Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

oliver-kay-forever-youngHere at Lillabullero we don’t usually splash a book’s cover all over the column but I love this photograph.  Adrian Doherty could be a manchild out of mythology or folk balladry – he walked, nay played, with giants, but was happy singing and playing with the little people; there’s probably a William Butler Yeats poem could be applied to him.  The photo on the book jacket is him outside the Manchester United training ground, a 16-year-old apprentice, a Catholic from Strabane in Northern Ireland, a contemporary of the Class of ’92 – Becks, Scholesy, Giggsy that lot.

He’d read Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – by the time he was 9.  He deliberately flunked a chemistry exam at school – Give an example of a solvent.” “An example of a solvent is Sherlock Holmes.” – determined not to be herded away from the humanities subjects he loved.  Oliver Kay‘s Forever young: the story of Adrian Doherty, football’s lost genius (Quercus, 2016) is full of stories like that; he’s talked to family, school friends, team mates, Manchester United staff, musical chums and fellow seekers after the meaning of life to create a wonderful picture of the short life of a lovely young man, strangely and uniquely lived.

Like his dad, Adrian was a huge Bob Dylan fan.  If they were available to embed, this piece would have kicked off bob_dylan_-_planet_waveswith a YouTube of the fast version of Dylan’s beautiful Forever young, closing track on side one – yes, vinyl – of the hugely under-rated Planet Waves, his last recordings with The Band.  And it would have closed with the handshake of the slow deadly serious version of the song that opens side two.  Because this is a sad, sad tale. 

A footballing genius, on the verge of a first team appearance, Adrian Doherty’s career ended with the sort of injury – ‘a proximal tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in the right knee’ – that only a few years later would probably not have been career-ending, that improved treatment techniques and surgical improvements might well have sorted out.  But one of the saddest things is, when he died (pulled out of a canal, in a coma for a month), if they knew about it at all, the presumptions of those he had known at Man U.  Early morning on his way to work in The Hague, officially accidental death, no suspicious circumstances, had transmuted, urban legend-like, into – of course – failed footballer, late night, drink and drugs, Amsterdam.  Because obviously being released from a club is, like, the end of the world.  In fact, his brother Gareth says, “What a lot of people don’t realise is that the years from twenty to twenty-six, after he left football, were the happiest of Adrian’s life.”

So many things to say.  Invent a fictional Adrian Doherty and he would not be believed outside of the fantasy genre.  Roy of the Rovers as written by Neil Gaiman, say, or a character out of a Herman Hesse novel.  He was a seeker.  If there’s not a better ballad or song in the tradition, then there’s Spencer the Rover – John Martyn did a lovely version of it – which nearly fits well enough:

  • adrian-doherty-2he was a young footballer without ego.  Imagine that.  “Courage, speed and skill“, said Alex Ferguson.  As well as his skills, others note his bravery.  1990/91 season he’s training with the reserves, a year ahead of Ryan Giggs.  One year into his two-year apprenticeship he gets offered a 5-year professional contract; Giggs had to wait the full two years.  He tells Alex Ferguson (!) he’d prefer it to be just one year, if you don’t mind, because he’s not sure what he wants to be doing that far ahead.  He – fortunately given the injury that came not long after – compromises on three.
  • Life at Man U with the older guys (and doubtless at most other clubs): there was a dark side to it in those days.  Traditionally the apprentices had to put up with initiation ceremonies and indignities involving marine-style bullying, forfeits, vicious banter and a forced exhibitionism .  Paul Scholes tells Kay about it: ” ‘Oh I hated it, yeah,’ he said. ‘It got stopped around our year, actually, all the stuff you had to do. I think one of the players’ parents complained and that was it.’  How bad can unspeakable be? ‘I can’t tell you,’ he said. ‘You would be in trouble for it these days, some of the stuff that went on. Seriously.’ ”  After a sticky time, and homesickness, Adrian survived.
  • Life at Man U with the Class of ’92: “Doherty’s preference for an Aran jumper, tracksuit bottoms and battered trainers had always earned him strange looks“.  An apprentice who lodged with him says, “To us footballers, Doc seemed different because he wasn’t bothered about fashion and he never had any cares in the world … [Beckham] read FHM. Doc had no interest in that. He would sit there reading books – big wow – and he would always wear the same clothes and trainers. Becks and John O’Kane would drive to training in their new cars even if they only lived round the corner. I used to walk and I would get there before they had turned on the engine. Doc would come in on a bike – an old bike … I’m not even sure it had gears.”  In a letter to a friend in Strabane he lamented “nearly all the apprentices are U2 fans and none of them are hip so I can’t go to the same places as them on Saturday nights or anything.”  He was never ostracised, was liked well enough, not least for his skill, but he never really bonded.

‘I remember one of the lads asking him what he thought of the Chelsea game a couple of weeks earlier. Adrian genuinely didn’t have a clue. He was more interested in talking about reading, playing the guitar. It wasn’t a conversation you would have with a footballer. It was books, films, philosophy, music. Everyone then sat down to listen to him play the guitar.’

Away from the pitch, Doherty remained a mystery. Everyone recognised and revered his talent, but no one could quite understand his character. [… said a housemate, years later]: ‘On the pitch, he wanted the ball, he wanted to express himself and he knew what he was about. He was brave too, as tough as old boots. Off the pitch he was completely different. The word that comes to mind is “enigma”. He would love this, but, to me, he was just like Bob Dylan. It was like having Bob Dylan in a No.7 shirt.’

  • He bought a typewriter – “one of those old-fashioned ones“, says his landlady – with his first team win bonus (even though as a sub he wasn’t used) .  He’d started a novel: The adventures of Humphrey and Bodegarde, the characters looking for the meaning of life, was writing poetry and – he’d already bought himself a guitar and taught himself to play from books – songs.
  • So while his contemporaries at Man U were out shopping or clubbing, he was busking, or going to open-mic nights at places like the New Troubadour Club, where David Gray started out.  Says the organiser: ‘It was a place for singer-songwriters. It was an acoustic venue, no electric. It was dingy, smoky, a perfect place for gigs. We would get maybe ten or fifteen artists a night.’  Unassuming, Adrian kept his lives apart; no-one on the music scene realised he was a footballer, never mind pne of the most exciting prospects in the city.  He was to work on songs like An oblivious history (there’s an abridged version of the lyrics in the book’s appendix), which references less than respectfully Socrates (the Greek philosopher, not the Brazilian footballer), John the Baptist, Macbeth, King Arthur, Arthur Rimbaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Muhammad Ali and even Bob Dylan.   Another, called Philosophying, is full of witty self-awareness, with a last line going, “But it aint an easy life philosophying“.  And even his team-mates remember the song Gotta kill a chicken by Tuesday.  He and his mate Leo Cussons spent a summer in New York – the Greenwich Village thing – playing wherever they could.

So how would Cussons describe the professional footballer whom he and the others on the Manchester music scene came to know as ‘McHillbilly’ as they played in a short-lived band called the Mad Hatters? ‘Brilliant,’ he says. I don’t know anything about football, so I can’t comment on that, but he was one of those extraordinarily talented individuals you come across very rarely in life.’

He takes the ending of his contract with equanimity and seemingly without resentment.  One friend says, ‘I don’t remember Aidy ever being angry or frustrated about anything.’   Another says, ‘I honestly think he was OK with it. Not OK with getting injured, but he did quite quickly come to terms with the fact that he might not play professional football again […]  it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for him any more […] it helped him that, with his music and his reading and writing, he didn’t have all his eggs in one basket.’  And so he moves, seemingly randomly, to Preston, working in a chocolate factory where he doesn’t volunteer his past.  From the Theatre of Dreams to strawberry creams is Hall’s chapter head.  He stays two and a half years.  He keeps in touch with his old Strabane mates, some now at uni in England.  He sees his old musical chum Leo in London and Holland:

‘On one visit, it would be all philosophical discussions. On the next Doherty would be dismissive of all that, gnosis included, and would be wanting to turn the clock back to those wild nights playing to the crowds in New York’s East Village in the summer of ’92.’

