Tudor Groundhog Days

tmmkgWhat is time?  How do we order the past, the present, and the future.  Why are artists interested in time?  How is art a machine, vehicle, or device for exploring time?  How is art a means by which time ‘travels’, and how does art permit us to travel in time?

This is the way in to MK Gallery‘s latest show, How to construct a time machine, from the press release of which that opening quote is taken.  You enter under Ruth Ewan‘s We could have been anything that we wanted to be (2011).  Yup, only ten hours.  It harks back (nostalgically?) to the revolutionary Republican calendar of 1793 in France.  The exhibition is a fruitful and entertaining way to spend some time, and we will return to it later in this post.  Meanwhile, let us consider the book as a time machine – two books, actually – and visit a period when England was actively trying to decide what it wanted to be more than usual.

LamentationLamentation (Mantle, 2014) is the sixth in C.J.Sansom‘s distinguished sequence of weighty historical crime novels featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, set in the reign of Henry VIII.  Innocent traitor (2006) was popular historian Alison Weir‘s first novel after nearly two decade’s worth of non-fiction mostly touching on the same era.  The lead protagonists of both novels witness the burning at the stake of the heretic Anne Askew at Smithfield in 1546; Henry’s 6th wife – Katherine Parr – features strongly in each book as a good woman; and his prolonged miserable death is a very big deal in both – well it would be, you’d suppose.

That I read them one after another was pure coincidence; I’ve followed Sheldrake’s fortunes from the start in 2003’s Dissolution, while Innocent traitor was the latest Book Group book.  Add the spellbinding adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on the telly and a surfeit of Tudors could threaten, were the latter not so beautifully done; Thomas Cromwell – not one of Shardlake’s favourite people when alive – is long gone by the time the novels begin.  And what a time: when failure to believe in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine taken at Catholic Mass actually become the blood and body of Christ – could be fatal; when even sacramentarianism, the sop of metaphor, just wasn’t good enough.

Innocent traitorWhile its narrative is driven by events at – and it spends a fair amount of time in –  royal residences and the corridors of power, Lamentation also shows us Tudor London in its vivid entirety.  Along with the sights, sounds and smells of its mean streets and the river you get to see an interesting selection of London’s other ranks.  The drama of Innocent traitor, on the other hand, is almost exclusively played out in the opulent royal courts and in the mansions of the high and mighty.  Similarly, while the issue in Innocent traitor is seen simply as being between Catholic and Protestant, in Lamentation we get to meet some real radicals, those handy folk devils – socialist Levellers precursors no less – the Anabaptists.

Lamentation is an astute, gripping, sometimes violent, layers-of-the-onion conspiracy thriller, an examination of the nitty-gritty of realpolitik at close quarters, delivered with a beating heart and a finely tuned moral core.  A sub-plot involves a hopeless legal case Sheldrake has been engaged in, which functions as both light relief and to underscore what is going on in the wider world.  There is an easy continuity of Shardlake’s likeable social circle with previous volumes; you care about him and his friends.  He gets involved again against his better judgment, basically because he fancies the Queen; not that anything’s ever gonna happen but, you know, she’s got a nice smile.  What I found particularly interesting this time around is his growing disillusion with it all, his radicalisation.  Here’s the evidence.  Postmodernist intrusion? – maybe, but not beyond the realms after what he’s seen:

  • I no longer had sympathies with either side in the religious quarrel, and sometimes doubted God’s very existence … (p6)
  • Nicholas shook his head firmly.  “Now the war is over, prosperity will surely return.  And the security of everyone depends on people staying within the ranks to which they were born.  Otherwise we should have the anarchy of the Anabaptists.”
    That bogey again.  I said, “I confess the more I see of mankind, the more I think we are all of one common clay.” (p160)
  • “I thought the proceeds from the monasteries would be used to bring justice to the poor; that the King, as Head of the Church, would have a regard to what the old church did not.  Yet all that money went on extending Whitehall and other palaces, or was thrown away on the war.  No wonder some folks have gone down more radical paths.” (p225)
  • I looked over all these rich men and women and thought of Timothy, somewhere alone out on the streets.  The notion came to me that perhaps the Anabaptists had something after all: a world where the gulf between the few rich and the many poor did not exist, a world where preening peacocks like Thomas Seymour and Serjeant Blower wore wadmol and cheap leather might not be so bad a place after all. (p561)

Right on, brother Shardlake!  Who it is almost time to leave, save to ponder what it can mean as the hunchback lawyer says, when mightily surprised, “I sat bolt upright” – a miracle? – and wonder how he’s going to fare in the months and years to come after Henry’s death, which is the crisis at the heart of Alison Weir‘s book.  Something to look forward to.  I note that Sansom has already cleverly set his man up with a young mate who is to achieve a prominent position when Elisabeth is on the throne, but there’s a lot of muddy water to wade through before that happens.

Innocent traitorThe innocent traitor of Innocent traitor is Lady Jane Grey: at age 16, the 9-day queen, holder of the record for the shortest reign of any English monarch.  The girl was cruelly used as a pawn by her parents and various others at court in order both to secure a Protestant succession to the throne and as a blatant exercise in self-aggrandisement.  She ended up – spoiler alert – quite unjustly, because of the specific utter stupidity of her very own father, losing her head, as happened quite often in those times.  I knew nothing of her story before reading this, but I do now, and for this sympathetic retelling I am grateful.

I wasn’t quite as annoyed by certain aspects of Innocent traitor as some in my Book Group.  Because of time constraints (I was reading Lamentation) I skim-read a lot of it and so missed the others’ detailed objections to the prose, the unlikely adverbial and adjectival elaborations, that particularly got up people’s noses.  The tale is told in first person mode by a number of participants including Jane herself, her Lady Macbeth of a mother (the book opens with her giving birth to Jane), her loyal loving serving woman Mrs Ellen, Queen Katherine Parr, Queen Mary to be, and a couple of others, with the final words coming from The Executioner (which was rather a nice touch, I thought).  The trouble is, they all sound the same, with practically no variation in voice at all, even from Mrs Ellen, the closest to a pleb we get in these pages.  As first person narratives they work better as third person voiceovers for a tv documentary.  The one that really made us laugh in bemusement was Jane’s, “Today I am four year’s old,” followed by some elaborate scene-setting with no concessions to toddler talk, which might have been interesting.  And her mum telling us, early on, “After two disastrous marriages, and a cataclysmic quarrel with the Pope, my uncle, King Henry VIII, at last has a son and heir” is no isolated example.

I was moved by Jane’s plight, I’ll admit, but I didn’t cry, so according to the quote on the cover of the paperback edition, I “must have a heart of stone“.  “What young girl would not giver her all to be Queen of England?” Tom Seymour (for it is he) asks rhetorically.  Alas, not poor bullied Jane, the kind of gal who scorns all the young nobles out a-hunting: “Their sport is but a shadow to the pleasure I find in Plato.  Poor souls, it seems to me they do not know what pleasure means,” she tells her tutor.  Maybe, but she didn’t have a chance to have much fun.

Back to the Time Machine …

Time machineThere is much to engage with in How to construct a time machine – Mark Wallinger’s highly reflective aluminium TARDIS which “disappears into the space-time continuum by reflecting its own surroundings” and the butterflies ‘flying’ in the zoetrope, to mention but two – but the thing that really absorbed me, and I shall probably go back and watch it all the way through, just because, was Thomson & Craighead‘s The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order (2010), a re-editing of the classic 1960 film of the H.G.Wells novel featuring Rod Taylor as the time traveller; that’s right, only the one with the actual time machine prop the lads successfully bid for on eBay in an episode in the first series of The Big Bang Theory .  Each word of dialogue, and the spaces in between after the last words of a sequence (I appreciated the rest), appear in alphabetical order.  Never mind the artspeak justification, it works because you vaguely know the story, but it also works … beyond narrative.  I guffawed loudly a number of times in the 15 minutes I was in there in two sessions (it runs for 1 hour, 36 minutes) and hung around for specific words: ‘love’, for one – just the once, as it happens.  You probably have to experience it to understand why I’m so enthusiastic, but for the high frequency words like ‘time’, ‘machine’ or ‘future’ the rapid fire succession of speakers and backgrounds is a joy to behold.  If I were to meet the perpetrators I would not be able not to ask whether they took at least some inspiration from the notorious Short f***ing version compilation of The Big Lebowski(Go on: you probably want to).

