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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

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 beautiful librarians

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

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

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

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

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

Damn right I got the blues: Ovid live in Tomis

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

Reading allowed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Fahrenheit 451

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afterword

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

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

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

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The Bardic Trials

And it came to pass that Stony’s got a brand new Bard.  All hail poet Sam Upton!  Crowned (or rather, cloaked) after an absorbing contest with accomplished storyteller and laidback one-time Texan Lynette Hill at York House Centre.  Tellingly, Sam delivered his statement of Bardic Intent acknowledging the tradition and the work of previous holders of the post in verse form.  Shame there were only two up for it this year, but it was a good contest, and a fine evening’s entertainment was put together by the Bardic Council and outgoing Bard – Bard 007 Mr Stephen Hobbs – nevertheless.  Sam will have a hard job to match Steve’s work rate.

Fay Roberts held a buzzing audience still and entranced with a poem delivered entirely in Welsh – I add No, really! for those who’ve never seen her – while Northampton’s Bard Mitchell Taylor‘s was an energetic (with much poetic striding) and passionate set, by turns personal and political.  Original stuff from singer-songwriter from Dawn Ivieson, in fine voice.  Professional comedian James Sherwood finished the evening off in style.  He had me in stitches, not least when – sat at and playing keyboard – singing and raging against the mathematical inexactitude all too often found in popular songs.  Wish I could remember some culprits other than 50 ways to leave your lover (in which just 5 are listed); there was that Cher song …

The Pantomime

The Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s 3rd annual panto,  Dick Whittington in Stonyland was a hoot, with all the traditional trimmings, complete with plenty of nods to the locality and no little originality from playwright (and Principal Boy) Danni Kushner (no surnames on the handout, no surnames here … except this one … for the writer).  Great ensemble performance (Oh, yes it was), invidious to single out etc etc (Oh, no it isn’t), because as Dame, troubadour Roddy’s Sally the Cook is already legend; not bad for a first acting role – “Oh, you won’t believe your eyes / at the size of Sally’s pies.”  Another first was Danni singing solo – who knew there’s a folk singer in there as well?  [Photos © Denise Dryburgh]

The Talk

Sarah Churchwell, prof of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the Uni of London, delivered a bit of an eye-opener at the Library for those who think of Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby as rooted in, and symbolic of, the Jazz Age.  No.  As she enthusiastically demonstrated, published in 1925, almost as a warning, it is pointedly and set in 1922,  highlighting with some telling slides what was in the news that year, and suggesting 1922 was to the celebrated Jazz Age what 1962 was to Swinging Sixties.

She expanded her subject to look at anti-immigrant origins in the 1920s of the first America First movement, and its links with the KKK.  I almost bought the book, though I have piles waiting to be read at home, she’s that charismatic a performer.  We didn’t have lecturers like her back in the day.

This talk, along with a handful of others, and various other events that I didn’t make it to – and those I did, above and below –  were all part of the programme of the splendid 14th Annual StonyWords literary festival.

Roger McGough. Photo © Andy Powell, who seemed to be everywhere, sound engineering and performing: so here’s a thumbs up.

That Roger McGough

Tickets for Roger McGough at York House were sold out even before the StonyWords programme was printed.  Resplendent in red sneakers he delighted a packed crowd with material that was new to the vast majority of the audience (and certainly to me).  Refreshingly none of the greatest hits were called upon; at the age of 80 he’s a sprightly and dapper performer, and still writing.  [One, um, golden oldie, Let me die a young man’s death cites the ages 73,91, and 104.  Not as much a hostage to fortune as Pete Townshend’s “Hope I die before I get old” in the Who’s (and their middle-aged tribute bands’) My generation, but then, they still do that. ]

Saying he was often accused of being ‘too sentimental’ he went out of his way to disabuse that with a neat reworking of one piece.  He was very funny, but at the same time, with a broad-ranging selection of an hour’s worth of material, not afraid to give us pause for thought.  I did succumb here, bought the autobiography.

This StonyMusicHall4

The Prince of Wales Rattlers. Photo © Andy Powell

Even without The Prince of Wales Rattlers, special guests from over the Northamptonshire border closing the show, StonyMusicHall4 would have been a grand affair.

What did we have?  With various multi-talented members of the Stony Steppers never far away we had: a sand dance, a recitation, a  clog dance (Daisy), singalong Vera Lynn, Whispering grass (from Two Men not called Matt, with accents slipping), a surreal chorus line dance routine involving half black/half white costumes, Mr Ferneyhough and concertina implanting an earworm (“With her ‘ead / tucked / underneath her arm“), some stunning slapstick choreography on If I was not a clog dancer, and … an act I’ve forgotten, I fear; sorry, please do tell.

