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

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

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

The first record to be played is The Universal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler alert

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

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

I’d quite like to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The morning before The Antipoet‘s 10th anniversary video-shoot show, WiiFit told me I had the body of a 21 year-old.  The morning after said performance WiiFit told me I had the body of a 37 year-old (still only just over half of the reality, but, you know).  Nevertheless, as the I Ching invariably says: no blame, and there is a Latin tag for it (post hoc ergo propter hoc, for what it’s worth).   Though the sweets provided at each table  – pick-and-mix and mini-chocolate bars, a nice touch – may have contributed to the weight gain.

‘Come and be part of the fun as we film 10 years of The Antipoet,’ they said; ‘be an Antipoet extra for the evening’.  ‘Watch and enjoy as The Antipoet perform pieces from the last decade whilst filming a DVD to pop into their new book, Does my bass look big in this?’  So we did, and they did, and a grand time was had at The Cock Hotel in the town of Stony Stratford (“our spiritual home”), last Thursday.  The book is published later this year.

Philfy Phil lived up to his moniker (maybe too much at least for wife and her mate) and lamented that no-one onomatopoeic enough had died lately to refresh the pantheon of his take on Paul Simon’s The boxer (the one with that chorus).   Then it was time for those “masters of beatrantin’ rhythm and views’ (© www.theantipoet.co.uk/ ) to take the stage and give us two ‘best of’ sets – ‘greatest hits’ as far as I’m concerned – from the last decade’s prodigious output.  Filming necessitated a more disciplined approach than seen previously (though not a great deal so) (or should that be soberer … ).  Retakes and director Donna’s interventions only added to the fun.

For those (oh lucky people) yet to come across the Antipoet (oh, come on – I’m talkin’ ’bout the joy of discovery), in the past I’ve written about the lads extensively here on Lillabullero, so I’m not going to repeat myself.  Here links to two lengthy pieces on the occasion of their last two albums, We play for food and Bards without portfolio:

Thursday, they delivered all the faves: there’s plenty to sample on YouTube and their website.  I never tire of their take on painful poetry gigs, Random words in a random order, and indeed many more, but was particularly glad they chose to feature 1420 MHz (megahertz), one they don’t do that often, evoking as it does a sense of wonder amidst the worthy scorn, angst and social commentary.  Here it is from an earlier time:

As Phil says, they should be on telly – after all, what else is Channel4 for?  The name chosen for the FaceBook event for this show should serve well enough as a title for the show: Rant along an Antipoet!  And what a panoply of guests they could showcase, including those who closed the show – Fay Roberts, Richard Frost, Justin Thyme – with cleverly and joyously worked parodies and addendums to the basic opus.

Another Wow!

A kid’s show at the local library a couple of days earlier and a quieter enchantment from the Wriggle Dance Theatre‘s Into the Rainbow.  There in my capacity as grandparent, I had a pretty good idea we were in for something a bit special when  greeted in mime at the top of Stony Library’s stairs by a young woman with an umbrella, guiding us to our places on the floor.  I say us – it was one child, one responsible adult, so I just lingered close by, leaning on a pillar, witnessing the show and watching the watchers.  Both were great.

Why the umbrella?  Rain sound effects because … rainbows! I was slow to make the connection.  Amazing what you can do with a couple of boards, some long coloured ribbons and a big shiny blue sheet if you are a couple of trained dancers – women working through the medium of mime and, um, interpretive dance (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase) – and a relaxed troubadour leading or commentating in song.  I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to trained dancers before – graceful and gymnastic, in tune with each other – and was so impressed overall by an accomplished ensemble performance as, over 45 minutes, they introduced the colours of the rainbow one by one, each colour given its own min-show.  The big shiny sheet was the sea, under which they swam, heads popping in and out of strategic gaps in the cloth; grandson – live performance like this was a new thing for him – had to be discouraged from going under the waves himself.

 Brilliant show, expertly pitched and well appreciated by all.  A lovely interlude.