He’s briefly back in Strabane, then feels another move is due.  It’s a toss-up between Dublin and Galway; the latter wins on a short-term travel practicality:

‘It’s the type of place where he would just blend in,’ Sean Fitzgerald, who met him in Galway, says. ‘He didn’t stand out. You’re surrounded by music and culture there, which was what he liked. You’re allowed to be a sort of vagabond, really, just writing poetry and music and having conversations about philosophy or whatever. He blended in, playing his music, writing his songs.’

Kathy Maloney, a young woman who knew him well, says:

He was never really interested in making a living. He didn’t want money at all. He would see how long he could live on IR£5 … Money just didn’t interest him at all.  “He wasn’t motivated by a career in the same way most people see a career. He wasn’t interested in material gain or getting recognition. But whatever he did , he would take great pleasure from it and he liked to master it. The main mission in his life was to achieve enlightenment.”

From talking with friends, colleagues and relations, Kay paints the picture of a young man who throughout his short life could be happily self-contained, and yet was far from ever being a recluse.  If he didn’t drink much he was still up for a craic, for fellowship.  They say he could get along with anyone, not a bad word is reported (though coaches complain of a certain vagueness off the pitch – they would).  He goes for long walks in Manchester, in the countryside around Galway.  It was on one of these, just before the move to the Netherlands – time for a change again – that an old friend from Strabane, driving along a country road sees him and:

… picks him up by chance walking in the rain: ‘… he was still talking about his poems and his songwriting. He was never concerned about money and things like that. He was on great form. Whenever I think of Adrian, I think of his amazing smile. It was infectious. He was smiling that day.’

Forever young is a lovely book, a curious tale of our near times, written by a football reporter out of fascination and love.  I’d say it’s worth reading even if you only have a minimal interest in the game.  So much affection.  Heartening, beautiful, and a good kind of sad.

Could it have been any different?

He might have joined Arsenal.  They were interested, he talked to them, they were an established destination for young Irish footballers.  The injury might not have happened.  And he might have had someone to talk  to about Bob Dylan.

liam-brady-1976-aug-arsenal-v-bristol-city-005Funny how some little things stick in your mind over time.  Reading Forever young delivered this memory of my younger days.  The mid-’70s, when I was living in London, the period that was my most active time as a ‘real’ football supporter.  Well, I went to a few matches.  But it was only Highbury I went to repeatedly – it was the easiest to get to, and I had a mate living close to the stadium.  I became one of the missing millions when hooliganism became a problem.  Nevertheless, an affection for Arsenal developed that has stayed with me, doubled in spades since the exquisite football – poetry in motion, though sadly not consistently – of the Arsene Wenger years.

Anyway, back to the ’70s.  This was still the era of the Metropolitan Police Band at half-time, and the seasons I saw most games in were, as it happens, the two worst in Arsenal’s history, a long time before and since.  But a young team was building, and it was obvious that Liam Brady was a special talent.  And here’s the thing I remember: he was featured in a match programme and there was a photograph of him – the one you see now, due to the wonders of Google image search – sprawled on the floor with some of his LPs.  Only – almost unprecedented – prominently including Dylan’s Blonde on blonde and Blood on the tracks (plus albums by Thin Lizzy and Horslips, another significant Irish band).  Like I say, special.

That match programme was, I discover, the opening game of the season, August 21st, 1976, against newly promoted Bristol City.  Yup.  And the visitors won 0-1.  It was Malcolm McDonald’s debut for Arsenal, Alan Ball was still playing, and a personal fave – probably the best English footballer never to get an England cap – Geordie Armstrong was on the wing … I could go on with all sorts of relevant football trivia.  But the thought intrigues: Adrian Doherty was offered his apprenticeship at Old Trafford in 1987, while Brady didn’t hang up his boots until 1990.  I like to think of the possibility of them swapping Dylan quotes, talking of situations, at the training ground, in another parallel universe.







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Not last week, but the week before …

Monday we travelled.  By the time we’d checked in and had dinner and got to the bar it was half-time.  Given we were in Wales it was the Wales match that was on the TV in the bar; I could have found the other lounge but opted for when-in-Rome over Anglo-anguish.  It wasn’t crowded.  Wales were already 2-0 up and there were only a couple of quietly committed Welshmen, concentrating conversationally on the game, still fearing the worst every time the Russians got the ball into the Welsh half until that third goal.  But truth be told, the Russians were as bad as England in the second half against Finland.  At breakfast, Danny, the man in the Arsenal shirt at our table who’d watched the goal-less England bore draw with Slovakia averred I’d chosen well.

Tuesday morning to the Llangollen Railway, a 10 mile Llangollen Railway 1trip each way up and down the line.  On the journey everywhere a riot of greens; saw an angler up to his tits in the River Dee and  some alpacas in a field.  Sight, sound and smell of a steam train in motion still gets me every time.  Loco was resplendent restored Great Western Railway mixed traffic ‘Prairie’ tank engine 5199 (one not copped back in the day, though I might have seen it as a wreck in the Barry scrapyard), turned out in classic early British Railways black livery.

Only had time for a 5-minute dash around the fiction upstairs in the modestly fronted Cafe and Books on the main street in Llangollen.  Manages to be both a vast emporium and a rabbit warren at the same time; an old cinema building, the upstairs packed with 100,00 or so second-hand books.  Bought Jack Trevor Story’s splendidly titled Screwtape lettuce for a very reasonable £1.25.

In the afternoon a situationist dérive through Chester, St John the Baptist Chesteror, in laymen’s terms, basically, aimlessly wandering about Chester without a map, until we bought a map and found the wall.  I like a good ruin, so the ruined red sandstone bits each end of the city’s oldest church – St John the Baptist church – appealed.  Weeds by any other name so impressive on a ruin.

So … the wall, the river, the half-timbered black and white of the Rows.  Does anyone dare call it a shopping experience? – probably.  Had the best chai latte of my life in an Alice themed teashop.  Three times I was tempted by a gorgeous trippy-hued paisley patterned shirt in the window of a boutique upstairs in the Rows, and three times I demurred. You’ll only regret it if you don’t said A.;  and yes, indeed I do regret it.  ‘Leave’ campaigners on the street, and a bunch of school kids holding shields being enthusiastically taken through their Roman legion paces in the amphitheatre.

Ffestiniog 1Welsh Highland RailwayWednesday was Blaenau Ffestiniog and  Rheilffordd Ffestiniog, the Ffestiniog Railway, 13½ scenic miles to Portmadog and then over the platform onto the revived Welsh Highland Railway, which only dating its original short life from 1922, for the 25 miles to Caernarfon.  Cramped but fun.  They may be considerably smaller than standard gauge railways – 1′ 11½” – but given the power needed to negotiate these gradients these are no toys.  So many trees!  Bit of drama on the Welsh Highland when the (fascinating for rail fans) Beyer-Garrett loco had problems along the way.  Camera was saying low battery so – sparing the juice – the above is the best I got (typically, camera magically revived once in Caernarfon).

I once had a boss who did volunteer labour on the Ffestiniog Railway Deviation Project (finished 1982); always made me laugh.

