Note the duct-tape running repairs on Leadbessie. Photo © DRQ


American bluesman Kent DuChaine was back in town a couple of weeks or so ago, and the full house in York House had a grand time of it.  A bit of a legend locally for performances in the White Horse and the Fox & Hounds, this was his first visit to Stony Stratford in 10 years, and many in the audience were feeling nostalgic.  Only a decade here myself, this was the first time I’d caught him.

Armed only with ‘Leadbessie’, his trusty 85 year old National Steel Guitar (owned for a couple of years shy of half its life), he charmed a full house with tales from his musical – he’s played with or been on the bill with most of the post-war blues legends – and personal life, (his ‘four and a half wives’), and some immaculate playing. 

I had been expecting something more raucous, but was not disappointed.  Here was a pre-Chicago blues, with Robert Johnson a major influence; indeed, he told us about his getting Johnny Shines, self-appointed apprentice to Johnson way back when, performing again.  With a flourishing right hand – the ups and downs caught in the lights – putting in a more mileage than your average guitarist, he delivered two sweet sets consisting of both standards and originals, vocals a lot more a caress than a holler.  He finished with immaculate takes on St James Infirmary and a redeemingly sad Trouble in mind, for him the greatest blues song of them all.

Here’s the man’s website: http://www.kentduchaine.com/


I’ll be honest, this section is called ‘Dues’ for purely rhyming purposes, though there is a case to be made that the numerous denizens of the novel in question have well and truly paid some dues by the time it’s finished.

Title page!

I thought it was time I read Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman‘s Good omens: the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch (1990).  I’m glad I did.  It’s brilliant.  Normally I take the odd note as I’m reading a book, marking my card for bon mots, decent one-liners and passages of note for potential use here at Lillabullero.  They abound, on pretty much every page; I didn’t even start.

Brief scenario:  Agnes Nutter wrote a book of prophecies in the early days of print media; it was the only one that actually got things right, but was remaindered, having missed the commercial boat, and now there’s only one left.  It predicts the coming of the Antichrist and the apocalypse is, it says, immanent at the time the book is set.  Which is contemporary to when it was written, when cars still had cassette players; there’s a running joke involving Queen’s Greatest Hits in such machines.  There’s been a three-way baby swap eleven years previous, so confusion as to where the young Antichrist is to be found; turns out to be Tadfield, an English village in the Cotswolds.

Aziraphale and Crowley, the long-standing representatives of, respectively, heaven and hell on Earth, have established a modus operandi over the centuries and have come to realise any conclusion to their conflict would do one of them out of a job and both out of a pleasant enough existence; they’ve gone native to some extent.  Crowley has long realised he doesn’t have to do much – just the odd nudge – for humankind to do their worst on their own anyway (though he’s particularly proud of the M25); they are both contemptuous of the Satanists.  Aziraphale runs a rare bookshop in Soho, Crowley is a bit of a dude.  They combine forces to try and avert what’s coming.  That’s just two of an enormous cast that includes a Witchfinder Sergeant, the actual Antichrist, a bit charismatic but as innocent as his pals, a teenage girl called Anathema, and many, many more.

One of my favourite bits involves the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse, ‘Hell’s Angels’ spelt out on the back of their leathers with diamond-encrusted lettering; oh, and by the way, Pestilence was replaced by Pollution after the invention of penicillin.  On their way to Tadfield they meet up in a biker café, where their credentials are challenged by the resident biker gang, “What chapter are you?”  Comes the response: “Revelations” from one of them, followed up by a verse and line reference from another.

The whole book is chock full of stuff like that.  Scatter-gun humour, most of it sticking – irony, slapstick, wit and wisdom, it’s all there, driven by this crazy narrative of the threat of the coming apocalypse.  I wasn’t keen on the way that Adam (aka the Antichrist) and his pals are made to talk at first  – a bit cod-childish like that godawful Haribou TV ad where rugby players or tossers at a management meeting talk with the dubbed voice of children – but on the whole the misses don’t get in the way.   The anti-climax (oops, spoiler alert, but you know, the world doesn’t end, obviously) are beautifully delivered.

And fans of the footnote are in for a treat.  Sitting where I am, here in MK, I feel duty bound to repeat this classic, that has proved its worth over time:

*Note for Americans and other aliens.  Milton Keynes is a new city approximately halfway between London and Birmingham.  It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live.  Many Britons find this amusing.

Another at random: *It is possibly worth mentioning at this point that Mr Young thought that paparazzi was a kind of Italian linoleum.

Post-2006 editions boast delightful short pieces by each author about the other and a Q&A about who did what and how it was written; some passages neither of them can remember writing.  Gaiman makes the point that when they were writing it they hadn’t yet become the big names they were to become; it was just a couple of mates mucking about.

Views; or why you can trust Alison Graham

… or at least as far as drama goes.  These classic put-downs from the last three weeks of Radio Times:

Girlfriends  ITV: Wed 7th Feb 2018
Kay Mellor’s bizarre low farce ends with a futile attempt at black comedy. But first there are the usual shocks and jarring plot developments thrown around like mud pies.  […]

Aided by laborious flashbacks, we find out what happened on the cruise ship when the husband vanished, before the three come up with a plan that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It ends with what amounts to a plea for a second series but ITV, please, ignore it.

Trauma  ITV: Wed 14th Feb 2018 (3rd of 3)
[…]  By the end of the final episode of Mike Bartlett’s thriller you might be left with the unsatisfactory feeling, “What was the point of all that?”

Marcella ITV: Mon 19th Feb 2018
Two years after the first series, tormented DS Marcella returns for another eight episodes of roaringly bonkers London noir. As the capital’s high-rises pierce hard sunsets, Marcella is called to a murder scene. A builder has found a human ear, which leads to the discovery of a desiccated body surrounded by toys in a wall cavity.

