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2018 programme cover designed by Mason Edwards

‘Covers’ being a pretty bad excuse for a pun, as may become evident from what follows later on.

New readers start here: StonyLive! is an annual Festival of Music, Dance and the Arts in Stony Stratford, a small town that used to be in North Buckinghamshire, but is these days, ahem, the proud “Jewel in the Crown” of Milton Keynes. Now in its 20th year, it runs for 9 days from the first Saturday in June to the next Sunday.  (You can see a bit more info and what you (and I) missed by clicking here.  It was a splendid year, so much to choose from)  I always resolve to go to something every day; here’s what I actually managed to take in.

Shall we contradict ourselves by starting with something I went to on the Thursday before.  Yes we shall, because the weekend performances of Carabosse Theatre Company’s Real Ale and Drama Shots 5 were there in the official programme.

Carabosse – “We like it dark” – who take their name from the wicked fairy godmother out of Sleeping Beauty and other folk and fairy tales put on a great show in Swinfen Harris Hall, an intimate venue, full of character.  You knew you were in for a treat when Billy Nomad, knowing smile in minimalist clown-face, stepped up to MC and punctuate playlets with his own ditties.

Immediate coup de théatre with the opener, Eamonn Dolan’s Finn and Tilly: a couple in the audience arguing as a production of Waiting for Godot comes to a close; she all WTF?, he quoting critics as to its profundity; they take it onto the stage and … Godot (a brilliant performance) turns up.  The programme was nicely varied and full of genuine theatrical moments, not least from a chilling theatre of cruelty piece.  Much laughter at Sophie Patterson’s Red Velvet, a Quentin Tarantino take on an Acorn Antiques set in a coffee and cake shop near the law courts.  Three other pieces were concerned with writing or theatre, one in which the playwright is seen as undesirable alien.  The last piece, 19 & 28, featured the whole cast and crew, the dead hanging about awaiting their next reincarnation assignment – a bureaucratic nightmare in a creepy heaven.  Shame about the punchline (methinks) but it all segued nicely into a choral Stairway to Heaven – two “words” in the lyrics of the first two verses?   And it makes you wonder.  Local, yes.  Am-dram? – never: this was the real deal.

Saturday

Yay!  TheHigh Street closed to traffic and there’s dancing in the street.  All sorts, but primarily, for me, Morris.  Nonesuch, an enthusiastic side from Bristol caught the eye, not so much for their garb as their steps – moves other sides hardly touch taken for granted, I was told.  And so to the Fox & Hounds for the traditional StonyLive! opener, a pint of bluegrass with the as ever enjoyable Hole in the head gang (Sorry. I know there are well-set precedents for surprisingly effective bluegrass treatments of Soul-Stax songs, but for me Mustang Sally is not one that wears it well).

And in the evening the magnificent Roadrunner at a sold-out York House.  Local legends from before my time in Stony, “Rutland’s finest R&B band” as it says in the programme – and you can see why on both counts.  From the opening full attack of Let’s work together they were outstanding.  Yes, you can call them a covers band, but it’s the spark of the choice of material that counts.  From way back to Minnie the Moocher and Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs Wooly bully all the way through to 1993 and George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ Get a job (did they do anything later?), they played with the intensity of classic Dr Feelgood supplemented by some well-oiled showmanship – singer and singer and guitarist delving into crowd with the aid of radio mic-ing.  A good time was had by all.

Sunday

And the sun shone bright on the Classic Car Show.  Lots of E-types this time (wife thinks they’re ugly).  My car of the show (not that I know anything) was the Bristol they used on the poster, though nothing stood out as of yore (or I’m getting jaded).  When a bunch on scooters unexpectedly arrived on the scene en masse, the musician on the bandstand broke into the Who’s Can’t explain; nifty, I thought, even though there wasn’t a parka in sight.  With camera to hand I like playing with reflections.

Sunday afternoon and it’s the Big Lunch, a family picnic in Rocket Park.  Lovely cod and chips from a van.  Was surprised how moved I was when a Lancaster bomber in World War 2 livery flew over to the strains (eventually) of the Dam Busters March.  Stirring enough to make one put the firebombing of Dresden to the back of one’s mind for a while, and wonder at what the sight and sound of a sky full of these magnificent machines must have been like.

The Youth and Junior Bardic Trials were a surprise too – strongly contested by 6 contestants, all of whom might have been well in the running another year, in front of a decent and appreciative audience.  So close the judges created a new post of Bard in waiting when it was scored a three-way tie.  The future’s bright.

Monday

Nice little interlude in the shade of the trees by the Magdalen Tower, all that remained of Stony’s other church after a devastating mid-18th century fire.  Masterminded by Derek Gibbons, 6 out of the 8 Stony Bards each recited a poem dedicated to the tower.  Impressively, without collaboration, each approached the subject of the tower in different ways, ranging from historical chronicle to contemporary trysting place.

Should have been Southern Blues Fiasco from Oxford at the Fox but circumstances meant it was but one of them – a medal winning guitar pedal designer, no less – and an accomplished pick-up band with an age span of 30 years or probably more.  A lively evening of powerful blues and blues-oriented music ensued.  A lovely People get ready with a lot of harmonica made you believe Dylan might have written it.  Was it this lot who did a storming Louie Louie?

Tuesday

… and it’s An evening with the Bard and Friends back at York House, and another fine evening of words and music, most of it original.  So much talent around, all in fine form.  Impossible for me not to resurrect the words ‘quiet power’ when poet Fay Roberts is performing, but she was spellbinding, switching from deadly serious to throwaway flippant and all stations in between within a couple of lines.  Important to mention what ‘Fred’ adds to accomplished singer-songwriter Sian Magill’s work.  Taylor Smith go from strength to strength, with writer Taylor dismissing the infectious rabble-rousing Leaders as ‘folk dirge’.   Shame this event always clashes with the a capella session in the Vaults.

