Forever young

oliver-kay-forever-youngHere at Lillabullero we don’t usually splash a book’s cover all over the column but I love this photograph.  Adrian Doherty could be a manchild out of mythology or folk balladry – he walked, nay played, with giants, but was happy singing and playing with the little people; there’s probably a William Butler Yeats poem could be applied to him.  The photo on the book jacket is him outside the Manchester United training ground, a 16-year-old apprentice, a Catholic from Strabane in Northern Ireland, a contemporary of the Class of ’92 – Becks, Scholesy, Giggsy that lot.

He’d read Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – by the time he was 9.  He deliberately flunked a chemistry exam at school – Give an example of a solvent.” “An example of a solvent is Sherlock Holmes.” – determined not to be herded away from the humanities subjects he loved.  Oliver Kay‘s Forever young: the story of Adrian Doherty, football’s lost genius (Quercus, 2016) is full of stories like that; he’s talked to family, school friends, team mates, Manchester United staff, musical chums and fellow seekers after the meaning of life to create a wonderful picture of the short life of a lovely young man, strangely and uniquely lived.

Like his dad, Adrian was a huge Bob Dylan fan.  If they were available to embed, this piece would have kicked off bob_dylan_-_planet_waveswith a YouTube of the fast version of Dylan’s beautiful Forever young, closing track on side one – yes, vinyl – of the hugely under-rated Planet Waves, his last recordings with The Band.  And it would have closed with the handshake of the slow deadly serious version of the song that opens side two.  Because this is a sad, sad tale. 

A footballing genius, on the verge of a first team appearance, Adrian Doherty’s career ended with the sort of injury – ‘a proximal tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in the right knee’ – that only a few years later would probably not have been career-ending, that improved treatment techniques and surgical improvements might well have sorted out.  But one of the saddest things is, when he died (pulled out of a canal, in a coma for a month), if they knew about it at all, the presumptions of those he had known at Man U.  Early morning on his way to work in The Hague, officially accidental death, no suspicious circumstances, had transmuted, urban legend-like, into – of course – failed footballer, late night, drink and drugs, Amsterdam.  Because obviously being released from a club is, like, the end of the world.  In fact, his brother Gareth says, “What a lot of people don’t realise is that the years from twenty to twenty-six, after he left football, were the happiest of Adrian’s life.”

So many things to say.  Invent a fictional Adrian Doherty and he would not be believed outside of the fantasy genre.  Roy of the Rovers as written by Neil Gaiman, say, or a character out of a Herman Hesse novel.  He was a seeker.  If there’s not a better ballad or song in the tradition, then there’s Spencer the Rover – John Martyn did a lovely version of it – which nearly fits well enough:

  • adrian-doherty-2he was a young footballer without ego.  Imagine that.  “Courage, speed and skill“, said Alex Ferguson.  As well as his skills, others note his bravery.  1990/91 season he’s training with the reserves, a year ahead of Ryan Giggs.  One year into his two-year apprenticeship he gets offered a 5-year professional contract; Giggs had to wait the full two years.  He tells Alex Ferguson (!) he’d prefer it to be just one year, if you don’t mind, because he’s not sure what he wants to be doing that far ahead.  He – fortunately given the injury that came not long after – compromises on three.
  • Life at Man U with the older guys (and doubtless at most other clubs): there was a dark side to it in those days.  Traditionally the apprentices had to put up with initiation ceremonies and indignities involving marine-style bullying, forfeits, vicious banter and a forced exhibitionism .  Paul Scholes tells Kay about it: ” ‘Oh I hated it, yeah,’ he said. ‘It got stopped around our year, actually, all the stuff you had to do. I think one of the players’ parents complained and that was it.’  How bad can unspeakable be? ‘I can’t tell you,’ he said. ‘You would be in trouble for it these days, some of the stuff that went on. Seriously.’ ”  After a sticky time, and homesickness, Adrian survived.
  • Life at Man U with the Class of ’92: “Doherty’s preference for an Aran jumper, tracksuit bottoms and battered trainers had always earned him strange looks“.  An apprentice who lodged with him says, “To us footballers, Doc seemed different because he wasn’t bothered about fashion and he never had any cares in the world … [Beckham] read FHM. Doc had no interest in that. He would sit there reading books – big wow – and he would always wear the same clothes and trainers. Becks and John O’Kane would drive to training in their new cars even if they only lived round the corner. I used to walk and I would get there before they had turned on the engine. Doc would come in on a bike – an old bike … I’m not even sure it had gears.”  In a letter to a friend in Strabane he lamented “nearly all the apprentices are U2 fans and none of them are hip so I can’t go to the same places as them on Saturday nights or anything.”  He was never ostracised, was liked well enough, not least for his skill, but he never really bonded.

‘I remember one of the lads asking him what he thought of the Chelsea game a couple of weeks earlier. Adrian genuinely didn’t have a clue. He was more interested in talking about reading, playing the guitar. It wasn’t a conversation you would have with a footballer. It was books, films, philosophy, music. Everyone then sat down to listen to him play the guitar.’

Away from the pitch, Doherty remained a mystery. Everyone recognised and revered his talent, but no one could quite understand his character. [… said a housemate, years later]: ‘On the pitch, he wanted the ball, he wanted to express himself and he knew what he was about. He was brave too, as tough as old boots. Off the pitch he was completely different. The word that comes to mind is “enigma”. He would love this, but, to me, he was just like Bob Dylan. It was like having Bob Dylan in a No.7 shirt.’