Of course, Marcella – and her son – knew the victim, whose mum blames both of them for her boy’s murder. So clearly Marcella’s the right person to be part of the murder squad. (No she isn’t.)

The hysterical soundtrack screams warnings of horrors around every corner. Angry tattooed bald men snarl, a young man is strapped to a gurney as an unseen hand fondles medical instruments, paedophiles prowl and trains (there are always trains in crime dramas) shriek as they mimic Marcella’s deranged despair. Honestly? It’s hilarious.

You know what not to watch!  Take a bow again, Alison Graham.  Though she does have dodgy taste in comedy.

A courgette flower … just because. ©DRQ

& Clues

… of a cryptic crossword kind.  I won’t say I’m an addict but we usually have a go at the Guardian Cryptic most days.  Here are a brief selection of clues that have particularly tickled my fancy and saved over the years.  For me the best clues can be good puns, zen koans,  bad puns, a celebration of the intricacies of the English language, some really neat word magic, the whole gamut from Wow! to Doh! or just good fun.  They deserve to be enjoyed beyond grid.

Good place here I guess, also, to bid a fond farewell to Rufus, the usual setter of the Guardian Monday cryptic, not just because his were easier than the rest, but also because of his wit.

I think the clues I’ve selected are really neat; the setter is credited first.  You can find the solutions and explanations under another photo saying Roll on summer.  Have fun:

from Philistine: Satchmo’s gripe? (7,8) 
Rufus: Records where St Joan kept bees? (8) 
Boatman: Every other neat clue (9) 
Rufus: Well-used footwear? (4) 
Brummie: Philosophy causing communist to swap sides (6)  
Rufus: A full one should give you a capital start (4) 
Imogen: Frank, a father who feels he’s a woman? (11) 
Rufus: Useless advice! (9) 
Boatman: Tedious “nu” clue (8) 
Rufus: Blimey! Alec capsized the boat (7) 

Roll on summer  ©DRQ. used here purely to create a buffer between the clues and the solutions.



from Philistine: Satchmo’s gripe? (7,8) Stomach disorder (disorder=anagram of Satchmo)
Rufus: Records where St Joan kept bees? (8) Archives (Joan of Arc+where bees are kept)
Boatman: Every other neat clue (9) Alternate (Really neat: the order of the letters of ‘neat’ altered!)
Rufus: Well-used footwear? (4) Pump (You use a pump to get water from the well)
Brummie: Philosophy causing communist to swap sides (6)  Taoism (Swap the T & M around …)
Rufus: A full one should give you a capital start (4) Stop (Capital letter after a full stop)
Imogen: Frank, a father who feels he’s a woman? (11) Transparent (synonym of Open, constructed from a trans parent!)
Rufus: Useless advice! (9) Economise (Use less)
Boatman: Tedious “nu” clue (8) Unvaried (ie. the letters n&u varied (also a dig at people who use nu for new?))
Rufus: Blimey! Alec capsized the boat (7) Coracle (Cor! + Alec ‘capsized’)













A place called Winter

Patrick Gale‘s A place called Winter (Tinder, 2015) kicks off with a detailed description of the brutal ‘treatment’ meted out to unresponsive patients in a psychiatric hospital in Canada.  It then moves, as does protagonist Harry Cane, to Bethel, a progressive therapeutic community, where we eventually discover how he got to be there.  It’s a captivating tale of flight from prosperous Edwardian London to being part of the state-sponsored settlement of the Canadian prairies, in the early twentieth century: they gave you land to work; it became yours if you made a go of it.

Once our hero gets to Canada (and once you get over his sharing a name with the Tottenham Hotspur and England striker Harry Kane, who can’t stop scoring goals at the moment), so vivid and engrossing are the descriptions of his physical travails, his surroundings and his developing friendships – the sheer narrative power, the sense of achievement and fulfillment – that I completely lost track of the book’s structure, forgot about those painful opening pages and its therapeutic context.  Until the spectre of the Great War inevitably loomed and I thought: Oh please, not another literary tour of the trenches (Canada was part of the Empire, remember) and mental collapse.  But no, we are dealing here with violent trauma of a more directly personal and dramatic nature; not that the War doesn’t touch others who matter to him.  And when the narrative does return to Bethel, to almost the present, it gets really interesting.

There is so much going on in A place called Winter.  Why does Harry have to go to Canada?  To shield his relatives from shame and scandal.  I knew Patrick Gale had achieved something special here, but couldn’t nail it, so I resorted – something I rarely do in these pieces – to investigating what others had to say.  I didn’t have to look any further than an interview the author had given Max Lui for the Independent:

The challenge was to inhabit a homosexual life when there are no words to describe any of the things the character feels or does.

He succeeds.  And never mind sexuality, Harry’s whole life is one big series of discoveries.  The materially comfortable existence he leaves behind in London is a far cry from the lonely rigours of taming the wilderness in a very cold place.

As I say, so much going on.  In the two respectable English families that become enjoined in before the crisis – two brothers from the one marrying sisters in the other – there is potential to populate a decent novel of their own.  Then there’s the passage to Canada – a fascinating slice of social history – and the first meeting with one Troels Munck, a malevolent fixer, who keeps turning up again later as a classic Western bad guy: Evil like in a fairytale. But fascinating too“, says Gale in a piece at the back of the paperback edition I read.  

He’s taken on by a Danish family in Moose Jaw for a harsh apprentice year, learning the farming ropes, before he gets his own land: “The talk of wages, the whole business of being, for the first time in his life, employed, was so novel as to feel virtually meaningless.”  Talk about a new life.  Furthermore: “It was another mercy that the Jorgensens neither gave nor expected anything from him socially; he was an unregarded nothing“.  Something good comes out of the year though as relations warm.  The changes mapped reminded me of an Alice Munro story.

