And not just in the pound-shops and bus stations.  Been nostalgising about a time when we usually had a Dylan quote to hand.  Couple of novels I’m glad to have read lately, set 90 years apart.  Both involve action of a kind in France, but operate mainly in England’s green and pleasant.

Worthless menWorthless men

Andrew Cowan‘s Worthless men (Sceptre, 2013) is an impressive work of other-worldly provincial realism.  Imagine a dark cross between James Joyce’s Ulysses (but with a narrative stream without too many tributaries) and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in the daytime.  It’s a diminished market day in a town that might be Norwich – the novel grew out of an oral history project there – and all the action (with added active memories, giving their back stories) takes place over the period from dawn to dusk as seen through the eyes (though not as first person narrative) of five people.  Except one of these, the main man by page count – Walter Barley, a young private, ‘missing in action’ – is hovering around, seemingly unseen, almost spectre-like.  It’s 1916 and there’s a troop train due as the day ends, carrying local lads back from the front in France,  and, mostly, though, the wounded bound for the temporary hospital set up in the grounds of the local industrialist’s big house on the edge of town.  Also family home to Walter’s traumatised and convalescent ex-commanding officer, and he’s no poet (though he is allowed the Catch-22 of, “A desire to return to the war would be the surest evidence they need that I am mentally unstable and not entitled to go“).

It’s a bleak, disturbing and compassionate set of interwoven stories of civilians and soldiery, a skillfully drawn and detailed picture of the way people lived, and the changes the war wrought.  It is beautifully, quietly, written.  There are a lot of what are basically lists – shops, people, occupations, animals – in the description, the sort of thing that usually has me skipping paragraphs, but such is the sustained tone of the writing that they become compellingly vivid; artists like Brueghel the Elder or Stanley Spencer – his biblical Cookham paintings – spring to mind.

That title, Worthless men, we are told in the Acknowledgments, is taken from a specific usage in the title of a non-fiction book looking at the use of the death penalty in the Great War, and the undercurrent of eugenics thinking that fuelled its application.  The notion of war ‘cleansing’ the gene pool is discussed by one of the characters in the novel – a pharmacist enthusiastically selling ‘contra-ceptives’ (sic) to those he considers below him to the same end – but dismissed by another as “almost certainly dysgenic in the degree to which it sacrificed the cream of the race, even as it effected a cull of the worthless.”  Such chilling period detail is integral throughout; relations between the social classes, between men and women within that context, and the changing role of women are un-showily handled to great effect.  There is symbolism – cattle are being slaughtered, there is a deluge as the day draws on, but, corny as that may sound, it works.  The deluge itself potentially sets up a sentimental bravery narrative that just doesn’t happen, and we are not told what happens to the man and woman (both with their own stories) in the rowing boat on the lake.  The climax of a meeting at the train station is a surprise.  Worthless men is a book that haunts, in the best possible sense.  Dead or alive – is there a definitive answer? – Walter is worthy of your company.

Other people's moneyOther people’s money

The bit of France in Justin Cartwright‘s Other people’s money (Bloomsbury, 2011) is a luxury villa on the Med, though the region’s lost its charm since the Russian oligarchs moved in.  Other people’s money tells the tale of the eleventh generation of a respected traditional English banking dynasty, brought down by “the fucking Gaussian bell curve” an economics professor got a Nobel prize for:

In his heart he knew that the Gaussian bell curve was nonsense and he knew that credit swaps and diced mortgages were chimeras, but he did nothing about it because everybody said that there were huge amounts of money to be made. But how? These derivatives related to no assets, to no worth, to no human endeavour. They turned out to be imaginary. It’s almost beyond belief that a huge industry was in thrall to fables.

And that’s the head of the bank’s inner thoughts as he struggles, kind of honourably but short-term criminally, to save something for their clients.  Not the least of the novel’s moral core is the tyranny and psychological damage a successful dynasty wreaks on its heirs.  He never really wanted to be a banker (how he got stuck with it is a story in itself) … and, without giving too much away, in the end he gets his escape.

Other people’s money is shaping up to be a very good old-fashioned upper middle of the road novel – dying patriarch, fiscal calamity, family fallout, corruption in high places – and then we meet Artair McLeod, aging idealistic theatrical fighting the good fight for Celtic culture down in Cornwall, who adds a nother dimension, and becomes a lot more than just the comic relief artsy fantasist.  As well as producing children’s plays for a living, he’s working on his magnum opus, a film script drawing on the works of the Irish novelist Flann O’Brien (as it happens, a writer who has given me much pleasure in the past), in particular his very funny experimental novel  At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) with its double mantra of:

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.
There are beginnings and there are ends, and there are also many ways of telling the same story.
[And:] People talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be true stories; events take place one way and we recount them the other.

Part of this obsession is that an author’s characters can take over a work, have a life of their own.  It doesn’t actually happen, and this O’Brien fuelled intervention is much more playful than po-faced postmodernism, but Cartwright serves up a rich (and rich) cast characters, the main players given their say, and though the ending is contingent (and unexpected) it could have gone any way, which is the point, I guess.

When Artair’s regular stipend fails to arrive – a footnote of a casualty to the bank’s crisis, a regular pay-off from his ex-wife, now long married to the dying patriarch  – an old school editor of a local paper, whose Fleet Street career had been spiked by the Robert Maxwell scandal, gets a whiff of something big and pursues it with rookie journalist and blogger Melissa, fresh out of uni with a joint Philosophy/Sociology degree the content from which still amusingly (for us) peppers her world view.  His scoop is scuppered by an outrageous corporate move, but it all plays a part in the ongoing saga. This is a depressingly believable and entertaining zeitgeist satire, and the fun in the telling cannot dispel the anger inherent in the book’s title.  There’s a lovely little twist at the end too.

