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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Someone at Book Group suggested that the October selection, Gail Honeyman‘s highly successful debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine (HarperCollins, 2017) might be a Marmite book, though nobody actually hated it.  A couple of people I’m usually simpatico with – in and out of the Book Group – hold it in high regard, but I was the second luke-warmest there in its praises.  “There’s a decent novel hiding in there,” I said.  “And we found it,” came back Judy and Maire, not missing a beat.  Cue laughter.  Fair enough.  In my defence I’d just read Sally Rooney‘s mightily absorbing Normal people, but in the reading of Eleanor I never quite forgot that I was (I hesitate to put the qualifier just in here) reading a book.

Eleanor narrates.  At 30 she is friendless, keeps her head down, gets by at work by being efficient.  Gets through the weekend with vodka, on her own.  A survivor of a dysfunctional family with an added major trauma and an abusive relationship a decade before.  There’s a slow reveal of what happened when she was 10:

Go on,’ I said. There’s very little in life that I couldn’t imagine, or brace myself for. Nothing could be worse than what I’ve already experienced – that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s a literal statement of fact. I suppose it’s actually a sense of strength, in a strange way.  

There is a further revelation as to just how serious her mental condition is as things unfold.  The book gives a chilling picture of loneliness, of just about managing to stay afloat, rendered with some humour, which is acknowledged as a coping mechanism.  But at the book’s narrative heart is the recognition of how much difference small acts of kindness can make:

I smiled at her. Twice in one day, to be the recipient of thanks and warm regard! I would never have suspected that small deeds could elicit such genuine, generous responses. I felt a little glow inside – not a blaze, more like a small, steady candle.

My problem is that, to that end, her dilemma seems over-determined.  Nor did I find the voice a consistent one.  Apparently she has a Classics degree, but you wouldn’t have known it without it being baldly stated.  At times she sounds like Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory in her interface with the social world; going to a birthday party that is a step on the narrative way, her companion, new boy at work IT nerd Raymond, says, “It’s shite going to things like this on your own, isn’t it?’ / “‘Is it?’ I said, interested. ‘I don’t have a control situation to compare it with.’  She even comes out with “The horror, Raymond.  The horror” at the, ahem, grindcore gig they attend for reasons of … her mad fantasy.  (I mean, I have no idea what grindcore is either: have you, dear reader?)

It’s a decent enough little story, change stemming from a random event.  A man collapses in the street, they go to his help and get involved with his family.  She has a real crisis and good old (young) Raymond saves the day.  Counselling ensues (“‘I prefer Miss Oliphant …’ She wasn’t my friend, she was someone who was being paid to interact with me.”) with a fascinating unfolding of the real history of her tragic childhood, with one big revelatory twist.  A history which I have to say I nevertheless found a bit over the top.  To the extent that I actually feared – spurred on by previous exposure to a not unusual crime fiction plot twist – it was even worse (that she had done something bad).  And I would have liked to have known more about her mother, who, to be honest, seemed really quite interesting.

There are some admirable passages on the way to Eleanor’s healing.  (What? Surely that doesn’t need a spoiler alert).  She and Raymond attend a funeral, where she is appalled as the congregation, family and friends of the deceased, who we know is a good man, mumble their way through the hymns, which she finds disrespectful:

Raymond and I were making more noise than the next four pews put together, and I was glad of it. The words were incredibly sad, and, for an atheist like me, entirely without hope or comfort, but still; it was our duty to sing them to the best of our ability, and to sing proudly in honour of Sammy.

And there’s the extraordinary – and unexpected – internal monologue, which, though I’m not sure it fits, is a fine piece of writing (pages 259-260 in the paperback).  Regaining consciousness after the consumption of much vodka and many pills, she contemplates the kitchen table under which she finds her (literally) naked self:

How many kitchens has this table been in, before it found its way to me?

        I imagine a hierarchy of happiness; first purchased in the 1970s, a couple who would sit here, dining on meals cooked from brand-new recipe books, eating and drinking from wedding china like proper grown-ups.  [It’s passed on to a cousin, serves time for various tenants in rented accommodation, then taken in a house clearance  …]  It languishes in a warehouse, spiders spinning silk inside its unfashionable rounded corners, bluebottles laying eggs in the rough splinters.  It’s given to another charity.  They give it to me, unloved, unwanted, irreparably damaged. Also the table.

Despite the cheery conclusion of the above, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine takes its place in the pantheon of the phenomenon known as Up Lit, “novels of kindness and compassion”, which according to a recent Guardian article, “we’re all reading”.  I’m not a fan, especially with Rachel Joyce‘s The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry being touted as one of the founding examples of the genre.  which, frankly, just got on my nerves.

When I said at the Book Meeting that my idea of real Up Lit was Ken Kesey‘s One flew over the cuckoo’s nest (1962) I was forcibly reminded by my companions that Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson in the movie) is given a lobotomy.  But, I said, The others get to live a fresh life, including, magnificently, narrator Chief Broom who had “been away a long time.”

⊕⊗⊕⊗⊕⊗⊕⊗⊕⊗⊕⊗

Some Ancient History …

… more a comment on the tardiness of this chronicler than they who I am chronicling, though , at York House, C.P.Lee had a tale to tell of a musical education picked up in folk clubs in the early mid-’60s while in pursuit of a sixth former he fancied.

The artist prepares. If I had a decent phone you could see all his props.

It was weeks ago now, but a fun evening well worthy of late mention.  This was more a palace of varieties rather than a one-man-show.  A founder member of punk and rock satirists Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias (you have to be of a certain age to see the full genius of just the band’s name), Chris Lee – musician, author, academic, Dylanologist – battered ukulele or gitbox to hand (when not holding the pirate glove puppet, briefly playing shoe harmonica or reading from his memoirs) revisited his musical journey with humour, perspective, enthusiasm, and a couple of bad jokes.

We were treated to unorthodox renditions of some Albertos classics, including a couple from Snuff Rock.  These versions would veer off in mid-tune (we were given adequate warning) into “in the style of” The Incredible String Band, or in another instance, traditional Irish folk; both worked beyond simple comic mimicry.  Then there was, um, Lou Reed’s Anadin.  The Dylan song played straight and to great effect was the far from obvious Absolutely Sweet Marie from Blonde on Blonde.

One thing intrigued, on a personal level.  That first visit to a folk club with a bar, he asked for “a brown ale”.   Cue me, about the same under-age, same time, in the Ricky Tick Club, Windsor … ordering “a brown ale”.  Why?  Weird zeitgeist thing?  And all the cool kids were drinking lager and lime.

Vaultage …

… at the Vaults in Stony on a Thursday night continues on a roll.  Bravo Mr Nicholson.  You never know what might happen these days.  So successful of late that it’s gone weekly.  Though being a creature of habit, last week I forgot.  Chronicling …

Adrian Stranik, ex-of the Silver Brazilians, was everything it says on his poster (those without superhuman eyesight may have to click on the posters to read them). Some outstanding songs of his own and an interesting set of covers.  Having worked where the offices overlooked said boulevard – hardly a day without a police car parked outside – I can affirm that vis-à-vis his song Probably North 10th Street, it probably was.  Another nice local touch was a heisting from Johnny Cash for Woodhill Prison Blues.  What else?  Cliff Richard’s Dynamite with a Dick Dale guitar break; the original One night of sin (as opposed to Elvis’s bowdlerising ‘with you’ substitution); a spectacular piece of rhyming to ‘mujahideen’.