And then there’s the gruelling work establishing his own homestead, building a house, getting the land into shape to farm, near a place called Winter.  The winters – the cold, the snow – are crippling.  His developing relationships with sister and brother neighbours, Petra and Paul Slaymaker – Paul had had some “trouble in Toronto” – are the emotional core of the novel.  I don’t think I want to be any more specific than that; it’ll give too much away.  Dramatic events unfold involving Troels Munck.  There is a crisis and Harry has a breakdown, which takes us back to the horrendous opening chapter.

The plight of the peoples of the First Nations – Canada’s North American Indians – had been touched on earlier, but at therapeutic community at Bethel the book shifts into another gear.  In fascinating passages that reminded me of (but surpassed) the movie Little Big Man, Harry learns from fellow patient Little Bear, a Cree Indian: “You are a two-souls, Harry“:

She said something, in Plains Cree presumably, so softly he couldn’t quite catch it, but it sounded like ayarkwoo. ‘Translation is impossible, since it could mean either both man and woman or neither man nor woman. Some of us call it two-souls. You are a two-souls, Harry.’

It’s a blessing and a curse. […] You choose the basket willow over the bow, but there’s no rule to say you can’t use both,” he elaborates elsewhere.  Ultimately Little Bear is a tragic figure, but he is crucial to Harry’s recovery.  In the Cree Nation he was valued for what he was:

        You have to understand, as a two-souls I had a special position. I was being taught mysteries, things ordinary boys would never learn.’  […]
        ‘I was special and my father was proud of me. But to the missionaries I was an evil influence. I was fourteen, nearly fully grown, but to them I was an evil child. They cut my hair short and the evil they saw in me was beaten out day after day.’
        ‘Did you fight?’
        ‘No. I was always quiet and good and a swift learner. And their Jesus was so kind, kinder than some of our spirits. He reached out to me and still hasn’t let me go. For a meek, mild dead man, he has a tenacious grip.’

Harry returns to pick up the pieces in Winter.  There are important plotlines I’ve barely touched upon, but it all seems hopeful (though that’s just my reading – it’s left open-ended).

A place called Winter  was January’s Book Group book and – rare event – there were no dissenting voices as to what a fine piece of work it was.  It is an incredibly powerful piece of writing, with distressing and heart-breaking happenings aplenty.  The prose can sing but is never flashy, never fussy, never proselytising.  There is a vivid sense of people in a landscape, of energy being expended; when the threshing team comes to harvest Harry’s and the Slaymakers’ fields in Chapter 25, reading felt like being in a big widescreen cinema – Terrence Malick’s Days of heaven came to mind.

Yet for all the heaviness, A place called Winter can still amuse.  There is a nice little bit of banter about books and individual’s reading tastes in the snowed-up winters, and Gale interjects the odd flourish that tellingly tickles, like these that I’ll leave you with.  The first example is from Harry’s courting days, the last his first meal at Bethel (or was it at the Jorgenson’s – sorry):

They reached a wrought-iron bench in the shifting golden shade of a weeping willow, which seemed like a destination, so they sat. (p31)

Musical comedies were Harry’s idea of hell. He disliked their forced sentiment and cheeriness, their wildly improbable plots […] and the tension induced in him by knowing that at any moment a character would burst into song. (p61)

Lunch was a fairly punitive cheese and parsnip tart with beans and boiled potatoes. (p116)

Splendid stuff all round.


Parish performances

The Bardic Trials

And it came to pass that Stony’s got a brand new Bard.  All hail poet Sam Upton!  Crowned (or rather, cloaked) after an absorbing contest with accomplished storyteller and laidback one-time Texan Lynette Hill at York House Centre.  Tellingly, Sam delivered his statement of Bardic Intent acknowledging the tradition and the work of previous holders of the post in verse form.  Shame there were only two up for it this year, but it was a good contest, and a fine evening’s entertainment was put together by the Bardic Council and outgoing Bard – Bard 007 Mr Stephen Hobbs – nevertheless.  Sam will have a hard job to match Steve’s work rate.

Fay Roberts held a buzzing audience still and entranced with a poem delivered entirely in Welsh – I add No, really! for those who’ve never seen her – while Northampton’s Bard Mitchell Taylor‘s was an energetic (with much poetic striding) and passionate set, by turns personal and political.  Original stuff from singer-songwriter from Dawn Ivieson, in fine voice.  Professional comedian James Sherwood finished the evening off in style.  He had me in stitches, not least when – sat at and playing keyboard – singing and raging against the mathematical inexactitude all too often found in popular songs.  Wish I could remember some culprits other than 50 ways to leave your lover (in which just 5 are listed); there was that Cher song …

The Pantomime

The Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s 3rd annual panto,  Dick Whittington in Stonyland was a hoot, with all the traditional trimmings, complete with plenty of nods to the locality and no little originality from playwright (and Principal Boy) Danni Kushner (no surnames on the handout, no surnames here … except this one … for the writer).  Great ensemble performance (Oh, yes it was), invidious to single out etc etc (Oh, no it isn’t), because as Dame, troubadour Roddy’s Sally the Cook is already legend; not bad for a first acting role – “Oh, you won’t believe your eyes / at the size of Sally’s pies.”  Another first was Danni singing solo – who knew there’s a folk singer in there as well?  [Photos © Denise Dryburgh]

The Talk

Sarah Churchwell, prof of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the Uni of London, delivered a bit of an eye-opener at the Library for those who think of Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby as rooted in, and symbolic of, the Jazz Age.  No.  As she enthusiastically demonstrated, published in 1925, almost as a warning, it is pointedly and set in 1922,  highlighting with some telling slides what was in the news that year, and suggesting 1922 was to the celebrated Jazz Age what 1962 was to Swinging Sixties.

