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W/b November 14 saw me getting back in the saddle.
A few firsts to report here at Lillabullero since the coming of the whole COVID/lockdown shebang.

Monday

Monday and the installation of a smart meter at Lillabullero Mansions. Not exactly a game-changer but a source of no little fascination since, nevertheless. How much?

Tuesday

Tuesday a visit to Milton Keynes Theatre, and not just the first time since the pandemic, a while before that.

If I’d read about Girl from the north country when it opened in London in 2017 then I’d forgotten it all. After the event I learn that Conor McPherson had been invited invited by Dylan’s people to see what he could come up with. Simply as a play it works well: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town set in Depression era Minnesota and written by Tennessee Williams? (The Guardian suggested Arthur Miller.) Was surprised, given the setting, that of the 19 Dylan songs used, apart from the title piece, the earliest were Like a rolling stone (absolutely stunning in context) and I want you, while the latest, Duquesne Whistle, from 2012’s Tempest, was given a particularly poignant placement in the unfolding narrative. If you’re not familiar with the whole of Dylan’s canon you might be surprised at the beauty to be discovered here, like the opening Sign on the window, for starters.

The play features various characters – one way or another a bunch of losers – staying or passing through a failing guest house in Duluth. The owner’s family have their his own problems. Pretty much all of their dreams and schemes are failing, if they haven’t already. To say it gets painful is no understatement, but you don’t leave the theatre wanting to slash your wrists. The beauty and poignancy of that final monologue … Having the Byrds version of The chimes of freedom as the making for the exits music is a lovely touch.

Though there are some exhilarating whole-ensemble production numbers you can hardly call this a musical. The cast and the three musicians were magnificent; apparently the guest house owner was a stand-in – I wouldn’t have known. The songs as delivered – solo, duet and more – were not so far away from their originals musically, if not vocally – if you’re one of those who still can’t take Dylan’s voice, there’s nothing to fear here. Great voices, great acting. I have to tell you I got goose bumps a few times. No, the songs were an intrinsic part of the drama, of the interaction and interior life of the characters. Just when you think it’s not possible to admire Dylan’s writing any more, you see a song like Like a rolling stone at work – removed from him, given another context, with a life of its own, another illuminating dimension. An outstanding production altogether. Oh yes, and for Dylanophiles, there was even one of those harmonica moments …

Maybe Wednesday

Wednesday or was it Thursday? Anyway, took a deep breath and first trip to a big supermarket since the start of the pandemic. Exciting, eh? One of the advantages of a medical history is we got on a priority list for home delivery and just kept on with it. But no, surely there were fresh delights to be found searching actual shelves rather a (badly indexed) database. Not a lot, actually, few more veggie options I guess.

So we get to the till and there’s over £100 rung up and the goods stuffed into four sturdy bags-for-life bags … and the chuffing bank card reader throws out a message that no-one understands and it won’t go away. (Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again? Yes – to no avail). So we have to take all the stuff to another till, and every freshly unpacked item has to go through the whole process again. Oh well. To be fair, everyone involved was apologetic throughout. And they gave us a gift card for our trouble.

Friday

Friday and another goodie at Stony Stratford’s Song Loft: young people playing and singing traditional folk music! Granny’s Attic, displaying great musical skill and energy, had a pretty much full York House entertained, engrossed and happy. There was even dancing at the back! All delivered with a nice touch of self-mockery. Apparently they first started playing together at school in Worcester over a decade ago. [Photo © Chrissy Leonhardt]

Sunday

Sunday and a string of more firsts:

  • First time on a bus since COVID started
  • First time on a train ditto
  • First time back in London ditto
  • First time back at the annual Official Kinks Fan Club Kinks Konvention since the last one but one (I chickened out last year)

But first, to briefly take in the delights of an old haunt from my London days. Waterlow Park still a lovely place to hang out. Sit on bench eating my M&S egg & cress sandwich listening to a conversation on the next bench along, a well-dressed well-spoken elderly lady talking with a dog owner. After the dog owner and dog has moved on the pleasant old lady comes and sits next to me, and we have pretty much the same conversation again. a very Ray Davies moment, I think. And so, down Dartmouth Park Hill to the Tufnell Park’s Boston Arms for the afternoon’s gig.

Queue outside not so long this year, up the stairs to The Dome. Bogs no better than they’ve ever been, Guinness £6.90 a pint. Early enough this year to blag a seat, availability of which enhances the experience these days. International crowd; missing friend Jean (RIP). Catch the eye of some of the usual suspects but it’s loud all the time. Curiously, a selection of basic ’60s classics – no Kinks – played when the music’s not live. Which kicks off this year with a trio of two very young men and an older woman. Turns out they are one of Ray Davies’s grandsons, his mate and his mum. Interesting.

And so onto the Kast Off Kinks – is it Mark III or Mark IV? The quartet is only 50% original Kinks theses days: drummer Mick Avory (with Bob Henrit depping for a set) and Mark Haley (third longest serving keyboards man, with just a trusty Korg). Much more than making up the numbers are Dave Clarke, who has combined the the role of both Davies brothers from the start of the project, and new boy Mike Steed on bass, who was variously connected to band members. Still a decent band though, if less flamboyant. Throughout they are ably aided and abetted by the splendid Oslo Brass (fanboys made good!) and back-up singers from the Preservation era Debi and Shirley. Three sets featuring thirty fave Kinks songs plus a now traditional foreigner (The summer of ’69!).

Photos: Yeah, I know, not a great action shot, but tis mine own; the dapper John Gosling takes the mic; Bill Orton auctioning signed prints of Dave Davies’s recovery art. Two things about that photo: Bill and pals do a great deal of work putting this shindig together, so Cheers! And … you’d never know the country was in financial trouble if you’d been watching the auction – all for charity (a hospice this year).

I have to report, IMHO, I could have done with a bit more variety in the sound – I found guitar too trebly. Would it hurt to switch to an acoustic every now and then? Appreciated the presence of the Oslo Brass who definitely added to the soundscape – a very fine Sunny Afernoon from all in particular. Appreciated too a lengthy mid-afternoon set from Pete Watkins, no stranger to these halls, with a set of songs mainly from the Muswell Hillbillies and Showbiz albums (50th anniversary!), who did a particularly great job on Dave Davies’s You don’t know my name, gave the beautiful and should be much better known The way love used to be its due, and effectively accentuated the basso lamento in Rosie won’t you please come home.

Proceedings closed with the dapper John Gosling – the Kinks’s second original bassman this afternoon in classic crooner garb – taking the mic on stage for a rousing singalongs on Louie Louie and Alcohol. Great traditional way to finish. No Ray Davies appearance this year, but hey! – it was becoming predicatable! Glad to have been there once more.

Later the next week

Another first, this one a positive test for COVID … (not so bad so far).

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The Professor
***

Mark Doyle‘s The Kinks: songs of the semi-detached (Reaktion, 2020) is “an exercise in what I have decided to call historically informed rock criticism“. It’s an academic text. He’s gonna, “situate the object of analysis within its historical context.” It’s not as bad as it sounds; he’s a fan too.

But what interests me“, he adds in his introduction, “is not the context itself as the odd angle from which Davies viewed the world.” He makes great play of what he calls Ray Davies’s “characteristic smirk“; he is, Doyle continues a bit later, “as it were, semi-detached“, which gives him his title, and a very good and fair title it is too, I’d say. Specifically: “Although he and the other Kinks had deep roots in a particular social milieu (post-war working-class North London) and participated in a distinctive cultural moment (the British pop explosion of the 1960s), they were never fully a part of either world.” There’s plenty of decent biographical content here to back that up.

Songs of the semi-detached is only interested in the Kinks’ output up to and including 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies. Given that “the Kinks’ relationship to working-class England is the central concern of this book“, he features the epic Shangri-La, from the Arthur album, as the crucial composition it undoubtedly is. (If anyone reading this is not familiar with the Kinks albums, as opposed to the singles and if you don’t know it, Shangri-La is worth pursuing. Here is a take on social change post-war mid-twentieth century England: “Here’s your reward for working so hard / Gone are the lavatories in the backyard” … but later, with a significant musical shift, “all the houses in the street, they look the same” and insecurity is just round the corner. Yes, a veritable musically rewarding epic of social history from the lads who gave you You really got me).

