Archive for the ‘Auto/Biography’ Category

And I’m one too many novels, and a thousand miles behind …

The Leopard

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s The leopard (Italy, 1958; Collins,1961 translated  by Archibald Colquhoun) is extraordinary.  It’s a sumptuous read, this novel with an interesting publishing history of rejection.  It portrays the last 23 years of Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio’s life using episodes drawn at significant intervals starting in 1860, with Garibaldi’s Italian unification army about to incorporate the island in its project, to his death in 1883, and reads like a Victorian novel, but which is suddenly distanced by only a handful of jolts:

From the ceiling, the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943. (p173)

I cringed at the start – it was a Reading Group selection – at the seeming aristocratic haughteur of: “… a touch of irritation clouded his brow as his eye fell on a tiny coffee stain which had had the presumption, since that morning, to fleck the vast white expanse of his waistcoat” but the reader is soon disabused of any wallowing in it because Fabrizio’s honourable disdain for pretty much everything is immense:

Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jove-like frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it.

About that sensuality – here he is sharing a carriage into town to spend time with his mistress accompanied by the local priest, who is compromised just by being in the carriage:

Now the road was crossing orange groves in flower, and the nuptial scent of the blossoms absorbed the rest as a full moon does a landscape; the smell of sweating horses, the smell of leather from the carriage upholstery, the smell of Prince and the smell of Jesuit, were all cancelled out by that Islamic perfume evoking houris and fleshly joys beyond the grave.

The flavour of the intellectuality can be seen with him briefly remembering “… a verse read by chance in a Paris bookshop … by someone whose name he had forgotten, one of those poets the French incubate and forget next week.”  Or comparing a recent event as being “… like those overtures which outlive the forgotten operas they belong to and hint in delicate veiled gaiety at all the arias which later in the opera are to be developed undeftly, and fail.

Fabrizio is a hell of a political philosopher.  His focus is on Sicily and the Sicilians, but it might as well be the whole wide world. Oh, and his coat of arms is a leopard, did I not mention that?:

“All this shouldn’t last; but it will always; the human ‘always’ of course, a century, two centuries … and after that it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards and Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”

His death scene, his conclusion on his lifetime experiences is, for me – and I don’t think I’m going over the top here – one of the great passages.  Which – no easy rides here – you will have to read for yourselves.  I hope I’ve given a taste of why I think it’s worth your time.

Happiness for beginners

And now for something completely different.  From a genre I’ve not spent much time with, Carole MatthewsHappiness for beginners (Sphere, 2019) delivers what its author admits to in her afterword – “the kind of warm-hearted fiction that I like to write”.  The basic plot – shrinking violet finds love with reformed TV star, who turns down a big chance – is corny as hell (“Is this what they write about in romance novels, this frisson, this electricity that seems to be tingling in my veins? I don’t know“), but none the less, entertaining for that.  Others too, more surprisingly, emerge from under shells too, which is nice.

The McGuffin is Hope Farm, a charity, a really good thing, that has been forced to look for a new home:

We’re not in the business of “fixing” broken kids, Mr Dacre. We help them to find out who they are, to build their confidence, to teach them how to exist with their various conditions and get along with others. Sometimes those who can’t talk to other humans do very well with animals. We have students here with Asperger’s Syndrome, autism, Chaotic Attachment, depression, all manner of mental health issues. Some self-harm, some try to harm others.

Never mind the teenagers and young adults, the animals are not without their problems.  Hope Farm has become a last chance saloon for some of them too, so we have fun with the likes of  Anthony the Anti-Social Sheep, and the alpacas: “Tina Turner, Rod Stewart; Johnny Rotten is our most troubled alpaca – our post-punk bad boy“.  The two ex-Police horses have been renamed Sweeney and Carter, while Ringo, the donkey who is allergic to his own fringe, ends up getting a haircut from a celebrity hairdresser.  “Challenged chickens” provide eggs, not least ” our survivor, Gloria Gaynor, who’s been attacked three times by the fox and yet is still here to tell the tale.”

Molly Baker, 38, who runs Hope Farm, living in a tatty old caravan there, is our chatty, dedicated, endearing narrator – “I don’t know how people get off on shopping. I’d rather clean out a pigsty any day of the week; she swears a bit too.  Romantic male lead is recently widowed Shelby Dacre,  who plays a farmer in a successful tv soap, and happens to be allergic to animals.  It’s all good fun.

Hope Farm is based on Animal Antiks, an enterprise that friends of Lillabullero are involved with.  You can read about them here: www.animalantiks.com.  I assuage my Amazon conscience by nominating them as the recipient of the pennies accrued on the Amazon Smile charity link.  They too survived a crisis of finding a new location.  The Antipoet campaigned about it – “With the alpacas we stand tall”.  You can never have too much Antipoet:

The luckiest man alive

Speaking of poets. the big question about John Cooper Clarke‘s The luckiest man alive (Picador, 2019) is, after a 36 year gap (his Ten years in a open necked shirt) … has he still got it?  Yup.  There are pages here not half as good as the best, but it’s worth.

The title poem‘s opening lines – “Nothing matters and what if it did / There’s more than one way to make a quid” – sound (impossible not to say them with that Salford twang of his) as good as Louis MacNeice or Auden in incantatory mode.  Twas ever thus.

Third verse of Attack of the 50ft woman:

She’s a radioactive predatory flirt
With a figure made to disconcert
Mess with her and you’re gonna get hurt
Lapsed Catholics reconvert
Attack of 50ft woman

Cheer yourself up with 14 verses of Bed blocker blues: “Things are gonna get worse, nurse / Things are gonna get rotten“.  Somewhere further on in: “A menace in the box I was good in the air / Now I can’t get up from an easy chair / The doctor told me oh yeah / Things are gonna get worse“.  Relentlessly rhyming and finishing with a kicker of a last one.  Warm yourself with the wit of the pretty much perfectly formed 11 4-line verses of I’ve fallen in love with my wife, a line that keeps charmingly recurring.

There is some serious stuff – Bipolar inmate diary, a prison protest, Beasley Boulevard (“The Mall, the Maul, whatever you want to call it“), the scornful update of urban renewal-ed Beasley Street – never mind The man who didn’t love Elvis (“Condemned to miss the point / Time and time plus time again“), which leads nicely to his Desert Island Discs, an absolute radio treat; there’s not many Desert Island Discs make you laugh out loud.  How can you resist?: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000701x 

The year of the monkey

Hey, Patti is one of us!  September of the year in question she is briefly in Seattle, about to make a speech testifying the importance of public libraries:

Library memories cross-wired with images of my own books, hundreds of books, lying on the bed, lining the right side of the staircase, stacked on the card table in the kitchen and higher stacks on the floor, against the wall.

The year of the monkey (Bloomsbury, 2019) is Patti Smith‘s memoir-cum-dreamscape of her 2016, a year in which two close and culturally accomplished friends – Sandy Pearlman (Don’t fear the reaper) and polymath Sam Shepherd – were dying and died, and there was a presidential election.  It starts on New Year’s Day with her on her own in the Dream Inn, a motel in Santa Cruz, after a NYE gig in San Francisco.  Soon she is conversing with the sign, which is the first of her Polaroid photos (which, in general, frankly, leave me puzzled) that grace the text.

She’s in a contemplative mood, quoting Marcus Aurelius, she’s 70 this year:

 Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual.

She reminisces about Allen Ginsberg, there’s a description of how it felt seeing Chilean writer Roberto Bolano’s games cupboard; his novel 2666 is referenced (she joins in a discussion with someone called Ernest about it; he reappears, somewhat dramatically, a couple of times, and I’m still not sure if he’s a real person or not).  She travels a lot, almost nomadically, and she can make you feel an intellectual pygmy – I have that 2666 898 page novel, bought pristine and obviously unread in a charity bookshop, still unread – but I really like being in her company.  After visiting a Chinese restaurant:

Back in my room I opened the cookie and unwound the fortune. You will step on the soul of many countries. I’ll be careful, I said, under my breath, but upon second glance I realised it actually said soil.

The Report

Jessica Francis Kane‘s The report (Portobello, 2011) is what used to be called a faction.  173 men, women and children died in the crush trying to go down into into Bethnal Green tube station, which was being used as the local bomb shelter.  As she puts it in her afterword:

A crush did happen on the evening of 3 March 1943; news of it was kept secret for days; and a private investigation was ultimately led by a magistrate named Laurence Dunne. The government suppressed his report until after the war. The rest of the story, as I’ve told it in this book, is fiction.

This was news to me, but there has been a lot coming out about London in the Second World War that has been comfortably forgotten about for a long while.  She’s good on the disaster and the phenomenon of crowds – there was nothing unusual about that day, the shelter had had no problems before – and on the event’s aftermath, the rumours that spread, the search for someone to blame and so on.  It’s the fiction that is less satisfactory, the characters and their links, and in particular the narrative construct of a relative putting together a television documentary about it all in 1973 – on which channel would that be?

Mind, it was always going to be difficult for me to come back from – it was a Book Group selection – an early bit of scene-setting like: “A football match in the Museum Gardens had drawn a large crowd, and when the young borough engineer won the game with an impossible header, people heard the cheer in Stepney.” [My italics; the author is American].

I am, I am, I am

Novelist Maggie O’Farrell‘s I am, I am, I am: seventeen brushes with death (Headline, 2017) is a sort of memoir.  Its seventeen episodes cover a period from 1977 to 2016 and range over near misses, accidents, violent encounters and various serious medical emergencies happening to her and her daughters.  They are not presented chronologically, which for me became a problem.

This was another Book Group selection which I came to knowing nothing of beforehand.  The actual heart of the book is the final two chapters; now I know writing must involve manipulating the reader’s sensibilities, but somehow, even though those two chapters leant a resonance to what had come before, I felt I was being manipulated.  I’ve liked the novels of hers I’ve read; maybe I was expecting something a bit more philosophical.

The skipping about chronologically annoyed me, I was impressed (if that’s the word) at her memory for small details of historical events, and there was an element of superfluous repetition that crept into certain descriptions (a collection of magazine articles?).   I’m afraid it didn’t think it really cohered as a whole.

Not for me to examine her (maybe brave?) life choices too closely, but when, in Causes unknown (2003) she writes, “We were on a long, deserted stretch of French road,” I’m afraid my reaction was: Of course you were.  Then there’s the problem with tea, of which she says, I have never been able to stomach it:

I am the sole tea-abstainer in my family. I think they regard this as a baffling perversion. To me, tea tastes like dried lawn clippings, diluted leaf mould, watered-down compost mixed with a dash of bovine bodily fluid.

How does she know?

