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Comfortable Win

Given the hardships and rigours of the voyage, perhaps enchantment is not the right word to describe how Sally Magnusson‘s The Sealwoman’s gift (Two Roads, 2018) took me over, but that’s how it felt from the beginning.  Nor was I alone in this at the March meeting.  Who’d have thought it, we all said, about ‘The Turkish Abductions’, as they are known in Iceland.  In 1627 (1627!) Barbary corsairs, out of Ottoman North Africa, raid Iceland and take 400 inhabitants (250 from one small island) and ship them to Algiers to sell into slavery, or held for ransom.  There is a contemporary text, but as Asta says toward the end:

For those who want to know what it is for human beings to be stolen and traded and lose their children, there is always Olafur’s book, which has been much copied and passed around. By now others may have written their own accounts of captivity. Men, of course. They will all be men. Does it matter that nobody will know how it was to be a woman?

A couple in the reading group had reservations, thought it was cheating a bit, to smuggle a feminist voice into the narrative (it is quite subtly done), but they still praised it highly; for me that was the cherry on the cake, added sparkle. 

We get to see the aforesaid chronicler, a Lutheran minister, not a bad bloke, being set up with a younger wife, Asta, who is the bright main narrative voice: Margret sniffs. ‘I soon had you in shape though, didn’t I? You would have been no use to Olafur if you hadn’t known how to soften a cod’s head in whey“; she is quite taken that he’s a bookman, though there are differences in outlook:

There are no trolls in the Bible. Grotesque shapes in the lava are the way the Almighty once instructed a volcano to behave and not frozen giantesses awaiting the sun’s caresses.

 It’s not all Asta, either; here’s a pirate, outlining their strategy:  

So, fly a Danish flag, sail on past with confidence, land the boats somewhere the locals would never think of and storm the harbour from inland. Fucking brilliant plan, even if it did have its perils. He thought his last moments had come trying to land on the promontory. Never seen surf like it.

Sally Magnusson is not mucking about; this is a slave ship.  Asta and Olifur already have two children, who are taken with them; she gives birth to a third on the voyage.  Once in Muslim Algiers he gets to go back to negotiate a ransom for their release, while she gets taken into a harem, where she keeps the interesting Sultan at bay for a considerable time by giving him the equivalent of A thousand and one nights, drawing from her extensive knowledge of Icelandic myths and sagas; indeed, storytelling is at play throughout the book.  Her elder kids go native (he even becomes a corsair); the sultan is beguiled, and she gets drawn in by the sensual delights of Algiers (warmth, colour, spice), gets to appreciate there are other ways of life, and pleasurably succumbs. 

Finally the prospect of the ransom getting paid; she has a decision to make; old duty wins after an inner struggle.  Holding station on the way back in Amsterdam’s no great shakes either.  Back in Iceland she hates it and him (colourless, cold, monotonous food, a joyless old man).  There is a reconciliation brought about by the gift of the Sealwoman.  Though it’s not as straightforward as it seems if you think about it (she does), it works well enough.

The Sealwoman’s gift is a beautifully told historical novel that sings.  The prose flows, is vivid, realistic, emotional and enchanting; it is delivered with great insight, has great character development (hey, Book Group-land!) and no little wit.  I loved reading it.  Hell, it even has a fart joke:

Asta is horrified to feel a trickle of laughter at her throat. All her life she has struggled with the impulse to laugh at the wrong time. Olafur has never forgiven her for giggling uncontrollably the day he roared from the pulpit, ‘Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind’, just as a large farmer at the front shifted his buttock and blasted the congregation. The worst of it was that Olafur heard her and had to swallow twice himself. He said afterwards that he had never been so mortified and refused to speak to her for the rest of the day.

Nil-Nil draw

I took against Jamil Ahmad‘s The wandering falcon (2011), April’s Book Group book, from the clumsy opening words: “In the tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten and broken hills, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet, is a military outpost manned by about two score soldiers.”  Of course the hills are broken – they’re crumbling and weather-beaten;  unless broken means more, and if so, what?  And there are more graceful words available than that ‘about’?

I’m probably being unfair.  This collection of connected short stories, covering events in the 1950s through to the 1970s, was written in the latter decade and published when the author, a government official, was 79.  It certainly gives you a feel for the bleak terrain, challenging climate and the harsh life of the seasonally migrating tribes of the region have traditionally worked the area.  But times are changing, not least this modern notion of borders, and The wandering Falcon examines these social changes:

They walked silently for a while, thinking about the effect the new policy would have on them and their people. There was no way for them to obtain travel documents for thousands of their tribesmen; they had no birth certificates, no identity papers or health documents. They could not document their animals. The new system would certainly mean the death of a centuries-old way of life.

Trouble is, it’s not easy to look upon these massive changes overtaking a cruelly patriarchal way of life as any great loss.  Nor, thankfully, is Jamil Ahmad a sentimental chronicler of its demise:

Despite their differences, the two [feuding] tribes share more than merely their common heritage of poverty and misery. Nature has bred in both an unusual abundance of anger, enormous resilience, and a total refusal to accept their fate. […] To both tribes, survival is the ultimate virtue. In neither community is any stigma attached to a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer. And then, both are totally absorbed in themselves. They have no doubt in their minds that they occupy centre stage, while the rest of the world acts out minor roles or watches them as spectators – as befits inferior species.

