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Score draw: a poem

I’m not a big one for anniversaries (went to the dentist on my last birthday) but the recent 50th anniversary celebrations of the manned lunar landing have struck a chord of place and time back here for me on Earth.  One way or another 1969 was, personally, a biggie. I wrote Score draw a few years ago; it also celebrates an event that took place half a century ago – how did that happen?  Anyway, I think it’s worth commemorating in its own right; it’s zeitgeist-y..

Early on I use the word ‘heads’ to describe a group of people; Urban Dictionary acknowledges the usage’s historical origins, and its use now is pretty much history: “Term originating during the late 1960s for members of drug subculture”.  The drugs being cannabis or marijuana, and for braver souls LSD, consumed for the pioneering purposes of consciousness expansion, for opening, in Aldous Huxley’s famous phrase, ‘the doors of perception‘.  As opposed, of course, to later generations’ getting “completely out of it, man” and “off our fucking heads” for the sake of it.

Further clarifications and explanations are provided at the end.  Yes, this is an annotated edition!  Asterisk/s (*) denote their presence – sorry, I haven’t the knowledge (or it just can’t be done) to set up hyperlinks within a post).  Enough!  On with the balladry.  Let me take you down, cos I’m going to … the green fields of Sheffield University. ©Dave Quayle.

 

Score draw

Early in the summer of ’69,
before a man had walked on the moon,
after Dylan went Country
with Nashville Skyline*
hanging around after the last exam

Early in the summer of ’69,
waiting on degree results
and pretending not to care –
s
uccess just a signifier
of manacled minds with short hair

Early in the summer of ’69
don’t know who to blame**
the socialists challenged the heads
to a football game –

An alternative society grudge match
rebels with a cause –
scratch teams patched together:
vanguard beerists and tokers,***
folksingers, poets and jokers,
we’d debated and argued enough in the bars.****

With a foot in both camps
and Economics Department second 11 experience

from days of yore
I was in demand,
the world at my feet,
I could go either way.

So who to play for?*****
Which side to choose?
Red flag or purple haze?
In step or out of phase?
Consciousness expansion,
getting the inside right
with rhythm and blues?
Or class struggle,
out on the left wing,
lighting the fuse?

Didn’t take long to make up my mind
Going with the cosmic flow
beat the wit and wisdom
of the Communist Manifesto.******

Now the heads were a loose alliance,
three merry bands
smoking, drinking, thinking,
working the borderlands.

The Rude Boys were older,
just hanging around; mods of old
their hip territory now shared,
they gave us names
that we never used ourselves
but were not shamed by.

There were the Manchester Jews,
some of whom came from Manchester,
some of whom were not Jews.*******

And we were The Stones,
allied to the poets of Incredible Word,
waking up to the sound of the Doors
breaking on through to the other side,
ever ready
with Dylan quotes to hand.

Now the Comrades too were a motley crew,
ideologically driven,
internally riven’
a
n alphabet stew:
NLR, WRP, IS, the IMG.¶ 

There were the Trots who’d sat around
waiting while the leadership in London
made up their minds
What they should think about
Russian tanks in Czechoslovakia,
Who to cheer for on the streets of Prague.

And the New Left Review crowd
generally discussing where they stood,
theorising, academicising; ********
lecturers to be –
if they weren’t already.

Let’s hear it too for the non-aligned,
the revolutionary romantics,
All black power salutes and
Che posters on the wall,*********
diffuse goals that day made specific:
scoring goals
or just managing to kick the ball.

It was a decent game,
the culturally suppressed talents of
closet footballers outed,
ancient skills displayed
that should never have been doubted.
Some of us even ran,
some of the time.

Here’s heavy lidded Ivor,
a midfield general suddenly revealed
conducting the flow
when the play was slow enough,
which was, you’ll understand,
most of the time.

And there’s still the sight to be relished
of failing architect Mark’s
classic goalie jumper,
unembellished,
polo-necked, knitted, and green-
like Bert Trautmann’s
and all ‘keepers then
– a traditionalists’ dream.

It was a serious contest;
only straight cigarettes were smoked at half time.

Early in the summer of ’69
there was a football match
between the comrades and the heads,
hipster rebels against the right on reds.

They say if you can remember the ’60s
you weren’t really there,
but I think I’ve disproved that.

There’s no moral I can draw
from the result,
No significance
except it happened,
nothing more. 

But just to complete the picture,
I wish I could remember who won,
I wish I could
tell you the score.

©Dave Quayle

* Hard to remember what a shock to the system Nashville Skyline was; it took a while to get used to.  While John Wesley Harding could be seen as a zen-like response to the Beatles’ studio adventures, here his voice had gone weird, and there was the beard.  It kicks off with its longest track, a re-hash, no a mangling, a duet with Johnny Cash, of one of the loveliest numbers from Freewheelin‘ – Girl from the North Country –  followed by  a jaunty instrumental , and the other 8 songs were love songs not far removed from the moon/June style of lyrics (though Lay lady lay was a sensual delight).  Country music – Jim Reeves anybody? – was then considered a reactionary easy-listening force.

** To tell the truth, it could have been the other way round, but that doesn’t read so well.

***  I have been known to say, of the enjoyment of the odd joint, that “I was doing Sociology 1966 through to ’69 – it was practically compulsory“.  This makes for a nice soundbite, and may well have been applicable to the early ’70s (for the majority of the population ‘the sixties’ didn’t actually happen until later), but we were very much a minority.

**** Okay, extreme example.  We go to the cinema to see the 1967 film version of Peter Brook’s acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company theatre production of Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade – long title The persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade.  It was a big thing with a distinguished cast; Glenda Jackson was the murderess Charlotte Corday.

Stoned, we never stood a chance.  The opening credits – IMDB calls them “crazy credits” – took us (as  intended, as it happens): “The opening credits – the play’s title, stage credits and the actors appearing in the film – pop on the screen one word at a time until it is filled. The closing credits – the film’s production staff – start off with a full screen of words; they then pop off the screen, one word at a time, until it is completely empty … just as it was when the film began.”  Heads reeling, we hit the union bar afterwards, struggling to tell friends what we had just experienced – “What the fuck was that all about?”  I think it was Paul Kelemen, in my sociology year, now Dr Paul Kelemen, Honourary Research Fellow at Manchester University, and considered an expert on Zionism and the Labour movement, overheard & tried to help.  “It’s quite simple really. You see, Peter Weiss is a Marxist …”

***** Which side.  The debate was neatly summed up in the different versions John Lennon put out of his song Revolution.  He was genuinely trying to engage with the times.  There was a slow bluesy version on the White Album, while there was a raucus (unlistenable?) rocker on the b-side of the single, Hey Jude. In the matter of espousing the revolutionary cause, one advocated that the listener “change your mind instead“, while the other went for “change your mind as well“.  Something like that; don’t ask me which was which.  One verse warned, “But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.”  Lennon later went through a later Maoist phase in his evolution.  Best to forget Revolution #9.

****** The wit and wisdom of the Communist Manifesto is not necessarily to be scoffed at.  There’s poetry in there too.  Consider (taken out of context, true) this about capitalism: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned …” in the context of one of your favourite pieces of music being used in a TV ad for some useless object or other stupid thing.  Take away the millenarianism of the proletarian revolution (a ridiculous borrowing from Revelations in the Bible) and its a fine piece of polemical writing, with early insights into the growth of imperialism and the prospect of globalism.  Here’s Marx on Feudal Socialism: ” … half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times its bitter witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.”  It’s a shame he’s talking about William Morris.

******* One of their member, who I still see occasionally, is pretty sure he was at the same school, about that time, as Howard Jacobson.

That’s the New Left Review, the Workers Revolutionary Party, the International Socialists (later re-branded as the Socialist Worker Party), and the International Marxist Group (Tariq Ali & pals); at least one other groupuscule was also available.

******** The New Left Review, all the academic rage, had an essay suggesting to the comrades that something was happening in pop culture that deserved their attention, and couldn’t be dismissed as just opium for the masses.  The Rolling Stones were more proletarian than the Beatles, it said; I kid you not.

