That’s the Isle of Wight, that is, not some early short-lived fledgling socialist republic.  He made the claim in a letter to his old chum, Friedrich Engels: “One can stroll here for hours enjoying both sea and mountain air at the same time.”  We did a bit of that; cliffs and hills, anyway – there aren’t exactly mountains.  The great man convalesced in Ventnor shortly before he died.  There’s a scruffy blue plaque on the wall of the house in St Boniface Gardens where he stayed attests to the fact; no-one has ever blamed Ventnor for his demise.

Getting there is interesting.  The Southern Railway train from MK crossing London on the old freight lines is still a novelty to me, a journey through the hinterlands of Wembley and Shepherds Bush to the exhibition halls of Olympia, then on to West Brompton and over the river at Imperial Wharf.  I was going to say it was one of those flashes of understanding how the bits of London all fit together, but I’m afraid West Brompton still means nothing to me.  As I say, old freight lines running through an industrial and commercial hinterland: a vast heavy duty scrap yard, mountains of shredded metal, unglamorous back ends of buildings, big new developments (soon a hinterland no more), this time of the year all leavened by a great burgeoning of buddleia bushes in bloom wherever they have the room and inclination to thrive, which is a lot.  Legendary Clapham Junction may be, but it’s still a surprise at just how busy it is.  And so to Portsmouth and the catamaran over the sea to Ryde.

The train from Ryde Harbour to Shanklin is an experience.  A redundant two car ex-London Underground train which was new in the 1930s; needless to say none are left on the mainland outside a museum.  Both coming and going off-peak it was standing room only for parts of the journey.  It is probably the bumpiest, jerkingest passenger train ride in the country.  People do say coming to the Isle of Wight is like losing a decade or two, but this is scandalous, really, because heritage railway it is not meant to be.  Cheery conductors, though.

Welcome to ShanklinA friend picks us up at Shanklin – the old track on to Ventnor is history – and he has set things up nicely for us.  We see TWO unmistakably red squirrels – indeed, we have to slow down to let them cross the road – and a big bird of prey on the way.

FarmerA breezy walk down to the sea front and a hearty vegetarian breakfast at Besty & Spinkys fine esplanade cafe.  In the evening to Dimbola Museum & Galleries,  Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater, home of Victorian photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, for the private view of Steve Blamire and Julian Winslow’s Portrait of an Island exhibition – 20 incredibly inventive photographic portraits of contemporary creatives currently working on the island.  I’ve nicked this rubbish quality low pixels small pic via the PrtScrn button purely to show how their mind works: he’s a farmer, so that’s a warrior Jimi by John Swindells at Dimbola 2necklace made of asparagus.  We knew one of the subjects and – interestingly – she hadn’t seen the finished product until now; she was absolutely delighted.  Tremendous show, well worth the visit.  Also got a look at the Isle of Wight Festivals exhibit, a fascinating collection of posters – oh the memories (not the festivals, just the amazing variety of period Letraset fonts) – alongside photos of the first three historic events what line-ups!) and those that have followed this millennium.  In the grounds, the Jimi Hendrix Garden and a life-size statue by John Swindells of the great man himself, that the locals were not impressed by.  This Daily Telegraph article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1520329/Life-size-Hendrix-statue-infuriates-islanders.html)about the controversy makes for a wonderful snapshot of Englishness, particularly of the Vectian (Isle of Wightian – from the Roman) variety, and gives a good picture of what has been achieved at Dimbola.

Herbaceous borders MottestoneHad a good time in the extensive Ventnor Botanic Garden, where they enjoy a microclimate an average 5º hotter than mainland UK, so loads of sub-tropical exotic plants and trees in specific – Australian, South African, NZ – contexts.  Now a Community Interest Company, they operate a healthy ‘Keep ON the grass’ ethos.

And the next day more horticultural adventures in the gardens at Mottistone Manor, where we actually got to use our National Trust cards (we really should make more of an effort).  Never before have the words ‘herbaceous borders’ crossed my lips or tripped from my keyboard, but they were spectacular (click on the photo to Shack window furnitureenlarge, and then again).  It’s a ‘dry’ garden; they say they don’t water.  The Shack – one of the 5 things not to miss, the leaflet said – was actually pretty good too: a supercharged 1930s state of the art shed that you could easily live in, the period Penguin books arranged on the shelves by colour.  Here’s a link.  Cannot not mention the charming window shutter handles.

StonesAnd up the hill on Mottistone Down to the neolithic standing stones known as the Long Stone, though I’m not sure it counts anymore as a really ancient monument given they were moved sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Fantastic views over the downs and the sea, though.

Given the nature of both gardens and some of the plants I couldn’t help occasionally thinking we’d slipped into a science fiction landscape.  Those on the left are from the quietly impressive ‘tranquil’ lower garden at Mottistone (which used to be the cow sheds, apparently), that on the right from Ventnor:

SF plant 04 VBG SF plant 01 VBGBedroom 02Finally, before we leave the island, a glimpse into the bedroom we slept in – this might develop into a series – another bedroom of one of our friends’ absent and well-on-the-way-to-fleeing-the-coop children.

Thanks, D & J, and Zappa.  He's a briard.

Thanks, D & J, and Zappa. He’s a briard.

Just a slight return: I came across the story of the missing Karl Marx mosaic while checking for something else.  I didn’t see it for myself, but there is a fine community-made mosaic detailing some of Ventnor’s greatest hits gracing the main car park.  Ventnor mosaicThe picture I’ve used of Karl Marx at the top of this piece was lifted from an article about his mosaic being physically and criminally lifted earlier this year; its whereabouts remain, as of late July 2015, a mystery.  Here are links to a couple of web articles about this act of vandalism, complete with comments, links which I provide because of the classic nature of the – albeit swearless – comments, some of which could have come straight out of that regular Private Eye feature, and some of which reflect citizenship of the highest order:




To The Lakes

HeightsPoop, poop!  The open road.  Or at least, the M6 Toll.  The heart begins to lift at the sign for the Kirkby Lonsdale turn-off, the tension to fall from the shoulders past the exit for Kendal.  Bit of a ritual now.  Check in, unload, cup of tea, then go and see if the stones are still there.

Yup - stil there: Castlerigg Stone Circle

Yup – still there: Castlerigg Stone Circle

The way we go, you don’t see them until you’ve climbed the steps built into the wall, but once in among the stones it makes perfect sense why they’re where they are, seeming to be at the centre of something.  No astro-science, ancient science or pseudo-science necessary to appreciate that.

Trees and shadowsIn The Lakes the sun plays shadow games with the clouds and the land, painting constantly shifting shades of hill and fell.  We’re just looking, not striding up and down them.

Wednesday is the hottest day of the year so far.  We choose to do Walla Crag, which overlooks the north half of Derwent Water and, in the distance, Bassenthwaite (what’s the only Lake in the Lake District?) Lake.  And, of course, a whole lot more of the solid stuff.  Northern or oak eggar mothFortunately the higher we get the stronger the breeze, which is a wind by the time we reach the top and laze for a bit.  Photographs (or at least mine), especially in summer, never get anywhere near the magnificence of the view, so here’s one of a northern (or oak) eggar moth, trying not to get blown away.

Today we make the descent (probably too grand a term, even though the walk leaflet calls it strenuous and steep, and the worst bit involves dropping from a seated position) lakewards down the other side.  To our left Cat Gill, and after the aforementioned worst bit, the gill briefly flattens out so I have the brilliant idea of stepping down and bathing my sweltering salt-strewn face in the cool clear waters.  It is here that I learn the aptness of the ancient wisdom enshrined in the old adage, “Slippery when wet”, even when there are no warning signs.  Twelve days on I still bear the residual signs of what proved to be a truly psychedelic bruise on my thigh; nor can I yet grip a pen as tightly as I am wont to.  No matter.  Onwards to a fine lunch on the veranda of the all-welcoming Mary Mount Hotel, bestrewn as it is with busy bird feeders – chaffinches and great tits so fine and handsome we had to do a double-take.

