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But first, Clapham Junction – Gateway to the South for us lazy souls choosing not to change at Euston et al, travelling from landlocked MK.  Not Balham, as Peter Sellers once suggested.  [Click on the photos for the bigger picture].

Ah, the Isle of Wight, where the preserved IOW Steam Railway is in better shape than the Island Line run by South Western Railway (yes, that is an old London Underground train).  And the ride considerably smoother:

No, early April and it was not the greatest of weather.  I’m surprised to see those shadows on that Ryde Harbour photo.

Quirky find by the roadside on the walk to Bonchurch:

And down in Bonchurch – you know those road signs that promise you deer or badgers only to disappoint: Result!

One afternoon we actually got to see the shape of the sun struggling unsuccessfully to get out from behind the cloud, but Hey: the sea, the sea!

At Compton Bay, once a Geography A-level student, always a Geography A-level student.  And I know of someone who might have made pots out of that clay:

Colourful, and in the car park – which I wish we’d realised was a National Trust car park before putting the money into the machine – a bit of street furniture (I know, I know) that’s not as old as it looks.  Yes, it was warm enough for an ice cream (and for surfing):

Ventnor strolls: a face in the cliff, an immaculate sign:

‘Enjoy your visit’ says the sign.  At the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, it would seem, it is compulsory to have a good time. Fortunately we did.  Recommended.  At the end of the line the loco goes back to the front of the train, none of this push-and-pull nonsense.

The Discovery Centre was well worth discovering as well.  And here’s one for the railway buffs: a disembodied saddle tank.

Our normal trick – or rather the trick normally played on us – is for the sun to come out on the day of departure.  When we left the Island was covered in fog, so that’s not a problem with the camera’s exposure; rickety-rackety it may be, but on the Island Line they do take pride in their stations.

Thanks to Dave and Jill and Zappa for everything.  And the introduction to the word-game Snatch It!  Haven’t laughed so much in a long time – ‘mayhem’ indeed.

All photos ©DRQ

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Suspicious – as I think it is reasonable to be – about any odd-shaped novel, I approached Magnus MillsThe Forensic Records Society (Bloomsbury, 2017) with some trepidation.  It’s a neat piece of book design: square, referencing the 45 rpm vinyl singles of old, sporting printed boards and a dust jacket with a hole revealing the disc’s label, and  shaved at the top to show the edge of the disc printed on the cover; the hole in the middle has not been bored through the body of the book.  Pictured here too is the B-side of the boards, a white label demo that plays a part in the narrative.

It starts with a discussion between James and our unnamed narrator (neither of whom has any back story) about who is saying what in the run-off grooves of an unnamed single, though as ‘Keith’ and ‘Roger’ are named it’s a fair guess they are listening to something by The Who.  It is in fact Happy Jack, though I only know this because it was mentioned in one of the reviews I resorted to reading in an attempt to see if anyone else had had problems making any sense of the ending, but later for that.  So you can see from early on there might be a rather specific demographic being aimed at here.

Nobody listens. Not properly anyway. Not like we do’” says James, who shifts into activist mode: “‘We could form a society for the express purpose of listening to records closely and in detail. Forensically if you like, without any interruption or distraction.'”  And so The Forensic Record Society is born.  They put up a poster in their local, where they will meet in a backroom: “All welcome: bring three records of your choice” to be played in strict rotation; “Obviously there will be no comments or judgement of other people’s taste. We’ll be here simply to listen.”

The first record to be played is The Universal:

        While it was playing both James and Chris stared solemnly at the revolving disc. Neither showed any reaction to the barking dog which accompanied the opening bars, the sudden appearance of electric guitars in the middle section, nor the jokey trombone at the end. They just sat listening in reverential awe. […]         Finally Chris broke the silence.
‘That’s the sea in the trees in the morning.’ It was all he said, but we knew exactly what he meant.

