Tomorrow never knew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown visits the National Trust owned houses that John and Paul grew up in, and is somewhat underwhelmed (“rules and regulations stricter than those for the Sistine Chapel“).  Because it’s Beatles Week there are queues of guided tours at most locations, and he gleefully reports on the one-up-man-ship and accusations of charlatanry among the guides.  In the end it is a sign outside the Sefton Park Hotel boasting its previous life as the ‘Family home of Stuart Sutcliffe 1961-1970’ – in fact he’d died in early 1962 and had only ever spent a few nights there when visiting back from Hamburg – that reduces him to cliché:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author pic from the rear flyleaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beatles in time

The uniform edition paperback I read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

First edition hardback

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

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

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

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

The latest puzzling paperback cover

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

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

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

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


Rock Novel Hall of Fame

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


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

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

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

Significant absences are:

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

And an honourable mention goes to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the people who open the doors to let the books

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

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


Jolly Swerbles

When your favourite fellow blogger comes out with “This is the Marmite of biography,” what choice does one have?  When that is followed up by “and I am beginning to love it” it’s a done deal.  I’m not going to talk much about what happens, because a big part of the pleasure of Alexander Masters A life discarded: 148 diaries found in a skip (4th Estate, 2016) lies in the – if you’ll excuse the cliché – the journey of both the reader and the author, his explorations.

Here’s the set-up.  On the left, the opening page.  Something there is about it that immediately made me think of Kurt Vonnegut’s work – no bad thing.  You can click on it to enlarge the text, but here it is anyway: “One breezy afternoon [in 2001], my friend Richard Grove was mooching around Cambridge with his shirt hanging out, when he came across this skip.”   Richard is too ‘plump’ to get in, enlists the help of Dr Dido Davies, historian, award winning biographer (also the author of a sex manual published under a pseudonym and “the only person in the world where the bones of Sir Thomas More are buried”).  You see how Masters draws you in before it’s hardly started.

The books turn out to be diaries starting in late 1952 (a Christmas present to a 12-year-old) and covering decades.  Some are in better condition than others, but they’ve only recently been put in the skip.  “These books are alive,” says Dido, who is Alexander Masters’ ‘writing partner’ of 25 years, and they can’t just be disposed of.  Original finder has a debilitating accident, Dido develops pancreatic cancer, clears her house as the end nears, and she gives them to Masters, author of two successful unconventional biographies himself.  They become his ‘responsibility’, an obsession in itself, and a kind of therapy too, as he witnesses his friend’s suffering; he dedicates the book to her.

And so to the diaries: “A person can write five million words about itself, and forget to tell you its name. Or its sex.”  It takes Masters 5 years to solve the puzzle completely, with many assumption-spilling surprises along the way.  None of which I’m going to go into; to do it justice, it’s a book to be discovered.  But I will give you a flavour of the way Masters goes about the task, which at first he sees fancifully, with a twinkle in his eye, as being to write a biography:

without somehow learning [their] name, which would appear for the first and only time on the final page, as in a Gothic short story, with a photo of [their] grave stone. […]
But vile ‘information’ kept popping up – clues about ways to discover the writer’s identity that threatened to destroy everything, but which I couldn’t ignore.

He consults a big deal graphologist who warns him, Nameless person, whoever you are, I don’t want to be in the same room as you … The person who has handwriting like this is a complete nutter.”  He calls in a private detective “… not because I wanted to know what technique to track down my missing diarist, but the opposite. I wanted to know how to avoid the successful approaches.”  But he’s soon “ perked up by the fact that, when writing a biography, you can’t trust certainties. Just as you’re about to pounce on something that will condemn you to a tidy answer, pooooofff!  It vanishes.

Masters gets his subject into the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific diarist in history; the previous record holder had only done 22 million words.  How do you write so many words?

It was as I was walking back, ecstatic, through the mud that I realised why I wanted to keep reading X’s diary entries, even when they are agonisingly tedious. It is because they are true. […]
X has absolutely no awareness of your presence. Their drama is that X is not fiction. [p173 hdbk]

The diaries teach us that it is too much to be inside anybody’s head. It is a horrible place. All that repetition; that endless analysis that doesn’t analyse, just mulls a point over and over until it drops dead from banality. What goes on in a person’s brain is the opposite of what makes a story live. [p198]

Yet it remains compelling stuff.  The text is illustrated with brief examples of the difficult original handwriting (nearly every inch of paper in the diaries is covered).  There are also drawings taken from the diaries and a few relevant photographs breaking up the text.  Enigmas abound (a Great Project? a John Gielgud obsession? a thwarted library career? not to mention the emotional power of Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata).  Codewords and abbreviations are sought out and resolved.  A life is revealed.  Amazingly the only historical event mentioned in the diaries is the JFK assassination.

I’ve called this piece ‘Jolly swerbles’.  You’ll have to read A life discarded for yourself to find out why.  It’s a fascinating, disturbing, surprising ride.  I read this book entranced.





What can I add to what has already been said about this mighty tome?  Is it really as good as people are saying?  Yup.  Is it too long, as some critics have cavilled?  Nope.  Not a wasted word.  Do you care if you haven’t read the first two?  Probably not.  Does one read the closing chapters with increasing dread?  Absolutely; even though you know it doesn’t end well for our man. Were you expecting wit and a touch of bawdy too?  Good for  you.  Hilary Mantel‘s The mirror & the light (4th Estate, 2020), the final volume in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is a masterpiece.

She takes you there.  Simple as that.  You’re in his head, you’re in his time.  It’s like she’s channelling him.  As in the first two books, as soon as you fall in with it that every time she writes ‘he’, unless she makes it quite clear it is not, it is all coming through Cromwell’s sharply focussed  eyes and mind, coming at his frequently punishing pace.  In the current action it’s all in the present tense.  And when he relaxes, on the rare occasions when he does, you do too.

Not that he’s necessarily the good guy, he’ll readily admit: “My list of sins is so extensive that the recording angel has run out of tablets, and sits in the corner with his quill blunted, wailing and ripping out his curls.”  There’s no hiding his ruthless side, the acquisitive social climber who enjoys power; it’s just that at Court he’s better, and especially more competent, than the rest.  And, sigh, a lot of good it does him in the end, at the age of 55.