  • He bought a typewriter – “one of those old-fashioned ones“, says his landlady – with his first team win bonus (even though as a sub he wasn’t used) .  He’d started a novel: The adventures of Humphrey and Bodegarde, the characters looking for the meaning of life, was writing poetry and – he’d already bought himself a guitar and taught himself to play from books – songs.
  • So while his contemporaries at Man U were out shopping or clubbing, he was busking, or going to open-mic nights at places like the New Troubadour Club, where David Gray started out.  Says the organiser: ‘It was a place for singer-songwriters. It was an acoustic venue, no electric. It was dingy, smoky, a perfect place for gigs. We would get maybe ten or fifteen artists a night.’  Unassuming, Adrian kept his lives apart; no-one on the music scene realised he was a footballer, never mind pne of the most exciting prospects in the city.  He was to work on songs like An oblivious history (there’s an abridged version of the lyrics in the book’s appendix), which references less than respectfully Socrates (the Greek philosopher, not the Brazilian footballer), John the Baptist, Macbeth, King Arthur, Arthur Rimbaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Muhammad Ali and even Bob Dylan.   Another, called Philosophying, is full of witty self-awareness, with a last line going, “But it aint an easy life philosophying“.  And even his team-mates remember the song Gotta kill a chicken by Tuesday.  He and his mate Leo Cussons spent a summer in New York – the Greenwich Village thing – playing wherever they could.

So how would Cussons describe the professional footballer whom he and the others on the Manchester music scene came to know as ‘McHillbilly’ as they played in a short-lived band called the Mad Hatters? ‘Brilliant,’ he says. I don’t know anything about football, so I can’t comment on that, but he was one of those extraordinarily talented individuals you come across very rarely in life.’

He takes the ending of his contract with equanimity and seemingly without resentment.  One friend says, ‘I don’t remember Aidy ever being angry or frustrated about anything.’   Another says, ‘I honestly think he was OK with it. Not OK with getting injured, but he did quite quickly come to terms with the fact that he might not play professional football again […]  it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for him any more […] it helped him that, with his music and his reading and writing, he didn’t have all his eggs in one basket.’  And so he moves, seemingly randomly, to Preston, working in a chocolate factory where he doesn’t volunteer his past.  From the Theatre of Dreams to strawberry creams is Hall’s chapter head.  He stays two and a half years.  He keeps in touch with his old Strabane mates, some now at uni in England.  He sees his old musical chum Leo in London and Holland:

‘On one visit, it would be all philosophical discussions. On the next Doherty would be dismissive of all that, gnosis included, and would be wanting to turn the clock back to those wild nights playing to the crowds in New York’s East Village in the summer of ’92.’

He’s briefly back in Strabane, then feels another move is due.  It’s a toss-up between Dublin and Galway; the latter wins on a short-term travel practicality:

‘It’s the type of place where he would just blend in,’ Sean Fitzgerald, who met him in Galway, says. ‘He didn’t stand out. You’re surrounded by music and culture there, which was what he liked. You’re allowed to be a sort of vagabond, really, just writing poetry and music and having conversations about philosophy or whatever. He blended in, playing his music, writing his songs.’

Kathy Maloney, a young woman who knew him well, says:

He was never really interested in making a living. He didn’t want money at all. He would see how long he could live on IR£5 … Money just didn’t interest him at all.  “He wasn’t motivated by a career in the same way most people see a career. He wasn’t interested in material gain or getting recognition. But whatever he did , he would take great pleasure from it and he liked to master it. The main mission in his life was to achieve enlightenment.”

From talking with friends, colleagues and relations, Kay paints the picture of a young man who throughout his short life could be happily self-contained, and yet was far from ever being a recluse.  If he didn’t drink much he was still up for a craic, for fellowship.  They say he could get along with anyone, not a bad word is reported (though coaches complain of a certain vagueness off the pitch – they would).  He goes for long walks in Manchester, in the countryside around Galway.  It was on one of these, just before the move to the Netherlands – time for a change again – that an old friend from Strabane, driving along a country road sees him and:

… picks him up by chance walking in the rain: ‘… he was still talking about his poems and his songwriting. He was never concerned about money and things like that. He was on great form. Whenever I think of Adrian, I think of his amazing smile. It was infectious. He was smiling that day.’

Forever young is a lovely book, a curious tale of our near times, written by a football reporter out of fascination and love.  I’d say it’s worth reading even if you only have a minimal interest in the game.  So much affection.  Heartening, beautiful, and a good kind of sad.

Could it have been any different?

He might have joined Arsenal.  They were interested, he talked to them, they were an established destination for young Irish footballers.  The injury might not have happened.  And he might have had someone to talk  to about Bob Dylan.

liam-brady-1976-aug-arsenal-v-bristol-city-005Funny how some little things stick in your mind over time.  Reading Forever young delivered this memory of my younger days.  The mid-’70s, when I was living in London, the period that was my most active time as a ‘real’ football supporter.  Well, I went to a few matches.  But it was only Highbury I went to repeatedly – it was the easiest to get to, and I had a mate living close to the stadium.  I became one of the missing millions when hooliganism became a problem.  Nevertheless, an affection for Arsenal developed that has stayed with me, doubled in spades since the exquisite football – poetry in motion, though sadly not consistently – of the Arsene Wenger years.