The stories are linked by the title character, Tor Baz, who we first see as a very young boy.  Abandoned after a wretched sequence of events, he manages somehow to fend for himself for the duration.  He’s not exactly Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (now that would be interesting, a native-written re-write), but he makes at least a fleeting appearance in each of the nine stories except the penultimate and crucial The betrothal of Shah Zarina, the story of a woman’s escape from a brutal marriage to a bear-tamer, only to end up in a slave market.  Where (spoiler alert) in the nicely ambiguous final chapter, she catches Tor Baz’s eye and he, operating in trickster mode, buys her for cheap, thinking “I could settle down with this one“.  I’ll admit it’s stayed with me longer than I thought it might; as a group we acknowledged its strengths but on the whole were lukewarm.

A mauling

A less than well attended May meeting, with little enthusiasm for Public library and other stories (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) and some ire.  Except from one of us. Which was me.  Who loved it.  And was reading it for the third time.

Seems Ali Smith is Marmite.  She’s all over the place, they complained, there’s no obvious structure.  That’s why I like her so much; she’ll just, for want of a better description, get a notion and  ‘go off on one’; or seems to – there could well be art in this.  As well as witty nods and literary winks aplenty.  True, there isn’t much to specifically link the 12 actual short stories with the prompted passages from various writers singing the praises of a beleaguered public library service – it was fair, I guess, to expect a library setting to some of the fiction – but books and a fascination with words figure strongly in these absorbing (for some!) tales of personal renaissance, scholarship in the broadest sense (Dusty Springfield!), and just making it through.

I’ve written about this book before (https://quavid.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/book-affected-homes/ ) but I’ll give a taste from Say I won’t be there, a wife and husband breakfast dialogue and email exchange that starts off “I had a dream, I say.” The Today programme is on BBC Radio4.  He’s thinking about work.  It’s a recurring dream: “I’m, like, a character in a 1960s novel. / Which 1960s novel? you say.  / Not a real actual novel, I say.”  He queries further, prompting.  “Don’t start trying to turn my dream into a cheap graphic-design version of the 1960s, I say.”  They briefly reminisce (or he does) about a holiday car journey with A hard day’s night on the car stereo.  Conversation about Dusty Springfield follows inter alia.  Is he in the dream? 

She goes off to work, she thinks back to when she used to write down her dreams in a book they bought in Habitat.  Dusty email exchanges lead to her buying and listening to a Springfields ‘best of’ double CD, surprised at how much she recognises.  Day’s end and conversation in bed, starting with “I’ll write a book instead, you say.  I’ll call it The Dream: Grime and Transcendence in the 1960s Novel.  / Not a very catchy title I say.” Then we get that night’s dream in which a family talks about Busty Springboard (as my partner, not Ali Smith, says they used to call her), and which is like a 1960s novel.  Nineteen brilliant pages; but I can see it’s not for everyone.

Okay.  And why not?

My title, by the way, was a shameless lift from J.G.Ballard’s splendid short story The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy considered as a downhill motor race, itself inspired by Alfred Jarry’s The Crucifixion considered as an uphill bicycle race.  I don’t really do it justice.

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There was once a music shop“.  So opens Rachel Joyce‘s novel The music shop (Doubleday, 2017), and that’s where the trouble starts – I don’t believe you.  It may be 1988 with NF graffiti on the walls, but here we are really living in the land of fable.  That the shop is situated on Unity Street gives the game away, I’d say.  At The music shop‘s core is a drawn-out, convoluted operatic love story; if it were an old film you can practically hear the violins on the page (not in a good way).  And at the end, 21 years later, there’s a grand song and dance finale that cries out for the musical stage or a big screen.  Not a great novel, then.

We could debate how clever or cute it is that the book’s structure follows that of a vinyl double album (Side A through to Side D, with a Hidden track at the end) and that a lot of chapter headings are song titles.  I’m not convinced.  The test of a book with music to the fore is how much it makes you want to hear what’s being cited, and, yes, The music shop did make me want to revisit some of the classical works discussed (The fours seasons, even).  Here’s the biographical context of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata:

It’s so intimate, what he’s doing, he’s practically having sex with her.’
‘Sex?’ Her face stretched wide. ‘Beethoven?’
‘Or at least good foreplay.’
Sex? Foreplay? Horrified, he heard the words that had come from his mouth.

So I’m not saying it doesn’t have its moments, nor that it doesn’t have decent musical taste (I almost cheered aloud when The new favourites of Brinsley Schwartz made an appearance in a list, though that’s another story), just that the rock stuff doesn’t sing off the page in the same way, or get much context.  Blues hardly figure at all, even though all the characters have got ’em, one way or another.

Most of the best bits of The music shop come out of the owner of the shop’s – Frank’s – back story, his life and broad early musical education at the hands of an eccentric bohemian single mum who died young.  He’d rather have had a normal childhood, but she left him with his special talent, of which more later.  His mum is really interesting; that’s a novel I’d rather have read.  Her stuff appears in italics.  She’s a card: ‘Bach was a genius,’ she said … ‘He was jazz in fucking Baroque fucking Germany.’  On Perotin and the birth of harmony: ‘In those days music was mostly plainsong. It was a bit – how could she put this? Fucking plain.’ Frank hardly swears at all.  And the game changer (not that we hear much about Mile Davies):

When Peg played Kind of Blue, Frank had no idea what hit him. It was 1959. The album had just come out, and he was 11.
As he listened, it was like doors opening …
‘This is the record that will change history,’ said Peg. […]

Frank’s special talent is that he can tell what people need to listen to.  Right at the start he persuades a man who professes to ‘only liked Chopin’ to take home an Aretha Franklin album and … Eureka!  He saves his bank manager’s marriage (and secures an overdraft extension to keep the shop going for himself) by pressing a Shalomar album on him.  Many people benefit over the years from his guru-like gift.  Looking for some sort of scoop, or at least a touch of the authentic, I asked a friend of mine who is an avid reader and a qualified music therapist what he thought of The music shop; bastard hadn’t read it (no offence).

