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There were times when reading Barney Norris‘s Five rivers met on a wooded plain (Doubleday/Transworld, 2016) when it felt like I’d wandered into the pages of one of those self-help personal growth tomes.  This is a young man’s novel.  Ambitious, over-written and striving too hard – death and the meaning of life and all that.

The paperback blurb writer does him no favours:  “One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment five lives collide…”  Except they don’t, really. 

The actual crash (spoiler alert) is delivered as a slow reveal, so the reader is inevitably wondering when this flamin’ crash is actually going to happen.  We are at least a third of the way into the book – sorry, my copy’s gone back to the library so I can’t be exact – before the crash happens, and even further before we know who’s taken to hospital.  Of the five people the book features, only two are actually involved in the crash, two are observers who don’t linger at the scene, and the fifth has observed the observers. 

So we actually have five people (Hey, five rivers!).  All are undergoing some sort of crisis in their lives, and we get the full context of that.  They range from teenage schoolboy up, roughly representing decades,  all speaking in the first person.   Their lives, or their families’ lives, have more or less obliquely touched one another; they have been in the same place at the same time once or twice.  Not collided.  Which is, chasing the epigraph, a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch that introduces the text, the self-proclaiming and highly creditable point of the book:

 That is the secret meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.

That is the closing sentence of the opening chapter, which unfortunately is immediately proceeded by “there exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral.”  The quiet city is Salisbury, the chapter’s title is The burning arrow of the spire.  Rather good, that.  But the chapter is a load of psycho-geographical babble, linking the settlements in “the green south of Wiltshire” over time from Woodhenge through Stonehenge (“We know they heard the song“) to Old Sarum and the building of the Cathedral to the modern-day city.  Which might just have worked in verse form. Even the book’s greatest defenders at Book Group – nay, champions even! – were not averse to my use of the word pretentious here.

The book has its moments, the way their stories entwine is nicely done, and Barney Norris obviously cares.  While I wasn’t wholly convinced by any of the five, I ended up wanting to know what happened to each of them to the extent of bewailing please, author, get on with it as I read, especially in the case of the lonely soldier’s wife, stuck out in a suburb.  As it happens, Norris, whose primary artistic focus has been theatre, uses her to make a convincing case for local theatre as both an effective personal and ongoing community therapy.

Here’s the problem.  Barney can write, but at the moment he can’t help but Write with a capital W; given his theatrical background I think it’s fair to say he slips into being a Writ-or too easily.  At our Book Group meeting, for instance, one woman, whose judgment I respect highly, surprised me by quoting this passage as being particularly impressive:

The mind is like a flood plain. The slightest rainfall can leave it awash with old stories that seep into your newer terrors and swell them, drown you under the long-forgotten feelings as your life rushes over you.

As it happens, that was a quote I’d found jarring, particularly coming from the mouth of a gauche 16-year old schoolboy.  She said she’d once known a 16-year old capable of stringing that together.  So what did I know?  (That’s rhetorical to myself, by the way, not an indication of her demeanour).  There were other passages, but I’ll pick on this one; he finds some solace in a service in the cathedral (where else?):

The miracle of a ritual. I felt my shoulders begin to ease. I thought to myself, I don’t want to believe in this. But when you run a story through your neural pathways like a line of beads through your hands, it stands to reason you unblock them, and your own life flows through afterwards, rushing out of the oxbow lakes of the plans you didn’t see through to their conclusion, the phrases that wouldn’t come till long after it was too late to use them. A hymn, nothing more than a tune and a string of words someone had invented, was somehow making things better.

Ah, ‘oxbow lakes’, an abiding memory of school geography.  But ‘neural pathways’ even now?

We were all agreed that his next novel, if he so chooses to continue in this sphere now all this has been got out of his system, is highly likely to be a very good one.

 

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And so, early in March, to Linford Wood, in Milton Keynes, while the trees are still bare:

Sad to say the wood sculptures are not what they once were – the grand old bearded philosopher and the big gorilla are long-lost to the elements – but it’s still a worthwhile wander, eyes primed for the crafted creatures; the bluebells will be out again soon and there’s a decent chance of seeing a jay.  Here’s one of the survivors:

2011

2017

Meanwhile, back indoors …

Engrossing evening of a dialogue outside ‘the bubble’ with Milton Keynes Humanists guest speaker Salah Al-Ansari, Senior Researcher with the Quilliam Foundation, an academic theologian and a practising imam.  Salah is one of the leading lights of the liberal wing of his faith – what is becoming known as Reform Islam – which recognises the Koran as a sacred text but significantly also regards it very much as an historical document – pretty much as the Christian Bible is seen by most these days.