I zipped through Other people’s moneyJustin Cartwright’s prose flows beautifully; he writes with a good eye and has a neat turn of phrase.  Indeed, I feel the need to share some of his goodies.  So when the old man, Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, is in a posh London hospital for tests, Cartwright acknowledges “… the front steps where nurses in their dress uniform sometimes assemble to wave goodbye to recovered members of the royal family”, and there’s the Portuguese cook whose “English, like her cooking, is low in calories.”  Meanwhile there’s the faithful Estelle, the old man’s lovelorn lifelong secretary, who “arrives with piles of paper, enveloped in by her old-lady microclimate,” while elsewhere Artair is complaining, “Until your cheque arrived, I had been living on pasties. I am not complaining, but the life of a serious artist is not easy.”

And then there’s Melissa, now a successful journo in London, and her valediction for her old boss:

        Melissa remembers Mr Tredizzick’s speech, which mentioned Tom Paine and the rights of man: ‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.’ Poor Mr Tredizzick. He was fighting a different battle for a different England, an England that no longer exists – if it ever had. Nobody now thinks about reaping the blessings of freedom; instead they hope to win the Lottery or become celebrities.
There are, anyway, different kinds of freedom. (Isaiah Berlin, philosophy, module 12.)

I shall probably be re-visiting At Swim-Two-Birds sometime soon.

Words and music

Aortas AmericaScribal Apr 2015Vaultage aprSunday, Tuesday, Thursday – Aortas at the Old George, Scribal, Vaultage – it becomes a bit of a blur.  It’s all good.  The Aortas pic actually celebrates the previous shindig but you get the gist.  Congrats to Pat for getting his photo-record up so soon (though the tell the truth he hasn’t got much else to do, so I’m not getting at Dan).  At Vaultage someone new blessed with the name Tim Buckley (no relation) impressed with a hatefully funny divorce song and an anthem in praise of Cuba.  Including the featured poet there were remarkably 18 performers in the course of the evening, including at least 3 previously featured artists in the open mic.  Someone called Eric did Misty with an electric banjo.

Leanne Moden - LiaisonsLeanne Moden , ex-Poet Laureate of the Fens, was a delight.  Diminutive in stature but huge in presence and a charm not without the odd barb, she wove spells both sacred and profane.  For the former her incantatory Brixton 2013 was an act of communion, private validation – her and her mate Clare at a gig – as glorious testament to the importance of music in our lives.  Then there was the passionate defence of her unweeded lady garden that is Shaving grace.  And many other joys.  Here’s a link to her blog: http://tenyearstime.blogspot.co.uk/p/about.html ; click on the media tag for a view of her in performance.  She has a slim volume (which includes other gems like the wonderfully titled Kubla Khan’s Bar and Grill) published by Stewed Rhubarb.  I can’t abide rhubarb in any shape or form but I do like the cut of their jib – “fuelled by ginger wine and late nights” – with a cute invitation to ‘befriend’ them on FaceBook.

We are starlings*

What WHA can do for youLet us start with the positive, a fantastic little book, a lovely little book.  A joy to read the prolific Alexander McCall Smith‘s What Auden can do for you (Princeton UP, 2013), which looks and feels good too, as one would expect from an American university press publication.  Were I not into Auden already (albeit as a late adopter) I’m pretty sure I would be so moved after reading this brief account of the man and his work, which also lets us in to how McCall Smith, the writer prince of gracious, decent living, first got acquainted and drawn in.

A selection from the chapter headings practically tells the tale: Love illuminates again; Choice and quest; The poet as voyager; Politics and sex; A vision of agape; And then there is nature.  To save you looking agape up (as would I), McCall Smith describes it as “that disinterested love of others that has played so important a part in traditional Christian teaching,” while Wikipedia has it as “selfless, charitable, non-erotic (brotherly) love, spiritual love, love of the soul“, though there are more specific Christian meanings.  He invokes it thus:

I then experienced a feeling of extraordinary calm, of something that must have been joy.  It was fleeting, lasting only a minute or two, but it was unmistakable.  […]  … we know that for a short time we have seen something about the world that we do not normally see.  I suddenly understood that I loved the people present in that small enclosure.  I had come from Edinburgh feeling that the evening would be a chore, and now I stood on the grass and realised how grudging, how churlish that attitude had been.
“A summer night,” I said to myself.

A summer night is a poem that Auden wrote in 1933, the generation of which McCall Smith goes on to talk about in some detail; this is typical of McCall Smith’s approach.  He is thankful for the illumination.  His final chapter is Auden as a guide to living.  More an aid to living, really, but here’s the penultimate paragraph:

On his [Auden’s] memorial in Westminster Abbey are inscribed the words In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.  I remember when I first read that these lines had been chosen for that memorial, I was not sure I understood why.  Now I understand.

Book of lost thingsThose words encapsulate one of the basic tenets of ‘happiness’ self-help texts.  Richard Wiseman, for instance, in his 59 seconds: think a little change a lot (2009), one of the more grounded examples of the species, cites the results of scientific experiments to justify their efficacy beyond folk wisdom.