Even the ‘Cast of Characters’ – how increasingly I appreciate such Dramatis Personae in big books – covering 5 categorised pages, Mantel delivers with a touch of class.  First category: ‘The recently dead‘.  Led by Ann Boleyn, Queen of England; followed by a sub-list headed ‘Her supposed lovers‘.  Hell of an opening line too; no ‘New readers start here’ here: “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.”  And we’re off.  You gather this instant death is a mercy he managed to secure for her.  Let the power plays commence again.

The mirror & the light is just one rivetting tour de force after another.  From court life to the streets, she takes you there.  Where to begin?  The opening of Thomas a Becket’s tomb – a huge money-spinner for the monks of Canterbury – the examination of the relics, explodes off the page.  Cromwell’s interrogation is pure Line of Duty … but you know it’s a stitch up.  Memories of his eventful past – in Putney, around Europe, flood in – especially after a fever he picked up decades before in Italy makes a come-back and derails him at just the wrong time when Norfolk and his bishop chum Stephen Gardiner (closet Catholics) push through The 6 Articles, legislation confirming it is still the blood and body of Christ in church.  Flexibility has ever been his watchword, but that he cannot go back on, and he will not break faith with the necessity of an English Bible, trying to protect poor old Tyndale printing it in exile.

Hilary Mantel‘s qualities as a writer are all present and correct at macro- and micro-level.  Cromwell’s observations sparkle with dark sardonic wit.  Here she describes the members of one faction at Henry VIII’s court:

They are all Howards, or Howard kin, and one is the Duke of Norfolk’s young half-brother, who shares his name: Thomas Howard the Lesser. No danger of confusing the two. The lesser is the worst poet at court. The greater never rhymed in his life.

His relationship with Chapuys, the Emperor’s ambassador, a Frenchman, who, as in previous volumes still (hurrah!) cannot pronounce his name, calling him ‘Cremuel’ throughout, is not too far removed from that of Aziriphale and Crowley in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.  They recognise they are playing a game, albeit one with huge consequences: “… But ambassadors have been murdered in the street before now. I only mention it.  The ambassador bows his head. He picks at his salad. A leaf of sweet lettuce, a spear of bitter endive.”  Cromwell recognises Chapuys’s astuteness.  He says of Cromwell’s boss, “Henry is a man of great endowments, lacking only consistency, reason and sense.”  And here they are talking about bringing Mary, the future queen, back into the fold, and he, Chapuys, sums up the task ahead of Cromwell:

‘Let me be exact about what you ask of her. She must recognise that her mother’s marriage was of no effect, and that she, though the king’s eldest child, is not his heir. She must swear to uphold, as the king’s successor, the little daughter of Boleyn, whom he has just killed.’

The barbed nature of how Henry VIII’s court sees Cromwell’s position of power, in the light of his lowly origins, is on display, and revelled in, throughout.  The Earl of Surrey tries to lord it: “‘But you, Cromwell, you would not understand it – the friendship that is amongst men of ancient lineage and noble blood.’  I understand, he thinks, your nose is running like any stable-lad’s.”  After another promotion, he chats with Margaret Pole:

‘… I am sure you can come to think of me as Lord Privy Seal. And should I ever forget I was born one of the lower sort, I will presume upon our friendship, madam, and beg you to remind me.’
That jolts you, he thought: ‘our friendship:’ that sickens your stomach. That a Putney boy should presume.

What else, in passing?  There is Cromwell’s delightful sparring with Jane Rochford, his sometime informer among the women at court (you should have married her, advises this scribe).  Hans Holbein, the portrait artist, shipped off to Europe to effectively make the equivalent of a Tinder pic of Anne of Cleves for Henry to consider (another brilliant scene, that, by the way: Henry’s first actual sight of her, or rather hers of him).

There’s a lengthy cynical yet reasonable enough reading of how the Northern Rebellion (a serious threat to Henry) started, from a drunken night in a market town that just blossomed as bandwagons are jumped on:

Now they go rattling through the streets, proclaiming the ballad of Worse-was-it Never. There was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and pedlars honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of Parliament. Reforming bishops. People who use English to talk to God.

There are inevitably broad winks to today; how could she resist?  Cromwell watches Henry educate Jane Seymour, his third queen, in the matter of how the rich get away with it:

The king leans forward. ‘The burdens of tax do not rest on the shoulders of labourers, or small husbandmen. Dives, the rich man, knows and has always known how to pass off his interests as the interests of Lazarus, the beggar.’

So much more to praise, but I’ll leave it there.  There is a chilling author’s note at the end detailing what happened later.  Most of the players died before their time one way or another, though Cromwell’s survived well enough, one of his consistent aims in life.



Dandelion Wine

Clean, smokeless, efficient, that’s dandelion wine,” is what Grandpa tells 12-tear old Douglas Spaulding and younger brother Tom.  It’s a whole lot more than that.  I loved reading Ray Bradbury‘s Dandelion wine (1957).  Wallowed in it.  Small town America, Green Town, Illinois, 1928; population 26.349 give or take one or two by the end of the book.  Shall we say, Under Milk Wood written by Mark Twain?  I just did.

This is the summer Doug realised he was alive.  After a genial wrestle with his brother he suddenly gets it: “Birds flickered like skipped stones across the vast, inverted pond of heaven” and a dozen other realisations, and “the million pores on his body opened“.  The conclusion?  “I’m really alive! he thought. I never knew it before, or, if I did I don’t remember.  He yelled it loud, but silent, a dozen times. Think of it, think of it!

He resolves to keep a summer notebook (the stationery store calls what he’s writing in a tablet) recording it all.  Which is not what Dandelion wine is – not his verbatim notebook, nor is he present for a lot of what goes on – but his plan for it gives a good idea of what to expect:

Thinking about it, noticing it, is new. You do things and don’t watch. Then all of a sudden you look and see what you’re doing and it’s the first time, really. I’m going to divide the summer up in two parts. First part of this tablet is titled: RITES AND CEREMONIES. The first root beer pop of the year. The first running barefoot in the grass of the year. The first time almost drowning in the lake of the year. First water-melon. First mosquito. First harvest of dandelions. Those are the things we do over and over and over and never think. Now here in back, like I said, is DISCOVERIES AND REVELATIONS or maybe ILLUMINATIONS, that’s a swell word, or INTUITIONS, okay? In other words, you do an old familiar thing, like bottling dandelion wine, and you put that under RITES AND CEREMONIES. And then you think about it, and what you think, crazy or not, you put under DISCOVERIES AND REVELATIONS. Here’s what I got on the wine: Every time you bottle it, you got a whole chunk of 1928 put away safe.’