Doyle goes so far as to quote William Empson‘s Seven types of ambiguity when talking about Shangri-La, which I think is a fair shout – the stance is shifting, bitter/sweet. Other names getting the nod are George Orwell, Alan Sillitoe, William Hogarth, Edmund Burke, John Clare, Charles Dickens, John Betjeman, Louis MacNeice (the wonderful Autumn Journal getting a mention when Autumn almanac is considered), Dylan Thomas, L.S.Lowry, Raymond Williams (remember him?) and J.B.Priestley. Oh and Konstantin Stanislavski – apparently Ray learnt a lot from An actor prepares on song-writing, which was new to me. Most of this lot would have been in the index too if I’d ever got round to writing my Kinks book.

I’ve read pretty much all the published Kinks literature (Bibliography) and I didn’t feel reading Songs of the semi-detached,was a waste of my time. It is worthwhile to see in print, about a song like Big Black Smoke, that “these songs tap into one of the primal themes of English art and literature“. In the chapter headed The glory of being boring Doyle examines Ray’s short-term ‘house in the country’ period and concludes it was a lot more suburban than you’d think. He unearths an early Charles Dickens essay – Shy neighbourhoods – that was interesting in considering Ray as pedestrian observer (walking – not a metaphor!). And, real [specialist] news to me, to learn that Julian Mitchell, the writer involved in the Arthur project (sub-title Or the decline and fall of the British Empire), had published a novel – The white father – in 1964, about a colonial officer returning to Blighty, who is “alarmed and confused by the changes sweeping through England, particularly the hedonistic youth culture that seems to have sprung up overnight. [He] forges a relationship with an aspiring musician who resembles an earlier version of Davies and his band mates, and much of the story is about the gulf that has emerged between the old, morally certain world of the empire and this new worlds in which all values seem to be up for grabs.” Watch this space!

I’m not sure where this photo was taken, where I got it from, or who to credit for taking it, but it strikes me as being in line with the themes of Doyle’s book, definitely a two cultures vibe, and yet … Note also that Watney’s Red Barrel, the abomination of a beer that launched the Campaign for Real Ale, is served there. “We are the draught beer preservation society …”

There are a few surprising omissions and common misunderstandings. He doesn’t mention Radio Luxemburg (208, under the blankets) or – if you were lucky, and the wind was in the right direction – American Forces Radio, as sources for the American music not played then on the BBC Home Service. He notes that “Pop music was becoming much more self-consciously artistic around 1965, at least in certain quarters …” but only 50 pages later does he mention art college as an influence both on Ray (one of the strengths of Johnny Rogan’s book) and the scene in general. One of the things that made the Kinks different was their working class roots, but so many commentators, including Doyle here, still insist on attributing that status to other bands. Come on: the Beatles were grammar school boys (well, not Ringo), Jagger’s dad was a teacher, Townsend’s a professional musician & so on.

There are a bizarre three pages trying to understand why Donald Duck there in the roll call in Village Green Preservation Society. He goes so far as to cites a Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art painting – “his groundbreaking work Look Mickey” – as a possibility: “Lichtenstein’s bold appropriation of comic-book art launched a thousand imitators, and Donald Duck became, quite unexpectedly, the herald of a new world of collapsing cultural hierarchies. I doubt Ray Davies had this painting in mind when he wrote the VGPS but the fact that Davies and Lichtenstein should both hit upon Donald Duck is more than mere coincidence.” Or maybe just kids’ Saturday morning pictures (as we used to call films). Academics, eh?

Worse still, seems academic American anglophiles – Doyle is Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University – will sometimes overstep the mark in ‘knowing’ their subject. So, no: use of the word ‘fine ‘ in Waterloo Sunset is not typical Anglo-passive aggressive demurral, or Ray hedging his bets: “Even if the lyric does go so far as to confess that watching the sunset from Waterloo Bridge is like being in paradise, it also says on four separate occasions that the Waterloo sunset is ‘fine’. It is as if Davies has embedded a tiny escape clause into the song ...” Rather than showing what a clever sod you are, why not just trust the music?

I wouldn’t be surprised if a few people gave up at this early point in the book, which, I hope I’ve shown, would have been a shame. Similarly The Kinks: Songs of the semi-detached ends with an Epilogue, with a whimper, which will not go down well in certain quarters for sure. Things were never the same after Muswell Hillbillies, says he: “Both Davies brothers continue to write and record new music, much of it quite good, and in recent years Ray has allowed himself to become something of a national treasure …”



The Autodidact
***

Okay. It’s the half-time picture round in the local charity quiz. Would you recognise co-Kinks founder Dave Davies from that photo in the picture quiz round? I wouldn’t. Undoubtedly a fine action photo, Byronic even, but I have to say I find its choice puzzling.


Dave Davies‘s Living on a thin line: the autobiography (Headline, 2022) – the title is a nod to one of his best songs – gives a credit (‘with’) to one Philip Clark on the title page, and I’m guessing the book was put together from a set of conversations between them, a classic “as told to” set-up, without much editing. It’s all very vernacular: a recognisable – if at times clumsy – voice that will be familiar to those who’ve previously sampled Dave’s media presence: “I understand you might be thinking this sounds like weird shit …

This is Dave’s second autobiography. Kink: an autobiography came out in 1996, with 270 pages of text. Living on a thin line has 273 pages of text. After eleven pages telling of his recovery from a stroke we get the now familiar tale again, the next two thirds of the book only getting us up Muswell Hillbillies again. Does Living on a thin line add much? Yeah – probably more of the Davies family history. A bit more about his and Ray’s early musical adventures and influences – I shall be seeking out Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, which stopped Dave “dead in my tracks; I was hypnotised by this music of such depth that could affect my whole being“.

There is certainly more about Dave’s misadventures and early bisexuality; unlike Ray he did partake indulgently of the pop star lifestyle, seeming to have quite a memory for the particular excessive happenings. He is open about his relationships with women – significant others indeed at various stages as time goes on – while the life of the spirit features more in the latter. It has a habit of skipping about chronologically. There are many photos, some, I think not previously out there, but it’s quantity not quality. While Kink ended with some joie de vivre, Living is, well, more lived in, though still a lively read.

One of the strands of publicity about the book focused naturally on his relationship with brother Ray, and the “I sometimes feel he’s like a vampire, the way he draws so much energy from people” quote, but you have to enjoy the later complaint about his being introduced on stage by Ray as Dave ‘Death of a Clown’ Davies: “Anything to patronise me and keep me in my place. It was like he thought suddenly he was James Joyce, James Cagney, James Bond and James Dean all rolled into one.” This comment sounds reasonable though, in the light of the later albums: “Ray and I have a kind of telepathic understanding and he can be a bit of a perfectionist, but emotionally I always knew when a piece of music was ready. His instinct was usually to keep on cooking, and in the end sometimes cook the shit out of it.

There’s a candour, a sort of innocence, evident throughout, and some decent anecdotage. Surprising to read that, “When I heard Love me do for the first time, I thought it was a novelty record. It was catchy, fair enough, but John Lennon’s harmonica was jaunty and straight ahead. It didn’t have any obvious blues inflection, that sliding tone, like how Ray … played. I thought it was Larry Adler, the light-music harmonica player who was always on the radio ...” when for me it came as a revelation – the realisation that we Brits (not that we called ourselves that then) didn’t have to be beholden to America any more. There’s an encounter with John Lennon: “One night at the Scotch of St James club, John slammed the table during one of our conversations and called me a ‘cynical, obnoxious bastard’. And, to be fair, he had a point – the booze and drugs could make me boorish and pushy, and now I regret somewhat how I behaved in those days.” Dave doesn’t point out that Lennon had a rep for being no angel in those departments himself.