Night Boat to Tangier

When we move by water, our hearts are moved. We are complicated fucking machines. Now the hours melt one into the other at the port of Algeciras. For the fading Irish gangsters the long wait continues –

Kevin Barry‘s Night boat to Tangier (Canongate, 2019) is nothing if not atmospheric.  The two men, “mildly natty, mildly decrepit“, have had a tip they might catch their daughter Dilly, a nomad crustie there, three years since “she lit out for the territories“.  (Do they meet up? – I’m not telling).

Once they had been “fabled people … They were in a moment of dangerous splendour. The men were lizardly, reptilian. They wore excellent fucking shoes”.  That they were one night in 2000, in The Judas Iscariot, an all-night drinking club in Cork, the night changed everything between them.

Old style gangsters – drug runners – not good men, but before people trafficking became the moneymaker:

Ah, listen. We’re the Antique Roadshow. The little fuckers growing it in their own bedrooms. Under lights? The dope they’re growing in the West of Ireland now you wouldn’t get it in the Rif Mountains.

October 2018 it is, then.  Time to kill, just hanging around:

They talk of aging and death. They talk of those they have crossed and those they have helped, of their first loves and lost loves, of their enemies and friends. They talk of the old days in Cork, and in Barcelona, and in London, and in Malaga, and in the ghosted city of Cadiz. They talk of the feelings of those places. They talk about being here, once again, on the coast of Barbary, as though on a magnet’s drag.

Maurice Hearne is 51, Charlie Redmond thereabouts.  From the village of Berehaven on Ireland’s west coast.  They talk and there are vivid flashbacks, from 1994 when their careers began, to now, and taking in more places than that.  Slow dramatic reveal is the game – Mo’s wife Cynthia plays a significant part – and it’s a heartbreaker; they have not been good men but you don’t half feel for them.

The layout of the 214 pages is generous with the spaces in between, even of single lines of dialogue and there are no speech marks employed.  Paragraphs do not go on for long.  Stylistically it works.  Sharp, poetic, beautifully observed, I loved it.  Funny too:

And a tongue on her, Cynthia. When I came back without an eye on me? From Tangier? She took one look, after all I’d suffered, and she said who the fuck do you think you are, Thom Yorke?
Never heard of him. Or hang about … He wasn’t a lame boy from Summerhill?
He’s the lad out of Radiohead, Charlie.
Never liked them. Whining bastards. And the amount of money the cunts are making? They should have the ukuleles out.

The hearing trumpet

Leonora Carrington‘s The hearing trumpet is a weird one in the best sense of the word.  Probably written, in French, in 1950, but not published until 1974 in france, and translated into English in 1974, the edition I read – Penguin, 2016  – has a splendid intro from Ali Smith scintillatingly mapping out this extraordinary woman’s Bio, from being a deb presented at the English court in 1936 (she read a book), the lover of Max Ernst and surrealist artist of note in her own right, before moving to and thriving in Mexico.  Many of the images and symbols that are invoked in The hearing trumpet regularly appear in her paintings, which are easy to find on the web.  It also feels quite modern.

Marian Leatherbury is 92-years old and deaf when her BF, Carmella, gives her a hearing trumpet.  The first thing she hears is her family scheming to put her in a home.  They move her into a quirky but strict quasi-religious community; Ali Smith suggests it may be Gurdjeffian (ah, Gurdjieff, there’s a name I haven’t heard for a while; his books always used to get stolen from the library).  In the communal dining room there is a portrait of a “leering abbess”, whose story is delivered as a book within a book.  After a seeming murder she suspects a conspiracy and she and Carmella plot a revolution:

“It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government!’ […] It is a form of planetary hypnosis, sometimes more cruel and stupid than the last.”
“It has been going on for years,” I said. “And it only occurred to relatively few to disobey and make what they call revolutions. If they won their revolutions, which they occasionally did, they made more governments, sometimes more cruel and stupid than the last.”

After a hunger strike there is a prospect of “An orgy of sardines and port wine“.  A wolf pack is involved – by the way, ‘wolvery’ is the language of wolves – which was “howling outside but I could tell that they had changed their chorus, and through a slight tingling on my scalp! I detected a new sound quite near and strangely reminiscent of mince pies.”  Believe me I’m not really giving anything away when I quote from the story’s end:

This is how the Goddess reclaimed her Holy Cup with an army of bees, wolves, six old women, a Chinaman, a poet, an atom-driven ark, and a werewoman. The strangest army, perhaps, ever seen on this planet. […]
After I die Anubeth’s werecubs will continue the document, till the planet is peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity, which deliberately renounced the Pneuma of the Goddess.

Oh, and there’s a postman called Taliesen.  Here’s a photo of Leonora, the work of Lee Miller, that has always been a favourite of mine before I knew anything about her. Goodnight.


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Bit of a book logjam here at Lillabullero (which is not being helped by this preface).  Please feel free to skip the preamble and go straight to the books.

Backstory:  I’d been keeping a reading diary for myself, literally scribbling away in notebooks (sometimes even with a fountain pen) since at least 1987 (annoyingly I can’t put my hands on the original one, though it wasn’t a big volume) so when I finally girded my loins to go online (for motivation see below) I just thought wotthehell Archie, if you’re going to wordprocess it you might as well blog it and que sera if nobody reads it.  And so I did blog it, and lo and behold, a handful of people visited, and again, internet early days and authors would ego surf and … respond, which was good for my ego, don’t you know! I even got invited to participate in a virtual book launch.  But basically, I don’t want to break the chain.

A bit more Backstory: back in c2002, in the days before Ray Davies was universally acknowledged as a ‘national treasure’ (back in the days before someone being ‘a national treasure’ was not a media cliche), I felt I wanted to give something back to the international Kinks fan community. I’d been contributing to a lively web digest and had subsequently made friends at what turned out to be the annual U.K. Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention. Hence: I wonder where they all are now: an annotated index of people named or alluded to in the songs of the Kinks, of which there are many. The title was a quote from Where are they now? a song that listed a number of ‘swinging Londoners’ and of writers dubbed ‘Angry Young Men’, from 1973’s under-rated Preservation Act 1 album. 

The webs we weave (c) DRQ: here purely to break up the text.

That was at a time when Alta Vista was the premier search engine in town – Google’s omniscience was a few years away – and Wikipedia was in its infancy, when it wasn’t as easy to pin down, say, ‘Old Mother Riley’, so it was hopefully of some service, especially to confused overseas fans, of whom there more than you might have thought and growing in number. I also used it as a vehicle to indulge myself as opportunities occurred for intrusions of reminiscence, personal opinion, sarcasm, pretention and similar all-round being-a-clever-bastard intrusions (see Winston Churchill, for example). The ever growing sister page The Kinks in Literature, chronicling mentions of the band or songs in (mostly crime) novels, kept it company. [To tell the truth, I’ve been a bit Kinked-out for a while now – I’ve known and evangelised that Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur were special for well over four decades, and I have a kind of dread at revisiting the ’80s albums  – but now’s not the time.]

For what it’s worth, the most visited pages here are a more or less systematic presentation of (as it stands) Peter Robinson’s 26-strong series of crime novels featuring detective Alan Banks, and a discussion, with numerous comments, examining an unresolved enigma (if that’s what you want to call it) concerning a child with a birthmark the shape of Africa in Kate Atkinson’s splendid Started early, took my dog – one of her Jackson Brodie novels – that it seems is near the top on Google when people consult there, trying to puzzle it out.  Oh and a couple of pictures that weren’t mine in the first place, most notably that ‘We Win’ front page headline from the opening credits to Cheers.

But things have slipped here on the bookblogging front. The delights of grandparentry, a couple of operations in the household, the draw of Channel4 quality morning television programming (Frasier even though one has the dvd box set), laxity, losing sight of the uses of brevity, and good old procrastination and even a bit of autumnal gardening have all taken their toll. Enough! On with the show! There now follows a whistle stop of months and months of reading.

Rivers of London: 2

Did Ben Aaronivitch‘s Moon over Soho (Gollancz, 2011) live up to the wit, excitement, erudition, sardonicism and compassion of its predecessor, the series-founding The rivers of London?  You bet!

Herein the Metropolitan Police’s trainee wizard (“I was still behind on my Latin vocab“), investigates murders involving Jazz vampires, a character called Vagina Dentata (the result of a human/animal hybrid experiment), and “ethically challenged magical practitioners” (previously known a ‘black’.  Like its forerunner, it gets pretty gruesome (if not without laughs in the grue), there’s a lot of jazz (We’re the jazz police), and some interesting London local history.  Oh, and the established gods and sprites of the river.

It is joyfully all over the place, while at the same time being tightly plotted à la police procedural.  Nightingale is our hero’s boss, last fully qualified survivor in his particular trade:

‘There are no short cuts in wizardry, Peter. If there were everyone would be doing it.’  Probably on Britain’s Got talent, I thought, but you don’t say these things to Nightingale because he doesn’t have a sense of humour about the art, and only used the telly for watching rugby.

Vinyl Detective: 4

Did Andrew Cartmel‘s Flip back (Titan, 2019) live up to the fun, drive and engagement of its three predecessors.  Not so much, though I daresay newcomers to the series might still find much to be entertained by here.  Convoluted they have all been for sure, but this one felt like it.  Faked website and road signage concerning tidal causeway times just for the benefit of our questing quartet.

Here the McGuffin is a long retired folk-rock band called Black Dog, who infamously literally burnt a million dollars (or did they?) on a Scottish island just before breaking up.  Yup, the old K Foundation/KLF stunt of 1994, with a touch of subsequent Zep-ish black magic practition thrown in.  For me the weakness of Flip back springs from the origins of the quest – the Vinyl Detective’s stoner honcho’s wanting it to help get a Black Dog superfan into bed – for the original super-rare with a flip-back cover 3rd album (quickly withdrawn and subsequently re-recorded without the main man).

There’s a worrying lack of character development on the soap opera front – with resort to previously met metal guitarist Erik Makeloud’s to boot – and the one-liners don’t have quite the same fizz (I didn’t make any notes); the domestic cats become a cosy annoyance, frankly.  Doesn’t mean I won’t read the next one, though.


How about this for an opening paragraph of a novel?:

The summer I sang lead for Annie it was 1999.  My father was in serious preparedness mode. Not since I was five, and the Weavers were under siege, had he been so certain that the Days of Abomination were upon us.

Except it’s Chapter 9 and Tara Westover‘s Educated (Hutchinson, 2018) is no novel, but an account for real of her escape from a harrowing existence as part of an extreme survivalist Mormon family cult in rural Idaho, USA (she’d never heard of Dr Martin Luther King Jr until late teens), to a PhD in Intellectual History in Cambridge, UK, by 2014.  That Annie was the start of a painful journey, a struggle with both internal and external pressures.

