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Augustus

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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Briefly, catching up, top of the pile has to be:

  • The artist saying a few words amid her creation,

    The artist saying a few words amid her creation,

    Anna Berry‘s wonderful 2-hour pop-up guerilla art installation Fake plastic trees: a memorial to the Midsummer oak.  It felt good to be a part of this critical celebration of place, and of friendship.  The grand old oak was

    A l;ittle bit of magic in the wet early evening

    A little bit of magic in the wet early evening

    engulfed by the Shopping Centre extension – the bit that MK dwellers still call ‘the new bit’ despite its having had two official names so far – the extension, as I was saying, to the original Grade II listed building (oh yes), and though the tree was retained as a feature, over the years it died a slow – painful to watch – death.  Anna created “a magical forest of memories” in an underpass, but let her tell you all about it (and see some better photos than mine) at: http://www.annaberry.co.uk/3-2/installation-pieces/fake-plastic-trees/

  • Stan and NanSarah Lippett‘s graphic novel Stan and Nan (Cape, 2016) is a lovely piece of work – poignant, illuminating and profound.  I struggle to find the words to describe the artwork – far from crude, certainly not childlike, maybe outsider (yet it started as an art school project) – and will have to settle for economic and stylised.  While she can be quite busy when it helps, Stan and Nan is a prime example of
    Taken from the Guardian's review.

    Taken from the Guardian’s review.

    the less-is-more principle of storytelling.  The spare use of muted colours is at times dazzling; in no other form can you quite get spectacle, the delight and surprise, of simply turning the page and getting a glimpse into something bigger.  Stan and Nan tells with a deceptively light touch the story of Sarah‘s Nan and her man Stan.  The first half gives us their courtship and life together until his sudden death, with a glimpse of his artistic talents; the second starts with her funeral and unfolds with the tales told and the story of her days without Stan, including her close contact with Sarah.  Here are unsung superheroes, living out the days of quietly momentous lives.  It was an interview in the Guardian about how it evolved that led me to the book; go there to get more examples of how it works its magic: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jul/09/who-was-the-creepy-man-in-the-family-photo.

  • Rankin - Naming of the deadInteresting Book Group for July: Ian Rankin‘s The naming of the dead (2006).  A re-reading for me.  That’s the Rebus one taking place during the fateful early days of July 20015, with the GB meeting at Gleneagles, the Make Poverty History mobilisation and concert in Edinburgh, and the 7/7 bombings in London; it stands up well as a social document.  John Rebus’s take on the grander stuff? – “All he could do was lock up a few bad people now and then. Results which didn’t seem to change the bigger picture.”  Several of the Book Group don’t normally read genre fiction; one, disappointed that, as cream of the crop, Rankin wasn’t a better writer, had to be re-assured how bad some of his successful contemporaries are at putting a sentence together.  Another made a really good point when she said, disregarding the somewhat convoluted if intriguing plot (maybe serial killer mixed with maybe military-industrial complex skullduggery and more), that it was basically a novel about relationships.  Yes, there are indeed plenty of those, familial and professional, with, classically, Rebus and younger colleague Siobhan at its heart (and in this example also a prime example of Rankin’s most annoying stylistic habit, of unnecessary adverbial qualification or thesaurus haunting in the matter of speech):

‘ … your mum says she’s not bothered who whacked her. Nobody seems worried about Ben Webster’s death. And yet here we both are.’  He lifted his face towards her and gave a tired smile.
‘It’s what we do,’ she replied quietly.
‘My point exactly. No matter what anyone thinks or says. I just worry that you’ve learned all the wrong lessons from me.’
‘Credit me with a bit of sense,’ she chided him, putting the car into gear.

  • Couldn't manage a decent photo of the Burne-Jones window but the unstained glass offered up instant Monet

    Couldn’t manage a decent photo of the Burne-Jones window but the unstained glass offered up instant Monet

    A day trip to Cromer, the weather just right – hot enough, sweet breeze.  Nice lunch at Browne’s round the back of the Parish Church (thank you TripAdvisor) – excellent veggie sausage and mash, while Andy and pal sampled the celebrated local dressed crab.  Into the church of

    PaintShop Pro One Step Phot Fix gives us the blue sky of another era's postcards

    PaintShop Pro One Step Photo Fix gives us the blue sky of another era’s postcards

    St Peter and St Paul with an extremely tall tower and a vibrant Burne-Jones window, then sea-sidey stuff: the promenade, the Pier, the ice cream, the beach.  As Swinburne wrote, now embossed in metal and embedded on the esplanade, “an esplanady sort of place” – what a lovely word!