Does Dave deserve the Daily Star front page? I’m afraid so. “I was a rebel at school,”he say. “The teachers couldn’t teach me anything, because I felt like I knew more than them“. Shame that the first literature to really engage him was Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, the starting point of his intellectual development; a mystical mishmash unfolds. (Tangentially, is it worth mentioning the Star’s recent acute political stance? I think so; twas they who pitched Liz Truss up against a lettuce among other masterpieces of satire).

He complains,Talk about the spirit world and to some people you’re weird but, the truth is, the universe knows more about what’s going on than we do“. Promoting his Chosen People solo album, he’s surprised when: “I did some press for the album in LA and when I talked about Black Elk, or anything spiritual, there’d be awkward silences and puzzled faces.” He’s still defending the Great Beast (“They talk about Aleister Crowley as though he was a ‘black magician’” (he was) … “At the end he went a bit mad, but then who am I to talk? We all go a bit mad“). But the clincher – what the Daily Star gleefully picked up on – is where he:

What you’re about to read might sound a bit crazy, but I can only describe it as honestly as I can. I called these voices ‘the intelligences’ and I realised they had taken over complete command of my senses. […] The intelligences revealed certain things about themselves. Two of them had always been my spirit guides, another two were not of this planet but had been sent to protect and mother our race; one intelligence was the projected consciousness of a sentient being living in a physical form on earth.
Their communications became more demanding, more challenging. They told me I must not have sex …

One way or another, Living on a thin line – Dave Davies’s side of the story – is an entertaining and revealing read, especially if you haven’t read Kink. For not-necessarily-Kinks-fans I’d guess it’s a bit of a wild ride; not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing!.

***********************

But before we leave, some thoughts on the current state of fact-checking in the current UK publishing industry. Like, whatever happened to it, like where did it go? Couple of instances here:

  • early on (p45) Pete Quaife’s pride in his electric guitar is mentioned. It was a Futurama, described as “a cheap Japanese fake copy of a Stratocaster“. But Japanese Strat copies were a long way off in the future back then. Pete’s would have been made in what was then Czechoslovakia or Sweden. For those interested, here’s a website to spend some time with: https://vintagehofner.co.uk/hofnerfs/futurama/fut.html. For what it’s worth, I had one too – the little one on the left above – purchased mail order from the Hofner catalogue we used to drool over.
  • the school Ray and Dave went to – William Grimshaw, aka ‘Willy Grim’ – was a Secondary Modern school, a very different beast to the comprehensive it’s described as on p35.

***********************

Finally, both books discussed here spend a lot of time going into some detail about Ray and Dave’s – and many other of their contemporaries’ – musical influences, with one television show and one film beoing particular springing off points for young British musicians of a certain age, a whole new playing field of possibilities:

Given time & place, what could have been cooler then than Big Bill Broonzy filmed in a Belgian jazz dive in Low light and blue smoke (1956), which was shown on a BBC art programme:

And here’s the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, with their sublime The train and the river, playing over the title credits for Jazz on a summer’s day (1959), a film compiling highlights from 1958’s Newport Jazz Festival featuring Chuck Berry among many many others:

RIP Peter Robinson

Blimey, I wasn’t expecting that. Somehow, always thought he was a little older then me.

Sad to hear of Peter’s demise. Here’s his publisher’s announcement:
https://www.hodder.co.uk/hachette-news/2022/10/07/hodder-stoughton-announces-the-death-of-peter-robinson/

I never met Peter Robinson, but he’s one of the main reasons people come and visit me here on Lillabullero, for which I am grateful. Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks Mysteries features an increasingly systematic breakdown of things happening in those splendid Alan Banks books, detailing among other things the music he’s listening to, books he’s reading, the alcohol consumed, and the state of health and love life, as well as trying to isolate distinguishing characteristics of particular books. (A long term aim, regrettably lapsed, was to catch up on the earlier books again, to give them the full treatment.)

Peter was also the most cited author in the Kinks in Literature section here on Lillabullero listing references to the Kinks in the pages of various novels I’d come across, or been given notice of. His was the only mention I have found to Ray Davies’s solo work.

Good to know there’s a new book already set for publication in March next tear: Standing in the shadows – keeping up the song title references to the end.

No disrespect, but I do wonder if he’d chosen the music for his funeral, what – and how obscure! – it might be.

Thanks Peter
Dave Q

Mid-September a bit of a mad week for me

Vivian Maier at MKG

This is the self-portrait of the young photographer that Milton Keynes Gallery used in their publicity for the stunning – now over – Vivian Maier: Anthology show. A full-time nanny – a Mary Poppins figure, one of her charges said – and an accomplished yet unacknowledged street photographer, she left an archive of over 150,000 photos that were only discovered after her death in what would have been sensational episodes of those Storage hunters type tv shows. There are plenty of sources of what happened next online.

The streets and people of Chicago’s North Shore, of New York City and Los Angeles throughout the 1950s and ’60s were her main subjects. An absorbing show, full of arresting urban images, a detached yet always interested chronicling of the people – rich, poor, young, old – living, or just existing in the streets (and a few on the beach). Not without humour either, particularly the reflected self-portraits; that’s my favourite up there (top left), in the mirror – posed? – who knows? It’s not known how much, if at all, she interacted with these strangers. The images look as if they’ve been artfully cropped, but, no: such was the camera she used, they are perfectly composed – such a natural eye. Shame that Vivian never saw her art reproduced to such a high standard, in such dimensions.

There is so much to see out there; just pop her into image search and be prepared to lose yourself for a while. http://www.vivianmaier.com/ is a good place to start.

September Scribal Gathering

A lot of First Timers at September’s Scribal – was it four? – “and you know what that means – they get the biggest cheer of the night”. Inflationary pressure as the night progressed … could not hold, but a healthy state of affairs. The Outside This have built a body of sometimes intricately arranged original material, with, it seems, older songs being annexed by the new, and vice versa. Is there a mini-opera in prospect? The “everything i hate in others” refrain continues to haunt. (Archivists note: Mark Niel (no blame) did not appear due to an, um, one of those things).

British Rail

A talk at Stony Stratford Library, an out of season StonyWords! event, Christian Wolmar talking to his new book, British Rail: a new history (Atlantic, 2022). An entertaining and informative rejoinder to the traditionally held view of how bad it was – they were, with railwaymen at the helm – actually achieving much. A curse on your tired old British Rail sandwich jokes! The disaster of privatisation – there’s really not much money to be made; railways need to be seem as a whole, as a social amenity, not a string of commercial enterprises. Wolmar highlighted the badly skewed statistics the notorious Beeching Review came up with (a week in April?) that decimated the local railway system. Maybe the next Labour government …?

Vaultage

Slow start to this Vaultage evening, but it got there in the end. Splendid stuff from Hell & High Water – fine choice of a broad range of covers, splendidly delivered (with a sweet side dish of lap-steel). One of the open micers – sorry, forgot name – making me rethink my aversion to Radiohead a bit – a voice better than Thom Yorke’s certainly helps those songs.

Will Pound at The Song Loft

Another winner from the Song Loft, with the astonishing musicianship of Will Pound. From Morris and folk tunes to Handel and back again via Amazing Grace (which I actually thought he mucked about a bit too much with, but hey …) all delivered on a basic harmonica (not a chromatic in sight – who knew all those notes existed in there?) or a melodeon. Good to hear some nice little blueswailing nods and winks every now and again.

What’s a melodeon?’ I asked my local neighbourhood concertina afficianado, and he gave me one of those looks – I really did not know (I know). Seemingly the equivalent of a huge harmonica, because it both sucks and blows. Anyway, here are some lousy photos, my excuse being the visual bonus of the expanding instrument’s bellowing decoration.

No place to lay one’s head

Françoise Frenkel‘s No place to lay one’s head (translated by Stephanie Mee, Pushkin Press, 2018), new to us all, had a big impact on the Book Group, a book that people felt will stay with them. Originally published in the French language, in Switzerland in 1945, not long after the events it describes, it was ‘rediscovered’ and only translated into English over half a century later.

