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November 22 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the first release of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, my third favourite Kinks album, though the critical consensus these days seems to be that this is Ray Davies‘s masterpiece.  (Muswell hillbillies and Arthur, if you’re asking.)  It was released in the same fortnight in 1968 as the Beatles’ White Album and the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s banquet, so it never really stood much chance of getting onto people’s turntables back then; I myself didn’t discover it until the early ’70s.  It has aged well and I still love it.  Naturally, this year, as is the custom these days, it is celebrated by the release of a £100+ box set with vinyl etc, remastered again (was that Special Deluxe Edition really issued fourteen years ago? OK … ) and with a new song, Time, from a couple of years later, released meaninglessly as a trailer ‘single’ a few weeks earlier.  Truth be told, Time makes me cringe in its tweeness and passivity; it should have stayed on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, as a tribute to this fine album, I am now going to try and clear the backlog of five books here at Lillabullero with reference to it, or at least as close as I can get.

The age of innocence

Edith Wharton‘s The age of innocence (1920) was September’s Reading Group book and it was only to keep faith with the Group that I persisted.  But once I got that it was actually a historical novel, and a narrative emerged, I rather warmed to it.

The age of innocence is a novel that documents a crucial period of social change in America.  It shares, I’d say – in its own way – the philosophy of The Village Green Preservation Society‘s “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you” – no simple exercise in nostalgia – even if the balance here is a bit skewed.  Because, bloody hell, the exponents of those old ways – early 1870s ‘Old New York’ aristocracy – sure are tedious and stiflingly convention-bound.  Edith Wharton skillfully fleshes out an anthropological analysis of the tribes, with an eye to tracing, as one of the characters does, “each new crack in the surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables“.

The man in the middle is Newland Archer, who conventionally marries but is in love with another.  Head or heart, duty or desire?  ‘Society’ wins (a narratively strategic pregnancy helps the decision).  Interestingly the overwhelmingly female Reading Group saw a strength and guile in wife Mary that I’d skipped over.  I found it odd that it’s a woman writer who gives it to Newland, who she has put at the heart of the book, to say (wild oats had been sown), “ ‘Women ought to be free – as free as we are’ “; though in the saying of which, she slyly adds, he’s “making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

The final passages of the novel have Newland looking back over his marriage after his wife’s death – three children, all grown, making their own way – and thinking on balance it had been worth it, sticking with what was respectably expected of him (despite “the taste of the usual” being “like cinders in his mouth“), but acknowledging some aspects of change.  Given the chance of meeting up again with his heart’s desire in Paris, he chickens out at the last minute, preferring the keep the memory shiningly alive.  Given that only moments previously he had been sitting the Louvre, and “Suddenly, before an effulgent Titian, he found himself saying: ‘But I’m only fifty-seven …’ ” this refusal at the last hurdle came as both a huge disappointment to the romantic in me … and, I guess, a recognition that physically, age 57, a century ago, was so much older then.

Edith Wharton has a delicious way with nuance; much pleasure is to be had from it.  Bohemia is acknowledged: “Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which composed Mrs. Archer’s world lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and “people who wrote’ ” – not the only appearance of that ‘people who wrote’ – never mind Old New York’s incomprehension of the “eccentricities of a husband of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women” (plus ca change?).  The prospect of a genuine American culture (opera was big in Old New York society) is celebrated with:

“It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus should have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?”

Then there are the people.  Here’s Newland: “If he had probed the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did)…”; one of the women in social action: “Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible in her …“; and Newland’s poor unmarried sister, “who still looked so exactly as she used to in her elderly youth …“.  Could Dickens have bettered the matriarch?:

The immense accretion of flesh that had descended upon her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

Why Dylan matters

You could say John F. Harvey‘s Why Dylan matters (William Collins, 2017) is here under false pretences as far as making dubious connections with the Village Green Preservation Society go.  Bob Dylan is obviously a contemporary of Ray Davies, though 1968 was the only year in the decade since he set out in 1962 that he didn’t release a record, but he did use the Kinks’ Party line and Sunny afternoon on his celebrated Theme Time Radio Hour programmes.  Davies himself has said (in his X-Ray: the unauthorised autobiography), “I had always distrusted Bob Dylan as a songwriter, in the same way at college I had distrusted Pablo Picasso as a painter.”  Callow youth mellowed though, and “The only thing I had against him was that he had changed his name – but then I guess that was his privilege“.  However, Lillabullero has a backlog to clear and it’s staying in here.  They both admire Hank Williams.

Why Dylan matters is the most original Dylan book I have read in a long time, and I have read a few, and then some.  Richard F.Thomas moved to the US from New Zealand in 1974 to pursue an academic career:

For the past 40 years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets.

He had a Eureka! moment when he was listening to Lonesome day blues on the Love and theft album of 2001 and, “I heard Virgil, loud and clear in the tenth verse“.

Dylan’s songs have been part of my song memory since my mid-teens, but it would be decades before they became more fully aligned in my mind with the Greek and Roman poets I was beginning to read back then. And it was chiefly in the twenty-first century that Dylan started to reference, borrow from, and “creatively reuse” their work in his own songs.

Since 2004 Thomas has been running a seminar programme for freshmen at Harvard.  This book is a distillation of that course, looking at Bob Dylan’s songwriting and recordings from the folk period through to the Sinatra covers phase.  It’s a revelation.  He goes back afresh to the Hibbing High School Yearbook of 1959.  Where most haven’t looked further than the prophetic ‘Little Richard’ aspiration, he finds Dylan was an active member of Latin Club, which he joined in 1956, and takes it from there, putting a unique spin on proceedings.

Fully aware of the irony of the Desolation Row citation, he riffs to great effect on T.S.Eliot – “fighting in the captain’s tower” – and his take on plagiarism from an essay in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism of 1920: “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”  And, among other things touched on in Why Dylan matters, his Nobel Prize ‘speech’ makes a whole lot more sense now.

This is … a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities.

It is also a book which made me succumb and buy Triplicate, the 3 CD addition to the previous two albums of Frank Sinatra ‘covers’, which Thomas contextualises.  I swore I would never buy Triplicate after the first two, but it proves to be a plaintive and genuine collection, relaxed, regretful, and restful.

Normal people

I liked Sally Rooney‘s Normal people (Faber, 2018) so much I read it again.  I’ve seen it described as a Romeo and Juliet type romance, but there aren’t any clans as such.

Kinks connection: Connell Waldron is David Watts personified: “Lead the school team to victory / And take my exams and pass the lot.”  It’s a song from Something else by The Kinks, the album that preceded Village Green Preservation Society.  “And all the girls in the neighbourhood / Try to go out with David Watts“.  The neighbourhood is a small town in the west of Ireland.  Whereas Marianne Sheldon “exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her.”

Both are from one-parent households, but Connell’s mum cleans for Marianne’s soul-less bitch of a mother in the big house, where she lives with an arsehole of an elder brother; Marianne is known to have had mental problems.  They’re compatico intellectually, the sharpest of their year, and they start sleeping together, but it’s a secret (he doesn’t want his mates to know).  They are not ‘a couple’, and continue to not be one for a lot of Normal lives, which follows their relationships, separations and personal crises through university – Trinity College, Dublin, where she‘s in her element socially and he isn’t – and post-grad.  Other parallel reversals in their fortunes follow as things progress.