 

It’s The Antipoet’s tenth year and to mark this momentous event, we once again return to our spiritual home of Stoney Stratford for a one off best of show which will be recorded and released as a DVD for the summer 2018 season. So come along and be immortalised as part of this celebration and wonder at how we ever got this far and where the hell we’re gonna go next!!!

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A place called Winter

Patrick Gale‘s A place called Winter (Tinder, 2015) kicks off with a detailed description of the brutal ‘treatment’ meted out to unresponsive patients in a psychiatric hospital in Canada.  It then moves, as does protagonist Harry Cane, to Bethel, a progressive therapeutic community, where we eventually discover how he got to be there.  It’s a captivating tale of flight from prosperous Edwardian London to being part of the state-sponsored settlement of the Canadian prairies, in the early twentieth century: they gave you land to work; it became yours if you made a go of it.

Once our hero gets to Canada (and once you get over his sharing a name with the Tottenham Hotspur and England striker Harry Kane, who can’t stop scoring goals at the moment), so vivid and engrossing are the descriptions of his physical travails, his surroundings and his developing friendships – the sheer narrative power, the sense of achievement and fulfillment – that I completely lost track of the book’s structure, forgot about those painful opening pages and its therapeutic context.  Until the spectre of the Great War inevitably loomed and I thought: Oh please, not another literary tour of the trenches (Canada was part of the Empire, remember) and mental collapse.  But no, we are dealing here with violent trauma of a more directly personal and dramatic nature; not that the War doesn’t touch others who matter to him.  And when the narrative does return to Bethel, to almost the present, it gets really interesting.

There is so much going on in A place called Winter.  Why does Harry have to go to Canada?  To shield his relatives from shame and scandal.  I knew Patrick Gale had achieved something special here, but couldn’t nail it, so I resorted – something I rarely do in these pieces – to investigating what others had to say.  I didn’t have to look any further than an interview the author had given Max Lui for the Independent:

The challenge was to inhabit a homosexual life when there are no words to describe any of the things the character feels or does.

He succeeds.  And never mind sexuality, Harry’s whole life is one big series of discoveries.  The materially comfortable existence he leaves behind in London is a far cry from the lonely rigours of taming the wilderness in a very cold place.

As I say, so much going on.  In the two respectable English families that become enjoined in before the crisis – two brothers from the one marrying sisters in the other – there is potential to populate a decent novel of their own.  Then there’s the passage to Canada – a fascinating slice of social history – and the first meeting with one Troels Munck, a malevolent fixer, who keeps turning up again later as a classic Western bad guy: Evil like in a fairytale. But fascinating too“, says Gale in a piece at the back of the paperback edition I read.  

He’s taken on by a Danish family in Moose Jaw for a harsh apprentice year, learning the farming ropes, before he gets his own land: “The talk of wages, the whole business of being, for the first time in his life, employed, was so novel as to feel virtually meaningless.”  Talk about a new life.  Furthermore: “It was another mercy that the Jorgensens neither gave nor expected anything from him socially; he was an unregarded nothing“.  Something good comes out of the year though as relations warm.  The changes mapped reminded me of an Alice Munro story.

And then there’s the gruelling work establishing his own homestead, building a house, getting the land into shape to farm, near a place called Winter.  The winters – the cold, the snow – are crippling.  His developing relationships with sister and brother neighbours, Petra and Paul Slaymaker – Paul had had some “trouble in Toronto” – are the emotional core of the novel.  I don’t think I want to be any more specific than that; it’ll give too much away.  Dramatic events unfold involving Troels Munck.  There is a crisis and Harry has a breakdown, which takes us back to the horrendous opening chapter.

The plight of the peoples of the First Nations – Canada’s North American Indians – had been touched on earlier, but at therapeutic community at Bethel the book shifts into another gear.  In fascinating passages that reminded me of (but surpassed) the movie Little Big Man, Harry learns from fellow patient Little Bear, a Cree Indian: “You are a two-souls, Harry“:

She said something, in Plains Cree presumably, so softly he couldn’t quite catch it, but it sounded like ayarkwoo. ‘Translation is impossible, since it could mean either both man and woman or neither man nor woman. Some of us call it two-souls. You are a two-souls, Harry.’