The Rattlers started off with a couple of temperance hymns.  Too late, the barrels were empty.  Then continued with material more from the folk than music hall tradition but fully the latter in spirit, (and they elided somewhere in there historically anyway (didn’t they?)).  Great four-part harmonies, a moveable feast of musical accompaniment, a fine comedic turn, much jollity.
And so home with a big grin all over one’s face.

Them Theatre pop-ups

Caught one of these – the Light Programme, as opposed to the Dark Programme – in the Library.  A selection of rehearsed readings from a shifting cast of members of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society including a couple of Alan Bennett monologues, a bit of Bard and another old dude, excerpts from Alan Ayckbourn, the Stoppard Rosencrantz and Wossname, and a surprising piece (well, to me) from Chekhov that I wish I could remember*.  Good show, Caz & Co.

*The sneeze; the evils of tobacco – thanks Caz.

 

 

 

 

 

Pop-up theatre in the library

 

 

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I

Towards the end of Wild Mercury – a tale of two Dylans, the late great Ian McDonald‘s brief but insightful survey of Bob Dylan‘s life and career, written for a glossy music mag on the occasion of his 60th birthday in 2001 and reprinted as the lead essay in his The people’s music (Pimlico, 2003), he suggests: “Bob Dylan’s career is one of the great spiritual journeys of our time. Check it out.”

II

Scott M. Marshall‘s Bob Dylan: a spiritual life (BP/WND Books, 2017) gives us such a narrow picture of that journey that it feels a lot of the time like it’s a discussion as to what the man is going to enter as his religion on the census form.  Dylan’s ’60s output is very briefly considered for its Biblical references and that’s it.  How did it feel?  But that’s not his concern:

Did Bob Dylan, by 1970, have a personal relationship with God? Whatever the case, there is precious little doubt that he possessed a strong monotheistic bent.

III

You see, Scott M. Marshall is a ‘God-botherer’.  What this means here is an unbelievable, undermining prissiness in his use of blush-sparing dashes.  He quotes Tim Drummond, bassist in Dylan’s fine Christian period band, reacting to the hostility some brought to the gospel concerts:

“Well they brutalised him; they were all pissed off because he wouldn’t sing the old songs […] I told him that I’d stay with him until the t—- fell off the Statue of Liberty, after seeing what he went through.”

Yup.  Her ‘t—‘.  That’s how it’s straightfacedly printed.  Why is Ned Flanders writing this book?  Even when he’s quoting the man himself –  from what Marshall calls a ‘matchless’ interview in Rolling Stone in 2012 with Mikhail Gilmour – we get “You can tell whether people have faith or no faith by the way they behave, by the s— that comes out of their mouths.”  (This is one of those Dylan interviews, by the way, which, if you have the taste, is worth a read; early on there is discussion about the Christian concept of ‘transfiguration’ as applied to himself – a passage that Marshall chooses not to mention.)  Reporting the same interview, he continues:

For the record, after calling his detractors from yesteryear a name that cannot be repeated here, Dylan let those “Judas!” folks know that he wished them eternal strife.

For the record he calls them ‘motherfuckers’.  To quote him quoting him again: “So f—-ing what?”   Well there is Bob’s response to the infamous 1966 Manchester “Judas!” heckle: “I don’t be-lieve you. You’re a liar”.  And to the band:Play fucking loud”.  Try meaningfully blanking that from the history.

IV

To be fair, Scott Marshall‘s main concerns are not with the actual music, nor most aspects of his subject’s life – booze, drugs etc. – outside of the narrow religious definition he’s working with.  Bob Dylan: a spiritual life is a mix of some productive original interviewing and a big cut-and-paste job of published interviews and other material.  It gets a bit repetitive as the years pass by.  But some of the interviews certainly told me something new.  In particular with:

  • Dave Kelly (Dylan’s PA at the time of the fortnight’s run of gospel shows at the Warfield Theatre in SF in November 1979, whose attempts – at Dylan’s prompting – to engage the wider Christian communities were met with indifference)
  • Regina McCrary (one of the experienced gospel singers who accompanied him on stage in the gospel years)
  • and T-Bone Burnett (pleading not guilty to the charge, as is often presumed, that he was responsible for Dylan’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity) –

V

The book would probably never have come to be written were it not for Dylan’s apparently sudden adoption of an evangelical brand of Christianity in 1979.  The tale is told; not quite so sudden, but he had a ‘knee-buckling’ personal encounter with Jesus Christ.  He followed it up with a three-month course of Bible study with the Vineyard School of Discipleship in San Francisco, and recorded Slow train coming, his first Christian album.  When he went back on the road it was basically with a gospel review, featuring none of the old songs, and interspersed with some hellfire preaching from the man himself.  This lasted, with two more albums, but some leavening on stage of some old songs towards the end, for nearly three years.