She expanded her subject to look at anti-immigrant origins in the 1920s of the first America First movement, and its links with the KKK.  I almost bought the book, though I have piles waiting to be read at home, she’s that charismatic a performer.  We didn’t have lecturers like her back in the day.

This talk, along with a handful of others, and various other events that I didn’t make it to – and those I did, above and below –  were all part of the programme of the splendid 14th Annual StonyWords literary festival.

Roger McGough. Photo © Andy Powell, who seemed to be everywhere, sound engineering and performing: so here’s a thumbs up.

That Roger McGough

Tickets for Roger McGough at York House were sold out even before the StonyWords programme was printed.  Resplendent in red sneakers he delighted a packed crowd with material that was new to the vast majority of the audience (and certainly to me).  Refreshingly none of the greatest hits were called upon; at the age of 80 he’s a sprightly and dapper performer, and still writing.  [One, um, golden oldie, Let me die a young man’s death cites the ages 73,91, and 104.  Not as much a hostage to fortune as Pete Townshend’s “Hope I die before I get old” in the Who’s (and their middle-aged tribute bands’) My generation, but then, they still do that. ]

Saying he was often accused of being ‘too sentimental’ he went out of his way to disabuse that with a neat reworking of one piece.  He was very funny, but at the same time, with a broad-ranging selection of an hour’s worth of material, not afraid to give us pause for thought.  I did succumb here, bought the autobiography.

This StonyMusicHall4

The Prince of Wales Rattlers. Photo © Andy Powell

Even without The Prince of Wales Rattlers, special guests from over the Northamptonshire border closing the show, StonyMusicHall4 would have been a grand affair.

What did we have?  With various multi-talented members of the Stony Steppers never far away we had: a sand dance, a recitation, a  clog dance (Daisy), singalong Vera Lynn, Whispering grass (from Two Men not called Matt, with accents slipping), a surreal chorus line dance routine involving half black/half white costumes, Mr Ferneyhough and concertina implanting an earworm (“With her ‘ead / tucked / underneath her arm“), some stunning slapstick choreography on If I was not a clog dancer, and … an act I’ve forgotten, I fear; sorry, please do tell.

The Rattlers started off with a couple of temperance hymns.  Too late, the barrels were empty.  Then continued with material more from the folk than music hall tradition but fully the latter in spirit, (and they elided somewhere in there historically anyway (didn’t they?)).  Great four-part harmonies, a moveable feast of musical accompaniment, a fine comedic turn, much jollity.
And so home with a big grin all over one’s face.

Them Theatre pop-ups

Caught one of these – the Light Programme, as opposed to the Dark Programme – in the Library.  A selection of rehearsed readings from a shifting cast of members of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society including a couple of Alan Bennett monologues, a bit of Bard and another old dude, excerpts from Alan Ayckbourn, the Stoppard Rosencrantz and Wossname, and a surprising piece (well, to me) from Chekhov that I wish I could remember*.  Good show, Caz & Co.

*The sneeze; the evils of tobacco – thanks Caz.






Pop-up theatre in the library



The topics under consideration are:

  1. Is it necessary to like the characters, or enough of them, in a novel – and I’ll grant just the one is enough – to fully appreciate it?  True: depends how you define ‘appreciate’, but I’m dodging that one except to say that my main enjoyment of literature come from, um, satisfaction in the broadest of senses, rather than from being a literary critic (which I am not).
  2. How stands the state of play for the delineation and punctuation of human speech in the contemporary novel?
  3. Why does it feel like Irish writers sweep the board these days last century for sheer exhilaration?

And here come the books:

Book the First

Tessa Hadley‘s The past (2015), December’s Book Group book, occasioned a split between those who couldn’t warm particularly to any of the middle-aged siblings taking their annual time out together in an old house in the middle of nowhere with family connections, and those who thought that didn’t matter in the matter of how well crafted a novel it was.  I was in the former camp and agreed with the woman of Irish origin who said the whole thing was “too English” – and middle class southerner English to boot.  I thought the arch of the plot was a bit contrived too, though with the right casting it would make great telly.  It has its moments, mind; I’m not dismissing it completely out of hand.

To tell the truth I was struggling from the first paragraph, with its “The noise of their taxi receding, like an insect burrowing between the hills, was the only sound at first in the still afternoon …”  Is it just me, or are you too trying to imagine what the noise of an insect burrowing between hills could be?  Too many similes throughout was my impression.

Anyway, three sisters: Alice, failed actress, who for some reason has brought her ex-lover’s student son along with her; Harriet, ex-radical and worthy, about to discover something about herself; Fran, youngest, teacher and mum – her two weird kids in tandem, but not their father, a musician (what kind? we’re not told) who has ‘forgotten’ all about this annual pilgrimage and has gigs booked.  One brother, an academic philosopher with a media presence talking about cinema, on his third wife, a stunning Argentinian woman who some think has past links with a brutal dictatorship, who is meeting the sisters for the first time, along with his teenage daughter from a previous marriage.  Brother pisses off early, third wife and daughter stick around (yay! teenage sub-plot!).  Bitching, moaning, explorations etc etc and another sub-plot I’ll not go into.  You can see why Fran’s musician husband has ‘memory’ problems.

There’s a time travel middle section where we see Jill and Tom, their mother and father of the sisters and brother (or at least the father of the two born by then – they’re about to split up) visiting her parents (father, Grantham, a forbiddingly remote vicar-poet) in 1968.  Tom is more interested in what’s going on in the streets of Paris and is obviously a waster.  Indeed, the male sex are not well-represented in the pages of this book.  Why, Alice’s ex’s son can even – tempting intertextual fate – come up with:

Alice found Kasim slouching on the window seat on the landing, blankly engaged in nothing. She tried to lend him a novel to pass the time but he gloomily said he didn’t see the point of fiction. – I don’t see what it’s for. Why would you put out any intellectual effort, understanding something that wasn’t true?