Lloyd GeorgeBriefly in Caernarfon, one of those ice creams (so hard to decide …) and a stroll down to the promenade.  The town square road-less, all varieties of slate and nicely patterned cobbles but with traffic still allowed; seemed to work, if disturbing ar first.  ‘Leave’ campaigners a presence again.  What would David Lloyd George have thought?  Where have his like gone nowadays?  What have the pigeons been eating?  Was it a paint protest or just a blue ice cream not as satisfying as hoped?

Thursday to the seaside and then deep into the heart of Capel Sant Trillo Llandrillo yn RhosSnowdonia (or Betws-y-Coed anyway).  At Llandrillo yn Rhos, more prosaically Rhos-on-Sea – great beach without all the holiday nonsense – a brief stop to see the tiny 6th century Capel Sant Trillo.  Atheist I may be, but I can still dig little shrines like this.  I’m a bit of a fan of coastal wind farms too, makes me think I’m in a science fiction movie:

Wind farm at sea

Promenading with the Hatter in Llandudno.

Promenading with the Hatter in Llandudno.

Old and new in Llandudno

Old and new in Llandudno

Promenading with The Hatter and another ice cream in Llandudno, we suspected vengeful local vandals had messed with the pedestrian direction signs.  45° at a crossroads to the toilets?  Turned out it was sort of right.

And so through the spectacular  Llanberis Pass and Snowdonia in all its glory.  Lots of ‘Leave’ signs in the farmers’ fields.  Again, so many trees.  At Betws-y-Coed the public – 20p – toilet seats were of built-in cold polished igneous rock.  We walked up to the Thomas Telford bridge (didn’t he get around?) and along the river.  So soon this peace after the turbulence downstream.

Down by the river Betws 1
Don’t know what has caused this patterning on the water on the other side of the bridge, but I could watch the changes a long time:Down by the river Betws 2

Llanberis Lake Railway

Coal, water & steam – the works

Llanberis Lake Railway, another narrow gauge remnant of the slate industry, is a charming little scenic run of about an hour there and back along one side of Llyn Padarn, with great views of the mountains in the distance and more mundanely the tourist steamers on the lake.  The train starts off going the opposite way you’d expect, away from the lake, a short journey away from the terminus that is not the end of the line, to the end of the line where the loco runs round to the front of the train.  A joker in the carriage – at least I think he was joking – made a good job of convincing travelling companions that the short journey back to the main station was all that was on offer, was the whole trip.

Friday was the journey home.  Early but not too early before the Referendum result was definite.  The title of this piece is Sunny Wales in Welsh.  The dispositions occupying seats 21 and 22 on the coach were far from that, though if the result was being talked about I didn’t hear anything.  No triumphalism among the Leavers, of whom I’m pretty sure there were plenty enough.

Yes, it was a coach holiday, just a short one.  Actually the coach was quite long, but you know what I mean.  No, we were not the youngest on the bus, and that’s without researching it too deeply.  A liberation not to be the driver and worrying where to park!  Mind, you get some very odd people on these charabancs, but some surprising ones too (a pro-Corbyn 70+ ex-union rep showed me her selfie with Owen Jones at a TUC Conference).  You also get to recognise among the coaching demographic – impossible not to become apparent as you wander around the usual stops – what is probably a finite variety of archetypal oldie ways of being, which can be confusing when saying Hi to people on the street who turn out to be strangers, not on our bus at all.

Three days in Wales.  Sunny, not a drop of rain.  Jumpers packed and never worn, rain gear redundant.  No-one believed us back in Stony.

I leave you with a view of puzzling blue from the Llechwedd Slate Caverns car park, and that first train, again:

Blue house from llechwedd Slate Caverns car park
Llangollen Railway 2

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New Year’s Eve I was Trotsky’s cousin
on a boat to England
in the company of Russian aristos
a proto-capitalist & a journo,
escaping the Revolution.
Spoiler alert:
it was not me what done it.
Funny how
with each murder mystery party
you’re a part of
you hanker to be the one that did the deed;
I was not alone in this thought.

Nostalgic for a touch of Andy Stewart
or Jimmy Shand in that night,
for Kenneth McKellar taking
the low road,
Chick Murray’s drollery.

Austin 6Morris Major
New Year’s Day
and the motors are out
in Market Square,
ancient and not so modern.
Lucky with the weather this time:
an Austin 6 and a Morris Major,
my pick this year
another so cool
blue Citroen.


In the first few days of 2015
Cinderella, an hour in the dentist’s chair,
a downbeat movie,
misunderstood hilarity at an open mic,
a funeral and
Je suis Charlie.

15209_10154947389425500_1811519934788905596_nFirst panto for me in decades
but this was Stony’s own
So, hi Danni, hi you two,
great job Caz, everyone;
Buttons’ pissed off at being called
Zipper and Velcro fresh jokery to me,
the Ugly Sisters
metaphorical (rhyming) blisters.
Had a great time.  Oh yes I did.

Out of the Cock and the engrossing gloom
Inside Llewyn Davies
– “a study in failure” –
into the Old George,
guffawing, trying to remember
where we’d seen a young man
with ‘TWAT’ written on his forehead
looking into the mirror
puzzled: what was ‘TAWT’ was supposed to mean?
No, sorry Plucky, we weren’t laughing
at you singing Dolly’s Jolene.
(Benidorm, as it happens).

At the funeral
nearly blubbing to the Beatles,
Lennon’s In my life.
Cliff was our Ringo,
our goalie, a fast bowler supreme.
Charming, handsome: a gentleman.
Different paths taken
from school, so seldom seen.
Shame; no blame.

Scribal Jan 2015Another cracker of a January Scribal Gathering:
A fine energised set
from Mark ‘slow hand’ Owen.
Standing up, belting out
a hard-driving new song to finish.
The dapper (I want that jacket) Alan Wolfson:
cultured bewhiskeredly, a delight.
No stranger to rhyme or dirt, adroit.
Delivered this little gem
(lifted here verbatim from his FB ©AW):

Je suis Charlie Hebdo, tu es Charlie Hebdo, il est Charlie Hebdo, elle est Charlie Hebdo, nous sommes Charlie Hebdo, vous êtes Charlie Hebdo,
ils sont Charlie Hebdo. elles sont Charlie Hebdo.
The sound of a million people conjugating in the centre of Paris.

Great and lesser spotted
woodpeckers in the singular
on different days
in the local nature reserve.
An hour in the dentist’s chair
and a brand new tooth.
Biting the Nutribullet,
supping green goo
from a red wine glass.

And now we can say something
if there’s talk of
Breaking bad;
yup, good as everybody said.
Broadchurch is losing me,
and the
Big Bang Theory a series too far,
whimpering; Penny,
grow back your hair.

Old for new metal
Saw rats
and cats
at the MK Materials Recycling Facility,
an interesting time to be had.
Heath Robinson lives!
State-of-the-art, proud
and getting prouder:
Oh, the excitement building over the road
– we’re in a race with Edinburgh –
the sheer poetry of the
Residual Waste Treatment Facility
“Diverting black bag waste from landfill.”

Sipped spiced cider
wassailing the apple trees at York House
on Saturday, turning back time with
the Julian calendar and the Turning Wheel.

Linford Wood 1Linford Wood 2
up with old friends again
in Linford Wood, and finding
some new ones too.

Can’t not but mention
“Manchester City 0, Arsenal 2”
on Sunday; celebrating inside
at The Old George
with The Outside This
The Last Quarter
& the lovely Ugly beauty
at Aortas.