The book has eighteen sections, or episodes, covering four years: the first is entitled January 2011, and is followed by Three weeks later (February 2011) and so on to February 2015.  The largest gap is seven months, the smallest 5 minutes.  It’s brilliantly handled, the personal focus being swapped between them.  Immediacy is achieved by the stark use of the present tense, whereby the smallest detail reverberates, while within that the narrative falls back into an explanatory but still right there past tense making sense of their misunderstandings, absences, difficulties and misdeeds.  There’s a lot of dialogue which, as in her previous novel, is executed without the help of speech marks; it works.  The prose delivers clarity, crystal moments; manages to be forensic and it sings:

  • Early in their relationship: “Connell, as usual, did not speak or even look at her. She watched him across classrooms as he conjugated verbs, chewing on the end of his pen.”
  • After another quarrel she gets out the car on a garage forecourt: “A crow on the forecourt picks at a discarded crisp packet.” [talk about seeing through his eyes!]
  • Marianne is taking a sip of coffee when he says this, and she seems to pause for a moment with the cup at her lips. He can’t tell how he identifies this pause as distinct from the natural motion of her drinking, but he sees it.”
  • Her boyfriend at in Dublin: “Jamie’s dad was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis – not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.” [!!]
  • ” … her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitely small mistake.”
  • Connell, depressed, goes to see a student counsellor: “Now he looks up at Yvonne, the person assigned by the university to listen to his problems for money.” [But she helps]

Sally Rooney is only 27 and has already published two astonishingly accomplished novels.  There’s a passage two fifths of the way in which captures the young person’s absolute fantasy of the marriage of intellect and sex hoped for at university happening (“he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters“) and, futile though it is, one cannot help but speculate how much of herself is in which characters.  There is also a discussion of the futility of author readings, questioning the literary industry function, of books being merely “status symbols“, which nevertheless is the occasion that lifts Connell out of his doldrums.

I have seldom cared so much about two people in a novel, nor wanted so much for them not to be unhappy.  It’s left hanging, of course, but there are grounds for hope.

Body & Soul

It was a nice surprise to see a new John Harvey novel sitting on the shelves in the local library – I’d thought he’d given up –  and Body & soul (Heinemann, 2018) has not been a disappointment.

Kinks connections are minimal: the murdered man is an artist who has a studio in the Old Piano Factory in Kentish Town, just down the road from the Boston pub in Tufnell Park, where the Official Kinks Fan Club has its annual Konvention; John Harvey has an entry in the Kinks in literature page here at Lillabullero for a brief allusion to Waterloo Sunset in In a true light, the first of his post-Resnick novels.

I was fond of Charlie Resnick, who lasted for ten finely crafted novels, but his successors never quite hit the spot for me.  Body & soul is the fourth and last in the series featuring ex-Detective Frank Elder, and it again calls into play his daughter, Katherine, who had such an awful time of it in the first, Flesh and blood.  (There was a time when it was highly dangerous to be a fictional detective’s daughter – as both Banks and Rebus can concur).  Here’s Elder’s back story; Harvey, who also publishes poetry, is good on character:

Faced with probable disciplinary action and his wife’s flaunting infidelity, a teenage daughter he no longer seemed to recognise, never mind understand, Elder had done the sensible adult thing. Thrown his toys out the pram. Handed in his resignation and … hastened himself as far away as he could without leaving the country entirely.

Body & soul is a police procedural that roams the land: Kentish Town, trendy Hackney, Cornwell, Nottingham, somewhere on the north-east coast; the trains run smoothly.  There are two narratives at play with Katherine as the link.  The art milieu of the murdered man is nicely done (“Art, Elder said as if it were an infection, it gets bloody everywhere.”), and the solution to his murder comes late in the investigation after a few red herrings and the dead man’s first wife has returned from holiday.  The detective leading the case is an interesting woman, a lesbian, with a wry unconventional partner for a copper, who suffers the usual slings of the copper’s wife:

When she had first been stationed at Holmes Road as a young detective constable, about the best you could have hoped for would have been instant coffee from a greasy spoon. Now there were three chain outlets and four independent coffee shops within easy walking distance. The high street was otherwise dominated by charity shops and estate agents. Maybe that was how the world was now divided: those who’d happily fork out close to three pounds for a flat white and those who could not. The yin and yang of capitalism, as Rachel liked to put it.

At the climax of the second narrative strand, we are in deep police procedural territory, an area most don’t reach:

Bastard,’ the lead officer said quietly and shook his head. Already he was thinking about the debrief with the Chief Superintendent, the written reports his team would have to make, the photographs, the video, the inevitable investigation by the IPCC. And for what?

Transcription

More than once in Kate Atkinson‘s Transcription someone says, or mutters, “This England“.  And despite the fact that ” Countryside’ was more of a concept for Juliet than a reality“, one of those Englands is that addressed in The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.  The lyric of the title song has the line “God save little shops, china cups and virginity“, and a purloined Sèvres porcelain cup plays a minor part in showing us that our heroine is not without taint.  But by 1950, Juliet Armstrong is working in BBC Schools, where they are recording a programme called Singing Together:

Singing Together, Juliet thought. Schools seemed to be fixated on an Old England of sea shanties and ballads and folk songs. And maidens, lots of maidens. […] They were reinventing England, or perhaps inventing it. […]

      ‘This England – is it worth fighting for?’ [a.n.other asking] It depended on whose side you were on, she supposed.

And so, my love affair with Kate Atkinson continues.  Things were getting a bit shaky early on – the bastard child of Victoria Wood and Graham Greene? – but for me it all suddenly kicked into gear when we return to 1950 – page 177 in the hardback, to be exact.  And near the end (p315 of 327) I’m metaphorically punching the air in jubilation, when at the bottom of the page, in the course of an interrogation, Juliet is warned: “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong“.  I love the games she plays.

Transcription is a spy novel with bells on, deadly serious, but also a lot of fun, with the usual entertaining collection of characters as supporting cast.  We start briefly with a (what proves to be fatal) road accident in London, in 1981; Juliet back in England for the first time in thirty years.  1950 and she’s not having much fun at the BBC, but suddenly reminded, haunted by what she did in the war.  1940 and she’s a spy, part of an MI5 sting operation scuppering a potential enemy Fifth Column; something bad had happened too.  Back in 1950 we find she still provides the odd overnight safe house venue for the security service.  We see what had been on her conscience back in 1940 again, and then, back in 1950 and … HUGE TWIST (for me, anyway).

Well I certainly didn’t see it coming.  Though, looking back, there’s a whacking great clue right there on the opening page.  Never mind the flamingo on the cover.  I shall read Transcription again some time soon – I always do with Kate – and doubtless I shall discover a couple more.  There are some useful pages at the back of the book where she talks about her research and sources.

Along the way, the Atkinson signature quirks and tangents.  Juliet will often momentarily drift off in a conversation with a “Rhymes with …”  to herself.  “Reader, I didn’t marry him,” she reports; not the first time that one’s been used, I’m sure, but it still gets me every time.  She struggles with the men in the ‘office’: “A girl could die of old age, following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir,’ she said.”  Being briefed for an undercover appearance at a posh pro-Nazi soirée, “Juliet felt rather ashamed, as her mind had been on what dress to wear this evening rather than bottomless pits of evil.”

Juliet has an eye for a simile, too: “She had fierce eyebrows and seemed mournfully Russian, sighing in the tragic way of a woman whose cherry orchard had been chopped down …“, while in describing a struggle, “She was made of steel. It was like dealing with Rasputin, not a middle-aged woman from Wolverhampton“; called Dolly.

She gets to discussing existentialism at work one day:

‘We have all walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Do you despair, Miss Armstrong?’
Hardly ever. Occasionally. Quite often. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘And anyway, if everything is pointless, then so is despair, isn’t it?’

Meanwhile (sorry about the ad) …

 

 

 

 

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Anna Berry‘s installation The constantly moving happiness machine filled the exhibition space in Milton Keynes Central Library for all of September.  It was  a construction of great intricacy and beauty.  My photo doesn’t really do justice to the scale, but walking with care inside the beast on this particular evening, as we were encouraged to do, served further to up the Wow! factor to Alice in Wonderland levels.  Beast, you say?  Indeed.  The constantly moving happiness machine only moved with the power of active public participation, and thereby hangs a tale.

But first, let’s take a closer look at some of the fine detail of a couple of the suspended paper structures.  Pages ripped from books.  Hours of folding and fixing.  Particular books, as revealed in the handout reproduced below (and, one hastens to add, not library books).