So this is no ordinary record shop.  We’ll pass over its realistic financial viability; he’s holding out religiously against CDs, and this is twenty years before the advent of the vinyl revival.  Interesting concept, and you can see what he means but … (and anticipating Amazon’s tricks):

I see you don’t have any sections.?’
‘I put records where I think they should go. I am more interested in what it’s like when you – when you, uh, you know … […]
‘What?’ she asked.
‘When you –
listen. So if a customer asks for Rubber Soul, they usually find something else they would like as well.’

So Frank attempted to explain that Vivaldi was telling a story in the Four Seasons. It was why he kept it with his concept albums, like Ziggy Stardust, At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash, ABC’s The lexicon of love and John Coltrane’s A love supreme. Concept albums told a story over a number of tracks.

This Frank is a man with “a kind of empathy for everyone.”  As one of his fellow shopkeepers (a tattoo artist no less) says, he has “no room to accommodate the fact that someone might turn round one day and love him back“.  On the one hand inspirational, on the other, really bloody annoying (but the back story …):

So what was Frank going to do about [the event that sets the narrative off]? Frank was going to do what he always did when life got confusing, and that was absolutely nothing. If that didn’t work, he would do the next thing he always did when life was confusing, and hide.

And what of Unity Street, a half abandoned side street parade, away from the main shopping drag in a failing provincial town, suffering from planning blight, falling masonry, and a voracious developer trying to buy the stubborn survivors out.  A little community, then: “All life is here”, even after the baker had sold up – a funeral parlour, a religious gifts store, a music shop and a tattoo parlour.  Father Anthony, a retired priest (no, drink, not that) was saved by Frank introducing turning him on to jazz, calls his shop ‘Articles of Faith’.

Side D takes us 21 years on, after a catastrophe involving a sub-McGuffin of a shrink-wrap machine (for second hand vinyl?).  As I say, The music shop the stuff of musicals.  A lot of people have been heartened by the happy ending (oops).

Music, Maestro please …

Meanwhile, back in the real world, a couple of Saturdays ago (May 9) we were worshipping in the Church of the Bullfrogs at York House .  Shall I say ‘local legends’?  Why not!  Their special 25th birthday gig, no less – 1994 at the Fox and Hounds and all that.  Great evening, kicked off with a blast of hard-driving blues-powered rock from original members of the Beneficial Blues Band, out of whom which the Bullfrogs were spawned.  And when they hit the stage the canvas was broadened more than a wee bit with big colourful strokes of Southern Rock, Tex-Mex, and self-proclaimed ‘original Outlaw Country’.  A waltz even … and even if it was Green grow the rushes / Viva Mexico, there were waltzers.

Over the course of the evening we saw two drummers, three guitarists, three fiddlers from over the Bullfrog years and just the one redoubtable Ian Anderson, on bass, vocals and boundless energy. Pete Cripps deserves a special nod too for being on stage all night.  Highlights?  I’ve never heard a fiddle contributing to a Bo Diddley beat before but I have now.  The inevitable but consummate Sweet home Alabama … complete with guitar/fiddle duel.  Ian as Preacher Man, on a mission to rid the world of alcohol (there was a punch-line), never mind Everybody needs to believe in something … I believe I’ll have another beer“.  Copperhead Road got its full due (never short-changed) from band and crowd.  Towards the end there all three fiddlers triumphantly strutted the stage for another Steve Earle’s song – When Johnny come marching home – delivered at increasingly lunatic speed.  And then came The devil came to Georgia.

People pay obscene amounts of money and travel miles to see matchstick musicians (or rather their projected images) perform.  This was a great night full of energy, passion and skill.  You could see the whites of their eyes (and they ours) and the beer was £3.50 a pint.  As I walked home a fine half-moon looking for all the world like a sugared lemon jelly fruit slice shone down on me.

Scribal & Vaultage

At May’s Scribal performance poet Kezzabelle, ‘Mistress of Mischief’ and Fairy of life (apologising for not showering us with glitter since she found out it was not sustainable or biodegradable), was fun, serious (long saving-the-planet piece), and back again with her Retro-Afro-Muff.   From the floor Inappropriate Graham from Rugby, fitted 3-piece suit and all, was suitably inappropriate, while the Bendy Witch’s secularist anthem God and cheese got a worthy reprise.  This year Scribal has been quirkily graced with  … what shall we call them? …  short short stories? long epigrams? gnomic vignettes? … from the mind of graphic artist Paul Rainey (pen name P.Brainey).  This month’s piece about the anti-Earth always opposite Earth in its orbit round the Sun threw up all sorts of unlikely delights, including the ex-JD and radio personality TLD’s response to allegations made against him.