The blueswailing Jet Lagged Jeff, a proud Canadian from Newport Pagnell, played the blues, raising spirits, occasioning a tapping of the toes and some broad grins from me.  Ever since about 1968, or the first Canned Heat album, there have been long-haired bearded white men doing this sort of things in bars across the lands; I salute you, good sirs.

Taylor Smith were Taylor Smith and in good voice, which is no bad thing.  Only note I’ve got is “horseradish”: was that too an outstanding piece of in-song rhyming?  Probably the best cajon player I’ve encountered.  With bonus appearances from Sian Magill and Billy Nomad, no less.

Roddy Clenaghan gave us as, as is his wont (he said it), “Songs that make people cry” –  though to say I didn’t see any tears is not to be taken as a criticism.  That gorgeous song Time after time nearly got to me though; rather splendidly not one you’d expect to hear in the company of, say, Hickory wind, for example.  Andy Fenton’s lap steel as fluid as ever.  Closing the evening, Duncan, sans Dobro and Robert Johnson suit had us all singing along to Ernie (The fastest milkman in the west) and Minnie the Moocher.  The Vaultage Varieties!

Quick mention of folk duo Miller & Walker, who have graced the open mic at most of these.  Accomplished ’60s folk guitar and vocals, with a repertoire spiced up with the odd later cover (took me ages to recognise Landslide – not necessarily a bad thing).

 

 

 

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

The age of innocence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Dylan matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Normal people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Body & Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gets to discussing existentialism at work one day:

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

Meanwhile (sorry about the ad) …

 

 

 

 

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The beautiful librarians

The title poem of Sean O’Brien’s The beautiful librarians (Picador Poetry, 2015) starts off with the poet remembering how, as a schoolboy in the early ’60s, he was in awe of the young librarians – ‘Like Francois Hardy’s shampooed sisters – in his local library, how he yearned to inhabit the life he glimpses in them.  “I shared the geography but not the world / It seemed they were establishing.”  He says he has tried to “nonetheless keep faith with them“, that “Book after book I kept my word“, and is mourning the passing not just of those librarians (poetic license – there will still be some survivors), but also, austerity driven, the very libraries themselves.  He closes with: “And all the brilliant stock was sold” (of which more later).  You can read the whole poem, and a further, more erudite exploration of it, here:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/16/the-beautiful-librarians-by-sean-o-brien-poem-of-the-week

It’s a fine and varied collection.  He’s been likened to Auden in his breadth of style and subject matter, so making a poem called Audiology the opener shows a certain swagger.  Particularly in his state of the nation stuff he can be sour, dour, often on the miserable side of melancholy, but he can bestow dignity on hidden voices and simple pleasures.  Oysterity describes a meal in an expensive restaurant discussing austerity and guzzling oysters, later contemplating morality and “the sink’s own non-committal eye“.

He made me laugh out loud drinking coffee while waiting for my wife in the caff in Sainsbury’s in MK with Do you like Dickens?, a pithy tale of a small plebian victory concerning a girl through the power of literature, deliciously heisting the title of F.R.Leavis’s The common pursuit to his own ends.

Indeed, literature is never far away, along with nods to the Ancient World and popular culture.  His endurance of writers’ weekends and performances (‘the thin but earnest crowd‘) are entertaining, but there’s the fear, in War graves: Must this be / ‘The trap of elegy’, to find ourselves composed / Entirely of literature?” In The lost of England he’s marking EngLit students’ exam essays on a train, including one on Hardy: “Forgive me, England. As so often I was dreaming / On a train that drowsed along, cross-country / By an insane route that takes the reason prisoner.”  It’s a rewarding if somewhat depressing journey, rich in descriptive passages, momentary landscapes past and present.

This one made me smile, not least because I’ve just read a book on Bob Dylan as Latin scholar (another time), and it reminded me of John Williams’ extraordinary historical novel Augustus.  It also encapsulates a lot of Sean O’Brien’s concerns:

Damn right I got the blues: Ovid live in Tomis

I hate to see that Euxine sun go down
I hate to see that Euxine sun go down
Cause Lord it reminds me that for reasons of state
I been exiled and confined to this one-horse Pontic town.

Reading allowed

One of the narrative themes of the Reading allowed: true stories and curious incidents from a provincial library (Constable, 2017) is the grinding effect of rumours of austerity and cuts in library budgets, with redundancies of experienced, qualified librarians – the next generations on from the ‘beautiful librarians’ – their posts rationalised out of existence.

It’s never stated but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that Chris Paling is mostly working at Brighton’s award-winning showpiece Jubilee Library, that opened in 2005.  When still working I’d been there on a fact-finding visit and thought I recognised what he’s describing, and his Wikipedia entry confirms it.  An exile from BBC radio production (voluntary redundancy) and a published novelist, he’s worked there for 2 years for spending money as a Casual Library Officer – in old money a Library Assistant.  The life of a mid-list writer is not a happy one, he sadly relates.  This book comes as a result of his agent suggesting he try doing non-fiction.  This book is proof it was a good suggestion:

Although I’d published nine novels it had been clear for some time that the likelihood of ‘breaking through’ was now remote. Nobody sets out with the intention of becoming a mid-list writer but that is the destination of most. There is, so far as I know, no such thing as a bottom-list writer.

He has a novelist’s eye for character, and it’s the quirkier users that get most of the attention.  He has his favourites, and there are some decent heart-tugging stories in there.  The only staff that figure prominently are Trev and Bob, walkie-talkie wielding ‘Facilities’ (aka security), who seem to be needed more than in my own experience, so good for them.  I worked as a Librarian for 40 years, half of those in busy central libraries, and the picture Chris Paling paints is easily recognisable, though the recent rise in homelessness and rough sleeping must have had an impact.

Some may be surprised by what’s going on, but Public Libraries serve the public, and all that entails.  So, a typical staff room scene on a bad day:

The conversation … is all about rude, intolerant customers throwing their weight and, occasionally, their books around. A normally mild-mannered colleague admits that she has wanted to slap every other customer. This is compounded by the computer system seizing up mid-morning, making issuing tricky and anything more complicated impossible. Not our fault but the staff take the blame for the ever-failing system. It’s the closest I have ever got to calling a customer a f***stick, kicking over the terminal and storming out. When a full concession customer (two free hours on the computer ostensibly to aid job-seeking) tells me YouTube is inaudible, I resist suggesting he get on with his job searching and stop watching Beyoncé videos …

Not to mention junkies, thieves, creeps, blocked toilets, cyclists(!), challenging behaviour, building failures, printers running out of toner, self-published authors … easy to forget that the vast majority of readers, users, customers (whatever you want to call them) are appreciative, supportive and no trouble (or worth the taking of it).  Which this book understandably is thin on, save the parenthesized latter – a bit like newspapers and mundane good news

Paley throws in a potted history of libraries at intervals, useful for those who have taken them for granted, as the book progresses.  His conclusion on the importance of the continuance of the public library:

Customers are, of course, in and books are being issued and returned via the automatic machines, but the primary function of this place today is a community hub – an old-fashioned village green with plate-glass windows.