Anyway, back to the ’70s.  This was still the era of the Metropolitan Police Band at half-time, and the seasons I saw most games in were, as it happens, the two worst in Arsenal’s history, a long time before and since.  But a young team was building, and it was obvious that Liam Brady was a special talent.  And here’s the thing I remember: he was featured in a match programme and there was a photograph of him – the one you see now, due to the wonders of Google image search – sprawled on the floor with some of his LPs.  Only – almost unprecedented – prominently including Dylan’s Blonde on blonde and Blood on the tracks (plus albums by Thin Lizzy and Horslips, another significant Irish band).  Like I say, special.

That match programme was, I discover, the opening game of the season, August 21st, 1976, against newly promoted Bristol City.  Yup.  And the visitors won 0-1.  It was Malcolm McDonald’s debut for Arsenal, Alan Ball was still playing, and a personal fave – probably the best English footballer never to get an England cap – Geordie Armstrong was on the wing … I could go on with all sorts of relevant football trivia.  But the thought intrigues: Adrian Doherty was offered his apprenticeship at Old Trafford in 1987, while Brady didn’t hang up his boots until 1990.  I like to think of the possibility of them swapping Dylan quotes, talking of situations, at the training ground, in another parallel universe.






instructions-for-a-heatwaveWhen does a novel become a historical novel?  How many years can/should have passed after the writing before you can legitimately call it that?  When the author has to do the background research?  What if the events are still vivid in the reader’s mind (or so they think)?  I only ask because in the notes at the back of the Richard & Judy Book Club edition I just read of  Instructions for a heatwave (originally published 2013), author Maggie O’Farrell says she was only four years old in 1976, when the novel is set.  And I thought I remembered that time well.

First the book, which I read voraciously once I got started, all plot reservations suspended for the duration (and which I’m not going to pick at).  Michael, Monica and Aoife are the son and daughters of the Riordans, an Irish couple who emigrated to England after the war.  They have all long flown the nest, but return to the parental home in North London when their father goes out for a paper one morning and fails to return.  Their mother, at first a wonderfully drawn comic Irish mother, is all over the place; and as things develop she loses that comic patina.  The solution to the mystery lies back in the home country, where they eventually travel.  There is some lovely description of a remote cottage and its environs, where they stay, and remembrance of family holidays spent there.

But the real power of the book comes in the siblings’ relationships, and in turn their’s over the years with their mother; except for his absence, the father hardly figures, now I come to think of it.  Michael and Monica’s marriages are in different states of crisis, while the much younger Aoife, who was not an easy child, with problems of her own, has been leading an edgy bohemian existence in New York.  Their stories and crucially their shifting alliances are thrillingly told both in a series of passages as we see through their eyes how each sibling got to here, and through their interaction, conversations and individual acts as the novel progresses over the course of four intense days in July.  And when I say thrilling I’m not talking car chases; rather family secrets and dramatic old misunderstandings uncovered, and burgeoning self-discovery, warmth and kindness.  Seems that for this sort of thing three siblings is the magic number.  Bit of a spoiler: the actual outcome, the future, is left open, though it’s hopeful, to say the least.

Instructions for a heatwave has four sections – each day as the action unfolds is heralded by excerpts from the Drought Act introduced by the government to deal with the chronic water shortages brought on by an unprecedented heatwave that year.  That heat is ever-present in the novel  but it is not over-worked or used as a grand metaphor (and, again, spoiler alert, there is no liberating rainstorm at its conclusion), rather it is used to ground it in time.  Michael’s thwarted academic career, for instance, is a function of the morals of the age.  The IRA mainland bombing campaign was also active, and there’s a short but telling passage in Instructions that reflects the suspicion and animosity the sound of an Irish accent could arouse (something an Irish colleague of mine at work back then suffered).  Again, in the Q&A at the back of the paperback I have, Maggie O’Farrell, whose parents emigrated when she was 4, declares herself “wary of producing something fake and ‘Eiresatz’“, of not wanting to write “the literary equivalent of the Irish-theme pub“.  No, there’s a richness here that seems real enough to me.

But I was so sure …

I thought I had very specific memories of the summer of 1976, of the unbearable heat.  I was living in London, in a shared flat just off Baker Street and the heat off the tarmac and pavements was unrelenting.  I’ve often told people that was the first time I’d set foot in a hairdresser’s for a proper shearing for nearly a decade – well, a multi-sex salon on the Edgware Road; hard times for barbers in those days.  I’ve got a timeline I’ve worked up on a spreadsheet; I checked it to see where I was working, what else I might have been doing that year, and it would appear I’d moved up to Tufnell Park by then.  So all my supposed memories of the 1976 heatwave actually apply to the year before, which, to quote a weather website, “was one of the ten warmest summers of the 20th century, though it was beaten thereafter (comprehensively) by 1976, 1983 & 1995”.

Anyway, so back in George Street in the summer of 1975, windows wide open we’d do rain dances and chant along to Traffic‘s Rainmaker, from the aptly titled Low spark of high-heeled boys:

and, despite the somewhat contradictory lyrics of the chorus – “Rain, rain, go away / come again another day” no less – Mike Nesmith‘s version of another song called Rainmaker, one of Harry Nilsson’s that comes with a twist worthy of a Mark Twain short story, from his Nevada Fighter album:

When it did finally rain we went out and frolicked in the street.

As it happens I have no specific memory of the heatwave of ’76 even though it was so much worse, and it was a pretty momentous year for me in other ways; nor does A.  Similarly, for what it’s worth, I’m mystified when older people, and indeed people of my generation go on about the long drawn-out winter of 1963, the big freeze and deep snow that stayed.  Even though it was a three-mile bike ride for me on mostly country lanes to school, the best memory I can dredge up is not personal but of an oft-dragged out in documentaries film clip of a snow-plough train itself getting stuck in the snow in Scotland.