Wednesday

Innocent Hare and a pint of Mad Squirrel in a crowded Beer Bear was fun.  Tunes, songs spanning a century or six, add a bit of clog – not to mention good company – are a lovely way to spend an hour.  Damned licensing laws.  (What a fine addition to Stony High street the Beer Bear is, by the way).

So it’s back up the High Street to the Vaults and ‘our’ Ian Anderson’s Blues from the Ouse.  For shame the audience outnumbered the band – coupla guitars, gob iron – by only one at the start but it soon picked up.  More generation spanning musicians, this time acoustic blues of high order.

Thursday

A Vaultage special for StonyLive!  Not the usual fortnightly open mic, but a one-off pre-scheduled closed mic for songwriters.  No covers allowed.  I say one-off, but apparently so many applied there’ll be another one later this year.  Proceedings were kicked off by Bard 007, Mr Stephen Hobbs, the bee in his bonnet about cover bands a-buzzing strong with this little ode:

A salute to Songwriters
[dedicated to Pat “Vaultage” Nicholson]

I salute you
for daring to be original
for taking a thought
maybe just a whisper –
and giving it life:
for showing us your heart.

Stony Live? Do me a favour!
Gimme a break!
L
eave it out!

Let The King, The Starman,
The Private Dancer,
The Gingerbread Man,
and the Joker
be themselves:
this imitation flatters no one.

Stony Live? Do me a favour!
Gimme a break!
Leave it out!

You are the freshness
that masks this slurry of covers
masquerading as a festival.
But you are not alone
look around….
I salute YOU!

© Stephen Hobbs

Archivists might like to note that not all listed turned up (H&S, at least one other) but that happily gave a bit more space for the driving reverie of David Cattermole’s songs.  So much talent and variety in one small bar.  Take a bow Pat ‘Mr Vaultage’ Nicholson (no mean writer and performer himself).

Friday

I have to admit to a stamina fail.  Guilty to an inability – a failing too sweet and rare many publicans who put on music will say – to spend time in a pub without a glass – or with an empty one – in hand, the week was taking its toll.  I am, however, assured that had I walked up and down the High Street on Friday a fruitful game of Cover Band Bingo was very much in prospect.

ers-stonylive/cover-band-bingo-2/” rel=”attachment wp-att-8865″> I’d give a source if only my source didn’t say they’d love to give a source.

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On Sunday Derek  G put up a provocative post on FaceBook saying “Cover bands aren’t local music” which was greeted with varying degrees of approval, moderation, and a fair amount of scorn.  I’m pretty sure I only witnessed one song on that graphic all week, but I wasn’t trying.  I think the point – in the context of StonyLive! – is that you can see cover bands in Stony most weeks, and that there’s a difference between doing a more or less straight cover as opposed to an interpretation.  I shall return to this theme on Sunday.

Saturday

So much to choose from.  I eschew the traditional outgoing lunchtime bluegrass session with those very fine Concrete Cowboys in the anticipation of a long day at the talent packed Fringe Festival, which I come and go from throughout the day, so I didn’t see everyone.  The Antipoet‘s Paul Eccentric got so worked up about the Americanisation of the English language via film & tv (“It’s not to go / it’s to take-a-fucking-way“) that he managed to draw blood with his signature mic forehead bounce finale of The wrong question.  This was a splendid event – well done JT & co, good to see that Scribal Gathering logo on the poster – but I have to submit to an attack of blogging fatigue here.  It was great to see (and hear, of course) Naomi Rose – one of the best songwriters around –  in good voice.  Headliners Forest of Fools did what they do – with folk-based accordion, congas, drums, bass, sousaphone and a touch of electronica – magnificently .

Mason Edwards design again

Sunday

A nice relaxed Folk on the Green in a cool breeze and gentle sun.  Climax of, and, of course, a totally separate entity from StonyLive!  First time we’ve settled down on a spot with only a mere soft drink (Schloer Red Grape found in the garage leftover unopened from New Year’s Eve).  A great early set from another prime local singer/songwriter Mark Owen, who has never sounded better (thumbs up to the PA crew) and went down well.  Izzie Walsh and her equally young band gave us a sweet set of Americana, mixing originals and covers.

Paul McClure, the Rutland Troubadour, appeared in what he described as the closing wind-the crowd down-down spot.  This is the refreshing FOTG rethink of the last couple of years, whereby things close not so much with a bang as a … whimper?  No.  When I say Paul did his job well is not to say he was not anything but a charming and engaging end to the day (with a little bit of rock and roll on the side, just for good measure).

Trigger warning: if you are a post-Syd Pink Floyd fan, better to pass over this paragraph of self-indulgence.  Truth to tell, Paul McClure didn’t have much to calm down after Little Pig‘s cover of an obscure (to me) mournful slow Pink Floyd song, the second in their set.  Nothing against the musicianship, and they opened with a welcome workout on Kirsty McColl’s There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis.  For argument’s sake let’s just say it’s my problem.  It is said that in the golden age of glossy music mags, Pink Floyd on the front cover was a guaranteed circulation boost.  I’ve also heard it said, last week in fact, that every town of a certain size has a tattoo parlour and its own Pink Floyd tribute band (Mr Hobbs, I believe).  I just don’t get it.