A wide-ranging, open-ended conversation ensued, which was both enlightening and entertaining.  Salah kicked off the discussion with the view that we should be talking about Islams in the plural.  Interesting to learn that when he was studying to become an imam in an Egyptian university, his professor was a woman.  It was agreed that secularism does not imply atheism.  Positive change, albeit slow and not so often visible, is happening among the Islamic communities.  An ex-Muslim atheist in the audience added spice.  There is more about Salah at www.quilliaminternational.com/about/staff/salah-al-ansari/ and from there, if you are not familiar with them, it is well worth exploring the work of the anti-extremist (from all sides) Quilliam Foundation further.

Because it was there

I have piles of books I intend to read but I often take an impulse book out from the local library for no other reason than because it’s there.  The library I mean.  Use it or lose it!  Hence the next book, that happened to catch my eye.

I’ve always looked upon the American artist Edward Hopper as the painter’s equivalent of a one hit wonder – you know, the haunting Nighthawks, all the lonely people in that late night cafe.  Ivo Kranzfelder‘s Edward Hopper 1882-1967: Vision of reality (Taschen, 1995/2006) has disabused me of this but, to continue the metaphor, I still wouldn’t want more than a single disc ‘Best of’, and vinyl at that.  A bit samey, and I’m not convinced by the (please don’t take this the wrong way) proportions and posture of some of his women (like the one on the book’s cover, actually).

It’s a handsomely produced volume, with some stunning black and white photos by Hans Namuth of the man himself, not least those taken in places he painted.  Frankly, sometimes I struggle with writing about painters and what they were trying to do, and a chapter head like The secularization of experience doesn’t help.  Apparently he didn’t say much about it himself, but what did strike me was that 1942’s Nighthawks, and a number of his other more well-known paintings, were being done at precisely the same time as Abstract Expressionism (not that I’ve got much against …) was evolving and taking hold of American art in New York.  So good for him for sticking to his guns to the end.

Anyway, not to in any way get things out of proportion, I have to claim it was a bit of a trauma – after all the landscapes, townscapes, buildings, room interiors, urban scenes and absorbed individuals, all the mustards and terracotta, muted browns, dull turquoise, beiges, greys and olive greens – to turn over from page 105 and suddenly be all at sea; as it happens one of these was the first painting he ever sold.  Normal service was quickly restored.

What it says on the poster

Staying in the library, I learned a bit and was mightily entertained by this FoSSL (Friends of Stony Stratford Library) presentation. The turbo-driven opening chords of musical director Paul Martin on the mandola suggested we were in for a treat and so it proved.  Shakespeare – a musical celebration, curated by Vicki Shakeshaft, was a fascinating and nicely paced mix of music, songs (take a bow soloist Simon Woodhead), readings and contextual history with a colourful morris dance duo thrown in for good measure.  And all, if my powers of recall are functioning properly, without resort to “If music be the food of love …”  Came as a surprise to me that “Who is Sylvia / What is she” was the Bard’s (from Two gentlemen of Verona – if asked I’d have said music hall), and my English teacher never told me that Hamlet’s advice to the players was a rant and that “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them” was a gripe at Shakespeare’s company’s erstwhile clown, Will Kemp, who once morris danced from London to Norwich.

Further musical adventures

No poster for the early March Vaultage, but it was a good ‘un.  Folkish duo Phil Riley & Neil Mercer – guitar and mandolin – did a great set of their own material with a singalong of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the free world somewhere in the middle, finishing with a thrilling Russian folk dance-based tune.  Oi!  The March Aortas – nice and varied – deserves a mention too.

First Scribal I’ve managed this year  – Out! Damn virus! – was another good one too.  Stephen Ferneyhough kicked off with a musical history of the Brackley Morris with one of those squeeze box things – I can never remember which is which.  A storming set from featured singer Bella Collins – great voice and material (folk, blues and beyond), skilled emphatic guitar, foot stomping on the floor.  Own songs and a couple of covers – Jimmy Reed’s Shame, shame, shame morphing into Prince’s Kiss and back again!  Stephen Hobbs is wearing his bardship well, as if there was any chance he wouldn’t.  Mark ‘Slowhand’ Owen’s dazzling fretwork on one of his songs had a couple of us fearing for our own fingers just thinking about it.

