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Harpole ReportThe Harpole Report

Delighted to find this at the back of a shelf when looking for something else, whatever that was instantly forgotten.  Long ago had convinced myself I’d loaned it out and (understandably) never got it back.  J.L.Carr‘s The Harpole report (1972) is one of those books, one of those timeless you-must-read (especially if you’re a teacher) comic novels of English life that stay laugh-aloud funny no matter how much actual circumstances have changed.  Set in a primary school in a small town, circa 1970, it is presented in the form of a report, from the introduction of which I now quote:

And remember this.  A school is a most complex institution.  Children and teachers, administrators and their minor officials, caretakers, cooks, medical officers, government inspectors, governors.  And parents.  All these grinding away, in and out of mesh.  Is there any wonder then that sometimes – as in the case of Harpole – there is a terrifying jarring of gears, or, worse still, that unforgettable coffin-thump of a big-end gone.

I realise that there is at least one generation of drivers out there for whom that last experience is  something of a mystery, but you still laugh, right?

Harpole takes on a temporary headship and inherits a mixed bag of staff, all with agendas of their own.  What happens to him is recorded in a wonderful chronological collage – delivered with a delightful lightness of touch – of excerpts from the school’s Official Log-book, Harpole’s private journal, a selection of all manner of internal and external communications and memos illuminating his battle with local bureaucrats and politicians alike, supplemented by examples of the children’s work, along with further excerpts from letters from Harpole to his fiancée, and those of Emma Foxberrow – a determined and idealistic progressive young teacher – to her sisterEvents unfold entertainingly.

As a footnote, some nice intertextualities.  The Harpole Report is set in Melchestershire (who did Roy of the Rovers play for?) and the problem kids from the lower-class family are called the Widmerpools (you know, that bastard who climbs the greasy pole in Anthony Powell’s A dance to the music of time).  There are probably more.

Yesterday's papersYesterday’s Papers

No disrespect at all to Martin Edwards, but I can’t help feeling that Mastermind has rather lost its way these days when something like Martin’s Harry Devlin novels are one of the specialist subjects allowed to be offered up by one of the contestants this week.  Especially when the first question has to spend time briefly explaining to viewers who Harry Devlin is.  (“I even forget whodunnit in some of those books!” the man himself said on his FaceBook page.)

Yesterday’s papers (1994) is the fourth in this particular sequence of novels, all sporting titles borrowed from the annals of rock music.  He’s a Liverpool solicitor who gets easily bored with the day job and who is fully equipped with that attractive crime fiction pre-requisite, of resenting “the failure of the world to match his more romantic notions of what was right and what was wrong.”

This time it’s a miscarriage of justice  – the murder of a young girl, daughter of a rising left-wing academic – dating back 30 years to the heady days of the ’60s Liverpool beat group boom and Harold Wilson’s ‘White heat of technology’.   There’s an interesting set of characters dead and alive (some both in the course of the book).  Faded glories, wasted lives, grudges held and secrets maintained, the broad consequences of a crime; with twists and violent turns, the truth finally teased out:

He had so desperately wanted to know who had strangled her, and why, and now that he had his answers, his principal emotion was sadness rather than satisfaction.  With murder, he reminded himself, there were no slick solutions, just the desolate reality of human behaviour as weak as it was wicked.

Nicely put.  There are plenty of neat touches too.  Harry’s receptionist doing her best to keep his eyes on the jobs that bring the money in  (“… she was a mistress of all the receptionist’s black arts and knew instinctively when he was within reach“), a scene at a record fair (“… and two men in their forties were recalling the merits of Northern Soul with the nostalgic exaggeration of old buffers harping on about the Dunkirk Spirit“), nods to the Golden Age of crime writing (“a time of innocence and charm“), on which subject Martin Edwards is an acknowledged expert.  I’ve read and would recommend all his Lake District Mysteries; another Liverpool novel, Waterloo sunset, is featured here at Lillabullero in The Kinks in literature section, and I am inclined now to catch up with the rest of Harry too.

Further musical adventures

VRW25BRS10456101_791331764280933_5682092596533613996_nScribal Mar 15
Plenty going on.  At the Scribal Sunday session there had been a cello and guitar duo singing the blues quite effectively (lovely instrument, the cello) and lo and behold, there was another one at the Vaultage Re-wired the following Thursday.  Or it might have been the same duo (never caught the names) with added blues harp thing around the guitarists’ neck.  Again worked well.  This Vaultage was a belter – great job, Bard Pat and Lois – relaxed and full of good music, the evening finishing magnificently by The Scrumpy Bastards, a highly accomplished fiddle and guitar duo, who had fun, as did we, and were a joy to watch.

We have lift off! LtoR: Neil Mercer, Michele Welborn, Clive Barrett and, blending in with his surroundings, Andy Powell. Phot c/o whoever took it, treated by me in PSP.

The Beechey Room sessions: We have lift off! LtoR: Neil Mercer, Michele Welborn, Clive Barrett and, blending in with his surroundings, Andy Powell. Photo c/o whoever took it, treated by me in PSP.

 Come Saturday afternoon and – hey – forget the goals going in on the Red Button: music is being made in the cosy new Beechey Room in York House.   Solo and ensemble.  Long may they continue in this vein.

Tuesday and the March Scribal Gathering at The Crown, singer-songwriter Rob Bray a last-minute replacement as featured performer.  Sparkling guitar, great wit.  Demystified open tuning: a decent noise possible “If you can open a crisp packet …”  Finished movingly with a serious song.  Stephen Hobbs played a blinder with his account (financial and narrative) of his lousy week: car serviced at great expense, shit gig at The Stables with an audience of 8 (and one of those 8 cried out for ‘More!’), buying Dylan’s Shadows in the night album; cut to the first time he heard Nick Drake and was not impressed and how 20 years later he saw the light; how he expects similar to happen to him with the Dylan 20 years hence, on his hospice deathbed.  Earlier Monty Lynch got an unexpected cheer introducing his song about the gods of the Zambesi River – Zimbabweans in the house!

StonyFolks2: photo (c) Nick Gordon - not just a bluesman with bottleneck and a Robert Johnson t-shirt.

StonyFolks2: photo (c) Nick Gordon – not just a bluesman with a bottleneck and a Robert Johnson t-shirt.

Another Saturday night and back to York House for StonyFolks:2 and another grand evening’s music-making.  I was going to say ‘All the usual suspects’, but thought the better of it (not all of ‘em, anyway).  Broadest of definitions of folk (Louis Armstrong: “I aint never heard a horse sing a song.”) and none the worse for that.  Taken aback, on the 50th birthday of its release (give or take a day), by a confident and committed cover of Donovan’s Catch the wind from a young girl whose name I didn’t catch.  Those ’60s obviously just a passing fad, as the old folks used to say.  Think I’ll be OK joining in with Cotton Mill Girls in the future.

And so to the Aortas session in the George on Sunday.  Dan had his new toy, a – if I understand this right – touch screen wireless tablet digital mixer that meant he could play with the sound by touching the pretty graphs, and also do it standing at the back of the room.  It all sounded fine, better than ever.  There was cake (happy birthday Naomi, who ended with a new miserable song) and for the third time of gigging in the space of this single blog, Mark Owen‘s relentless (in the best possible sense of the word) Getting away with something, his toe-tapping take on the phone-tapping scandal.  It can stand it.