It’s a blessing and a curse. […] You choose the basket willow over the bow, but there’s no rule to say you can’t use both,” he elaborates elsewhere.  Ultimately Little Bear is a tragic figure, but he is crucial to Harry’s recovery.  In the Cree Nation he was valued for what he was:

        You have to understand, as a two-souls I had a special position. I was being taught mysteries, things ordinary boys would never learn.’  […]
        ‘I was special and my father was proud of me. But to the missionaries I was an evil influence. I was fourteen, nearly fully grown, but to them I was an evil child. They cut my hair short and the evil they saw in me was beaten out day after day.’
        ‘Did you fight?’
        ‘No. I was always quiet and good and a swift learner. And their Jesus was so kind, kinder than some of our spirits. He reached out to me and still hasn’t let me go. For a meek, mild dead man, he has a tenacious grip.’

Harry returns to pick up the pieces in Winter.  There are important plotlines I’ve barely touched upon, but it all seems hopeful (though that’s just my reading – it’s left open-ended).

A place called Winter  was January’s Book Group book and – rare event – there were no dissenting voices as to what a fine piece of work it was.  It is an incredibly powerful piece of writing, with distressing and heart-breaking happenings aplenty.  The prose can sing but is never flashy, never fussy, never proselytising.  There is a vivid sense of people in a landscape, of energy being expended; when the threshing team comes to harvest Harry’s and the Slaymakers’ fields in Chapter 25, reading felt like being in a big widescreen cinema – Terrence Malick’s Days of heaven came to mind.

Yet for all the heaviness, A place called Winter can still amuse.  There is a nice little bit of banter about books and individual’s reading tastes in the snowed-up winters, and Gale interjects the odd flourish that tellingly tickles, like these that I’ll leave you with.  The first example is from Harry’s courting days, the last his first meal at Bethel (or was it at the Jorgenson’s – sorry):

They reached a wrought-iron bench in the shifting golden shade of a weeping willow, which seemed like a destination, so they sat. (p31)

Musical comedies were Harry’s idea of hell. He disliked their forced sentiment and cheeriness, their wildly improbable plots […] and the tension induced in him by knowing that at any moment a character would burst into song. (p61)

Lunch was a fairly punitive cheese and parsnip tart with beans and boiled potatoes. (p116)

Splendid stuff all round.

 

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The Bardic Trials

And it came to pass that Stony’s got a brand new Bard.  All hail poet Sam Upton!  Crowned (or rather, cloaked) after an absorbing contest with accomplished storyteller and laidback one-time Texan Lynette Hill at York House Centre.  Tellingly, Sam delivered his statement of Bardic Intent acknowledging the tradition and the work of previous holders of the post in verse form.  Shame there were only two up for it this year, but it was a good contest, and a fine evening’s entertainment was put together by the Bardic Council and outgoing Bard – Bard 007 Mr Stephen Hobbs – nevertheless.  Sam will have a hard job to match Steve’s work rate.

Fay Roberts held a buzzing audience still and entranced with a poem delivered entirely in Welsh – I add No, really! for those who’ve never seen her – while Northampton’s Bard Mitchell Taylor‘s was an energetic (with much poetic striding) and passionate set, by turns personal and political.  Original stuff from singer-songwriter from Dawn Ivieson, in fine voice.  Professional comedian James Sherwood finished the evening off in style.  He had me in stitches, not least when – sat at and playing keyboard – singing and raging against the mathematical inexactitude all too often found in popular songs.  Wish I could remember some culprits other than 50 ways to leave your lover (in which just 5 are listed); there was that Cher song …