The annual January jigsaw
nearly done, but …
Jigsaw 2015

And so it’s adieu for now with a couple of January songs, subtly chosen because they have the month in the title.  No, not that one; apology due if that released an earworm, and duly given.  Maybe this one of these will banish it:



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GatheringIf it hadn’t been for the Book Group I wouldn’t have read Anne Enright‘s The gathering (2007).  But that is one of the good things that spring from being in a book group.  The gathering comes from a time when I would blithely boast that I was ‘allergic to Booker prize winners.’  Style over substance, obviously, on my part,  brought on by the experience of a couple of naff books, no doubt; but I still think, as a rhetorical flourish, it has a nice ring to it.  That, and the false impression given at the time that The gathering was – well it is, but it’s so much more – was depressing, an unremitting journey through misery, and who needs that?  It’s not a big book – 272 pages in the Vintage paperback edition – but in skimming back through it before the Book Group meeting I was reminded (I’d read it quickly, well before the meeting) just how much there was to it, as it to’s and fro’s and surmises over events in the life of three generations of an Irish family in the twentieth century.  Devastating as it is, I’m going to buy myself a copy and read it again soon; for me The gathering is one of those.

One of the great things about the novel as a literary form is that it can take you to new places (and I don’t mean exotic locations).  Veronica is, on the surface, a comfortably off wife and mother of two girls.  One of 12 children – a matter of resentment in itself – it falls to her to pick up the bureaucratic pieces of identification and getting back to Ireland for the funeral, the body of her brother Liam, the troubled and troubling alcoholic black sheep of the family, the sibling she was closest to, from Brighton, where he has walked one day, pockets laden with stones, into the sea.  The gathering of the title is Liam’s wake, and a fine family affair that turns out to be.  Veronica’s grief, her need to understand what happened – going back to abuse in her grand-parents’ generation – and her own implied situation, lead her into what is effectively a breakdown, an intense objectivity and paralysis of will.  Think Doris Lessing at her bleakest, but delivered with the pen of a poet and a sense of humour.

So what we have here is not so much literature-as-therapy for the author – though it feels like it – but a novel cast as therapy, the narrator’s (her character’s) charting of her way out of the pit she has found herself in.  And because of the intelligence at play, the desolation is illuminated with an acuity of observation that is tinged with a remote, saving wit.  It’s a bracing experience, a beautifully written tour de force, that also explores the validity of memory as an act of imagination,  received family history and the nature of causation in a life’s path.  Hence, early on: “Just like that.  With a sweep of his arm, Charlie has changed the maths of it – of his future and of my past.”

It’s very Irish – not least in the business of familyto say which takes away nothing.  To move from a semi-rural Ireland, which felt timeless, to the squalid London squat of the early ’70s where Liam was living; to move from an Ireland so often seen on page and screen to somewhere I recognised as real, somewhere I had been and witnessed (just visiting, you understand) was shocking.  Suddenly it all gets very vivid, very real.  Veronica, just up at uni, looking for a summer job, stayed only briefly:

waiting for some distant gear to catch and move my life along. I believe , now, that I could have been lost. Just then – not that I am, these days, in any way found, but I think if my life had stalled there, I would have been lost in a more disastrous way.

But Liam was already lost.  How and why are a crucial strand of the novel.  Only a few years earlier they had been close:

I was sixteen and I knew nothing at all about sex. Isn’t that strange? Whatever I knew of the mechanics of it was not available to me, somehow. I did not know how these things went. It seems that the years of my adolescence were years of increasing innocence, because by sixteen I was completely passionate and completely pure. We would all become poets, I thought, we would love mightily, and Liam, in his anger, would change the world.

In Brighton, after choosing a casket, she walks the prom and then:

I look at my hands on the railings, and they are old, and my child-battered body, that I was proud of, in a way, for the new people that came out of it, just feeding the grave, just feeding the grave! I want to shout it at these strangers, as they pass. I want to call for an end to procreation with a sandwich board and a megaphone …

Back in Ireland, after the funeral, she exiles herself in their own home from her husband, whom she attests she loves, for weeks, lives nocturnally, driving to old destinations, or just for the sake of it:

And, yes, sometimes I look at my nice walls and, like Liam, I say, ‘Pull the whole thing down.’ Especially after my nice bottle of nice Riesling. As if the world was built on a lie and that lie was very secret and very dirty.

There is a saving, surprise, development.  She can look back at herself at the funeral:

There I am, sitting on a church bench in my own meat: paid, used, loved, and very lonely.

Now there’s a phrase to linger over: “in my own meat.”  Here’s another, that Veronica imagines into thoughts of Lambert Nugent, the bad guy at the heart of the piece, towards the end of the 1920s: “He looks at his small table – the broken brakes of the Bullnose Morris, beautiful as a picture of apples in the moonlight.”  Anne Enright is an extraordinary writer.

HattersAnd now for something completely different ...

The gatherings in Daniel Gray‘s quirky travelogue, Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: travels through England’s football provinces (Bloomsbury, 2013) are, you might have guessed by now, the crowds at football matches.  After 10 years in Scottish exile and approaching the dreaded 30, this Yorkshireman was missing the England he remembered, or at least was nostalgic for what he thought of as England, and wanted to see if it was still there.  Some of the time it feels like a nostalgia for a nostalgia, but it’s still a valid concept to journey, in 2011 and 2012, the length and breadth of the land, to spend time in the towns and go to a home match of teams at top or bottom of all 5 leagues in 1981, the year he was born.

He wisely ducks top of the old Division 1 because he not interested in the moneybags and international brands of the perpetual Premiership frontrunners, rather he wants to celebrate parochialism, to test the weather in  towns where people can still identify with their team, whose lives might still be in some way defined by said association, a means of drawing communities together.  Places where – and here comes a wonderful neologism – “Sky and the Hornbyfication of football never really happened” …

One of the subjective tools of judgment I bring to a book I’m reading is whether or not I’d fancy sharing a pint or two with its writer.  Reading Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters it feels like I already have.  Discursive, witty, sentimental, observant, Daniel Gray is an entertaining companion.  While not, it has to be said, averse to the odd cliché – DNA, ‘beloved’ – when he’s in pain you feel it too.  So when he excuses some fresh gem with, “This may seem like needlessly parochial information born of petulance, and to an extent it is” I’m happy for him.  Those at a match watching a particularly tedious sequence of head tennis in midfield are described as behaving like, “a tennis crowd only with more use of the word shite.”  In  Ipswich’s Christchurch Mansion: “The scent is overwhelmingly evocative – fusty books, thick varnish and Worcester sauce. Perhaps the shop is burning Olde English-scented joss sticks.”  At Chester, “The match has become like background music so, before Leyton paranoia or Vicarage Road existentialism set in, I tune my radar to two men arguing about socks.”

Before and after the match he wanders the streets of the towns giving us a glimpse of things seen and heard, while usefully imparting a fair amount of local social history – I never knew Luton Town Hall was burnt down in the course of a riot protesting the treatment of returning (and non-returning) soldiers’ families in 1919, for example – and establishing the club’s context.  When it comes to the actual football he establishes a nice generalising distance by studiously avoiding naming players and staff involved in the game (hey! that’s Nick Powell, I spot), though he does acknowledge club legends and, best of all, giving local heroes their due.  Sheffield is the biggest place on his schedule and I’ll happily go along with poetry, Pulp, Chartism and the Chip Butty Song; the football history and the match are a bonus.  We learn that, “More Benedictine is sold in Burnley Miners Club than anywhere else on earth” – another take of what he calls as ‘War Memorial England’ with varying warmth, the taste picked up by the East Lancashire Regiment in the Great War.  Gray’s travels range from Carlisle to Newquay, from Chester ( a club owned by its fans) and Crewe to Ipswich.  Hinckley United, by the way, are The Knitters.

