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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The topics under consideration are:

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

And here come the books:

Book the First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book the Second

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

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

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

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

He neither drank nor smoked.

I’m packing away all that myself.

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

Oh?

When I get the chance.

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

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

Hardback cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHARLIE    Avant garde, John. Is what it is.

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

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

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

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

Book the Third

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

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

Speech marks

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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So much going on in Sally Rooney‘s Conversations with friends (Faber, 2017), where to begin?  How about with the brilliant piece of book design that is the endpapers of the hardback edition (click on the pic for an enlargement)?  They give a colourful taste, a decent aperitif, of what lurks inside:

I only had access to a library copy, so here’s what’s hidden under the label: I just don’t think I would enjoy being someone’s second choice / You can love more than one person / That’s arguable.  And the Yeats thing (top right), to remove any ambiguity, it finishes with: No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.  As someone who this holiday season just past revisited a home video recorded on the occasion of his 40th birthday which included a section of himself reading to camera Yeats’ The second coming, I’m taking that with a pinch of salt.  After all, Frances, our narrator, and her mate Bobbi are not your average third year Dublin university students.  Conversations with friends fizzes with stuff like that.  Here she is at the start of that bad date, trying to be ‘real’ and ‘normal’:

 I’ve never worked hard at anything, I said.
That must be why you study English.
Then he said that he was just joking, and actually he had won his school’s gold medal for composition. I love poetry, he said. I love Yeats.
Yeah, I said. If there’s one thing you can say for fascism, it had some good poets.
He didn’t have anything else to say about poetry after that.

(I’ll admit I did not know W.B. had briefly flirted with fascism, though I do now that I’ve looked it up: the Irish fascists had blueshirts.)

One of the reviews quoted on the back cover of Conversations with friends invokes Salinger’s Catcher in the rye and I can see that, except that Holden Caulfield was only 16 going on 17, and these are very different rites of passage for very different times; for starters, sharp as he was, he was in no position to namedrop French postmodern cultural theorists.  In this passage Frances has been to the theatre but has not been able to believe in the performance, regardless of the quality of the acting:

I could see a care label bunched inside the seam of the slip she was wearing, which destroyed the effect of reality for me, although the slip and its care label were undoubtedly themselves real. I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, although I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.

At this point I’d also like to introduce Adrian Mole into the conversation.  This is something of a long shot, some will say – though consider “I explained that I wanted to destroy capitalism and that I considered masculinity personally oppressive” – but what fuels these pages is the mismatch between an aspiration to live one’s life in accordance with a theoretical critique of modern life and your actual daily existence, especially when the possibility of love is involved.  Contradictions, compromises, ironies and ambiguities inevitably follow, and entertainingly so. This, after all, is a novel that can get away with a line of self-examination like:

… have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement … ?

Serious stuff (the paragraph also acknowledges self-harming), but am I wrong to also spot humour in the employment of that phrase?

Here’s the disappointing cover of the soon to be published paperback. Ok, there is a significant sojourn on a French coast, but this really undersells what’s going on between the covers.

Frances and Bobbi – the odd girls out at school – had been lovers, but are now besties; they are performance poets – a double act even – though we get no flavour of the material.  Frances is the writer, while Bobbi has the confidence and charisma.  They meet up with a pair of older established culture vultures, a married couple – Melissa a successful writer, Mark a sometime semi-successful actor.  Their lives become entangled and we run a gamut of adultery, infidelity, jealousy, feeling worthless and having fun, not to mention frustration, vulnerability, exhilaration, reconciliation, and student survival, all punctuated with some fascinating conversations, variously full of intelligence, belligerence, caring and wit.  There is no definitive reading to be had from the ending (was that an echo of Ulysses’ Molly I felt there?) but our narrator has survived; passages have been rited (I’m just not going to say ‘rites of passage’).  It’s a tremendous bit of writing, wise beyond its years.

The thought occurred: am I too old for this sort of thing?  Thankfully not. “I felt like I was playing a video game without knowing any of the controls” is not a simile that I’d employ, but I certainly remember with a degree of nostalgia these phases:

Though I knew I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.  (p23)

 That sounds like a recipe for disastrous unhappiness, I said.
You’re twenty one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.  (p203)

Sally Rooney had me worried when Frances, in her vulnerability, started reading the Bible, but I should have had faith:

 My favourite part of the gospels was in Matthew, when Jesus said: love your neighbours, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use and persecute you. I shared in this desire for moral superiority over my enemies. Jesus always wanted to be the better person, and so did I. I underlined this passage in red pencil, to illustrate that I understood the Christian way of life.
The Bible made a lot more sense to me, almost perfect sense, if I pictured Bobbi as the Jesus character. She didn’t deliver his lines entirely straight; often she pronounced them sarcastically, or with a weird distant expression.