Anyway, here’s to the StonyLive! and FOTG Committees and small army of volunteers.  Now, World Cup permitting, it’s back to the telly, and the gloriously bonkers Flowers, and catching up on The handmaid’s tale, The Bridge and that series on African music.  I’ll finish with a rather wonderful detail from a Pontiac in the car show:

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Beautiful

There’s a passage well into Rachel Simon‘s The story of Beautiful Girl (Preface, 2011), May’s Book Group book, that had me beaming:

“Beautiful” was once the biggest word Lynnie had ever said. Her speech therapist, Andrea, had told her,  ‘After you master that, the sky’s the limit.’  She wasn’t quite right – Lynnie did not cross a language threshold with “beautiful.” […] But Andrea was right that once Lynnie achieved “beautiful”, she’d develop a new confidence.

It got to me.  Others in the Book Group were – rather unfairly I thought – expecting cynical ol’ me to be dismissive of this well-crafted novel.  I’ll admit seeing that cover I feared an acute attack of the American sentimentals – and if there’s a film made, any sloppy string section in evidence in the soundtrack will sully its integrity – but while the others complained of an over-reliance on coincidence for its narrative development, I was quite happy to accept a not unreasonable logic to the deeply satisfying happenstances, based on the people involved in the story being on the same football pitch as Lynnie’s thoughts on hope:

And Lynnie understood. There were two kinds of hope: the kind you couldn’t do anything about and the kind you could.  And even if the kind you could do something about wasn’t what you’d originally wanted, it was still worth doing. A rainy day is better than no day. A small happiness can make a big sadness less sad.

Not to mention the hope of the reader for things to turn out some sort of right (or in the case of the viewer, as in Peter Kay’s Car Share on telly last night, but I digress).

The story of Beautiful Girl starts one stormy night in 1968.  Or at least the book does, with Lynnie (young, white, aka Beautiful Girl) and Homan (tall African-American, profoundly deaf, aka Number Forty-Two, aka Buddy to Lynnie) on the run from ‘the School’ – a punitive dumping ground of an institution – with a new-born babe in arms.  Knocking desperately on Martha’s front door (she’s a widow, a retired teacher with a story of her own), they secrete the baby just before the School hunting party arrives; they obviously adore one another.  Homan escapes, and after a brief meaningful exchange of a look and a couple of words with Lynnie Martha solemnly chooses to care for the baby, who she names Julia.  Helped by a network of devoted ex-pupils, she goes on the run.

The story of Beautiful Girl is not just the story of ‘Beautiful Girl’ (which is how Homan remembers his friend).  The narrative develops in a series of episodes over the years to 2011, as we see what happens to Lynnie, back in the School, where she is helped by Kate – another of the good gals – who works there, and takes on a mission of her own.  Meanwhile Homan partakes of a desperate American survival odyssey – riding the rails, road tripping in a stolen vehicle with a young white man in a wheelchair, rescued by a hippy commune, helping in a Buddhist retreat – while Martha (now aka Matilda) goes on a journey of her own with Julia.

As I say, it got to me.  As the disturbing story arc and the individual lives broaden out, the narrative takes us through the terrible circumstances of Julia’s conception, the unravelling and demise of such prehistoric institutional care, and the development of the Self Advocacy Movement for people with disabilities.  Here’s a significant step in Lynnie’s liberation:

Five year’s into Lynnie’s stay – five tear’s after Lynnie’s intake IQ test classified her as an upper division imbecile and they stuck her in a cottage with other low grades – Kate noticed that Lynnie wasn’t just pushing the mop around when she did the janitorial work that was part of her treatment. She was making designs on the tile with the mop, the suds sparkling like iridescent crescents in the light. Kate told a psychologist, who ordered a new IQ test, and then Lynnie was promoted to the moron cottage.

Kate encourages her drawing talent and there’s a moment when they celebrate a small victory over the administration with a high-five out of nowhere that had me clenched-fist saluting – Yes! – and so it goes on.  For the good guys.  It’s not in the same class, but I’ll venture that it’s not outrageous to consider The story of Beautiful Girl as a close relative to  Ken Kesey’s One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, if without the belly laughs.  Lovely book, though, with an unflashy element of private theological musings, and a couple of neat but telling visual motifs running through.

As for the bad guys, we get to see some karma.  There’s a nicely nuanced visit near the end to find one of them, looking, I guess, for closure:

Lynnie gazed out of the windshield. The sky was gray and the houses broken. There was so much that was ugly in this world. Yet look. A blue jay was flying toward the house. It dove under the porch roof and tucked itself into the nest.

Musical interlude

This got me humming something I’ve been listening to a lot lately.  Mary Chapin Carpenter‘s recent album reworkings songs from her back catalogue.  Sometimes just the sky, the title track, is the only new song.  the title is a quote from Patti Smith.  I think it deserves a listen:

One last thought about The story of Beautiful Girl.  Homan – Number Forty-Two, the number assigned to him at the School, who originally saw printed text as bird tracks: “… how easily the School had made him disappear.”  Yup, that number again.  Coincidence?  Nod and a wink?  You never know.

YorkieFest 2018

A new, evening only format for YorkieFest this year, and a splendid evening’s music is was too, with an absorbing (listened to!) spoken word set from the Bard as bonus.  Mike Betteridge is excused his square on Cover Band Bingo because his solo Come together is so good; he can play the blues too.  Lovely set from singer-songwriter Dawn Iverson, making good use of her romantic history.  A touch of Nick drake (who else?) from Hazeyjane, and an uplifting African guitar driven set from Safari Boots.