And as Mr Dylan says in Chimes of freedom (this is me, not Paley, though he has tales that bear it out), “An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”

A slight return to The beautiful librarians.  Setting the scene near the beginning of the emerging dystopia of the Thirteen o’clocks sequence we get: “Parks and Gardens, Ways and Means, / Drains, Finance, and General Purposes / And all the virtuous tedium required / To underwrite the civil surfaces, The lawns on which the lovers lie …” 

Dear Fahrenheit 451

Here’s what Annie Spence, a young American librarian, thinks:

The library is genius in its usefulness. It can be a different place for each person who walks in. Your library can help you find a job, go vegan, read up on the new medication you’ve been prescribed, or learn a new language. Your librarian can listen to your knock-knock jokes …

At parties she’ll linger by the bookshelves, and warns about plying her with drink:

But seriously, I can’t go overboard with the alcohol because I tend to pontificate about reading and the social significance of the public library when I get drunk. Two drinks: funny work stories. Poop in the dropbox, Lady with the Face, the guy whom we caught looking at porn and eating a big can of sardines and we didn’t know what to be more offended by … that kind of thing. But if I morph into telling inspiring patron stories, look out. I can give a rousing/annoying lecture on the benefits of getting your library card. I’ve shouted, “I disseminate information to the masses!” while being helped into a cab before.

Dear Fahrenheit 451: a librarian’s love letters and break-up notes to her books (Flatiron Books, 2017) started out as a series of letters she’d write to library books she was withdrawing from where she worked, for all sorts of reasons.  It’s called weeding in the trade, and it’s a decent metaphor: you need good husbandry, a bit of space on the shelves, for the decent, up-to-date stuff to breathe and potentially bloom and be read, and the longer a book stays untouched on the shelves the less likely it is to ever go out, no matter how worthwhile it is (one of the textbooks named this phenomena ‘fatigue’).  It used to be one of my favourite parts of the job, and I’ll admit I’d occasionally indulge myself, by extending the shelf life of a few quality favourites (hello Andreii Makine).  So I know where she’s coming from, and it’s a very good place.

Dear Fahrenheit 451 broadens from that initial idea to take in books happened upon in all sorts of places, and gives us a glimpse of her home life, youth and more.  The main part of the book is the letters, but there are also a number of entertaining annotated lists, like Excuses to tell your friends so you can stay at home with your books (example: “Ack, sorry. Kids are fighting again” when you’re in bed reading Lord of the flies by William Golding).

Library nostalgists will appreciate the use of old 5×3 catalogue cards as chapter heads.  That page opposite reads: “Dear Librarian, Please don’t weed me. Love, Annie.”  I’m charmed, air high-fiving and laughing out loud, even though I don’t recognise a fair number of titles which don’t seem – particularly the teenage material – to have crossed the Atlantic; but I wish she wouldn’t swear quite so much.

Annie kicks off the discards with Donna Tartt’s The goldfinch … because it’s falling apart, affectionately addressing the author as ‘Finchy’.  She covers the full range of materials from picture books to out-of-date text books.  When she finds a copy of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (a favourite of mine, too) in a friends bathroom she tells it, ‘YOU ARE BETTER THAN THIS BATHROOM‘.  And so it goes.  She has such immaculate taste; there are three books she raves over I’m definitely going to have to add to my pile.  Immaculate taste you say?  Here’s her take on Richard Russo’s Nobody’s fool (hello, Sal!) as therapy:

Read this when you’re down about mankind, and you may start to notice a roguish glint in the eye of the curmudgeon who bitches at you about your grass being too long.

She has a list of Good books in bad covers, and considers her own:

Well, anyway, think about how difficult it is to come up with ONE image that totally evokes an entire book’s identity. Nearly impossible. I can’t even think of an example of a book jacket that 100 percent captures its insides. Except maybe this book. If I get my way, the cover of this book is going to be a knockoff of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely hearts Club Band album, except I will be all four of the Beatles’ faces and all of the decoupage heads are going to be famous authors (plus Jared Letto) crying because I’ve weeded them from the library. Also, I promised my cat, Barb, she’d be on the cover.

Sadly, this didn’t happen.  I loved this book but was exhausted by the end of it.  If Annie Spence had been a colleague I think I would have appreciated the first couple of days of her being on holiday; but soon I’d have been missing her.

Afterword

I stumbled on The beautiful librarians browsing the literature shelves in my local library.  It had almost certainly been purchased as part of a seasonal standing order I had set up with The Poetry Book Society a couple of years before I retired.  I don’t know if the standing order has survived, given the relentless austerity-driven shaving of the book fund since.  On a pence per issue basis it’s arguable they probably shouldn’t, but it was a subsidised bargain and we Brits are meant to be good at poetry.  I fancied a copy of my own and bought one cheap from Better World Books via Abe.  Only published in 2015, it was already a library discard.

Such a purchase is tinged for me by guilt, though at least it contributed a few pence to that library service’s income generation, Better World Books is a charity supporting literacy charities around the world, and it’s a small profit Amazon doesn’t get to not pay tax on.  So The beautiful librarians becomes a subject of Sean O’Brien’s closing line to the title poem of his collection – “And all the brilliant stock was sold“.  Actually, he was probably thinking more of the selling off of the major resources of out-of-print material that extensive reserve stock collections like Manchester’s – ‘the stacks’ away from public gaze – that have been sacrificed in the course wholesale re-building and refurbishment projects of grand old buildings.  But it still makes for a nice rhetorical flourish at the end.

Or maybe not quite the end.  I was looking for a book cover to decorate the last couple of paragraphs – something library-y I thought – and thought of that Peter Sellers film, Only two can play, where a lot of the action springs from a public library in South Wales, based on the Kingsley Amis novel That uncertain feeling (1955).  What I found – and there are many – took me straight back to Annie Spence‘s Good books in bad covers list.  Along with many examples of her pet hate – the movie tie-in cover (seconded!) – there in Google images we find something really quite tasteful and apposite … and an outrageously bad seventies abomination, shown here for educational purposes only.  One of the worst.  Ever.  (Though any ex-Camdenites reading this might recall a certain branch librarian).

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The Spy Game

Some books take you by surprise.  Georgina Harding‘s The spy game (Bloomsbury, 2009) was the Book Group’s August selection and I probably wouldn’t have considered reading it otherwise.  It got to me; I read it twice, and not just to catch any nuances I might have missed.  There’s a piano teacher struggling to engage her young pupil – Anna Wyatt, the narrator of The spy game – by introducing her to Erik Satie’s piano music.  Didn’t work for her, but it gave me an urgent need to fill that gap in my collection: no Gnossiennes or Gymnopédies? How did that happen?  The spy game is not a genre novel.