Françoise Frenkel was born in Poland, in 1889, and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. A Francophile, she opened the first French bookshop in Berlin in 1921, and, though Jewish, stayed there until just before the start of the Second World War; that’s the first 50 pages of this striking memoir.

She moved back to Paris, and then, as the French defense crumbled, moved south – first Avignon, then Nice. Things got progressively worse for refugees under the collaborationist Vichy government. Eventually she made it across the border into neutral Switzerland in June 1943.

This is a tale of trepidation, tedium, fear, inertia, terror, secrecy, bureaucracy, bravery, hardship, being in hiding, jeopardy and adventure … but also of great sacrifice, of human kindness, of friendship and the compensations of nature. This is all vividly described in simple, detached, unembellished yet stylish prose that doesn’t labour things. The vividness comes, a Book Group member with a psychotherapy background suggested, from the phenomenon of dissociation – the removal of the mind from physical experience often felt by trauma victims, a survival technique – without in any way taking away from the book’s quality and value.

If I have a complaint, it’s that I could have done with more about the bookshop. Here she is as things are getting really bad in Berlin:

I searched my books for solace and encouragement.
And suddenly I heard an infinitely delicate melody … It was coming from the shelves, the display cabinets, from wherever the books were playing out their mysterious life.
I stood there and listened …
It was the voice of the poets, their brotherly attempt to console me in my distress. They had heard their friend’s appeal and were offering their farewells to the poor bookseller, stripped of her kingdom
The first sounds of day brought me back to reality.

When I think of the last tumultuous years of my time in Berlin, I see again a series of stupefying events: the first silent parades of the future Brownshirts …” is the start of a simple but highly effective catalogue, taking in the experience of some of her customers, of the escalation of things in Germany on the way to the full Nazi horror.

I didn’t know much about the situation in France when the war started (at all, really) but before the French surrender, there’s the unreality as “English people and Americans staying in the luxury hotels continued to stroll the promenades and make day trips until such time as their respective governments ordered them to get the first boat out.” Meanwhile, “Jews from all the occupied countries wandered around, disorientated, purposeless and without hope, in an ever increasing state of anxiety and agitation.
It was the lack of anything to do that weighed most heavily, draining every ounce of energy, and resistance
.”

With the coming of the German forces and the establishment of the Vichy government, things inevitably worsened, as official hunting parties, chillingly recruited from the resident French population, looked to detain the Jews:

There was nothing heroic about these agents of authority, not their job nor their approach.
Some deep sadistic urge must lie hidden in every man, waiting to be exposed when the opportunity arises. It was enough to have given these boys, quite gentle enough in themselves, the abominable power to hunt and track down defenceless human beings, for them to carry out the task with a peculiar and savage bitterness resembling joy.

The relief when she finally escapes, after one unsuccessful attempt is, naturally, palpable. She’s lucky enough to be seen by an Italian border guard as she leaps the stream, who thinks about it and shrugs; one forgets, the Italian fascists were not that into the full Nazi trip.

And always, where they are: “The trip to court provided us with a real diversion. It allowed us to leave the jailhouse for a few hours, to admire the sun, the forest, the fields, the Alps with their snowy peaks … winter in all its splendour”. Even as paranoia hits: “I listened for a long time that night to noises outside.
Hurried steps, muffled exclamations, whistles, shout … and once again the murmur of the sea.

Here we go again …

Invited to kick off the Book Group discussion on Matt Haig‘s The midnight library (Canongate, 2020) I politely demurred, saying I didn’t necessarily wish to self-censor too much at the outset. I needn’t have worried; the book had no champions – it was alright if you liked that sort of thing was pretty much the best it got. I concurred with the 12% on Goodreads (not a usual source of mine) who gave it a single star. But, you have to say, its heart is in the right place.

Speaking of hearts, does yours not sink at opening words like: ‘Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed …‘? She’s in the school library with her fave adult, the librarian, Mrs Elm. A couple of pages later, a page blank bar the words, ‘Nineteen years later’, followed by ‘Twenty -seven hours before she decided to die …‘ No spoiler, then, after a catalogue of current misery and regrets (she’s had a few), to tell you she swallows the pills down. And is back in the library:

Between life and death there is a library,’ she said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how life would be if you had made other choices … [author’s italics]

I’ll admit it does not help that I have recently spent time with Lucien/Lucienne, the head librarian of another infinite collection of books: the library in The Dreaming, in the recent masterful Netflix adaptation for the screen of Neil Gaiman‘s epic graphic novel, The Sandman – for what it’s worth, for me the best screen adaption ever of a book I’ve loved.

But what we have in The midnight library is a sort of combination of the classic movie It’s a wonderful life (James Stewart about to top himself), Kate Atkinson’s stop/start again Life after life, and another exercise in sci-fi time travel.

These are the potential lives not lived – the paths not taken (I’ll return to that notion later) – that pile up in Nora Seed’s Book of Regrets (Matt Haig has also written a lot for children). Not bad for just one gal:

  • married, running a country pub (outcome not a million miles from the pubs with problems in Midsomer Murders
  • an Olympic swimmer (her dad wanted it more than she did)
  • an Australia adventure with her best pal
  • studying glaciology, researching out on the ice
  • rock star in her brother’s band, The Labyrinths
  • academic philosopher [Henry David Thoreau?]

The ‘books’ in the midnight library allow her to explore what would have happened with all those career options, some of the story lines more effectively for the reader (I’m thinking in particular of the polar bears, which return the will to live to Nora) than others (rock star interview on tour in Brazil). This all happens, as is explained to her by Hugo, who she meets studying on the glaciers, because of ‘the cat guy’ (aka Erwin Schrodinger):

He said that in quantum physics every alternative possibility happens simultaneously. All at once. In the same place. […]
The many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics suggests there are an infinite number of divergent parallel universes. Every moment of your life you enter a new universe. With every decision you make. And traditionally it was felt that there could be no communication or transference between these worlds, even though they happen in the same space, even though they happen literally millimeters away from us.’
‘But what about us? We’re doing that.’
‘Exactly. I am here but I also know I am not here.’

Hugo, she discovers, is ‘a slider’, who’s addicted to exploring all his possibilities (in straight sci-fi, a fellow time traveller); for him it’s not a librarian in a library, but the counter guy in a video store. This is where it got a bit interesting, as Nora explains to Mrs Elm in the library:

‘… you aren’t a real person. You’re just a … mechanism.’
‘Aren’t we all?’
‘Not like that. You are the product of some strange interaction between my mind and the multiverse, some simplification of the quantum wave function or whatever it is.’

So there. My big problem is with the state of Nora when she arrives in these possible situations without any of the knowledge that would have got her there, which, frankly, does not compute. So in that rock star interview (looking ‘a glamorous kind of tired. Like Billie Eilish’s cool aunt‘) she is forced to talk about an album of new songs she has never even heard. In another life she drops into, “She felt like a learner driver at a busy junction, nervously waiting for a clear and safe patch of road“. Similarly: “Ingrid was clearly telling this to someone she thought she knew reasonably well, and yet Nora was a stranger. It felt odd. Wrong.” That’s the word.

No favourite of mine, then. I’m told The midnight library was a big deal with the young people on TikTok. I guess I can see that. You can’t argue with its basic premises of 1). Be careful what you wish for, and 2). Make sure they are your regrets you’re regretting. Furthermore, be kind. It’s a self-help book in (not much) disguise. You don’t need me to tell you of the outcome, do you?

Couple of specific gripes. He has to quote Robert Frost’s The road not taken at some stage, right? “Two roads diverged in a wood and I -/ I took the one less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference” – a common misnomer, except it doesn’t: https://interestingliterature.com/2017/02/a-short-analysis-of-robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken/. What else? – oh, I found the swearing somehow inauthentic. And, a potentially nice touch, a rock star encountering a true fan: “… an outfit that made her look like a flapper girl who had somehow got caught up in a cyberpunk version of a post-apocalyptic war” – which came first?

