Archive for the ‘Comedians’ Category

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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Patti Smith’s M Train

Roaming around, my title today, comes from a random dip and blind finger point into Patti Smith‘s M Train (Bloomsbury, 2015), a book that opens with the words, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing“, addressed to her by a cowpoke in a dream.  A malaise is upon her and she’s drifting.  Being Patti Smith she has some interesting options, like a bizarre chat with ex-chess champ Bobby Fischer in Iceland, with Buddy Holly (about as rock and roll as the book gets, actually), and, he stipulates not chess on the agenda.  Or slobbing out to Midsomer Murders and other tv crime repeats, which I find wonderfully reassuring, in a London hotel; big fan of Scandi-crime too.

She drinks a lot of coffee – has her spot in a cafe over the road from her frugal New York apartment, mostly furnished with books.  When the coffee shop guys move to Redondo Beach (yup) to set up there, she visits and buys an old wreck of a house there on impulse (I say, impulse, but she’s not a cash buyer); in the storm that comes in hard later in the year the boardwalks are washed away, his cafe is lost but her house survives.  Along the way she writes with feeling about life with her late husband.  She’s more beat and Euro-bohemian than rock and roll in M Train.  There’s an engrossing trip to Japan.

I admire Patti Smith enormously.  She goes her own modest, decent and powerful way.  I love a lot of her songs, and she’s a compelling performer (when not shrieking).  She is steeped in culture, with and without a capital C.  I’ll admit don’t really get the Polaroid photos that illustrate M Train – my guess is they bear the same relationship to her friend Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic work as Samuel Beckett’s prose does to his pal James Joyce’s – but this is an absorbing memoir of a year that in other hands would seem self-indulgent and pseud.  I can see myself reading it again, not least to try and catch that fleeting reference to the actual M train to see where she was coming from in choosing her title.

strange-library-01The strange library

One of the springboards of  Patti Smith‘s actions in M Train is the writing of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (hell, I was even prompted to pick up a cheap copy of his 600-page Wind-up bird chronicle that I’ll probably never get round to reading as a result).  As it happens, I’ve had a copy of his The strange library (Harvill Secker, 2014) sitting around for a while now (I used to be a librarian), so it seemed an auspicious time to actually read it.  Which I have done twice now – it’s not a big book – and it’s only a struggling to justify itself better judgement that is stopping me playing the emperor’s new clothes card.

strange-library-02It’s certainly a handsome, fascinating and fun exercise in book design, or even art; that library issue pocket on the cover is three-dimensional, there’s, for example, a full-page illustration of 8 variously decorated ring donuts against a pink background and many other enterprising graphic injections, some of the pages show signs of wear, marbled endpapers etc.  Here’s an example of a double-page spread.  Plot line?  A bit of a swot is on his way home from school wondering about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire.  (I know – why?).  He drops into his local library and is led down into a labyrinthine basement where he is abducted and confronted with all sorts of Borgesian creatures, friends and monstrous foes both, and undergoes various trials.  Or various sillinesses, the sceptic in me says.  “All I did was go to the library to borrow some books” is his complaint.

On second reading I began to wonder if I was meant to wonder about each actual choice of word and phrase, something to do with the magic of the written word.  I was struck by the notion of the boy worrying about his pet starling being fed while he was trapped; ridiculous I thought, until I googled it and, yes, it seems people do keep starlings as pets, especially in Japan.  Fantasy horror has never been a genre I’ve managed to live with, so I’m floundering a lot of the time, though I’ll grant a sense of the young hero’s devastation that haunts.  And I worry about that “After that, I never visited the city library again” line near the end.  But The strange library is a splendid object, that I flip through again now, with a strange affection.  Maybe the charity shop will have to wait, after all.

i-capture-the-castleI conquer the castle

No such ambiguity about December’s Book Group book.  I loved Dodie Smith‘s novel I capture the castle (1949) to bits, all suspension of disbelief willingly surrendered to one of the great opening paragraphs:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy.

I capture the castle is Cassandra’s journal.  The conceit is she’s 17, wants to be a novelist and is recording family life to hone her writing skills.  Hers is a wonderful voice – naive, moral yet seeking wisdom, full of heart and good intentions, modern even – looking forward to Adrian Mole, backwards to Janes Eyre and Austen : “I kept pretending we were in a Victorian novel” she says.  She has an older sister, Rose – “I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty-one and very bitter with life. I am seventeen, look younger, feel older.  I am no beauty but have a neatish face.”  At a certain stage she says of her sibling: “And I regret to say there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard.”