About dandelions, says Grandfather: “Every year … They run amuck; I let them. Pride of lions in the yard … A common flower, a weed that no one sees, yes. But for us a noble thing, the dandelion.”   Now, I’m no great gardener, but I have to admit for me summer is a constant battle against dandelions.  The bastards.  And you get people preaching, No leave ’em alone.  Bees love ’em.  They’re the first flowers to bloom and the bees need all the help they can get.  So vide what Douglas’s Grandfather says in this wonderful book, and being a big fan of bees (our neighbours over the back have beehives; now I know what’s going on with the bees this time of year I look forward to the experience when they harmlessly swarm, shall be disappointed if they don’t), yes, this year I decided to leave the dandelions, to let them be.  We’ve had a few bees this year already, and we’ve had flowers other than dandelions too, but have I seen a single bee gorging on a dandelion?  No, so it’s war again.  Don’t I fancy making some dandelion wine?  I can live with poetic dandelions (wasn’t Wordworth’s first draft dandelions?) and feel no contradiction.  And also, wait until you see the recipe (see below).  

Dumb book cover. You make the wine from the petals.

So ‘dandelion wine‘ – what’s the magic of which Doug writes?:

The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered. And now Douglas knew, he really knew he was alive, and moved turning through the world to touch and see it all, it was only right and proper that some of his new knowledge, some of this special vintage day would be sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks or months …  […]

And there, row upon row, with the soft gleam of flowers opened at morning, with the light of this June sun glowing through a faint skin of dust, would stand the dandelion wine. Peer through it at the wintry day – the snow melted to grass, the trees were reinhabited with bird, leaf, and blossoms like a continent of butterflies breathing on the wind. And peering through, colour sky from iron to blue.

Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.

That thing about bottling up summer for winter days.  I guess you could say the same about all wines – it never occurred to me before – but what it is in Dandelion Wine is their summer days, the bottles resting in their cellar.

These 1928 days begin with the ritual of the new summer shoes.  Have to be new – “the boy’s abandoned winter shoes, heavy with forgotten rains and long-melted snows” – because last year’s tennis shoes have lost their bounce.  Doug leaves the shoe shop owner thinking of antelopes and gazelles.

They urge local handyman-inventor Leo Auffman, to come up with a Happiness Machine, a lovely soft fantasy with a lovely list of what should go in it.  The men laugh, but Leo has his reasons for trying:

‘How have we used machines so far, to make people cry? Yes! Every time man and the machine look like they will get on all right – boom! Someone adds a cog, airplanes drop bombs on us, cars run us off cliffs. So is the boy wrong to ask? No! No…’ 

It does not go well.  Nor does the trip they urge on Miss Fern and Miss Roberta’s to take in their Green Machine, a car that a shyster has sold them that they are frankly scared of.  They befriend their own time machine, old Colonel Freeleigh in his big old house, whose stories take them back as far as the Civil War; he tells them he will choose when he’s ready to die.  Which he does, and he’s not the only one. This is a bitter-sweet ride. A good friend of Doug’s family leaves for the big city, and he misses his summer chum of old. 

More sadness at the replacement of Green Town’s trolley with a bus:

‘They can’t take off the trolley. Don’t make the same kind of noise. Don’t have tracks or wires, don’t throw sparks, don’t pour sand on the tracks, don’t have the same colours, don’t have a bell, don’t let down a step like a trolley does!’

On its last day in service it goes out with a glorious free ride and a picnic at the end of the line.

And many other happenings and adventures.  Old rivals keenly contest the annual Honeysuckle Lodge Presidential election with allegations of witchery and a tumultuous final meeting that at one stage has the members “not knowing if they’d just returned from a funeral or were on their way to a ball.”  Local newspaper reporter Bill Forrester spends time with aged recluse Helen Loomis, whose photo when she was an actress he used to have on his wall.  They bond over old fashioned lime-vanilla flavour ice cream.

What else?  The mysterious Jonas ‘the junk man’, who has a story of his own, roaming the neighbourhood with his horse Ned, dispensing wisdom and medicinal advice; he has a part to play when Tom is seriously ill with a fever.  The delights of Grandma’s indescribably fine cooking, temporarily scuppered when Aunt Rose tidies her kitchen.  The spectre of the murderer maybe still on the loose on the edge of town.

It is there, at the Ravine – “the very end of civilisation” – with his mother, that Douglas gets an inkling (even though he and Tom have talked about old people being a different species) of the not so great generational divide:

Did she, too, feel that intangible menace, that groping out of darkness, that crouching malignancy down below? Was there, then, no strength in growing up? No peace in being an adult? No sanctuary in life? No flesh strong enough to withstand nightmares and midnights?

The generations are inevitably something of a theme in Dandelion Wine.  One of the oldies says about the ‘beginning of wisdom’: “When you’re seventeen you know everything. When you’re twenty-seven if you still know everything you’re still seventeen.” But also: It is the privilege of old people to seem to know everything. But it’s an act and a mask …” Grandpa knows a few things; indeed, Doug’s mother and father don’t figure much in the story (too busy working, maybe?).  Reporter Bill is probably their age:

‘That’s the trouble with your generation,’ said Grandpa. ‘Bill, I’m ashamed of you, a newspaper man. All the things in life that were put here to savour, you eliminate. Save time, save work, you say … Bill, when you’re my age you’ll find out the little savours and little things count more than big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavours, full of a lot of things growing …’

[As it happens I’ve been re-acquainting myself with Soft Machine‘s self-titles first album of 1968,, an album so full of so much invention.  The track Why are we sleeping?:  “It begins with a blessing and ends with a curse / Making life easy by making it worse.’  Just thought I’d put that in]. 

More from Grandpa, and the poetry Ray Bradbury can bring:

“Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher. Nobody guesses, nobody accuses, nobody knows, but there you are. Plato in the peonies, Socrates force-growing his own hemlock. A man toting a sack of blood manure across his lawn is kin to Atlas letting the world spin easy on his shoulder.”

I loved reading this glorious, folksy, charming book.  A big thank you to Annie Spence, who sings the glories and joy Dandelion Wine brings in her witty and fun celebration of reading, Dear Fahrenheit 451: a librarian’s love letters and break-up notes to her books (2017).  You want feelgood in these weird times?  “‘Next year’s going to be even bigger, days will be brighter, nights longer and darker, more people dying, more babies born, and me in the middle of it all.'” Doug tells Tom.  Tom, no fool he, comes back with “You and two zillion other people, Doug, remember.'”  And us.