A bigger regret for this reader: after a kiss she initiates with Hugo – something she would never have done in her ‘root life’ (a nice way of putting it) – it occurs to her that

Being aware that everything that could possibly happen happened to her somewhere, in some life, kind of absolved her a little from decisions. That was just the reality of the universal wave function. Whatever was happening could – she reasoned – be put down to quantum physics.

Would have been nice to have explored that further, but I guess that would have made it a very different book.

Vaultage Ahoy!

What’s this, a nod to a Vaultage within days, not weeks, of it happening? The Brave Marauders featured – buckles were swashed, heartily and sweatingly (and not forgetting sweetly): a set of shanties, a drinking song and a Lancashire industrial (hey, Michelle!). There was some prancing in the house to their encore. Stephen Hobbs begged name-checks for valediction … no, sorry, for the vindication … of performers’ creative labours. So: here’s to the exotically double-barrelled Ian with his Brain in a jar. Pat pre-empted Steve by announcing a sandwich of nostalgia, a couple of his oldies with Michael Chapman in the middle; Stephen was thus forced to go continental, came back with a smorgasbord of nostalgic pieces; Monty went back to Africa and a river he’d known.

In Hobbs’s nostalgia fest a certain Frank Ifield emerged as the punchline. Yes, 1962’s I remember you was one of my mum’s favourites too. I preferred the drama of The wayward wind:

Bats in Binham

To North Norfolk, then. To Binham with some of the brood in the second hottest week of the year. Staying in a house in a new development that hadn’t made it onto the SatNav update (even though when bought it said ‘lifetime’ updates). Not much of a problem, it’s not a large village.

What’s in Binham? – the Priory, with the ruins tarted tastefully up a little to good effect. The church bit is still a working church. Waited with a few others till a service was over – good to hear the organ – before going in. “Hat!” hollered the rotund celebrant as we entered – personally, not guilty.

Par for Norfolk, interesting woodwork in the church on the pulpit ends, but unfortunately I’ve never managed to get a decent photo. Very tasty and inventive baguette (best humous concoction I’ve had the pleasure of) and ciabata roll in the adjacent Parlour, a very pleasing establishment.

We knew about a relative in the graveyard: Andrea’s first cousin, once removed. Sad story, that we did know a bit about, but were soon to learn more.

Turns out the good ol’ Norfolk boy in the village shop had actually known him, and his mum and dad. Family legend had mother Thea – Dorothea – as being very prim and proper, but what he said about dad Gordon – a baker – opened things up a bit. “A bit of a lad,” said our informant, got up to all sorts of things, though not a drinker. A clever man, he played chess by post with someone in Australia. John was “doing well for himself in the RAF”, when he drove himself home from Germany, where he’d been posted. He went to the speedway at Norwich that same night, came home, went to bed and – it was never established why – just didn’t wake up. Felt a bit guilty about the woman waiting to be served as he told us all this.

Truth be told, such was the heat that we didn’t get out as much as we’d expected – Binham not that great for walking anywhere, not a lot of trees or track, five miles from the sea, pleasant enough, mind – though the 2nd and 3rd generations did a lot more. And the house was made for lounging: three big sofas in the open plan living area, so a lot of reading got done. As usual when away, made the house back home feel cramped and scruffy. Not sure that artfully assembled row of assorted pastel oars made the best bedhead for reading though.

Went to the RSPB nature reserve at Titchwell Marsh, already a favourite place from last year. Existential choice of camera or binoculars – too heavy, too cumbersome the both – means no photos. Good to see all those avocets again. Spoonbill, redshank, oyster catchers … and apparently a turnstone (which, to be honest, wouldn’t have had a clue, but was pointed out to us). Stayed a while at the uncrowded nicely breezy beach (on the left below, from phone).

And on the right … All the excitements of a salt marsh at Stiffkey, though, and this was important, benefiting from a stiff breeze. Ooh, look, a little egret (not in the photo).

Spent a good day at Holkham. Informative tractor ride around the extensive grounds of the estate, a fine tradition of agricultural innovation being maintained. The mid-twentieth century story of the estate’s revival at the hands of the seventh Earl Leicester – so seemingly they’re not all useless – one worthy of Monarch in the Glen; a nice touch – a seated statues of him on a bench, with his dog, on a mound with a view of the Hall.

A & J had a grand time in the extensive woodland play area, but were not so keen on the walk up to the walled garden, which has probably looked better, but given this dry summer, was still spectacular – an abundant variety of flowers, shrubs, trees, fruit, veg, vines and more. Phone photos I took didn’t do justice to all that richness – the aubergines disappeared in the shadows – but I appreciated the onion artistry and magick:

Also in the photo block: the deer, which hid from the tractor ride, did later come out to play – all those specks are barnacle geese; and an arboreal Rorschach Test. Stroll back by the lake for a closer look at the geese. Refuelled, A & J suddenly full of energy again for more time in the woodland play area; A making himself hard to find when it was home time.

Other thoughts and reports:

  • I’m hardly a seasoned practiser, but I’ve pretty much got long form tai chi chuan banked in my muscle memory most days of the week (I thought). You start facing north (it’s a thing); at home that means I start out looking at the back garden fence with patio doors behind me; where we stayed the opposite, starting out with a fence behind me. Was I thrown? Of course I was, took me at least four days before I didn’t at some stage end up facing the wrong direction and losing it completely.
  • in the middle of an evening WhatsApp conversation about Bram Stoker‘s Dracula I go out to spend time with a spectacular low rising full moon, and I’ve never before have I had a bat fly that close over my head.
  • modern parenting: bath time bedlam upstairs, and a stentorian delivery, above it all: “Right, do that again and I’m deleting your playlist.”
  • driving back from Stiffkey and nowhere to park to get a photo of the impressive sight of a haystack skyscraper. Makes a change I suppose.
  • ran out of books I’d brought with me or didn’t fancy so started reading Jane Austen‘s Emma on Kindle on the iPad. Never read any Austen before but been meaning to for a while, and that’s the one I’d been recommended. Has its moments, for sure. Get home and try and pick it up with a physical paperback and find I just can’t mix and match media; interesting.
  • SatNav home plays a blinder. Not quite sure why I’m on the newish dual carriageway A14 – a fine road, mind – but the road disappears from the screen Still has all the side roads you can see but can they be trusted? Lifetime updates was my understanding – but whose lifetime? Hey ho.
  • Oh yes, and Binham Priory does a very fine tea towel for a fiver. Why can’t someone somewhere do up an old church pre-Reformation style, decorated with all those colours? Can’t be sacrilege, can it?

How long ago?

Was it really that long ago? How far back do things have to have happened before you can call a novel a historical novel? Does it depend on the age of the reader, how old they were (if they were) when the action takes place? Or of the writer? Benjamin Myers is on the cusp.

He was born 1976, two years before the first crop circle claimed by the pranksters Dave Chorley and Doug Bower was made, so thirteen years old in 1989, the highpoint of the phenomenon, when the events of The perfect golden circle (Bloomsbury, 2022) take place, and sixteen when their identity was revealed, thus nixing (most of) the ufo/mystical/conspiracy BS – a fascinating development in itself – they had given rise to.

The perfect golden circle follows the construction of ten increasingly complex crop circle designs in the summer of 1989. These chapters are punctuated by reports in media, starting with a parish magazine, through the Guardian to international sources; it’s a shame they are very poor pastiches.

I’ve found it hard to learn much about the actual Doug’n’Dave, and though their plans are similarly hatched in a pub, Myers’s memorable protagonists are very different people: symbols of the age, maybe, but still very much living breathing characters, whose lives are made meaningful by the enterprise. To quote: “Where Redbone sees life as a thrilling continuum, Calvert considers it a conundrum that can never be solved, only endured.