It’s an eccentric family in the eccentric setting of an old ruin taking in a castle tower in the country.  Father – Mortmain – once had success as an avant-garde novelist: “Years and years ago wrote a very unusual book called Jacob Wrestling, a mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry,”  a novel that critics, whom he scorns, have given the label ‘enigmatism’; “he says the American critic has discovered things in Jacob Wrestling that he certainly never put there“.  He’s written nothing for years, their income is practically nothing.   In response to the family’s urging, “His only weapon has been silence – and sometimes a little sarcasm“.  This neat little nod to James Joyce‘s conclusion – “silence, exile and cunning” – in The portrait of the artist as a young man is a nice example of just one of the strands, a look at contemporary artistic circles, of this splendidly exuberant novel.  Mortmain’s second wife, Topaz, was an artist’s model in London taken to expressing risible attitudes, cavorting naked in nature worship, and capable of kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate“.

Nevermind the plot, which involves a rich American family inheriting the pile, with the two young sons thereof doubling as romantic leads, leading to Rose’s pursuit of financial stability through marriage, Cassandra’s poignant discovery of love herself, and how they get Mortmain writing again, along with the progress of various other characters’ storylines … the joy of I capture the castle is in the playful invention (a village called Godsend with a sceptical priest, pets named after Heloise and Abelard) and the voice, Cassandra’s thoughts and voyage of self-discovery.  Here just three prime examples:

As we walked back to the house he asked if I thought La Belle dame sans Merci would have lived in a tower like Belmotte. I said it seemed very likely, though I never really thought of her having a home life.

The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way.

A year ago, I would have made a poem out of that idea. I tried to, yesterday, but it wasn’t any use. Oh, I could think of lines that rhymed and scanned but that is all they were. I know now that is all my poems ever were, yet I used to feel I could leap over the moon when I had made one up. I miss that rather.

But still capable of “She is a good-looking girl. Enormous feet, though“.  How can you resist?  It has a rather lovely ending too.

Roaming around locally

scribal-dec-2016December Scribal: Brian & Krysstal a sublime old style Music Hall or Variety act for the twenty-first century.  Think Hylda Baker and the ‘She knows ya know’ routine and then forget it.  Krysstal the bored gormless glamorous assistant cum straight woman (but with a killer dead pan delivery when left to her own fill-in devices), Brian musically a shambling long-haired filthier Lonnie Donegan combined with a loquacious dash of Tommy Cooper without the fez just for starters.  “They reckon observational comedy is funny, but I can’t see it.”  Probably the funniest act I saw last year.  Immaculate timing.  Try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aiSdg0UEc0

we-built-this-cityAt Milton Keynes Central Library until the end of January, and a contribution to the MK 50th anniversary celebrations (yes – celebrations!), We built this city on rock’n’roll is a collage of MK’s musical history – both local and The Bowl as national venue (when we lived on Eaglestone we could hear the guitar lines coming over on the wind) – collated by contemporary local historian Lee Scriven, along with artefacts and a collection of some very fine portrait photography by the man himself of some of the major players in the city’s cultural evolution.  Let’s let him speak for himself:

To some rock n roll is Brylcreem, drainpipes and blue suede shoes, to others like me, it’s a turn of phrase to describe an attitude towards life. The talented, gifted and maverick ensemble of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, who created this city back in the 1970s, possessed a true rock n roll arrogance.
But as you are about to discover, the real pioneering heroes of Milton Keynes were the local residents and personalities who individually and collectively got off their backsides to create a very unique culture. Their collective efforts left more than just memories, they created the City’s cultural DNA and embodied the true spirit of Milton Keynes; be daring, be original and be brave, in other words be: Rock n Roll.

I’m not nit-picking about any of that (well not much, and not right now), though I will say that, for all it’s – and ultimately, I guess, ok, excusable – rhetorical power in this context, I’m still cringing from the thought of that horrible Starship song.  I have always run screaming from it.  Seems I’m not alone in my musical fear and loathing either, of what GQ in this article, called “the most detested song in human history”; beware, though – the fucking thing starts playing of its own accord from that page unless you are careful.  How strangely reassuring to learn Bernie Taupin had a hand in its writing.