Well, yes, as it happens I do too.  Point well made.  Pity the poor reader who is not aware this is one of the Small Faces’ small masterpieces, though.  Chris’s comment at the end becomes an issue as the Society grows, but the point I need to make here is that throughout the 182 entertaining pages of the book, and the playing of many records ranging from over at least four decades of music, not a single group or artist is named, which can be confusing when a song like Promised land is mentioned.  There were plenty that had me puzzled and keenly Googling.  (I fear I may be incriminating myself in some way here).  But thinking about that, I’d wager that – contradictorily – a certain something would go missing from the text if the attributions were there.  Even though most of the time the record choices are not significant to the narrative, younger readers might struggle, and those without much interest in popular music will probably just not bother.

Things progress: “We sat around the table in our various attitudes (serene, solemn, mesmerised and so forth) and listened … ” (which combination becomes rather a good standing joke).  A latecomer (Phillip, a man in the long, leather coat “with gigantic lapels“) is spurned and sets up a rival organisation – The Confessional Records Society.  James’s puritanical approach becomes problematic, and there is unrest.  There is a crisis when a new member brings along a prog-rock album to the club where it was assumed the single was king; like all good dictators, James gets his sidekick to deal with it.  “We’d started out with such high ideals” bemoans the faithful narrator, “yet within a few months we’d witnessed bickering, desertion, subterfuge and rivalry”. There are splinter groups and a coup – The Perceptive Records Society (comments allowed, though not many are actually made), then the New Forensic Records Society.  The Confessional Records Society moves out of the pub and balloons into an evangelical (as in money-making) charismatic movement, with t-shirts and mass confessions.

What we have here is a nicely worked, broader allegory, delivered with a touch of dry psychological insight:

Was it really beyond human capacity, I pondered, to create a society which didn’t ultimately disintegrate through internal strife? Or collapse under the weight of its own laws? Or suffer damaging rivalries with other societies? Because there was no question that all these fates awaited us if we carried on as we were.

I got hold of The Forensics Records Society because a mate had likened it to The Detectorists, Mackenzie Crook’s gentle and brilliantly unhurried look at English blokedom hobbyists.  It can’t quite manage the charm, but there is plenty of humour to be had from the situation; there are some delightful set pieces.

And then there are the women, principally barmaid Alice, a musician, singer-songwriter of talent, whose demo is featured on the back cover of the book, the listening to of which becomes something of a MacGuffin.  Our narrator feels that Alice, who has meanwhile paired up with James, has declared war on him: “‘I don’t know what you’re doing here,’ she said. ‘You don’t even like music.’”  Ouch. “Well the truth is she thinks we’re all emotionally retarded,” vouchsafes James.  She makes a dramatic exit when the disc is finally played.

The New Forensic Records Society, a looser set-up that the originators deign to visit, even has a couple of women members.  Someone has brought along Shipbuilding:

        ‘OK,’ he [Dave] said. ‘Are there any comments or judgements?’
‘Well it’s alright to listen to,’ remarked the woman sitting opposite me, ‘but you can’t really dance to it, can you?’

This is both funny in context (harking back to Janis or whatever her name was on that bloody ’60s TV programme – not Juke Box Jury, the other one) but also, after a brief moment’s thought, deeply condescending – a cheap laugh, which nevertheless soon has its narrative uses.  She it is, too, who gets our Guinness drinking narrator drunk, waking up in a strange bed to deliver the mystifying con(if you can call it one)clusion.  But later for that.