Calvert, living like a hermit, is the planner, the logistics man; he’s a Falklands War veteran with PTSD. Redbone is the designer, the pattern-maker, an affable survivor of ‘the crust punk scene’, who shares the company and abodes of more than one woman, but still often ends up sleeping in his car; he makes do with two strings on his bass guitar. A buddy adventure then – and there is excitement in the circle-making – with dialogue of increasingly moving personal revelation.

From what I can recall there is only one other character, who comes across them on the job, a man who they take to be a gamekeeper when he is actually the landowner, a neat comic situation spoilt somewhat when, and it’s not the only time, Myers is trying too hard: “His father is the man the Queen goes to when she’s a bit short on cash. He’ll probably be running the country one day, if he can keep his dick in his pants.” No, sorry, does not compute.

I expected to enjoy The perfect golden circle more than I did, but then, looking back on the notes I made a while ago, I’m actually feeling real affection. Sometimes the outbreaks of mannered, poetic prose work, and sometimes they don’t. I could have done without Calvert’s mansplaining of climate change (to his mate), but at times it feels like The Detectorists – Mackenzie Crook’s wonderful and gentle tv series about a couple of blokes with metal detectors – with its feel for the countryside, history and the human condition, though on steroids (that is meant as praise).

The sights, the sounds and feel of the country at night and their labours come across, as does their fatigue and righteousness, adhering to a code of operations, “a strict set of rules that the pair have adhered to for the last two summers, back when their long-term venture began out of necessity, folly, anxiety, impish disruption and much more besides.”

Their motto: “Fuel the myth and strive for beauty, yes, but never reveal the truth,” with the recognition that, “our power lies in our secrecy. Our anonymity … without it the mystery crumbles. And the mystery is everything.”

The naming of the circles is important to them; Calvert is impressed with what Redbone has come up with:

‘… my long-held suspicions about you were confirmed: you are truly a visionary beamed in from another dimension..’
Redbone grinned back.
‘A berk, of course,’ said Calvert. ‘But a visionary berk.’
‘I’ll take that.’

Of course, that Redbone has been fueling myths most of his life: “As a younger man – before he knew himself better – he went through a phase of walking around the village in a cape with a large eyeball stitched upon it. Several of his haircuts were legendary.”

A final thought: “No one ever calls the music they make ‘owl song’ because they are entirely devoid of melody …

Not devoid of melody

… though there are occasional screeches to be heard locally. Another late chronicle of Stony live music:

Great show at Stony Stratford’s York House, featuring a bluesman called Trevor. Trevor Babajack Steger gave us an absorbing couple of sets mixing high-energy trance blues, gentle meditative blues and a fair amount of how-how-how-howling blues – that’s a hell of a speedy strumming right hand he owns to go with the picking, slide, writing and vocal talenys. Well worth a mention too, support Litmus Paper – David Malins & Ian Walker – gave us a set of intelligently chosen and immaculately delivered covers. Splendid gig – thanks Pat and Ken.

Here’s Trevor’s lovely River got a red dress on from an earlier gig:

And let us again celebrate the recent re-opening of The Vaults Bar with a new management with a good attitude and seemingly a plan. A series of Saturday afternoon in the courtyard gigs (with added veggie option barbecue) was kicked off by the excellent Bullfrogs (seen below).

A return, too, of Vaultage open mic sessions under new guidance. First was a tale of two Andys, one asleep at the wheel (where’s the PA, never mind yerself?), the other the saviour Andy, who, living close-by, was able to heroically plug the gap; good to hear David Cattermole again. All was well two weeks later; the usual suspects, audience and performers, return – that’s Walker & Miller below. Fraid I had to leave early for Andy Powell’s feature; Stephen Ferneyhough gave us what I’ll call his Music Hall set (it’s broader than that), and the room was mightily entertained. Huzzah!

A brief word too about The Sandman on Netflix. It’s brilliant, best transfer ever to screen of a book I loved. In context Morpheus’s stroll through the streets and parks of London with Endless colleague Death was as moving as anything I’ve seen all year. I know that’s meaningless if you don’t know Neil Gaiman’s Sandman saga, but I felt it just had to be logged.

This from my handwritten reading diary – the precursor of Lillabullero – dated March 23, 1989. Tucked in between a Louise Erdrich and Garcia Marquez’s Love in a time of cholera. Not that I can remember much about it but note the phrase “… and yes, love is the way“. The thing is, it’s almost certainly Salman Rushdie‘s second best book (because how do you follow Midnight’s Children?).

What has been lost in the Khomeini/Bradford death threats nonsense is that [The Satanic Verses] is a brilliant book. Played down no doubt [in some circles] because Margaret Hilda [Thatcher] becomes Mrs Torture (why haven’t the press told us that?), and there’s a devastatingly funny piss take of Khomeini’s exile in Paris.

Reputedly a difficult book, I loved it, ripped right through it with zeal, joy and excitement. That there are about six levels of reality, dream, fantasy and myth – dreams of someone in a fantasy? – is easily hurdled, postmodernestly, by not caring, just appreciating the resonances twixt the Indian film world (the divinities), UK tv ad voices, Muslim history, East End realities and [a contemporary rumour of a] messiah, schizophrenia … swimming in it.

The book is funny and profound, and yes, love is the way. So much here about religions, myths, contemporary UK, India, Indian and black identities. Standouts, among the many – the whorehouse as parallel to the Prophet’s household, the East End cafe, the daughters, the Bombay opposition, the fire, the messianic coming, the parting of the sea, the calming wind-down of Saladin’s reconciliation with his dying father.

Wonderfully written – I kept thinking of Pynchon – with enormous vision, a book I’m going to have to read again [I haven’t but I quite like to add it to the tbr pile] : Gibreel Favishta and Saladin Chamcha’s fall from the plane (terrorists!) sparks off immigration problems, and from then on the mundanity and apocalypticism are unrelenting, weaving in and out of all sorts of levels. A much under-recognised book.

… and I haven’t even mentioned the women, Everest, butterflies …

Interestingly, it’s a butterfly that graces the cover of the edition you find on Amazon – available only on Kindle at a reasonable £4.99, by the way, whereas new paperbacks of pretty much all his other novels are readily purchasable. How can there not be a reprint now?

Well done the Lionesses! And yay! – the captain ‘s a hometown gal (Newport Pagnell had been part of Milton Keynes long before she was born). Feelgood news stories being something of a rarity this year I guess it was inevitable the media would move into overkill. Personally, I never really got the “years of hurt” thing. My pal Sal immediately WhatsApped, “I wish she hadn’t taken her shirt off,” and I agreed. But more about that later.

There has been a lot of talk about – dedications even, to – the pioneers of this second, modern, phase of the women’s game. Pete Davies‘s I lost my heart to the Belles: the story of the Doncaster Belles (Heinemann, 1996) moved me greatly when it was published. I’ve dug out what I wrote about it in my longhand reading diary (the pre-cursor to Lillabullero), and I’m going to give it to you verbatim now. Honest, I’m not trying to put down progress – the good old bad old days – but there’s a real story to be told.

Great book, a match by match look at the – for them highly unsuccessful – 1994/5 season, using each match as a hook for one or two individuals. Joy and misery, beauty and ugliness, a lot of laughter, not a few tears. And in passing, a very fine state of the nation exposition. Lovingly wrought, images and people, football and non-football – it will stick. The nights out, the crack, the game – the Belles! And they all hate Arsenal in women’s football. Oh, and Croydon, as the F.A. try and clean up the amateur act a.k.a take the fun out of it. Sheila, the manager’s wife, a player, tells of a little boy at the school she teaches at, anxious to know if she likes his birthday card – he’d been given the money and told to go out and get one himself. The escape, no, redemption that the Belles bring from a desperate section of northern society. Lovely book.

Three things immediately follow from this.

