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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Sebastian Barry‘s Days without end (Faber, 2016) is one powerful piece of writing, the best book I’ve read in ages.  And in a while to come too, I’ll wager.  The sustained rhythm of the prose – the language of the first person narrative lyrical, vivid, visceral, engrossing – is an accomplishment of wonder.  There aren’t many long words, but paragraphs cover pages because they have to, to do justice to the vision, to all of what our man saw and felt.  It just flows, carries you along.  He’s telling us his story a long time after the events, but it’s like we are there.

The paperback blurb gives a reasonable brief outline of the action:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Then, when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

But there is so much more going on.  Narrator McNulty and Cole are more than brothers-in-arms but the achievement of Days without end is that no big deal is made of this and what follows; there are no physical details, you just feel the love.  They met and teamed up as 13 year olds, when things are not going well for either of them.  They join the army because as they grow they can no longer pass as paid female dancing partners – in full garb, but no funny business – in a frontier dance hall.  Thomas doesn’t mind being in the dresses and this theme develops as the years and events pass.  Extraordinary to have just read this as Donald Trump tweets away about trans people having no place in the US armed forces.  In what follows, Winona is the young Indian girl of the blurb, who has witnessed terrible events herself, and Thomas is at this point disguised in women’s clothes:

Winona loosening too, and laughing now. She just a girl and should be laughing regular. She should be playing maybe if she ain’t too old. Certainly acts the lady and knows how. We like mother and child right enough and that’s how it plays.  I give thanks for that. Maybe in my deepest soul I believe my own fakery. I suppose I do. I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man, though I were a fighting man most of my days. Got to be thinking them Indians in dresses shown my path. […] I am easy as a woman, taut as a man. All my limbs is broke as a man, and fixed good as a woman. I lie down with the soul of a woman and wake up with the same. I don’t forsee no time where this ain’t true no more. Maybe I was born a man and growing into a woman. Maybe that boy that John Cole met was but a girl already. He weren’t no girl hisself for sure. This could be mountainous evil. I ain’t read the Book on that. Maybe no hand has ever wrote its truth.

And that’s as much of a questioning as occurs.  It’s beautifully done.  I hope you won’t see this as a spoiler; I’ll bet if you start reading Days without end you’ll have forgotten you read that earlier here pretty soon; until it hits again.

Meanwhile, there’s no shying away from the horrors of the soldiering.  There are brutal and savage passages relating his involvement.  And we get to experience the camaraderie, the hard drudge and boredom of military life.  The betrayal of the Indian Nations is laid bare in specific events, not evangelised.  But, you know, life can be beautiful.  The evocation of nature’s wonders and the passing of the seasons is never far away in the relation of events.  Normally in these reviews on Lillabullero I will pick out some quotes to give a flavour but with Days without end it’s so hard to know where to start from and where to end.  It is such an enervating – exciting, absorbing, relaxed in turn – total ride.  Here, from the final devastating confrontation with a proud Sioux chief:

Sometimes you know you ain’t a clever man. But likewise sometimes the fog of usual thoughts clears of in a sudden breeze of sense and you see things clear a moment like a clearing country. We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain’t. They say we be Christians and suchlike but we ain’t. They say we are creatures raised by God above the animals but any man that has lived knows that’s damn lies. We are going forth that day to call Caught-His-Horse-First a murderer in silent judgement. But it was us killed his wife and his child.

This is a novel about the making of the USA, a literary spaghetti western – the later Sergio Leones – told in a vernacular by a Huck Finn who came over the Atlantic as a boy from Ireland.  And, though not obvious from what I’ve said here, there is, rest assured, a measure wit and humour in Thomas’s telling too.  I hear echoes of Mark Twain’s judgments on his land too.

When that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t it the way of the world. No such item as a virtuous people. Winona the only soul not thrown on the bonfire.

Almost at random, if you want the experience:

Big train blowing steam and smoke at the depot. It’s like a creature. Something in perpetual explosion. Huge long muscle body on her and four big men punching coal into her boiler. It’s a sight. Going to be dragging four carriages east and they say they’ll go good. The light pall of snow hisses on the boiler sheets.

Days without end is a profound and consistently brilliant piece of writing.  I love this book.  It will stay with me for a long time; I feel a Sebastian Barry binge coming on.

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And now for something completely different …

July’s Book Group book was a Marmite book.  Some hated it, others thought it had its moments and weren’t sorry to have read it.  I liked it well enough.  Meg Wolitzer‘s The wife (2003) is narrated by the wife of one of the (fictional) big beasts of post-war American literature.  On the plane  on their way to the presentation ceremony for the fictional Helsinki (one down from the Nobel) Prize for Literature (“this award for a long hard labour on the fiction chain gang …”) she decides she is going to leave him.  What follows is a skillful telling of their marriage, family and careers going back and forth between the past and present, from their first meeting in 1956 – Joan a talented student, Joe the tutor on a creative writing course – to the acclamation his pretty much career full stop.  This is the beginning of a new phase, Joan,” he tells her.  Yes, the insufferable phase,” is her response.

