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My title is taken from a passage about half-way into Sebastian Barry‘s novel of the First World War, A long long way (Faber, 2005):

For no matter what mayhem was afoot in the ruined fields of the Lord, the army was deeply attached to its regulations, always allowing for the fact that the staff officers didn’t see battles, didn’t understand what happened in battles, and probably didn’t want to. It was line officers only that knew the drear paintings and the atrocious music of the front line.

It’s not a bad example of the quality of his prose and approach: its rhythm, the vernacular touch, the deft choice of imagery; men glorying in having “quarters that shut out the bladed wind and drunken snow.”  Nor elsewhere does he labour the point about the ruling class generals way back at High Command; indeed one particular line officer is held in high regard and affection by his men.  He doesn’t need to preach; though one of the men does opine, “Anyway, they don’t write books about the likes of us. It’s officers and high-up people mostly“.

As a novel of men at war A long long way is right up there with the best.  The writing is – given its subject matter – remarkably free of cliché, and as with his recent Days without end, Sebastian Barry takes you – seemingly effortlessly – there.  This is what it feels like to be in the midst of the action, of the brutality of battle, as well as the longeurs, sharing the banter (there’s a neat riff on a Bovril ad), the camaraderie and esprit (laced, though it can be, with spite).  And you, the reader, is also taking in the sights and sounds of their immediate surroundings, of  the natural world, and this never getting in the way of the tale.

Here they are back from the trenches, having  abath, in the reserve area:

The water held them gently, warmed their inmost marrow; and if they had forgotten what it was to bathe, and some of them maybe never had a proper bath in their born days, they soon had it high on their list of sumptuous things to experience on God’s earth. They would be devotees in their private minds of this immersion.

More relief, of a very different kind:

It was difficult for his head to love and think of the future when he could not feel his feet.
‘By the good fuck,’ said Christy Moran, ‘this is some war.’
Then something miraculous occurred. The lice in Willie’s clothes began to stir again, and one morning the music of the cold, with its piercing little notes, seemed to pass away. The greens and browns seeped back into the world.

Never mind poppies:

Meanwhile, the roadsides burgeoned up and grew almost noisy with memory-laden colours. The arrogant sun had touched them and the casual rain had done the rest, leaving these million marks of respect on the neglected edges of fields and paths and roads. Even in fields, where most likely some calamity had stolen away the tillers, great weaves and plethoras of field flowers appeared, army after army of yellow heads, golden heads and blue, red and burning green. It was like a sudden paradise. Birds fiercely sought those sites on which they could bestow their efforts all the summer, the heroic house-martins and swallows come back from whatever Portugals and Africas they knew, to rest their faith again in Flanders, and the safety of Flanders.

But it is – as well as the sheer quality of the writing – an Irish dimension that gives A long long way a special status in the literature of the First World War.

Our main man is Willie Dunne, “born in the dying days” of the nineteenth century, son of a high-up Dublin policeman.  His relationship with the folks back home – his family, his girlfriend – are a significant part of the narrative but I’ll not dwell on them here.  It’s not a first person narrative, but it is mainly what he sees and feels and thinks that drives A long long way.  We are back in a time when the whole of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom and the Empire; Home Rule legislation has been suspended for the war.  Willie, with many others, volunteers in 1915, making common cause with other European nations against the bullying might of Germany.

His war kicks off with his unit being victim of a horrendous mustard gas attack, which is followed by some recovery time back home.  Having embarked on the boat to return to the Front, they are mysteriously ordered to disembark, and rushed back to the streets of Dublin to find they are being used in the quelling of the Easter Rising, required to use their arms on their own countrymen; the rebels’ pro-German rhetoric left little choice.  (Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’; you can see why that was a centenary mutely celebrated).

Then it’s off to the slaughter in Europe again.  This all makes for a confusing and distressing time for Willie.  News of the execution of the republican leaders of the rebellion by the English government filters through to the men, and all is grey:

The executed men were cursed, and praised, and doubted, and despised, and held to account, and blackened, and wondered at, and mourned, all in a confusion complicated infinitely by the site of war.