Another guide to life in book form is offered in John Connolly‘s The book of lost things (2006).  This is one of those novels that reveal that they are the story of how the novel itself came to be written.  Though it is not a children’s book – and author Connolly avers this in the 150 pages of appendices after the novel has finished – it reads like one, in that everything is painstakingly spelt out in simple, unspectacular prose.  Anyway, the ‘author’ gets to be a famous writer, and children travel to meet him:

… he would talk to them of stories and books, and explain to them how stories wanted to be told and books wanted to be read, and how everything that they ever needed to know about life and the land of which he wrote, or about any land or realm that they could imagine, was contained in books.

Everything they ever needed to know?  Even as an ex-librarian for whom the flame still burns I’d say that’s pushing it a bit.  Which is a shame, because that riff about stories wanting to be told is nicely set up early on, with the old books on the shelves in young David’s new room:

David was aware of a change in the room as soon as he began to fill the empty spaces on the shelves, the newer books looking and sounding uneasy beside these other works from the past.  Their appearance was intimidating, and they spoke to David in dusty, rumbling tones.  the older books were bound in calfskin and leather …

Grimm’s Fairy Tales prominent, as read to him by his dead mother.  Promising Neil Gaiman territory, one hopes.  The situation is that his father re-marries, which is bad enough, and then a baby comes along.  Not happy.  It’s the 1940s, father is working somewhere that might, interestingly, be Bletchley Park, though that strand is just allowed to fade away.  German bomber crashes on his secret garden and he’s catapulted into quest mode in a land of heavily mucked about fairy stories and folk tales.  The thing is, you know he’s going to reconcile to his new family situation, so the value of the book is down to how well the mucking about with traditional myths and stories is done.  Nothing wrong with the concept, but in practice here it is relentless and repetitive.  There’s a lot of routine slaughtering, some unexceptional trickery and we end with a not unusual bit of wisdom (ie. be careful what you wish for).

There is one episode that promises humour to leaven the ongoing slog – Snow White as bloated capitalist slave-driver and the Dwarves as ineffectual class warriors complaining of David’s size-ism – but it’s a leaden, arch failure.  Shame.  There’s a certain profundity – not least in the dire realism he sometimes imparts to our young hero – in the character of The Crooked Man, the ultimate bad guy who has been messing with David all along (that’s him on the cover) but there’s a confusion with him that’s never really resolved.  Especially when he is finally overcome.  There has to be more to the Trickster archetype than being a con-man, surely?  The book of lost things lost me very early on, and I only laboured to the end out of loyalty to Judy, in the Book Group, who I knew had finished it.  We were in the minority.  With Book Groups you win some, you lose some.


Simic Charles Simic was new to me when I was given his Looking for trouble: selected early and more recent poems (Faber, 1997) as a present a few years ago.  Two questions immediately arise: the presence or not of Elvis Presley (did you not hear that echo?) in a book with a title like that (ans: not directly); and what happened in between – pomp or circumstance?  Seems, in the latter case, that unlike Waiting for the sun – The Doors’ mid-career nadir –  he was winning prizes.

I’ve only just got round to spending significant time with it (sorry) and it’s been good to make the acquaintance.  The puff on the back cover claims “there is no poet quite like him, and the attempt to fix labels always ends in frustration.”  I’d say he’s all over the place … in the best possible sense of the term.  The majority of the poems in Looking for trouble do not trouble you to turn the page.  He’s concise but kaleidoscopic, capturing moments and glimpses, or, broadening the canvas, doing what good urban photographers do.  He has a comic eye, but, quoting again from the back cover, Seamus Heaney puts it far better than I could: “His metamorphoses and mise-en-scène are always subject to the g-factor of human suffering.”  You find the word surrealistic often applied to Simic’s work, but, Heaney says, that misses “a specific gravity in his imagination that manages to avoid the surrealist penalty of weightlessness.”  How about that? – a poet even when he does lit-crit!  He concludes: “The magic dance is being kept up to keep calamity at bay.”

Born 1938 in what is now Serbia, he had experienced living under Nazi occupation and displacement before his family emigrated to the US in the early ’50s; the ghost of Europe is still there, but he’s an American poet.  I can’t say I get everything here, but that’s par for the course.  By far the longest piece – 12 pages, but most of it short two liners with a lot of spaces in between – seems to be among other things, about the challenge of the blank page.  I particularly liked Bestiary for the fingers of my right hand even before I’d read it.  Just a couple of openings to tempt you:

Club Midnight
Are you the sole owner of a seedy nightclub?
Are you its sole customer, sole bartender,
Sole waiter prowling around the empty tables?[…]

Dostoyevsky, Fu Manchu and Miss Emily Dickinson show up in that one.  Then there’s

The street ventriloquist
The bearded old man on the corner,
The one drinking out of a brown paper bag,
The one who declares himself
The world’s greatest ventriloquist,
We are all his puppets, he says
When he chooses to say anything.

Music Maestro, please
Vmarch AortasVaultage AprEarly

CC1 Steve Barnes PSP

Concrete Cowboys at York House. Photo (c) Steve Barnes from FB event page, posterized in PSP.

Quick before they’re gone.  Two Vaultages, an Aortas and another York House extravaganza in the shape of StonyBreakdown!3 since the last blog.  And I can even shoehorn the Living Archive’s film compilation MK through the lens into this section too if I try hard enough.