Before I move on I’ll say something about the gallery experience.  Another of the exhibits is a small (non-flat) television showing a performance of John Cage‘s 4’33 – you know, the one where the concert pianist sits at the piano and ‘plays’ silence (in three movements) for precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds.  The telly’s on the floor and on the wall above it there’s a facsimile of the original score sheets (oh, yes – full of rests).  Now you can see the same bit of film right here on your computer or other digital device in much better picture (and sound) quality, but … context … it’s just different, worth being there.

Briefly, some other cultural adventures …

In chronological order:

Scribal Feb 2015

Archivists of the future please note: Glass Tears were nowhere to be seen.

HB Scribal 5What can I say?  It was Scribal‘s fifth birthday and there was cake courtesy of Caz.  The mighty Antipoet were mighty lots of things, among them being rhythm section to the wonderful Dodobones, who were surviving admirably after their self-imposed cover-a-day for a month stint on YouTubeMitchell Taylor showed a sensitive side but still managed to shout/sing “Fascist scum” with some glee at another song’s end; shame because his The blood of St George stands well enough (nay, better) without it.  New Bard Pat Nicholson continues to blossom in the role.  Can’t remember much else about it.

SSSAnother grand night at York House for S.S.Shanty! 3, a benefit for the RNLI. (for non-MK readers the SS stands for Stony Stratford, as well as the traditional nautical nomenclature).  An acapella evening of great variety with, naturally, a maritime theme one way or the other.  We had the many-handed Sloop Groggy Dogg from the shores of Woburn Sands, barber shop from B-Flat, a round the world trip from Oxford’s Manchoir, and the stirring Trim & Doxy up from Liverpool (one of whom played accordion).  The sheer power of The Five Men Not Called Matt (all 6 of ‘em) gets me every time, with, this night, the occasional sweet bonus of aiding and abettment from Michèle Welbourn.  All the beer was drunk.  Unexpected were the low-level murmurings of demurral at the last mentioned (wait for it) when MC Ken kicked off the evening by addressing the assembled multitude, “Ladies, Gentlemen, and UKIP supporters.”

All six of The Five Men Not Called Matt in action.  Photo (c) Alison Holden.

All six of The Five Men Not Called Matt in action. Photo (c) Alison Holden.

esAnd then there was Matthew Bourne‘s splendid production of Edward Scissorhands at the theatre.  Has to be one of the highlights of the year already.  I’ll say it again: I don’t do ballet, but I do do Matthew Bourne.  What’s to add?  All the superlatives.  Even though I’ve never actually seen the Tim Burton movie, I’ll presume you know the story.  It had everything.  Energy, humour, wit, rhythm, romance, compassion, satire, a touch of goth.  Brilliant moves, exhilarating ensemble work, suitably corny stage business and a great set.  Glorious shiny happy ’50s American suburban stereotypes paraded and parodied, and the fears lurking behind.  Dominic North as Edward was magnificent.  Was moved greatly by the dramatic, then poignant, ending.  And we got snowed on.  Biggest genuine standing ovation I’ve ever been a part of.

Wordy? Tons!

Stony Words 2015QI on the telly Friday night and in the general ignorance round there’s mention of a musical instrument I’ve never heard of.  Saturday night (a while back now, Jan 24) I get to see and hear one played.  The theorbo is a bass lute.  Given that people were smaller back then, it’s a bit of a monster.  Along with the viol, Mr Simpson’s Little Consort put it to good use in the delivery of their sacred, profane and bawdy repertoire.

pepys-gifford-1-300x292Ayres and graces

Now in its 11th year, StonyWords! – Stony Stratford’s literary festival – kicked off with Ayres and Graces at York House – John Alexander in full drag reading selections from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, interspersed with music of the Restoration period courtesy of aforesaid four-piece Consort; or music from the period interspersed with readings from … you get the picture.  It was a game of two halves, the first richly populated with the bits Mr Knox, our history master, had taken joy in hinting at back then (the complete unexpurgated edition hadn’t wasn’t published til a decade later) – Pepys as recidivist philanderer and whorer (never again, he says … again), Pepys the chronicler of his bowels and more.  In the moving second half the wig came off and we were living matter of factly through the sights and fears and practicalities of life in the Plague year of 1665 – the parallels with ebola impossible to put to one side, it was that vivid – and witnessing the progress of the Great Fire of London a year later.  A fine evening of edifying entertainment.



The Rainborowes

Back to the 17th century the next Monday to the Library to see Adrian Tinniswood talking with engaging enthusiasm about his latest book,  The Rainborowes: pirates, Puritans and a family’s quest for the Promised Land (Cape , 2013).  Quite a bunch, indeed, crisscrossing the Atlantic (no, really), with a particularly sad tale of one of the much-married women failing to find happiness in the New World.  Standout, however, has to be Thomas –



seaman, English Civil War siege-master and radical – a leading Republican soldier in Cromwell’s New Model Army and a significant contributor to the Putney Debates – the post-victory OK-what-are-we-gonna-do-now discussions forced on the Grandees by the more radically democratic Levellers.  Fascinating stuff.

Interesting discussion at the end as to the respective merits of the hardback and paperback covers, with author and small minority at the meeting holding out for the hardback (that’s King Charles’s head coming off) as opposed to the author’s agent, paperback publisher and the majority favouring the historical genre design in the shops.

Bardic trials 2015The Bardic Trials

A new tradition instituted in this, the fifth of the annual Bardic Trials.  Grey Rod, bedecked in academic gown, ceremonially knocking three times to gain entrance.  Regardless of the rod not actually being grey [but see Comments below], it would appear the position also bears some responsibility as returning officer for the casting and  counting of the popular vote, this year to be done with cheap metal washers as opposed to the traditional post-it note.  Given that Grey Rod was Stephen Hobbs, this rather scuppered the redoubtable Antipoet‘s passionate rendering, in the course of another wondrous set, this time featuring some new material – of their tuneful rousing bit of music hall chantery (composed, tis said, on Christmas day) Stephen Hobbs for Bard.

The Bardic Pencil is passed on.  (Photo credit due if I knew whose it was.)

The Bardic Pencil is passed on. (Photo credit due if I knew whose it was.)

At the end of the day it was Pat “the Hat” Nicholson who won out over storyteller Red Phoenix  by a single metal washer after the initial field of four had been whittled down for the penalty shoot-out.  It was a full house and the crowd was vocal throughout – another grand night.  Let us now hail the new Bard.  His Autobiographical ode to Stony Stratford, recalling his family’s Saturday shopping trips to Stony from Whaddon when he was 6 and lorries hurtled down the A5, for the High Street was still a trunk road back then, was the outstanding competition piece on the night.  He’ll be a worthy Bard, and I hope some of his Bardic duties at least will be accomplished in song with the more familiar guitar in hand; nothing in the rules against it.

Troubadour Reunion

 And so, back to York House on Friday for Ian Entwistle on acoustic guitar accompanied by, and on occasion featuring individually, the voices of 4 natural women (with a touch of recorder now and then), celebrating the singer-songwriters of the early ’70s – James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Young, Cat Stephens to the fore.  Quality performances ensured the sell-out crowd had a great evening that was testament to the emotional power of those great songs on people the first time around, back then.  There were moist eyes in every direction, and I for one had never quite realised what James Taylor meant to women of that generation; it was Neil Young’s Old man that did it for me.

That finished early enough for us to catch a bit of Speakeasy’s From Bard to verse evening down the road in The Bull.  Just in time to catch the new Bard – still sans guitar – strutting his stuff, declaiming from the centre of the floor as if to the manor born.

The Box Ticked at the Crauford

TBT at CraufordSaturday, eschewing StonyWords! for the nevertheless highly literate charms of the “quirkessentially British power pop” that is The Box Ticked in the bar at the Crauford Arms in neighbouring Wolverton.  This was the opening gig of the bands’ winter tour of Milton Keynes.  Two full and very fine sets with some shaping up nicely new stuff.  You can read all about it here, on their very own blog and website.  I suppose a satire warning is warranted before you go there; this, for instance from the blog, about the second gig of the tour:

Having found a place to crash for the night with people we know, the weary but excited Box Ticked made their way from Wolverton over towards Stony Stratford for the mid-way point of their tour of Milton Keynes.

