Archive for the ‘Comics’ Category

Well … some of it is down to slothdom and procrastination, and some of it is down to events and body stuff, but the blog Lillabullero hereby makes a furious try (that’s furious as in quick rather than anger) at catching up:

La Belle Sauvage

Hugely exciting, I was swept along by the perilous escape by boat that gives it its title, at the core of La Belle Sauvage (David Fickling, 2017).  Left me both soaring and floundering as to what to read next, like … bring on the second volume of The Book of Dust – right NOW! – please Philip Pullman.

Like its predecessor His dark materials trilogy, this one is full of ideas and charm – and good advice for teens – as the battle of the good guys against the bastards in the parallel universe land of Brytain is played out.  Pullman gets to champion public libraries again too.

I’d forgotten about the totemic daemons on everyone’s shoulders or thereabouts, and how until their ‘owners’ grow up they are changelings, a fascinating notion.  Here Lyra and Pantalaimon are only 6 months old, but we are assured the new trilogy is an ‘equel’ – more than a prequel.

It may be over 500 pages long, but it’s an easy read with a lot of dialogue to drive it along, and it is, after all, a children’s book, but it easily transcends that (unlike Potter).  It boasts a generous cast of characters of all shades, one of whom, Hannah Relf, is a librarian, and some lovely nod and a wink asides:

Hannah ate her sandwich slowly … and reading a book. It was nothing to do with work; it was a thriller, of the sort she liked, with a mysterious death, skin-of-the-teeth escapes, and a haughty and beautiful heroine whose function was to fall in love with the saturnine but witty hero.

Nothing like the resourceful 11-year-old Malcolm and the feisty 15-year-old Alice at the heart of La Belle Sauvage, then.

The shock of the fall

I liked the fiction of Nathan Filer‘s  The shock of the fall (Harper Collins, 2013) being a neat pile of writings and documents left for someone to find in the vacated, due for demolition, building that had recently housed Day Care Centre in which the writings’ author and subject had begun a road to recovery (probably).

19-year old Matthew Holmes’ journey – I won’t go into specifics, but they are not without interest – through a troubled childhood into a schizophrenic breakdown, leading to hospitalisation and then out into care in the community, is presented typographically as a mix of pages tapped out on an old typewriter or printed out at the Centre (with the odd bit of concrete poetry), interleaved with increasingly concerned hand-written letters from his social worker, and a friend’s drawings.  He describes himself at one stage as being “hunched over a typewriter, staining paper with family secrets“, while in the printouts he will comment to and on whoever’s looking over his shoulder at the PC; there are a lot of nice touches and self-deprecation like that in his voice).

I have to say that though I’m a fan of slow reveal narratives this one struck me as a bit too slow, and repetitive with it.  Nevertheless, and even through a certain reek of the university Creative Writing Department about it (the mirroring of two key events in particular), in the end I was moved by Matthew’s tale, and his Nanny Noo’s faith.  A broader appreciation of The shock of the fall grew after a Book Group meeting in which someone with experience both as a mental health worker and client bravely put things in the book in context with their experience.  Book Groups can be a splendid things!

But I really wanted to be an anthropologist

I turned out to be an illustrator, but I really wanted to be ...” is how Margaux Motin kicks off this collection (Self Made Hero, 2012; translated Edward Gauvin) from her French language cartoon blog.  I had a great time with it.  Her reflections on motherhood with two demanding children and a trimly stubbled partner run a gamut from ennui (she draws a great bored face) through to girlish delight, taking in a (sorry to be repeat myself) self-deprecatory love of life, a touch of filth and a lot of finely detailed shoes.

On the right here there’s an extract from the page headed ‘A few things you should know about me’.  There’s an adept use of colour, used in a variety of ways.  Despite the consistency of line, as I turned the pages there was no danger of being over familiar with a sameness of style and approach.

Experience the sheer joy of this double-page spread and know that it’s only half way through, with a punchline to come:

Mentioned in despatches:

These I was at, and another day might have got a lot more attention, in particular the splendid Kara (energetic Russian influenced folk from all over, strong vocals, accordion, the wonderful sound of the low notes of the hammered dulcimer – here’s their website) and Five Men Not Called Matt (of whom there are more than 5, and not all men, lustily shantying and more, with subtle support from a solo Roddy Clenaghan), both at York House.  Tim Buckley ably kept the Scribal show on the road in November (where we had the first helping of Richard Frost’s new epic in progress), and there must have been a Vaultage in there somewhere.  Stony Tracks, a local Desert Island Discs derivative, was launched in some style.  Shame to miss the lantern parade and Stony Christmas lights turn on, but needs musted.











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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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South RidingEarly on in proceedings, Mrs Beddows, one of the bedrock heroes of Winifred Holtby‘s South Riding: an English landscape (1936) offers as an excuse for a small indulgence in the evening that she’s been “wrestling all day with fallen girls and upstanding bishops.”  Looking back from the mid-2010s it’s hard (sorry) not to see innuendo there, the sort of line that would have had them in stitches at the very music halls that characters in the novel (and, I infer, the author) are a bit sniffy about.  While not being entirely dismissive, Winifred Holtby does seem to distrust and struggle in trying, unlike her contemporary, George Orwell, to come to terms with popular culture.  Even taking into account the shifting perspectives she allows us there’s a hectoring, improving tone creeps into the writing that threatens at times – though only threatens – to take away from one’s appreciation and enjoyment of a novel that approaches greatness at others.