The tragic piano teacher is one to weep for.  Here she is playing some Bach, at what would prove to be Anna’s last lesson:

The music was like fountains, crystalline, rising, falling, controlled. If only it was all like that, no words to anything. If you listened, closed your eyes, then opened them again and looked about, you saw the room more richly than before, the polish of the furniture, the glow of the lamps, of the glass on the shelves, the vividness of its lit colour. The woman at the piano was suddenly vivid again too, as if some veil, some dull greyness which had seemed only an extension of the greyness of the day, of the protracted late winter, had dropped away.

Saturday, January 7, 1961, news breaks of the unmasking of a Soviet spy ring – a seemingly ordinary well-liked suburban couple, the Krogers, at the heart of it.  Two days later, 8-year old Anna’s mother dies in a car accident.  Her elder brother, Peter, just old enough to be aware of current affairs, becomes obsessed with the idea that their mother was a sleeper agent who had been recalled to Moscow to preserve the spy network.  After all, their English father had first met her in the Russian section of post-war Berlin, and they were kept away from the funeral.  Peter’s obsession – he involves her in what she sees as a game, becomes a bit of a spy himself – leads to a series of incidents, and for him, a breakdown, all of which is related by Anna, as she remembers what she saw and thought as a young girl.

Life moves on for her.  We are told nothing of what has happened in between – a narrative gap that works well, I think – save that her daughter has gone off to university and her husband is saying, Go on – why not go for it!  The experiences of her childhood have never quite left Anna, and she’s still intrigued by how little she ever knew about her mother’s life before she met her father.

Anna has researched the Portland Spy Ring (a fascination in itself), and moves on from the British Library’s newspaper out-station in North London to archives in Berlin and the remote Baltic outpost of what is now Kaliningrad (in what is now Russia), all small adventures in themselves, briefly meeting new people, helping or helped by, on the way.  What she discovers about her mother’s, and the piano teacher’s uneasy pre-war and war-time lives is extraordinary, humbling; her re-imaging of her parents’ courtship glorious.  The even tone that Georgina Harding maintains as one’s emotions soar and plunge is remarkable.  One is in Stephen Poliakoff and Andreii Makine territory – great company, I’d say.  A lovely uncomfortable book, one that sings.

A couple of other things before we leave Georgina Harding.  She doesn’t overdo the period touches, but when she does … well, I’m showing my age here: Dixon of Dock Green on the telly, the National Anthem when the days’ programming was over; pink candlewick bedspreads; “The telephone was for information still in those days … and was kept in the hall without even a chair beside it“; the crunch night of 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, the Big Freeze of 1963; sweet cigarettes!  I guess boys still labour over plastic construction kits to this day, but brother Peter’s aircraft models were like a Proustian madeleine for me:

His eyes were shiny so that I did not look into them. He was almost crying. I looked at his fingers instead, how they were white with the pressure. They held the wing of the plane so tight that I was afraid he might break it and then he would cry for sure. […]
Peter was collected now, more his usual self. He put the wing down. He began to peel the dried glue off his fingertips, stripping it off like skin and laying it on the spread newspaper on the table.

That at a moment of high drama.  I’d say that was a fine piece of writing.  She’s great on small details.  Finally, here’s Anna has just emptied her father’s kitchen, clearing the house for sale after his death.  There’s one special find:

I drove back home and did not have the strength to get the box out of the car. I would get it in the morning and sort everything then, tins of tomatoes, stale coffee, outdated herbs, half-used bags of sugar and flour that would hang about and sadden the larder for months. I took only the diary in.

The punishment she deserves

The punishment she deserves is the 20th of Elizabeth George‘s Inspector Lynley novels, but the first I’ve read.  I’m familiar with the television series and quite liked it once his awful wife became an ex-wife (don’t know if she was so toe-curdling in the books); star of the show is always Sharon Small, cheeky smile and all, as his DS Barbara Havers.  I had friends who read the series as they came out, but it was the length that put me off, that and not being able to get my head fully around an American writing about a quintessential Englishman (he’s a real Lord, don’t you know?).

Anyway, I get the nod that The punishment she deserves deserves a place in the Kinks in Literature pages here at Lillabullero, so there was no escape, the time had come.  At just over 600 pages it’s too long, way too long.

Because I was only familiar with the TV shows, I had to catch up on the soap opera aspects of the book series.  So it was a shock to discover Lynley with a boss who has a chronic alcohol problem and is going through a bad divorce and is involved in a fierce custody battle for the children.  This sub-plot added greatly to the page count, slowed the actual investigation down, and did nothing much for me; aficionados of the series may demur, of course.

Once Lynley and Havers get going The punishment she deserved has its moments – they’re a class double act – but as a police procedural it has a major flaw right from the start.  The Met officers are in Ludlow to look into the initial handling of a suspicious death in custody and the subsequent IPCC investigation which cleared the local police force: it was a suicide, they agreed.  No way, says the dead man’s rich dad, who can pull strings and is threatening the Home Office with legal action.  No mention whatever of a Coroner’s inquest – mandatory in the circumstances – which could well have, indeed should have, brought some pertinent facts out into the open much earlier. And killed the book, which does eventually have some interesting twists and turns fuelled by misunderstandings, maladjustment, and malevolence. 

There is a theme behind the whole shenanigans, involving parents and the contrasting nature of the aspirations, support, protection and freedom they give their teenage children.  How that all works out for the four students at the local college (probably a sixth form college) who share a house in which there seems to be an inordinate amount of casual sex going on, is fertile ground for red herrings and ethical questioning as things unfold.  Can’t say I found the local cast and a lot else that convincing.

But first the music.  The Kinks reference turns out to be a sticker in the back window of an old car (which by the sound of it would never have passed its MOT).  Soundtrack for the big end of term bash at the dodgy pub favoured by Ludlow’s young – is it really going to be the BeeGees and Abba?  I doubt it.  And while we’re in the pub, how about this revelation:

Music was shaking the floor-boards. This was meant to promote thirst which was meant to promote the purchase of lager, ale, cider, cocktails, and the like. [my italics] Deng had to struggle to get through the great glomerations of kids who were gyrating to the music, texting, or taking selfies …

And while we’re still here, the annoying things start to mount up.  ‘Ale’ is consistently through the book, never ‘beer’ or ‘bitter’.  And that word ‘conglomeration’; other bon mots heard at the pub are “Fabbo-licious” and “Gorgeosity in the extreme“.  One of the participants seated at that table is one Finnegan Freeman:

He wore his hair in a style that featured dreadlocks on the right and a shaved skull on the left. The latter allowed the display of a disturbing tattoo showing a wild-looking woman screaming, complete with uvula displayed as well as overlong canines, one of which dripped blood.

Yeah, right.  And he’s just the teenage son of the Assistant Chief Constable of the West Mercia Police Service, who, incidentally, uses sex games to keep her ex-addict husband in the dark about stuff and is probably the least convincing ACC to be found anywhere near a police procedural crime novel.