It’s an extraordinary story, an exhilarating tale of liberation from a wild and crazy mindset and a seriously rigid dysfunctional family unit (which actually manages to function very well eventually in the natural healing business), and a celebration of the difference that one individual’s intervention can have on another’s existence.  It is also a tale in which she worries about the validity of memory, wrestling with what she saw with conflicting accounts and hearsay of crucial family events.

At Cambridge she’s suffering from imposter syndrome until her intake are taken up on a college roof by their professor:

”… here you stand, upright, hands in your pockets.” He gestured towards the other students. “See how they hunch? How they cling to the wall.” […]
I raised my hand and gripped the wall.
“You don’t need to do that,” he said. “It’s not a criticism.”
He paused, as if unsure he should say more. “Everyone has undergone a change,” he said. “The other students were relaxed until we came to this height. Now they are uncomfortable, on edge.  You seem to have made the opposite journey. This is the first time I’ve seen you at home in yourself. It’s in the way you move: it’s as if you’ve been on this roof all your life.”
A gust of wind swept over the parapet and Dr Kerry teetered, clutching the wall. I stepped up onto the ridge so he could flatten himself against the buttress. He stared at me, waiting for an explanation.
“I’ve roofed my share of hay sheds,” I said finally […] “I can stand in this wind, because I’m not trying to stand in it,” I said.


And speaking of great opening lines:

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

Michael Ondaatje‘s haunting Warlight (Cape, 2018) does not disappoint.  Nathaniel (‘Stitch’ is 14, sister Rachel (‘The Wren’) 16 when they are left in the charge of ‘the Moth’ and ‘the Darter’.  Various adventures ensue for each of them, his involving night missions in the bombsites and Thames backwaters behind London Docks (real Iain Sinclair territory), hers in theatreland, and their kidnapping.

He’s 18 when his mother dies in what turn out to be suspicious circumstances; 11 years later he moves back to the Suffolk village where that happened.  In the meantime he has been employed working with wartime archives, in which he slowly discovers exactly what his mother had doing in the war years and their immediate aftermath, and how that linked with his experiences back then (not least his first passionate affair).

There are many sublime passages – after all, Ondaatje first published as a poet – and reading Warlight it often felt like I was watching a peak-Stephen Poliakoff tv epic, as so much is revealed.  It’s been emotional.

Of late something of a sub-genre has been developing – in both fiction and non-fiction – taking as its subject the realisation of what a parent or grand-parent did in the war, especially if they were spies.  Speaking of which …

The girl from Station X

The title of Elisa Segrave‘s The girl from Station X: my mother’s unknown life (Aurum Press, 2013) is a classic exercise of band-wagon jumping, given only 44 pages out of the 355 of narrative are concerned with Anne Hamilton-Grace’s time at Bletchley Park (Enigma machine and all that) from initial interview to the leaving thereof.

For most of her adult life Elisa had resented her mother: “… how could I respect someone who, much of the time that I knew her, was a self-pitying escapist alcoholic?”  It was only after dementia hit hard and she found her mother’s diaries from 1930 through 1952 that she could find room for sympathy for of a woman whose crises had so intruded on her life.

As a book The girl from Station X is a bit chronologically all over the place and not especially well presented, but the actual diaries have some real sociological value as a picture of its times, both of a privileged existence (links with royalty even) and how such privilege – foreign travel taken for granted back then et al – can be the source of unhappiness and blight, and how the power then of the stigma of lesbianism can stunt a life and a family.  The only time Anne’s life takes on substance and engagement is in the war, when she has something important to do (and even then she’s a neurotic drama queen who is hard to like).  It’s a sad tale of dysfunctional relationships:

My mother had a lovely garden, with ancient walls, an old moat and two little towers, yew hedges, lavender, white and red roses, peonies and delphiniums. It [Knowle, a country house in Kent] was even used in a children’s TV film, Tom’s Midnight Garden, and I’m sure many envied it. But inside the house, the piss-stained carpets and the endless supply of alcohol were indications of my mother’s despair.

Station Eleven

Year Zero in Emily St John Mandel‘s Station Eleven (Picador, 2014) is when a virus that kills in 48 hours wipes out 99% of the world’s population.  As post-apocalyptical novels go – nothing works anymore, its just self-sufficiency or banditry – there are a couple more jokes than you’ll get from a Margaret Atwood, but it’s still pretty grim.  The virus only hits humans, though, so the wild flowers are glorious, while dangerous beasts can be a problem.

Station Eleven, which I liked  a lot, has two main linked narrative strands, which it skips about between.  It starts and ends in Year Zero with Arthur, a successful actor, who is playing the lead in King Lear, a long-held ambition, and we get a lot of his back story and that of his friends and wives, a decent novel in itself.

Just before disaster strikes he gives a child actor in the cast (Kirsten, 8-years old) two copies of an unfinished graphic novel that his first wife had drawn and written featuring a future community, called Station Eleven.  She survives, and by Year Twenty she is part of The Traveling Symphony, a touring caravan troupe of actors and musicians with a mission, moving from one isolated surviving community to another in the Great Lakes region of North America, keeping the flame of Shakespeare and classical music alive.

I particularly liked the way the author works in various popular culture references, even if Don’t stop believin’ is ‘secretly’ Arthur’s favourite song:

“All I’m saying,” Dieter said … is that quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek.” He was talking near Kirsten and August.
Survival is insufficient. Kirsten had had those words tattooed on her left forearm at the age of fifteen and had been arguing with Dieter about it ever since.

Miranda, the graphic novelist, enthuses about Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes great newspaper strip – one of my favourites – highlighting Calvin’s Spaceman Spiff alter ego. Try: https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/2017/10/15 for a bit of Spiff and then keep hitting the random button to get an addictive taste for the wider Calvin and Hobbes.

More catching up to follow.





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Seems a lot started and/or happened in 1969 over and above the historic football match chronicled in verse in my last post.  As it happens two of the non-fiction books I had down to write about next both kick off with 1969 on the first page of their roman numeral-ed introduction pages.

Heroic failure

Esteemed Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole prefaces his Heroic failure: Brexit and the politics of pain (Head of Zeus, 2018) with an account of his first trip to England, visiting relatives all over the country in 1969, when he was 11.  The day they arrived in London he’s worried – “the official Irish culture of my childhood and youth was one that defined Ireland as whatever England was not“:

So my brother and myself were left sitting on a low wall with bottles of Fanta, while Vincent and my father disappeared into the pub.
­­ I remember sitting on the wall and sucking on the straw to try to suppress a rising panic. We were alone in England, abandoned in an alien place. England, as an idea, terrified me. I knew from history lessons in school that the English only ever did bad things to Irish people.  […]

Ireland in 1969 was still strongly Catholic and priest-ridden, restrictive of non-traditional lifestyles and predominantly rural.  But things have changed dramatically over there, and “the Irish Sea has never seemed so narrow or its two sides so alike“.

… we had these two very different ways of thinking about England: as the opposite of Us and as a place where Us could mean something much more fluid and open. And the poignant thing about the decade before the Brexit referendum of June 2016 is not that one of these ways of thinking had banished the other; it’s that they’ve both been banished.

As anyone who was read his perceptive articles in the Guardian will already know, he is appalled by recent events, which he sees as basically an English problem, the evolution of which in leaver English psyches – “the strange sense of imaginary oppression that underlies Brexit” – he examines ruthlessly in Heroic failure.

I write this by way of introduction because this book says some harsh things about the state of England. It is not intended to be unfriendly: when your neighbour is going mad it is only reasonable to want to understand the source of their distress.

It’s an entertaining if painful ride, from the first chapter, The pleasures of self-pity, to the last, The sore tooth and the broken umbrella.  On the way he calls on literature to examine the fears and help get into the minds of the Brexiters, citing the 50 shades saga (see below) and, more seriously, drawing on best-selling books of the what-if-Hitler-had-won variety of alternative history fiction to flesh out the paranoia of vassalage and invasion:

It does not seem entirely beside the point that, in the years immediately leading up to Brexit, by far the biggest selling book by an English author in any genre was E.L.James’s Fifty shades of Grey. It is a fantasy of submission and dominance. It is not hard to fantasize, in turn, a political adaptation in which Christian Grey is the European Union and Anastasia Steele is innocent England seduced into entering his Red Room of pain …

O’Toole quotes historian Anthony Barnett – “Europe moved on from the Second World War and Britain didn’t” –  before adding “One might go so far as to say that England never got over winning the war.”  I’d say this echoes my theory that part of the problem with the major players arguing over the years for leaving the EU – and especially Farage, the ERG – stems from exposure to too many black and white war films – and too many maps covered in pink – at a crucial stage in their development.

The chapter Sadopopulism  kicks of with a quote from Trent Reznor’s song Hurt (you might know it better from the Johnny Cash version).  Then he makes a surprising comparison:  “At the level of high politics, Brexit may be defined by upper-class twittery. It seems more P.G.Wodehouse than Johnny Rotten. But at the level of popular culture, it is pure punk.”  Seemingly a strange alliance, but when you think of the original spurious ideology of punk (taking back the music) and consider it alongside the whole reality tv shit-show:

… the old English indulgence of eccentricity has been grafted onto the mass-media cult of celebrity and a broad revolt against colourless identikit career politicians to create an invasive species as tenacious and damaging as Japanese knotweed. […] Figures who would have been enjoyably ridiculous in a Dickens novel now get to determine a nation’s fate for a generation.

Heroic failure‘s title is actually borrowed from another book, Stephanie Barczewski’s Heroic failure and the British (Yale UP, 2016).  Except as O’Toole makes explicit, it’s the English we’re talking about here.  And here’s the irony overload to all the myths and metaphors spouted in exit’s defence (from the chapter The triumph of the Light Brigade):

The grand balls-up is not new, and in English historical memory it is not shameful. Most of the modern English heroes, after all, are complete screw-ups. The exploits that have loomed largest in English consciousness since the nineteenth century are retreats or disasters: Sir John Moore’s evacuation of Corunna in the Peninsular War, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the doomed Franklin expedition, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, the ‘last stand’ against the Zulus at Isandlwana, Gordon of Khartoum, the Somme, the flight from Dunkirk.

He continues: “There is something genuinely magnificent in this English capacity to embrace disaster. It is also highly creative. It transforms ugly facts into beautiful fantasies.”  Like ‘us’ standing alone (Poland, the colonies, the French Resistance), like a narrow ‘us’ winning the war (as opposed to the massive contribution the Russian people’s sacrifice – a major factor in Hitler’s defeat – the Americans etc.).