And this from their report of the third gig on the tour:

There was a huge cheer at one point, which I’m happy to accept was a direct response to the chorus of Musical Differences, but may have been something to do with the rugby.

For the uninitiated Musical differences chronicles the supposed, um, musical differences of the two writers in the band, opposing the Carpenters with the Pistols; the point being … and it was the England-Wales Six Nations game.  But back to the slightly cavernous Crauford, where the words of the excellent Plugging away

The room is cold and quiet
And well below capacity

were delivered with a certain ironic edge.  Not that there weren’t people there (there were, but it was cold), just that the cool kids who knew the band were all sitting to the side.  Was a pleasure to be there.  And those very lyrics would ring out with a very different cadence to a packed crowd very soon in the future.

Pride and another Gathering

PrideSunday and Stony Scala Film Club is showing Pride (2014) at The Cock.  Another sell-out crowd.  Great British film about the travails of lesbian and gay group from London who set out to adopt a pit and end up in South Wales, a true story no less.  Roller coaster of emotions as they achieve a certain acceptance from most of the mining village but become an embarrassment to the local NUM, all this as AIDS/HIV is rearing its head.  Lots of great little cameos and nice little touches reflecting the times.  It brought back memories of what was a horrible time for the left in Britain, and my only criticism was its giving full rein to a sentimentality that failed to address the question of Scargill’s disastrous leadership of the miners at all.  (Slightly disturbing to discover Sherlock‘s Moriarty running Gay’s the Word bookshop.)  And so, full of sadness and gladness …

Scribal Fox… over the road and up a bit to the installation of the Scribal Gathering expansion pack in full swing at The Fox & Hounds.  The room is full, the energy high, new faces on the stage and in the audience along with the usual suspects.  A fine short quirkessential set this time from those Box Tickers again.

Literary Quiz 

Last event of StonyWords! 11 was the literary quiz.  I was on the Evil Y-nots team, amerry band of brothers.  Honour saved, we came second last.  But the teasing out of Bladerunner as an answer was worth a high-5, and this may well be the last time in my life it will ever be useful to know that Anne McCaffrey wrote the Dragonsingers of Pern sequence of SF novels.  And apparently ‘Oh, fuck off’ was not one of the houses at Hogwarts.  Innovatory new format this year – each team brings along a set of questions for one round – to overcome the handicap of actually winning (not that …), which used to be you had to set next year’s quiz.  Worked well, set a decent precedent.

Oh, and there was the History Mystery: a charter in time creative chronicling competition.  Procrasturbation meant I didn’t manage to get an entry in in time.  I did have an idea, though.  The thing is, as well as this year’s 800 years of Magna Carta, it was 1215 when King John visited Stony Stratford, and, hearsay has it, giving Stony its own charter granting township status.  Except nobody’s ever seen said piece of parchment.  There’s no documentation.  So the competition was to speculate what might have happened to it.  My idea – and it won’t be the only one, I’m sure – was time traveling mischief.  This is what the judges were spared:

        “Oh bloody hell, Wells.  Not you again.”  Finding himself on the banks of a river, coming round from yet another crack on the head, Herbert George Wells, author of the purportedly fictional book The time machine, was the last person Samuel Clemens wanted to see.  His own book, published under the pseudonym of Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, was another traveller’s tale marketed as fiction to keep the reality of time travel secret.  “We must stop meeting like this.”
“Twain, you old bastard,” responded the pompous little philanderer, whose friends may have called him HG [must look that up],  “Happened again, has it?  You really ought to wear something to protect that soft head of yours.”
Anyway, at some stage along comes King John, who autographs the Charter, and one way or another – maybe the two authors end up fighting over the Charter for some reason, ripping it asunder, the pieces falling into the river; or one of them, suddenly excited by inspiration, the prospect of another masterpiece, uses the back of it to take notes on; or, indeed, for some other less savoury use (do I have to spell it out?)

Charter or no, the Stony of StonyWords! 11 – and I haven’t covered it all at all – was a good place to be.

Shadows in the nightBob Dylan

While all this was going on Mr Dylan released a new platter for our entertainment and enjoyment.  In case you haven’t heard, it’s an unlikely 10-song strong collection of popular songs from the Great American Songbook which have been previously recorded by Frank Sinatra.  It only takes up, no – fills, 40 minutes a go – good old vinyl LP length – of your time.  Amazingly enough, it works.  Singing sweetly (or as sweetly as, you know, but still sweetly), accompanied by his sparingly augmented touring band, slow-paced, with the pedal steel player in a crucial role, it’s rather wonderful.  You’ll never hear the songs quite the same again.  Yearning, regret, acceptance they’re all in there in abundance.  The man owns Some enchanted evening, (“Fools give you reasons / Wise men never try“) and That lucky old sun, the closer, just rolls around heaven all day.  It’s lovely.

Tabula rasaThe further I read in Tabula Rosa: a crime novel of the Roman Empire (Bloomsbury, 2014) the more ‘Forget it Jacobus, it’s Chinatown’ it got.  “I don’t know who to trust,” says Ruso.  He’s on a gruelling, desperate solo mission – the consequences for all will be bad enough if he succeeds, never mind failure.  ““No? The medic grinned. “Welcome to the border, soldier.”

Tabula Rasa is the sixth in Ruth Downie‘s sequence of historical crime novels.  If the swagger and joie de vivre that were such a feature of earlier volumes is less in evidence it’s no wonder.  The dedication spells it out: “To those who wait, not knowing whether news will ever come. With respect.”  Ruso and Tilla – Roman husband, British wife – for me the best crime fiction double act going, don’t spend too much time on the same pages in this one.

So, Hadrian’s Wall in construction.  The Roman military occupation.  If they’ve given up on the tribes to the north and the territory as not being worth the bother, they’re still a threat, and the Brigantians to the south are conflicted among themselves as to the desirability and the ways and means of resistance, fraternization and co-existence.  Into this culture clash throw an abducted child (British) and a missing (with rumours of a body being buried in the wall) young man (Roman).  Both Tilla and Ruso have a personal interest in the disappearances.  It’s an uncomfortable enough time when nothing much is happening, but the ramped-up mutual suspicions, accusations and bitterness threaten danger in every direction.

One of Ruth’s many skills as a writer is an ability to invest her chosen time and territory with our contemporary situation – and vice versa – without it seeming in any way an exercise in box-ticking.  This is what it must have felt like, what it feels like.  So you’ve got the problems of policing minority communities and the ‘war against terror’ at the forefront here, only turned on their head – the triumphant Romans are the immigrants.  And there’s a whiff of Palestine and Guantanamo, and other conflicts closer to home.  The possibility of agents provocateurs being at work, secret service shenanigans, espionage, torture, and the use of informants are all touched on the narrative.  Paranoia strikes deep.  Plus, of course, you’ve got the more mundane (but entertaining, if sometimes perilous) matter of Ruso and Tilla as partners in a mixed marriage, both in the home and out in the wider world.  And just as a nod and wink bonus, Ruso the doctor reflecting current A&E and more general perceived NHS woes.

It’s a tense and exciting novel with many shifts of narrative and focus.  We suffer a bit, physically and with anguish, and the outcome is never certain.  Until it happens, of course.  Add to this the background historical knowledge – both Roman and native – that infuses it all (I’m not going to say ‘on display’ because there’s no showboating) and Tabula Rasa is a great read.  Ruth writes with intelligence, charm, wit and moral seriousness.  And she treats us to an intriguing development near the end.  Was it signaled beforehand?  I didn’t spot it.  No matter, it’s surprisingly satisfying.  No spoilers here, but something hugely significant happens to Tilla as things are resolved.  Well, two things actually.  I’m rather hoping this means the series will continue with the action remaining in Britain for a few books now.  I look forward to them, wherever.

Before moving on, here’s a taste or two that might make you investigate the books further.  First, the lighter (and not so light) side of living under occupation:

We here,” the officer announced in very bad British, “to look for man. Soldier man. Him lost. You tell.”
The family showed not a trace of understanding or amusement. She knew most of them would have understood him if he had spoken in his own tongue, but it was a small form of revenge to make him struggle like that: perhaps the only one they could exact without getting themselves into trouble.
We do not speak Latin in this house. Perhaps they would share the joke later. Him one ugly man. Him think we as stupid as he is.