  • IF programmeSummer cold and/or chronic hay fever and the excessive heat meant I didn’t see as much of IF – the biennial Milton Keynes International festival – as I might have, though to tell the truth I couldn’t get that excited about the 2016 edition.  Went to the opening biggie – the largest bubble on the programme cover – the truly international Voalá: Station.  Without being really spectacular it was worth the crick in the neck.  I’ll let the programme do the talking: “Four suited and booted businessmen are swept up into a world of magic, distracted from their daily commute by a mysterious woman who unleashes four sirens who transform the men’s evening into an unforgettable and magical ‘flying’ performance.  Weaving together aerial acrobatics, music and colour, and played out above the audience” … in the Mini-Bowl at Willen Lake.  The mysterious woman had a powerful singing voice but I wish there’d been more of the accordion than the booming modern stuff.  The fireworks were interesting, not your usual, with some lovely blues if I recall correctly, but you had to be in right part of the Bowl to fully appreciate them and the action at the same time.  From others’ enthused reports, I wish I’d drag my blocked nose and sorry body out to see the Station House Opera: Dominoes event, the collapsing dominoes even going up and down the stairs in the Theatre on their route around the city.
  • Arabian tent IF

    The Arabian Bar Tent: roof detail

    Also part of IF, took in a couple of performances on the Stables Sessions Acoustic Sessions Stage in the Arabian Tent: the ancient rural seasonal reflections of the immaculate Straw Horses, and the fragrant Naomi Rose doing her greatest hits (plus an intriguing new song) – such originality.  [http://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2]

  • Scribal July 2016July Scribal Gathering was suffering a bit from the post-Brexit blues, the audience energy-sapped.  Shame it was this one had to be set up as a comedy themed night.  Slight of frame Muslim stand-up Zahra Barri had a wealth of decent material from her Egyptian/Irish upbringing, but it never really caught fire; shame.  Philfy Phil, singer of inventively witty dirty ditties, tried to get away with not doing his rewrite of The boxer (“Dali died” etc.).
  • Vaultage early July 16Vaultage mid-July 16What else?  A couple of Vaultages, and an afternoon’s music in Wolverton’s  Secret Garden the Sunday before last, with the ubiquitous Mark Owen, the angular funk and Jo Dervish’s distinctive vocals from Screaming House Madrigals (with a TOT WMGtouch of reggae) and  quirky compositions of some wit from The Outside This (as featured in this photo from my crappy phone).  Nice relaxed community event, and it hardly rained at all.

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DG1I’ve known David George over four decades, which is a sobering thought.  Not that there were as many of those back in the day.  I first met him in the mid-70s in London when his girlfriend (and long-standing wife, who features in what follows) replied to one of those flat-share adverts in Time Out and she passed whatever tests we’d set.  They were  students at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

NT 84 CoriolanusSince then Dave has played many roles.  Equity rules forced him to become Lewis George and as such he trod the boards at the National with Ian McKellan: First soldier & First watch in a celebrated Corialanus, peasant (and understudy to McKellan) in Wild honey.  He’s been in a Guinness ad, and stopped at many other stations along the way; I was surprised eating my muesli the other day to see him in a late-series Minder as a smooth criminal (or at least smooth enough to con Arthur).  He has NT 84 Wild Honeybeen a London cabbie (the Knowledge – the real thing) and toured North America as the one in the wheelchair in a Flanders & Swann tribute act (although after much discussion, not performing in a wheelchair).  He’s been a social worker, an independent Ventnor councillor, a youth worker and probably a couple of other things I’ve forgotten or didn’t know about.  Many times I’ve told him he should write an autobiography. He is a Nottingham Forest supporter and a keen angler.

These days David George is a film-maker.  With an impressive client list, Utility Filmsclick here for the website link – named after a Jeremy Bentham quote, specialises in information films and documentaries.  You can watch Better shed than dead, a film about DIV titlethe Men’s Shed movement here.  In 2009 they made a feature-length movie for an expenditure of £2,000 pounds.  The splendidly titled and very funny Death in Ventnor was an occasionally dark crime caper that lived up to the wit of its title and then some.  Here’s the trailer:

It really should be better known. 

Here’s what I said at the time:

DIV

A still from the opening long slow pan along the sea front in Death in Ventnor. Some kinda cinematic homage.

April 22 And so to the Isle of Wight last weekend for, among other things, no less than a film premiere. Old friends Dave & Jill George’s ‘Death in Ventnor’ – how can it fail with a title like that? – was made locally for £2K (and they say most of that went on catering), and a lot of goodwill. It’s a huge achievement – a lot of laughs, some great dialogue and a whole slew of tremendous performances. There are lines and scenes that stick in the memory still – the early morning bagpiper is a stunning off the wall image, the post office raid pure Ealing, the lobster named Derek, I could go on. A lot of cinema homages going on too. Fascinating to have been close to the making of the movie; there was a hilarious scene involving a pensioner, a Zimmer frame and a drug dealer we saw in the early rushes that had to be cut, for example, and you could see why but … bring on the outtakes! The night itself was a triumph, a real community event with over 300 people at the Medina Theatre, Newport. A delight.

Anyway David had a bit of a health episode not so long ago, and here he is to tell you all about it (© David George 2016):

 ♥♣♦♠

 

The Cardiac Hotel
by David George

Every seven minutes someone in the UK has a heart attack. That’s around four hundred a day. On Dec 13th 2014 at 2.30 in the afternoon it was my turn.

I have to be honest about this. I was asking for it. 61 years old, smoked profusely, and was going to live for ever. Well that perception changed quite quickly.

I was in the back garden, digging the vegetable plot. And smoking. Of course. A lot of people have asked me “This heart attack, what did you think? What did you do?” What did I think? I thought “Oh shit”. What did I do? I did the only sensible thing. I rang my wife.