No photos of my favourites at Stony Stratford’s New Year’s Day Classic Car Show this year, I’m afraid.  It was pissing down.  Did my duty and went – as hearteningly did plenty of others – but kept my camera dry.

Enough!  But just for the record, the launch of the Stony Bardic Trials at the library on Lantern Parade and Lights switch-on day and a Vaultage:


An intense Mitchell Taylor sans guitar. Photo (c) Bardic Council.


Liam ‘Farmer’ Malone. Photo (c) Bardic Council.



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Stephen Hobbs [Photo (c) Jonathan JT Taylor, cropped here at Lillabullero.]

Stephen Hobbs [Photo (c) Jonathan JT Taylor, cropped here at Lillabullero.]

So, without further ado, may I introduce to you: an act some of us have known for all these years.  He’s guaranteed to raise a smile – it’s performance poet, raconteur and apprentice Storyteller, Mr Stephen (that’s with a ‘ph’, thank you very much) Hobbs.  What we have here is a piece Steve performed at Stony Stratford’s Scribal Gathering earlier this month, the meditative quality of which particularly took my fancy.  It’s published here on Lillabullero now because I asked him if I could, looking for a bit of reflected glory.  I should, perhaps, apologise in advance to the city of Leicester, though in mitigation I will readily express with no little pleasure (even as an Arsenal supporter) my admiration for the exploits of ‘the Foxes’, their football team, Leicester City FC, this season – good luck to ’em.  Anyway, enough with the introductions:

Leicester, Richard III, and my Uncle Lionel
by Stephen Hobbs

My mother and I checked into the Travelodge at Leicester. Travelodge only has the one “L” so strictly speaking one should say Travel Odge or Trave Lodge.  Just another one of those little irritating things like the missing apostrophe on Waterstones.

It had been a long day.  Milton Keynes to Ramsgate in the morning for me.  Lunch.  Then Ramsgate to Leicester after lunch for the two of us.  A four-hour journey that had stretched to six.  My mother had been very talkative –  forgiveable given the circumstances – and at 85 years of age much of it repeated.  I was looking forward to an hour of silence before we sought out dinner.

I couldn’t fault the staff who were welcoming, friendly, and informative.  But it was still Leicester; which day or night has little charm.  This is the Midlands –  Raised by Wolves territory. The only funny British sitcom – in my opinion.  More laughs in one episode than 20 seasons of Mrs Brown’s Boys – in my opinion. To quote: “We’re not Northern bastards. We’re not Southern bastards. We’re Midlands bastards!”.

Is your visit business or pleasure?” the receptionist had asked. A difficult one that. A family funeral on the following day. My mum’s kid brother Li, my Uncle Lionel.  Business I guess?

The funeral was at 5pm the following day so we had a few hours to kill.  Not the right word? “The Richard III Tour is very good” they said.  They seemed proud.  One of their sons?  They found his bones, you recall,  underneath a council car park.

So, after breakfast we went to Leicester Cathedral to see Richard III’s tomb.  Leicester Cathedral isn’t a Premier or even a Championship cathedral.  Probably, an old third or even fourth division cathedral, compared with, say, a Liverpool Cathedral.  I’d say twenty Leicester’s would make one Liverpool.  I mean the Liverpool Anglican of course!  The sort of cathedral that makes you feel puny, insignificant, and forces you to your knees.  The complete opposite of the Liverpool Catholic Cathedral – they’ve got one to spare you know  – which, no offence, is a bit like an indoor athletics track with stained glass windows.

RIII coffinLeicester Cathedral saw off York Cathedral – the Man United or Chelsea of the cathedral world – to claim Richard III’s bones. And what they’ve done is quite quite brilliant.  And only 33 years old – not much of an innings.  The tomb is simple, dignified, and regal. Matched also by the Visitor Centre. Clever, understated use of technology: inevitably I guess, since all they had were his bones which they had to re-bury.

One of the most powerful exhibits is even the excavated grave in the concrete car park; with Richard III’s bones projected by hologram in to the pit. Incidentally, they found his bones on Day One of the excavations! Even on TimeTeam they got three days to do the business.

In another room you’re confronted with a fully armed ready-for-battle Richard the Third – the sabaton, the polyn, the brassart, the gauntlet, the gorget, the bassinet, and all the other piecesRIII skull. It’s impressive protection all right; but rather than present the armour in its authentic burnished steel they’ve had it painted in brilliant satin white. The King as Star Trooper!