 

Now, even the Book Group people who didn’t like The wife could see the big twist coming from a mile off, so it’s not really a spoiler to reveal about Joe that:

All he had was the look. The attitude, the reverence and the desire to be a great writer, but that was meaningless without what he called “the goods”

and that, presented with the proud draft of his first novel – effectively about his divorce and their coming together – Joan is dismayed to discover how lifeless it is and edits it so heavily as to effectively have written it herself.  Being the ’50s, and having been told that being a woman novelist was a loser’s game by a bitter woman novelist, she is happy for the illusion of his authorship to be maintained and continued.  This is not actually revealed till quite late on, which I suppose you could say is cheating.  Anyway, the story behind that first novel, The Walnut, or rather the story of the actual walnuts, is an amusing little diversion in itself, while what happens to their two daughters and the problem son – the children of a celebrated writer – give the tale more depth.

So The wife is an insightful, sour and witty look at the American literary life in the ’50s and early ’60s, the rivalries, infidelities and jealousies as the men joust and put themselves about. “Wives are the sad sacks of any writers’ conference,” she opines at one point.  Given she was born in 1959 one wonders how much of it Meg Wolitzer got from her novelist mother.  Joe and Joan’s early struggles in a New York garret, taking fun in late fifties Greenwich Village is nicely done too.  With the social changes of the late ’60s and the emergence of women writers as serious players you could say that The wife is the starting point for a literary equivalent of Mad Men.

How about this, one of the reasons he’s up for the Helsinki, for Joan’s disaffection?   And probably at least a sad half-truth:

In America it had been a year of literary deaths, one after the other, men whom Joe had known since the fifties, when they used to gather sometimes for socialist meetings. A decade later they gathered at marathon, all night readings whose purpose was to protest the war in Vietnam, and suck all the energy out of the audience.

For what it’s worth, the very first original hardback book I ever bought was Norman Mailer‘s groundbreaking account of the march on the Pentagon, Armies of the night (1968).  I’m long over him now, but still, Ouch!  He gets it in the neck again later too, the only one of those big beasts to actually get a real life namecheck.

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I love the opening, and title story, of Penelope Lively‘s first collection of short stories in twenty years.  And I love the opening of the opening story:

I am the Purple Swamp Hen.  Porphyrio porphyria, if you are into taxonomy and Latin binomials.  And, let me get this clear, I am Porphyrio porphyrio porphyrio, the nominate sub-species, not to be confused with the Australian lot […] And others. No, indeed, we are talking species definition here, the enduring stuff, and thus I endure – founding father, the Mediterranean nominate.

Do eighty year-olds write like this?  Well this one does.

Wondering where all this is going? Have patience. You’ll get your story. You know me. You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii – somewhat faded, a travesty of my remarkable plumage, but nevertheless a passable portrait. You all exclaim over those frescos: the blues and greens, the precise depiction of flora and fauna. Oh, look! You cry – there are roses and ferns, oleanders, poppies, violets. […] You eye me with vague interest, and pass on. It’s just like a garden today! you cry.

That’s right.  We are being addressed by a bird on a fresco painted before 79 AD.  And it is anxious to rob us of any illusions.  Much is made in the other stories in this collection of POV – ‘point of view’.  A timeless garden scene?

      No, it isn’t. Wasn’t. […] make no mistake, the garden of Quintus Pompeius, where I passed my time, was nothing like any garden you’ve ever known.
      It hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household and associates. We simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction; far more imaginative, Homo sapiens. […] Eat out, sleep out, wash the dishes, pluck a pigeon, gossip, quarrel, wallop an old slave, fuck that pretty new one, plot, scheme, bribe, threaten. Get drunk, utter obscenities, vomit in the acanthus.
I saw it all. I heard it all.
      Let me fill you in on the general situation that autumn …

Which is what happens over the next 6 pages.  Dispassionately, wryly – the specificity of the acanthus! – we get amorous intrigue, dark deeds and a slave’s escape as Vesuvius threatens, then does its worse.  A tour de force.  The swamp hens, in the garden for decoration, flee to an ecologically appropriate marshy place, a habitat somewhat but not catastrophically threatened these days, our frescoed narrator assures us.

The other fourteen stories in The purple swamp hen (2016) are set in a later age.  From 1947 (a mother doing a Mrs Bennet – the story’s title – for her three daughters, the social sands shifting as each ‘comes of age’) to pretty much now, a couple of them with a gothic tinge.  They may seem to concern mainly middle class problems, but there’s a universality to the causes and resolutions.

How changing social mores and times affect individuals, the simple random contingencies of how couples come together (and how they turn out), the aforementioned importance of recognising others’ points of view, the dilemmas and otherwise of getting old, all are exposed in neat, forensic, sometimes staccato prose, often the sweet being in the sour.

A young home-help discovering the woman she helps was a spy, the ‘truth’ of writing and publishing a biography of someone recently deceased, a scriptwriter finding her professional skills are failing her in her own life – these are just three of the stories.  Abroad – opening line “50 years ago there were peasants in Europe” – has ’50s artists living cheaply in Europe using peasants as subject matter … until they run out of money and have to pay their debts in kind.  Lorna and Tim , the history of a marriage, has rich-from-birth Lorna left still not understanding how it failed; last devastating line – “You were rich.”  I think I shall be reading more Penelope Lively.

On the right here is the bookmark I was using while reading The purple swamp hen.  Quite apt in itself in that the stories take place in the decades portrayed, and the revolutionary paperback imprint Penguin was launched just a couple of years after its author was born.  As it happens, there’s a character in the very next book I read who collects Penguins: “I got a couple of Graham Greenes,” said Clean Head with satisfaction. The three-and-six editions. With the full colour Paul Hogarth art.”” Clean Head is a shaven-headed African-caribbean taxi driver, whose name I suspect derives from the jazz and blues singer Eddie Cleanhead Vincent in whose band a young John Coltrane once played, but I digress.   Now while the specific editions mentioned are not actually represented on the bookmark – that would be too perfect – I have a weakness for these little synchronicities, and it’s close enough for me.  And it is precisely the charm of these specific details that has me hooked on The Vinyl Detective.