Photo (c) Kathy Navin

Photo (c) Kathy Navin

So, yes, it was static until people took up the invitation to keep it in motion.  For here we have an elegant metaphor.  I’ll let Anna explain:

Ayn Rand is a novelist – The fountainhead, Atlas shrugged – who espoused the philosophy of self-interest, or as normal mortals might express it, selfishness.  Hugely popular with the alt-right and apparently much stolen, if not surprisingly, from bookshops, and indeed, as I can report from my time as a librarian, libraries.  If Trump ever read a book, it was probably one of hers.

Th constantly moving happiness machine was also the springboard for a stimulating discussion in the Library, conducted in the view of the mounted fossil skeleton of the extinct ichthyosaur, dinosaur bones unearthed in the early excavations for the fledgling city of Milton Keynes:
Anna kicked off with what it says on the poster: An anthropological, artistic, and personal perspective on capitalist economics.  Hard to give credence to her unaccustomed-as-I-am-to-public-speaking opener.  A passionate exposition ensued – intelligent, witty, committed – all delivered in an attractive Scots lilt (sorry, but I feel the need to give some flavour).  The neo-con capitalist notion that ‘the market’ must rule, like gravity for economic reality, that there is no escape from its demands, was challenged: it’s a human construction.  But all these shiny things are (like her installation) so attractive …   The solution?  Not old orthodoxies, nor newer identity-driven narratives.

When it comes to socialism, clearly most people who espouse it are well-meaning – they genuinely feel the weight of the inequality and the sorrows of the world, and want to help people and make things better.  And of course there’s then this schism between that intention and the reality of what happened historically in so-called socialist states like the former Soviet bloc and China.

I was much taken by that phrase “the sorrows of the world“.  Not your usual political rhetoric, more like something Doctor Who would say (and yes, I’m encouraged by Jodie Whittaker).  I actually mis-remembered it as “the world’s pain” and ended up buying Michael Moorcock’s The War Hound and the World’s Pain (1981) on Abe, a writer who has known what’s what for a long time.

Anna’s reasonable conclusion:

I hope it’s not facile to suggest that the collective endeavor of building a better world means we need to stop obsessing about GDP, and strive for happiness, health, and dignity for humans and animals.

Jason Hickel, an academic and activist with an impressive CV.  He spoke strongly to the notion of ‘de-growth’.  “By arguing that our addiction to economic growth is killing us Hickel disrupts sacred economic orthodoxies”, is what the press release said, and he certainly did that, backing it up with some frightening charts and projections.  The problem with most left party policies, he argued, is that they too still rely on the same relentless pursuit of economic growth as drives capitalism.  Is it all hopeless?  To simplify, he still has faith in people power, in democracy.

This was a stimulating and thought-provoking evening with a difference.  Entertaining too.  The sell-out crowd left buzzing with radical ideas.

For more from Anna and Jason you can go to:
https://www.jasonhickel.org/about/
http://www.annaberry.co.uk/

Mad Men

As it happens, here at the Lillabullero mansion we have been belatedly working our way through Mad Men, the series about a Madison Avenue advertising agency starting in the early 1960s, on Netflix.  First episode of the first series, Don Draper, subpoenaed as witness for the prosecution:

“Oh, you mean love. You mean the big lightning bolt to the heart where you can’t eat and you can’t work and you just run off and get married and make babies. The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” 

Brain cells whirling …

Brain cells still whirling from the discussion, remembrance of a more (utopian) past, I dug out my old copy of Jim HaynesWorkers of the world, unite and stop working: a response to Marxism, (Dandelion, 1978).  He leans heavily on the work of R.Buckminster Fuller – he of geodesic domes, author of Operating manual for Spaceship Earth (1968) and a bit of a futurist counter-cultural guru in his time.  It is a quote from him on the back cover:

The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

We really can’t go on like this, can we?

 

 

A Library Trilogy

The beautiful librarians

The title poem of Sean O’Brien’s The beautiful librarians (Picador Poetry, 2015) starts off with the poet remembering how, as a schoolboy in the early ’60s, he was in awe of the young librarians – ‘Like Francois Hardy’s shampooed sisters – in his local library, how he yearned to inhabit the life he glimpses in them.  “I shared the geography but not the world / It seemed they were establishing.”  He says he has tried to “nonetheless keep faith with them“, that “Book after book I kept my word“, and is mourning the passing not just of those librarians (poetic license – there will still be some survivors), but also, austerity driven, the very libraries themselves.  He closes with: “And all the brilliant stock was sold” (of which more later).  You can read the whole poem, and a further, more erudite exploration of it, here:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/16/the-beautiful-librarians-by-sean-o-brien-poem-of-the-week

It’s a fine and varied collection.  He’s been likened to Auden in his breadth of style and subject matter, so making a poem called Audiology the opener shows a certain swagger.  Particularly in his state of the nation stuff he can be sour, dour, often on the miserable side of melancholy, but he can bestow dignity on hidden voices and simple pleasures.  Oysterity describes a meal in an expensive restaurant discussing austerity and guzzling oysters, later contemplating morality and “the sink’s own non-committal eye“.

He made me laugh out loud drinking coffee while waiting for my wife in the caff in Sainsbury’s in MK with Do you like Dickens?, a pithy tale of a small plebian victory concerning a girl through the power of literature, deliciously heisting the title of F.R.Leavis’s The common pursuit to his own ends.

Indeed, literature is never far away, along with nods to the Ancient World and popular culture.  His endurance of writers’ weekends and performances (‘the thin but earnest crowd‘) are entertaining, but there’s the fear, in War graves: Must this be / ‘The trap of elegy’, to find ourselves composed / Entirely of literature?” In The lost of England he’s marking EngLit students’ exam essays on a train, including one on Hardy: “Forgive me, England. As so often I was dreaming / On a train that drowsed along, cross-country / By an insane route that takes the reason prisoner.”  It’s a rewarding if somewhat depressing journey, rich in descriptive passages, momentary landscapes past and present.

This one made me smile, not least because I’ve just read a book on Bob Dylan as Latin scholar (another time), and it reminded me of John Williams’ extraordinary historical novel Augustus.  It also encapsulates a lot of Sean O’Brien’s concerns:

Damn right I got the blues: Ovid live in Tomis

I hate to see that Euxine sun go down
I hate to see that Euxine sun go down
Cause Lord it reminds me that for reasons of state
I been exiled and confined to this one-horse Pontic town.

Reading allowed

One of the narrative themes of the Reading allowed: true stories and curious incidents from a provincial library (Constable, 2017) is the grinding effect of rumours of austerity and cuts in library budgets, with redundancies of experienced, qualified librarians – the next generations on from the ‘beautiful librarians’ – their posts rationalised out of existence.

It’s never stated but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that Chris Paling is mostly working at Brighton’s award-winning showpiece Jubilee Library, that opened in 2005.  When still working I’d been there on a fact-finding visit and thought I recognised what he’s describing, and his Wikipedia entry confirms it.  An exile from BBC radio production (voluntary redundancy) and a published novelist, he’s worked there for 2 years for spending money as a Casual Library Officer – in old money a Library Assistant.  The life of a mid-list writer is not a happy one, he sadly relates.  This book comes as a result of his agent suggesting he try doing non-fiction.  This book is proof it was a good suggestion:

Although I’d published nine novels it had been clear for some time that the likelihood of ‘breaking through’ was now remote. Nobody sets out with the intention of becoming a mid-list writer but that is the destination of most. There is, so far as I know, no such thing as a bottom-list writer.

He has a novelist’s eye for character, and it’s the quirkier users that get most of the attention.  He has his favourites, and there are some decent heart-tugging stories in there.  The only staff that figure prominently are Trev and Bob, walkie-talkie wielding ‘Facilities’ (aka security), who seem to be needed more than in my own experience, so good for them.  I worked as a Librarian for 40 years, half of those in busy central libraries, and the picture Chris Paling paints is easily recognisable, though the recent rise in homelessness and rough sleeping must have had an impact.