The Pantomime

The Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s 3rd annual panto,  Dick Whittington in Stonyland was a hoot, with all the traditional trimmings, complete with plenty of nods to the locality and no little originality from playwright (and Principal Boy) Danni Kushner (no surnames on the handout, no surnames here … except this one … for the writer).  Great ensemble performance (Oh, yes it was), invidious to single out etc etc (Oh, no it isn’t), because as Dame, troubadour Roddy’s Sally the Cook is already legend; not bad for a first acting role – “Oh, you won’t believe your eyes / at the size of Sally’s pies.”  Another first was Danni singing solo – who knew there’s a folk singer in there as well?  [Photos © Denise Dryburgh]

The Talk

Sarah Churchwell, prof of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the Uni of London, delivered a bit of an eye-opener at the Library for those who think of Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby as rooted in, and symbolic of, the Jazz Age.  No.  As she enthusiastically demonstrated, published in 1925, almost as a warning, it is pointedly and set in 1922,  highlighting with some telling slides what was in the news that year, and suggesting 1922 was to the celebrated Jazz Age what 1962 was to Swinging Sixties.

She expanded her subject to look at anti-immigrant origins in the 1920s of the first America First movement, and its links with the KKK.  I almost bought the book, though I have piles waiting to be read at home, she’s that charismatic a performer.  We didn’t have lecturers like her back in the day.

This talk, along with a handful of others, and various other events that I didn’t make it to – and those I did, above and below –  were all part of the programme of the splendid 14th Annual StonyWords literary festival.

Roger McGough. Photo © Andy Powell, who seemed to be everywhere, sound engineering and performing: so here’s a thumbs up.

That Roger McGough

Tickets for Roger McGough at York House were sold out even before the StonyWords programme was printed.  Resplendent in red sneakers he delighted a packed crowd with material that was new to the vast majority of the audience (and certainly to me).  Refreshingly none of the greatest hits were called upon; at the age of 80 he’s a sprightly and dapper performer, and still writing.  [One, um, golden oldie, Let me die a young man’s death cites the ages 73,91, and 104.  Not as much a hostage to fortune as Pete Townshend’s “Hope I die before I get old” in the Who’s (and their middle-aged tribute bands’) My generation, but then, they still do that. ]

Saying he was often accused of being ‘too sentimental’ he went out of his way to disabuse that with a neat reworking of one piece.  He was very funny, but at the same time, with a broad-ranging selection of an hour’s worth of material, not afraid to give us pause for thought.  I did succumb here, bought the autobiography.

This StonyMusicHall4

The Prince of Wales Rattlers. Photo © Andy Powell

Even without The Prince of Wales Rattlers, special guests from over the Northamptonshire border closing the show, StonyMusicHall4 would have been a grand affair.

What did we have?  With various multi-talented members of the Stony Steppers never far away we had: a sand dance, a recitation, a  clog dance (Daisy), singalong Vera Lynn, Whispering grass (from Two Men not called Matt, with accents slipping), a surreal chorus line dance routine involving half black/half white costumes, Mr Ferneyhough and concertina implanting an earworm (“With her ‘ead / tucked / underneath her arm“), some stunning slapstick choreography on If I was not a clog dancer, and … an act I’ve forgotten, I fear; sorry, please do tell.

The Rattlers started off with a couple of temperance hymns.  Too late, the barrels were empty.  Then continued with material more from the folk than music hall tradition but fully the latter in spirit, (and they elided somewhere in there historically anyway (didn’t they?)).  Great four-part harmonies, a moveable feast of musical accompaniment, a fine comedic turn, much jollity.
And so home with a big grin all over one’s face.

Them Theatre pop-ups

Caught one of these – the Light Programme, as opposed to the Dark Programme – in the Library.  A selection of rehearsed readings from a shifting cast of members of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society including a couple of Alan Bennett monologues, a bit of Bard and another old dude, excerpts from Alan Ayckbourn, the Stoppard Rosencrantz and Wossname, and a surprising piece (well, to me) from Chekhov that I wish I could remember*.  Good show, Caz & Co.