********* Dunno about Che posters.  Later in ’69 there was a small fire in the top floor of the bedsit I was living in.  Emergency services cleared the house and dealt with it.  When they were letting us back in a policeman asked me if my room was the one with the poster of Fidel Castro on the wall.  Actually John Bryson’s classic photo of Ernest Hemingway kicking a can down the road.

 

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Later being the word.  Last post posted how long ago?  Who knows where the time goes?  That’s a rhetorical question.  Excuses a-plenty, but they’re … just excuses.  Not that … oh, wotthehell, Archy, wotthehell.

Another Antipoet review, you say?  Well someone has to do it until they get more of the recognition they deserve.  What do they do?  They cross boundaries is what they do: comedy, music, rap, poetry?  “It’s just entertainment.” they rather disingenuously say.  Or more specifically, their brand of Beat Poetry.  Anyway, album launch: Punk Unkle, Volume 7 in the saga, upstairs in The Crown, Stony Stratford, Wednesday, July 3.  ‘Fresh’, as they say, from Glastonbury.  No, and they were.  All that coverage, but do the BBC as much as mention, let alone venture near, the poetry tent? (Thank you for The Cure, though, in their entirety.)

The Antipoet do mostly the new stuff (of which more later) with – unusual sight – a drummer: Mark Gordon, who produced and played on the record.  Same old joyous, energetic performance though.  They do a cover!  Ian Dury’s There aint half been some clever bastards!  (“Lucky bleeders! lucky bleeders!“).  Only the very same tune that Mitchell Taylor celebrated his song contest win with last month in StonyLive; much more of this and it’ll be a square on next year’s cover band bingo card.

Sing-along-a-Antipoet

Throwing the choice of oldie encore open to the audience Paul Eccentric explains that Tights not stockings is a number they only do on special request these days, given the rise to prominence of Me Too and other sensibilities.  Even though it is actually a moral piece about the plight of a middle-aged man struggling to keep his inner perv in check, enthusiastic audience participation has tended to cloud over its origins.  I can’t remember if they did the “Boots, no knickers” section, but I have an indistinct memory of a “Sandals no socks” refrain somewhere in there as well.  Or am I imagining this (I need to know).

Punk Unkle, the CD, is great fun, and shows no signs of a decline in invention.  More of the usual good natured, righteous scorn (still righteous, still scorn, mind) that had me smiling all over.  Aided and abetted with a bit more production than usual, musical trimmings well beyond the double bass, but still with some stunning verbal dexterity to the fore.  Bravely kicking of with that old cliché of twiddling the dial searching for a station on an old steam radio, there are sprinklings of various (local) radio interviews featuring Paul Eccentric and Ian ‘Haribo’ Newman from the last five years throughout.  I say bravely, because these intervals could constitute a huge hindrance to continued entertainment, but inasmuch as they are not that far removed from what you hear in live performance anyway, they work well, explaining and expanding the broader tale.

  • Does my bass look big in this: travails of gigging with a double bass: “a fully paid up member of the act / and as such treated equally“.  The import of the bass in the duo’s presentation and persona is an amusing sub-theme running through the interview snippets. Never liked that phrase in the first place, never mind it’s high-jacking here – and the title ‘track’ of their last year’s print memoir, but, damn me, it ‘s become my current earworm.
  • Lament for the motorway service’s ‘good ol’ mug of tea: that’s lament as in furious rant about the modern evolution (or demise) of “the weary muso’s mecca“.  Paul is not a coffee drinker, distressed that “proper urn-stewed tea” is no longer available.  No-one’s gonna call their simple needs for “A plate of chips and a wagon wheel and a good old mug of tea” a meal-deal.  A terrible joke/pun occurs towards the end.
  • Kids today: they may have dedicated this cd to Ian Dury but it’s Lonnie Donegan to the fore here.  “Kids today / they’ve got no respect / and they tend to be / grammatically incorrect” – proper word magic!  Multi-tasking: not only a swipe at snowflake millennials and younger, but also a parody of the sort of people – “never did us any harm” – who go around bemoaning , um, kids today.  Singalong chorus of “Stick ’em up the chimney” just for starters.
  • They don’t need it: kicking off with the Range Rover on the half-mile school run, this is a wide ranging attack on conspicuous consumption in the age of late capitalism.  “They say I’ve a sanctimonious philosophy / and they won’t heed it“: no mate, it’s a problem.  More strong lines for audience participation.
  • It’s not guns that kill people: constructed from the sayings and writings of members of the National Rifle Association in the US, irony is the closest to humour you’ll get on this atypical track.  Loud hailer vocals against a soundtrack that is straight outta Gil Scott Heron.
  • If it hurts: ah, the simulated to camera tortuous agonies of the big voice reality/talent show vocalist – “suffering for their art / as if they’re reeling / from being shot“. “If it hurts, why do it?” Paul plainfully asks, bidding them “Don’t murder yourself or the song“.  Featuring outstanding use of the verb “eschew”.  One I really look forward to seeing live.
  • Smugness incarnate:  Cuban rhythms established, “He’s riding his pushbike / to the shops” is the mild opener to a rant about “that middle class nazi fitness caliphate“.  Yes, that innocent lycra clad cyclist is but the first of “those middle class nazis” that Paul is “quite prepared to hate”; highly inventive use of the rhyming dictionary (just kidding) thereafter ends each verse.
  • They’ve got to learn: Lonnie Donegan again, wherein the lads are teaching the younger generation about swearing: “It’s common / and it’s lazy / if it’s not bang on the money.”  They are, of course, “glad to be of service / teaching how to cuss“, skillfully rhyming that with ‘blasphemous’.  Swearing is, they say, “an art like any other“, and they are not wrong.  Live, a singalong ensues as per the photo above.  (Aside: The year of the rabbit on Channel4: that’s proper swearing – timing is all – and Keeley Hawes too).
  • The pointless princesses: absolutely to the point about modern royalty.  About Beatrice and the other one.  Republicanism rules: “just don’t presume / that you can make me curtsy / or walk backwards from a room.”  (“Bang goes the knighthood,” someone in the audience said).
  • Punk Unkle: the muted strains of the opening chords of the Sex Pistol’s Anarchy in the UK open another warning to nation’s young: “Listen up kids …”  The black sheep, the family pariah, “the ne’er do well / whose picture’s missing / from the mantelpiece” no less.  Beware this “chocolate biscuit dunking” individual at your peril.  Or sing along with him.  Your choice.

The album Punk Unkle is dedicated to the memory of Ian Dury: “he was the finest ‘beat poet’ of his generation, and is overlooked on that front.”  Amen.  It was mutual love of Dury that was the common ground around which Ian and Paul’s partnership was forged a decade ago.  Bonus tracks – five of ’em – include a two-man rendition of Ian Dury’s aforementioned There aint half been some clever bastards with an added verse: “Ian Dury was a genius / to ignore this / would be heinous“; “our punk uncle,” says Paul.  The whole thing ends with a straight-faced recitation of the full album credits.

Other musical events are available

Moving backwards in time, at July Scribal

Oh look, it’s the Antipoet again only a week later.  A set entirely culled from Punk Unkle.  Do they get away with it?  Of course they do.  A talented singer and ukulelist of (near) this parish, who had never seen them before, expressed it (as I recall) thus: “Mind. Blown.”  On the open mic two brave young people – The Autistic Poets – impressed in many ways, a well deserved ovation (https://www.facebook.com/theautisticpoets/).

June Scribal, it’s worth chronicling, was an elf takeover, with poorly voice-gone JT’s able assistants, Jill and Caz, in charge; it was fresh, it made a change.  Fresh from a standout StonyLive! performance or two, Corinne Lucy – great voice, fine guitarist, accomplished writer – opened proceedings and wowed with Nauseated blues.  Now blues is not the genre one would expect from Corinne, but this was powerful, lyrically inventive stuff.  Confirmed what I thought I’d heard the previous week in another song, that nod to Bob Dylan: “Think twice, babe / It’s not all right.”