There are many fine strands to Ruso and Tilla’s relationship.  Their badinage can be delightful and it works subtly, far more effectively than if the redoubtable Tilla had been made into some sort of feminist icon:

I am not the daughter of Lugh anymore,” she whispered into the empty room. “I am Tilla, Roman citizen, wife of Gaius Petreius Ruso, a man from overseas who is very annoying.”

And finally, a bit more culture clash, and amen to that conclusion:

        “Senecio,sir. He’s a farmer. And a poet. My wife knows him. You may have heard about him singing to the trees.”
“Ah. The crazy one.”
“Not crazy, sir.” At least, not before one of his three sons was killed and another stolen. Now, who knew? “He’s just very traditional.”
Ruso was acutely aware of the average officer’s failure to grasp how the locals saw things, which meant they often ended up negotiating with the wrong people. They would not bother with poets. […] “They hold the knowledge of their tribe in their memories,” he explained. “And they put together the latest events in verse. They’re like sort of … announcers and libraries in one. They believe spoken words have great power.”

Peculiar lifeDenis Theriault‘s The peculiar life of a lonely postman (Hesperus Press, 2014) is a slight (108 pages without the paraphernalia at the back) entertainment, the charm and cleverness of which either gets you or not.  It had its moments, I suppose.  There’s a twist at the end (and I don’t mean the ridiculous turn of events that coincidentally averts a suicide) which I’ll not give away, save to say it strikes me more like a nightmare out of Edgar Allan Poe nightmare than the serenity I think you’re meant to take from it.

Bilodo, a lonely postman living his life vicariously by steaming open and reading other people’s letters … Come on: a disciplinary offence!  But then someone in the reading group remembered Willy Nilly the village postie doing it quite openly in Under Milk Wood ... Anyway, he stumbles into a renku project, a correspondence by haiku, between a japanophile here in Quebec and a young woman in Guadeloupe.  This pushes Bilodo (as per billet-doux, as someone else in the reading group spotted: aren’t reading groups grand?) into learning all about haiku and taking his place (after a ‘poetry emergency‘) in the exchange of haiku, which takes a gentle, then steamier, erotic turn (not too corny, actually).  When she says she’s coming to Canada he panics and I’ll say no more.  I learned a bit about haiku.  There’s a sub-plot based around his relationship with his colleague and a waitress for a bit of context, which I thought, if anything, detracted from the whole.

There’s always a problem with books in translation, so I can’t say whether the clumsiness comes from the author or not, though I doubt, for instance, a translator would inject “eyelashes fluttering like the wings of twin butterflies” into the death throes of a road accident victim, and I can’t quite see how Bilodo necessarily “combed the dictionary” when he was looking up a specific word.  Who knows what he was doing when “He jubilated in the washroom” on getting a haiku back, his ruse undetected.

On the whole, a Marmite book, then.  Some of the reading group really liked it, and I have to admit I took to him counting all the steps up he climbed on the stairs in the blocks of flats on his letter round, and touting himself as a gold medal winner should it ever become an Olympic event.  And even I was briefly elated by:

And he, who had never so much as set a toe on a dance floor, dreamt that night that he whirled around merrily with Ségolène in the unlikely, highly diverse setting of a festive town […]. He dreamt that they danced now a frenzied rigadoon on the icy pavement […] now a wild gwoka in the fragrant sultriness …

Behaviour of mothsMuch more to my liking was Poppy Adams‘ disturbing first novel, The behaviour of moths (Virago, 2008), the latest excursion of my usual reading group.  Pretty much from the start it’s obvious we are dealing here with that perturbing creature the unreliable narrator, but quite how deeply unreliable only becomes clear (or clear-ish – ambiguities hauntingly remain) as things develop.

We start with Ginnie (our narrator) eagerly awaiting the impending return of her younger sister, Vivi, to the crumbling family country house pile.  Quite how crumbling is only made explicit later on, with action delivered with wonderful gothic panache.  The two have not met for 47 years.  Ginnie, following in her father’s footsteps, is a world-class lepidopterist, who has never left home, whereas Vivi has obviously had some sort of life in the big wide world.  So it seems we’re set up with the prospect of revelations of glamour, excitement and whatever else from that life – a Kate Atkinson non-Brodie set-up.  Such expectation is quickly dispelled in the first of a number of sudden dramatic though never random shifts of focus.  (For example: “Many years later, when Vivi and I were expelled from Lady Mary’s.”)  We’re never told why Vivi has come home, can never really take for granted her bland attestation that it’s time for them to see out their final years together.  But that quickly becomes neither here nor there.

Had Vivien really come home to torment me, to point out that I had been living in the wrong history, to push me into the correct scene of the correct painting?

Something crucial happens between the two of them in the 1950s, maybe an accident, when they are children, and then later when they are young women (a couple of things actually), that culminate in Vivi breaking off all contact.  This is a dysfunctional family that only gets worse with age and the onset of physical (non-sexual) abuse and alcoholism.  There is something not right with Ginnie – I’m no expert, and it’s not made explicit, but it’s probably too simple to just cite the autism spectrum – but it doesn’t stop her becoming a world expert on moths.

Things get interesting here; we learn a lot about moths and their study; for me this did not get in the way, while others demurred.  Upstairs in the house there is outstanding mounted moth mausoleum; three generations of lepidoptery have seen the shift from eccentric Victorian collector with a net on a sticks, every variation pinned in cabinets, to serious science – spectroscopy, chemical triggers, genetics, the study of evolution.  Clive, their father, hates the public lectures he has to give because he always ends up arguing – a nice comic interlude – with rural vicars about self-consciousness and free will; when it comes to moth behaviour (and indeed, by extension, all behaviour) he’s a reductionist – it’s all down to chemical reactions in the brain.  Maybe so with some of the action in the novel too.  As I say, it’s disturbing.  As Ginnie says, near the end:

I like to think that, for once, I am in control of my actions, but I also like to know that I am not.  […] … I am the puppet of myself.

This is a beautifully constructed novel, full of odd, terrible, and occasionally, tender turns; there is comedy too in the mundane.  Poppy Adams is wonderfully in control of her material.  Her (Ginnie’s) language is fluid and occasionally nicely quirky: “her hair angry”; “I put two of the new pyramid-style teabags into [the] pot”; the capitalisation of “The Hand That Cupped My Bottom”.

I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the plot or detailed much here.  There is a bizarre and moving episode of tragic surrogate motherhood.  Your allegiances move about and there is no clear resolution of what exactly happened in two crucial episodes.  There are murders, one delivered (out of the blue – one of those dramatic shifts) in stretched-out and painful detail.  And there is an eerie peace at the end.  A book that stays with you, visually and viscerally.

I increasingly find, talking with my oldest friends, disparities cropping up in what we recall of our shared past – who went on what trip, who was there when that happened, what bands we saw – so this resonated:

But for every memory we share, there are many more that we can’t bring together, that we can’t seem to evoke in each other, that turn out to be something that only one of us remembers or the other only vaguely recollects or, sometimes, remembers completely differently. [p225]

Hold that thought  and apply it to the extraordinary events of this novel.  And then consider that in many ways we are all unreliable narrators.

And here’s a photo (©Me) just for the sake of it:




New Year’s Eve I was Trotsky’s cousin
on a boat to England
in the company of Russian aristos
a proto-capitalist & a journo,
escaping the Revolution.
Spoiler alert:
it was not me what done it.
Funny how
with each murder mystery party
you’re a part of
you hanker to be the one that did the deed;
I was not alone in this thought.

Nostalgic for a touch of Andy Stewart
or Jimmy Shand in that night,
for Kenneth McKellar taking
the low road,
Chick Murray’s drollery.

Austin 6Morris Major
New Year’s Day
and the motors are out
in Market Square,
ancient and not so modern.
Lucky with the weather this time:
an Austin 6 and a Morris Major,
my pick this year
another so cool
blue Citroen.


In the first few days of 2015
Cinderella, an hour in the dentist’s chair,
a downbeat movie,
misunderstood hilarity at an open mic,
a funeral and
Je suis Charlie.

15209_10154947389425500_1811519934788905596_nFirst panto for me in decades
but this was Stony’s own
So, hi Danni, hi you two,
great job Caz, everyone;
Buttons’ pissed off at being called
Zipper and Velcro fresh jokery to me,
the Ugly Sisters
metaphorical (rhyming) blisters.
Had a great time.  Oh yes I did.