All things being equal I doubt I would ever have read South Riding if it hadn’t been for the Reading Group I’m in.  So hurrah for reading groups.  While we were split on the likelihood of the big romantic twist in the plot – déjà vu to that same unconvincing (or me at least) moment in the telly adaptation a few years back – everybody liked Mrs Beddows, the elder confidante of both parties:

Accustomed to take the bad with the good in this world and having wide experience of both commodities, Mrs Beddows wasted no undue sympathy. Some people, she would say, are so full of the milk of human kindness that it slops over and messes everything.

What we have here is a panoramic picture of a Yorkshire community in the mid-1930s, of decision-making public and private,  in a period of great change, seen mostly through the eyes of Sarah, the hometown gal made good returning as the progressive headmistress of the local Girls’ High School, and variously aligned local government politicians and some of the people they serve or supposedly represent.  As a portrait of the way things were, you get the feeling that that was precisely how it was.  But it’s more than just a period piece: the questions it examines – class, poverty, responsibility, sacrifice, redemption, hypocrisy, change for who? – still resonate freshly from its pages.

There’s a large cast (and thankfully – authors and editors please note – a list of Characters in order of appearance 6 pages long) with representatives drawn from a broad social spectrum.  The cynic might say all the category boxes are ticked but that’s just not fair, such is the power of Winifred Holtby‘s sympathetic imagination.  Her great strength is in the gradual (but in effect dramatic) uncovering of what makes her conflicting major players tick.  Even Snaith, the scheming capitalist bastard of the piece is given his light as a moderniser (a plan for ‘A New Jerusalem’ bringing indoor toilets to the people that he gets passed with  the help of a compromised Socialist) while his empty personal life hints of a suppressed homosexuality.  Indeed, in a novel that appeared early in the Virago imprint’s distinctive green covered mission rescuing feminist classics from out-of-print oblivion, I can only think of two characters who are given no saving graces; both are middle class women whose idea of fulfilment is their dependent marriage status, or achieving it.

So … time and place beautifully evoked, vivid characterisation and character development, a decent plot.  This is a good if old-fashioned novel – compassionate, wise and looking for a better way.  Many stories are told here, but – forgive me – I’m going to take Sarah Burton, the headmistress and central character, for granted here.  She wears it well, fights a good fight, has her doubts – a bit dated, those, actually – but sees it through.

Winifred Holtby at BrigueWhat I want to talk about is the passage towards the end of South Riding  that is so fine, so powerful and resonant, I feared it would undercut whatever happened after it – like that duet in Bizet’s opera The pearl fishers after which everything is just going through the motions, seeing the evening out – but life goes on and Holtby carries the story through to the end well enough.  The horse ride that leads to the ultimate demise (oh, sorry – spoiler alert) of Robert Carne, the sporting gentleman farmer who married the Lord’s rebellious but unstable daughter, the slow reveal of the full tragedy of how his love, passion and care for her (never mind changing economic circumstances) set him on a path to ruin is a tour de force indeed.

If Carne is a man who stands for tradition, who instinctively feels and cares for the land and ‘his’ people, the modern world has a double whammy for him; there’s the new rampant capitalism and materialism, and, my concern here, its opposition in the form of the Socialist Astell, another finely nuanced character, who thinks and cares for ‘his’:

Queer, thought Carne. Socialist chaps like Astell think it’s us employers who grudge the unemployed their dole; but it’s the old workers, like Castle, who are far harder on them.

Astell’s commitment and idealism is never doubted – he is no comic character, has a back story to prove it – but he’s still a bit of a prig: “The traditional humour of the poor angered Astell. He felt humour to be an inappropriate emotion.”  Of the working class at leisure he thinks, “They moved to a rhythm without reason …” but you have to sympathise with him when he observes, “You begin by thinking in terms of world revolution and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm”.  Yup, so it goes.

Three more things I feel the need to mention.  Firstly, and irrelevantly really, in the character of young Lydia, an intelligent child trapped in poverty but whose “mind ranged free through moonlit Athenian forests” reading a book atop her family’s railway carriage home I kept getting glimpses of a young Caitlin Moran.  Secondly, a reminder of how far we’ve come in the UK – in the report of the local Watch Committee’s interference with the books in the public library – that someone with power can get away with

… Aldous Huxley was “a disgusting pervert,” Virginia Woolf a “morbid degenerate” and Naomi Mitchison “not fit for a lunatic asylum.” “No. I’ve not read it all through, but I know enough,” was his favourite condemnation.