Hannah Chutzpah scored with Shithead Bingo, a culture wars hymnal cataloguing the perils of one’s work colleagues opinions, and something called Butterfly Hoarder, the title of which I wrote down but can now remember nothing about, but it must have been worthy of something.  Mudlarking broadened things with her thoughts on hunting for history in the tidal mud of the River Thames’ banks, while she brought the house down with Dear Pet Crematorium, customer feedback to a North London pet crematorium that delivers the dear departed cat’s ashes well enough, but also with a bonus of Clinton’s Cards verse thrown in.  Go on, you know you want to: https://hannahchutzpah.com/2016/02/09/necrokitty-video/

Noah’s Cape (say it slowly out loud – it took me a while to get it) is MK Poet Laureate Mark Niels’s new folk-ish group; probably wrong of me to call it ‘his’ – an accomplished trio of seasoned performers, anyway.  Broad entertaining repertoire with some originals, and a very moving Galway Shawl.

Vaultage

Click on each poster to read what it says about the featured artists’: I can’t better some of the descriptions.  And I can’t remember too many specifics either, I’m afraid.  Take a bow Pat Nicholson for the continuing excellence of an evening at Vaultage; not forgetting the open mic-ers.

Omnivibes

Omnivibes, Paul Jackson, was just sensational on amplified sitar.  Two plugs and leads, the drone having its own, he lit a couple of joss sticks, positioned himself on his sitar case cum miniature stage and had us spell bound playing two ragas, in the middle of the second, without pausing, he slipped a steel bottle-neck on his finger and slipped in a blues interlude, finishing with a short blues.  Amazing instrument, amazing sounds, amazing player.

More blues the previous week from the slimmed down two-man Ramblin’ Preachers.  If just the two acoustic guitars can produce that much excitement … A couple of powerhouse self-penned opening numbers, bit of a comparative rest and then a storming  Damn right I got the blues.  And a hell of a blues voice too.  Phew.

Fraser & Toots started off like they’d walked right in off a Parisian boulevard (an accordion will do that), albeit with a song boasting the line “Moscow, where the reds play the blues”.  Their clever self-penned songs ranged wider after that, though you have to say the highlight was a cover … of a Beatles song declared “impossible to play”: an immaculate For the benefit of Mr Kite from Sgt Pepper, no less.

Santini are a duo, vocal and guitar accompanist, with an interesting and wide-ranging set of covers.  An immaculate rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (or was it Somebody to love) (or was it even both?) are the specifics I remember, but she has a fabulous voice, powerful, controlled … if she were Portuguese she’d be singing Fado.  Great fun too.

Consummate musician Rob Bray does what it says on his poster: spiritual, vulgar, carnal, charming.  Ditto for Stephen Ferneyhough and his concertinas: Morris tunes, music hall, Booby Vee and The Kinks.  He’s big on audience participation; which they do.  And somewhere in there (Vaultage and/or Scribal), a set from ukulelist Sandy Clarke that went from The ace of spades to Won’t get fooled again via I am the walrus; another time (Vaultage for sure) Dion’s The wanderer, lyrics duly amended beyond “Well I’m the kind of gal …”

And just in case anyone is unfamiliar with Ian Dury’s Clever bastards (b-side of Hit me with your rhythm stick), you now have no excuse:

 

 

 

 

Comfortable Win

Given the hardships and rigours of the voyage, perhaps enchantment is not the right word to describe how Sally Magnusson‘s The Sealwoman’s gift (Two Roads, 2018) took me over, but that’s how it felt from the beginning.  Nor was I alone in this at the March meeting.  Who’d have thought it, we all said, about ‘The Turkish Abductions’, as they are known in Iceland.  In 1627 (1627!) Barbary corsairs, out of Ottoman North Africa, raid Iceland and take 400 inhabitants (250 from one small island) and ship them to Algiers to sell into slavery, or held for ransom.  There is a contemporary text, but as Asta says toward the end:

For those who want to know what it is for human beings to be stolen and traded and lose their children, there is always Olafur’s book, which has been much copied and passed around. By now others may have written their own accounts of captivity. Men, of course. They will all be men. Does it matter that nobody will know how it was to be a woman?

A couple in the reading group had reservations, thought it was cheating a bit, to smuggle a feminist voice into the narrative (it is quite subtly done), but they still praised it highly; for me that was the cherry on the cake, added sparkle. 

We get to see the aforesaid chronicler, a Lutheran minister, not a bad bloke, being set up with a younger wife, Asta, who is the bright main narrative voice: Margret sniffs. ‘I soon had you in shape though, didn’t I? You would have been no use to Olafur if you hadn’t known how to soften a cod’s head in whey“; she is quite taken that he’s a bookman, though there are differences in outlook:

There are no trolls in the Bible. Grotesque shapes in the lava are the way the Almighty once instructed a volcano to behave and not frozen giantesses awaiting the sun’s caresses.

 It’s not all Asta, either; here’s a pirate, outlining their strategy:  

So, fly a Danish flag, sail on past with confidence, land the boats somewhere the locals would never think of and storm the harbour from inland. Fucking brilliant plan, even if it did have its perils. He thought his last moments had come trying to land on the promontory. Never seen surf like it.

Sally Magnusson is not mucking about; this is a slave ship.  Asta and Olifur already have two children, who are taken with them; she gives birth to a third on the voyage.  Once in Muslim Algiers he gets to go back to negotiate a ransom for their release, while she gets taken into a harem, where she keeps the interesting Sultan at bay for a considerable time by giving him the equivalent of A thousand and one nights, drawing from her extensive knowledge of Icelandic myths and sagas; indeed, storytelling is at play throughout the book.  Her elder kids go native (he even becomes a corsair); the sultan is beguiled, and she gets drawn in by the sensual delights of Algiers (warmth, colour, spice), gets to appreciate there are other ways of life, and pleasurably succumbs. 

Finally the prospect of the ransom getting paid; she has a decision to make; old duty wins after an inner struggle.  Holding station on the way back in Amsterdam’s no great shakes either.  Back in Iceland she hates it and him (colourless, cold, monotonous food, a joyless old man).  There is a reconciliation brought about by the gift of the Sealwoman.  Though it’s not as straightforward as it seems if you think about it (she does), it works well enough.

The Sealwoman’s gift is a beautifully told historical novel that sings.  The prose flows, is vivid, realistic, emotional and enchanting; it is delivered with great insight, has great character development (hey, Book Group-land!) and no little wit.  I loved reading it.  Hell, it even has a fart joke:

Asta is horrified to feel a trickle of laughter at her throat. All her life she has struggled with the impulse to laugh at the wrong time. Olafur has never forgiven her for giggling uncontrollably the day he roared from the pulpit, ‘Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind’, just as a large farmer at the front shifted his buttock and blasted the congregation. The worst of it was that Olafur heard her and had to swallow twice himself. He said afterwards that he had never been so mortified and refused to speak to her for the rest of the day.

Nil-Nil draw

I took against Jamil Ahmad‘s The wandering falcon (2011), April’s Book Group book, from the clumsy opening words: “In the tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten and broken hills, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet, is a military outpost manned by about two score soldiers.”  Of course the hills are broken – they’re crumbling and weather-beaten;  unless broken means more, and if so, what?  And there are more graceful words available than that ‘about’?

I’m probably being unfair.  This collection of connected short stories, covering events in the 1950s through to the 1970s, was written in the latter decade and published when the author, a government official, was 79.  It certainly gives you a feel for the bleak terrain, challenging climate and the harsh life of the seasonally migrating tribes of the region have traditionally worked the area.  But times are changing, not least this modern notion of borders, and The wandering Falcon examines these social changes:

They walked silently for a while, thinking about the effect the new policy would have on them and their people. There was no way for them to obtain travel documents for thousands of their tribesmen; they had no birth certificates, no identity papers or health documents. They could not document their animals. The new system would certainly mean the death of a centuries-old way of life.

Trouble is, it’s not easy to look upon these massive changes overtaking a cruelly patriarchal way of life as any great loss.  Nor, thankfully, is Jamil Ahmad a sentimental chronicler of its demise:

Despite their differences, the two [feuding] tribes share more than merely their common heritage of poverty and misery. Nature has bred in both an unusual abundance of anger, enormous resilience, and a total refusal to accept their fate. […] To both tribes, survival is the ultimate virtue. In neither community is any stigma attached to a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer. And then, both are totally absorbed in themselves. They have no doubt in their minds that they occupy centre stage, while the rest of the world acts out minor roles or watches them as spectators – as befits inferior species.