On the other hand, there are some delicious celebrations of blokedomisms of the musical kind.  Gals, don’t you just love us?:

  • From our narrator, the man with no name: “When I got home my first job was to put the evening’s choice of record back in its proper place (my record collection was filed in strict alphabetical order).”  For me, as a librarian, this is not enough.  It’s a complicated business – I need to know.  I presume he does it by artist but … does he use letter-by-letter or word-by-word?  Just for starters.
  • Then there are James’s side projects.  Like, “About a month ago I decided to play my entire collection in strict alphabetical order (but see above); and, later, “I’m playing all my records with bracketed titles”.  “Sounds like an absorbing pastime”,’ I remarked.
  • And his compadre’s:  “My plan was to play all my records that faded in and out. In the event it took me longer to find them than to play them.” 
  • And in said compadre’s Alice-induced moment of doubt: “I finally resorted to counting and playing all the records in my collection by women performers. The process took me most of the day, and the statistics were inconclusive.
  • Or Mike – “a man with spiky hair” – in search of his nirvana, announcing: ‘The perfect pop song is precisely three minutes in length.”  Spoiler alert: he finds it twice: Another girl, another planet by The Only Ones, plus one I’m not revealing.  He’s wrong, of course, about those 3 minutes, which is far too long.
  • Two men called Andrew achieve possibly the most obscure accolade: “‘Watch out,’ murmured Barry. ‘Here come Pressed Rat and Warthog.’”  I had to dredge the memory banks  hard, and then double-check.  Yes, it was a single: b-side of Anyone for tennis.

As you might have gleaned there’s a broad range of decent music cited – rock, ska, reggae, pop, folk, soul – and nothing that made me wince; MacArthur Park makes an appearance for laughs.  There’s no specific historical timeframe – emails exist, CDs, cassettes and digital downloads get no mention – though I doubted a couple of later songs ever made it to 45 rpm (The Killers?).  But hey, it’s an allegory.  My heart soared when one of my all-time favourite Atlantic soul obscurities got played.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rex Garvin & the Mighty CraversSock it to ’em JB:

A double homage to James Bond and the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown.  I had this once on single, and whoever’s got it, I’d like it back!

And for me, Looking for Lewis and Clark by The Long Ryders will never fail to excite:

Spoiler alert

Ah yes, and the small matter of how it ends.  Which has baffled all the reviewers I’ve reviewed.  If this is allegory, what on earth does that ending mean?  The triumph of dance music?  The end of civilisation in a wild splurge of hedonism?  The narrator sure as hell doesn’t know; he just keeps us hanging on.  Do these words, coming to him – waking confused in a strange bed – from the room next door, mean anything to anyone?  Are they a quote from some outro?  Zappa?:

Yeah, yeah … more, more … nice … play another song … yeah maybe … hey, what’s happening later on? … what’s happening? … yeah beautiful … yeah, come on baby … I got it … yeah, outasight, man …”  [there’s more like this]

I’d quite like to know.

Click here for a link to the Kinks in Literature page for The Forensic Records Society.

March’s Book Group book had the makings of an interesting meeting:

  • The book: a first person narrative of a 60-year old widow of three months impulse flight from Hampstead to the Norfolk coast, written by a man who was 50 at the time it was published
  • The Group: women of an average age a few years greater than that of the book’s narrator, and a token male (me), contributing nothing in years to lower that average.  I say ‘token male’ because I quite like the rhetorical flourish; no quotas here.

So how did Mick Jackson‘s telling of The widow’s tale (Faber, 2010) fare in the matter of gender impersonation?  There was no consensus: one of us thought he was pretty convincing, was carried along, another said No, she never stopped thinking it was written by a man, but wasn’t that bothered; others felt he’d made a decent fist of it while being gently jolted out of their reading stride by occasional lapses (I should probably have asked for specific instances); I, of course, on the most basic of levels, could offer nothing – what would I know? – but it felt ok, I never thought I was not reading her journal, rather than a construction; I liked her.

The sudden death of husband of 40 years and she’s all over the place.  Her journal starts when one day, three months into widowhood, she just gets in his Jaguar and finds herself on the M11: “When I ran out of the house I don’t think I had any real idea where I was going“.  Once she gets to where she finds she’s going her plan was “to book myself into the hotel, for nostalgia’s sake” but she rents a small cottage instead; seeking something other than diversion, she cuts the TV aerial cable.  It becomes apparent this nostalgia is not for her late husband’s sake, though mention of an affair occurs only two-fifths of the way in; she torments herself in that regard with “how incredibly happy I once was“; it becomes a growing obsession that builds to an irrational act that ends (sorry, rather predictably) in a keenly felt self-humiliation.  She comes out of it in the end: “No angelic chorus“, but she’s had a crucial moment.