A word or two about her. She’s a very highly trained nurse, working for the NHS. The NHS? I don’t need to waste time explaining that – it will soon be history.  But for me it came in handy.

So my wife.  She’s from the tough love school of nursing. You have flu? – two paracetamol.  Broken leg? – two paracetamol. You’re dying? Two paracetamol.

Listen I think I’m having a heart attack”. A long pause.

Why do you think you’re having a heart attack?”

Because my chest hurts, and I really don’t feel at all well.”

I’ll come home.”

Now, we’re lucky, we have stethoscopes and a blood pressure monitor lying around the house. She arrives and we sit on the sofa playing patients and nurses. She looks at me:

St Mary’s. It’s probably nothing, but they’ll check you out”

Now I know I’m dying.

The car journey is interesting. I didn’t realise she could drive this fast, nor did I realise she could shout so loudly at ageing pedestrians dawdling on zebra crossings.

If you carry on like this I’ll have a heart attack”

How we laugh.

I live on an island, but we do have a hospital. In Accident & Emergency things get worse.  Much worse.  Of course she works there, so everyone seems to know her. As I sit down struggling for breath all I can hear are voices saying “Hi Jill!” “Hiya!” “How’s things?” “Oh fine!”.

I don’t know what light-hearted fripperies are exchanged with the triage nurse but I’m pretty quickly installed in the re-sus room.

Another nurse.

Hiya!”

Hiya!”

It all starts moving quickly. I’m wired up to monitors. More nurses.

Hiya Jill! How are you?”

Excuse me … I mean why do you keep asking her how she is? I mean . . .”

Shush.”

The doctor arrives with a print out.

Hey!”

Hi.”

Erm … don’t I know you?”

I dunno.”

Yeah . . . you . . . you . . .”

Delight at a dawning revelation:

You made that film here . . . a few years ago . . . here in A&E.  I was in it, I was in your film. Yeah, that’s right I remember you! How are you?”

Well I er . . .”

Yeah well . . . anyway, great to see you again. By the way you’re having a heart attack; helicopter will be here in five minutes.”

Helicopter?”

Yeah we can’t do what you need here. You have to go to another hospital, on the mainland.”

What do I need?”

It’s called an angioplasty.”

What’s that?”

Erm” He points to a nearby nurse “She’ll explain”, and then he rushes off, presumably to recognise someone else.

The nearby nurse is about to become my new best friend.

Does it hurt much?” she says.

Well . . .”

On a scale of 1 to 10?”

4?”

So I’m going to give you something to take that away.”

Paracetamol?” I ask.

No, morphine. You might feel a bit sick.”

I glance over at the wife. This is more like it. Morphine.  And its intravenous.

Whoosh! Within a minute, I feel very relaxed. I don’t feel sick. Actually I feel, how can I describe this? I feel great! If there are any opiate addicts out there, I really do understand.

More medics pile in. A nurse who looks young enough to be my daughter’s daughter zips me up into what feels uncomfortably like a body bag.

It’ll be cold in the helicopter”

The wife takes my hand.

How are you feeling?”

Great, that morphine! Wow!”

You’re not supposed to be enjoying it, dickhead.”

Another nurse arrives.

Hiya!”

Hiya.”

How’s he doing?”

Just showing off.”

I have a terrible feeling she means it. I’m trundled out to the helicopter. It sits on the pad like a small yellow wasp. There’s a crew of four; pilot, paramedic, doctor and nurse. And the cargo. Me.

Everyone gathers round to load me in. Jill steps alongside me and takes my hand again. There’s no room for passengers. This is the Brief Encounter moment. I realise if this goes wrong we may never see each other again.

The crew have been here a thousand times before. Everyone stops talking, I look at her, she looks at me and she says:

I’ll see you on the other side”

The silence is intense.

The other side?” I croak.

Of the Solent.”

This naturally cracks everyone up. I swear the paramedic and the doctor are holding onto each other helpless with laughter. I want to say something like:

Well it’s great that my last few moments down here can be spent with such a wonderful audience,” but I just grin my stupid opiate grin and very soon I’m up, up and away in more ways than you’d imagine.

The angioplasty was simplicity itself. Unless you happen to be the guy doing it and then I imagine it’s pretty complex. A wire goes into an artery (either wrist or groin – wrist for me please if that’s OK) up across the chest and into the blocked area of the heart. A balloon inside the wire expands and opens up the restriction, leaving a stent behind. My artery was congested like the M25 on a Friday night.

The surgeon said, “Are you a smoker?”

Not anymore,” I replied.

Good”.

They wheeled me into a room in the Cardiac Care Unit, plugged into a lot of equipment that bleeped soothingly. Jill arrived. She came over and stood by the bed, she began to speak but I held up my hand.

I know, I know. I love you too.”

Actually,” she muttered “I was going to say if you don’t stop smoking I’ll fucking kill you”.

I try a brave, tremulous smile.

And stop smirking. The kids are coming in the morning. I rang Ned in New Zealand. He loves you.”

I love him too. When do you have to go?”

Don’t worry”, she says “I’m staying”. Magically the door opens and a mattress is brought in.

The Cardiac Hotel,” I say. “I’m tired.”

Me too.”