Good old  (young) Bobbi: “I couldn’t tell whether she was being affectionate or vitriolic; she had a way of making them seem like the same thing“; but, still,   Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.”  Doesn’t stop her interjecting into a discussion about commitment, of the possibility of loving more than one person:

Well, it depends whether you believe in some kind of transhistorical concept of romantic love consistent across diverse cultures, said Bobbi. But I guess we all believe silly things, don’t we?

For what it’s worth, the title of my piece is a skewed take from the paragraph below.  ‘Operant discursive practices’ is Foucault, I think, or one of those post-structuralist or whatever theorists whose notions overtook large parts of academe in the ’70s.  I’m glad I escaped it … just.  And of course we just had thick A4 exercise books and a biro:

Over the summer I missed the periods of intense academic concentration which helped to relax me during term time. I like to sit in the library to write essays, allowing my sense of time and personal identity to dissolve as the light dimmed outside the windows. I would open fifteen tabs on my web browser while producing phrases like ‘epistemic rearticulation’ and ‘operant discursive practices’.

If I could have made anything out of ‘epistemic rearticulation’ I would have.

Worth saying too that in the quotations of conversations I’ve used it’s not me that discarded the conventional inverted commas speech mark punctuation; Rooney doesn’t use them.  Three out of the last four books I’ve read have used alternative conventions – something I’m in favour of, and shall probably ponder here in the near future.

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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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Mixed reception for Carl Hiaasen’s Stormy weather (1995) at September’s Book Group, meeting as it did in the immediate aftermath of the far from fictional Hurricane Irma, which provided a bit of context.  It was a re-read for me, but I was happy to do it.  Some thought the book ‘over the top’, which really, it has to be said, for Carl Hiaasen, rather misses the point.  Given Donald Trump’s political ascendency and his personal and business interests in Florida exactly how much over the top Hiaasen is – a native Floridan, investigative journalism came before the novels – how much he indulges himself becomes debatable.  Here’s a trademark Hiaasenism, taken from Stormy weather’s hurricane’s aftermath, “The death of Tony Torres did not go unnoticed by homicide detectives, crucifixions being rare even in Miami“.   That ‘even in Miami’.  You laughed, right?  Don’t worry, in context it is righteous.

Basically Carl Hiaasen is a moralist, a savage Swiftian humourist with harlequin bells on.  But he is also a relativist, so what happens is that in the end the bad guys usually get it in spades, but the nuanced bad and so not so bad guys and gals can sometimes get the breaks, while the good, suffering, people of his world will lean towards purity of heart if not deed.  His books start out with 5 or 6 people, maybe a couple of them paired up in some way, at a certain stage in their lives – something criminal, new or odd going on therein – whose lives get not so much thrown together as entangled in various ways by a triggering event (in Stormy weather a destructive hurricane) as the narrative unfolds apace with many interesting twists and turns along the way.  Again, some nay-sayers in the Book Group complained that Hiaasen’s characters are stereotypes; they may well be, but they are also magnificent living and breathing examples of their kind, complete with quirks and the potential to surprise; like, um, skull juggling.

Stormy weather also strongly features one of the great creations of late twentieth century literature; this was his third appearance.  Skink, an anti-superhero (not that he’s a force for bad, just no cool costumery or scientific backstory) who, Hiaasen subsequently, I hazard to suggest, resorts to when he needs something to help the plot on its entertaining way, along the lines of Raymond Chandler’s apocryphalWhen in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand“, except he transcends this usefulness to the extent one is disappointed when he doesn’t appear in a Hiaasen novel.  Skink, the ex-politician previously known as Clinton Tyree,  is big enough to have his own Wikipedia entry.

Here he explains himself to a tourist he has kidnapped (there are reasons):

My name is Tyree. I served in the Vietnam conflict and later as governor of this fair state. I resigned because of disturbing moral and philosophical conflicts.   The details would mean nothing to you.