One of Willie’s younger comrades is arguing the rebel’s cause.  He’s getting on people’s nerves, he won’t let it lie:

‘Can’t you just eat your maconochie like the rest of us, Jesse, and to hell with Ireland and this Ireland and that Ireland? You’d give a saint a headache with that talk, man dear.’ [p157]

Why should he pay him any heed in the upshot?  There had been thousands of deaths just in the last days over by the ruinous river. Two thousand Irishmen of the 36th alone. He thought Jesse Kirwan was all twisted up in a rope of his own making; he knew he was. He had made a trap for himself in the wood of his own heart. He was the snare, the rabbit, and the hunter all in one. [p159]

Jesse does more than just preach though, and death by firing squad is his reward.  Willie, with a good voice, sings a requiem:

Poor Jesse. He hardly knew him, but he felt brotherly about the matter. He sang both verses of the hymn. The moon was quite playful among the August clouds. As Willie Dunne was no fool, he knew that he wouldn’t be the same Willie Dunne he had been before this happened.

He’s sung the Ave Maria twice before in the book – as a boy at a singing contest, and at an earlier quiet interlude in the trenches, as related here:

Ave Maria, gratia plenis, full of grace, and many of the men caught that it was just the Hail Mary all dressed over in another lingo, the prayer of their childhoods and their country, the prayer of their inmost minds, that could not be sundered, that could not be violated, that could not be rendered meaningless even by slaughter; the core inviolable, the flame unquenchable.

Here’s the craft of Sebastian Barry: he doesn’t try to explain the situation regarding Irish independence – we just get to see it through the soldiers’ and others’ understanding of what is going on.  Nothing is really spelt out, and there’s no discussion of nationalism as such – ‘this Ireland and that Ireland‘ – but the sense of a country coming into being, of a national identity forming, seeps through.  It’s all left hanging, and the swiftly changing situation, and the situation in the trenches, does not help Willie Dunne:

He knew he had no country now. He knew it well. Finally the words of Jesse Kirwan had penetrated deep into the sap of his brain and he understood them. All sorts of Irelands were no more, and he didn’t know what Ireland there was behind him now.

A long long way is a remarkable novel, both in its vivid portrayal of what ordinary soldiers went through in the Great War, and in its capturing the uncertainties of one individual – a good man – caught up in and living in a time – a moment even – of great social change.  Sadly, tragically, Willie didn’t survive to see what happened next; you weep for him, for the bad timing of his end.  That this novel can go back to then, its pages (it would appear) untainted by authorial intervention of what we know of what follows (and is ongoing) in Ireland, is a striking achievement.  Sebastian Barry is a great writer and a fine chronicler of the human condition.

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The problem with a book like Kent Haruf‘s Our souls at night (Picador, 2015) is that, once you’re familiar with Alice Munro‘s short stories, you can’t help wondering what she might have done with this material, and in considerably fewer pages.  Not that Our souls at night, August’s Book Group book, is that long (192 generously spaced pages) or without its merits.

You’re being too hard on yourself again, Addie said. Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all. It’s always two people bumping into each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings. Except I still say that this isn’t true of you and me. Not right now. Not today.

A lot of Our souls at night is dialogue, and to its credit, it dispenses, as above, with speech marks.  The language is deadpan – Hemingwayesque without much physical happening – and, well, as some in the group said, flat, but with the dialogue contained, it does have a flow to it, and in the end that develops one’s passion – especially an intense dislike for one selfish young man in particular.  But I jump ahead.

One day in a small town in Colorado, Addie, a 69-year-old widower, turns up at the door of widower Louis, a contemporary and near neighbour she only vaguely knows, and invites him to sleep with her.  Just to share her bed and talk; she’s lonely and she guesses he is too.  He thinks about it and it comes to pass.  They tell one another of their lives, failings and disappointments.  Her son comes along and dumps Jamie, her traumatised grandson on her while he tries to sort out his marriage, and she and Louis slowly draw the child out of himself with the help of a dog.  Son returns and reacts far worse to their arrangement than the community at large (“We’re old news“), plus he’s scared he might lose his inheritance.  That’s not the end of the relationship but it has to change.  Bitter sweet indeed, and it lingers.

It’s all nicely done.  I wasn’t alone in thinking that they seemed older than their stated ages (my age, as it happens), something also I’ve found elsewhere in my reading.  The question of sex does arise, but Haruf doesn’t linger and his handling of it is defly anti-climactic: “After Jamie had left they tried to do what the town thought they’d been doing but hadn’t.” 

The more I think about it, the less I regret (a first impression) having spent the time – it’s an easy read and oh! how one can celebrate short Book Group books! – with Our souls at night. 