Out of the Cock and the engrossing gloom
Inside Llewyn Davies
– “a study in failure” –
into the Old George,
guffawing, trying to remember
where we’d seen a young man
with ‘TWAT’ written on his forehead
looking into the mirror
puzzled: what was ‘TAWT’ was supposed to mean?
No, sorry Plucky, we weren’t laughing
at you singing Dolly’s Jolene.
(Benidorm, as it happens).

At the funeral
nearly blubbing to the Beatles,
Lennon’s In my life.
Cliff was our Ringo,
our goalie, a fast bowler supreme.
Charming, handsome: a gentleman.
Different paths taken
from school, so seldom seen.
Shame; no blame.

Scribal Jan 2015Another cracker of a January Scribal Gathering:
A fine energised set
from Mark ‘slow hand’ Owen.
Standing up, belting out
a hard-driving new song to finish.
The dapper (I want that jacket) Alan Wolfson:
cultured bewhiskeredly, a delight.
No stranger to rhyme or dirt, adroit.
Delivered this little gem
(lifted here verbatim from his FB ©AW):

Je suis Charlie Hebdo, tu es Charlie Hebdo, il est Charlie Hebdo, elle est Charlie Hebdo, nous sommes Charlie Hebdo, vous êtes Charlie Hebdo,
ils sont Charlie Hebdo. elles sont Charlie Hebdo.
The sound of a million people conjugating in the centre of Paris.

Great and lesser spotted
woodpeckers in the singular
on different days
in the local nature reserve.
An hour in the dentist’s chair
and a brand new tooth.
Biting the Nutribullet,
supping green goo
from a red wine glass.

And now we can say something
if there’s talk of
Breaking bad;
yup, good as everybody said.
Broadchurch is losing me,
and the
Big Bang Theory a series too far,
whimpering; Penny,
grow back your hair.

Old for new metal
Saw rats
and cats
at the MK Materials Recycling Facility,
an interesting time to be had.
Heath Robinson lives!
State-of-the-art, proud
and getting prouder:
Oh, the excitement building over the road
– we’re in a race with Edinburgh –
the sheer poetry of the
Residual Waste Treatment Facility
“Diverting black bag waste from landfill.”

Sipped spiced cider
wassailing the apple trees at York House
on Saturday, turning back time with
the Julian calendar and the Turning Wheel.

Linford Wood 1Linford Wood 2
up with old friends again
in Linford Wood, and finding
some new ones too.

Can’t not but mention
“Manchester City 0, Arsenal 2″
on Sunday; celebrating inside
at The Old George
with The Outside This
The Last Quarter
& the lovely Ugly beauty
at Aortas.

The annual January jigsaw
nearly done, but …
Jigsaw 2015

And so it’s adieu for now with a couple of January songs, subtly chosen because they have the month in the title.  No, not that one; apology due if that released an earworm, and duly given.  Maybe this one of these will banish it:



Dead prose

Dead mans timeDead man’s time (Macmillan, 2013) is the 9th in Peter James‘s Brighton-based sequence of bestselling crime novels featuring detective Roy Grace.  All with ‘dead’ in the title.  He has also had 14 other novels of a more occult bent published, and as you can see from the cover boast, sold 15 million books.  I just don’t get it.  This is the second Grace novel I’ve read.  I wasn’t that impressed with the first and nothing much has changed since with Dead man’s time.  (Why bother to read this one then, let alone finish it? I had my reasons.*)

Now, my mother always used to admonish me with his mother’s advice to Thumper, the delinquent rabbit in Disney’s Bambi, to whit, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”  And how many novels have I written, let alone published?  Correct, Pater James fans: absolutely none.  Nevertheless …

For starters, the prose.  Acres of clumsy, dead, wasteful prose.  Wasted words, pointless description, irrelevant detail, dull dialogue and clichéd sentiment.  Like, “Grace had recently crossed the Rubicon to his fortieth birthday” – like he could have stopped time?  Or, “Her first impression of the man was that he was the very double of the television actor Dennis Waterman, former co-star of Minder and now of New Tricks.”  Seems it’s almost compulsory these days for British crime novels to contain a reference to New Tricks, but, you know, if you’re going to go down that route, surely The Sweeny deserves a mention here?  Then there’s:

He stared down lovingly – and hopelessly proudly – at his seven-week-old son. At the tiny cherubic creature, with rosebud lips and chubby pink arms and fingers like a toyshop doll. Noah Jack Grace, in a sleeveless white romper suit, eyes shut, lay on his lap, cradled in his arms.

That’s right.  On his lap, in his arms.  And does it come any clumsier than this?:

Roy Grace, in protective clothing like everyone else in Aileen McWhirter’s house, stood alone in her ground-floor study, at the rear of the property, on his phone, with a map of the area in front of him. He paused from his task of putting together his enquiry team, and issuing instructions to each person he called, to text Cleo and warn her he would be very late home tonight.

And does anyone talk like this?: “They could hear an aggressive beat of music coming from somewhere inside the house.”  Just the one?  (Iron Maiden’s The number of the beast as it happens.)  Then there’s the football.  Our hero is there on a surveillance: “It was a lacklustre game, enlivened by a couple of early yellow cards, and then some minutes later by a tantrum thrown by the team manager, Gus Poyet, after a player was sent off in a highly disputed decision by the referee.”  That’s at least two Brighton managers ago, by the way, so, along with the laboured description of the match, why bother?

Secondly, I don’t fancy sharing a pint with Roy Grace.  The best crime fiction series, as far as I’m concerned, are character driven.  Rebus, Banks and Resnick are interesting people; you want to know them better.  Grace, after two novels, I have no real interest in, or idea about, other than he’s probably going to vote UKIP in May.  “An occasional smoker himself, he loathed the draconian anti-smoking laws the nanny state in the UK had come up with.”  And then there’s immigration (admittedly he’d talking about a brutal thug here): “But thanks to our bleeding heart liberal European laws, we have let the monster in and give him money and free health treatment.”

In the lengthy Acknowledgments at the back of the book, James thanks by name practically half the current and retired East Sussex police service for their help (obviously a slight rhetorical exaggeration there), so I’m not necessarily going to question the police procedural aspects of Dead man’s time.  No doubt the sprinkling of references to the body language of lying and what he calls in one such “trained cognitive suspect interviewers” are a result of such conversations.  But this made me sit up:

Normally, all SIOs hoped for a high quality murder – one which would hit the national press, enabling them to shine, to get on the Chief Constable’s radar. But right now, Roy Grace hoped for a silent telephone.

Really?  Note that ‘right now’, because “Running murder enquiries was the job Roy Grace loved, and it was what he wanted to do for the rest of his career“; and “He would never stop fighting his corner for his murder victims.  He would work night and day to catch and lock up the perpetrators” – a sentiment undoubtedly shared by messrs Rebus, Robinson and Resnick, though they would doubtlessly have shunned the bid for celeb status and expressed the commitment better.

On the third count: plotting.  I know for some people the plot’s the thing, and I’ll grant a driven narrative can overcome a multitude of sins.  Hell, I once read Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel just like that (for research purposes, you understand), and he can hardly string a proper sentence together.  I’d say James is only partly successful.  The crime, the initial murder, that sets off Dead man’s time once we’ve left Brooklyn in 1922 (to which I will return) is a successful but imperfectly executed mega-antiques robbery, the international unravelling of which would have been a sufficient and satisfactory plot driver without the ludicrous back story of its historical context.  This involves a very rich and very spry 95-year-old keeping a promise he made to his absent father when he was 5 years old looking back at the Statue of Liberty, as the liner left New York for Ireland, an exiled member of the losing family in some Irish ‘mafia’ turf war:

“One day, Pop, I’m going to come back and find you. I’m going to rescue you from wherever you are.”

It’s really no spoiler alert to reveal he has been sleeping with the fishes all that time.  But the emotional and dramatic culmination of the fulfillment of this promise, the fishing of the bones out of the NY river, along with the cryptography, the settings (Costa del very successful crime, NY, Brighton and the South Downs), the lush interiors of exclusive residences and the high-end antique trade, not to mention the violence, would certainly make for one of those over the top action movies that I never go to see, but where the suspension of belief stands a better chance than in black and white on the printed page.  Alternatively, you could say I’m moaning because Dead man’s time is not the book I wanted to read; so be it.