And finally … best book review ever (click on the picture if you can’t read what’s between the cat’s legs):

 

 

 

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Well, that was fun.  I enjoyed Andrew Cartmel‘s The Vinyl Detective: written in dead wax (Titan Books, 2016) a lot.  This rollercoaster romp manages to meld the humdrum existence of a laid back London-based vinyl record dealer onto a James Bond adventure fantasy occasioned by an international music industry conspiracy involving the original output of an obscure US West Coast jazz label back in the 1950s (though don’t let the jazz put you off).  We get a classic Bond villain in his lair (in the side of a mountain in Japan), a pair of highly stylised mercenary fixers, a couple of Bond (though more interesting) girls, and a two-pronged technology hit of retro valve-driven amps and accompaniments and high-end modern surveillance equipment.  Among other things.

The narrator of The Vinyl Detective is a man-with-no-name of charm, wit, and a neat combination of innocence and cynicism.  He buys and sells vinyl records for a living, had some business cards printed wittily touting his trade as ‘The Vinyl Detective’ a while back; it comes back to haunt him.  But before all this (I’m cheating a bit with the quote, but no harm is being done):

I put on my crate-diving shoes – I mean, my crate-digging shoes … hitting every charity shop, junk shop or antique shop that might be harbouring a box of records record fares, jumble sales … [record fairs and jumble sales also feature] …
in Chiswick I found it.
It was a copy of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, on the Capitol rainbow-rimmed label – an original mono pressing instead of the fake stereo. A British copy, but immaculate. That night I flipped it on the Internet and made enough money to buy food for me and the cats for the next two weeks.

Oh yes, our man also has two cats, Fanny and Turk; they play their part well.

It’s all so nicely done.  The pursuit – the fictional rarest record in the world, emanating from a suitably obscure corner of jazz history, with a story all of its own, is well-chosen – takes him to Japan, there’s an interesting and dramatic interlude in rural Wales, while there are some vivid escapades, landscapes and meetings in the inevitable trip to America; not to mention a recognisable London as backdrop.  The world of vinyl record collecting is both gloried in and lampooned, and little cultural references add sparkle (for me at least) throughout:

I sped through immigration and customs and found myself outside a few minutes later, blinking in the warm exhaust fumes. Ree was at my side. We collected her car from the long-term parking.
It’s a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda. Arguably the fastest production car ever made in America.”
I won’t argue with you.”
[…] The muscular lines of the dark grey car made it look like a dark crouching beast. “Is it the car from
Bullitt?”
She snorted with amusement. “That was a Mustang.”
Just trying to take an interest,” I said.

That’s one girlfriend, a singer, who wonders why it’s always the electric bass players always hit on her, while “ acoustic bass players are pretty much always perfect gentlemen”.  Here’s the other, Nevada, who I imagine as looking like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, our man giving her a disquisition on how it’s only cooked chicken bones that are a problem for cats, so:

… I’m always left with a freezer full of drumsticks. So I casserole them with olive oil and lemon and garlic.”
Oh, okay, I see,” said Nevada, getting up. “I thought it was your signature dish. Lovingly prepared especially for me. And now it turns out it’s the cats’ leftovers.”
That’s right.”

The Vinyl Detective is full of stuff like that, as well as all the action and twists.  I look forward to the two sequels already announced.

 

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I’ve grown fond of that phrase, “a zodiacal sign without portfolio.”  Pure Terry Pratchett, or Douglas Adams maybe.  And yet it comes from L.P.Hartley‘s The go-between (1953), the book that famously – even unto pub quizzes – kicks off with “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”  Hell, yes.  Reading the damn thing – this month’s Book Group selection – certainly proves that.  1953 – check it out – was not a good year for the novel.  It didn’t help I was reading it off the back of Alice Munro‘s remarkable The view from Castle Rock (2007) either.

 

go-betweenview-from-castle-rock

Guaranteed to re-awaken the inner class warrior, The go-between, set deep in Downton territory, is a tale told by a 60-something-year old virgin looking back on events that led to the ‘tragic’ happenings occurring on his 13th birthday back in the year 1900.  Leo, an in-awe country house summer guest of the much richer family of a public school chum, finds himself being useful/used – oh the delights, the moral agonies with the prospect of a new green bicycle involved – as a messenger, helping facilitate secret liaisons between the only two half-decent recognisably twentieth century human beings in the vicinity: Marian, the daughter of the house, soon to be wed to the local Boer War-damaged Earl, and Ted Burgess, a local tenant farmer.  Initially our naive Mercury hasn’t a clue what’s going on; Leo allows the denouement to scar him for life. (Not that they weren’t happening before he appeared on the scene).

This is a rite of passage tale where basically the narrator fails; other readers have, it must be admitted, had more sympathy, but he remains a snob with no sense of outrage at what Ted feels he has to do, nor, more generally, at what such a strict reading of the social order can do all, wherever in it they reside. (For what it’s worth, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was being written pretty much half way between the events related in The go-between and its publication in 1953, though it wasn’t widely available until 1960).