All change

It was over 4 weeks ago now, but All change … Stories & Songs of Milton Keynes, the MK50 (Milton Keynes’s 50th anniversary) concert collaboration of the Milton Keynes Community Choir with the Living Archive Band cannot go unmentioned as the stirring event it was.

Both halves of the evening – there was a multitude of cake provided by local Stroke Association volunteers in between, profits going to the charity – followed the same pattern:  The choir opened with three varied and rousing songs (my favourite being God only knows, even though I’m an atheist), then gave the stage to the Living Archive Band for four songs from their extensive repertoire. The choir then performed a couple of interesting excerpts from a new specially commissioned MK50 composition (music by Choir Musical Director Craig McLeish, words from Yaw Asiyama) which is sounding promising indeed.  The choir and band then joined forces for a couple more of the band’s songs – some amazing goose-pimpling moments ensuing.  The evening finished illogically – because they could, said Craig – with them all performing a moving arrangement of Phil Colclough’s beautiful Song for Ireland.  A special night.

The Living Archive is one of the really good things about Milton Keynes.  Easier to let them describe what they do (from the website at http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/):

Living Archive collects, preserves and shares the history and heritage of Milton Keynes. Conceived as an antidote to the assertion that ‘new towns have no history’, and nurtured by the belief that ‘everybody has a story to tell’, it has recorded, archived and celebrated the unique history of residents’ lives and sense of place.

This has meant collecting those stories – through oral history and documentation – of the people who were living in the area before the creation of Milton Keynes, including vivid memories from serving soldiers and those at home from both World Wars, and the development of Wolverton as a railway town.  From this work the shifting membership that is the Living Archive Band have crafted shows full of songs crafted from these memories.

One of these songs has been a not unwelcome ear-worm since the concert.  The night the Stones rolled into town, written by Kevin Adams and Neil Mercer, commemorates a legendary evening in March, 1964, at Wilton Hall in Bletchley (when there was talk of ‘a bigger, brighter Bletchley’ in the days before Milton Keynes).  Here’s the chorus:

And we were living for the future
Glad to be alive
Oh, then one day you wake and find
The future has arrived.

There’s a tinge of sadness in the delivery, with the sensible advantage of the musicians only making a very fleeting nod to the Stones.  You can hear this for yourself at http://livingarchiveband.bandcamp.com/track/the-night-the-stones-rolled-into-town or even buy it for a quid if it takes hold.

An English vineyard

A pleasantly relaxed early Saturday afternoon a couple of week ago with the MK Humanists.  A short entertaining intro, then wandering through some of the 1800 vines, a buffet meal … oh, and sampling the ‘Earls Baron’ produce.  Which was surprisingly good.  Majority favourite was Saxon, the blend (I bought some).

Earls Baron is also the name of the nearby Northamptonshire village where the vineyard is situated.  “Set on a picturesque, southwest facing gentle slope overlooking the Nene Valley”, it says here, “Its location is very near to one of the oldest recorded vineyards of Roman times.”  Which is quite a thought, is it not?

You can find more details, including grape varieties (I think the above is Pinot Noir) at http://www.newlodgevineyard.co.uk/New_Lodge_Vineyard/Home.html .  At the moment they’re updating the website and the history page is missing, so I’ll just quote from the handout.  The vineyard was first established in 2000 on horse paddocks, which apparently is very good for this sort of thing:

Octogenarian owner Joyce Boulos-Hanna and vineyard manager daughter Gabby tend each and every vine personally by hand, all year round, with love and passion.

They are easygoing evangelists for English wine, and great fun with it.  “We’re not going to try and sell you the wine, but if you want to buy some, we’re happy to help you do so.”

 

At least the sea was calm on the day trip over to St Mary’s on the Isles of Scilly.  Drizzle, shall-we-shan’t-we open the umbrella?

Entertaining minibus tour of the island with commentary, our native guide’s scorn for the Brexit vote given full if free of expletives vent.  Pointed out as he drove around what EU development funds had meant for the island, and Cornwall, yet The Isles of Scilly the only voting district in the county opting for Remain.  Other highlights:

  • pointed out Harold Wilson’s modest bungalow, the man still highly regarded in these parts; his wife Mary still lives there, an active centurion
  • the desolation of the islands in winter, when there’s no ferry
  • speaking of which, the local RNLI lifeboat’s engines are more powerful than that of the ferry, the Scillonian III
  • the famed Tresco Abbey Gardens are being overrun by cruise ship tourism
  • which is ironic given there were no native flowers on the islands until those brought in by mariners of old alien species, then.  Speaking of which:

Caught the obligatory crab sandwich in The Mermaid, the nearest pub to the port, rather than the tarted up establishments further in; decent little local, music jam night and all.