But, re-focussing on our initial questions.  What is it about Irish writers?  Maybe that they would not beguile us – I know, it’s a character, but – with something like this one of Alice’s meditations:

She thought she saw a skylark soar up out of the field, streaming with song, balancing on its invisible jet of air – but as soon as she sat up on her elbows she doubted her identification. The bird was just a dot in the sky, too far off to be certain. Surely the skylarks had gone long ago from this part of the country? Everything was in decline. What a compromised generation theirs was, she thought. Materially they had so much, and yet they were haunted by this sensation of existing in an aftermath, after the best had passed.

As far as the punctuation of speech goes, however, Tessa Hadley goes Irish and adopts the James Joycean hyphen – as per A portrait of the artist as a young man – as the speech delineator, and goes further, even, in not employing a new paragraph every time, which I find refreshing.  This little example (from the 1968 section) also bears witness to a humour that I may not have hinted at so far:

‌   – We don’t eat eggs.
   Roland broke the news solemnly.
   – Oh god, said Jill. – I really began to think we’d never get here, that we’d just have to sleep under a hedge or something.  And you’re worrying about a little thing like eggs.
   – You shouldn’t say god, said Hattie. – Grandfather doesn’t like it.
   – He isn’t here, he’s visiting the sick.
   – Thank god for the sick, said Jill. – We can swear until he comes back.

But before we leave The past, one last quotation (again from the 1968 interlude) that more than one of the Group had made a note of (we are not a young group):

Carefully, Sophy ate a cold mouthful of cabbage. She loved poems but easily forgot them, and she only half-listened to her husband’s sermons anyway. This wasn’t exactly because she wasn’t interested. But part of the oddity of marriage, she thought, was in how unwise it was to attend too intently to the other person. This was the opposite to what she had naively imagined, as a girl. To the unmarried, it seemed that a couple must be intimately, perpetually exposed to each other – but actually, that wasn’t bearable. In order for love to survive, you had to close yourself off to a certain extent.

Book the Second

No marriage hints to be had Kevin Barry‘s Beatlebone (Canongate, 2015).  Here’s a sample of how speech is handled, though.  Cornelius, taxi driver and self-appointed guide,  guardian and local mentor of a fictional John Lennon in his fictional journey across Ireland in 1978, out to the island of Dorinish off the Atlantic coast that he bought when he was a Beatle.  They’re hungry so Cornelius fixes a meal with what he got: black pudding.  Which Lennon, so hungry, eats despite being a veggie:

He eats the food.  The spiciness, the mealiness, the animal waft – it’s all there in the history of his mouth, and he is near to fucking tears again.  The tea is strong and sweet and tastes of Liverpool.

Would you believe, John, that my father lived in this house till he was eighty-seven years of age?

How’d you get to be eighty-seven up a wet hill in Mayo?

He neither drank nor smoked.

I’m packing away all that myself.

I drink, John.  I smoke.  And I tup women.


When I get the chance.

Yup, just like that.  Not even a dash, let alone speech marks, and no indentations, and a line space between each utterance.  Cynics might say it ups the page count considerably, but I’d say it adds space and resonance to the situation, not the least being Lennon’s struggle to make sense of both what is happening to him, and the rural Irish.  Obviously it’s not going to work universally, but it makes a change.  Elsewhere in Beatlebone Barry adopts a playscript formula, with directions.

On the Irish question posed at the beginning of this post – true, this is not the most scintillating of dialogues – that “wet hill” in Mayo is of relevance.  Last week I was lucky enough to see a performance by Roger McGough (of which more in a later post), in which included a poetic homage to Seamus Heaney, with a kick in the coda to the effect that English poets might be a tad jealous, if not resentful, of the peat bogs etc. available to Heaney on his prize-strewn doorstep.  You might say ‘The grass is always greener’, but then, with Eire, it actually is.  That and the music of the southern accent.  I just find Irish writers more gracious, more generous, more inventive, funnier and more enervating, even when wallowing in misery.  Have I said Kevin Barry is Irish?

Hardback cover

And speaking of misery, the fictional Lennon just wants to get to his exposed island and be left alone to scream – remember Janov’s Primal scream? – for days.  He has songwriter’s block, feels that might free the creative juices.  It becomes a long and arduous journey across Ireland and then out to the island.  I’m not saying much about what happens on the island.  They stay with a scary failing therapeutic community on the way, they have a night in the pub; Lennon thinks a lot about his past throughout (“a dozen years he’s been trying to outrun the fucking sitars”).

Suddenly, with Part Six, in a shocking (not in a bad way)intrusion, Kevin Barry tells of visiting the Dakota Street building in New York, and partaking of the same journey out to Dorinish for himself, of his situation when writing the book, filling in the factual details of Lennon’s purchase of the island, his donating its use to a bunch of hippies for an experiment in communal living, and giving background to life in the west of Ireland in the twentieth century.  Of his Lennon homework Barry says:

Fictional and biographical treatments of John Lennon have tended either towards hagiography or character assassination, and I felt the wisest practice was not to do any traditional research among the texts.

So he listened to that emotionally draining Plastic Ono Band album (A working class hero et al) and watched loads of post-Beatles interviews on YouTube.  What he comes up with sounds pretty good to me.  He doesn’t indulge too much in dropping lyric references into the text though the number 9 is a bit of a theme; how many chapters? yup! – but when he does, ouch: “He is so tired. He hasn’t slept a wink. He has tried so hard this long while to be at home in the world. Baking the bread. Swinging in a papoose the baby. Cozy-as-the-fucking-womb stuff. Captain fucking Domestic.