Musical stonesThursday to town, and my favourite little museum: The Keswick Museum and Art Gallery.  Where I play Louie, Louie and From me to you on the musical stones – 3 sets thereof, stacked like they’re waiting for Keith Emerson to come and climb all over them. It’s a fascinating piece of rock music history.  In the gallery a major exhibition celebrating Alfred Wainwright – Wainwright: a love letter to the Lakeland Fells.  Along with his tweed jackets (pipe sticking out of the pocket of one), his ‘best’ (for council meetings) and his first boots, and all the obvious stuff, we get to see memorabilia from his life as an active Blackburn Rovers supporters: a cartoon of his of fans at the 1922 Boxing Day match with the legend “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching”, his ‘motor coach excursion ticket’ to the 1940 (wartime) Cup Final.  At one end of the gallery, a one-piece vinyl floor covering, maybe 15 foot square, printed with an old style OS map of the Lakes; Isobel stood on top of Helvellyn, no probs.  And with one bound …

Dog & GunDog & Gun veggie goulashAnd so to The Dog & Gun, there to partake of their vegetarian goulash, a disappointment last year because we only discovered its very existence after we’d eaten elsewhere.  It was worth the wait.  Pictured is what they call a small portion – it comes with garlic bread too – and I couldn’t have eaten anymore.  I was drinking a pint of Ruskin’s, pretty much the most cultural it got this time around, and – goodness! – taste buds now fully engaged, it had twice the flavour after the meal.  A splendid array of ales, imaginatively and helpfully presented with a colour sample in a jar beside each pump (click on the image for an enlargement, and once more if that’s not good enough to whet your taste buds, beear drinkers) :

Pumps 01Pumps 2Pumps 3

In the afternoon, the gentle railway walk out of Keswick, the river winding, wildly here, wandering there, under the permanent … walk-way.  Such sights, such engineering.  The tallest foxgloves everywhere.  For fans of ironworks, rust and greenery:

Iron & greenBridge

On Friday we sample a live railway.  Eighteen minutes there and eighteen minutes back behind ‘Victor’ on the restored Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway – the lake being Windermere – and in between a look around the Lakes Aquarium, stocked with a lot more than fishes.  We saw voracious mean-looking ‘baby’ crocodiles included being fed.; lots of potential ouch there.

Train coming

D8000 classIn the locoshed at Haverthwaite I discover I am older than all the engines in the shed – including four steam locomotives of varying size – except for a diesel shunter.  There are a couple of older engines outside, but I wasn’t expecting that: to feel that old, even pursuing memories of a childhood and early-teen pursuit.  As it happens, the photo is one of the class of locos mentioned in a poem of mine some readers might remember having heard Lion & wheel logoperformed, called The lamb’s last gambol: “I sold my stamp collection for a train set / a Hornby freight diesel / Lion and wheel logo / painted grey and green“.  Except this one was missing a lion and wheel logo, though one of the other young locos proudly displayed one (compare and contrast with, say, Virgin, or any of the other railway companies now).

Saturday to the seaside and a bracing sea breeze at Alonby on the Solway Firth, which could be a very forlorn place on the wrong day.  When the interesting clouds lifted we could see the green fields of Dumfries under a blue sky.  Stony beach, true, but with plenty of delightful pebbles to peruse.  Borrowdale’s Great Wood again in the pm, finally making geographical sense to us in the scheme of things fitting together.  And the next day home again, home again, jiggety jog, fortified midway with Waitrose sandwiches at Keele services – the high life! – even if we did have to walk over the Keele services bridge and through Burger King to get them.

RevealSoundtrack of the sojourn in the car proved to be REM’s gorgeous masterpiece Reveal.  Hardly a rock album at all, but there’s certainly a lot of roll, and some floating.  Song soundscapes.  Anticipation, sympathy, self-doubt overcome, with a nod to science while not letting that take away the poetry.  Beguiling, sinuous melodies that don’t hit at first but once they catch you’re waiting for them eagerly the next time.  To sing along to.  A sadness that glows, with a bit of Beach Boys in there too.  Lovely.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in chronicling the Welsh trip how my breakfast Marmite habit had been broken, it being overtaken on the toast by Rose’s pleasurably sweet and sour Lemon & Lime Marmalade, but I’m over that now.

Wild Wales… by George Borrow, was one of those books I bought and kept for a couple of decades and never got round to reading.  It made the charity shop pile the last time we moved.  The book had appealed to the younger romantic in me when we’d visited and holidayed in the Principality regularly – my wife was born 4th generation Cardiff, so we had family there – but over time the active Welsh connection has dwindled, and save for the odd fleeting visit we hadn’t spent any time there for years.  Two weeks ago we returned for a few days, staying with friends and relations in Ceredigion – in Aberystwyth and then down the coast a bit, in New Quay, to be precise.  So, a few impressions of mild Wales (with Aber mostly mended from those storms).

  • the revolution in durable outdoor house paints of many colours has certainly brightened the place up.  That depressingly monotonous (rain-dampened) grey vernacular architecture is mostly, now, on its way out.
  • approaching Aber, flying overhead more red kites than I’d previously seen in a lifetime. A magnificent sight.  Can’t find a collective noun, but there were enough for one.
  • Stuffed toysthis fine collection of stuffed toys the sort of thing that no longer surprises, staying with friends whose grown-up children have fled the coop; not in our house, but not unusual
  • Aberystwyth very much a student town now, but it’s falling down the league tables and the locals are worried, with the newish unpopular Vice-Chancellor getting the blame.  Unprecedented (we were told) ads in windows in town offering cheap accommodation.  Impressive Arts Centre complex half way up the hill out of town.
  • Aber follyin Aber, one of those delightful second-hand bookshops it’s so absorbing to spend time in – two floors, cramped honeycomb of rooms – so full they can’t possibly get more books in, can they?:  Ystwyth Books.  (On Abe he trades as Martin’s Books).  Bought selections of Donne and e e cummings.
  • that was after a civilized picnic – if I could remember the friendly caff we got it from I’d say because it was delicious – in the no-charge castle grounds just off the sea front.  Nearby, in full view, a striking Victorian white elephant of a building that they still haven’t decided what to do with
  • Osprey signageit only rained one morning, stayed damp for the afternoon, which was just right for the walk along the boardwalk on the wetlands of the – again – wonderfully friendly Dyfi Osprey Project.  Timed it just right to see Monty, their returning osprey, fly back to the nest – after his me-time – and his this year’s mate, feeding the nestlings.  My luck to be on one of the telescopes in the beautifully constructed wood observation lodge when that happened.  Some fine specimens around the seed feeders at the project entrance too – bullfinches a particular treat for us.  And again, one wonders about what I have to call the myth of finches and expensive nijer seed – the sunflower feeder was by far the busiest.