And then there was the murmuration …

… just a couple of miles down the road.  How lucky are we?  Not the greatest of photos, I’m afraid, but tis mine own.
Murmuration

Complicated lifeIf you include Ray’s own ‘unofficial autobiography’, Johnny Rogan‘s Ray Davies: a complicated life (Bodley Head, 2015) is the 8th Kinks/Ray Davies biography I’ve read down all the days – sly Kinks song reference there – since 1984.  It’s certainly the heaviest.  At over 700 pages it weighs in at a whopping 1.12 kilos, leaving its most recent contenders – Nick Hasted‘s You really got me (2011) at 0.7, and Rob Jovanovic‘s God save the Kinks (2013) at 0.66 kilos – well behind.  Keeping a boxing the going, Rogan certainly packs a punch, but he’s also not averse to hitting below the belt.  Can it be called definitive on bulk and documented sources alone?  No, that would be difficult in any circumstances, but also because the book is so mean-spirited.  But does it add anything?  Yes, indeed.  For which thanks are due.

In what follows I take a lot about Ray Davies and The Kinks for granted; as might be gathered from elsewhere here in Lillabullero (see the header tag) I have rated his cultural contribution – finest UK songwriter of his generation, just for starters – highly for decades.

Ray Davies: a complicated life is a substantial piece of work, then, put together from a series of interviews with a broad range of people connected with its subject conducted by the author over the space of 30 years, including a recent one actually with Ray, that still did not entirely resolve Rogan’s quest for clarity, along with others’ unedited interviews made available to the author, and a wealth of newspaper and magazine articles, mostly based around interviews,  from the past 50 years.  Inevitably there is plenty about brother Dave in the mix.  The biographical progression through the life is accompanied by hum-drum zeitgeist summaries and relevant historical background information.  It has to be said he is not the greatest of prose stylists, but while there is not much that sparkles, he’s a competent enough composer of sentences (not something you can take for granted these days), albeit one prone to the odd purple passage:

While Dave Davies was bereft, lost in the voracious revel of his senses and wary of the uncharted topography of the future … (p72)
Harbingers of the cult of youth realized that 1963 symbolized a sudden erosion of the old order as teenagers paraded their discontent while spending freely on glossy magazines … (p87)

There is a 73 page apparatus of notes documenting and supporting the text, the lengthier of which of which are also worth reading.  There is no bibliography, there’s a pretty full selected discography if that’s what you need, and an intriguing list – the fullest I’ve seen – of unreleased compositions.  In writing this piece I’ve tried to find a couple of items in the index and failed.  Inevitably here are misprints, ‘respect’ for ‘disrespect’ being the finest (p497).

Rogan first published a book about The Kinks 30 years ago.  He’s also done books on, among others, Van Morrison, The Smiths, The Byrds and Neil Young, and wrote the well-regarded Starmakers & Svengalis, about the ’60s generation of pop and rock management.  His first Kinks book was subtitled The sound and the fury in the UK and, more significantly, in the United States, away from the lawyers, A mental institution; the writing of it was not made easy for him and it showed.  There’s been a lot of water under the (Waterloo) bridge since then, but Rogan’s tack hasn’t really changed.  I’m assuming he had some say in the photos to be used on the dust jacket.  When I looked to put a date to the photos chosen, Getty Images, who own it, had 1,605 others to choose from.  I can see the design attraction (glasses on, glasses off) but … from 1979?  Hardly the most auspicious year in Kinks history, and not exactly doing his subject any favours in the instant recognition stakes.  Never mind the candidature for worst dark glasses ever.

Why should Kinks aficionados read this book?  Because Rogan has talked to people other writers haven’t, or didn’t get much out of if they did.  So we get more about the year Ray was at the Hornsey College of Art than I’ve seen anywhere else, and more about his musical apprenticeship gigging with the Dave Hunt and Hamilton King bands before he committed to the group that was to become The Kinks.  Both pre-Avory drummers get to tell their tales and erstwhile (twice) manager Larry Page is given plenty of space.  We get Rasa’s view of their marriage, all the more interesting for being presented unsensationally, and, without being prurient or intrusive, more about wives two and three – talented women – than I’ve seen anywhere else into the bargain, and is interesting to know.  Ray has said he can’t write love songs, he only does break-up songs; it’s a quote I’m surprised not to see used here.  Although obviously Rogan is going over much well-trod ground, he doesn’t labour Ray’s formative family and school experiences in too much repetitive detail (though still plenty enough for it to be a revelation to a friend for whom all this was new).

Why will Kinks aficionados find it a painful read?  Because, while it’s no secret that Ray can be a nightmare to work and live with, how mean a man he can be, Rogan seems to me to be going out of his way to document this to the detriment of everything else.  Yes, he’s talked to other members of The Kinks over the years, but I do wonder about the direction of the questioning.  The pluses of the experience don’t get the exposure that you can find in other sources, like the lengthy interviews you can find on Geoff Lewis’s splendid Kast Off Kinks website, or in Tom Kitts & Michael Kraus’s collection of academic pieces and interviews, Living on a thin line (2002).  Nevertheless, it’s hard not to contest Larry Page when he says, “Ray just enjoyed being awkward,” and bitter long-suffering tour manager Sam Curtis pulls no punches in this regard.  As for the fights and the sibling rivalry – not especially illuminated by quotes lifted from articles in psychology journals – well, there is no getting away from it, over and over again.  Back-up vocalist Shirlie Roden has some revealing things to say about touring with the warring brothers, which makes depressing reading.  As does John ‘The Baptist’ Gosling’s withering letter to Record Collector in 2006:

… it’s not easy working with a megalomaniac, and I got tired of being abused just to justify Ray’s unreasonable and selfish demands.

There’s something D.H.Lawrence wrote in his Studies in Classic American Literature – “Never trust the artist.  Trust the tale.” – that has to apply here.  We’ll come to Rogan’s problematic appreciation of the art later, but he certainly doesn’t trust the artist, and not, it must be admitted, without some cause.  He challenges the mythology, the narrative Ray has applied to, among other things, the ‘injustice’ of the NME Prizewinners’ concert (“Ray’s attempt to rewrite history was not merely eccentric but downright peculiar“), how much blame Larry Page should take for the early American tour debacle, or just how much of a commercial failure The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society was first time around; it was probably actually “a modest seller.”.  He runs down sources to back up such suppositions too.  On another tack, he logs, for example, a whole range of explanations delivered in interviews over the years – he barely scratches the surface, I suspect – of the genesis and meaning of Waterloo sunset.

When it comes down to it, I’m not sure Rogan trusts the tales so much as takes them on trust a lot of time either.  He’s no musicologist – doesn’t try, no bad thing – but nor do I don’t get any great love of music springing from the pages of this book.  It hasn’t got me racing to the turntable – always a decent measure of a book about musicians, surely, no matter how well the reader knows the songs.  Of course, it’s a truism that Kinks fans will always disagree about particular albums and songs, but I think he undersells a lot of the Kinks work from all eras, not least Phobia (“without Ray’s strongest songwriting” – really? Scattered?), never mind the brilliant Muswell hillbillies.  Does Arthur really sound “somewhat anti-climactic by comparison” with the single of Shangri-la that preceded it?  Mind, he does find Sleepwalker unimpressive and even finds a Ray quote saying he’s not convinced about it either, so it’s not all bad.