And then there’s the revenge sub-plot.  Some failed super-crim – Amis Smallbone, to give him his name – whose life Grace ruined by putting him away years ago, and he, Smallbone, is taking it very personally.  Out of prison now, he’s planning on causing maximum misery to Grace and his new family.  This all culminates in an absurdly implausible climax on a roof in a the middle of a rainstorm in night-time Brighton, where plot and sub-plot magically coincide.

Fourthly, let us consider the inevitable soap opera that is the life of the long-running fictional detective.  You can’t argue with a concern for the problem of the copper’s life/work balance.  As you might have gathered from a previous quote, Grace has just become a dad: “How the hell was he going to be a good father and a good detective at the same time?”  His established new partner, the mother, is reading 50 shades of grey, for gawd’s sake, and her frisky badinage is the closest we get to humour throughout.  Meanwhile Sandy, his ex-wife, or rather wife, who just disappeared without trace in one of the earlier books in the sequence – it’s approaching the 10 year period when she can be declared technically dead or something, and he can become unmarried – suddenly appears in a few isolated chapters in session with a psychotherapist, working through her jealous rage at his new partner (!), a rage which has involved actual actions that up the paranoia caused by the obsessed Smallbone.  So you can be fairly sure where the next book’s going to be heading, at least in part, and I don’t envy him.

And a few other things …  The town of Brighton is pretty much a character in its own right, is part of the whole saga’s spec, so naturally it has a murder-rate approaching that of Midsomer and Oxford – c’est la vie, goes with the crime genre.  What’s newsworthy and/or the media cliché narrative about Brighton in the real world, though?  The Green Party and the lesbian and gay community, right?  Neither of which feature at all in Dead man’s time.  And in another slip from said real world, “Out of curiosity, he entered Robert Kenton in Google.  There were over 20 hits.”  That’s our hero; I just did it using advanced search and got over 6,000.

Are there no saving graces? [Sorry].  There’s a neat twist in the denouement to the denouement involving the local tv newsreader and domestic violence victim wife of the old man’s useless son.  And there’s the nice gesture of a plug for the local indie bookshop, City Books (though would they really carry 5 books on the gangs of New York in the early twentieth century).  Oh, and Roy Grace is a Kinks fan.  Hence that asterisk in parenthesis at the end of my opening para.  Enough!

*I maintain a chronicle of mentions of The Kinks in literature here at Lillabullero, in another section called, rather imaginatively, The Kinks in Literature.  I got a tip-off there was at least one in Dead man’s time.  There was, just the one, early on, so it’s there in all its glory in some interesting company.  Here’s a link to this spectacular example of anoraky.



Giant Roman candles at Paraffinalia

Giant Roman candles at Paraffinalia


Glad to have gone to Paraffinalia in Milton Keynes’s Campbell Park on Saturday.  Weather stayed dry and there were braziers to warm by if you felt the need.  The Parks Trust and local community arts organisation Festive Road were running a Midwinter Fire Festival.  Hope there were enough of us there to make it happen again next year, because as an event in the social calendar it could well grow.  The lantern parades approaching from higher ground, the fire-play and the climatic conflagration, the music and modest fireworks made for some transformative psycho-geographical moments that will linger.  Might have helped to have known more about what was going on.  Was the Lords of Misrule tradition, apparently, with the phoenix arising from the ashes of the tall wooden figure of the Dark Knight – that’s the structure emerging from the fire in the photo.  Clever stuff, how the Dark Knight burned from the inside up.

Bassoon tubaThe music alone was worth the price of the ticket; it was free.  Punning pathetically there, it needs to be said the music was improvisational and a delight.  The Kettle Band, a brass, woodwind and percussion performance collective, describe themselves as, “The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band meets Steve Reich in a Balkan market place on Fiesta day.”  No Viv Stanshall, of course, but otherwise a reasonable summation; I was thinking the more approachable bits (with a touch of New Orleans marching band) of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra – stirring and fun.  That’s the tuba player’s illuminated instrument in the photo on the right (unless it’s a bassoon) (or maybe a sousaphone).

First bohemiansThe First Bohemians

Now here’s a sentence I’d like to have written, whether it be Erudition (with a capital E) beyond parody or not: “Posterity’s immense condescension nowadays seems wearisome in return.”  This from Vic Gatrell‘s fascinating The first bohemians: life and art in London’s golden age (Allen Lane, 2013).  He’s talking about the dismissal by two centuries’ worth of critics of the coarseness of the subject matter of a lot of Thomas Rowlandson‘s work.  That sentence is preceded by “Only very recently has there been serious discussion of the relationship between his erotic prints and the values of his age.”  (p.320)  We don’t get to see any examples of said prints in Gatrell’s book, but an easy Google search reveals material akin to Robert Crumb’s ’60s priapic underground output; I suppose I should put in an explicit warning here, but Rowlandson’s The concert would seem to marry the two eras and could have made a noteworthy album cover for someone if they’d dared.  Such work was, of course, but a small proportion of Rowlandson’s work.  Gatrell champions Rowlandson’s position in the pantheon of British art: “In a sense there was a magnitude to him that no other eighteenth century artist matched.  He was rather like a Dickens before his time – a Dickens without sentimentality or sexual reticence.

Scholarly though it is – with just over 100 pages of a list appendix, note apparatus and index – The first bohemians is a hugely entertaining and vivid take on English cultural history.  His focus is one small area of eighteenth century London – Covent Garden – where, over a number of crucial decades, owing to the circumstances he outlines, there was a significant concentration of creative endeavour, no less than “the primary expressions of Georgian art and literature were hatched.

The book is full of nice touches, looking backwards and forwards, not least in the sub-chapter heads.  So we get subs of Distressed poets and Distressed artists for the chapter headed The first bohemians, while the chapter Real life kicks off with Fantasies; then there is Clubbing:

No less essential to the artist’s business – and the writer’s – were the friendships and rivalries that waxed or waned through meeting, eating and drinking at several levels of frivolity or earnestness. Artists, print-men, writers, actors, gentlemen or artisans, or all of these together would meet in coffee-houses, or Tom and Moll King’s in the Piazza, or in the Rose, or other taverns, to debate, argue, gossip or sing, cheered on by port, wine or punch. There was amusement to be had in these places.

It strikes me there is a potentially massive classy soap opera to be made from these lives – the high life, the low life, the bawdry, the scandals the rivalries – from this bohemian milieu.

Ah, yes … Bohemia.  OK, Gatrell says: “Only in 1845 did Henri Murger’s stories for what became his Scènes de la vie Bohème apply to the creative demi-monde of Paris“, but look what was going down here long before.  (Apologies if it’s coals to Newcastle, but this was news to me.)

The artist at work - Rowlandson has a dig at the Classical pose and embraces a new joie de vivre.

The artist at work – Rowlandson has a dig at the Classical pose and embraces a new joie de vivre.

His main men, Hogarth and especially Rowlandson, are set against the “fine art’s social pedestalization” of Joshua Reynolds and pals, the snooty and newly instituted Royal Academy crowd and their neo-classicism.  Frowning on the real life approach of the Dutch school, the RA clique persisted with the notion that “… only the history painting of mythological, allegorical or biblical subjects could depict man at his noblest and most exemplary …”  Though hardly triumphant in its time, here in the crowded streets was the development of a metropolitan aesthetic that “chimed better with Londoners’ deepening delight in their metropolis“, an English art “of such genial informality that was rooted in the here-and-now” and grasped the idea that “the common people’s joy in life, could become artistic subjects“.  Though it is the artists and engravers that are the main focus of the book, literature and the theatre are not ignored.

In the often witty telling, final chapter – Turner, Ruskin and Covent Garden: an aftermath – Gatrell looks at what Victorian respectability tried to do to art history.  J.M.W.Turner‘s great champion, John Ruskin, loved his art, had a big problem with his personal life, to the extent that after his death he abandoned a biography and put about the tale that he’d burned J.M.W.’s erotica – he hadn’t – to spare posterity’s blushes.  (“… among the least titillating scribbles in the annals of erotic art,” says Gatrell, and he’s not wrong (not that I’m an expert, you understand)).  Though he’d moved on with his landscapes, and moved across town, seems in matters of the flesh you couldn’t take the Garden out of the man.  Unravelling the tale, with a side-swipe at “the windy tosh so favoured by Victorian sages” on the way, Gatrell writes with a flourish, “In short,” he says of the greatest English painter,  “young Turner came to consciousness in the full razzle-dazzle of Covent Garden low living.”  Which nobody can, now, deny. (For what it’s worth, I’ve not seen the film yet).