One of Bob Dylan: a spiritual life‘s strengths is its logging of the variety of responses from Dylan fans, Jews and Christians to this episode; it was dismissed as a gimmick by some, treated with suspicion on all sides. The 1970s take up 50 pages of the 254 pages of actual text, the 1980s 43 pages.  There can be no doubt that he meant it, man.  And has not refuted it since, though his understanding of his ‘mission’ has altered a whole lot.  Never mind the labels, he was sold on the Testaments, Old and New; and Revelations.

But for all the Gotta serve somebody he never actually signed up with anybody, and his Jewish roots were still in the ground.  “There’s really no difference between any of it in my mind,” Marshall quotes him, from Neil Spencer’s 1981 interview in the NME.  And, in a section Marshall doesn’t quote in that interview, in response to the question, “You’ve always had a strong religious theme in your songs even before you became a Christian”, Spencer records Dylan angrily saying: I don’t really want to walk around with a sign on me saying ‘Christian’.”  Bit odd, considering the sermonising a couple of years previous, but Dylan has always been suspicious of labels.  At concerts in this period he would introduce the stirring In the garden (“When they came for Him in the garden, did they know? / Did they know He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord?“) as This is one of my anti-religion songs right here.”  A very personal Jesus, then.

VI

As an atheist and humanist I’ve never had much of a problem with the music religion inspires.  Hymns I sang with relish as a lad, Handel, gospel music, John Coltrane, ‘old time’ bluegrass.  How can I?  I may not feel I have been saved “by the blood of the lamb” but I can happily sing along to Dylan and Co powering along about it.  I may find it hard not to think occasionally of the character in Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy who heckles, “What blood group was he?”, but this is exciting, liberating, musicTrouble no more, the 13th volume of Bob Dylan’s Official Bootleg Series delivers live performances from 1979-1981 – the gospel years.  It is full of powerful vocals – Dylan aided and abetted by a four woman chorus steeped in the stuff – with some great ensemble playing from the band.  Intense, moving, at times solemn, accusatory, testifying, at others playful, or plaintive.  And, yes, the odd moment to these ears of languor – When he returns.  There are some gorgeous melodies to play with here too.  What has surprised me more than anything else is the warmth to be found amidst the uncompromising fundamentalism, not least, of course, in his interplay with the gospel chorus; when not straight preaching – actually oft when he is – he’s enjoying himself.

The 2-CD compilation finishes with one of Dylan’s finest songs, the awesome Every grain of sand, testament to the progression his writing underwent as the preaching nature of Slow train took more of a back seat.  Other highlights for me are the infectious singalong Ain’t gonna go to hell for nobody, The groom’s still waiting at the altar (which rocks as hard as anything he’s done), the passionate In the garden and the vocal dexterity of Dead man, dead man and Shot of love.  There was plenty of creativity going on in what some still insist as lost years; he would, of course, say that he was found.  Naturally I remain unconverted but I’ve had a hell of a good time.

VII

The booklet packaged with the 2-CD edition of Trouble no more (that’s its cover on the right) adds something too.  There are appreciations from a Christian and a non-believer (who’s like me’s singing along), and extensive notes on each track.   Here are a couple of things from it that would have added to A spiritual life:

  • For a bit of context: worryingly, at the time Dylan was reading a book called The late great planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey, first published in 1970 and taken up by no less than Bantam Books in 1973 – the first book of Christian prophecy put out by a mainstream secular press, part of the whole Reaganite rise of the Christian Right phenomenon in the US, seeing the Book of Revelations being played out in Russia and Iran.  “Lindsey turned out to be something of a nut … who, in 2008, suggested that Barack Obama was the AntiChrist,” the writer adds.  (In the Neil Spencer NME interview previously mentioned (reproduced here) Dylan peddles the old the Earth is 6,000 years old riff; I wonder if any subsequent interviewers have asked him if he still believes that.)
  • The late 1978 change of lyrics in performance to the great Tangled up in blue, so when she opens up “the book of poems written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century” (a favourite passage of mine) becomes “The Gospel according to Matthew, Verse 3, Chapter 33” – fortuitously keeping the rhyme – only for the apparently incorrect citation to be revised again to ‘Jeremiah’ the next night.

VIII

As suggested at the outset, I think that Scott Marshall‘s definition of a spiritual life is way too narrow to encompass Bob Dylan‘s art and life.  He rather begrudgingly hints at this in another quote from the 2012 Rolling Stone interview:

“Clearly the language of the Bible still provides imagery for your songs,” Gilmour added. “Of course, what else could there be.” The seventy-one year-old goes on to assert that it’s impossible to go through life without reading books and claims there’s some truth in all books while citing a laundry list of titles and authors: the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Buddhist sutras, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius and Sun Tzu.