The invention of a ’60s rock group for novelistic purposes is quite a hard act for a writer to pull off, and Andrew Cartmel doesn’t do badly at all in the The Vinyl Detective: The run out groove (Titan, 2017), the second in a series featuring said VD, a man with no name, whose business is finding rare vinyl but whose innocent jokey business card usage of the word ‘detective’ gets taken literally by others and hence into various scrapes.  Unlike the globetrotting first book in the series, this one stays in the UK.

Valerian is both the band’s name – out of the ’60s Canterbury scene – and the name its charismatic vocalist (“an English Janis Joplin“) went by.  The band broke up with her unexplained suicide, and mystery has always surrounded what happened to her young child.  It has been surmised (myths ahoy!) that the run-off groove – you know, like on Sergeant Pepper – that the run-off groove of the band’s last single – only briefly released and quickly withdrawn after her death and hence extremely rare – might offer solutions to what happened.  A relative from the US and a journalist are looking for a copy of that single … and we’re off on a plot taking all sorts of twists and turns involving a variety of ’60s survivors, and including, not least, an acid trip in a burning house and some gravedigging.  Entertainingly absurd, of course, but all done racingly well, and coming to a satisfactory and heart-warming conclusion.   The writing is smart, the series characters – a good quirky team, including the two cats – full of charm.  It would make a great tv series, properly casted, à la Beiderbecke Tapes.

I’m a sucker for the incidentals, the details – a sort of obnoxious knowingness – which may be lost on many potential readers but ring bells for me.  Like: “They might have a copy of the Artwoods’ first album, the original Decca issue, with the Mod cover.” Tinkler’s voice had softened rhapsodically.”  Or: “It’s a Garrard 301,” said Tinkler. “It’s built like a Russian T-34 tank”” – vinyl rules, obviously.  There’s even a Clean Head disquisition on the re-badging of DAF cars with variomatic transmissions as Volvos – the factuality of which I do not doubt – which while to me gibberish, still entertains in context.  I just about remember Lita Roza, or at least That doggie in the window:

I went to put some music on, to lighten the mood. I chose a Decca ten inch of Lita Roza. It was one of her true jazz recordings. She was singing here with the Tony Kinsey Quartet, including the mighty Joe Harriott on sax. The Colonel turned and listened for a minute and said, “Didn’t this girl sing ‘(How much is that) Doggie in the window’?” “She did indeed,” I said, “but not on this record, thank god.”

Guitarist Eric Make Loud – Eric McCloud to his mum – is a great creation:

Erik Make Loud strode towards us, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “My involvement with her was that I had to use the toilet on the band bus after she did and breathe the stink of her shit. I breathed the stink of her shit for four years in that band. Four years in a career that has spanned fifty years.” he actually said ‘spanned’. “I’ve played with dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians. But all anybody wants to talk about is Valerian.  It was all over a lifetime ago, but all anyone wants to talk about is Valerian.”  We’d hit a sore spot all right.

They get around him by zooming in on his playing with Frank Zappa.  But it’s that “he actually said ‘spanned'” is the kitemark of quality.  I look forward to the next volume, which apparently moves into the world of classical music.

Last month‘s Book Group book was Patrick Ness‘s A monster calls, which for me was a re-read.  The Book Group copy was the plain text edition of 2012, as opposed to the stunning prize-winning 2011 illustrated one shown here, and for me it had lost none of its power, nevertheless.  Others in the group were less willing to overlook its origin as ‘teenage fiction’ and were less spellbound by its spellbinding blend of horror, fantasy, Jungian symbolism, compassion and a young teenager’s off-handedness.

Conor’s mum is dying, his dad elsewhere, his grandma is a nightmare ( “… the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation“) and he has withdrawn into himself at school when his situation became known.  A tree, a Green Man’s representative of a tree, walks up and starts telling him stories (You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?“) and leaving berries on his bedroom floor.  The resolution of all this, his pain at home, at school, the moral of the tale – I’m not saying – is beautifully done; it had me lachrymose and beaming. 

What I picked up on this time was the tone of the prose, Conor’s surface refusal to descend into melodramatics:

      The monster looked at him quizzically. How strange, it said. The words you say tell me you are scared of the berries, but your actions seem to suggest otherwise.
“You’re as old as the land and you’ve never heard of sarcasm?” Conor asked.
Oh, I have heard of it, the monster said, putting its huge branch hands on its hips. But people usually know better than to speak it to me.

How effective the italicisation of the yew tree’s voice is!  As is the defense of story: Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might awake?”  And, finally, how about this as a summation of young boy’s misery?:

Some bread in the toaster, some cereal in a bowl, some juice in a glass, and he was ready to go, sitting down at the little table in the kitchen to eat. His mum had her own bread and cereal which she bought at a health food shop in town and which Conor thankfully didn’t have to share. It tasted as unhappy as it looked.


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Augustus

How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable – and yet who, out of animal energy and accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power?”