Later we lay quietly as the machines whirr and shimmer above our heads.

My hand, bruised and taped with tubes and plasters, finds hers in the dim half-light of the quiet room.

I’ve stopped smoking.”

I know.”

But I’ll never stop loving you.”

I know.”

With all my heart.”

© David George 2016

A musical PS

Between David sending me this and me asking if it could be a guest post here on Lillabullero – for which thanks indeed – and me getting my arse into gear to actually put it up, his son Tom, who did the music for Death in Ventnor, borrowed the title The Cardiac Hotel for his forthcoming second LP/CD.  Tom George is the up-and-coming singer songwriter who, both solo and with a group, performs as The Lion and the Wolf.  “Genre crushing melancholy” is how he describes his music on FaceBook, and he has a nice tag line in “Bring on the sad” though he’s essentially an eminently happy chappie.  Here’s a link to his Bandcamp pages  – http://thelionandthewolf.bandcamp.com/music – and you can find more on YouTube.

My father's eyesWhat David describes above was happening while Tom was playing his last gig of the year he took the plunge and gave up the day job.  The haunting My father’s eyes was written as a consequence of the events described above.  The original is there on the Bandcamp page, but here’s a lovely version recorded with a full band in a Ventnor church:

 

 

 

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I was going to say about the Welsh male voice choir we saw in Wales in my what-we-did-in-Wales post but they somehow slipped off the agenda.  Fortunately it fits nicely with one of the books I’ve been reading, which is, as it happens, all about singing …

Naked at the Albert Hall Book One

In Naked at the Albert Hall: the inside story of singing (Virago, 2015) Tracey Thorn tells of a recording session with Elvis Costello at which he asked if they wanted an ‘Elvis Costello’ vocal?  The authenticity/artificiality continuum is a recurring theme.  In an interview with Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, she’s somewhat taken aback by something he tells her: “Hang on, are you saying we can all do the Scritti voice just by smiling?” After which she comments:

If you are not now trying to sing The sweetest girl while experimenting with different degrees of smiling, then you are not the reader I took you for.

OK, I passed, but that shouldn’t let her potential disappointment put you off.  (And if you’ve never heard of Scritti Politti you probably know the song; there’s a link at the bottom of this post to it in all its 6 glorious minutes.)  True, when it comes to men she’s a bit punk as Year Zero – momentous that John Lydon sang in an English accent, no mention of Ray Davies and the Kinks – but easy to forgive the spiteful charm of her description of Mick Jagger’s voice:

It’s a cartoon of a black singer, painted onto a balloon and then inflated, then put through a mangle, then through an amplifier. What comes out the other end is patently foolish and ridiculous, and turned him into one of rock’s most admired singers …

At the time of its publication Tracey Thorn, she of Everything but the Girl, hadn’t sung in public – and still hasn’t as far as I know – for 15 years, because of chronic stage fright.  Naked is more than an addendum to her lively Bedsit disco queen memoir.  She was hoping, she admits at the end that it might have been a shot at therapy, trying to see what it means for her to still put ‘singer’ as her occupation on the passport renewal form.  And so it turns out, though not necessarily as expected (no spoilers!).  In the chapter Why sing? she says:

In this book I’ve focused on the trouble with being a singer, in an attempt to balance out some of the idealised clichés I’ve grown tired of. And I’ve looked for stories that mirror my own …

It’s a fascinating journey, starting from the physics and physiognomy of the voice  (“… unlike any other instrument, these components are your own body parts“) and takes it from there, reminding us that “Musicians … are separate, distinct from us, in a way that singers are not.”  In that way our bond with singers is “egalitarian” – we can all do it – and yet … not.

She talks to fellow women singers – seeking out particularly reluctant singers, ‘the silent sirens’ who chose to disappear, and those who don’t particularly like their own voices;  similarly she looks at the lives of some no longer with us (Dusty Springfield’s “brick wall of self-doubt and discomfort“, Sandy Denny’s fear of fame, the tragic Karen Carpenter) – while examining the career aspects of the singing life.  (Oh, and there’s a chapter on Scott Walker. )

She unpicks aspects of her subject generally taken for granted, and – intriguingly, too, for us bibliophiles – tellingly draws on characters in novels to further illustrate what she’s talking about: Willa Cather’s The song of the lark, George du Maurier’s Trilby, and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, no less, are the main texts drawn on.

Some sage professional advice is offered in passing:

Singing live is like a complicated sporting event for the voice. A fiendish obstacle race. Over this hurdle, around this tricky bend, down for this horrible low note.

And once over that there’s the problem – this from a chapter called Little monsters – “… when you move from the territory of having listeners into the realm of having fans.”  Be warned, my musical friends.

Naked at the Albert Hall is entertaining and informative, conversational and confessional.  At times it sparkles and you feel she must be good company.  It’s full of nice asides like when the author tries a hypnotherapist to see if it can help with the stage fright:

She put on a CD of ‘spa music’, the least relaxing form of music in the world. Noodly pan pipes, fretless bass. Treacly synth sweeps and occasional random harp. The music that has ruined every facial I’ve ever had, every massage, every seaweed wrap.