Back in October, 2016 …


Tony Hill at Vaultage © Tony Hill

vaultage-oct-early-2016A jolly fine set from Tony Hill at the recent Vaultage.

All his own stuff bar one cover (that was new to me), he book-ended the slower “heartfelt” stuff with a couple of driven, rockier, songs, deftly constructed with the effective employment of a loop pedal, delivered to much acclaim.  I say “heartfelt” in speech marks because that’s the word that’s used on his website, and I can’t come up with anything better.  Great singing and playing, emotion, charisma and good vibes.  The website (http://tonyhillmusic.com/) carries a neat video with storyline of Bones, one of those quicker numbers.

Taylor Smith, a trio on the day, with the cajonist (I wish I could remember her name) singing sort of cello parts to great effect behind the outstanding Blood of St George – a song that serves as a suitable riposte to the nationalistic nonsense heard at the Tory Party conference last week.

Of lidos and Lowestoft

A wet walk one afternoon in Waterfields Rec, by the banks of the River Colne, in Watford.  More a park with a pitch, nicely developed of late with a big nod (and a wink) to the area’s heritage.  Can’t really get too excited about the recently restored Grade II listed Coal Duty Obelisk of 1861, but this rain-affected photo really doesn’t do justice to an impressive statue of an Edwardian bathing colossus.  Under his knots-in-four corners handkerchief helmet there is a head of hair more than hinting of older creatures, of mythical beings.

watford-swimmerwatford-swimmer-explanationYou’ll have to take my word for this, because the photos I took that reveal more of that detail suffer from even more of the rain drops that despite the umbrella kept falling on my camera lens.  The statue stands on a slim plinth in the middle of a splendid bit of planting only hinted at in the explanatory text.  Good one, Watford Council.

I give you this inadequate photo because I cannot resist placing it near those of two statues of Triton, the Greek god of the sea, that you can find on the esplanade at Lowestoft:

triton-1-lowestofttriton-2-lowestoftTriton, a merman he should be – messenger of the sea: blowing that conch shell he could calm or raise the waves.  Son and herald of Poseidon, the sea’s main man.  Or rather, god.  Why two statues?  Who knows.  As it happens at least one of them is Grade II listed too.

Why spend an afternoon in Lowestoft?  Because it’s there.  And the availability of a cheap coach trip to the eastern-most settlement in the UK (which must count for something) (mustn’t it?) from our deeply land-locked abode.  The sea, the sea.  Cue obligatory East Anglian seaside photo of beach huts:

Blue skies, fish and chips as commended by some blokey TV chefs at Nemo’s, a beach to stroll, ice lowestoft-north-piercreams to be had. This photo on the left is a detail of the structure colourfully holding up the North Pier.  The dog-free beach was immaculate, the pebbles where there were pebbles eminently pick-overable.  What with all these cleaned-up beaches I do miss a whiff of rotting sea weed mixed in with the ozone, but such is progress I suppose.

All seemed well, but one road back, parallel to the seafront, signs of poverty and desperation – empty premises, non-chain charity shops, a Salvation Army Hostel, another uninspiring drop-in day centre.  House prices interesting, except you’d have to live there in winter too.  A thriving leisure boat harbour, but the fishing industry has pretty much gone.

You can go on the Mincarlo, the last side-winder trawler built in Lowestoft in the early ’60s and now maintained by a charitable trust; I opted to go linger aimlessly awhile at the end of the South Pier but my traveling companions went on board, could not believe the noise of the engine, tried to imagine what time spent at sea must have been like with that constant – not much to romanticise … save the bravery and community, of course.

Decorated pebbles, a lovely touch at the War Memorial by the South Pier (click on the photo, then click on it again on the new page to enlarge it for more detail):

A pleasing geometry of rocks, sand, wood and sea

A pleasing geometry of rocks, sand, wood and sea

A late late summer English sea-side. Glad we came.

A late summer English sea-side town. Glad we became briefly acquainted.



david-gates-jerniganIf I only had one word to describe David Gates‘s novel Jernigan (1992), that word would be sour.  With the amount of alcohol consumed Peter Jernigan has to be that literary beast the unreliable narrator, but at the end we find there’s even more to it than that.  Still makes for a compulsive read though, and I might just read it again (it’s relatively short, 238 pages) some time.  Naturally he’s an anti-hero, albeit with a nicely sardonic sense of humour and self-knowledge – “I had my usual thoughts about everything being debased” – when he’s not being a complete arsehole; not so much a bad man as one circumstances and life choices have made less than good most of the time.  At least he isn’t physically violent.

Jernigan is a tale of the American suburbs.  It tells of a massive bender, its pre-history and its consequences.  After a family tragedy, and engineered by his somewhat problem teenage son and his even more damaged girlfriend, Peter Jernigan moves in with her mum, Martha.  Who has a secret that blows up in her – in all their – faces one nightmare Christmas Eve, which sends him off on a desperate lone drunken drive to a remote cabin in a snow storm, said adventure proving near fatal.  Before he sets out, Martha has offered:

‘You believed exactly what you wanted to believe, Peter,’ she said. ‘Did you actually think there were all these nice wholesome families just ready and waiting for you to come along?  You’re a drunk whose drunk wife killed herself.  And you want to know something really pathetic?  You looked good to me.’