And so down the coast a bit for a couple of nights just outside New Quay: guitars, dolphins, feasts, gardens and faeries: Face Sculpture heaven

  • had a lovely afternoon at Sculptureheaven, two and a half acres of themed gardens in a rural setting  with integral gallery, workshop and tea room.  There’s a Gothic Garden (goth sculptures with purple and black plants), a Planetary Herb Garden (I know, I know, but it’s beautifully presented), a zen garden, an Angel House (a bit spooky, actually), a faery dell, a rowan grove with hare sculptures dotted around and a whole lot more.  Friendly and welcoming, it’s Green Man notebookenchanting and peaceful (and collectively not as twee as a cynic like me might think), a hands-on family’s labour of love, created from scratch over a decade, with wit and spirit (they’ll show you the photos from when they acquired the place).  There’s a green earth goddess, like the ones at Heligon, but, they say, she’s high maintenance; a photo brings up the rear of this post.  If you’re thinking of going, make sure of the opening hours and be prepared (absolutely no pressure, of your own volition, but still) to spend some money.  More Green Men are not to be seen in one place outside of the pages of a book.
  • the tea room at Sculptureheaven deserves a bullet point all of its own.  Tea and miniature cakes are to be had for a suggested donation to The Halo Trust (a landmines charity).  All were tasty but the lemon drizzle cupcake was divine (the secret being a touch of lime, said the baker and co-proprietor).
  • Whatever it ismore charity with the evening open gardens at Llanerchaeron gives a completely different feel to a routine NT day house visit.  Shadows have more to play with, it’s cooler.  Folk trio fiddling away on the lawn on the way in to the extensive walled garden and wooded lake.  Really pleased with this photo of whatever it is (to enlarge – like all the other photos – click, then click again on that page).
  • the best trifle tart I’ve ever had at The Hungry Trout – what does that mean in the context of humans stuffing themselves? – in New Quay.
  • New Quay dolphinthat came after we’d had the luck to see the dolphins frolicking at second attempt.  Note to self: get a proper camera. That black dot is one of a family of five …
  • inserted at this juncture to give the pics some room, where we stayed one of our hosts dealt occasionally, as a sideline, in Fender guitars, so, I got to play – never done it before! – 5 Strats (one with an absolute dream of a neck) and a Telecaster through a small Marshall amp.  Phew, rock and roll … Now know I’m a Telecaster man.
  • New Quay 2and down on the quay in New Quay, a bus shelter proudly sporting the town’s youth’s talents or something.  Two of five – the other three are New Quay 1monochrome – are pictured here.  Not quite sure why, really. I’m intrigued as much as anything.
  • as promised:
The earth goddess at Sculptureheaven; she's high-maintenance.

The earth goddess at Sculptureheaven; she’s a high-maintenance gardening project.

Penguin- Chandler The Big SleepI started reading Raymond Chandler in the late green Penguin period of crime fiction publishing at the urging of a poet.  I hadn’t read any crime fiction til then.  No, he said, Chandler is a real writer.  Indeed he was.   As the man himself sang in a magazine article on his oeuvre, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Julian Symons - Bloody murderWhen I started working in libraries not long after, I was well aware that crime fiction was the most popular area of the library, so I thought I needed to know more about the genre.  As it happened, Julian Symon‘s acclaimed Bloody murder: from the detective story to the crime novel: a history (1972) had just been published and I learned a lot.  His basic position was that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were liberators, freeing detective fiction from the cosy respectability the genre had slipped into after the First World War and pointing it in the direction of ‘real’ literature – Snobbery with violence as Colin Watson had characterised the writers of that period in the title of his book about the genre and its audience a year earlier.  I let Symons guide my personal reading, and but for one exploratory expedition (couldn’t remember who’d dunnit the morning after) I left the “Golden Age” to itself.  (Raymond Williams did a fine job, in his The country and the city (1973) of systematically tracing quotes about ‘golden ages’ back to at least the Romans.)  Nevertheless, I hasten to add, it would have been professional suicide to ignore what had gone before; Agatha Christie still ruled the library shelves.

Martin Edwads - Golden ageCrime writer Martin Edwards thinks Symons got it badly wrong, and in The Golden Age of Murder: the mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story (HarperCollins, 2015) he presents a perceptive,  convincing and entertaining case.  The book is a between-the-wars history of the Detection Club, an elite, invitation-only group of writers, that started as an informal dining club in 1929, and became a formal organisation, with rules and constitution, three years later.  Its object was the promotion of their craft, the provision of mutual support, discussion of concerns and topics of interest, and the maintenance of quality detective fiction’s reputation as opposed to the mass market dross it was often bracketed with.

The guidelines for a writer’s inclusion – they had to have a track record – were quite specific, with:

it being understood that the term ‘detective novel’ does not include adventure stories or “thrillers” or stories in which the detection is not the main interest, and that it is a demerit in a detective novel if the author does not “play fair” with the reader.’

Edwards follows the private lives of his protagonists, and maps how their dilemmas were reflected and referenced in their writing.  As his sub-title suggests, these were not without their own fascinations – remember Agatha Christie’s disappearance – while also telling us much about the society of the day.  The big three were the aforementioned Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, and they:

were conservative in outlook, and their success […] caused a peculiar amnesia to afflict critical discussion of the Golden Age. Detective novelists with radical views have become the men – and women – who never were. Even the distinguished historian of the genre Julian Symons, who should have known better, thought it ‘safe to say that almost all the British writers of the Twenties and Thirties […] were unquestionably right-wing.’ In fact, the Liberal Party and centre-left were well represented among Golden Age authors, while others joined the Communist party or flirted with it […] Some mocked Nazis and Fascists in their detective novels long before it was fashionable to do so. Others wrote mysteries which debated the merits of assassinating dictators.

Martin Edwards particularly fights Dorothy L.Sayers’ critical corner:

Sayers saw Gaudy night as the pinnacle of her achievement as a novelist. Yet the conflicts lying at its heart are not those of a conventional whodunnit, but clashes between principles and personal loyalties. […] Gaudy night so powerfully reflects Sayers’ belief in equality between the sexes that the book is often called the first major feminist novel. However, Julian Symons dismissed it as a ‘woman’s novel’, and Sayers is often patronizingly accused of ‘falling in love with her hero.’ The truth is that Sayers’ unrelenting focus on female independence influenced many other women novelists …

And in a paragraph such as the one that follows, the critical social commentary that Symons ignored – even with a toff of a detective in Lord Peter Wimsey – comes as a surprise:

Long before it became fashionable to critique the consumer society, she offers a picture of a world in which people are sold a dream of health and happiness … Sayers writes with a fierce sympathy about ‘those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.’

More generally the Golden Age victims, or murderees (as Martin Amis calls them), tell their own tale:

That dependable hate figure, the selfish financier, regularly crops up as a victim in Golden Age stories. In many other books, the corpse belongs to a blackmailer who had threatened victims with exposure and disgrace – a powerful motive for murder at a time when most people yearned for respectability. With the economic slump causing much suffering, any unpleasant old miser with a host of impoverished family members was unlikely to survive long in a crime novel, and anyone who called in their solicitor to change their will was signing their own death warrant.

As can be judged from what he says about old misers, this is a far from po-faced exposition of Golden Age fiction, and Martin is well aware of the clichés involved.  As well as changing your will, “The arrival of a mysterious box of chocolates became a recurrent hazard in the lives of Golden Age characters …”

The Golden Age of Murder throws up many interesting tidbits, side issues and diversions along the way.  G.K.Chesterton, creator of the Father Brown mysteries and the Detective Club’s first Honorary President, argued in his essay, A Defence of Detective Stories

that the detective story: ‘is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life’. That reference to poetry is significant. From Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets. They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.’

One such, Cecil Day-Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, created, in his A question of proof, one Nigel Strangeways, who, after a brief stay in Oxford, in the course of which he had neglected Demosthenes in favour of Freud becomes an amateur private investigator, and, says Edwards, bears a distinct resemblance to [his friend] Auden, with one or two additional quirks such as an excessive fondness for tea drinking.”  Indeed, W.H.Auden was a great fan of Golden Age fiction.  This blog post’s title is taken from his poem Detective Story – the one with the lines about “A home, the centre where the three or four things / that happen to a man do happen“.  Tantalizingly, it was suggested that Auden provide some poems for P.D.James’s poetry writing detective, Adam Dalgleish – Auden and James were both published by Faber – but the plan was scuppered when the poet died.

The Golden Age of Murder is an absorbing read and, as many of the reviews have stated, a real labour of love.  It can only add weight to the revival of its subjects’ novels heralded by The British Library’s publication programme – its (out of copyright) Crime Classics series, that its author has had a hand in.  The writers are in no position, of course, to complain about the paperback jackets, as Agatha Christie once did to publisher Allen Lane his firm’s treatment of one of her novels, “having failed to realise that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.”  Mysterious affair at StylesNice one, Martin.