They even have a replica MRI scanner with an audio post-mortem analysis of the King’s bones. “Death”, I’m quoting here, “… was almost certainly caused by massive trauma to the ossipital skull bone; consistent with a downward blow from a halberd struck from behind”. So much for medieval chivalry. “Several stab wounds” another quote, ” through the ribs into the chest cavity – probably post-mortem”. So, they stripped his armour off him, and then stabbed him for good measure.

By now it was 1pm – four hours until the funeral service, so we went in search of lunch. It was my mother who found the Spud-u-Like. Surely a forgotten relic from the 1980’s that existed only in Leicester? Or maybe, a canny but  oh-so-slightly ironic nod towards multicultural foodism from a smart Leicester entrepreneur?  It was heaving.

Apart from Richard the Third and the Spud-u-Like there isn’t much else to detain you in Leicester; other than the friendliness of the locals. I guess it’s like many of our work-a-day towns. Too busy manufacturing to worry about architecture. If Milton Keynes is warehousing and distribution; then Leicester is most definitely swarfega!

And so to our own funeral. My Uncle Lionel 79 years old –  a decent innings. We walk in to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (nice) and there’s a couple of hymns Abide with Me and Amazing Grace (almost certainly not his choice). I stand respectfully not singing. I don’t believe in “Him” and I stopped singing hymns once I understood the words. The music for “Personal Reflection on Lionel” is Kate Bush’s Man with a child in his eyes. Now, I am in tears. The Committal Music is the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin which calms us down. The Eulogy is a disappointing third party affair. This is one responsibility you really shouldn’t shuck off; even if it hurts like hell.

It spoke of his National Service in the RAF, his meeting and marrying Carol their two children and their divorce.  And Lionel’s subsequent interest in art and athletics.  Interest?  He was a genius with a paintbrush!  He spent his National Service in Cyprus painting big-breasted women on the fuselages of aircraft. He was an obsessive runner! And my Auntie Carol was like the sun!  When she held out her arms for a hug you ran!  And when she hugged, you stayed hugged! And My Auntie Carol even smelled different to all the other aunties. If they were Lemon Verbena or something from Yardleys; well, Auntie Carol was probably something called “Nights in White Satin”. But, Auntie Carol, as I had learned from my mother in that long car drive up from Ramsgate the previous day,  had lead my Uncle Lionel a merry dance. There was talk of “other men”, “abandoning her children”, and Lionel’s failed suicide attempt. None, of which I had known anything about.

RIII aerial viewWe leave the crematorium to Dire Straits Walk of Life which is jaunty and a cause for smiles. So: Richard the Third, David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Father Jack, George Martin and my Uncle Lionelrest in peace.

© Stephen Hobbs

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Here’s a gift for science fiction writers (if this theme – a sort of update on A chronicle for Liebowitz – hasn’t been tried before).  What if  included on the Voyager Golden Record that NASA blasted out into space in 1977 to give any intelligent life forms out there some idea of what Earth was all about, along with Chuck Berry‘s Johnny B.Goode and the UK’s sole representative – an early music piece called The faerie round – was something from the repertoire of Les Dawson at the piano?  And that was the one that did it for them.  (I could go on; his music of the spheres was a fulfillment of a prophecy, he’s proclaimed a deity etc.).

Les Dawson Les Dawson

They still crack me up every time, Les Dawson‘s flawed performances at the pianoforte, often attempting at the same time to get the audience to sing along.  It was an accomplishment admired by ‘real’ musicians recognising the skill of his wrong note selection and its execution.  Louis Barfe gives pointers to a couple of the best in his The trials and triumphs of Les Dawson (Atlantic Books, 2012).  Here’s a link to one from a Michael Parkinson show of 1976, the musical director practically ROTFL, and with some great repartee at the end.  It’s an absorbing tale told well.   A working class Salford lad, born 1931 who never forgot where he came from – could they ever have met? – he had various jobs, the longest as a vacuum cleaner salesman, while trying to establish himself as an all round entertainer – a few songs, the odd joke or monologue – coming out of  ’50s variety scene and earlier music hall traditions.  He even went to London to make it under the aegis of Max Wall just when Wall’s career took with a dive with a divorce ‘scandal’ that wouldn’t make the front pages these days.  Dispirited he returned north.