Cheerful, eh?  Somewhere in it all there had been some good intentions – and actions – on both sides, a dab of compassion here and there.  A previous argument, after he’s lost his job:

‘Peter, my only vision was that whatever you did you might get some enjoyment out of your life for a change.  I should’ve – I mean, everything I knew was literally screaming that you were incapable of any sort of joy whatever.’
Should I say figuratively?  Better not.  ‘A trenchant analysis,’ I said.
‘Fuck you too.’
‘Trenchanter and trenchanter,’ I said.  ‘Repartee City around here this morning.’

Ah, that job.  Taken as a short-term measure after graduation and an interesting student existence all those years ago, and challenged about it by his father, an artist, the last time he saw him before his death, to:

… tell me what the hell you’re doing as an assistant vice shoeshine boy at some outfit that’s doing its bit to help squeeze the working man out of New York City.  Not to mention the painting man.’
‘The money is fine … it beats junior professor money.’

OK, his father, who is interesting:

I mean, he was Francis Jernigan and everything, but the real money got made off of stuff he’d let go for a couple of thousand dollars in like 1952.  My mother split in 1956, he boozed from then until ’64 or ’65 … You know, what can I say?  By then it was all Andy Warhol or something …

Peter makes a sort of pilgrimage with his son to the deeply rural location where his father had lived (and died in a fire).  His alcoholic lack of self-worth is relentless:

It amounted to a moral failing not to have learned the names of trees.  It amounted to a moral failing, too, that this landscape looked dead and tattered to me, instead of sternly beautiful.

At a certain point he puts a bullet through the webbing between his own thumb and index finger.  He tells us:

That’s Jernigan all over: first you swallow a bunch of drugstore anodynes and then you want to feel something and then you bitch and moan because it hurts.

Jernigan is – for all its pain and misery – a sustained, unrelenting and compulsively readable literary tour de force.  I have barely scratched the surface of its characters or hinted at the intriguing cultural breadth of references.  It is only in the last couple of pages that the occasion of its composition – of how and why Jernigan is writing it – is revealed, involving a small act of rebellion that one cannot help but acknowledge and semi-reluctantly cheer; I’m not giving anything away.  But so absorbing was Jernigan to me that that ending was an inducement to start all over again.

Where Richard YatesRevolutionary Road documented the sterility of the ’50s American suburbs and signalled the necessity, the inevitability, of the social changes of the ’60s, David GatesJernigan inhabits the toxicity of the same locales in the decades following on after, as Neil Young so eloquently put it, the goldrush.

I may or may not thank David Gates for bringing Wallace Stevens’ long and at first glance difficult though intriguingly titled poem The comedian as the letter C to my attention, and I’ll willingly admit to never having heard of the country singer Webb Peirce, mention of whose music crops up every now and them.  Don’t let this put you off:

Words and music
closer to home

aortas-sept-2016scribal-sept-2016poetical-vaultage-sept-16Conjunctions of the planets in the night sky excite astronomers almost as much as astrologists (or vice versa), but the vagaries of the calendar meant the three premier Stony open mics all happened within the space of 5 days.  Warning: may contain in-jokes.

And now a diversionary dip into cultural archaeology.  I was going to say I was going to do a Friends on this one, you know, the way they gave each episode a title that started either ‘The one where …’ or ‘The one when …’ or ‘The one with …’ but I remembered that maybe that wasn’t necessarily the provenance.  It was a device that Bobbie Ann Mason had used in her memorable In country novel of 1985, about a Vietnam vet travelling across the US to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, when they were talking about episodes of (was it?) M.A.S.H.  (There are always some books you live to regret including in the charity shop cull, aren’t there?).  And it had occurred to me then, when I’d first noticed what they were doing with the Friends episode titles, whether someone involved in Friends had read In country and nearly a decade later thought Yea, let’s go with that.  (Did I mention it’s a powerful novel?)  I’d like to think so, rather than the more mundane explanation that that’s just the way people talk about show episodes anyway; though kudos for adopting it anyway.  It’s just that I like to see the connections.

So, AORTAS – collage ©Dan Plews – mostly the usual suspects (no bad thing), but distinguished by being (at greater length than the classic form): the one when the dog disgraced itself; the one when we had fun at the back injecting the word ‘chainsaw’ into song titles (“For the times, they are a chainsaw”); the one where Stephen Hobbs performed a story about a parsnip (and people listened).

Scribal Gathering: the one when Jonathan was stuck on the M25 and Mark had to kick things off totally acoustically; the one when both members of the Straw Horses managed to be in the house at the same time (exquisite and immaculate harmonies); the one when Ian Freemantle returned to fight the good fight of the working men of England, rhythmically and righteously in his own distinctive way; the one when Stephen Hobbs explained why for him August is the cruellest month and moaned about not getting a mention lately here on Lillabullero (but I’m not falling for that one, oh no) (though the temptation to spell his name wrong is great); the one that finished with the accomplished James Hollingsworth delivered a mesmerising and rousing paen to Thomas More’s Utopia (another 400th anniversary of 2016) aided by a tape delay (or was it just a big echo) on his guitar.  And that wasn’t all; yes, it was a good one.