The novel’s narrative does not, of course, follow the trajectory of Lennon’s real life, though his early memories seem reasonable.  The journey never happened and the album he was working on before he was assassinated is very different to The great lost Beatlebone tape, the recording of which is reported in Part Eight.  Does this whet your appetite? :

JOHN    I mean, have you heard what Scott Walker’s been up to? With his plinkety fucking plink plonk?

CHARLIE    Avant garde, John. Is what it is.

JOHN    My peasant arse. This is going to make Scott Walker sound like the Mamas and the fucking Papas.

Beatlebone is not the easiest or most comfortable of reads.  I had a couple of false starts.  But once in it is relentless, and, gruelling as it is in parts, it also flies, and it sings, and thinks, and it can be very funny.

Lest we forget, this is where Kevin Barry nicked his title from:

Smaller because she’s already had a blog post all of her own not long ago, but she’s Irish and also has something to contribute in the matter of conversation.

Book the Third

What it says in the caption (see Operant discursive rehearsals ).  Absorbing novel from an Irish twenty something.  What she does with conversation is ignore speech marks and dashes altogether, like Barry, but keeping the normal line spacing.  Keeps things moving nicely and no – what I’m beginning to see as visual impediments – speech marks.  Had no problems with what was or wasn’t said.  This is undoubtedly a conversation:

I’m not sure what my role would be in that relationship, I said.
You could write her love sonnets, said Evelyn.
Melissa grinned. Don’t underestimate the effect of youth and beauty, she said.
That sounds like a recipe for disastrous unhappiness, I said.
You’re twenty one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.

Speech marks

I was going to put another book in here with conventional speech punctuation, but:

  1. I’ve run out of steam
  2. This is way too long and rambling already
  3. And it’s a great book, deserves more, which it might well get in a while
  4. And it’s not written by an Irishman

‘British publishers of late seem to favour the single inverted commas,’ said Lillabullero.
“But we still use the old double a lot,” said an American, passing by, on the bookshelves.












Scribal: The last hurrah!

A fine if occasionally damp-eyed Last Hurrah! at the passing of Stony Stratford’s Scribal Gathering, the open-minded open mic‘ that has welcomed ‘poets, musicians and all performers of any style, genre or level of experience, to share their creativity before a warm and receptive audience‘ once a month for nearly nine years now.  Your humble host here at Lillabullero was not the only performer on the night to salute Scribal for getting their writing and performing asses into – or back into – gear over the years, not least two (or was it three?) former Bards of this parish.  

It has been enormous fun and a lot more.  I think my first Scribal was on its first birthday and I’ve only missed a couple since through illness.  I’ve made some friends and seen some great (and, naturally, not so great) local performers (both nascent and experienced) and the featured guests have included a sparkling array of performance poets, spoken word artists, musicians and singer-songwriters of wider repute.  No time now for a chronicle or arbitrary list, but I can’t not mention frequent visitors The Antipoet.

Immediate reason for its disappearance, in the words of current prime mover Jonathan JT Taylor – for whom a massive vote of thanks – who’s been there from the beginning: “Our venue, The Crown will not be opening on a Tuesday this year and I can’t find another suitable venue. I have tried holding the event on a Wednesday in the past but it doesn’t work, so I’m putting the event on hold for now.”  (The Crown is now a gastro-pub, so understandable, I guess, if no-one’s eating of a Tuesday). 

JT goes on: “Personally I feel the spark has gone from the event. It’s had a good innings – nearly nine years! So it’s not a goodbye, it’s a so long and thanks for all the fish…”  Yeah but, no but: while it could no longer maintain the manic energy of what, I guess, must be called ‘the Richard Frost years’ – how could anything? – and there weren’t so many fresh surprises, Scribal could still be the best and most creative show in town, and usually was.  So thanks again to JT and the Scribal Elves and all their hard work.  Mind, there’s the small print (see the poster); not so much Adios as Au revoir?

The Last Hurrah was a grand way to go out, with the welcome return of a featured guest who markets himself as ‘The Rutland Troubadour‘ and gets away with it in some style.  The personable Paul McClure has some fine songs of his own at his disposal – Americana-ish and more – which he punctuates with good-natured and self-deprecatory wit and wisdom.  (Check out more at: http://www.paulmccluremusic.com/  – go to ‘Film’ to hear some music including the one that goes, “I just want to play / the best version / of the simplest song / I could find / in my heart / that’s true”  – or on YouTube)

The Robot Orchestra

Spent an absorbing hour wandering around the members of the orchestra then being still and wandering around again at Stuart Moore’s Robot Orchestra pop-up installation at the Stantonbury Gallery.  I’ll let Stuart explain:

The Robot Orchestra members are a diverse collection of modified cyborg instruments and sound objects ranging from antique church organ pipes to digital-control-auto-feedback guitars. They will be performing a microtonal soundscape composition who’s non-western notes are sourced from nature to explore the bigger world of fluid unnameable harmony that exists between the gaps.

Meditative, intriguing, sounds swelling, ebbing, flowing, birdsong weaving (was that a frog?), therapeutic and more.  Given Stuart also drums with my favourite local band – The Box Ticked, if you’re asking – one has to revise all those old drummer jokes.  More here at Stuart’s website: http://stuartmooresound.wixsite.com/stuartmooresound – go to ‘Some sounds’ to get the feel of it.

Centurion Vaultage

Yup, a hundred Vaultages down and, it is to be hoped, many more to come.  Take a bow Pat ‘the Hat’ Nicholson, MC and troubadour of this town.  Long may you run and your silver hair hang down.  If there were a recording of his almost talking blues A day in the life (not the actual title) chronicling him greeting the day and taking a stroll up and down the High Street with his dog, then I would provide a link right here, right now.  But there isn’t, so I can’t.  Watch this space.  Anyway, a poet-friendly open mic still thriving, though it can be hard waxing lyrical when the other non-Vaultage end of the pub is lively.

