Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

A month ago now (yes, Lillabullero is lagging behind again) I came home from what in days of yore would have been called “an illustrated lecture” about the Peterloo massacre of 1819 and I was angry: they were wearing their Sunday best, had gone out of their way to behave as peaceable loyal citizens, but still got brutally attacked by the powers that be.  So I came home and caught up with the final episode of The trial of Christine Keeler on the telly and got angrier still.  I mean, I knew Stephen Ward, abandoned by his establishment friends, was stitched up by the police (under instruction from above), but quite how blatantly came as a surprise; never mind the mauling young Christine received, not least by the prosecution in court.

Still in catch-up mode I then gave the Dolly Parton – Here I am documentary shown at Christmas a spin, and some equilibrium was restored before going to bed.  Intelligence, wit, compassion, that voice, and such great songs.  What a life!  50 years married and hardly any of the musicians and industry people she’s worked with have ever met him – that is how to do celebrity and private life.  She knew exactly what she was doing with her chest – a career move – and she won, she don’t give a damn what they say ’bout that.  Then there’s her literacy campaigning, her Imagination Library free books project.  It’s a wonderful story.  And she’s always been a great storyteller.  Here’s one of the earlier, incredibly brave, songs:

StonyWords 2020 

That Peterloo lecture was part of this year StonyWords, Stony Stratford’s own literary festival.  Robert Poole was speaking to Peterloo: the English uprising – also title of his substantial and definitive study published last year for the 200th anniversary by the OUP.  I learnt at lot, particularly, as I say, about who the protesters were, what exactly they were aiming for and how they hoped to achieve it, only to be undone by the authorities’ paranoid fear of what had happened in France, the bloody revolutionary chaos of a quarter of a century previously.  There were those who had fought at Waterloo only 4 years earlier on both sides, those still in uniform hacking down those in their Sunday best.  The aftermath, the cover-ups, were instructive too.

Peterloo continued

Robert Poole is listed in the credits as ‘Historian’ in the graphic novel Peterloo: witnesses to a Massacre (New Internationalist, 2019), along with Polyp (‘artwork’) and Eva Schlunke (‘script editor’), and a fine depiction of events it makes, along with 12 pages of annotation.  Powell praised the graphic form for its ability to economically portray different points of view simultaneously on the same page.  School history lessons – the topic is a must, surely – would be enlivened if more textbooks were like this.

From page to stage as Stony Stratford Theatre Society presented Peterloo: protest, democracy, freedom, an evening of readings taken from witnesses and contemporary accounts of the massacre and its aftermath – blatant establishment cover-ups and prosecutions – selected and assembled by Rob Gifford, further greatly aided and abetted with suitable music from a small group led by Paul Martin, who also composed much of it (exit to Bacup and Rochdale Coconut dances).  What happened at Peterloo really should have a more prominent place in the national narrative.

If you count the Bardic Trials (previously mentioned in despatches) which kicked off the series of events I made it to a handful more of the two dozen events that were part of StonyWords.  Thanks to curators Rob and Liz Gifford of this parish.


Kevin Crossley-Holland told us how Seahenge: a journey (Kailpot Press, 2019), his new verse cycle, had evolved from the idea of adding a new section – recognising the import of Seahenge’s discovery, suddenly exposed by the elements near to where he lives – to a possible reprint of The stones remain: megalithic sites of Britain (1989), an earlier collaboration with photographer Andrew Rafferty.  Whereas the latter featured purely figurative black and white photography, Rafferty described how he had gone about creating – without any digital mucking about – the atmospheric impressionistic images that grace Seahenge, citing and showing examples of painter Howard Hodgkin’s work as a big influence (Hurray, said I, who have one of his as my PC wallpaper).  They gave us an absorbing performance, the verses read over colour slides.  In the discussion after, the author, talking about his creative process, described a page from a notebook he kept:  “Poetry is music,” he said, “but there are distractions.” (Thanks for my title, Kevin).

King Arthur

Medievalist Nicholas Higham was entertaining, talking to his latest book, King Arthur: the making of the legend (Yale UP, 2018), wherein he rubbishes (academically, you understand) all the posited theories as to where the legend might have sprung from over the centuries in history, from the Classical world to Geoffrey of Monmouth via Wales, and beyond – he has always been a fictional character.  Much merriment when he concluded, You’re better off simply citing Walt Disney or Monty Python’s Spamalot.

The Butcher & Mrs Bennet

Stony Play Readers gave us a rehearsed reading of The Butcher and Mrs Bennet telling the tale of … what it says on the poster.  Much disliked lady of the manor, back in 1694 – did she fall or was she pushed (or worse)?  Playwrights Mike Dore and Joe Laredo set it up as a mock trial by television of the accused butcher (although somehow the victim herself also appeared in the studio, storming off the set crying character assassination or similar).  Much comic mileage from the BBC production crew as things progressed.  Audience, cheering, jeering, as jury: not guilty.  Of course.  Fascinating bit of local history brought to life.

Peter Pan in Stonyland

And so, finally, to the (can I now call it traditional? – too soon?) “little town panto”.  Peter Pan in Stonyland featured on stage representatives from (at least) eight decades of Stony inhabitants.  Yup, great fun, from the Panto Audience Inspectors, checking out if we had a decent enough laugh to pass muster to be allowed to watch, through to a spirited performance of an “If I were not a … (insert occupation) … a (ditto) I would be” sequence, in which, on the night we went at least, no one was injured.  All the usual thrills, spills, bad puns and local references.  Long may the panto, and the Stony Stratford Theatre Society run.