It was his wife had to chivvy him to apply for Opportunity Knocks, a popular talent show on recently established commercial TV.  He swept the board as a northern comedian, and the rest – if you know it – is history.  If you don’t it’s well worth investigating.  He was a natural comic whose talent, it could be said, was wasted on the formats given him and not helped by his self-imposed hectic scheduling.  He died at 62, in 1993, a phenomenal drinker but never a drunkard.  An autodidact who could hold his own off-stage with intellectuals, among others he worked with John Cleese and … Lulu (see what I mean about formats?) and published several novels across the genres.  There was so much more to him than the mother-in-law and wife jokes that for some defined him – never, though, delivered with malice, and enjoyed by his actual mother-in-law.

It should go without saying that he could be very funny, his monologues veering all over the place (a conversation between him and Paul Merton would be a very strange ride).  I could have done without the gurning, but that was straight Lancastrian music hall legend Rob Wilton.  He was mean with his money – waiting for him to get his round in was not really an option – but he was incredibly generous with his time.  A decent man, loved by those he worked with, his mantra to make the world a better place was a simple one : Be kind.



I never really ‘got’ Neil Gaiman‘s Coraline when it first came out as a prose novella aimed at the teenage market in 2002.  I was disappointed.  I’d been entranced by his astonishing earlier Sandman 75 issue sequence of comics – a work of genius – and was wrapt by American Gods (2001), his exciting and impressive long novel also woven around the same sort of landscapes of archetype and myth – presented pretty much as a road novel.  Coraline went on the win prestigious Hugo (Best novella), Nebula (best novella) and Bram Stoker (Best work for young readers) awards, so what did I know?  I just couldn’t get inside the pure fantasy horror genre, I guess.

I picked up the graphic novel version in the library on a whim and appreciated it more.  Nice to be reminded too of the unique qualities the graphic novel can bring to storytelling with its flexible page panel arrangements the action grows or slows, the effects colours can bring, the drama of turning the page to something wonderful (I’m assuming quality here but there’s a lot out there).  Coraline: the graphic novel, adapted and illustrated by P.Craig Russell (Bloomsbury, 2008) took away what must have been the tedium of the house’s description that I might well have drifted off in.  I still find it hard to transcend the basic silliness of the situation: big house in the middle of nowhere, retired thespians on the ground floor, Coraline’s mum and dad glued to their computer screens one floor up, with a mouse circus trainer in a dirty old man mac at the top; and a whole equivalent ‘other’ house inside the walls of the house (the people with buttons sewn in their eyes, rats upstairs) trying to take over.  What?

Coraline’s courage, cleverness and patient resolve come through though.  It’s a nice touch that it’s only the evil ‘other’ tenants can get her name right (“It’s Coraline!”) but the pièce de résistance is the cat, her confidante with his own philosophical positions (cats don’t need names) who straddles both worlds at a distance, and who talks in one but not in the other (actually he talks in the ‘other’ but there’s no rhetoric in that).  It’s a nice piece of work altogether, and I get to see the Gaiman qualities I missed before coming through.

Way of roses, 2007 MK Gallery

Bit of a change from the usual at MK Gallery for a brief show up for just a month going under the title Hemmed in: Embroidery and Needlework from MK and beyond.  Colourful, intricate and stark and all stations in between, figurative and abstract, imaginative and inventive, beautiful work there is up there on the walls.  Changed my take on needlework for sure.  It’s a tripartite, wonderfully curated exhibition.

The object on the left is probably the most extreme on show.  It’s from Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė, a Lithuanian stitchist, entitled Way of Roses, from 2007, which is a work of “cross-stitch on metal (found car door)“.  Meanwhile British embroider Sarah Greaves’ Bath Tub, crafted 2011, is “hand embroidered bath“; minimalist, contemplative, fascinating, made by drilling small holes in a bath then threading through them spelling out a few relaxing bathtime thoughts – it worked for me.  Both of those are in the Long Gallery, an exciting collection featuring very recent new wave work, some featuring cult and pop culture icons.  These were selected by Mr X Stitch, Jamie Chalmers, an “active leader in the online stitch community” and “‘fibre arts’ blogger” no less.  The Middle Gallery features work from the MK Embroiderers Guild, some of it featuring aspects of MK.  Their Milton Keynes in an eight inch square project displays many inventive approaches.  The Cube Gallery features a small collection of more traditional  – though it’s all relative – works from the Embroiderer’s Guild National Collection dating from the ’30s to now; I’d like to see more.  The exhibition is an eye-opening delight, all the more satisfying for the local involvement.  Good on yer, MK Gallery.