There are steps on the way that don’t interest our monotheist author, from the time Dylan immersed himself in folk music and hit New York in 1961, telling Izzy Young he Never saw a God; can’t say till I see one” through to the immersion of us completists in the songs of Frank Sinatra (I’m afraid I had to pass on Triplicate).  There have been so many ideas in the air among his close compadres; though he can dismiss them with ease later, they were still stations on the way.  Marshall himself quotes Dylan twice saying, “But I always felt that if I’m going to do anything in life, I want to go as deep as I can.”  Or as his son Jakob puts it, “He’s never done anything half-assed. If he does anything he goes fully underwater.”  I’ll just leave the back cover of Desire, with Tarot card and Buddha (and Joseph Conrad) hanging there.

The crucial thing is that Bob Dylan seems not to have let his faith compromise friendships with non-believers like Alan Ginsberg or Jerry Wexler, producer of Slow train coming.  This quote about the latter, unfortunately without citation, is from the Official Bootleg booklet.  The “confirmed Jewish atheist”:

“… was never going to fall under the spell of true to life Christianity,” Dylan said.  “But that’s beside the point.  There are a lot people who live the life of a Christian in their behaviour and speech, but would never count themselves among the faithful.  However, there are just as many souls who profess to be Christians whose actions and speech prove that they wouldn’t know Christ from a hole in the wall.”

IX

A few more snippets from Scott M. Marshall‘s Bob Dylan: a spiritual life that I think bear repeating:

  • astutely he avers: “Terms like ‘religious,’ ‘Christianity,’ ‘conversion,’ and ‘fundamentalist’ were virtually absent from Dylan’s vocabulary, but his personal experience, as described by outsiders was – and is – constantly framed in those terms.”
  • contrary to those who ascribe cult status to the Vineyard Church: “What is interesting here is that, contrary to some speculation, Dylan’s decision to sing only his gospel material from November 1979 through My of 1980 was not the decision of the Vineyard Church. In fact, Larry Myers, the pastor who visited Dylan’s home in early 1979 (and who was invited on tour in 1979-1980) urged Dylan to sing his older material.”  [I looked up Vineyard on Wikipedia: they have spread internationally; there have been schisms] 
  • when he returned to featuring his ‘oldies’ live, Dylan changed the punchline of the coruscating Masters of war. “It’s original line, “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do” was dropped and – to this day – has never been uttered in performance of the song. “Dylan knows it is not biblically correct,” asserts author Ronnie Keohone …”  Frustratingly we are not told what it’s replaced by; this atheist fears a diminution of power.
  • a tribute to Ralph Stanley and the old guys, as told to John Pareles in 1979: Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book … All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from Let me rest on a peaceful mountain to Keep on the sunny side. You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back towards those old songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing I saw the light. I’ve seen the Light, too.

X

I’ll finish as I started with Ian MacDonald.  He offers three theories on the art and life of Bob Dylan.  First jokingly is that he’s “currently the world’s greatest performance artist. (That’s ‘performance’, not ‘performing’.)”  Except you couldn’t make it up.  Second is the flawed human being and artist … and genius (a word not to be used lightly).  Third is the embodiment of the Jungian archetype of Trickster.  The current Sinatra stuff could come from anywhere in that spectrum.  Personally I wish he’d get bored with that – though not without some merit (Autumn leaves!), surely 5 CD’s worth is enough.  I look forward to a last full flowering of his writing.

Currently, the last time I looked, none of the specifically religious material from the three album sequence of Slow train, Saved and Shot of love is featured in performance (http://www.boblinks.com/111817s.html).

The title of this piece – Trailing moss and mystic glow – is the result of an act of bibliomancy using Bob Dylan: Lyrics 1962-2001.  From the song Moonlight on the Love and theft album.  Fits as well as anything more obvious, I’d say.  Must go and remind myself how it goes.

 

 

 

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I’m not immune to the pleasures of this kind of literature, though there are times when the tedium of the photo captions prove I’m only a fellow traveller in the land of the railway enthusiast.  There is only so much you can say about a railway photograph: time, place, train, loco details and history blah blah blah, while any semaphore signals in evidence might well get a mention.  I pity the poor caption writer if he has aspirations to rise above railway nerd status; most don’t.