Annoyances abound.  PCSO Gaz’s hair “was cut short, but not in the fashion of a football hooligan” (which is, these days?); one evening we have “pub goers looking in on their nightly establishments“; a front garden on a new estate “grew lawns“.  Then there are speech abbreviations, the likes of which I’ve not encountered before; are ‘F you say so / c’n / cops’re / ‘nspector / sh’ll et al genuine local colour?  And Gaz is obviously conflicted:

Gaz set his coffee on the table and dumped milk into it. He stirred it carefully, as if with concern that he might slosh the brew out of the cup should he apply the spoon too energetically.

Meanwhile, cigarettes are never smoked.  It’s usually Havers, seeking somewhere “she could suck down another fag“.

Then there’s the sex.  As I said before, there’s lot of it.  It’s not graphic but it’s constant.  There’s Deng, who has been shagging pretty much anybody since age 14 because, it is pointlessly revealed, she discovered her dad, dead from auto-eroticism, in the stately home her mum is still trying to make a go of.  Deng has cultivated a friendship with determined virgin Missa.  And there’s sexually active, Francie, also living in a stately home that her parents are letting crumble, due to their global “ethno-cultural-whatever” commitments.  A key plot event has been Missa being “sodomised” in a drunken slumber, that word’s repeated use invoking memories of old style Tory dinosaurs speaking in early parliamentary debates on gay rights (or that DUP Ulster brogue!).  You could say the students’ back stories deserved some space, but it’s all a bit hysterical.  And goes on too long.

There are saving graces, which have probably kept the series going.  The main one, of course being the double act that is post Thomas Lynley and working-class Barbara Havers, the source of a rich vein of humour (if you ignore the ‘sucking’ of cigarettes).  Here Lynley is introducing himself to West Mercia’s unenthused by the meeting Chief Constable:

Oooh, Barbara thought. He was using the Voice. He rarely did that because he knew that when it came to being a fish out of water, he was the fish, and it didn’t make any sense to emphasise that. But every so often, such emphasis was necessary and the Voice was required. Upon hearing it the other paused in surprise. It was the pause that Lynley sought. […] Barbara took careful note of the nature of this pissing contest.

Good old Barbara, who had “long ago set her mobile’s alarm to play the final moments of the 1812 Overture at a casual suggestion some time ago from DI Lynley.”  Whose musical knowledge runs to “If Buddy Holly didn’t sing it, I’m clueless”; who breakfasts on Pop-Tarts.  There’s a nice running joke about ‘Judi-with-an-I’ back at Scotland Yard, whose boss at one stage, “had gone to Marylebone, meeting a nameless political powerbroker for a discussion about broking political power.”  A bit more of that and a bit less of the likes of, in the midst of a dramatic blue-lights flashing car chase to stop a glider take-off, “It was clear why the Long Mynd was a desired site for launching gliders.  To the west Shropshire gave way to rolling hills, some comprising quartzite and some consisting of volcanic debris [my italics]”

Doubtful I’ll be reading another one.

PS.  Inevitably technological changes and economic shifts can compromise older books’ accuracy, but I’m not sure there’s any excuse for a book published this year to rhetorically proclaim:  “Since they were on the Bromfield Road, they drove from Flora Bevans’ house into Bromfield itself, where a secondary road near the post office took them to what one could reliably find in any village in the country: a pub.”  If you’re lucky.

Musical adventures

Things have got a bit out of control here at Lillabullero, and the chronicling of worthy local musical outing … all within walking distance here in Stony Stratford … has got chronically behind.  Indeed, we have to go back all the way to July 14 and the joyful early evening that was the full Innocent Hare at the sadly soon to be no more Beer Bear – from medieval to heavy metal (an unlikely working of Iron Maiden’s Fear of the dark).  The wooden floor perfect for a touch of clog, too.  An evening also memorable for my introduction to the delightful Mad Squirrel’s De La Nut hazelnut milk stout (thank you, Andrew).

Vaultage has been on a roll the past couple of months:
I’ve seen The Plucky Haggis almost from his first open mic performance at least half a decade ago (before he was hairy, even), and he’s developed into a colourful performer of some aplomb.  Then one of those magic moments that can suddenly happen at an open mic: Porcelain Hill, who normally boast a classic guitar/bass/drums trio line-up, with rock-soul-blues-funk-punk et al in the mix, they had a proper gig down the road the next day and gave us an

Porcelain Hill at Vaultage – Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

acoustic set of the same with two guitars and cajon, that blew everyone away with their tightness, togetherness and good vibes.  From California, he said: “Whereabouts?” someone shouted.  “Ontario”.  General disbelief.  “No, look it up.  It’s even got its own airport.”  Indeed it does – you learn something everyday.) Here’s a link to their website: http://porcelainhill.com/

The Hatstand Band (or the two of ’em on the left on the night) performed as if joined at the hip.  Lovely stuff, a wide range of Americana, sweet harmonies and swing.  Simon Loake, relaxed broad humour and anecdotage from a long musical career, accomplished folk guitar and such a deep voice, used on some interesting material.  Andy Powell played Streets of London, Stairway to heaven and Duelling Banjos.  And got away with it – an entertainer.  Stairway to heaven done with the help of two ESL signers from the Carabosse theatre team was an experience: the stairway!  After drifting a bit, the quality of the open mic-ers lately has been great too.  Chrissy and Mike’s Born under a bad sign – flute and folk guitar – remains an earworm since last Thursday.  Nice work, Pat Nicholson & Andy Bongos!

Couple of real goodies at York House too.  Don Adam Perera, a classical guitarist of distinction, talked about the versatility of the guitar and demonstrated it.  Spanish, romantic, tango, Spanish, Latin American, he can do ’em all.  Two sets, the first from nineteenth century composers, then more contemporary stuff.  Dazzling, emotional.  See: http://www.donadamperera.com/

Evie Laden & Keith Terry are no strangers to York House, and their skills and entertainment value does not pall.  Americana richly employing banjo (claw hammer style), double bass, guitar, fine voices, ‘body music’, clog, charm.  See: http://www.evieladin.com/bio/

Almost forgetting … an absorbing mix of storytellers, bards and two thirds of Innocent Hare in the Library, for the Magdalen Tower show.

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Millennials may have plenty to moan about but their children – so long as the public libraries stay open – have the richest ever variety of picture books available for their delight and edification. Here are a couple of favourites that I’ve encountered in grandparentage.

Ed Vere‘s Grumpy Frog (Puffin, 2017) is a morality tale.  Grumpy Frog insists glories in being green to the detriment of all other colours, particularly pink.  He has a running dialogue with his author as to his grumpiness: Green ROCKS my world! / Leaves are green … YEAH! / Grass is green … FISTPUMP! / DUDE! Frogs are green! / See … NOT grumpy!”  He won’t go swimming with his friends (water’s blue), and a bouncing game is out because it involves yellow, so they go off without him.

After a while he’s in existential crisis: “WHY ISN’T EVERYTHING GREEN? / WHY do I eat flies? / WHY isn’t it my birthday TODAY? / Why won’t anyone hop with me? / I miss hopping / I miss my friends.” 