*The sneeze; the evils of tobacco – thanks Caz.

 

 

 

 

 

Pop-up theatre in the library

 

 

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The topics under consideration are:

  1. Is it necessary to like the characters, or enough of them, in a novel – and I’ll grant just the one is enough – to fully appreciate it?  True: depends how you define ‘appreciate’, but I’m dodging that one except to say that my main enjoyment of literature come from, um, satisfaction in the broadest of senses, rather than from being a literary critic (which I am not).
  2. How stands the state of play for the delineation and punctuation of human speech in the contemporary novel?
  3. Why does it feel like Irish writers sweep the board these days last century for sheer exhilaration?

And here come the books:

Book the First

Tessa Hadley‘s The past (2015), December’s Book Group book, occasioned a split between those who couldn’t warm particularly to any of the middle-aged siblings taking their annual time out together in an old house in the middle of nowhere with family connections, and those who thought that didn’t matter in the matter of how well crafted a novel it was.  I was in the former camp and agreed with the woman of Irish origin who said the whole thing was “too English” – and middle class southerner English to boot.  I thought the arch of the plot was a bit contrived too, though with the right casting it would make great telly.  It has its moments, mind; I’m not dismissing it completely out of hand.

To tell the truth I was struggling from the first paragraph, with its “The noise of their taxi receding, like an insect burrowing between the hills, was the only sound at first in the still afternoon …”  Is it just me, or are you too trying to imagine what the noise of an insect burrowing between hills could be?  Too many similes throughout was my impression.

Anyway, three sisters: Alice, failed actress, who for some reason has brought her ex-lover’s student son along with her; Harriet, ex-radical and worthy, about to discover something about herself; Fran, youngest, teacher and mum – her two weird kids in tandem, but not their father, a musician (what kind? we’re not told) who has ‘forgotten’ all about this annual pilgrimage and has gigs booked.  One brother, an academic philosopher with a media presence talking about cinema, on his third wife, a stunning Argentinian woman who some think has past links with a brutal dictatorship, who is meeting the sisters for the first time, along with his teenage daughter from a previous marriage.  Brother pisses off early, third wife and daughter stick around (yay! teenage sub-plot!).  Bitching, moaning, explorations etc etc and another sub-plot I’ll not go into.  You can see why Fran’s musician husband has ‘memory’ problems.

There’s a time travel middle section where we see Jill and Tom, their mother and father of the sisters and brother (or at least the father of the two born by then – they’re about to split up) visiting her parents (father, Grantham, a forbiddingly remote vicar-poet) in 1968.  Tom is more interested in what’s going on in the streets of Paris and is obviously a waster.  Indeed, the male sex are not well-represented in the pages of this book.  Why, Alice’s ex’s son can even – tempting intertextual fate – come up with:

Alice found Kasim slouching on the window seat on the landing, blankly engaged in nothing. She tried to lend him a novel to pass the time but he gloomily said he didn’t see the point of fiction. – I don’t see what it’s for. Why would you put out any intellectual effort, understanding something that wasn’t true?

But, re-focussing on our initial questions.  What is it about Irish writers?  Maybe that they would not beguile us – I know, it’s a character, but – with something like this one of Alice’s meditations:

She thought she saw a skylark soar up out of the field, streaming with song, balancing on its invisible jet of air – but as soon as she sat up on her elbows she doubted her identification. The bird was just a dot in the sky, too far off to be certain. Surely the skylarks had gone long ago from this part of the country? Everything was in decline. What a compromised generation theirs was, she thought. Materially they had so much, and yet they were haunted by this sensation of existing in an aftermath, after the best had passed.