On the whole, despite being disheartened at times by “part of a New England that depresses me: angry, intolerant England” and the vitriol and lack of humour (particularly towards referees) in parts of the crowd – a vicious Elton John song adopted at Luton particularly gets to him – he remains optimistic: the England he misses is more or less there, he says, and trad community football values and the match day experience still have the potential for unity.  If the ‘genius’ of English football is that “It breeds belonging in an uncertain world,” then maybe this would be even more the case – Gray leaves it unsaid – if some decent footballers were to emerge from within the Muslim community pretty soon.  Whether those left cold by the idea 22 men kicking a ball about on will be persuaded remains open to question; but then they are unlikely to read it anyway.  In his defence I would submit the way it felt very recently to be alive in Milton Keynes on this particular morning after:

MK Dons 4

A final gathering worthy of mention, though it’s been a while now but not to be overlooked – Hellzaboppin’ at the White Horse in Stony a week last Saturday.  Live jump jive with a little dash of soul on the side (Ray Charles’ Busted), to make the notion of heaven an irrelevance.  Lazy rhetoric I know, but what can you do?

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Atwood - Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake

I knew I’d seen it somewhere else recently when I mentioned frogs using drainpipes as echo chambers in my last post, but I’ve only just realised it was in one of the books I did scant justice to here on Lillabullero before going away for a couple of weeks.  In Margaret Atwood‘s Oryx and Crake (2003), old nerd-mate at school Crake is explaining to narrator Jimmy how wasteful and destructive courtship behaviour and notions of romantic love are both to society and the individuals involved.  Jimmy says – to paraphrase – but what about art and poetry? John Donne, Byron and all that – isn’t that worth something?  And Crake tells him about mating rituals in the frog community, where size of male croak equates with his desirability among the lady frogs and the canny male hangs out where his croak croaks loudest: So that’s what art is, for the artist,” said Crake. “An empty drainpipe. An amplifier. A stab at getting laid.

Along with Atwood‘s customary intelligence, sly wit and feel for people, the specific strength of Oryx and Crake is the slow reveal of the nature of a catastrophe unfolding 25 years previously, leaving Jimmy, aka Snowman, quite possibly the last homo sapiens left alive.  All this set in the adventure narrative of his own struggle for survival and his reluctant stewardship of the Crakers (I’m getting to them).  It’s a variation on the mad scientist theme, nuanced by the (also) slow reveal of the changing nature of the friendship of three young people who as adults have significant roles in what plays out.  Basically, the reductionist scientist Crake has given up on homo sapiens’ chances of surviving, let alone solving, the planet’s big problems.  His solution is to create, via a cynically engineered plague (a sub-plot of its own) and genetic manipulation, the kind of society logically envisaged in the John Lennon song, Imagine – a song that has always troubled me if I try to think about it for more than about 30 seconds.  In his Paradice Project, what Crake had really been up to, hidden safely in the deepest core of the drug company RejoovenEsense’s Compound (the compounds – closed elite company communities – are another story) was something way beyond a Wells-ian two-nations super-capitalism:

What had been altered was nothing less than the ancient primate brain. Gone were its destructive features, the features responsible for the world’s current illnesses. For instance racism – or as they referred to it in Paradice, pseudospeciation – had been eliminated in the model group, merely by switching the bonding mechanism: the Paradice people simply did not register skin colour. Hierarchy could not exist among them, because they lacked the neural complexes that would have created it. Since they were neither hunters nor agriculturalists hungry for land, there was no territoriality; the king-of-the-castle hard-wiring that had plagued humanity had, in them, been unwired. […] Their sexuality was not a constant torment to them, not a cloud of turbulent hormones; they came into heat at regular intervals, as did most mammals other than man.

In fact, as there would never be anything for these people to inherit, there would be no family trees, no marriages, and no divorces. They were perfectly adjusted to their habitat, so they would never have to create houses or tools or weapons, or, for that matter, clothing. They would have no need to invent any harmful symbolisms, such as kingdoms, icons, gods, or money. Best of all, they recycled their own excrement. By means of a brilliant slice, incorporating genetic material from …

“Excuse me,” said Jimmy. “But a lot of this stuff isn’t what the average parent is looking for in a baby. Didn’t you get a bit carried away?”

But, but, but.  “The whole world is now one vast uncontrolled experiment – the way it always was, Crake would have said – and the doctrine of unintended consequences is in full spate.”  However,

Crake hadn’t been able to eliminate dreams. We’re hard-wired for dreams, he’d said. He couldn’t get rid of the singing either. We’re hard-wired for singing. Singing and dreams were entwined.

And Jimmy/Snowman may be about to witness the birth of religion.  The Crakers are desperate to know what has happened to Oryx, their teacher (another story, again) and he knows all too well but can’t tell them.  Their speculation “… was like some demented theology debate in the windier corners of chat-room limbo.”  And while he has been away on the journey that the story is constructed around, they have built a facsimile of him from a tin lid and a mop:

Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake’s view. Next they’d be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings, and then slavery and war.

Oryx and Crake is not only a fine novel, it’s an intellectual tour de force that is both compassionate and thrilling.  And Margaret Atwood must have had a lot of fun on the way in its writing.  I look forward to finding the time to fit in the succeeding volumes of the MaddAddam trilogy.

Fiennes - Music roomThe music room

The other book that deserved more attention was William Fiennes‘ memoir of his youth and his damaged elder brother, The music room (2009), which managed with ease to disarm my inner  class warrior. His experiences of his family and growing up in a castle, prep school, public school, Oxbridge are related in vivid, quietly evocative and yet unassuming, spare prose.  This was how it was:

I didn’t question the world as I found it; our wide moat and gatehouse tower, the medieval chapel above the kitchen, the huge uninhabited rooms to the west and the parade of strangers that passed through them each year; the way our house was divided into two parts, one private, the other open to public view. I didn’t question my brother’s seizures or the frightening and unpredictable swings of his mood from gentleness and warmth to opposition and violence – these too were just facts I grew up among, how things were.

Add into this there being film and tv costume drama crews in regular attendance as his parents strove to do what they saw as their duty of stewardship towards their abode, along with various other enterprising ventures.  The surrounding countryside, beyond the moat, is his playground and the dedicated domestic staff are effectively part of a supportive family.  So there’s an innocent wondrousness to Fiennes’ experience that his modest sensitivity and observation allows the reader to share; he never lauds it.  His recollection of his astonishment at the warmth and convenience of normal houses when he visits school friends is delightfully done.

Richard, his elder brother by 11 years, was an epileptic, whose condition had resulted in brain damage:  while his IQ was close to normal “… free will wasn’t granted to him as it was to others.”  He doesn’t know his own strength, one of the less serious consequences of which is that he invariably tightens jar lids beyond the ability of anyone else to easily unscrew them.  On the surface an eccentric, with his suit, waistcoat, bow-tie and pipe smoking he adapts words, so ‘downput‘ is what he calls his “special melancholy.”  His mood swings in the football season rely heavily on how Leeds United have fared.  What makes this particularly poignant – not mentioned in the book – is that we are talking here of the thuggish bunch of cheats of the Don Revie era Leeds.

Throughout all this we are also granted short interludes detailing significant episodes the historical development of scientific knowledge of the brain from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the moving away from notions of seizures as sinister possession to recognition of the part electricity plays in the way the brain works and later discoveries mapping its functions.  Some of the reading group disliked this structure, found it intrusive but for me it added another dimension of poignancy to what is a moving and extraordinary piece of writing.  A lovely book, indeed.