The Antipoet at Vaultage was always going to be interesting.  Fully costumed bassman Ian striding down the High Street double bass in hand in his high-heeled platforms evoked a cheer from some builders on tour before he’d even reached the Vaults. “We’ve done these all better,” said a ‘slightly tipsy’ Paul Eccentric (I’m quoting the Antipoet management here) through the giggles at one stage.  Not exactly entirely their usual crowd  but they had a good time – “an audience you want to take home with you” (ibid) as did we.  Raucous, anarchic, with a skillful element of crowd control on display.  Ian in full gimp mask for the start of Sign of the times, which must have been hot.  Stony Bard Vanessa Horton stood in for the ailing Fay Roberts (archivists please note – get well soon, ma’am), with her own salty set, then adding a fresh contribution and slant to the annals of the Antipoet’s I like girls.  Hot and knackered I’m afraid I left early – apologies to those performing after the Lads.

Sunny Afternoon

sunny-afternoon-programmeI’ll take it as read that Sunny Afternoon is this hugely enjoyable and successful award-winning musical, that it’s much more than just juke box theatre, and that it is performed  superbly by a multi-talented cast.  What we have here is ensemble playing at its best, full of energy, emotion and period feel.  (And of course there had to be dolly birds).  I’m taking the Kinks history for granted too.

So, I record just a few things here that occurred, after watching the touring cast at Milton Keynes Theatre, to one who has (for his sins) read all the Kinks biographies and was championing the songs long before the cliché of Ray Davies as ‘national institution’ was a given, before that soubriquet started being attributed liberally to any old Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Obviously much had to be telescoped into or left out of this telling of the story, but I thought the crucial dramatic band episodes were mostly nicely handled and worked well as theatrical moments too, in particular:

  • the ousting of co-manager Robert Wace as singer; ’50s crooner blown away mid-song by Dave’s blues guitar
  • the full enactment complete with legendary insults of the Cardiff incident where Mick Avory thought he’d killed Dave on stage in mid-show with a drum pedal
  • a collage of the all action run-ins with the unions and other awkward Americans leading to the band being banned from the States for 3 years.
  • (although I have to say, as a veteran reader and listener of the Kinks story, I thought the partial destruction of the Little Green Amp section a bit hammy, to tell the truth)

I particularly liked the way the songs were chosen and used, not necessarily chronologically, and not necessarily exclusively from the time frame of the show (1964-69), with some put into unexpected mouths as the story unfolded:

  • so Days is started by posh-boy managers Robert and Grenville when they’re given the boot; a lovely and powerful acapella spell cast over the audience as most of the gang join in
  • Pete Quaife’s exit to A rock’n’roll fantasy, the latest song in the canon featured, from 1978’s Misfits album; one of my least favourite Kinks songs, as it happens (but let’s just leave it as that being my problem for the time being).  (A friend with his own Kinks website describes “Dan is a fan” as the worst line Ray ever wrote; it has also led in fandom to disputes as to who Dan was, with pathetic claim and counter claims).
  • remind me, was Dead End Street, featured early in the show, sung initially by Ma and Pa Davies?
  • that passage in the play a lot of reviews mention, when Ray is calling wife Rasa on the phone from America, he singing Sitting in my hotel, and she the sublime I go to sleep as counterpoint; and yes, you really could have heard a pin drop.  Extraordinary moment.  I seem to recall she did a touching Tired of waiting directed at Ray as well.

A few other things less easy to categorise:

  • I was never a fan of the phenomenon, but that brilliant and witty drum solo at the start of the second half, after one had got over the initial shock of its unexpectedly being there at all, had me (and the audience) engrossed; I think it must have been a particularly good night because I thought I saw some congratulatory banter from the non-acting musician tucked away at the back of the stage.  Proof positive, I would say, that Ray does not share Dave’s famously derogatory opinion of Mick Avory’s skills.  Andrew Gallo take a bow.  (Have to report, too, a certain bewilderment for me that he was a spitting image of my niece’s husband; kept thinking, What’s James doing up there?)
  • the recreation of the genesis of Waterloo Sunset in the recording studio was beautifully done
  • Ryan O’Donnell has to get a name-check here as entering fully into the spirit of Ray; while Mark Newnham actually looked like Dave (but had a better voice).  The whole cast was tremendous (with the bonus of  Grenville and Robert being proficient on trombone) and their CVs refreshingly free of the usual Casualty, The Bill and Midsomer Murders credits.
  • a lot of football metaphors thrown in, but I thought they made a bit of a rush job with the collage of Sunny Afternoon, the show’s title song, and England winning the World Cup
  • Class: in the US Ray and Dave play up as working class socialists, and it is made quite clear that the touted classless society of the early ’60s was, if not an illusion, a very short-lived phenomena
  • a couple of neat ‘time traveller’ jokes
  • is Sunny Afternoon set to be the middle part of a very broadly defined trilogy?  I wonder this because of the way it ended, with Allen Klein reintroducing them to the American stage.  So we’ve had the Davies family background in more detail with the earlier rather fine but never made it to the West End Come Dancing musical, albeit with a fictional plot overlaid, and Ray is talking about “something epic” when the Americana – the what came next – CD is released?
  • so Allen Klein: I must admit I hadn’t realised that it was his team that cleared the legal or bureaucratic decks that allowed the Kinks to work in America again, and although there was the dramatic moment in the show when Ray made sure they didn’t sign another damaging management deal with him after he’d sorted a few things out (unlike the Beatles and the Stones), Klein’s voice announcing their return to a big New York venue seemed an odd way to end the narrative.  As if “the rest is history”, except for most people, it isn’t.  Apart from Lola.
  • indeed, I have to say I thought the admittedly joyous singalong clap-along audience on their feet finale of Lola was a bit of an artistic cop-out, a populist failure of nerve, seeing as the song Lola – the one, of course, the whole world knows – had no point of reference with the basic narrative in the show that had gone before.  Don’t worry, I was up on my feet with the rest of the audience, but I’d have preferred a reprise of Sunny Afternoon.
  • Great night, nevertheless!  I think I can see why a few of my Kinks fan community friends have seen the London cast show many, many times.  At certain times, excitement revived, when the lads picked up their instruments you could close your eyes and …  As well as all the fun.