The Pencils

Doug makes a lot out of that he’s writing with Ticonderoga Pencils.  This had to be worth investigating, and aren’t I glad I did.  ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the most beautiful functional website ever.  Go visit, please.  Scroll down and keep on scrolling down: https://weareticonderoga.com/

The Wine

It takes so many dandelions.  Many recipes on the web.  If you use just the petals it’s less bitter apparently, though complete flowers can be used. A recipe from the Guardian says to use the petals from enough complete dandelion flowers to loosely fill a gallon container.  A gallon container’s worth of dandelion flowers.  And 4.5 litres of water / 1.5kg sugar / Zest and juice of 4 lemons / 500g raisins, chopped or squashed by putting in a carrier bag and pounding, or 200ml can of white grape juice concentrate / 1 sachet of white wine yeast / Yeast nutrient.

Another recipe also mentions orange juice / fresh lemon juice / fresh lime juice / powdered ginger / coarsely chopped orange and lemon zest (strictly no pith) / loads of sugar.

A dandelion wine soundtrack

I had music ringing in my ears from the moment I picked up the book, but could I find it?  First I thought it might be The Band, but no, fine though that is (a highlight of the disappointing third album), that is Strawberry wine.  The I thought – “Let the sun shine bright”? – an old Stephen Foster tune, but that’s My old Kentucky home, Goodnight, but no, no dandelion wine (though in searching found a particularly fine version of the song by the late great John Prine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYQ4WnFG_0I)

Then it came to me.  What took me so long?  Of course, it’s Randy Newman infectious Old Kentucky home, on Twelve Songs (1974,) with the added bonus of Ry Cooder on guitar:

In fact not a particularly suitable accompaniment to Ray Bradbury’s book at all.  First line: “Dandelion and turpentine wine“; it’s a character song about getting pissed, being unpleasant and not giving a damn.  One of Newman’s beautifully constructed feel-good but not actually worthy stuff happening songs. There’s a Johnny Cash version around too, for what it’s worth.

For completion’s sake, without looking too hard here are three more songs called Dandelion wine.  Pursue them at your leisure.  Written by Tony Hicks, The Hollies’ Dandelion wine is an object lesson in why English groups should not try to address American themes directly (https://youtube.com/watch?v=3DrLWEH3zCM).  There’s a lovely bit of pastorale from Gregory Allan Isakov, an aching love song (though he’s ‘drunk in a field’ too) accompanied by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pj367XUjd_4).  And finally there’s Ron Sexsmith, another song of lost but warmly remembered love (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HowrXvlAmBU); includes the lines, “How to take a field of dandelions / And make dandelion wine” – I think there’s a fair chance he’s read the book.

Stay safe, people.

So what do you do when you finish reading the second volume of Philip Pullman‘s epic Book of Dust trilogy?  The easy rhythm of his prose is hypnotic (ease, never easy).  After 704 pages of all kinds of exhilaration, the comedown is immense: where to turn, what can I possibly read next?  For a while you just see a literary vacuum; I know others have felt like this too.  Is there a more exhilarating thriller writer in out-and-out John Buchan mode to be found?  (Rhetorical question: I don’t know, I don’t read thrillers; there are reasons for that).  Never mind the intellectual and emotional stimulation, and the imagination and invention Pullman delivers?

And then you groan at the wait – how long? – before the next and alleged last volume appears and you curse the man because The Secret Commonwealth (David Fickling, 2019) leaves you hanging there, both with all that perilous striving, the sheer adventure of it all and many miles to travel, but also incapable of coming to any conclusion as to how you can feel about it, because the outcome of conflict in Lyra between science and (for want of a better word) the soul, is not so certain either.

I’m not going to bother with too much background here; I’m going to assume you, dear reader, are familiar with the books of which I speak.  In the parallel universe of Brytain, Lyra Belacqua, the baby at the centre of the first volume of The Book of Dust is now Lyra Silvertongue, 20 years old, a student at Oxford University.  She is separated from ‘Pan’ – Pantalaimon – her daemon (a weird sort of soul buddy now stabilised in the form of a pine marten), the separation a source of anguish for them both (and great sadness, for them and us).  I’d forgotten, to tell the truth, this physical split had happened to the teenage Lyra – with the discovery of the ‘Republic of Love – at the end of Pullman’s earlier His Dark Materials trilogy.  The dastardly Magisterium (not so loosely based on a militant Papacy) is still out for world domination, as indeed is some other authority (called The Authority), out in Central Asia and the Middle East.  It’s all to do with attar of roses (though some very particular ones), which might just also involve the all important – more than a touch of particle physics here – Dust as well.  And here’s little old Oakley Street – Lyra recruited – fighting the good fight based in Blighty: “What did this decrepit, poverty stricken, understaffed body think it was doing, taking on the entire Magisterium?

The Amber Spyglass – the last volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy

The thing about the His Dark Materials and Book of Dust trilogies is that they are published by a publisher specialising in children’s books.  Pullman’s books are not – dread term – teen-fiction, nor, for all the fantastic goings-on, are they genre fantasy; all-comers are welcome.  And gratefully too; you forget the target audience – ergo instant classics.  These adventures are also, in passing, a primer in moral philosophy, a young person’s guide to life and thought, no less.  Without pulpit or intrusive pedagogy, I hasten to add.  But with some very timely occasional swearing (social education – see!).  If The Secret Commonwealth does spell its lessons out, then they flow.  There are plenty of situations to parallel the real world.

Here’s Coram, a main man among the Gyptians on his boat in the Fens, explaining to on-the-run Lyra the contradiction at the heart of the game, which I’d say is also as good a description of the dilemma the modern democracies find themselves in as you’ll find anywhere :

Sort of a stalemate. But it’s worse’n that. The other side’s got an energy that our side en’t got. Comes from their certainty about being right. If you got that certainty, you’ll be willing to do anything to bring about the end you want. It’s the oldest human problem, Lyra, an’ it’s the difference between good and evil. Evil can be unscrupulous and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ‘em.’