Vaultages coming and going so fast … Woolford Scott a singer-songwriter I’d not mind seeing more of (“You can be my Julie Andrews / I’ll be your Dick van Dyke”); Corinne Lucy solo a singer and writer of exquisite power.  It can be touch and go in the Vaults some nights with a general pub hub-bub from the bar, but Corinne had ’em listening.  Blues from the Ouse and it’s that man again – the aforementioned Ian Anderson and talented young guitarist James Ives playing da blues; Ives had also shone earlier in his other duo.  Sandy Clarke braved a Status Quo trilogy one week … on ukulele.  Last week there were two ukes at the same time.

Milton Keynes Gallery 

And lo, Milton Keynes Gallery did re-open bigger and better a couple of months ago.  Yay MK!  Could only manage a swift dash through in the opening week and was suitably impressed (there’ll be plenty of time…), and finally managed a more relaxed stroll through of opening show The lie of the land a couple of days before it closed.  There was text on the wall in the first get-a-flavour gallery that I wish I’d copied one way or another, referencing the many layered meanings of that word ‘lie’ not forgetting fabrication.  I feel the need to cite Neil Young’s After the Goldrush and “I was thinking about what a friend had said / I was hoping it was a …[sorry for the earworm] ).  Anyway, the Press Release gives a pretty good idea of the depth and variety of it all:

Through a playful and provocative display The Lie of the Land charts how British landscape was radically transformed by changes in free time and leisure activities since hunting and shooting, the recreations of the aristocracy, were enjoyed on the rolling hills of their private estates. In part, tracing a line between Capability Brown’s aristocratic gardens at Stowe and the social, urban experiment at neighbouring Milton Keynes, the exhibition teases out the aspirations that underpin our built environments.

The Lie of the Land examines the modernisation of leisure propelled by industrialisation, a theme developed from Canaletto’s painting of the fashionable public entertainment venue, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Victorian era, with its social reforms aiming to improve urban living conditions, is represented by the Parks Movement. Alongside works by early science fiction writer Jane Loudon and the founder of the Garden City Movement Ebenezer Howard, the exhibition also includes the first-ever lawnmower, John Ruskin’s rock collection and influential horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening boots …

There’s more at www.mkgallery.org/whats-on/the-lie-of-the-land/ (it’ll still be there somewhere after the event) including a list of the many artists displayed.  The new era has got off to a good start.

The long wall in the Wolfson Gallery was a stunner, a fascinating collection of conventional paintings hung on a backdrop of William Morris Strawberry thief design wallpaper.

On the other side of the gallery a series of photos documenting goalposts painted on a variety of walls and locations in northern industrial towns caught my interest.  And there was much more, contextualised in The lie of the land by the company they were keeping.

Couple of favourites: to the right of the long one on the wall (Carel Weights’ The Dogs, 1956 – hello Dad), Mabel Frances Layng’s post-Great War Mars and Venus (c1918); and John Walker Tucker’s optimistic Hiking (1936) before the next one:

 

 

 

 

 

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Andrew Michael Hurley‘s The Loney was strongly urged on me by a friend who, to be frank, has a bit of a mixed record.  Nor is the gothic novel a genre I’ve spent much time in, but The Loney (Tartarus Press, 2014; John Murray, 2015) has stayed with me a while now.

Even as a relative stranger to the genre, I can see it has classic potential.  Third paragraph in and bad weather has caused chaos across England and caused our narrator, in North London, to miss a therapy session:

Then, latterly, the news about the sudden landslide on Coldbarrow, and the baby they’d found tumbled down with the old house at the foot of the cliffs.

Coldbarrow. There was a name I hadn’t heard for a long time. Not for thirty years. No one I knew mentioned it any more and I’d tried very hard to forget it myself. But I suppose I always knew that what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden forever, no matter how much I wanted it to.

1973, and an odd little group – a mini-cult drawn from the Catholic congregation of St Judes in the East End of London – are off on their customary pilgrimage to a settlement on the bleak north Lancashire coast:

If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney – that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest.”

The object of the exercise is to pay their respects at a remote shrine to St Anne, specifically to pray for the cure of Hanny, a mute, who it is presumed is intellectually dumb too; our narrator, his brother, age 12, is 4 years younger, an avid reader of Commando magazine, and acts as his minder.  Our redeemer fails again, but are we down-hearted? No, but.  Father Bernard: “… you said that Wilfred seemed to change after you came here the last time?”  Well …. something happened.

1973’s journey had been the precursor to a final, eventful, trip made three years later with the late Father Wilfred’s easy-going successor, Father Bernard in the driver’s seat.  Something deeply disturbing – and well scary for the reader – happens to the brothers (I’m giving nothing specific away) but subsequently Hanny, Andrew, now a happily married pastor, has written a bestselling memoir, My second life with God.  He has no exact recall of the events at the Loney, save for a vague feeling of guilt.  Meanwhile, at the time of writing, our narrator is a loner ploughing a solitary trough working in a museum, and is in counselling; “If they think I’m fastidious or reclusive then they’d be right, I am. And so where do we go from there? You’ve worked me out. Have a prize.”

As far as the 1973 charabanc’s passengers goes, though, Father Bernard regards him, the narrator, as the sanest of the group, calling him ‘Tonto’.  They have gained a younger couple to their groupuscule, too, who, actually, would rather have gone to Walsingham for their spiritual jaunt.  This examination of small group social psychology is a particularly interesting aspect of The Loney; it reminded me of Alison Lurie’s brilliantly observed, but out-of-print novel, Imaginary friends (1967), no bad thing at all.