I feel obligated to add here, in italics, a couple of days on, that at the Book Group meeting earlier today The Go-between was described as “a devastating critique of the class system”.  This is not unreasonable; it just wasn’t the book I wanted to read.  I’ll admit to feeling – a minority of one – something of an unfeeling clod some of the time, though I still think if that’s the case then for all the subtlety of its presentation, through the eyes of a sensitive, insecure 12-year old, there had to be some anger from the older man rather than it having to be brought to the party by the reader.  It was a good meeting.

The go-between has its moments – the progress of the cricket match is nicely done, the boys’ exchanged franglais insults are a delight, there’s a wonderful description of a fully grown deadly nightshade bush – it flows, but it’s so Downton grand and precious, and Leo the adult narrator is beyond the pale (no, is so incredibly pale): “It was 11.5, five minutes later than my habitual bedtime. I felt guilty at being still up …”; “Anyhow I do not like pubs and had rarely been inside one“.   And as for a sex life – or, um, “spooning” – as he rather dramatically puts it, ‘shown’ here in the quote that follows not exactly being a fair description of what happened: “Ted hadn’t told me what it was, but he had shown me, he had paid with his life for showing me, and after that I never felt like it.”

In the matter of class, Leo is intelligent enough to recognise favourably certain elements in Ted’s behaviour, but just cannot transcend his sense of the social order to draw any critical conclusions: “Oddly enough I didn’t mind him doing this; I had an instinct that, unlike people of my own class, he wouldn’t think the worse of me for crying“.

am-viewThat is just the sort of observation that sings out – though presented more economically – in an Alice Munro story.   For her I find myself abandoning hyperbole; it’s just that she is such a good writer.  Her vivid prose manages to deliver objectivity and intimacy simultaneously.  You observe with her, you feel what her characters are learning, how their lives are coming along.  The prose is precise, unspectacular yet never spare.  The lack of sentimentality is crucial to just how moving the stories – most of her work is short stories – can be.  I’m gripped by the stuff – physical description, the weather, journey details – I skimp over with others too.  I usually take a few notes when I read; I can’t do it with her.  It doesn’t work like that.  The results are extraordinary.

The view from Castle Rock (2007) brings together two strands of stories.  The first – No advantages – developed out of her interest in family history, going back to the early nineteenth century on the Scottish borders – a place of ‘no advantages’ as a source of the time has it – and their emigrating to and hard times in North America; America is first ‘seen’ from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock.  She draws on letters and journals and other documentation but the families are made flesh in a way no straight non-fiction treatment could do.  The second strand of stories – Home – is, she says, more in the nature of memoir, or at least they start from staging posts of emotional development and social awareness in her life, but somehow as short story, with that conceptual remove, they become so much more.  It’s an extraordinary reading experience.

Out and about

alice-in-stonylandThe continuing effects of a virus is are still limiting cultural ventures beyond the telly, but no way were we going to miss the local panto.  (The couple in front of us at the end of their row was also strategically placed to make an easy exit if the cough took hold – it didn’t).  The Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s production of Alice in Stonyland ay York House was a delight.  Developed from a script by Danni Kushner, who also charmed in the role of Dinah the Cat, this was a panto full of local references but refreshingly devoid of the traditional double entendres.  Great cast, great fun, great music, ovations galore.

Stonyland is in your heart
Its music will keep you strong
You don’t need to stamp your feet
You don’t need to shout
You just need to find your voice
Stand up, speak up, speak out!

stony-panto-c-bursteardrum-samuel-dore

Alice in Stonyland (c) Bursteardrum Samuel Dore

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Well, when the January Book Group book turned out to be one of Daphne du Maurier‘s I wasn’t expecting anything like this.  Still set in Cornwall, mind, but …

ddum-the-house-on-the-strandA drug that takes you back six centuries but you maintain the exact map locations as you move about following the fourteenth century action, regardless as you do so of physical changes in the landscape over those centuries; little things like tarmac roads, shifting estuaries, rivers changing course and the coming of the railway.  Fourteenth century wet feet are not magically dry on your return.  And when you’re there, if you actually touch any of the people who can’t see or feel you but whose lives you are observing unfolding and with whom becoming increasingly emotionally involved, you get the most almighty instant and violent comedown in the present.

If you can suspend disbelief in all that, then The house on the strand (1969) makes for quite an absorbing story; I did really want to know how things turned out in both centuries, and things become alarming indeed when for our narrator, Richard, the two worlds start to overlap: “I stared at him. Then I pushed aside my cup of tea. It had happened, oh sweet Christ, it had happened. The confusion. The confusion between worlds …”  He does a lot of heavy sweating.