  • One is, you always make some bad mistakes in the moving house charity shop book cull, so I’m buying it again through Abe; you can get it on Kindle for £4.95. (It was Pete Davies who wrote All played out, the story of the 1990 Bobby Robson World Cup, called at the time ‘the best football book ever written’.)
  • Two, what I do remember is the rare-at-the-time support and encouragement given the Belles by Mark Bright, by then playing for Sheffield Wednesday. Bright was, of course, the striking partner of Ian Wright at Crystal Palace before he, Wright, moved to Arsenal, and he is certainly keeping the faith now.
  • And, three, that reference to Arsenal: they were the first big team to take the women’s game seriously, which meant buying up, nay employing, the best players etc etc; they won everything for years. And I’ve no idea what Croydon means in this context at all.

I also tagged on to the end of my diary entry: “Is there a women’s team and/or league in MK?” There is now:

https://www.mkdons.com/teams/women/

And I didn’t know about this project, which should be interesting:

https://www.milton-keynes.gov.uk/news/2022/share-your-stories-womens-football-mk

And there’s also, for starters (ie. the first team that came up in the search engine – there are probably more):

https://www.mkcityfc.co.uk/category/teams/girls/

Oh yes, and the shirt thing. I’ve always thought it was stupid – a yellow card hostage to fortune -when the men do it. I’d stick with a firm handshake and an appreciative nod, but that’s just me. What do you know? – the Daily Mail had the photo on its cover two days running, the second, today, with a big headline quote from – oh dear – Julie Burchill. Beware ideological highjackings and all the other tabloid rubbish to follow. Take care. Well done again, though. Huzzah!

Lax and late, one has built up a backlog. Brevity? We shall try. I know. Will I never learn?

Hope Mirrlees‘s Lud-in-the-Mist (1928 – that’s the first edition on the left) – has seen many editions and interpretations over the years. The one I read (Gollancz, 2008/18 – on the right) has an enthusiastic introduction from Neil Gaiman – “a little golden miracle of a book”, no less. I can’t better fantasy writer Mary Gentle’s summation from the back cover: “A Shakespearian tragi-comedy, a murder mystery, and a multi-faceted allegory all in one; and a damn good story, too.” It may come from deep in the realms of English fantasy – so you have to put up with names like Miss Primrose Crabapple, and the main man is cited as Master Nathaniel Chanticleer throughout, even though he’s a married, middle-aged and the mayor – but it hooked me early on, and this not a genre I spend much time with.

Basically it’s a two cultures tale and, amid the excitement and fun, it’s serious about that. There’s Dorimare (where reason and law supposedly reign), and, beyond the borderlands – the splendidly named Debatable Hills – Fairyland (where poetry, music and dance hold sway). In Dorimare there’s a prohibition on the eating of fairy fruit but, you know, it happens; malody or melody? Among the many other events and debates in the narrative, there’s a pied piper at play, and a thrilling passage up there with that piper, the one at the gates of dawn, that trip in The wind in the willows. The language is variously fey, exciting, and magical: “From time to time, terrestrial comets – the blue flash of a kingfisher, the red whisk of a fox – would furrow and thrill the surface of the earth with beauty.” Terrestrial comets!

People are puzzled, diverted, changed at various times in Lud-in-the-Mist … by hearing the Note (oh yes, requires a capital letter). Each time I couldn’t help hearing that bit from The Who’s Nice and easy out of my head: “There once was a note – Listen!”. Here’s a version Pete Townsend and pals did later on in the game (that ‘bit’ is about 5 minutes in, but it’s worth the wait, I’d say) :

Before we leave the town of Lud-in-the-Mist, there’s delight to be had in its oaths and curses: my title ‘Toasted Cheese’ is one of these, along with ‘Busty Bridget’ and a few others. They swear, variously. to give just two examples, ‘by the golden apples of the wind’, ‘by the sun, moon and stars’. By either of those, thank you, Tamasine, for an Xmas present I would never have dreamt of buying myself!

Having fallen in love with Denise Mina watching her and Frank Skinner’s telly travelogue trilogy about Wordsworth and Coleridge on SkyArts at the end of 2021, and aware of her reputation as a crime writer, thought it was about time I read something she’d written, and The less dead (2020) – a pristine copy, even – was the one conveniently sitting there on the charity shop shelves. I was not disappointed.

The less dead is a lot more than just a crime genre piece. The title needs an explanation:

Nikki shrugs and holds it, a profound sadness in her eyes. ‘See, in New York back then, when street people got killed the cops used to mark the file NHI: “No Humans Involved”. Not even human. When we get killed they call us the “less dead”, like we were never really alive to begin with. See, if Susan was a doctor, like you, they’d have brought the fucking army in. You’d be the perfect victim.’

In present tense narration, Margot, a doctor, back in Glasgow on the death of her adopted parents, is looking to find out about her birth mother, Susan, she links up with her aunt, the latter’s sister, Nikki, an ex-sex worker with a mission to nail a serial killer – maybe a copper – who may well have been the one who killed Susan, who was also a sex-worker (which comes as news to Margot).

As they pass the glass door into a dark office suite Margo catches their reflection. She looks like a stodgy social worker, escorting a difficult client to an appointment she simply must attend. They don’t fit together.

It’s an uneasy alliance that develops satisfyingly by twists and turns: Meanwhile in sub-plot city (or is it?), Margot is also clearing out the house of her deceased adopted parents, not getting much help from her brother, who is related to the problematic ex- of her old school friend Lilah, partner in adventure and still a bit of a wild child. And the source of much entertaining dialogue:

‘Christ, Lilah, you’re unsalvageable. That man is about to go bankrupt, he vandalised my flat to support a legal claim against a man whose life he ruined. Read the fucking signs. I’m not watching you jump from one burning bucket of shit straight into another.’
Lilah is quiet for a a moment as they draw away, looks out of the side window and mumbles to herself:
‘Fit though.’

The focus of the narrative shifts more than once as things develop, but it is consistently engaging, with jeopardy never too far away. There is much wit, intelligence and compassion on display, and we are in the realms of the kind of finely nuanced character development – major or minor – normally found in literary fiction. With added acute social commentary the latter’s purveyors might duck:

It’s a cold, blustery morning as she walks from her car, passing an artisan bakery, a designer wool shop and a dingy porno outlet with windows pasted with offers of trade-in deals on XXX DVDs. The Saltmarket is a mixed area, up and coming but still with pockets of rough-as-fuck.

I don’t think any book has so divided Book Group as Naomi Alderman‘s The Power (Viking, 2016) did. Some just didn’t fancy science fiction and/or could not suspend belief in the plot driver – the broad consequences of the sudden late twentieth century discovery of ‘electrostatic powers in women’, ranging from mild titillation to weapons-grade. Others gave up; it’s not an easy read, and there is unpleasantness. The two of us who actually finished it had been gripped as events unfolded, but felt it flawed … though when we talked about it the more admiring we became.

The Power is a novel within a novel, a historical novel touching on events leading to ‘the Cataclysm’, written at some future date by one Neil Adam Armon (an anagram of Naomi Alderman) bracketed by correspondence between Neil – “I’ve finished the bloody book” – and his editor, Naomi. It is unclear how long ago the apocalyptic events it describes occurred; archaeologists talk of regularly coming across what they call a Bitten Fruit motif.

The narrative cleverly focuses on how things affected four individuals (plus a couple more towards the end) and what they did with it. It throws up all sorts of interesting little differences brought about by the shift in power between the sexes alongside the grander changes; it’s clever like that. Their stories are told at intervals (10 / 9 / 8 / 6 / 5 years to go / One year / Can’t be more than seven months left / Here it comes) interspersed with archival documents, web forum interchanges, archaeological illustrations, and clips of morning tv news show banter between male & female presenters. ‘It’ is the Cataclysm of total world war, developing logically as it does, from a minor conflict in the Balkans …

The four main characters are:

  • Roxy, one of the first and most powerful with the zapping power, who happens to be the daughter of a major London crime family
  • who teams up with Allie, on the run from a nunnery, who becomes a major cult figure (Eve) and president of a small ‘Republic of Women (they subsequently fall out in a very bad way)
  • over in the US there’s Margot, an initially conscientious local politician (and wife of a more prominent one), whose craftiness increasingly abounds, and who ends up running for President
  • and a token bloke Tunde, a globetrotting journalist whose career takes off with the phenomenon (he’s initially trusted), and who gets to play an interesting part towards the end.