The problem is, an awful lot of ‘our’ victories, the building of the Empire, slavery and all that, are not exactly happy and glorious.  Take Agincourt, Henry V, and the St Crispin Day’s Speech spin doctor Shakespeare gives him – “We happy few, we band of brothers“.  Said band were described as “a horde of yobs” by Sir Thomas Bray, an English knight who was there with them as they, as O’Toole puts it:

… stormed towns raping and killing. They enslaved men and women. They held anyone they thought had money for ransom and tortured them until their families paid up. They stole everything that could be moved and destroyed most of what could not. When they stripped an area of everything, they moved on to the next set of victims – all in the name of the English ‘king of France’.

And when it’s all over – leaving Europe on whatever terms, even remaining – we’re stuck with a legacy for a some time yet.  As Fintan so graphically puts it:

Whatever happens with Brexit, this toxic sludge will be in England’s political groundwater for a long time. The self-pity of Lost Causism will meld with the rage of betrayal. Without the EU as whipping boy and scapegoat, there will be no end of blame and no shortage of candidates to be saddled with it; anyone and everyone except the Brexiteers themselves. That most virulent of poisons, the ‘stab-in-the-back’, is in the bloodstream now and it will work its harm for a long time.

Dangerous hero

Tom Bower‘s Dangerous hero: Corbyn’s ruthless plot for power (Collins, 2019) kicks off with what our author was doing in 1969.  Now here’s a surprise (to me at least).  Tom Bower was one of the leading lights of the, um, revolutionary student occupation of the London School of Economics.  Without exactly quoting Dylan, his preface is pretty much saying, But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now – his politics have shifted a bit.

As opposed, of course, to Jezza.  Just look at that sub-title; not even the softening of a ‘Jeremy’, which would certainly not have messed with the dust jacket design- the gloves are off.  And while there are worrying things about his past (and present – Hello, Seamus) – I’m no great fan, though I still deliver Labour Party leaflets – there is, as John McDonnell (keep it quiet, an ex-member of Militant) said at the time of publication, no smoking gun.  Though there’s plenty there for those who want it.

As it happens, Jeremy Corbyn played no part in the student happenings of the late 1960s.  Although active in the local Young Socialists in Shropshire, and so presumably interested in history, he managed only two E’s at A-level (subjects not specified).  In 1967 he went – unusually for a non-graduate – to Kingston, Jamaica, as a VSO ‘cadet teacher’ on a two year contract which he didn’t complete, leaving to roam central and south America before returning home later in 1969.  Bower accuses Corbyn of exaggerating his parents’ active socialist commitment (he questions JC’s claim as to their being there in the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street, though grants they did meet as a pro-Spanish Republic meeting), and of polishing his own credentials as far as the VSO stint went, not admitting to “the school’s elite status”:

… contrary to his version, the school was not in a ‘deprived’ area, nor in this period did he, despite his assertion that he was known as ‘Mr Beardman’, grow a beard.

Ho-hum.  So there’s a fair amount of this sort of point-scoring.  But the exposition of what Corbyn and allies were up to in local London politics at branch level and beyond in the ’70s and ’80s does not make comfortable reading; though Corbyn plays his part down, Bower isn’t buying his denial of only peripheral attachment to the London Labour Briefing newspaper – as vile a sectarian tract within the Labour Party as I’ve encountered (and I wish I still had the copy I bought, unfortunately lost to pruning).  He undoubtedly campaigned with Trotskyists and other entrists under the banner of the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, consistently defending, as Benn did, the Militant Tendency.  Nor are current headlines (2019) of taking us “back to the 1970s” in industrial relations sound such a grand idea when considering the stranglehold the unions had on the British car industry, and after reading Bower’s potted history of said decade.  You know, the one before Thatcher took power.

There’s no denying Bower is good at his job; I raved about his book on our future king (Rebel Prince).  He talks to those who will talk to him (and some who won’t) and invariably documents his research fastidiously.  I presume there was an omerta (just joking) on fellow allotment holders, which is a shame.  However, he’s not perfect …

Bower doubts whether Corbyn is much of a reader, even quoting his first wife’s surprise at moving in with him to discover there were no books in the house.  I can’t say much about that, though I was surprised to read of him praising James Joyce’s Ulysses the other day.  Anyway:

More recently, Corbyn has claimed that he was influenced by Open Veins of Latin America, by the Uruguayan journalist, writer and poet Eduardo Galeano, a critique of the exploitation of the continent’s Indians by monarch’s, the Catholic Church and multinational American corporations.  That is doubtful. […] Pertinently, shortly before his death in 2015 Galeano repudiated the book as a distortion of the continent’s economic history … (p11)

Except he didn’t.  In an interview given the year before he died he protested:  “[The] voices that have been raised against me and against The Open Veins of Latin America are seriously ill with bad faith.” [see his Wikipedia entry]

And then there’s Oscar Wilde.  Bower finishes Dangerous hero with two verses from The ballad of Reading Gaol, ending with (from a certain perspective) a flourish: “For none can tell to what red Hell / His sightless soul may stray.”  Except he has introduced these verses thus: “Two years earlier, Corbyn had named Oscar Wilde’s The ballad of Reading Gaol as his favourite poem.  His enthusiasm for it was dubious, not least because Wilde himself was no believer in socialism.”  This would be, presumably the same Oscar Wilde responsible for the favourable 1891 essay The soul of man under socialism.  The text is available as a Penguin Classic from your favourite bookseller or from various web sites:
or, if you find being tainted with a brush of Marxism, it’s there from Project Gutenberg:
It makes for an interesting read.

The Beast of Brexit

I wonder how many, like me, bought Heathcote Williams‘s short but forensic Boris Johnson: the beast of Brexit; a study in depravity (London Review of Books, new ed 2019) late at night, on coming home from the pub.  It was worth it.  It’s a devastating portrait, first published in 2016, so no-one has any excuses (as if they had before that).  But I’ll not go into the detail here, save to say that this year’s edition also contains an appreciation by Francis Wyndham, written in 1979, of the author – poet (Whale Nation, Falling for a dolphin), playwright and general counter-cultural hero (and, for what it’s worth, another Old Etonian).

No, in the spirit of BBC neutrality, here’s what I gleaned from Wikipedia of what Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, aged 5, was up to in 1969.  His family moved back to England from Washington DC that year, first to the family farm in Winsford, near Exeter, where he was raised mainly by mother abetted by au pairs, and, “gained his first experiences with fox hunting” (he’s still in favour), then up to London, to Maida Vale.

Another Johnson (no relation)

Alan Johnson‘s In my life: a musical memoir (Bantam, 2018) could be dismissed as money for old rope.  After all this “account of my twenty-five year quest for rock stardom” is basically a rehash of his previous successful memoirs with expanded soundtrack.  It’s a great story, one from what seems like another age – London slum child, left school at 15, mod, trade union official, MP, popular Labour government cabinet minister – although (subjective as it can be) as a work of music criticism and history In my life hardly rises above self-publishing level.  But there’s enough social history in there, real personal testimony, to still make it a worthwhile read, especially if you haven’t read the moving This boy and Please, Mister Postman.

I’ve only just finished reading In my life and thought I’d give it a brief mention here because the chapters are organised by year, and each allotted a particular song.  1969, the year in which he, aged 19, his wife and daughter moved out of London and proudly into a brand new council house on Slough’s new Britwell estate, the song chosen was David Bowie’s Space Oddity.  As I say, another – golden – age.  (Maybe another time here on Lillabullero for more on In my life.)

Musical outro

Certain inevitability to this; you may, if you’ve followed certain personal paths of musical evolution, have already been humming this.  Alan Johnson makes no mention of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, indeed, goes out of his way to say that Punk did nothing for him.  Iggy saw it coming, obviously, though this, from 1969, does go on a bit at 4 minutes.  And there’s a horrible wah-wah pedal intro, which atrocity returns in the middle and goes on much too long (you can exit early, I won’t mind).  We had to wait for the Ramones to follow the logic through to clock in at under two minutes:

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Reasons, along with soupçons of procrastination and lassitude have led to Lillabullero slipping into hiatus mode of late.  Sometimes I feel like a de-railed locomotive.  This whistle-stop tour of books read in the last few months is an attempt to get things back on track.  The failed metaphor of a bus replacement service is best forgotten, but hopefully normal service will be resumed soonish.  In the meantime, 3 things each about the books.

B1 class 61162 comes a cropper at Woodhead on a Sheffield to Manchester express, July 23 1951. [Ben Brooksbank / Woodhead: a railway mishap / CC BY-SA 2.0]

The Observations

As it happens, the new-fangled (well, 1863) railway plays a significant part in Jane Harris‘s absorbing The Observations (Faber, 2006):

I. The narrative voice is an absolute delight.  Bessy (not her real name) falls into the job of ‘in and out girl’ at Castle Haivers (not a real castle) mid-way betwixt Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Rescued from exploitation by an admiring client, who took her in, treated her right, and taught her to read and write, she had been thrown on the streets when he died. The missus of the house furthers her education by teaching her punctuation:

To tell the gobs honest truth I did not give a first-light fart for full stops and all the rest. I thought my page looked fine while her page looked like it was covered in goat droppings with all the wee dots and spots on it.

She doesn’t get as far as apostrophes, doesn’t spell out numbers (“a huge shuddering breath that was ½ sigh and ½ yawn“) and uses Scots’ vernacular that Ian Rankin makes a habit of only employing at the rate of one word a book.  She is by turns sardonic, knowing, humble, curious, insightful, and scabrously dismissive.  

II.  The title comes from the Missus’s – the lady of the house, she hates Bessy calling her that – misguided contribution to nineteenth century country house scientific endeavour, Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time, which involves putting Bessy and her predecessors through bizarre trials for the purposes of science.  Their emotional bonding 9 or not) is a powerful narrative driver.  Bessy’s observations mount up to a sort of mini-Middlemarch.

III. Along with all the drama and excitement there are at least two great comic set pieces, both to do with the social ambitions of the man of the house: a dinner party with a neighbouring MP Duncan Pollack and his Reverend brother (‘the Old Bollix‘), and the unveiling of the municipal water fountain that was meant to be his coup de grace as to getting himself elected.

IV.  I know, I said three things, but I liked this book so much.  The Gothic elements of the tale pack a punch too.

Washington Black

I.  It’s a real olfactory experience, is Esi Edugyan‘s Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail, 2018).  Lots of weather and skies too, a vivid sense of place and living things.  Just as a globe-trotting Jules Verne adventure story it’s a compelling trip: Barbados, Nova Scotia, the Arctic, Amsterdam, the Morocco desert, the scientific ferment of mid-nineteenth century London.