It’s a problem, right?  In  this instance – John Williams‘ brilliant historical novel Augustus (1973) – they’re talking about Mark Anthony.  I am so in awe of this novel that I feel the need to escape from hyperbole by slipping into anecdotage.

One of those significant moments of advance in one’s intellectual life: an A-level essay on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which I kick off with a quote from Dylan’s recently released Maggie’s Farm – “Well I’ve tried my best / to be just like I am / But every body wants me / to be just like them.”  Turns out in the end he was a bit of a tosser “who did not even perform his own suicide well …

It is often suggested that life in Ancient Greece and Rome – events, ideas, dilemmas that I have skipped over – have in essence anticipated pretty much everything that has gone down since.  It seems a reasonable notion, and one I’m a lot more likely to explore after reading Augustus.

It’s an incredible story.  When he was 19, Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s nephew, JC’s recently adopted son and successor, was off on a Greek island doing student stuff with his mates (and being educated).  No long after, in 44 BC,  JC was famously assassinated, and Octavius – like Brazilian footballers he took to being known as Augustus a bit later, as Emperor and, um, god – hastened back to a Rome that was in chaos, with civil war in prospect.  No-one expected him to pick up the reins, but he did.  When he was 19.  Diversionary tactic 2: cue my mate Naomi Rose’s song Nineteen because now it’s there it won’t go away:

By the time Augustus died he had left an economically prosperous Roman Empire at peace within itself and secure within its extensive borders – the era that is known as the Pax Romana.  But not without huge personal cost.  The story is told in a patchwork of lletters, memos and memoirs, petitions and poems, senatorial proceedings, reports, military orders, and journal notes – chronologically, but with the dates of the sources jumping backwards and forwards, providing a commentary on events. 

As the book progresses more and more space is given to the journal of Augustus’s daughter, Julia, whom he loves, but who has been callously, strategically, used over the years, and is sentenced to a lonely exile by him, for treason.  She has been on a hell of a journey.  Ordered by her father, “I returned to Rome in the consulship of Tiberius Claudius Nero … Who had been a goddess returned to Rome a mere woman, and in bitterness.”  Furthermore “I was not to be free. One year and four months after the death of Marcus Agrippa [an old, gay, mate of his] my father betrothed me to Tiberius Claudius Nero. He was the only one of my husbands whom I ever hated.”  Her fate: “So I am once again to be the brood sow for the pleasure of Rome.”  Hers is a tale that could easily stand as an outstanding work of its own.  She achieves a certain liberation, experiences sensual pleasure and ultimately reaches a peace in her situation:

Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? “Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe it has,” he said. “We both must believe it has.”

The books ends with an astonishing 36 pages, as a lonely dying Augustus, voyaging out at sea, looks back over his life in a sequence of letters to the only surviving friend of his youth, a scholar.  It is one of the most powerful sustained passages I have read in a long time.  It’s fiction, of course, so one doesn’t know, but … well, try this:

Thus I did not determine to change the world out of an easy idealism and selfish righteousness that are invariably the harbingers of failure, nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced; wealth beyond one’s comfort has always seemed to me the most boring of possessions, and power beyond its usefulness has seemed the most contemptible. It was destiny that seized me that afternoon at Apollonia nearly 60 years ago, and I chose not to avoid its embrace.

Compared to Alexander the Great, he opines that Alexander had it lucky, dying so young, “else he would have come to know that if to conquer the world is a small thing, to rule it is even less.”
“… I have never wished to conquer the world, and I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.”

He puts in a good word for the poets, whose company was often held against him:

Of the many services that Maecenas performed for me, the most important seems to me now to be this: He allowed me to know the poets to whom he gave his friendship. They were among the most remarkable men I have ever known …

I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted …

Horace once told me that laws were powerless against the private passions of the human heart, and only he who has no power over it, such as the poet or the philosopher, may persuade the human spirit to virtue.

Great book.  Capital G.

Razor Girl

And now for something completely different.  I love reading Carl Hiaasen, just gulp his books down.  What it says on the cover.  He specialises in outlandish, yet I thought the actions of the woman of the title of his latest book were too much, even for the Florida of his oeuvre.  And then I read the disclaimer to Razor Girl (Sphere, 2016):

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. However, true events in South Florida provided the lurid material for certain strands of this novel, beginning with the opening scene. The author also wishes he’d dreamed up the part about the giant Gambian pouched rats, but he didn’t. Those suckers are real.

There’s a lovely rhythm to his writing that just pulls you along.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

That ‘He nearly made it’, if you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen, is no harbinger of doom for Coolman, but rather an invitation to the reading treat in store.  He keeps a handful of narratives going and works seamlessly to intertwine them with calamitous and desperate irony.

There‘s the central character, Yancey, a disgraced detective who now, busted to public hygiene inspector, works the roach patrol in local restaurants, is anxious to get his old job back.  So he involves himself in what starts as a mistaken kidnapping which introduces into the plot a top-rated scripted fake reality TV show called Bayou Brethren about a hillbilly family business breeding speciality chickens for fly-fishing flies.  Enter a psychopathic fan of the show who has bought into its conceit – including unofficial dodgy right-wing rants on YouTube –  wholesale. Then there’s the out-of-his-depth guy running an eco-destructive con providing sand to hotel beaches who owes money to the mafia, who ends up mid-chase electrocuting himself trying to recharge a stolen Tesla.  Not to mention the tangled love lives and Yancey’s real estate problem of how to get rid of potential next-door neighbours threatening to build big and destroy his view. Among other things.