The Books

You remember the alethiometer?  Did I mention the alethiometer?  Okay, one of the reasons Lyra is so important is that – as introduced in the His Dark Materials trilogy – she can work the alethiometer, an extremely rare quality in a person.  It’s a mechanical magic box – a sort of slide rule-cum-astrological chart-cum- I Ching cum-Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy – that can somehow reveal all sorts of things to the operator.  There used to be an elaborate methodology to its operation but a new method has evolved, which takes a lot more out of the user.  It’s a bone of contention between Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon (you remember Pantalaimon).  He doesn’t like it:

‘I don’t like the new method, Lyra’.
‘But why?’
‘Because when you do it you look as if you’re lost. I can’t tell where you are. And I don’t think you know where you are. You need more imagination.’
‘If you had more imagination it would be better. But -’
‘What are you saying? You’re saying I haven’t got any imagination?’
‘You’re trying to live without it, that’s what I’m saying. it’s those books again. One of them saying it doesn’t exist, the other saying it doesn’t matter anyway.’

“Those books …”  Those books are a crucial component of The Secret Commonwealth.  They are also prime candidates for a prominent place in The Invisible Library.  We will return to those books, but first we must take a detour to visit The Invisible Library.

The Invisible Library


That’s a screen capture from the home page of The Invisible Library, one of the great hopefully collaborative

“The universe (which others call the library) is composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries …”

databases from the early days of the internet.  It describes its contents and mission brilliantly.  It’s not easy to find in search engines these days, not least because of a set of books by Genevieve Cogman, published by Tor, with the series title The Invisible Library – 6 titles since 2015 – featuring “Irene … a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities“, to quote from the back of the first. (Needless to say, it’s on my To-be-read pile).

The original Invisible Library, the creation of one Brian Quinette, opened in the Spring of 2001 and suddenly closed in the summer of 2006.  It has been preserved in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine at: http://web.archive.org/web/20041130030237/http://www.invisiblelibrary.com/

The good people at the Invisible Library, Malibu Lake Branch briefly picked up the baton:
and they also mention another effort founded August 2008 (on Blogger):
which, like the Malibu Lake Branch, doesn’t seem to have lasted out the year.
There is a fairly recent Facebook page for the Malibu Lake Branch, which updated its cover photo last December (“It is not down in any map – True places never are“) with 11 followers (including me) and no action since, though they say they are working on it.

Here’s Lucien, Librarian of the Dreaming, in Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed The Sandman series of graphic novels

Lucien oversees a collection of every book that has ever been imagined – even if that book was never published or even written. That’s just one shelf.

The notion of
the Invisible Library as a resource is a brilliant one.  Its existence is, of course, for those of a certain bibliophilc frame of mind, utterly essential … and at the same time a gloriously futile use of precious time.  I suspect it’s the latter that has floored all attempts so far.  By its nature, the books in this library are by definition legion and the titles forever expanding.  Earlier this year A.J.Hackwith’s The Library of the Unwritten – “The first book in your new favourite series” – was published: “Every book left unfinished by its author is filed away in the Unwritten Wing, a neutral space in Hell presided over by Claire, its head librarian.”  (This too has a place on my To-be-read pile).  I say books; I don’t think anyone’s come up with an audiovisual equivalent yet, though even as I type I am contemplating a discography of fictional bands.

My favourite fictional author will always be Kurt Vonnegut‘s Kilgore Trout.  Uniquely, Trout’s ‘epic science fiction saga’ Venus on the half-shell did actually hit bookshop shelves in a ghosted volume written by fellow SF author Philip Jose farmer.

A good place to dip your toe in the phenomenon is a brief article from the Guardian back in 2008:
It’s worth looking at the Comments too, to see how the idea flies.

But back to Those Books …

OK.  The books that Lyra – “the Lyra who wrote essays and passed examinations” – has been reading that are troubling Pantalaimon in The Secret Commonwealth are:

The Hyperchorasmians

The Hyperchorasmians, a novel by Gottfried Brande, a professor of philosophy at  Wittenburg University.  Although a novel, we’re probably talking Richard Dawkins and pals, who are often accused of deterministic, reductionist thinking as far as consciousness goes.  Last line: “It was nothing more than what it was”.  Pan complains to Lyra that as far as imagination goes, it says “it doesn’t exist“.

The sky full of stars seemed dead and cold, everything in it the result of the mechanical, indifferent interactions of molecules and particles that would continue for the rest of time whether Lyra lived or died, whether human beings were conscious or unconscious: a vast empty silent indifference, all quite meaningless.
Reason had brought her to this state. She had exalted reason over every other faculty. The result had been – was now – the deepest unhappiness she had ever felt. […]

The Constant Deceiver

Simon Talbot’s The constant deceiver  looks to be standing for the phenomena of post-structuralist, relativistic,  thought (much of it French in origin) that infected humanities departments at the tail end of the twentieth century.  Last line: “What we call reality is nothing but a gathering of flimsy similarities held together by habit”.  Pan complains to Lyra that it’s effectively saying imagination “doesn’t matter anyway“.  Another critic says: “He doesn’t believe in objective reality. It’s a fashionable attitude among undergraduates with an essay to write. A flashy writer, witty if you like that sort of thing, very popular lecturer. He’s beginning to acquire a bit of a following among the younger Scholars, mind you.” [Ouch]

Consider this, says another character:

Had reason ever created a poem, or a symphony, or a painting? If rationality can’t see things like the secret commonwealth it’s because rationality’s vision is limited. The secret commonwealth is there. We can’t see it with rationality any more than we can weigh something with a microscope: it’s the wrong sort of instrument. We need to imagine as well as measure … […]

Again, channeling the words of one of the great storytellers:

And if you want to think about them it don’t do no good making lists and classifying and analysing. You’ll just get a lot o’dead rubbish that means nothing. The way to think about the secret commonwealth is with stories. Only stories’ll do.’

PS.  Another entry for the Invisible Library … later on here’s also an ancient epic poem in the Tajik language, Jahan and Rukhsanathat seems to have some kind of prophetic quality helping to drive the action

Where’s he going with all this?