shakespeare-circleMeanwhile, 400 years earlier …

Exactly 400 years had passed between his birth and the start of the action in Sunny Afternoon and You really got me being released, but there are still many things that are unclear about the life of William Shakespeare, born 1564.  Friday before last (Sept 2), in the local library in Stony we had a couple of world-class superstars of Shakespeare biography introducing their book The Shakespeare circle: an alternative biography (Cambridge UP, 2015).  The need for “Imaginative biography” is the phrase they used, if I remember correctly.  It was a fascinating evening, all done without the help of  a ss-shak-400PowerPoint presentation.  Paul Edmonson and Stanley Wells made for a fascinating double act, a splendid mix of wit, friendship and scholarship, their depth of knowledge staggering (but then this is what they’ve been doing for most of their adult lives).  Here’s the publisher’s puff, because I feel like being lazy:

This original and enlightening book casts fresh light on Shakespeare by examining the lives of his relatives, friends, fellow-actors, collaborators and patrons both in their own right and in relation to his life. Well-known figures such as Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton are freshly considered; little-known but relevant lives are brought to the fore, and revisionist views are expressed on such matters as Shakespeare’s wealth, his family and personal relationships, and his social status. Written by a distinguished team, including some of the foremost biographers, writers and Shakespeare scholars of today, this enthralling volume forms an original contribution to Shakespearian biography and Elizabethan and Jacobean social history.

All great fun, honest.  50 years ago, in year 2 of Sunny Afternoon, I did a sixth form project on the question of ‘Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ prompted by John Peirce, an inspirational English teacher who knew of my keenness for Mark Twain and guided me to a late work of his, published 1909, Is Shakespeare dead?  (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry).  There Twain details humourously and not unseriously the known facts of the actor William Shakespeare’s life and compares them with the width and breadth of knowledge displayed in the plays, and promotes a conspiracy theory that has been repeated over the decades, invoking various other writers for any number of reasons, as the true authors.  All nonsense, of course, and research has found a lot more about the Bard in the century hence.

No-one directly brought up the question of authorship, but one of the questions from the floor invoked the supposed “missing years” in the documented life of Shakespeare, which some have used to reconcile the mismatch Twain highlighted – did he go to Italy, for instance, and pick up all the knowledge thereof that’s there in the plays?  Apart from the fact that London was a major cosmopolitan trading port where all sorts of things could be picked up in bars etc., Wells and Edmondson said that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries also have big gaps in their documented existence, indeed one would expect it, given the times.  Anyway, mention of ‘the missing years’ reminded me of John Prine‘s rather wonderful part-song part-recitation  Jesus the missing years, which I leave you with here, to enjoy:

Spent some time in Nantwich, Cheshire, a week or so ago.  Fine little town, a proud Republican stronghold back in Civil War days.  Still lots of timber framed buildings like this independent book shop and coffee-house:

Nantwich book shop

I always feel guilty about not buying something in an independent bookshop, but we did have a coffee.

And in St Mary’s a four-star, Grade 1 listed,  church:

Nantwich St Marys writing on the wall

The writing on the sunlit walls in St Mary’s, Nantwich. [Click on the photo then click again to read it]

There’s a charming little museum, too, where I photographed this photograph:

The caption reads: "Christmas cheese train of 1907, carried the gold medal challenge cup cheese. the train carried 18 tons of cheese."

The caption reads: “Christmas cheese train of 1907, carried the gold medal challenge cup cheese. The train carried 18 tons of cheese.”

Went on a mini-pub crawl one evening – such a choice – ended up in the fine old Black Lion, on Welsh Row, happily on the night of the Norfolk Mountain Rescue Team‘s Americana session – a session of 8 years standing – a repertoire including some Credence and that break-neck rendition of My grandfather’s clock that someone recorded a few years ago.  And while we’re talking of pubs, the best pub fish cake I’ve ever had (was it smoked haddock?), topped with a perfect poached egg, surrounded by ‘heritage’ tomatoes and some green stuff with an enchanting herbal dressing, in the Dysart Arms in Bunbury (a place I’d always thought was fictional).

Canal strolls, taking in where the road has to be lifted for the boats to get through on the Llangollen.  Shame no boats came along:

Llangollen Canal crosses the road

Another day, a climb up to Beeston Castle, from where you can see for miles and miles, the distinct ellipse of the Jodrell Bank telescope clear as a bell:

Some nifty brick and stone work and (probably) some Welsh hills at Beeston Castle

Some nifty stone work and (probably) some Welsh hills at Beeston Castle


Thanks to my pal, Sal. And my new friend Belle.

Why the salt title for this piece?  Nantwich is a town, figuratively and literally, built on salt and the salt industry, and it gives me an excuse to allude to and air this lovely piece of work from Ron Sexsmith, from – can it really be so long ago – 2002?