Hiaasen is basically a moralist, appalled at what big money has done and is doing to Florida.  Razor Girl displays less of the eco-warrior than usual – and it’s hard not to rue the non-appearance of Skink, the ragged one-eyed wild man ex-governor of Florida who’s gone native in the Keys, who features in some of his other books, but Hiaasen is still rooting – relatively speaking – for the good guys, albeit with many degrees of grey on the way.  The mafia guy is appalled to discover that the beach con man has been using a fake Helper Dog jacket on any old mutt to milk the privileges that one brings.

Carl Hiaasen is a master of dialogue and pushing the action along.  And he can be very very funny.

The reader on the 6.27

Weird, touching on desolation, yet charming, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s The reader on the 6.27 (Mantle, 2015), translated by Ros Schwartz), is one of those shortish books that seem to only ever appear in translation.

Guylain Vignolles has not had it easy with a name that, subjected to spoonerist manipulation, gets him called ‘Ugly Puppet’.  He has a soul-crushing job in a factory pulping books.  He rescues random pages that escape the machine and recites them out loud next day to commuters on the train to work.  Some even look forward to it.  At work there’s a bossy boss and a jealous assistant.  There’s a sub-plot that takes in his reading for an hour, by invitation, at an old people’s home.

A while ago there had been an accident at work and a friend had lost a leg to the grinding machine; he, the friend, had traced how the pulp produced that day had been used, and was buying up copies of the cook book printed on that paper; he’s buying copies up.  Guylain helps him by pursuing second-hand copies at weekends, looking to help his friend get some sort of closure from a full set on his bookshelves.

One day on the train home Guylain finds a USB stick and discovers thereon a quirky document written by a woman working as a concierge in a public toilet in a shopping centre.  Enchanted, it is from this he now reads to his fellow commuters, and makes it his mission to find the writer.  And in the end, a drawn out love story.  Weird, charming, and highly recommended.

Scribal Gathering

You’d think the energy, industry and invention that went into The Antipoet would be enough for most mortals, but no, Paul Eccentric (“the mouthy half of … the beatrantin’ rhythm’n’views act” as estimable host Jonathan JT Taylor described him in the events page for the evening on FB) is an accomplished solo spoken word performer and, after a change of jacket, seated vocalist with the entertaining Polkabililly Circus,  who variously rocked, folked, emoted and mixed it up as you’d expect from their name. (Not to mention his other side projects:  http://pauleccentric.co.uk/ ).  Another fine way to spend an evening with Scribal: other poets and musicians were standing.

Archivists please note: JMD was unable to attend.

YorkieFest 2017

Best for me at YorkieFest this year, the fifth no less, were tucked away in the middle of the day.  Innocent Hare‘s repertoire draws masterfully from a number of folk traditions and the trio – a family affair – ebulliently led by Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, went down a storm with the modest collection of souls in attendance at that time.  The ever immaculate harmonies and musicality of The Straw Horses followed, and in retrospect it was a mistake on my part to try to eat a vegetarian crepe (from La Crepe Franglais) – delicious though it was, it required concentration with that plastic fork – while they were on.  The continent-wide African guitar work from Safari Boots impressed. 

Special mention should also be made for my introduction to the sport and art of Tea Duelling from The Order of the Teapot, aka the local Steampunks.  It involves biscuit dunking, judgment skills and a lot of nerve.  Shame a few more didn’t come given all Pat Nicholson (one half of Growing Old Disgracefully, or GOD) and others’ hard work, but glad to say, money was made for the charities supported.

Chloe gave me a sticker to stick on an instrument to spread the word. I guess this my instrument. And I’ll stick it on the notebook I carry.

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There were times when reading Barney Norris‘s Five rivers met on a wooded plain (Doubleday/Transworld, 2016) when it felt like I’d wandered into the pages of one of those self-help personal growth tomes.  This is a young man’s novel.  Ambitious, over-written and striving too hard – death and the meaning of life and all that.

The paperback blurb writer does him no favours:  “One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment five lives collide…”  Except they don’t, really. 

The actual crash (spoiler alert) is delivered as a slow reveal, so the reader is inevitably wondering when this flamin’ crash is actually going to happen.  We are at least a third of the way into the book – sorry, my copy’s gone back to the library so I can’t be exact – before the crash happens, and even further before we know who’s taken to hospital.  Of the five people the book features, only two are actually involved in the crash, two are observers who don’t linger at the scene, and the fifth has observed the observers. 

So we actually have five people (Hey, five rivers!).  All are undergoing some sort of crisis in their lives, and we get the full context of that.  They range from teenage schoolboy up, roughly representing decades,  all speaking in the first person.   Their lives, or their families’ lives, have more or less obliquely touched one another; they have been in the same place at the same time once or twice.  Not collided.  Which is, chasing the epigraph, a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch that introduces the text, the self-proclaiming and highly creditable point of the book:

 That is the secret meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.

That is the closing sentence of the opening chapter, which unfortunately is immediately proceeded by “there exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral.”  The quiet city is Salisbury, the chapter’s title is The burning arrow of the spire.  Rather good, that.  But the chapter is a load of psycho-geographical babble, linking the settlements in “the green south of Wiltshire” over time from Woodhenge through Stonehenge (“We know they heard the song“) to Old Sarum and the building of the Cathedral to the modern-day city.  Which might just have worked in verse form. Even the book’s greatest defenders at Book Group – nay, champions even! – were not averse to my use of the word pretentious here.