Fortnightly open mic The Vaultage has developed nicely into a fine night out.  Good job Pat and Lois.  The fragrant Naomi Rose (that’s her on the first Vaultage poster) introduced Starlings*, a fab new song, at Aortas.  Commemorating, among other things, the recent glorious local murmuration, it sounded as good as I’d remembered it at the most recent Vaultage, which was also graced with a two-man reprise of material from the recent S.S.Shanty from the fine voices of Tim Hague and Andy Powell.  The latter also featuring some avant-garde banjo with The Concrete Cowboys at the aforementioned StonyBreakdown.  Love that band, even though no sight or sound of You aint going nowhere (usually announced as their theme song), my favourite singalong this side of Sunny afternoon.  Other fine sets from Valerie Vale & Her Aylesbury Aylevators, and the Band of Brothers, with a committed solo spot from The Lost Jockey (a cool Magritte reference, art lovers).  Back at Aortas, guitaricide committed on Dylan’s With God on our side (for once I wish that hadn’t rhymed), but also a nice reminder of what a lovely song Paul Simon’s America is.  MC Dan Plews’s own songs as immaculate as ever.

MK through the lensAnd so to Roger Kitchen’s MK through the lens, screened at Stony’s Scala film club, a compilation of material ranging from amateur footage on pre-MK whackiness in Wolverton to professionally shot newsreel, documentary and DevCorp propaganda films – Hey, the Red Balloon ad! – in preparation for Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday next year.  We’ve come a long way.  Some fascinating clips of new estates emerging out of the mud like something out of a science fiction film.  Corny maybe, but having the Tom Robinson Band’s 2-4-6-8 Motorway as soundtrack to the construction of the M1 hit the spot nicely.  And shame film was so expensive back then, or we might have had more of the last journey – steam hauled! – of Newport Nobby (some of the track is now a Redway).  Intriguing footage, too, of a local ’80s band (forgotten the name) making a video – availing themselves of the original bulkier featured central marble seating – in the shopping centre.  Hi Caz!  Interesting hair.

 *The title of this week’s blog is a line from Naomi’s Starlings.  I’m wondering if that’s a nod and a wink to that Joni Mitchell song about us being Stardust. Which we are. Or as Carl Sagan put it, and which I’m more comfortable with, star stuff.


Harpole ReportThe Harpole Report

Delighted to find this at the back of a shelf when looking for something else, whatever that was instantly forgotten.  Long ago had convinced myself I’d loaned it out and (understandably) never got it back.  J.L.Carr‘s The Harpole report (1972) is one of those books, one of those timeless you-must-read (especially if you’re a teacher) comic novels of English life that stay laugh-aloud funny no matter how much actual circumstances have changed.  Set in a primary school in a small town, circa 1970, it is presented in the form of a report, from the introduction of which I now quote:

And remember this.  A school is a most complex institution.  Children and teachers, administrators and their minor officials, caretakers, cooks, medical officers, government inspectors, governors.  And parents.  All these grinding away, in and out of mesh.  Is there any wonder then that sometimes – as in the case of Harpole – there is a terrifying jarring of gears, or, worse still, that unforgettable coffin-thump of a big-end gone.

I realise that there is at least one generation of drivers out there for whom that last experience is  something of a mystery, but you still laugh, right?

Harpole takes on a temporary headship and inherits a mixed bag of staff, all with agendas of their own.  What happens to him is recorded in a wonderful chronological collage – delivered with a delightful lightness of touch – of excerpts from the school’s Official Log-book, Harpole’s private journal, a selection of all manner of internal and external communications and memos illuminating his battle with local bureaucrats and politicians alike, supplemented by examples of the children’s work, along with further excerpts from letters from Harpole to his fiancée, and those of Emma Foxberrow – a determined and idealistic progressive young teacher – to her sisterEvents unfold entertainingly.

As a footnote, some nice intertextualities.  The Harpole Report is set in Melchestershire (who did Roy of the Rovers play for?) and the problem kids from the lower-class family are called the Widmerpools (you know, that bastard who climbs the greasy pole in Anthony Powell’s A dance to the music of time).  There are probably more.

Yesterday's papersYesterday’s Papers

No disrespect at all to Martin Edwards, but I can’t help feeling that Mastermind has rather lost its way these days when something like Martin’s Harry Devlin novels are one of the specialist subjects allowed to be offered up by one of the contestants this week.  Especially when the first question has to spend time briefly explaining to viewers who Harry Devlin is.  (“I even forget whodunnit in some of those books!” the man himself said on his FaceBook page.)

Yesterday’s papers (1994) is the fourth in this particular sequence of novels, all sporting titles borrowed from the annals of rock music.  He’s a Liverpool solicitor who gets easily bored with the day job and who is fully equipped with that attractive crime fiction pre-requisite, of resenting “the failure of the world to match his more romantic notions of what was right and what was wrong.”

This time it’s a miscarriage of justice  – the murder of a young girl, daughter of a rising left-wing academic – dating back 30 years to the heady days of the ’60s Liverpool beat group boom and Harold Wilson’s ‘White heat of technology’.   There’s an interesting set of characters dead and alive (some both in the course of the book).  Faded glories, wasted lives, grudges held and secrets maintained, the broad consequences of a crime; with twists and violent turns, the truth finally teased out:

He had so desperately wanted to know who had strangled her, and why, and now that he had his answers, his principal emotion was sadness rather than satisfaction.  With murder, he reminded himself, there were no slick solutions, just the desolate reality of human behaviour as weak as it was wicked.

