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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

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known as Reform Islam – which recognises the Koran as a sacred text but significantly also regards it very much as an historical document – pretty much as the Christian Bible is seen by most these days.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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Suspicions pbkSuspicions hardbackIn the nursery, Whicher was shown how the blanket had been drawn between Saville’s bedclothes on the night of his death, and the sheet and quilt ‘folded neatly back’ to the foot of the cot – which, he said, ‘it can hardly be supposed a man could have done.’

Yup, this for real a quarter century before Sherlock Holmes made his first bow.  Whicher was a friend of Charles Dickens – the character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House draws on him – and one of the first generation of elite police detectives in London.

In unspectacular yet engaging prose, Kate Summerscale‘s The suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The murder at Road Hill House (Bloomsbury, 2008) catches a zeitgeist moment when things changed, when a few more pieces of the modernity jigsaw can be seen to have dropped into place.  The sub-title of the US edition suggests a broader canvas: A shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective.  From the details of the distressing case of the killing of a three-year old child in Wiltshire in 1860 we get to witness the establishment of the detective as a significant role in civil society, the growth of a sensationalist press and the evolution of crime fiction.

Nevermind the progress of the actual case, and its probable solution, which is interesting and original enough in itself, though I will say nothing more specific of it here, we also get to see various aspects of the changing Victorian class structure as they are played out, and the not so curious parallels in the growth of the modern methods of detection – the first record of the word ‘clueless’ is as late as 1862 – and Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is also a background presence generally; “Objects were incorruptible in their silence. They were mute witnesses to history, fragments – like Darwin’s fossils – that could freeze the past.”  Detective recruits were inevitably working class men of ambition, and as such were regarded as establishment sell-outs by their peers but greatly resented as rude, ‘low and mean’ intruders by a middle class struggling to hold on the privacy implied by the notion of the Englishman’s home being his castle.

In the matter of the evolution of the crime fiction genre – and you will recall that Dickens was heading that way with his unfinished The mystery of Edwin Drood – the Road Hill House murder was influential from the start,  setting the template for so much of what was to come.  Wilkie Collins’s The moonstone,

a founding fable of detective fiction, adopted many of the characteristics of the real investigation at Road: the country house crime in which the criminal must be one of the inmates of the house; the secret lives behind a veneer of propriety; the bumbling, pompous local policeman; the behaviour that seems to point to one thing yet turns out to point to another; the way that the innocent and the guilty alike act suspiciously, because all have something to hide; the scattering of ‘real clues and pseudo clues’ …

Margaret_Oliphant_Wilson_OliphantBut the popular novelist Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897), was fearful for her craft.  Looks like she lost.  She blamed it:

… on the detectives. Sensation fiction, she said, was ‘a literary institutionalisation of the habits of mind of the new police force.’ The ‘literary Detective’ she wrote in 1862, ‘is not a collaborator whom we welcome with any pleasure into the republic of letters. His appearance is neither favourable to taste or morals.’ A year later she complained of ‘detectivism’ …

Detectivism!  Now there’s a word for us to finish on Kate Summerscale‘s splendid exploration.  Recommended, and another justification for Book Groups, because I wouldn’t have occurred to me to read it otherwise.

Maestra

Bronzini - Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time

Bronzini – Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time. Seeing this in a gallery on a school trip changed our heroine’s life.

MaestraThere are at least three graphic murders in L.S.Hilton‘s Maestra (Zaffre, 2016), and there’s no mystery as to the killer, though don’t ask me to tell you what’s going down because I’d have to do a re-read to be sure and life’s too short and the to-be-read pile is too tall for that.  Not that it’s not an exhilarating ride for a lot of the time.

Why did I read Maestra?  It got a real going over in Private Eye but part of their reviewer’s beef was the good reviews it had got in some places; a blogger I subscribe to said it had some real merits, and it was cheap – a hardback for a fiver on Amazon, where the reviews are polarised.  Mention is made of 50 shades but that’s bollocks – (not that I’ve read 50 shades) L.S.Hilton can write.  I didn’t feel unclean so much at the detailed, sometimes orgiastic, sex (though I could have done without so much of it, and I’d need diagrams to understand what they were doing a lot of the time) as at all the designer label specifics.  And when I say all I mean a lot; is it fair to blame James Bond for starting that fictional trend for brand specifics?

Artemisia Gentileschi - Allegoria dell' inclinazione. recognising this clinched her interview to get the job at the auction house.

Artemisia Gentileschi – Allegoria dell’ inclinazione. recognising this clinched her interview to get the job at the auction house.

Same artist - Judith beheading Holofernes. A staple of classical art used as an artful counterpoint in the book.

Same artist – Judith beheading Holofernes. A staple of classical art used as an artful counterpoint in the book.

It’s a question just how much these two aspects of the novel are important in establishing the character of our anti-heroine, for this is indeed an homage to Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr, Ripley.  Judith Rashleigh (bloody hell – I’ve only just realised she shares a name with her in the painting) has had a difficult start in life, but she is given a purpose by Art.  She gets a junior job in one of the major auction houses where she discovers a). a low glass ceiling – breeding, who she knows – that excludes her advance, and b). very little love of art as art, as opposed to big profits, scams and/or money laundering.  Indeed, the only person there who shares her appreciation for the paintings is the caretaker in the basement.

Circumstances lead to her mixing with the super-rich on a modern Grand Tour of Europe, indulgence, intrigue and skullduggery.  Contempt for the super-rich elites who don’t know or take for granted the proper aesthetic value of their goodies drives the righteousness of her acts.  Which then inevitably take on a logic of risk and necessity of their own, leading to more of the same.  It’s a compelling first person narrative portrait (though one could argue the realism of the events) of someone who knows what they want and feels it is deserved.  Though there is something, too, which is endearing about her social observations.  And there are a couple of massive twists in the narrative that make it an intriguing read, one, though I had huge doubts during the opening chapters, I don’t regret giving time to.  Last words: “To be continued”.  Here are a few little squibs, some delightful scorn, that mean I’m tempted:

  • about a gold-digger: the diamond on her ring finger as spectacularly disproportionate as her tit job

  • the Med of the super-yacht anchorages: And even the sleepiest village square would contain a boutique or two where the women of the floating tribe of Eurowealth could pop …

  • about an ageing Russian oligarch: his face was timelessly malicious
  • on billionaire interior decoration stylee: All I could think of when we got to the apartment was that God never resists a chance to show His contempt for money.

  • on a murderee: … it occurred to me that one feels less guilty about murdering a man who reads Jeffrey Archer for pleasure.

  • on rich men again: If there was one thing I wanted never to see again if this little European tour came off it was another fucking tasselled loafer.