Some may be surprised by what’s going on, but Public Libraries serve the public, and all that entails.  So, a typical staff room scene on a bad day:

The conversation … is all about rude, intolerant customers throwing their weight and, occasionally, their books around. A normally mild-mannered colleague admits that she has wanted to slap every other customer. This is compounded by the computer system seizing up mid-morning, making issuing tricky and anything more complicated impossible. Not our fault but the staff take the blame for the ever-failing system. It’s the closest I have ever got to calling a customer a f***stick, kicking over the terminal and storming out. When a full concession customer (two free hours on the computer ostensibly to aid job-seeking) tells me YouTube is inaudible, I resist suggesting he get on with his job searching and stop watching Beyoncé videos …

Not to mention junkies, thieves, creeps, blocked toilets, cyclists(!), challenging behaviour, building failures, printers running out of toner, self-published authors … easy to forget that the vast majority of readers, users, customers (whatever you want to call them) are appreciative, supportive and no trouble (or worth the taking of it).  Which this book understandably is thin on, save the parenthesized latter – a bit like newspapers and mundane good news

Paley throws in a potted history of libraries at intervals, useful for those who have taken them for granted, as the book progresses.  His conclusion on the importance of the continuance of the public library:

Customers are, of course, in and books are being issued and returned via the automatic machines, but the primary function of this place today is a community hub – an old-fashioned village green with plate-glass windows.

And as Mr Dylan says in Chimes of freedom (this is me, not Paley, though he has tales that bear it out), “An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”

A slight return to The beautiful librarians.  Setting the scene near the beginning of the emerging dystopia of the Thirteen o’clocks sequence we get: “Parks and Gardens, Ways and Means, / Drains, Finance, and General Purposes / And all the virtuous tedium required / To underwrite the civil surfaces, The lawns on which the lovers lie …” 

Dear Fahrenheit 451

Here’s what Annie Spence, a young American librarian, thinks:

The library is genius in its usefulness. It can be a different place for each person who walks in. Your library can help you find a job, go vegan, read up on the new medication you’ve been prescribed, or learn a new language. Your librarian can listen to your knock-knock jokes …

At parties she’ll linger by the bookshelves, and warns about plying her with drink:

But seriously, I can’t go overboard with the alcohol because I tend to pontificate about reading and the social significance of the public library when I get drunk. Two drinks: funny work stories. Poop in the dropbox, Lady with the Face, the guy whom we caught looking at porn and eating a big can of sardines and we didn’t know what to be more offended by … that kind of thing. But if I morph into telling inspiring patron stories, look out. I can give a rousing/annoying lecture on the benefits of getting your library card. I’ve shouted, “I disseminate information to the masses!” while being helped into a cab before.

Dear Fahrenheit 451: a librarian’s love letters and break-up notes to her books (Flatiron Books, 2017) started out as a series of letters she’d write to library books she was withdrawing from where she worked, for all sorts of reasons.  It’s called weeding in the trade, and it’s a decent metaphor: you need good husbandry, a bit of space on the shelves, for the decent, up-to-date stuff to breathe and potentially bloom and be read, and the longer a book stays untouched on the shelves the less likely it is to ever go out, no matter how worthwhile it is (one of the textbooks named this phenomena ‘fatigue’).  It used to be one of my favourite parts of the job, and I’ll admit I’d occasionally indulge myself, by extending the shelf life of a few quality favourites (hello Andreii Makine).  So I know where she’s coming from, and it’s a very good place.

Dear Fahrenheit 451 broadens from that initial idea to take in books happened upon in all sorts of places, and gives us a glimpse of her home life, youth and more.  The main part of the book is the letters, but there are also a number of entertaining annotated lists, like Excuses to tell your friends so you can stay at home with your books (example: “Ack, sorry. Kids are fighting again” when you’re in bed reading Lord of the flies by William Golding).

Library nostalgists will appreciate the use of old 5×3 catalogue cards as chapter heads.  That page opposite reads: “Dear Librarian, Please don’t weed me. Love, Annie.”  I’m charmed, air high-fiving and laughing out loud, even though I don’t recognise a fair number of titles which don’t seem – particularly the teenage material – to have crossed the Atlantic; but I wish she wouldn’t swear quite so much.

Annie kicks off the discards with Donna Tartt’s The goldfinch … because it’s falling apart, affectionately addressing the author as ‘Finchy’.  She covers the full range of materials from picture books to out-of-date text books.  When she finds a copy of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (a favourite of mine, too) in a friends bathroom she tells it, ‘YOU ARE BETTER THAN THIS BATHROOM‘.  And so it goes.  She has such immaculate taste; there are three books she raves over I’m definitely going to have to add to my pile.  Immaculate taste you say?  Here’s her take on Richard Russo’s Nobody’s fool (hello, Sal!) as therapy:

Read this when you’re down about mankind, and you may start to notice a roguish glint in the eye of the curmudgeon who bitches at you about your grass being too long.

She has a list of Good books in bad covers, and considers her own:

Well, anyway, think about how difficult it is to come up with ONE image that totally evokes an entire book’s identity. Nearly impossible. I can’t even think of an example of a book jacket that 100 percent captures its insides. Except maybe this book. If I get my way, the cover of this book is going to be a knockoff of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely hearts Club Band album, except I will be all four of the Beatles’ faces and all of the decoupage heads are going to be famous authors (plus Jared Letto) crying because I’ve weeded them from the library. Also, I promised my cat, Barb, she’d be on the cover.

Sadly, this didn’t happen.  I loved this book but was exhausted by the end of it.  If Annie Spence had been a colleague I think I would have appreciated the first couple of days of her being on holiday; but soon I’d have been missing her.

Afterword

I stumbled on The beautiful librarians browsing the literature shelves in my local library.  It had almost certainly been purchased as part of a seasonal standing order I had set up with The Poetry Book Society a couple of years before I retired.  I don’t know if the standing order has survived, given the relentless austerity-driven shaving of the book fund since.  On a pence per issue basis it’s arguable they probably shouldn’t, but it was a subsidised bargain and we Brits are meant to be good at poetry.  I fancied a copy of my own and bought one cheap from Better World Books via Abe.  Only published in 2015, it was already a library discard.

Such a purchase is tinged for me by guilt, though at least it contributed a few pence to that library service’s income generation, Better World Books is a charity supporting literacy charities around the world, and it’s a small profit Amazon doesn’t get to not pay tax on.  So The beautiful librarians becomes a subject of Sean O’Brien’s closing line to the title poem of his collection – “And all the brilliant stock was sold“.  Actually, he was probably thinking more of the selling off of the major resources of out-of-print material that extensive reserve stock collections like Manchester’s – ‘the stacks’ away from public gaze – that have been sacrificed in the course wholesale re-building and refurbishment projects of grand old buildings.  But it still makes for a nice rhetorical flourish at the end.

Or maybe not quite the end.  I was looking for a book cover to decorate the last couple of paragraphs – something library-y I thought – and thought of that Peter Sellers film, Only two can play, where a lot of the action springs from a public library in South Wales, based on the Kingsley Amis novel That uncertain feeling (1955).  What I found – and there are many – took me straight back to Annie Spence‘s Good books in bad covers list.  Along with many examples of her pet hate – the movie tie-in cover (seconded!) – there in Google images we find something really quite tasteful and apposite … and an outrageously bad seventies abomination, shown here for educational purposes only.  One of the worst.  Ever.  (Though any ex-Camdenites reading this might recall a certain branch librarian).

The Spy Game

Some books take you by surprise.  Georgina Harding‘s The spy game (Bloomsbury, 2009) was the Book Group’s August selection and I probably wouldn’t have considered reading it otherwise.  It got to me; I read it twice, and not just to catch any nuances I might have missed.  There’s a piano teacher struggling to engage her young pupil – Anna Wyatt, the narrator of The spy game – by introducing her to Erik Satie’s piano music.  Didn’t work for her, but it gave me an urgent need to fill that gap in my collection: no Gnossiennes or Gymnopédies? How did that happen?  The spy game is not a genre novel.