Barbara Hepworth

Back on the mainland, ‘A beautiful oasis of calm’ was how the tourist brochure describes the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, and so it was, as the rainwater dripped down from the leaves on the trees in the drizzle.  Not expansive grounds, but the winding paths around the large structures and the gradient compensated – around each corner new combinations.  It must be glorious under a blue sky, but the wet added a dimension to the sculptures, I’m sure.  I’m not her biggest fan (at least for the works themselves) but in better weather I would have gone round at least one more time.  Here’s what I think I’ll call ‘the shot’ – I wasn’t the only one going for it – and a more general view:

Interesting to look in on the studio from the garden – Hepworth died in a fire in the house, but the studio has been left pretty much untouched – and a neat telling of her story in cabinets and on wall mounted boards downstairs.  You’ve got to love those old newspaper clippings, here one from 1950 (in the Ham & High?) about an early joint exhibition with her first husband (and folksinging partner).  Click on the photo to enlarge:

 

Last thoughts …

… only 6 weeks after all this occurred.  This pub sign was the only sun we saw for four whole days.  But there at St Mawes the water was so clear that when we watched a cormorant moving in the water we could see its whole body – a fine sight.  So now know not to confuse those weird-looking heads seen from afar with some odd kind of duck.

I have an urge to use this photo, of a bridge over the track of the St Ives branch line, and can’t help but admire the  local Methodists reaching out to surfer dudes for trying:

And finally … banging a drum in a downpour in Truro (where the cathedral is only not long over a century old though you wouldn’t know it) the day before we went home, and the inevitable weather on the morning of our departure:

The drummer aka An Tabourer – Tim Shaw

Outset of our journey home

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wheal Dream

Street sign in Helston

Last week in June, two days of can’t grumble, two drizzling days of miserable, two days of mostly pissing down.  Everyone saying how awful the previous week’s heatwave had been.  And I believe them.  Got seagulled in St Ives.  Pastie and sea bream in batter safely ingested, but despite the warnings with each purchase, carelessly pointing mid-consumption with cream tea flavoured ice cream in hand … whoosh, serviette and all, taken from behind.

To the museums! 

St Ives Museum a fascinating old-fashioned warren, a vaguely themed jumble of stuff, maritime, domestic, occupational.  Strictly no photos, I’m afraid, but amid the posters, portraits, ceramics, bad paintings, models, tools, flags, and myriad artefacts of the local populace:

  • a pair of boots modelled from bread and paper by an Italian POW at St Erith camp
  • a collection of ancient typewriters
  • dolls sculpted by fishermen from broken oars
  • a naval lieutenant’s cocked hat and its metal carrying case
  • a collection of policemen’s helmets and handcuffs
  • an Acme British ribbed glass washboard, perfect for skiffle
  • a steam operated printing press that unfortunately hasn’t steamed for many a year
  • a lamp hanging from the ceiling salvaged from the French crabber George le Bail, that was “accidentally run down and sunk at anchor in St Ives Bay” 11 March 1953
  • a display and video about the John Knill Ceremony Bequest of 1767: every 5 years, involving the mayor, vicar and customs officer in procession on St James Day with 10 girls aged under 10 dressed in white to dance  around his unfilled pyramid tomb to a fiddler’s accompaniment (fiddler’s fee originally £1, these days £25).  Plus the singing of the Old Hundredth psalm (“All people that on earth do dwell”) and a charitable handout to the needy.  A splendid old English custom still observed.  More at: http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/john-knill-ceremony/
  • an original poster of George III’s time asking for volunteers to become “Royal tars of Old England”

The Helston Folk Museum was more of the same, if a bit more focussed, but with a charm of its own.  It has the advantage of being sited on an incline, so it’s a slow walk up the long market-style aisle to an open area full of bigger agricultural stuff and a mezzanine of old shop fronts, and then back down again on the other side, with cases full of more stuff down the centre.  Among the joys:

  • documentation and photos of Helston’s first car
  • a collection showing the changing shape of police batons
  • bone miniature binoculars: “A souvenir of Margate”
  • a miniature dice with case “made from the tooth of a lion”

Helston was free entry but people would have happily paid an entrance fee; St Ives was £3 but well worth it for a refreshing anything is valid clutter.  Both were refreshingly free of IT flash and any obvious need to educate.  Chastening to see the stuff of one’s youth and later displayed in a museum.