  Depending on who’s publishing in any given year, I suppose I read – give or take a finger or two – a handful of crime novels annually.  Invariably a new Ian Rankin (who I see as some sort of soulmate), Peter Robinson (more out of habit these days, given no small percentage of Lillabullero‘s traffic comes from a semi-tabulated over-view of his Banks novels), John Harvey (the best crime writer, another poet – his Resnick I’ve long rated alongside Rebus), Carl Hiaasen (if I’m lucky) and … I have a lot of affection, as it happens, for Martin EdwardsLake District Mysteries.  Maybe something old, something borrowed too.

So, in the light of The Golden Age of Murder I thought I’d give Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot a spin.  For me, along with Heartbeat, I consider Agatha Christie adaptations the bane of ITV3, which can quite often be a source of half decent crime when there’s nothing else on.  (I prefer Lewis to Morse, by the way).  I wanted to see if my view of the books had been poisoned by the stereotyped period treatments – almost designed to give credence to Julian Symons’ view of the books – given to Miss Marple and Poirot by television companies over the years.  I wanted to look for other possible interpretations.

The mysterious affair at Styles (1920) was the first book to feature Hercule Poirot, and I was pleasantly surprised by the sharpness of some of the descriptive prose.  Hastings, the narrator, is an obvious Doctor Watson figure; he’s a Great war casualty, invalided out of the army.  But no, seems I can’t just blame David Suchet.  Poirot remains, on the page, the same supercilious smarmy little creep that has me leaping for the TV remote whenever there’s a whiff of him on the box.  Sorry, mon ami.  I shall still finish the book, though, despite Hastings saying stuff like:

Dear old Dorcas!  As she stood there with her innocent face upturned to mine, I thought what a fine specimen she was of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out.

It all feels a bit like being in one of those Murder Mystery games that we have fun with on New Year’s Eves (though without the wine).   And I will certainly have a gander at at least a Dorothy L. when one falls into my paws.  But now for something completely different; it’s a crime, Jim, but not as the Golden Age knew it.

Emma Donaghue - RoomRoom

Always a danger sign, that – mention of The lovely bones on a book’s cover.  She was cheating.  The narrator of that book was talking from heaven.  Jack, the narrator of Emma Donoghue‘s Room: a novel (Picador, 2010) is a five-year old boy – just.  “Today I’m five,” is its opening line.  I struggled to get over that and failed.  Sorry, this is not the language of a five-year old.  It got on my nerves, and the occasional interjection of childish words like ‘fasterer’ and ‘forgetted’ and ‘catched’ just made it worse.  OK, he’s lived with Ma, an intelligent teenager when kidnapped and imprisoned as a sex slave a couple of years before Jack was born, by a man we never meet, in the room of the title, all his life.  Just with Ma and a television set with dodgy reception, but I still can’t buy it.  This narrative stratagem does have advantages in the way the story is told – no internal monologue from Ma leaves more to our imagination, no compulsory wallowing in it – but, as I say, I never managed to transcend it.  My loss, some might say.  Quite a lot, actually, given its shortlist showing for a number of prizes and its word-of-mouth success at the time.

It’s not a bad book, obviously.  ‘Disturbing’ was the word on most of the Book Group members’ lips on the first run around the table.  Donaghue got the idea from the notorious Fritzl case in Austria a couple of years previously, and it examines the issues of socialization, survival and recovery with sensitivity, intelligence and some wit.  When they dramatically escape about half way through (oh come on, you can guess that from the chapter titles) we move into – albeit earth-bound – classic science fiction territory of the stranger in a strange land kind, with Jack struggling to understand what is real and what is television.  His mother’s harrowing re-adaptation to the real world is painful to experience, even through Jack’s eyes.  It ends … not without hope.  I’m the only male in the Book Group and I was the least keen there; interestingly, three of the women said they wouldn’t have thought there was any point in recommending it to their husbands, who I know are a lot more than John Grisham readers.  Enough.  I’m glad it’s over.  And so onto something more enjoyable.

Robert Harris - PompeiiPompeii

Given that the reader has a good idea what’s going to happen, Robert Harris does a pretty good job in Pompeii (2003) of keeping us interested in how it specifically comes to pass and how it happens to the people (some real, some not) that he has chosen to tell the story through.  No, more than interesting – rather keeping us hooked and thrilling us both with the action and the morality of those involved.  Each chapter as the big day approaches is given a latin denomination and an excerpt from volcanology textbooks, which both distances the reader and allows the parallels with contemporary politics and social power to emerge for themselves.  He skilfully keeps a lot of balls in the air and even throws in a bit of romantic desire for motivation to drive things along.

One is left in awe at what Roman civilization achieved – the aqueducts still standing, the baths, the water supply systems running for miles – but left in no doubt too about the violence, venality, slavery and corruption that accompanied the technical triumphs.  Checking something in Wikipedia I learnt that Roman Polanski nearly filmed Harris’s book, seeing parallels with Chinatown in it; it hadn’t occurred to me before, but that does make perfect sense.

Harris has fun with what they thought was happening then and what the preserved Pompeii stands for now, with thought patterns and ideas of causation then and now.  Here’s Attilius, the good guy engineer brought in at short notice to sort what they originally thought was just a small problem in the water supply, after the man on the job has disappeared, contemplating the end (of the world as he knew it) and feeling far from fine:

He strained his eyes towards Pompeii. Who was to say that the whole world was not in the process of being destroyed? That the very force that held the universe together – the logos, as the philosophers called it – was not disintegrating? He dropped to his knees and dug his hands into the sand and he knew at that moment, even as the grains squeezed through his fingers, that everything would be annihilated […]: everything would eventually be reduced to a shoal of rock and an endlessly pounding sea. None of them would leave so much as a footprint behind them; they would not even leave a memory.

But my favourite is your actual Pliny the Elder, natural philosopher, man of action, friend of emperors, who, even as naval commander as the volcanic endgame unfolds, is taking notes for another volume of his Naturalis historia:

He placed his fingertips together and frowned. It was a considerable technical challenge to describe a phenomenon for which the language had not yet been invented. After a while, the various metaphors – columns, tree trunks, fountains and the like – seemed to obscure rather than illuminate, failing to capture the sublime power of what he was witnessing. He should have brought a poet with him …

He comes to this cheery conclusion of his studies, waiting for his end on the beach where he has told the others to leave him:

Man mistook measurement for understanding. And they always had to put themselves at the centre of everything. That was their greatest conceit. The earth is becoming warmer – it must be our fault! The mountain is destroying us – we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little – a comfort to think these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded. But here was Nature, sweeping toward him – unknowable, all-conquering, indifferent – and he saw in Her fires the futility of human pretensions.

And fear not, Robert Harris finishes Pompeii with a forgivably corny piece of storytelling magic.

Stop Press

I finished reading The mysterious affair at Styles earlier today, and I have to say its conclusion – the who, how and why of the murder in the country house – is stupidly complex: one small aspect of the solution, for instance, involves one person signing another’s name in the studied handwriting of a third.  But I still enjoyed it, particularly when Poirot was just reasoning things out, rather than being Poirot with all his quirks.  As a period piece one was expecting this sort of thing:

        ‘It will be the talk of the village!  My mother was only buried on Saturday, and here you are gadding about with the fellow.’
‘Oh,’ she shrugged her shoulders, ‘if it is only village gossip that you mind!’
‘But it isn’t.  I’ve had enough of the fellow hanging about.  He’s a Polish Jew, anyway.’

But not the unexpected response:

        ‘A tinge of Jewish blood is not a bad thing.  It leavens the’ – she looked at him – ‘stolid stupidity of the ordinary Englishman.’