From what I’ve said so far you might get the impression Naked is all about the perils, the trials and tribulations of the singer’s workplace, but it is also a celebration of the human voice, as a source of joy and transcendence:

Set against this egotistical aspect of singing, which exploits the possibility of personal allure, is the concept of singing as a shared experience, something to join us together.

Which is where the Welsh male voice choir comes in.

The Welsh male voice choir

The hotel we stayed in Wales a couple of weeks back played weekly host to Côr Meibion Cymau, the Cymau Male Voice Choir.  It’s one of those community things that is slowly dying out.  They do it because they love it, and for local charities, take a collection at the end.  Cymau is a village in Flintshire, North Wales, near Mold.  About 10 blokes – one of them told me there used to be 40 of them – white shirts, black trousers, quietly proud, aged from about 40 to 70+, enjoying one another’s company.  Damn, I should have taken a photograph.

I’m not saying it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life, but it moved me – but it was uplifting, fun, there was the definite odd tingle up the spine – and it will stay with me.  If I had a bucket list seeing a Welsh male voice choir in Wales would have been on it.  They delivered a varied repertoire: a spiritual, a setting of the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ Prayer from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, American Trilogy, Unchained melody and, with a tenor solo, The Rose (which far from being the ancient genre piece I imagined it to be, actually dates from the ’70s and was made famous by Bette Midler).

They did a routine about what happens when one of their members’ voice goes, when the day comes when he can no longer sing, when he can contribute to the choir no more.  One night in the middle of winter the whole choir convenes in a large hut perched on the side of a local mountain.  Cue the choir making  wintery noises, cold winds, a dark and stormy vocal night.  The broken man is ritually stripped of his clothes and ceremonially pushed out of the door onto the snow covered mountainside.  To the harmonious strains of, “F-reeze a jolly good fellow …”

Flying ScotsmanBook Two

Andrew McLean‘s The Flying Scotsman: speed style service (Scala/NRM, 2016) is a visual delight, a nice piece of book design featuring items in the collection of the cathedral that is the National Railway Museum in York.  So as well as a wealth of photographs from the earliest of the 1880s through to the Deltic diesel era and beyond, we get page after page of social history, and of sublime and sometimes strange railwayana: plenty of those classic posters, some carriage prints, cigarette cards, a tea set, the centenary anniversary wine list cover and even a fan.

FS 01 Here are a couple of my favourite double spreads: on the left,  railwaymen posing on the signal gantry at Hatfield in 1932; below, the time-travelling bizarrerie of the businessmen at the bar on the Flying Scotsman as late in the 1950s.  The book’s themed text is more companion to the illustrations than any attempt at being a definitive history, but it still manages to throw up much of interest.

FS 08In its conception and development the notion of modernity was central to the railway company’s marketing.  Initiated as the ‘Special Scotch Express’ in 1862, with both the up and down trains leaving simultaneously at 10 o’clock in the morning at Kings Cross and Edinburgh, it soon became known, initially, as The Flying Scotchman – oh yes!  Competition between the East Coast and West Coast routes to Scotland was intense – a very different model of privatised rail transport than holds sway today.  The Flying Scotsman was central in this, and as explained in the chapter entitled Building the brand, the confusion that still exists between the express train and the locomotive of the same name, introduced in 1923, was quite deliberate.

FS 06A few other things I wasn’t expecting.  In 1924 they introduced a cinema carriage.  During the General Strike the Flying Scotsman was deliberately de-railed by Northumberland miners removing a track section – what would the history books say if that had gone disastrously wrong?  And in the ’30s the installation of the LNER’s (London & North Eastern Railway) Railway Queen: “a ceremonial position given to the daughter of a railway worker every year, to promote railways and British culture at home and abroad.”  Now if that isn’t a gift to a budding historical novelist, I don’t know what is.

Great Western BeachBook Three

Doing my duty by the Book Group I started on Emma Smith‘s The Great Western Beach: a memoir of a Cornish childhood between the wars (Bloomsbury, 2008) without much hope of being able to stomach it – just look at all those pastel colours on that idyllic cover photo from the family album.  Overcoming the disappointment that, despite that tease of a title, the sights and sounds of the Great Western Railway played no part in the scene-setting, I was soon sucked in by the authorial child’s voice though – the book finishes when she’s twelve – and read enthusiastically through to the end.  That voice initially reminded me of James Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man and … despite the age thing, a big touch of the diaries of Adrian MoleEmma Smith juggles nicely – manages the illusion – with giving us the info so as to know what the score is without the adult intruding and jarring the child’s naive yet knowing flow.

In fact, what we have here is a tragi-comedy of a dysfunctional family life that is full of tension, people trapped by circumstances beyond their control (the past is another country) played out in the – ok – idyllic and beautifully evoked setting of Newquay and environs.  Her father – an officer and a war hero, is a resentful bank clerk, a stubborn failed painter who will not be told – is married to a woman four years older than himself; he is her fourth fiancé, what with the Great War and the Great Flu.  The fine details and pain of scraping out a genteel poverty are acutely described, as are the changes when they inherit loads of money from her rich uncle and they become, among other things, the life and soul of the tennis club.  It could be one of H.G.Wells’ social novels.  The subtle nuances of social class, of snobbery, hypocrisy and prejudice in a seaside town are all horribly apparent.  Some of the language shocks: ‘darkies’, ‘Jew-boys’ – we have come a long way.