And thirdly, made an issue here most might say unfairly and rather gratuitously, here’s some of the worst writing about football I’ve ever found in any novel of quality otherwise thoroughly decent prose (unless anyone knows better):

… on the Saturday evening after the gigantic victory of the Kingsport Rovers over the West Riding Wanderers and the city was en fête. […] After that glorious contest in the mud … after that last goal shot just before the whistle blew …

Enough.  Though it doesn’t have its intellectual clout – nor a hint of a Casaubon – with its close examination of how a community works and fits together, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, is often cited in connection with South Riding.  It is certainly a major work of its time and I’d say it’s to be regretted very few novels even attempt this kind of big picture in mainstream quality fiction these days.  Of late I can only think of Philip Hensher’s ambitious try with The northern clemency and, for all its faults, J.K.Rowling’s post-Potter The casual vacancy.  It’s an abdication that has been left for crime fiction to pick up, in the work of writers like Ian Rankin.

Dark entriesSpeaking of whom …

Dark entries: a John Constantine novel (2009), a small format black and white graphic novel in DC’s Vertigo Crime series, scripted by said Ian Rankin, looked to have a lot going for it, both because of Rankin’s involvement and because it’s John Constantine, who I first encountered in an intriguing comic called Hellblazer during a lengthy post-Watchman comic binge.  It’s worth checking out Constantine’s Wikipedia entry for a fascinating over-view of the fictional career of this “working class magician, occult detective and con man” and his dry wit.  I never realised he was originally (yet another) Alan Moore creation; such is Constantine’s stature that some of the best comic book creators have leant their talents over the years to his ongoing story.

Sadly if this had been a blind reading … no, let’s re-phrase that: if I had read Dark entries without knowing of Ian Rankin‘s involvement I never would have guessed it.  And I’m afraid I was unenamoured of Werther Dell’Edera’s artwork, which had me regularly confused as to what was actually going on or to who.  Set in ‘Anytown’ (but a town with the London Transport broad horizontal line through the circle) it starts off with JC being conned into entering a big brother style reality tv house with added hauntedness.  As you’d expect, Rankin’s cynicism is to the fore in the establishing scenes.  The ‘reality’ turns out to be very different as the perceived landscape switches to one inhabited by the denizens of hell.  Don’t know about the chronology, so this might have been a fore-runner, but the reality tv horror scenario is pretty much a well established sub-genre by now, is it not?  The white bordered pages turn to black – actually rather effectively – with this revelation, but it’s just yer standard stuff of horror fantasy, which has never been my bag.  Pity, but putting Dark entries out under the Vertigo Crime logo is a bit of a misnomer.

Music Hall encounters & whatever the collective noun for songwriters is …

Sand dance

Photo (c) Ken ‘Danny Boy’ Daniels but mucked about a bit by Lillabullero

Friday night and we have monologues, melodrama and a sand dance as just some of the ingredients that went to make up Stony Music Hall 2! at York House.  Throw in Swannders & Flan, Pat as the Stony nightingale, and some clog from the same couple of Stony Steppers – out of the folky streets and onto the stage, an early staple of the Halls – with the irrepressible Bubbles closing proceedings and a fine frolicsome and fun night was had by all.  Bubbles chose songs that were directly relevant, or were popular at the time, to the First World War and it was a strange feeling to be singing along to “Come on along / Come on along / and join Lord Kitchener’s army” to the Lord Kitchener featured on 'British Army War Song Album' of WWI, 1914-18 (colour litho)tune of Alexander’s Ragtime BandPack up your troubles morphed into It’s a long way to Tipperary (or vice versa).  The deliciously delivered Spotted dick song is a perfect example of the sort of thing that made the South Riding progressives so uneasy:

We’re having a bit tonight, tonight, we’re having a bit tonight.
Me mother says I must be quick to get me bit o’ spotted dick.
I loves me roly-poly. It fills me with delight.
I haven’t had any since Christmas, but we’re having a bit tonight.

Boom, boom.  All ending with an ensemble Daisy, Daisy.  Another fine evening’s entertainment, not forgetting the Great Oakley brewery’s Welland Mild and our impressive, ineluctable, ixistential impresario – thanks Ken.

Sunday night the fruits of the latest AORTAS Songwriting Workshop (Association for Oral Traditions and AortasSongwriting, no less, if you’re wondering) are delivered to market at the Old George.  And a fine and varied night of infectious music and fellowship it was too.  It would be invidious to single out specific performers on the night.  They obviously had a grand time in what must have been difficult circumstances – an enforced last-minute change of workshop venue – though judging from his FB post, by the end of the night Dan must have felt a long distance away from the earlier desperation; Dan and confrères dared and won.  Mr Plews’ Death wore a gaberdine raincoat is my current earworm and no bad thing for that.  (You can also find his lovely Hearts and books at that link too, booklovers).

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Here’s a gift for science fiction writers (if this theme – a sort of update on A chronicle for Liebowitz – hasn’t been tried before).  What if  included on the Voyager Golden Record that NASA blasted out into space in 1977 to give any intelligent life forms out there some idea of what Earth was all about, along with Chuck Berry‘s Johnny B.Goode and the UK’s sole representative – an early music piece called The faerie round – was something from the repertoire of Les Dawson at the piano?  And that was the one that did it for them.  (I could go on; his music of the spheres was a fulfillment of a prophecy, he’s proclaimed a deity etc.).