This is the same woman who sends the stolid Hastings, on being told “… I want to be free!” by her, off on one:

And, as she spoke, I had a sudden vision of broad spaces, virgin tracts of forests, untrodden lands – and a realization of what freedom would mean to such a nature as Mary Cavendish.  I seemed to see her for a moment as she was, a proud wild creature, as untamed by civilization as some shy bird of the hills.

Then in court, there’s the defence barrister Sir Ernest Heavyweather.  Seems the 30-year old Agatha Christie had something about her.

SL ProgCouple of times during StonyLive, Stony Stratford’s annual week of more than usual music bash, I had one of those Feeling/Like I’m almost twenty again moments.  That sense of refreshing wonder, a certain mixture of disbelief (and belief) at what you were hearing.  Discovery or rediscovery.  When you look around and the delight is palpable – all varieties of  glowing smiles and beatific grins on the faces of those around you in a small crowded room.  Take a bow, Forest of Fools and the Dave Cattermole Band.  Anyway, later for them.   Here we go, at least a week and then some after the events of StonyLive 2015 – I’ve been away in Wales – a personal chronicle of the week.

Rose & Castle

Rose & Castle

Saturday lunchtime, June 6, I wend my way, pausing briefly for the ritual purchase of this year’s raffle tickets and to take in some of the dancers on the High Street – young and old, tall and tiny, contemporary all the way back to Morris – to the Fox & Hounds, there to sup a pint to the traditional bluegrass opener, this year from the Hole in the Head Gang with their (and I quote) “annual rehearsal”.  Always an uplifting start to proceedings.

“In comes I …”

This year I’m trying to pace myself, and so it’s out on the street again to further experience this year’s wider spectrum of local dance – including Irish and Middle Eastern (the exotic Rashiqa from Wolverton) – and, of course, the Stony Stratford Mummers mumming.  As well as stalwarts Rose & Castle and Old Mother Redcaps, we had a new mixed side, New Moon Morris, from Ivinghoe, strutting their stuff.

Captain HumeSaturday night and at York House a select audience settle down to what it says on the poster on the left.  To be honest, given that there punning of ‘Leera Waye’ and Mr Simpson’s Little Consort‘s Samuel Pepys evening earlier in the year, I was expecting something filthier, but that takes nothing away from the exquisite nature of the fun and entertainment.  There were more songs and tunes from John Dowland and Thomas Ford than your actual gentleman prankster, mercenary, lech and musician, Captain Tobias Hume, one of whose songs made the case for putting love and tobacco on equal footing.

Soprano Cate McKee sang the melodies that in Dowland’s day were listed as being for ‘high voices’ with great charm (her facial expressions an object lesson in restraint – less is more – for Miranda Hart), while Phoebe Butler coaxed sweet music from a recorder I was not the only one present had not thought previously possible.  With Dawn Johnson alternating between lute and theorbo (a big bottomed lute with a giraffe’s neck) and Piers Snell bowing away on the viola da gamba (more stringed cousin to the cello) it was relatively fresh musical territory for me but I couldn’t help catching the intrinsic folk and jazz inflections that attracted guitarist John Renbourn – who ventured in these lands himself – and made him such a favourite of mine.  For a finish they attacked Monteverdi’s Zefiro Torno – his setting of a rhapsodic pastoral ode to the west wind auguring spring and the potential it brings for dalliance and romance – with such gusto that they had to pause, breathless, mid-way through.

And so out into the June night and a quick dash down to the Vaults Bar for the storming end of the Bearcat Blues Band set, a jump of three centuries from Restoration England of the 1660s to a classic ’60s rhythm and blues quintet of some distinction in less than half a mile.  And so to bed.

The chunky Rover 90.  My mate Mark's dad used to have one of those in Birkenhead.

A chunky Rover 90. My mate Mark’s dad used to have one of those in Birkenhead.


A certain Je ne sais quoi.  My “Best in Show”.

Sunday we had a family celebration lunch to attend deep in the suburbs of Solihull so I only had time for a quick recce of the Classic Car Festival but even at an early hour with the fine weather the place was buzzing.  And so apparently it carried on, to the extent of almost drinking the Crown dry, much to the chagrin of Monday’s gig goers.

Scribal June Sunday 15Back in time for the Sunday Scribal Gathering at the Fox and Hounds, and wasn’t that a treat.  Forest of Fools triumphed almost from the opening bars of whatever it was that they opened with.  Loud, driven dub folk with glorious blasts of melodeon – ace players all, attacking drummer, rapid fire percussionist stage right, energetically nimble bassman at the back, rounded off stage left by man with sousaphone, with added (have I got this right, or did it just sound like?) throat singing.   Most of the audience (myself included) had little idea what to expect and the excitement, the buzz, the joy, was instant.  This was Forest of Fools CDglorious.  Then a short manifesto statement of  folk roots, name-checking Cecil Sharp, and straight into an acapella Dogger Bank.  Now while it has to be said that their rendition lacked the sheer brio and muscle of Five Men Not Called Matt‘s interpretation, in context it was more than fine enough.  And then back to the folk driven shuffle of Bar room brawl (Here’s a YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kx9-cBg9iWw.)  Later another controlled workout wherein the strains of the Mission Impossible theme was distinctly discernible among the more traditional melody lines.  And so it continued.  They took the roof off (or would have if there had not been a first floor intervening).  I even bought a CD.

Roddy et al - Andy Powell snapper

The Roddy Clenaghan Band (& sound man) – Roddy second left – upstairs at The Crown, giving a taste of The Crown’s eclectic decor. Photo (c) Andy Powell, banjo-ist of this parish.

Tom Manning.  Photo (c) Andy Powell.

Tom Manning. Photo (c) Andy Powell.

Monday, and so to The Crown, a pub with no beer (real ale anyway).  Guinness it was, then.  Apparently one of the Andys in Roddy Clenaghan‘s Band suggested, after Tom Manning‘s quality opening set, that they should be supporting him.  I’d say not so much a game of two halves as a double-A side (that’s a 45 rpm vinyl reference, younger readers).  Tom, a fine guitarist not scared of a jazz chord and in great voice, impressed with a mix of his own songs (one including a line about “the mourners at the wedding“) and some well-chosen, if you’ll excuse the expression, covers.  Finishing with an exuberant version of Love’s Alone again or from the eternal Forever changes album, which brought back to life the inner-hippy in a broad sway of the audience: “I think people are the greatest fun“.

Mournful as some of his song selections can be, there was plenty of fun to come too:  Roddy performed a short solo set, reminding me what a great writer Nanci Griffith is, and then brought on the two Andys for a set heavy with Bob Dylan songs, but who’s complaining?  They even kicked off with a twelve-string led Mr Tambourine Man) but the class showed with the selection of songs from the later canon – It’s not dark yet from Time out of mind – and a driving version of Things have changed.  “I used to care, but …”  Yeah, Bob, but you still wrote that song.  Another fine evening’s music.

(Is the dark Things have changed that well-known a Dylan song?  If not, it should be.  Originally from the soundtrack of Wonder boys, the movie  based on Michael Chabon’s novel – was Michael Douglas ever better? – the promo video, including clips from the film, is well worth a look.)

Scribal Jun Tuesday 15Tuesday I’m in The Vaults again for a pint’s worth of the A Capella Song & Ale Session and as luck has it I get over to Scribal in time for Paul Martin and friend’s footstomping set of vigorous dance tunes, Paul on mandocello (a big double stringed mandolin with sitar like harmonic drone potential)  and his mate on French pipes (not bagpipes, it was stressed, as if … there were pipes et un bag).  Enervating.  Rob Bray‘s new duo venture, The Straw Horses, for all his dapper tight grey waistcoat and trews, were singing new songs of olden days rural agri-folk (so more Thomas Hardy than Wurzels) with a hint or three of Wickerman about them.  His companion – Corinne Lucy – had one of those classic female folk voices and sported a wonderful smile.