But we also get the joys and pregnant confusions of childhood, of friendships and adventures, of the daily life, lovingly recorded.  Indeed, one does begin to wonder at quite the level of detail of recall – this was written in Emma Smith’s 80s – that is going on here, though my father did tell me the older he got, the more he remembered from his childhood, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.  You wonder what happened to them all – mother, father, elder sister, twin “milksop” brother, younger sister – but it’s one element of the book’s magic that we’re not told.

I could go on, but this post is too long already.  Her father’s cringingly embarrassing bad-tempered excuses when he loses at tennis, which he always does are pure Fawlty Towers.  And yet she and her father bond over literature – poetry! Omar Khayyam! – which her mother regards as “degenerate, unhealthy, immoral.”  As I say, I could go on, but I’ll leave you with this lovely image of shelter from the storm:

Picnics-on-the-beach is the one area of an otherwise discordant marriage where our parents are in harmonious, if tacit, agreement. To be out of the house, out-of-doors, to be sitting on the sand, or on smooth rocks, with the sounds of the sea making unnecessary any attempt at conversation: this has, for them, it would seem, a significance of almost religious intensity, notwithstanding the acrimonious preparations, always attendant on these regular family outings … they are a form of salvation for our mother and father, and so, by association, for their children.

As promised, a musical bonus

Herein the link to Scritti Politti’s The sweetest girl from their Songs to remember album of 1982.  I’d say they boast one of the great band names, acknowledging the influential Italian Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci.  But never mind that.  Here is a gorgeous piece of timeless inventive pop music, some melody lines that you may well be humming for quite a while: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExC0oK28VLA

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WNOWNO MOF2I’m sorry, I see that logo and just think: wino.

Last time I saw the Welsh National Opera I was dipping a toe into Wagnerian waters with their Flying Dutchman, which was set on … a spaceship in outer space.  Not great.  That was a few years ago, but you can’t go wrong with Mozart, can you?  No, not really.  It was fine, glad I went – for all the spareness of the set, it was a nice spectacle, fine ensemble playing and voices, some fine melody lines and a real orchestra.  Still comes as a surprise to me how rhythmic Mozart can be; had a good beat.

The WNO Marriage of Figaro started off all Brechtian with the main performers just sauntering on with the lights still up, ‘doing’ their stretches and other prep stuff, which has a certain charm the first time it’s done.  Then there was the shock of them singing in English – a first for me.  I didn’t like it; still had the sub-titles over the top of the stage, because it remains difficult to actually hear the words being sung, but where you could some of the rhyming was treacherous.  And I was thrown by the wedding coming in the third act of a four act opera, and, to tell the truth, didn’t have much of a clue as to what exactly was going on in the forest in the fourth, given they were all in black cloaks and distinguishable only by the colour of their masks as the intrigue unfolded.  Should have done some homework.  No, really: I had a good time.

Mrs Hemingway

Mrs.Hemingway

There are four Mrs. Hemingways in Naomi Wood‘s beautifully constructed novel Mrs. Hemingway (Picador, 2014), though no actual marriage ceremonies feature in the action.  The cover’s a superb piece of book design – subject, period, delicate visual balance: great job.  And what is inside is up to it – a lovely, compelling piece of work.

Mr. Hemingway is writer Ernest Hemingway.  If it were a movie you’d say starring four women and featuring a man.  You don’t get inside his head, but, of course, it’s more than a bit part.  On one level you could say it’s a case study of the old chestnut: how come strong intelligent women fall for selfish bastards?  But there are plenty of good times, and this is no hatchet job.  Nevertheless, from the time when he and Hadley got together in the ’20s to the distressing end with Mary nearly half a century later, he never spent a single day as an unattached single man.

It’s Mrs.Hemingway number 3 – fellow war correspondent and writer Martha Gellhorn, the one who was able to get over him – who, at the house in Cuba, in 1944, is allowed a judgment:

He sat down by her; his T-shirt smelled of the cocktail.  “What can I do for you, Marty?”  His words were gentle now.  Poor Ernest.  He had never loved another more than he himself was loved.

But it was still her who describes him, in August in Paris later that year, during a caddish episode that does not show him at his best:

A man stands with his hands deep in the garbage cans.  Somehow, among the empty wine bottles, broken wooden crates, slimed scraps of food, Ernest still has the air of a man in touch with the gods.

Mrs. Hemingway is arranged in four sections, arranged chronologically by wife as each of them picks up the narrative baton, though it jumps around, criss-crossing in time and place within and between those sections, taking in Chicago, Paris, Arkansas, Antibes, Florida, Havana, London and, finally, Ketchum, Idaho, and ranging over the years from 1920, when Hadley first met Ernest in Chicago (which is not the opening chapter), to 1961 and Ernest’s suicide.  It’s quite a story, skillfully and stylishly handled.  “My wives,” he tells Mary, the last wife, who stayed with him longest, to the distressing end, “They have a way of finding each other without me being involved a jot.”  It is precisely the discovery of this aspect of it all that, the author says (in a bonus afterword in the Richard & Judy Book Club edition I read), prompted her to write the novel: “I was swiftly realising that though the wives and mistresses of Ernest Hemingway were enemies, they were also, quite often, friends.