I don’t know how much he’s seen of The Kinks in performance (not too much, I’d wager), but I get no sense that he’s seen much, if anything, of Ray performing solo, or with the new band.  I get no sense from this book of the magic – of his joy in performing, the skill, the artistry, the energy – of what I saw when I was privileged to see him doing, say, Stand Up Comic at The Stables a few years back, of the absolute glee of his leap at that bit in The tourist, of the massive achievement of the Village Green Preservation Society suite with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Crouch End Festival Chorus in 2011, or the brilliant music-making of the three-pronged acoustic guitar trio on the Americana tour.  He almost certainly did see him as the narrator of Ray’s play, Come dancing, at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.  But note the barbed, begrudging, proviso:

Never before had he been this revealing or more endearingly human.  Onstage at Stratford East, his more puzzling, petty and negative personality traits were consumed by the emergence of Davies the humanitarian.  Were he a great actor, this would be one of the most astonishing performances of his life […]  This was the Ray Davies of songs such as ‘Waterloo Sunset’, a fragment of a more complex persona but, for fans and idealists, the true essence of the man.

 clinnerAlmost finished here.  There was a surprise lurking under the dust jacket.  Not unwelcome, makes a change.  Matt laminate.  Not sure I understand what’s going on.  Vaguely reminiscent pattern and colours from the car on that old Marble Arch album?  Click on the pic to get a blow-up.  Looks like the image is taken from the back cover – those glasses – but … what happened to his mouth?  What is it all supposed to mean?  The creator remains anonymous, uncredited.

Before we leave the page within, though, a few thoughts and things that tickled my fancy that don’t fit in anywhere else:

  • I was hoping for more football.  That all those hours Rogan spent in the British Library newspaper and magazine archive at Colindale might have unearthed more details in local papers of the show biz teams the brothers played in, who with, who against, how did it go?  And I know you can’t include everything, but I missed the story about the group being late for a gig in Torquay because the 1966 World Cup Final went into extra time, and the fact that it was goalscorer Geoff Hurst that Ray chose to induct The Kinks into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005 rather than someone, like most, from within the music industry.  Because surely both are an important part of the genuine Ray Davies narrative of him not being like everybody else.
  • Fascinated to learn that the song Apeman might have been inspired at least in part by the David Warner character in the film Morgan, a suitable case for treatment(1966), one of my favourite films, that Ray identified with in his first crisis as a successful Kink.
  • There’s a wonderful quote in the chapter bravely titled The Negro’s Revenge (that taken from an early anti-rock’n’roll diatribe in a newspaper): “Contemporaneous studies such as … Richard Hoggart’s The uses of literacy … lamented the Americanization [sic] of modern society with unabashedly partisan zeal.  Hoggart’s description of a mundane coffee bar had the tone of a religious pamphlet mixed with the portentous prose of a science fiction novel.”  He’s right, it’s hilarious; it’s the end of the world as we know it.  (And Hoggart was one of the good guys!)
  • That story about the Registrar refusing to marry Ray and Chrissie Hynde because they were arguing too much?  Not true.  By the time they’d stopped arguing they’d simply missed their allotted time slot.
  • Shel Talmy: “Ray made Rod Stewart look like a philanthropist.” You have to laugh.
  • Did you know that Ray had changed his name by deed poll to simply Raymond Douglas by the time of his second marriage?  Neither did I.

EverybodyEverybody loves Raymond

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  If you don’t know the tv programme that ran from 1996 to 2005 in the US then, if you’ll excuse the imputation, you should.  It’s one of the most brilliantly sustained ensemble family sitcoms, well, ever.  This side of FrasierEverybody loves Raymond is both title and wearily delivered catchphrase out of the resentful mouth of his sibling Robert (the tall one at the back).  Raymond (blue checked shirt) is a bit of a monster.  I’m secretly in love with wife Debra (in the red) and only slightly less so on learning that the actress who plays her is an active pro-lifer.  And yes, that is Peter Boyle.  In context, his delivery, the pained yell of, “I used to be a gentleman” is quite simply one of the great comic lines of all time.  In the UK early morning cyclical re-runs of Everybody loves Raymond and Frasier on Channel4 (and an hour later again on Channel4+1) are reason enough to get out of bed of a morning.

james-mcmurtry_complicated-gameIt’s complicated

As it happens, the last two purchases I made from Amazon (I know, I know, I feel dirty) have the word ‘complicated’ in the title.  James McMurtry‘s Complicated game is prime modern Americana.  It’s on Spotify so go find.  Try the rockiest track, How’m I gonna find you now: “I’m a-washing down my blood pressure pill with a Red Bull.”  I doubt I’ll hear a better new album this year.  If a new Ray Davies album does come along, I’ll be happy if it comes anywhere close.  Baffling cover, mind.

Library of unrequited loveEnticed by the title, I almost gave up on this odd little book very early in but I’m glad I didn’t.  I was a librarian for 40 years and the set-up in this large French provincial library jarred with me on both macro- and micro- levels; I’m pretty sure this isn’t just down to cultural differences.  And professional pedantry has been known to get in the way of the appreciation and enjoyment of many a good story, so I let it go. And overlooked the petty artificiality of an initial episode involving a misplaced book.  Sartre’s Existentialism is a humanism as it happens.  Is this title significant? one wearily wonders, on the very first page.  Reader, get over yourself, I ventured: it’s 92 pages long, only 81 of them actual text, albeit in one paragraph 81 pages long (but the lines are generously spaced).

Sophie Divry‘s The library of unrequited love (UK: MacLehose Press, 2013; France, 2010) is a contradictory, stream of consciousness, monologue, rant and meditation delivered by a bitter 50-year-old library worker, an eccentric (shall we say?) loner of a woman who is out of love with the modern world.  This is delivered to some poor bloke she, coming into work 2 hours early, finds, who, somehow locked in, has slept in the library overnight.  Unless you were expecting some sort of romantic denouement (unlikely given the aforesaid 81 page paragraph) it’s not really giving anything away to say the poor sod never gets a word in.  Poignancy and wisdom are among the qualities that emerge from this by turns entertaining, depressive and solipsistic maelstrom of thoughts about art – “damned souls like us, the captives of culture” – reading, French writers and intellectuals, modernity (“I don’t go around with those earphones bombarding tuneless rubbish straight into your brain“), the state of librarianship and “a beautiful neck seen from behind“.

That neck belongs to Martin, a regular user of the library, researching a thesis, with whom she is obsessed and closely observes, but with whom she has no meaningful communication.  It’s all very sad, this corner of life and longing she has passively painted herself into.  She has tried love: “Arthur (that was his name, Arthur) was my version of the Black Death, he ruined my life.  So then I got a job here“.  Which is both a good and a bad thing.  She watches the library’s seasonal flow, winter’s central heating refugees and spring’s noisy tables of exam kids, though I don’t recognise her busy summers; or actually, her dismissal of all her colleagues, who she isolates herself from because, “What would I talk about with women who go to karaoke bars in winter and museums in summer?”  Foreign travel’s out too, because, “Napoleon’s been there first“.  Napoleon, “that uncivilised little runt“… “the real gravedigger of the Revolution“.

Her captive audience also gets a short lecture on the history of the public library into the bargain and, initially, a hymn of praise to Melvil Dewey, who delivered us from shelving anarchy:

He’s our founding father, for all of us librarians.  Just a little guy, from a poor family somewhere in America, and he was only twenty-one when he thought up the most famous classification system in the world.

Also, incidentally, though this is not mentioned in The library of unrequited love, a monster of a man as far as sexual harassment in the workplace goes.  Just saying.  And nothing to do with the dramatic change of emphasis as soliloquy turns into diatribe:

There are plenty of ways to humiliate the virgin reader, to abuse or terrorize him or her. […] What a perverse invention, an instrument of torture. […] Stupid, anarchic, megamoronic.  The Dewey system is a secret code invented by the Axis of Evil that binds books and librarians together in order to scare the reader off.  It’s terrifying, the Dewey system.  Totally inhibiting.  Everything goes into it, like a mincer.  Your holidays, your house, your tastes, your furniture, just everything.  There’s even a classification for sexuality – and plenty of different shelfmarks for all the complications.