Les Dawson Les Dawson

They still crack me up every time, Les Dawson‘s flawed performances at the pianoforte, often attempting at the same time to get the audience to sing along.  It was an accomplishment admired by ‘real’ musicians recognising the skill of his wrong note selection and its execution.  Louis Barfe gives pointers to a couple of the best in his The trials and triumphs of Les Dawson (Atlantic Books, 2012).  Here’s a link to one from a Michael Parkinson show of 1976, the musical director practically ROTFL, and with some great repartee at the end.  It’s an absorbing tale told well.   A working class Salford lad, born 1931 who never forgot where he came from – could they ever have met? – he had various jobs, the longest as a vacuum cleaner salesman, while trying to establish himself as an all round entertainer – a few songs, the odd joke or monologue – coming out of  ’50s variety scene and earlier music hall traditions.  He even went to London to make it under the aegis of Max Wall just when Wall’s career took with a dive with a divorce ‘scandal’ that wouldn’t make the front pages these days.  Dispirited he returned north.

It was his wife had to chivvy him to apply for Opportunity Knocks, a popular talent show on recently established commercial TV.  He swept the board as a northern comedian, and the rest – if you know it – is history.  If you don’t it’s well worth investigating.  He was a natural comic whose talent, it could be said, was wasted on the formats given him and not helped by his self-imposed hectic scheduling.  He died at 62, in 1993, a phenomenal drinker but never a drunkard.  An autodidact who could hold his own off-stage with intellectuals, among others he worked with John Cleese and … Lulu (see what I mean about formats?) and published several novels across the genres.  There was so much more to him than the mother-in-law and wife jokes that for some defined him – never, though, delivered with malice, and enjoyed by his actual mother-in-law.

It should go without saying that he could be very funny, his monologues veering all over the place (a conversation between him and Paul Merton would be a very strange ride).  I could have done without the gurning, but that was straight Lancastrian music hall legend Rob Wilton.  He was mean with his money – waiting for him to get his round in was not really an option – but he was incredibly generous with his time.  A decent man, loved by those he worked with, his mantra to make the world a better place was a simple one : Be kind.



I never really ‘got’ Neil Gaiman‘s Coraline when it first came out as a prose novella aimed at the teenage market in 2002.  I was disappointed.  I’d been entranced by his astonishing earlier Sandman 75 issue sequence of comics – a work of genius – and was wrapt by American Gods (2001), his exciting and impressive long novel also woven around the same sort of landscapes of archetype and myth – presented pretty much as a road novel.  Coraline went on the win prestigious Hugo (Best novella), Nebula (best novella) and Bram Stoker (Best work for young readers) awards, so what did I know?  I just couldn’t get inside the pure fantasy horror genre, I guess.

I picked up the graphic novel version in the library on a whim and appreciated it more.  Nice to be reminded too of the unique qualities the graphic novel can bring to storytelling with its flexible page panel arrangements the action grows or slows, the effects colours can bring, the drama of turning the page to something wonderful (I’m assuming quality here but there’s a lot out there).  Coraline: the graphic novel, adapted and illustrated by P.Craig Russell (Bloomsbury, 2008) took away what must have been the tedium of the house’s description that I might well have drifted off in.  I still find it hard to transcend the basic silliness of the situation: big house in the middle of nowhere, retired thespians on the ground floor, Coraline’s mum and dad glued to their computer screens one floor up, with a mouse circus trainer in a dirty old man mac at the top; and a whole equivalent ‘other’ house inside the walls of the house (the people with buttons sewn in their eyes, rats upstairs) trying to take over.  What?

Coraline’s courage, cleverness and patient resolve come through though.  It’s a nice touch that it’s only the evil ‘other’ tenants can get her name right (“It’s Coraline!”) but the pièce de résistance is the cat, her confidante with his own philosophical positions (cats don’t need names) who straddles both worlds at a distance, and who talks in one but not in the other (actually he talks in the ‘other’ but there’s no rhetoric in that).  It’s a nice piece of work altogether, and I get to see the Gaiman qualities I missed before coming through.

Way of roses, 2007 MK Gallery

Bit of a change from the usual at MK Gallery for a brief show up for just a month going under the title Hemmed in: Embroidery and Needlework from MK and beyond.  Colourful, intricate and stark and all stations in between, figurative and abstract, imaginative and inventive, beautiful work there is up there on the walls.  Changed my take on needlework for sure.  It’s a tripartite, wonderfully curated exhibition.

The object on the left is probably the most extreme on show.  It’s from Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė, a Lithuanian stitchist, entitled Way of Roses, from 2007, which is a work of “cross-stitch on metal (found car door)“.  Meanwhile British embroider Sarah Greaves’ Bath Tub, crafted 2011, is “hand embroidered bath“; minimalist, contemplative, fascinating, made by drilling small holes in a bath then threading through them spelling out a few relaxing bathtime thoughts – it worked for me.  Both of those are in the Long Gallery, an exciting collection featuring very recent new wave work, some featuring cult and pop culture icons.  These were selected by Mr X Stitch, Jamie Chalmers, an “active leader in the online stitch community” and “‘fibre arts’ blogger” no less.  The Middle Gallery features work from the MK Embroiderers Guild, some of it featuring aspects of MK.  Their Milton Keynes in an eight inch square project displays many inventive approaches.  The Cube Gallery features a small collection of more traditional  – though it’s all relative – works from the Embroiderer’s Guild National Collection dating from the ’30s to now; I’d like to see more.  The exhibition is an eye-opening delight, all the more satisfying for the local involvement.  Good on yer, MK Gallery.