As far as the punctuation of speech goes, however, Tessa Hadley goes Irish and adopts the James Joycean hyphen – as per A portrait of the artist as a young man – as the speech delineator, and goes further, even, in not employing a new paragraph every time, which I find refreshing.  This little example (from the 1968 section) also bears witness to a humour that I may not have hinted at so far:

‌   – We don’t eat eggs.
   Roland broke the news solemnly.
   – Oh god, said Jill. – I really began to think we’d never get here, that we’d just have to sleep under a hedge or something.  And you’re worrying about a little thing like eggs.
   – You shouldn’t say god, said Hattie. – Grandfather doesn’t like it.
   – He isn’t here, he’s visiting the sick.
   – Thank god for the sick, said Jill. – We can swear until he comes back.

But before we leave The past, one last quotation (again from the 1968 interlude) that more than one of the Group had made a note of (we are not a young group):

Carefully, Sophy ate a cold mouthful of cabbage. She loved poems but easily forgot them, and she only half-listened to her husband’s sermons anyway. This wasn’t exactly because she wasn’t interested. But part of the oddity of marriage, she thought, was in how unwise it was to attend too intently to the other person. This was the opposite to what she had naively imagined, as a girl. To the unmarried, it seemed that a couple must be intimately, perpetually exposed to each other – but actually, that wasn’t bearable. In order for love to survive, you had to close yourself off to a certain extent.

Book the Second

No marriage hints to be had Kevin Barry‘s Beatlebone (Canongate, 2015).  Here’s a sample of how speech is handled, though.  Cornelius, taxi driver and self-appointed guide,  guardian and local mentor of a fictional John Lennon in his fictional journey across Ireland in 1978, out to the island of Dorinish off the Atlantic coast that he bought when he was a Beatle.  They’re hungry so Cornelius fixes a meal with what he got: black pudding.  Which Lennon, so hungry, eats despite being a veggie:

He eats the food.  The spiciness, the mealiness, the animal waft – it’s all there in the history of his mouth, and he is near to fucking tears again.  The tea is strong and sweet and tastes of Liverpool.

Would you believe, John, that my father lived in this house till he was eighty-seven years of age?

How’d you get to be eighty-seven up a wet hill in Mayo?

He neither drank nor smoked.

I’m packing away all that myself.

I drink, John.  I smoke.  And I tup women.

Oh?

When I get the chance.

Yup, just like that.  Not even a dash, let alone speech marks, and no indentations, and a line space between each utterance.  Cynics might say it ups the page count considerably, but I’d say it adds space and resonance to the situation, not the least being Lennon’s struggle to make sense of both what is happening to him, and the rural Irish.  Obviously it’s not going to work universally, but it makes a change.  Elsewhere in Beatlebone Barry adopts a playscript formula, with directions.

On the Irish question posed at the beginning of this post – true, this is not the most scintillating of dialogues – that “wet hill” in Mayo is of relevance.  Last week I was lucky enough to see a performance by Roger McGough (of which more in a later post), in which included a poetic homage to Seamus Heaney, with a kick in the coda to the effect that English poets might be a tad jealous, if not resentful, of the peat bogs etc. available to Heaney on his prize-strewn doorstep.  You might say ‘The grass is always greener’, but then, with Eire, it actually is.  That and the music of the southern accent.  I just find Irish writers more gracious, more generous, more inventive, funnier and more enervating, even when wallowing in misery.  Have I said Kevin Barry is Irish?

Hardback cover

And speaking of misery, the fictional Lennon just wants to get to his exposed island and be left alone to scream – remember Janov’s Primal scream? – for days.  He has songwriter’s block, feels that might free the creative juices.  It becomes a long and arduous journey across Ireland and then out to the island.  I’m not saying much about what happens on the island.  They stay with a scary failing therapeutic community on the way, they have a night in the pub; Lennon thinks a lot about his past throughout (“a dozen years he’s been trying to outrun the fucking sitars”).

Suddenly, with Part Six, in a shocking (not in a bad way)intrusion, Kevin Barry tells of visiting the Dakota Street building in New York, and partaking of the same journey out to Dorinish for himself, of his situation when writing the book, filling in the factual details of Lennon’s purchase of the island, his donating its use to a bunch of hippies for an experiment in communal living, and giving background to life in the west of Ireland in the twentieth century.  Of his Lennon homework Barry says:

Fictional and biographical treatments of John Lennon have tended either towards hagiography or character assassination, and I felt the wisest practice was not to do any traditional research among the texts.