How weird are they?  Well, driving through a ‘bad’ part of London with Father Wilfred, “It was a safari park of degradation.  What a world without God looked like.”  How weird is where they’re going?  The house’s previous occupant had been a taxidermist who died, and it’s never been fully cleared, for starters.  And the locals?  Think low-life Wicker Man territory?  Just for starters, they get a disturbing visit from a mummers troupe:

The Face Eggers had always frightened me as a child, grotesque as Punch and Judy puppets. Natives of some savage tribe as painted by the children of missionaries. […]
The stink of booze drifted from them as they sang old songs in bass voices; songs that didn’t have the predictable, homely rise and fall of the hymns we’d been singing all week, but which tumbled through strange minor keys and moved across intervals that sounded like they might have once charmed the Devil to the surface of the world.

As well as the highly tuned gothic climax, jeopardy and general atmospheric weirdness, there is excitement to be had for the reader with the brothers encountering quicksands (where those Chinese cockle pickers perished), all not so much leavened – rather setting up a grounding of normality – by gentle humour and the odd period reference.  Upstairs in the Moorings, the dilapidated house where they stay, there is “… a long corridor lined with empty coat hooks on which a smell of damp gaberdine hung“; also there, “Mr Belderboss chuckled as he looked at the ancient radio sitting on the sideboard – the sort of dark, wooden thing that would still be broadcasting Churchill’s speeches if we were to turn it on.”  There’s a photo of the deceased taxidermist: “He wore bottle-end glasses and slicked his hair back over his head. He looked a little like Charles Hawtrey, I thought. Or Himmler.”  Back home, just before something astonishing come to pass, we are simply vouchsafed, “I was revising Hamlet for an exam the following day“; nothing more is made of this, which I’d say was a touch of class.

The adults are worried by what they see as Father Bernard’s take on affairs and theology: “Matt Munro. My one and only vice, Mrs Smith, I can assure you. I’ve had long consultations with the Lord about it, but I think he’s given me up as a lost cause,” he tries to reassure them.  More specifically: ” ‘Look,’ said Father Bernard. ‘It seems to me that you need to be in a dialogue with God, not putting out your hands for a caning. Take some time, talk to Him, pray for guidance, not punishment. God will answer you, Reg.’ ”  An interesting consideration of the notion of faith comes into play, touching specifically on why Father Bernard had been chosen by the church hierarchy to replace the austere Wilfred.

At the end of the book, the brothers meet up in the post-storm present, to discuss what happened, what will happen next.  And lo, the spectre of the unreliable narrator arises – a strong spectre, maybe: “Like Father Bernard said, there are only versions of the truth. And it’s the strong, the better strategists who manage them.”  The Loney is a book that has stayed with me a while now.

That’s entertainment

As can be seen from the number of posters on view here, productivity has not been a watchword here at Lillabullero; I’m four books behind too.  The little I can remember about Scribal – don’t you just hate those people taking notes at gigs – is Dominic the Poet striding about and owning the room, finishing in style with a long piece originally written for children about dragons, or a dragon, and mothers.  Neat, off-hand, but very funny way of telling us the was a gay vegan (no, really) and never laboured it (was gonna say, didn’t milk it, but I know better than that).

Ukuleles have made their presence felt in Stony Stratford of late, one an 8 string – G and C octaves – that gave it a mandolin-ish presence (sorry, didn’t catch the name) – the other played in the hands of Sandy Clark, who I’ve now seen do one trio of (I think originals) conventional ukulele ditties, another of jazz-blues torch songs (great voice, too).  Oh yes and a splendid ’60s journey from Canned Heat to Joni Mitchell via Dusty Springfield; Son of a preacher man!  On ukulele.

I have to report one of the Vaultage evenings, Ralph suggested we were attending a Saga session; I won’t say which specific one that was, but looking at the posters … no matter: the now weekly Vaultage sessions that Pat Le Chapeau (aka ‘the hat’ Nicholson) has been running have seen some consistently fine performances from a variety of featured acts, and usually a high standard of open mic performers.

The last one was all love and flutes (well two of them).  Pat sans hat did a love song, Rob Bray chipped in, admitting he was So in love, and we were all singing along to John Howarth’s Share the love.  The bounce of African guitar stylings and one of the aforesaid flutes.

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My title is drawn from Ben Aaronovitch‘s The rivers of London (Gollancz, 2011).  A vestigial function is not a bad description of how Lillabullero (this humble blog) quite often feels about itself.  Anyway, it’s how the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has always thought, reasonably enough, given the rise of science, about the special section of the Economic & Specialist Crimes Unit that Peter Grant, official apprentice wizard, serves in.

The rivers of London is a magic realism police procedural with a violent macabre streak.  It is the first of a series of books that now boasts seven titles, and if its successors continue to maintain this energy level I shall be impressed.  If you can put the episodes of video game gore to one side (faces viscerally falling off) it is great fun and, rich as it is in the psychogeography and history of London, highly educational too.

Peter Grant is a mixed race Londoner, son of an English jazz musician who once played with Tubby Hayes (such detail is important), a functioning drug addict with a “finely tuned ability to sabotage his own career“; his mum is a high-end office cleaner, with all the perks that can provide, originally from Sierra Leone.  Their council flat makes for a welcome port in the eventual storm, an affectionate interlude rich in family back story.