One of MK’s finest bands for a long time now, the Zeroes, in their slimmed down unplugged incarnation proved it’s not just two generational folk families can sweetly sing together, and provided my current earworm.  Forgotten its title, but with a refrain of “Oh no / not me / I’m not sophisticated / I’m just a boy from Milton Keynes” in response to a mini-world tour of verses detailing the origins of his dates (“She was a girl from Ipanema” et al), inexplicable how the MK50 team rejected it last year when submitted for formal recognition as part of the city’s half-century celebration. Surely, is this not a case of the phenomenon of, escaping from the realms of literature, the unreliable narrator strikes again.

Well done, again, Pat Nicholson and the ‘Fest team.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a passage near the end of Wendy Jones‘ novel The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals (Corsair, 2012) where one of the characters – Wilfred himself, no less – comes to the conclusion that his notion of reading the dictionary from cover to cover as a way of bettering himself is not helping:

The words he wanted were so simple, any child could speak them. They were simple words to write and spell. Big words, clever words – all those words beginning with A – were rather grand, too grand really, and unnecessary. When would he ever need the word avocado in Narberth?

How times change.  These days, the Guardian says (says Wikipedia), that Narberth, in Pembrokeshire, is “a gastronomic hub for west Wales”, lively and full of galleries and antique shops.  A decade or three ago we used to regularly stay nearby with family, and Narberth was a name often seen on road signs that we never thought to follow.  Back in 1924 (I do not doubt the novel), it was the sort of repressive place (“a town that pretended innocence and only allowed for innocence”) that had me dredging up words from the days when I was ‘reading’ (as they say on University Challenge) sociology – fine words like gemeinschaft and gessellschaft, that spectrum from community to society – and saying three cheers for modernity.

Is The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals as bad as its title might suggest?  It was only keeping faith with the Book Group that kept me going.  Come the meeting it became apparent that mine was a minority report, though in discussion I had to acknowledge some credit where it was due – for the powerful dignity and integrity of the three main characters as things direly progress.  Wilfred gets himself into a situation “because of a yellow dress … with a low waistband and a square neck that was slightly too low, perhaps only by half an inch” and rather than keep mildly lecherous thought to himself blurts out a proposal of marriage to the wearer of said dress.  Yeah, right.  

The trouble is, it’s not sure what it wants to be.  It starts out as a vaguely comic candidate for the Sunday 9 o’clock Candleford slot on telly, with lots of cod Welshness (how I tired of the sing-song reference back to “his apprentice master, Mr Ogmore Auden”) and then turns into something really quite dark and bleak.  It ends like a box set pleading for a second series, or at the very least a spin-off following the one departing to that London.  But then I have to admit that I ended up caring about Grace, Wilf (as he’s never called) and young war widow Flora.  Other saving graces: odd incidentals about undertaking, photography, and beekeeping.  Even the cheerleaders at Book Group found those quotes on the cover of the paperback – “Gently glorious”, “Magical and bewitching” – missing the point.

The best of Adam Sharp

Graeme Simsion‘s The best of Adam Sharp (Michael Joseph, 2016) is a midlife crisis/great lost love novel.  He, Adam, is a successful database architect, who manages to fit in three pub quizzes a week in Norwich, married to a software developer whose start-up is being bought up for big bucks on condition she moves to the States, and she’s not bothered if he comes or not – his choice.  She, Angelina, is a lawyer, a Commissioner for Equalities in Australia, married to Charlie, an older ‘deal-maker’.  They‘d first met 22 years ago when he was 26, working to a contract in Oz and playing the piano in a bar (“not a pub, a bar” he insists) in the evenings, and she was young and famous, one of the leads in a TV cop-soap, in an unhappy marriage; he leaves when the job demands he move to another place and they both get on with their lives.

Out of the blue he gets an email, just saying ‘Hi.’  What follows is a tale, narrated by the Adam of the title, of jealousy and infidelity, trust-testing and sex games, coming to a climax (if you’ll excuse the expression) in a French Villa where Angelina and Charlie are staying, and have invited Adam.  There are various cliffhangers, comings and goings and changes of mind; I’m not giving anything away.  It has its moments and there are some decent scenes, along with consideration of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, all sorts of specific wine nonsense, the Kübler-Ross grief model, and BATNA, or ‘Best alternative to a negotiated settlement’, a concept from negotiation theory; this is a fine romance.

The paperback cover, and a move to tape cassette!

To tell the truth I only carried on with it from early on (“I was back home in Norwich, reading up on Pete Best, the Beatles’ forgotten first drummer, when the email popped up …” ) to keep faith with my Kinks in Literature feature here on Lillabullero.  I knew there was a reference in there somewhere because the author has helpfully supplied a 2½ page ‘Playlist’ of what was probably his dad’s record collection, and Lola features (it’s a pretty good sequence about Adam learning to play the piano, which I’ll expand on elsewhere).  Indeed, our narrator can’t stop using music (and the odd book, like Love in a time of cholera) as metaphor, simile and sieve through which to view his life: “If my life prior to 15 February 2012 had been a song, it might have been Hey Jude … ” (not a bad musical analysis, as it happens).  But he also courts obscurities that had me hitting Google furiously: “I sang Walking in Memphis and found I was enjoying myself … I did the Dylan-Springs obscurity Walk out in the rain and got another cheer for the line about sore feet”.  Nope, not the Boss, but Helen Springs; Dylan never recorded it, Eric Clapton did a maudlin version of it, but this, from the Del McCoury Band, is a pretty joyful take that I feel the urge to share:

Then there’s this:

      Long ago, I listened to Billie Holiday singing Summertime – not once but many times – and I thought it was as close to a perfect rendition as could be imagined: Lady Day laying out the melody in all its languid easy-living elegance, the restraint of her delivery only accentuating the feeling behind it.