The journal – “Anyway, that’s quite enough writing (and drinking) for one day. I’m off to my (widow’s) bed” – is her way of keeping on top of things while she has a breakdown of sorts.  She maintains a nice line in self-deprecation keeping company with the emotional turmoil, insecurities,  blankness and migraines.  Here she is considering first, widowhood, and then, the end of the affair:

One of the surprises, re the sudden onset of widowhood […]  With John gone, life is now one endless succession of options, none of which has to be presented to the household committee before being acted upon. The sudden sense of liberty … can be quite bewildering.

I was informed that I really was a lovely woman – as if it might be something I’d consider adding to my CV when applying for any future extra-marital shenanigans.

Hans Holbein’s Christina of Denmark with her “steady gaze”. Our heroine likes it a lot; doesn’t do much for me.

Of course I’m an utter wreck …”  She spends her days walking, tramping out on the salt marshes (“I’m like a bloody sentry, obsessively patrolling my own little stretch of coastline“), doing crosswords in the pub (supping Woodforde’s Wherry – an excellent choice), not buying a book of Holbein prints in a bookshop (and regretting it), recalling the excitement of illicit phone calls made from phone boxes, and thinking back over episodes of stillness in her life (a spell in a convent retreat, life modelling, visiting Rome).  Remembering too (though not much) the early years of her settled marriage (fancifully evoking Dylan Thomas and Caitlin’s quarrels in passing).  She’s worried that without the check of domesticity she’ll become eccentric: “Not eccentric as in quaint and charming. Eccentric, as in just plain weird“.  As her time in the cottage unfolds, the journal  wanders hither and thither while still building nicely.

The resolution, the moment of revelation when it comes, is not religious, though she has given that a try: walking to a local church, visiting the shrine at Walsingham – and like me, been unimpressed by its glitter – but being drawn back there to witness the slipper chapel pilgrims and their shoeless perambulation of the stations of the cross, which stays with her as a fancy:

I’m considering buying a map of Britain, and marking on it all the places that have significance for me. […] My own personal stations. I could put a few weeks aside and walk them barefoot – to honour them.

Back in the Book Group a counsellor with a lot of experience with women in similar circumstances, said she would not hesitate to recommend A widow’s tale to those seeking her help.  Showing those dealing with the confusions of sudden bereavement: You’re not alone.  Pretty high praise, I’d say.

 

 

The morning before The Antipoet‘s 10th anniversary video-shoot show, WiiFit told me I had the body of a 21 year-old.  The morning after said performance WiiFit told me I had the body of a 37 year-old (still only just over half of the reality, but, you know).  Nevertheless, as the I Ching invariably says: no blame, and there is a Latin tag for it (post hoc ergo propter hoc, for what it’s worth).   Though the sweets provided at each table  – pick-and-mix and mini-chocolate bars, a nice touch – may have contributed to the weight gain.

‘Come and be part of the fun as we film 10 years of The Antipoet,’ they said; ‘be an Antipoet extra for the evening’.  ‘Watch and enjoy as The Antipoet perform pieces from the last decade whilst filming a DVD to pop into their new book, Does my bass look big in this?’  So we did, and they did, and a grand time was had at The Cock Hotel in the town of Stony Stratford (“our spiritual home”), last Thursday.  The book is published later this year.