II.  It’s a lot more than that though.  Early 1830s and 11-year old George Washington Black is plucked from his wretched slave plantation existence because he’s just the right weight as ballast for the Cloud Cutter, an abolitionist aeronaut’s experimental craft.  His drawing skills soon mean he becomes a valued member of the team (of two).  Many good, bad and ugly things happen to him subsequently, not necessarily in that order.

III.  Washington Black is a profound piece of social history.  It covers a lot of moral ground with power, and in more than the matter of race relations.  Early on in his ballooning days, Washington reflects: “It had happened so gradually, but these months with Titch had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind … I had even begun thinking I’d been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth’s bounty.”  Near the end he tells Titch:

“You took me on because I was helpful in your political cause. Because I could aid in your experiments. Beyond that I was of no use to you, and so you abandoned me.” I struggled to get my breath. “I was nothing to you. You never saw me as equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.”
Even as I spoke these words, I could hear what a false picture they painted, and also how they were painfully true.

Soundtrack: Nina Simone’s I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.


I. Keggie Carew‘s beautifully written Dadland (Chatto, 2016; Vintage pbk, 2017) took me by surprise, unaccustomed as I am with the literature of war.  Keggie’s dad is Tom Carew, aka “the mad Irishman”, aka “the Lawrence of Burma”, from his distinguished and unorthodox guerilla days behind the lines in France, as one of the legendary ‘Jedburghs’, and later in Asia with the SOE in the Second World War.  What she uncovers, looking to get a picture of her dad’s life before she was born, is thrilling reading, and revelatory.  Now his mind is going, though, and he’s living with her; she takes him to what might be the last big ‘Jedburgh’ reunion:

From the outside we might seem like a Darby & Joan Club, charity volunteers or an Antiques Roadshow do. No outward sign that I am in a room of firebrands, mettlesome kittle cattle, mischief makers and mavericks.  […]  They’re a lawless rackety bunch, and I am beginning, quite quickly, to get an idea of what the SOE recruiters were looking for. Even now in their eighties, they mutter irreverently and heckle during the welcome speeches.

II.  But the war is only part of it.  This is also a book about family, and the author’s growing up.  Tom Carew married three times, first to a childhood sweetheart on his immediate return from France, but he was a positively changed man after the war.  His second wife, mother of Keggie (born 1958) and her three sibling (affectionately referred to as ‘mum’), married a war hero who proved to be pretty hopeless in peace time; hers is a complicated and distressing tale, dispassionately yet lovingly told.  His controlling third wife, who saw him thriving again as a ninja self-help guru for redundant executives, is referred to throughout simply as ‘Stepmother’; the acidity is positively enervating:

So when Charlene [an employee of Dad’s] announced her engagement to a friend of [Keggie’s brother] Nicky’s, it was accepted Stepmother would be organising the event and Dad would be paying for it. Only a bloody great bells-and-whistles wedding at St James-in-fucking-Piccadilly, with Rolls Royces plural, and my poor sister head-bridesmaid dressed up as an apricot blancmange.

III.  Also mentioned in despatches:  In Burma he’s big mates with Aung San, leader of a anti-imperialist nationalist rebel group, much to the disgust of the high ups in the old pre-Japanese invasion colonial administration; Aung San only happens to be the father of the once much-fabled Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.  It was also while in Burma that he got to know Bill Colby, future head of the CIA, who has a walk-in part in Keggie’s own story.  Another friend, met in Trieste, is author Patricia Highsmith; the suggestion is that Tom Carew – or bits of him – find their way into the character of Tom Ripley.  From her youth, Keggie fondly remembers enjoying The Zombies’ Time of the season.

Picture bonus: Turn over page 215 in the paperback edition and there are suddenly two stunning full-page no margins black and white photos of ‘the Mad Irishman’ gone native in the Burmese jungle.  He’s reporting to two military high-ups, and he’s sporting a beard, unkempt longish hair and with knowing, amused smile, looking like he’s a time traveller from a decade or three later.  It’s a real book design coup, the shock of the now.  The photos come from restricted-access archive film in the Imperial War Museum: “I have been told I am not allowed to photograph the monitor, but as soon as I am left alone, I do.”  I loved this book.

Middle England

I.  Probably the most conventional novel I’ve read in a while, Jonathan Coe‘s Middle England (Viking, 2018) picks up on the fortunes of students who were at Birmingham’s King William’s Grammar School in the 1970s, a bunch introduced in The Rotters’ Club, his novel of 2001 (which I haven’t read).  Covering the years 2010 through 2018, culminating in the Brexit Referendum and its aftermath, it’s an astute and readable enough state of the nation novel, a sort of down market Anthony Powell, Dance to the music of time, I guess (not that I’ve read any of them, either).  Some of the characters are more engaging than others; some of the humour is a bit heavy-handed; naturally, ironies abound, with some neat twists of fate.

II.  There are a couple of tours de force.  Coe goes on a tour of his characters while they’re watching the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, phoning one another or just trying to get others in their households interested.  And then the string of celebrity deaths – Victoria Wood, Prince – sets off some briefly disjointed phone calls whereby assumptions of what has triggered the call are askew.  There is a moving passage where an ex-British Leyland shop steward with dementia cannot understand when taken, having asked, to see the old Longbridge works: a landscape of retail parks and waste ground.  On the other hand there is a dis-spiritingly long description of a modern mega-Garden Centre with all the bells on that may be an eye-opener if you’ve never encountered one before.

III.  Culture Wars:  A husband, an engineer, tells his wife, an academic, she has ‘No idea’:

‘No idea about what?’
‘About how angry it makes us feel, this air of moral superiority you lot project all the time -‘
Sophie interrupted him. ‘I’m sorry, but who are th
ese people? Who’s “us”. Who’s “you lot”?

As well as suffering from a classic mother-in-law (‘He was quite right, you know.  […] He was the only one brave enough to say it‘ – guess who?  Remember, we are in the Midlands) it is Sophie who has to suffers a social justice warrior called Coriander (an extreme denizen of ‘you lot’ land), and has to ask of her Head of Department, ‘How can you have a huge microaggression?’  Many other characters are available in a wide range of political, social and cultural hues.

Soundtrack: Benjamin, the novelist, makes great play of Shirley Collins’ recording of Adieu to Old England.  I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never been really comfortable with her voice, so here’s the Albion Band version instead.

I’ve still got three more books to go, but for the time being, I’m just going to say, I’ll be back.  Laters for them.  I promised music:


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November 22 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the first release of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, my third favourite Kinks album, though the critical consensus these days seems to be that this is Ray Davies‘s masterpiece.  (Muswell hillbillies and Arthur, if you’re asking.)  It was released in the same fortnight in 1968 as the Beatles’ White Album and the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s banquet, so it never really stood much chance of getting onto people’s turntables back then; I myself didn’t discover it until the early ’70s.  It has aged well and I still love it.  Naturally, this year, as is the custom these days, it is celebrated by the release of a £100+ box set with vinyl etc, remastered again (was that Special Deluxe Edition really issued fourteen years ago? OK … ) and with a new song, Time, from a couple of years later, released meaninglessly as a trailer ‘single’ a few weeks earlier.  Truth be told, Time makes me cringe in its tweeness and passivity; it should have stayed on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, as a tribute to this fine album, I am now going to try and clear the backlog of five books here at Lillabullero with reference to it, or at least as close as I can get.

The age of innocence

Edith Wharton‘s The age of innocence (1920) was September’s Reading Group book and it was only to keep faith with the Group that I persisted.  But once I got that it was actually a historical novel, and a narrative emerged, I rather warmed to it.

The age of innocence is a novel that documents a crucial period of social change in America.  It shares, I’d say – in its own way – the philosophy of The Village Green Preservation Society‘s “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you” – no simple exercise in nostalgia – even if the balance here is a bit skewed.  Because, bloody hell, the exponents of those old ways – early 1870s ‘Old New York’ aristocracy – sure are tedious and stiflingly convention-bound.  Edith Wharton skillfully fleshes out an anthropological analysis of the tribes, with an eye to tracing, as one of the characters does, “each new crack in the surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables“.

The man in the middle is Newland Archer, who conventionally marries but is in love with another.  Head or heart, duty or desire?  ‘Society’ wins (a narratively strategic pregnancy helps the decision).  Interestingly the overwhelmingly female Reading Group saw a strength and guile in wife Mary that I’d skipped over.  I found it odd that it’s a woman writer who gives it to Newland, who she has put at the heart of the book, to say (wild oats had been sown), “ ‘Women ought to be free – as free as we are’ “; though in the saying of which, she slyly adds, he’s “making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

The final passages of the novel have Newland looking back over his marriage after his wife’s death – three children, all grown, making their own way – and thinking on balance it had been worth it, sticking with what was respectably expected of him (despite “the taste of the usual” being “like cinders in his mouth“), but acknowledging some aspects of change.  Given the chance of meeting up again with his heart’s desire in Paris, he chickens out at the last minute, preferring the keep the memory shiningly alive.  Given that only moments previously he had been sitting the Louvre, and “Suddenly, before an effulgent Titian, he found himself saying: ‘But I’m only fifty-seven …’ ” this refusal at the last hurdle came as both a huge disappointment to the romantic in me … and, I guess, a recognition that physically, age 57, a century ago, was so much older then.

Edith Wharton has a delicious way with nuance; much pleasure is to be had from it.  Bohemia is acknowledged: “Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which composed Mrs. Archer’s world lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and “people who wrote’ ” – not the only appearance of that ‘people who wrote’ – never mind Old New York’s incomprehension of the “eccentricities of a husband of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women” (plus ca change?).  The prospect of a genuine American culture (opera was big in Old New York society) is celebrated with:

“It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus should have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?”

Then there are the people.  Here’s Newland: “If he had probed the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did)…”; one of the women in social action: “Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible in her …“; and Newland’s poor unmarried sister, “who still looked so exactly as she used to in her elderly youth …“.  Could Dickens have bettered the matriarch?:

The immense accretion of flesh that had descended upon her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

Why Dylan matters

You could say John F. Harvey‘s Why Dylan matters (William Collins, 2017) is here under false pretences as far as making dubious connections with the Village Green Preservation Society go.  Bob Dylan is obviously a contemporary of Ray Davies, though 1968 was the only year in the decade since he set out in 1962 that he didn’t release a record, but he did use the Kinks’ Party line and Sunny afternoon on his celebrated Theme Time Radio Hour programmes.  Davies himself has said (in his X-Ray: the unauthorised autobiography), “I had always distrusted Bob Dylan as a songwriter, in the same way at college I had distrusted Pablo Picasso as a painter.”  Callow youth mellowed though, and “The only thing I had against him was that he had changed his name – but then I guess that was his privilege“.  However, Lillabullero has a backlog to clear and it’s staying in here.  They both admire Hank Williams.