The tragic piano teacher is one to weep for.  Here she is playing some Bach, at what would prove to be Anna’s last lesson:

The music was like fountains, crystalline, rising, falling, controlled. If only it was all like that, no words to anything. If you listened, closed your eyes, then opened them again and looked about, you saw the room more richly than before, the polish of the furniture, the glow of the lamps, of the glass on the shelves, the vividness of its lit colour. The woman at the piano was suddenly vivid again too, as if some veil, some dull greyness which had seemed only an extension of the greyness of the day, of the protracted late winter, had dropped away.

Saturday, January 7, 1961, news breaks of the unmasking of a Soviet spy ring – a seemingly ordinary well-liked suburban couple, the Krogers, at the heart of it.  Two days later, 8-year old Anna’s mother dies in a car accident.  Her elder brother, Peter, just old enough to be aware of current affairs, becomes obsessed with the idea that their mother was a sleeper agent who had been recalled to Moscow to preserve the spy network.  After all, their English father had first met her in the Russian section of post-war Berlin, and they were kept away from the funeral.  Peter’s obsession – he involves her in what she sees as a game, becomes a bit of a spy himself – leads to a series of incidents, and for him, a breakdown, all of which is related by Anna, as she remembers what she saw and thought as a young girl.

Life moves on for her.  We are told nothing of what has happened in between – a narrative gap that works well, I think – save that her daughter has gone off to university and her husband is saying, Go on – why not go for it!  The experiences of her childhood have never quite left Anna, and she’s still intrigued by how little she ever knew about her mother’s life before she met her father.

Anna has researched the Portland Spy Ring (a fascination in itself), and moves on from the British Library’s newspaper out-station in North London to archives in Berlin and the remote Baltic outpost of what is now Kaliningrad (in what is now Russia), all small adventures in themselves, briefly meeting new people, helping or helped by, on the way.  What she discovers about her mother’s, and the piano teacher’s uneasy pre-war and war-time lives is extraordinary, humbling; her re-imaging of her parents’ courtship glorious.  The even tone that Georgina Harding maintains as one’s emotions soar and plunge is remarkable.  One is in Stephen Poliakoff and Andreii Makine territory – great company, I’d say.  A lovely uncomfortable book, one that sings.

A couple of other things before we leave Georgina Harding.  She doesn’t overdo the period touches, but when she does … well, I’m showing my age here: Dixon of Dock Green on the telly, the National Anthem when the days’ programming was over; pink candlewick bedspreads; “The telephone was for information still in those days … and was kept in the hall without even a chair beside it“; the crunch night of 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, the Big Freeze of 1963; sweet cigarettes!  I guess boys still labour over plastic construction kits to this day, but brother Peter’s aircraft models were like a Proustian madeleine for me:

His eyes were shiny so that I did not look into them. He was almost crying. I looked at his fingers instead, how they were white with the pressure. They held the wing of the plane so tight that I was afraid he might break it and then he would cry for sure. […]
Peter was collected now, more his usual self. He put the wing down. He began to peel the dried glue off his fingertips, stripping it off like skin and laying it on the spread newspaper on the table.

That at a moment of high drama.  I’d say that was a fine piece of writing.  She’s great on small details.  Finally, here’s Anna has just emptied her father’s kitchen, clearing the house for sale after his death.  There’s one special find:

I drove back home and did not have the strength to get the box out of the car. I would get it in the morning and sort everything then, tins of tomatoes, stale coffee, outdated herbs, half-used bags of sugar and flour that would hang about and sadden the larder for months. I took only the diary in.

The punishment she deserves

The punishment she deserves is the 20th of Elizabeth George‘s Inspector Lynley novels, but the first I’ve read.  I’m familiar with the television series and quite liked it once his awful wife became an ex-wife (don’t know if she was so toe-curdling in the books); star of the show is always Sharon Small, cheeky smile and all, as his DS Barbara Havers.  I had friends who read the series as they came out, but it was the length that put me off, that and not being able to get my head fully around an American writing about a quintessential Englishman (he’s a real Lord, don’t you know?).

Anyway, I get the nod that The punishment she deserves deserves a place in the Kinks in Literature pages here at Lillabullero, so there was no escape, the time had come.  At just over 600 pages it’s too long, way too long.

Because I was only familiar with the TV shows, I had to catch up on the soap opera aspects of the book series.  So it was a shock to discover Lynley with a boss who has a chronic alcohol problem and is going through a bad divorce and is involved in a fierce custody battle for the children.  This sub-plot added greatly to the page count, slowed the actual investigation down, and did nothing much for me; aficionados of the series may demur, of course.

Once Lynley and Havers get going The punishment she deserved has its moments – they’re a class double act – but as a police procedural it has a major flaw right from the start.  The Met officers are in Ludlow to look into the initial handling of a suspicious death in custody and the subsequent IPCC investigation which cleared the local police force: it was a suicide, they agreed.  No way, says the dead man’s rich dad, who can pull strings and is threatening the Home Office with legal action.  No mention whatever of a Coroner’s inquest – mandatory in the circumstances – which could well have, indeed should have, brought some pertinent facts out into the open much earlier. And killed the book, which does eventually have some interesting twists and turns fuelled by misunderstandings, maladjustment, and malevolence. 

There is a theme behind the whole shenanigans, involving parents and the contrasting nature of the aspirations, support, protection and freedom they give their teenage children.  How that all works out for the four students at the local college (probably a sixth form college) who share a house in which there seems to be an inordinate amount of casual sex going on, is fertile ground for red herrings and ethical questioning as things unfold.  Can’t say I found the local cast and a lot else that convincing.

But first the music.  The Kinks reference turns out to be a sticker in the back window of an old car (which by the sound of it would never have passed its MOT).  Soundtrack for the big end of term bash at the dodgy pub favoured by Ludlow’s young – is it really going to be the BeeGees and Abba?  I doubt it.  And while we’re in the pub, how about this revelation:

Music was shaking the floor-boards. This was meant to promote thirst which was meant to promote the purchase of lager, ale, cider, cocktails, and the like. [my italics] Deng had to struggle to get through the great glomerations of kids who were gyrating to the music, texting, or taking selfies …

And while we’re still here, the annoying things start to mount up.  ‘Ale’ is consistently through the book, never ‘beer’ or ‘bitter’.  And that word ‘conglomeration’; other bon mots heard at the pub are “Fabbo-licious” and “Gorgeosity in the extreme“.  One of the participants seated at that table is one Finnegan Freeman:

He wore his hair in a style that featured dreadlocks on the right and a shaved skull on the left. The latter allowed the display of a disturbing tattoo showing a wild-looking woman screaming, complete with uvula displayed as well as overlong canines, one of which dripped blood.

Yeah, right.  And he’s just the teenage son of the Assistant Chief Constable of the West Mercia Police Service, who, incidentally, uses sex games to keep her ex-addict husband in the dark about stuff and is probably the least convincing ACC to be found anywhere near a police procedural crime novel.

Annoyances abound.  PCSO Gaz’s hair “was cut short, but not in the fashion of a football hooligan” (which is, these days?); one evening we have “pub goers looking in on their nightly establishments“; a front garden on a new estate “grew lawns“.  Then there are speech abbreviations, the likes of which I’ve not encountered before; are ‘F you say so / c’n / cops’re / ‘nspector / sh’ll et al genuine local colour?  And Gaz is obviously conflicted:

Gaz set his coffee on the table and dumped milk into it. He stirred it carefully, as if with concern that he might slosh the brew out of the cup should he apply the spoon too energetically.

Meanwhile, cigarettes are never smoked.  It’s usually Havers, seeking somewhere “she could suck down another fag“.

Then there’s the sex.  As I said before, there’s lot of it.  It’s not graphic but it’s constant.  There’s Deng, who has been shagging pretty much anybody since age 14 because, it is pointlessly revealed, she discovered her dad, dead from auto-eroticism, in the stately home her mum is still trying to make a go of.  Deng has cultivated a friendship with determined virgin Missa.  And there’s sexually active, Francie, also living in a stately home that her parents are letting crumble, due to their global “ethno-cultural-whatever” commitments.  A key plot event has been Missa being “sodomised” in a drunken slumber, that word’s repeated use invoking memories of old style Tory dinosaurs speaking in early parliamentary debates on gay rights (or that DUP Ulster brogue!).  You could say the students’ back stories deserved some space, but it’s all a bit hysterical.  And goes on too long.