  • at the Venice Biennale: a squawking gaggle of dealers and art-whores…

Scribal, Bards, Yorkiefest

Scribal May 2016SS Shak 400Magnificent in significant parts, May’s Scribal Gathering was a bit of a strange one.  Featured acts were great.  Stony Bard Vanessa Horton was in great poetic form and anxious to remind us in passing, “I do do serious stuff too.”  Rutland Troubadour Paul McClure started off with a Prince tribute, harmonica harness in place and in use – I wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t told us – and

The splendid Paul McClure.  (No credit given to the photographer where I lifted it from)

The splendid Paul McClure. (Sorry – no credit given to the photographer where I lifted it from so none here)

delivered a fine set of Americana flavoured songs of his own making (including one that segued nicely into and out of Woody Guthrie’s This land is your land) to great applause and had us warming the cockles singing along with “I’m gonna find myself a little ray of sunshine.”  Inevitably we got Phil Chippendale’s localised This land – always a pleasure to singalong – later.

What else?  The bravery of stand-up comics who carry on regardless when no laughs come; the generosity of an audience that holds on for at least the sign off joke … that is not delivered.  A sour misanthropic sub-Chandler spoken word piece triggered by its author’s feeling of injustice at not getting enough time previously.  Which was one of the reasons Stephen Hobbs – introduced as Stony Stratford’s Alan Bennett – had to cut short his addendum to a really rather good piece he’d had to cut short at the well received Shakespeare open mic event at York House a couple of weeks earlier.  Hey ho, for the rain it raineth everyday.

But the evening concluded gloriously with the powerful voices of Andy Powell and Tim Hague doing their rousing acapella maritime thing: the moving Cornish boys, The Dogger Bank and another one I can’t remember.  And so out into the night to be confronted again by the damage to Stony Stratford High Street resulting from the big fire on the first day of May – photo at the bottom of this piece.

YorkieFest 2016YorkieFest line-upYesterday the fourth annual YorkieFest down the road at York House.  Click on the programme and then click again to read it.  Another great day’s music.  Invidious to single anyone out, but what a talented bunch of singer songwriters!  David Cattermole called back for an encore, gave us the mesmeric Can’t find my way home we’d been hoping for.  Great to hear some Bollywood played live – good vibes from Navaras; even got us singing along.  Roddy quality as ever, and The Fabulators really rocked the joint.  It was all good.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Poor old Stony, in particular those directly affected.  Photo mine own.

Poor old Stony, in particular those directly affected. Photo mine own.

Claudio Ranieri, 1973 - a class act.  Congratu;lations to Leicester City.

Claudio Ranieri, 1973 – a class act. Congratulations to Leicester City.

 

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Or… I probably shouldn’t do this in omnibus mode.  Anyway, this blog post is dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, though probably not entirely as you’d expect (except for Pete N. maybe).  But for now, later for Ollie.

Martin Edwards - Dungeon houseFirst, some crime fiction …

The dungeon house (Allison & Busby, 2015) is the seventh of Martin Edwards‘s never less than interesting Lake District Mysteries.  As well as the action moving west to Ravenglass and the coast, it breaks fresh ground in that retired telly and academic historian Daniel Kind, who kicked off the Mysteries sequence, stays pretty much in the background. His now temporary live-in girlfriend (that happened in the sixth book), maverickish DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of Cumbria’s cold case team, is very much to the fore, investigating the possibility of links between the disappearance – one 3 years ago, the other very recently – of two young women, and what appeared to be an open and shut multiple murder and suicide case twenty years back.  A case, indeed, in which Daniel’s late detective father, Ben Kind – Hannah had been his protegé – had been involved, and had his doubts.  So the soap opera aspects of the Mysteries – one of the real strengths of the series – take on a retrospective tinge too.

The dungeon house is populated with a rich and varied cast of characters, variously damaged by, or related to people involved in, the events of 20 years ago.  Naturally as events unfold there are plenty of twists and one major red herring, all climaxed with an unsettling and nicely executed suspenseful denouement.  Police budget cuts and administration-by-spreadsheet hover in the background – a standard feature of most British crime fiction these days – while Les Bryant, wily old detective brought back into the cold case team as a consultant, plays the part well.  There’s a swipe at the Police Federation, from the long serving local rep: “The stable needs a bloody good cleansing. You could say I’m Fed up.”

Is it just me or is a bit more humour creeping into The Lake district Mysteries?  Not laugh out loud, but with interviews conducted in “yet another Lakeland tearoom”, for instance.  This may have something to do with Hannah being more prominent in the action, more comfortable with her place in things, and re-finding her mojo:

Les Bryant poked his head around her door. ‘Going to this meeting about the new Communications Strategy?’
‘Nobody told me about it.’
He sniggered. ‘Nothing would surprise me in this place.’
‘I’m scheduled for a briefing on the Transparency Agenda, plus catch-ups with Finance and HR either side of lunch. Not to mention ten minutes ruled out for that photo shoot for the new identity cards to get us in and out of the building, and an hour’s online course about …’

So … what to do next?:

Good Hannah was duty bound to attend the various activities scheduled for her, even if the online course was one more wearisome example of ‘sheep-dip training’. Bad Hannah would suffer a severe memory lapse – why not blame deficiencies in the IT system? They were a reliable scapegoat. She could race off to Ravenglass before anyone trapped her in a corner, and started blathering away about key performance indicators.
Good Hannah never stood a chance. Her evil twin opened the door, and chased after Les.

She’s an interesting lass, capable of hyphenating ‘dream-come-true‘, developing nicely:

Hannah found herself itching to give him the benefit of the doubt. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man. This was a weakness in a detective, she knew …

I look forward to more opportunities for her to show her strengths and weaknesses, and hope poor old Daniel Kind can stay very much in the picture when Hannah moves into her bachelor pad in Kendal; he’s feeling a bit insecure.

BR StandardNow for Oliver Cromwell …

That’s him on the cover (of a recent charity shop purchase), that’s him in the sunlight, clean.  As a republican I love it that the last express Pacific steam locomotive retained in service by British Railways was Britannia class 70013, Oliver Cromwell.  Shame he ultimately made such a mess of the English Revolution and bequeathed us the problem of Ulster, but hey, even though he eventually neutered them, the Putney Debates of 1647 could be said to be the start of modern democratic politics in action, and for twenty years the English were citizens, not subjects.  I’d like to favour the idea of some kind of conspiracy theory among subversive railway workers that made sure it was Oliver who lasted longest …

The naming of express steam locomotives in the middle of the first half of the twentieth century was a very establishment affair, ideological in its celebration of traditional hierarchies.  Worst offenders were the Great Western (GWR) and the London Midland & Scottish (LMS) Railways.  The GWR’s crack express locomotives, the Kings, celebrated the monarchy, and stuck to its semantic guns by – although steam locos are still often referred to as ‘she’ – ignoring (because unladylike?) any Queens that happened to get in the way.  Working back from George V, the sequence went from the teenage Edward VII to William IV, missing Vicky, and further down the line from Edward VI to James I, missing Liz I.  They even subbed poor old King Stephen (who was as far back as it went), bringing on Edward VIII to keep up with the times, and didn’t reverse it even though he was never crowned.  Other classes on God’s Wonderful Railway celebrated the homes of the aristocracy with the Castle and Hall classes, and lesser country houses down to the Manors.