      Years later, I listened to Janis Joplin’s live performance. It’s a screaming primal blues, the melody no more than a point of departure, but still, unmistakably, the same song. My familiarity with Billie Holiday’s version only made Joplin’s reinterpretation more powerful and in turn opened my mind to nuances I had missed in the original. Having experienced both versions, I knew the song in a way I could never have if I had heard only one.

      Making love to Angelina felt different and familiar at the same time.

Never been a great Joplin fan, and personally I think she murders it.  I have always had a lot of time for Billy Stewart‘s funkily energetic assault on the song though:

But I indulge myself.  Time to move on.

Behind her eyes

I’m not going to say much about Sarah Pinborough‘s highly successful Behind her eyes (HarperCollins, 2017) because I could say too much and give the game away.  It’s a page turner all right.  There are plenty of twists on the way – not least in the reader’s perception of who the good guys are – but the shift at the end is dazzling in its audacity.  Mind-blowing is a phrase not much-used these days …

Single mother Louise has a drunken snog with David, a married bloke, the first bloke she’s fancied in ages.  Goes to work next day only to discover he’s her new boss; ok, I’ll give away that an affair ensues.  Louise also bumps into and befriends his seemingly vulnerable wife, Claire; they become new BFs, with Louise being drawn into her problems.  Seems neither Claire or David know that Louise knows the other, and she aint telling (and she’s the decent one).  He’s a psychiatrist and there’s a big, slowly revealed – and duly revised – back story to the marriage, with its probably criminal roots, one way or another, in a fatal fire at her parents’ country house when they were much younger.

In a library it has to be shelved in Crime fiction, but to say any more might give too much away; I will say psychological thriller as sub-genre along the way.  There’s a necessary suspension of belief involved, but I was so skillfully drawn in.  It’s crisply written, with the narrative mainly shared between Louise and Claire, with ‘Then’, ‘Later’, and ‘Now’ passages to help it along.  The final reveal … Wow!  Good job …

A meal and a show in that London

Family-gifted celebratory treats: a mixed experience.

Apparently over 7 million theatregoers have already seen The woman in black in the West End over the last 28 ‘terrifying’ years.  Which may explain why we seemed to be the oldest couple in the difficult to find tucked away Fortune Theatre – a cramped trip back into the past in itself – on a Saturday night.  Indeed, I thought we’d seen it before in MK (wasn’t our choice) but it soon became apparent I was mistaken.  Wasn’t convinced by the framing mechanism for the narrative – worried man seeks actor to help up his presentation skills in telling his terrible tale.  It’s a two-hander and as such a feat for the actors, but I wasn’t really drawn in.

Of course there’s always a problem with ghost stories if you don’t believe in ghosts, and I found the effects were either corny – not easy to do effectively, I’d guess, in such an old theatre – or relied more on volume and surprise than anything else for their shock value.  Most chilling moment – and chilling it was, I’ll grant – was right at the end, when it became apparent that the curse had not been lifted.

Earlier, a meal in a ££££-er on TripAdvisor, at Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden (website).  That was a real treat.  We had the 5-course vegetarian taster menu; the chefs come out and tell you what’s going on the plates, of which there was a splendid variety of shapes and materials.  The place was buzzing but the service was right on the ball.  Most interesting tastes that have hit this palate in a long time, only challenged years past by a couple of specialist veggie gaffs in Brighton and Lyme Regis.

 

 

 

 

Photo ‘borrowed’ from the Bookshop FB.

Early 2016 and the rumour is that the Willen Hospice Bookshop on the High Street in Stony Stratford (“the jewel in the crown of Milton Keynes”) is – shock! horror! – going to close.

Come March 31, 2018, the volunteers who put together a rescue bid are celebrating two years of successfully running the shop as a wholly volunteer-run enterprise.  And the Bardic posse of Stony Stratford are on hand to commemorate the achievement in verse.  Here be those verses, made available on Lillabullero through the good offices of Stephen Hobbs, of the Bardic Council:

Book Covers by Sam Upton
Bard of Stony Stratford

You shouldn’t ever judge a book,
Not by its cover, title or look,
At first it may appear old, torn,
Tattered and dog-eared,
But open it up, give it a chance,
I bet it’s not what you feared,

A picture is only worth a thousand words,
So why let it decide if you live or die
The next thousand pages,
Let ink fly,
Paper stages wait to be great,
Even if the cover’s a state,
Inside those words may sway your fate,

So, see past the picture,
It’s never too late,
Grab a battered, broken,
Bruised looking book,
Be a crook,
Steal its zeal,
Live a life that isn’t yours,
And make those characters real.

©Sam Upton

Sam Upton is the eighth and current Bard of Stony Stratford, elected, as is customary, at The Bardic Trials – an annual event that is part of the StonyWords! literary festival, every late January. There is a link to the Bardic website near the end of this post.  A later development has seen the appointment of a Youth and a Junior Bard.  This takes place at an event that is part of the annual StonyLive! music(and other things)fest, and is open to anyone aged 8-15 (the youngest presumably being the Junior).  Here are their poems written for the Willen Hospice Bookshop celebrations:

Books: How do you choose yours?
by Dylan Piper Junior Bard 

Is it by the cover; is it by the name?
Is it by the thickness, or is it by its fame?

Do you take a fishing rod and see what you can catch?
Or do you trawl through hundreds for that perfect match?

Do you use your senses; see what you can smell?
And maybe give a little lick before reading it as well?

Can you hear the words within – do they jump out off the page?
Does the cover creak and moan, revealing its old age?