Philfy Phil lived up to his moniker (maybe too much at least for wife and her mate) and lamented that no-one onomatopoeic enough had died lately to refresh the pantheon of his take on Paul Simon’s The boxer (the one with that chorus).   Then it was time for those “masters of beatrantin’ rhythm and views’ (© www.theantipoet.co.uk/ ) to take the stage and give us two ‘best of’ sets – ‘greatest hits’ as far as I’m concerned – from the last decade’s prodigious output.  Filming necessitated a more disciplined approach than seen previously (though not a great deal so) (or should that be soberer … ).  Retakes and director Donna’s interventions only added to the fun.

For those (oh lucky people) yet to come across the Antipoet (oh, come on – I’m talkin’ ’bout the joy of discovery), in the past I’ve written about the lads extensively here on Lillabullero, so I’m not going to repeat myself.  Here links to two lengthy pieces on the occasion of their last two albums, We play for food and Bards without portfolio:

Thursday, they delivered all the faves: there’s plenty to sample on YouTube and their website.  I never tire of their take on painful poetry gigs, Random words in a random order, and indeed many more, but was particularly glad they chose to feature 1420 MHz (megahertz), one they don’t do that often, evoking as it does a sense of wonder amidst the worthy scorn, angst and social commentary.  Here it is from an earlier time:

As Phil says, they should be on telly – after all, what else is Channel4 for?  The name chosen for the FaceBook event for this show should serve well enough as a title for the show: Rant along an Antipoet!  And what a panoply of guests they could showcase, including those who closed the show – Fay Roberts, Richard Frost, Justin Thyme – with cleverly and joyously worked parodies and addendums to the basic opus.

Another Wow!

A kid’s show at the local library a couple of days earlier and a quieter enchantment from the Wriggle Dance Theatre‘s Into the Rainbow.  There in my capacity as grandparent, I had a pretty good idea we were in for something a bit special when  greeted in mime at the top of Stony Library’s stairs by a young woman with an umbrella, guiding us to our places on the floor.  I say us – it was one child, one responsible adult, so I just lingered close by, leaning on a pillar, witnessing the show and watching the watchers.  Both were great.

Why the umbrella?  Rain sound effects because … rainbows! I was slow to make the connection.  Amazing what you can do with a couple of boards, some long coloured ribbons and a big shiny blue sheet if you are a couple of trained dancers – women working through the medium of mime and, um, interpretive dance (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase) – and a relaxed troubadour leading or commentating in song.  I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to trained dancers before – graceful and gymnastic, in tune with each other – and was so impressed overall by an accomplished ensemble performance as, over 45 minutes, they introduced the colours of the rainbow one by one, each colour given its own min-show.  The big shiny sheet was the sea, under which they swam, heads popping in and out of strategic gaps in the cloth; grandson – live performance like this was a new thing for him – had to be discouraged from going under the waves himself.

 Brilliant show, expertly pitched and well appreciated by all.  A lovely interlude.

 

It’s The Antipoet’s tenth year and to mark this momentous event, we once again return to our spiritual home of Stoney Stratford for a one off best of show which will be recorded and released as a DVD for the summer 2018 season. So come along and be immortalised as part of this celebration and wonder at how we ever got this far and where the hell we’re gonna go next!!!

An often overlooked argument for republicanism is the human rights one.  As the future King George VI says of his younger brother at the close of Stephen Poliakoff‘s epic tear-jerker The lost prince, ‘He was the only one of us who was able to be himself.’  You might well say: OK, but who is? – “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?” as Mr Dylan asked (most mysteriously) in his Ballad in Plain D – but here’s Harry – His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales to you (yea right! doubtless sez my Welsh-speaking friend Caz) – Harry, just lately, who was born to it, no escape: Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen? I don’t think so …

The lost Prince (2003) is a lovely piece of work, powerful, intensely personal, its central narrative delivered within a broad historical sweep.  Born 1905, the sixth and last son of George V, Prince ‘Johnnie’ suffered from epilepsy and had a learning disability.  He is portrayed here as an innocent, a happy open soul.  In a brilliant set-piece he witnesses a grand state banquet, and elsewhere he watches his uncles – Tsar Alexander! Kaiser Wilhelm! – at play.  Sheltered from public view on the Sandringham estate, and spared a royal grooming, enjoying simple pleasures, he is lovingly cared for by ‘Lalla’, a nanny, played by Gina McKee; her grief at his death in 1919 is a heartbreaker.