And, back in the normal run of things …

Scribal and Vaultage

Sad to say, the last Scribal Gathering until further notice.  Unfortunately the regular venue has been lost; the pub had a better offer.  A goodie to go out with, nevertheless.  Naomi as charming and powerful as ever, Paul Rainey’s hilarious continuing saga of office life (it’s the way he tells it), Donna all over the place in a good way.  Not sure I’ve specifically mentioned her before, but I raise my glass (or tea cup) to Danni Antagonist, ever giving proceedings a succinct, sparky, poetic lift.  A full set from Miller & Walker at Vaultage was a treat; absolutely no harm in nostalgia for ’60s folk.  And while I’m not a fan of post-Syd Floyd, kudos for Simply Floyd for kicking off with Arnold Layne.

Vaultage is now back to be fortnightly.  Have to say I was surprised it kept going so well weekly, so congrats to Pat Nicholson and Andy Bongos.  Decision is down to the new pub owners, who are anxious to make the joint more commercially viable.  Thing is, events in pubs do need to raise bar revenue; I like to think I’ve drunk my share (if, these days, in moderation).

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And I’m one too many novels, and a thousand miles behind …

The Leopard

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s The leopard (Italy, 1958; Collins,1961 translated  by Archibald Colquhoun) is extraordinary.  It’s a sumptuous read, this novel with an interesting publishing history of rejection.  It portrays the last 23 years of Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio’s life using episodes drawn at significant intervals starting in 1860, with Garibaldi’s Italian unification army about to incorporate the island in its project, to his death in 1883, and reads like a Victorian novel, but which is suddenly distanced by only a handful of jolts:

From the ceiling, the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943. (p173)

I cringed at the start – it was a Reading Group selection – at the seeming aristocratic haughteur of: “… a touch of irritation clouded his brow as his eye fell on a tiny coffee stain which had had the presumption, since that morning, to fleck the vast white expanse of his waistcoat” but the reader is soon disabused of any wallowing in it because Fabrizio’s honourable disdain for pretty much everything is immense:

Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jove-like frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it.

About that sensuality – here he is sharing a carriage into town to spend time with his mistress accompanied by the local priest, who is compromised just by being in the carriage:

Now the road was crossing orange groves in flower, and the nuptial scent of the blossoms absorbed the rest as a full moon does a landscape; the smell of sweating horses, the smell of leather from the carriage upholstery, the smell of Prince and the smell of Jesuit, were all cancelled out by that Islamic perfume evoking houris and fleshly joys beyond the grave.

The flavour of the intellectuality can be seen with him briefly remembering “… a verse read by chance in a Paris bookshop … by someone whose name he had forgotten, one of those poets the French incubate and forget next week.”  Or comparing a recent event as being “… like those overtures which outlive the forgotten operas they belong to and hint in delicate veiled gaiety at all the arias which later in the opera are to be developed undeftly, and fail.

Fabrizio is a hell of a political philosopher.  His focus is on Sicily and the Sicilians, but it might as well be the whole wide world. Oh, and his coat of arms is a leopard, did I not mention that?:

“All this shouldn’t last; but it will always; the human ‘always’ of course, a century, two centuries … and after that it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards and Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”

His death scene, his conclusion on his lifetime experiences is, for me – and I don’t think I’m going over the top here – one of the great passages.  Which – no easy rides here – you will have to read for yourselves.  I hope I’ve given a taste of why I think it’s worth your time.

Happiness for beginners

And now for something completely different.  From a genre I’ve not spent much time with, Carole MatthewsHappiness for beginners (Sphere, 2019) delivers what its author admits to in her afterword – “the kind of warm-hearted fiction that I like to write”.  The basic plot – shrinking violet finds love with reformed TV star, who turns down a big chance – is corny as hell (“Is this what they write about in romance novels, this frisson, this electricity that seems to be tingling in my veins? I don’t know“), but none the less, entertaining for that.  Others too, more surprisingly, emerge from under shells too, which is nice.

The McGuffin is Hope Farm, a charity, a really good thing, that has been forced to look for a new home:

We’re not in the business of “fixing” broken kids, Mr Dacre. We help them to find out who they are, to build their confidence, to teach them how to exist with their various conditions and get along with others. Sometimes those who can’t talk to other humans do very well with animals. We have students here with Asperger’s Syndrome, autism, Chaotic Attachment, depression, all manner of mental health issues. Some self-harm, some try to harm others.

Never mind the teenagers and young adults, the animals are not without their problems.  Hope Farm has become a last chance saloon for some of them too, so we have fun with the likes of  Anthony the Anti-Social Sheep, and the alpacas: “Tina Turner, Rod Stewart; Johnny Rotten is our most troubled alpaca – our post-punk bad boy“.  The two ex-Police horses have been renamed Sweeney and Carter, while Ringo, the donkey who is allergic to his own fringe, ends up getting a haircut from a celebrity hairdresser.  “Challenged chickens” provide eggs, not least ” our survivor, Gloria Gaynor, who’s been attacked three times by the fox and yet is still here to tell the tale.”

Molly Baker, 38, who runs Hope Farm, living in a tatty old caravan there, is our chatty, dedicated, endearing narrator – “I don’t know how people get off on shopping. I’d rather clean out a pigsty any day of the week; she swears a bit too.  Romantic male lead is recently widowed Shelby Dacre,  who plays a farmer in a successful tv soap, and happens to be allergic to animals.  It’s all good fun.

Hope Farm is based on Animal Antiks, an enterprise that friends of Lillabullero are involved with.  You can read about them here: www.animalantiks.com.  I assuage my Amazon conscience by nominating them as the recipient of the pennies accrued on the Amazon Smile charity link.  They too survived a crisis of finding a new location.  The Antipoet campaigned about it – “With the alpacas we stand tall”.  You can never have too much Antipoet:

The luckiest man alive

Speaking of poets. the big question about John Cooper Clarke‘s The luckiest man alive (Picador, 2019) is, after a 36 year gap (his Ten years in a open necked shirt) … has he still got it?  Yup.  There are pages here not half as good as the best, but it’s worth.

The title poem‘s opening lines – “Nothing matters and what if it did / There’s more than one way to make a quid” – sound (impossible not to say them with that Salford twang of his) as good as Louis MacNeice or Auden in incantatory mode.  Twas ever thus.