Why Dylan matters is the most original Dylan book I have read in a long time, and I have read a few, and then some.  Richard F.Thomas moved to the US from New Zealand in 1974 to pursue an academic career:

For the past 40 years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets.

He had a Eureka! moment when he was listening to Lonesome day blues on the Love and theft album of 2001 and, “I heard Virgil, loud and clear in the tenth verse“.

Dylan’s songs have been part of my song memory since my mid-teens, but it would be decades before they became more fully aligned in my mind with the Greek and Roman poets I was beginning to read back then. And it was chiefly in the twenty-first century that Dylan started to reference, borrow from, and “creatively reuse” their work in his own songs.

Since 2004 Thomas has been running a seminar programme for freshmen at Harvard.  This book is a distillation of that course, looking at Bob Dylan’s songwriting and recordings from the folk period through to the Sinatra covers phase.  It’s a revelation.  He goes back afresh to the Hibbing High School Yearbook of 1959.  Where most haven’t looked further than the prophetic ‘Little Richard’ aspiration, he finds Dylan was an active member of Latin Club, which he joined in 1956, and takes it from there, putting a unique spin on proceedings.

Fully aware of the irony of the Desolation Row citation, he riffs to great effect on T.S.Eliot – “fighting in the captain’s tower” – and his take on plagiarism from an essay in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism of 1920: “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”  And, among other things touched on in Why Dylan matters, his Nobel Prize ‘speech’ makes a whole lot more sense now.

This is … a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities.

It is also a book which made me succumb and buy Triplicate, the 3 CD addition to the previous two albums of Frank Sinatra ‘covers’, which Thomas contextualises.  I swore I would never buy Triplicate after the first two, but it proves to be a plaintive and genuine collection, relaxed, regretful, and restful.

Normal people

I liked Sally Rooney‘s Normal people (Faber, 2018) so much I read it again.  I’ve seen it described as a Romeo and Juliet type romance, but there aren’t any clans as such.

Kinks connection: Connell Waldron is David Watts personified: “Lead the school team to victory / And take my exams and pass the lot.”  It’s a song from Something else by The Kinks, the album that preceded Village Green Preservation Society.  “And all the girls in the neighbourhood / Try to go out with David Watts“.  The neighbourhood is a small town in the west of Ireland.  Whereas Marianne Sheldon “exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her.”

Both are from one-parent households, but Connell’s mum cleans for Marianne’s soul-less bitch of a mother in the big house, where she lives with an arsehole of an elder brother; Marianne is known to have had mental problems.  They’re compatico intellectually, the sharpest of their year, and they start sleeping together, but it’s a secret (he doesn’t want his mates to know).  They are not ‘a couple’, and continue to not be one for a lot of Normal lives, which follows their relationships, separations and personal crises through university – Trinity College, Dublin, where she‘s in her element socially and he isn’t – and post-grad.  Other parallel reversals in their fortunes follow as things progress.

The book has eighteen sections, or episodes, covering four years: the first is entitled January 2011, and is followed by Three weeks later (February 2011) and so on to February 2015.  The largest gap is seven months, the smallest 5 minutes.  It’s brilliantly handled, the personal focus being swapped between them.  Immediacy is achieved by the stark use of the present tense, whereby the smallest detail reverberates, while within that the narrative falls back into an explanatory but still right there past tense making sense of their misunderstandings, absences, difficulties and misdeeds.  There’s a lot of dialogue which, as in her previous novel, is executed without the help of speech marks; it works.  The prose delivers clarity, crystal moments; manages to be forensic and it sings:

  • Early in their relationship: “Connell, as usual, did not speak or even look at her. She watched him across classrooms as he conjugated verbs, chewing on the end of his pen.”
  • After another quarrel she gets out the car on a garage forecourt: “A crow on the forecourt picks at a discarded crisp packet.” [talk about seeing through his eyes!]
  • Marianne is taking a sip of coffee when he says this, and she seems to pause for a moment with the cup at her lips. He can’t tell how he identifies this pause as distinct from the natural motion of her drinking, but he sees it.”
  • Her boyfriend at in Dublin: “Jamie’s dad was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis – not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.” [!!]
  • ” … her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitely small mistake.”
  • Connell, depressed, goes to see a student counsellor: “Now he looks up at Yvonne, the person assigned by the university to listen to his problems for money.” [But she helps]

Sally Rooney is only 27 and has already published two astonishingly accomplished novels.  There’s a passage two fifths of the way in which captures the young person’s absolute fantasy of the marriage of intellect and sex hoped for at university happening (“he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters“) and, futile though it is, one cannot help but speculate how much of herself is in which characters.  There is also a discussion of the futility of author readings, questioning the literary industry function, of books being merely “status symbols“, which nevertheless is the occasion that lifts Connell out of his doldrums.

I have seldom cared so much about two people in a novel, nor wanted so much for them not to be unhappy.  It’s left hanging, of course, but there are grounds for hope.

Body & Soul

It was a nice surprise to see a new John Harvey novel sitting on the shelves in the local library – I’d thought he’d given up –  and Body & soul (Heinemann, 2018) has not been a disappointment.

Kinks connections are minimal: the murdered man is an artist who has a studio in the Old Piano Factory in Kentish Town, just down the road from the Boston pub in Tufnell Park, where the Official Kinks Fan Club has its annual Konvention; John Harvey has an entry in the Kinks in literature page here at Lillabullero for a brief allusion to Waterloo Sunset in In a true light, the first of his post-Resnick novels.

I was fond of Charlie Resnick, who lasted for ten finely crafted novels, but his successors never quite hit the spot for me.  Body & soul is the fourth and last in the series featuring ex-Detective Frank Elder, and it again calls into play his daughter, Katherine, who had such an awful time of it in the first, Flesh and blood.  (There was a time when it was highly dangerous to be a fictional detective’s daughter – as both Banks and Rebus can concur).  Here’s Elder’s back story; Harvey, who also publishes poetry, is good on character:

Faced with probable disciplinary action and his wife’s flaunting infidelity, a teenage daughter he no longer seemed to recognise, never mind understand, Elder had done the sensible adult thing. Thrown his toys out the pram. Handed in his resignation and … hastened himself as far away as he could without leaving the country entirely.

Body & soul is a police procedural that roams the land: Kentish Town, trendy Hackney, Cornwell, Nottingham, somewhere on the north-east coast; the trains run smoothly.  There are two narratives at play with Katherine as the link.  The art milieu of the murdered man is nicely done (“Art, Elder said as if it were an infection, it gets bloody everywhere.”), and the solution to his murder comes late in the investigation after a few red herrings and the dead man’s first wife has returned from holiday.  The detective leading the case is an interesting woman, a lesbian, with a wry unconventional partner for a copper, who suffers the usual slings of the copper’s wife:

When she had first been stationed at Holmes Road as a young detective constable, about the best you could have hoped for would have been instant coffee from a greasy spoon. Now there were three chain outlets and four independent coffee shops within easy walking distance. The high street was otherwise dominated by charity shops and estate agents. Maybe that was how the world was now divided: those who’d happily fork out close to three pounds for a flat white and those who could not. The yin and yang of capitalism, as Rachel liked to put it.

At the climax of the second narrative strand, we are in deep police procedural territory, an area most don’t reach:

Bastard,’ the lead officer said quietly and shook his head. Already he was thinking about the debrief with the Chief Superintendent, the written reports his team would have to make, the photographs, the video, the inevitable investigation by the IPCC. And for what?


More than once in Kate Atkinson‘s Transcription someone says, or mutters, “This England“.  And despite the fact that ” Countryside’ was more of a concept for Juliet than a reality“, one of those Englands is that addressed in The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.  The lyric of the title song has the line “God save little shops, china cups and virginity“, and a purloined Sèvres porcelain cup plays a minor part in showing us that our heroine is not without taint.  But by 1950, Juliet Armstrong is working in BBC Schools, where they are recording a programme called Singing Together:

Singing Together, Juliet thought. Schools seemed to be fixated on an Old England of sea shanties and ballads and folk songs. And maidens, lots of maidens. […] They were reinventing England, or perhaps inventing it. […]

      ‘This England – is it worth fighting for?’ [a.n.other asking] It depended on whose side you were on, she supposed.

And so, my love affair with Kate Atkinson continues.  Things were getting a bit shaky early on – the bastard child of Victoria Wood and Graham Greene? – but for me it all suddenly kicked into gear when we return to 1950 – page 177 in the hardback, to be exact.  And near the end (p315 of 327) I’m metaphorically punching the air in jubilation, when at the bottom of the page, in the course of an interrogation, Juliet is warned: “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong“.  I love the games she plays.

Transcription is a spy novel with bells on, deadly serious, but also a lot of fun, with the usual entertaining collection of characters as supporting cast.  We start briefly with a (what proves to be fatal) road accident in London, in 1981; Juliet back in England for the first time in thirty years.  1950 and she’s not having much fun at the BBC, but suddenly reminded, haunted by what she did in the war.  1940 and she’s a spy, part of an MI5 sting operation scuppering a potential enemy Fifth Column; something bad had happened too.  Back in 1950 we find she still provides the odd overnight safe house venue for the security service.  We see what had been on her conscience back in 1940 again, and then, back in 1950 and … HUGE TWIST (for me, anyway).

Well I certainly didn’t see it coming.  Though, looking back, there’s a whacking great clue right there on the opening page.  Never mind the flamingo on the cover.  I shall read Transcription again some time soon – I always do with Kate – and doubtless I shall discover a couple more.  There are some useful pages at the back of the book where she talks about her research and sources.

Along the way, the Atkinson signature quirks and tangents.  Juliet will often momentarily drift off in a conversation with a “Rhymes with …”  to herself.  “Reader, I didn’t marry him,” she reports; not the first time that one’s been used, I’m sure, but it still gets me every time.  She struggles with the men in the ‘office’: “A girl could die of old age, following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir,’ she said.”  Being briefed for an undercover appearance at a posh pro-Nazi soirée, “Juliet felt rather ashamed, as her mind had been on what dress to wear this evening rather than bottomless pits of evil.”

Juliet has an eye for a simile, too: “She had fierce eyebrows and seemed mournfully Russian, sighing in the tragic way of a woman whose cherry orchard had been chopped down …“, while in describing a struggle, “She was made of steel. It was like dealing with Rasputin, not a middle-aged woman from Wolverhampton“; called Dolly.