So I’m puzzled as to what is going on here, with this, the second most boring photo – the most boring is also an even less distinguished DMU (diesel multiple unit) – in David Cross‘s interesting enough compilation Diesels around London: a colour portfolio (Ian Allan, 2006), that I borrowed from the local library (use it or lose it!).  The photo credit goes to one Michael Mensing, but I’m not sure if the caption belongs to him or David Cross.  Anyway, you don’t need to click on the photo to read the caption, because:

Formed of a four-car Derby DMU, train 2C59, a semi-fast service from Bedford to St Pancras, is 8 miles into its journey as it emerges from Ampthill Tunnel in May, 1965.  these DMUs would provide the commuter service for many years until electrification of the line between Bedford and Moorgate in May 1982.  Since the photograph was taken the station at the small market town of Ampthill has closed, passengers now being directed to use the station at Flitwick, some two miles to the south.  Just out of sight on the right [my italics] is Houghton House.  Designed by Inigo Jones and built in 1615, this was reputedly the model for the ‘House Beautiful’ in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Empty since 1935, the pollution from several nearby brickworks having eroded much of the stonework, it is presently being restored by English Heritage.

To his credit, Cross does, in describing a photo of a ‘footex’ special – yes, they used to put on special trains for away football fans as late at least as 1984 – give the result: Spurs beat Luton 2-1.

As an occasional poet I remain intensely proud of the lines:

Yes I’ll admit I trainspotted
In the boy’s time allotted –
British Railways then,
What a crazy scene!

This usually gets a laugh.  Then was late 1950s and early ’60s, when the British Railways Modernisation Plan of 1955 was just taking hold.  The programme of  steam locomotive withdrawals hadn’t got up much steam yet (sorry) and an intriguing variety of new diesel locomotives were suddenly appearing all over the place.  Many of the tribe eschewed these modern interlopers but modern boy I was well up for it as well.  That diesel throb, and they looked so good in the traditional green livery.  Like that Warship on Diesels around London‘s cover, and the two-toned green with white outlined cab windows of the Deltic on its title page.  Then they moved into what is now known as a re-branding exercise – from British Railways to British Rail – and two dead artistic hands were brought into play:

  • i). Health & Safety painted an un-aesthetic yellow warning blob on the diesel locos’ noses, a blob that got bigger and bigger as time went on, and
  • ii). Modern design conceptualists (fine in their rightful place but …) painted everything apart from the yellow blob an un-vibrant blue, and the romance was gone.

With the proviso that this is not railway photography, rather photos of trains, Diesels around London carries plenty of photos of that era (and some up to the 1980s) that document in passing this uglification well enough.  Compare and contrast the early pre-yellow blob etc liveries below with the degraded aesthetics on those further down (click on the photos for a bigger picture):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK.  It’s a shame that cheap decent colour photography wasn’t more widely available back then, but I still get great satisfaction from books like Diesels around London because they can remind me of a time … the decades fade away … when I could get excited, as I skipped between London termini, by a sight like the one below, at Euston in 1961:

This one IS railway photography, I’d say. Credit to John Edgington.

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And so, early in March, to Linford Wood, in Milton Keynes, while the trees are still bare:

Sad to say the wood sculptures are not what they once were – the grand old bearded philosopher and the big gorilla are long-lost to the elements – but it’s still a worthwhile wander, eyes primed for the crafted creatures; the bluebells will be out again soon and there’s a decent chance of seeing a jay.  Here’s one of the survivors:

2011

2017

Meanwhile, back indoors …

Engrossing evening of a dialogue outside ‘the bubble’ with Milton Keynes Humanists guest speaker Salah Al-Ansari, Senior Researcher with the Quilliam Foundation, an academic theologian and a practising imam.  Salah is one of the leading lights of the liberal wing of his faith – what is becoming known as Reform Islam – which recognises the Koran as a sacred text but significantly also regards it very much as an historical document – pretty much as the Christian Bible is seen by most these days.

A wide-ranging, open-ended conversation ensued, which was both enlightening and entertaining.  Salah kicked off the discussion with the view that we should be talking about Islams in the plural.  Interesting to learn that when he was studying to become an imam in an Egyptian university, his professor was a woman.  It was agreed that secularism does not imply atheism.  Positive change, albeit slow and not so often visible, is happening among the Islamic communities.  An ex-Muslim atheist in the audience added spice.  There is more about Salah at www.quilliaminternational.com/about/staff/salah-al-ansari/ and from there, if you are not familiar with them, it is well worth exploring the work of the anti-extremist (from all sides) Quilliam Foundation further.

Because it was there

I have piles of books I intend to read but I often take an impulse book out from the local library for no other reason than because it’s there.  The library I mean.  Use it or lose it!  Hence the next book, that happened to catch my eye.

I’ve always looked upon the American artist Edward Hopper as the painter’s equivalent of a one hit wonder – you know, the haunting Nighthawks, all the lonely people in that late night cafe.  Ivo Kranzfelder‘s Edward Hopper 1882-1967: Vision of reality (Taschen, 1995/2006) has disabused me of this but, to continue the metaphor, I still wouldn’t want more than a single disc ‘Best of’, and vinyl at that.  A bit samey, and I’m not convinced by the (please don’t take this the wrong way) proportions and posture of some of his women (like the one on the book’s cover, actually).