The book has its moments, the way their stories entwine is nicely done, and Barney Norris obviously cares.  While I wasn’t wholly convinced by any of the five, I ended up wanting to know what happened to each of them to the extent of bewailing please, author, get on with it as I read, especially in the case of the lonely soldier’s wife, stuck out in a suburb.  As it happens, Norris, whose primary artistic focus has been theatre, uses her to make a convincing case for local theatre as both an effective personal and ongoing community therapy.

Here’s the problem.  Barney can write, but at the moment he can’t help but Write with a capital W; given his theatrical background I think it’s fair to say he slips into being a Writ-or too easily.  At our Book Group meeting, for instance, one woman, whose judgment I respect highly, surprised me by quoting this passage as being particularly impressive:

The mind is like a flood plain. The slightest rainfall can leave it awash with old stories that seep into your newer terrors and swell them, drown you under the long-forgotten feelings as your life rushes over you.

As it happens, that was a quote I’d found jarring, particularly coming from the mouth of a gauche 16-year old schoolboy.  She said she’d once known a 16-year old capable of stringing that together.  So what did I know?  (That’s rhetorical to myself, by the way, not an indication of her demeanour).  There were other passages, but I’ll pick on this one; he finds some solace in a service in the cathedral (where else?):

The miracle of a ritual. I felt my shoulders begin to ease. I thought to myself, I don’t want to believe in this. But when you run a story through your neural pathways like a line of beads through your hands, it stands to reason you unblock them, and your own life flows through afterwards, rushing out of the oxbow lakes of the plans you didn’t see through to their conclusion, the phrases that wouldn’t come till long after it was too late to use them. A hymn, nothing more than a tune and a string of words someone had invented, was somehow making things better.

Ah, ‘oxbow lakes’, an abiding memory of school geography.  But ‘neural pathways’ even now?

We were all agreed that his next novel, if he so chooses to continue in this sphere now all this has been got out of his system, is highly likely to be a very good one.

 

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Well, that was fun.  I enjoyed Andrew Cartmel‘s The Vinyl Detective: written in dead wax (Titan Books, 2016) a lot.  This rollercoaster romp manages to meld the humdrum existence of a laid back London-based vinyl record dealer onto a James Bond adventure fantasy occasioned by an international music industry conspiracy involving the original output of an obscure US West Coast jazz label back in the 1950s (though don’t let the jazz put you off).  We get a classic Bond villain in his lair (in the side of a mountain in Japan), a pair of highly stylised mercenary fixers, a couple of Bond (though more interesting) girls, and a two-pronged technology hit of retro valve-driven amps and accompaniments and high-end modern surveillance equipment.  Among other things.

The narrator of The Vinyl Detective is a man-with-no-name of charm, wit, and a neat combination of innocence and cynicism.  He buys and sells vinyl records for a living, had some business cards printed wittily touting his trade as ‘The Vinyl Detective’ a while back; it comes back to haunt him.  But before all this (I’m cheating a bit with the quote, but no harm is being done):

I put on my crate-diving shoes – I mean, my crate-digging shoes … hitting every charity shop, junk shop or antique shop that might be harbouring a box of records record fares, jumble sales … [record fairs and jumble sales also feature] …
in Chiswick I found it.
It was a copy of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, on the Capitol rainbow-rimmed label – an original mono pressing instead of the fake stereo. A British copy, but immaculate. That night I flipped it on the Internet and made enough money to buy food for me and the cats for the next two weeks.

Oh yes, our man also has two cats, Fanny and Turk; they play their part well.

It’s all so nicely done.  The pursuit – the fictional rarest record in the world, emanating from a suitably obscure corner of jazz history, with a story all of its own, is well-chosen – takes him to Japan, there’s an interesting and dramatic interlude in rural Wales, while there are some vivid escapades, landscapes and meetings in the inevitable trip to America; not to mention a recognisable London as backdrop.  The world of vinyl record collecting is both gloried in and lampooned, and little cultural references add sparkle (for me at least) throughout:

I sped through immigration and customs and found myself outside a few minutes later, blinking in the warm exhaust fumes. Ree was at my side. We collected her car from the long-term parking.
It’s a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda. Arguably the fastest production car ever made in America.”
I won’t argue with you.”
[…] The muscular lines of the dark grey car made it look like a dark crouching beast. “Is it the car from
Bullitt?”
She snorted with amusement. “That was a Mustang.”
Just trying to take an interest,” I said.

That’s one girlfriend, a singer, who wonders why it’s always the electric bass players always hit on her, while “ acoustic bass players are pretty much always perfect gentlemen”.  Here’s the other, Nevada, who I imagine as looking like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, our man giving her a disquisition on how it’s only cooked chicken bones that are a problem for cats, so:

… I’m always left with a freezer full of drumsticks. So I casserole them with olive oil and lemon and garlic.”
Oh, okay, I see,” said Nevada, getting up. “I thought it was your signature dish. Lovingly prepared especially for me. And now it turns out it’s the cats’ leftovers.”
That’s right.”

The Vinyl Detective is full of stuff like that, as well as all the action and twists.  I look forward to the two sequels already announced.