Let us consider, then, the life of Princess Margaret, in the light of Philip Larkin’s This be the verse – you know, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” – when your mum and dad just happen to be King and Queen of England (and the rest), and they think they’re doing it for the good of the nation, which may render that first half of the second line a bit of a problem.

I can imagine Poliakoff wondering briefly about Princess Margaret as a potential subject – her life certainly reflects the changing zeitgeist – but quickly dismissing the notion because no matter how much you can sympathise with her situation, she seems not to allow any room for the melancholy that sings, as well as that most of the supporting cast make you feel like reaching for a gun.  And he doesn’t do exotic locations anyway.

Ma’am Darling

Craig Brown‘s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses if Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017) is not a conventional biography; the humour of this master parodist and satirist – a regular in Private Eye – runs deep.  Ma’am darling‘s 99 glimpses skip about the timeline a bit, include fictional what-if interventions (like the horrific Hello article describing the family home of her and Jeremy Thorpe as a married couple – of which more later), goes off at various illuminating tangents, and one glimpse even emerges from a dream the author had.  He tellingly maps her position in the indexes – who she appears between – of the published diaries of the great, not so great, and the good etc; the question, “Why is she in all these diaries and memoirs? What is she doing there?” is the book’s starting point, ranging thereafter from the young Margaret asking of her father, Papa, do you sing, “God Save My Gracious Me”?’ to John Julius Norwich’s I have never known an unhappier woman’ after her death, becoming, among other things along the way, “the world’s most difficult guest“.

Apart from it being an easy source of republican evidence, I got hold of Ma’am Darling from the public library because I was still intrigued by the memory of something I was told by a young man who had just spent the summer before going up to uni putting in time in the offices of either Black Dwarf or Red Mole (radical socialist news-sheets of the time, Tariq Ali was involved), that they had been visited one day by Princess Margaret on the arm of another Marxist celeb of the period.  No confirmation here of anything like that, but there’s still plenty to engage in her bohemian Swinging Sixties period, or at least that was new to me:

Love thwarted

The story goes that she was not allowed to marry her first love, war hero Group Captain Townsend, a divorced commoner.  Not that much of a pleb, mind – he’d been equerry to King George VI since 1944 among other duties in the inner workings of the royal household.  Nevertheless, the Peter Townsend affair served as an early litmus paper of attitude -, the hypocrisies, the taking of sides – to an emerging post-war social shift concerning modernity, class, divorce and the place of religion that continues to this day.  The press cuttings make fascinating reading:

The romance became public at the Queen’s coronation on 2 June 1953, when Princess Margaret was spotted picking fluff of the Group captain’s lapel. It was hardly Last Tango in Paris, but in those days interpersonal fluff-picking was a suggestive business. The next morning it was mentioned in the New York papers, but the British press remained silent for another eleven days. The People then printed the headline ‘They Must Deny it NOW!’

Get that ‘must deny’!  Before she was 25 years old Margaret could not marry without the consent of the Queen, who happened to be her older sister.  (It’s hard not surrender to a surfeit of exclamation marks).  Once 25 she would be able to marry who she liked.  As that time approached she became the object of fever-pitched attention: “COME ON MARGARET!’ ran the Daily Mirror headline, imploring her to ‘please make up your mind!’”  And then:

On 1 October the new prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden (himself on his second marriage), informed the Princess that it was the view of the cabinet that if she decided to go ahead with the marriage, she would have to renounce her royal rights, and forego her income.

Craig Brown pretty much concludes that would have been, for her, too great a sacrifice, the burning of a bridge too far.