There’s a lot packed into this odd little book.  It ends with the library opening and our heroine (“The Homeric struggle.  Every day I go back into the arena.”) hoping for a glimpse of Martin’s neck to give meaning to the library and her day.  I could not resist being affected by her magnificent and pathetic affectations.  Forget odd: intriguing.  I shall read it again, I’m sure.

The Rox & Hounds' rather fine new sign.  Blowing in the wind.  The lion lies down with the lamb!  Earlier in the day, of course.

The Fox & Hounds’ rather fine new sign. Blowing in the wind. The lion lies down with the lamb! Earlier in the day, of course.

What else?  Back to school at Professor Frost’s Poetical Academy – More than words, a poetry workshop.  The theory stuff – meter, pattern, form – I managed to miss up till now made fun.  And down the pub afterwards.  As part of an exercise in rhyme came up with one of my better lines this year, “An ancient truth stuck in my teeth” (never mind what it, nay they, rhymed with) which I might find a use for one of these days.

Scribal Fox 0315By Sunday the Prof had put down his pen and picked up plectrum and bass guitar (a plectrum may not have been used, but, hey – I’m going all out for alliteration here) in order to funk it up with Second Hand Grenade at the second Scribal at the Fox.  And it was good, Emma as ever to the fore.  Louder crowd that Tuesdays at The Crown, tougher gig for poetry but the bravehearts of the word pretty much prevailed.  Danni Antagonist‘s Crisis was on fire.  The subtler sounds of  (now a trio) Glass Tears, newly bass-augmented – a lovely sound from a hollow bodied bass guitar – deserved closer listening attention than they got with two of their own songs and a flamenco-flourished take on Mr Dylan’s One more cup of coffee.

One more pint of Mad Goose, as it happens.

 

 

 

 

Tudor Groundhog Days

tmmkgWhat is time?  How do we order the past, the present, and the future.  Why are artists interested in time?  How is art a machine, vehicle, or device for exploring time?  How is art a means by which time ‘travels’, and how does art permit us to travel in time?

This is the way in to MK Gallery‘s latest show, How to construct a time machine, from the press release of which that opening quote is taken.  You enter under Ruth Ewan‘s We could have been anything that we wanted to be (2011).  Yup, only ten hours.  It harks back (nostalgically?) to the revolutionary Republican calendar of 1793 in France.  The exhibition is a fruitful and entertaining way to spend some time, and we will return to it later in this post.  Meanwhile, let us consider the book as a time machine – two books, actually – and visit a period when England was actively trying to decide what it wanted to be more than usual.

LamentationLamentation (Mantle, 2014) is the sixth in C.J.Sansom‘s distinguished sequence of weighty historical crime novels featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, set in the reign of Henry VIII.  Innocent traitor (2006) was popular historian Alison Weir‘s first novel after nearly two decade’s worth of non-fiction mostly touching on the same era.  The lead protagonists of both novels witness the burning at the stake of the heretic Anne Askew at Smithfield in 1546; Henry’s 6th wife – Katherine Parr – features strongly in each book as a good woman; and his prolonged miserable death is a very big deal in both – well it would be, you’d suppose.

That I read them one after another was pure coincidence; I’ve followed Sheldrake’s fortunes from the start in 2003’s Dissolution, while Innocent traitor was the latest Book Group book.  Add the spellbinding adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on the telly and a surfeit of Tudors could threaten, were the latter not so beautifully done; Thomas Cromwell – not one of Shardlake’s favourite people when alive – is long gone by the time the novels begin.  And what a time: when failure to believe in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine taken at Catholic Mass actually become the blood and body of Christ – could be fatal; when even sacramentarianism, the sop of metaphor, just wasn’t good enough.

Innocent traitorWhile its narrative is driven by events at – and it spends a fair amount of time in –  royal residences and the corridors of power, Lamentation also shows us Tudor London in its vivid entirety.  Along with the sights, sounds and smells of its mean streets and the river you get to see an interesting selection of London’s other ranks.  The drama of Innocent traitor, on the other hand, is almost exclusively played out in the opulent royal courts and in the mansions of the high and mighty.  Similarly, while the issue in Innocent traitor is seen simply as being between Catholic and Protestant, in Lamentation we get to meet some real radicals, those handy folk devils – socialist Levellers precursors no less – the Anabaptists.

Lamentation is an astute, gripping, sometimes violent, layers-of-the-onion conspiracy thriller, an examination of the nitty-gritty of realpolitik at close quarters, delivered with a beating heart and a finely tuned moral core.  A sub-plot involves a hopeless legal case Sheldrake has been engaged in, which functions as both light relief and to underscore what is going on in the wider world.  There is an easy continuity of Shardlake’s likeable social circle with previous volumes; you care about him and his friends.  He gets involved again against his better judgment, basically because he fancies the Queen; not that anything’s ever gonna happen but, you know, she’s got a nice smile.  What I found particularly interesting this time around is his growing disillusion with it all, his radicalisation.  Here’s the evidence.  Postmodernist intrusion? – maybe, but not beyond the realms after what he’s seen:

  • I no longer had sympathies with either side in the religious quarrel, and sometimes doubted God’s very existence … (p6)
  • Nicholas shook his head firmly.  “Now the war is over, prosperity will surely return.  And the security of everyone depends on people staying within the ranks to which they were born.  Otherwise we should have the anarchy of the Anabaptists.”
    That bogey again.  I said, “I confess the more I see of mankind, the more I think we are all of one common clay.” (p160)
  • “I thought the proceeds from the monasteries would be used to bring justice to the poor; that the King, as Head of the Church, would have a regard to what the old church did not.  Yet all that money went on extending Whitehall and other palaces, or was thrown away on the war.  No wonder some folks have gone down more radical paths.” (p225)
  • I looked over all these rich men and women and thought of Timothy, somewhere alone out on the streets.  The notion came to me that perhaps the Anabaptists had something after all: a world where the gulf between the few rich and the many poor did not exist, a world where preening peacocks like Thomas Seymour and Serjeant Blower wore wadmol and cheap leather might not be so bad a place after all. (p561)

Right on, brother Shardlake!  Who it is almost time to leave, save to ponder what it can mean as the hunchback lawyer says, when mightily surprised, “I sat bolt upright” – a miracle? – and wonder how he’s going to fare in the months and years to come after Henry’s death, which is the crisis at the heart of Alison Weir‘s book.  Something to look forward to.  I note that Sansom has already cleverly set his man up with a young mate who is to achieve a prominent position when Elisabeth is on the throne, but there’s a lot of muddy water to wade through before that happens.

Innocent traitorThe innocent traitor of Innocent traitor is Lady Jane Grey: at age 16, the 9-day queen, holder of the record for the shortest reign of any English monarch.  The girl was cruelly used as a pawn by her parents and various others at court in order both to secure a Protestant succession to the throne and as a blatant exercise in self-aggrandisement.  She ended up – spoiler alert – quite unjustly, because of the specific utter stupidity of her very own father, losing her head, as happened quite often in those times.  I knew nothing of her story before reading this, but I do now, and for this sympathetic retelling I am grateful.