The Power is not so much a feminist novel (though obviously it has its moments – one of the first major impacts is in Saudi Arabia) as an examination of the concept of power, and what it does to people; it is not pretty. The ‘electrostatic power’ is a McGuffin and a half. As I said earlier, sometimes just the little things – like this from early on:

There are strange movements rising now […]. Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power, or to leap on the unsuspecting, wolf in sheep’s clothing.

However, having said that about The Power‘s not so much feminism, a neat neat twist at the end, with editor Naomi telling things like they used to be:

Every book you write is assessed as part of ‘men’s literature’. So what I’m suggesting is just a response to that, really, nothing more. But there’s a long tradition of men who’ve found a way out of that particular bind. You’d be in good company.
Neil, I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman’s name?

I got Chris Brookmyre‘s The cut (Little Brown, 2021) out of the library after Stony Stratford’s new Bard praised him – in a short epic poem of his celebrating the power of books – as doing for the backstreets of Glasgow what the great Carl Hiiasen has achieved magnificently for the inhabitants and environment of Florida’s Everglades. The prospect of such vivid wit and more in had to be investigated, and it was the only title of his on the library shelves.

As it happens The cut presents a more cosmopolitan canvas, with action (lots of action, both contemporary and a quarter century previous) in France, Italy and London. Starts in Glasgow, though, and as an unlikely buddy adventure it would make a fine Netflix mini-series. Partners in jeopardy here are Millie, a 70-year old woman, just out after 25 years in prison for a murder she did not commit, and Jerry, a 19-year old working class ex-delinquent. She was an in-demand horror movie make-up artist back in the day, he’s a horror film aficionado fresher at uni doing Movie Studies. Together they are driven to end up discovering what was really going down a quarter century ago – ingeniously plotted to tie in with Jerry’s recent bad lad past – movingly so, at one stage – and it’s never as obvious as it seems.

It all revolves around the making of Mancipium – which is either the ultimate unreleased cult horror classic or maybe just an urban myth – the last film she worked on. So there’s plenty to delight not just horror movie buffs throughout as things develop. Jerry still has regrets about “… an original VHS copy of Star Wars, predating all George Lucas’s retrospective self-vandalism” – Brookmyre entertainingly not shy of dropping his opinions and politics into the mix – ‘Born three-nothing up and convinced they’d scored a hat trick’ is how Jerry describes his public school hall-mates at uni.

Millie and Jerry make a great pair as they come to appreciate one another: she’s been away, of course, and a lot has changed: ‘He forgot he was dealing with a time traveller from 1994‘. Seeing his reflection in a window he sees someone with ‘the look of a bright young man encumbered by a mad old bat‘. They engage in a game trading off sarcasm (hers) against movie references. Here’s a good example of Brookmyre in full flow – Anne is Millie’s probation officer:

… Anne was just a tubby half wit. Millicent knew she wasn’t supposed to ‘body shame’, but it was hard to be regularly subject to an exercise in passive-aggressive moral judgment from someone who didn’t have the personal fortitude to occasionally say no to a chocolate biscuit.

I don’t know if anyone else has done anything like this, but there’s a fantastic chase sequence in Rome which gives rise to this glorious piece of dialogue:

‘You said you’d never been to Rome before.’
‘No, but I’ve been in this building a hundred times. Assassins Creed: Brotherhood.
She looked blank.
‘It’s a videogame set in Rome during the Renaissance. I played it a lot when I was twelve.’
‘Lead on,’ she said, gesturing him to proceed. ‘Though I do wish you hadn’t used the word assassin.’

I enjoyed The cut, though it could have been [like this post] shorter, and I will have to delve deeper into Chris Brookmyre’s oeuvre to find the classy Scottish noir I was seeking. But when I do, I’d expect to find a lot more Scottish-isms. I had to look it up in Urban Dictionary when Jerry has “utterly Hibsed” something: “Turn predicted/probable success into a massive failure.” Inspired by the 2015-2016 football season when Hibernians FC (colloquially Hibs) lost to Falkirk in a relegation match they needed to win. They were winning 4-2. There was no way they could fail but then they ‘hibsed it’ and managed cede two late goals in added time to only draw.

Viet Thanh Nguyen‘s The sympathizer (Corsair, 2015) is an extraordinary book, the best novel I’ve read in ages … so I’m not going to spend much time with it here because I really need to move on. It is excellent on so many levels – full of action, ideas and tension, funny with it – and blew most of the Book Group away too, which was slightly surprising, given it is not an easy read – long paragraphs (albeit beautifully written), unorthodox handling of speech meaning you have to be careful who’s saying what – and it is periodically brutal. Not for the all sorts of squeamish, then; not for nothing does kick off with an epigram from Nietzsce’s On the genealogy of morals.

Briefly … first person narration that you forget is supposed to be a written confession. He is the son of a Vietnamese mother and a renegade French priest; at school in Vietnam he is one of a trio of anti-bully blood brothers; one takes up the revolutionary struggle, another is a General in the South Vietnamese army, while he, after a spell as a student in the US, becomes a spy in the South for the North: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. […] I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

Much happens: guilt, moral dilemmas and big questions arise – including a lesser few that “required either Camus or cognac, and as Camus was not available I ordered cognac” – and there’s a scary and unexpected (well, to me) but intriguing end. Along the way we take in the scramble for those last helicopters out of Saigon, witness the (thinly veiled) making of the movie Apocalypse Now (you’ll never see it the same again), and explore the chastening refugee experience of those who got out’s new life in the US.

It’s a great book. Have a taste the delights of Viet Than Nguyen‘s immaculately acerbic prose, here describing his day-to-day activities as a spy:

What showed up at my door every morning was an ageing auntie … hawking gobs of betel juice as well as her specialty, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. I bought a packet for breakfast every morning, and in it there might or might not be a message, rolled and wrapped in plastic. Likewise, in the small wad of folded piastres I paid her with, there might or might not be a cartridge or film or a message of my own, written invisibly with rice water on cement paper. The only flaw in this method was that auntie was a terrible cook, her sticky rice a ball of glue that I had to swallow, lest the maid find it in my garbage and wonder why I was buying what I could not eat. I complained to auntie once, but she cursed me at such length and with such inventiveness I had to check both my watch and my dictionary. Even the cyclo drivers hanging around the General’s villa for fares were impressed. You better marry that one, Captain, a driver missing a left arm called out.

Finally, a bit of art and some tunes

Ingrid Pollard‘s brilliantly titled Carbon Slowly Turning show at Milton Keynes Gallery (now months gone) subtly asked all sorts of questions about race and identity – she was born in Guyana, now lives up north – using a variety of techniques, with a lot of photography, both landscape and portrait sequences featured. That show title operates on macro- and micro-levels; we, the planet we’re on and beyond, all forms of carbon. The three large-scale computer generated images above – Landscape trauma (2001) – are (it says here in the catalogue) ‘deliberately ambiguous’: aerial landscape photography? telescopic views of the galaxy? the interior of the human body? Stunning, whatever. The wallpaper – part of There was much interruption (2015) – is a quietly subversive reworking of the traditional Toile de Jouy design depicting ‘idealised vignettes of rural life and the leisure pursuits of landowner’ incorporating images from the history of African textile printing. It was good to take one’s time with all that variety.

Last up – it too was a while back – but Rodney Branigan‘s Song Loft appearance cannot go without mention. A bravura performance of ambidextrous dexterity – ‘One man, two guitars’ as the slogan goes – it was a lot more than a display of virtuosity, though it was of course that, with finger-style guitar switching seemlessly between right and left hands, and yay, even at times with two guitars. This came with some decent songs delivered with charm and wit: “This here is a song about stalking. In Texas we call it a love song.” Nice touch: the only merch was a tea towel (he’s been living in Frome in Wiltshire for a while now).

Call that a catch-up? Two books since and a Vaultage revival? Laters.

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