Peter’s first task, fully fledged PC, fresh from completing his probationary years, and relieved not to have been posted to the Case Progressions Unit, is to help in trying to stop a turf war breaking out between the street crews of the river gods: Mother (aka Mama) Thames (“the goddess of the river”, actually Nigerian), who rules the tidal section, and the Old Man of the River, Father Thames, who’s a bit old school fairground, hanging out at the source.  He liaises through various water sprites, guardians of the Thames’s tributaries.  At one stage Mama mentions his father:

You know my father?’
‘No,’ she said, and gave me a knowing smile. ‘Only in the sense that all the musicians of London belong to me, especially the jazz and bluesmen. It’s a river thing.’
‘Are you on speaking terms with the Mississippi, then?’ I asked. My father always swore that jazz, like the blues, was born in the muddy waters of the Mississippi. My mother swore that it came from the bottle, like all the devil’s best work.

It’s Peter’s boss who smooths the waters with Father Thames:

My contribution to the conversation was cursory at best,’ said Nightingale. ‘A great deal of it was technical, groundwater overdrafts, aquifer delay circles and aggregate catchment-area coefficients. Apparently all these will affect how much water goes down the river this summer.’
‘If I was to go back two hundred years and have that same conversation,’ I said, ‘what would the Old Man have talked about then?’
‘What flowers were blooming,’ said Nightingale. ‘What kind of winter we’d had – the flight of birds on a spring morning.’
‘Would it have been the same Old Man?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Nightingale. ‘It was the same Old Man in 1914, I can tell you that for certain.’

I know – this is probably too late a text, but hey, it breaks up my text.

Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose in Covent Garden, culminating in murderous mayhem spreading out from – get this – a Royal Opera House performance.  This is the culmination of a series of violent episodes, revealed (with the help of the memories of a couple of well-preserved theatre-going river sprites), as the actions of a revenant, one Henry Pyke, “a vampire ghost bent on revenge who was acting out the traditional story of Punch and Judy using real people as puppets“.  Pyke goes back a long way, a theatrical failure and maybe wrongfully accused murderer, fuelled by injustice, and now intent on acting out a particular eighteenth century Punch & Judy text.  In passing we get some fascinating background on Punchinello as “the spirit of riot and rebellion.”

The ghost of Pyke gets its energy from the anger of modern London.  There’s a tour de force five-page passage set in a multiplex cinema foyer, as a well-dressed, middle-aged woman with four girls age 9 to 11 in tow, tries to buy tickets to see a film, including cashing in some vouchers.  With the frustrations of a first, long slow-moving queue and a then an obtuse ticket seller, she loses it completely:

‘I just wanted to go to the pictures,’ she said. ‘When I was young you just went to the local Odeon and said ‘a ticket please’, and you gave them money and they gave you a ticket. When did it become so complicated? When did these disgusting nachos arrive? I mean, what the fuck is a nacho anyway?’ One of the girls giggled nervously at the profanity.

The rivers of London is a fast-paced treasure trove of wit, observation and (among many other things) architectural commentary.  Suspension of disbelief is obviously compulsory (Isaac Newton also wrote a Principia Artes Magicus), though some of the straight police procedure stuff seems knowledgeable.  A couple of one-liners to leave with you: No way,” [says Beverley, a river nymph] “You’re not getting me up past Teddington Lock. I’m strictly tidal ...”  Meanwhile, on the streets of London, “clusters of young people from all over Europe exercised their time-honoured right to block the pavement from one side to another.”

A musical interlude

A grand night’s shantying at York House a couple of weekend’s ago.  Ably supported by the 6 men and 1 woman of 5 men not called Matt, the 4 men of Kimber’s Men made it sound like like there were more of them than a quartet – the value of a spectacularly resonant bass anchor sees to that.  Hailing from landlocked Halifax, West Yorkshire, “the centre of the shanty universe” – Hull an hour and a half’s drive to the east, Liverpool ditto west, plus other cardinal points of the compass – they entertained us, made us laugh, and moved us, and a sparing tactical use of guitars on a couple of songs gave a bit of variety to proceedings.  A rousing, joyful evening, but something special happened to the audience during Don’t take the heroes, concerning the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981.  All 11 singers hit the stage for a final encore of Shenandoah; one had not realised there were quite so many verses.

Before I go to sleep

Have to say it, and it’s true.  I read a lot of the early part of S.J.Watson‘s Before I go to sleep (2011) in bed, before I went to sleep.  Not a good tactic a lot of the time, though it’s a habit – one tends to forget, and have to recap – but given the nature of the inevitably repetitive nature of Before I go to sleep‘s narrative, not so bad.  After a traumatic assault 20 years previously, 47-year-old Christine Lucas has literally has no memory of herself: “What are we if not an accumulation of our memories?”  She can function on a practical level, but when she wakes up she has to be reminded who she is, who the man she is living with, the whole lot.  She sees a younger woman in the mirror.  There have been documented cases in the scientific literature.

Christine has a new therapist, who, seeing hints of something returning, tries a new tactic: her keeping a secret journal, which she has to read every morning to keep herself up to speed and not lose any fleeting real memories she might have gained.  (As it grows, of course, she must surely have to find more and more time to read, a problem which is not addressed in the narrative).

It’s a page-turner all right, as she approaches an inkling of what happened to get her like this, and then events take over – who to trust, a red herring, revelations and, in the end, edge of the seat stuff.  The trouble is, as Judy said at Reading Group, the book is marketed as a thriller so the fascination with her dilemma – that of living without an identity – is subsumed in the expectation of something really bad happening.  One’s reading is being engineered.