Wednesday and it’s a decent turnout for Ken Daniels’ Alice‘s 150th birthday tribute to Lewis Carroll, Happy Birthday, Alice at York House, for what used, I guess, to be called a lantern slide show.  Fascinating collection of a wide variety of illustrators’ work over the century and a half, delivered with aplomb.  Then a walk down to The Bull for a change, humming Jefferson Airplane’s White rabbit to myself.

SL Evening bardAn Evening with the Bard & Friends featured many performers previously mentioned in despatches here at Lillabullero.  Given the luxury of fuller sets and Mark Owen and Naomi Rose duly delivered.

Vaultage SLThursday it’s back to The Vaults for another Vaultage, and a bravura performance from the Dave Cattermole Band.  With mesmeric acoustic guitar rhythm playing from the man himself, embellished by spare less-is-more lead lines on a Fender Start nodding to a wide spectrum of the instrument’s history or silky flat steel, and a hell of a cajon percussionist, they cast a spell.  Pièce de resistance was an extended spellbinding, rhythmically subtle, inventive uptempo meditation – shades of John Martyn – incorporating a hummed almost monastic song of praise which, one gradually became aware, had mutated into Stevie Winwood’s Blind Faith era song Can’t find my way home.  Magic moments in a small venue.  Feeling privileged.

Mark Owen was everywhere this week.

Mark Owen was everywhere this week.  WS himself would be proud of his ‘Breaking waves’.  Mitchell Taylor, who also did a few stints, & yr humble blogger, look on in rapt attention.  Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

Probably the first time this millennium I’ve been out five consecutive nights so Friday I hit a music and beer wall.  Feeling / like I’m definitely my age again.  Didn’t stop us catching the whole early evening Shakespeare in Stony trip though.  Choice selections from the Bear County’s Bard played out by a motley crew at various locations around Stony.  Rain on and off did not deter or (sorry) dampen spirits; indeed as King Lear‘s youngest daughter put it on FB, when the rain was at its heaviest, in the Fox & Hounds garden – which was always gonna be the most challenging stage on the journey – it seemed to supercharge the performance.  Juliet on the balcony in The Cock courtyard was outstanding too, while the Mummers, as the rude mechanicals from A midsummer night’s dream, were something else again.  Danni Antagonist had multiple roles – including being a witch in Macbeth, one of a spooky trio in the old graveyard, and Lear‘s decent daughter, Cordelia (and how many actors can make that claim in one day?).  I’d say her thespian experience is being  carried over into her poetry performancee on the evidence of a couple of days later.  Was good to be a part of the decent sized mobile audience.  Muchos kudos to Caz Tricks for putting it all together.

FringeFatigue lingering, Saturday lunchtime and it’s just a shandy for The Ozarks (another pooling of the MK bluegrass talents) for the country & bluegrass outro at The Fox, and then a stroll down to the The Bull’s yard for Part The First of the Alternative  Fringe.  The Caution Horses have some decent songs of their own but surprised (all the more dramatically so because it was unexpected) with an original treatment of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby which gained something for these ears from missing the string quartet.  Paul Eccentric emerged from behind his Caution Horse kitchen percussion kit for some solo poems, which made a nice change.  But I was still tired so … that’s all she wrote for Saturday.

FotG15Sunday afternoon I flitted in, out and around Folk on the Green, which was lucky with the weather again, but stayed rooted for the duration of the Dave Cattermole Band‘s set, the band this time augmented by a bass player.  They did it all again with Can’t find my way home.  Sublime, tasty, tasteful, no posing.  Shame they couldn’t play longer.  On my way to the Alternative Fringe, Part Two, Subsection 1, I heard someone singing something about selling his soul for rock and roll, which made me feel old.

So here we are in the Vaults again, where the assembled poets (top and bottom three on the poster) did battle to be heard with the post-Folk on the Green topers, but the poetry won out in the end (we had a volume control knob and Richard Frost knew how to use it).  More than just the poets were entertained.  Then briefly down to the Stables Stage.  Now a four-piece, Glass Tears‘ wove their enchanting mix of originals and original treatments and I lingered for a bit more but  … a little sympathy please … I was tired and was driving to West Wales on the morrow.  Exit Lillabullero with a whimper.

It was a great week’s music.  Wish I’d had a bit more stamina.  Just because I haven’t specifically mentioned anyone doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t appreciate them.  Huge thanks to the StonyLive Committee (not forgetting the entirely separate FotG people) and all generally involved.  Appreciated.

Back online after a hiatus of a week and a day off after a cowboy contractor working for BT managed to cut through a cable and then concrete and tarmac over it again, so disconnecting half our side of the street in the process of progress.  It’s been interesting, not having the opportunity to waste time with FaceBook, print off the Guardian cryptic crossword (how can anyone do it online?) and other such pursuits.  Anyway, it’s good to be back.

Ellen Altfest - The handI’ve had the exhibition guide to Ellen Altfest‘s survey exhibition at MK Gallery staring accusingly at me from a pile of stuff to be dealt with for a while now.  It’s now well over a month since I went.  I had an absorbing time there – I might well go again before it closes – but I’m at a bit of a loss what to say.  That picture on the cover – The hand (2011) – I keep seeing as a landscape (that’s my red wine stain, that semi-circle, I hasten to add).  I think that’s probably OK, given the Guardian’s short preview mentioning ‘mind-altering drugs’ – the paintings’ intensity, that is, not the artist’s life style – and the guide mentions ‘wordplay, innuendo and psychological impact‘. Anyway, 22 life-size oil paintings, 15 years, painstakingly incredible life-size detail in the realist tradition, yet, to quote the guide again, pushing ‘realism to the edge of abstraction‘; I can’t say anything meaningful about its relation to the photographic, except that it’s interesting

Ellen Altfest - Log 2001

Ellen Altfest: Log (2001). Picture taken from MK Gallery’s website at http://www.mkgallery.org/exhibitions/ellen_altfest/

The paintings are presented roughly chronologically, diminishing in canvas size if not fascination, with the subject shifting from the natural world towards intimate male body parts. If it is reasonable to expect of a gallery show that you come out – at least temporarily – with new eyes, then Ellen Altfest’s show certainly passed that test for me; my walks in the local nature reserve were refreshed by her early work like Log (2001).  I’ll say nothing further about studying my body parts anew, though, but I would venture it’s a sign of the times in a good way that her The penis (2006) did not – as far as I’m aware, anyway – give cause for any shock horror scandal in the local free sheets.

All that I am

Funder 2Funder 1Funder 3 Harper US

I recall a time when the phrase ‘Heavy, man’ actually meant something, before it was hi-jacked by certain forms of rock music, and then dealt a death-blow by Neil in The Young Ones. Anna Funder‘s All that I am: a novel (Viking, 2011) is heavy, man. I think it’s that the bravery (and ultimate betrayal) of a small group of friends is set so vividly in the context of their ordinary existence; I was living in that Bloomsbury attic with Dora, Ruth and Hans. Ruth’s deceptively light opening words of the novel set the tone: “When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.”

All that I am the latest book group book – is a fictional reconstruction of real events – not quite a faction. It tells the tale of a small group of friends exiled from Germany for their opposition to the rise of Hitler, and their continued endangered resistance from abroad. Two alternating voices do the telling: Ruth, the survivor, a feisty old woman in her 80s, reminiscing in her home, and then from her hospital bed, in Australia, where Funder, who was brought up there, knew her, about her exile in London in the 1930s; and the playwright Ernst Toller, dictating material for a new expanded edition of his autobiography, in New York, in 1939. Toller had been the reluctant President of the short-lived Communist Republic of Bavaria, at the end of the First World War, a position that was immediately rewarded with 5 years in prison; he also spent time in London with the others before crossing the Atlantic. Both narrators are in awe of the charismatic, committed and free-spirited Dora (Dora Fabian in real life).