I wasn’t quite as annoyed by certain aspects of Innocent traitor as some in my Book Group.  Because of time constraints (I was reading Lamentation) I skim-read a lot of it and so missed the others’ detailed objections to the prose, the unlikely adverbial and adjectival elaborations, that particularly got up people’s noses.  The tale is told in first person mode by a number of participants including Jane herself, her Lady Macbeth of a mother (the book opens with her giving birth to Jane), her loyal loving serving woman Mrs Ellen, Queen Katherine Parr, Queen Mary to be, and a couple of others, with the final words coming from The Executioner (which was rather a nice touch, I thought).  The trouble is, they all sound the same, with practically no variation in voice at all, even from Mrs Ellen, the closest to a pleb we get in these pages.  As first person narratives they work better as third person voiceovers for a tv documentary.  The one that really made us laugh in bemusement was Jane’s, “Today I am four year’s old,” followed by some elaborate scene-setting with no concessions to toddler talk, which might have been interesting.  And her mum telling us, early on, “After two disastrous marriages, and a cataclysmic quarrel with the Pope, my uncle, King Henry VIII, at last has a son and heir” is no isolated example.

I was moved by Jane’s plight, I’ll admit, but I didn’t cry, so according to the quote on the cover of the paperback edition, I “must have a heart of stone“.  “What young girl would not giver her all to be Queen of England?” Tom Seymour (for it is he) asks rhetorically.  Alas, not poor bullied Jane, the kind of gal who scorns all the young nobles out a-hunting: “Their sport is but a shadow to the pleasure I find in Plato.  Poor souls, it seems to me they do not know what pleasure means,” she tells her tutor.  Maybe, but she didn’t have a chance to have much fun.

Back to the Time Machine …

Time machineThere is much to engage with in How to construct a time machine – Mark Wallinger’s highly reflective aluminium TARDIS which “disappears into the space-time continuum by reflecting its own surroundings” and the butterflies ‘flying’ in the zoetrope, to mention but two – but the thing that really absorbed me, and I shall probably go back and watch it all the way through, just because, was Thomson & Craighead‘s The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order (2010), a re-editing of the classic 1960 film of the H.G.Wells novel featuring Rod Taylor as the time traveller; that’s right, only the one with the actual time machine prop the lads successfully bid for on eBay in an episode in the first series of The Big Bang Theory .  Each word of dialogue, and the spaces in between after the last words of a sequence (I appreciated the rest), appear in alphabetical order.  Never mind the artspeak justification, it works because you vaguely know the story, but it also works … beyond narrative.  I guffawed loudly a number of times in the 15 minutes I was in there in two sessions (it runs for 1 hour, 36 minutes) and hung around for specific words: ‘love’, for one – just the once, as it happens.  You probably have to experience it to understand why I’m so enthusiastic, but for the high frequency words like ‘time’, ‘machine’ or ‘future’ the rapid fire succession of speakers and backgrounds is a joy to behold.  If I were to meet the perpetrators I would not be able not to ask whether they took at least some inspiration from the notorious Short f***ing version compilation of The Big Lebowski(Go on: you probably want to).

Before I move on I’ll say something about the gallery experience.  Another of the exhibits is a small (non-flat) television showing a performance of John Cage‘s 4’33 – you know, the one where the concert pianist sits at the piano and ‘plays’ silence (in three movements) for precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds.  The telly’s on the floor and on the wall above it there’s a facsimile of the original score sheets (oh, yes – full of rests).  Now you can see the same bit of film right here on your computer or other digital device in much better picture (and sound) quality, but … context … it’s just different, worth being there.

Briefly, some other cultural adventures …

In chronological order:

Scribal Feb 2015

Archivists of the future please note: Glass Tears were nowhere to be seen.

HB Scribal 5What can I say?  It was Scribal‘s fifth birthday and there was cake courtesy of Caz.  The mighty Antipoet were mighty lots of things, among them being rhythm section to the wonderful Dodobones, who were surviving admirably after their self-imposed cover-a-day for a month stint on YouTubeMitchell Taylor showed a sensitive side but still managed to shout/sing “Fascist scum” with some glee at another song’s end; shame because his The blood of St George stands well enough (nay, better) without it.  New Bard Pat Nicholson continues to blossom in the role.  Can’t remember much else about it.

SSSAnother grand night at York House for S.S.Shanty! 3, a benefit for the RNLI. (for non-MK readers the SS stands for Stony Stratford, as well as the traditional nautical nomenclature).  An acapella evening of great variety with, naturally, a maritime theme one way or the other.  We had the many-handed Sloop Groggy Dogg from the shores of Woburn Sands, barber shop from B-Flat, a round the world trip from Oxford’s Manchoir, and the stirring Trim & Doxy up from Liverpool (one of whom played accordion).  The sheer power of The Five Men Not Called Matt (all 6 of ‘em) gets me every time, with, this night, the occasional sweet bonus of aiding and abettment from Michèle Welbourn.  All the beer was drunk.  Unexpected were the low-level murmurings of demurral at the last mentioned (wait for it) when MC Ken kicked off the evening by addressing the assembled multitude, “Ladies, Gentlemen, and UKIP supporters.”

All six of The Five Men Not Called Matt in action.  Photo (c) Alison Holden.

All six of The Five Men Not Called Matt in action. Photo (c) Alison Holden.

esAnd then there was Matthew Bourne‘s splendid production of Edward Scissorhands at the theatre.  Has to be one of the highlights of the year already.  I’ll say it again: I don’t do ballet, but I do do Matthew Bourne.  What’s to add?  All the superlatives.  Even though I’ve never actually seen the Tim Burton movie, I’ll presume you know the story.  It had everything.  Energy, humour, wit, rhythm, romance, compassion, satire, a touch of goth.  Brilliant moves, exhilarating ensemble work, suitably corny stage business and a great set.  Glorious shiny happy ’50s American suburban stereotypes paraded and parodied, and the fears lurking behind.  Dominic North as Edward was magnificent.  Was moved greatly by the dramatic, then poignant, ending.  And we got snowed on.  Biggest genuine standing ovation I’ve ever been a part of.

Wordy? Tons!

Stony Words 2015QI on the telly Friday night and in the general ignorance round there’s mention of a musical instrument I’ve never heard of.  Saturday night (a while back now, Jan 24) I get to see and hear one played.  The theorbo is a bass lute.  Given that people were smaller back then, it’s a bit of a monster.  Along with the viol, Mr Simpson’s Little Consort put it to good use in the delivery of their sacred, profane and bawdy repertoire.

pepys-gifford-1-300x292Ayres and graces

Now in its 11th year, StonyWords! – Stony Stratford’s literary festival – kicked off with Ayres and Graces at York House – John Alexander in full drag reading selections from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, interspersed with music of the Restoration period courtesy of aforesaid four-piece Consort; or music from the period interspersed with readings from … you get the picture.  It was a game of two halves, the first richly populated with the bits Mr Knox, our history master, had taken joy in hinting at back then (the complete unexpurgated edition hadn’t wasn’t published til a decade later) – Pepys as recidivist philanderer and whorer (never again, he says … again), Pepys the chronicler of his bowels and more.  In the moving second half the wig came off and we were living matter of factly through the sights and fears and practicalities of life in the Plague year of 1665 – the parallels with ebola impossible to put to one side, it was that vivid – and witnessing the progress of the Great Fire of London a year later.  A fine evening of edifying entertainment.

Hardback

Hardback

The Rainborowes

Back to the 17th century the next Monday to the Library to see Adrian Tinniswood talking with engaging enthusiasm about his latest book,  The Rainborowes: pirates, Puritans and a family’s quest for the Promised Land (Cape , 2013).  Quite a bunch, indeed, crisscrossing the Atlantic (no, really), with a particularly sad tale of one of the much-married women failing to find happiness in the New World.  Standout, however, has to be Thomas –

Paperback

Paperback

seaman, English Civil War siege-master and radical – a leading Republican soldier in Cromwell’s New Model Army and a significant contributor to the Putney Debates – the post-victory OK-what-are-we-gonna-do-now discussions forced on the Grandees by the more radically democratic Levellers.  Fascinating stuff.