Richard, slightly adrift in his life, has a few days on his own in a cottage belonging to his absent brilliant old uni chum Magnus (to whom he’s always been a bit of an acolyte), before Vita, his wife – about whom he’s increasingly luke warm – returns from the States (she is American) to join him for a holiday.  Unbeknownst, Magnus has set him up as a fellow drug trialist.   Magnus remains off-stage but he’s never far away in spirit.  It’s not all fun: “Nausea, vertigo, confusion, a bloodshot eye, and now acid sweat, and all for what?” but he’s hooked.  Much drama, manoeuvring and adventure ensues in both centuries, and, without giving much away, it doesn’t end well.  The Cornish landscape remains a winner whenever.

The problem for me was that the fourteenth century leaps off the page more vivid and vibrant than Richard and pals.  Or was that the point?  Their set-up – him bored, she trying to get him to take up an offer with her brother’s publishing firm in the US –  seems a bit cardboard in comparison.  He starts out a classic sci-fi stooge, his wife being American a fictional device.  It is hard for them to compete on a narrative level with the sad love story happening against the brutal background of family and political intrigue in the 1300s that he keeps being drawn back to.  It is probably because of this that his last trip is so devastating for the reader, never mind yer man.

Written and published in the late 1960s, The house on the strand has a distinct whiff of the drug counterculture without its characters betraying any such social allegiance or recognition.  The first two named are C14th characters, Cain is biblical:

       There was no past, no present, no future. Everything living is part of the whole. We are all bound, one to the other, through time and eternity […]
This was what Magnus had not so far understood. To him, the drug released the complex brew within the brain that served up the savoured past. To me, it proved that the past was living still, that we were all participants, all witnesses. I was Roger, I was Bodrugan, I was Cain; and in being so was more truly myself.
I felt myself on the brink of some tremendous discovery when I fell asleep.

The ending is ambiguous.  Look the book up on Wikipedia and there’s a quote from Daphne du Maurier herself saying she’s not sure what happens to Richard.  But she has a good idea, and most of the Book group agreed with her.  We were all a bit ambivalent about the whole thing; had its moments.

The Virago edition of 2003 that I read had a really interesting introduction by Celia Brayfield, pointing out, among other things, the significance of their names – Magnus, the great magus and idealist, Vita as practical life, and Richard as … a Dick.  Brayfield also puts the book in the context of du Maurier’s own bi-sexuality, alongside the homosexual subtext of Richard’s longstanding hero-worshipping of Magnus.  I don’t usually indulge in reading introduction before I’ve started reading – wanting to make my own mind up, thank you very much – but I half-wish I’d read this one.

One last grouch.  I know narrator Richard is meant to be a bit of a dick but there’s one observation – well there are others, but, you know – that sticks out like a sore thumb, and I still find hard to credit that a half decent writer like our Daph would put pen to paper for: “… Vita stretched herself at my side. Her jeans became her – like all Americans she had a stunning figure – and so did her scarlet sweater.” Really?  Oh, come on.

Cultural events closer to home

Alas, one I had to miss but a significant one.

Alas, one I had to miss.

Lillabullero hasn’t been out much this year.  That cough that newspaper articles have been written about – debilitating, demoralising and bloody annoying, never mind disturbing if you’re sitting next to it.  So I had to miss Scribal Gathering returning to The Crown and the mighty Antipoet doing new material. [See below: Mr Hobbs has submitted an amusing comment concerning the spelling occurring on the poster]

bardic-trials-2017Managed the climax of Stony Stratford’s Bardic Trials; or at least, having timed it wrong, got there for the result of the final count.  Having both, I was reliably informed, performed out of their skins, Stephen Hobbs and Sam Upson tied!  Judges gave it to Steve.  So Stony’s got a brand new Bard.  All Hail the Hobbs!  And there was still time for “The glittering frenzy of Emma Purshouse” (© Fay Roberts).  Sparkling – like her top – words of wit and splendour at the speed of sound delivered proud (and tall!) in a Midlands accent of some description; that I remember in particular only an art history tour of tangled rhymes and accomplished wordplay is a reflection on me.

1967MK50: Milton Keynes, where I’ve lived nearly half my life now, is 50 years old!  Tis indeed a thing to celebrate.  Decent exhibition in Middleton Hall, lots of fascinating detail of how it all happened, aerial maps, plans that did and didn’t happen, archaeological finds  and more.  The mystery of architect’s models: studying one of Woughton on the Green we couldn’t work out where Ye Olde Swan was; nor could a couple who actually lived there.
[Click on the photos and then click again for their full glory.]

Bushfield School’s great Wolverton Railway Town collage:
bushfield-school

And waiting for the bus home; in the distance the iconic Point at sunset:
point

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Vita Brevis

vita-brevisI really enjoy Ruth Downie‘s Roman mysteries.  Right from the dramatis personae that introduce them. Vita brevis (Bloomsbury, 2016), for instance, kicks off by saying it’s a novel “in which our hero Gaius Petreius Ruso will be” variously “Accompanied by … / Commanded by … / Entertained by … / Disapproved of by … ” & so on,  with some characters appearing in more than one category.  At the end Ruth appends, “He will fail to meet the following characters whom his author devised but barely used.”

These books are fun.  Which is not in any way to denigrate the intelligence, wit, historical research, social observation and humanity – never mind the tremendous action, atmosphere and narrative drive – that they contain.  Parallels with contemporary life here and now are never far away.  Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa, set against a morality that can draw on many shades of grey in between.

I’ve said it before, but Ruso and his wife, Tilla, are one of the great double acts of crime or indeed any contemporary fiction.  Ruso is a military medic from Gaul who served with the Roman army in Britannia, where he met ex-slave Tilla, a native Brigantian.  A mixed marriage, then, a fruitful ground for an author to even-handedly play around with.  He the sceptic (“Perhaps he was just naturally miserable. Or perhaps the gods in whom he didn’t quite believe were getting their revenge on him“), she open to anything (“If you believe in ghosts and Christos and the normal gods and all your gods from Britannia” he chides).

In Vita brevis, at the behest of his old boss, the pair are taking their chance in Rome.  It does not go well from the start, the streets are not so much paved with gold as with a dead body in a barrel left outside their new abode, before they’ve even moved in, and subsequent events only make things worse.  They get involved with, among others, a dubious and powerful slum landlord, the local law enforcement, and, for good measure, are caught up in a dangerous romantic sub-plot for good measure.  No surprise, things work out in the end, the bad guys do not prosper … and this reader is delighted to discover they are heading back to Britannia again, hopefully for the next book.

Where I think Ruth Downie is particularly acute (cute even) is in drawing out the universality of social life over the centuries. In Rome Ruso and Tilla are seen as provincials, and Tilla, particularly annoyed at being assumed to be from Germania, struggles with the modernity of city life:

How will we ever be safe in this city? There is nobody in charge.”
There’s a chap called the urban prefect, and there are departments for -”
But it is not how a tribe should be,” she insisted. “I thought before we came … But there is no tribe called the Romans.”
There are several different -”
It is just lots of strangers all living in one place and fighting to get by.”
We’ll get used to it,” he promised, realising this was not the time for a lecture on the benefits of civilisation, literacy and the rule of law.”

The matter of the rise of the rebel Christian religion is neatly handled from many angles:

Tilla closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall. Whatever her husband might think of the followers of Christos, and no matter how much she herself might want to gag Sister Dorcas, the man with the child’s voice had been right about one thing. It was good to have friendly neighbours.

(Already) Sister Dorcas being a joyless dragon, blaming all bad luck on sin.  But with regard to a woman giving up her unwanted baby:

“I just don’t want him to go to no followers of Christos.”
Why is that?”
They meet in secret and kill babies and eat them, Ma says.”
Your ma has been misinformed,” said Tilla, because that sounded better than Your ma is an ignorant gossip.

(Our author also has a neat line in using italics in just such unspoken circumstances.)

Ruth Downie‘s prose is nicely paced, both relaxed and yet involving, and it doesn’t suffer any when it is cranked up for some action.  She handles the motif of Ruso and Tilla’s cultural differences deftly.  Tilla trying to be “a good Roman wife” but giving up, because “It was very confusing having to say one thing and mean another all the time“; as opposed to back in Britannia, where, Ruso says, “women tended to think they could get involved in whatever they liked, and where men saw the look in their eyes and tended to let them.”  But one sympathises with his reaction whenever she launches “ into one of her interminable songs about her ancestors” – a nice running joke.  There is also a lovely bit of framing of the whole narrative, too, involving a young character with no name, both unhappily literally delivering the source of our heroes’ initial problem on their arrival, and, who, having found a job that gives him some satisfaction, is there working on the boat that sets them on their journey away.

I have a suspicion that Ruth is a P.G.Wodehouse fan.  You want more evidence?

Ruso shrugged. “You know how it is.” It was a statement that he had found to be both meaningless and useful.  People rarely admitted that they didn’t know how it was.

And “Jupiter’s bollocks!” seems an entirely reasonable curse to me.

 

 

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patti-smith-m-train

Patti Smith’s M Train

Roaming around, my title today, comes from a random dip and blind finger point into Patti Smith‘s M Train (Bloomsbury, 2015), a book that opens with the words, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing“, addressed to her by a cowpoke in a dream.  A malaise is upon her and she’s drifting.  Being Patti Smith she has some interesting options, like a bizarre chat with ex-chess champ Bobby Fischer in Iceland, with Buddy Holly (about as rock and roll as the book gets, actually), and, he stipulates not chess on the agenda.  Or slobbing out to Midsomer Murders and other tv crime repeats, which I find wonderfully reassuring, in a London hotel; big fan of Scandi-crime too.

She drinks a lot of coffee – has her spot in a cafe over the road from her frugal New York apartment, mostly furnished with books.  When the coffee shop guys move to Redondo Beach (yup) to set up there, she visits and buys an old wreck of a house there on impulse (I say, impulse, but she’s not a cash buyer); in the storm that comes in hard later in the year the boardwalks are washed away, his cafe is lost but her house survives.  Along the way she writes with feeling about life with her late husband.  She’s more beat and Euro-bohemian than rock and roll in M Train.  There’s an engrossing trip to Japan.

I admire Patti Smith enormously.  She goes her own modest, decent and powerful way.  I love a lot of her songs, and she’s a compelling performer (when not shrieking).  She is steeped in culture, with and without a capital C.  I’ll admit don’t really get the Polaroid photos that illustrate M Train – my guess is they bear the same relationship to her friend Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic work as Samuel Beckett’s prose does to his pal James Joyce’s – but this is an absorbing memoir of a year that in other hands would seem self-indulgent and pseud.  I can see myself reading it again, not least to try and catch that fleeting reference to the actual M train to see where she was coming from in choosing her title.

strange-library-01The strange library

One of the springboards of  Patti Smith‘s actions in M Train is the writing of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (hell, I was even prompted to pick up a cheap copy of his 600-page Wind-up bird chronicle that I’ll probably never get round to reading as a result).  As it happens, I’ve had a copy of his The strange library (Harvill Secker, 2014) sitting around for a while now (I used to be a librarian), so it seemed an auspicious time to actually read it.  Which I have done twice now – it’s not a big book – and it’s only a struggling to justify itself better judgement that is stopping me playing the emperor’s new clothes card.

strange-library-02It’s certainly a handsome, fascinating and fun exercise in book design, or even art; that library issue pocket on the cover is three-dimensional, there’s, for example, a full-page illustration of 8 variously decorated ring donuts against a pink background and many other enterprising graphic injections, some of the pages show signs of wear, marbled endpapers etc.  Here’s an example of a double-page spread.  Plot line?  A bit of a swot is on his way home from school wondering about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire.  (I know – why?).  He drops into his local library and is led down into a labyrinthine basement where he is abducted and confronted with all sorts of Borgesian creatures, friends and monstrous foes both, and undergoes various trials.  Or various sillinesses, the sceptic in me says.  “All I did was go to the library to borrow some books” is his complaint.

On second reading I began to wonder if I was meant to wonder about each actual choice of word and phrase, something to do with the magic of the written word.  I was struck by the notion of the boy worrying about his pet starling being fed while he was trapped; ridiculous I thought, until I googled it and, yes, it seems people do keep starlings as pets, especially in Japan.  Fantasy horror has never been a genre I’ve managed to live with, so I’m floundering a lot of the time, though I’ll grant a sense of the young hero’s devastation that haunts.  And I worry about that “After that, I never visited the city library again” line near the end.  But The strange library is a splendid object, that I flip through again now, with a strange affection.  Maybe the charity shop will have to wait, after all.

i-capture-the-castleI conquer the castle

No such ambiguity about December’s Book Group book.  I loved Dodie Smith‘s novel I capture the castle (1949) to bits, all suspension of disbelief willingly surrendered to one of the great opening paragraphs:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy.

I capture the castle is Cassandra’s journal.  The conceit is she’s 17, wants to be a novelist and is recording family life to hone her writing skills.  Hers is a wonderful voice – naive, moral yet seeking wisdom, full of heart and good intentions, modern even – looking forward to Adrian Mole, backwards to Janes Eyre and Austen : “I kept pretending we were in a Victorian novel” she says.  She has an older sister, Rose – “I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty-one and very bitter with life. I am seventeen, look younger, feel older.  I am no beauty but have a neatish face.”  At a certain stage she says of her sibling: “And I regret to say there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard.”

It’s an eccentric family in the eccentric setting of an old ruin taking in a castle tower in the country.  Father – Mortmain – once had success as an avant-garde novelist: “Years and years ago wrote a very unusual book called Jacob Wrestling, a mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry,”  a novel that critics, whom he scorns, have given the label ‘enigmatism’; “he says the American critic has discovered things in Jacob Wrestling that he certainly never put there“.  He’s written nothing for years, their income is practically nothing.   In response to the family’s urging, “His only weapon has been silence – and sometimes a little sarcasm“.  This neat little nod to James Joyce‘s conclusion – “silence, exile and cunning” – in The portrait of the artist as a young man is a nice example of just one of the strands, a look at contemporary artistic circles, of this splendidly exuberant novel.  Mortmain’s second wife, Topaz, was an artist’s model in London taken to expressing risible attitudes, cavorting naked in nature worship, and capable of kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate“.

Nevermind the plot, which involves a rich American family inheriting the pile, with the two young sons thereof doubling as romantic leads, leading to Rose’s pursuit of financial stability through marriage, Cassandra’s poignant discovery of love herself, and how they get Mortmain writing again, along with the progress of various other characters’ storylines … the joy of I capture the castle is in the playful invention (a village called Godsend with a sceptical priest, pets named after Heloise and Abelard) and the voice, Cassandra’s thoughts and voyage of self-discovery.  Here just three prime examples:

As we walked back to the house he asked if I thought La Belle dame sans Merci would have lived in a tower like Belmotte. I said it seemed very likely, though I never really thought of her having a home life.

The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way.

A year ago, I would have made a poem out of that idea. I tried to, yesterday, but it wasn’t any use. Oh, I could think of lines that rhymed and scanned but that is all they were. I know now that is all my poems ever were, yet I used to feel I could leap over the moon when I had made one up. I miss that rather.

But still capable of “She is a good-looking girl. Enormous feet, though“.  How can you resist?  It has a rather lovely ending too.

Roaming around locally

scribal-dec-2016December Scribal: Brian & Krysstal a sublime old style Music Hall or Variety act for the twenty-first century.  Think Hylda Baker and the ‘She knows ya know’ routine and then forget it.  Krysstal the bored gormless glamorous assistant cum straight woman (but with a killer dead pan delivery when left to her own fill-in devices), Brian musically a shambling long-haired filthier Lonnie Donegan combined with a loquacious dash of Tommy Cooper without the fez just for starters.  “They reckon observational comedy is funny, but I can’t see it.”  Probably the funniest act I saw last year.  Immaculate timing.  Try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aiSdg0UEc0

we-built-this-cityAt Milton Keynes Central Library until the end of January, and a contribution to the MK 50th anniversary celebrations (yes – celebrations!), We built this city on rock’n’roll is a collage of MK’s musical history – both local and The Bowl as national venue (when we lived on Eaglestone we could hear the guitar lines coming over on the wind) – collated by contemporary local historian Lee Scriven, along with artefacts and a collection of some very fine portrait photography by the man himself of some of the major players in the city’s cultural evolution.  Let’s let him speak for himself:

To some rock n roll is Brylcreem, drainpipes and blue suede shoes, to others like me, it’s a turn of phrase to describe an attitude towards life. The talented, gifted and maverick ensemble of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, who created this city back in the 1970s, possessed a true rock n roll arrogance.
But as you are about to discover, the real pioneering heroes of Milton Keynes were the local residents and personalities who individually and collectively got off their backsides to create a very unique culture. Their collective efforts left more than just memories, they created the City’s cultural DNA and embodied the true spirit of Milton Keynes; be daring, be original and be brave, in other words be: Rock n Roll.

I’m not nit-picking about any of that (well not much, and not right now), though I will say that, for all it’s – and ultimately, I guess, ok, excusable – rhetorical power in this context, I’m still cringing from the thought of that horrible Starship song.  I have always run screaming from it.  Seems I’m not alone in my musical fear and loathing either, of what GQ in this article, called “the most detested song in human history”; beware, though – the fucking thing starts playing of its own accord from that page unless you are careful.  How strangely reassuring to learn Bernie Taupin had a hand in its writing.

No photos of my favourites at Stony Stratford’s New Year’s Day Classic Car Show this year, I’m afraid.  It was pissing down.  Did my duty and went – as hearteningly did plenty of others – but kept my camera dry.

Enough!  But just for the record, the launch of the Stony Bardic Trials at the library on Lantern Parade and Lights switch-on day and a Vaultage:

mitchell-taylor-at-bardic-launch

An intense Mitchell Taylor sans guitar. Photo (c) Bardic Council.

bardic-council-of-ss-photo-liam-farmer-malone

Liam ‘Farmer’ Malone. Photo (c) Bardic Council.

vaultage-early-dec-2016


 

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