It’s a staggeringly good novel. The historical situation is vividly spelt out – no mere box-ticking background is rolled out here: “Reality was becoming so silly, we thought, that intelligent people could no longer tell the difference between a report and a satire,” says Ruth, and her husband, Hans, a satirist, is all at sea in London. What appalls – what I never realised – is the level of appeasement maintained by the British government during Hitler’s first years in power: if these exiles were found to be politically active they risked the British – us – sending them back to Nazi Germany and certain death.

Toller I was a GermanAnna Funder takes you there, to the midst of the group, how it felt.  “Half our energy came from the cause, the other half from each other,” says Ruth.  It’s bracing.  But the human cost, particularly on Teller, the international figure: “After a time I learned to be the person they thought I was. I was needed everywhere … I knew there were two parts of me, the public man and the private being, and they would not, ever, quite fit back together.” All he can do in New York is write letters to the papers and important people. “Do you think letters can make a difference?” his secretary asks. “I pull as much power as I can from somewhere inside me, from the actor, the orator, the hope-pedlar and the charlatan. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, I do.’“  His friend Auden is not much help either: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” It’s a matter of record what Toller does but I’ll not say what here.

There is so much going on in All that I am: friendship, political commitment, philosophy, literature, perseverance, espionage, betrayal, food, the English, love, sex. It is exciting, emotional and profoundly satisfying. For all its despair … here’s Ruth, run into by a boy on roller skates in Paris: “ ‘Pardon, Madame, je suis desolée. Desolée.’ We are all desolated here.” And poor old faithful-to-his wife Toller: “Sometimes your life feels like a pile of wrong decisions.” For all that, Ruth in Oz at 80, remains life affirming.

I had hoped good things of a book kicking off with quotations from W.H.Auden and Nick Cave. That’s setting the bar high, I thought. I was not disappointed.

A brief word about the book covers. From left to right: the UK hardback tastefully saying nothing, the pathetically misleading UK paperback (was there any snow? – even so, so what? – and what sort of a pose is that anyway?), and the tasty evocative American hardback with the red flag flying on a German strasse (which is a big deal in the book).  As my sons used to say, I don’t know what to tell you.


A day in Worcester (whisper it, an Age UK coach trip; we were not the youngest there). The weather held. A fine cathedral, the spectacular The Hive (an innovatory central library, shared with the university, and so much more), the rather special Karmic Café and a stroll by the river. Reminders too of just how awful ’60s architecture is in historic town centres.  Click and click again to enlarge the photos, all mine own).

Something there is about modern cathedral altar decorations.

Something there is about modern cathedral altar decorations.

Worc mirror

Worcester cathedral window

In the cathedral a grand memorial “Sacred to the memory to Mary [d.1794], the truly regretted wife of WILLIAM HALL Esq of the island of Jamaica …” making you wonder if here was the origins of the story of Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre. Elsewhere a poetical tribute to Bishop Nicholas Wighorn (d.1576) as “ a painful preacher” (albeit, it must be added, “of the truthe”). Every hour a voice comes over the PA reminding us that we’re in a place of quiet and prayer and inviting us to join with them by stopping what we’re doing to be still for a minute. About half the visitors do, including atheist me, and it was moving to be urged to think of … well, pretty much a full litany of “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,” with specific mention being made of the Mediterranean boat refugees. Powerful stuff, communal stillness.

Odds and sods in the cathedral yard.

Odds and sods in the cathedral yard.

Karmic Cafe Worcester

Every town should have one – see for yourself at www.thekarmiccafe.co.uk/index.php

And in the very wonderful Karmic Café – a smart but unpretentious and eminently reasonable tasty vegetarian caff (every town should have one) – a poster of a package tour I went to in the Slough Adelphi over half a century ago.

I can’t remember much about the Beatles‘ performance (I suppose Beatles posterthere was screaming) but bizarrely what has stuck was the Pacemakers’ drummer (Gerry’s brother, I seem to recall) doing that thing whereby he hits his cymbal and looks up and moves his head from left to right then down again, so as to appear to be following the arc of the cymbal’s tshhh with his eyes.  And Roy Orbison, so impressive, standing there immaculately dressed – is that bootlace tie a false memory? – with guitar and dark glasses, sounding – hitting all those high notes – just like the records.

Finally, one for the archives. Your humble blogger, part-time poet and poster boy.
Vaultage late May 2015

It’s happened again.  I’ve just finished reading a book about W.H.Auden and here he comes, walking through a New York hotel room door in the late 1930s, a character in the next Reading Group novel that’s up for discussion.  A novel chosen for us by the public library months in advance and about which none of us had an inkling.  Talk about intertextuality.  As Kurt Vonnegut once punctuated one of his novels, Hi ho.

AudenRichard Davenport-Hines‘s fascinating biography of the poet W.H.Auden – Auden (Heinemann, 1995) – throws up many areas of interest and speculation, some of which are dealt with detail while others are left tantalizingly untouched.  What follows are just a few things that occurred to me while reading rather than any sort of reasoned evaluation.

As a humanist and atheist I can quite happily live with other people’s religious beliefs so long as they’re not ramming them down my throat.  Hell, I’m even quite partial to Bob Dylan’s trilogy of openly Christian albums. And the poetry of Wystan Hugh (as all quiz teams will know him) holds no great problems for me.  The “correct notion of worship” for him was, “that it is first and foremost a community in action, a thing done together, and only secondarily a matter of individual feeling,” an extraordinary statement given the life he led, and I’ll return to that.

But staying with Dylan for a while, I think there’s a case for seeing the early political communist fellow-traveller Auden as the pre-electric Dylan of the ’30s.  As Davenport-Hines puts it:

Auden was a meeting ground for young people: enthusiasm for his work seemed a measure of intelligence as well as an indicator of literary or socio-political seriousness. […] The cult figure for literate young people was also a bugbear for his testy elders.

And just as Dylan’s acceptance speech to the American Civil Liberties Union in 1963 upset many followers with his, “I have to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy … I saw some of myself in him” – a very Audean statement in itself – so Auden’s stepping back from the cultural front line was a significant shift:

He disliked poets being solemn about themselves or precious about their art, and his aesthetic theory against poetic pretensions to change the world, as it had developed by the 1940s, annoyed or disappointed some of his early admirers.

By 1965 he was telling a BBC interviewer, “For God’s sake, don’t ask such bloody silly questions!” (about the same time Dylan was doing much the same, as it happens) and proclaiming, “Art is small beer.  the really serious things in life are earning one’s living so as not to be a parasite, and loving one’s neighbours.”  He had a lot to say about poets and poetry, about which he was deadly serious – “You don’t understand at all,” he told his tutor at Oxford, “I mean to be a great poet”; he got a ‘bad third’ – except when he wasn’t, like in 1948:

The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow poets. The actual audience he gets consists of myopic schoolteachers, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias, and his fellow poets. This means that, in fact, he writes for his fellow poets.

He had little time for poets who were wallowing in their own misery, rather than using it stoically, as “exemplifying the human condition” (to quote RDH) – “a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness” he called it – and, RDH reports, “… agonised confessional poetry had always repelled him” to the extent that he actually heckled Anne Sexton at Ted Hughes’s first Poetry International in 1967.

Allen Ginsberg was at that one too, and one wonders what he thought about that.  Ginsberg, of course, had been the star at the International Poetry Incarnation of two years earlier, also held in the Albert Hall, that heralded the British cultural underground movement of the ’60s (and to which Hughes’s event was almost certainly a response), and you can be pretty sure Auden would not have been impressed.  The two poets had met on the idyllic Italian island of Ischia in 1957 and argued about Walt Whitman, and there – Alan Bennett or Tom Stoppard – is a play just asking to be written;  tis reported Ginsberg wept all afternoon when he told of Auden’s death in 1973.

It would be interesting to know how, living in New York, he reacted to the phenomenon of The Beats and beyond, given that in the ’40s he was bemoaning to a friend, “the unspeakable juke-boxes, the horrible Rockettes [a dance company] and the insane salads.”  He was certainly aware of the later counter-culture, and, we are told, took LSD at some point, but Davenport-Hines just leaves that one hanging there, giving us absolutely nothing about how that went, which given the non-revelatory nature of his religious commitment could have been interesting.

And here we have a fascinating … conundrum, not exactly contradiction, but something intriguing like that, in the life of arguably the most culturally significant homosexual of the twentieth century give or take an Alan Turing.  Auden died in 1973, Stonewall happened in 1969 and New York’s first Gay Pride march was in 1970, over which period Auden was still living in New York some of the year, and yet Richard Davenport-Hines’s Auden, published in 1995, makes no use of the ‘gay’ word at all and we given nothing as to how he reacted to these developments.  When his privately circulated 34 stanza erotic poem of 1948 The Platonic blow, celebrating in graphic detail male on male fellatio was published without authorisation, in Ed Sanders’ Fuck You magazine, with an Andy Warhol cover, he admitted to a friend, “in depressed moods I feel it is the only poem by me which the Hippies have read.”  The book, his life, is full of such wonderful juxtapositions.

The thing is, for all his later avowed Christianity, because of his avowed Christianity, he never stopped seeing homosexuality as a sin.  A trifling one compared with, say, avarice, but still a sin, and not one relished because it was a sin.  It’s hard not to argue that he got a lot of his poetic power from this and other denials.  For the poet, he maintained, unfulfilled wishes, unrequited love, were the best kind.  “Suffering has value,” he tells Delmore Schwartz (Lou Reed’s tutor, dedicatee of the Velvet Underground’s European son) in 1942, but only for what you can do with it.  Leavisite critics who ruled the English Department university roosts in the 1950s sidelined him as immature basically because they saw homosexuality as immature.  And yet he was lukewarm about homosexual law reform in England:

‘To begin with, they seem unaware that for over ninety-nine percent of us, it makes not the slightest difference, so far as our personal liberty is concerned, whether such a law be on the statute books or not.’ He judges that ‘the few who do get into trouble are either those with a taste for young boys – and I am surprised by how seldom they do – or those who cruise in public.’ The pragmatic strategy of Arran and his supporters was to stress the separateness and freakish otherness of homosexuality. Auden disagreed.

So, a man very much of his time but also transcending it, and out of it.  This is a fascinating biography and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of his personal life (never mind the work).  He discarded one of the poems he remains most famous for – the formidable September 1, 1939 (here’s a link to the original version), the one written in the first days of World War 2, containing the line, “We must love one another or die” – from the last authorised edition of his Collected poems.  As early as 1944 he’d excised that stanza from a new collection because the line was a lie, “for we must die anyway, whether we love or not“.  And when President Lyndon Baines Johnson misquoted it in a speech on the Vietnam war – “One cannot let one’s name be associated with shits” – he decided it had to go altogether.  “I pray to God that I shall never be memorable like that again.”  He told novelist Naomi Mitchison it was “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” and he further revised other work, particularly that from the 1930s.  Many find this depressing (I probably would if I had the studying time) but he at least did it with a twinkle in his eye:

‘I get more of the crotchety, ritualistic bachelor everyday,’ he reported … ‘God! How careless I used to be. I feel as if I am only just beginning to understand my craft. The revisions will be a gift to any anal-minded Ph.D. student.’

Music, music, music

Last week it was non-stop, went to something at least every other day, culminating with the mighty Yorkiefest (click on the images to get an enlargement).  Getting fit for StonyLive!

Beechey Room May 15 Aortas 100515 Scribal May 15 Vaultage 16 May 15The second of the Saturday Beechey Room Sessions in York House delivered another grand afternoon.  Blurred lines betwixt  performers and audience made for a relaxed community of music lovers freed from the hubbub of a pub setting, for which initiative take a bow Michèle.  The music ranged from a 1927 guitar rag to Iris Dement via Donovan and Strawberry Wine (the 17 one), sung not drunk.  Another reminder too of the extraordinary emotional power that Carole King song can have for women of a certain age (quite a span, actually, but definitely older than 17).

Aortas open mic at The Old George and, having remembered to bring the words with him, Dan Plews debuted the latest version of his evolving Northampton song, Boots and shoes, complete with cricket and John Clare’s  “vaulted sky” references.   Very good it is too.  The original songs of Fraser & amazing accordionist Liz (so many buttons!) made a nice addition to the usual talented mix.

The first post-election Scribal Gathering saw Polkabilly Circus, the latest aggregation of musicians involving the Antipoet’s Paul Eccentric, strut the stage, if by strut you can understand at least two of them sitting down most of the time.  Kicking off with Polkabilly Boy you could see where the billy in the name came from, and the last song – “this is my punk statement” – gave clue to the ‘p’, if only lyrically.  In between a rich mix of many things, including klezmer and gypsy violin.  What else?  The latest installment chronicling how rotten Stephen Hobbs’s month had been, including an apology for no matter how small a proportion of his contribution to the Labour Party went towards that fucking ‘Ed stone’.

Ralph Keats (no relation) gave some Advice to J.Arthur Prufrock from the Beatles, while Vanessa got away with dissing the whole male gender even though I’m pretty sure there were plenty present who have little interest in football.  Rob Bray said it was the first time he’d played keyboards in public and proceeded to play like Jamie Cullen.  Mark Owen was his usual excellent self; Breaking waves is such a good song – any documentary maker out there working on the Mediterranean migrant boats crisis looking for a suitable song, look no further.  Danni Antagonist wrapped up another fine evening with a poetical warning – written that evening on the spot – for the electoral victors to build a nice high fence.

Thursday’s Vaultage was a bit of a bear-pit, drinkers and talkers unremitting most of the time, though Breaking waves broke through – into my skull at least – again.  Was this the first Vaultage without a Dylan cover?  Pat Nicholson made the mistake of introducing his song Liberty as “This is my Brain in the jar” – another regular’s old chestnut – only for certain members of the audience to start singing that song’s chorus over the guitar intro to Pat’s song before he had a chance to get started.  Liberty hi-jacked – or is the phrase mashed up? – Pat happily sang along.  Great fun.

Yorkiefest 2015And so we come to the mighty YorkieFest and its glorious fourth annual incarnation.  Personal favourites only otherwise I’ll be here all day, but a splendid musical roster – great work from the aforementioned Pat Nicholson (not forgetting Derek Gibbons doing loads of other stuff).  The day kicked off with a refreshing change – Navaras (the name – it says here – signifies the 9 essences and colours of Indian music) playing songs from the Bollywood canon.  Keyboards man had a few jazz chops to bring to the party.  The never-failing AntiPoet brought new material: The bards of bugger all and We’re not worthy.  Oh yes they are.  Five Men Not Called Matt – usually six, actually – today 4 men and a woman, so still rousing but a little sweeter.

OmniVibes (aka Paul Jackson) was something else.  Just the one man, beatnik beard, pork pie hatted, and his sitar.  He started off with an immaculate raga, pausing only briefly to pick up a steel bottleneck slide and synch into a couple of equally spellbinding slow blues, only to finish with a foot-stomping Seven nation army, still making full use of the sitar’s sonic potentialities.  Then apologising because he was feeling a bit under the weather as he’s over-celebrated his birthday the previous night.  I just don’t understand how people can carry on boozing and bantering away while something like that is going down, but they do.  Second Hand Grenade played that funky music, and Palmerston finished everything off harmoniously, delivering quality original material – country rock as good a label as most – with elan, gusto, subtlety and wit.  Both bands had people who seldom dance up prancing, while a celebrated tea drinker was seen with a glass of red in her hand.  Splendid day’s music.  And Towcester Mill Brewery’s Rubio was a tasty tipple to accompany it all.  Bravo Pat, Derek & co.         

OmniVibe in full flow.  Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.

OmniVibes in full flow. Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.



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