The first bohemians is a tremendous read, generously  illustrated.  The vacuum that was my knowledge of the eighteenth century slowly fills.  Two more things before we move on, however.  I was appalled by the inability of the publisher to correctly link plate numbers cited in the text with the numbers actually carried by the coloured plates – ridiculously inept.  And in a lighter if similar vein, this, concerning an early episode in Sir Joshua Reynolds career in fawning portraiture: “He did the heads while another artist painted the bodies.  Output could be hasty.  Once he and his helper managed to portray a man with a hat on his head and another under his arm.”

Going off alarmingDanny Baker

Staying in London, but moving forward a couple of centuries, let us now consider Going off alarming, the second volume of Danny Baker‘s autobiography (Weidenfeld, 2014), which takes us up to 1996.  The quirky chronology of its predecessor, Going to se in a sieve, added to the charm of what was basically laugh-out-loud anecdotage, a lot of it involving the ’70s music scene and life at the NME.  Arriving as it did a year later than it first appeared in the publisher’s schedule, its successor seems laboured in comparison.  And that skipping all over the place now strikes me as downright annoying.  Not that there are still plenty of nuggets to appreciate, but for a narrative that leads up to the supposed cliffhanger end of his first ubiquitous cheerful cockney tv career – replaced by Dale Winton on Pets mean prizes – to suddenly reveal that he’s not bothered because all this time, as well as appearing, he’d also been script-writing for other much bigger names all that time, so no probs – well, to me that is just cheating.  But here’s where you can never dismiss him and the sparkle in his eye: along with admitting one of those little earners was for Jeremy Clarkson (boo), within a couple of pages he signs off mis-quoting – well at least he’s giving a nod to – that fine Jerry Jeff Walker song Mr Bojangles.  (Hooray – so many great versions).

Anyway, as he says more than once – financial planning, radio presenting – his great skill is his ability to wing it.  Career path? – “if you are truly bright and peppy no amount of A levels ought to be needed to convince some dull-eyed job-Caesar on the other side of the desk …  […] Sod the gap year – have a gap life. […] Personally, I consider university a fucking nonsense three-quarters of the time, unless you are after something quantifiable like engineering or medicine.” [his italics].  The man has a point; sort of, the right side of self-delusional, if you really can walk it like you talk it.  This is then followed with some justice by one of many such entertaining rants – more are promised for the next volume – against the dampening spirit of the clueless organisation men who did follow the path most travelled and who seem to have taken over radio and television from the ‘golden age’ creatives.

So, winging it, we get many things, including some stories his mates asked him why he’d left out of the first book; a tangential chronicle of social change and the working class (particularly his dad’s) experience; five pages of other people’s stories about the lifts in the tower block where he started married life; other verbatim accounts of conversations and recitations that display a remarkable facility for memory; five more pages of his attempts at painting a bedroom ceiling which are not as funny as they should be; some stories illustrative of “this relentlessly farcical industry” that was his first radio and tv career; some great tales of encounters with famous people like Kenneth Williams (corroborated, he says with pride, in Williams’s published diaries), Frank Zappa (a disastrous NME interview), Frankie Howerd (and his ‘syrup’ or ‘old Irish’*), a corker of an experience with Mel Brooks and some insight into Paul Gascoigne).

Danny Baker: decent bloke, a quantum mechanic: gobshite, bar bore and brilliant raconteur – I’m pretty sure which part was which would depend on the eye of the observer.  If he had a religion his philosophy (he does actually say ‘My philosophy’ at least twice) would be God/Allah will provide; if he were a character in a Dickens novel (what do mean, if?) it would be, Something will turn up.  Of course I’ll read the next one.
(Oh, and that *: rhyming slang, both used in the same story, for a wig – syrup of figs, Irish jig.)

Funny girlFunny girl

And here we are, back in one of those ‘golden ages’ of television, courtesy of Nick Hornby‘s new novel Funny girl (Viking, 2014), though here Lillabullero‘s run on bringing Dickens into the proceedings will have to stop.  The prose is oddly flat, the characters never quite make it off the page, fail to transcend their non-fiction sources (in the works of Graham McCann on ’50s, ’60s and ’70s British comedy).  Maybe Hornby is aiming for a documentary tone, given the text is occasionally supported by contemporary photos and ephemera, and there are some neat precise cultural moments captured like, “I’m Keith from the Yardbirds” – a failed pick up line in the Scotch of St James and a culture that our heroine never quite gets:

She’d wanted to live in a city that felt young, but now she was beginning to wonder whether there wasn’t something rather shifty about these people, as if they’d got away with something.

So the time is the early ’60s, the black and white tv awakening from the ’50s that preceded the youth explosion – treated fairly sourly by Hornby – that changed everything.  Interestingly, one of the key plot moments is attending the opening of the musical Hair in the West End – when the counter-culture broke into the mainstream arena.  To place things more specifically, the writers of the sitcom that briefly rides the early wave – about a socially and politically badly matched young couple – fear they have been overtaken by the cultural relevance of Till death do us part.

Funny girl is the story of one woman’s career in show business and ‘Barbara (and Jim)’, the fresh situation comedy that makes her name.  Barbara Parker wins Miss Blackpool, but resigns when she discovers it means she has to stick around Blackpool for another year, while she wants to be Lucille Ball.  Agent humouring her before setting her up as another Sabrina (shows your age if that means anything, but there’s a photo if it doesn’t) sends her for a tv audition.  Right time, right place and we’re off – almost instantly enthused by her northern ways the writers shed their old school radio skins.  She (now Sophie Straw) seemingly doesn’t have to worry about getting an Equity card; or it’s taken for granted, even though it was a big thing in those days.

The older writers, Tony and Bill, are an interesting pair, and their ultimate split – living on the creative (and gay) edge as opposed to a safe marriage – is the most compelling element of the plot.  The cynic Bill’s take on an invitation to 10 Downing Street in Harold Wilson’s occupancy (one of the show’s characters works there)? –  “How many Beatles records do you think he’d heard before he gave them MBEs?”.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff about what happens in successful character-built shows and the confusions that can arise with public perception  and off-screen lives of the actors – actress becomes pregnant, write it into the plot and so on.  It made me think about the difficulties involved in keeping a tv show going when, really, all the potential angles have been covered and the story lines inherent in the establishing situation have run their course.  (So I do feel The big bang theory‘s team’s pain; and, no … that haircut isn’t working).

The book ends in the present with BAFTA lifetime award ceremonies and a stage revival.  Given the flatness of much of what has gone before, it is curiously moving.

Scribal Dec 14Scribal

Belatedly, December’s Scribal Gathering deserves more here than just Stephen Hobbs’ previously posted Poetry Top of the Pops.  Tasmanian poet Erfan Daliri took us into a dreamtime web and out again into his life.  With an incantatory delivery that brought to mind the didgeridoo played with the hands, lungs and mouth of a master, and a loving message that I paraphrase as being not far from John Lennon’s Walrus – “I am he as you are he as you are me /And we are all together” – but without the yellow matter custard and with a broadening of the gender parameters, he cast a spell.  We were also treated to a marriage proposal, read from his smartphone – to a special someone who hadn’t been sent it yet – that riffed on pigeons being faithful to their mate; thinking of the randy bastards we regularly see in the garden at that time of year I somehow doubted this, but subsequent googling proved that it was indeed another instance of me of little faith.  Here’s a link to Erfan’s website.