Third verse of Attack of the 50ft woman:

She’s a radioactive predatory flirt
With a figure made to disconcert
Mess with her and you’re gonna get hurt
Lapsed Catholics reconvert
Attack of 50ft woman

Cheer yourself up with 14 verses of Bed blocker blues: “Things are gonna get worse, nurse / Things are gonna get rotten“.  Somewhere further on in: “A menace in the box I was good in the air / Now I can’t get up from an easy chair / The doctor told me oh yeah / Things are gonna get worse“.  Relentlessly rhyming and finishing with a kicker of a last one.  Warm yourself with the wit of the pretty much perfectly formed 11 4-line verses of I’ve fallen in love with my wife, a line that keeps charmingly recurring.

There is some serious stuff – Bipolar inmate diary, a prison protest, Beasley Boulevard (“The Mall, the Maul, whatever you want to call it“), the scornful update of urban renewal-ed Beasley Street – never mind The man who didn’t love Elvis (“Condemned to miss the point / Time and time plus time again“), which leads nicely to his Desert Island Discs, an absolute radio treat; there’s not many Desert Island Discs make you laugh out loud.  How can you resist?: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000701x 

The year of the monkey

Hey, Patti is one of us!  September of the year in question she is briefly in Seattle, about to make a speech testifying the importance of public libraries:

Library memories cross-wired with images of my own books, hundreds of books, lying on the bed, lining the right side of the staircase, stacked on the card table in the kitchen and higher stacks on the floor, against the wall.

The year of the monkey (Bloomsbury, 2019) is Patti Smith‘s memoir-cum-dreamscape of her 2016, a year in which two close and culturally accomplished friends – Sandy Pearlman (Don’t fear the reaper) and polymath Sam Shepherd – were dying and died, and there was a presidential election.  It starts on New Year’s Day with her on her own in the Dream Inn, a motel in Santa Cruz, after a NYE gig in San Francisco.  Soon she is conversing with the sign, which is the first of her Polaroid photos (which, in general, frankly, leave me puzzled) that grace the text.

She’s in a contemplative mood, quoting Marcus Aurelius, she’s 70 this year:

 Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual.

She reminisces about Allen Ginsberg, there’s a description of how it felt seeing Chilean writer Roberto Bolano’s games cupboard; his novel 2666 is referenced (she joins in a discussion with someone called Ernest about it; he reappears, somewhat dramatically, a couple of times, and I’m still not sure if he’s a real person or not).  She travels a lot, almost nomadically, and she can make you feel an intellectual pygmy – I have that 2666 898 page novel, bought pristine and obviously unread in a charity bookshop, still unread – but I really like being in her company.  After visiting a Chinese restaurant:

Back in my room I opened the cookie and unwound the fortune. You will step on the soul of many countries. I’ll be careful, I said, under my breath, but upon second glance I realised it actually said soil.

The Report

Jessica Francis Kane‘s The report (Portobello, 2011) is what used to be called a faction.  173 men, women and children died in the crush trying to go down into into Bethnal Green tube station, which was being used as the local bomb shelter.  As she puts it in her afterword:

A crush did happen on the evening of 3 March 1943; news of it was kept secret for days; and a private investigation was ultimately led by a magistrate named Laurence Dunne. The government suppressed his report until after the war. The rest of the story, as I’ve told it in this book, is fiction.

This was news to me, but there has been a lot coming out about London in the Second World War that has been comfortably forgotten about for a long while.  She’s good on the disaster and the phenomenon of crowds – there was nothing unusual about that day, the shelter had had no problems before – and on the event’s aftermath, the rumours that spread, the search for someone to blame and so on.  It’s the fiction that is less satisfactory, the characters and their links, and in particular the narrative construct of a relative putting together a television documentary about it all in 1973 – on which channel would that be?

Mind, it was always going to be difficult for me to come back from – it was a Book Group selection – an early bit of scene-setting like: “A football match in the Museum Gardens had drawn a large crowd, and when the young borough engineer won the game with an impossible header, people heard the cheer in Stepney.” [My italics; the author is American].

I am, I am, I am

Novelist Maggie O’Farrell‘s I am, I am, I am: seventeen brushes with death (Headline, 2017) is a sort of memoir.  Its seventeen episodes cover a period from 1977 to 2016 and range over near misses, accidents, violent encounters and various serious medical emergencies happening to her and her daughters.  They are not presented chronologically, which for me became a problem.

This was another Book Group selection which I came to knowing nothing of beforehand.  The actual heart of the book is the final two chapters; now I know writing must involve manipulating the reader’s sensibilities, but somehow, even though those two chapters leant a resonance to what had come before, I felt I was being manipulated.  I’ve liked the novels of hers I’ve read; maybe I was expecting something a bit more philosophical.

The skipping about chronologically annoyed me, I was impressed (if that’s the word) at her memory for small details of historical events, and there was an element of superfluous repetition that crept into certain descriptions (a collection of magazine articles?).   I’m afraid it didn’t think it really cohered as a whole.

Not for me to examine her (maybe brave?) life choices too closely, but when, in Causes unknown (2003) she writes, “We were on a long, deserted stretch of French road,” I’m afraid my reaction was: Of course you were.  Then there’s the problem with tea, of which she says, I have never been able to stomach it:

I am the sole tea-abstainer in my family. I think they regard this as a baffling perversion. To me, tea tastes like dried lawn clippings, diluted leaf mould, watered-down compost mixed with a dash of bovine bodily fluid.

How does she know?

Night Boat to Tangier

When we move by water, our hearts are moved. We are complicated fucking machines. Now the hours melt one into the other at the port of Algeciras. For the fading Irish gangsters the long wait continues –

Kevin Barry‘s Night boat to Tangier (Canongate, 2019) is nothing if not atmospheric.  The two men, “mildly natty, mildly decrepit“, have had a tip they might catch their daughter Dilly, a nomad crustie there, three years since “she lit out for the territories“.  (Do they meet up? – I’m not telling).