A surprise, then to find The Art of Kuriology exhibition – now ended – in the art gallery space at the back of the Helston Museum.  As the rubric says, curiosities indeed – a roomful of them slightly adrift in time and space from the Folk Museum it was showing in.  Click on the illustrations to enlarge them.  And the centre piece, scenes from a science fiction disaster movie … or an imaginary future … a wheel bad dream?

Click on the image for explanation

Cornish palettes

Spent the last week of June in Cornwall, staying in St Ives.  Another time for the weather, which will only be mentioned briefly in passing.  Because …

We bathed in the glories of Tate St Ives and their The studio and the sea season.  That continuous thing: artists and the ceramics studio in Galleries 1 to 3 held our interest well enough – how not with Bernard Leach and pals and the sometimes dubious wonders of The clay revolution?  That latter subtitled California, 1950-80s, with evidence that mind-altering drugs might well – surprise! – have been a factor; that and the contemporary notion of ‘abstract expressionist ceramics’ being in play.  The Studio hand-builders: Britain 1960s-90s room also included ceramics from as early as 200 BC for interesting context.

But what really got me were the Jessica Worboys sea paintings that filled the impressive ocean facing gallery from floor to ceiling (click on the pics to enlarge the view):

Photo scanned from the Tate St Ives postcard because of the no photography rule.

Though you can get a taste from this allowed photo of the atrium.

Here’s how they were made (quoting from the guide):

Worboys works directly on the shore, throwing paint pigment onto a damp folded canvas, and then allowing the waves, wind and sand to shift, scatter and drag the pigment.

Photo borrowed from the website, to give an idea of the scale: : http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-st-ives/exhibition/studio-and-sea

Some had been done nearby.  There was an electronic soundscape gently playing all the while.  I must have sat, shuffling along, for at least 20 minutes, and could have stayed longer.  To be honest, her other stuff didn’t do much for me, and I still struggle with video installations, but those absorbing canvases will stay with me a long time.

Slight tangent.  As it happened a touch of the déjà vus the next day when we visited the suspiciously named Paradise Park, near Hayle:  “In the 1970s Mike Reynolds aimed to create a paradise for birds in a setting of exotic gardens” it say here.  UK home of the World Parrot Trust, with active rare species breeding and conservation schemes, it’s well worth a look.  We had umbrellas up all the time we were there (even the otters were hiding from the rain) but the spectacular plumage of the birds was not dimmed.  And the bird I swooned at most was the Dusky Lory (unfortunately not my photo), featuring as it does the very pigments and hues of what had been my favourite of Jessica Worboys‘s sea canvases (the one above that bloke’s head in the small pic above.

But back to Tate St Ives.  Climbing the spiral staircase to the galleries was an experience in itself – deserving better photos – thanks to France Lise McGurn‘s intriguing mural Collapsing new people.  Not forgetting to look up!

Collapsing new people – detail

She says about the stairwell (quoted on the rubric on the wall):

“It is as though there could have been a party here.” However, while all her characters cavort and intermingle, each fragment of her painting references a different story of myth, from various histories and tales.

(Again, to enlarge an image, just click on it)

Surf board paint boxes

Mousehole

Mousehole again (I think)

Greens and a subtly hued hull

Possibly the seagull that got my ice cream

Something there is about it; ‘found’ abstract expressionism

 

 

 

The Lizard in drizzle

Wet weather can bring out colours, though.  And feeling the need to end with a palate pun: ’twas on the walk down to here we munched on Annie’ famous Cornish Pasties.

 

 

 

 

Taut as a man

Sebastian Barry‘s Days without end (Faber, 2016) is one powerful piece of writing, the best book I’ve read in ages.  And in a while to come too, I’ll wager.  The sustained rhythm of the prose – the language of the first person narrative lyrical, vivid, visceral, engrossing – is an accomplishment of wonder.  There aren’t many long words, but paragraphs cover pages because they have to, to do justice to the vision, to all of what our man saw and felt.  It just flows, carries you along.  He’s telling us his story a long time after the events, but it’s like we are there.