Marries a commoner anyway

Or at least Old Etonian photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones.  ‘Priceless Margarine and Bony Armstrove’ as John Lennon called them in his In His Own Write.  Swinging Sixties London, (dinner) partying with a couple of Rolling Stones and “the barefoot Sandie Shaw” among others.  An awkward moment with a blue movie at the Tynans’ with Harold Pinter & wife, the day rescued by Peter Cook providing “commentary as if for a Cadbury’s Milk Tray advert“.  Did she embrace the egalitarianism of the times?  Rather not.  This from a footnote (Craig Brown gives great footnote):

Beyond her family, her old dresser, Ruby Gordon, was the only person allowed to call her ‘Margaret’. Her insistence on being addressed as ‘Ma’am’, ‘Madam’ and ‘Your Royal Highness’, even by old friends and lovers, is a thread that runs through the life of the Princess. There was always an element of Hyacinth Bucket about her, a tendency to keep her high horse tethered for use at all times, even in the company of old friends. Clearly, the Princess felt that being called ‘Margaret’ involved crossing an invisible line which heavy petting did not.

 She becomes a walking contradiction, regardless of the social circle she finds herself in.  Lady Gladwyn, wife of the Paris ambassador at the time diarises: ‘Princess Margaret seems to fall between two stools. She wishes to convey that she is very much the Princess, but at the same time she is not prepared to stick to the rules if they bore or annoy her, such as being polite to people.’   The character of Ma’am Ca’amp emerges, says Brown: “Ma’am Ca’amp enjoys inverting expectations: to those expecting grace, it presents hauteur; to those expecting empathy, it delivers distance. To those in need of tradition, it offers modernity. To those in need of modernity, it offers tradition.”

The Best Man

But before we leave their unhappy marriage, how about the man the man who wasn’t allowed to be Bony Armstrove’s Best Man in 1960?  Vetoed by MI5, no less, I give you (this really was news to me, and it makes me feel ancient) Tony’s Old Etonian contemporary and pal: Jeremy Thorpe, later leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976.  He’d got the thumbs down from the security forces simply because he was gay (as it wasn’t called in those days).  Younger readers might want to check him out as a real sort-of-tragedy of his times from an obituary: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/dec/04/jeremy-thorpe.  In 1979 he was tried at the Old Bailey on charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder, the case involving blackmail over a past liaison.  Produced in evidence was a postcard he’d sent, on the announcement of the royal engagement, to an ex-lover, : What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other’.

The problem with royal biographers

No guilt in taking pleasure from a well wrought insult:

Given time, neurologists may well establish a firm connection between mental illness and the writing of books about the Royal family. But which comes first? Are mad men driven to write about royalty. Or does writing about royalty drive men mad?

Brown continues, “The authors of royal books divide into fawners and psychos” and gives some extraordinary examples of grown men and women fawning over unremarkable; “In other instances, royal biographers are beset by split personalities, their inner sycophant battling with their inner psychopath“.   There is a particular problem, though:

Biography is at the mercy of information, and information about the Royal family is seldom there when you want it. Or rather, there is a wealth of information, but most of it is window-dressing: the shop itself is shut, visible only through the front window, its private offices firmly under lock and key.

Well this is the first of its ilk I’ve ever read, but it won’t be the last.  There’ a ‘controversial’ new book about Prince Charles out soon – Tom Bower’s Rebel prince – that I’m quite looking forward to.  I’ll admit there’s an element of schadenfreude in this – Charles was born the same year as me and I was never given an Aston Martin DB6 for my twenty-first birthday – but then I was never bullied into marrying someone I didn’t love either, which takes us back to the argument about human rights and republicanism.