Interesting discussion at the end as to the respective merits of the hardback and paperback covers, with author and small minority at the meeting holding out for the hardback (that’s King Charles’s head coming off) as opposed to the author’s agent, paperback publisher and the majority favouring the historical genre design in the shops.

Bardic trials 2015The Bardic Trials

A new tradition instituted in this, the fifth of the annual Bardic Trials.  Grey Rod, bedecked in academic gown, ceremonially knocking three times to gain entrance.  Regardless of the rod not actually being grey [but see Comments below], it would appear the position also bears some responsibility as returning officer for the casting and  counting of the popular vote, this year to be done with cheap metal washers as opposed to the traditional post-it note.  Given that Grey Rod was Stephen Hobbs, this rather scuppered the redoubtable Antipoet‘s passionate rendering, in the course of another wondrous set, this time featuring some new material – of their tuneful rousing bit of music hall chantery (composed, tis said, on Christmas day) Stephen Hobbs for Bard.

The Bardic Pencil is passed on.  (Photo credit due if I knew whose it was.)

The Bardic Pencil is passed on. (Photo credit due if I knew whose it was.)

At the end of the day it was Pat “the Hat” Nicholson who won out over storyteller Red Phoenix  by a single metal washer after the initial field of four had been whittled down for the penalty shoot-out.  It was a full house and the crowd was vocal throughout – another grand night.  Let us now hail the new Bard.  His Autobiographical ode to Stony Stratford, recalling his family’s Saturday shopping trips to Stony from Whaddon when he was 6 and lorries hurtled down the A5, for the High Street was still a trunk road back then, was the outstanding competition piece on the night.  He’ll be a worthy Bard, and I hope some of his Bardic duties at least will be accomplished in song with the more familiar guitar in hand; nothing in the rules against it.

Troubadour Reunion

 And so, back to York House on Friday for Ian Entwistle on acoustic guitar accompanied by, and on occasion featuring individually, the voices of 4 natural women (with a touch of recorder now and then), celebrating the singer-songwriters of the early ’70s – James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Young, Cat Stephens to the fore.  Quality performances ensured the sell-out crowd had a great evening that was testament to the emotional power of those great songs on people the first time around, back then.  There were moist eyes in every direction, and I for one had never quite realised what James Taylor meant to women of that generation; it was Neil Young’s Old man that did it for me.

That finished early enough for us to catch a bit of Speakeasy’s From Bard to verse evening down the road in The Bull.  Just in time to catch the new Bard – still sans guitar – strutting his stuff, declaiming from the centre of the floor as if to the manor born.

The Box Ticked at the Crauford

TBT at CraufordSaturday, eschewing StonyWords! for the nevertheless highly literate charms of the “quirkessentially British power pop” that is The Box Ticked in the bar at the Crauford Arms in neighbouring Wolverton.  This was the opening gig of the bands’ winter tour of Milton Keynes.  Two full and very fine sets with some shaping up nicely new stuff.  You can read all about it here, on their very own blog and website.  I suppose a satire warning is warranted before you go there; this, for instance from the blog, about the second gig of the tour:

Having found a place to crash for the night with people we know, the weary but excited Box Ticked made their way from Wolverton over towards Stony Stratford for the mid-way point of their tour of Milton Keynes.

And this from their report of the third gig on the tour:

There was a huge cheer at one point, which I’m happy to accept was a direct response to the chorus of Musical Differences, but may have been something to do with the rugby.

For the uninitiated Musical differences chronicles the supposed, um, musical differences of the two writers in the band, opposing the Carpenters with the Pistols; the point being … and it was the England-Wales Six Nations game.  But back to the slightly cavernous Crauford, where the words of the excellent Plugging away

The room is cold and quiet
And well below capacity

were delivered with a certain ironic edge.  Not that there weren’t people there (there were, but it was cold), just that the cool kids who knew the band were all sitting to the side.  Was a pleasure to be there.  And those very lyrics would ring out with a very different cadence to a packed crowd very soon in the future.

Pride and another Gathering

PrideSunday and Stony Scala Film Club is showing Pride (2014) at The Cock.  Another sell-out crowd.  Great British film about the travails of lesbian and gay group from London who set out to adopt a pit and end up in South Wales, a true story no less.  Roller coaster of emotions as they achieve a certain acceptance from most of the mining village but become an embarrassment to the local NUM, all this as AIDS/HIV is rearing its head.  Lots of great little cameos and nice little touches reflecting the times.  It brought back memories of what was a horrible time for the left in Britain, and my only criticism was its giving full rein to a sentimentality that failed to address the question of Scargill’s disastrous leadership of the miners at all.  (Slightly disturbing to discover Sherlock‘s Moriarty running Gay’s the Word bookshop.)  And so, full of sadness and gladness …

Scribal Fox… over the road and up a bit to the installation of the Scribal Gathering expansion pack in full swing at The Fox & Hounds.  The room is full, the energy high, new faces on the stage and in the audience along with the usual suspects.  A fine short quirkessential set this time from those Box Tickers again.

Literary Quiz 

Last event of StonyWords! 11 was the literary quiz.  I was on the Evil Y-nots team, amerry band of brothers.  Honour saved, we came second last.  But the teasing out of Bladerunner as an answer was worth a high-5, and this may well be the last time in my life it will ever be useful to know that Anne McCaffrey wrote the Dragonsingers of Pern sequence of SF novels.  And apparently ‘Oh, fuck off’ was not one of the houses at Hogwarts.  Innovatory new format this year – each team brings along a set of questions for one round – to overcome the handicap of actually winning (not that …), which used to be you had to set next year’s quiz.  Worked well, set a decent precedent.

Oh, and there was the History Mystery: a charter in time creative chronicling competition.  Procrasturbation meant I didn’t manage to get an entry in in time.  I did have an idea, though.  The thing is, as well as this year’s 800 years of Magna Carta, it was 1215 when King John visited Stony Stratford, and, hearsay has it, giving Stony its own charter granting township status.  Except nobody’s ever seen said piece of parchment.  There’s no documentation.  So the competition was to speculate what might have happened to it.  My idea – and it won’t be the only one, I’m sure – was time traveling mischief.  This is what the judges were spared:

        “Oh bloody hell, Wells.  Not you again.”  Finding himself on the banks of a river, coming round from yet another crack on the head, Herbert George Wells, author of the purportedly fictional book The time machine, was the last person Samuel Clemens wanted to see.  His own book, published under the pseudonym of Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, was another traveller’s tale marketed as fiction to keep the reality of time travel secret.  “We must stop meeting like this.”
“Twain, you old bastard,” responded the pompous little philanderer, whose friends may have called him HG [must look that up],  “Happened again, has it?  You really ought to wear something to protect that soft head of yours.”
Anyway, at some stage along comes King John, who autographs the Charter, and one way or another – maybe the two authors end up fighting over the Charter for some reason, ripping it asunder, the pieces falling into the river; or one of them, suddenly excited by inspiration, the prospect of another masterpiece, uses the back of it to take notes on; or, indeed, for some other less savoury use (do I have to spell it out?)

Charter or no, the Stony of StonyWords! 11 – and I haven’t covered it all at all – was a good place to be.

Shadows in the nightBob Dylan

While all this was going on Mr Dylan released a new platter for our entertainment and enjoyment.  In case you haven’t heard, it’s an unlikely 10-song strong collection of popular songs from the Great American Songbook which have been previously recorded by Frank Sinatra.  It only takes up, no – fills, 40 minutes a go – good old vinyl LP length – of your time.  Amazingly enough, it works.  Singing sweetly (or as sweetly as, you know, but still sweetly), accompanied by his sparingly augmented touring band, slow-paced, with the pedal steel player in a crucial role, it’s rather wonderful.  You’ll never hear the songs quite the same again.  Yearning, regret, acceptance they’re all in there in abundance.  The man owns Some enchanted evening, (“Fools give you reasons / Wise men never try“) and That lucky old sun, the closer, just rolls around heaven all day.  It’s lovely.