It’s a handsomely produced volume, with some stunning black and white photos by Hans Namuth of the man himself, not least those taken in places he painted.  Frankly, sometimes I struggle with writing about painters and what they were trying to do, and a chapter head like The secularization of experience doesn’t help.  Apparently he didn’t say much about it himself, but what did strike me was that 1942’s Nighthawks, and a number of his other more well-known paintings, were being done at precisely the same time as Abstract Expressionism (not that I’ve got much against …) was evolving and taking hold of American art in New York.  So good for him for sticking to his guns to the end.

Anyway, not to in any way get things out of proportion, I have to claim it was a bit of a trauma – after all the landscapes, townscapes, buildings, room interiors, urban scenes and absorbed individuals, all the mustards and terracotta, muted browns, dull turquoise, beiges, greys and olive greens – to turn over from page 105 and suddenly be all at sea; as it happens one of these was the first painting he ever sold.  Normal service was quickly restored.

What it says on the poster

Staying in the library, I learned a bit and was mightily entertained by this FoSSL (Friends of Stony Stratford Library) presentation. The turbo-driven opening chords of musical director Paul Martin on the mandola suggested we were in for a treat and so it proved.  Shakespeare – a musical celebration, curated by Vicki Shakeshaft, was a fascinating and nicely paced mix of music, songs (take a bow soloist Simon Woodhead), readings and contextual history with a colourful morris dance duo thrown in for good measure.  And all, if my powers of recall are functioning properly, without resort to “If music be the food of love …”  Came as a surprise to me that “Who is Sylvia / What is she” was the Bard’s (from Two gentlemen of Verona – if asked I’d have said music hall), and my English teacher never told me that Hamlet’s advice to the players was a rant and that “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them” was a gripe at Shakespeare’s company’s erstwhile clown, Will Kemp, who once morris danced from London to Norwich.

Further musical adventures

No poster for the early March Vaultage, but it was a good ‘un.  Folkish duo Phil Riley & Neil Mercer – guitar and mandolin – did a great set of their own material with a singalong of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the free world somewhere in the middle, finishing with a thrilling Russian folk dance-based tune.  Oi!  The March Aortas – nice and varied – deserves a mention too.

First Scribal I’ve managed this year  – Out! Damn virus! – was another good one too.  Stephen Ferneyhough kicked off with a musical history of the Brackley Morris with one of those squeeze box things – I can never remember which is which.  A storming set from featured singer Bella Collins – great voice and material (folk, blues and beyond), skilled emphatic guitar, foot stomping on the floor.  Own songs and a couple of covers – Jimmy Reed’s Shame, shame, shame morphing into Prince’s Kiss and back again!  Stephen Hobbs is wearing his bardship well, as if there was any chance he wouldn’t.  Mark ‘Slowhand’ Owen’s dazzling fretwork on one of his songs had a couple of us fearing for our own fingers just thinking about it.

And finally … best book review ever (click on the picture if you can’t read what’s between the cat’s legs):

 

 

 

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I was going to say about the Welsh male voice choir we saw in Wales in my what-we-did-in-Wales post but they somehow slipped off the agenda.  Fortunately it fits nicely with one of the books I’ve been reading, which is, as it happens, all about singing …

Naked at the Albert Hall Book One

In Naked at the Albert Hall: the inside story of singing (Virago, 2015) Tracey Thorn tells of a recording session with Elvis Costello at which he asked if they wanted an ‘Elvis Costello’ vocal?  The authenticity/artificiality continuum is a recurring theme.  In an interview with Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, she’s somewhat taken aback by something he tells her: “Hang on, are you saying we can all do the Scritti voice just by smiling?” After which she comments:

If you are not now trying to sing The sweetest girl while experimenting with different degrees of smiling, then you are not the reader I took you for.