The stories are linked by the title character, Tor Baz, who we first see as a very young boy.  Abandoned after a wretched sequence of events, he manages somehow to fend for himself for the duration.  He’s not exactly Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (now that would be interesting, a native-written re-write), but he makes at least a fleeting appearance in each of the nine stories except the penultimate and crucial The betrothal of Shah Zarina, the story of a woman’s escape from a brutal marriage to a bear-tamer, only to end up in a slave market.  Where (spoiler alert) in the nicely ambiguous final chapter, she catches Tor Baz’s eye and he, operating in trickster mode, buys her for cheap, thinking “I could settle down with this one“.  I’ll admit it’s stayed with me longer than I thought it might; as a group we acknowledged its strengths but on the whole were lukewarm.

A mauling

A less than well attended May meeting, with little enthusiasm for Public library and other stories (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) and some ire.  Except from one of us. Which was me.  Who loved it.  And was reading it for the third time.

Seems Ali Smith is Marmite.  She’s all over the place, they complained, there’s no obvious structure.  That’s why I like her so much; she’ll just, for want of a better description, get a notion and  ‘go off on one’; or seems to – there could well be art in this.  As well as witty nods and literary winks aplenty.  True, there isn’t much to specifically link the 12 actual short stories with the prompted passages from various writers singing the praises of a beleaguered public library service – it was fair, I guess, to expect a library setting to some of the fiction – but books and a fascination with words figure strongly in these absorbing (for some!) tales of personal renaissance, scholarship in the broadest sense (Dusty Springfield!), and just making it through.

I’ve written about this book before (https://quavid.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/book-affected-homes/ ) but I’ll give a taste from Say I won’t be there, a wife and husband breakfast dialogue and email exchange that starts off “I had a dream, I say.” The Today programme is on BBC Radio4.  He’s thinking about work.  It’s a recurring dream: “I’m, like, a character in a 1960s novel. / Which 1960s novel? you say.  / Not a real actual novel, I say.”  He queries further, prompting.  “Don’t start trying to turn my dream into a cheap graphic-design version of the 1960s, I say.”  They briefly reminisce (or he does) about a holiday car journey with A hard day’s night on the car stereo.  Conversation about Dusty Springfield follows inter alia.  Is he in the dream? 

She goes off to work, she thinks back to when she used to write down her dreams in a book they bought in Habitat.  Dusty email exchanges lead to her buying and listening to a Springfields ‘best of’ double CD, surprised at how much she recognises.  Day’s end and conversation in bed, starting with “I’ll write a book instead, you say.  I’ll call it The Dream: Grime and Transcendence in the 1960s Novel.  / Not a very catchy title I say.” Then we get that night’s dream in which a family talks about Busty Springboard (as my partner, not Ali Smith, says they used to call her), and which is like a 1960s novel.  Nineteen brilliant pages; but I can see it’s not for everyone.

Okay.  And why not?

My title, by the way, was a shameless lift from J.G.Ballard’s splendid short story The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy considered as a downhill motor race, itself inspired by Alfred Jarry’s The Crucifixion considered as an uphill bicycle race.  I don’t really do it justice.

Out of towners start here: every year in early June, a band of concerned citizens in the old Buckinghamshire market town of Stony Stratford – “the jewel in the crown of Milton Keynes” – have put together StonyLive!, a programme of musical and other cultural events over and above the rich activity that persists all year round.  (To get an idea of its breadth, you might still find further details at https://www.stonylive.info/).  Now read on, for what it’s worth, for one man’s journey through StonyLive! 2019:

Prelude 1

About halfway into Corinne Lucy‘s outstanding featured guest spot at the previous Thursday’s Vaultage she opined, “It’s not all folk noir.  I can write pop songs too” – and very accomplished and uplifting A hundred roses was too.  She finished a powerful set of heartfelt originals with Chasing the centre, a song and performance so good I was thinking if I don’t get to hear anything like again this year, it will have been a good year.  I heard it again, twice, in the course of the next six days: Hey! StonyLive!  More about that song later, by which time, I’d thought of a way to describe it worthily enough (you read it here first).

Vaultage footnote: esteemed open mic ukulelist Sandy Clarke did a touching rendition of When I ruled the world, a song that I did not recognise.  My companion was embarrassed to be able to tell me it was one of Coldplay’s.  Which just goes to show something or other.

Prelude 2

Saturday and Sunday performances of the Carabosse Theatre Company’s Another round of real ale & drama shots were in the StonyLive! programme, but I saw it on the Friday, so here, on a technicality, it must be in the Prelude.

Seven short plays and considerably more real theatrical moments – whaaat? – superbly staged and acted in an intimate venue, stage and fourth wall on the long side of the rectangle.  Harrowing start in the Great War trenches, the first of a series of reverses or, depending on the pace, dramatic twists, that followed.  No, I’d never imagined what the life of the Tooth Fairy was like, but it would never have been like that.  This followed a tense two hander Harold Pinter meets Pete and Dud.

The show closed with an examination of the nature of faith disguised as a Doctor Who episode scripted by Samuel Beckett (a joyless bowler hatted cyborg battalion … but without the Doctor).  There was a lot going on throughout, all neatly compered by minimalist clown-face troubadour Billy Nomad.  Very dark, but absolutely not without humour.  Invidious to single out any of the actors, but Bravo! Artistic Director Sally Luff.

Saturday: Act One

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brackley Morris Man levitates

New Moon, a mixed “Morris fusion” with a touch of cyberpunk from Ivinghoe, Bucks, let out for the day.

Saturday and it’s bread and eggs from the market and the Day of Dance on the closed to vehicles High Street.  Not just Morris – all manner of terpsichorean delights were on show throughout the day.  Fine weather smiled upon us.

And back to see Corinne Lucy kick off – she had other places to be – a staggering line-up of almost wholly local talent; and talented is the word.  We are blessed.  An entertaining afternoon was spent until the sun’s heat got to me.  Pacing myself for the week … and feeling the lure of the football (only the Champions League Final) … I retired early.  The football was uninspiring (except Liverpool won, said this Arsenal fan) and to all reports a grand time was had in the Stables courtyard of the Bull all evening too.

Sat with a fellow Dylan enthusiast when Corinne was on.  Floated the idea that that song had an angry echo of The gates of Eden about it, but I wasn’t there yet in pinning it down.

Act 2: Classic Cars

And so to Sunday, another fine morning and the traditional (how long does it take?) Classic Cars show.  Plenty of people, plenty of cars, but it’s possible I’m getting a bit jaded.  The more modern expensive stuff has no interest for me.  No great Wows! this year and a couple of old favourites were absent – still interesting though – and nostalgia took hold.

From the top: driving practise around South Bucks in my mum’s Morris Minor, trafficators (hence the ‘Attention’ in the photo) – indicators sticking out of the side of the car – before she had the garage put in lights.  Rovers 95 and 100 (unfortunately the other way round in the photo) and sinking into the leather seats of my mate Mark’s dad’s car (it might even have been a 90) in Birkenhead, very early ’70s.  And the Austin A30.  At uni I had use of another mate’s van while he was doing his term abroad (scholastic, not prison); battery needed attention, got it, but in the process I inadvertently ruined – thigh denim disintegrated when I scratched an itch – a perfectly good pair of jeans; remember batteries, never mind battery acid, as a thing to worry about?  There’s another story too, but … no, too long a tale.

Act 3: Monday

Early evening joined the Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s Shakespeare Walkabout – excerpts from the plays, a sonnet or two, bracketed at each location with songs from the Not Two Bees, who were great fun.  Nice to be reminded, too, of Lord Buckley‘s hipster (old school) take on Mark Anthony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar:  “The bad jazz a cat blows / wails long after he’s cut out.”

Blues from the Ouse captured the previous day at Classic Cars.