The end – Mary witnessing his physical and mental deterioration – is painful to read:

Sometimes she walks out to the woods: the leaves of the cedar and birch are just on the turn.  fall has come so quickly, and the forest is all mustards, rust and blood.  Having loved its beauty so intensely, it amazes her that Ernest is blind to it now.

Ernest and Hadley in Pamplona 1925

OK, it’s Spain 1925, not Paris, but you get the drift. That’s Hadley in the middle.

This is a tremendous, ultimately sad, novel.  It’s clear an enormous amount of research went into it and, again in that afterword, Naomi Wood admits “… sometimes, in the midst of love letters and torn-up photographs, I felt like the fifth mistress.”  Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song called Mrs. Hemingway; it’s Hadley looking back on her time with Ernest in Paris in the mid-1920s, the time celebrated in A moveable feast, Hemingway’s memoir of those times which was assembled by Mary from his manuscripts and notes, and published after his death.  It’s a lovely piece of work that is on YouTube with an atmospheric slideshow of photographs, mostly from that era, including some of the couple.  Here’s the link; have a hankie ready: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j68s-C1ikO0

Scribal April 2016Vaultage mid-April 2016Another Scribal goodie.  We got a full complement of Roses and Pirates, previously mentioned in despatches minus a cello player, and mighty fine they were too.  The cellist (“Amy Farrah Fowler” said my companion) kicked off with some charming pizzicato and added a lot to the mix, even when, “relegated to percussion” (and I quote a fellow band member).  Three women with some decent songs and stirring harmonies, delivered with humour and zest.

Lee Nelson – the Lutonia poet, not the alleged London comedian – gave us a great set.  We had the Human League’s Don’t you want me completely re-written in sonnet form, which worked delightfully; the recognition of the sentiments re-imagined in a different lingua franca, without any resort to easy laughs (the concept is wry enough), was illuminating.  Lee has published a slim volume giving each track on the Dare album the treatment, so he asked for requests; inevitably someone asked for the instrumental.  Lee, you should get that slim volume a mention on the Dare Wikipedia page.  He’s now working on Abba, and he gave us one of those too.   Highlight of a varied set, though, was the epic 97, a funny and ultimately moving memoir of his father, written in part as a response to a request for something to go in a prime numbers-themed anthology, leavened by beautifully crafted tangents concerning the writing of the piece and other things on the way.  Outstanding.

Mid-month Vaultage saw a fine 30-minute spot to host Pat Nicholson in DADGAD mode.  I knew there was something different about him … he was performing … without a … hat.

Rhyme & ReasonMK HumsRhyme & Reason

The regular Milton Keynes Humanists April meeting was given over entirely to a look at poetry on humanist themes, and an absorbing evening it turned out to be, with featured poets Danni Antagonist (who sold some books!) and Sam Upton in fine form, and members of the group doing their own stuff, reciting old favourites or texts chosen specifically for the occasion.  Of the latter, Abul Al Al Ma’arri, a blind Arab eleventh century poet was something of an eye-opener.  There’s an article by Kenan Malik (The poetry of an old atheist) which is well worth a look, from which this short poem is taken;

Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be True;
Ay, but weak is the chain of those who warrant their truth.
Consult thy reason and let perdition take others all:
Of all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.

Yup, dateline: 11th century, Aleppo and Baghdad.

 

 

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The strings are falseOne …

This one‘s a cracker, a gem of a book before we’ve even opened it.  Not only does poet Louis MacNeice look like he’s on his way to a local jump-up folk gig, but that cool photo was taken by his mate, W.H.Auden.  The strings are false: an unfinished autobiography (1965) was written in the ’40s but not published until 1965, two years after his death.  It’s a mash-up of three documents, with an appendix featuring extracts from the letters home of a friend of his at school and uni giving a fuller picture of aspects of the man not so evident in his own engrossing text.

It’s fascinating.  Born in Belfast in 1907, the son of a Protestant vicar with Irish nationalist sympathies (not necessarily a contradiction in those days), he’s sent to Sherborne, an English prep school, and then Marlborough, a public school in Wiltshire, where he’s big mates with then modernist champion (and now Fifth Man) Anthony Blunt, joining his vaguely subversive Anonymous Society.  Appendix A – Landscapes of childhood and youth – is a lovely piece of writing giving us the flavour of the natural setting of those places.

At Oxford in the late ’20s – “the only serious activity was poetry” – he’s mates with the left-wing poets of the time, and while a fellow traveller, his scepticism about middle class Communist perceptions of the working classes and the struggle makes for an amusing read.  There are spells as an academic in Birmingham, where he sees respectable working class aspiration first-hand, and in the US.  We also get the story of a tangled courtship and failed marriage, and a distressingly morally muddy propaganda visit to Spain during the Civil War.