OK, I passed, but that shouldn’t let her potential disappointment put you off.  (And if you’ve never heard of Scritti Politti you probably know the song; there’s a link at the bottom of this post to it in all its 6 glorious minutes.)  True, when it comes to men she’s a bit punk as Year Zero – momentous that John Lydon sang in an English accent, no mention of Ray Davies and the Kinks – but easy to forgive the spiteful charm of her description of Mick Jagger’s voice:

It’s a cartoon of a black singer, painted onto a balloon and then inflated, then put through a mangle, then through an amplifier. What comes out the other end is patently foolish and ridiculous, and turned him into one of rock’s most admired singers …

At the time of its publication Tracey Thorn, she of Everything but the Girl, hadn’t sung in public – and still hasn’t as far as I know – for 15 years, because of chronic stage fright.  Naked is more than an addendum to her lively Bedsit disco queen memoir.  She was hoping, she admits at the end that it might have been a shot at therapy, trying to see what it means for her to still put ‘singer’ as her occupation on the passport renewal form.  And so it turns out, though not necessarily as expected (no spoilers!).  In the chapter Why sing? she says:

In this book I’ve focused on the trouble with being a singer, in an attempt to balance out some of the idealised clichés I’ve grown tired of. And I’ve looked for stories that mirror my own …

It’s a fascinating journey, starting from the physics and physiognomy of the voice  (“… unlike any other instrument, these components are your own body parts“) and takes it from there, reminding us that “Musicians … are separate, distinct from us, in a way that singers are not.”  In that way our bond with singers is “egalitarian” – we can all do it – and yet … not.

She talks to fellow women singers – seeking out particularly reluctant singers, ‘the silent sirens’ who chose to disappear, and those who don’t particularly like their own voices;  similarly she looks at the lives of some no longer with us (Dusty Springfield’s “brick wall of self-doubt and discomfort“, Sandy Denny’s fear of fame, the tragic Karen Carpenter) – while examining the career aspects of the singing life.  (Oh, and there’s a chapter on Scott Walker. )

She unpicks aspects of her subject generally taken for granted, and – intriguingly, too, for us bibliophiles – tellingly draws on characters in novels to further illustrate what she’s talking about: Willa Cather’s The song of the lark, George du Maurier’s Trilby, and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, no less, are the main texts drawn on.

Some sage professional advice is offered in passing:

Singing live is like a complicated sporting event for the voice. A fiendish obstacle race. Over this hurdle, around this tricky bend, down for this horrible low note.

And once over that there’s the problem – this from a chapter called Little monsters – “… when you move from the territory of having listeners into the realm of having fans.”  Be warned, my musical friends.

Naked at the Albert Hall is entertaining and informative, conversational and confessional.  At times it sparkles and you feel she must be good company.  It’s full of nice asides like when the author tries a hypnotherapist to see if it can help with the stage fright:

She put on a CD of ‘spa music’, the least relaxing form of music in the world. Noodly pan pipes, fretless bass. Treacly synth sweeps and occasional random harp. The music that has ruined every facial I’ve ever had, every massage, every seaweed wrap.

From what I’ve said so far you might get the impression Naked is all about the perils, the trials and tribulations of the singer’s workplace, but it is also a celebration of the human voice, as a source of joy and transcendence:

Set against this egotistical aspect of singing, which exploits the possibility of personal allure, is the concept of singing as a shared experience, something to join us together.

Which is where the Welsh male voice choir comes in.

The Welsh male voice choir

The hotel we stayed in Wales a couple of weeks back played weekly host to Côr Meibion Cymau, the Cymau Male Voice Choir.  It’s one of those community things that is slowly dying out.  They do it because they love it, and for local charities, take a collection at the end.  Cymau is a village in Flintshire, North Wales, near Mold.  About 10 blokes – one of them told me there used to be 40 of them – white shirts, black trousers, quietly proud, aged from about 40 to 70+, enjoying one another’s company.  Damn, I should have taken a photograph.

I’m not saying it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life, but it moved me – but it was uplifting, fun, there was the definite odd tingle up the spine – and it will stay with me.  If I had a bucket list seeing a Welsh male voice choir in Wales would have been on it.  They delivered a varied repertoire: a spiritual, a setting of the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ Prayer from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, American Trilogy, Unchained melody and, with a tenor solo, The Rose (which far from being the ancient genre piece I imagined it to be, actually dates from the ’70s and was made famous by Bette Midler).

They did a routine about what happens when one of their members’ voice goes, when the day comes when he can no longer sing, when he can contribute to the choir no more.  One night in the middle of winter the whole choir convenes in a large hut perched on the side of a local mountain.  Cue the choir making  wintery noises, cold winds, a dark and stormy vocal night.  The broken man is ritually stripped of his clothes and ceremonially pushed out of the door onto the snow covered mountainside.  To the harmonious strains of, “F-reeze a jolly good fellow …”

Flying ScotsmanBook Two

Andrew McLean‘s The Flying Scotsman: speed style service (Scala/NRM, 2016) is a visual delight, a nice piece of book design featuring items in the collection of the cathedral that is the National Railway Museum in York.  So as well as a wealth of photographs from the earliest of the 1880s through to the Deltic diesel era and beyond, we get page after page of social history, and of sublime and sometimes strange railwayana: plenty of those classic posters, some carriage prints, cigarette cards, a tea set, the centenary anniversary wine list cover and even a fan.