Once they had been “fabled people … They were in a moment of dangerous splendour. The men were lizardly, reptilian. They wore excellent fucking shoes”.  That they were one night in 2000, in The Judas Iscariot, an all-night drinking club in Cork, the night changed everything between them.

Old style gangsters – drug runners – not good men, but before people trafficking became the moneymaker:

Ah, listen. We’re the Antique Roadshow. The little fuckers growing it in their own bedrooms. Under lights? The dope they’re growing in the West of Ireland now you wouldn’t get it in the Rif Mountains.

October 2018 it is, then.  Time to kill, just hanging around:

They talk of aging and death. They talk of those they have crossed and those they have helped, of their first loves and lost loves, of their enemies and friends. They talk of the old days in Cork, and in Barcelona, and in London, and in Malaga, and in the ghosted city of Cadiz. They talk of the feelings of those places. They talk about being here, once again, on the coast of Barbary, as though on a magnet’s drag.

Maurice Hearne is 51, Charlie Redmond thereabouts.  From the village of Berehaven on Ireland’s west coast.  They talk and there are vivid flashbacks, from 1994 when their careers began, to now, and taking in more places than that.  Slow dramatic reveal is the game – Mo’s wife Cynthia plays a significant part – and it’s a heartbreaker; they have not been good men but you don’t half feel for them.

The layout of the 214 pages is generous with the spaces in between, even of single lines of dialogue and there are no speech marks employed.  Paragraphs do not go on for long.  Stylistically it works.  Sharp, poetic, beautifully observed, I loved it.  Funny too:

And a tongue on her, Cynthia. When I came back without an eye on me? From Tangier? She took one look, after all I’d suffered, and she said who the fuck do you think you are, Thom Yorke?
Never heard of him. Or hang about … He wasn’t a lame boy from Summerhill?
He’s the lad out of Radiohead, Charlie.
Never liked them. Whining bastards. And the amount of money the cunts are making? They should have the ukuleles out.

The hearing trumpet

Leonora Carrington‘s The hearing trumpet is a weird one in the best sense of the word.  Probably written, in French, in 1950, but not published until 1974 in france, and translated into English in 1974, the edition I read – Penguin, 2016  – has a splendid intro from Ali Smith scintillatingly mapping out this extraordinary woman’s Bio, from being a deb presented at the English court in 1936 (she read a book), the lover of Max Ernst and surrealist artist of note in her own right, before moving to and thriving in Mexico.  Many of the images and symbols that are invoked in The hearing trumpet regularly appear in her paintings, which are easy to find on the web.  It also feels quite modern.

Marian Leatherbury is 92-years old and deaf when her BF, Carmella, gives her a hearing trumpet.  The first thing she hears is her family scheming to put her in a home.  They move her into a quirky but strict quasi-religious community; Ali Smith suggests it may be Gurdjeffian (ah, Gurdjieff, there’s a name I haven’t heard for a while; his books always used to get stolen from the library).  In the communal dining room there is a portrait of a “leering abbess”, whose story is delivered as a book within a book.  After a seeming murder she suspects a conspiracy and she and Carmella plot a revolution:

“It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government!’ […] It is a form of planetary hypnosis, sometimes more cruel and stupid than the last.”
“It has been going on for years,” I said. “And it only occurred to relatively few to disobey and make what they call revolutions. If they won their revolutions, which they occasionally did, they made more governments, sometimes more cruel and stupid than the last.”

After a hunger strike there is a prospect of “An orgy of sardines and port wine“.  A wolf pack is involved – by the way, ‘wolvery’ is the language of wolves – which was “howling outside but I could tell that they had changed their chorus, and through a slight tingling on my scalp! I detected a new sound quite near and strangely reminiscent of mince pies.”  Believe me I’m not really giving anything away when I quote from the story’s end:

This is how the Goddess reclaimed her Holy Cup with an army of bees, wolves, six old women, a Chinaman, a poet, an atom-driven ark, and a werewoman. The strangest army, perhaps, ever seen on this planet. […]
After I die Anubeth’s werecubs will continue the document, till the planet is peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity, which deliberately renounced the Pneuma of the Goddess.

Oh, and there’s a postman called Taliesen.  Here’s a photo of Leonora, the work of Lee Miller, that has always been a favourite of mine before I knew anything about her. Goodnight.


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Bit of a book logjam here at Lillabullero (which is not being helped by this preface).  Please feel free to skip the preamble and go straight to the books.

Backstory:  I’d been keeping a reading diary for myself, literally scribbling away in notebooks (sometimes even with a fountain pen) since at least 1987 (annoyingly I can’t put my hands on the original one, though it wasn’t a big volume) so when I finally girded my loins to go online (for motivation see below) I just thought wotthehell Archie, if you’re going to wordprocess it you might as well blog it and que sera if nobody reads it.  And so I did blog it, and lo and behold, a handful of people visited, and again, internet early days and authors would ego surf and … respond, which was good for my ego, don’t you know! I even got invited to participate in a virtual book launch.  But basically, I don’t want to break the chain.

A bit more Backstory: back in c2002, in the days before Ray Davies was universally acknowledged as a ‘national treasure’ (back in the days before someone being ‘a national treasure’ was not a media cliche), I felt I wanted to give something back to the international Kinks fan community. I’d been contributing to a lively web digest and had subsequently made friends at what turned out to be the annual U.K. Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention. Hence: I wonder where they all are now: an annotated index of people named or alluded to in the songs of the Kinks, of which there are many. The title was a quote from Where are they now? a song that listed a number of ‘swinging Londoners’ and of writers dubbed ‘Angry Young Men’, from 1973’s under-rated Preservation Act 1 album. 

The webs we weave (c) DRQ: here purely to break up the text.