With the Kings taken, for their express Coronation Class locos the LMS had to resort to Princesses and Duchesses and a couple of Queens (but only the wives of kings), though to be fair the rest of the class was named after cities.  Their Jubilee class saluted among other things, the far-flung reaches of the British Empire (eg Bechuanaland).  Somehow, with the odd exception, Dukes seem to have missed out.  The LMS were also big on the military.  The Southern Railway’s Schools Class was limited to – naturally – what we in the UK euphemistically call Public Schools (ie. fee-paying and private).  Interstingly, the less patrician LNER mainly used birds of a certain stature (like Mallard, the world speed steam loco speed record holder), successful racehorses and football teams.

So it was left to the post-war British Railways Standard Classes, specifically the Britannia express locos, to fly the flag for a wider cultural heritage (writers like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens & Co) and, as we have seen, ‘God’s Englishman’, Oliver Cromwell.  Was it a coincidence that this principle was established under the same socialist Attlee government that set up the National Health Service?  The Standard Classes, intended by the newly nationalised British Railways to fill the motive power gap left over from the Second World War, were probably a mistake – they should have gone straight for diesel or electrics, like the rest of the developed world – but at least many of the Britannias reflected a pride more fitting to a democratic nation than kowtowing to the aristocracy.  Rant over.

Midford - Derek Cross

With the high-sided tender – Derek Cross at Midford.

BR Standard Steam Locomotives (Ian Allen, 1983), Brian Stephenson‘s anthology selected from the annals of Locomotives Illustrated magazine, is a decent enough collection of photos of all said classes of locomotives in a wide variety of working situations.  Over the years I have come to appreciate this group of locos – that as a trainspotter I always saw as a clumsy appendage to the individualities of the glory days of the old regional companies – as a worthy practical and handsome summation of British locomotive design and manufacture.  The book kept me (to quote myself: “I’ll admit I trainspotted / In the boys time allotted” though I’ve never owned an anorak) interested enough on that level – it never leaves you – and it was thankfully devoid of the more arcane grin or cringe inducing notes that can often accompany the photos in such publications.  Indeed, I am thankful for its demonstrating to me the aesthetic advantages of the larger capacity, higher-sided BR1D tenders, as opposed to the angular cut away BR1As.  You can see the difference in the two photos I have filched (scanned, treated a bit in PSP) and included here.

Nr Penmaemawr - Kenneth Field

Near Penmaenmawr – Kenneth Field

No, my problem with British railway photography in general is that it’s big on railways but not great at Photography with a capital P – the American O.Winston Link (just put him into Google images) is the benchmark here.  Some of this is down to the equipment that was available to enthusiasts in the most atmospheric of railway eras – colour only readily available only right at the end of steam – and some down to vision.  Not fair to bring this up, really, in this instance, because the standard 45° shots of engines – albeit taken from a variety of heights – that constitute the majority of photos here are what this volume is all about.  But the inclusion of Kenneth Field’s lovely composition (only a half plate in the book unfortunately, because its sharpness doesn’t bear enlarging) gives us a bigger picture of the railway in a social as well the conventional landscape, life’s rich tapestry.

John Hegley - Family packJohn Hegley had a platform ticket

Poet and comedian John Hegley was a trainspotter too:

is the happy shunter hunter
any more insane
than the lot who’ve not got jotters
who spot the spotty spotters
with disdain?
we’re looking forward to our crusty rolls
we’ve got platform tickets
and platform souls

Another charity bookshop purchase, His combined volume of early work, The family pack (Methuen, 1996), has been my bath-time reading of late.  [Bath-time reading rules: has to be an old desiccated paperback (new books steam makes the pages swell); never a library book].  Of course I’d been aware of him – tv and radio spots, the odd poem in the press and anthologies – and always thought I’d check him out further one of these days.  And he’s not the only person I’m aware of with a passion for Luton and its football team.  Reading him in bulk, on the page, imagining the distinctive voice, the quality is more variable than I expected, but when he’s good he’s great.  Have to say I liked The brother-in-law and other animals, his first, originally self-published collection of 1986, best – just the titles, never mind the actual poems: His heart’s in the wrong place, it should be in the glove department just defeating ditto in the dustbin; a different kind of muse.  Can I come down now Dad? (1991) wrings humour from an unhappy childhood among many other things, but I was flagging by These were your father’s (1994).  Never mind second album syndrome, the third book includes a plodding and inconsequential 32 page playlet called A tale of two tenting that for me makes Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (you remember – folk singer Candice-Marie) sound like Shakespeare.  It won’t stop me picking up and opening any of John’s later books if they happen to fall into my path, though.

Has anyone ever encapsulated upward social mobility better in two lines than Hegley in his Luton?:

I remember Luton
as I’m swallowing my crout’n

Of dulcimers, the Italian campaign and other musical adventures

Roddy at the Crown Stony Stratford’s magical musical square mile.

The Roddy Clenaghan Band ended their immaculately chosen and beautifully performed and sung set of songs – from Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle among others – with a driving version of Things have changed, the song Bob Dylan has been opening with at the Albert Hall on the current installment of his never-ending tour.  Andy Knight gave the accordion his grandfather bought in Italy, coming back from the war, an outing on one number, while Andy Fenton’s pedal steel was a delight.

Vaultage late Oct 15

Yes, it’s the wrong poster but Jimtom Say – he in the poster – is who I’m talking about, and Pat posters retrospectively.

Scribal Oct 2015Don’t think anyone had tried the active loop tape technique there before that Jimtom Say put it to good use at mid-month Vaultage.  Guitar still in hand he recited poetry over the resulting backing, while his songs, robustly individual, were equally absorbing.  Something different.  Meanwhile, earlier in the week Scribal Gathering had seen a plethora of poets outnumbering the music either side of the as ever entertaining Rrants takeover.

Beechey Room Sessions 4

Archivist note: unfortunately Paul Bell was unable to attend.

BeecheyRS Pat

Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

End of a busy week and so to the relaxed delights of another fine Beechey Room Session at York House on a Saturday afternoon.  Not that energy was not embraced in the performance.  Paul Martin (that’s him with his mandocello in the photo) also brought along a dulcimer, the first, I suspect that I’ve ever heard in the flesh – a captivating sound, made me think I’ll dig out that Richard & Mimi Farina album again.  Original canal songs from Phil Underwood and I can’t for the life of me remember what Michelle did (but it was all very fine).

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Come the late ’90s and, as a family, we put away childish things, there were three common cultural denominators (notice I did not say lowest) that we – a couple of baby boomers and two teenage boys – shared:

  • There was competition for the latest Fortean Times that landed at the doormat each month, though we were coming at it from different directions.  I always maintained that the magazine’s credo was a basic scepticism – hey, it can rain frogs, and as that soliloquary man said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophyincluding the phenomenon of the rubbish that some people can believe and actively espouse – whereas the lads were True Believers in UFOs and conspiracy theories (probably just to piss us off).  They were Muldur to our Scully.
  • Actually, better make that four: The X-FilesSuspense, wit, and – more than anything else – charisma.
  • There was the genius of The Simpsons, pretty much from the start, never mind the late ’90s, whether the kids got half the nuances or not.
  • And then there was R.E.M.