And then it’s Blues from the Ouse.  Again.  Started off quietly enough with just a handful of us in the Vaults Bar but it soon filled up and a fine evening of da blues was had, Ian Anderson’s strong voice never faltering (he’s a busy man) and young cohort James Ives playing up a subtle storm.  Ian: “I played a bum note there, but … a tip I got from James: keep playing it and they’ll think you meant it.”  Audience member: “So you can teach an old dog new tricks.”  Took me by surprise when they finished with a glorious, swinging, celebratory take on Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Act 4: Tuesday

There is so much going on most nights that a choice has to be made between something not usually on offer – hey! Flanders & Swann – and being loyal to one’s confreres, or worse having to choose between two of the latter.  One of these StonyLives! I will make it to the big A Capella session in the Vaults, and doubtless drink too much and lose my voice for the rest of the week.

And so to an interesting Evening with the Bard and Friends. Which started with a worthy history lesson-come-poetic disquisition on racism and white privilege, in which a few pearls shone out, like “The two Isaacs, Newton and Gregory” (or was it the other way round? – still good).  It lightened up somewhat after that.  Donna Bond made me laugh.  Stony Bard Mitchell Taylor commendably didn’t take up too much performance time for himself (I mean that in a good way).

Memo to aspirant Spoken Worders: the use of a staple gun to clip the pages of long pieces together is not to be recommended, especially if you’re holding a mic in the other hand.  Employing the method adopted by Sam Upton – dropping the sheet to the floor when the words thereon have been spoken – is not only practical but also conveys a certain je ne sais quoi.  I’m saying nothing about the use of mobile phones.

Mojo Mules finished the evening in great style, with vigour, skill and wit.  Another blues duo, jazz tinged this time, with, progressively, added lap steel, and then an upgraded washboard with bells on (or rather one bell, £2 on Amazon, which made his life complete, said its wielder).

[A Bill Withers moment: pretty much the same time as Manny was incorporating a Bill Withers song segment in one of his songs (was it Ain’t no sunshine?), over in the Vaults A Capella session, as later found in FaceBook, they were doing Lean on me.  For people in both venues, then, near the end of a Lovely day]

Act 5: Ode to the Siren

Event of the week for me, and I’m not the only one.  A brave and timely (see Thursday) concept wonderfully realised.  Take a bow Jill and Jonathan Taylor.

Corinne Lucy again, with her powerful, heartfelt story songs (wishing an ex- happiness, Neil Gaiman’s take on The little mermaid (she said that), Bird of paradise inspired by eighteenth century naturalist specimen collectors, among others) and then Chasing the centre again, that closing line to all three verses, “And I knew it was lying“, still echoing in my head 6 days on.  OK, here we go: imagine Alan Ginsberg’s Howl personalised – one of those best minds desperately pacing the city streets looking for signs and answers – and sung by Joni Mitchell (with an English accent).  No spoilers.

Naomi Rose, another great original songwriter and performer, mentioned previously in despatches, was on the top of her game too.  As were poets Danni and Vanessa.  All topped off by the wonderful Fay Roberts, fresh sonnets to deliver, speaking of little known feminist heroines (should that be heroes theses days?), and more.  I know, I’ve mentioned Fay’s ‘quiet power’ before, but I’m sorry, I can’t do any better.  She enchants, entrances with a vivid mix of language old, new, formal and vernacular.

Archivists note: regrettably Naomi couldn’t make it.

Act 6: More songwriters

Is there a collective noun?  Anyway, Thursday and it must be Vaultage but with something fresh this StonyLive! week.  No open mic and a strict 12 minutes, no covers, rule, with a cash prize for the best song.  Amazingly went smoothly, flushed out some newcomers to Vaultage and some decent songs.  Apples and oranges, but, you know, it worked as a show.  As one of the four judges (plus Chair in case of a draw), I have to say it gave me an insight into what hell being on a Booker Prize panel might be like.  Luckily two of our panel were in agreement from the start, otherwise discussion might have gone all night; even then, the audience were getting restless.

Worthy winner was Stony Bard Mitchell Taylor with For the benefit of, a sprightly and muscular original take on mental health issues.  Icing on the cake, his encore and a singalong of Ian Dury’s There aint half been some clever bastards. Nice to be reminded.

Friday wimp out

Not to put too fine a point on it, I wimped out.  The rigours of the judging and four consecutive nights out – unprecedented this, oh, millennium – took its toll.  Thought of just walking up and down the High Street playing Cover Band Bingo but in the end stayed in and caught up on a bit of television.  Next year, Lillabullero, you shall go to Woburn Jazz.

Saturday

Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but a traditional lunchtime pint in the Fox to the accompaniment of the Concrete Cowboys seemed somehow compulsory.  Couldn’t face Saturday night crowds but that’s irrelevant because – I know, I know – I should have gone to IOTA in York House.

Postlude: Folk on the Green

Definitely not part of StonyLive! Oh no!  As part of the permissions  needed – Horsefair Green is surrounded by houses – no pre-publicity and no leaking of the line-up beforehand.  A local festival for local people.  A fine and mostly local line-up it proved too.

Wandered down the road to buy a programme at mid-day to find the upful jangling African guitar sound of Safari Boots, rather than the usual mournful solo artiste starter, filling the air.  And so it continued, next up the excellent Innocent Hare.  The roster of acts signalled a shift back towards folk on the Green’s origins, so the accomplished kids from MK Rock School were the rockest act on show: no token gesture this, as far as age goes, either, though it did seem a little strange watching young teens ripping into Smells like teen spirit, written by Kurt Cobain when he was 23.  A hard rock Come together came together nicely too.

Follow that, the fragrant Naomi Rose, and she did, to much appreciation, finishing with the wonderful The wonderful (which, of course, isn’t on Soundcloud, but her opener, a song about Milton Keynes is: be my guest).

Then the Cock and Bull Band, who were playing (well, a couple of them) the very first Folk on the Green I ever went to, many moons ago, before we even moved here.  Full of bounce, quite why there was mass dancing to Togmor rather than they I can only put down to it only being the half-way point in proceedings.  10 acts in total, and the beats went on.  Relaxed, satisfying, weather behaved itself, a good one.

Acknowledgments

Cheers to one and all on the StonyLive! Coordinating Committee – ‘the best ever?’ I have heard suggested.  And to the Folk on the Green Committee for its refocussing of a community event to be proud of.  And the volunteers, sponsors and performers.  Thanks again.  See you next year.

Music therapy

There was once a music shop“.  So opens Rachel Joyce‘s novel The music shop (Doubleday, 2017), and that’s where the trouble starts – I don’t believe you.  It may be 1988 with NF graffiti on the walls, but here we are really living in the land of fable.  That the shop is situated on Unity Street gives the game away, I’d say.  At The music shop‘s core is a drawn-out, convoluted operatic love story; if it were an old film you can practically hear the violins on the page (not in a good way).  And at the end, 21 years later, there’s a grand song and dance finale that cries out for the musical stage or a big screen.  Not a great novel, then.

We could debate how clever or cute it is that the book’s structure follows that of a vinyl double album (Side A through to Side D, with a Hidden track at the end) and that a lot of chapter headings are song titles.  I’m not convinced.  The test of a book with music to the fore is how much it makes you want to hear what’s being cited, and, yes, The music shop did make me want to revisit some of the classical works discussed (The fours seasons, even).  Here’s the biographical context of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata:

It’s so intimate, what he’s doing, he’s practically having sex with her.’
‘Sex?’ Her face stretched wide. ‘Beethoven?’
‘Or at least good foreplay.’
Sex? Foreplay? Horrified, he heard the words that had come from his mouth.

So I’m not saying it doesn’t have its moments, nor that it doesn’t have decent musical taste (I almost cheered aloud when The new favourites of Brinsley Schwartz made an appearance in a list, though that’s another story), just that the rock stuff doesn’t sing off the page in the same way, or get much context.  Blues hardly figure at all, even though all the characters have got ’em, one way or another.