He’s not too sure himself, it seems.  In this entertaining bookshop session with Philip Goff, author of the recently published Galileo’s error he vouchsafes that daemons are “sort of external” and advises, “Read like a butterfly, write like a bee. [‘If only, says Lillabullero‘s daemon]:


Ferguson’s Gang

London, July 1939.  Never mind the coming war, that year’s IRA bombing campaign is still fresh in people’s minds.  The AGM of the National Trust – far from the grand institution we know now – is interrupted by the dramatic arrival of three figures in plain black masks, accompanied by a messenger boy carrying a metal pineapple, which he deposits at the executive table before they make a quick exit.  Disquiet, shock, trepidation and a quick game of pass-the parcel … until one of them reads the attached label.  Ferguson’s Gang – a bohemian band of unofficial National Trust fundraising gangsters – had struck again.  I only learnt about the existence of this extraordinary group of women …

Last September, staying with friends on the Isle of Wight.  They take us to the Newtown National Nature Reserve, a saltmarsh, for a walk.  Yay, we can make rare use of National Trust membership (like we always mean to) to use the car park.  Our friends have never actually been here when the current eighteenth century (give or take a year – 1699) Old Town Hall, a National Trust property, is open.  And hey, today it is.  A Town Hall long without a town, but with a history.  Saved from dereliction in the early 1930s by Ferguson’s Gang.  Later for that, though (I’m trying to inject a bit of tension here) …
[You can click on the photos to enlarge them if you so choose]


Yes, those are boats in the distance. Once the island’s capital in medieval times, Newtown also used to be on the coast.

Saltmarshes … may look a bit dull, but as that architect said, God is in the details (rhetorical theology, obviously).  Found art follows:

This reminded me of Jessica Warboys’ work with paint and tides, seen a while back at Tate St Ives

I see some Howard Hodgkin in this one.

Mixed media

Back to the Old Town Hall.  Upstairs the council chamber, period furniture, the usual stuff from when it was a town.  Early nineteenth century it was a rotten borough – two members of parliament (double what the Isle of Wight has now) until the 1832 Reform Act.  George Canning, the UK’s shortest serving Prime Minister (not height, period served) was one of them.  There were some Hogarth prints, from his election series, showing that in some ways things are conducted in a more civilised fashion these days, in the smaller room at the back:

Not as crappy photos in theory as they look in execution; those window reflections are deliberate, an attempt at suggesting something or other

Members of the gang relaxing on the Isle of Wight.

Then a surprise, things get interesting as down the rather fine early C19 cast iron spiral staircase we wind and there’s a display celebrating, in what was once a lair of theirs, Ferguson’s Gang (you remember Ferguson’s Gang). 

The story of these ‘National Trust gangsters’ is told in Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck‘s Ferguson’s Gang (National Trust Books, 2015).  It’s a fascinating tale that I’m surprised is not better known, a fascinating footnote (at the very least) to any history of England in the twentieth century.  This bohemian secret society, a tight group of upper-middle and middle class women, of a variety of political persuasions and sexual orientations (and a couple of men), some well-connected culturally and socially, first came together in the movement to save Stonehenge (yes, it really was under threat of development).  Among other things they badgered all the coins with Victoria’s head on them out of friends and family.

The proto-group campaigning at Stonehenge

The group was formalised soon after as Ferguson’s Gang, with a constitution, minute book, formal meetings and all.  Inspired by Clough Williams-Ellis’s England and the octopus (yes, he of Portmeirion) – a cri de coeur to save rural England from unchecked suburban spread – the aim was to raise funds around specific projects for the still fledgling National Trust.  And to have fun doing it.  (No, they didn’t rob banks)

Between 1927 and 1939 the group delivered their contributions to the Trust’s work with a sense of theatre and mystery.  They were newsworthy – a scan of a selection of cuttings – the endpapers of the book – can be seen below.  You could  say they anticipated both agit-prop and performance art.  Their identities remained pretty much anonymous until their deaths, adopting colourful pseudonyms to conduct their business in public and in their minute book, ‘The Boo’ – so called allegedly because whoever did the cover was over-ambitious in estimating the size of the letters they could get away with – which recorded their activities and plans invigorated with a mixture of mockney and text-speak.  There were copies of its pages downstairs in The Old Town Hall.

Friends from Cambridge University and The Slade School of Art formed a nucleus, but the group ‘s membership was broader than that.  As well as formal meetings they would occasionally hold what they called ‘hauntings’ in the properties they worked to save involving much food (hampers from Harrods, Fortnum & Mason) and drink.  Seeing some of their pseudonyms – the book reveals their public identities, most for the first time – might give you a flavour.  If there ever was a Ferguson, he or she was never a member:

  • Bill Stickers: the instigator, first woman to get a double first in Oriental Languages at Cambridge (1904-96
  • Sister Agatha
  • Red Biddy
  • ‘is B the Bludy Beershop
  • Kate O’Brien the Nark
  • Anne of Lathbury
  • Black Mary
  • Old Pol of Paddington
  • Granny the Throttler
  • The Artichoke, the group’s architect (author Bagnol’s granddad)
  • Erb the Smasher (the other significant bloke)
  • and Silent O’Moyle (someone’s dad)

After the war the impetus was inevitably lost though some would continue to meet socially. Over those 12 years they had saved Shalford Mill, an 18th century watermill near Guildford, the aforementioned Newtown Old Town Hall, Priory Cottages near Oxford, and significant stretches of the Cornish coastline, no small feat.  The extraordinary Bill Stickers taught herself Cornish and was appointed a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd among other things.  She unwittingly made it into the Guinness Book of Records in 1983 for the world’s longest piece of embroidery, 1,338 feet illustrating themes from C.S.Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles.  Red Biddy had a life full of ups and real downs; she joined the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common in 1981, among other exploits.  A fascinating chapter in English history, a tale well told.

If you want to know more about Ferguson’s Gang there are websites worth a look at, even though they haven’t the reach of the book (and the National Trust site has much better photos of the Old Town Hall than I managed to take):


https://www.fergusonsgang.com/ [the book’s website]


Not quite the sheep thing, exactly.  Newly widowed (nay, liberated) Cora Seaborne first meets, unannounced, William Ransome, married vicar of Aldwinter, in 1893, as they dramatically mud-wrestle to rescue a sheep stuck in the greasy mire on a river bank near a rural Essex village.  Surprise, surprise, when next she next meets him – the anonymous scruffy creature from the black lagoon – he turns out to be head of the family she’d previously arranged to stay with in Essex (friend of a friend).

There’s a quote among those singing its praises in the 2017 paperback edition of Sarah Perry‘s The Essex serpent (Serpent’s Tail [of course!], 2016) wondering whether, “Had Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker come together to write the great Victorian novel” it would have bettered the book we had in our hand.  There are big elements of Dickens in The Essex serpent, particularly in the Colchester passages (a disabled beggar – a real ‘character’ – minding a town house half-ruined courtesy of a recent earthquake early on, who also has a significant part to play near the end), but, as JD at Book Group sagely suggested, it would do no harm to throw George Eliot into the mix as well.