  • Friday night dinner – yay!  (Even a partial redemption of the Mark Heap character, who was getting on my nerves)
  • Outnumbered never lets you down
  • Dr Who d’accord
  • The news that some people have been claiming their whole Christmas has been ruined by what happened in Downton Abbey is another highlight for me – nobody to blame but yourself for getting involved with the old snob Ffellowes’ work in the first place.
  • didn’t even consider The Royle Family after the last two disasters.  Another BBC scandal: isn’t there someone there who can just say, not good enough?  Without the loving glue of young Anthony – the Ralph Little character – the whole concept was gone.
  • and while we’re at it, how soon the charm goes from Miranda …

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A brief sojourn in Bristol means I’ve fallen a bit behind.

Funny word chippy.  So … being belligerent or touchy, coming from the more specific resentment or over-sensitivity about being perceived as inferior aka having a chip on your shoulder, related to the by-product of the work of a carpenter, aka a chippy, rather than batons of potato of the deep-fried variety.  Never mind the derivation of the North American meanings of a promiscuous woman or, more extremely, a prostitute, their chipping sparrow is a cute little bird, its persimmon-red cap in the breeding season (I just looked it up) making it a more colourful creature than our common or garden variety.  All of which has little to do with my wishing to sing the praises of the ethically sound Fish Bar – “purveyors of the finest fish and chips” even if they say so themselves – in Stoke Bishop, Bristol 9.  Exquisite crispy batter, but with a choice of fish cooked therein that I’ve not encountered before: sea bass, mackerel, hake and more, along with the usual.  I’ve had better chips, mind.

Also in Bristol, in the grounds of the Blaise Castle Estate – big dramatic parkland with river gorge and some spectacular trees (especially at this time of year) – was good to be re-acquainted with the metal dog, even though I’m not generally a dog person.  Shame it’s unattributed (or at least I found no hint of who or when it was made from old bits of machinery).  Was lucky for the time of day to be able to catch the shadow in the same photo.

And now the catching up.  Alan Davies at the theatre with his Life is pain show, the Sunday before last. Good natured, fairly filthy in parts, always fun and at times very funny.  He’s hit the being-a-dad stage that most stand-ups go through (“So many stairs“) and made good use of his chosen text, Oliver James’s How not to f*** them up in a wide-ranging couple of hours took in deck quoits (not what you’re thinking of at all), his Essex childhood and his father (“There is no such thing as an accident“) and much beyond.  Living in Milton Keynes one always hopes roundabouts will not feature too much in a stand-up’s opener; it did, but in a neat way.  “How many roundabouts are there between the M1 and the City Centre?” he asked, “Nine?” Followed up with, “I’m not knocking it, just seeing how well you know where you live.  I picked the number off the top of my head.”  He then went on to ask a specifically reasonable and acute question about where exactly is the city centre in MK?  Inevitably no response, because how could there be when you put an out-of-town shopping centre at a city’s heart?  MK has its own qualities despite that, and Alan went on to make Leighton Buzzard the urban butt of the evening to be kicked, feeding off some odd defences of same from the stalls.  Why, I wonder, on occasions like this, do we always seem manage to be sitting nearby someone who laughs too affectedly, too loudly, too readily, throughout?  Despite that, a good night.

October’s Scribal Gathering was a bit bitty, truth be told.  Featured musician Pat Nicholson, billed – probably without his consultation – as Pat the Hat (for reasons that should need no explanation) wittily turned up in a bulky flat cap and kicked off with Freight train as a test of the ages of the audience.  Featured poet, the buxom Kezzabelle, made ballads out of her boobs and other aspects of her interesting late-liberated life.  There was a lovely acoustic version of Cyndi Lauper’s beautiful Time after time from Glass Tears, all two of them.

Two final thoughts.

  • I love this photo of Heather Watson winning her first big deal tennis final.  It was in all the papers, has an AP byline, and I’ve mucked about with it a bit using the posterize function in PSP.  It’s her sheer simple delight in winning that I delight in.  None of the usual fist-pumping, no triumphalism or showboating.  just her moment … Hey!
  • On the other hand, is there anyone who actually thinks Victoria Coren’s jokes are funny?