 

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I’ve grown fond of that phrase, “a zodiacal sign without portfolio.”  Pure Terry Pratchett, or Douglas Adams maybe.  And yet it comes from L.P.Hartley‘s The go-between (1953), the book that famously – even unto pub quizzes – kicks off with “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”  Hell, yes.  Reading the damn thing – this month’s Book Group selection – certainly proves that.  1953 – check it out – was not a good year for the novel.  It didn’t help I was reading it off the back of Alice Munro‘s remarkable The view from Castle Rock (2007) either.

 

go-betweenview-from-castle-rock

Guaranteed to re-awaken the inner class warrior, The go-between, set deep in Downton territory, is a tale told by a 60-something-year old virgin looking back on events that led to the ‘tragic’ happenings occurring on his 13th birthday back in the year 1900.  Leo, an in-awe country house summer guest of the much richer family of a public school chum, finds himself being useful/used – oh the delights, the moral agonies with the prospect of a new green bicycle involved – as a messenger, helping facilitate secret liaisons between the only two half-decent recognisably twentieth century human beings in the vicinity: Marian, the daughter of the house, soon to be wed to the local Boer War-damaged Earl, and Ted Burgess, a local tenant farmer.  Initially our naive Mercury hasn’t a clue what’s going on; Leo allows the denouement to scar him for life. (Not that they weren’t happening before he appeared on the scene).

This is a rite of passage tale where basically the narrator fails; other readers have, it must be admitted, had more sympathy, but he remains a snob with no sense of outrage at what Ted feels he has to do, nor, more generally, at what such a strict reading of the social order can do all, wherever in it they reside. (For what it’s worth, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was being written pretty much half way between the events related in The go-between and its publication in 1953, though it wasn’t widely available until 1960).

I feel obligated to add here, in italics, a couple of days on, that at the Book Group meeting earlier today The Go-between was described as “a devastating critique of the class system”.  This is not unreasonable; it just wasn’t the book I wanted to read.  I’ll admit to feeling – a minority of one – something of an unfeeling clod some of the time, though I still think if that’s the case then for all the subtlety of its presentation, through the eyes of a sensitive, insecure 12-year old, there had to be some anger from the older man rather than it having to be brought to the party by the reader.  It was a good meeting.

The go-between has its moments – the progress of the cricket match is nicely done, the boys’ exchanged franglais insults are a delight, there’s a wonderful description of a fully grown deadly nightshade bush – it flows, but it’s so Downton grand and precious, and Leo the adult narrator is beyond the pale (no, is so incredibly pale): “It was 11.5, five minutes later than my habitual bedtime. I felt guilty at being still up …”; “Anyhow I do not like pubs and had rarely been inside one“.   And as for a sex life – or, um, “spooning” – as he rather dramatically puts it, ‘shown’ here in the quote that follows not exactly being a fair description of what happened: “Ted hadn’t told me what it was, but he had shown me, he had paid with his life for showing me, and after that I never felt like it.”

In the matter of class, Leo is intelligent enough to recognise favourably certain elements in Ted’s behaviour, but just cannot transcend his sense of the social order to draw any critical conclusions: “Oddly enough I didn’t mind him doing this; I had an instinct that, unlike people of my own class, he wouldn’t think the worse of me for crying“.

am-viewThat is just the sort of observation that sings out – though presented more economically – in an Alice Munro story.   For her I find myself abandoning hyperbole; it’s just that she is such a good writer.  Her vivid prose manages to deliver objectivity and intimacy simultaneously.  You observe with her, you feel what her characters are learning, how their lives are coming along.  The prose is precise, unspectacular yet never spare.  The lack of sentimentality is crucial to just how moving the stories – most of her work is short stories – can be.  I’m gripped by the stuff – physical description, the weather, journey details – I skimp over with others too.  I usually take a few notes when I read; I can’t do it with her.  It doesn’t work like that.  The results are extraordinary.

The view from Castle Rock (2007) brings together two strands of stories.  The first – No advantages – developed out of her interest in family history, going back to the early nineteenth century on the Scottish borders – a place of ‘no advantages’ as a source of the time has it – and their emigrating to and hard times in North America; America is first ‘seen’ from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock.  She draws on letters and journals and other documentation but the families are made flesh in a way no straight non-fiction treatment could do.  The second strand of stories – Home – is, she says, more in the nature of memoir, or at least they start from staging posts of emotional development and social awareness in her life, but somehow as short story, with that conceptual remove, they become so much more.  It’s an extraordinary reading experience.

Out and about

alice-in-stonylandThe continuing effects of a virus is are still limiting cultural ventures beyond the telly, but no way were we going to miss the local panto.  (The couple in front of us at the end of their row was also strategically placed to make an easy exit if the cough took hold – it didn’t).  The Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s production of Alice in Stonyland ay York House was a delight.  Developed from a script by Danni Kushner, who also charmed in the role of Dinah the Cat, this was a panto full of local references but refreshingly devoid of the traditional double entendres.  Great cast, great fun, great music, ovations galore.

Stonyland is in your heart
Its music will keep you strong
You don’t need to stamp your feet
You don’t need to shout
You just need to find your voice
Stand up, speak up, speak out!

stony-panto-c-bursteardrum-samuel-dore

Alice in Stonyland (c) Bursteardrum Samuel Dore

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Well, when the January Book Group book turned out to be one of Daphne du Maurier‘s I wasn’t expecting anything like this.  Still set in Cornwall, mind, but …

ddum-the-house-on-the-strandA drug that takes you back six centuries but you maintain the exact map locations as you move about following the fourteenth century action, regardless as you do so of physical changes in the landscape over those centuries; little things like tarmac roads, shifting estuaries, rivers changing course and the coming of the railway.  Fourteenth century wet feet are not magically dry on your return.  And when you’re there, if you actually touch any of the people who can’t see or feel you but whose lives you are observing unfolding and with whom becoming increasingly emotionally involved, you get the most almighty instant and violent comedown in the present.