Pink Rabbit, also into hopping, offers to be his friend, but … yup, no go.  So along comes a crocodile who eats frogs.  It is pointed out to frog that the crocodile is also green.  He is made to realise he is being both grumpy and really mean; he wises up and escapes the croc’s jaws because it only likes to eat grumpy frogs.  Grumpy Frog apologises to Pink Rabbit and is forgiven.  Dude! We all love hopping … together!” Not quite the end, and I’ve missed other bits, but I’ll leave it there.

Can’t say two-and-three-quarters grandson entirely gets Grumpy Frog but he likes it well enough, and it keeps its fun for we who do the reading.  There’s a crocodile to the fore in our next book too, but until he can read most of the pleasure’s mine.

Open very carefully: a book with bite, illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne ‘with words by Nick Bromley‘ (Nosy Crow, 2013) plays with the book format something rotten.  It sets out to be a twee Han Christian Andersen’s The ugly duckling, but there’s an invading crocodile on the loose.  “What’s he doing in this book?

He’s on the move and what he’s doing is eating the letters (“I think his favourite letters are O and S“) before graduating to “… whole words and sentences!”  To stop him it’s suggested we rock the book backwards and forwards.  He nods off.  Revenge attack: let’s draw a pink tutu and ballet shoes on him – “not such a scary crocodile now!

Waking up he is not a happy croc but he’s fed up with this scene and makes a run for it, only to bump his snout against the book’s edge.  Taking pity, we give the book a shake to no avail, but he’s sussed it for himself and … eats his way out.  Of an actual hole in the last two pages and back cover.

Meanwhile, over in the adult section …

I don’t normally do supernatural horror – have never even (whisper it) read a Stephen King – but Sarah Pinborough‘s The reckoning (US: Leisure Book, 2005) is set in the small town I’ve lived in for the last decade – Streatford for Stony Stratford, Gallows Hill for Galley Hill, Dulverton for Wolverton (ouch, though note the publication date), York House for York House – so why not?

Spooky almost from the outset?  Rob, one of the main characters, is a successful horror novelist who moves back to his hometown; Ms Pinborough is a successful writer some of whose work is deep in the genre who has recently moved back to this very same home town (just round the corner, in fact).  The phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ springs to mind, doesn’t quite fit, but I’ll use it anyway.

At a recent local event Sarah said she’d bought back the rights to her first three books (The reckoning was her second).  I’m speculating more to stop the American publisher cashing in on the recent success of the bestselling Behind her eyes and Cross her heart (see below), than out of embarrassment, because it aint half bad.  Indeed it shares some major ingredients with those two much later books – strong characters who swear a bit, friendship across class divides, multiple viewpoints, shifting timelines, an eventful youth coming back to bite, masterful suspense, at least one major narrative twist, and crushing climaxes.

I could nit-pick – the role of the police and other authorities in all the shenanigans is too peripheral – and everything would be much more tightly drawn these days, but in the face of an energetic prose I read on apace just the same.  That since reading it I’ve felt a frisson when I walk down Ousebank Way to get to the river, as I often do, must count as a measure of the book’s success, I’d say.  And after the peaceful resolution, ends all tied where they can be, there’s a beautifully executed tease, charming and chilling, left hanging there in the Epilogue.

Sarah Pinborough‘s latest novel, Cross her heart (HarperCollins, 2018) is such a taut page-turner that it’s difficult to write about in any detail without giving some of the game away. This time around she has eschewed the supernatural and come up with a powerful mainstream psychological thriller featuring,  ultimately, one of the most twisted psyches I’ve ever encountered in fiction (not that I hunt them out, mind).  The book displays all the characteristics listed in talking about with The reckoning above, but the writing and plotting is so much tighter.  There are twists, red herrings and turns aplenty, all topped off with an intriguing road trip pursuit, a scary climax (in Skegness) and a deeply satisfying coda.

The story is told through a web of first person present tense narratives and thought-streams (Now) from three people, interlaced with some Before and After, and significant Him and Her, passages.  The three are Lisa, a single mum, the main woman; Ava, her young teenage daughter, who is being groomed, and disappears; along with Marilyn, Lisa’s best friend from work.  They speak naturally, without particular inflection, with the occasional bon mot thrown in, but there’s no confusion as to who’s head we’re in (something I’ve often struggled with in similar circumstances).   Office intrigue and mother /daughter angst feature early on, and the office delivers a client-cum-romantic lead, who turns out to be highly useful; here’s a book that should be tremendous multi-episode TV.

There’s stuff in Lisa’s past that the others (and we) haven’t got a clue about that is the slow reveal crucial to what’s going on.  If I think too much about this mechanism, the accusation of we the reader being cheated creeps in, a low thought rebutted, I’m prepared to cede, by the real-time nature of Lisa’s worries as they mount.  And indeed they do.

Cross her heart gives great read.  Here’s Marilyn, a nice foil to Lisa, with marriage problems of her own – “My lasagne grows cold. Untouched and unwanted. I know how it feels” – giving a taste of the knots of the situation:

It’s a mean thought and I realise what a bitch being under so much stress is making me.  If Lisa were here we’d probably laugh at it, but alone it’s just bitter and mean.  But if Lisa were here none of this would be happening at all.

And here’s Lisa, on the run and on the hunt:

I pray to a God I don’t believe in before trying my debit card in a cash point, and I laugh with relief when it spits out the maximum two hundred and fifty pounds.  […]  I ditch my card, my handbag and Alison’s phone in a nearby bin and quickly go to Boots and buy battery-operated hair clippers and blue spray hair dye, make-up and black nail varnish.  I visit three charity shops in a row and buy the hippiest, grungiest clothes I can find, along with an army surplus jacket and some second-hand Doc Martens that just about fit.  I pick up a load of big junk jewellery of crosses and skulls and some leather bracelets.  […] They’d be underestimating me. Be big and bold and hide in plain sight. Be someone new.

Speaking of television:

The handmaid’s tale does grind on doesn’t it?  But that Our father who art in heaven … seriously? What the actual fuck?” muttered by Offred over the title sequence after that gruelling 11 minutes ritual execution scene opening episode 1 of the 2nd series is almost enough in itself to justify the whole continued enterprise.

Meanwhile, belatedly, another classic from the pen of Alison Graham, TV critic extraordinaire, in Radio Times, this time about the ITV series The Split, which finished at the end of May:

Characters in The Split spend an awful lot of time on bridges. Here’s hotshot divorce solicitor Hannah on the Millennium Bridge in London looking mournful as she absorbs the full import of revelations about her perfectly nice husband.
Once Hannah is in the office, though, Creepy Christie contrives to be a constant presence in her sightline, passing her glances so laden with meaning I’m surprised his eyebrows don’t fall off.
As Abi Morgan’s syrupy romance glides to a close on a sea of sentiment, we end with a wedding and a turn of events we can all see coming. The door marked Second Series is clearly left ajar. Please, slam it, lock it and walk away.

Amen.  I’ve not watched it, but she’s been on its case from the start, and when it comes to television dramas, Alison Graham is a woman to be trusted.