The paperback blurb gives a reasonable brief outline of the action:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Then, when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

But there is so much more going on.  Narrator McNulty and Cole are more than brothers-in-arms but the achievement of Days without end is that no big deal is made of this and what follows; there are no physical details, you just feel the love.  They met and teamed up as 13 year olds, when things are not going well for either of them.  They join the army because as they grow they can no longer pass as paid female dancing partners – in full garb, but no funny business – in a frontier dance hall.  Thomas doesn’t mind being in the dresses and this theme develops as the years and events pass.  Extraordinary to have just read this as Donald Trump tweets away about trans people having no place in the US armed forces.  In what follows, Winona is the young Indian girl of the blurb, who has witnessed terrible events herself, and Thomas is at this point disguised in women’s clothes:

Winona loosening too, and laughing now. She just a girl and should be laughing regular. She should be playing maybe if she ain’t too old. Certainly acts the lady and knows how. We like mother and child right enough and that’s how it plays.  I give thanks for that. Maybe in my deepest soul I believe my own fakery. I suppose I do. I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man, though I were a fighting man most of my days. Got to be thinking them Indians in dresses shown my path. […] I am easy as a woman, taut as a man. All my limbs is broke as a man, and fixed good as a woman. I lie down with the soul of a woman and wake up with the same. I don’t forsee no time where this ain’t true no more. Maybe I was born a man and growing into a woman. Maybe that boy that John Cole met was but a girl already. He weren’t no girl hisself for sure. This could be mountainous evil. I ain’t read the Book on that. Maybe no hand has ever wrote its truth.

And that’s as much of a questioning as occurs.  It’s beautifully done.  I hope you won’t see this as a spoiler; I’ll bet if you start reading Days without end you’ll have forgotten you read that earlier here pretty soon; until it hits again.

Meanwhile, there’s no shying away from the horrors of the soldiering.  There are brutal and savage passages relating his involvement.  And we get to experience the camaraderie, the hard drudge and boredom of military life.  The betrayal of the Indian Nations is laid bare in specific events, not evangelised.  But, you know, life can be beautiful.  The evocation of nature’s wonders and the passing of the seasons is never far away in the relation of events.  Normally in these reviews on Lillabullero I will pick out some quotes to give a flavour but with Days without end it’s so hard to know where to start from and where to end.  It is such an enervating – exciting, absorbing, relaxed in turn – total ride.  Here, from the final devastating confrontation with a proud Sioux chief:

Sometimes you know you ain’t a clever man. But likewise sometimes the fog of usual thoughts clears of in a sudden breeze of sense and you see things clear a moment like a clearing country. We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain’t. They say we be Christians and suchlike but we ain’t. They say we are creatures raised by God above the animals but any man that has lived knows that’s damn lies. We are going forth that day to call Caught-His-Horse-First a murderer in silent judgement. But it was us killed his wife and his child.

This is a novel about the making of the USA, a literary spaghetti western – the later Sergio Leones – told in a vernacular by a Huck Finn who came over the Atlantic as a boy from Ireland.  And, though not obvious from what I’ve said here, there is, rest assured, a measure wit and humour in Thomas’s telling too.  I hear echoes of Mark Twain’s judgments on his land too.

When that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t it the way of the world. No such item as a virtuous people. Winona the only soul not thrown on the bonfire.

Almost at random, if you want the experience:

Big train blowing steam and smoke at the depot. It’s like a creature. Something in perpetual explosion. Huge long muscle body on her and four big men punching coal into her boiler. It’s a sight. Going to be dragging four carriages east and they say they’ll go good. The light pall of snow hisses on the boiler sheets.

Days without end is a profound and consistently brilliant piece of writing.  I love this book.  It will stay with me for a long time; I feel a Sebastian Barry binge coming on.