If you can suspend disbelief in all that, then The house on the strand (1969) makes for quite an absorbing story; I did really want to know how things turned out in both centuries, and things become alarming indeed when for our narrator, Richard, the two worlds start to overlap: “I stared at him. Then I pushed aside my cup of tea. It had happened, oh sweet Christ, it had happened. The confusion. The confusion between worlds …”  He does a lot of heavy sweating.

Richard, slightly adrift in his life, has a few days on his own in a cottage belonging to his absent brilliant old uni chum Magnus (to whom he’s always been a bit of an acolyte), before Vita, his wife – about whom he’s increasingly luke warm – returns from the States (she is American) to join him for a holiday.  Unbeknownst, Magnus has set him up as a fellow drug trialist.   Magnus remains off-stage but he’s never far away in spirit.  It’s not all fun: “Nausea, vertigo, confusion, a bloodshot eye, and now acid sweat, and all for what?” but he’s hooked.  Much drama, manoeuvring and adventure ensues in both centuries, and, without giving much away, it doesn’t end well.  The Cornish landscape remains a winner whenever.

The problem for me was that the fourteenth century leaps off the page more vivid and vibrant than Richard and pals.  Or was that the point?  Their set-up – him bored, she trying to get him to take up an offer with her brother’s publishing firm in the US –  seems a bit cardboard in comparison.  He starts out a classic sci-fi stooge, his wife being American a fictional device.  It is hard for them to compete on a narrative level with the sad love story happening against the brutal background of family and political intrigue in the 1300s that he keeps being drawn back to.  It is probably because of this that his last trip is so devastating for the reader, never mind yer man.

Written and published in the late 1960s, The house on the strand has a distinct whiff of the drug counterculture without its characters betraying any such social allegiance or recognition.  The first two named are C14th characters, Cain is biblical:

       There was no past, no present, no future. Everything living is part of the whole. We are all bound, one to the other, through time and eternity […]
This was what Magnus had not so far understood. To him, the drug released the complex brew within the brain that served up the savoured past. To me, it proved that the past was living still, that we were all participants, all witnesses. I was Roger, I was Bodrugan, I was Cain; and in being so was more truly myself.
I felt myself on the brink of some tremendous discovery when I fell asleep.

The ending is ambiguous.  Look the book up on Wikipedia and there’s a quote from Daphne du Maurier herself saying she’s not sure what happens to Richard.  But she has a good idea, and most of the Book group agreed with her.  We were all a bit ambivalent about the whole thing; had its moments.

The Virago edition of 2003 that I read had a really interesting introduction by Celia Brayfield, pointing out, among other things, the significance of their names – Magnus, the great magus and idealist, Vita as practical life, and Richard as … a Dick.  Brayfield also puts the book in the context of du Maurier’s own bi-sexuality, alongside the homosexual subtext of Richard’s longstanding hero-worshipping of Magnus.  I don’t usually indulge in reading introduction before I’ve started reading – wanting to make my own mind up, thank you very much – but I half-wish I’d read this one.

One last grouch.  I know narrator Richard is meant to be a bit of a dick but there’s one observation – well there are others, but, you know – that sticks out like a sore thumb, and I still find hard to credit that a half decent writer like our Daph would put pen to paper for: “… Vita stretched herself at my side. Her jeans became her – like all Americans she had a stunning figure – and so did her scarlet sweater.” Really?  Oh, come on.

Cultural events closer to home

Alas, one I had to miss but a significant one.

Alas, one I had to miss.

Lillabullero hasn’t been out much this year.  That cough that newspaper articles have been written about – debilitating, demoralising and bloody annoying, never mind disturbing if you’re sitting next to it.  So I had to miss Scribal Gathering returning to The Crown and the mighty Antipoet doing new material. [See below: Mr Hobbs has submitted an amusing comment concerning the spelling occurring on the poster]

bardic-trials-2017Managed the climax of Stony Stratford’s Bardic Trials; or at least, having timed it wrong, got there for the result of the final count.  Having both, I was reliably informed, performed out of their skins, Stephen Hobbs and Sam Upson tied!  Judges gave it to Steve.  So Stony’s got a brand new Bard.  All Hail the Hobbs!  And there was still time for “The glittering frenzy of Emma Purshouse” (© Fay Roberts).  Sparkling – like her top – words of wit and splendour at the speed of sound delivered proud (and tall!) in a Midlands accent of some description; that I remember in particular only an art history tour of tangled rhymes and accomplished wordplay is a reflection on me.

1967MK50: Milton Keynes, where I’ve lived nearly half my life now, is 50 years old!  Tis indeed a thing to celebrate.  Decent exhibition in Middleton Hall, lots of fascinating detail of how it all happened, aerial maps, plans that did and didn’t happen, archaeological finds  and more.  The mystery of architect’s models: studying one of Woughton on the Green we couldn’t work out where Ye Olde Swan was; nor could a couple who actually lived there.
[Click on the photos and then click again for their full glory.]

Bushfield School’s great Wolverton Railway Town collage:
bushfield-school

And waiting for the bus home; in the distance the iconic Point at sunset:
point

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