Having failed to change the system from within he has retreated, gone native in the Florida Everglades.  Another kind of Swamp Man, he’d had high hopes of the hurricane.  Here are some of the details:

Clinton Tyree’s only political liability was a five-year stint as an English professor at the University of Florida, a job that historically would have marked a candidate as too thoughtful, educated and broad-minded for state office. But, in a stunning upset, voters forgave Clint Tyree’s erudition and elected him governor.

So far, so good.  But the “barkers, pimps and fast-change artists who controlled the legislature” weren’t unduly worried: “He was, after all, a local boy. Surely he understood how things worked.”  But when he won’t take bribes, they begin to doubt his sanity.  “Save the rivers. Save the coast. Save the Big Cypress. Where would it end?”  He might as well be a ‘damn communist’.  They use every trick in the book to foil him:

So he quit, fled Tallahassee on a melancholy morning in the back of a state limousine, and melted into the tangled wilderness. […] He moved by night, fed off the road, and adopted the solitary existence of a swamp rattler. Those who encountered him knew him by the name of Skink, or simply “captain”, a solemn hermitage interrupted by the occasional righteous arson, aggravated battery or highway sniping.

Imagine a beach or two with no ugly high-rises. Imagine a lake without golf courses,” he suggests towards the end of the tale.  Donald Trump makes an appearance in the capacity of a negative character reference, the kidnapee as it happens, who “was into ditties and jingles, not metaphysics. “And he doesn’t read much,” she added. “The last book he finished was one of Trump’s autobiographies.””  (Trump has ‘written’ more ‘autobiographies’ than David Beckham and Wayne Rooney).

Carl Hiaasen is deadly serious and laugh-out-loud funny.  He can drive a narrative, paint a vivid picture and delivers great dialogue.  Because I’ve given space to Skink here I’ve hardly touched the riches elsewhere to be found in Stormy weather.  He’s a highly quotable phrase maker too: a 160 home housing development (called Sugar Palm Hammocks) is “platted sadistically on only forty acres of land”  (yup, definitely ‘platted’, not ‘plotted’).  The damaging avoidance of building regulations is, someone bemoans, “exactly the sort of thing that gave corruption a bad name.”  How masterful a scene-setter is “after a day of inept drinking“?  Enjoy! 

A Scribal interval

As it happens, poster-girl Naomi Rose had a song called Hurricane in her immaculate October Scribal Gathering set.  She described it as ‘a worksong’.  Contains the lines “Know that you can never be good enough” expanding as the song progresses to “None of us … ”  (Thinks: is she singing about OFSTED investigations here?).  Naomi is a much more than good enough singer-songwriter and an intriguing guitarist.  Hear for yourself with a link https://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2/hurricane .  She also did her “song about football” which for all its “Smiling David Beckham’s on your wall” and damnably catchy chorus (says this Arsenal supporter) of “I love you Manchester United / and I would be delighted / to dance with you tonight / for the rest of my life” is not about football.  It’s a challenge i) not to sing along , and ii) not to be tripping the light fantastic in your waltzing head; you might find yourself agreeing if you go to:   https://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2/manchester-united .  I’ve said it before: sad (mostly) rainy day songs delivered with a sunny smile, queen of the earworms.  This was a Scribal with a difference, with Pat Nicholson ably MC-ing and Mitchell Taylor ending proceedings in fine voice, songs punctuated with a heartfelt spoken word anti-imperialist flourish.

Doesn’t time fly?

And so October’s Book Group book divided the team too, though thankfully not along the same lines as to Stormy weatherGeoffrey Household‘s extraordinary 1939 thriller Rogue male certainly took me by surprise.  In attitude and feeling it’s a revealing period piece, both cringe-worthy in places yet prescient in others – both ancient and modern, you could say.  As a founding genre classic of the better class of contemporary thriller it has lost none of its power, while retaining all the drive of a simpler enterprise.  One of the Book Group members said she was reminded of the excitement of reading as a child again, engrossed in the adventure.

It’s a first person narrative:

I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known. I have been frequently and unavoidably dishonoured by the banners and praises of the penny press.

That ‘dishonoured’ by the ‘praises’ tells you a lot about our man – sardonic, charming, socially aware.  This is on one level is his confession, decently left in case someone innocent might get the blame (and to let the government off the hook), on another a journal of self-discovery, replete with philosophical meditations and asides on the nation-state and Englishness among other things.  Given his affinity with the land and nature in general, the book’s title, Rogue male, has to take some of its meaning from the wild animal kingdom – the solitary, dangerous animal, adrift from the herd – an ‘anarchial aristocrat’ (yes, ‘anarchial’) as it is put to him at one stage, and he doesn’t demur.