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Can you call this graffiti?  So good to stumble upon Hope on the horizon by the artist Heks on a perambulation of Willen Lake in Milton Keynes recently.  His canvas one of the oh so grey concrete supports of the bridge carrying the H5 grid road – Portway – over where the North and South Lakes divide.   Long may it survive.  Saw some gadwall ducks nearby.  Further south, on the approach and under one of the arches carrying the H6 – Childs Way – a more transitional work from the same artist:

Not defacing property ...
And above, from the impossible-to-photo-from-that-angle, detail you can’t see on the approach shot:  “I’m not defacing property, I’m painting a face on it.”  I hope it’s not rubbed out; a nice walk improved.

Meanwhile, in the author-previously-known-as Colin (but is now just) Bateman‘s latest novel, Nine inches (Headline, 2011), the street art is on the cusp of becoming a heritage attraction in post-peace process Belfast.  The setting, is, as I say, post-peace settlement Protestant Belfast, where the para-militaries have demilitarised into pretty much routine violent gangsterdom.  Bateman is the by-blow of Raymond Chandler and Californication (the TV show, not the CD); you can throw in some of Ian Rankin’s take on corruption and some decent stand-up.  His main man, Dan Starkey (not his first appearance between the covers) is Philip Marlowe crossed with Hank Moody ie. he has a sex life and a touching and touchy on-off relationship with his life partner.  If the pace – as a thriller – slackens, it’s a worthwhile detour; it’s nothing but character driven.  Nine inches is compassionate, cynical, gruesome and laugh-aloud funny.  Starkey’s office is situated above a Shankill butcher’s shop; that’s a real butcher,  actually one of the good guys, who used to live in the Shankill, and not one of the characters of recent legend as featured in the Decemberists song.  Try this, from near the end:

So they went looking for him, and that left me with toothless Bobby and four corpses for all of about five seconds, until the cops came storming up the stairs, armed to the teeth and screaming at us to put her hands up.  So I did, but Bobby said, ‘I can’t, I’ll fall over,’ and it was all the funnier because he was pasted in blood.

At this point you probably need to know that 14-year old X-box playing drug dealer Bobby only has one leg (the legacy of a gang knee-capping); the false leg also plays its part in the narrative.  Another page on, still part of the same incident, gives more than a clue where Bateman is coming from.  Trish is, of course, the love of Dan’s life.  She has had no idea what he’d hidden in her car:

The cops were too busy with the carnage in the church, while the people of the Shankill had no further use for her now that they had picked her car clean.  Not only was every twenty-pound note gone, but the cocaine with it; not content with that they’d stolen a family bag of mini Mars bars from the dash, and rifled Trish’s multi-CD player, removing Van, David Gates and Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest hits.  For some strange reason they left behind my sole contribution to her playlist, the Ramones’ It’s alive, even though she pursued them up the street offering it to them for free.

As it happens I was drinking one of the brewer Bateman’s products – their tasty Veto Ale – in a busy Wetherspoons just off the High Street in Southend-on-Sea on Saturday.  Went down to the bottom of the road to see the sea but didn’t venture further down the cliff to the seafront – cold, grey and windy if not – yet – wet.  I can now say I’ve seen Canvey Island, if not been Down by the jetty.  We were there to see Crewe take on Southend United (nickname: The Shrimpers).  A disturbing sight before kick-off: running around in a pointy headed costume featuring the colour pink quite strongly, one of the Southend mascots – dressed as a shrimp.  Not the most distinguished of matches, Southend didn’t look anything like the top of the table side they currently are and that The Alex deserved the point they didn’t get was down to some dodgy refereeing.  “All we want is a decent referee” to the tune of Yellow submarine.  Out of a crowd of 5645, we were 3 of the 188 Crewe fans, a small but significantly vocal section of whom did no-one any favours by chanting “Gypo” every time Bilel Mohsni, Southend’s tall pony-tailed French-Tunisian striker, touched the ball.  So it is with a certain satisfaction that I report it was indeed he who scored the winning goal and good on the lad for his raised arms, relaxed clenched fists and proud smirking (but not smug) response to the away end at the final whistle.  The least said about having to listen to Arsenal’s demise against Sunderland on the car radio on the way back to MK the better.  (Thanks Mark & Sal.)