She gets to discussing existentialism at work one day:

‘We have all walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Do you despair, Miss Armstrong?’
Hardly ever. Occasionally. Quite often. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘And anyway, if everything is pointless, then so is despair, isn’t it?’

Meanwhile (sorry about the ad) …





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How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable – and yet who, out of animal energy and accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power?”

It’s a problem, right?  In  this instance – John Williams‘ brilliant historical novel Augustus (1973) – they’re talking about Mark Anthony.  I am so in awe of this novel that I feel the need to escape from hyperbole by slipping into anecdotage.

One of those significant moments of advance in one’s intellectual life: an A-level essay on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which I kick off with a quote from Dylan’s recently released Maggie’s Farm – “Well I’ve tried my best / to be just like I am / But every body wants me / to be just like them.”  Turns out in the end he was a bit of a tosser “who did not even perform his own suicide well …

It is often suggested that life in Ancient Greece and Rome – events, ideas, dilemmas that I have skipped over – have in essence anticipated pretty much everything that has gone down since.  It seems a reasonable notion, and one I’m a lot more likely to explore after reading Augustus.

It’s an incredible story.  When he was 19, Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s nephew, JC’s recently adopted son and successor, was off on a Greek island doing student stuff with his mates (and being educated).  No long after, in 44 BC,  JC was famously assassinated, and Octavius – like Brazilian footballers he took to being known as Augustus a bit later, as Emperor and, um, god – hastened back to a Rome that was in chaos, with civil war in prospect.  No-one expected him to pick up the reins, but he did.  When he was 19.  Diversionary tactic 2: cue my mate Naomi Rose’s song Nineteen because now it’s there it won’t go away:

By the time Augustus died he had left an economically prosperous Roman Empire at peace within itself and secure within its extensive borders – the era that is known as the Pax Romana.  But not without huge personal cost.  The story is told in a patchwork of lletters, memos and memoirs, petitions and poems, senatorial proceedings, reports, military orders, and journal notes – chronologically, but with the dates of the sources jumping backwards and forwards, providing a commentary on events. 

As the book progresses more and more space is given to the journal of Augustus’s daughter, Julia, whom he loves, but who has been callously, strategically, used over the years, and is sentenced to a lonely exile by him, for treason.  She has been on a hell of a journey.  Ordered by her father, “I returned to Rome in the consulship of Tiberius Claudius Nero … Who had been a goddess returned to Rome a mere woman, and in bitterness.”  Furthermore “I was not to be free. One year and four months after the death of Marcus Agrippa [an old, gay, mate of his] my father betrothed me to Tiberius Claudius Nero. He was the only one of my husbands whom I ever hated.”  Her fate: “So I am once again to be the brood sow for the pleasure of Rome.”  Hers is a tale that could easily stand as an outstanding work of its own.  She achieves a certain liberation, experiences sensual pleasure and ultimately reaches a peace in her situation:

Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? “Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe it has,” he said. “We both must believe it has.”

The books ends with an astonishing 36 pages, as a lonely dying Augustus, voyaging out at sea, looks back over his life in a sequence of letters to the only surviving friend of his youth, a scholar.  It is one of the most powerful sustained passages I have read in a long time.  It’s fiction, of course, so one doesn’t know, but … well, try this:

Thus I did not determine to change the world out of an easy idealism and selfish righteousness that are invariably the harbingers of failure, nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced; wealth beyond one’s comfort has always seemed to me the most boring of possessions, and power beyond its usefulness has seemed the most contemptible. It was destiny that seized me that afternoon at Apollonia nearly 60 years ago, and I chose not to avoid its embrace.

Compared to Alexander the Great, he opines that Alexander had it lucky, dying so young, “else he would have come to know that if to conquer the world is a small thing, to rule it is even less.”
“… I have never wished to conquer the world, and I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.”

He puts in a good word for the poets, whose company was often held against him:

Of the many services that Maecenas performed for me, the most important seems to me now to be this: He allowed me to know the poets to whom he gave his friendship. They were among the most remarkable men I have ever known …

I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted …

Horace once told me that laws were powerless against the private passions of the human heart, and only he who has no power over it, such as the poet or the philosopher, may persuade the human spirit to virtue.

Great book.  Capital G.

Razor Girl

And now for something completely different.  I love reading Carl Hiaasen, just gulp his books down.  What it says on the cover.  He specialises in outlandish, yet I thought the actions of the woman of the title of his latest book were too much, even for the Florida of his oeuvre.  And then I read the disclaimer to Razor Girl (Sphere, 2016):

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. However, true events in South Florida provided the lurid material for certain strands of this novel, beginning with the opening scene. The author also wishes he’d dreamed up the part about the giant Gambian pouched rats, but he didn’t. Those suckers are real.

There’s a lovely rhythm to his writing that just pulls you along.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

That ‘He nearly made it’, if you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen, is no harbinger of doom for Coolman, but rather an invitation to the reading treat in store.  He keeps a handful of narratives going and works seamlessly to intertwine them with calamitous and desperate irony.

There‘s the central character, Yancey, a disgraced detective who now, busted to public hygiene inspector, works the roach patrol in local restaurants, is anxious to get his old job back.  So he involves himself in what starts as a mistaken kidnapping which introduces into the plot a top-rated scripted fake reality TV show called Bayou Brethren about a hillbilly family business breeding speciality chickens for fly-fishing flies.  Enter a psychopathic fan of the show who has bought into its conceit – including unofficial dodgy right-wing rants on YouTube –  wholesale. Then there’s the out-of-his-depth guy running an eco-destructive con providing sand to hotel beaches who owes money to the mafia, who ends up mid-chase electrocuting himself trying to recharge a stolen Tesla.  Not to mention the tangled love lives and Yancey’s real estate problem of how to get rid of potential next-door neighbours threatening to build big and destroy his view. Among other things.

Hiaasen is basically a moralist, appalled at what big money has done and is doing to Florida.  Razor Girl displays less of the eco-warrior than usual – and it’s hard not to rue the non-appearance of Skink, the ragged one-eyed wild man ex-governor of Florida who’s gone native in the Keys, who features in some of his other books, but Hiaasen is still rooting – relatively speaking – for the good guys, albeit with many degrees of grey on the way.  The mafia guy is appalled to discover that the beach con man has been using a fake Helper Dog jacket on any old mutt to milk the privileges that one brings.

Carl Hiaasen is a master of dialogue and pushing the action along.  And he can be very very funny.

The reader on the 6.27

Weird, touching on desolation, yet charming, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s The reader on the 6.27 (Mantle, 2015), translated by Ros Schwartz), is one of those shortish books that seem to only ever appear in translation.

Guylain Vignolles has not had it easy with a name that, subjected to spoonerist manipulation, gets him called ‘Ugly Puppet’.  He has a soul-crushing job in a factory pulping books.  He rescues random pages that escape the machine and recites them out loud next day to commuters on the train to work.  Some even look forward to it.  At work there’s a bossy boss and a jealous assistant.  There’s a sub-plot that takes in his reading for an hour, by invitation, at an old people’s home.

A while ago there had been an accident at work and a friend had lost a leg to the grinding machine; he, the friend, had traced how the pulp produced that day had been used, and was buying up copies of the cook book printed on that paper; he’s buying copies up.  Guylain helps him by pursuing second-hand copies at weekends, looking to help his friend get some sort of closure from a full set on his bookshelves.

One day on the train home Guylain finds a USB stick and discovers thereon a quirky document written by a woman working as a concierge in a public toilet in a shopping centre.  Enchanted, it is from this he now reads to his fellow commuters, and makes it his mission to find the writer.  And in the end, a drawn out love story.  Weird, charming, and highly recommended.

Scribal Gathering

You’d think the energy, industry and invention that went into The Antipoet would be enough for most mortals, but no, Paul Eccentric (“the mouthy half of … the beatrantin’ rhythm’n’views act” as estimable host Jonathan JT Taylor described him in the events page for the evening on FB) is an accomplished solo spoken word performer and, after a change of jacket, seated vocalist with the entertaining Polkabililly Circus,  who variously rocked, folked, emoted and mixed it up as you’d expect from their name. (Not to mention his other side projects:  http://pauleccentric.co.uk/ ).  Another fine way to spend an evening with Scribal: other poets and musicians were standing.

Archivists please note: JMD was unable to attend.

YorkieFest 2017

Best for me at YorkieFest this year, the fifth no less, were tucked away in the middle of the day.  Innocent Hare‘s repertoire draws masterfully from a number of folk traditions and the trio – a family affair – ebulliently led by Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, went down a storm with the modest collection of souls in attendance at that time.  The ever immaculate harmonies and musicality of The Straw Horses followed, and in retrospect it was a mistake on my part to try to eat a vegetarian crepe (from La Crepe Franglais) – delicious though it was, it required concentration with that plastic fork – while they were on.  The continent-wide African guitar work from Safari Boots impressed. 

Special mention should also be made for my introduction to the sport and art of Tea Duelling from The Order of the Teapot, aka the local Steampunks.  It involves biscuit dunking, judgment skills and a lot of nerve.  Shame a few more didn’t come given all Pat Nicholson (one half of Growing Old Disgracefully, or GOD) and others’ hard work, but glad to say, money was made for the charities supported.

Chloe gave me a sticker to stick on an instrument to spread the word. I guess this my instrument. And I’ll stick it on the notebook I carry.

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oliver-kay-forever-youngHere at Lillabullero we don’t usually splash a book’s cover all over the column but I love this photograph.  Adrian Doherty could be a manchild out of mythology or folk balladry – he walked, nay played, with giants, but was happy singing and playing with the little people; there’s probably a William Butler Yeats poem could be applied to him.  The photo on the book jacket is him outside the Manchester United training ground, a 16-year-old apprentice, a Catholic from Strabane in Northern Ireland, a contemporary of the Class of ’92 – Becks, Scholesy, Giggsy that lot.

He’d read Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – by the time he was 9.  He deliberately flunked a chemistry exam at school – Give an example of a solvent.” “An example of a solvent is Sherlock Holmes.” – determined not to be herded away from the humanities subjects he loved.  Oliver Kay‘s Forever young: the story of Adrian Doherty, football’s lost genius (Quercus, 2016) is full of stories like that; he’s talked to family, school friends, team mates, Manchester United staff, musical chums and fellow seekers after the meaning of life to create a wonderful picture of the short life of a lovely young man, strangely and uniquely lived.