So he listened to that emotionally draining Plastic Ono Band album (A working class hero et al) and watched loads of post-Beatles interviews on YouTube.  What he comes up with sounds pretty good to me.  He doesn’t indulge too much in dropping lyric references into the text though the number 9 is a bit of a theme; how many chapters? yup! – but when he does, ouch: “He is so tired. He hasn’t slept a wink. He has tried so hard this long while to be at home in the world. Baking the bread. Swinging in a papoose the baby. Cozy-as-the-fucking-womb stuff. Captain fucking Domestic.

The novel’s narrative does not, of course, follow the trajectory of Lennon’s real life, though his early memories seem reasonable.  The journey never happened and the album he was working on before he was assassinated is very different to The great lost Beatlebone tape, the recording of which is reported in Part Eight.  Does this whet your appetite? :

JOHN    I mean, have you heard what Scott Walker’s been up to? With his plinkety fucking plink plonk?

CHARLIE    Avant garde, John. Is what it is.

JOHN    My peasant arse. This is going to make Scott Walker sound like the Mamas and the fucking Papas.

Beatlebone is not the easiest or most comfortable of reads.  I had a couple of false starts.  But once in it is relentless, and, gruelling as it is in parts, it also flies, and it sings, and thinks, and it can be very funny.

Lest we forget, this is where Kevin Barry nicked his title from:

Smaller because she’s already had a blog post all of her own not long ago, but she’s Irish and also has something to contribute in the matter of conversation.

Book the Third

What it says in the caption (see Operant discursive rehearsals ).  Absorbing novel from an Irish twenty something.  What she does with conversation is ignore speech marks and dashes altogether, like Barry, but keeping the normal line spacing.  Keeps things moving nicely and no – what I’m beginning to see as visual impediments – speech marks.  Had no problems with what was or wasn’t said.  This is undoubtedly a conversation:

I’m not sure what my role would be in that relationship, I said.
You could write her love sonnets, said Evelyn.
Melissa grinned. Don’t underestimate the effect of youth and beauty, she said.
That sounds like a recipe for disastrous unhappiness, I said.
You’re twenty one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.

Speech marks

I was going to put another book in here with conventional speech punctuation, but:

  1. I’ve run out of steam
  2. This is way too long and rambling already
  3. And it’s a great book, deserves more, which it might well get in a while
  4. And it’s not written by an Irishman

‘British publishers of late seem to favour the single inverted commas,’ said Lillabullero.
“But we still use the old double a lot,” said an American, passing by, on the bookshelves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scribal: The last hurrah!

A fine if occasionally damp-eyed Last Hurrah! at the passing of Stony Stratford’s Scribal Gathering, the open-minded open mic‘ that has welcomed ‘poets, musicians and all performers of any style, genre or level of experience, to share their creativity before a warm and receptive audience‘ once a month for nearly nine years now.  Your humble host here at Lillabullero was not the only performer on the night to salute Scribal for getting their writing and performing asses into – or back into – gear over the years, not least two (or was it three?) former Bards of this parish.  

It has been enormous fun and a lot more.  I think my first Scribal was on its first birthday and I’ve only missed a couple since through illness.  I’ve made some friends and seen some great (and, naturally, not so great) local performers (both nascent and experienced) and the featured guests have included a sparkling array of performance poets, spoken word artists, musicians and singer-songwriters of wider repute.  No time now for a chronicle or arbitrary list, but I can’t not mention frequent visitors The Antipoet.

Immediate reason for its disappearance, in the words of current prime mover Jonathan JT Taylor – for whom a massive vote of thanks – who’s been there from the beginning: “Our venue, The Crown will not be opening on a Tuesday this year and I can’t find another suitable venue. I have tried holding the event on a Wednesday in the past but it doesn’t work, so I’m putting the event on hold for now.”  (The Crown is now a gastro-pub, so understandable, I guess, if no-one’s eating of a Tuesday). 