I’d pretty much given up on the post-Golden Age NME by the time they’d become the critic’s cult band, so the first I heard of R.E.M. was on a mix-tape of new music made for me by one of the Young Turks at work (I’d done him one of ‘old’ music).  From starting as a Saturday assistant in a small London branch library, and, single-handedly reducing the age profile of the libraries football and cricket teams significantly, he rose through the ranks and, these days, I gather he’s something in the City of London Corporation, but never mind that.  (I see now how he actually looked a bit like the young Michael Stipe).  The countryish jangle that is Don’t go back to Rockville was the track, and it stood out as embracing all the classic virtues and none of the vices that Punk had critiqued.  It still sounds singalong great today.  At the time I took Rockville to have symbolic status – signifying the boring excesses of the pre-Punk mid ’70s music industry.  Turns out it’s a real place and the band were advising, nay, pleading with a friend not to give up and go back home, one of the few directly autobiographical songs in their oeuvre.  But I jump ahead of myself.

2006_02_arts_stipeOver the years, one way or another, in an unsystematic fashion, we acquired a lot of R.E.M. CDs, without knowing too much about them, the place of specific albums in their story etc.  It wasn’t, strangely enough, until the less than overwhelmingly well received Up (1998), that I’d borrowed from the library and was utterly entranced by, that I actually bought an album anywhere near its release date.  Its successor, the superb Reveal (2001), was the soundtrack of our this year’s week in the Lake District and it has only recently dawned on me just how high the band stand in my music pantheon, and yet how little I actually knew about them at all.  What I did know, from watching a performance on telly, was that shaven-headed singer Michael Stipe in his live pomp was interesting enough to compellingly get away with that ridiculous blue eye/wraparound head superhero make-up.

Part liesThe title of an early band biography – Talk about the passion – taken from one of their early songs, sums up their work well.  Aside from the obvious musical qualities, what sets them apart is a powerful combination of intensity and oblique detachment, an immediacy of engagement obscured by often surreal lyric flourishes, even when it’s possible to decipher them.  Tempted by the charity shop price I bought Part lies part heart part truth part garbage 1982-2011 – the 2-DC chronologically curated career retrospective – new for a fiver, hard to resist even though I already had many of the songs.  Never mind that deliberate smokescreen of an album title (no smoke without fire?) and the simple graphics on the cover, here is richness indeed.  No slouches, of course, to begin with – only Gardening at night, that could be many another bands’ finest hour – but the growth in their confidence, competence and power as that first CD unfolds is astonishing.

Jovanovic StipeREM Inside outIf one was looking for clarity Craig Rosen‘s R.E.M. inside out: the stories behind every song (Carlton, 2005) could be said to be disappointing, were it not for the band’s unique power to be located in the spaces of meaning in between, if precise meaning there be, or in sly undercurrents.  Pretentious, moi?  While Stipe can be quoted as saying, “People need to realise that there’s potential for a great deal of nonsense involved … That’s a crucial element in pop songs” the seriousness of the band’s project cannot be doubted.

Rosen’s competent cut-and-paste job, a decent piece of work overall, is good in showing how the band worked up its material, the musicians presenting Stipe with a template needing melodic input and, crucially, a lyric and vocal.  Stipe is the one who makes the difference, more than just as frontman.  Here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite entries concerning the glorious, um, exultation that is the song The one I love, one I’d wondered about (what is it that does go “out to” its subject?) but never really given much hard thought to:

Despite a lyric that appeared to be clear and simple, Stipe once again had a trump card up his sleeve, and naturally many once again missed the point. Following the dedication in the song, Stipe dismisses the one he loves as “a simple prop” to occupy his time. “It’s that old cynical voice roaring up again,” he said.

“It’s a brutal kind of song, and I don’t know if a lot of people pick up on that,” he told Steve Pond in Rolling Stone. “But I’ve always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point, I don’t know. That song just came up from somewhere and I recognised it as being real violent and awful. But it wasn’t directed at any one person. I would never, ever write a song like that. Even if there is one person in the world thinking this song is about me, I could never sing it or put it out.”

The misinterpretation of the song, which was performed regularly on the 1986 Pageantry tour, stunned Stipe, who recalled performing the song in concert. “Last night I sang it and this couple two rows back looked at each other lovingly and held hands,” he said to Bill Flanagan in Musician. “I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ “

What does it say about me that I had no idea Orange crush on Green was ‘about’ the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, where Stipe’s father served, or that Crush with eyeliner on Monster was about the New York Dolls.  Was I alone in this?  Does it matter given they intrigue so and sound so good, even in ignorance?  Elusiveness is one of the strengths, I’d say, of the R.E.M. package.

I knew serial popular music biographer Rob Janovic‘s work from his decent mostly cut-and-paste job on The Kinks (God save The Kinks, 2013) so I was expecting to be able to fill in a few gaps in my knowledge with his Michael Stipe: the biography (Portrait, 2006) and – proving how little I knew – I got a lot more than that.  He paints a portrait of a decent man who, for all his success, while playing a media game, has stayed true to his art and conscience, escaping the temptations if not the limitations of celebrity.  I had no idea just how big a deal R.E.M. were globally at the height of their popularity (early ’90s, Out of time and Automatic for the people), with the surprising achievement of both critical – because they never compromised their seriousness – and commercial acclaim.  Not forgetting the political and environmental campaigning.

One thing that immediately struck me was, as it happens, the parallels between Michael Stipe and The Kinks’ Ray Davies (a big interest here on Lillabullero, in case you haven’t noticed), in what sets them apart from their contemporaries:

  • Stipe’s continued allegiance to Athens, Georgia, where R.E.M. started , and to his family cf. Ray Davies and North London and Muswell Hill, and the Davies clan.  (Jovanovic’s description of that local Athens scene is superbly done)
  • that both, although they never finished their formal courses, have continued to pursue the interests that engaged them in Art College beyond the confines of a career in rock; Stipe mainly with photography, video and film, and Davies agin with film, and theatre.  (I’d hope for a memoir from Stipe in the future, that would be at least as unorthodox as Ray’s X-Ray.)
  • it’s the song not the singer; although some of Davies’s work has subsequently proved to have specific reference points, both – Stipe is adamant about this – have had occasion to emphasize that they write from inside a character of the song’s invention.  Neither write direct love songs.
  • I don’t write autobiographically, and I never have, but there’s something in there, as an observer, as a voyeur, taking in the world around me, breathing it in and really observing, which is what I do best.’ – who?  Stipe.
  • Stipe’s lyrics, like Davies’s, drop cultural references all over the place.  If time was infinite I’d contemplate doing what I’ve already done here at Lillabullero for Davies and the Kinks, logging and expanding on the people, real and imaginary, listed in their songs.

Michael Stipe is a fascinating man.  Though to all intents and purposes he’s a rock star – and R.E.M. undoubtedly a great rock band – he’ll try not own up to it as any big deal.  When he sings “Hey, kids, rock and roll” in the song Drive (on Automatic for the people) it’s no unambiguous affirmation (though, it is a nod to David Essex), and he invariably sees himself as a popular music entertainer:

‘It was always embarrassing to me that when I was in a room with either Clinton of Gore, or for that matter the Dalai Lama, they’ve got better things to do than hanging around with pop stars,’ said Stipe. ‘But I’ve got something they want, or something that can help them with their mission.’