There are saving graces, which have probably kept the series going.  The main one, of course being the double act that is post Thomas Lynley and working-class Barbara Havers, the source of a rich vein of humour (if you ignore the ‘sucking’ of cigarettes).  Here Lynley is introducing himself to West Mercia’s unenthused by the meeting Chief Constable:

Oooh, Barbara thought. He was using the Voice. He rarely did that because he knew that when it came to being a fish out of water, he was the fish, and it didn’t make any sense to emphasise that. But every so often, such emphasis was necessary and the Voice was required. Upon hearing it the other paused in surprise. It was the pause that Lynley sought. […] Barbara took careful note of the nature of this pissing contest.

Good old Barbara, who had “long ago set her mobile’s alarm to play the final moments of the 1812 Overture at a casual suggestion some time ago from DI Lynley.”  Whose musical knowledge runs to “If Buddy Holly didn’t sing it, I’m clueless”; who breakfasts on Pop-Tarts.  There’s a nice running joke about ‘Judi-with-an-I’ back at Scotland Yard, whose boss at one stage, “had gone to Marylebone, meeting a nameless political powerbroker for a discussion about broking political power.”  A bit more of that and a bit less of the likes of, in the midst of a dramatic blue-lights flashing car chase to stop a glider take-off, “It was clear why the Long Mynd was a desired site for launching gliders.  To the west Shropshire gave way to rolling hills, some comprising quartzite and some consisting of volcanic debris [my italics]”

Doubtful I’ll be reading another one.

PS.  Inevitably technological changes and economic shifts can compromise older books’ accuracy, but I’m not sure there’s any excuse for a book published this year to rhetorically proclaim:  “Since they were on the Bromfield Road, they drove from Flora Bevans’ house into Bromfield itself, where a secondary road near the post office took them to what one could reliably find in any village in the country: a pub.”  If you’re lucky.

Musical adventures

Things have got a bit out of control here at Lillabullero, and the chronicling of worthy local musical outing … all within walking distance here in Stony Stratford … has got chronically behind.  Indeed, we have to go back all the way to July 14 and the joyful early evening that was the full Innocent Hare at the sadly soon to be no more Beer Bear – from medieval to heavy metal (an unlikely working of Iron Maiden’s Fear of the dark).  The wooden floor perfect for a touch of clog, too.  An evening also memorable for my introduction to the delightful Mad Squirrel’s De La Nut hazelnut milk stout (thank you, Andrew).

Vaultage has been on a roll the past couple of months:
I’ve seen The Plucky Haggis almost from his first open mic performance at least half a decade ago (before he was hairy, even), and he’s developed into a colourful performer of some aplomb.  Then one of those magic moments that can suddenly happen at an open mic: Porcelain Hill, who normally boast a classic guitar/bass/drums trio line-up, with rock-soul-blues-funk-punk et al in the mix, they had a proper gig down the road the next day and gave us an

Porcelain Hill at Vaultage – Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

acoustic set of the same with two guitars and cajon, that blew everyone away with their tightness, togetherness and good vibes.  From California, he said: “Whereabouts?” someone shouted.  “Ontario”.  General disbelief.  “No, look it up.  It’s even got its own airport.”  Indeed it does – you learn something everyday.) Here’s a link to their website: http://porcelainhill.com/

The Hatstand Band (or the two of ’em on the left on the night) performed as if joined at the hip.  Lovely stuff, a wide range of Americana, sweet harmonies and swing.  Simon Loake, relaxed broad humour and anecdotage from a long musical career, accomplished folk guitar and such a deep voice, used on some interesting material.  Andy Powell played Streets of London, Stairway to heaven and Duelling Banjos.  And got away with it – an entertainer.  Stairway to heaven done with the help of two ESL signers from the Carabosse theatre team was an experience: the stairway!  After drifting a bit, the quality of the open mic-ers lately has been great too.  Chrissy and Mike’s Born under a bad sign – flute and folk guitar – remains an earworm since last Thursday.  Nice work, Pat Nicholson & Andy Bongos!

Couple of real goodies at York House too.  Don Adam Perera, a classical guitarist of distinction, talked about the versatility of the guitar and demonstrated it.  Spanish, romantic, tango, Spanish, Latin American, he can do ’em all.  Two sets, the first from nineteenth century composers, then more contemporary stuff.  Dazzling, emotional.  See: http://www.donadamperera.com/

Evie Laden & Keith Terry are no strangers to York House, and their skills and entertainment value does not pall.  Americana richly employing banjo (claw hammer style), double bass, guitar, fine voices, ‘body music’, clog, charm.  See: http://www.evieladin.com/bio/

Almost forgetting … an absorbing mix of storytellers, bards and two thirds of Innocent Hare in the Library, for the Magdalen Tower show.

Damn you, Peter Robinson.  That was a dirty trick.  Come on, man: this is meant to be prime police procedural.  It’s a novel, not a goddamn TV series Finale.  We need closure, but what you do is just keep me hanging on.  This is the second time it’s happened lately (I’m looking at you, Colin Bateman, with your Paper cuts) and, outside of fantasy fiction, where it’s endemic, it better not be turning into a publishing trend.

With Careless love (Hodder, 2018), Peter Robinson hits the quarter century of full-length novels featuring thoughtful, music loving, left-leaning decent bloke detective, Alan Banks.  He’s been a bestseller for a long while now, so as such you wouldn’t expect the number of typos that have crept through, Mr Hodder.

Careless love opens with a young woman in an evening dress found dead in a car parked in a layby on the Yorkshire Moors with a Police Aware sticker in the window.  Not long after, an older expensively dressed man is found at the bottom of a ravine not far away.  Are they linked?  They usually are: Robinson is skilled in handling such seemingly parallel investigations within Banks’s team.  And when another young woman is found murdered on Alan’s mate Ken’s patch in Leeds, links begin to emerge.

It’s a decent enough police procedural, the upshot being [mild spoiler alert] something that started as a sequence of certainly dodgy, but unlucky events, and a cover-up that turned sinister thereafter.  More mundane, even, though no less tragic, than usual in a Banks novel, but one which the man finds troublingly, ethically grey.

Into all this, in a subplot involving a character we’re driven to have a lot of sympathy for, is thrown a spectre from the past, a character from the 14th Banks novel, 2010’s Playing with fire – an evil geezer called Phil Keane, who had seduced Annie Cabbot (main long-term member of Banks’s team (and then some)) and nearly burnt down Banks’s idyllic cottage with him in it, a man with links to East European and Russian crime gangs.  As far as the bodies on the moors investigation goes this is a [spoiler alert] red herring – he remains a spectre – but it sets up the cliffhanger ending that I was complaining about at the start.  Novel 26 in the Banks series promises to be explosive indeed.

It’s all quiet on the soap opera and bit-of-a-rebel fronts.  Banks is ruminative, thinking over – even listing for us – past loves and possibilities, but “He didn’t feel sad, just lonely sometimes.  But it was true that much of the time he enjoyed being alone“.  His bosses hardly figure.  Musical, literary and film references – many obscure – abound (some would say, clutter) almost beyond parody – how about a live Berlin Philharmonic concert screening? “The lure of seeing Patricia Kopatchinskaja dancing barefoot around Simon Rattle as she played the Ligeti violin concerto was almost too hard to resist“.  But with Annie’s artist father Ray now living in Yorkshire, Banks has a fellow sixties music aficionado to joust with, and he’s still got the poetry bug.

Our man is in charge of an all female team – a situation that gets no special attention – with the continuing enigma that is Annie Cabbot° well to the fore in the action; I’d venture that the interviews conducted by her with newest team member Gerry owe something to recent British TV cop shows, and are none the worse for it; Gerry is developing well as a character of dry wit (turning as she leaves a room: ‘Sorry to do a Columbo on you sir,’ she said, ‘but I’m curious about …’).