Most of the best bits of The music shop come out of the owner of the shop’s – Frank’s – back story, his life and broad early musical education at the hands of an eccentric bohemian single mum who died young.  He’d rather have had a normal childhood, but she left him with his special talent, of which more later.  His mum is really interesting; that’s a novel I’d rather have read.  Her stuff appears in italics.  She’s a card: ‘Bach was a genius,’ she said … ‘He was jazz in fucking Baroque fucking Germany.’  On Perotin and the birth of harmony: ‘In those days music was mostly plainsong. It was a bit – how could she put this? Fucking plain.’ Frank hardly swears at all.  And the game changer (not that we hear much about Mile Davies):

When Peg played Kind of Blue, Frank had no idea what hit him. It was 1959. The album had just come out, and he was 11.
As he listened, it was like doors opening …
‘This is the record that will change history,’ said Peg. […]

Frank’s special talent is that he can tell what people need to listen to.  Right at the start he persuades a man who professes to ‘only liked Chopin’ to take home an Aretha Franklin album and … Eureka!  He saves his bank manager’s marriage (and secures an overdraft extension to keep the shop going for himself) by pressing a Shalomar album on him.  Many people benefit over the years from his guru-like gift.  Looking for some sort of scoop, or at least a touch of the authentic, I asked a friend of mine who is an avid reader and a qualified music therapist what he thought of The music shop; bastard hadn’t read it (no offence).

So this is no ordinary record shop.  We’ll pass over its realistic financial viability; he’s holding out religiously against CDs, and this is twenty years before the advent of the vinyl revival.  Interesting concept, and you can see what he means but … (and anticipating Amazon’s tricks):

I see you don’t have any sections.?’
‘I put records where I think they should go. I am more interested in what it’s like when you – when you, uh, you know … […]
‘What?’ she asked.
‘When you –
listen. So if a customer asks for Rubber Soul, they usually find something else they would like as well.’

So Frank attempted to explain that Vivaldi was telling a story in the Four Seasons. It was why he kept it with his concept albums, like Ziggy Stardust, At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash, ABC’s The lexicon of love and John Coltrane’s A love supreme. Concept albums told a story over a number of tracks.

This Frank is a man with “a kind of empathy for everyone.”  As one of his fellow shopkeepers (a tattoo artist no less) says, he has “no room to accommodate the fact that someone might turn round one day and love him back“.  On the one hand inspirational, on the other, really bloody annoying (but the back story …):

So what was Frank going to do about [the event that sets the narrative off]? Frank was going to do what he always did when life got confusing, and that was absolutely nothing. If that didn’t work, he would do the next thing he always did when life was confusing, and hide.

And what of Unity Street, a half abandoned side street parade, away from the main shopping drag in a failing provincial town, suffering from planning blight, falling masonry, and a voracious developer trying to buy the stubborn survivors out.  A little community, then: “All life is here”, even after the baker had sold up – a funeral parlour, a religious gifts store, a music shop and a tattoo parlour.  Father Anthony, a retired priest (no, drink, not that) was saved by Frank introducing turning him on to jazz, calls his shop ‘Articles of Faith’.

Side D takes us 21 years on, after a catastrophe involving a sub-McGuffin of a shrink-wrap machine (for second hand vinyl?).  As I say, The music shop the stuff of musicals.  A lot of people have been heartened by the happy ending (oops).

Music, Maestro please …

Meanwhile, back in the real world, a couple of Saturdays ago (May 9) we were worshipping in the Church of the Bullfrogs at York House .  Shall I say ‘local legends’?  Why not!  Their special 25th birthday gig, no less – 1994 at the Fox and Hounds and all that.  Great evening, kicked off with a blast of hard-driving blues-powered rock from original members of the Beneficial Blues Band, out of whom which the Bullfrogs were spawned.  And when they hit the stage the canvas was broadened more than a wee bit with big colourful strokes of Southern Rock, Tex-Mex, and self-proclaimed ‘original Outlaw Country’.  A waltz even … and even if it was Green grow the rushes / Viva Mexico, there were waltzers.

Over the course of the evening we saw two drummers, three guitarists, three fiddlers from over the Bullfrog years and just the one redoubtable Ian Anderson, on bass, vocals and boundless energy. Pete Cripps deserves a special nod too for being on stage all night.  Highlights?  I’ve never heard a fiddle contributing to a Bo Diddley beat before but I have now.  The inevitable but consummate Sweet home Alabama … complete with guitar/fiddle duel.  Ian as Preacher Man, on a mission to rid the world of alcohol (there was a punch-line), never mind Everybody needs to believe in something … I believe I’ll have another beer“.  Copperhead Road got its full due (never short-changed) from band and crowd.  Towards the end there all three fiddlers triumphantly strutted the stage for another Steve Earle’s song – When Johnny come marching home – delivered at increasingly lunatic speed.  And then came The devil came to Georgia.

People pay obscene amounts of money and travel miles to see matchstick musicians (or rather their projected images) perform.  This was a great night full of energy, passion and skill.  You could see the whites of their eyes (and they ours) and the beer was £3.50 a pint.  As I walked home a fine half-moon looking for all the world like a sugared lemon jelly fruit slice shone down on me.

Scribal & Vaultage

At May’s Scribal performance poet Kezzabelle, ‘Mistress of Mischief’ and Fairy of life (apologising for not showering us with glitter since she found out it was not sustainable or biodegradable), was fun, serious (long saving-the-planet piece), and back again with her Retro-Afro-Muff.   From the floor Inappropriate Graham from Rugby, fitted 3-piece suit and all, was suitably inappropriate, while the Bendy Witch’s secularist anthem God and cheese got a worthy reprise.  This year Scribal has been quirkily graced with  … what shall we call them? …  short short stories? long epigrams? gnomic vignettes? … from the mind of graphic artist Paul Rainey (pen name P.Brainey).  This month’s piece about the anti-Earth always opposite Earth in its orbit round the Sun threw up all sorts of unlikely delights, including the ex-JD and radio personality TLD’s response to allegations made against him.

Vaultages coming and going so fast … Woolford Scott a singer-songwriter I’d not mind seeing more of (“You can be my Julie Andrews / I’ll be your Dick van Dyke”); Corinne Lucy solo a singer and writer of exquisite power.  It can be touch and go in the Vaults some nights with a general pub hub-bub from the bar, but Corinne had ’em listening.  Blues from the Ouse and it’s that man again – the aforementioned Ian Anderson and talented young guitarist James Ives playing da blues; Ives had also shone earlier in his other duo.  Sandy Clarke braved a Status Quo trilogy one week … on ukulele.  Last week there were two ukes at the same time.

Milton Keynes Gallery 

And lo, Milton Keynes Gallery did re-open bigger and better a couple of months ago.  Yay MK!  Could only manage a swift dash through in the opening week and was suitably impressed (there’ll be plenty of time…), and finally managed a more relaxed stroll through of opening show The lie of the land a couple of days before it closed.  There was text on the wall in the first get-a-flavour gallery that I wish I’d copied one way or another, referencing the many layered meanings of that word ‘lie’ not forgetting fabrication.  I feel the need to cite Neil Young’s After the Goldrush and “I was thinking about what a friend had said / I was hoping it was a …[sorry for the earworm] ).  Anyway, the Press Release gives a pretty good idea of the depth and variety of it all:

Through a playful and provocative display The Lie of the Land charts how British landscape was radically transformed by changes in free time and leisure activities since hunting and shooting, the recreations of the aristocracy, were enjoyed on the rolling hills of their private estates. In part, tracing a line between Capability Brown’s aristocratic gardens at Stowe and the social, urban experiment at neighbouring Milton Keynes, the exhibition teases out the aspirations that underpin our built environments.

The Lie of the Land examines the modernisation of leisure propelled by industrialisation, a theme developed from Canaletto’s painting of the fashionable public entertainment venue, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Victorian era, with its social reforms aiming to improve urban living conditions, is represented by the Parks Movement. Alongside works by early science fiction writer Jane Loudon and the founder of the Garden City Movement Ebenezer Howard, the exhibition also includes the first-ever lawnmower, John Ruskin’s rock collection and influential horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening boots …

There’s more at www.mkgallery.org/whats-on/the-lie-of-the-land/ (it’ll still be there somewhere after the event) including a list of the many artists displayed.  The new era has got off to a good start.

The long wall in the Wolfson Gallery was a stunner, a fascinating collection of conventional paintings hung on a backdrop of William Morris Strawberry thief design wallpaper.

On the other side of the gallery a series of photos documenting goalposts painted on a variety of walls and locations in northern industrial towns caught my interest.  And there was much more, contextualised in The lie of the land by the company they were keeping.