Does the story draw you in; can you see the author’s view?
Many useful facts to learn? Or maybe just a few?

Is there too much gadzookery within the book itself?
Or do the words flow and fly that book right off the shelf?

When you’re in the bookshop, looking for that next read,
Notice how you choose the one – that meets your every need.

©Dylan Piper – Junior Bard (age 10)

 

I love books by Isabelle Chapman Youth Bard

Books, books, please don’t let them fade
Put those screens and devices away, and let the books rage
There are lots of secrets and adventures heading your way.

But we have to support our book shop to make sure it stays
It could be reading and learning, all the new things to know
There are many different ways to learn, just get up and go!

Turning the pages, seeing the pictures how could you not love
The special bond a book can produce and all of the above!
You could even learn all about our own Cock and Bull history.

So keep reading every day and make a book your new accessory!

©Isabelle Chapman – Youth Bard (age 11)

“Charitable bookworms share top ten successes” said the headline of a write-up in local free-sheet MK Citizen, thus maintaining local press tradition by working the word ‘bookworms’ – to the despair of library service press release writers everywhere – into any story ever published therein about libraries or bookshops.  A team of 35 volunteers, ages ranging from 19 to 87 have kept this splendid institution on the road, giving, between them volunteering  5,000 hours in the shop.  At the time of the birthday they had sold 86,000 books from the 105 metres of shelving, which hold 5,000 volumes.   Apparently James Patterson is the author most frequently donated, while the highest earning individual book – sold on eBay – was a classic of railway literature.

You can read a bit more of the MK Citizen article at:
www.miltonkeynes.co.uk/news/willen-hospice-bookshop-celebrates-two-years-of-success-1-8421698

The main Willen Hospice website is here: www.willen-hospice.org.uk/

Here’s the Friends of Willen Hospice Bookshop FaceBook page: www.facebook.com/WillenHospiceBookshop/

And for your further delectation, the Bardic Council of Stony Stratford pages are here: bardofstony.weebly.com/

An addendum I found it hard to resist:

Book Booty

‘You can either come into Rags [free plug] with me,’ said Andrea, who needed to change some slacks last Saturday, ‘or I’ll meet you in the Bookshop.  Not a bad four quids’ worth.  One of the funniest writers on the planet, one for the grandson (early poetry induction), and a brick of a cult classic that I have every intention of reading (Patti Smith raves about it), but will look good on the shelves anyway.

& finally – discuss:

Borrowed from the splendid goComics website, specifically: http://www.gocomics.com/lastkiss/2018/04/18

 

 


But first, Clapham Junction – Gateway to the South for us lazy souls choosing not to change at Euston et al, travelling from landlocked MK.  Not Balham, as Peter Sellers once suggested.  [Click on the photos for the bigger picture].

Ah, the Isle of Wight, where the preserved IOW Steam Railway is in better shape than the Island Line run by South Western Railway (yes, that is an old London Underground train).  And the ride considerably smoother:

No, early April and it was not the greatest of weather.  I’m surprised to see those shadows on that Ryde Harbour photo.

Quirky find by the roadside on the walk to Bonchurch:

And down in Bonchurch – you know those road signs that promise you deer or badgers only to disappoint: Result!

One afternoon we actually got to see the shape of the sun struggling unsuccessfully to get out from behind the cloud, but Hey: the sea, the sea!

At Compton Bay, once a Geography A-level student, always a Geography A-level student.  And I know of someone who might have made pots out of that clay:

Colourful, and in the car park – which I wish we’d realised was a National Trust car park before putting the money into the machine – a bit of street furniture (I know, I know) that’s not as old as it looks.  Yes, it was warm enough for an ice cream (and for surfing):

Ventnor strolls: a face in the cliff, an immaculate sign:

‘Enjoy your visit’ says the sign.  At the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, it would seem, it is compulsory to have a good time. Fortunately we did.  Recommended.  At the end of the line the loco goes back to the front of the train, none of this push-and-pull nonsense.

The Discovery Centre was well worth discovering as well.  And here’s one for the railway buffs: a disembodied saddle tank.

Our normal trick – or rather the trick normally played on us – is for the sun to come out on the day of departure.  When we left the Island was covered in fog, so that’s not a problem with the camera’s exposure; rickety-rackety it may be, but on the Island Line they do take pride in their stations.

Thanks to Dave and Jill and Zappa for everything.  And the introduction to the word-game Snatch It!  Haven’t laughed so much in a long time – ‘mayhem’ indeed.

All photos ©DRQ

Suspicious – as I think it is reasonable to be – about any odd-shaped novel, I approached Magnus MillsThe Forensic Records Society (Bloomsbury, 2017) with some trepidation.  It’s a neat piece of book design: square, referencing the 45 rpm vinyl singles of old, sporting printed boards and a dust jacket with a hole revealing the disc’s label, and  shaved at the top to show the edge of the disc printed on the cover; the hole in the middle has not been bored through the body of the book.  Pictured here too is the B-side of the boards, a white label demo that plays a part in the narrative.

It starts with a discussion between James and our unnamed narrator (neither of whom has any back story) about who is saying what in the run-off grooves of an unnamed single, though as ‘Keith’ and ‘Roger’ are named it’s a fair guess they are listening to something by The Who.  It is in fact Happy Jack, though I only know this because it was mentioned in one of the reviews I resorted to reading in an attempt to see if anyone else had had problems making any sense of the ending, but later for that.  So you can see from early on there might be a rather specific demographic being aimed at here.