The problem with biography

John Bindon, criminal and sometime actor – he played himself pretty much, it is said, in the powerful Nic Roeg movie Performance (the one with Mick Jagger, tripping, morphing into a gangster) – spent a lot of time on the tiny Caribbean island of Mustique, a wealthy hangout where Margaret also spent a lot of time with lover Roddy Llewellyn after her divorce.  There he had a notorious party piece:

Such vastly different accounts of such a comparatively minor detail in the history of the twentieth century might lead some to question the very nature of biography. If no-one – not even those who witnessed it – can agree on John Bindon’s party piece, then what on earth can they agree on? Bindon is, after all, a pretty recent figure, having passed away in 1993 … His stunt was witnessed by so many people on so many occasions that it might be said to have been his calling card. Yet no one can agree on exactly what it was.

Craig Brown offers eight different versions of the specifics of his trick, involving his reportedly legendary erect penis and the balancing on or hanging from of between three to ten half pint glasses (and/or a small sherry schooner).  “Will we ever get to the bottom of what happened between John Bindon and Princess Margaret in the mid-1970s on the island of Mustique?” he asks.  No, he says, but there is a photo suggesting their social paths crossed. 

Hell of an epitaph

I enjoyed Ma’am Darling immensely, both as social document and for its sometimes cruel knockabout humour.  Of course it’s not just about the cards you’re dealt with, rather how you play them, but in the end an element of compassion has to creep in regardless – the old society-is-to-blame” schtick.  Brown speculates about nature-versus-nurture and extrapolates from a fact of a life:

… had Margaret been born first – would Margaret have become the dutiful monarch, and Elizabeth the wayward bossyboots? Or would Queen Margaret I have been a chain-smoking, high-camp, acid-tongued, slugabed monarch, leaving her younger sister, HRH the Princess Elizabeth, in her tweed skirts and her sensible shoes, to pick up the pieces?  […] How odd to emerge from the womb fourth in line, to go up a notch at the age of six, up another notch that same year, and then to find yourself hurtling down, down, down to fourth place at the birth of Prince Charles in 1948, fifth at the birth of Princess Anne in 1950, then downhill all the way, overtaken by a non-stop stream of riff-raff – Prince Andrew and Prince Edward … and the rest of them, down, down, down, until by the time of your death you have plummeted to number eleven, behind Zara Phillips … Not many women have to face the fact that their careers peaked at the age of six, or to live with the prospect of losing their place in the pecking order to a succession of new-born babies, and to face demotion every few years thereafter. Small wonder, then, if Princess Margaret felt short-changed by life.

Also mentioned in despatches

Ma’am Darling is full of little details, asides, incidentals, walk-on parts:

  • when news of her affair with Roddy Llewellyn, the aforementioned lover on Mustique, broke, a public ‘tuttathon’ ensued, “… each action sparking yet another reaction from politicians, columnists and readers: tut-tuts followed by more tut-tuts at the tut-tuts“.  Poor young Roddy is a creature from a comic novel: “the put-upon anti-hero of a picaresque novel, wide-eyed and feckless, sheepish and gallivanting, opportunist and victim, was finding more and more offers strewn across his path, each promising something for nothing, or if not for nothing, then for not very much …”  He recorded and released a pop album with great fanfare, which “… in a fortnight, only thirteen copies had sold at London’s largest record store, HMV“.  Which is reassuring, really.
  • the beautiful young Princess Margaret was a figure of obsession for some surprising people: like Picasso, or novelist John Fowles, who might have had her in mind when writing The collector; fans of Peter Sellers best look away as his wife (only Britt Eklund) “grew nauseated by the vast sums her husband spent on sucking up to the Snowdons” and Margaret in particular.
  • There are a couple of claimant sons banging about demanding DNA tests et al.
  • Once in Rotherhithe they could play at being a groovy young couple, smoking (Gauloises for Tony, Chesterfields for M) and frying sausages and drinking and having a high old-time“.  Ah yes, I remember them well; beat Park Drive or No.6 every time).
  • Oh, and fans of the subtle and telling use of the footnote will find many asterisks to delight them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Blues

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/

Dues

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.

 

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