Couple of quickies

Was it the third or fourth Wassail, waking up the apple trees at York House?  Lovely little event, the miserable rain stopping just in time for open air frolics and mulled cider drinking, though too damp for the bonfire this year.  The ever resourceful Innocent Hare carousing, nay wassailing.

And All Hail the New Bard!  Congratulations Sam Upton.
More about this grand event in another post.

Vintage Stony 2018

Now in its ninth year, so surely worthy of the description ‘traditional’, Stony Stratford’s New Year’s Day Vintage Car and Motorcycle Festival opened to fair weather and more cars and visitors than I can remember.  Seemed to be more really ancient vehicles this year, but overall (or am I getting jaded?) more quantity than Wow! quality.  Out of nowhere – it wasn’t forecast – the unkind weather changed to a vicious cold rain; felt for those who didn’t see it coming.  Early birds, we were lucky, home back in time to be safely tucking into hot chocolate.
Click on the photos (all ©DRQ) for an enlargement.

Not for the first time, this 1934 Citroen Traction Avant (built in Slough!) was my favourite in show, seen here with self-portrait with camera. I got a bit hung-up with reflections, especially of trees:


So much going on in Sally Rooney‘s Conversations with friends (Faber, 2017), where to begin?  How about with the brilliant piece of book design that is the endpapers of the hardback edition (click on the pic for an enlargement)?  They give a colourful taste, a decent aperitif, of what lurks inside:

I only had access to a library copy, so here’s what’s hidden under the label: I just don’t think I would enjoy being someone’s second choice / You can love more than one person / That’s arguable.  And the Yeats thing (top right), to remove any ambiguity, it finishes with: No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.  As someone who this holiday season just past revisited a home video recorded on the occasion of his 40th birthday which included a section of himself reading to camera Yeats’ The second coming, I’m taking that with a pinch of salt.  After all, Frances, our narrator, and her mate Bobbi are not your average third year Dublin university students.  Conversations with friends fizzes with stuff like that.  Here she is at the start of that bad date, trying to be ‘real’ and ‘normal’:

 I’ve never worked hard at anything, I said.
That must be why you study English.
Then he said that he was just joking, and actually he had won his school’s gold medal for composition. I love poetry, he said. I love Yeats.
Yeah, I said. If there’s one thing you can say for fascism, it had some good poets.
He didn’t have anything else to say about poetry after that.

(I’ll admit I did not know W.B. had briefly flirted with fascism, though I do now that I’ve looked it up: the Irish fascists had blueshirts.)

One of the reviews quoted on the back cover of Conversations with friends invokes Salinger’s Catcher in the rye and I can see that, except that Holden Caulfield was only 16 going on 17, and these are very different rites of passage for very different times; for starters, sharp as he was, he was in no position to namedrop French postmodern cultural theorists.  In this passage Frances has been to the theatre but has not been able to believe in the performance, regardless of the quality of the acting:

I could see a care label bunched inside the seam of the slip she was wearing, which destroyed the effect of reality for me, although the slip and its care label were undoubtedly themselves real. I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, although I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.

At this point I’d also like to introduce Adrian Mole into the conversation.  This is something of a long shot, some will say – though consider “I explained that I wanted to destroy capitalism and that I considered masculinity personally oppressive” – but what fuels these pages is the mismatch between an aspiration to live one’s life in accordance with a theoretical critique of modern life and your actual daily existence, especially when the possibility of love is involved.  Contradictions, compromises, ironies and ambiguities inevitably follow, and entertainingly so. This, after all, is a novel that can get away with a line of self-examination like:

… have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement … ?

Serious stuff (the paragraph also acknowledges self-harming), but am I wrong to also spot humour in the employment of that phrase?

Here’s the disappointing cover of the soon to be published paperback. Ok, there is a significant sojourn on a French coast, but this really undersells what’s going on between the covers.

Frances and Bobbi – the odd girls out at school – had been lovers, but are now besties; they are performance poets – a double act even – though we get no flavour of the material.  Frances is the writer, while Bobbi has the confidence and charisma.  They meet up with a pair of older established culture vultures, a married couple – Melissa a successful writer, Mark a sometime semi-successful actor.  Their lives become entangled and we run a gamut of adultery, infidelity, jealousy, feeling worthless and having fun, not to mention frustration, vulnerability, exhilaration, reconciliation, and student survival, all punctuated with some fascinating conversations, variously full of intelligence, belligerence, caring and wit.  There is no definitive reading to be had from the ending (was that an echo of Ulysses’ Molly I felt there?) but our narrator has survived; passages have been rited (I’m just not going to say ‘rites of passage’).  It’s a tremendous bit of writing, wise beyond its years.

The thought occurred: am I too old for this sort of thing?  Thankfully not. “I felt like I was playing a video game without knowing any of the controls” is not a simile that I’d employ, but I certainly remember with a degree of nostalgia these phases:

Though I knew I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.  (p23)

 That sounds like a recipe for disastrous unhappiness, I said.
You’re twenty one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.  (p203)

Sally Rooney had me worried when Frances, in her vulnerability, started reading the Bible, but I should have had faith:

 My favourite part of the gospels was in Matthew, when Jesus said: love your neighbours, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use and persecute you. I shared in this desire for moral superiority over my enemies. Jesus always wanted to be the better person, and so did I. I underlined this passage in red pencil, to illustrate that I understood the Christian way of life.
The Bible made a lot more sense to me, almost perfect sense, if I pictured Bobbi as the Jesus character. She didn’t deliver his lines entirely straight; often she pronounced them sarcastically, or with a weird distant expression.