That said, there is plenty of fascination to be had from Christine’s existential insecurity and the seemingly real glimpses of memories returning, especially after contact is made with Claire, her closest friend from university, Claire.  Add into the mix that Christine discovers she’s a published novelist.  Within two pages we are, it might not be too far-fetched to say, in Philip K. Dick territory:

[p103 pbk] I know that the book I am writing – my second, I realise with pride – may be dangerous, as well as necessary. It is not fiction. It may reveal things best left undiscovered. Secrets that ought not to see the light of day.
But still my pen moves across the page.

[p105] I felt solid ground begin to slip away. Maybe everything I had written was a lie. I am a novelist, after all, I thought. Or I used to be.
The futility of my logic hit me. I used to write fiction, therefore my assertion that I had been a novelist might be one of those fictions. In which case I had not written fiction. My head spun.

The ending is left nicely ambiguous as to how much genuine memory has been recovered as opposed to supplied, how much she will wake up with on the morrow and the next day.  But when we compare memories, two buddies and I, from university, disparities, never wilful, persist.  Couple of Christine’s, sparks to her further seeking, strike me as being ‘real’ enough, though.  Like this one where her mate Claire has set up a meet with her future husband:

‘So where’s this guy, then?’ I say, but she, doesn’t hear me. I feel the buzz of the alcohol and the weed and begin to dance.  The room is full of people, dressed mostly in black.  Fucking art students, I think.

Briefly, a chronicling catch up:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just goes to show how lax Lillabullero has been, due to events and among other things … Channel4 adding the truly great Cheers to their early morning menu of Frasier (even though I have the box set) and Everybody loves Raymond and the morning has practically gone.  Discipline is required.

Highlights only, then, casting no negative aspersions (and memory fades).  Click on the images for further details.  Hard to resist a woman with a dobro and a big hat playing driving Americana (Jasmine Burns at Scribal), while new Bard Mitchell Taylor skillfully mixed poetry and song in his set.  Tim B has a powerful voice, while Crossroots, with their new lead vocalist have a great encore in Hava Nagila.  Open mic-er Chloe at Vaultage deserves mention: if I’d closed my eyes during her I’d rather go blind I could have sworn Bonnie Raitt (probably three times her age) was in the house.

Johnny Fluffypunk at Scribal (photo © Jonathan Taylor) was an experience.  This “sustainable nihilist” covers a lot of bases, playing homage to the rarely used word that is ‘micturate’ along the way.  With a delivery that could have carried all sorts of nonsense never mind the quality stuff on show and still scored … I wish I’d taken more notes.

To call Kenneth J Nash homely doesn’t recognise the depth  of his sweet and sour songs.  Lovely relaxed voice too, I seem to recall.

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

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

The Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington Black

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

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

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

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

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

Dadland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middle England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The hardback edition of Salley VickersThe librarian (Viking, 2018) is a joy to hold and behold – an imaginative period touch from the publisher.  Clothette-bound, lightly impressed lettering, gold on the leaves of the decorative vines that frame the sides of the pasted in semi-glossy colour reproduction; there are even restrained printed endpapers too.   Except … such a shame it’s the wrong period.  For we are in 1958, and Cliff Richard  is a cause for concern among worried parents (I can remember my mum unhappy, seeing him perform on telly: “Look at him! Look at the state of him!”).  And modernist dust jackets were well de rigueur by then. 

Having been a public librarian for nearly four decades it was hard to resist The librarian, and having married a Children’s Librarian, doubly so, for our heroine, Sylvia Blackwell is one of those too.  Qualified Children’s Librarians – almost an extinct species these days – were always something of a breed apart; I recall at a multi-local authority buying consortium meeting, the collective sigh or the odd chuckle whenever someone had to say, speaking to a proposal, “But my children’s Librarians …”  So, fierce crusaders, defenders of their patch and, um, special.  Back in my day – which started just over a decade later than when Salley Vickery‘s novel is set – there were plenty of them around.  London Borough of Camden in the 1970s, 13 of the 14 branches had a qualified specialist Children’s Librarian, who, in the smaller branches, also served as Deputy Branch Librarian, which is Sylvia’s position in the library in the small in decline Wiltshire market town of East Mole, a position she takes, aged 24, her second professional position.

Warning: there now follows a paragraph of library-based nit-pickery.  Because there’s always a potential problem for the reader when a novel is set in a sphere of work or play they know well.  It does tend to bring out the pedant in one – does it not? – but I managed to survive an early faux pas that if its like had been repeated could have stopped me in my tracks.  Early on Sylvia say to her boss: I think we maybe need to re-catalogue the whole library, Mr Booth“.  No, no, no: what she is talking about is either re-classifying them (doubtful) or more likely, simply re-arranging how the books are to be displayed on the shelves.  Nor is there much awareness given of East Mole Library being part of the wider Wiltshire County Library Service – the statutory authority – in its running; I doubt that a small town in that set up would still have its own Library Committee (something else that has, probably thankfully, disappeared from the local government scene), though I’ll grant its narrative value here.  (I do admire the way Kingsley Amis uses the inter-library loans service to progress developments in his That uncertain feeling (that was filmed as Only two can play).

The paperback cover. Inside the cover an illustration of an old-style library book pocket. And book card that could have done with a bit more research. Charming, nevertheless.