Nobody listens. Not properly anyway. Not like we do’” says James, who shifts into activist mode: “‘We could form a society for the express purpose of listening to records closely and in detail. Forensically if you like, without any interruption or distraction.'”  And so The Forensic Record Society is born.  They put up a poster in their local, where they will meet in a backroom: “All welcome: bring three records of your choice” to be played in strict rotation; “Obviously there will be no comments or judgement of other people’s taste. We’ll be here simply to listen.”

The first record to be played is The Universal:

        While it was playing both James and Chris stared solemnly at the revolving disc. Neither showed any reaction to the barking dog which accompanied the opening bars, the sudden appearance of electric guitars in the middle section, nor the jokey trombone at the end. They just sat listening in reverential awe. […]         Finally Chris broke the silence.
‘That’s the sea in the trees in the morning.’ It was all he said, but we knew exactly what he meant.

Well, yes, as it happens I do too.  Point well made.  Pity the poor reader who is not aware this is one of the Small Faces’ small masterpieces, though.  Chris’s comment at the end becomes an issue as the Society grows, but the point I need to make here is that throughout the 182 entertaining pages of the book, and the playing of many records ranging from over at least four decades of music, not a single group or artist is named, which can be confusing when a song like Promised land is mentioned.  There were plenty that had me puzzled and keenly Googling.  (I fear I may be incriminating myself in some way here).  But thinking about that, I’d wager that – contradictorily – a certain something would go missing from the text if the attributions were there.  Even though most of the time the record choices are not significant to the narrative, younger readers might struggle, and those without much interest in popular music will probably just not bother.

Things progress: “We sat around the table in our various attitudes (serene, solemn, mesmerised and so forth) and listened … ” (which combination becomes rather a good standing joke).  A latecomer (Phillip, a man in the long, leather coat “with gigantic lapels“) is spurned and sets up a rival organisation – The Confessional Records Society.  James’s puritanical approach becomes problematic, and there is unrest.  There is a crisis when a new member brings along a prog-rock album to the club where it was assumed the single was king; like all good dictators, James gets his sidekick to deal with it.  “We’d started out with such high ideals” bemoans the faithful narrator, “yet within a few months we’d witnessed bickering, desertion, subterfuge and rivalry”. There are splinter groups and a coup – The Perceptive Records Society (comments allowed, though not many are actually made), then the New Forensic Records Society.  The Confessional Records Society moves out of the pub and balloons into an evangelical (as in money-making) charismatic movement, with t-shirts and mass confessions.

What we have here is a nicely worked, broader allegory, delivered with a touch of dry psychological insight:

Was it really beyond human capacity, I pondered, to create a society which didn’t ultimately disintegrate through internal strife? Or collapse under the weight of its own laws? Or suffer damaging rivalries with other societies? Because there was no question that all these fates awaited us if we carried on as we were.

I got hold of The Forensics Records Society because a mate had likened it to The Detectorists, Mackenzie Crook’s gentle and brilliantly unhurried look at English blokedom hobbyists.  It can’t quite manage the charm, but there is plenty of humour to be had from the situation; there are some delightful set pieces.

And then there are the women, principally barmaid Alice, a musician, singer-songwriter of talent, whose demo is featured on the back cover of the book, the listening to of which becomes something of a MacGuffin.  Our narrator feels that Alice, who has meanwhile paired up with James, has declared war on him: “‘I don’t know what you’re doing here,’ she said. ‘You don’t even like music.’”  Ouch. “Well the truth is she thinks we’re all emotionally retarded,” vouchsafes James.  She makes a dramatic exit when the disc is finally played.

The New Forensic Records Society, a looser set-up that the originators deign to visit, even has a couple of women members.  Someone has brought along Shipbuilding:

        ‘OK,’ he [Dave] said. ‘Are there any comments or judgements?’
‘Well it’s alright to listen to,’ remarked the woman sitting opposite me, ‘but you can’t really dance to it, can you?’

This is both funny in context (harking back to Janis or whatever her name was on that bloody ’60s TV programme – not Juke Box Jury, the other one) but also, after a brief moment’s thought, deeply condescending – a cheap laugh, which nevertheless soon has its narrative uses.  She it is, too, who gets our Guinness drinking narrator drunk, waking up in a strange bed to deliver the mystifying con(if you can call it one)clusion.  But later for that.

On the other hand, there are some delicious celebrations of blokedomisms of the musical kind.  Gals, don’t you just love us?:

  • From our narrator, the man with no name: “When I got home my first job was to put the evening’s choice of record back in its proper place (my record collection was filed in strict alphabetical order).”  For me, as a librarian, this is not enough.  It’s a complicated business – I need to know.  I presume he does it by artist but … does he use letter-by-letter or word-by-word?  Just for starters.
  • Then there are James’s side projects.  Like, “About a month ago I decided to play my entire collection in strict alphabetical order (but see above); and, later, “I’m playing all my records with bracketed titles”.  “Sounds like an absorbing pastime”,’ I remarked.
  • And his compadre’s:  “My plan was to play all my records that faded in and out. In the event it took me longer to find them than to play them.” 
  • And in said compadre’s Alice-induced moment of doubt: “I finally resorted to counting and playing all the records in my collection by women performers. The process took me most of the day, and the statistics were inconclusive.
  • Or Mike – “a man with spiky hair” – in search of his nirvana, announcing: ‘The perfect pop song is precisely three minutes in length.”  Spoiler alert: he finds it twice: Another girl, another planet by The Only Ones, plus one I’m not revealing.  He’s wrong, of course, about those 3 minutes, which is far too long.
  • Two men called Andrew achieve possibly the most obscure accolade: “‘Watch out,’ murmured Barry. ‘Here come Pressed Rat and Warthog.’”  I had to dredge the memory banks  hard, and then double-check.  Yes, it was a single: b-side of Anyone for tennis.