Here he sums up why R.E.M. were so good:

‘If I can just turn off my thinking brain long enough to allow that unconscious voice to do all the work, then I wind up with the 55 minutes of music that comprise a new record. It’s OK for them to be nonsensical. You tell me what Bob Dylan is singing about. I don’t know. Some of the best songs in the world don’t make any linear sense whatsoever. Perhaps the best songs don’t. So it doesn’t have to have a narrative or follow a train of thought that makes any sense at all. It just has to be good and make you feel something when you hear it.’

And here’s a neat presentation of the problems that can bring:

‘It seems like I’m being chased by an ever-growing contingent of over-30 rock writers who want to delve into my psyche and try to pull out all these philosophical breaking points for this century,’ said Stipe at the time [the Reckoning album; he was 24]. ‘To my mind, if there’s anything to what I’m writing, if it goes beyond nonsense and piecemeal phrases, it’s exactly what they felt when they were my age and maybe never wrote it down or had any way to vent, to get it out. I just have this medium, a band, and I’m able to get it out.’

Why do novels and films about made-up musicians, or indeed creative artists of any medium, not stand a chance?  Because you could not make up a 15-year-old Stipe, living with his parents in Athens, Georgia, reading about all this interesting stuff happening in New York, and then he gets his hands on Patti Smith‘s Horses on the day of it release.  So he gets home from doing a pin-money late shift, and …

… sat in the living room, in the dark, with the headphones on. […] I had these crappy headphones on, and I sat up all night listening to Patti Smith and eating this bowl of cherries going, “Oh shit”, “Holy fuck”, and then I was sick. I was very impressionable, very gullible. I heard Horses and it gave me, you know, I had this secret and I was afraid to tell anyone about it. I didn’t think anybody would accept it. It gave me incredible strength and I knew immediately that that’s what I wanted to do.’

And 20 years later he’s tagging along photo-documenting backstage with his mate Patti Smith for the ten dates she’s only the support act for Bob Dylan; she’s there at Dylan’s personal invitation, her live performance comeback after her husband’s death.  Stipe publishes Two times intro: on the road with Patti Smith and next year she’s accompanying him on E-Bow the letter on the New adventures in hi-fi.

Plenty of miles to go from there, but I’ll sign off now with just a few random observations:

  • Stipe risked the wrath of the grammar nazis by omitting the apostrophe for the Lifes rich pageant album in 1986 because no great rock album ever had an apostrophe in its title.  [Now there’s a challenge.]
  • KrazyKat7Further proof of his cultural astuteness: while I’m no fan of tattoos, I am impressed that he’s had one done featuring George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoon, an American newspaper strip of genius that ran for nearly 30 years from 1916.  (Do yourself a favour: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krazy_Kat; there’s a huge archive at http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/browse/results?title=1)
  • For some years in the ’90s I was a member of a pretty good quiz team.  We went out with a different team name each season, one of the best being The Bleeding Gums Murphy Appreciation Society (and here we are back with The Simpsons again).  One of the encounters from those enjoyable evenings that has stuck in my mind, is of talking, after the match had finished, with a young man from the opposing team, who was saying he’d seen R.E.M. at a small club gig in Dunstable – must have been when they were recording Fables with Joe Boyd – and chatted with them afterwards.  There is local nuance to be relished in there – Dunstable is seen as basically just a traffic jam waiting to happen any time on the A5 –  but I do so wish that I could say that.
  • One of my favourite moments – the beautiful noise and the timing – in all of music is Peter Buck’s rapid guitar chord intervention What’s the frequency, Kenneth? on Monster, that first appears 42 seconds in, and at various stages subsequently throughout.  Great track and a rather wonderfully odd official video.
  • And, going backwards in time, here’s the young Michael Stipe with hair.  Toodle pip!
    Michael Stipe when youngStipe 1

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I only ask because I think it’s a good question, one of the best.  In the Great British Grammar School of life both Tony Broadbent and I are Class of ’66, while Jeremy Corbyn will have left his alma mater a year later.  So we are very much of a generation, and Jeremy: my, how knackered you must be feeling after the last couple of months.  I wish you all the luck you deserve in the years to come, which is, I hasten to add, removing all hint of ambiguity, quite a lot, but you’ll probably need some that you don’t as well (I remember the ’80s and your Trot mates).

1-909OK, blogger‘s etiquette.  Tony Broadbent is an old mate – we were in one another’s first beat combo at school – and he sent me an e-copy of The one after 9:09: a mystery with a backbeat (Plain Sight Press, 2015) gratis.  I get an acknowledgment in the acknowledgments and the Persuaders, the band Spike, the lead character in the book plays in, was the name of our group.  The impact the Beatles had on us was huge; this book is a labour of love.  Cliché time: I remember hearing Love me do under the bed sheets on Radio Luxemburg (208 metres medium wave) and feeling a tingle,  thinking – I was a big Everly Brothers fan at the time – hey, these guys are English and this is the real thing.  Tony, as he admits in his afterword to The one after Goldie and the Gingerbreads gig9:09, reverted for a while to using Paul, the first name on his birth certificate, and started speaking with a scouse accent.  Musical differences subsequently arose and Tony graduated to a band that reached the heights of supporting Goldie & the Gingerbreads – Can’t you hear my heartbeat? – at the local Ricky Tick Club.

The mystery in the sub-title concerns the story related in Beatles-manager-to-be Brian Epstein’s autobiography A cellarful of noise about how he was first alerted to the Beatles existence by one Raymond Jones coming into the record department of his family’s furniture store and asking for My bonnie, the record they made in Germany with singer Tony Sheridan.  Tony Broadbent has been working on this novel for a decade and when he started it, it was widely thought that this Jones feller was a fiction.  The surmise of The one after 9:09 is that Raymond Jones got his historically significant namecheck in A cellarful of noise because of services rendered in other circumstances in the Beatles and Brian’s rise to world domination, and the novel, among many other happenings along the way, gives one fictional explanation of what might have occurred.  Subsequently a perfectly real (and more mundane – no offence intended), a reasonable actual Raymond Jones has been found (see The Beatles Bible) but that should in no way take away from the invention of Tony Broadbent‘s weaving of what is real and what is not in the early Beatles/Epstein tale.

So, 1961, Beatles established as Liverpool’s top group, excess in Hamburg, Pete Best on drums, groups a-plenty, Teddy Boy gangs, promoters’ fierce rivalries, Brian Epstein’s paranoid homosexual misadventures, his ‘bigger than Elvis’ vision, the fight to manage ‘the boys’, the struggle to get a recording contract, enter George Martin, enter Ringo.  All pretty much as reported in the sources Tony Broadbent extensively acknowledges.  It’s weird: early on Tony pitches a fixer called Terry McCann straight into action, which I thought was an unfortunate coincidence – Minder and all that.  So I check him out and first mention in the search engine is him attending Cilla Black’s funeral; and he’s not the only one prominent in the story was there.  (Fortunately, keeping the corn at bay, Cilla does not appear in the book.)