And having said that, I loved The librarian.  It’s a right old mash-up of a novel that hangs together beautifully.  There is:

  • suburban (Uxbridge) girl hits the rural sticks (takes up residence in a cottage on Field Row, with a whiff even, of Cold Comfort Farm
  • library staff soap opera … and intrigue
  • the boys and girls and the inspirational adult (librarian and/or teacher) vs. the bad guys (reminiscent of old-fashioned teenage literature)
  • a wise old woman to the rescue, and an interesting vicar added late to the rich and sour band of characters
  • social class tensions and nascent teenagerdom
  • the many faces of love in 1958
  • oh, yes, it’s a historical novel
  • a love of literature too
  • some decent not-haranguing-you but no disguising the library campaigning – hurrah!
  • and skipping a generation, the return to the book of a couple of the kids as grandparents – called Part Two but it’s more a touching Postscript … and a half.  I’m giving nothing away, but, as one of them says, ‘God, all the things that were going on under the surface then‘.  It’s a great ending.
  • whatever else I’ve left out

It’s a novel of charm, subtlety, and considerable emotional power.  All delivered with the tang of – for baby boomers at least – a tang of bitter-sweet nostalgia.  For a start it’s still Cliff Richard & the Drifters, and a couple of kids (the posh girl and her smitten beaux), in search of what’s happening, abscond to Soho’s 2i’s coffee bar (the excuse for my title, for what it’s worth).  The Six-Five Special (real music if you were lucky) on the telly, mohair sweaters (she doesn’t say it but so frustrating, those bobbliest of bobbled jumpers), Valentine magazine for girls … the terrors of the 11+ Exam.  And the doctor is still smoking away.

Back then, five years before the Lady Chatterley’s lover court case, libraries would have a Restricted Access section almost as a matter of course, something which continued well into the 1960s: “The Restricted Access section of the library consisted of those books which while not banned outright by the Censor were nonetheless considered unsuitable for the open stacks and for which readers had to put in a written request“.  Which of course meant “exposing your reading tastes” to the librarian.

I have a friend who systematically worked his way through the collection in Northampton Central Library, which stood him in good stead thereafter.  In East Mole The world of Susie Wong, about a Hong Kong prostitute, was among the ‘raciest’ in circulation, while a stolen copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is at the heart of a life-changing plot development.  “Blue as an Eskimo’s arse in winter, by all accounts,” says Dee, the library volunteer, while wise old Miss Crake, who has actually read it, avers “It’s not a bad book in fact. Somewhat overblown …”  While Sylvia, sick of all the ramifications, can only say, “‘I’d like to strangle Henry Miller.  With my bare hands.”

Ah, Sylvia: ‘Although Sylvia was familiar with adultery in literature, she had so far had no knowing encounter with it in life.’  That soon changes, swept of her feet by an older man, Hugh, the doctor, father of the posh girl.  They go for a walk among the industrial ruins on the edge of town.  When he sings the first verse of Ewan McColl’s Dirty old town, Sylvia ‘felt something happening to her bones‘ – a splendid phrase, I reckon.

Naturally the path of love does not run smooth.  ‘Oh, Sylvia thought, why must love be so harrowing?‘ and she wasn’t just thinking about herself; there are teenage dreams being shattered too; and the rest: ‘the ambiguous world of chance, which is a mingle of genes and character and circumstance and sometimes a rare flash of good luck…‘ as it is later described.  Chapter 27 is incredibly intense, the stuff of that crucial tea room discussion in Brief encounter, albeit with roles reversed and a few years on.  Crunch time for Hugh and Sylvia as they vigorously mull over the meanings for themselves of marriage, honesty, mutual understanding and fidelity:

He looked anguished. ‘To be fair …’
But she didn’t feel like being fair. ‘All right, I admit that I’d never heard of The Dream of bloody Gerontius before you delivered me from my slough of ignorance.’ He and his wife had ruined that special experience for good.

But, hey! – three cheers for the nation’s children’s librarians:

She was proud of her library. Her early hard work had borne fruit and the East Mole children and their parents now came regularly and eagerly to change their books. At time she experienced surges of overwhelming love for her little customers, prospecting the shelves for new finds, or sitting spread-legged on the floor, absorbed in exploring the varied kingdoms to which the books she had chosen for them had opened doors.

Although let us acknowledge, he says, nodding sagely, a bit of realism to go with the library life:

It was a dull morning. Few children came to change their books and those who did chose mostly books Sylvia disliked. By a quarter past twelve she was in a thoroughly bad temper.

Yay to that, too.  That heart-sink moment when someone asks you about David Icke’s books.

A final thought, apropos of nothing that has gone before but was new to me, appearing in the pages of this fine novel.  Thank you Salley Vincent:

Miss Crake began to pursue her earlier thought. ‘People are not consistent. That is a modern delusion. No one in the ancient world made such an absurd assumption. The Persians debated all important matters twice: once drunk and once sober.’
‘Which was did they debate first?’ Sylvia asked. She could see a benefit from taking either route.
‘That I don’t recall. It is in Herodotus, who is not reliable. So it may not in fact be true. But the idea holds good. They, or Herodotus, understood that it is a mark of superior wisdom to be able to sustain contrary views.’

I loved this book!  So much that here’s a period bonus, even though I prefer Rod Stewart’s version.  Which takes me back to the time I started working in libraries, when – I kid you not – there was not a cooler album you could walk down the street with under your arm than his An old raincoat won’t ever let you down.  But here, back to the writer and The librarian‘s lover’s inspiration (so he can’t have been all bad):

 

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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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