Nicely put.  There are plenty of neat touches too.  Harry’s receptionist doing her best to keep his eyes on the jobs that bring the money in  (“… she was a mistress of all the receptionist’s black arts and knew instinctively when he was within reach“), a scene at a record fair (“… and two men in their forties were recalling the merits of Northern Soul with the nostalgic exaggeration of old buffers harping on about the Dunkirk Spirit“), nods to the Golden Age of crime writing (“a time of innocence and charm“), on which subject Martin Edwards is an acknowledged expert.  I’ve read and would recommend all his Lake District Mysteries; another Liverpool novel, Waterloo sunset, is featured here at Lillabullero in The Kinks in literature section, and I am inclined now to catch up with the rest of Harry too.

Further musical adventures

VRW25BRS10456101_791331764280933_5682092596533613996_nScribal Mar 15
Plenty going on.  At the Scribal Sunday session there had been a cello and guitar duo singing the blues quite effectively (lovely instrument, the cello) and lo and behold, there was another one at the Vaultage Re-wired the following Thursday.  Or it might have been the same duo (never caught the names) with added blues harp thing around the guitarists’ neck.  Again worked well.  This Vaultage was a belter – great job, Bard Pat and Lois – relaxed and full of good music, the evening finishing magnificently by The Scrumpy Bastards, a highly accomplished fiddle and guitar duo, who had fun, as did we, and were a joy to watch.

We have lift off! LtoR: Neil Mercer, Michele Welborn, Clive Barrett and, blending in with his surroundings, Andy Powell. Phot c/o whoever took it, treated by me in PSP.

The Beechey Room sessions: We have lift off! LtoR: Neil Mercer, Michele Welborn, Clive Barrett and, blending in with his surroundings, Andy Powell. Photo c/o whoever took it, treated by me in PSP.

 Come Saturday afternoon and – hey – forget the goals going in on the Red Button: music is being made in the cosy new Beechey Room in York House.   Solo and ensemble.  Long may they continue in this vein.

Tuesday and the March Scribal Gathering at The Crown, singer-songwriter Rob Bray a last-minute replacement as featured performer.  Sparkling guitar, great wit.  Demystified open tuning: a decent noise possible “If you can open a crisp packet …”  Finished movingly with a serious song.  Stephen Hobbs played a blinder with his account (financial and narrative) of his lousy week: car serviced at great expense, shit gig at The Stables with an audience of 8 (and one of those 8 cried out for ‘More!’), buying Dylan’s Shadows in the night album; cut to the first time he heard Nick Drake and was not impressed and how 20 years later he saw the light; how he expects similar to happen to him with the Dylan 20 years hence, on his hospice deathbed.  Earlier Monty Lynch got an unexpected cheer introducing his song about the gods of the Zambesi River – Zimbabweans in the house!

StonyFolks2: photo (c) Nick Gordon - not just a bluesman with bottleneck and a Robert Johnson t-shirt.

StonyFolks2: photo (c) Nick Gordon – not just a bluesman with a bottleneck and a Robert Johnson t-shirt.

Another Saturday night and back to York House for StonyFolks:2 and another grand evening’s music-making.  I was going to say ‘All the usual suspects’, but thought the better of it (not all of ’em, anyway).  Broadest of definitions of folk (Louis Armstrong: “I aint never heard a horse sing a song.”) and none the worse for that.  Taken aback, on the 50th birthday of its release (give or take a day), by a confident and committed cover of Donovan’s Catch the wind from a young girl whose name I didn’t catch.  Those ’60s obviously just a passing fad, as the old folks used to say.  Think I’ll be OK joining in with Cotton Mill Girls in the future.

And so to the Aortas session in the George on Sunday.  Dan had his new toy, a – if I understand this right – touch screen wireless tablet digital mixer that meant he could play with the sound by touching the pretty graphs, and also do it standing at the back of the room.  It all sounded fine, better than ever.  There was cake (happy birthday Naomi, who ended with a new miserable song) and for the third time of gigging in the space of this single blog, Mark Owen‘s relentless (in the best possible sense of the word) Getting away with something, his toe-tapping take on the phone-tapping scandal.  It can stand it.

And then there was the murmuration …

… just a couple of miles down the road.  How lucky are we?  Not the greatest of photos, I’m afraid, but tis mine own.

Complicated lifeIf you include Ray’s own ‘unofficial autobiography’, Johnny Rogan‘s Ray Davies: a complicated life (Bodley Head, 2015) is the 8th Kinks/Ray Davies biography I’ve read down all the days – sly Kinks song reference there – since 1984.  It’s certainly the heaviest.  At over 700 pages it weighs in at a whopping 1.12 kilos, leaving its most recent contenders – Nick Hasted‘s You really got me (2011) at 0.7, and Rob Jovanovic‘s God save the Kinks (2013) at 0.66 kilos – well behind.  Keeping a boxing the going, Rogan certainly packs a punch, but he’s also not averse to hitting below the belt.  Can it be called definitive on bulk and documented sources alone?  No, that would be difficult in any circumstances, but also because the book is so mean-spirited.  But does it add anything?  Yes, indeed.  For which thanks are due.

In what follows I take a lot about Ray Davies and The Kinks for granted; as might be gathered from elsewhere here in Lillabullero (see the header tag) I have rated his cultural contribution – finest UK songwriter of his generation, just for starters – highly for decades.