Further musical and other non-book based adventures

DTBThis was something special.  All three acts used backing tapes, loops and active sampling.  Dear John was duly love-lorn in finest doo-wop fashion, his backing group consisting of three pretty sharp suits, actually, lain over chairs, the picture completed with pork-pie and similar hats and some cool shades; it’s a good joke, though it was a bit loud.  Mrs Pilgrimm sat down unassumingly at her amplified cello and proceeded to spin dramatic swirling magic with said instrument while working effects from various foot pedals and singing simply and unaffectedly songs from the folk tradition; I recall Reynardine in particular.  She finished with a cheerful rhythmic pizzicato piece.  Looked about 20 but I’m told she’s probably double that.  Quite a prelude to the main man.  Elsewhere one has seen David Thomas Broughton described as the missing link between Nick Drake and Tommy Cooper.  I’d also throw some Les Dawson at the guitar too, but mainly a major digital upgrade of John Martyn‘s work with loop tapes and then some.  Oh, and some Ivor Cutler.  Broughton has a beautiful voice (probably  more than one, actually) and is an accomplished acoustic guitarist.  What he does when you throw all the above elements together in a pretty much uninterrupted performance of songs, music, poker-faced jokery and noise – oscillating signals and feedback are part of the canvas too – is remarkable.  Crescendos of multiple layers of guitar and voice and noise are suddenly stilled (at the push of a foot pedal) and we’re straight into another exquisite piece of guitar picking and a new song.  It is an extraordinary experience.  Never mind all the comedy business with the mic stand,  did I say it was incredibly moving?  Yup, that too. (Thanks MF, for the recommendation).

Scribal July 2014July’s Scribal was another goodie.  Vanessa’s 50th birthday poetry dare was highly enjoyable, especially the one about her handbag.  Palmerston, the featured band, were highly accomplished and great fun.  Infectious in a good way.  Who needs drummers?  Some of the songs are so good you wonder who did the originals, except they are originals.  Country rock, with all five of them potential vocalists and enjoying one another’s company, I was taken back to the days of some of my favourite pub rock gigs – Brinsley Schwarz no less.  Last number, I swear they were channeling The Mavericks.  Steve Hobbs did what started as a jokey advice piece on doing spoken word at open mic gigs that morphed into something else when it slowly became apparent he was using his speech at his father’s funeral as his example.  Thoughtful, moving, unsettling and effective.

Icarus by Hendrick Goltzius 1588What else?  Cadences, the new show at MK Gallery, features 40 pieces, most of them – hurrah! – paintings, engravings, or drawings mounted on the walls.  On loan from a Dutch art gallery, the works range from a few Old Masters to a big Bridget Riley (Breathe – not one of her more interesting, I’d venture) and M.C.Escher’s birds, and a few, like the neat Kandinsky, sharing themes of (it says here) “flight, falling, destruction and gravity“; so not a few Icaruses.  ‘Cadence’ also references the fall in the human voice at the end of a non-questioning sentence (or at up until the heinous influence of Australian teen soaps changed that given a bit) or the ending of a piece of music.

Photo filched from the MKG website.

Photo filched from MKG’s good-looking website.

As an exhibition it felt good standing in the centre of the long and middle galleries though individually the pieces did a little less for me.  Despite what I’ve previously said about the walls I think two of my favourite pieces were the ceramics in the display cases in the photo on the left – Chris van der Hoef Tea setChris van der Hoef’s geometrical tea set (from 1926! – illustrated left) and Dick Lion’s more recent Metropolis.  That big lettering thing – this is not a put-down, I quite like it – resembling the final round of BBC4’s fiendish Only connect quiz but with the vowels left in, is from Christopher Wool (1990).

Again I have to display my ignorance (sarcasm?) and question the point of much video art, and the space it takes up.  The whole of the Cube gallery is given over to showing Catherine Yass‘s Flight (2002).  Shot from a remote-controlled helicopter flying over and around and up and down urban buildings it apparently gives a “sense of dizzying disorientation“; but then so did playing around with the horizontal and vertical holds on old televisions.  Having said that, I shall probably return for the showing of her new commissioned work, Piano falling (from July 19):

Piano Falling is a new film commissioned by MK Gallery. It shows a grand piano being launched off the top of a 27 story building in East London as it falls and crashes dramatically on the ground. Called Balfron Tower, this classic Modernist tower block was designed by the celebrated architect Erno Goldfinger in 1963. The destruction of musical instruments, and pianos in particular, has a long tradition in art history, as an iconoclastic, ‘anti-bourgeois’ gesture. In this instance, the crash and scatter of the piano as it falls will create an unpredictable composition of sound and image. The idea of recording sound during the fall was inspired by Aeolian harps named after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind – whose strings are played by the wind. As it flies through the air, this dark, three-legged object assumes an enigmatic, metaphorical character, echoed in the dragons and angels that fall out of the sky elsewhere in the exhibition.

Looks fun.  Meanwhile in a black video box with headphones attached we have Bruce Nauman‘s Violin film #1 (Playing the violin as fast as I can) (1967/8) in which, “the production of sound is subjected to certain actions that contradict its status as music and performance“; or … roll of drums … the sound and vision are well out of sync.

(c) Jessica Jane Eyre (but mucked about a bit)

(c) JJE (but mucked about a bit)

Nothing out of sync about Naomi “19” Rose‘s usual quality performance at the bijou music venue that is Newport Pagnell’s Rose & Crown pub on Friday.  “Sad songs sung with a smile”, I said, and MG suggested that would make a good album title.  Naomi was actually the support for the multinational Nothing Concrete, who played a wide-ranging mostly good-time set.  Not often you see a line up of cello (second cellist of the week!), mandolin, full size double bass, that box-thing percussion and a self-professed ex-professional busker on lead vocals.

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South RidingEarly on in proceedings, Mrs Beddows, one of the bedrock heroes of Winifred Holtby‘s South Riding: an English landscape (1936) offers as an excuse for a small indulgence in the evening that she’s been “wrestling all day with fallen girls and upstanding bishops.”  Looking back from the mid-2010s it’s hard (sorry) not to see innuendo there, the sort of line that would have had them in stitches at the very music halls that characters in the novel (and, I infer, the author) are a bit sniffy about.  While not being entirely dismissive, Winifred Holtby does seem to distrust and struggle in trying, unlike her contemporary, George Orwell, to come to terms with popular culture.  Even taking into account the shifting perspectives she allows us there’s a hectoring, improving tone creeps into the writing that threatens at times – though only threatens – to take away from one’s appreciation and enjoyment of a novel that approaches greatness at others.

All things being equal I doubt I would ever have read South Riding if it hadn’t been for the Reading Group I’m in.  So hurrah for reading groups.  While we were split on the likelihood of the big romantic twist in the plot – déjà vu to that same unconvincing (or me at least) moment in the telly adaptation a few years back – everybody liked Mrs Beddows, the elder confidante of both parties:

Accustomed to take the bad with the good in this world and having wide experience of both commodities, Mrs Beddows wasted no undue sympathy. Some people, she would say, are so full of the milk of human kindness that it slops over and messes everything.

What we have here is a panoramic picture of a Yorkshire community in the mid-1930s, of decision-making public and private,  in a period of great change, seen mostly through the eyes of Sarah, the hometown gal made good returning as the progressive headmistress of the local Girls’ High School, and variously aligned local government politicians and some of the people they serve or supposedly represent.  As a portrait of the way things were, you get the feeling that that was precisely how it was.  But it’s more than just a period piece: the questions it examines – class, poverty, responsibility, sacrifice, redemption, hypocrisy, change for who? – still resonate freshly from its pages.