As you might have gleaned there’s a broad range of decent music cited – rock, ska, reggae, pop, folk, soul – and nothing that made me wince; MacArthur Park makes an appearance for laughs.  There’s no specific historical timeframe – emails exist, CDs, cassettes and digital downloads get no mention – though I doubted a couple of later songs ever made it to 45 rpm (The Killers?).  But hey, it’s an allegory.  My heart soared when one of my all-time favourite Atlantic soul obscurities got played.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rex Garvin & the Mighty CraversSock it to ’em JB:

A double homage to James Bond and the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown.  I had this once on single, and whoever’s got it, I’d like it back!

And for me, Looking for Lewis and Clark by The Long Ryders will never fail to excite:

Spoiler alert

Ah yes, and the small matter of how it ends.  Which has baffled all the reviewers I’ve reviewed.  If this is allegory, what on earth does that ending mean?  The triumph of dance music?  The end of civilisation in a wild splurge of hedonism?  The narrator sure as hell doesn’t know; he just keeps us hanging on.  Do these words, coming to him – waking confused in a strange bed – from the room next door, mean anything to anyone?  Are they a quote from some outro?  Zappa?:

Yeah, yeah … more, more … nice … play another song … yeah maybe … hey, what’s happening later on? … what’s happening? … yeah beautiful … yeah, come on baby … I got it … yeah, outasight, man …”  [there’s more like this]

I’d quite like to know.

Click here for a link to the Kinks in Literature page for The Forensic Records Society.

March’s Book Group book had the makings of an interesting meeting:

  • The book: a first person narrative of a 60-year old widow of three months impulse flight from Hampstead to the Norfolk coast, written by a man who was 50 at the time it was published
  • The Group: women of an average age a few years greater than that of the book’s narrator, and a token male (me), contributing nothing in years to lower that average.  I say ‘token male’ because I quite like the rhetorical flourish; no quotas here.

So how did Mick Jackson‘s telling of The widow’s tale (Faber, 2010) fare in the matter of gender impersonation?  There was no consensus: one of us thought he was pretty convincing, was carried along, another said No, she never stopped thinking it was written by a man, but wasn’t that bothered; others felt he’d made a decent fist of it while being gently jolted out of their reading stride by occasional lapses (I should probably have asked for specific instances); I, of course, on the most basic of levels, could offer nothing – what would I know? – but it felt ok, I never thought I was not reading her journal, rather than a construction; I liked her.

The sudden death of husband of 40 years and she’s all over the place.  Her journal starts when one day, three months into widowhood, she just gets in his Jaguar and finds herself on the M11: “When I ran out of the house I don’t think I had any real idea where I was going“.  Once she gets to where she finds she’s going her plan was “to book myself into the hotel, for nostalgia’s sake” but she rents a small cottage instead; seeking something other than diversion, she cuts the TV aerial cable.  It becomes apparent this nostalgia is not for her late husband’s sake, though mention of an affair occurs only two-fifths of the way in; she torments herself in that regard with “how incredibly happy I once was“; it becomes a growing obsession that builds to an irrational act that ends (sorry, rather predictably) in a keenly felt self-humiliation.  She comes out of it in the end: “No angelic chorus“, but she’s had a crucial moment.

The journal – “Anyway, that’s quite enough writing (and drinking) for one day. I’m off to my (widow’s) bed” – is her way of keeping on top of things while she has a breakdown of sorts.  She maintains a nice line in self-deprecation keeping company with the emotional turmoil, insecurities,  blankness and migraines.  Here she is considering first, widowhood, and then, the end of the affair:

One of the surprises, re the sudden onset of widowhood […]  With John gone, life is now one endless succession of options, none of which has to be presented to the household committee before being acted upon. The sudden sense of liberty … can be quite bewildering.

I was informed that I really was a lovely woman – as if it might be something I’d consider adding to my CV when applying for any future extra-marital shenanigans.

Hans Holbein’s Christina of Denmark with her “steady gaze”. Our heroine likes it a lot; doesn’t do much for me.

Of course I’m an utter wreck …”  She spends her days walking, tramping out on the salt marshes (“I’m like a bloody sentry, obsessively patrolling my own little stretch of coastline“), doing crosswords in the pub (supping Woodforde’s Wherry – an excellent choice), not buying a book of Holbein prints in a bookshop (and regretting it), recalling the excitement of illicit phone calls made from phone boxes, and thinking back over episodes of stillness in her life (a spell in a convent retreat, life modelling, visiting Rome).  Remembering too (though not much) the early years of her settled marriage (fancifully evoking Dylan Thomas and Caitlin’s quarrels in passing).  She’s worried that without the check of domesticity she’ll become eccentric: “Not eccentric as in quaint and charming. Eccentric, as in just plain weird“.  As her time in the cottage unfolds, the journal  wanders hither and thither while still building nicely.

The resolution, the moment of revelation when it comes, is not religious, though she has given that a try: walking to a local church, visiting the shrine at Walsingham – and like me, been unimpressed by its glitter – but being drawn back there to witness the slipper chapel pilgrims and their shoeless perambulation of the stations of the cross, which stays with her as a fancy:

I’m considering buying a map of Britain, and marking on it all the places that have significance for me. […] My own personal stations. I could put a few weeks aside and walk them barefoot – to honour them.

Back in the Book Group a counsellor with a lot of experience with women in similar circumstances, said she would not hesitate to recommend A widow’s tale to those seeking her help.  Showing those dealing with the confusions of sudden bereavement: You’re not alone.  Pretty high praise, I’d say.

 

 

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