51pqM27dAhLIf you want a lively dramatised potted history up to the recording of Please, please me, and how it all felt, then The one after 9:09 is not a bad place to start.  Into all this enter invented teenager Raymond ‘Spike’ Jones – ‘Spike’ from Milligan in The Goons – art school drop-out (same place as Lennon), sometime muscle, admin assistant (bill sticker et al), private eye’s camouflage stand-in at The Cavern (looking out for Epstein), bass guitarist, friend of the Beatles, general man on the scene, and romantic seeker and finder of true love with his judy (not her name).  The several narratives are delivered patchwork as events enticingly unfold, split-screen fashion.  The coffee bars, the pubs, the clubs, the backstreets of Liverpool the backdrop to the action with scousisms and period vernacular aplenty, and lines and phrases from Beatles lyrics worked, with a nod and a wink, into the prose – the actual One after 9:09 quote is a beaut.  Some of the Beatles’ wit could have come out of Hard day’s night, and though some of the fuller passages of dialogue – spelling out dilemmas and options – are a bit strained, I think Lennon’s character, his edginess, is particularly well done.  Raymond Chandler’s advice to writers hitting a plot wall – have a man enter the room with a gun in his hand – might be at play with the appearance of a gang of tooled up red bandana’d Teds more than once.

I’m not going to say it’s a great book – I think Tony’s Creeping narratives, crime thrillers set in post-war and ’50s London, featuring cat burglar Jethro, The Smoke and its successors, are more satisfying conventional genre novels – but it’s an intriguing and entertaining one, the mix of fact and fiction a fascinating exercise.  There were times when reading I forgot it was written by an old mate.  It had me eagerly reading on – even when I knew the score as far as the Beatles story went, tension even in those first meetings with George Martin.  That One after 9:09 is a labour of love, gratitude and affection is evident throughout.

A specific afterthought, one that keeps cropping up generally in all sorts of contexts lately: what if homosexuality had not been illegal when Brian Epstein was a young man?  How might popular music history then have been changed?

InfographicInfographics

As should be obvious from the above I am interested in music.  I am also a big fan of charts and infographics.  So if a picture paints a thousand words and infographics is meant to be a way of displaying information clearly then how come I got so little from Infographic guide to music, as compiled by Graham Betts (Hachette, 2014)?  There are many reasons, not all of which apply to every page:

  • as someone who worked on a student magazine under the influence of Oz magazine I know only too well the problem of reading text (coloured or not) printed on colour; though occasionally decent examples of geometric art emerge, clarification of the issues they are not.
  • even where it’s just about readable and you can make sense of what’s there on the page, a simple list would have been more efficient and much less of an effort to read eg.  It’s your funeral (popular songs chosen for funerals – depressingly Frank Sinatra’s My way)
  • I could care less eg. Radiohead songs by genre; The 360 degrees of Jay-Z (hey, an incomprehensible pie-chart!)

I was going to say at least I got a certain sizeist satisfaction from The height of pop success when it said that the average height of The Beatles was only 5’8″, but on checking who was the short arse I discover that that’s not right.  With Lennon and McCartney at 5’11” and George at 5’10” not even Ringo coming in at 5’6″ can bring them down to that.  Another couple of small saving graces: an analysis of opera endings, Is it over when the fat lady sings? – no, it isn’t; the wit of selecting (of which there was not enough) as a topic What’s on ZZ Top’s mind? (women and/or sex 46%), even if it was actually a list with a pop art illustration.  A random pick-up at the library; at least it adds to their issue statistics.

11949477_10153176884968525_4198881650354426198_nOut and about

Back after its summer break Scribal Gathering picked up where it had left off and hit the eclectic ground running in a half redecorated upstairs at The Crown.  Featured musical ensemble The Outside This (outside the Box?) with the unusual line-up of guitar, drums and three female vocalists (one with added violin for lilt and lyricism) entertained with an energetic and varied set of catchy original material.   They deliver what must be more demanding arrangements than they end up sounding.  Intriguing, and getting better all the time.  Elsewhere a distinct touch of the Brecht/Weil’s from Mitchell Taylor with his jaunty (and now vindicated at least for now) hymn to Jezza, Leaders, and Sian Magill’s ditty, complete with controlled angry rapid recitation, about a friend being made redundant.  Prize for what is Scribal’s loudest spontaneous singalong must surely go to experienced but Scribal first timer, musician to the Brackley Morris, Stephen Ferneyhough, accompanying himself on Anglo-German concertina, with a delightful rendition of the KinksDedicated follower of fashion.  Oh, yes he is: a perfect match.  Some may even call it folk music.

Shakespeare at WestburyGreat little show of snippets from Shakespeare, part of the open weekend at Westbury Arts Centre, a fine old 17th century farm building with extensions in the attractive setting of Shenley Wood, in Milton Keynes.  Should have taken my camera, just for the splendid old wooden doors, never mind the sculptures in the grounds (including a couple of rusted and artistically arranged Austin mini-Metros).  We were treated to extracts from five (or was it six) of the Bard’s comedies (they all tend to jumble up in the memory) on the theme of revenge, delivered in unorthodox style by (it says here) “local Westbury ACprofessional and amateur actors” though you couldn’t really see the join.  Should it be surprising that the Bard’s sharp comic dialogue came over, in one instance, so well as an exchange of text messages?  Beautifully done.  Most inventive of all was that Shylock speech from The Merchant of Venice – “If you prick us do we not bleed?” –  delivered as a slow and meditative monologue by a woman artist who spent plenty of time setting herself up and making herself comfortable in order to sketch us, the audience, before thinking out loud in between further bouts of sketching; tremendously effective.  The joshing of Falstaff in The merry wives of Windsor was another piece that has stayed with me.  Thanks too, to the artists who opened their studios to us.

Walter-Tull-Flattened-239x300Oh, and I put in a stint at the latest Cock & Bull Beer Festival at York House, Friday Night.  Reminded me a bit of being on the enquiry desk at the Central Library – great fun once you’d worked out which way the beer was going to come out at (some down, some sideways).  Didn’t drink much either side of the bar, but I will mention the delicious aroma of elderflower that greets the drinker from Buntingford‘s Sun Star (and very nicely floral it tasted too), and the vibrant ruby delight of the Magpie brewery’s Angry bird (oh yes).  Great Oakley scored well as usual in my book, with their Welland Valley (practically a mild, hurrah!) and Walter Tull, their tribute to a great man and no longer forgotten local hero, the first black outfield professional footballer (Northampton Town and Spurs), the first black British army officer, who died leading his men out of the trenches in the Great War.