Ray Davies: a complicated life is a substantial piece of work, then, put together from a series of interviews with a broad range of people connected with its subject conducted by the author over the space of 30 years, including a recent one actually with Ray, that still did not entirely resolve Rogan’s quest for clarity, along with others’ unedited interviews made available to the author, and a wealth of newspaper and magazine articles, mostly based around interviews,  from the past 50 years.  Inevitably there is plenty about brother Dave in the mix.  The biographical progression through the life is accompanied by hum-drum zeitgeist summaries and relevant historical background information.  It has to be said he is not the greatest of prose stylists, but while there is not much that sparkles, he’s a competent enough composer of sentences (not something you can take for granted these days), albeit one prone to the odd purple passage:

While Dave Davies was bereft, lost in the voracious revel of his senses and wary of the uncharted topography of the future … (p72)
Harbingers of the cult of youth realized that 1963 symbolized a sudden erosion of the old order as teenagers paraded their discontent while spending freely on glossy magazines … (p87)

There is a 73 page apparatus of notes documenting and supporting the text, the lengthier of which of which are also worth reading.  There is no bibliography, there’s a pretty full selected discography if that’s what you need, and an intriguing list – the fullest I’ve seen – of unreleased compositions.  In writing this piece I’ve tried to find a couple of items in the index and failed.

Rogan first published a book about The Kinks 30 years ago.  He’s also done books on, among others, Van Morrison, The Smiths, The Byrds and Neil Young, and wrote the well-regarded Starmakers & Svengalis, about the ’60s generation of pop and rock management.  His first Kinks book was subtitled The sound and the fury in the UK and, more significantly, in the United States, away from the lawyers, A mental institution; the writing of it was not made easy for him and it showed.  There’s been a lot of water under the (Waterloo) bridge since then, but Rogan’s tack hasn’t really changed.  I’m assuming he had some say in the photos to be used on the dust jacket.  When I looked to put a date to the photos chosen, Getty Images, who own it, had 1,605 others to choose from.  I can see the design attraction (glasses on, glasses off) but … from 1979?  Hardly the most auspicious year in Kinks history, and not exactly doing his subject any favours in the instant recognition stakes.  Never mind the candidature for worst dark glasses ever.

Why should Kinks aficionados read this book?  Because Rogan has talked to people other writers haven’t, or didn’t get much out of if they did.  So we get more about the year Ray was at the Hornsey College of Art than I’ve seen anywhere else, and more about his musical apprenticeship gigging with the Dave Hunt and Hamilton King bands before he committed to the group that was to become The Kinks.  Both pre-Avory drummers get to tell their tales and erstwhile (twice) manager Larry Page is given plenty of space.  We get Rasa’s view of their marriage, all the more interesting for being presented unsensationally, and, without being prurient or intrusive, more about wives two and three – talented women – than I’ve seen anywhere else into the bargain, and is interesting to know.  Ray has said he can’t write love songs, he only does break-up songs; it’s a quote I’m surprised not to see used here.  Although obviously Rogan is going over much well-trod ground, he doesn’t labour Ray’s formative family and school experiences in too much repetitive detail (though still plenty enough for it to be a revelation to a friend for whom all this was new).

Why will Kinks aficionados find it a painful read?  Because, while it’s no secret that Ray can be a nightmare to work and live with, how mean a man he can be, Rogan seems to me to be going out of his way to document this to the detriment of everything else.  Yes, he’s talked to other members of The Kinks over the years, but I do wonder about the direction of the questioning.  The pluses of the experience don’t get the exposure that you can find in other sources, like the lengthy interviews you can find on Geoff Lewis’s splendid Kast Off Kinks website, or in Tom Kitts & Michael Kraus’s collection of academic pieces and interviews, Living on a thin line (2002).  Nevertheless, it’s hard not to contest Larry Page when he says, “Ray just enjoyed being awkward,” and bitter long-suffering tour manager Sam Curtis pulls no punches in this regard.  As for the fights and the sibling rivalry – not especially illuminated by quotes lifted from articles in psychology journals – well, there is no getting away from it, over and over again.  Back-up vocalist Shirlie Roden has some revealing things to say about touring with the warring brothers, which makes depressing reading.  As does John ‘The Baptist’ Gosling’s withering letter to Record Collector in 2006:

… it’s not easy working with a megalomaniac, and I got tired of being abused just to justify Ray’s unreasonable and selfish demands.

There’s something D.H.Lawrence wrote in his Studies in Classic American Literature – “Never trust the artist.  Trust the tale.” – that has to apply here.  We’ll come to Rogan’s problematic appreciation of the art later, but he certainly doesn’t trust the artist, and not, it must be admitted, without some cause.  He challenges the mythology, the narrative Ray has applied to, among other things, the ‘injustice’ of the NME Prizewinners’ concert (“Ray’s attempt to rewrite history was not merely eccentric but downright peculiar“), how much blame Larry Page should take for the early American tour debacle, or just how much of a commercial failure The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society was first time around; it was probably actually “a modest seller.”.  He runs down sources to back up such suppositions too.  On another tack, he logs, for example, a whole range of explanations delivered in interviews over the years – he barely scratches the surface, I suspect – of the genesis and meaning of Waterloo sunset.

When it comes down to it, I’m not sure Rogan trusts the tales so much as takes them on trust a lot of time either.  He’s no musicologist – doesn’t try, no bad thing – but nor do I don’t get any great love of music springing from the pages of this book.  It hasn’t got me racing to the turntable – always a decent measure of a book about musicians, surely, no matter how well the reader knows the songs.  Of course, it’s a truism that Kinks fans will always disagree about particular albums and songs, but I think he undersells a lot of the Kinks work from all eras, not least Phobia (“without Ray’s strongest songwriting” – really? Scattered?), never mind the brilliant Muswell hillbillies.  Does Arthur really sound “somewhat anti-climactic by comparison” with the single of Shangri-la that preceded it?  Mind, he does find Sleepwalker unimpressive and even finds a Ray quote saying he’s not convinced about it either, so it’s not all bad.