February’s Scribal Gathering was its second birthday.  The Cock Hotel had managed to double book the room and only told the Scribal team that very morning, which you have to say is impressive, but the Bull stepped up to provide a more challenging last-minute venue, but all was well in the end.  Another fine night – has to be with Badger kicking off the open mic.  Featured artistes were The mighty Antipoet (just for a change) who did what they do, and Kate Lucas a young comedic chanteuse of attractive and innocent demeanour, with a touch of the verbal dexterity of a Tom Lehrer delivered in a pleasing voice displaying the mind and mouth of Joan Rivers not having a particularly good day.  Maybe a little light would have gone a long way, but … Great stuff, and I certainly will be a lot more careful about not – not that I do, but, you know – leaving toast crumbs in the butter in the future.

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Quite why this cartoon strikes me as the funniest I’ve seen in a long while, I’m not sure.  Displacement?  Modern anxieties, feelings of inadequacy expressed in a historical situation, another time, another place, a movie cliché at that?  Allied, of course, to the drawn body language.

As the line at the bottom betrays, it’s lifted from the bi-monthly New Humanist magazine, November/December cover date. The one with Al Murray on the cover – “Of course there is a god, and he’s British.  The Bible’s in English isn’t it?“- if you can find it on magazine racks anywhere.  If I’ve infringed copyright it’s because I’m trying to spread the word (to the select few who land and linger on Lillabullero, so no great invasion methinks) and Chris Collins deserves the exposure.

Great magazine, published by the Rationalist Association,  with a strapline of ‘Ideas for godless people,’ though I wouldn’t say godlessness necessarily precludes finding something of interest (like the affectionate interview with ex-Communard turned vicar Richard Coles).  £3.95 if, as I say, you can find it anywhere, though there is plenty – including the  cartoon – to sample on its website here.  Well designed, nicely illustrated and full of articles, journalism, think pieces, interviews, reviews, humour, great cartoons (well up to Private eye standard) and a regular Lawrie Taylor tailpiece.

And here’s a joke I came across in the Guardian’s Football Blog last Friday, where it was credited to “the sparkling” Simon Hoggart: “Did you hear Greece has banned exports of hummus and taramasalata? They’re in a double-dip recession.

Unexpected quote from Alison Graham in the Radio Times on Nirvana last week: “a quick blast of Smells like Teen Spirit is enough to clean anyone’s spiritual and emotional pipes“.  Well, yes.  And more prime words from her leading up to the Downton Abbey 2nd Season Finale:

I must admit I have always had an odd relationship with Downton, more Stockholm Syndrome than actual love.  I watch, see only its flaws, yet I am captivated and chained to the door handle.  Not Patty Hearst captivated; if Robert, earl of Grantham told me to rob a bank while wearing a beret, I wouldn’t.  But it always reels me in, despite my sturdy defences (cynicism, ruthlessness, a refusal to admit to weakness).”
Which is probably why I recoil in horror at the very idea of actually watching it; that and a reversion to class war instincts.  But,  I have to remind myself, the show certainly brings out the best in AG.

More Crossword wit
, courtesy of the Guardian’s compilers.  First some satisfying anagrams, starting with a couple of classics:
  • from Rufus: Stomach is churning – but he enjoys it! (9) 
  • from Tramp: Philosopher unconventional to realist (9)
  • from Gordius: The gaps it managed to fill (9)
  • from the mighty Araucaria: He was beat and needed a cure all right (7)
  • from relative new boy Bonxie: City slam United – that’s inexplicable! (8)

And now some more with musical subjects:

  • a couple from Rufus: Put on heavy music symbolic of Ireland (8) 
  • Four on the fiddle (6,7)
  • genius from another newie, Tramp: Singer has straight daughter – alternatively the opposite (7)
  • and from Gordius: Egg breaks listener rising to music (6)
Answers further down the page, under this photo of Robert Koenig‘s Tripod man, carved from the wood of a single oak tree, part of an interesting exhibition curated by The Public Arts Trust to be found at the side of John Lewis (the Collections side) in the Milton Keynes Shopping Centre mall (oh, all right: the centre:MK), which is there until March 2012.
Crossword answers:
Anagrams: Masochist / Aristotle / Spaghetti / Kerouac (a cure OK) / Mystical (6-1 was the score, I seem to recall)
Musical: Shamrock (groan) / String quartet (groan) / Orbison (or-bi-son!!) / Reggae (ear-egg) (not your normal crossword word)

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