Good old  (young) Bobbi: “I couldn’t tell whether she was being affectionate or vitriolic; she had a way of making them seem like the same thing“; but, still,   Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.”  Doesn’t stop her interjecting into a discussion about commitment, of the possibility of loving more than one person:

Well, it depends whether you believe in some kind of transhistorical concept of romantic love consistent across diverse cultures, said Bobbi. But I guess we all believe silly things, don’t we?

For what it’s worth, the title of my piece is a skewed take from the paragraph below.  ‘Operant discursive practices’ is Foucault, I think, or one of those post-structuralist or whatever theorists whose notions overtook large parts of academe in the ’70s.  I’m glad I escaped it … just.  And of course we just had thick A4 exercise books and a biro:

Over the summer I missed the periods of intense academic concentration which helped to relax me during term time. I like to sit in the library to write essays, allowing my sense of time and personal identity to dissolve as the light dimmed outside the windows. I would open fifteen tabs on my web browser while producing phrases like ‘epistemic rearticulation’ and ‘operant discursive practices’.

If I could have made anything out of ‘epistemic rearticulation’ I would have.

Worth saying too that in the quotations of conversations I’ve used it’s not me that discarded the conventional inverted commas speech mark punctuation; Rooney doesn’t use them.  Three out of the last four books I’ve read have used alternative conventions – something I’m in favour of, and shall probably ponder here in the near future.

Well … some of it is down to slothdom and procrastination, and some of it is down to events and body stuff, but the blog Lillabullero hereby makes a furious try (that’s furious as in quick rather than anger) at catching up:

La Belle Sauvage

Hugely exciting, I was swept along by the perilous escape by boat that gives it its title, at the core of La Belle Sauvage (David Fickling, 2017).  Left me both soaring and floundering as to what to read next, like … bring on the second volume of The Book of Dust – right NOW! – please Philip Pullman.

Like its predecessor His dark materials trilogy, this one is full of ideas and charm – and good advice for teens – as the battle of the good guys against the bastards in the parallel universe land of Brytain is played out.  Pullman gets to champion public libraries again too.

I’d forgotten about the totemic daemons on everyone’s shoulders or thereabouts, and how until their ‘owners’ grow up they are changelings, a fascinating notion.  Here Lyra and Pantalaimon are only 6 months old, but we are assured the new trilogy is an ‘equel’ – more than a prequel.

It may be over 500 pages long, but it’s an easy read with a lot of dialogue to drive it along, and it is, after all, a children’s book, but it easily transcends that (unlike Potter).  It boasts a generous cast of characters of all shades, one of whom, Hannah Relf, is a librarian, and some lovely nod and a wink asides:

Hannah ate her sandwich slowly … and reading a book. It was nothing to do with work; it was a thriller, of the sort she liked, with a mysterious death, skin-of-the-teeth escapes, and a haughty and beautiful heroine whose function was to fall in love with the saturnine but witty hero.

Nothing like the resourceful 11-year-old Malcolm and the feisty 15-year-old Alice at the heart of La Belle Sauvage, then.

The shock of the fall

I liked the fiction of Nathan Filer‘s  The shock of the fall (Harper Collins, 2013) being a neat pile of writings and documents left for someone to find in the vacated, due for demolition, building that had recently housed Day Care Centre in which the writings’ author and subject had begun a road to recovery (probably).

19-year old Matthew Holmes’ journey – I won’t go into specifics, but they are not without interest – through a troubled childhood into a schizophrenic breakdown, leading to hospitalisation and then out into care in the community, is presented typographically as a mix of pages tapped out on an old typewriter or printed out at the Centre (with the odd bit of concrete poetry), interleaved with increasingly concerned hand-written letters from his social worker, and a friend’s drawings.  He describes himself at one stage as being “hunched over a typewriter, staining paper with family secrets“, while in the printouts he will comment to and on whoever’s looking over his shoulder at the PC; there are a lot of nice touches and self-deprecation like that in his voice).

I have to say that though I’m a fan of slow reveal narratives this one struck me as a bit too slow, and repetitive with it.  Nevertheless, and even through a certain reek of the university Creative Writing Department about it (the mirroring of two key events in particular), in the end I was moved by Matthew’s tale, and his Nanny Noo’s faith.  A broader appreciation of The shock of the fall grew after a Book Group meeting in which someone with experience both as a mental health worker and client bravely put things in the book in context with their experience.  Book Groups can be a splendid things!

But I really wanted to be an anthropologist

I turned out to be an illustrator, but I really wanted to be ...” is how Margaux Motin kicks off this collection (Self Made Hero, 2012; translated Edward Gauvin) from her French language cartoon blog.  I had a great time with it.  Her reflections on motherhood with two demanding children and a trimly stubbled partner run a gamut from ennui (she draws a great bored face) through to girlish delight, taking in a (sorry to be repeat myself) self-deprecatory love of life, a touch of filth and a lot of finely detailed shoes.

On the right here there’s an extract from the page headed ‘A few things you should know about me’.  There’s an adept use of colour, used in a variety of ways.  Despite the consistency of line, as I turned the pages there was no danger of being over familiar with a sameness of style and approach.

Experience the sheer joy of this double-page spread and know that it’s only half way through, with a punchline to come:

Mentioned in despatches:

These I was at, and another day might have got a lot more attention, in particular the splendid Kara (energetic Russian influenced folk from all over, strong vocals, accordion, the wonderful sound of the low notes of the hammered dulcimer – here’s their website) and Five Men Not Called Matt (of whom there are more than 5, and not all men, lustily shantying and more, with subtle support from a solo Roddy Clenaghan), both at York House.  Tim Buckley ably kept the Scribal show on the road in November (where we had the first helping of Richard Frost’s new epic in progress), and there must have been a Vaultage in there somewhere.  Stony Tracks, a local Desert Island Discs derivative, was launched in some style.  Shame to miss the lantern parade and Stony Christmas lights turn on, but needs musted.










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