I don’t know how much he’s seen of The Kinks in performance (not too much, I’d wager), but I get no sense that he’s seen much, if anything, of Ray performing solo, or with the new band.  I get no sense from this book of the magic – of his joy in performing, the skill, the artistry, the energy – of what I saw when I was privileged to see him doing, say, Stand Up Comic at The Stables a few years back, of the absolute glee of his leap at that bit in The tourist, of the massive achievement of the Village Green Preservation Society suite with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Crouch End Festival Chorus in 2011, or the brilliant music-making of the three-pronged acoustic guitar trio on the Americana tour.  He almost certainly did see him as the narrator of Ray’s play, Come dancing, at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.  But note the barbed, begrudging, proviso:

Never before had he been this revealing or more endearingly human.  Onstage at Stratford East, his more puzzling, petty and negative personality traits were consumed by the emergence of Davies the humanitarian.  Were he a great actor, this would be one of the most astonishing performances of his life […]  This was the Ray Davies of songs such as ‘Waterloo Sunset’, a fragment of a more complex persona but, for fans and idealists, the true essence of the man.

 clinnerAlmost finished here.  There was a surprise lurking under the dust jacket.  Not unwelcome, makes a change.  Matt laminate.  Not sure I understand what’s going on.  Vaguely reminiscent pattern and colours from the car on that old Marble Arch album?  Click on the pic to get a blow-up.  Looks like the image is taken from the back cover – those glasses – but … what happened to his mouth?  What is it all supposed to mean?  The creator remains anonymous, uncredited.

Before we leave the page within, though, a few thoughts and things that tickled my fancy that don’t fit in anywhere else:

  • I was hoping for more football.  That all those hours Rogan spent in the British Library newspaper and magazine archive at Colindale might have unearthed more details in local papers of the show biz teams the brothers played in, who with, who against, how did it go?  And I know you can’t include everything, but I missed the story about the group being late for a gig in Torquay because the 1966 World Cup Final went into extra time, and the fact that it was goalscorer Geoff Hurst that Ray chose to induct The Kinks into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005 rather than someone, like most, from within the music industry.  Because surely both are an important part of the genuine Ray Davies narrative of him not being like everybody else.
  • Fascinated to learn that the song Apeman might have been inspired at least in part by the David Warner character in the film Morgan, a suitable case for treatment(1966), one of my favourite films, that Ray identified with in his first crisis as a successful Kink.
  • There’s a wonderful quote in the chapter bravely titled The Negro’s Revenge (that taken from an early anti-rock’n’roll diatribe in a newspaper): “Contemporaneous studies such as … Richard Hoggart’s The uses of literacy … lamented the Americanization [sic] of modern society with unabashedly partisan zeal.  Hoggart’s description of a mundane coffee bar had the tone of a religious pamphlet mixed with the portentous prose of a science fiction novel.”  He’s right, it’s hilarious; it’s the end of the world as we know it.  (And Hoggart was one of the good guys!)
  • That story about the Registrar refusing to marry Ray and Chrissie Hynde because they were arguing too much?  Not true.  By the time they’d stopped arguing they’d simply missed their allotted time slot.
  • Shel Talmy: “Ray made Rod Stewart look like a philanthropist.” You have to laugh.
  • Did you know that Ray had changed his name by deed poll to simply Raymond Douglas by the time of his second marriage?  Neither did I.

EverybodyEverybody loves Raymond

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  If you don’t know the tv programme that ran from 1996 to 2005 in the US then, if you’ll excuse the imputation, you should.  It’s one of the most brilliantly sustained ensemble family sitcoms, well, ever.  This side of FrasierEverybody loves Raymond is both title and wearily delivered catchphrase out of the resentful mouth of his sibling Robert (the tall one at the back).  Raymond (blue checked shirt) is a bit of a monster.  I’m secretly in love with wife Debra (in the red) and only slightly less so on learning that the actress who plays her is an active pro-lifer.  And yes, that is Peter Boyle.  In context, his delivery, the pained yell of, “I used to be a gentleman” is quite simply one of the great comic lines of all time.  In the UK early morning cyclical re-runs of Everybody loves Raymond and Frasier on Channel4 (and an hour later again on Channel4+1) are reason enough to get out of bed of a morning.

james-mcmurtry_complicated-gameIt’s complicated

As it happens, the last two purchases I made from Amazon (I know, I know, I feel dirty) have the word ‘complicated’ in the title.  James McMurtry‘s Complicated game is prime modern Americana.  It’s on Spotify so go find.  Try the rockiest track, How’m I gonna find you now: “I’m a-washing down my blood pressure pill with a Red Bull.”  I doubt I’ll hear a better new album this year.  If a new Ray Davies album does come along, I’ll be happy if it comes anywhere close.  Baffling cover, mind.