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

And now for something completely different …

July’s Book Group book was a Marmite book.  Some hated it, others thought it had its moments and weren’t sorry to have read it.  I liked it well enough.  Meg Wolitzer‘s The wife (2003) is narrated by the wife of one of the (fictional) big beasts of post-war American literature.  On the plane  on their way to the presentation ceremony for the fictional Helsinki (one down from the Nobel) Prize for Literature (“this award for a long hard labour on the fiction chain gang …”) she decides she is going to leave him.  What follows is a skillful telling of their marriage, family and careers going back and forth between the past and present, from their first meeting in 1956 – Joan a talented student, Joe the tutor on a creative writing course – to the acclamation his pretty much career full stop.  This is the beginning of a new phase, Joan,” he tells her.  Yes, the insufferable phase,” is her response.

 

Now, even the Book Group people who didn’t like The wife could see the big twist coming from a mile off, so it’s not really a spoiler to reveal about Joe that:

All he had was the look. The attitude, the reverence and the desire to be a great writer, but that was meaningless without what he called “the goods”

and that, presented with the proud draft of his first novel – effectively about his divorce and their coming together – Joan is dismayed to discover how lifeless it is and edits it so heavily as to effectively have written it herself.  Being the ’50s, and having been told that being a woman novelist was a loser’s game by a bitter woman novelist, she is happy for the illusion of his authorship to be maintained and continued.  This is not actually revealed till quite late on, which I suppose you could say is cheating.  Anyway, the story behind that first novel, The Walnut, or rather the story of the actual walnuts, is an amusing little diversion in itself, while what happens to their two daughters and the problem son – the children of a celebrated writer – give the tale more depth.

So The wife is an insightful, sour and witty look at the American literary life in the ’50s and early ’60s, the rivalries, infidelities and jealousies as the men joust and put themselves about. “Wives are the sad sacks of any writers’ conference,” she opines at one point.  Given she was born in 1959 one wonders how much of it Meg Wolitzer got from her novelist mother.  Joe and Joan’s early struggles in a New York garret, taking fun in late fifties Greenwich Village is nicely done too.  With the social changes of the late ’60s and the emergence of women writers as serious players you could say that The wife is the starting point for a literary equivalent of Mad Men.

How about this, one of the reasons he’s up for the Helsinki, for Joan’s disaffection?   And probably at least a sad half-truth:

In America it had been a year of literary deaths, one after the other, men whom Joe had known since the fifties, when they used to gather sometimes for socialist meetings. A decade later they gathered at marathon, all night readings whose purpose was to protest the war in Vietnam, and suck all the energy out of the audience.

For what it’s worth, the very first original hardback book I ever bought was Norman Mailer‘s groundbreaking account of the march on the Pentagon, Armies of the night (1968).  I’m long over him now, but still, Ouch!  He gets it in the neck again later too, the only one of those big beasts to actually get a real life namecheck.

Thirty years on since the first of Peter Robinson‘s Yorkshire Dales-based crime novels featuring detective Alan Banks first appeared in print, Sleeping in the ground (Hodder & S, 2017), is the 24th in the sequence.  I think it’s something of a return to form that also holds the promise of refreshing the slightly tired platform for what is to come next.

Sleeping in the ground opens strongly with a funeral and a mass shooting at a wedding happening 150 miles apart.  Banks is back in Peterborough, where he grew up, at the funeral – an event that affects him deeply – of his first love, Emily Hargreaves, who’d dumped him – something he still doesn’t understand – back in 1973.  He returns north to the Yorkshire Dales to be handed the investigation into the massacre of the bride and groom and 4 others at a locally high-profile wedding, which appears to be cleared up with the apparent suicide a retired dentist and  shooting enthusiast.  Except he doesn’t fit the profile and there’s no motive:

After the team meeting, he was more convinced than ever that there was something fishy about the whole St Mary’s business. […] True, profiles aren’t always accurate, and Jenny had quite reasonably complained that she didn’t have enough to go on, but the comparison between what they knew of spree killers or mass murderers and what they had been able to discover about Martin Edgeworth’s character, life and actions just didn’t match up. Then there were the forensic and pathology details. It might be a long haul ahead, but there had to be a way of getting to the bottom of it.

And that’s what the police procedural aspect of Sleeping in the ground then proceeds to do, with Banks and various members of his team relentlessly talking to people, interviewing others, following a hunch picked up from reading a survivor of the shooting’s body language, and then sitting at the computer, digging in the records and local newspapers, and involving, naturally, the full pathologist and forensics CSI armoury.  This all rolls along nicely – with the slight early hiatus of the discussion on psychological profiling descending into a bit of a textbook recitation – to a thrilling and nail-biting climax in the raging waters of a flood, the outcome of which is by no means narratively certain, because – there’s no guarantee the copper involved will reappear in the next book (and I really hoped so).  The details and mechanics of the full crime are ingenious – or you could say, incredibly convoluted – but entirely acceptable to this reader at least in the overall context of the story.