Couple of favourites: to the right of the long one on the wall (Carel Weights’ The Dogs, 1956 – hello Dad), Mabel Frances Layng’s post-Great War Mars and Venus (c1918); and John Walker Tucker’s optimistic Hiking (1936) before the next one:

 

 

 

 

 

Only The Loney

Andrew Michael Hurley‘s The Loney was strongly urged on me by a friend who, to be frank, has a bit of a mixed record.  Nor is the gothic novel a genre I’ve spent much time in, but The Loney (Tartarus Press, 2014; John Murray, 2015) has stayed with me a while now.

Even as a relative stranger to the genre, I can see it has classic potential.  Third paragraph in and bad weather has caused chaos across England and caused our narrator, in North London, to miss a therapy session:

Then, latterly, the news about the sudden landslide on Coldbarrow, and the baby they’d found tumbled down with the old house at the foot of the cliffs.

Coldbarrow. There was a name I hadn’t heard for a long time. Not for thirty years. No one I knew mentioned it any more and I’d tried very hard to forget it myself. But I suppose I always knew that what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden forever, no matter how much I wanted it to.

1973, and an odd little group – a mini-cult drawn from the Catholic congregation of St Judes in the East End of London – are off on their customary pilgrimage to a settlement on the bleak north Lancashire coast:

If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney – that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest.”

The object of the exercise is to pay their respects at a remote shrine to St Anne, specifically to pray for the cure of Hanny, a mute, who it is presumed is intellectually dumb too; our narrator, his brother, age 12, is 4 years younger, an avid reader of Commando magazine, and acts as his minder.  Our redeemer fails again, but are we down-hearted? No, but.  Father Bernard: “… you said that Wilfred seemed to change after you came here the last time?”  Well …. something happened.

1973’s journey had been the precursor to a final, eventful, trip made three years later with the late Father Wilfred’s easy-going successor, Father Bernard in the driver’s seat.  Something deeply disturbing – and well scary for the reader – happens to the brothers (I’m giving nothing specific away) but subsequently Hanny, Andrew, now a happily married pastor, has written a bestselling memoir, My second life with God.  He has no exact recall of the events at the Loney, save for a vague feeling of guilt.  Meanwhile, at the time of writing, our narrator is a loner ploughing a solitary trough working in a museum, and is in counselling; “If they think I’m fastidious or reclusive then they’d be right, I am. And so where do we go from there? You’ve worked me out. Have a prize.”

As far as the 1973 charabanc’s passengers goes, though, Father Bernard regards him, the narrator, as the sanest of the group, calling him ‘Tonto’.  They have gained a younger couple to their groupuscule, too, who, actually, would rather have gone to Walsingham for their spiritual jaunt.  This examination of small group social psychology is a particularly interesting aspect of The Loney; it reminded me of Alison Lurie’s brilliantly observed, but out-of-print novel, Imaginary friends (1967), no bad thing at all.

How weird are they?  Well, driving through a ‘bad’ part of London with Father Wilfred, “It was a safari park of degradation.  What a world without God looked like.”  How weird is where they’re going?  The house’s previous occupant had been a taxidermist who died, and it’s never been fully cleared, for starters.  And the locals?  Think low-life Wicker Man territory?  Just for starters, they get a disturbing visit from a mummers troupe:

The Face Eggers had always frightened me as a child, grotesque as Punch and Judy puppets. Natives of some savage tribe as painted by the children of missionaries. […]
The stink of booze drifted from them as they sang old songs in bass voices; songs that didn’t have the predictable, homely rise and fall of the hymns we’d been singing all week, but which tumbled through strange minor keys and moved across intervals that sounded like they might have once charmed the Devil to the surface of the world.

As well as the highly tuned gothic climax, jeopardy and general atmospheric weirdness, there is excitement to be had for the reader with the brothers encountering quicksands (where those Chinese cockle pickers perished), all not so much leavened – rather setting up a grounding of normality – by gentle humour and the odd period reference.  Upstairs in the Moorings, the dilapidated house where they stay, there is “… a long corridor lined with empty coat hooks on which a smell of damp gaberdine hung“; also there, “Mr Belderboss chuckled as he looked at the ancient radio sitting on the sideboard – the sort of dark, wooden thing that would still be broadcasting Churchill’s speeches if we were to turn it on.”  There’s a photo of the deceased taxidermist: “He wore bottle-end glasses and slicked his hair back over his head. He looked a little like Charles Hawtrey, I thought. Or Himmler.”  Back home, just before something astonishing come to pass, we are simply vouchsafed, “I was revising Hamlet for an exam the following day“; nothing more is made of this, which I’d say was a touch of class.

The adults are worried by what they see as Father Bernard’s take on affairs and theology: “Matt Munro. My one and only vice, Mrs Smith, I can assure you. I’ve had long consultations with the Lord about it, but I think he’s given me up as a lost cause,” he tries to reassure them.  More specifically: ” ‘Look,’ said Father Bernard. ‘It seems to me that you need to be in a dialogue with God, not putting out your hands for a caning. Take some time, talk to Him, pray for guidance, not punishment. God will answer you, Reg.’ ”  An interesting consideration of the notion of faith comes into play, touching specifically on why Father Bernard had been chosen by the church hierarchy to replace the austere Wilfred.

At the end of the book, the brothers meet up in the post-storm present, to discuss what happened, what will happen next.  And lo, the spectre of the unreliable narrator arises – a strong spectre, maybe: “Like Father Bernard said, there are only versions of the truth. And it’s the strong, the better strategists who manage them.”  The Loney is a book that has stayed with me a while now.

That’s entertainment

As can be seen from the number of posters on view here, productivity has not been a watchword here at Lillabullero; I’m four books behind too.  The little I can remember about Scribal – don’t you just hate those people taking notes at gigs – is Dominic the Poet striding about and owning the room, finishing in style with a long piece originally written for children about dragons, or a dragon, and mothers.  Neat, off-hand, but very funny way of telling us the was a gay vegan (no, really) and never laboured it (was gonna say, didn’t milk it, but I know better than that).

Ukuleles have made their presence felt in Stony Stratford of late, one an 8 string – G and C octaves – that gave it a mandolin-ish presence (sorry, didn’t catch the name) – the other played in the hands of Sandy Clark, who I’ve now seen do one trio of (I think originals) conventional ukulele ditties, another of jazz-blues torch songs (great voice, too).  Oh yes and a splendid ’60s journey from Canned Heat to Joni Mitchell via Dusty Springfield; Son of a preacher man!  On ukulele.

I have to report one of the Vaultage evenings, Ralph suggested we were attending a Saga session; I won’t say which specific one that was, but looking at the posters … no matter: the now weekly Vaultage sessions that Pat Le Chapeau (aka ‘the hat’ Nicholson) has been running have seen some consistently fine performances from a variety of featured acts, and usually a high standard of open mic performers.

The last one was all love and flutes (well two of them).  Pat sans hat did a love song, Rob Bray chipped in, admitting he was So in love, and we were all singing along to John Howarth’s Share the love.  The bounce of African guitar stylings and one of the aforesaid flutes.

Vestigial functions

My title is drawn from Ben Aaronovitch‘s The rivers of London (Gollancz, 2011).  A vestigial function is not a bad description of how Lillabullero (this humble blog) quite often feels about itself.  Anyway, it’s how the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has always thought, reasonably enough, given the rise of science, about the special section of the Economic & Specialist Crimes Unit that Peter Grant, official apprentice wizard, serves in.

The rivers of London is a magic realism police procedural with a violent macabre streak.  It is the first of a series of books that now boasts seven titles, and if its successors continue to maintain this energy level I shall be impressed.  If you can put the episodes of video game gore to one side (faces viscerally falling off) it is great fun and, rich as it is in the psychogeography and history of London, highly educational too.

Peter Grant is a mixed race Londoner, son of an English jazz musician who once played with Tubby Hayes (such detail is important), a functioning drug addict with a “finely tuned ability to sabotage his own career“; his mum is a high-end office cleaner, with all the perks that can provide, originally from Sierra Leone.  Their council flat makes for a welcome port in the eventual storm, an affectionate interlude rich in family back story.