It’s pretty soft gothic as far as the Bram Stoker elements go.  There have been sightings of something, the return, worried villagers are suggesting, of a creature of local legend, documented back to the sixteenth century, maybe occasioned, let loose, by aforementioned earthquake, and the fear of those who fear the worst (many of them in the vicar’s congregation) and what it may portend, is real enough.

Against this background deep in the heart of The Essex serpent is a love story.  More than one, actually, as the story broadens out and travels back to London giving us a couple of deeply thwarted hopes too.  All good stuff, and you care about these people.  But with Cora and Will it is a relationship that must overcome barriers of a philosophical and spiritual nature We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I” says Cora, and the challenge enervates him – never mind questions of morality.  In a neat twist – as far as the mysterious creature goes – it is vicar Will, with Marx and Darwin on his bookshelves, who is the rationalist as far as the serpent goes, appalled at the evangelist doom-criers, while Cora, paleontologist and big Mary Anning fan, is holding on to the hope of a living fossil, an Essex equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.  She chides his faith:

‘Yes – a shame. That in the modern age a man could impoverish his intellect enough to satisfy himself with myth and legend …’ […]
‘I’ve turned my back on nothing – I have done the reverse. Do you think everything can be accounted for by equations and soil deposits? I am looking up, not down.’ There again was another of those little alterations in the air, as if the pressure had dropped, and a storm was coming: each was aware of having grown angry with the other, uncertain why.

There is plenty else going on though.  Poverty, slum clearance, street violence, philanthropy, the matter of socialism (with a guest appearance from Eleanor Marx, echoing the Pre-Raphaelites’ appearance in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s woman, not the books’ only shared vibe).  Not forgetting pioneering surgical techniques, cutting-edge stuff in the face of the medical establishment.  All these themes are convincingly brought to life by a broad array of precisely drawn characters from across the social spectrum, millionaire to beggar.  Will’s autistic son’s existence is freed-up up by Cora introducing him to the Sherlock Holmes stories, while Will’s wife has a classic Victorian wasting malady fuelling an ultimately telling (and significant plot-wise) obsession collecting things of a blue hue.

After a slow start – all atmosphere and slow action – The Essex serpent romps along nicely, with promptly delivered letters (it is 1893) helping the narrative along nicely.  Sarah Perry has a lovely turn of phrase, sometimes pithy, sometimes poetic.  Here a neat bit of scene setting with “… a thicket of hanging baskets in which daffodils and primroses jostled bad-temperedly for space. The day was fine, as if the sky regretted the slow release of winter’s grip“; there a relationship sweetly nailed, as with the vicar’s wife, the man himself and her mother: “She felt then, and felt still, a fond pity for any woman who had not had the sense to marry her Will. Her mother had lived long enough to be disappointed in her daughter’s failure to be disappointed.”  Cora explains that Martha (her paid companion) “… is a socialist. Well: sometimes I think we all must be, when it comes down to it, if we have a grain of sense – [Lillabullero smiles, silently punches the air] but for Martha it’s as much a way of life as Matins and Evensong to the good Reverend here.”

The relationship of Cora and Will [no spoilers] is beautifully nuanced.  I am floored by a sentence like, “In the end it comes down more or less to this: she does not write, because she wants to.”  Ah, the aforementioned letters, but: “It was indecent – he was at his best sealed in an envelope – that he was so unavoidably a thing of blood and bones made it impossible to ignore the strong pulse beating in her neck …” Even so, I don’t feel melodrama at all.  Incidentally, in passing flirt, Will gives Cora (and us, well new to me, anyway) an admirable birdspotting tip: “‘I’m not as good with birds as I’d like,’ he said, ‘though I can tell you the blue tit wears a highwayman’s mask, and the great tit wears the black cap of the judge that’s going to hang him.’”

Near the end Will has gone “down to the river mouth, to Leviathan’s black bones, and looked out at the estuary, willing the serpent up from the deep to swallow him down like Jonah. By the rivers of Essex I sat down and wept, he thought…”  Eventually Cora, back in London, writes back to him:

Yesterday I walked to Clerkenwell in the morning and stood by the iron gate where the Fleet flows, and listened and imagined I heard the waters of all the rivers I have known – the head of the Fleet at Hampstead where I played when I was young, and the wide Thames, and the Blackwater, with its secrets that were hardly worth keeping.

(Which, of course, they were … to the book). 

I was moved by The Essex Serpent – good for mind and soul – to the extent that I don’t feel it that inappropriate that this passage had me singing I’ve known rivers to myself, Gary Bartz’s musical setting of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ The negro speaks of rivers, which is always worth reading or hearing.  Here’s Courtney Pine’s take, from his Modern day jazz stories album, featuring Cassandra Wilson:

Vaultage – the last hurrahs!

For now, anyway.  Damn virus.  Simon Stafford has as immaculate a taste (in late ’60s & early ’70s artists’ music) as his skilled guitar playing is tasteful, and his customised treatment of the songs from that era – classic (or ought to be) – always hits the spot.  Crazy Horses’s I don’t want to talk about it, Neil Young’s Harvest moon, a spellbinding take on Dylan’s Girl of the north country, Tom Waits’ Tom Traubert’s blues (Waltzing Matilda and all).  And an arresting interpretation of Van Morrison’s Tupelo honey.

Interval: That feeling when, because you’ve never really heard the words of Tupelo honey until hearing Simon do it, you purchase The essential Van Morrison CD (I’ve got a few, but …) and one third of the way in on CD2 you discover a devotional duet with Cliff Richard; though soon we’re into Real, real gone, so a quick recovery.  And while we’re here, a compilation of performances from Ready, Steady, Go – sixth form Fridays long ago – on BBC4 the other Friday: the sheer presence of a young Van Morrison, still fronting Them, and Jerry Lee Lewis pounding the piano really stuck out; oh, and, I suppose, a reminder of why the Rolling Stones once meant something.

Paul Manning – my last in the flesh musician. So worth a photo (© Pat Nicholson)


And Lillabullero’s last pub pint for a while too. Cheers for now.  Be safe.

But back to the last Vaultage. Most of the usual suspects thinking this is the last for a while.  Great evening.  Massed singing of No woman, no cry among others, courtesy Paul Manning.  Heart warming set.  Farewells at the close – peacefully clashing elbows (remember, that’s what we were told).

Take care, all.