  • Friday night dinner – yay!  (Even a partial redemption of the Mark Heap character, who was getting on my nerves)
  • Outnumbered never lets you down
  • Dr Who d’accord
  • The news that some people have been claiming their whole Christmas has been ruined by what happened in Downton Abbey is another highlight for me – nobody to blame but yourself for getting involved with the old snob Ffellowes’ work in the first place.
  • didn’t even consider The Royle Family after the last two disasters.  Another BBC scandal: isn’t there someone there who can just say, not good enough?  Without the loving glue of young Anthony – the Ralph Little character – the whole concept was gone.
  • and while we’re at it, how soon the charm goes from Miranda …

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MK Gallery has established the good habit of giving the exhibiting artist the opportunity of making over its shoebox exterior.  Here’s the Norwegian artist Hariton Pushwanger‘s take on it for his Soft City show.

It’s an absorbing exhibition, one I spent considerably longer with than most of the gallery’s offerings, and not just because you get in its entirety all 154 original pages, displayed in cabinets, of his Soft City graphic novel (1969-75) – a very early example of the medium.  It looks familiar; were pages featured in the underground press at the time?  The simple, repetitive depiction of a robotic existence in the Brave New metropolis – get up, take a Life pill, road queues, work mundanity (with sinister end product), traffic , back to little box, wife and babe, sleeping pill – is made all more effective by its opening scene of the baby filling the page, waking first in its cot, looking to explore the world, even if it is only the apartment.  It’s the shifting scale of the drawings – from baby, to couple getting up, to face in the crowd, office block production line metropolis – that is so effective. The power of simplicity and repetition.

The Self Portrait (1973-93) featured above is incredibly detailed in ink, the spiral is made up of hundreds of figures trudging along, the backdrop stack upon stack of balconies full of observers.  Flashback: on the opening page of the very first reading diary I maintained, late ’70s – an exercise that evolved into this blog – I pasted this panel cut of from … I think it was … the Garth strip  the Evening Standard (I was living in London then).  Couldn’t resist slipping that in, it’s such a great example of the comic art.

Self Portrait is one of the seven dramatic paintings  – “intricate and obsessively detailed” the guide calls them – that make up The Apocalypse Frieze, which is a show in itself, assembled within a substantial sumptuous dark wood framework.  It’s the mesmerising Jobkill therein that I found it hard to move away from (and I shall return).  Futile to put a small picture in here.  The centre piece is a battleship-cum-luxury liner, making its way down an urban waterway, weapons ablaze as the pianist sitting at a grand plays on for those dancing and dining on the upper deck.  All around in incredible cartoon detail, Bosch-like, the logical partnership for Pushwagner of commerce and the war machine played out in all its destructive varieties – factories, road building, steam rollers, homes under attack while the wheels of industry grind on, skeletons abound while armed paratroopers  drop in from the sky, the odd crucifixion, babes, bombs, naked women running, beneath a burning silhouetted horizon, pink against blue and black: the catalogue is endless.  And bottom centre, not the first thing you see, a palm tree, someone on a desert island?  Eden?  In the same room a bonus of some of the artists’ sketchbooks; always a treat, and these with real charm, broader in aspect.

Star of July’s Scribal Gathering (“a fantastic feast of musical mastercraft and poetical proficiency, bringing together lachrymatorially lyrical live talent and perfervid performers from perfurther afield” it says here – thank you Richard Frost) was performance poet Alan Wolfson, who entertained mightily with or without sombrero in a wide-ranging set.  Open mic as varied as ever.  Compere Richard’s words when Justin lurched to the long end of a new poem –  “Write stoned, edit sober“- were received well by all (including Justin).

I have to mention The Big Bang Theory to justify that Soft city, warm kitty title to this post.  In this television era of endless repeats it never fails to hit the comic spot, and in its best episodes achieves what all the greats do, of a). making you wonder how they cram so much narrative and so many jokes into less than half an hour, and b). being endlessly watchable.  Four geeks (physics and superhero comics) of varying otherworldliness and inadequacy, and the gal in the flat opposite.  Inevitably as more characters are introduced there is a danger of its losing its perfection, but in Penny and in particular Sheldon (borderline OCD and functioning Aspergers) we have comic performances of genius.  Not to mention the writing.

Disappointed with the new Tom Jones album, Spirit in the room.  Whereas 2010’s Praise and blame had a hard-edged intensity that was riveting, the rediscovery of that blues and soul mojo that he’d started with in a beat group in the early ’60s, here with the same producer he’s relaxing into this newfound ‘real me’ and it’s a bit ordinary in too many places.  So, second post running Leonard Cohen gets a mention!  The slight re-tooling of Laughing Len’s Tower of song doesn’t fit right.  And somehow those lines about being “born like this / I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice” just do not work if the singer actually has got one.  Not sure either whether the church choirs (treble then full) in the arrangement of the enigmatic and intriguing Charlie Darwin are there to put a specific meaning on the song (they do sound like church choirs), but I do know it sounds better than the slightly whining and sloppier original Low Anthem version.  There are endless internet discussions as to the meaning of the song: Darwin, for or against; God, dead or alive?  Either way the regret and despair at its heart cannot be denied.  A humanist Dover beach?  Says Wikipedia: Upon its re-release, vocalist and guitarist Ben Knox Miller stated that “listening to the record is akin to taking shelter during a lightning storm among nostalgic remnants in a water-damaged church, whose new tenants – rats, owls, stray dogs and snakes – comprise a burgeoning, cacophonous, dog-eat-dog ecosystem.