There’s a large cast (and thankfully – authors and editors please note – a list of Characters in order of appearance 6 pages long) with representatives drawn from a broad social spectrum.  The cynic might say all the category boxes are ticked but that’s just not fair, such is the power of Winifred Holtby‘s sympathetic imagination.  Her great strength is in the gradual (but in effect dramatic) uncovering of what makes her conflicting major players tick.  Even Snaith, the scheming capitalist bastard of the piece is given his light as a moderniser (a plan for ‘A New Jerusalem’ bringing indoor toilets to the people that he gets passed with  the help of a compromised Socialist) while his empty personal life hints of a suppressed homosexuality.  Indeed, in a novel that appeared early in the Virago imprint’s distinctive green covered mission rescuing feminist classics from out-of-print oblivion, I can only think of two characters who are given no saving graces; both are middle class women whose idea of fulfilment is their dependent marriage status, or achieving it.

So … time and place beautifully evoked, vivid characterisation and character development, a decent plot.  This is a good if old-fashioned novel – compassionate, wise and looking for a better way.  Many stories are told here, but – forgive me – I’m going to take Sarah Burton, the headmistress and central character, for granted here.  She wears it well, fights a good fight, has her doubts – a bit dated, those, actually – but sees it through.

Winifred Holtby at BrigueWhat I want to talk about is the passage towards the end of South Riding  that is so fine, so powerful and resonant, I feared it would undercut whatever happened after it – like that duet in Bizet’s opera The pearl fishers after which everything is just going through the motions, seeing the evening out – but life goes on and Holtby carries the story through to the end well enough.  The horse ride that leads to the ultimate demise (oh, sorry – spoiler alert) of Robert Carne, the sporting gentleman farmer who married the Lord’s rebellious but unstable daughter, the slow reveal of the full tragedy of how his love, passion and care for her (never mind changing economic circumstances) set him on a path to ruin is a tour de force indeed.

If Carne is a man who stands for tradition, who instinctively feels and cares for the land and ‘his’ people, the modern world has a double whammy for him; there’s the new rampant capitalism and materialism, and, my concern here, its opposition in the form of the Socialist Astell, another finely nuanced character, who thinks and cares for ‘his’:

Queer, thought Carne. Socialist chaps like Astell think it’s us employers who grudge the unemployed their dole; but it’s the old workers, like Castle, who are far harder on them.

Astell’s commitment and idealism is never doubted – he is no comic character, has a back story to prove it – but he’s still a bit of a prig: “The traditional humour of the poor angered Astell. He felt humour to be an inappropriate emotion.”  Of the working class at leisure he thinks, “They moved to a rhythm without reason …” but you have to sympathise with him when he observes, “You begin by thinking in terms of world revolution and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm”.  Yup, so it goes.

Three more things I feel the need to mention.  Firstly, and irrelevantly really, in the character of young Lydia, an intelligent child trapped in poverty but whose “mind ranged free through moonlit Athenian forests” reading a book atop her family’s railway carriage home I kept getting glimpses of a young Caitlin Moran.  Secondly, a reminder of how far we’ve come in the UK – in the report of the local Watch Committee’s interference with the books in the public library – that someone with power can get away with

… Aldous Huxley was “a disgusting pervert,” Virginia Woolf a “morbid degenerate” and Naomi Mitchison “not fit for a lunatic asylum.” “No. I’ve not read it all through, but I know enough,” was his favourite condemnation.

And thirdly, made an issue here most might say unfairly and rather gratuitously, here’s some of the worst writing about football I’ve ever found in any novel of quality otherwise thoroughly decent prose (unless anyone knows better):

… on the Saturday evening after the gigantic victory of the Kingsport Rovers over the West Riding Wanderers and the city was en fête. […] After that glorious contest in the mud … after that last goal shot just before the whistle blew …

Enough.  Though it doesn’t have its intellectual clout – nor a hint of a Casaubon – with its close examination of how a community works and fits together, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, is often cited in connection with South Riding.  It is certainly a major work of its time and I’d say it’s to be regretted very few novels even attempt this kind of big picture in mainstream quality fiction these days.  Of late I can only think of Philip Hensher’s ambitious try with The northern clemency and, for all its faults, J.K.Rowling’s post-Potter The casual vacancy.  It’s an abdication that has been left for crime fiction to pick up, in the work of writers like Ian Rankin.

Dark entriesSpeaking of whom …

Dark entries: a John Constantine novel (2009), a small format black and white graphic novel in DC’s Vertigo Crime series, scripted by said Ian Rankin, looked to have a lot going for it, both because of Rankin’s involvement and because it’s John Constantine, who I first encountered in an intriguing comic called Hellblazer during a lengthy post-Watchman comic binge.  It’s worth checking out Constantine’s Wikipedia entry for a fascinating over-view of the fictional career of this “working class magician, occult detective and con man” and his dry wit.  I never realised he was originally (yet another) Alan Moore creation; such is Constantine’s stature that some of the best comic book creators have leant their talents over the years to his ongoing story.

Sadly if this had been a blind reading … no, let’s re-phrase that: if I had read Dark entries without knowing of Ian Rankin‘s involvement I never would have guessed it.  And I’m afraid I was unenamoured of Werther Dell’Edera’s artwork, which had me regularly confused as to what was actually going on or to who.  Set in ‘Anytown’ (but a town with the London Transport broad horizontal line through the circle) it starts off with JC being conned into entering a big brother style reality tv house with added hauntedness.  As you’d expect, Rankin’s cynicism is to the fore in the establishing scenes.  The ‘reality’ turns out to be very different as the perceived landscape switches to one inhabited by the denizens of hell.  Don’t know about the chronology, so this might have been a fore-runner, but the reality tv horror scenario is pretty much a well established sub-genre by now, is it not?  The white bordered pages turn to black – actually rather effectively – with this revelation, but it’s just yer standard stuff of horror fantasy, which has never been my bag.  Pity, but putting Dark entries out under the Vertigo Crime logo is a bit of a misnomer.

Music Hall encounters & whatever the collective noun for songwriters is …

Sand dance

Photo (c) Ken ‘Danny Boy’ Daniels but mucked about a bit by Lillabullero

Friday night and we have monologues, melodrama and a sand dance as just some of the ingredients that went to make up Stony Music Hall 2! at York House.  Throw in Swannders & Flan, Pat as the Stony nightingale, and some clog from the same couple of Stony Steppers – out of the folky streets and onto the stage, an early staple of the Halls – with the irrepressible Bubbles closing proceedings and a fine frolicsome and fun night was had by all.  Bubbles chose songs that were directly relevant, or were popular at the time, to the First World War and it was a strange feeling to be singing along to “Come on along / Come on along / and join Lord Kitchener’s army” to the Lord Kitchener featured on 'British Army War Song Album' of WWI, 1914-18 (colour litho)tune of Alexander’s Ragtime BandPack up your troubles morphed into It’s a long way to Tipperary (or vice versa).  The deliciously delivered Spotted dick song is a perfect example of the sort of thing that made the South Riding progressives so uneasy:

We’re having a bit tonight, tonight, we’re having a bit tonight.
Me mother says I must be quick to get me bit o’ spotted dick.
I loves me roly-poly. It fills me with delight.
I haven’t had any since Christmas, but we’re having a bit tonight.

Boom, boom.  All ending with an ensemble Daisy, Daisy.  Another fine evening’s entertainment, not forgetting the Great Oakley brewery’s Welland Mild and our impressive, ineluctable, ixistential impresario – thanks Ken.