Pigs in heavenand somebody says, ‘Oh, that’s a great one, did he get hit by the train yet?’ “

It was only when I was trying to see if there really was a place called Heaven in Oklahoma that I became aware that Barbara Kingsolver‘s Pigs in Heaven (Faber, 1993) was actually a sequel (to 1998’s The bean trees), though it was her breakthrough book.  It’s great.  It’s where my opening quote comes from, but – no other spoilers, but, rest assured, nobody gets hit by a train.  I read it slowly so as not to miss a single delightful nuance in the prose.  Like:

  • His idea of marriage is to spray WD-40 on anything that squeaks.
  • Alice wonders if other women in the middle of the night have begun to resent their Formica.

and that’s just the first two pages.  Then’s there’s the description all tied beautifully in, like this on the same page as the Formica:

The neighbourhood tomcat, all muscle and slide, is creeping along the top of the trellis where Alice’s sweet peas have spent themselves all spring. She’s seen him up there before, getting high on the night perfume, or imagining the taste of mockingbird. The garden Alice wishes she could abandon is crowded with bird music and border disputes and other people’s hungry animals. She feels like the queen of some pitiful, festive land.

Pigs in Heaven is concerned with many things: family, belonging and commitment; the survival of the Cherokee Nation, mixed race adoption and child custody.  It is also a classic American road trip (on the road but not for the buzz of it), a tale of fateful twists and contingency, it’s full of conflicting good intentions, of youthful idealism and an older wisdom.  The main players are all women, but the men have their uses in the end.  (“She feels she has died and gone to the Planet of Men Who Cook.”)  All are interesting at the very least.  Turtle, an abandoned (that happened in The Bean Tree) and damaged 6-year-old is the plot driver, but unlike a lot of fictional children, she’s not annoying at all.  There’s even a decent fictional musician (his band the Irascible Babies break up, but here come Renaissance Cowboys).

So many passages I’m dying to quote.  Like Cash, doing traditional Cherokee beadwork for tourists, to earn a spare dime:

… but since he started putting beads on his needle each night, his eye never stops counting rows: pine trees on the mountainsides, boards in a fence, kernels on the ear of corn as he drops it into the kettle. He can’t stop the habit, it satisfies the ache in the back of his brain, as if it might fill in his life’s terrible gaps. His mind is lining things up, making jewellery for someone the size of god.

Or a short-term travelling companion who’s “accepted Barbie as her personal saviour.”  Prompting the thought:

Like Lucky Buster, Barbie doesn’t strike all the right chords as a true adult. Taylor wonders if this is some new national trend like a crop disease. Failure to mature.  Taylor matured at age nine, she feels, on a day she remembers …  You don’t have to talk to her, that’s the cleaning lady’s girl”

(I find myself saying, “Grow up” at the television an awful lot lately.)  Or the poetry of:

Along the highway the cornfields lie newly flayed, mile after mile, their green skin pulled back to reveal Oklahoma’s flesh of orange velvet dirt. The uncultivated hills nearby show of a new summer wardrobe of wildflowers. The massed reds flecked with gold are Indian blanket; Cash recalls the name with pleasure, like a precious possession lost and retrieved. He fixes the radio on the sweet, torn voice of George Jones and breathes deeply of the air near home.

I’ve not the time for much plot here, but the book is a delight; I loved it.  And although the Native Indian experience is significant – and the ancient and modern ritual Stomp Dance is a riveting episode near the end – there’s also a broader canvas drawn – Americana, no less; it made me think of Bob Dylan‘s Basement Tapes, of that ‘weird, old America’ it summoned up even in the mixed-up confusion of the modern world.  Like this song (a version here by two of the Roche Sisters):

And another tune that I couldn’t keep away, James McMurtry‘s awesome Choctaw Bingo.  The climax of Pigs in Heaven takes place in a meeting room where there’s a poster advertising a debate to be held in the same building, as to whether or no the community should adopt the Choctaw Bingo route to financial security.  What the song describes mostly happens off-page in Pigs in Heaven, but it’s undeniably there at source:

Meanwhile, backtracking …

Illyria's arrival

The arrival of the Illyria Theatre Company to Linford Manor.

… old news, a stomach bug and a vicious summer cold ago, Illyria came to town.  Arrived late to cheers and applause on the back of an AA transporter and proceeded with great dedication to erect their stage on the lawn in front of Linford Manor and get right on with a performance of A midsummer night’s dream only an hour and a bit late.  Luckily the weather held though it got a bit chilly towards the end.  Great little company, obviously full of talent, versatility, energy and commitment.

A-Midsummer-Nights-Dream-IllyriaShame about the production, then, which was … shouty.  If you’d closed your eyes and didn’t know the play it would have been hard to distinguish which of the three kingdoms of the play – the nobility, the rude mechanicals, the Faeries – were on.  And I couldn’t get behind a twitching Puck with ADHD.  Shakespearista friend left more than tutting at half-time.  Shame.  That said, the children in the audience were obviously enjoying it greatly so, regardless,  some sort of win for the bard.  And there was some tremendous acrobatic physical humour in the second half.

Magdalen FayreSame weekend, Medieval stuff.  Bigger and better than last year, so building nicely.  Actual full-gear – an illuminating demonstration – combat (no, not really real, but it looked tiring enough), so what with that and the return of Robot Wars to television later that evening, a touch of Sunday ultra-violence to see out July.

Have I got anything to say about the Olympics?  Not really, though I watched a lot of stuff I wouldn’t normally watch.  Liked Mark Cavendish’s interviews, was moved by Michael Johnson’s mini-essay about Jesse Owens, got sick of Phil and his microphone.  And not just him, but that question: “How does it feel?”;  and that answer: “Unbelievable”.


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