave band’s request that they read the burial service for them in case the worst happens (no spoilers):

How can I – how can anyone? – tell of that strange scene, its solemnity, its gloom, its sadness, its horror; and, withal, its sweetness. Even a sceptic, who can see nothing but a travesty of bitter truth in anything holy or emotional, would have been melted to the heart had he seen that little group of loving and devoted friends kneeling round that stricken and sorrowing [X]; or heard the tender passion of [Y}, as in tones so broken with emotion that often he had to pause, to read the simple and beautiful service for the Burial of the Dead.

In this modern world one might cavil at Van Helsing & co coming out with, “And now for you, Madam Mina, the night is the end until all be well. […] We are men, and are able to bear; but you must be our star and our hope, and we shall act all the more free that you are not in the danger, such as were.” And Mina, who was acting as secretary to the group, is happy to go along with this: “Oh, it did me good to see the way that these brave men worked. How can women help loving men when they are so earnest, and so true, and so brave!” Nevertheless, great book, not to be lazily stuck in a genre ghetto.

Night Train

And so we board a train into a dystopian future, features of which will include the political collapse of a ruthless Stalinist dictatorship and ecological catastrophe. Reasons I bought David Quantick‘s Night train (Titan Books, 2020) on a whim:

  • it was a cyber suggestion, but with endorsements from the ubiquitous Neil Gaiman (challenging Stephen King for back cover quotes?), Sara Pinborough (who certainly knows how to write a page-turner) and Ben Aaronovitch (he of the superb Rivers of London series of weird thrillers, also published by Titan, who really have quite a list going for them these days)
  • I didn’t know he was now a novelist, but Quantick made me laugh a while back writing about music in the late-lamented Word magazine, and has been a writer on The thick of it and The Day Today (wow!)
  • I have always loved Godfather of Soul James Brown’s imperious Night Train (“Miami, Florida“) – could a onetime music journalist not have chosen the book’s title for any other reason? – and once made a friend a compilation CD of train songs, so was hoping for more (not as many as I’d thought, but one big surprise, revealed in all its glory at the end of this post, though you do have to click on it first)

Also from the back cover endorsements, one David Wong attests he hadn’t planned to read it one go, but ended up doing just that. I didn’t, but I can understand that, and it’s probably to my detriment that I didn’t (I might go back and do it; it’s a quick enough read). Having first got over, it has to be said, the huge hurdle of an opening guaranteed to produce an allergic reaction in me:

Night. Blackness, anyway. Darkness. No light. Nothing. Just night.
Then a thundering crash. A deafening noise, too much to bear. A huge, smashing shock to the ears.

But I had faith and the quick wit, relentless bouts of intermittent jeopardy and terror, good humour, intelligence, fun and slow reveal got to me.

What we have here is Waiting for Godot on a train, Godot on the tracks, if you will, a seemingly eternal ride but with adventures full of their own delights. When Garland, the first member of the team that tries to come to grips with the situation, is introduced she doesn’t even know her own name (luckily she has a name tag). When she meets the second, Banks, he talks about the first time he saw his new face. They sort of bond: “‘OK,’ she said. ‘I have empathy issues, you have humour issues. Looks like we’re a great team.’” Both have a back story, hers we only get right at the end, and it’s huge. Third member of the team is Poppy, a child prodigy champion skier who talks to her Teddy (another big surprise in store there too). “‘You three … You’re quite the superhero team-up,’” says Lincoln, a fourth character who appears very late on, with explanations. They have three different approaches to life on the train, neatly summarised with, “Garland put her jacket on a hook, feeling self-conscious and formal. Banks kept his on, as if in defiance, and Poppy dropped her jacket on the floor, first taking care to remove Teddy.”

But the train, which they explore carriage by carriage. Poppy:

‘We don’t know what’s in here, either,’ she said. ‘I mean, apart from mutant killer animals. And the weird rooms full of blood. And – oh yeah, the carriage full of dead people. Hey, maybe we should stay on the train. It’s great.’

There’s a lot more to come. Sometimes Night train feels like a graphic novel without the pictures, with short passages, some only a sentence long, separated by ***. Meanwhile, the dialogue sparkles (and can’t you just hear her?):

‘This is weird,’ said Garland.
‘Which makes it normal,’ Banks pointed out.
‘Oooh, paradox,’ Garland said.

They make slow progress advancing towards the front of the train. “… the next carriage was ridiculous. It was just a train carriage. In fact it was so much like a train carriage that they felt uneasy.” Banks queries her strategy:

‘I suppose I just assumed the important stuff would be at the front of the train,’ she said. ‘I mean, it normally is.’
Banks looked at her. ‘That’s trainist.’
After a moment, Garland said, ‘That was a joke, right?’
‘You are making a majorly big assumption.’

At a certain stage well into the journey things get very cute. Lincoln again in explanatory mode: “‘You’ve all got this place wrong. It’s not a train. It’s a book. These aren’t carriages – they’re chapters. And if you read a book right, if you look for the clues, you’ll find what you’re looking for.’” Some readers will certainly baulk at this tangent, and decry its out-of-narrative leap. But this where I was completely sold:

‘I said this train was like a book. Different carriages, different chapters,’ he said, getting up. ‘I didn’t say which book, though.’ [..]
‘Come on, we’re nearly there,’ he said, getting up. ‘Hey,’ he added. ‘You ever hear of a man called Shandy?’
The next carriage was black.

Ever heard of a man called Shandy? Nothing more is spelled out, but right here is where I swooned. Where does the name of this blog – Lillabullero – come from? Laurence Sterne’s quirky The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67). (You can read why here). How does Sterne’s narrative technique handle a certain turn of events?:

And while we’re here, here’s another take from the same book on how narrative works (or at least how his does). Remember, this is late mid-eighteenth century:

Homage, then. And after this delightful bit of (doubtless to many) irrelevance, what unfolds is how the world got to be in the state it’s in, and the role our heroic trio played in it. Trust me, it’s fascinating, a real mindbender. How does it all end? Does the train reach the station (Robert Johnson, tick)? Yours to discover. Enjoy the trip.

Before I go, this musical surprise. I have a 3-CD compilation of Chuck Berry’s work, but I’d never heard this one before. I had to double-check the discography to certify Mr Berry didn’t have a namesake. Tis indeed he:

Downbound Train Chuck Berry with Lyrics – YouTube

Toot, toot!

Random not random 2

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

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

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

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

Westwards from Stony, through Calverton and the Wealds:

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

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

Hedgehogs & other beasts

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

Here he comes now …

Of course we found more than hedgehogs visited regularly:

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

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

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

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

Special bonus pic – the allotment fox. Spooky.

Random not random

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

Kinks kontextualised

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The good

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

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

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

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

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

The bad (nit-picking)

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

Maybe it’s because she’s American …

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

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

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

The ugly

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


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

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

Oh yes, the fans

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

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

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

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

Finally …

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

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

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