A month ago now (yes, Lillabullero is lagging behind again) I came home from what in days of yore would have been called “an illustrated lecture” about the Peterloo massacre of 1819 and I was angry: they were wearing their Sunday best, had gone out of their way to behave as peaceable loyal citizens, but still got brutally attacked by the powers that be.  So I came home and caught up with the final episode of The trial of Christine Keeler on the telly and got angrier still.  I mean, I knew Stephen Ward, abandoned by his establishment friends, was stitched up by the police (under instruction from above), but quite how blatantly came as a surprise; never mind the mauling young Christine received, not least by the prosecution in court.

Still in catch-up mode I then gave the Dolly Parton – Here I am documentary shown at Christmas a spin, and some equilibrium was restored before going to bed.  Intelligence, wit, compassion, that voice, and such great songs.  What a life!  50 years married and hardly any of the musicians and industry people she’s worked with have ever met him – that is how to do celebrity and private life.  She knew exactly what she was doing with her chest – a career move – and she won, she don’t give a damn what they say ’bout that.  Then there’s her literacy campaigning, her Imagination Library free books project.  It’s a wonderful story.  And she’s always been a great storyteller.  Here’s one of the earlier, incredibly brave, songs:

StonyWords 2020 

That Peterloo lecture was part of this year StonyWords, Stony Stratford’s own literary festival.  Robert Poole was speaking to Peterloo: the English uprising – also title of his substantial and definitive study published last year for the 200th anniversary by the OUP.  I learnt at lot, particularly, as I say, about who the protesters were, what exactly they were aiming for and how they hoped to achieve it, only to be undone by the authorities’ paranoid fear of what had happened in France, the bloody revolutionary chaos of a quarter of a century previously.  There were those who had fought at Waterloo only 4 years earlier on both sides, those still in uniform hacking down those in their Sunday best.  The aftermath, the cover-ups, were instructive too.

Peterloo continued

Robert Poole is listed in the credits as ‘Historian’ in the graphic novel Peterloo: witnesses to a Massacre (New Internationalist, 2019), along with Polyp (‘artwork’) and Eva Schlunke (‘script editor’), and a fine depiction of events it makes, along with 12 pages of annotation.  Powell praised the graphic form for its ability to economically portray different points of view simultaneously on the same page.  School history lessons – the topic is a must, surely – would be enlivened if more textbooks were like this.

From page to stage as Stony Stratford Theatre Society presented Peterloo: protest, democracy, freedom, an evening of readings taken from witnesses and contemporary accounts of the massacre and its aftermath – blatant establishment cover-ups and prosecutions – selected and assembled by Rob Gifford, further greatly aided and abetted with suitable music from a small group led by Paul Martin, who also composed much of it (exit to Bacup and Rochdale Coconut dances).  What happened at Peterloo really should have a more prominent place in the national narrative.

If you count the Bardic Trials (previously mentioned in despatches) which kicked off the series of events I made it to a handful more of the two dozen events that were part of StonyWords.  Thanks to curators Rob and Liz Gifford of this parish.


Kevin Crossley-Holland told us how Seahenge: a journey (Kailpot Press, 2019), his new verse cycle, had evolved from the idea of adding a new section – recognising the import of Seahenge’s discovery, suddenly exposed by the elements near to where he lives – to a possible reprint of The stones remain: megalithic sites of Britain (1989), an earlier collaboration with photographer Andrew Rafferty.  Whereas the latter featured purely figurative black and white photography, Rafferty described how he had gone about creating – without any digital mucking about – the atmospheric impressionistic images that grace Seahenge, citing and showing examples of painter Howard Hodgkin’s work as a big influence (Hurray, said I, who have one of his as my PC wallpaper).  They gave us an absorbing performance, the verses read over colour slides.  In the discussion after, the author, talking about his creative process, described a page from a notebook he kept:  “Poetry is music,” he said, “but there are distractions.” (Thanks for my title, Kevin).

King Arthur

Medievalist Nicholas Higham was entertaining, talking to his latest book, King Arthur: the making of the legend (Yale UP, 2018), wherein he rubbishes (academically, you understand) all the posited theories as to where the legend might have sprung from over the centuries in history, from the Classical world to Geoffrey of Monmouth via Wales, and beyond – he has always been a fictional character.  Much merriment when he concluded, You’re better off simply citing Walt Disney or Monty Python’s Spamalot.

The Butcher & Mrs Bennet

Stony Play Readers gave us a rehearsed reading of The Butcher and Mrs Bennet telling the tale of … what it says on the poster.  Much disliked lady of the manor, back in 1694 – did she fall or was she pushed (or worse)?  Playwrights Mike Dore and Joe Laredo set it up as a mock trial by television of the accused butcher (although somehow the victim herself also appeared in the studio, storming off the set crying character assassination or similar).  Much comic mileage from the BBC production crew as things progressed.  Audience, cheering, jeering, as jury: not guilty.  Of course.  Fascinating bit of local history brought to life.

Peter Pan in Stonyland

And so, finally, to the (can I now call it traditional? – too soon?) “little town panto”.  Peter Pan in Stonyland featured on stage representatives from (at least) eight decades of Stony inhabitants.  Yup, great fun, from the Panto Audience Inspectors, checking out if we had a decent enough laugh to pass muster to be allowed to watch, through to a spirited performance of an “If I were not a … (insert occupation) … a (ditto) I would be” sequence, in which, on the night we went at least, no one was injured.  All the usual thrills, spills, bad puns and local references.  Long may the panto, and the Stony Stratford Theatre Society run.

And, back in the normal run of things …

Scribal and Vaultage

Sad to say, the last Scribal Gathering until further notice.  Unfortunately the regular venue has been lost; the pub had a better offer.  A goodie to go out with, nevertheless.  Naomi as charming and powerful as ever, Paul Rainey’s hilarious continuing saga of office life (it’s the way he tells it), Donna all over the place in a good way.  Not sure I’ve specifically mentioned her before, but I raise my glass (or tea cup) to Danni Antagonist, ever giving proceedings a succinct, sparky, poetic lift.  A full set from Miller & Walker at Vaultage was a treat; absolutely no harm in nostalgia for ’60s folk.  And while I’m not a fan of post-Syd Floyd, kudos for Simply Floyd for kicking off with Arnold Layne.

Vaultage is now back to be fortnightly.  Have to say I was surprised it kept going so well weekly, so congrats to Pat Nicholson and Andy Bongos.  Decision is down to the new pub owners, who are anxious to make the joint more commercially viable.  Thing is, events in pubs do need to raise bar revenue; I like to think I’ve drunk my share (if, these days, in moderation).

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