Library of unrequited loveEnticed by the title, I almost gave up on this odd little book very early in but I’m glad I didn’t.  I was a librarian for 40 years and the set-up in this large French provincial library jarred with me on both macro- and micro- levels; I’m pretty sure this isn’t just down to cultural differences.  And professional pedantry has been known to get in the way of the appreciation and enjoyment of many a good story, so I let it go. And overlooked the petty artificiality of an initial episode involving a misplaced book.  Sartre’s Existentialism is a humanism as it happens.  Is this title significant? one wearily wonders, on the very first page.  Reader, get over yourself, I ventured: it’s 92 pages long, only 81 of them actual text, albeit in one paragraph 81 pages long (but the lines are generously spaced).

Sophie Divry‘s The library of unrequited love (UK: MacLehose Press, 2013; France, 2010) is a contradictory, stream of consciousness, monologue, rant and meditation delivered by a bitter 50-year-old library worker, an eccentric (shall we say?) loner of a woman who is out of love with the modern world.  This is delivered to some poor bloke she, coming into work 2 hours early, finds, who, somehow locked in, has slept in the library overnight.  Unless you were expecting some sort of romantic denouement (unlikely given the aforesaid 81 page paragraph) it’s not really giving anything away to say the poor sod never gets a word in.  Poignancy and wisdom are among the qualities that emerge from this by turns entertaining, depressive and solipsistic maelstrom of thoughts about art – “damned souls like us, the captives of culture” – reading, French writers and intellectuals, modernity (“I don’t go around with those earphones bombarding tuneless rubbish straight into your brain“), the state of librarianship and “a beautiful neck seen from behind“.

That neck belongs to Martin, a regular user of the library, researching a thesis, with whom she is obsessed and closely observes, but with whom she has no meaningful communication.  It’s all very sad, this corner of life and longing she has passively painted herself into.  She has tried love: “Arthur (that was his name, Arthur) was my version of the Black Death, he ruined my life.  So then I got a job here“.  Which is both a good and a bad thing.  She watches the library’s seasonal flow, winter’s central heating refugees and spring’s noisy tables of exam kids, though I don’t recognise her busy summers; or actually, her dismissal of all her colleagues, who she isolates herself from because, “What would I talk about with women who go to karaoke bars in winter and museums in summer?”  Foreign travel’s out too, because, “Napoleon’s been there first“.  Napoleon, “that uncivilised little runt“… “the real gravedigger of the Revolution“.

Her captive audience also gets a short lecture on the history of the public library into the bargain and, initially, a hymn of praise to Melvil Dewey, who delivered us from shelving anarchy:

He’s our founding father, for all of us librarians.  Just a little guy, from a poor family somewhere in America, and he was only twenty-one when he thought up the most famous classification system in the world.

Also, incidentally, though this is not mentioned in The library of unrequited love, a monster of a man as far as sexual harassment in the workplace goes.  Just saying.  And nothing to do with the dramatic change of emphasis as soliloquy turns into diatribe:

There are plenty of ways to humiliate the virgin reader, to abuse or terrorize him or her. […] What a perverse invention, an instrument of torture. […] Stupid, anarchic, megamoronic.  The Dewey system is a secret code invented by the Axis of Evil that binds books and librarians together in order to scare the reader off.  It’s terrifying, the Dewey system.  Totally inhibiting.  Everything goes into it, like a mincer.  Your holidays, your house, your tastes, your furniture, just everything.  There’s even a classification for sexuality – and plenty of different shelfmarks for all the complications.

There’s a lot packed into this odd little book.  It ends with the library opening and our heroine (“The Homeric struggle.  Every day I go back into the arena.”) hoping for a glimpse of Martin’s neck to give meaning to the library and her day.  I could not resist being affected by her magnificent and pathetic affectations.  Forget odd: intriguing.  I shall read it again, I’m sure.

The Rox & Hounds' rather fine new sign.  Blowing in the wind.  The lion lies down with the lamb!  Earlier in the day, of course.

The Fox & Hounds’ rather fine new sign. Blowing in the wind. The lion lies down with the lamb! Earlier in the day, of course.

What else?  Back to school at Professor Frost’s Poetical Academy – More than words, a poetry workshop.  The theory stuff – meter, pattern, form – I managed to miss up till now made fun.  And down the pub afterwards.  As part of an exercise in rhyme came up with one of my better lines this year, “An ancient truth stuck in my teeth” (never mind what it, nay they, rhymed with) which I might find a use for one of these days.

Scribal Fox 0315By Sunday the Prof had put down his pen and picked up plectrum and bass guitar (a plectrum may not have been used, but, hey – I’m going all out for alliteration here) in order to funk it up with Second Hand Grenade at the second Scribal at the Fox.  And it was good, Emma as ever to the fore.  Louder crowd that Tuesdays at The Crown, tougher gig for poetry but the bravehearts of the word pretty much prevailed.  Danni Antagonist‘s Crisis was on fire.  The subtler sounds of  (now a trio) Glass Tears, newly bass-augmented – a lovely sound from a hollow bodied bass guitar – deserved closer listening attention than they got with two of their own songs and a flamenco-flourished take on Mr Dylan’s One more cup of coffee.

One more pint of Mad Goose, as it happens.





Tudor Groundhog Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Time Machine …

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

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

Briefly, some other cultural adventures …

In chronological order:

Scribal Feb 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wordy? Tons!

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

pepys-gifford-1-300x292Ayres and graces

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



The Rainborowes

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



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

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

Bardic trials 2015The Bardic Trials

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

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

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

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

Troubadour Reunion

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

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

The Box Ticked at the Crauford

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

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

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

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

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

The room is cold and quiet
And well below capacity

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

Pride and another Gathering

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

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

Literary Quiz 

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

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

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

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

Shadows in the nightBob Dylan

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


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