 

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Penguin- Chandler The Big SleepI started reading Raymond Chandler in the late green Penguin period of crime fiction publishing at the urging of a poet.  I hadn’t read any crime fiction til then.  No, he said, Chandler is a real writer.  Indeed he was.   As the man himself sang in a magazine article on his oeuvre, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Julian Symons - Bloody murderWhen I started working in libraries not long after, I was well aware that crime fiction was the most popular area of the library, so I thought I needed to know more about the genre.  As it happened, Julian Symon‘s acclaimed Bloody murder: from the detective story to the crime novel: a history (1972) had just been published and I learned a lot.  His basic position was that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were liberators, freeing detective fiction from the cosy respectability the genre had slipped into after the First World War and pointing it in the direction of ‘real’ literature – Snobbery with violence as Colin Watson had characterised the writers of that period in the title of his book about the genre and its audience a year earlier.  I let Symons guide my personal reading, and but for one exploratory expedition (couldn’t remember who’d dunnit the morning after) I left the “Golden Age” to itself.  (Raymond Williams did a fine job, in his The country and the city (1973) of systematically tracing quotes about ‘golden ages’ back to at least the Romans.)  Nevertheless, I hasten to add, it would have been professional suicide to ignore what had gone before; Agatha Christie still ruled the library shelves.

Martin Edwads - Golden ageCrime writer Martin Edwards thinks Symons got it badly wrong, and in The Golden Age of Murder: the mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story (HarperCollins, 2015) he presents a perceptive,  convincing and entertaining case.  The book is a between-the-wars history of the Detection Club, an elite, invitation-only group of writers, that started as an informal dining club in 1929, and became a formal organisation, with rules and constitution, three years later.  Its object was the promotion of their craft, the provision of mutual support, discussion of concerns and topics of interest, and the maintenance of quality detective fiction’s reputation as opposed to the mass market dross it was often bracketed with.

The guidelines for a writer’s inclusion – they had to have a track record – were quite specific, with:

it being understood that the term ‘detective novel’ does not include adventure stories or “thrillers” or stories in which the detection is not the main interest, and that it is a demerit in a detective novel if the author does not “play fair” with the reader.’

Edwards follows the private lives of his protagonists, and maps how their dilemmas were reflected and referenced in their writing.  As his sub-title suggests, these were not without their own fascinations – remember Agatha Christie’s disappearance – while also telling us much about the society of the day.  The big three were the aforementioned Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, and they:

were conservative in outlook, and their success […] caused a peculiar amnesia to afflict critical discussion of the Golden Age. Detective novelists with radical views have become the men – and women – who never were. Even the distinguished historian of the genre Julian Symons, who should have known better, thought it ‘safe to say that almost all the British writers of the Twenties and Thirties […] were unquestionably right-wing.’ In fact, the Liberal Party and centre-left were well represented among Golden Age authors, while others joined the Communist party or flirted with it […] Some mocked Nazis and Fascists in their detective novels long before it was fashionable to do so. Others wrote mysteries which debated the merits of assassinating dictators.

Martin Edwards particularly fights Dorothy L.Sayers’ critical corner:

Sayers saw Gaudy night as the pinnacle of her achievement as a novelist. Yet the conflicts lying at its heart are not those of a conventional whodunnit, but clashes between principles and personal loyalties. […] Gaudy night so powerfully reflects Sayers’ belief in equality between the sexes that the book is often called the first major feminist novel. However, Julian Symons dismissed it as a ‘woman’s novel’, and Sayers is often patronizingly accused of ‘falling in love with her hero.’ The truth is that Sayers’ unrelenting focus on female independence influenced many other women novelists …

And in a paragraph such as the one that follows, the critical social commentary that Symons ignored – even with a toff of a detective in Lord Peter Wimsey – comes as a surprise:

Long before it became fashionable to critique the consumer society, she offers a picture of a world in which people are sold a dream of health and happiness … Sayers writes with a fierce sympathy about ‘those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.’

More generally the Golden Age victims, or murderees (as Martin Amis calls them), tell their own tale:

That dependable hate figure, the selfish financier, regularly crops up as a victim in Golden Age stories. In many other books, the corpse belongs to a blackmailer who had threatened victims with exposure and disgrace – a powerful motive for murder at a time when most people yearned for respectability. With the economic slump causing much suffering, any unpleasant old miser with a host of impoverished family members was unlikely to survive long in a crime novel, and anyone who called in their solicitor to change their will was signing their own death warrant.

As can be judged from what he says about old misers, this is a far from po-faced exposition of Golden Age fiction, and Martin is well aware of the clichés involved.  As well as changing your will, “The arrival of a mysterious box of chocolates became a recurrent hazard in the lives of Golden Age characters …”

The Golden Age of Murder throws up many interesting tidbits, side issues and diversions along the way.  G.K.Chesterton, creator of the Father Brown mysteries and the Detective Club’s first Honorary President, argued in his essay, A Defence of Detective Stories

that the detective story: ‘is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life’. That reference to poetry is significant. From Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets. They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.’

One such, Cecil Day-Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, created, in his A question of proof, one Nigel Strangeways, who, after a brief stay in Oxford, in the course of which he had neglected Demosthenes in favour of Freud becomes an amateur private investigator, and, says Edwards, bears a distinct resemblance to [his friend] Auden, with one or two additional quirks such as an excessive fondness for tea drinking.”  Indeed, W.H.Auden was a great fan of Golden Age fiction.  This blog post’s title is taken from his poem Detective Story – the one with the lines about “A home, the centre where the three or four things / that happen to a man do happen“.  Tantalizingly, it was suggested that Auden provide some poems for P.D.James’s poetry writing detective, Adam Dalgleish – Auden and James were both published by Faber – but the plan was scuppered when the poet died.

The Golden Age of Murder is an absorbing read and, as many of the reviews have stated, a real labour of love.  It can only add weight to the revival of its subjects’ novels heralded by The British Library’s publication programme – its (out of copyright) Crime Classics series, that its author has had a hand in.  The writers are in no position, of course, to complain about the paperback jackets, as Agatha Christie once did to publisher Allen Lane his firm’s treatment of one of her novels, “having failed to realise that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.”  Mysterious affair at StylesNice one, Martin.

  Depending on who’s publishing in any given year, I suppose I read – give or take a finger or two – a handful of crime novels annually.  Invariably a new Ian Rankin (who I see as some sort of soulmate), Peter Robinson (more out of habit these days, given no small percentage of Lillabullero‘s traffic comes from a semi-tabulated over-view of his Banks novels), John Harvey (the best crime writer, another poet – his Resnick I’ve long rated alongside Rebus), Carl Hiaasen (if I’m lucky) and … I have a lot of affection, as it happens, for Martin EdwardsLake District Mysteries.  Maybe something old, something borrowed too.

So, in the light of The Golden Age of Murder I thought I’d give Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot a spin.  For me, along with Heartbeat, I consider Agatha Christie adaptations the bane of ITV3, which can quite often be a source of half decent crime when there’s nothing else on.  (I prefer Lewis to Morse, by the way).  I wanted to see if my view of the books had been poisoned by the stereotyped period treatments – almost designed to give credence to Julian Symons’ view of the books – given to Miss Marple and Poirot by television companies over the years.  I wanted to look for other possible interpretations.