FS 01 Here are a couple of my favourite double spreads: on the left,  railwaymen posing on the signal gantry at Hatfield in 1932; below, the time-travelling bizarrerie of the businessmen at the bar on the Flying Scotsman as late in the 1950s.  The book’s themed text is more companion to the illustrations than any attempt at being a definitive history, but it still manages to throw up much of interest.

FS 08In its conception and development the notion of modernity was central to the railway company’s marketing.  Initiated as the ‘Special Scotch Express’ in 1862, with both the up and down trains leaving simultaneously at 10 o’clock in the morning at Kings Cross and Edinburgh, it soon became known, initially, as The Flying Scotchman – oh yes!  Competition between the East Coast and West Coast routes to Scotland was intense – a very different model of privatised rail transport than holds sway today.  The Flying Scotsman was central in this, and as explained in the chapter entitled Building the brand, the confusion that still exists between the express train and the locomotive of the same name, introduced in 1923, was quite deliberate.

FS 06A few other things I wasn’t expecting.  In 1924 they introduced a cinema carriage.  During the General Strike the Flying Scotsman was deliberately de-railed by Northumberland miners removing a track section – what would the history books say if that had gone disastrously wrong?  And in the ’30s the installation of the LNER’s (London & North Eastern Railway) Railway Queen: “a ceremonial position given to the daughter of a railway worker every year, to promote railways and British culture at home and abroad.”  Now if that isn’t a gift to a budding historical novelist, I don’t know what is.

Great Western BeachBook Three

Doing my duty by the Book Group I started on Emma Smith‘s The Great Western Beach: a memoir of a Cornish childhood between the wars (Bloomsbury, 2008) without much hope of being able to stomach it – just look at all those pastel colours on that idyllic cover photo from the family album.  Overcoming the disappointment that, despite that tease of a title, the sights and sounds of the Great Western Railway played no part in the scene-setting, I was soon sucked in by the authorial child’s voice though – the book finishes when she’s twelve – and read enthusiastically through to the end.  That voice initially reminded me of James Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man and … despite the age thing, a big touch of the diaries of Adrian MoleEmma Smith juggles nicely – manages the illusion – with giving us the info so as to know what the score is without the adult intruding and jarring the child’s naive yet knowing flow.

In fact, what we have here is a tragi-comedy of a dysfunctional family life that is full of tension, people trapped by circumstances beyond their control (the past is another country) played out in the – ok – idyllic and beautifully evoked setting of Newquay and environs.  Her father – an officer and a war hero, is a resentful bank clerk, a stubborn failed painter who will not be told – is married to a woman four years older than himself; he is her fourth fiancé, what with the Great War and the Great Flu.  The fine details and pain of scraping out a genteel poverty are acutely described, as are the changes when they inherit loads of money from her rich uncle and they become, among other things, the life and soul of the tennis club.  It could be one of H.G.Wells’ social novels.  The subtle nuances of social class, of snobbery, hypocrisy and prejudice in a seaside town are all horribly apparent.  Some of the language shocks: ‘darkies’, ‘Jew-boys’ – we have come a long way.

But we also get the joys and pregnant confusions of childhood, of friendships and adventures, of the daily life, lovingly recorded.  Indeed, one does begin to wonder at quite the level of detail of recall – this was written in Emma Smith’s 80s – that is going on here, though my father did tell me the older he got, the more he remembered from his childhood, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.  You wonder what happened to them all – mother, father, elder sister, twin “milksop” brother, younger sister – but it’s one element of the book’s magic that we’re not told.

I could go on, but this post is too long already.  Her father’s cringingly embarrassing bad-tempered excuses when he loses at tennis, which he always does are pure Fawlty Towers.  And yet she and her father bond over literature – poetry! Omar Khayyam! – which her mother regards as “degenerate, unhealthy, immoral.”  As I say, I could go on, but I’ll leave you with this lovely image of shelter from the storm:

Picnics-on-the-beach is the one area of an otherwise discordant marriage where our parents are in harmonious, if tacit, agreement. To be out of the house, out-of-doors, to be sitting on the sand, or on smooth rocks, with the sounds of the sea making unnecessary any attempt at conversation: this has, for them, it would seem, a significance of almost religious intensity, notwithstanding the acrimonious preparations, always attendant on these regular family outings … they are a form of salvation for our mother and father, and so, by association, for their children.

As promised, a musical bonus

Herein the link to Scritti Politti’s The sweetest girl from their Songs to remember album of 1982.  I’d say they boast one of the great band names, acknowledging the influential Italian Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci.  But never mind that.  Here is a gorgeous piece of timeless inventive pop music, some melody lines that you may well be humming for quite a while: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExC0oK28VLA

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