One of our local eco-systems – the Stony Stratford nature reserve – held a nice surprise this week.  We’d been watching a pair of nesting Great Crested Grebes for a while now, the nest precariously surviving on a breached archipelago; more rain and the nest would have been a goner.  Then one day a grebe alone but no-one on the nest, minded no more.  Deflation in the bird hide.  But, oh we of little faith.  Later in the week two little grebe-lings I did espy, dipping under the water for themselves already.  Sorry about the quality of the photo, but I want to give nod to nature, to celebrate.

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Aint it just like the confusion to reign when you’re looking to get a Dylan quote in train?  “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez*” …  “Aint it just like the night to play tricks** …?”  Just as well I checked, I suppose – unlike G.K.Chesterton publishing a book on William Blake getting all his quotes from memory, and getting some of them wrong –  but (wotthehell archy***) we’ll let it lie.  [Citations at the end of this post].

Aint it just like the British weather to kick in when you don’t need it.  And I’m not talking about the Jubilee, or at least not yet.  Flaming June!  So, a week ago, sweltering in an unforgiving sun, Saturday, the kick off of Stony Live!, the annual week of live music  over and above the usual, and it’s a grey, cold, miserable morning for the Old Mother Redcaps women’s Manx morris and the Stony Steppers (Lancashire clog) to strut their stuff in the High Street.  They stuck to it and at least it didn’t rain.

That came on Sunday, for the Classic Car Show in the Market Square, which started in penetrating drizzle in the morning and then it really rained.  Still plenty of people in attendance but understandably, this year, fewer cars.  This is a photo of the car I learned to drive in (or at least the one my mother took me practising in).  Not the actual car, you understand, but the model – a Morris Minor – crucially with the side direction indicator wings (that thing in the middle) that flicked out.  There was a Hillman Imp there too, the first car I ever owned (with the same caveat as above) in far better condition after all these years, I’m sure, than mine ever was, let alone when I bought it (it broke down on its first 50 mile journey).

Briefly, the Queen’s diamond jubilee.  I had to feel some compassion for those involved in the Thames Flotilla when it really started pissing down, even if the BBC’s hopeless sycophancy was causing me distress.  In our street we have a summer street party every year on a July Saturday, but it got shifted to the jubilee weekend this year (to say it was hijacked by the monarchists would be putting it a bit strong).  It was so cold the personal dilemma as to whether I would actually bring myself to bare my ‘Citizen not subject‘ t-shirt never came up, but there it remained under shirt, jumper, and finally, fleece.  The whole thing was put into a new perspective for me when Andrea, handed me a banknote for the purchase and consumption of fine Cornish ale at the lunchtime Hole in the Head Gang gig (Good Ol’ Rocky Top bluegrass).  Examining said banknote and realising, for the first time for both of us, she said, “One of these days it’ll be a picture of Charles printed here.”  And for the ritual purchase of Stony Live! raffle tickets, again that thought, as if for the first time.  Of course.  And postage stamps.  And coins.  Real money?  And so the whole absurd joke – nay, the horror – of the situation suddenly becomes clear.

Clarity – of thought and simple execution – is one of the great qualities Darryl Cunningham brings to his Science tales scams: lies, hoaxes and scams (Myriad Editions, 2011), his collection of graphic novel-style essays on electro-convulsive therapy (an eye opener in that it does acknowledge there are benefits to be had), homeopathy, chiropractic and the MMR vaccine scandal (the scandal was of course the scaremongerering), and dismissals of the arguments of moon hoax believers, climate change deniers and anti-evolutionists, with a final round-up of the overall notion of Science denial.  The facts of each case are simply presented with strip cartoon narration, spare draughtsmanship, collage of borrowed and treated iconic photographs and illustrations, and diagrams.  There are a lot of ideas and facts covered here in a very short space of time, with series of images to linger over.  Simply presented yes, but never simplistic.  Beautifully done.

Finally, briefly, I’m well into Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the bodies (Fourth Estate, 2012), her sequel to the awesome Wolf Hall.  Incredibly, this continuation of Thomas Cromwell’s life in the service of king, country and self at the court of Henry VIII is even better than Wolf Hall, but I’ll expand on that later, save to share the observation that when one of the specialist royalist historians was rabbiting on on the telly on Sunday afternoon about the importance of the almost sacred link between the monarchy and the Thames, citing the flotilla that marked ace philanderer Charles II’s return to England and his Restoration to the throne after the failure of the Republic in 1660  and went on to add to the list Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s wedding processional … and three years later – spoiler alert! – her journey back down the Thames to the Tower for trial and subsequent execution.  Bet that bit gets cut out of the edited highlights.