Tabula rasaThe further I read in Tabula Rosa: a crime novel of the Roman Empire (Bloomsbury, 2014) the more ‘Forget it Jacobus, it’s Chinatown’ it got.  “I don’t know who to trust,” says Ruso.  He’s on a gruelling, desperate solo mission – the consequences for all will be bad enough if he succeeds, never mind failure.  ““No? The medic grinned. “Welcome to the border, soldier.”

Tabula Rasa is the sixth in Ruth Downie‘s sequence of historical crime novels.  If the swagger and joie de vivre that were such a feature of earlier volumes is less in evidence it’s no wonder.  The dedication spells it out: “To those who wait, not knowing whether news will ever come. With respect.”  Ruso and Tilla – Roman husband, British wife – for me the best crime fiction double act going, don’t spend too much time on the same pages in this one.

So, Hadrian’s Wall in construction.  The Roman military occupation.  If they’ve given up on the tribes to the north and the territory as not being worth the bother, they’re still a threat, and the Brigantians to the south are conflicted among themselves as to the desirability and the ways and means of resistance, fraternization and co-existence.  Into this culture clash throw an abducted child (British) and a missing (with rumours of a body being buried in the wall) young man (Roman).  Both Tilla and Ruso have a personal interest in the disappearances.  It’s an uncomfortable enough time when nothing much is happening, but the ramped-up mutual suspicions, accusations and bitterness threaten danger in every direction.

One of Ruth’s many skills as a writer is an ability to invest her chosen time and territory with our contemporary situation – and vice versa – without it seeming in any way an exercise in box-ticking.  This is what it must have felt like, what it feels like.  So you’ve got the problems of policing minority communities and the ‘war against terror’ at the forefront here, only turned on their head – the triumphant Romans are the immigrants.  And there’s a whiff of Palestine and Guantanamo, and other conflicts closer to home.  The possibility of agents provocateurs being at work, secret service shenanigans, espionage, torture, and the use of informants are all touched on the narrative.  Paranoia strikes deep.  Plus, of course, you’ve got the more mundane (but entertaining, if sometimes perilous) matter of Ruso and Tilla as partners in a mixed marriage, both in the home and out in the wider world.  And just as a nod and wink bonus, Ruso the doctor reflecting current A&E and more general perceived NHS woes.

It’s a tense and exciting novel with many shifts of narrative and focus.  We suffer a bit, physically and with anguish, and the outcome is never certain.  Until it happens, of course.  Add to this the background historical knowledge – both Roman and native – that infuses it all (I’m not going to say ‘on display’ because there’s no showboating) and Tabula Rasa is a great read.  Ruth writes with intelligence, charm, wit and moral seriousness.  And she treats us to an intriguing development near the end.  Was it signaled beforehand?  I didn’t spot it.  No matter, it’s surprisingly satisfying.  No spoilers here, but something hugely significant happens to Tilla as things are resolved.  Well, two things actually.  I’m rather hoping this means the series will continue with the action remaining in Britain for a few books now.  I look forward to them, wherever.

Before moving on, here’s a taste or two that might make you investigate the books further.  First, the lighter (and not so light) side of living under occupation:

We here,” the officer announced in very bad British, “to look for man. Soldier man. Him lost. You tell.”
The family showed not a trace of understanding or amusement. She knew most of them would have understood him if he had spoken in his own tongue, but it was a small form of revenge to make him struggle like that: perhaps the only one they could exact without getting themselves into trouble.
We do not speak Latin in this house. Perhaps they would share the joke later. Him one ugly man. Him think we as stupid as he is.

There are many fine strands to Ruso and Tilla’s relationship.  Their badinage can be delightful and it works subtly, far more effectively than if the redoubtable Tilla had been made into some sort of feminist icon:

I am not the daughter of Lugh anymore,” she whispered into the empty room. “I am Tilla, Roman citizen, wife of Gaius Petreius Ruso, a man from overseas who is very annoying.”

And finally, a bit more culture clash, and amen to that conclusion:

        “Senecio,sir. He’s a farmer. And a poet. My wife knows him. You may have heard about him singing to the trees.”
“Ah. The crazy one.”
“Not crazy, sir.” At least, not before one of his three sons was killed and another stolen. Now, who knew? “He’s just very traditional.”
Ruso was acutely aware of the average officer’s failure to grasp how the locals saw things, which meant they often ended up negotiating with the wrong people. They would not bother with poets. […] “They hold the knowledge of their tribe in their memories,” he explained. “And they put together the latest events in verse. They’re like sort of … announcers and libraries in one. They believe spoken words have great power.”

Peculiar lifeDenis Theriault‘s The peculiar life of a lonely postman (Hesperus Press, 2014) is a slight (108 pages without the paraphernalia at the back) entertainment, the charm and cleverness of which either gets you or not.  It had its moments, I suppose.  There’s a twist at the end (and I don’t mean the ridiculous turn of events that coincidentally averts a suicide) which I’ll not give away, save to say it strikes me more like a nightmare out of Edgar Allan Poe nightmare than the serenity I think you’re meant to take from it.

Bilodo, a lonely postman living his life vicariously by steaming open and reading other people’s letters … Come on: a disciplinary offence!  But then someone in the reading group remembered Willy Nilly the village postie doing it quite openly in Under Milk Wood ... Anyway, he stumbles into a renku project, a correspondence by haiku, between a japanophile here in Quebec and a young woman in Guadeloupe.  This pushes Bilodo (as per billet-doux, as someone else in the reading group spotted: aren’t reading groups grand?) into learning all about haiku and taking his place (after a ‘poetry emergency‘) in the exchange of haiku, which takes a gentle, then steamier, erotic turn (not too corny, actually).  When she says she’s coming to Canada he panics and I’ll say no more.  I learned a bit about haiku.  There’s a sub-plot based around his relationship with his colleague and a waitress for a bit of context, which I thought, if anything, detracted from the whole.

There’s always a problem with books in translation, so I can’t say whether the clumsiness comes from the author or not, though I doubt, for instance, a translator would inject “eyelashes fluttering like the wings of twin butterflies” into the death throes of a road accident victim, and I can’t quite see how Bilodo necessarily “combed the dictionary” when he was looking up a specific word.  Who knows what he was doing when “He jubilated in the washroom” on getting a haiku back, his ruse undetected.

On the whole, a Marmite book, then.  Some of the reading group really liked it, and I have to admit I took to him counting all the steps up he climbed on the stairs in the blocks of flats on his letter round, and touting himself as a gold medal winner should it ever become an Olympic event.  And even I was briefly elated by:

And he, who had never so much as set a toe on a dance floor, dreamt that night that he whirled around merrily with Ségolène in the unlikely, highly diverse setting of a festive town […]. He dreamt that they danced now a frenzied rigadoon on the icy pavement […] now a wild gwoka in the fragrant sultriness …

Behaviour of mothsMuch more to my liking was Poppy Adams‘ disturbing first novel, The behaviour of moths (Virago, 2008), the latest excursion of my usual reading group.  Pretty much from the start it’s obvious we are dealing here with that perturbing creature the unreliable narrator, but quite how deeply unreliable only becomes clear (or clear-ish – ambiguities hauntingly remain) as things develop.

