… or at least a couple of them, anyway.
So you stagger out of the New Inn (not that I do that much staggering these days) and cross the road bridge over the Grand Union Canal towards New Bradwell’s main drag, to be confronted by this substantially proportioned blue tit – to get an idea of its size, that’s a Sky dish. Promising start for a film script, anybody? Not quite Charles Laughton’s moon in the puddle in Hobson’s Choice but I’m not asking any fee. Tales of the unexpected; I was just soberly crossing over to the other side of the canal in broad daylight and it cheered me – and a frankly dull stretch of road – up. Would be good to credit the artist.
Anyway, another Saturday night and I actually go out for a change, foregoing the misery of the original Swedish Wallender with Rolf Lassgard (which makes the Kenneth Branagh version almost seem like a sit-com) for the joys of the Nicki Gillis Band in the White Horse in Stony. Fine tight band of seasoned professional musicians enjoying one another’s company. Bassist was Lee Jackson, he of The Nice – that thought evoking memories of America on the jukebox in Sheffield’s long-gone Raven pub – and the others were no slouches either: another drummer called Cozy (Dixon this time) and in Lee Goodwin, for all his slightly cadaverish appearance, a more than useful guitarist, whose witty quotation fills during an energetic These boots are made for walking were eminently grinworthy.
Nicki was in great voice and it was a fine show. The White Horse performing area is not great and the ceiling is low so her warm presence fronting the band – she’s younger and taller and, um, shinier than the band – was something. If I invoke the word amazon it’s in the best possible sense of the word, to celebrate her charisma and powerful talent as performer and gracious leader. It was mostly rock, bluesish, with a touch of country; her website also bears the description (shudder) “adult contemporary”. The first set included a couple of her own songs – shades of rocky early Mary Chapin Carpenter, which can only be a good thing – and their interpretation of an interesting selection of songs (no covers band, this) meant a good time was had by all. I reckon it takes courage to do The Pretenders’ Brass in pocket; she had them all, and she used them. (Charm and sassy too, if one is to disbelieve the official lyrics – sidestep?).
Book group book this month was He kills coppers (2001), the middle book of Jake Arnott‘s dazzling crime trilogy. I say crime trilogy, but it’s a real tour de force of a historical novel. I was mightily impressed when it first came out and little has happened since to change my opinion. The central 1966 sequences feel and sound right to me – the three narrative voices (cop, criminal, journo) are time and place vernacular and if they miss a beat for that period I missed it – a remarkable achievement for an author born 1961. So he’s done his research and it’s the little touches rather than any spelt-out big narrative that swing it: in a café “A couple of mod kids were showing off at the pinball table“; at Henekeys in Notting Hill, “Julian pointed out one of the Rolling Stones …“; the writer has been spurred on by the success of Colin Wilson and Truman Capote. The lack of a ‘soundtrack’ lifts it too.
No, that big narrative is reflected, after a 1956 preface describing a military action in Malaya, in the changing fortunes and attitudes of the three individuals telling the tale, in particular how their employment – crime, policing, journalism – changes over three decades, focussing on events in 1966, 1971 and 1985. The huge cultural and sub-cultural shifts of the period and how a society reacts are chronicled in passing with great skill, as we also see what’s going on in their heads as they survive or at times thrive. The central fictional action hinges around a true story – Harry Roberts’ gang of minor criminals’ slaughter of three policemen – except, rather than get caught after 3 months camping in Epping Forest (the benefits of a national service training) his equivalent in the book escapes the woods and hides away first on the fairground circuit, then as a New Age traveller and then in a political squat. His mythology (that vile song – “is our friend” – from which the book’s title comes) is what triggers a climax. It’s a brutal book at heart, but you can see where people are coming from. And I’ve not touched on the rich cast of other players in the action.
I had to argue at the book group meeting that this was not a simple recitation of clichés, particularly in regard to the police corruption which plays a big part of the book. Arnott makes much of the dispiriting nature of passive corruption – the unasked for perks of just happening to be in a firm, and so implicated indirectly – and highlights the changing public order role of the police. Yes, it’s docu-fiction in passages, but the sociological insights are fleshed out, the cultural shifts played out. Just a couple of examples. The journalist (and I’ve not mentioned a major contribution he makes to the mix) gets a new job in 1985, and after that first quote, an old friend and colleague has changed:
And Murder Monthly was an ideal place for me. I had been headhunted for the job […] It was a pretty failsafe formula for the anorak psychos. Along with the occult, UFOs, conspiracy theory, stuff on the war that had a slight obsessiveness about the Third Reich, True Crime would always be a consistent draw. Offer a binder and the punters would comfort themselves with thoughts of self-improvement. There was a whole suburban death cult out there hungry for arcane knowledge.
I hadn’t been close to Julian for a long time. Once witty and flamboyant, he’d become one of the Soho bores, that pack of would-be writers or artists or hangers-on that drank themselves stupid and imagined they were being bohemian.
I mentioned creatures great and small at the start of all this. Behold, a photo I’m quite proud of (click on it and click again). Build it and they will come: