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Don’t step on the cracks

Laura Barnett - Greatest hits‘Don’t step on the cracks’ – the title of track 7 on the fictional Cass Wheeler’s soon to be released album, and a suitable warning for this reviewer.  I was on my guard from the first epigraph, a quote from Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks to the effect that “Each song is a lifetime.”  What does that meanThe Green Manalishi maybe, but that was before her time.  So I was looking for cracks from the off.

And nearly stepped right on one.  Opening page functioning as slow and less than riveting camera pan: “In Cass Wheeler’s garden, partitioned from the Tunbridge Road by a series of high dry-stone walls …”  What? I thought. High dry-stone walls?  And in Kent?  A cautionary Google affirms it is so, though, but most of those pictured would appear to be soft-southern dry stone walls, constructed from pre-shaped ‘stones’.  Glad I checked.

Given that Laura Barnett was born in 1982, much of her Greatest hits (W&N, 2017) – cover sub-title The soundtrack of a lifetime – is practically a historical novel; her heroine, the musician, singer and songwriter Cass Wheeler, was born 1950.  You have to take it for granted that no fictional tale of artistic success, no matter in what medium, stands a chance in competing with the twists and absurdities of the ‘real’ life, but on the whole, as far as verisimilitude goes, Greatest Hits makes a decent stab at it, particularly in regard to Cass’s inspirations, first steps in performing, her rise to stardom its maintenance.

At least a couple of factual niggles.  Cass aged 10, in 1960, in her interesting bohemian aunt’s car: “On the drive home, she left the radio on, and they sang along to Lonnie Donegan and Elvis Presley and Ricky Valance as the hedgerows and the fields turned back into the high walls and dusty pavements of the city.”  Radio Luxemburg was hard enough to get a decent signal from under the bedclothes in those well-before BBC Radio 1 days, let alone in a moving car, and in the daytime.  And twice there is specific mention of Milton Keynes when all that existed of our fair city was plans on maps and in architects’ offices : Cass’s partner going off to “a gig the following night in Milton Keynes” (p97); and in their first proper stint in a recording studio, in 1970, they share the green room with: ” … three long-haired guys from Milton Keynes who had yet to settle on a name for their group but were unfailingly generous with their drugs.”  Just saying, like.

The guitar players, by Lairie Lee. A pic to break up the text.

This is the set-up.  Damaged successful singer and writer Cass Wheeler, age 65, hasn’t had anything to do with music for 10 years (“Ten years in which … no music has thrummed from the living room stereo“) after the trauma of her daughter Anna’s death: “Ten long, silent, empty years, of which, after her two internments in the hospital, she had made what she could. Her books, her painting. Black-and-white films in the afternoon, soothing voices on the radio, and long drives with no set destination …”

A friendship with 70-year old Larry, an American sculptor (only Tate Modern, MoMA and Yorkshire Sculpture Park successful), has got her going again.  The plan is to release an album of the songs from her back catalogue that tell her story – not a greatest hits compilation, there have been plenty of them already apparently – along with the new stuff: “… a very particular kind of retrospective. Her life, reflected in the songs that only she, and only she, could choose.”  She’s to spend the day alone in her studio reacquainting herself with these old songs dating back to 1970 onwards, before a party to celebrate her return and air the new songs.  She remembers the events that were behind the songs; oh, of course! – greatest hits at least in part, though only one is not metaphorical.  There is tension in i). whether she’ll be able to cope, and ii). whether Larry will turn up.

For still, Cass asked herself what sort of mother she had been, what sort of wife, what sort of woman. Selfish, troubled, angry, flawed. A woman unworthy of love. A woman who was surely better off alone. A woman who should not allow this man – this good man, this man who was so generous, so honest, so incapable of dissembling – to make the mistake of offering her his heart, and his future.

If he turns up.  I’m not giving it away.  And yes, she is a bit of a drama queen.

Shorn of its musical setting, what we have here is an enactment of Philip Larkin’s This be the verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.”  Cass and Ivor, her original musical partner and subsequently husband, both have troubled backgrounds, though at least it means in Cass’s case that she ends up age 10 with a Bohemian aunt and her jazz-loving husband who are players in the burgeoning ’60s scene.  Cass and Ivor also become splendid examples of why having a child is not necessarily the best way to save a marriage.  Not that there wasn’t a whole lotta love there to begin with, as evinced in this quote, to which I add no comment:

It occurred to her that this – their love-making, the easy quiet proximity of their bodies – was also, in its essence , musical. It was as if they were running through a song they already knew: a tune both familiar and strange, in which their voices melded and soared.

Another one to break up the text – Maria Assumpcio Raventos’ The music of the sea.

Cass’s schooldays, early boyfriends and musical development are skillfully handled, though I’m not entirely convinced by her 15-year old’s instant conversion to folk music after Aunt Lily plays her Joan Baez, Shirley Collins, Ewan McColl, and Peggy Seeger records:

And so they listened, sitting before the brick fireplace with a pot of mint tea. The women’s voices were high and breathy and unpolished [Baez?], and sang of maidens and shipwrecks and cruel lords. Cass closed her eyes and experienced the curious sensation that she was drifting back through time, watching lives as they once had been lived.

Though populated with characters from central casting – like all the industry types, really – the North London squat she moves into with Ivor at 17 rings true, and their rise through cellar folk clubs to the heights of American rock stadiums is reasonably done (though the ‘rock journalist’ – just the one – Don Collins is not exactly out of the golden age of the NME).  Then come the conflicts and jealousies, Ivor turning into a rock monster, the disillusionment.  After going to the funeral in New Orleans of a drifter with a guitar on his back who was her first big inspiration, she’s in a bar:

Was there something truer, Cass asked herself as they sat in that tiny, tumbledown room with its bare wooden floors and roughly plastered walls, in the efforts of these men – and the occasional woman – playing for little more than tips and beer, than in the cavalcade her own career was becoming.
         The pomp and pageantry, the peacock strutting and the preening. The driving force of her ambition, her desire to be … what? Listened to? Recognised. Acclaimed. Cass Wheeler – a name to be shouted, whispered, caught in newsprint, each new utterance erasing the last traces of the girl she had once been. The girl lifting a hand to her cheek, still feeling the sharp sting of her mother’s blow. The girl lying awake in the dark, wondering where her mother had gone …

Fair enough.  One would hope there are stellar successful musicians out there who have these moments, though not necessarily the self-hate.

I can’t say I enjoyed reading Greatest Hits, but I did see it through to the end.  As I said earlier, there are few good novels with creative artists at their centre – only Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, Jennifer Egan’s A visit from the goon squad and Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments immediately spring to mind as far as rock music goes.  Greatest Hits format, not so much a slow reveal as a series of hints before the detailed delivery inevitably becomes somewhat repetitive given where the story starts from.  Each episode is punctuated with a page or two of lyrics (pretty good, actually) along with the song’s fictional recording details and credits, down to the engineers involved.  Anna’s story – it was no big spoiler to say earlier that she died – is a harrowing one.  Cass’s return to music after hearing a choir in Canterbury Cathedral – dragged in by her new beau – is both corny and quite moving, and, of course, a scene crying out to be filmed.    Laura Barnett‘s prose can run from the pedestrian, with added superfluous detail (“She replaced the teapot on the tray, afraid that it might fall, scattering its hot contents across the carpet in a wide, seeping stain.”), to the purple.  It’s a brave attempt to tackle a subject that is important to her.  To nod to an early TV music show Cass would have watched as a young teenager: I’ll give it a three.

Cambridge University Botanical Gardens (c) DRQ. Of no relevance, but there is there is an appendix of nitpicking that follows.

While I’m still here, a few indulgent quibbles.  How many books have I published? – none.  And I really should get out more.  Nevertheless.  I know it’s hard to write about music, but I am still baffled by this about being sharp: “She had always instinctively recognised the power of a misplaced sound: flattened or sharpened, anti-chromatic, an interloper in the smooth, sequential pattern of the scale. She was, after all, famous for her idiosyncratic tunings” – not that her tunings had been mentioned up til then.

Then there are some strange uses of language.  It’s hard sometimes to tell whether they are creative writing or crying out for an editor [my italics]: the headmistress’s “warm elocuted voice“; in a café “They refused the buffet“; nipping outside for a fag “she’d been standing in the lee of the studio“; seeing “the Rolling Stones live in Hyde Park” in 1969 (as opposed to miming?); Aunt Lily’s demise through “A stroke sustained quite suddenly in her bedroom” (in a medical textbook maybe); a cathedral’s “buttressed stone” when it seems we are inside the building, with the choir singing in the ‘quire’ (a usage I’ve never encountered before); driving down an “unspooling road“;  and I’m just confused by flowers forming “an Impressionist painting of hazy whites, blues and greens, glossily vivid against the white marble countertop.”

On the other hand I did like: “the flowers that are not from Larry “; and “Deep inside the belly of Heathrow’s terminal three, Larry Alderson stands beside a baggage carousel, watching a string of cases inch by like booby prizes in a game show“.  

But I am very sure – and I speak with recent grandfather experience – that there is no way a one-year old Anna was stacking bricks, rather than gleefully knocking them over; stacking comes much later.

 

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… to breathe the cultural air around Stony Stratford.  Actually a few evenings, with one delightful Sunday afternoon thrown in too.  Chronologically, going back in time:

John Howarth. ©Pat Nicholson

A Blues theme was declared for late September Vaultage, and main man John Howarth delivered a varied and nicely judged set drawn from the subtler territories of the genre, playing exquisitely, singing sweetly.  An immaculately dressed gentleman sporting the Robert-Johnson-in-that-suit look (sorry, didn’t catch the name)then roughed things up a bit starting with a Howlin’ Wolf number.  Aforesaid well dressed man was wielding one of the two Resonator guitars in evidence – surely a record for at least Vaultage if not the Vaults Bar- but to tell the truth there wasn’t much blueswailing going down.  Indeed, the only harmonica seen was hanging un-played round the neck of another open-micer with one of those harness things.

Was a good evening, but I wish that when estimable MC Pat Nicholson advertises a themed night well in advance, all the participants would at least make a nod to said theme rather than doing their same old stuff; the Goodfellows at least had the grace to add the word ‘blues’ to the titles of a couple of their closely related Americana tunes, so excused.

Your humble scribe made a brief contribution. I kicked off with, “Woke up this morning / Someone told me it was National Poetry Day,” and proceeded to recite W.H.Auden‘s Roman Wall Blues.  The Sensational Alex Harvey does/did it better than me – and to music too:

Viva Vivant

Last Sunday afternoon, two hours of musical delight in York House’s intimate Beechey Room.  Vivant are a violin and melodeon duo.  Together violinist Mark Prescott and melodeon maestro Clive Williams entranced with a repertoire including some of their own compositions,  drawing on the French and English folk and early music traditions.

It was enervating yet relaxing – almost guided meditations – you could close your eyes and drift away; by which I mean bathe your mind with the beautiful patterns so woven.  Not forgetting the brief outbreak of French dancing (well, one couple, but still …) and a couple of weird waltz time signatures that I would never have realised were strange if they hadn’t explained (but then I’ve never managed to consistently count to 5 to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five).  A joy to be in the same room as two superb musicians who were so simpatico.  No higher praise: we bought a CD.

A pints-worth of the Bullfrogs in the Old George on a Friday night deserves a mention too.  All good, but the fiddler adds another dimension to their American southern border states musical mix.

What more can I say about the those Bards of Bugger All, those “paupers of the art world hegemony“, the Antipoet?  Always a joy and never a dull moment giving their all every and anywhere they go.  Invention and irreverence.  Can I remember much about this particular performance?  Apart from ex-Bard Vanessa reprising her contribution to the adaptable epic that is I like girls and the latest barnstormer that is Pointy dancing – No, not really.  Ace, though.  Of course.  Criminal that the lads never get any significant reviews working the festival circuit hard.  Not sure this one adds much either.  Extraordinary what can come out of two men, a full-size double bass and an occasional rusty triangle.  (I may have lied about the rust, but I think you’ll agree it scans better).  For the uninitiated, just stick their name into YouTube and pick at random; you might be there a long time.

Oddness at Scribal Gathering‘s September outing – save for the featured musician it was all spoken word performers, poets even.  An unprecedented absence of musos at an open mic.  Liam ‘Farmer’ Malone delivered a beautifully varied set – both sensitive and scurrilous in turn – in that warm Irish brogue.  His The gun shop is a tour de force of wit and burgeoning disbelief at the escalating armoury available on sale therein.  Elsewhere Justin Thyme’s bravura extended piece attesting that ‘We are all abusers’ was a spellbinding experience (not something you can always say); I’ll admit I may have lost the logic holding it together in the intensity of the delivery, but there’s no doubting that he meant well.

Impressive skills from James Hollingsworth with his ‘looping’ pedalboard, a contemporary update on the concept of a one-man band, performing original material.  “No backing tapes!”  You could get lost in his  ‘Psychedelic Folk Blues’ – and there was excitement to be had when he started hitting things to add some percussion into the mix – though I’ll admit to hankering for a reprise of the old style r&b strut he did for a sound check.

A while ago now, and memory fades, but mention must be made of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s Shakespeare’s Greatest Bits upstairs in the local Masonic Lodge’s temple, a potentially inflexible venue used inventively as the players performed excerpts from the wide spectrum of the Bard’s full canon from Titus Andronicus all the way to The Tempest with some sonnets thrown in for good measure.  And a bonus of music from the aptly named Not Two Bees (there were three of them).  Invidious to pick out individual performances, but Bravo! to director Caz Tricks.  Highly enjoyable evening.

Aeons ago now too, the Summer of Love themed Vaultage was good fun.  I’ll have another moan about open-mic-ers ignoring a theme that had been advertised and signalled well in advance, but for now I’ll let it lie and crave another kind of indulgence of my own.  While other performers sticking to the plot did covers (though gord help us from If you’re going to San Francisco) I with no little trepidation recited something I’d written in 1967.  Well an edited version thereof, major embarrassments redacted.  The scene is a room in a tower block, a then state-of-the-art university hall of residence – Sorby Hall in Sheffield, since demolished – the soundtrack almost certainly the John Coltrane Quartet’s My favourite things.  We were expanding our consciousness, ok? I was young:

Outside wind is present around the building
a modern tower M flights high
though A is the basement.
On G a red light; it is night
and rain strikes the window panes.

Focus on the red light inside the building
and let the red light grow out of itself to take in a room.

Five guys sit
in fact one of them lies stretched out
and in the red light
a blue music swells
pure, clear.

And the music is found and the music is black
and the music is round;
flat notes maybe
but even, true.

A kind of ether rests on the five
sitting, lying,
shamelessly indulgent
in the light of that red light
in the night with the wind.

Two of these guys are talking
about technique
and ‘the Bach of our time’
and the ‘intelligence’ of a record.

Two more know
that some of this is what they like
and are discovering more.
And one of their number is asleep.

The ether of the red light
is all-embracing
within the confines of the room
precariously timeless.

 

 

 

 

 

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My title is taken from a passage about half-way into Sebastian Barry‘s novel of the First World War, A long long way (Faber, 2005):

For no matter what mayhem was afoot in the ruined fields of the Lord, the army was deeply attached to its regulations, always allowing for the fact that the staff officers didn’t see battles, didn’t understand what happened in battles, and probably didn’t want to. It was line officers only that knew the drear paintings and the atrocious music of the front line.

It’s not a bad example of the quality of his prose and approach: its rhythm, the vernacular touch, the deft choice of imagery; men glorying in having “quarters that shut out the bladed wind and drunken snow.”  Nor elsewhere does he labour the point about the ruling class generals way back at High Command; indeed one particular line officer is held in high regard and affection by his men.  He doesn’t need to preach; though one of the men does opine, “Anyway, they don’t write books about the likes of us. It’s officers and high-up people mostly“.

As a novel of men at war A long long way is right up there with the best.  The writing is – given its subject matter – remarkably free of cliché, and as with his recent Days without end, Sebastian Barry takes you – seemingly effortlessly – there.  This is what it feels like to be in the midst of the action, of the brutality of battle, as well as the longeurs, sharing the banter (there’s a neat riff on a Bovril ad), the camaraderie and esprit (laced, though it can be, with spite).  And you, the reader, is also taking in the sights and sounds of their immediate surroundings, of  the natural world, and this never getting in the way of the tale.

Here they are back from the trenches, having  abath, in the reserve area:

The water held them gently, warmed their inmost marrow; and if they had forgotten what it was to bathe, and some of them maybe never had a proper bath in their born days, they soon had it high on their list of sumptuous things to experience on God’s earth. They would be devotees in their private minds of this immersion.

More relief, of a very different kind:

It was difficult for his head to love and think of the future when he could not feel his feet.
‘By the good fuck,’ said Christy Moran, ‘this is some war.’
Then something miraculous occurred. The lice in Willie’s clothes began to stir again, and one morning the music of the cold, with its piercing little notes, seemed to pass away. The greens and browns seeped back into the world.

Never mind poppies:

Meanwhile, the roadsides burgeoned up and grew almost noisy with memory-laden colours. The arrogant sun had touched them and the casual rain had done the rest, leaving these million marks of respect on the neglected edges of fields and paths and roads. Even in fields, where most likely some calamity had stolen away the tillers, great weaves and plethoras of field flowers appeared, army after army of yellow heads, golden heads and blue, red and burning green. It was like a sudden paradise. Birds fiercely sought those sites on which they could bestow their efforts all the summer, the heroic house-martins and swallows come back from whatever Portugals and Africas they knew, to rest their faith again in Flanders, and the safety of Flanders.

But it is – as well as the sheer quality of the writing – an Irish dimension that gives A long long way a special status in the literature of the First World War.

Our main man is Willie Dunne, “born in the dying days” of the nineteenth century, son of a high-up Dublin policeman.  His relationship with the folks back home – his family, his girlfriend – are a significant part of the narrative but I’ll not dwell on them here.  It’s not a first person narrative, but it is mainly what he sees and feels and thinks that drives A long long way.  We are back in a time when the whole of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom and the Empire; Home Rule legislation has been suspended for the war.  Willie, with many others, volunteers in 1915, making common cause with other European nations against the bullying might of Germany.

His war kicks off with his unit being victim of a horrendous mustard gas attack, which is followed by some recovery time back home.  Having embarked on the boat to return to the Front, they are mysteriously ordered to disembark, and rushed back to the streets of Dublin to find they are being used in the quelling of the Easter Rising, required to use their arms on their own countrymen; the rebels’ pro-German rhetoric left little choice.  (Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’; you can see why that was a centenary mutely celebrated).

Then it’s off to the slaughter in Europe again.  This all makes for a confusing and distressing time for Willie.  News of the execution of the republican leaders of the rebellion by the English government filters through to the men, and all is grey:

The executed men were cursed, and praised, and doubted, and despised, and held to account, and blackened, and wondered at, and mourned, all in a confusion complicated infinitely by the site of war.

One of Willie’s younger comrades is arguing the rebel’s cause.  He’s getting on people’s nerves, he won’t let it lie:

‘Can’t you just eat your maconochie like the rest of us, Jesse, and to hell with Ireland and this Ireland and that Ireland? You’d give a saint a headache with that talk, man dear.’ [p157]

Why should he pay him any heed in the upshot?  There had been thousands of deaths just in the last days over by the ruinous river. Two thousand Irishmen of the 36th alone. He thought Jesse Kirwan was all twisted up in a rope of his own making; he knew he was. He had made a trap for himself in the wood of his own heart. He was the snare, the rabbit, and the hunter all in one. [p159]

Jesse does more than just preach though, and death by firing squad is his reward.  Willie, with a good voice, sings a requiem:

Poor Jesse. He hardly knew him, but he felt brotherly about the matter. He sang both verses of the hymn. The moon was quite playful among the August clouds. As Willie Dunne was no fool, he knew that he wouldn’t be the same Willie Dunne he had been before this happened.

He’s sung the Ave Maria twice before in the book – as a boy at a singing contest, and at an earlier quiet interlude in the trenches, as related here:

Ave Maria, gratia plenis, full of grace, and many of the men caught that it was just the Hail Mary all dressed over in another lingo, the prayer of their childhoods and their country, the prayer of their inmost minds, that could not be sundered, that could not be violated, that could not be rendered meaningless even by slaughter; the core inviolable, the flame unquenchable.

Here’s the craft of Sebastian Barry: he doesn’t try to explain the situation regarding Irish independence – we just get to see it through the soldiers’ and others’ understanding of what is going on.  Nothing is really spelt out, and there’s no discussion of nationalism as such – ‘this Ireland and that Ireland‘ – but the sense of a country coming into being, of a national identity forming, seeps through.  It’s all left hanging, and the swiftly changing situation, and the situation in the trenches, does not help Willie Dunne:

He knew he had no country now. He knew it well. Finally the words of Jesse Kirwan had penetrated deep into the sap of his brain and he understood them. All sorts of Irelands were no more, and he didn’t know what Ireland there was behind him now.

A long long way is a remarkable novel, both in its vivid portrayal of what ordinary soldiers went through in the Great War, and in its capturing the uncertainties of one individual – a good man – caught up in and living in a time – a moment even – of great social change.  Sadly, tragically, Willie didn’t survive to see what happened next; you weep for him, for the bad timing of his end.  That this novel can go back to then, its pages (it would appear) untainted by authorial intervention of what we know of what follows (and is ongoing) in Ireland, is a striking achievement.  Sebastian Barry is a great writer and a fine chronicler of the human condition.

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The problem with a book like Kent Haruf‘s Our souls at night (Picador, 2015) is that, once you’re familiar with Alice Munro‘s short stories, you can’t help wondering what she might have done with this material, and in considerably fewer pages.  Not that Our souls at night, August’s Book Group book, is that long (192 generously spaced pages) or without its merits.

You’re being too hard on yourself again, Addie said. Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all. It’s always two people bumping into each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings. Except I still say that this isn’t true of you and me. Not right now. Not today.

A lot of Our souls at night is dialogue, and to its credit, it dispenses, as above, with speech marks.  The language is deadpan – Hemingwayesque without much physical happening – and, well, as some in the group said, flat, but with the dialogue contained, it does have a flow to it, and in the end that develops one’s passion – especially an intense dislike for one selfish young man in particular.  But I jump ahead.

One day in a small town in Colorado, Addie, a 69-year-old widower, turns up at the door of widower Louis, a contemporary and near neighbour she only vaguely knows, and invites him to sleep with her.  Just to share her bed and talk; she’s lonely and she guesses he is too.  He thinks about it and it comes to pass.  They tell one another of their lives, failings and disappointments.  Her son comes along and dumps Jamie, her traumatised grandson on her while he tries to sort out his marriage, and she and Louis slowly draw the child out of himself with the help of a dog.  Son returns and reacts far worse to their arrangement than the community at large (“We’re old news“), plus he’s scared he might lose his inheritance.  That’s not the end of the relationship but it has to change.  Bitter sweet indeed, and it lingers.

It’s all nicely done.  I wasn’t alone in thinking that they seemed older than their stated ages (my age, as it happens), something also I’ve found elsewhere in my reading.  The question of sex does arise, but Haruf doesn’t linger and his handling of it is defly anti-climactic: “After Jamie had left they tried to do what the town thought they’d been doing but hadn’t.” 

The more I think about it, the less I regret (a first impression) having spent the time – it’s an easy read and oh! how one can celebrate short Book Group books! – with Our souls at night. 

All change

It was over 4 weeks ago now, but All change … Stories & Songs of Milton Keynes, the MK50 (Milton Keynes’s 50th anniversary) concert collaboration of the Milton Keynes Community Choir with the Living Archive Band cannot go unmentioned as the stirring event it was.

Both halves of the evening – there was a multitude of cake provided by local Stroke Association volunteers in between, profits going to the charity – followed the same pattern:  The choir opened with three varied and rousing songs (my favourite being God only knows, even though I’m an atheist), then gave the stage to the Living Archive Band for four songs from their extensive repertoire. The choir then performed a couple of interesting excerpts from a new specially commissioned MK50 composition (music by Choir Musical Director Craig McLeish, words from Yaw Asiyama) which is sounding promising indeed.  The choir and band then joined forces for a couple more of the band’s songs – some amazing goose-pimpling moments ensuing.  The evening finished illogically – because they could, said Craig – with them all performing a moving arrangement of Phil Colclough’s beautiful Song for Ireland.  A special night.

The Living Archive is one of the really good things about Milton Keynes.  Easier to let them describe what they do (from the website at http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/):

Living Archive collects, preserves and shares the history and heritage of Milton Keynes. Conceived as an antidote to the assertion that ‘new towns have no history’, and nurtured by the belief that ‘everybody has a story to tell’, it has recorded, archived and celebrated the unique history of residents’ lives and sense of place.

This has meant collecting those stories – through oral history and documentation – of the people who were living in the area before the creation of Milton Keynes, including vivid memories from serving soldiers and those at home from both World Wars, and the development of Wolverton as a railway town.  From this work the shifting membership that is the Living Archive Band have crafted shows full of songs crafted from these memories.

One of these songs has been a not unwelcome ear-worm since the concert.  The night the Stones rolled into town, written by Kevin Adams and Neil Mercer, commemorates a legendary evening in March, 1964, at Wilton Hall in Bletchley (when there was talk of ‘a bigger, brighter Bletchley’ in the days before Milton Keynes).  Here’s the chorus:

And we were living for the future
Glad to be alive
Oh, then one day you wake and find
The future has arrived.

There’s a tinge of sadness in the delivery, with the sensible advantage of the musicians only making a very fleeting nod to the Stones.  You can hear this for yourself at http://livingarchiveband.bandcamp.com/track/the-night-the-stones-rolled-into-town or even buy it for a quid if it takes hold.

An English vineyard

A pleasantly relaxed early Saturday afternoon a couple of week ago with the MK Humanists.  A short entertaining intro, then wandering through some of the 1800 vines, a buffet meal … oh, and sampling the ‘Earls Baron’ produce.  Which was surprisingly good.  Majority favourite was Saxon, the blend (I bought some).

Earls Baron is also the name of the nearby Northamptonshire village where the vineyard is situated.  “Set on a picturesque, southwest facing gentle slope overlooking the Nene Valley”, it says here, “Its location is very near to one of the oldest recorded vineyards of Roman times.”  Which is quite a thought, is it not?

You can find more details, including grape varieties (I think the above is Pinot Noir) at http://www.newlodgevineyard.co.uk/New_Lodge_Vineyard/Home.html .  At the moment they’re updating the website and the history page is missing, so I’ll just quote from the handout.  The vineyard was first established in 2000 on horse paddocks, which apparently is very good for this sort of thing:

Octogenarian owner Joyce Boulos-Hanna and vineyard manager daughter Gabby tend each and every vine personally by hand, all year round, with love and passion.

They are easygoing evangelists for English wine, and great fun with it.  “We’re not going to try and sell you the wine, but if you want to buy some, we’re happy to help you do so.”

 

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Sebastian Barry‘s Days without end (Faber, 2016) is one powerful piece of writing, the best book I’ve read in ages.  And in a while to come too, I’ll wager.  The sustained rhythm of the prose – the language of the first person narrative lyrical, vivid, visceral, engrossing – is an accomplishment of wonder.  There aren’t many long words, but paragraphs cover pages because they have to, to do justice to the vision, to all of what our man saw and felt.  It just flows, carries you along.  He’s telling us his story a long time after the events, but it’s like we are there.

The paperback blurb gives a reasonable brief outline of the action:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Then, when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

But there is so much more going on.  Narrator McNulty and Cole are more than brothers-in-arms but the achievement of Days without end is that no big deal is made of this and what follows; there are no physical details, you just feel the love.  They met and teamed up as 13 year olds, when things are not going well for either of them.  They join the army because as they grow they can no longer pass as paid female dancing partners – in full garb, but no funny business – in a frontier dance hall.  Thomas doesn’t mind being in the dresses and this theme develops as the years and events pass.  Extraordinary to have just read this as Donald Trump tweets away about trans people having no place in the US armed forces.  In what follows, Winona is the young Indian girl of the blurb, who has witnessed terrible events herself, and Thomas is at this point disguised in women’s clothes:

Winona loosening too, and laughing now. She just a girl and should be laughing regular. She should be playing maybe if she ain’t too old. Certainly acts the lady and knows how. We like mother and child right enough and that’s how it plays.  I give thanks for that. Maybe in my deepest soul I believe my own fakery. I suppose I do. I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man, though I were a fighting man most of my days. Got to be thinking them Indians in dresses shown my path. […] I am easy as a woman, taut as a man. All my limbs is broke as a man, and fixed good as a woman. I lie down with the soul of a woman and wake up with the same. I don’t forsee no time where this ain’t true no more. Maybe I was born a man and growing into a woman. Maybe that boy that John Cole met was but a girl already. He weren’t no girl hisself for sure. This could be mountainous evil. I ain’t read the Book on that. Maybe no hand has ever wrote its truth.

And that’s as much of a questioning as occurs.  It’s beautifully done.  I hope you won’t see this as a spoiler; I’ll bet if you start reading Days without end you’ll have forgotten you read that earlier here pretty soon; until it hits again.

Meanwhile, there’s no shying away from the horrors of the soldiering.  There are brutal and savage passages relating his involvement.  And we get to experience the camaraderie, the hard drudge and boredom of military life.  The betrayal of the Indian Nations is laid bare in specific events, not evangelised.  But, you know, life can be beautiful.  The evocation of nature’s wonders and the passing of the seasons is never far away in the relation of events.  Normally in these reviews on Lillabullero I will pick out some quotes to give a flavour but with Days without end it’s so hard to know where to start from and where to end.  It is such an enervating – exciting, absorbing, relaxed in turn – total ride.  Here, from the final devastating confrontation with a proud Sioux chief:

Sometimes you know you ain’t a clever man. But likewise sometimes the fog of usual thoughts clears of in a sudden breeze of sense and you see things clear a moment like a clearing country. We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain’t. They say we be Christians and suchlike but we ain’t. They say we are creatures raised by God above the animals but any man that has lived knows that’s damn lies. We are going forth that day to call Caught-His-Horse-First a murderer in silent judgement. But it was us killed his wife and his child.

This is a novel about the making of the USA, a literary spaghetti western – the later Sergio Leones – told in a vernacular by a Huck Finn who came over the Atlantic as a boy from Ireland.  And, though not obvious from what I’ve said here, there is, rest assured, a measure wit and humour in Thomas’s telling too.  I hear echoes of Mark Twain’s judgments on his land too.

When that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t it the way of the world. No such item as a virtuous people. Winona the only soul not thrown on the bonfire.

Almost at random, if you want the experience:

Big train blowing steam and smoke at the depot. It’s like a creature. Something in perpetual explosion. Huge long muscle body on her and four big men punching coal into her boiler. It’s a sight. Going to be dragging four carriages east and they say they’ll go good. The light pall of snow hisses on the boiler sheets.

Days without end is a profound and consistently brilliant piece of writing.  I love this book.  It will stay with me for a long time; I feel a Sebastian Barry binge coming on.

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And now for something completely different …

July’s Book Group book was a Marmite book.  Some hated it, others thought it had its moments and weren’t sorry to have read it.  I liked it well enough.  Meg Wolitzer‘s The wife (2003) is narrated by the wife of one of the (fictional) big beasts of post-war American literature.  On the plane  on their way to the presentation ceremony for the fictional Helsinki (one down from the Nobel) Prize for Literature (“this award for a long hard labour on the fiction chain gang …”) she decides she is going to leave him.  What follows is a skillful telling of their marriage, family and careers going back and forth between the past and present, from their first meeting in 1956 – Joan a talented student, Joe the tutor on a creative writing course – to the acclamation his pretty much career full stop.  This is the beginning of a new phase, Joan,” he tells her.  Yes, the insufferable phase,” is her response.

 

Now, even the Book Group people who didn’t like The wife could see the big twist coming from a mile off, so it’s not really a spoiler to reveal about Joe that:

All he had was the look. The attitude, the reverence and the desire to be a great writer, but that was meaningless without what he called “the goods”

and that, presented with the proud draft of his first novel – effectively about his divorce and their coming together – Joan is dismayed to discover how lifeless it is and edits it so heavily as to effectively have written it herself.  Being the ’50s, and having been told that being a woman novelist was a loser’s game by a bitter woman novelist, she is happy for the illusion of his authorship to be maintained and continued.  This is not actually revealed till quite late on, which I suppose you could say is cheating.  Anyway, the story behind that first novel, The Walnut, or rather the story of the actual walnuts, is an amusing little diversion in itself, while what happens to their two daughters and the problem son – the children of a celebrated writer – give the tale more depth.

So The wife is an insightful, sour and witty look at the American literary life in the ’50s and early ’60s, the rivalries, infidelities and jealousies as the men joust and put themselves about. “Wives are the sad sacks of any writers’ conference,” she opines at one point.  Given she was born in 1959 one wonders how much of it Meg Wolitzer got from her novelist mother.  Joe and Joan’s early struggles in a New York garret, taking fun in late fifties Greenwich Village is nicely done too.  With the social changes of the late ’60s and the emergence of women writers as serious players you could say that The wife is the starting point for a literary equivalent of Mad Men.

How about this, one of the reasons he’s up for the Helsinki, for Joan’s disaffection?   And probably at least a sad half-truth:

In America it had been a year of literary deaths, one after the other, men whom Joe had known since the fifties, when they used to gather sometimes for socialist meetings. A decade later they gathered at marathon, all night readings whose purpose was to protest the war in Vietnam, and suck all the energy out of the audience.

For what it’s worth, the very first original hardback book I ever bought was Norman Mailer‘s groundbreaking account of the march on the Pentagon, Armies of the night (1968).  I’m long over him now, but still, Ouch!  He gets it in the neck again later too, the only one of those big beasts to actually get a real life namecheck.

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Thirty years on since the first of Peter Robinson‘s Yorkshire Dales-based crime novels featuring detective Alan Banks first appeared in print, Sleeping in the ground (Hodder & S, 2017), is the 24th in the sequence.  I think it’s something of a return to form that also holds the promise of refreshing the slightly tired platform for what is to come next.

Sleeping in the ground opens strongly with a funeral and a mass shooting at a wedding happening 150 miles apart.  Banks is back in Peterborough, where he grew up, at the funeral – an event that affects him deeply – of his first love, Emily Hargreaves, who’d dumped him – something he still doesn’t understand – back in 1973.  He returns north to the Yorkshire Dales to be handed the investigation into the massacre of the bride and groom and 4 others at a locally high-profile wedding, which appears to be cleared up with the apparent suicide a retired dentist and  shooting enthusiast.  Except he doesn’t fit the profile and there’s no motive:

After the team meeting, he was more convinced than ever that there was something fishy about the whole St Mary’s business. […] True, profiles aren’t always accurate, and Jenny had quite reasonably complained that she didn’t have enough to go on, but the comparison between what they knew of spree killers or mass murderers and what they had been able to discover about Martin Edgeworth’s character, life and actions just didn’t match up. Then there were the forensic and pathology details. It might be a long haul ahead, but there had to be a way of getting to the bottom of it.

And that’s what the police procedural aspect of Sleeping in the ground then proceeds to do, with Banks and various members of his team relentlessly talking to people, interviewing others, following a hunch picked up from reading a survivor of the shooting’s body language, and then sitting at the computer, digging in the records and local newspapers, and involving, naturally, the full pathologist and forensics CSI armoury.  This all rolls along nicely – with the slight early hiatus of the discussion on psychological profiling descending into a bit of a textbook recitation – to a thrilling and nail-biting climax in the raging waters of a flood, the outcome of which is by no means narratively certain, because – there’s no guarantee the copper involved will reappear in the next book (and I really hoped so).  The details and mechanics of the full crime are ingenious – or you could say, incredibly convoluted – but entirely acceptable to this reader at least in the overall context of the story.

The solution, the motivation for the massacre, goes back to another painful sequence of events in 1964.  So both Banks’s ruminative and nostalgic state of mind, and the origins of the crime, revolve around ghosts of the past.  Banks also considers, in passing, old cases he was involved with, and his failed marriage, and he finally gets to learn what went wrong with Emily.  The soap opera aspects of the Banks saga carry this looking back theme further with the return of two attractive characters from past books.

The profiler involved is one Jenny Fuller, last seen at about book 12, the woman Banks came nearest to committing adultery with when he was married.  She’s moved back in the area, and there’s no rush, they’re leaving things open as a possibility.  The other old face – not as previously prominent – is Annie Cabbot’s dad.  (For those unfamiliar with the books, Annie is an interesting longstanding member of Banks’ team, briefly his lover, who, frankly, Peter Robinson has lately wasted, through lack of focus).  Annie’s dad, Ray, has left the artists’ commune in Cornwall where Annie was raised – still sprightly enough, he’s feeling a bit old for all this modern concept stuff – and is looking to buy somewhere in the Dales to be near Annie; he makes a wonderful foil for Banks in his dotage.  There’s a joke about Annie warning Banks that Ray was listening to Dylan when he, Banks, was still in short trousers; to which Banks protests he was too listening to Dylan in short trousers.

So I hope that those two reappear strongly in future books, and that Gerry (Geraldine) Masterson, fast-track graduate who was impressive in the previous book and is a star in Sleeping in the ground, continues to have a prominent role.  The sparring of Annie Cabbot with Gerry and Jenny is an entertaining sideshow that also shows promise.  We also get a rare glimpse of the man back when:

It was a photograph. Banks held it by the candlelight. He and Emily in the early seventies. He was wearing a denim jacket over a T-shirt, and bell bottoms, and his hair was much longer than it was now.

For those who know the books, rest assured Peter Robinson continues to spray musical references and citations all over the place (I counted at least 35 – think it’s all getting a bit ridiculous and obscure, actually), along with a load of other cultural nods and winks.  As well as sharing musical tastes one playfully wonders sometimes just how much of Peter Robinson goes into his alter ego.  Like … here’s young Geraldine, unattached and not particularly looking, but:

When she let herself think about it, which wasn’t often, she realised that she wouldn’t mind at all going out with someone like Banks, if he wasn’t her boss, that is, that age wouldn’t really be an issue. He seemed healthy and young enough in body and spirit, was handsome in that lean and intense sort of way, and she certainly got the impression that he was interested in a wide range of subjects, so conversation wouldn’t be a problem. He also had a sense of humour, which she had been told by her mother was esential to a happy marriage. Not that she was having fantasies about marrying Banks, or even going out with him. Just that the whole idea didn’t seem so outrageous.

Anyway, the soundtrack for Sleeping in the ground (the title itself a song title, but later for that) touchingly starts and ends with David Bowie, with Starman from Ziggy Stardust played at the funeral, and Blackstar in the car near the end.  To which Geraldine says:

My dad likes David Bowie. I never really had much time for music.”
“You should make some,” Banks said. “It helps keep you sane and human in a crazy world, especially after a night like tonight.”

To which, Amen.  Banks is still reading poetry too, in particular, even before the funeral, Thomas Hardy‘s Poems 1912-1913, concerning the magic of first love; his novels get a couple of mentions too.  (Fuller details of the music and all this – not forgetting the alcohol modestly consumed – and more specific thoughts on the novel, can be found elsewhere here on Lillabullero at https://quavid.wordpress.com/about/peter-robinsons-inspector-banks-mysteries/, where it and others in the sequence are considered more systematically).

And so to the title.  It’s an obscure Blind Faith song, credited to Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood, and performed at that Hyde Park concert, though the song was never released until it appeared on the Clapton Crossroads box set.  It’s a mean-spirited, unredemptive and highly derivative – I might go so far as to say ‘nasty little’ – blues, that doesn’t constitute, be assured, anything like a plot-spoiler.  The Hyde Park rendition is also available on Youtube, but here’s some better keyboards:

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I won The grandparent (Michael Joseph, 2016) at our annual street barbecue raffle.  Chose it, even, from the prize table loaded with various smellies and assorted other passed on ex-presents.  I guess the first couple of these Ladybird Books for grown-ups were a good joke, had something about them – contemporary situations wed, or rather mis-matched, to that original period Ladybird art that it is hard not to fondly recall – but, hey.

Now I’m a grandparent, and, yeah, some of it hits (the all-purpose child-minding), but there’s no consistency here as to the generations.  Sure, probably my parents had a kettle like that, that you heated on the stove I vaguely remember, but so what?  (And it was never that clean).  Not sure what “Janet is always popular with her rotarian [sic] friends because she has gin stashed all over town” – pictured at a naming ceremony for a boat – is doing here, especially when you turn the page and some old duffer in a sports jacket, apparently called Bill, “is telling his grandchildren about the time his band opened for The Sex Pistols.”

Glad it wasn’t a present, then.  Kids, do not let your parents persuade you to give this to a grandparent this Christmas.  It has a price tag of £6.99, which more than 10p a page, though Amazon are selling it at half-price.  I noted it was listed as being the No.1 bestseller in their ‘Grandparent’ book category.  That’s a link as a grandparent you have to follow, right?  No.2 is the Kindle edition of My grandpa is NOT grumpy; no comment.  No.3 is the Kindle edition of The incest diary (the physical book is there at No.7).  Don’t you just love unedited computer listings?

MK: a living landscape

Glad I managed to catch this beautifully presented exhibition at Central Library.  You wound your way round the organised space, high quality photos on boards – and on the floor (a grass snake!), on the ceiling – augmented with greenery.  Hardly a pioneer, but I’ve lived in Milton Keynes for 34 years now, and I’ve never understood the comic status, now thankfully receding, it was landed with for a long time (you know, like that British Rail sandwich joke).

MK was/is a more than decent bash at Ebenezer Howard’s idealistic garden city concept, delivered with style, ingenuity and wit.  Most of us love our concrete cows.  Shame the city centre resembles and out-of-town shopping mall and mammon threatens further, but all is not lost.  The struggle is to maintain the vision, which is where  the Fred Roche Foundation (http://fredroche.org/), the exhibition’s organisers, come in; Fred was a main man at the Development Corporation (the semi-legendary MKDC) that set the ball rolling.  The exhibition quotes John Ruskin, a man whose progressive thinking, I would say, while I’m here, is long overdue a major revival.  There’s a decent short summary of his thoughts here: http://www.ruskinmuseum.com/content/john-ruskin/who-was-john-ruskin.php.

Why you should trust Alison Graham …

… at least as far as tv crime thrillers and drama go.  From this week’s Radio Times:

The Loch; ITV 9 0’clock Sunday, July 9

It’s the penultimate episode and I’m still no wiser than I was at the start of this convoluted, baffling, messy thriller.  Just a tiny clue as to what might be going on in the little Scottish town would be most welcome.
Instead we get bluster, lumpen dialogue and a tone that veers alarmingly.  Is The Loch cosy crime, like Hamish Macbeth?  Or is it Reservoir Dogs in the Highlands?  Who knows.  The writing is all over the place and none of the characters convinces, notably that flipping maverick forensic psychologist.  “Go way, Blake,” a police chief yells at him.  Yes,  Blake.  GO AWAY.
It’s a great backdrop, but viewers cannot live by scenery alone.  Sometimes we need a plot.

Fearless: ITV 9 0’clock Monday, July 10

For some reason the Americans let campaigning human rights lawyer Emma into the US, though they wised up quickly and threw her into detention.  But not for long.  She’s back and she’s very annoyed.  Of course, she has uncovered a conspiracy at the highest levels of the British and US governments that reaches right back to the second Iraq War.  Blimey!
But Emma still wants a child and a stable boyfriend ….

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