Sunday night the fruits of the latest AORTAS Songwriting Workshop (Association for Oral Traditions and AortasSongwriting, no less, if you’re wondering) are delivered to market at the Old George.  And a fine and varied night of infectious music and fellowship it was too.  It would be invidious to single out specific performers on the night.  They obviously had a grand time in what must have been difficult circumstances – an enforced last-minute change of workshop venue – though judging from his FB post, by the end of the night Dan must have felt a long distance away from the earlier desperation; Dan and confrères dared and won.  Mr Plews’ Death wore a gaberdine raincoat is my current earworm and no bad thing for that.  (You can also find his lovely Hearts and books at that link too, booklovers).

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There’s a poem I do called The lamb’s last gambol that contains two of what I think are my finest lines:

Yes, I’ll admit I trainspotted
in the boys’ time allotted

These lines are followed by another two that usually get some sort of reaction:

British Railways then,
What a crazy scene!

Main line diesel locomotivesThis could certainly be considered as an example of at least one of William Empson‘s Seven types of ambiguity because you’ve obviously got the beatnik jive going on (it’s the way I tell it) but when you consider the Modernisation Plan of 1955 that I was trainspotting in the wake of – some of my slightly earlier contemporaries were in denial about the evil diesel locomotive, but it was an added attraction for progressives like me – it really was crazy.  Or as John Vaughan puts it in The rise and fall of British Railways main line diesel locomotives (Haynes, 2011), what was going on was “an appalling waste of taxpayers’ money” and “a truly national scandal.”  But it sure gave us an interesting time with the variety it briefly brought about.  Having slagged off the Modernisation Plan he then nostalgises that “the halcyon days have gone forever,” but that is par for the railway enthusiast’s sentimentalist course.  He also moans about, I kid you not (page 11), the “present obsession with ‘global warming’ “ (and probably voted UKIP).

Railway literature is a strange beast mostly sold on the back of the photographs.  I’m still a bit of a sucker for plenty of them.  There are lots of here, many as tedious as they can often be.  The standard 45° on or flat side diesel locomotive portrait (which is usually, to confuse matters, landscape in orientation) is a bit of a bore and of interest only to the enthusiast unless taken from low down in interesting light conditions which add a bit of drama.  The ‘classic’ era on display here came a bit too early for decent cheap colour photography so colour pictures of the early attractive variants of British Railways green liveries are few and far between anywhere, as opposed to the nothing corporate blue that was later adopted before privatisation, like that on the cover.  (In passing I’ll just say for what it’s worth that I think it a shame that Bring Back British Rail, the campaign to re-nationalise the railways (which I support) have adopted that ‘swinging’ late era ‘modern’ two-way arrow logo design.)


(c) John Vaughan but here shamelessly scanned intending nothing but praise.

To his credit some of the most interesting and best photos in the book are the author’s own.  By which I mean, in contradiction really to the book’s intentions, those which are not reliant on a full locomotive shot for their power or charm, informal photos full of contrast, of casual railway scenes, or of trains in a landscape.

The tale the book tells is a fascinating one if you are that way inclined – the late adoption of diesel technology in the UK and the earliest prototypes, though the text is mostly of specialist interest only: horse-power, engine design, weight, bogies, a detailed history of modifications and where they hung out and all that.  Some of it still made sense to me but it is hard not to be tipped over into the easy mockery that is the usual to be aimed at hardcore railway enthusiasts.  But really they bring it on themselves.  Consider the increasingly ecstatic language taken from three different photo captions: “Note the lovely gantry of semaphore signals …“; and “a wonderful semaphore oasis”; “Thirteen lower quadrant semaphore signals may be unlucky for some but for the railway enthusiast they are a sheer delight”  [my emphases].  That’s semaphore signals for you.  You could say it’s all relative.  But, oh delicious, delightful and de-loverly, you could not make this photo caption, describing what was basically a windowless carriage on motorised wheels, up:

Defining a ‘diesel locomotive’, especially a ‘main line’ example, is not necessarily straightforward. In pure dictionary terms a locomotive is ‘endowed with power and capable of moving under its own power from place to place, an engine which draws trains along a railway.’ This lovely old diesel parcels car would not pass the enthusiasts’ perception of a locomotive, but when caught on film near Iver, Buckinghamshire, in 1979 it was certainly ‘drawing a train’! This delightful parcels working is seen on the down slow lines heading towards Reading. The unit and the two wooden-bodied four-wheeled ex-Southern railway (SR) utility vans would soon become a thing of the past, being vacuum-braked and restricted to 60 mph.

Enough.  It’s mostly harmless.

10000 prototype

I have to admit I reckon these, the first UK post-war prototypes, are handsome beasts. From an official British Railways publicity photo that appears in Vaughan’s book.

One last thing before we de-train.  What I was saying about railway photography and the best being railway scenes.  Here’s one I took a few years ago on the preserved Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway in the Lake District that I was quite pleased with.  A Birmingham RCW Class 26 diesel, D5301, restored in original green livery, and crucially, without the statutory yellow warning panel – health and safety gone mad – that destroyed the looks of many a diesel locomotive soon after their widespread introduction.

Lakes D5301 2005

(c) Lillabullero


Tanya Kingham

Tanya taking one of those significant pauses in an aria while Pat films her for posterity. At what it says on the t-shirt.

And before we go, tra-la …

A quick musical report, Lillabullero having fallen weeks behind in giving a nod to performances worthy of a mention in despatches.  Sad to say there was the first time in living memory I’ve got up at a ceilidh.  Managed two out of four in this musical equivalent of circuit training; would have been more if I’d taken me inhaler (and more by two than young Michael, whose excuse was having fallen down the stairs earlier in the day).  Happy birthday Isabel.  Happily caught the ever improving Last Quarter twice in a week.  First at May 14 ScribalYorkieFest 2014the May Scribal Gathering where we also had an extended greatest hits set from wordster and wit Stephen Hobbs, this year’s Stony Bard Phil Chippendale bardolating, and the saucy Sucettes with a couple of tunes.  And then more from the Quarter at AORTAS’s Sunday at the Old George where ItwasTMHobbsA too, and we were graced with new songs from the fragrant Naomi Rose including one with the killer punch line “a piece of the wonderful” … which was wonderful.  In between those two gigs came the all-dayer last Saturday of the worthy YorkieFest bash at York House.  A veritable all-sorts upstairs and down.  Same as last year, the experience of a trained soprano in a low-ceilinged room was awesome (word reclamation time); shame so few were there so early in the day to hear Tanya Kingham.  Someone complained they heard three different versions of Hotel California during the day downstairs, but the covers band that really hit the spot was Second Hand Grenade whose funk and soul attack injected some energy in the afternoon, including getting away with two Stevie Wonder numbers without a keyboard in sight; played that funky music, white boys and great voiced gal.  Upstairs the poets and the purveyors of original song ruled.  Rousing, lively country tinged stuff from the massed ranks of anotherRichard Frost in a dress of The Antipoets’ involvements, The Caution Horses.  But I had to miss the end of The Antpoet strutting their usual brilliant stuff (and their other fine affiliates, Dodo Bones) for the Cup Final, which this year proved to be worth the sacrifice.  Finally.  So pleased for Arsene Wenger; and what can you say about Aaron Ramsey except poetry in motion (that Charlie George heritage celebration a rhyme of its own).  And back to York House for a lovely bitter sweet set from Glass Tears, nicely augmented by percussionist for all seasons Stu’s bongo-ing in the background.  Glass Tears always throw in some interesting – not covers, but crucially – interpretations of songs worth interpreting (though they didn’t do it on the night, Phil Collins’ In the air tonight will never sound the same for me again).  And so Richard Frost brought proceedings upstairs to a close poetizing in a skirt.

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