 

 

 

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There’s a passage well into Rachel Simon‘s The story of Beautiful Girl (Preface, 2011), May’s Book Group book, that had me beaming:

“Beautiful” was once the biggest word Lynnie had ever said. Her speech therapist, Andrea, had told her,  ‘After you master that, the sky’s the limit.’  She wasn’t quite right – Lynnie did not cross a language threshold with “beautiful.” […] But Andrea was right that once Lynnie achieved “beautiful”, she’d develop a new confidence.

It got to me.  Others in the Book Group were – rather unfairly I thought – expecting cynical ol’ me to be dismissive of this well-crafted novel.  I’ll admit seeing that cover I feared an acute attack of the American sentimentals – and if there’s a film made, any sloppy string section in evidence in the soundtrack will sully its integrity – but while the others complained of an over-reliance on coincidence for its narrative development, I was quite happy to accept a not unreasonable logic to the deeply satisfying happenstances, based on the people involved in the story being on the same football pitch as Lynnie’s thoughts on hope:

And Lynnie understood. There were two kinds of hope: the kind you couldn’t do anything about and the kind you could.  And even if the kind you could do something about wasn’t what you’d originally wanted, it was still worth doing. A rainy day is better than no day. A small happiness can make a big sadness less sad.

Not to mention the hope of the reader for things to turn out some sort of right (or in the case of the viewer, as in Peter Kay’s Car Share on telly last night, but I digress).

The story of Beautiful Girl starts one stormy night in 1968.  Or at least the book does, with Lynnie (young, white, aka Beautiful Girl) and Homan (tall African-American, profoundly deaf, aka Number Forty-Two, aka Buddy to Lynnie) on the run from ‘the School’ – a punitive dumping ground of an institution – with a new-born babe in arms.  Knocking desperately on Martha’s front door (she’s a widow, a retired teacher with a story of her own), they secrete the baby just before the School hunting party arrives; they obviously adore one another.  Homan escapes, and after a brief meaningful exchange of a look and a couple of words with Lynnie Martha solemnly chooses to care for the baby, who she names Julia.  Helped by a network of devoted ex-pupils, she goes on the run.

The story of Beautiful Girl is not just the story of ‘Beautiful Girl’ (which is how Homan remembers his friend).  The narrative develops in a series of episodes over the years to 2011, as we see what happens to Lynnie, back in the School, where she is helped by Kate – another of the good gals – who works there, and takes on a mission of her own.  Meanwhile Homan partakes of a desperate American survival odyssey – riding the rails, road tripping in a stolen vehicle with a young white man in a wheelchair, rescued by a hippy commune, helping in a Buddhist retreat – while Martha (now aka Matilda) goes on a journey of her own with Julia.

As I say, it got to me.  As the disturbing story arc and the individual lives broaden out, the narrative takes us through the terrible circumstances of Julia’s conception, the unravelling and demise of such prehistoric institutional care, and the development of the Self Advocacy Movement for people with disabilities.  Here’s a significant step in Lynnie’s liberation:

Five year’s into Lynnie’s stay – five tear’s after Lynnie’s intake IQ test classified her as an upper division imbecile and they stuck her in a cottage with other low grades – Kate noticed that Lynnie wasn’t just pushing the mop around when she did the janitorial work that was part of her treatment. She was making designs on the tile with the mop, the suds sparkling like iridescent crescents in the light. Kate told a psychologist, who ordered a new IQ test, and then Lynnie was promoted to the moron cottage.

Kate encourages her drawing talent and there’s a moment when they celebrate a small victory over the administration with a high-five out of nowhere that had me clenched-fist saluting – Yes! – and so it goes on.  For the good guys.  It’s not in the same class, but I’ll venture that it’s not outrageous to consider The story of Beautiful Girl as a close relative to  Ken Kesey’s One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, if without the belly laughs.  Lovely book, though, with an unflashy element of private theological musings, and a couple of neat but telling visual motifs running through.

As for the bad guys, we get to see some karma.  There’s a nicely nuanced visit near the end to find one of them, looking, I guess, for closure:

Lynnie gazed out of the windshield. The sky was gray and the houses broken. There was so much that was ugly in this world. Yet look. A blue jay was flying toward the house. It dove under the porch roof and tucked itself into the nest.

Musical interlude

This got me humming something I’ve been listening to a lot lately.  Mary Chapin Carpenter‘s recent album reworkings songs from her back catalogue.  Sometimes just the sky, the title track, is the only new song.  the title is a quote from Patti Smith.  I think it deserves a listen:

One last thought about The story of Beautiful Girl.  Homan – Number Forty-Two, the number assigned to him at the School, who originally saw printed text as bird tracks: “… how easily the School had made him disappear.”  Yup, that number again.  Coincidence?  Nod and a wink?  You never know.

YorkieFest 2018

A new, evening only format for YorkieFest this year, and a splendid evening’s music is was too, with an absorbing (listened to!) spoken word set from the Bard as bonus.  Mike Betteridge is excused his square on Cover Band Bingo because his solo Come together is so good; he can play the blues too.  Lovely set from singer-songwriter Dawn Iverson, making good use of her romantic history.  A touch of Nick drake (who else?) from Hazeyjane, and an uplifting African guitar driven set from Safari Boots.

One of MK’s finest bands for a long time now, the Zeroes, in their slimmed down unplugged incarnation proved it’s not just two generational folk families can sweetly sing together, and provided my current earworm.  Forgotten its title, but with a refrain of “Oh no / not me / I’m not sophisticated / I’m just a boy from Milton Keynes” in response to a mini-world tour of verses detailing the origins of his dates (“She was a girl from Ipanema” et al), inexplicable how the MK50 team rejected it last year when submitted for formal recognition as part of the city’s half-century celebration. Surely, is this not a case of the phenomenon of, escaping from the realms of literature, the unreliable narrator strikes again.

Well done, again, Pat Nicholson and the ‘Fest team.

 

 

 

 

 

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There’s a passage near the end of Wendy Jones‘ novel The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals (Corsair, 2012) where one of the characters – Wilfred himself, no less – comes to the conclusion that his notion of reading the dictionary from cover to cover as a way of bettering himself is not helping:

The words he wanted were so simple, any child could speak them. They were simple words to write and spell. Big words, clever words – all those words beginning with A – were rather grand, too grand really, and unnecessary. When would he ever need the word avocado in Narberth?

How times change.  These days, the Guardian says (says Wikipedia), that Narberth, in Pembrokeshire, is “a gastronomic hub for west Wales”, lively and full of galleries and antique shops.  A decade or three ago we used to regularly stay nearby with family, and Narberth was a name often seen on road signs that we never thought to follow.  Back in 1924 (I do not doubt the novel), it was the sort of repressive place (“a town that pretended innocence and only allowed for innocence”) that had me dredging up words from the days when I was ‘reading’ (as they say on University Challenge) sociology – fine words like gemeinschaft and gessellschaft, that spectrum from community to society – and saying three cheers for modernity.

Is The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals as bad as its title might suggest?  It was only keeping faith with the Book Group that kept me going.  Come the meeting it became apparent that mine was a minority report, though in discussion I had to acknowledge some credit where it was due – for the powerful dignity and integrity of the three main characters as things direly progress.  Wilfred gets himself into a situation “because of a yellow dress … with a low waistband and a square neck that was slightly too low, perhaps only by half an inch” and rather than keep mildly lecherous thought to himself blurts out a proposal of marriage to the wearer of said dress.  Yeah, right.  