Like his dad, Adrian was a huge Bob Dylan fan.  If they were available to embed, this piece would have kicked off bob_dylan_-_planet_waveswith a YouTube of the fast version of Dylan’s beautiful Forever young, closing track on side one – yes, vinyl – of the hugely under-rated Planet Waves, his last recordings with The Band.  And it would have closed with the handshake of the slow deadly serious version of the song that opens side two.  Because this is a sad, sad tale. 

A footballing genius, on the verge of a first team appearance, Adrian Doherty’s career ended with the sort of injury – ‘a proximal tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in the right knee’ – that only a few years later would probably not have been career-ending, that improved treatment techniques and surgical improvements might well have sorted out.  But one of the saddest things is, when he died (pulled out of a canal, in a coma for a month), if they knew about it at all, the presumptions of those he had known at Man U.  Early morning on his way to work in The Hague, officially accidental death, no suspicious circumstances, had transmuted, urban legend-like, into – of course – failed footballer, late night, drink and drugs, Amsterdam.  Because obviously being released from a club is, like, the end of the world.  In fact, his brother Gareth says, “What a lot of people don’t realise is that the years from twenty to twenty-six, after he left football, were the happiest of Adrian’s life.”

So many things to say.  Invent a fictional Adrian Doherty and he would not be believed outside of the fantasy genre.  Roy of the Rovers as written by Neil Gaiman, say, or a character out of a Herman Hesse novel.  He was a seeker.  If there’s not a better ballad or song in the tradition, then there’s Spencer the Rover – John Martyn did a lovely version of it – which nearly fits well enough:

  • adrian-doherty-2he was a young footballer without ego.  Imagine that.  “Courage, speed and skill“, said Alex Ferguson.  As well as his skills, others note his bravery.  1990/91 season he’s training with the reserves, a year ahead of Ryan Giggs.  One year into his two-year apprenticeship he gets offered a 5-year professional contract; Giggs had to wait the full two years.  He tells Alex Ferguson (!) he’d prefer it to be just one year, if you don’t mind, because he’s not sure what he wants to be doing that far ahead.  He – fortunately given the injury that came not long after – compromises on three.
  • Life at Man U with the older guys (and doubtless at most other clubs): there was a dark side to it in those days.  Traditionally the apprentices had to put up with initiation ceremonies and indignities involving marine-style bullying, forfeits, vicious banter and a forced exhibitionism .  Paul Scholes tells Kay about it: ” ‘Oh I hated it, yeah,’ he said. ‘It got stopped around our year, actually, all the stuff you had to do. I think one of the players’ parents complained and that was it.’  How bad can unspeakable be? ‘I can’t tell you,’ he said. ‘You would be in trouble for it these days, some of the stuff that went on. Seriously.’ ”  After a sticky time, and homesickness, Adrian survived.
  • Life at Man U with the Class of ’92: “Doherty’s preference for an Aran jumper, tracksuit bottoms and battered trainers had always earned him strange looks“.  An apprentice who lodged with him says, “To us footballers, Doc seemed different because he wasn’t bothered about fashion and he never had any cares in the world … [Beckham] read FHM. Doc had no interest in that. He would sit there reading books – big wow – and he would always wear the same clothes and trainers. Becks and John O’Kane would drive to training in their new cars even if they only lived round the corner. I used to walk and I would get there before they had turned on the engine. Doc would come in on a bike – an old bike … I’m not even sure it had gears.”  In a letter to a friend in Strabane he lamented “nearly all the apprentices are U2 fans and none of them are hip so I can’t go to the same places as them on Saturday nights or anything.”  He was never ostracised, was liked well enough, not least for his skill, but he never really bonded.

‘I remember one of the lads asking him what he thought of the Chelsea game a couple of weeks earlier. Adrian genuinely didn’t have a clue. He was more interested in talking about reading, playing the guitar. It wasn’t a conversation you would have with a footballer. It was books, films, philosophy, music. Everyone then sat down to listen to him play the guitar.’

Away from the pitch, Doherty remained a mystery. Everyone recognised and revered his talent, but no one could quite understand his character. [… said a housemate, years later]: ‘On the pitch, he wanted the ball, he wanted to express himself and he knew what he was about. He was brave too, as tough as old boots. Off the pitch he was completely different. The word that comes to mind is “enigma”. He would love this, but, to me, he was just like Bob Dylan. It was like having Bob Dylan in a No.7 shirt.’

  • He bought a typewriter – “one of those old-fashioned ones“, says his landlady – with his first team win bonus (even though as a sub he wasn’t used) .  He’d started a novel: The adventures of Humphrey and Bodegarde, the characters looking for the meaning of life, was writing poetry and – he’d already bought himself a guitar and taught himself to play from books – songs.
  • So while his contemporaries at Man U were out shopping or clubbing, he was busking, or going to open-mic nights at places like the New Troubadour Club, where David Gray started out.  Says the organiser: ‘It was a place for singer-songwriters. It was an acoustic venue, no electric. It was dingy, smoky, a perfect place for gigs. We would get maybe ten or fifteen artists a night.’  Unassuming, Adrian kept his lives apart; no-one on the music scene realised he was a footballer, never mind pne of the most exciting prospects in the city.  He was to work on songs like An oblivious history (there’s an abridged version of the lyrics in the book’s appendix), which references less than respectfully Socrates (the Greek philosopher, not the Brazilian footballer), John the Baptist, Macbeth, King Arthur, Arthur Rimbaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Muhammad Ali and even Bob Dylan.   Another, called Philosophying, is full of witty self-awareness, with a last line going, “But it aint an easy life philosophying“.  And even his team-mates remember the song Gotta kill a chicken by Tuesday.  He and his mate Leo Cussons spent a summer in New York – the Greenwich Village thing – playing wherever they could.

So how would Cussons describe the professional footballer whom he and the others on the Manchester music scene came to know as ‘McHillbilly’ as they played in a short-lived band called the Mad Hatters? ‘Brilliant,’ he says. I don’t know anything about football, so I can’t comment on that, but he was one of those extraordinarily talented individuals you come across very rarely in life.’

He takes the ending of his contract with equanimity and seemingly without resentment.  One friend says, ‘I don’t remember Aidy ever being angry or frustrated about anything.’   Another says, ‘I honestly think he was OK with it. Not OK with getting injured, but he did quite quickly come to terms with the fact that he might not play professional football again […]  it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for him any more […] it helped him that, with his music and his reading and writing, he didn’t have all his eggs in one basket.’  And so he moves, seemingly randomly, to Preston, working in a chocolate factory where he doesn’t volunteer his past.  From the Theatre of Dreams to strawberry creams is Hall’s chapter head.  He stays two and a half years.  He keeps in touch with his old Strabane mates, some now at uni in England.  He sees his old musical chum Leo in London and Holland:

‘On one visit, it would be all philosophical discussions. On the next Doherty would be dismissive of all that, gnosis included, and would be wanting to turn the clock back to those wild nights playing to the crowds in New York’s East Village in the summer of ’92.’

He’s briefly back in Strabane, then feels another move is due.  It’s a toss-up between Dublin and Galway; the latter wins on a short-term travel practicality:

‘It’s the type of place where he would just blend in,’ Sean Fitzgerald, who met him in Galway, says. ‘He didn’t stand out. You’re surrounded by music and culture there, which was what he liked. You’re allowed to be a sort of vagabond, really, just writing poetry and music and having conversations about philosophy or whatever. He blended in, playing his music, writing his songs.’

Kathy Maloney, a young woman who knew him well, says:

He was never really interested in making a living. He didn’t want money at all. He would see how long he could live on IR£5 … Money just didn’t interest him at all.  “He wasn’t motivated by a career in the same way most people see a career. He wasn’t interested in material gain or getting recognition. But whatever he did , he would take great pleasure from it and he liked to master it. The main mission in his life was to achieve enlightenment.”

From talking with friends, colleagues and relations, Kay paints the picture of a young man who throughout his short life could be happily self-contained, and yet was far from ever being a recluse.  If he didn’t drink much he was still up for a craic, for fellowship.  They say he could get along with anyone, not a bad word is reported (though coaches complain of a certain vagueness off the pitch – they would).  He goes for long walks in Manchester, in the countryside around Galway.  It was on one of these, just before the move to the Netherlands – time for a change again – that an old friend from Strabane, driving along a country road sees him and:

… picks him up by chance walking in the rain: ‘… he was still talking about his poems and his songwriting. He was never concerned about money and things like that. He was on great form. Whenever I think of Adrian, I think of his amazing smile. It was infectious. He was smiling that day.’

Forever young is a lovely book, a curious tale of our near times, written by a football reporter out of fascination and love.  I’d say it’s worth reading even if you only have a minimal interest in the game.  So much affection.  Heartening, beautiful, and a good kind of sad.

Could it have been any different?

He might have joined Arsenal.  They were interested, he talked to them, they were an established destination for young Irish footballers.  The injury might not have happened.  And he might have had someone to talk  to about Bob Dylan.

liam-brady-1976-aug-arsenal-v-bristol-city-005Funny how some little things stick in your mind over time.  Reading Forever young delivered this memory of my younger days.  The mid-’70s, when I was living in London, the period that was my most active time as a ‘real’ football supporter.  Well, I went to a few matches.  But it was only Highbury I went to repeatedly – it was the easiest to get to, and I had a mate living close to the stadium.  I became one of the missing millions when hooliganism became a problem.  Nevertheless, an affection for Arsenal developed that has stayed with me, doubled in spades since the exquisite football – poetry in motion, though sadly not consistently – of the Arsene Wenger years.

Anyway, back to the ’70s.  This was still the era of the Metropolitan Police Band at half-time, and the seasons I saw most games in were, as it happens, the two worst in Arsenal’s history, a long time before and since.  But a young team was building, and it was obvious that Liam Brady was a special talent.  And here’s the thing I remember: he was featured in a match programme and there was a photograph of him – the one you see now, due to the wonders of Google image search – sprawled on the floor with some of his LPs.  Only – almost unprecedented – prominently including Dylan’s Blonde on blonde and Blood on the tracks (plus albums by Thin Lizzy and Horslips, another significant Irish band).  Like I say, special.

That match programme was, I discover, the opening game of the season, August 21st, 1976, against newly promoted Bristol City.  Yup.  And the visitors won 0-1.  It was Malcolm McDonald’s debut for Arsenal, Alan Ball was still playing, and a personal fave – probably the best English footballer never to get an England cap – Geordie Armstrong was on the wing … I could go on with all sorts of relevant football trivia.  But the thought intrigues: Adrian Doherty was offered his apprenticeship at Old Trafford in 1987, while Brady didn’t hang up his boots until 1990.  I like to think of the possibility of them swapping Dylan quotes, talking of situations, at the training ground, in another parallel universe.






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