Our man an experienced hunter, is captured in a foreign land with a dictator in his telescopic gun-sights.  Could be Hitler or Stalin; we are never told.  Claiming he was only doing it to see if ‘a sporting assassination‘ was possible.  (Was he really? – you’ll have to read the book).  Interrogation and a punishing, gruelling escape.  In London, accurately guessing that wouldn’t be the end of it, he puts his affairs in order, and goes to ground (literally, in an elaborately constructed burrow) in Dorset.  As if this were not gruelling enough, the agents of the totalitarian state find him and he becomes a prisoner in his own hiding place, interrogated at length, over days, through a ventilation space, with a subtlety out of a John Le Carré novel.  No big spoiler to say he escapes again – some tense moments indeed – and lights out for new territory.  It’s riveting stuff.

But as I say, there’s this weird mix of snobbery and decency, of one-ness with the natural world, and personal detachment.  It’s beautifully written, a wonderful mélange of by turns the calm, charming, candid and disingenuous; keenly literate observation accompanies the  enthralling, gruelling and scornful yet nicely self-deprecating prose.  A few tasters to whet your appetite.  After his first escape:

Glaring back at me from the mirror, deep and enormous,, it seemed to belong to someone intensely alive, so much more alive than I felt. My face was all pallors and angles, like that of a Christian martyr in a medieval painting. – and I had the added villainy of bristles. I marvelled at how such a beastly crop could grow in so poor and spiritual a soil.
[but then later, on a foray to buy materials in Lyme Regis]: 
I had a straggly beard that was quite as convincing as most of those one sees in Bloomsbury.

A couple of Ouch! moments.  Here he considers the ‘modern’ incarnation of the ‘hiker’ :

A hideous word – hiker.  It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub. But, by God, it fits those bawling English-women whose tight shorts and loose voices are turning every beauty spot in Europe into a Skegness holiday camp.
[and here’s another contemporary holidaymaker]: 
She was a sturdy wench in corduroy shorts no longer than bum-bags, and with legs so red that the golden hairs showed a continuous fur. Not my taste at all. But my taste is far from eugenic.  [Did I really just read that? – yes you did.]

Here, a couple more encounters with the common man:

There was a man on the fence, meditative and unbuttoned, and obviously digesting his breakfast while mistaking that process for thought.
[and of a naval man]:
I calmed his suspicions with two double whiskies and my most engaging dirty story, whereupon he declared that I was a Bit of All Right and consented to talk about his officers. [tell us the joke!]

And yet he has interesting things to say about class and class consciousness, and, in settling his affairs before disappearing makes plans to turn over his lands to a ‘Tenants Cooperative Society’.

The edition I read has a worthwhile introduction from by Robert Macfarlane, author of Wild places and another celebrated book on walking the old tracks and pathways, which enhanced my reading (always read such introductions last!).  Our man’s first escape involves resting up in a tree to convalesce: “I was growing to my tree and aware of immense good nature …”.  Then there’s the Dorset experience:

It was a disgusting day. The flats of England on a grey morning remind me of the classical hell – a featureless landscape where the peewits twitter and the half-alive remember hills and sunshine. And the asphodel of this Hades is the cabbage. To lie among cabbages in my own country should have been nothing after the pain and exposure I suffered during my escape, but it was summer then and it was autumn now. To lie still on a clay soil in a gentle drizzle was exasperating. But safe!

Asphodel? – “Old World herbs of the lily family with flowers in usually long erect racemes” the dictionary tells me.  And it’s no fun down in the bunker either: “I have no chance even of illusion. Luck has reached a stage of equilibrium and stopped.”  He befriends a feral cat, who plays a crucial role in his final escape, who he names Asmodeus.

There is a revelation near the end of Rogue male, conjured out of our man down in his wretched temporary abode as his interrogation progresses, but I’m not going say anything more about that other than that it prompts an outbreak of the most wonderful technicolour prose, a passage that is like nothing else in the book.

Rogue male is a great adventure story and so much more.  I leave you with what would be a great exam question for students of twentieth century history – discuss this!  Our man achieves a certain understanding with Quiver-Smith, his interrogator, that deep spy from a totalitarian state with the well-constructed English identity, but:

I didn’t tell him that natural leaders don’t have any will to power. He wouldn’t have understood what I meant.

 

 

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Don’t step on the cracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

More relief, of a very different kind:

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

Never mind poppies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An English vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

 

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