* Just like Tom thumb’s blues
** Visions of Johanna
***Don Marquis‘ exquisite Archy & Mehitabel poems (“expression is the need of my soul i was once a vers libre bard but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach it has given me a new outlook upon life“) – give yourself a treat

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I know one shouldn’t mock the afflicted but when, in response to mild heckling at the Cabinet Meeting in the Milton Keynes Council Chamber on Tuesday night (Feb 15 2011), Councillor Jenni Ferrans – the cabinet member with responsibility for  the Community Strategy & Regeneration portfolio (which includes libraries) said something about the pointlessness of anyone heckling because she couldn’t hear what was being heckled since she was “deaf in one ear”, one could not but extemporise soto voce on the theme: deaf in both ears to all reason and rational argument was more the point.  As a librarian, albeit an ex-librarian, I can confidently say that the case for targeting Stony Stratford Library – the third busiest in the authority – in the cuts exercise, beggars belief.  The minority-ruling Lib-Dems were a shabby bunch Tuesday night.  They didn’t budge an inch – some consultation exercise.  Things one expected never to hear oneself thinking, let alone saying: a couple of Tory councillors were magnificent last night, promising to ring compromises from the Lib-Dems at the full Council budget meeting next week, so there is hope yet.  The joys of kimby-ism (Keep-It-in-My-Backyard).  Click on Stony Stratford Library in the tags on the right for previous episodes.

So, as E.M.Forster used to say, “Two cheers for democracy“.  Which nobody can deny.  As it happens the current book for the Book Group I’m a member of – that meets in the library – is Forster’s ‘Howards End‘, published in 1910 and doesn’t it show it.  I wanted to strangle them all, even the two gals (especially when Margaret marries the older man, that widower sod of a capitalist); it’s so bleedin’ precious.  ‘Only connect …’  is his motto – again, which nobody can deny, and there are some decent thoughts and ideas at play.  But given, in a book ostensibly in large part about the class system and urbanisation, that the lowest social class gent on display is a C2 clerk called Leonard Bast (!) one wonders just how rare the air was in Bloomsbury.  What about the workers? – it’s a fair question in that Socialism (with a capital S) is a topic of conversation in the novel; the Schlegels and Wilcoxes – the families at its heart – probably never got further north than Hertfordshire.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

Elsewhere, in similar vein, there is – Jimi Hendrix fans – talk of this being a rainbow bridge, no less.  Can I see Helen, the younger sister, and poor Bast in bed? – no.  Back then the world really was crying out for D.H.Lawrence.

Can’t see Benjamin Zephaniah arguing with the theme of ‘Only connect’. Here, from the poem ‘Overstanding‘ (lovely word):

Open up yu mind mek some riddim come in
Open up yu brain do some reasonin
Open up yu thoughts so we can connect
Open up fe knowledge an intellect

It’s certainly what he’s trying to do in ‘City psalms‘ (Bloodaxe, 1992), making all sorts of connections, saving poetry from academe for his people, for we the people.  And he certainly connected with me when he turned down an OBE in 2003 (hey – rhymin riddim), making his reasons explicit in the Guardian.  I’ve always thought Benjamin – dreadlocked Aston Villa supporter, British citizen of the world – was a good ting (sorry) but I’d never really thought to pursue  his stuff on the page. I won ‘City psalms‘ in a raffle at the Read-in at Stony Library on the recent national ‘save libraries’ day of action, where it had been donated by the Bard of Stony Stratford – a formidable performer himself – no less.  I shall donate it to the Library shortly.  Should I be surprised when I get more from it with closer re-reading?  Probably not.

There is verbal excess on the page, as opposed to in performance, and I wish never to see that horrible convolution of a word – ‘politricks’ – ever again (two cheers for democracy!) – but there are also some fine phrases, passages and poems worth a place in any contemporary anthology. ‘Dis poetry‘ spells out his mission (“WID LUV”) while ‘Money (rant)’ is a fine exercise in spelling out Ruskin’s great truth (“There is no wealth but life“).  He has a decent website too.  Since ‘City psalms’ was published, BZ, who left school at 13,  has received a handful of honorary doctorates from Exeter and various other universities, and his work is now studied in schools.

T.S.Eliot apologises to Groucho Marx about that sort of thing:

When I told him that my daughter Melinda was studying his poetry at Beverly High, he said he regretted that, because he had no wish to become compulsory reading.

Groucho writes to Gummo.  Actually, I’m kinda glad he was because I wouldn’t have got ‘The waste land‘ then otherwise.  The cigar’d one’s exchanges with the poet are among of the highlights in ‘The essential Groucho‘ (2000), a compendium of film script excerpts, reviews, interviews, radio and TV quiz show one liners and repartee, and journalism by and about Groucho Marx, who was pretty much the only man to be a success in music hall, theatre, cinema, radio and television in one lifetime.  ‘Essential’ can hardly be the word, though, for such a visual and expressively dead-pan performer when print is the medium; the magazine pieces were pretty good too.  Was disappointed to be underwhelmed by the quiz show stuff (if that was the best …); better than most is him telling a couple of elderly newlyweds about his own wedding where, “They threw vitamin pills” rather than confetti.