Banks is feeling his age a bit, moderately imbibing wine and beer, not the happiest of bunnies, but still good enough company for this reader.  He hasn’t got much time for Jeremy Corbyn, but ‘It was easy to be cynical about the naivety of the young, but without it nothing would ever change very much‘.

Peter Robinson is not top of my tree, but the systematic treatment I’ve been giving to each novel here on Lillabullero, detailing musical and literary references, alcohol consumed, Banks’s love life etc. is probably the most visited part of the whole website, so I’m committed to him.  Here’s a link:  Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks Mysteries.

One way or another, I think the next book is going to be spectacular.

°When I say Annie is enigmatic, I don’t mean that she’s a Mona Lisa – more’s the pity – but that there are inconsistencies over the various books (see the notes on Book 24 on the page cited above for starters).  But she certainly has her moments:

A proper little fucking Miss Marple, aren’t you?’
‘And here’s me thinking the site of your father’s body would stop you behaving like a complete arse.’

 

 

 

 

Lillabullero is desperately trying to catch up …

As one who found that news photo of the Prime Minister’s weirdly angular curtseying to Prince William in June one of the most cringeworthy and humiliating of recent times in a highly competitive field (she’s only 26 years older than him, just for starters) obviously I’m going to be cheering along with Tom Bower‘s hatchet job on the man Private Eye calls Brian, Rebel Prince: the power, passion and defiance of Prince Charles (Collins, 2018).   Bower claims to being a monarchist who fears that Charles will do for the institution, while I feel that the continuance of the monarchy is a human rights issue, not least for the damage it does to the poor bleeders born into it; not to mention the privilege, expense and general cheek of it all.

Never mind the disputed claim that made headlines about taking along his own toilet seat with him on his travels (or rather his staff doing so), a lot of the well documented evidence here, much gained from interviews from those close to the action, including ex-employees, may well take your breath away.  The book only covers the last 20 years and has five interweaving themes:

  • The long haul post-Diana’s death PR job to re-establish the deeply unpopular Charles with the public and soften them up for the prospect of Queen Camilla
  • His personality, extravagant lifestyle and sense of entitlement.  Six houses, full travelling entourage, private planes, billionaire’s yachts.  Don’t get me started.  Plus: “Loyalty was always a one-way street.”
  • His bonkers ideas – lecturing the BMA on where science has got it wrong! – and attempts to gain them wider favour, involving  establishing a series of wastefully administered charities, mostly funded by billionaires vying for places at the banquet table, writing to Prime Ministers etc.
  • The Paul Burrell affair: a rat of the first order, his prosecution for purloining Diana’s stuff was dramatically dropped in court, after months of assiduous work by detectives, when the Queen suddenly ‘remembered’ a conversation in a car two years earlier, and of course she couldn’t be put in the witness stand; he was threatening to reveal third person court gossip about Charles which no sane person would credit, and which half the world – though not us in the UK, because of an injunction – had heard anyway.

I could go on, but here are some favourite quotes.  How’s this for cynical PR early on in the rehabilitation game (and of course the papers lapped it up):

… photographers were summoned to the reception at Somerset House for five hundred guests to celebrate the National Osteoporosis Society, chaired by Camilla. The charity’s trustees could never have anticipated the enormous interest, but the media had been tipped off by the usual reliable source that Charles and Camilla would greet each other with a kiss.

And here’s a rarity – something good you can say about Tony Blair, who

had been spared Charles’s pained response to his letter which started ‘Dear Prince Charles’ and was signed ‘Yours ever, Tony.’ [A flunky] called Downing Street to stipulate that in future Charles wanted Blair’s letters to start ‘Sir’ and to end ‘Your obedient servant.’  The Prime Minister’s private secretary replied that he refused to ask his master to change his style.

Oh yes, and here the future king is at his fêted Poundbury village project in his (!) Duchy of Cornwell:

Charles was introduced to the owners of a new two-bedroomed house. ‘I have always stuck to the principle,’ he told the couple, ‘that I would not let anyone build a house here that I could not personally live in.’ The occupant of six grand houses did not intend any irony.

Enough!  If you want a good laugh in between bouts of incredulity and outrage (or ‘fury’ as the tabloids would have it), Bower’s book is a good read.

Waiting for Doggo

I took Mark B. MillsWaiting for Doggo (Headline Review, 2014) home from the library by mistake.  A friend has been trying to convert me to the pleasures of Magnus Mills and I thought I’d picked up two of the his books.  Still, though I don’t do cute animal stuff, I liked the title and it made for a pleasing diversion.  Chapter One is an apologetic Dear John letter to Daniel, who would have made a perfect part for the younger Hugh Grant, well before he became Jeremy Thorpe:

And I’m sorry about Doggo.  That’s totally my fault.  God knows what I was thinking.  What was I thinking?  that he would make a difference, even heal us.  You’ll hate that word, like you hate it when I talk about journeys and energies and, yes, angels.
      The thing is, I DO believe in them. And you don’t.  Is this what this is really about?  Maybe.  I used to love your polite tolerance, the sceptical smile in your eyes, but now it pisses me off.  It looks cynical and superior to me now, like you think you have all the answers.  Well you don’t.  Who does?

This had me chortling, and so it continued.  Doggo – at least part-MacGuffin – is the ugliest dog in the world; they hadn’t even got round to naming before she left.  Plot-wise he gets into places and works a certain alchemy therein by spuriously getting away with being described and excused as an emotional support dog.  (Mind, many moons ago, when I was working for Camden Libraries, the Chief Cataloguer – remember them? – used to have this big shaggy thing, never a bother, under her desk all day long; I don’t think anyone was prepared to call her bluff).

Anyway, Daniel, a decent bloke, is a vague would-be-writer who has ended up at Indology, a trendy new advertising agency.  What goes on there is a rich variety of office intrigue, politics and romance shenanigans, all set against a rich satirical look at the industry in general.  Pièce de résistance is the competition between creative teams in the agency for the pitch to give to a client, a French car maker launching a supremely ugly car.  I’m not saying whether “The hatchback of Notre-Dame” is adopted, but I laughed out loud.  All in all great fun, and as it says on the cover, life-affirming … in a cosy but not quite cloying sort of way.  I never got round to reading the Magnus Mills.

The return of the Vinyl Detective

Victory Disc (Titan Books, 2018) is the third in Andrew Cartmel‘s splendid The Vinyl Detective comic crime series and I zipped through it just like the others, which have been extensively and positively reviewed here at Lillabullero, so I’m not going to spend too much time on it, carrying on, as it does, all the fun, thrills, spills and inventiveness of its predecessors.

Our narrator is the eponymous Vinyl Detective and the established crew are all in evidence.  Much loving bickering with his sardonically witty American girlfriend Nevada – in many ways developing into the star of the show – their tolerated mate Tinkler, a grammarian and valve amp and vinyl equipment obsessive, and the cats Fanny and Turk, to name the major players.  It’s full of music, and we get cooking tips too.

This time the VD has become the Shellac Shamus.  The discs he’s been engaged to find are ultra-rare recordings of the Flare Path Orchestra, the British equivalent of the Glen Miller Band, along with collecting memorabilia and contemporaries’ memories of its leader, the late Lucky Honeyland, bomber skipper and postwar successful children’s writer.  Who turns out not to be the ‘decent chap’ he appears to have been; Lucky for an unsuspected reason.  There’s a miscarriage of justice to be uncovered too, discussion of the role of saturation bombing in wartime, and many interesting characters to meet on the way to a nicely wrought climax at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

Let me give you a joyful flavour of the language and dialogue: how does the notion of ‘high end cat biscuits’ grab you?  Or ‘frizzy, toffee-coloured hair that hung around her face in untidy waves’ described as ‘a Pre-Raphaelite mess‘?  Ok, maybe a bit specific in its target audience, but some more hair for you consideration: ‘It had been cut in a deliberately nerdy manner, as though he was a member of a 1960s pop band that had wrongly considered itself ironic‘.