We start with Ginnie (our narrator) eagerly awaiting the impending return of her younger sister, Vivi, to the crumbling family country house pile.  Quite how crumbling is only made explicit later on, with action delivered with wonderful gothic panache.  The two have not met for 47 years.  Ginnie, following in her father’s footsteps, is a world-class lepidopterist, who has never left home, whereas Vivi has obviously had some sort of life in the big wide world.  So it seems we’re set up with the prospect of revelations of glamour, excitement and whatever else from that life – a Kate Atkinson non-Brodie set-up.  Such expectation is quickly dispelled in the first of a number of sudden dramatic though never random shifts of focus.  (For example: “Many years later, when Vivi and I were expelled from Lady Mary’s.”)  We’re never told why Vivi has come home, can never really take for granted her bland attestation that it’s time for them to see out their final years together.  But that quickly becomes neither here nor there.

Had Vivien really come home to torment me, to point out that I had been living in the wrong history, to push me into the correct scene of the correct painting?

Something crucial happens between the two of them in the 1950s, maybe an accident, when they are children, and then later when they are young women (a couple of things actually), that culminate in Vivi breaking off all contact.  This is a dysfunctional family that only gets worse with age and the onset of physical (non-sexual) abuse and alcoholism.  There is something not right with Ginnie – I’m no expert, and it’s not made explicit, but it’s probably too simple to just cite the autism spectrum – but it doesn’t stop her becoming a world expert on moths.

Things get interesting here; we learn a lot about moths and their study; for me this did not get in the way, while others demurred.  Upstairs in the house there is outstanding mounted moth mausoleum; three generations of lepidoptery have seen the shift from eccentric Victorian collector with a net on a sticks, every variation pinned in cabinets, to serious science – spectroscopy, chemical triggers, genetics, the study of evolution.  Clive, their father, hates the public lectures he has to give because he always ends up arguing – a nice comic interlude – with rural vicars about self-consciousness and free will; when it comes to moth behaviour (and indeed, by extension, all behaviour) he’s a reductionist – it’s all down to chemical reactions in the brain.  Maybe so with some of the action in the novel too.  As I say, it’s disturbing.  As Ginnie says, near the end:

I like to think that, for once, I am in control of my actions, but I also like to know that I am not.  […] … I am the puppet of myself.

This is a beautifully constructed novel, full of odd, terrible, and occasionally, tender turns; there is comedy too in the mundane.  Poppy Adams is wonderfully in control of her material.  Her (Ginnie’s) language is fluid and occasionally nicely quirky: “her hair angry”; “I put two of the new pyramid-style teabags into [the] pot”; the capitalisation of “The Hand That Cupped My Bottom”.

I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the plot or detailed much here.  There is a bizarre and moving episode of tragic surrogate motherhood.  Your allegiances move about and there is no clear resolution of what exactly happened in two crucial episodes.  There are murders, one delivered (out of the blue – one of those dramatic shifts) in stretched-out and painful detail.  And there is an eerie peace at the end.  A book that stays with you, visually and viscerally.

I increasingly find, talking with my oldest friends, disparities cropping up in what we recall of our shared past – who went on what trip, who was there when that happened, what bands we saw – so this resonated:

But for every memory we share, there are many more that we can’t bring together, that we can’t seem to evoke in each other, that turn out to be something that only one of us remembers or the other only vaguely recollects or, sometimes, remembers completely differently. [p225]

Hold that thought  and apply it to the extraordinary events of this novel.  And then consider that in many ways we are all unreliable narrators.

And here’s a photo (©Me) just for the sake of it:
20150129_1z

 

 

January

New Year’s Eve I was Trotsky’s cousin
on a boat to England
in the company of Russian aristos
a proto-capitalist & a journo,
escaping the Revolution.
Spoiler alert:
it was not me what done it.
Funny how
with each murder mystery party
you’re a part of
you hanker to be the one that did the deed;
I was not alone in this thought.

Nostalgic for a touch of Andy Stewart
or Jimmy Shand in that night,
for Kenneth McKellar taking
the low road,
Chick Murray’s drollery.

Austin 6Morris Major
New Year’s Day
and the motors are out
in Market Square,
ancient and not so modern.
Lucky with the weather this time:
an Austin 6 and a Morris Major,
my pick this year
another so cool
blue Citroen.

Citroen

In the first few days of 2015
Cinderella, an hour in the dentist’s chair,
a downbeat movie,
misunderstood hilarity at an open mic,
a funeral and
Je suis Charlie.

15209_10154947389425500_1811519934788905596_nFirst panto for me in decades
but this was Stony’s own
So, hi Danni, hi you two,
great job Caz, everyone;
Buttons’ pissed off at being called
Zipper and Velcro fresh jokery to me,
the Ugly Sisters
metaphorical (rhyming) blisters.
Had a great time.  Oh yes I did.

Out of the Cock and the engrossing gloom
of
Inside Llewyn Davies
– “a study in failure” –
into the Old George,
guffawing, trying to remember
where we’d seen a young man
with ‘TWAT’ written on his forehead
looking into the mirror
puzzled: what was ‘TAWT’ was supposed to mean?
No, sorry Plucky, we weren’t laughing
at you singing Dolly’s Jolene.
(Benidorm, as it happens).

At the funeral
nearly blubbing to the Beatles,
Lennon’s In my life.
Cliff was our Ringo,
our goalie, a fast bowler supreme.
Charming, handsome: a gentleman.
Different paths taken
from school, so seldom seen.
Shame; no blame.

Scribal Jan 2015Another cracker of a January Scribal Gathering:
A fine energised set
from Mark ‘slow hand’ Owen.
Standing up, belting out
a hard-driving new song to finish.
The dapper (I want that jacket) Alan Wolfson:
cultured bewhiskeredly, a delight.
No stranger to rhyme or dirt, adroit.
Delivered this little gem
(lifted here verbatim from his FB ©AW):

Je suis Charlie Hebdo, tu es Charlie Hebdo, il est Charlie Hebdo, elle est Charlie Hebdo, nous sommes Charlie Hebdo, vous êtes Charlie Hebdo,
ils sont Charlie Hebdo. elles sont Charlie Hebdo.
The sound of a million people conjugating in the centre of Paris.

Great and lesser spotted
woodpeckers in the singular
on different days
in the local nature reserve.
An hour in the dentist’s chair
and a brand new tooth.
Biting the Nutribullet,
supping green goo
from a red wine glass.

And now we can say something
if there’s talk of
Breaking bad;
yup, good as everybody said.
But
Broadchurch is losing me,
and the
Big Bang Theory a series too far,
whimpering; Penny,
grow back your hair.

Old for new metal
Saw rats
and cats
at the MK Materials Recycling Facility,
an interesting time to be had.
Heath Robinson lives!
State-of-the-art, proud
and getting prouder:
Oh, the excitement building over the road
– we’re in a race with Edinburgh –
the sheer poetry of the
Residual Waste Treatment Facility
“Diverting black bag waste from landfill.”

Sipped spiced cider
wassailing the apple trees at York House
on Saturday, turning back time with
the Julian calendar and the Turning Wheel.

Linford Wood 1Linford Wood 2
Meeting
up with old friends again
in Linford Wood, and finding
some new ones too.

Can’t not but mention
“Manchester City 0, Arsenal 2″
on Sunday; celebrating inside
at The Old George
with The Outside This
tick-tocking,
The Last Quarter
& the lovely Ugly beauty
at Aortas.

The annual January jigsaw
nearly done, but …
Jigsaw 2015

And so it’s adieu for now with a couple of January songs, subtly chosen because they have the month in the title.  No, not that one; apology due if that released an earworm, and duly given.  Maybe this one of these will banish it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uH4pXuUIhko

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqDlTKqxu2w

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