What particularly struck me was both how dated it feels – those letters of friend John Hilton’s in Appendix B are to Hilton’s father – and yet how in many ways how the characteristics and feel of cultural change (‘the Art School Dance’) and radical politics transcend time.  I didn’t, as is my usual wont, take notes as I was reading  (this was my bath-time book) but for what it’s worth, this quote stuck in the craw:

From the British public schools come the British ruling classes.  Or came till very lately.  it is from the public schools that our Governments caught the trick of infallibility.  The public-school boy (sic), after a few years of discomfort, has all the answers at his fingertips; he does not have to bother with the questions.  It is only the odd public-school boy who thinks there are any questions left.  This is why the public schools will die like the dinosaurs – from overspecialisation and a mortal invulnerability.

Some hope.  I enjoyed The strings are false immensely.  It is beautifully written, variously funny, bracing, elegiac and thrilling.  I’m guessing the title is a refutation of the ideas of Freud and Marx – puppet strings – that energised the times, though I can’t also help thinking of ’80s bands and the ubiquitous synthesizer*.  Because it’s one of my favourite poems, here’s link to Louis MacNeice‘s cheery An eclogue for Christmas: http://poemplume.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/eclogue-for-christmas.html.

*Sorry, but sometimes it is hard to resist saying something like this.  Especially when you then read William Empson‘s Preface to the 2nd edition of his Seven types of ambiguity (1947):

To be sure, the question how far unintended or even unwanted extra meanings do in fact impose themselves, and thereby drag our minds out of their path in spite of our efforts to prevent it, is obviously a legitimate one …

PapercutsMystery manTwo …

So … with Paper cuts (Head of Zeus, 2016) the author previously known as Bateman (himself the author previously known as Colin Bateman) is back being Colin Bateman again.  I’d say it’s a shame, really, but it’s his prerogative – he’s also got a play up and running, and an important film script in production – so the withdrawal from the manic Mystery Man series of novels is understandable; the author must have feared repetition, and I for one found it hard to distinguish them from those equally wonderful later books in the Dan Starkey sequence.  Lillabullero has already chronicled its love of both series’ boundless energy, sharpness and wit, the endlessly quotable smart-ass one liners, the slapstick and acute social observation, the stark, violent, pacey and painful thriller action driving them along; quite often all on the same page.

In as much as Paper cuts is a retreat into the more conventional comic novel genre those quotes on the cover are a bit of a cheat.  I was disappointed, and it would be interesting to know how someone coming fresh to Bateman appreciates the new book.  It’s a bit corny if the truth be known, the stuff of, in different locales, more than one old movie, and television series.

Rob, a biggish shot Guardian journalist on gardening leave (itself a bit of a mystery, ultimately a bit of a damp squib) and with marital difficulties, goes back to Northern Ireland for the funeral of his mentor from the start of his career in Belfast, who ended his career as editor of an ailing small town local paper.  Proprietor gets him drunk, persuades a reluctant Rob to give the local paper a shot before he probably closes it down.  Cue lots of office politics, some decent office banter, and a potential romance.  Various stories follow, he softens to the place, proprietor learns to love the buzz of local papers & so on.  There is an effective action climax, but, in the fashion of a big American tv series finale, another big plot line is left hanging; so I guess there’s a sequel in the pipeline.  (I had to take some stick on Colin Bateman’s FaceBook page – not from him, I hasten to add, he was suitably droll – for querying whether I’d been lumbered with a faulty copy of Paper Cuts because pre-publicity suggested it had 400 page whereas it only has 375).

There are saving graces.  Bateman‘s spirited prose is still in evidence:

Pete was comfortable and dependable, a worker, a toiler behind the scenes, he believed in family and the church and a quiet life, none of which prevented him from being a two-faced shit-stirrer with a bitter streak; but nobody’s perfect.

… though without the quick-fire rapidity.  Where many authors will give a wise quote before the action starts, in Paper cuts we get:

Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
Rob Cullen bought curly kale in Tesco’s just to watch it wither.

There’s a nice running joke of his new colleagues not getting Rob’s allusions from popular culture (“ ‘It’s not a conspiracy,’ said Rob, ‘it’s Chinatown.’  ” ‘It’s wah …?’ “), and there’s a useful and sobering reminder that, once upon a time, before the Troubles, there was a Civil Rights movement that pre-dated the IRA really taking off, and it wasn’t just Catholics.

Three O’clock …

Luckily for the hat-trick conceit, one of the standout performances for me at the Arts Gateway MK’s Spoken Word Extravaganza, held on the occasion of World Storytelling Day (March 20) and World Poetry day (March 21) was Liam Malone‘s cri de coeur about the plight of the middle-aged man trying to buy a pair of ‘ordinary’ jeans in Top Shop.  Not only was Liam born across the Irish Sea (and, I’m pretty sure, north of the border) but he also – back to where we started – sports a cap not dissimilar to that featured on the head of Louis MacNeice on the cover of The strings are false and, indeed, wears it in the same fashion.

Much to value from the mixed band of poets, storytellers and comedians who also performed, but it was a long time ago now …  Though I will mention Elsie Bryant‘s intense and thoughtful tour de force testament of social, political, emotional  and intellectual development, delivered kinda rap but with rhymes that actually made sense beyond the rhyming dictionary.  Bravo!

The Extravaganza was held at MK11, an excellent licensed small venue with a proper stage and an ambitious programme of all sorts of musics ongoing.  And an undistinguished entrance from the car park, a door that reeks (metaphorically) of speakeasies in prohibition days.

 

 

 

 

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