The trouble is, it’s not sure what it wants to be.  It starts out as a vaguely comic candidate for the Sunday 9 o’clock Candleford slot on telly, with lots of cod Welshness (how I tired of the sing-song reference back to “his apprentice master, Mr Ogmore Auden”) and then turns into something really quite dark and bleak.  It ends like a box set pleading for a second series, or at the very least a spin-off following the one departing to that London.  But then I have to admit that I ended up caring about Grace, Wilf (as he’s never called) and young war widow Flora.  Other saving graces: odd incidentals about undertaking, photography, and beekeeping.  Even the cheerleaders at Book Group found those quotes on the cover of the paperback – “Gently glorious”, “Magical and bewitching” – missing the point.

The best of Adam Sharp

Graeme Simsion‘s The best of Adam Sharp (Michael Joseph, 2016) is a midlife crisis/great lost love novel.  He, Adam, is a successful database architect, who manages to fit in three pub quizzes a week in Norwich, married to a software developer whose start-up is being bought up for big bucks on condition she moves to the States, and she’s not bothered if he comes or not – his choice.  She, Angelina, is a lawyer, a Commissioner for Equalities in Australia, married to Charlie, an older ‘deal-maker’.  They‘d first met 22 years ago when he was 26, working to a contract in Oz and playing the piano in a bar (“not a pub, a bar” he insists) in the evenings, and she was young and famous, one of the leads in a TV cop-soap, in an unhappy marriage; he leaves when the job demands he move to another place and they both get on with their lives.

Out of the blue he gets an email, just saying ‘Hi.’  What follows is a tale, narrated by the Adam of the title, of jealousy and infidelity, trust-testing and sex games, coming to a climax (if you’ll excuse the expression) in a French Villa where Angelina and Charlie are staying, and have invited Adam.  There are various cliffhangers, comings and goings and changes of mind; I’m not giving anything away.  It has its moments and there are some decent scenes, along with consideration of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, all sorts of specific wine nonsense, the Kübler-Ross grief model, and BATNA, or ‘Best alternative to a negotiated settlement’, a concept from negotiation theory; this is a fine romance.

The paperback cover, and a move to tape cassette!

To tell the truth I only carried on with it from early on (“I was back home in Norwich, reading up on Pete Best, the Beatles’ forgotten first drummer, when the email popped up …” ) to keep faith with my Kinks in Literature feature here on Lillabullero.  I knew there was a reference in there somewhere because the author has helpfully supplied a 2½ page ‘Playlist’ of what was probably his dad’s record collection, and Lola features (it’s a pretty good sequence about Adam learning to play the piano, which I’ll expand on elsewhere).  Indeed, our narrator can’t stop using music (and the odd book, like Love in a time of cholera) as metaphor, simile and sieve through which to view his life: “If my life prior to 15 February 2012 had been a song, it might have been Hey Jude … ” (not a bad musical analysis, as it happens).  But he also courts obscurities that had me hitting Google furiously: “I sang Walking in Memphis and found I was enjoying myself … I did the Dylan-Springs obscurity Walk out in the rain and got another cheer for the line about sore feet”.  Nope, not the Boss, but Helen Springs; Dylan never recorded it, Eric Clapton did a maudlin version of it, but this, from the Del McCoury Band, is a pretty joyful take that I feel the urge to share:

Then there’s this:

      Long ago, I listened to Billie Holiday singing Summertime – not once but many times – and I thought it was as close to a perfect rendition as could be imagined: Lady Day laying out the melody in all its languid easy-living elegance, the restraint of her delivery only accentuating the feeling behind it.

      Years later, I listened to Janis Joplin’s live performance. It’s a screaming primal blues, the melody no more than a point of departure, but still, unmistakably, the same song. My familiarity with Billie Holiday’s version only made Joplin’s reinterpretation more powerful and in turn opened my mind to nuances I had missed in the original. Having experienced both versions, I knew the song in a way I could never have if I had heard only one.

      Making love to Angelina felt different and familiar at the same time.

Never been a great Joplin fan, and personally I think she murders it.  I have always had a lot of time for Billy Stewart‘s funkily energetic assault on the song though:

But I indulge myself.  Time to move on.

Behind her eyes

I’m not going to say much about Sarah Pinborough‘s highly successful Behind her eyes (HarperCollins, 2017) because I could say too much and give the game away.  It’s a page turner all right.  There are plenty of twists on the way – not least in the reader’s perception of who the good guys are – but the shift at the end is dazzling in its audacity.  Mind-blowing is a phrase not much-used these days …

Single mother Louise has a drunken snog with David, a married bloke, the first bloke she’s fancied in ages.  Goes to work next day only to discover he’s her new boss; ok, I’ll give away that an affair ensues.  Louise also bumps into and befriends his seemingly vulnerable wife, Claire; they become new BFs, with Louise being drawn into her problems.  Seems neither Claire or David know that Louise knows the other, and she aint telling (and she’s the decent one).  He’s a psychiatrist and there’s a big, slowly revealed – and duly revised – back story to the marriage, with its probably criminal roots, one way or another, in a fatal fire at her parents’ country house when they were much younger.

In a library it has to be shelved in Crime fiction, but to say any more might give too much away; I will say psychological thriller as sub-genre along the way.  There’s a necessary suspension of belief involved, but I was so skillfully drawn in.  It’s crisply written, with the narrative mainly shared between Louise and Claire, with ‘Then’, ‘Later’, and ‘Now’ passages to help it along.  The final reveal … Wow!  Good job …

A meal and a show in that London

Family-gifted celebratory treats: a mixed experience.

Apparently over 7 million theatregoers have already seen The woman in black in the West End over the last 28 ‘terrifying’ years.  Which may explain why we seemed to be the oldest couple in the difficult to find tucked away Fortune Theatre – a cramped trip back into the past in itself – on a Saturday night.  Indeed, I thought we’d seen it before in MK (wasn’t our choice) but it soon became apparent I was mistaken.  Wasn’t convinced by the framing mechanism for the narrative – worried man seeks actor to help up his presentation skills in telling his terrible tale.  It’s a two-hander and as such a feat for the actors, but I wasn’t really drawn in.

Of course there’s always a problem with ghost stories if you don’t believe in ghosts, and I found the effects were either corny – not easy to do effectively, I’d guess, in such an old theatre – or relied more on volume and surprise than anything else for their shock value.  Most chilling moment – and chilling it was, I’ll grant – was right at the end, when it became apparent that the curse had not been lifted.

Earlier, a meal in a ££££-er on TripAdvisor, at Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden (website).  That was a real treat.  We had the 5-course vegetarian taster menu; the chefs come out and tell you what’s going on the plates, of which there was a splendid variety of shapes and materials.  The place was buzzing but the service was right on the ball.  Most interesting tastes that have hit this palate in a long time, only challenged years past by a couple of specialist veggie gaffs in Brighton and Lyme Regis.

 

 

 

 

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