That was at a time when Alta Vista was the premier search engine in town – Google’s omniscience was a few years away – and Wikipedia was in its infancy, when it wasn’t as easy to pin down, say, ‘Old Mother Riley’, so it was hopefully of some service, especially to confused overseas fans, of whom there more than you might have thought and growing in number. I also used it as a vehicle to indulge myself as opportunities occurred for intrusions of reminiscence, personal opinion, sarcasm, pretention and similar all-round being-a-clever-bastard intrusions (see Winston Churchill, for example). The ever growing sister page The Kinks in Literature, chronicling mentions of the band or songs in (mostly crime) novels, kept it company. [To tell the truth, I’ve been a bit Kinked-out for a while now – I’ve known and evangelised that Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur were special for well over four decades, and I have a kind of dread at revisiting the ’80s albums  – but now’s not the time.]

For what it’s worth, the most visited pages here are a more or less systematic presentation of (as it stands) Peter Robinson’s 26-strong series of crime novels featuring detective Alan Banks, and a discussion, with numerous comments, examining an unresolved enigma (if that’s what you want to call it) concerning a child with a birthmark the shape of Africa in Kate Atkinson’s splendid Started early, took my dog – one of her Jackson Brodie novels – that it seems is near the top on Google when people consult there, trying to puzzle it out.  Oh and a couple of pictures that weren’t mine in the first place, most notably that ‘We Win’ front page headline from the opening credits to Cheers.

But things have slipped here on the bookblogging front. The delights of grandparentry, a couple of operations in the household, the draw of Channel4 quality morning television programming (Frasier even though one has the dvd box set), laxity, losing sight of the uses of brevity, and good old procrastination and even a bit of autumnal gardening have all taken their toll. Enough! On with the show! There now follows a whistle stop of months and months of reading.

Rivers of London: 2

Did Ben Aaronivitch‘s Moon over Soho (Gollancz, 2011) live up to the wit, excitement, erudition, sardonicism and compassion of its predecessor, the series-founding The rivers of London?  You bet!

Herein the Metropolitan Police’s trainee wizard (“I was still behind on my Latin vocab“), investigates murders involving Jazz vampires, a character called Vagina Dentata (the result of a human/animal hybrid experiment), and “ethically challenged magical practitioners” (previously known a ‘black’.  Like its forerunner, it gets pretty gruesome (if not without laughs in the grue), there’s a lot of jazz (We’re the jazz police), and some interesting London local history.  Oh, and the established gods and sprites of the river.

It is joyfully all over the place, while at the same time being tightly plotted à la police procedural.  Nightingale is our hero’s boss, last fully qualified survivor in his particular trade:

‘There are no short cuts in wizardry, Peter. If there were everyone would be doing it.’  Probably on Britain’s Got talent, I thought, but you don’t say these things to Nightingale because he doesn’t have a sense of humour about the art, and only used the telly for watching rugby.

Vinyl Detective: 4

Did Andrew Cartmel‘s Flip back (Titan, 2019) live up to the fun, drive and engagement of its three predecessors.  Not so much, though I daresay newcomers to the series might still find much to be entertained by here.  Convoluted they have all been for sure, but this one felt like it.  Faked website and road signage concerning tidal causeway times just for the benefit of our questing quartet.

Here the McGuffin is a long retired folk-rock band called Black Dog, who infamously literally burnt a million dollars (or did they?) on a Scottish island just before breaking up.  Yup, the old K Foundation/KLF stunt of 1994, with a touch of subsequent Zep-ish black magic practition thrown in.  For me the weakness of Flip back springs from the origins of the quest – the Vinyl Detective’s stoner honcho’s wanting it to help get a Black Dog superfan into bed – for the original super-rare with a flip-back cover 3rd album (quickly withdrawn and subsequently re-recorded without the main man).

There’s a worrying lack of character development on the soap opera front – with resort to previously met metal guitarist Erik Makeloud’s to boot – and the one-liners don’t have quite the same fizz (I didn’t make any notes); the domestic cats become a cosy annoyance, frankly.  Doesn’t mean I won’t read the next one, though.


How about this for an opening paragraph of a novel?:

The summer I sang lead for Annie it was 1999.  My father was in serious preparedness mode. Not since I was five, and the Weavers were under siege, had he been so certain that the Days of Abomination were upon us.

Except it’s Chapter 9 and Tara Westover‘s Educated (Hutchinson, 2018) is no novel, but an account for real of her escape from a harrowing existence as part of an extreme survivalist Mormon family cult in rural Idaho, USA (she’d never heard of Dr Martin Luther King Jr until late teens), to a PhD in Intellectual History in Cambridge, UK, by 2014.  That Annie was the start of a painful journey, a struggle with both internal and external pressures.

It’s an extraordinary story, an exhilarating tale of liberation from a wild and crazy mindset and a seriously rigid dysfunctional family unit (which actually manages to function very well eventually in the natural healing business), and a celebration of the difference that one individual’s intervention can have on another’s existence.  It is also a tale in which she worries about the validity of memory, wrestling with what she saw with conflicting accounts and hearsay of crucial family events.

At Cambridge she’s suffering from imposter syndrome until her intake are taken up on a college roof by their professor:

”… here you stand, upright, hands in your pockets.” He gestured towards the other students. “See how they hunch? How they cling to the wall.” […]
I raised my hand and gripped the wall.
“You don’t need to do that,” he said. “It’s not a criticism.”
He paused, as if unsure he should say more. “Everyone has undergone a change,” he said. “The other students were relaxed until we came to this height. Now they are uncomfortable, on edge.  You seem to have made the opposite journey. This is the first time I’ve seen you at home in yourself. It’s in the way you move: it’s as if you’ve been on this roof all your life.”
A gust of wind swept over the parapet and Dr Kerry teetered, clutching the wall. I stepped up onto the ridge so he could flatten himself against the buttress. He stared at me, waiting for an explanation.
“I’ve roofed my share of hay sheds,” I said finally […] “I can stand in this wind, because I’m not trying to stand in it,” I said.


And speaking of great opening lines:

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

Michael Ondaatje‘s haunting Warlight (Cape, 2018) does not disappoint.  Nathaniel (‘Stitch’ is 14, sister Rachel (‘The Wren’) 16 when they are left in the charge of ‘the Moth’ and ‘the Darter’.  Various adventures ensue for each of them, his involving night missions in the bombsites and Thames backwaters behind London Docks (real Iain Sinclair territory), hers in theatreland, and their kidnapping.

He’s 18 when his mother dies in what turn out to be suspicious circumstances; 11 years later he moves back to the Suffolk village where that happened.  In the meantime he has been employed working with wartime archives, in which he slowly discovers exactly what his mother had doing in the war years and their immediate aftermath, and how that linked with his experiences back then (not least his first passionate affair).

There are many sublime passages – after all, Ondaatje first published as a poet – and reading Warlight it often felt like I was watching a peak-Stephen Poliakoff tv epic, as so much is revealed.  It’s been emotional.

Of late something of a sub-genre has been developing – in both fiction and non-fiction – taking as its subject the realisation of what a parent or grand-parent did in the war, especially if they were spies.  Speaking of which …

The girl from Station X

The title of Elisa Segrave‘s The girl from Station X: my mother’s unknown life (Aurum Press, 2013) is a classic exercise of band-wagon jumping, given only 44 pages out of the 355 of narrative are concerned with Anne Hamilton-Grace’s time at Bletchley Park (Enigma machine and all that) from initial interview to the leaving thereof.

For most of her adult life Elisa had resented her mother: “… how could I respect someone who, much of the time that I knew her, was a self-pitying escapist alcoholic?”  It was only after dementia hit hard and she found her mother’s diaries from 1930 through 1952 that she could find room for sympathy for of a woman whose crises had so intruded on her life.

As a book The girl from Station X is a bit chronologically all over the place and not especially well presented, but the actual diaries have some real sociological value as a picture of its times, both of a privileged existence (links with royalty even) and how such privilege – foreign travel taken for granted back then et al – can be the source of unhappiness and blight, and how the power then of the stigma of lesbianism can stunt a life and a family.  The only time Anne’s life takes on substance and engagement is in the war, when she has something important to do (and even then she’s a neurotic drama queen who is hard to like).  It’s a sad tale of dysfunctional relationships:

My mother had a lovely garden, with ancient walls, an old moat and two little towers, yew hedges, lavender, white and red roses, peonies and delphiniums. It [Knowle, a country house in Kent] was even used in a children’s TV film, Tom’s Midnight Garden, and I’m sure many envied it. But inside the house, the piss-stained carpets and the endless supply of alcohol were indications of my mother’s despair.

Station Eleven

Year Zero in Emily St John Mandel‘s Station Eleven (Picador, 2014) is when a virus that kills in 48 hours wipes out 99% of the world’s population.  As post-apocalyptical novels go – nothing works anymore, its just self-sufficiency or banditry – there are a couple more jokes than you’ll get from a Margaret Atwood, but it’s still pretty grim.  The virus only hits humans, though, so the wild flowers are glorious, while dangerous beasts can be a problem.

Station Eleven, which I liked  a lot, has two main linked narrative strands, which it skips about between.  It starts and ends in Year Zero with Arthur, a successful actor, who is playing the lead in King Lear, a long-held ambition, and we get a lot of his back story and that of his friends and wives, a decent novel in itself.

Just before disaster strikes he gives a child actor in the cast (Kirsten, 8-years old) two copies of an unfinished graphic novel that his first wife had drawn and written featuring a future community, called Station Eleven.  She survives, and by Year Twenty she is part of The Traveling Symphony, a touring caravan troupe of actors and musicians with a mission, moving from one isolated surviving community to another in the Great Lakes region of North America, keeping the flame of Shakespeare and classical music alive.

I particularly liked the way the author works in various popular culture references, even if Don’t stop believin’ is ‘secretly’ Arthur’s favourite song:

“All I’m saying,” Dieter said … is that quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek.” He was talking near Kirsten and August.
Survival is insufficient. Kirsten had had those words tattooed on her left forearm at the age of fifteen and had been arguing with Dieter about it ever since.

Miranda, the graphic novelist, enthuses about Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes great newspaper strip – one of my favourites – highlighting Calvin’s Spaceman Spiff alter ego. Try: https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/2017/10/15 for a bit of Spiff and then keep hitting the random button to get an addictive taste for the wider Calvin and Hobbes.

More catching up to follow.





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Seems a lot started and/or happened in 1969 over and above the historic football match chronicled in verse in my last post.  As it happens two of the non-fiction books I had down to write about next both kick off with 1969 on the first page of their roman numeral-ed introduction pages.

Heroic failure

Esteemed Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole prefaces his Heroic failure: Brexit and the politics of pain (Head of Zeus, 2018) with an account of his first trip to England, visiting relatives all over the country in 1969, when he was 11.  The day they arrived in London he’s worried – “the official Irish culture of my childhood and youth was one that defined Ireland as whatever England was not“:

So my brother and myself were left sitting on a low wall with bottles of Fanta, while Vincent and my father disappeared into the pub.
­­ I remember sitting on the wall and sucking on the straw to try to suppress a rising panic. We were alone in England, abandoned in an alien place. England, as an idea, terrified me. I knew from history lessons in school that the English only ever did bad things to Irish people.  […]

Ireland in 1969 was still strongly Catholic and priest-ridden, restrictive of non-traditional lifestyles and predominantly rural.  But things have changed dramatically over there, and “the Irish Sea has never seemed so narrow or its two sides so alike“.

… we had these two very different ways of thinking about England: as the opposite of Us and as a place where Us could mean something much more fluid and open. And the poignant thing about the decade before the Brexit referendum of June 2016 is not that one of these ways of thinking had banished the other; it’s that they’ve both been banished.

As anyone who was read his perceptive articles in the Guardian will already know, he is appalled by recent events, which he sees as basically an English problem, the evolution of which in leaver English psyches – “the strange sense of imaginary oppression that underlies Brexit” – he examines ruthlessly in Heroic failure.

I write this by way of introduction because this book says some harsh things about the state of England. It is not intended to be unfriendly: when your neighbour is going mad it is only reasonable to want to understand the source of their distress.

It’s an entertaining if painful ride, from the first chapter, The pleasures of self-pity, to the last, The sore tooth and the broken umbrella.  On the way he calls on literature to examine the fears and help get into the minds of the Brexiters, citing the 50 shades saga (see below) and, more seriously, drawing on best-selling books of the what-if-Hitler-had-won variety of alternative history fiction to flesh out the paranoia of vassalage and invasion:

It does not seem entirely beside the point that, in the years immediately leading up to Brexit, by far the biggest selling book by an English author in any genre was E.L.James’s Fifty shades of Grey. It is a fantasy of submission and dominance. It is not hard to fantasize, in turn, a political adaptation in which Christian Grey is the European Union and Anastasia Steele is innocent England seduced into entering his Red Room of pain …

O’Toole quotes historian Anthony Barnett – “Europe moved on from the Second World War and Britain didn’t” –  before adding “One might go so far as to say that England never got over winning the war.”  I’d say this echoes my theory that part of the problem with the major players arguing over the years for leaving the EU – and especially Farage, the ERG – stems from exposure to too many black and white war films – and too many maps covered in pink – at a crucial stage in their development.

The chapter Sadopopulism  kicks of with a quote from Trent Reznor’s song Hurt (you might know it better from the Johnny Cash version).  Then he makes a surprising comparison:  “At the level of high politics, Brexit may be defined by upper-class twittery. It seems more P.G.Wodehouse than Johnny Rotten. But at the level of popular culture, it is pure punk.”  Seemingly a strange alliance, but when you think of the original spurious ideology of punk (taking back the music) and consider it alongside the whole reality tv shit-show:

… the old English indulgence of eccentricity has been grafted onto the mass-media cult of celebrity and a broad revolt against colourless identikit career politicians to create an invasive species as tenacious and damaging as Japanese knotweed. […] Figures who would have been enjoyably ridiculous in a Dickens novel now get to determine a nation’s fate for a generation.

Heroic failure‘s title is actually borrowed from another book, Stephanie Barczewski’s Heroic failure and the British (Yale UP, 2016).  Except as O’Toole makes explicit, it’s the English we’re talking about here.  And here’s the irony overload to all the myths and metaphors spouted in exit’s defence (from the chapter The triumph of the Light Brigade):

The grand balls-up is not new, and in English historical memory it is not shameful. Most of the modern English heroes, after all, are complete screw-ups. The exploits that have loomed largest in English consciousness since the nineteenth century are retreats or disasters: Sir John Moore’s evacuation of Corunna in the Peninsular War, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the doomed Franklin expedition, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, the ‘last stand’ against the Zulus at Isandlwana, Gordon of Khartoum, the Somme, the flight from Dunkirk.

He continues: “There is something genuinely magnificent in this English capacity to embrace disaster. It is also highly creative. It transforms ugly facts into beautiful fantasies.”  Like ‘us’ standing alone (Poland, the colonies, the French Resistance), like a narrow ‘us’ winning the war (as opposed to the massive contribution the Russian people’s sacrifice – a major factor in Hitler’s defeat – the Americans etc.).

The problem is, an awful lot of ‘our’ victories, the building of the Empire, slavery and all that, are not exactly happy and glorious.  Take Agincourt, Henry V, and the St Crispin Day’s Speech spin doctor Shakespeare gives him – “We happy few, we band of brothers“.  Said band were described as “a horde of yobs” by Sir Thomas Bray, an English knight who was there with them as they, as O’Toole puts it:

… stormed towns raping and killing. They enslaved men and women. They held anyone they thought had money for ransom and tortured them until their families paid up. They stole everything that could be moved and destroyed most of what could not. When they stripped an area of everything, they moved on to the next set of victims – all in the name of the English ‘king of France’.

And when it’s all over – leaving Europe on whatever terms, even remaining – we’re stuck with a legacy for a some time yet.  As Fintan so graphically puts it:

Whatever happens with Brexit, this toxic sludge will be in England’s political groundwater for a long time. The self-pity of Lost Causism will meld with the rage of betrayal. Without the EU as whipping boy and scapegoat, there will be no end of blame and no shortage of candidates to be saddled with it; anyone and everyone except the Brexiteers themselves. That most virulent of poisons, the ‘stab-in-the-back’, is in the bloodstream now and it will work its harm for a long time.

Dangerous hero

Tom Bower‘s Dangerous hero: Corbyn’s ruthless plot for power (Collins, 2019) kicks off with what our author was doing in 1969.  Now here’s a surprise (to me at least).  Tom Bower was one of the leading lights of the, um, revolutionary student occupation of the London School of Economics.  Without exactly quoting Dylan, his preface is pretty much saying, But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now – his politics have shifted a bit.

As opposed, of course, to Jezza.  Just look at that sub-title; not even the softening of a ‘Jeremy’, which would certainly not have messed with the dust jacket design- the gloves are off.  And while there are worrying things about his past (and present – Hello, Seamus) – I’m no great fan, though I still deliver Labour Party leaflets – there is, as John McDonnell (keep it quiet, an ex-member of Militant) said at the time of publication, no smoking gun.  Though there’s plenty there for those who want it.

As it happens, Jeremy Corbyn played no part in the student happenings of the late 1960s.  Although active in the local Young Socialists in Shropshire, and so presumably interested in history, he managed only two E’s at A-level (subjects not specified).  In 1967 he went – unusually for a non-graduate – to Kingston, Jamaica, as a VSO ‘cadet teacher’ on a two year contract which he didn’t complete, leaving to roam central and south America before returning home later in 1969.  Bower accuses Corbyn of exaggerating his parents’ active socialist commitment (he questions JC’s claim as to their being there in the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street, though grants they did meet as a pro-Spanish Republic meeting), and of polishing his own credentials as far as the VSO stint went, not admitting to “the school’s elite status”:

… contrary to his version, the school was not in a ‘deprived’ area, nor in this period did he, despite his assertion that he was known as ‘Mr Beardman’, grow a beard.

Ho-hum.  So there’s a fair amount of this sort of point-scoring.  But the exposition of what Corbyn and allies were up to in local London politics at branch level and beyond in the ’70s and ’80s does not make comfortable reading; though Corbyn plays his part down, Bower isn’t buying his denial of only peripheral attachment to the London Labour Briefing newspaper – as vile a sectarian tract within the Labour Party as I’ve encountered (and I wish I still had the copy I bought, unfortunately lost to pruning).  He undoubtedly campaigned with Trotskyists and other entrists under the banner of the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, consistently defending, as Benn did, the Militant Tendency.  Nor are current headlines (2019) of taking us “back to the 1970s” in industrial relations sound such a grand idea when considering the stranglehold the unions had on the British car industry, and after reading Bower’s potted history of said decade.  You know, the one before Thatcher took power.

There’s no denying Bower is good at his job; I raved about his book on our future king (Rebel Prince).  He talks to those who will talk to him (and some who won’t) and invariably documents his research fastidiously.  I presume there was an omerta (just joking) on fellow allotment holders, which is a shame.  However, he’s not perfect …

Bower doubts whether Corbyn is much of a reader, even quoting his first wife’s surprise at moving in with him to discover there were no books in the house.  I can’t say much about that, though I was surprised to read of him praising James Joyce’s Ulysses the other day.  Anyway:

More recently, Corbyn has claimed that he was influenced by Open Veins of Latin America, by the Uruguayan journalist, writer and poet Eduardo Galeano, a critique of the exploitation of the continent’s Indians by monarch’s, the Catholic Church and multinational American corporations.  That is doubtful. […] Pertinently, shortly before his death in 2015 Galeano repudiated the book as a distortion of the continent’s economic history … (p11)

Except he didn’t.  In an interview given the year before he died he protested:  “[The] voices that have been raised against me and against The Open Veins of Latin America are seriously ill with bad faith.” [see his Wikipedia entry]

And then there’s Oscar Wilde.  Bower finishes Dangerous hero with two verses from The ballad of Reading Gaol, ending with (from a certain perspective) a flourish: “For none can tell to what red Hell / His sightless soul may stray.”  Except he has introduced these verses thus: “Two years earlier, Corbyn had named Oscar Wilde’s The ballad of Reading Gaol as his favourite poem.  His enthusiasm for it was dubious, not least because Wilde himself was no believer in socialism.”  This would be, presumably the same Oscar Wilde responsible for the favourable 1891 essay The soul of man under socialism.  The text is available as a Penguin Classic from your favourite bookseller or from various web sites:
or, if you find being tainted with a brush of Marxism, it’s there from Project Gutenberg:
It makes for an interesting read.

The Beast of Brexit

I wonder how many, like me, bought Heathcote Williams‘s short but forensic Boris Johnson: the beast of Brexit; a study in depravity (London Review of Books, new ed 2019) late at night, on coming home from the pub.  It was worth it.  It’s a devastating portrait, first published in 2016, so no-one has any excuses (as if they had before that).  But I’ll not go into the detail here, save to say that this year’s edition also contains an appreciation by Francis Wyndham, written in 1979, of the author – poet (Whale Nation, Falling for a dolphin), playwright and general counter-cultural hero (and, for what it’s worth, another Old Etonian).

No, in the spirit of BBC neutrality, here’s what I gleaned from Wikipedia of what Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, aged 5, was up to in 1969.  His family moved back to England from Washington DC that year, first to the family farm in Winsford, near Exeter, where he was raised mainly by mother abetted by au pairs, and, “gained his first experiences with fox hunting” (he’s still in favour), then up to London, to Maida Vale.

Another Johnson (no relation)

Alan Johnson‘s In my life: a musical memoir (Bantam, 2018) could be dismissed as money for old rope.  After all this “account of my twenty-five year quest for rock stardom” is basically a rehash of his previous successful memoirs with expanded soundtrack.  It’s a great story, one from what seems like another age – London slum child, left school at 15, mod, trade union official, MP, popular Labour government cabinet minister – although (subjective as it can be) as a work of music criticism and history In my life hardly rises above self-publishing level.  But there’s enough social history in there, real personal testimony, to still make it a worthwhile read, especially if you haven’t read the moving This boy and Please, Mister Postman.

I’ve only just finished reading In my life and thought I’d give it a brief mention here because the chapters are organised by year, and each allotted a particular song.  1969, the year in which he, aged 19, his wife and daughter moved out of London and proudly into a brand new council house on Slough’s new Britwell estate, the song chosen was David Bowie’s Space Oddity.  As I say, another – golden – age.  (Maybe another time here on Lillabullero for more on In my life.)

Musical outro

Certain inevitability to this; you may, if you’ve followed certain personal paths of musical evolution, have already been humming this.  Alan Johnson makes no mention of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, indeed, goes out of his way to say that Punk did nothing for him.  Iggy saw it coming, obviously, though this, from 1969, does go on a bit at 4 minutes.  And there’s a horrible wah-wah pedal intro, which atrocity returns in the middle and goes on much too long (you can exit early, I won’t mind).  We had to wait for the Ramones to follow the logic through to clock in at under two minutes:

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

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

The Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington Black

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

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

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

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

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


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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A Library Trilogy

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:

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.


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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