JT goes on: “Personally I feel the spark has gone from the event. It’s had a good innings – nearly nine years! So it’s not a goodbye, it’s a so long and thanks for all the fish…”  Yeah but, no but: while it could no longer maintain the manic energy of what, I guess, must be called ‘the Richard Frost years’ – how could anything? – and there weren’t so many fresh surprises, Scribal could still be the best and most creative show in town, and usually was.  So thanks again to JT and the Scribal Elves and all their hard work.  Mind, there’s the small print (see the poster); not so much Adios as Au revoir?

The Last Hurrah was a grand way to go out, with the welcome return of a featured guest who markets himself as ‘The Rutland Troubadour‘ and gets away with it in some style.  The personable Paul McClure has some fine songs of his own at his disposal – Americana-ish and more – which he punctuates with good-natured and self-deprecatory wit and wisdom.  (Check out more at: http://www.paulmccluremusic.com/  – go to ‘Film’ to hear some music including the one that goes, “I just want to play / the best version / of the simplest song / I could find / in my heart / that’s true”  – or on YouTube)

The Robot Orchestra

Spent an absorbing hour wandering around the members of the orchestra then being still and wandering around again at Stuart Moore’s Robot Orchestra pop-up installation at the Stantonbury Gallery.  I’ll let Stuart explain:

The Robot Orchestra members are a diverse collection of modified cyborg instruments and sound objects ranging from antique church organ pipes to digital-control-auto-feedback guitars. They will be performing a microtonal soundscape composition who’s non-western notes are sourced from nature to explore the bigger world of fluid unnameable harmony that exists between the gaps.

Meditative, intriguing, sounds swelling, ebbing, flowing, birdsong weaving (was that a frog?), therapeutic and more.  Given Stuart also drums with my favourite local band – The Box Ticked, if you’re asking – one has to revise all those old drummer jokes.  More here at Stuart’s website: http://stuartmooresound.wixsite.com/stuartmooresound – go to ‘Some sounds’ to get the feel of it.

Centurion Vaultage

Yup, a hundred Vaultages down and, it is to be hoped, many more to come.  Take a bow Pat ‘the Hat’ Nicholson, MC and troubadour of this town.  Long may you run and your silver hair hang down.  If there were a recording of his almost talking blues A day in the life (not the actual title) chronicling him greeting the day and taking a stroll up and down the High Street with his dog, then I would provide a link right here, right now.  But there isn’t, so I can’t.  Watch this space.  Anyway, a poet-friendly open mic still thriving, though it can be hard waxing lyrical when the other non-Vaultage end of the pub is lively.

Couple of quickies

Was it the third or fourth Wassail, waking up the apple trees at York House?  Lovely little event, the miserable rain stopping just in time for open air frolics and mulled cider drinking, though too damp for the bonfire this year.  The ever resourceful Innocent Hare carousing, nay wassailing.

And All Hail the New Bard!  Congratulations Sam Upton.
More about this grand event in another post.

Vintage Stony 2018

Now in its ninth year, so surely worthy of the description ‘traditional’, Stony Stratford’s New Year’s Day Vintage Car and Motorcycle Festival opened to fair weather and more cars and visitors than I can remember.  Seemed to be more really ancient vehicles this year, but overall (or am I getting jaded?) more quantity than Wow! quality.  Out of nowhere – it wasn’t forecast – the unkind weather changed to a vicious cold rain; felt for those who didn’t see it coming.  Early birds, we were lucky, home back in time to be safely tucking into hot chocolate.
Click on the photos (all ©DRQ) for an enlargement.

Not for the first time, this 1934 Citroen Traction Avant (built in Slough!) was my favourite in show, seen here with self-portrait with camera. I got a bit hung-up with reflections, especially of trees:

 

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