Featured singer was Sian Magill,  whose original approach to writing and a delivery that integrated her extraordinary voice (yes another one!) and guitar playing into a bit more than singing with guitar accompaniment. Here’s a video of the actual performance of her song Dressmaker.  Another song caused me to make the note “the missing link between Gilbert & Sullivan and Joni Mitchell, but that was probably the beer.  Pat Nicholson and Monty performed under the band name G.O.D. – growing old disgracefully.

aortas early Dec 14AORTAS at The Old George

I’ve mentioned Dan Plews’s AORTAS Open Mic sessions at the Old George in Stony in passing a couple of times here at Lillabullero, but I’ve had some really good Sunday nights there this year – good company, good music – so here’s a fuller appreciation.  That’s me centre left, in thrall to something Naomi is saying in the photo-collage Dan makes of each evening.  So, without further ado, consider them mentioned in despatches:

  • our musical host, Dan Plews, is an accomplished singer, songwriter and guitarist in his own right, fluent and well-seasoned (that herbs and spices, not necessarily maturity).   Here be links to just a couple of his fine compositions, Apples and Pears, and the outstanding Books and hearts/Hearts and books.  Earworms have lurked in those waters.  And he can get away with a more than respectable take on Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.
  • Earworms aplenty in the songs of Naomi Rose too, a real original voice both in the writing and timbre. She always performs her sad songs with great charm and a smile never far away.  Here, give them a listen for yourself on her Soundcloud postings.  Fire in the garden is a great Milton Keynes song.  Yes, I did say that; and it’s not the only one (cue Vodka Boy’s Drunk poet blues, but that’s another story).
  • The Last QuarterI’d give you a link to some of Nicky and Mark’s Last Quarter songs too, but it seems another Last Quarter has usurped them on Soundcloud, so here’s an untypical photo instead.  Mark’s been good on his own too this year.
  • Can’t not mention Chris Wesson and in particular his song, Guiding star.  Just don’t ask him who wrote it (he did).  Now an established singalong favourite.  Needs to be on out there somewhere on the interweb.
  • Ernest Herb, mesmeric keyboardist of this parish, has lately also been channeling the blues to great effect (and looking a bit like a Poacher-era Ronnie Lane).
  • and here’s to the poetry of Steve Hobbs and Pat ‘the Hat’ Nicholson in various hats and guises.  And his dog.  And The Plucky Haggis.  And all the (well most of ‘em) others.
  • Not forgetting the pub and its well-kept selection of real ales.  Cheers.

Happy New Year


WonderkidAnd at that moment, I thought: “It’s a serious thing, to be the way Blake is.” Exactly that funny phrase: “it’s a serious thing.”

Blake Lear is one of the great fictional rock music characters.  Most rock novels – nay, most novels about artists and creativity in any medium – fail because they cannot compete with reality for invention.  I mean, consider Sir Michael Philip Jagger and Keef for starters – absurd, right?  Blake (not his real name) gets the bug age 12 with the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, a tennis racket and a mirror.  He grows up with the nonsense verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and then he sees Jonathan Richman interviewed by Tony Wilson on So it goes in tears, talking about William Blake’s The lamb.  So that’s where the name comes from.  This is in the ’80s when he’s still at school, but – fast forward to the serious music making, about which there is little description – I like to imagine shades of Pink Floyd’s Piper at the gates of dawn Syd era songs, but not the drugs (not yet, anyway).

At Cambridge doing EngLit Blake opts to do his dissertation on nonsense poetry:

Blake, to [his tutor’s] frustration, was prepared to stretch the definition of nonsense to the breaking point, happy to include poets and poems from which other minds derived perfect sense.
Blake preferred not to understand them – neither the poets, nor the minds […] Blake laughed at those who extracted deep meaning from Dylan’s lyrics. Agreed, the man was a genius, but only inasmuch as he was the greatest nonsense writer of the late twentieth century.
He viewed all poetry, all literature, through this prism. Auden, Bishop (Elizabeth), Empson, Smith (Alexander) – failed nonsense poets all. They didn’t have the nerve for it. What a waste! Beckett was the honourable exception: even his
prose was nonsense poetry. And Joyce had it in him … […] He thought of a name for the dissertation: ‘king Lear. […]
The fateful idea – formally interesting, philosophically unique, academically suicidal – was to write his dissertation about nonsense in the form of nonsense. […] Blake left Cambridge without a degree: the dissertation was, unusually, ruled ‘unmarkable’, thus nullifying other fairly good results across his exams.

All this in the first 20 odd pages.  The point about Dylan is expanded upon in a way that some may well have sympathy with.  The book holds many nuggets like this, and being (it has been said) a bit of a smartarse myself, I lap it up when capable road manager Mitchell says, of his sometimes heavy dealings with local promoters, “I think of Mamet a lot during these transactions.  The pauses.  I love them.”  Or when the narrator describes Blake’s situation, when he has pretty much disappeared from the scene but is slowly gaining legend status, as being: “like he was a cross between the Waldo and the Thomas Pynchon of Kiddie Rock.”

Ah, Kiddie Rock.  We’ll get to that.  So, an English band called the Wunderkinds, with and without umlauts, small-time gigging, making a demo, handled by Greg, an experienced English ‘character’ manager, all bonhomie and malapropisms.  By a bit of luck (the circumstances of which are laugh aloud funny) the demo cassette finally gets heard by someone (and more importantly his enthusiastic young son), who can do something about it.  A major American label takes them on.  The shift of gear is neatly summed up in the sentence: “It wasn’t like any meeting Greg had ever attended.  It was a business meeting.”  The Americans are excited by the concept of the now re-named (for American audiences) Wonderkids being “your child’s first rock band.”  Blake’s vision is only briefly compromised by this:

Yeah, we don’t really see it as kids’ music …” […] “… We see it more as everyone music. We see rock ‘n’ roll as everyone music.”
“YES!” whooped Andy. “It is Everyone Music!” The phrase, in his mouth, sprouted capital letters. “We’re gonna help the kids grow up and we’re gonna turn the parents back into kids again.”

Blake and his brother guitarist move to the US in late 1989.  The new management dispenses with the English rhythm section, other more interesting musicians get involved, they tour and record, become successful, and in doing so fall foul of the Parent Music Resource Centre.  Things build, the gigs start getting out of hand, Blake is losing it and they come to a spectacular fall.  It all ends in court and, for Blake, prison.  Time passes and, as seems to happen these days, their importance, their formative influence on a generation of kids, becomes recognised, and there is pressure to reform for an awards show.  No more spoilers, but it all gets very interesting and suspenseful again.

Scan WonderkidsWesley Stace‘s Wonderkid (US: Overlook Press, 2014) is a brilliant music industry satire.  Never mind your qualms about the notion of Kiddie Rock, think of it as Wonderkid‘s Lilliput or Brobdingnag.  But the book has a lot more going for it than just that.  At its centre, of course, there’s Blake’s heroic and ultimately honourable tale, the creative’s path, and how success can scramble it.  Then there’s what it feels like being in a band, and especially being on the road in a band – read the plaudits from musicians on the back cover like Peter  Buck and Roseanne Cash for how well that is done (click on the picture, then click again if necessary).   Here Wonderkid rides the stereotypes with aplomb; as the success builds the healthily New Age rhythm section demand and get their own bus:

Mitchell and I were the intermediate beings, licensed to float freely between Heaven and Hell. The stage was a safe haven – the show was sacrosanct […] but back-stage was a no-man’s-land with endless potential for practical jokes and small indignities.

And then there’s that ‘I’ in the quote above, the narrator’s tale.  Speed (that’s his name), living with stifling foster parents, first meets the band in England – literally bumps into Blake – when he’s 14 and a shoplifter on the run from a big record shop’s security man.  That quote at the head of this piece, they’re breaking into the cinema Blake works at part-time, hunting for a hidden stash of classic film posters he knows is there (how and why is another story, with some satisfying narrative ripples later).  One of the unspoken narrative threads is the power of contingency, how things can happen by chance: the occasion of Speed meeting the band, the ultimate success of the demo tape, various relationships.  So Speed grows up with the band, starts off running the merch table, is formally adopted by Blake so he can go with them to America and becomes a permanent member of the entourage, which paves the way for his own subsequent career in the industry.  His coming of age and rites of passage are not so much an engaging bonus as integral to the whole enterprise.

I enjoyed reading Wonderkid immensely.  It is a profound, intelligent, grounded, principled, and, at times, very funny novel.  I think it can live with the very best of the generally blighted sub-genre of the rock novel*.  In another life Wesley Stace was US-based English singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding.  A Cambridge graduate himself, he’s been performing and making records since 1990.  I’d not knowingly heard anything before but Spotify delivered; he is a better novelist than he is a songwriter.

* Seeing as you asked, in no particular order:

  • Roddy Doyle: The Commitments
  • Don DeLillo: Great Jones Street (an early novel of his, featuring Bucky Wunderlick)
  • Jennifer Egan: A visit from the Goon Squad
  • Iain Banks: Espedair Street (oft mentioned; must read it one of these days)

Owing to various mentions of Ray and Dave Davies and the Kinks in the text, Wonderkid also features here on Lillabullero on the The Kinks in Literature pages. 



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