The mysterious affair at Styles (1920) was the first book to feature Hercule Poirot, and I was pleasantly surprised by the sharpness of some of the descriptive prose.  Hastings, the narrator, is an obvious Doctor Watson figure; he’s a Great war casualty, invalided out of the army.  But no, seems I can’t just blame David Suchet.  Poirot remains, on the page, the same supercilious smarmy little creep that has me leaping for the TV remote whenever there’s a whiff of him on the box.  Sorry, mon ami.  I shall still finish the book, though, despite Hastings saying stuff like:

Dear old Dorcas!  As she stood there with her innocent face upturned to mine, I thought what a fine specimen she was of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out.

It all feels a bit like being in one of those Murder Mystery games that we have fun with on New Year’s Eves (though without the wine).   And I will certainly have a gander at at least a Dorothy L. when one falls into my paws.  But now for something completely different; it’s a crime, Jim, but not as the Golden Age knew it.

Emma Donaghue - RoomRoom

Always a danger sign, that – mention of The lovely bones on a book’s cover.  She was cheating.  The narrator of that book was talking from heaven.  Jack, the narrator of Emma Donoghue‘s Room: a novel (Picador, 2010) is a five-year old boy – just.  “Today I’m five,” is its opening line.  I struggled to get over that and failed.  Sorry, this is not the language of a five-year old.  It got on my nerves, and the occasional interjection of childish words like ‘fasterer’ and ‘forgetted’ and ‘catched’ just made it worse.  OK, he’s lived with Ma, an intelligent teenager when kidnapped and imprisoned as a sex slave a couple of years before Jack was born, by a man we never meet, in the room of the title, all his life.  Just with Ma and a television set with dodgy reception, but I still can’t buy it.  This narrative stratagem does have advantages in the way the story is told – no internal monologue from Ma leaves more to our imagination, no compulsory wallowing in it – but, as I say, I never managed to transcend it.  My loss, some might say.  Quite a lot, actually, given its shortlist showing for a number of prizes and its word-of-mouth success at the time.

It’s not a bad book, obviously.  ‘Disturbing’ was the word on most of the Book Group members’ lips on the first run around the table.  Donaghue got the idea from the notorious Fritzl case in Austria a couple of years previously, and it examines the issues of socialization, survival and recovery with sensitivity, intelligence and some wit.  When they dramatically escape about half way through (oh come on, you can guess that from the chapter titles) we move into – albeit earth-bound – classic science fiction territory of the stranger in a strange land kind, with Jack struggling to understand what is real and what is television.  His mother’s harrowing re-adaptation to the real world is painful to experience, even through Jack’s eyes.  It ends … not without hope.  I’m the only male in the Book Group and I was the least keen there; interestingly, three of the women said they wouldn’t have thought there was any point in recommending it to their husbands, who I know are a lot more than John Grisham readers.  Enough.  I’m glad it’s over.  And so onto something more enjoyable.

Robert Harris - PompeiiPompeii

Given that the reader has a good idea what’s going to happen, Robert Harris does a pretty good job in Pompeii (2003) of keeping us interested in how it specifically comes to pass and how it happens to the people (some real, some not) that he has chosen to tell the story through.  No, more than interesting – rather keeping us hooked and thrilling us both with the action and the morality of those involved.  Each chapter as the big day approaches is given a latin denomination and an excerpt from volcanology textbooks, which both distances the reader and allows the parallels with contemporary politics and social power to emerge for themselves.  He skilfully keeps a lot of balls in the air and even throws in a bit of romantic desire for motivation to drive things along.

One is left in awe at what Roman civilization achieved – the aqueducts still standing, the baths, the water supply systems running for miles – but left in no doubt too about the violence, venality, slavery and corruption that accompanied the technical triumphs.  Checking something in Wikipedia I learnt that Roman Polanski nearly filmed Harris’s book, seeing parallels with Chinatown in it; it hadn’t occurred to me before, but that does make perfect sense.

Harris has fun with what they thought was happening then and what the preserved Pompeii stands for now, with thought patterns and ideas of causation then and now.  Here’s Attilius, the good guy engineer brought in at short notice to sort what they originally thought was just a small problem in the water supply, after the man on the job has disappeared, contemplating the end (of the world as he knew it) and feeling far from fine:

He strained his eyes towards Pompeii. Who was to say that the whole world was not in the process of being destroyed? That the very force that held the universe together – the logos, as the philosophers called it – was not disintegrating? He dropped to his knees and dug his hands into the sand and he knew at that moment, even as the grains squeezed through his fingers, that everything would be annihilated […]: everything would eventually be reduced to a shoal of rock and an endlessly pounding sea. None of them would leave so much as a footprint behind them; they would not even leave a memory.

But my favourite is your actual Pliny the Elder, natural philosopher, man of action, friend of emperors, who, even as naval commander as the volcanic endgame unfolds, is taking notes for another volume of his Naturalis historia:

He placed his fingertips together and frowned. It was a considerable technical challenge to describe a phenomenon for which the language had not yet been invented. After a while, the various metaphors – columns, tree trunks, fountains and the like – seemed to obscure rather than illuminate, failing to capture the sublime power of what he was witnessing. He should have brought a poet with him …

He comes to this cheery conclusion of his studies, waiting for his end on the beach where he has told the others to leave him:

Man mistook measurement for understanding. And they always had to put themselves at the centre of everything. That was their greatest conceit. The earth is becoming warmer – it must be our fault! The mountain is destroying us – we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little – a comfort to think these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded. But here was Nature, sweeping toward him – unknowable, all-conquering, indifferent – and he saw in Her fires the futility of human pretensions.

And fear not, Robert Harris finishes Pompeii with a forgivably corny piece of storytelling magic.

Stop Press

I finished reading The mysterious affair at Styles earlier today, and I have to say its conclusion – the who, how and why of the murder in the country house – is stupidly complex: one small aspect of the solution, for instance, involves one person signing another’s name in the studied handwriting of a third.  But I still enjoyed it, particularly when Poirot was just reasoning things out, rather than being Poirot with all his quirks.  As a period piece one was expecting this sort of thing:

        ‘It will be the talk of the village!  My mother was only buried on Saturday, and here you are gadding about with the fellow.’
‘Oh,’ she shrugged her shoulders, ‘if it is only village gossip that you mind!’
‘But it isn’t.  I’ve had enough of the fellow hanging about.  He’s a Polish Jew, anyway.’

But not the unexpected response:

        ‘A tinge of Jewish blood is not a bad thing.  It leavens the’ – she looked at him – ‘stolid stupidity of the ordinary Englishman.’

This is the same woman who sends the stolid Hastings, on being told “… I want to be free!” by her, off on one:

And, as she spoke, I had a sudden vision of broad spaces, virgin tracts of forests, untrodden lands – and a realization of what freedom would mean to such a nature as Mary Cavendish.  I seemed to see her for a moment as she was, a proud wild creature, as untamed by civilization as some shy bird of the hills.

Then in court, there’s the defence barrister Sir Ernest Heavyweather.  Seems the 30-year old Agatha Christie had something about her.

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