I give you, in closing this segment: a post-fight de-briefing, a discussion about light orchestral music, and a clarification:

“We shouldn’t joke about it really.”
“Yes, you should,” said Tinkler. “It’s not every day you get to address a neo-fascist with a breeze block.  As a matter of fact, I think that entitles you to another large glass of red wine.” [Nevada specifies the bottle].

“It’s a slippery slope,” I said. “And awaiting at the bottom is Mantovani.”
He laughed. “Mantovani had his moments, you know. Fucking brilliant use of strings.”

“What is adultery?” said Tinkler. […]
“It’s shagging someone you’re not married to,” said Nevada succinctly. “And if you tell me it should be ‘someone to whom you’re not married’, Tinkler, I shall break a plate over your head.”

To the river

Olivia Laing‘s To the river: a journey beneath the surface (Canongate, 2011) was June’s Book Group book (well I said I needed to catch up) and though I wasn’t able to attend I gather reactions were mixed one way or another on three continuums: get over yourself, get on with it, and … but it had its moments.

In the spring of 2009 I became caught up in one of those minor crises that periodically afflict a life, when the scaffolding that sustains us seems destined to collapse. I lost a job by accident, and then, through sheer carelessness, I lost the man I loved.

He moved back to his native Yorkshire, in case you’re interested, but of this we hear little more (though he bought her a vacuum cleaner for Xmas once).  A hydrophile, she decides to walk unaccompanied, as near as she can, the course of the River Ouse in Sussex, a river she knew quite well, from its source to the sea.  Therapy or career move?  We are not told if she had a book contract before or after she succeeded.  The Sussex Ouse is the river Virginia Woolf drowned herself in, so for me at least – Woolf called Ulysses pornography and thought D.H.Lawrence common – it did not augur well.

As a physical journey it’s not without interest.  Just actually finding the source is fascinating, for starters.  We get a lot of naming on flora and fauna in atmospheric descriptions of specific moments, that take a lot for granted in trying to see what she sees, but some of the brushes with humankind, in pub gardens etc. work nicely almost as wild life observation.  It’s a relief to reach the sea, and the last stretch is fascinating in looking at the changes the river has seen.

The psychogeography drags a bit, a lot, I suspect, book-sourced after the event, though I suppose it depends on what you’re interested in.  Simon de Montfort – nah, but fascinating that the finder of a significant early iguanodon find and the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax lived round the corner from one another a century apart in Lewes.  She goes for a couple of dips in the chalky waters, but shares with us the thought that:

It was in a wallow like this that Iris Murdoch and John Bayley began their courtship, or perhaps more accurately consummated it, for the first swim is not dissimilar to the first time a couple spend the night in bed.

To the river was seemingly well received in on the higher-brow book review pages, but it felt to me like it was struggling for a profundity more wished for than delivered.  And every time I contemplate that title – and I bet it’s happening to some of you too – I hear Al Green.  So, to save you some time, here he is:

Minsmere

Charmed by the welcoming staff into renewing our RSPB membership at Minsmere.  Nesting sand martins make for an enticing start.  The Coast Trail – all two miles of it – seemed like a long walk in that sun when we were not being blown about, but the pools and reedbeds are rewarding.

Finally got to see an avocet.  Not the greatest photo, I’ll be the first to admit, better one of a snipe, but avocets a big deal for me (long story touching on a bungled quiz question and a meditative Bert Jansch instrumental album).

Coast Trail also takes in remnants of the World War 2 coastal defences. Prompting thoughts embedded deep in the annals of social psychology: There’s always one …

Southwold

And so, second attempt, we make it to Southwold.  Charmed, once out of the car park, sited strategically to one side of the celebrated Pier, where it does not impinge on the attractiveness of the town.  Traditional seaside with a minimum of tat.  On the pier the eccentric and imaginative slot machine arcade out of the mind of Tim Hunkin – called The Under the Pier Show, which is, of course on the Pier – provided entertaining shelter from the buffeting winds, which never gave Hunkin’s water clock a chance.

Walked up and down the High Street – not unpleasant in itself, though the pavements a bit crowded – but failing to find what the guide book had called the “ultimate chippie”.  This failure being entirely due to your humble scribe’s inability to distinguish one small Suffolk seaside resort from another, despite there being 20+ pages dividing them in said guide book; next time for Aldeburgh, then.

Nevertheless, we did have an excellent plate of fish and chips – well crispy batter – from the Beach Café, watched over by George Orwell, who spent time in Southwold – official mural by PureEvilx.

We did manage to find the right church, St Edmund’s, a four star-er in England’s thousand best churches, noted for its ‘flint flushwork exterior’.  A sign by the gate quotes from Psalm 66, though “All the earth worships Thee / they sing praises to Thee / sing praises to Thy Name“, not as obvious in meaning as it once was, sounds like a recipe for trouble in these days of instant celebrity.

Inside they were setting up for a concert, wires and equipment all over the place, but the lighting gave something to the organ loft.  Photo fails with the scary choir stall arm rests and the angels, and the impressive roof angels.

We take to the water

Saturday, last full day in Suffolk, and we take the Waveney River Tours morning hour and a half tipping your toe in the Broads trip.  In truth some of our motivation for this was down to TripAdvisor and some interesting reviews.  How to resist the likes of : “There is not much to see apart from reeds“;  “It’s a waste of money most of the people were sleeping as they were bored” (sic);  “I can see why some people would find it a bit boring“; “See some nice houses along the river and some wild life … Wouldn’t recommend to be honest”?

But it was cool, the strong breeze off the water, and while the most interesting thing in the water was a bit of a monster barge being pulled by a rubber dinghy, we did get to see a marsh harrier more than fleetingly, which counts for something.  The commentary was thankfully inobtrusive, but he knew his stuff.  A while ago, in telling us about their whole week boating on the Broads, a relative had used that ‘boring’ word.  This short trip had the value of ensuring that’s another option we can safely rule out.

East Anglia Transport Museum

For shame, there is no mention of the East Anglia Transport Museum, situated in Carlton Colville, a suburb of Lowestoft, in our esteemed guide book.  We had a great time there, riding on the old trams – overhead wires, tram tracks, the whole authentic experience – and wandering around the fine collection of buses, trolley buses and more trams, taking in the various displays and refuelling with some splendid egg sandwiches.  To take up a theme mentioned earlier in our Suffolk travels, here truly is the best of British: crazy (in the best sense of the word) enthusiasts and volunteers, who run the whole show; I couldn’t stop one talking.  Back in 1962 all that was here was, according to the guidebook, “just a large, disused meadow with a dilapidated wooden shed in one corner” … and enthusiasm; it now covers 5 acres.

On the left, Blackpool, in the middle a futuristic looking Sheffield, and a Belfast trolley bus.  You can ride as much as you want – a short journey, there and back to a woodland ‘terminus’ and picnic spot – but the ritual of the punching of the ticket must be adhered to.  We had two conductors – a sprightly older man, and a young teenager (an enthusiast’s grandson caught early?) – both delighting in the calling of “All aboard”, “Hold on tight, please” and ringing the bell.  At the end of each trip they took pride in reversing the seats – flipping the seat backs in their groove – so travellers were always front-facing.

Would have loved to have got a decent photo of this historic ‘streamlined’ Blackpool front gem, but it was having some work done, and there was a Land Rover (a classic itself) parked in front, so here’s the best looking overhead wire contact.

They don’t make bus shelters like this art deco beauty anymore.

What else?  A kitted out Anderson shelter from WW2.  A roadmender’s hut with all its old mod cons –  they lived in them while the job was ongoing – you can sit in that one; indeed, Tar, sweat and steam, is a permanent display about historic road building including a good-looking Armstrong Whitworth steam roller.  A Mini same model and colour as I once had, a Trabant and a Sinclair C5, taxis through the ages, a fully fitted fifties caravan (so tiny), many other vehicles.  A fascinating wall full of loads of old road signs.  Some decent rose bushes.

We had a grand afternoon there, might have stayed longer were it not for the heat.  Here’s their website: http://www.eatransportmuseum.co.uk/We even bought a peg bag because our old one disintegrated.  It performs very well:

 

 

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