Peter’s first task, fully fledged PC, fresh from completing his probationary years, and relieved not to have been posted to the Case Progressions Unit, is to help in trying to stop a turf war breaking out between the street crews of the river gods: Mother (aka Mama) Thames (“the goddess of the river”, actually Nigerian), who rules the tidal section, and the Old Man of the River, Father Thames, who’s a bit old school fairground, hanging out at the source.  He liaises through various water sprites, guardians of the Thames’s tributaries.  At one stage Mama mentions his father:

You know my father?’
‘No,’ she said, and gave me a knowing smile. ‘Only in the sense that all the musicians of London belong to me, especially the jazz and bluesmen. It’s a river thing.’
‘Are you on speaking terms with the Mississippi, then?’ I asked. My father always swore that jazz, like the blues, was born in the muddy waters of the Mississippi. My mother swore that it came from the bottle, like all the devil’s best work.

It’s Peter’s boss who smooths the waters with Father Thames:

My contribution to the conversation was cursory at best,’ said Nightingale. ‘A great deal of it was technical, groundwater overdrafts, aquifer delay circles and aggregate catchment-area coefficients. Apparently all these will affect how much water goes down the river this summer.’
‘If I was to go back two hundred years and have that same conversation,’ I said, ‘what would the Old Man have talked about then?’
‘What flowers were blooming,’ said Nightingale. ‘What kind of winter we’d had – the flight of birds on a spring morning.’
‘Would it have been the same Old Man?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Nightingale. ‘It was the same Old Man in 1914, I can tell you that for certain.’

I know – this is probably too late a text, but hey, it breaks up my text.

Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose in Covent Garden, culminating in murderous mayhem spreading out from – get this – a Royal Opera House performance.  This is the culmination of a series of violent episodes, revealed (with the help of the memories of a couple of well-preserved theatre-going river sprites), as the actions of a revenant, one Henry Pyke, “a vampire ghost bent on revenge who was acting out the traditional story of Punch and Judy using real people as puppets“.  Pyke goes back a long way, a theatrical failure and maybe wrongfully accused murderer, fuelled by injustice, and now intent on acting out a particular eighteenth century Punch & Judy text.  In passing we get some fascinating background on Punchinello as “the spirit of riot and rebellion.”

The ghost of Pyke gets its energy from the anger of modern London.  There’s a tour de force five-page passage set in a multiplex cinema foyer, as a well-dressed, middle-aged woman with four girls age 9 to 11 in tow, tries to buy tickets to see a film, including cashing in some vouchers.  With the frustrations of a first, long slow-moving queue and a then an obtuse ticket seller, she loses it completely:

‘I just wanted to go to the pictures,’ she said. ‘When I was young you just went to the local Odeon and said ‘a ticket please’, and you gave them money and they gave you a ticket. When did it become so complicated? When did these disgusting nachos arrive? I mean, what the fuck is a nacho anyway?’ One of the girls giggled nervously at the profanity.

The rivers of London is a fast-paced treasure trove of wit, observation and (among many other things) architectural commentary.  Suspension of disbelief is obviously compulsory (Isaac Newton also wrote a Principia Artes Magicus), though some of the straight police procedure stuff seems knowledgeable.  A couple of one-liners to leave with you: No way,” [says Beverley, a river nymph] “You’re not getting me up past Teddington Lock. I’m strictly tidal ...”  Meanwhile, on the streets of London, “clusters of young people from all over Europe exercised their time-honoured right to block the pavement from one side to another.”

A musical interlude

A grand night’s shantying at York House a couple of weekend’s ago.  Ably supported by the 6 men and 1 woman of 5 men not called Matt, the 4 men of Kimber’s Men made it sound like like there were more of them than a quartet – the value of a spectacularly resonant bass anchor sees to that.  Hailing from landlocked Halifax, West Yorkshire, “the centre of the shanty universe” – Hull an hour and a half’s drive to the east, Liverpool ditto west, plus other cardinal points of the compass – they entertained us, made us laugh, and moved us, and a sparing tactical use of guitars on a couple of songs gave a bit of variety to proceedings.  A rousing, joyful evening, but something special happened to the audience during Don’t take the heroes, concerning the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981.  All 11 singers hit the stage for a final encore of Shenandoah; one had not realised there were quite so many verses.

Before I go to sleep

Have to say it, and it’s true.  I read a lot of the early part of S.J.Watson‘s Before I go to sleep (2011) in bed, before I went to sleep.  Not a good tactic a lot of the time, though it’s a habit – one tends to forget, and have to recap – but given the nature of the inevitably repetitive nature of Before I go to sleep‘s narrative, not so bad.  After a traumatic assault 20 years previously, 47-year-old Christine Lucas has literally has no memory of herself: “What are we if not an accumulation of our memories?”  She can function on a practical level, but when she wakes up she has to be reminded who she is, who the man she is living with, the whole lot.  She sees a younger woman in the mirror.  There have been documented cases in the scientific literature.

Christine has a new therapist, who, seeing hints of something returning, tries a new tactic: her keeping a secret journal, which she has to read every morning to keep herself up to speed and not lose any fleeting real memories she might have gained.  (As it grows, of course, she must surely have to find more and more time to read, a problem which is not addressed in the narrative).

It’s a page-turner all right, as she approaches an inkling of what happened to get her like this, and then events take over – who to trust, a red herring, revelations and, in the end, edge of the seat stuff.  The trouble is, as Judy said at Reading Group, the book is marketed as a thriller so the fascination with her dilemma – that of living without an identity – is subsumed in the expectation of something really bad happening.  One’s reading is being engineered.

That said, there is plenty of fascination to be had from Christine’s existential insecurity and the seemingly real glimpses of memories returning, especially after contact is made with Claire, her closest friend from university, Claire.  Add into the mix that Christine discovers she’s a published novelist.  Within two pages we are, it might not be too far-fetched to say, in Philip K. Dick territory:

[p103 pbk] I know that the book I am writing – my second, I realise with pride – may be dangerous, as well as necessary. It is not fiction. It may reveal things best left undiscovered. Secrets that ought not to see the light of day.
But still my pen moves across the page.

[p105] I felt solid ground begin to slip away. Maybe everything I had written was a lie. I am a novelist, after all, I thought. Or I used to be.
The futility of my logic hit me. I used to write fiction, therefore my assertion that I had been a novelist might be one of those fictions. In which case I had not written fiction. My head spun.

The ending is left nicely ambiguous as to how much genuine memory has been recovered as opposed to supplied, how much she will wake up with on the morrow and the next day.  But when we compare memories, two buddies and I, from university, disparities, never wilful, persist.  Couple of Christine’s, sparks to her further seeking, strike me as being ‘real’ enough, though.  Like this one where her mate Claire has set up a meet with her future husband:

‘So where’s this guy, then?’ I say, but she, doesn’t hear me. I feel the buzz of the alcohol and the weed and begin to dance.  The room is full of people, dressed mostly in black.  Fucking art students, I think.

Briefly, a chronicling catch up:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just goes to show how lax Lillabullero has been, due to events and among other things … Channel4 adding the truly great Cheers to their early morning menu of Frasier (even though I have the box set) and Everybody loves Raymond and the morning has practically gone.  Discipline is required.

Highlights only, then, casting no negative aspersions (and memory fades).  Click on the images for further details.  Hard to resist a woman with a dobro and a big hat playing driving Americana (Jasmine Burns at Scribal), while new Bard Mitchell Taylor skillfully mixed poetry and song in his set.  Tim B has a powerful voice, while Crossroots, with their new lead vocalist have a great encore in Hava Nagila.  Open mic-er Chloe at Vaultage deserves mention: if I’d closed my eyes during her I’d rather go blind I could have sworn Bonnie Raitt (probably three times her age) was in the house.

Johnny Fluffypunk at Scribal (photo © Jonathan Taylor) was an experience.  This “sustainable nihilist” covers a lot of bases, playing homage to the rarely used word that is ‘micturate’ along the way.  With a delivery that could have carried all sorts of nonsense never mind the quality stuff on show and still scored … I wish I’d taken more notes.

To call Kenneth J Nash homely doesn’t recognise the depth  of his sweet and sour songs.  Lovely relaxed voice too, I seem to recall.

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