The letters are interesting though, especially the correspondence with Eliot (a big fan of the movies), which led to the meeting mentioned above.  It’s a tale oft re-told but worth telling again.  The Waste Land poet reports:

The picture of you in the newspapers saying that, among other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street.  Obviously I am now someone of importance.

But enough of Groucho, except to say, because of this book I felt the need and I now own DVDs of some of the movies.

I read ‘The essential Groucho‘ because it was one of the books I wouldn’t normally have had in my hands were it not for filling my library ticket as part of the Friends of Stony Stratford Library’s successful PR campaign to empty the library’s shelves in protesting its mooted closure.  You could say such an action – serendipity-ly filling your library card and seeing what you find – deserves to be another random nudge, an extra card in Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique strategies’ pack;  I ‘discovered’ Eels out of it, for which I am extremely grateful.

Didn’t discover too much from Michael R. Turner’s selections in ‘Parlour poetry: 101 improving gems‘ (Michael Joseph, 1967).  On the whole I was not improved by this odd collection of the poems that were recited in the parlours of the middle classes in the UK and the USA in the nineteenth century.  No great finds even of the so-bad-it’s-good category among much of the moralistic doggerel.  A lot of heart-rending sympathy for the dying and abandoned poor, young and old, but no hint of a political solution, only Gawd and personal responsibility are the game here.  The best work (from real poets) one knew – If, The charge of the Light Brigade, Vitai Lampada, Maud (“the black bat night”), The Raven – but, oh the potency of a decent opening line: “The boy stood on the burning deck” (from ‘Casabianca by Mrs Hemans quiz fans, a deeply moral tale of bravery and foolhardy loyal obedience) or “There’s a one eyed yellow idol to the north of Katmundu” (J.Milton Hayes).  Shame how often that’s the best line too.  Then there are oft-repeated refrains and refractions thereof, like Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s tolling, “Curfew must not ring tonight”

Of the ‘established’ poets, I wasn’t prepared for quite how uninspiring Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Southey would prove to be, but it was good to be reminded of the sheer brilliance of the word juggling that is Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘ The raven’; Robert Browning’s ‘How they bought the good news from Ghent to Aix‘ isn’t bad in that regard either, though the question remains – news of just what?

I could go on, so obviously it wasn’t so bad a choice of book.  Benjamin Zephaniah has this great line, “I wish I had a working wishing well“.  There’s a witching well in the last but one of my own contribution towards clearing the library’s shelves, a graphic novel scripted by Bill Willingham with atmospheric visuals mostly from Mark Buckingham, ‘Fables: the Good Prince” (Vertigo, 2008).

I went through a big comics phase a while back when the saintly Neil Gaiman (who has always championed libraries) was producing his momentous ‘Sandman‘ sequence of books – as splendid a piece of storytelling as any in the late twentieth century. The ‘Fables‘ series (this is the seventh) came in its wake and shares some of the territory.  There’s quite a back story.  And I quote:

The immortal characters of popular fairy tales have been driven from their homelands and now live hidden among us, trying to cope with life in [the] 21st century …

In ‘The lost prince‘ the janitor of Fabletown, an ex-frog prince, breaks out from his despair to create Haven, a heaven on earth sort of ghost town (or at least, it’s real it’s created by ghosts who were dead at the bottom of the witching well.  Confused? – you will be. I’m not sure I knew what was going on half the time, but how to resist a book where there’s a character, a builder called Weyland Smith (out of Weyland the Smith from Beowulf and North european legend, and feel the resonance with Oxfordshire’s Wayland’s Smithy ancient monument), where Little Boy Blue (‘Blue’ to his friends) is addressing the girl he fancies (futile tho’ the pursuit is) as ‘Red’ (that’s Red Riding Hood to us), where Hansel and Gretel are on different sides … you get the picture?

Oh, and in the context of the clearing of the library shelves stunt … on the second page of this narrative someone is complaining about needing to re-shelve piles of books – fables no less.  I couldn’t live with this stuff in prose or film, but I love it in this form.  The book design, its use of panels and columns is refreshing, hypnotic even.  And it passes the graphic novel test, when you turn the page and are confronted with sudden occasional spectacular double page spreads of great peace and beauty (or indeed, mayhem) with flying colours.  A delightful reminder of joys past.

The last book that filled my library card – now renewed of course – is ‘The book of lost books‘, which I’ve only just started reading.  I’m tempted to plead poetic license and say I’ve lost it but I know just where it is.

And seeing as we’re in the land of the lost, a slight return to the fields of Parlour poetry for one of my favourites.  Look out, here comes an omega moment:

The lost chord
by Adelaide Ann Proctor

Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.

I know not what I was playing,
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen.

It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel’s psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.

It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.

It linked all perplex-ed meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence
As if it were loth to cease.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ,
And entered into mine.

What a shame she couldn’t just leave it there but had to spoil it with a final verse of religious mumbo-jumbo:

It may be that death’s bright angel
Will speak in that chord again,
It may be that only in Heav’n
I shall hear that grand Amen.


For previous episodes of the Stony Library saga click on Stony Stratford Library tag in the column on the right.

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