The solution, the motivation for the massacre, goes back to another painful sequence of events in 1964.  So both Banks’s ruminative and nostalgic state of mind, and the origins of the crime, revolve around ghosts of the past.  Banks also considers, in passing, old cases he was involved with, and his failed marriage, and he finally gets to learn what went wrong with Emily.  The soap opera aspects of the Banks saga carry this looking back theme further with the return of two attractive characters from past books.

The profiler involved is one Jenny Fuller, last seen at about book 12, the woman Banks came nearest to committing adultery with when he was married.  She’s moved back in the area, and there’s no rush, they’re leaving things open as a possibility.  The other old face – not as previously prominent – is Annie Cabbot’s dad.  (For those unfamiliar with the books, Annie is an interesting longstanding member of Banks’ team, briefly his lover, who, frankly, Peter Robinson has lately wasted, through lack of focus).  Annie’s dad, Ray, has left the artists’ commune in Cornwall where Annie was raised – still sprightly enough, he’s feeling a bit old for all this modern concept stuff – and is looking to buy somewhere in the Dales to be near Annie; he makes a wonderful foil for Banks in his dotage.  There’s a joke about Annie warning Banks that Ray was listening to Dylan when he, Banks, was still in short trousers; to which Banks protests he was too listening to Dylan in short trousers.

So I hope that those two reappear strongly in future books, and that Gerry (Geraldine) Masterson, fast-track graduate who was impressive in the previous book and is a star in Sleeping in the ground, continues to have a prominent role.  The sparring of Annie Cabbot with Gerry and Jenny is an entertaining sideshow that also shows promise.  We also get a rare glimpse of the man back when:

It was a photograph. Banks held it by the candlelight. He and Emily in the early seventies. He was wearing a denim jacket over a T-shirt, and bell bottoms, and his hair was much longer than it was now.

For those who know the books, rest assured Peter Robinson continues to spray musical references and citations all over the place (I counted at least 35 – think it’s all getting a bit ridiculous and obscure, actually), along with a load of other cultural nods and winks.  As well as sharing musical tastes one playfully wonders sometimes just how much of Peter Robinson goes into his alter ego.  Like … here’s young Geraldine, unattached and not particularly looking, but:

When she let herself think about it, which wasn’t often, she realised that she wouldn’t mind at all going out with someone like Banks, if he wasn’t her boss, that is, that age wouldn’t really be an issue. He seemed healthy and young enough in body and spirit, was handsome in that lean and intense sort of way, and she certainly got the impression that he was interested in a wide range of subjects, so conversation wouldn’t be a problem. He also had a sense of humour, which she had been told by her mother was esential to a happy marriage. Not that she was having fantasies about marrying Banks, or even going out with him. Just that the whole idea didn’t seem so outrageous.

Anyway, the soundtrack for Sleeping in the ground (the title itself a song title, but later for that) touchingly starts and ends with David Bowie, with Starman from Ziggy Stardust played at the funeral, and Blackstar in the car near the end.  To which Geraldine says:

My dad likes David Bowie. I never really had much time for music.”
“You should make some,” Banks said. “It helps keep you sane and human in a crazy world, especially after a night like tonight.”

To which, Amen.  Banks is still reading poetry too, in particular, even before the funeral, Thomas Hardy‘s Poems 1912-1913, concerning the magic of first love; his novels get a couple of mentions too.  (Fuller details of the music and all this – not forgetting the alcohol modestly consumed – and more specific thoughts on the novel, can be found elsewhere here on Lillabullero at https://quavid.wordpress.com/about/peter-robinsons-inspector-banks-mysteries/, where it and others in the sequence are considered more systematically).

And so to the title.  It’s an obscure Blind Faith song, credited to Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood, and performed at that Hyde Park concert, though the song was never released until it appeared on the Clapton Crossroads box set.  It’s a mean-spirited, unredemptive and highly derivative – I might go so far as to say ‘nasty little’ – blues, that doesn’t constitute, be assured, anything like a plot-spoiler.  The Hyde Park rendition is also available on Youtube, but here’s some better keyboards:

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